The strangeness of the Carolingian rural state

There’s nothing like reading research far outside your field to give you a new perspective on your own work. In my case it’s making my way through Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality that’s brought home to me how strange the Carolingian empire was in one respect.

Flannery and Marcus’ book is an anthropological/archaeological look at a wide range of prehistoric, historical and contemporary societies at varying levels of social complexity. There’s no mention of the Carolingians (or indeed any European societies), but there is a lot on cultures in the Americas, including the Moche, Mayan and Zapotec civilisations.

Panorama of Monte Alban from the South Platform

Panorama of Monte Albán site

Read More »


Patriarchal pieces 1: was Charlemagne the father of the Franks?

(This is the first of a series of short pieces I hope to write for my new project on long-term continuity and change in patriarchal structures. These are intended as initial ways for me to think about the problem rather than as definitive answers and comments or counterexamples are gratefully received).


Some early modern political thought was patriarchal in the most literal sense: the father’s control over his family and household is the model for all political authority. (This is the view of Robert Filmer, for example). The idea seems at once vaguely familiar and subtly distinctive to a Carolingianist and I’m still trying to work out why.

At the moment I can see two differences. One is that although there’s sometimes an analogy made in political writing between the royal household and the kingdom, it tends to be expressed in terms of a ruler’s duties, rather than a father’s. The ruler must rule himself, so that he can then rule his household, and finally the kingdom. This is all put together with the supposed etymology of “rex” as deriving from “regnans”, which is already in Augustine, and probably even earlier. Being a “pater/genitor” doesn’t have the same resonances.

And where the king as father does appear, the direction of the analogy is the opposite way round from the early modern patriarchal one. The king’s household is supposed to be the exemplar for other households, and the king as father for other fathers. Ordinary fathers are “royalised” by the Carolingians, rather than kings being an outgrowth of original family power. After all, the Carolingians knew how kings arose – God had allowed them to do so.

I also wonder whether the vagueness of the Carolingian idea of the king as a magnified pater familias is because the magnates would have found that unacceptable. After all, the kingdom as a family implicitly places them as the king’s children, called to obedience, and subject to his righteous chastisement. In contrast, the metaphor of the body politic, which id developed by John of Salisbury and later medieval authors, makes the other parts of the body subordinate to the head, but without such a steep gradient. A neck or the shoulders and arms are only a little “below” the head and are essential to the body’s proper functioning. Not should the head want to hurt the other parts of the body, but guard them.

In contrast, the fatherly metaphor for rulers separates king and subject more decisively, and subordinates more firmly. Perhaps it’s only in more autocratic times (Roman and early modern) that this particular complex of patriarchal ideas can find acceptance.

Political culture 2: actors and scales

A very belated second post on the conference I went to in July 2016 on “Political culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins, c. 800-1200”. The first day of the conference revealed to me the wide variety of approaches to looking at political culture, but on the second day I was thinking more about a couple of key questions. Firstly, what did particular forms of political culture allow powerful people to do that they couldn’t easily do otherwise? And secondly, what does studying political culture bring that’s new to political history (which is, after all, one of the oldest historical topics)?

The first paper on the second day was by Charlie Insley under the wonderful title of “Ottonians with pipe rolls? Political culture and performance in late Anglo-Saxon England”. Charlie was bringing Gerd Althoff’s ideas about ritual and symbolism to bear on the Anglo-Saxon world. As Charlie pointed out, he wasn’t the first Anglo-Saxonist to do this, and as I’d already heard Julia Barrow on the topic (and a paper by Levi Roach on the Aethelred charters under discussion), I was familiar with quite a lot of the paper. But it was a handy reminder that we can’t just oppose ritual/performance to literacy/bureaucracy, as Althoff and some English historians have tended to do. And it was also a useful example of what a particular form of political culture could allow you to do: Aethelred was able to make a policy U-turn by drawing on a discourse of penance.

The second paper in the session was by Jonathan Gledhill, talking about work done in association with the People of Medieval Scotland database project. As Jonathan pointed out, while Scotland wasn’t part of the Angevin Empire, it did sometimes experience Angevin power. His theme was also very relevant to the conference: what can you say about political culture when charters are almost the only source you have?

Because of Scotland’s lack of narrative sources and eleventh century charters, historians have tended to lump together the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as one “feudal” period. Jonathan argued that if you look harder you can see differences, between a twelfth-century culture that is starting to formalise and a thirteenth-century one that is formalised. He argued for a very slow process of formalisation and explained what he meant by that. One is that there is a change from “barons” being any political important men who were the king’s friends to men who exercised justice in a particular area (called a “parish”). Secondly, you can see witness lists of charters becoming more hierarchical over time. Jonathan also discussed other changes you could see in charters, for example that later re-grants by a king of a charter might include more specific details, such as the courts that could be held and powers of them.

