Ninth-century popular heresy?

Clerics preaching that God could be worshipped anywhere and that the cult of relics was a fraud, spreading their dangerous message in the countryside, and preying in particular on credulous and uneducated women…

…This may sound like a summary of some 11th or 12th-century criticism of heretics, like that of Ralph Glaber. But actually it’s a resumé of a ninth-century miracle story, recorded in the Miracula sancti Dionysii of Paris (an English translation is provided below).

The Miracles of Saint-Denis is a surprisingly neglected ninth-century  source.  It’s divided into three books. According to Levillain and, following him, Stoclet, the first two books (BHL 2202) were written in the 830s by none other than this blog’s old friend, Hincmar of Reims, who had been a monk at St Denis before his elevation to the Reims archbishopric in 845.[1] It’s certainly striking that extracts from them survive in Reims BM. 1395, a ninth-century manuscript from St Remi.

A third book of miracles was written later, around 877 (BHL 2203).[2] Most historians have been less interested in this book: Levillain because it had nothing to say about the Merovingian kings, Stoclet because it has less topographical information for the history of the monastery. In his recent book on Dionysian hagiography, Michael Lapidge also thought Book III wasn’t that interesting – just “a sequence of brief and unilluminating miracles”.[3] Yet it’s in this book that our miracle story of the ‘pseudo-preaching’ clerics and their victims is to be found.

Obviously one can’t take such an account at face value. But it’s nevertheless interesting that in his recounting of the miracle, the author, presumably a monk of St-Denis, went to some trouble to justify the monumentality of the early medieval church, using a string of biblical precedents. That suggests a perception of a genuine counter-argument of the kind attributed to the ‘brainless’ clerics in the story – one that might be linked to contemporary arguments about church property, mentioned in an earlier blog.

Since it’s at the end of the miracle collection, could this story have been added later? That’s in principle possible, since the earliest manuscript is 12th-century, and miracle collections did sometimes grow by accretion. But the story’s author notes that he had mentioned the place of Chaudrades “above”, in a cross-reference to chapter 10 of Book III, whose ninth-century credentials seem pretty strong (e.g. references to pagi, the personal names, etc). So any addition would have been fraudulent in intent. Given that we know there was some ambivalence about relics in the ninth-century, this seems an over-complicated solution.

What’s most surprising about the story is its suggestion that ‘ordinary’ people, not just clerical elites (or sub-elites), might have been affected by such views in the Carolingian period. How to interpret this evidence is a problem that needs to be chewed over. In any case, it’s a reminder that early medieval miracle collections deserve more attention than they tend to receive – and for none is that more true than the Miracles of Saint-Denis.

Note on the Latin edition of the Miracula Sancti Dionysii (with links to the manuscripts on the ever-amazing Gallica)
The standard edition of the Miracula Sancti Dionysii is Mabillon’s Acta Sanctorum Ordinis sancti Benedicti, based on two 13th– and 15th-century manuscripts (Paris BnF nal 1509 and Paris, Arsenal 1030). Mabillon later came across the much older Reims BM 1395. He published two more miracles he found there, but without updating his earlier edition, although the Reims manuscript clearly provides alternative readings. And Mabillon didn’t know at all about Vatican Reg. lat. 571, a late 12th-century manuscript, which has a full text that may well be better than the manuscripts Mabillon used. A new edition of the Miracula could be based on the Vatican manuscript, drawing on the Reims extracts (already edited by Luchaire as an appendix to his study).[4]

Miracles of St Denis, Book III, Ch. 15: draft translation

Latin edition: Mabillon Acta Sanctorum p. 329

Manuscripts:
Paris nal. 1509, s. xiii, p. 372
Paris lat. 2447, s. xiii, fol. 184
Vatican Reg. 571, s. xii, fol. 95v
Paris lat. 2873B (s. xv), fol?

