Hincmar no-mates and Carolingian friendship

There are a lot of themes that came up when I was indexing Hincmar of Rheims: Life and Work, the collection of essays I’m editing with Charles West. But there’s one that didn’t: there’s no index entry for ‘friendship’. On reflection that’s interesting, because friendship is an important theme in many recent studies of the Carolingian intellectual and political elite, especially in the work of Gerd Althoff.

Is the lack of index entries just a reflection of the topics covered in the book? It can’t be comprehensive, of course: we’ve got just over 300 pages, while Jean Devisse’s biography of Hincmar is almost 5 times as long. But searching the proofs finds one interesting passage. Hincmar says about his early life:

After the brothers in the monastery of St-Denis, where I had been raised, had converted to a regular life and habit, I dwelled there for a long time, fleeing the world without hope or appetite for a bishopric, or any prelateship. Taken from there by friends (familiares) for the service of the emperor and the meetings of the bishops, serving from the obedience alone that was enjoined to me, after some years I sought again the quiet of the monastery. (Hincmar, Epistola 198, MGH Epp. 8, p. 210):

So Hincmar had friends at least at that point, and it’s fairly easy to identify one obvious candidate: Hilduin, abbot of St-Denis and Hincmar’s early mentor. But Hilduin died in 840, while Hincmar survived until 882. Who were Hincmar’s friends during his archiepiscopal rule? There aren’t any obvious names. You can admittedly come up with a shortish list of people who weren’t actively hostile to Hincmar, such as Hrabanus Maurus and Odo of Beauvais (although Egon Boshof reckoned Odo didn’t always support Hincmar). And I have got an index entry for Hincmar’s political networks: several of our authors used Flodoard’s summaries of Hincmar’s letters to talk about those. But definite friends are far harder to trace.

Is Hincmar’s friendlessness just a trick of the sources? We don’t have a huge number of complete letters of Hincmar preserved; we’re mostly relying on Flodoard’s summaries of them. Maybe he’s inadvertently misleading us: since his focus is on the history of Rheims, perhaps he’s omitted more personal letters or not reported that aspect of his letters? But even so, we have a large amount of Hincmar’s writings, including a substantial section of annals, where he could choose whom he wanted to discuss; you’d expect some evidence of any significant friendships to show up.

Which brings us back to Carolingian friendship. Recent studies have stressed that the language of friendship didn’t have the same meaning in past times that it does now. Beneath the enthusiastic and emotional rhetoric, it’s been claimed, friendships were more about social networking than the meeting of two minds, a facade of love over more instrumental relationships.

So if Carolingian friendships are formalised constructions, pacts of solidarity, why didn’t Hincmar have them? He certainly could have profited from them in order to ensure the flourishing of his archdiocese and the attainment of his political goals. It’s possible that no-one really liked Hincmar (apart from Jean Devisse and a few others, a millennium too late), but if we say that that impeded his ability to make friendships, we have to readmit emotional connections into the equation. The example of Hincmar-no-mates suggests that we may have to rethink our wider ideas of what early medieval friendships involved.


5 thoughts on “Hincmar no-mates and Carolingian friendship

  1. My immediate reaction was to think that, because he was plainly happiest in a monastery, the idea of ‘friendship’ was not really relevant. Relationships in a monastery or convent were not about individual friendships, and indeed some orders actively discourage them. The emphasis is on the shared faith and life of the community.


    • That’s an interesting point – there are certainly provisions in the Benedictine Rule against monks sticking up for one another, for example. However, a lot of our evidence for the importance of Carolingian friendship comes from other monastic writers, such as Alcuin and Lupus of Ferrieres. (Alcuin was brought up from childhood in a monastery, like Hincmar). So eighth and ninth-century monasticism couldn’t have had that strong an anti-friendship influence on everyone. Maybe it just appealed to Hincmar’s nature more!


  2. I think your suggestion about Flodoard is plausible. He normally only reports the ‘serious business’ of Hincmar’s letters and often mentions that ‘other things’ were also discussed. Likewise, there are frequent vague references to additional letters to individuals that he hasn’t attempted to summarise. Did he not think ‘being a friendly guy’ was a laudable episcopal trait? Interesting to wonder!


    • You mean if it wasn’t for Flodoard, we’d all realise Hincmar was a hell of a guy? That may be part of the reason, but I’m not sure that’s all of it.

      For example, Clemens Radl, via Twitter suggested Bp Hildegar of Meaux as another possible friend. Flodoard, HRE 3-23 p 311 mentions two letters of Hincmar to him: one about a homicidal parishioner of Hildegar and the other sending him a booklet about the ordeal of cold water. We have the text of De judicio aquae frigidae (Hincmar Epistola XXV, PL 126, col. 161-171), so we can actually see how Hincmar addresses him. And although there’s one or two perfunctory references to Hildegar as being ‘dilectus’, Hincmar almost at once gets down to the business of citing sources etc. He could easily have stuck in a sentence or two more of flattery (how he would really value Hildegar’s opinion etc). A lot of Carolingian authors do do that – how many tedious prefaces have we had to erad, But Hincmar didn’t bother.

      I don’t know Flodoard’s Historia well enough to know if he stresses the ‘friendliness’ of other bishops. But the Gesta of the abbots of Wandrille, which I studied a lot a long while ago makes it quite clear that what counts in an abbot is being able to bring in the funding and the contacts, rather than holiness or scholarship: a lot of parallels to college principals. I’d have thought an archbishop needed to be able to win friends and influence people too?


      • I’d have thought so too. Flodoard sometimes generically refers to qualities of friendliness, but nothing really stands out in my mind. Contacts, yes – he makes a point of stressing Hincmar’s connectedness. But as you say, even without Flodoard, Hincmar would still seem a somewhat unsavoury fellow…

        Another possibility is that Hincmar didn’t keep ‘personal’ letters in the episcopal archive – though where else these might have been kept I’m not sure. Perhaps he destroyed them so that posterity would remember him as a hard man.


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