Pseudo-Isidore and canons as weapons

Scholars debating about when in the ninth century the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries were created have increasingly argued for an early date for them, either in the aftermath of the second rebellion against Louis the Pious in 833 or even after the first rebellion in 830. Some scholars, such as Mayke de Jong, however are not convinced by these arguments for an early date. I’m not an expert on Pseudo-Isidore, an immensely complicated subject, but I am interested in how canons and decretals get used in Carolingian disputes, so I want to approach the question from a slightly different angle: when in the ninth century did people start using canons as weapons?

The purpose of the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries is relatively clear, after all: they’re forgeries of authoritative statements by councils (canons) and in papal letters (decretals). And they were intended to be of use in disputes concerning churchmen, for example setting out under what conditions clerics can be accused of an offence. But such forgeries only make logical sense in a situation where genuine texts of this type are already being used to argue controversial cases (like the deposition of Archbishop Ebbo of Rheims and its after-effects).

There’s probably an entire master thesis to be written on the development of Carolingian citation practices. From early on in Charlemagne’s reign, some capitularies, such as the Admonitio generalis of 789 quote canons by the name of the council; similarly, the Council of Aachen in 816 has a whole string of passages from named authors and councils. There’s a noticeable change in referencing practices in the lay mirrors between Alcuin’s  De virtutibus et vitiis and Jonas of Orléans’ De institutione laicali. Alcuin incorporates short extracts from patristic sources into his text without identifying them; Jonas gives longer extracts, specifically identified as such. Using canons and decretals isn’t a new phenomenon in 830.

But when you start looking at their use in polemic texts from the 830s, it’s minimal. For example, Agobard of Lyons cites no canons or decretals in either part of his Liber apologeticus from 833. Then there’s Divinis praeceptis – a possibly forged letter of Gregory IV (JE  2579) claiming to be from 833. Eric Knibbs argues that’s is a genuine text of Gregory’s inspired by Paschasius Radbertus of Corbie, one of the Pseudo-Isidore forgers. Eric describes the text as “basically little more than a patchwork of canonical citations”, largely from one of Pseudo-Isidore’s key sources, the Collectio Hispana. But despite this, there’s only 1 papal decretal explicitly cited (Innocent I, JK 286), the text of which has then been interpolated to include a reference to the Council of Nicaea. It’s a similar story for the relatio of Louis’ penance by a number of bishops from Oct 833: that cites only one papal decretal explicitly (and no canons).

In other words, there’s little evidence of arguments making extensive use of genuine canonical sources around 833, which makes a project to forge large numbers of them seem implausible at that date. Of course, that doesn’t exclude them being forged later in the 830s, but here the evidence of Ebbo of Rheims is revealing. We have two versions of an apology by Ebbo of Rheims, justifying his reinstatement as archbishop of Rheims in 840. The earliest of this was probably written in 841, the later possibly in 842. Neither of them includes any explicit references to sources other than the Bible.

What’s particularly interesting is that at one point Ebbo says that he’s done seven years of penance, after which remission is usual (septenni ferme sub penitentiae spacio, quo in sancta aecclesia peccatorum penitentibus fieri solet remissio, patienter expectans et nemini consecrationis ibi dignitatem impedivi). I’m not certain where this statement comes from, but there’s one likely source for its specific reference to seven years. That is a letter allegedly by Isidore of Seville to Bishop Massona of Merida, which was widely circulating in the Frankish world by the eighth century, including in the canonical collection, the Collectio vetus Gallica. In this letter, “Isidore” deals with the question of whether a priest can be restored to office after doing penance. He says that they can if they have done worthy penance and specifically claims that the canons allow this after seven years (PL 83, col. 901: Maria ergo, soror Aaron, caro intelligitur sacerdotis, quae dum superbiae dedita, sordidissimis corruptionum contagiis maculatur, extra castra septem diebus, id est, extra collegium sanctae Ecclesiae septem annis projicitur, qui post emundationem vitiorum loci, sive pristinae dignitatis recipit meritum).

This implies that Ebbo had a source for his statement about seven years penance but chose not to cite it. In terms of referencing practice, he’s working in an older Carolingian tradition (as seen in Alcuin) of implicit citing of sources, where it’s either assumed that anyone who matters will recognise the source of the author’s quote or that the writer’s own authority is enough in itself to justify the statement made.

