Carolingian authorityness

I have been ploughing my way through a long article on the Council of Tribur in 895 (Rudolf Pokorny, “Die Drei Versionen Der Tribuer Synodalakten,” Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters 48 (1992): 429-512, which has reminded me that I ought to be more careful sometimes to check the footnotes to MGH editions of texts I’m using. (One of Pokorny’s main complaints is that Krause’s edition of the council in volume 2 of the Capitularies is a misleading concoction of the three different versions, rather than treating them all in parallel). But what concerns me now is what the existence of three very different texts of the same synod tells us about Carolingian attitudes to authority. This is a point which I am thinking about more and more since I rashly decided to give a paper at Leeds on canon law.

The decisions of councils are a basic ingredient of any corpus of canon law, so it raises immediate difficulties for the concept if people are going round rewriting them left, right and centre. And in the case of Tribur, they clearly are. Pokorny calls the three versions the Vulgata (the longest version), the Versio Diessensis/Coloniensis (reconstructed from bits in later sources) and the Catalaunensis. The latter two are shorter versions of the text, but the Catalaunensis contains some canons that aren’t in the Vulgata (and vice versa). Pokorny disagrees with Krause on which is the original version (he thinks the Catalaunensis, while Kraus thought the Vulgata), but they both see a later editor as reworking the original text substantially, including ‘smuggling’ in canons from elsewhere (or simply inventing them). There’s also a lot of rewriting of the canons in common, whether you think, as Kraus did, that a longer version was being cut down, or, as Pokorny does, that a shorter version as being expanded with additional justificatory parallels from other synods. Either way, someone reckoned it was OK to play fast and loose with ‘canonical’ texts.

The easy answer is to blame either the fact that it’s a text from very late in the Carolingian period, or that it’s from East Francia, which is too uncivilised to do things properly :D. But this kind of thing isn’t just restricted to Germany in the 890s. There are other councils where we have different versions of the acta. Selective quotation of canons on a topic is standard in the Carolingian world (including councils ignoring recent decisions by Frankish councils) and so is citing several contradictory canons. When canons are quoted, they aren’t necessarily quoted verbatim. Meanwhile, one of the most prolific medieval forgers (or group of forgers) around specialised in canon law.

So what did all the Carolingian churchmen who cited such materials actually want from their authorities? Not, seemingly, a specific text, or they wouldn’t have been so cavalier about rewriting them. Not a definitive answer, or they could presumably have pointed out the discordant canons (as ‘Gratian’ did). Not anything that was systematically arranged so as to be useful to consult, as a glance at the arrangement of most canon law manuscripts suggests.

Stephen Colbert recently came up with the useful term ‘truthiness’ for things that might not be true, but felt right. In the same way, I’m starting to wonder if what Carolingian authors (and readers) wanted was not authority so much as authorityness, the feeling that a statement was ‘authoritative’, regardless of whether or not it actually was.

If that is the case, the question then is why did the Frankish elite feel like this about authority? Unlike with truthiness, it wasn’t just a simple way to get one over on one’s opponent. Much citing of authorities was done by rulers and synods who could equally well make decisions and rulings without citing any such authority. The peasants weren’t going to pay their tithes any more willingly just because a fourth century council in Africa had said they should do, as well as an eighth century Frankish one. And unlike with other contemporary forgeries, such as the Le Mans ones or the Donation of Constantine, it’s hard to see who specifically benefits from Pseudo-Isidore. (You might wonder how much of Pseudo-Isidore’s anti-metropolitan bias implies he has Hincmar as an implicit target, but then Everybody Hates Hincmar).

I think, instead, that the peculiar treatment of authorities was caused by the attempt to bridge the unbridgeable gap between the late antique and Frankish worlds. The early Christian councils and patristic writers (and indeed the sixth century Merovingian councils) which are the most frequently cited texts, came from a world now remote from Carolingian realities. Their decisions might no longer seem appropriate, or they might simply not have pronounced on a particular topic. Yet the emphasis on renovatio, on the Carolingian reformers as not innovating but restoring, meant that they craved decisions grounded in the past, in the eternal truths of the Fathers. When Pseudo-Isidore forged papal decretals, he went from Pope Clement I in the first century to Gregory the Great, developing vast lineages of authority. Other Carolingian authors did not go so far, but their desire for authority was still enough for them to recreate received texts in more subtle ways. As long as they could answer the question ‘What Would the Canons Say?’, it did not necessarily seem to matter if the results were instead what the canons would have said if only Alcuin (or Hrabanus or Hincmar) had been on hand to advise.


6 thoughts on “Carolingian authorityness

  1. There’s an interesting gap in what you’re saying between redacting a version of the canons to suit one’s own purposes and doing so just for Patristic versimilitude, though I can see the force of a desire to do that latter. Could we really tell the difference, though? I mean, if we can’t see a self-serving reason for the forgery, it doesn’t mean that there wasn’t one.

    Side question: is the Catalaunensis MS so-called because it hails from Catalonia, or is something else going on there? Because that’s very late for such texts to be coming there and I’d be quite excited if it were so…

    And, hey, isn’t that Leeds link a threat to your anonymity?


  2. Um. Damn. I have heard something like this before, and I can’t think where. If I have time in the next week or so, I’ll look through my notes for the last few conferences I’ve been to. That Jon doesn’t recognize it from Haskins makes me think maybe it’s from the Zoo. Or I could have imagined it, I suppose.


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