Boiling lard and topless nuns: on (not) making the Middle Ages interesting

This week a couple of different spheres of my life once again collided in a very peculiar way. I’ve been an intermittent writer of fanfic for several years and to try and get back into the mood, I joined a writing community that encouraged you to post snippets from your work regularly. However, for the last couple of weeks what I’ve actually been writing is the introduction to a collection of essays on Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims. More as a joke than anything, I posted the first paragraph from this introduction and got a non-historian friend saying very nicely that it didn’t really encourage her to read more. To which I replied that I obviously should have started with the topless nun and the barrel of burning lard.

Rue HincmarA street sign in Rheims prove that someone, somewhere still cares about Hincmar

The topless nun (Duda) probably isn’t actually going to be in this book, even though I discussed her briefly in a paper I gave on Hincmar last year. But a chapter by one of our contributors does mention the theologian Gottschalk’s proposal that he should be dowsed in boiling water, oil, lard and pitch and then set alight in order to prove the truth of twin predestination. We’ve also got the case of a homicidal priest possibly using the work of the most prolific forgers in the Middle Ages to protect himself from punishment by Hincmar. And then there’s the other book on Hincmar I’m co-writing, which includes an extensive discussion by Hincmar on what counts as sodomy.

In other words, it would be possible to write books or articles on Hincmar that were a lot more thrilling to the general public than the ones I’m currently planning. But they’d do so mainly by focusing on the sensational and the exotic, and that goes to the heart of the problem in talking about the Middle Ages to non-academic audiences.

One of the most acclaimed TV shows at the moment is Game of Thrones. I haven’t watched it because I don’t have a subscription to Sky or vast amounts of free time, but I’m still conscious of it as a phenomenon. Beneath the trappings of “fantasy”, it’s predominantly a version of the Middle Ages, and of the Middle Ages that twenty-first century people enjoy hearing about: a place of brutal violence, terrible suffering and sexual depravity, but with really impressive clothes and weapons.

What most modern people now want from the Middle Ages, it seems to me, is for it to be either a terrible warning (violence and attitudes we disapprove of are “medieval”) or a glorious theme park in which we can vicariously enjoy the same violence and attitudes, as well as the material splendour that the elite possessed. And the difficulty for (professional) medievalists is how we respond to those wishes without just becoming zoo-keepers for the exotic. Roll up, roll up and see the funny medievals: aren’t they almost human?

If you’re teaching the Middle Ages, the exoticism is often deployed partly to sugar the pill: a bawdy fabliau or two to get you into thinking about gender roles; an account of a Viking massacre to introduce you to source criticism. But Hincmar doesn’t lend himself easily to that kind of approach, and nor does the ninth century as a whole. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the “Carolingian Renaissance” could be gently patted on the head approvingly as an early attempt at civilizing the hairy barbarians. But our understanding of it now sees it far less as about an enlightened love of culture for its own sake and far more as about religious reform and political manoeuvring, neither of which has a good press in modern Britain.

So the fundamental problem with trying to write Carolingian history for a popular audience in the twenty-first century is that what we’re mostly seeing in the Frankish sources is the point of view of men (and very occasionally women) who are trying to reduce the amount of sex, violence and disorder in their society. Carolingian intellectuals are hypocrites, on this matter of course: they want an ordered society in which they’re still at the top and the lower orders are firmly ordered about. They want internal peace so Frankish armies can concentrate on conquering the peoples around them. And they can’t really get beyond a sexual double-standard, even though some of them try to. But in terms of “exciting” medieval practices, they’ve now basically become the spoilsports. Bureaucracy and order aren’t sexy and our negative reactions to organised religion and government tend to affect the values we respond to in the past.

Medieval heretics, for example, tend to be seen sympathetically now, victims of a controlling and persecuting orthodoxy that was obviously evil. If you look at the beliefs of “heretics”, however (with all allowances for the distortions of the sources), what you often see is views that are even more inimical to modern day liberal values than the mainstream medieval church. Catharism was more hostile to sex than Catholicism. Gottschalk taught a view of Christianity in which some people were not just damned, but predamned: whatever they did or believed they were still going to hell. Many of Augustine’s opponents were more hostile to marriage and sexual activity than he was.

It’s also interesting how often the repressive sexual puritans of the late antique and early medieval period (such as John Chrysostom, Caesarius of Arles and Jonas of Orléans) are also the men most concerned about the proper treatment of the poor. It is powerful men at the heart of society that they mostly have in their targets, unlike the tendency of some modern Christians to concentrate on the sins of the marginalised.

But most Carolingian religious figures aren’t going to come across as heroes or heroines: it’s not an age of the kind of fascinating/appalling saints you find in Anglo-Saxon England or the twelfth century. Hincmar himself is not saintly, but nor he is the kind of depraved cleric who might answer other modern cravings for the medieval. He’s not killing people; he’s not consorting with prostitutes. Hincmar isn’t a larger than life figure, and if I try and write something that makes him out to be that, I’m distorting the evidence.

What I think Hincmar does show is Carolingian society at work, and I use the phrase “at work” deliberately. There isn’t much sign in Hincmar of the clever games you get in many near-contemporary authors: Alcuin’s nicknames, Hrabanus’ figurative poems, Hucbald’s poem on baldness. And if you look through Hincmar’s letters, as I’m starting to do, what you see is the relentless busyness of it all. Hincmar has to deal with Viking attacks and Carolingian invasions of West Francia and theological arguments about heaven and hell. But he spends a lot of energy too, on the smaller matters of life: the constant struggle to protect Rheims’ extensive property and relatively minor matters of local church discipline. Flodoard’s summary of Hincmar’s letters has repeated references to him writing to other bishops about whether an excommunication was justified or who should be appointed to which see.