In 833 Ebbo had gone over to Lothar’s side at the Field of Lies, at precisely the point when Eric Knibbs thinks Pseudo-Isidore was starting up. But it’s not just that around 840 Ebbo doesn’t appear to know any Pseudo-Isidore’s texts; it’s that’s in the early 840s it doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that citing canons or early decretals was a useful thing to do.  In fact, when Ebbo himself later turned to forgery (around 845) he forged a letter from Gregory IV (JE 2583), who had only just died.

In other words, in the 830s people engaged in the sort of controversies that the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries  were allegedly created to affect, not only aren’t using these forged sources, they’re only rarely using genuine sources of the same type. If we do want to find people using canonical sources as polemic, we have to look in different directions: Hrabanus Maurus and Hincmar of Rheims.

The first polemical source I’ve found that makes more sustained use of canons and decretals is the letter  De honore parentum by Hrabanus Maurus to Louis the Pious from 834 (recently discussed by Mayke de Jong) . This treatise is largely based on Biblical exemplar, as you would expect from an expert commentary writer, but in one section, c. 8, on how those who administer secular judgement are to be considered, we abruptly get a string of patristic sources and councils: a decretal of Pope Innocent I, extracts from Augustine and Ambrosiaster and a quote from the Council of Antioch. In form, this looks very like the argument from sources you can see in Jonas’ De institutione laicali, but it’s now being applied to a work that’s making a political argument, claiming that the penance imposed on Louis the Pious was unjust.

We also have a surviving manuscript (Paris BnF lat. nouv. acq. 1632A) from the late 830s or early 840s, which contains a collection of sources known as Capitula diversarum sententiarum pro negociis rei publice consulendis. This is a selection of patristic sources justifying warfare and the ruler punishing others. Although it doesn’t specifically include canons or decretals (it does include Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job), it’s the kind of dossier that in the second half of the ninth century was frequently used as source material to argue a specific case. The dossier has previously been attributed to Jonas of Orléans and placed in the late 830s, but Phillip Wynn thinks it was compiled by Hincmar of Rheims, possibly in about 842, during the war between Louis the Pious’ sons.

There’s also another source from the early 840s, which although it’s not directly polemical, is collecting canons and decretals in a way that would be useful for polemic. This is Hrabanus Maurus’ Paenitentiale ad Otgarium, which he composed for Archbishop Otgar of Mainz around 841. The first chapter of this contains a discussion of whether it was possible to reinstate priests to office after they had done penance. Hrabanus listed a string of canonical and patristic texts on the subject. This topic was central to Ebbo’s return to Rheims, and demonstrated that such matters could in theory be decided by the use of authoritative sources.

Putting these three texts together, it looks like there was a change in concepts of the sources of authority sometime between about 834 and the early 840s. Previous polemicists and litigants, such as Ebbo, relied on more generalised moral and Biblical arguments. In contrast, some scholars were repurposing the moral florilegia that had existed from the late eighth century onwards into specifically political/legal weapons, citing them explicitly as authorities. This is clearly visible, for example, by the time of the Council of Soissons in 853. Only when this idea of canons as weapons had spread did it make sense to forge Pseudo-Isidore, because only then would its material be used.

The first possible citation of Pseudo-Isidore comes from 852; the first definite one from 857. The earlier the creation of Pseudo-Isidore is pushed back, the greater the problems in explaining why we have no trace of its effect until the 850s. But I think the evidence (or rather non-evidence) of the use of (genuine) canonical sources as weapons before the 840s also makes it harder to argue for an early date for starting Pseudo-Isidore. Before 840 it’s not clear to me that if the Pseudo-Isidore forgeries had existed, anyone would have known what usefully to do with them.


One thought on “Pseudo-Isidore and canons as weapons

  1. Great blog. I take your point that there’s not much evidence of people using canons in a polemical context in the 830s. But as you point out, the Council of Aachen of 816 (for instance) does have lots of express citation of canon law. Isn’t the point of forging texts like PSI precisely to make polemical points in a cunningly non-polemical way? Ie, the aim wasn’t to give ammunition for polemic – it was to shift the grounds of debate invisibly, *without* the need for argument. Just a thought!


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