About two women who suffered from spasms and were eventually cured

There were two women, one of whom lived in Chaudardes of Laon (Caldarda Laudunensium) which I mentioned above, and the other in the village (vicus) of Breuil, whose faith was subverted by pseudo-preaching clerics. These clerics mocked the afore oft-mentioned Denis. They said that God was everywhere and did not need to be sought anywhere else, although Jacob placed the stone where he said the true God was [Genesis 28], and Naaman was cured nowhere else but the River Jordan [2 Kings 5], and certain kings of Israel who walked perfectly before God were blamed only because they worshipped him in the heavens, and our Lord Jesus Christ wished to be born nowhere else than in a house of bread [ie the Eucharist]* – Jesus who gives life to those who worthily consume him, and is a future judgement for those who take him unworthily…**

Eventually these women, urged by the admonitions of their neighbours, came together amongst the crowds that gathered on the sixteenth kalends of October [16th Sept]. While we were celebrating the night office on the holy Sunday night, suddenly amongst the whole multitude they began to suffer from that disease which we call spasm. After they had collapsed to the ground many times like madmen, they looked like they were dead. They suffered for this for a long time, until they confessed that they had not only believed what they had heard from the brainless clerics, but had often mocked those who sought the saint.

 

*Thus Mabillon (in panis domo). The Vatican manuscript however has an abbreviation mark on the p and a suspension mark over the a: not panis but p̱ānis. Answers on a postcode please.
**the Latin continues ita ibi per quindecim dies sana est reddita (‘thus for fifteen days ?health was returned there’) which is difficult to make sense of.

[1] Levillain, Études sur l’abbaye de Saint-Denis; Stoclet, ‘Les miracula sancti Dionysii, commentaire et donnees topographiques’, in Wyss, Atlas historique de Saint-Denis. The BHL website lists six manuscripts:

Paris lat. 2445A, fols 33-35 (s. xii, extracts);

Vat Reg. 571 (s. xii), fols. 72-97;

Montpellier BU H1 (s. xii?), fols. 213-215r – in fact just the Inventio

Paris lat. 2447 (s. xiii), 153-184v;

Paris lat. 17631 (s. xv), 61-71; and

Paris lat. 2873B (s. xv), 133-162.
The BHL list omits the Reims 1395 manuscript and Paris nal 1509, pp. 305-349.

[2] The BHL website lists four mss with BHL 2203 (all also contain BHL 2202, ie Books I-II):
Vat Reg. 571  (s. xii)

Paris lat. 2447 (s. xiii)
Paris lat. 2873B (s. xv), and
Paris nal 1509 (s. xiii) pp. 349-373.

The Montpellier FM 1, Paris lat. 2445A and Paris lat. 17631 do not have text from the third book.

[3] Lapidge, Hilduin of Saint-Denis.

[4] Luchaire, ‘Étude’.

4 thoughts on “Ninth-century popular heresy?”

  1. Well. Might “and does not need to be sought anywhere else” suggest resistance to pilgrimage, rather than to church building or enforcement of parochial rights, as God being everywhere (often coupled with its being OK to worship in a field) suggests in c xii cases? That would fit with the scepticism about relics, though otherwise resistance to being pressed to worship at a particular place seems likelier. Either way, another straw to suggest that in popular heresy as in so much else recovering mutationists like me need to go on thinking, and that, as usual, the commonest source of “heresy” was “reform”.

    1. Yes, it’s strange: the clerics seem to be dissuading people from relic pilgrimage, but the ‘proof texts’ cited in defence by the monk (if I’ve interpreted the Latin correctly) are all about monumentality (a la Iogna-Prat), not relics at all. I would very much like to know who these ‘pseudo-preaching clerics’ were. The text doesn’t say that they were wandering, so perhaps they were local priests? I should check whether St-Denis owned the local churches at these places.

  2. A follow-up – I rather sensationally titled this post as being about heresy, but in actual fact the author doesn’t accuse anyone of heresy as such, just of being gullible, brainless and ‘pseudo-preaching’. No allusions to Arius, etc. That’s a key difference I think with the 11th-c. & 12th-c. cases?

  3. A difference, certainly, but e.g. Ramihrdus wasn’t labelled a heretic – just, informally, treated as one. But doesn’t calling them pseudo-predicatores mean that they didn’t have the bishop’s licence? That is, the real issue is obedience, not doctrine. Excerebrati is a new one on me, but insania was quite often used as a synonym of heresy in c xi.

    My further reflection is that this looks like resistance to a case where insistence on churches having relics is being used as a means of associating people formally with designated places of worship, thus laying claim to their tithes etc. Does that work?

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