Hincmar and the ‘Dark Ages’

I’ve written nothing on this blog for months because I’ve been busy with several different projects. One is a long paper on ‘canon law’ which I gave at the Cambridge Late Antiquity Network Seminar in February and which I hope to put online soon. The second is an ongoing project to edit a book on Hincmar based on the Leeds IMC sessions given in 2012. I’m also off to the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo for the first time in May (talking about the Charlemagne charter project) and the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women (talking about Hincmar’s problems with a dodgy nun), so blogging will remain light for the foreseeable future. But here are a few impressions from spending months reading and thinking about the world Hincmar lived and worked in.

The vision we get of Hincmar’s society is one particularly far from the ‘Dark Ages’ view of early medieval Europe. For a start, we have lots of documentation by him, and we know that we’ve lost far more of it. Heinrich Schrörs did a register of Hincmar’s letters and tracts that runs to 572 items and some of those are book length, like De divortio. A large amount of Hincmar’s time and effort was taken up with administrating his archdiocese and Martina Stratmann, Hinkmar von Reims als Verwalter von Bistum und Kirchenprovinz, Quellen und Forschungen zum Recht im Mittelalter, 6 (Thorbecke, 1991) shows the relative sophistication of this, with a lot of written reports being created, even if almost none of them survive.

Meanwhile, the Annals of St-Bertin, which Hincmar took over writing after Prudentius of Troyes died (allowing him to make scathing comments about Prudentius, who was one of his enemies) also shows us a world far from heroic barbarian fantasies. There are reports about thuggish Viking bands, but they’re led by politicised leaders with whom you can negotiate and whom you may be able to turn against your enemies. And there’s also a vast amount of political and religious conflict being carried on by non-violent means, with a constant stream of envoys, negotiations and arguments as differing Carolingian rulers try to get an advantage over their relatives while not losing their own throne.

We also get hints about just how rich and well-organised West Francia is in the ninth century (unlike the ‘wild east’ of Germany). For example, in 877, Hincmar reports the details of how the Vikings in the Loire were bought off:

He [Charles the Bald] also made arrangements for how the tribute should be levied from thatpart of the realm of Francia which he held before Lothar’s death, and also from Burgundy: from every manse in demesne one solidus; from every free manse 4 denarii from the lord’s rent and 4 denarii from the tenant’s assets; from every unfree manse 2 denarii from the lord’s rent and 2 denarii from the tenant’s assets; and every bishop to receive from
each priest in his diocese, according to what each could afford, between 5 solidi maximum and 4 denarii minimum, and to hand this over to special missi dominici. Amounts were also taken from the treasuries of the churches in proportion to the quantity held in each place, to pay off this tribute. The total amount of tribute raised was 5,000 lb according to weight.

Translation by Janet L. Nelson, the Annals of St-Bertin (MUP, 1991)

That’s the kind of administration at a kingdom-wide level that gets Anglo-Saxonists rapturous about the late Anglo-Saxon state, and it’s actually happening: Charles gets the money (and presumably so do the Vikings). It also suggests a fairly thoroughly monetised society (and incidentally implies a wide variation in the wealth of parish priests or possibly the rapacity of local bishops).

Hincmar can also seem relatively ‘modern’ because he doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the supernatural (except in the Vita Remigii). Or at least he combines a belief in God’s providence with a lot of pragmatism about how politics is actually done. Hincmar moralises, of course, as all Carolingian authors do, but it’s less overwhelming than in an author like Alcuin. This may be partly because Hincmar doesn’t do pastoral care: he largely writes to magnates about the state of Rheims’ property, not their immortal souls. That is unless the magnates are illegally trying to hold onto Rheims’ property, which obviously endangers their immortal souls.

The question becomes then, what separates this world from that of later in the Middle Ages or even the early modern period? What makes even late ninth-century Rheims a less sophisticated world than that of the twelfth century? There’s an obvious difference in the size of the economy in the High Middle Ages, which allows more specialisation and larger pools of people (towns, craftspeople, enough scholars to set up universities etc) but there also seem to me changes in administration and infrastructure that make a difference to what a man like Hincmar could do in the ninth century as opposed to a hypothetical time-travelled twelfth-century or fifteenth-century Hincmar. (Let’s not go into what he could do with modern technology).

One key factor is just how difficult communications were: in particular the lack of reliable communications with Italy. At one point (reported in the Annals of St-Bertin for 867) Hincmar resorts to sending letters via messengers disguised as pilgrims, because they can’t get through otherwise. And false rumours seem a particular problem: you wonder sometimes if anyone had any clear current idea of what was happening to other Carolingian rulers. Regular courier services (even with only horse or foot travel) make a lot of difference to effective communications.

A second problem is finding authentic texts. Simon Corcoran, in the forthcoming Hincmar book, will discuss how limited a selection of Roman law Hincmar had access to. I’d also argue that the ninth century’s deserved reputation as a great age of forgery was possible precisely because of a lack of multiple copies of standard texts. In the twelfth century, I think it would have been trickier to produce a large cache of early papal decretals and get them somewhat accepted. But I’d be interested to hear from later medievalists about any really spectacularly large forgeries from the period.

Thirdly, this is an age without legal systems. The numerous disputes that Hincmar has are settled with by a variety of ad hoc methods, without there being much in the way of standardised legal procedure or a court system. I think this explains some of the interminable nature of Hincmar’s disputes: it was almost never possible to exhaust appeals. In particular, the willingness of popes to reopen cases that their predecessors had settled meant that any loser could always wait till the next pope came along in a decade’s time and try their luck again. Hincmar would doubtless have made a good lawyer, but he also doesn’t argue with texts in the same way that a lawyer does.

Finally, it’s interesting to realise just how little coercive force it was possible to exert on the Frankish elite, whether it was kings, popes or bishops attempting to exert it. The popes, of course, had the twin problems of no divisions and acting at a distance across the Alps. But bishops didn’t have much luck controlling their clerics and controlling magnates was probably harder than in later periods. One of the key difficulties for enforcing order in the second half of the ninth century was the existence of multiple Frankish kingdoms. If you were out of favour with one king (or excommunicated by one bishop) you could move elsewhere. The mobility of elites before the existence of territorial lordships is striking.

All this adds up to both a weaker state and a weaker church than in the twelfth century. Hincmar, in that sense, was born too soon, endeavouring to impose order and fight politically in a world that lacked some important tools that would have helped him. What was lacking in the Carolingian world in contrast to later, it seem to me, isn’t so much major conceptual leaps, apart from the development of legal systems. Instead it’s minor practical changes that cumulatively gave later elites more control over the world they were endeavouring to order to their own satisfaction.


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