To be perfectly Frank?

Last term’s IHR ‘Earlier Middle Ages’ seminar ended on a high note, with Irene van Renswoude from Utrecht talking on ‘The rhetoric of free speech in the early Middle Ages’. At first glance the topic sounded like a fairly technical one in intellectual history. To what extent did the early medieval period take over the classical tradition of a particular form of rhetoric? This was parrhesia, otherwise known as ‘libertas dicendi’, or by various other expressions, and Irene quoted the 1st century BC Rhetorica ad Herennium (4, 36, 48) on its meaning:

It is frankness of speech (licentia) when, talking to those to whom we owe reverence or fear, we yet exercise our right to speak out, because we seem justified in reprehending them, or persons dear to them, for some fault.

There is a popular view in which free speech is not a characteristic of the Middle Ages, because such free expression is unthinkable without religious diversity and tolerance. Specialists in rhetoric have also tended to ignore the early Middle Ages; indeed, the topic of parrhesia doesn’t appear in rhetorical treatises between Isidore of Seville in the early C7 and Geoffrey of Vinsauf in the 1210s. But most of Irene’s paper was interested in more general questions about free speech and how it was conceptualised.

As she pointed out, free speech always had a complicated relationship to rhetoric. Ancient rhetoricians, such as Demosthenes, gave advice on how one should address superiors only indirectly or ironically, yet philosophers were admired precisely for their risky free speaking. Quintilian, the Roman rhetorician, contrasted the artificial figures of rhetoric with unfeigned parrhesia, simple truth. This is also visible in the New Testament: John 16: 29 has Jesus’ disciples contrast his plain speech with earlier figures of speech. Socrates was also seen as a model of parrhesia, denouncing rhetoric and speaking only of justice and truth; for this he became a model for Christian martyr acts.

There was a development of such ideas in the C4 with a further Christianisation of parrhesia: bishops became the equivalent of the truth-telling philosophers, but now drawing on the new model of the Old Testament prophets. It was their form of ‘libertas’ that became admired. And even though in the early Middle Ages the specifically classical tradition of parrhesia probably wasn’t known, some of it could be picked up indirectly (for example, via imitation of the letters of late antique bishops) and the rhetoric of free speech was frequently used in all sorts of ways.

Columbanus, for example, excused his frankness in writing to popes as due to the custom of his country: he was a ‘thick-lipped stranger’, a ‘foolish Irishman’. The figure of the prophet contrasted eloquence with truth-telling: the prophets were imagined as bad speakers, who were simply passive conduits for God. Moses was a stammerer, while Jeremiah in the Vulgate stutters before God (Jerome’s translation of Jeremiah 1, 6 is: ‘et dixi a a a Domino Deus ecce nescio loqui quia puer ego sum’). Carolingian bishops, such as Agobard of Lyon, adopted this persona of the outsider, who must speak out whatever his lack of eloquence. Others sent letters of unsolicited advice (Alcuin, in particular, is notorious for this).

Parrhesia and free speech, then, are perhaps best seen as a series of positions and poses which allow the raising of sensitive topics. One of the interesting thing that came out in the questions was how many different variations and parallels there were in this idea of a place in which truth and power could meet. Hugh Kennedy referred to the Islamic idea of the caliph preaching in the mosque and someone in the audience rebuking him – such a rebuke was acceptable, and the caliph then needed to defeat his opponent by his own words, not by calling upon his guards. Jinty Nelson raised the question of whether heretics were or were not allowed to speak: Felix of Urgel was at his trial, but only so he could have the floor wiped with him. We discussed questions of humour and the jester as truth-teller, and how women could use the tradition of Old Testament prophetesses to speak out. And Irene pointed out how speaking freely to God (as demanded in confession) was the basis for the freedom to speak out to rulers.

Irene’s work opens up yet another angle on a topic that’s really starting to make an impact on early medieval political history: the competitive use of ideology. It’s a topic that’s already been very well explored by Mayke de Jong (Irene’s supervisor), and that I hope my own work is contributing to. As for Irene’s work, the only complaint about her work at the IHR was that she hadn’t taken the theme even further through the Middle Ages, but had stopped at the year 1000. To speak frankly, it was an excellent end to the term.


3 thoughts on “To be perfectly Frank?

    • Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been tied up during the summer. It’s quite hard to be sure who else is researching on the topic, because they’re not necessarily using the specific term ‘parrhesia’. There are only a few examples in the Regesta Imperii for example ( and it’s mostly work on late antiquity, apart from one paper on Francis Bacon. That turns up in a volume edited by Albrecht Classen and Marilyn Sandidge on friendship, so it’s probably worth looking at material on medieval friendship more generally.

      The discussions of free speech I’ve seen for later periods mostly seem to be talking about censorship, its opposite. The two authors I’ve seen cited most are Luca Bianchi on intellectual freedom at the University of Paris in the late Middle Ages ( and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton on toleration of religious writing in late Medieval England ( It might also be worth looking at work on medieval mirrors for princes. There are a couple of books which bridge the gap between Carolingian texts and high medieval ones:
      Hans Hubert Anton, Fürstenspiegel des frühen und hohen Mittelalters. (Darmstadt, 2006)
      Frédérique Lachaud and Lydwine Scordia (eds.), Le prince au miroir de la littérature politique de l’Antiquité aux Lumières (Mont-Saint-Aignan, 2007)

      Hope some of these are of interest.



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