Carolingian Thought for the Day

In February, the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar heard Zubin Mistry from UCL talk about “Thinking about abortion under the Carolingians”. As Zubin explained himself, his recently finished PhD had been about perceptions of abortion in the sixth to ninth centuries, rather than the practice of abortion, and his talk focused on the texts that Carolingian thinkers had and how they used them.

Zubin started with the Collatio Alexandri et Dindimi, a text which I hadn’t come across before. This is a fourth or fifth century text which purports to be the correspondence between Alexander the Great and the Brahmin sage Dindimus. There’s disagreement about who wrote it and why: is it an attack on the memory of Alexander written by Christians of Cynics? Or is it instead intended as a parody of (Christian) asceticism? The text was known to Alcuin and there are surviving ninth century copies. It includes a passage (11-7) saying that one should not “drink up abortions” and complaining about the misdirection of sexual activity towards lust and away from love of offspring, inflicting murder and depriving God of his due.

The example of this text reminds us that eighth and ninth century thinkers had access to a large mass of old materials about abortion, including non-Christian material, such as Pliny the Elder and Lucretius’s De rerum naturae. They also had access to accounts in more unexpected places. Zubin highlighted a couple of creepy mentions of abortion in hagiography: St Germanus of Paris, in Venantius Fortunatus’ life of him has the foetal Germanus preventing his mother aborting him, while in some early Latin lives of Bridget of Kildare Bridget blesses a nun who has (illicitly) conceived and the foetus disappears.

Zubin’s emphasis in the paper was on how Carolingian readers read the earlier texts they had on a topic that was both morally problematic in theory (lurking somewhere on a spectrum between preventing conception and infanticide) and problematic in terms of practical handling (with issues about culpability and ambiguity about the moment when life started). There was no specialised discourse on abortion in the early Middle Ages, with earlier references strewn across a range of sources.

What Zubin showed happening was what I’ve talked about myself in other moral contexts: Carolingian authors actively assembling a mish-mash of fossilised texts to produce differing results. I’ve talked before about the Carolingian use of canons as Lego bricks, but the complication is that authors don’t always have the same set of bricks. For example, Zubin mentioned canon 21 of the Council of Ancyra 314 which discussed abortion in the context of fornicating women who then kill their offspring, with a penance of 10 years. In most of the canonical collections, this is the only canon dealing with abortion. The text isn’t an exact translation of the Greek, and there’s also a version transmitted via Martin of Braga appearing in some late Carolingian collections which adds in a condemnation for contraception along with abortion and infanticide.

Zubin then discussed the various early medieval penitentials, which vary between themselves and in some cases have varied penalties depending on the age of the foetus. Some go for 2 stages, before and after 40 days, and one (the Paenitentiale Pseudo-Theodori) for three: before and after 40 days and “after animated” (postquam animatus). Zubin was cautioning that we can’t necessarily connect such decisions up to Carolingian embryological theory, especially since it may refer to days after intercourse. He also noted that several of the penitentials see a difference between those aborting foetuses because of poverty and fornicating women who are doing this. (We did not learn the Latin for “slutty slut”, but that’s obviously the implication of such texts).

Zubin also argued that although theologians writing on the history of abortion have tended to see the early ninth century condemnations of penitentials (by the Council of Chalons-sur-Saone 813, Theodulf of Orléans etc) as a key moment in changing attitudes to abortion, it’s possible to overstate the hostility to penitentials. Later in the ninth century the same kind of responses to abortions are made, but on a supposedly more authoritative basis, e.g. Hrabanus Maurus going back to the Council of Ancyra, along with a couple of Spanish canons on abortion. Hrabanus, in a letter to the chorepiscopus Reginbald in 845×852 also quotes the Council of Ancyra in response to a question about infants who had been found dead in bed next to their parents. Even though the canon discussed deliberate infanticide after fornication, it was still thought to be relevant to a case of possibly deliberate overlaying by a married couple, with Reginbald being expected to investigate the exact circumstances.

Hrabanus Maurus exemplified one of Zubin’s key points: there was a negotiation between authoritative works and practical works – the key point was what was useful. This is even more visible in Regino of Prum’s handbook, which is a kind of summa of Carolingian handling of abortion including earlier penitential materials, canons, a call to adulterous women to leave her child at the doors of the church rather than commit infanticide and a canon that says attempts to prevent contraception should be regarded as murder. All of these canons were pick and mix, according to the prudential judgement of the user of the handbook.

I’ve written before about the idea of Carolingian authorityness and I discussed that with Zubin afterwards, but as well as providing an interesting case study of this, Zubin’s paper also gave some ideas of why that fast and loose attitude towards texts developed. Priests and bishops were supposed to administer penance with discretion: you take advisory texts and you then adapt them to specific circumstances. What we have here is canons as sentencing guidelines, not laws and if Carolingian clerics, from the humblest upwards, become used to doing that with canons as well, it’s not surprising that they’re not prone to take them as fixed texts in other circumstances. In my continuing efforts to look at how canons and canon law worked, I need to think more carefully about the different uses to which the same texts might be put and the effects this had on how they were regarded.


One thought on “Carolingian Thought for the Day

  1. Seminar CLXIII: John Blair’s Ford Lectures, IVContinuing to tackle the seminar write-up backlog, I must reluctantly skip over the next paper I went to, Zubin Mistry’s “Tradition in Practice: thinking about abortion under the Carolingians” at the IHR, because it has already been w…


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