This is precisely not the Dark Ages, romantically simple or depressingly barbaric as your tastes may fancy. This is a society in which learning and organisation are always coming up against the brute practicalities of everyday life in a corrupt pre-industrial world. Lupus of Ferrières tells Hincmar he can’t send him a copy of Bede’s Collectaneum on the Pauline Epistles yet, because the book’s so large it can’t easily be concealed on one’s person, and so might be vulnerable to theft. I don’t know if Hincmar ever did receive Lupus’ codex, but if so he probably wouldn’t have used it simply for devotion, but also as ammunition in one of his interminable disputes.

Hincmar wasn’t a saint, but if he was he would be the patron saint of those who had to multi-task and of middle managers. I can’t make a glamorous or exotic world out of his life, but I nevertheless want somehow to try and use it to display something of the genuine texture of ninth-century Francia. I’m still not convinced, however, that that will interest my fanfic loving friends.


9 thoughts on “Boiling lard and topless nuns: on (not) making the Middle Ages interesting

  1. What a fascinating analysis. I particularly appreciate the exposure of our modern-day hypocrisy and ‘bread and circuses’ attitudes regarding the past. As a retired church minister I get irritated at the lazy assumptions we make about the past.

    I do wish you would write a book. I get so annoyed with the souped-up and glossed-up historical offerings on the book market and in the media. I’m forever shouting ‘anachronism!’ at the screen and switching off. It would be great to have something which was truer to the mores of the time. It would challenge our modern mindsets and assumptions in what might be an unexpected way!


    • Thanks for your enthusiasm – so far the only book I’ve written is an academic one, and I’d find it quite hard to write a good work of popular history: there are definite and separate skills for that.

      For early medieval history, in particular, because of the limited sources and their typical forms (such as hagiography) there’s a much smaller percentage of the data we have that we know we can rely on than for modern history. We don’t even definitely know the date of birth of Charlemagne, for example! So for a popular work, you either just have to make definite statements, which may well be wrong, or you have to give long-winded explanations for how we think we know what we know, which many readers may find tedious.

      In some ways that’s a big advantage of a blog. I can make general statements here and also tell small-scale anecdotes, and if anyone wants to know more, they’re always free to ask for more details (and they will probably eventually get a reply from me).


  2. As someone who has watched the series, I should note that Game of Thrones is notable less for its clothes – remarkable though they are – than for the frequent absence thereof.

    And as a fellow historian, albeit primarily of modern economics and politics rather than the Middle Ages, I share your frustration over the disconnect between the exciting bits and what the history one studies is really “about.” I have always regretted being unable to include, in my study of the rise of the Manila hemp industry, the case of a Spanish provincial vice-governor who was (eventually) reprimanded and dismissed for misdeeds such as hiring a Filipino band to play dirty songs on top of the town hall. I even have the lyrics of one such song (“El cura de Tamajon”) in my notes!


    • The great advantage of having a blog is that a blog post is almost the ideal place to put such fascinating anecdotes, even if they don’t provide a wider theory. The preservation of dirty lyrics (if they are *historical*, and thus a useful source for popular culture in the past), is also surely a helpful thing. Indeed if you want to post them in a guest post here, you are welcome to do so. (Feel free to leave them in the obscurity of a foreign language if you choose: I think the readers of mine who know Spanish are probably all fairly unshockable).


  3. Not that I’m the one to do it but I’ve often thought that one way to get students interested in a course on Early Medieval Religion/Christianity (or even society) would be to present what went on in Radegund’s Convent after her death in sort of a “Girls Gone Wild” manner. Then bring ’em back to reality.

    Very nice post. Thank you.


  4. Actually addressed this in my current course by getting a guest speaker to introduce the theoretical concept of ‘medievalism’ as distinct from medieval history. Not sure if all students grasped the significance, but I think it is a good beginning.
    (PS. Sounds like Hincmar should be the patron saint of the modern multi-tasking academic, stuck in the middle of a admin/management maelstrom…)


    • That sounds like an interesting approach – what is the course you’re teaching? I think courses/options that combine history and literature may be more open to theories of that sort: UK history courses tend to have a token theory course and then get back firmly to ‘proper history’.

      As for Hincmar, in a university department he’d probably spend far too time trying to get his junior colleagues fired for insubordination or sending ‘helpful’ memos to the head of department on how he should do his/her job. Not my idea of a helpful colleague!


  5. Thanks for this insightful commentary. Bringing the medieval to modern audiences is one thing in a pure entertainment context such as Game of Thrones. It’s a trickier proposition in teaching, where pressure to make the numbers does sometimes tempt one to highlight the good ‘selling points’ so to speak, at least in the course catalogue. I’m teaching a course in medieval popular culture next semester and I’m sure all those students expecting more GoT exoticism will be shocked when they get hit with the questions about ‘elite’/’popular’ theorical binaries and the validity of Marxist or Annaliste approaches (Montaillou anyone?).
    Kath – I like that idea about introducing them to Medievalism as a construct but I fear that could be a theory too far!


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