This paper was an interesting contrast to Charlie’s because it’s starting from a corpus of charters that’s substantially bigger than the late Anglo-Saxon one, but also a lot more standardised. And that affects methodology. Charlie’s essentially looking at charters as special snowflakes, because it’s mostly such big diplomas that survive from the Anglo-Saxon period. Jonathan (and the POMS team generally) have been compiling more bulk data from charters over time and analysing it in new ways (such as by social network analysis) to get a more general overview of Scottish political culture.

In the second session of the day, we went on to ecclesiastical politics and started with Benjamin Pohl talking about a century-long dispute  (c. 1077-1172) between the Abbey of Saint-Étienne de Caen and the bishops of Bayeux. How did a monastery newly founded after 1066 fit into existing diocesan structures? The problems centred on Whitsuntide processions: did such processions in parishes under Saint-Étienne’s control still have to go to the mother church at Bayeux (with every household having to provide a pennyworth of wax as a render)? Both the King of England and the papacy got involved in the dispute at various times and even though some parishes eventually were exempted from the need to process to Bayeux, others still had to make the trip (which could be more than 15 miles each way). As Benjamin pointed out, a clear political message was being sent: despite the prominence of Saint-Étienne, the monks were still politically subordinate to the canons of Bayeux cathedral. Benjamin’s paper neatly pointed out both the political importance of ecclesiastical ritual and that financial and spiritual dues couldn’t easily be separated: the requirement was not just to pay in wax, but to bring it with one.

We stayed in Normandy (and indeed Caen) for the next paper, in which Laura Gathagan talked about Cecelia, eldest daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. The female monastery of Sainte-Trinité in Caen was founded by William and Matilda at the same time as Saint-Étienne and they made Cecilia an oblate there in 1066. Laura reckoned that Holy Trinity was more Matilda’s gift to Cecelia than the other way round and she went on to show the great importance of Cecelia to the monastery, even though she only became abbess in 1113, after more than 40 years there. She was a patron of poets, she regularly travelled to London and she helped negotiate charters for Holy Trinity after the death of her father William the Conqueror. Around 1100, she and the abbess Matilda jointly issues a charter in which Cecelia was referred to as “daughter of the king”. She also carried out several surveys of the monastery’s lands.

What was particularly interesting was her relationship with the abbess Matilda, whom Laura saw as carefully managing her resources, including the most precious resource, Cecelia herself. Indeed Matilda in her old age tried to resign as abbess in Cecelia’s favour, but was forbidden to do so by Anselm of Canterbury. Although Amy Livingstone has warned us to beware of thinking that women holding power were exceptional, Laura thought that Cecelia did look exceptional: her power did not come from any office, but her status as William the Conqueror’s daughter. It was these ties to him and to her brothers that enabled her to win “victories” for the monastery by grants and confirmations that secured their property amid the tumults of post-conquest Normandy.

From the political culture embodied in one woman we moved on to a large number of men.  Stephen Maritt was talking about twelfth-century English archdeacons and their role in political culture. More specifically, he was trying to rehabilitate them from a stereotype of being venal and careerist. Stephen started by pointing out the prominence of archdeacons – we can reconstruct itineraries for most of them and they provided a link between bishops and the king and local societies.

Stephen’s argument was that a lot of the stereotypes about archdeacons came either from reading back Anthony Trollope’s Archdeacon Grantly into the Middle Ages or from overheated rhetoric from the likes of John of Salisbury. In fact most archdeacons didn’t advance beyond that rank: only about 10% made it to bishop (although a comparison with modern academia suggests that poor prospects of success don’t necessarily reduce careerism).Stephen also pointed out that while John of Salisbury might have complained about Archdeacon Walkelin of Suffolk naming his illegitimate children after Pope Hadrian IV, he also wrote friendly letters to Walkelin.

Stephen also gave us some intriguing vignettes of the archdeacon’s role. They might turn up for visitations with vastly excessive retinues (Bridlington priory complained of an archdeacon arriving with 97 horses, 21 hounds and 2 hawks), but some of this excess may have been an effort to enforce their limited authority in county towns (and to help them collect dues, which was not popular). They also had to sort out a lot of nitty-gritty church administration: I enjoyed hearing that Gerald of Wales’ Gemma ecclesiastica includes a discussion of what to do if the priest at communion has used cider instead of wine!

And Stephen’s final point was to stress that archdeacons (who unlike rural deans had to be in major orders) had a sense of their own spiritual identity, often citing Acts 6 on deacons and the example of St Lawrence. Also unlike rural deans, but like bishops and abbots, archdeacons were excepted to have their name as well as their office on their seal.

Archdeacons clearly played an important role and Charlie Insley made an intriguing parallel between the complaints about archdeacons and those by Wulfstan on reeves. These secular and religious officials may have carried out some of the same middleman functions and thus been liable to the same temptations and accusations. Stephen’s wide-ranging and entertaining paper thus showed us some more ways into local politics, a topic that hadn’t really been raised before during the conference.

For the final session, we were back to high politics, starting with Rick Barton on counsel and placita in western France and England, part of a wider project he’s doing on honour and shame in Western France.  Rick was interested in how political culture was formed and changed during assemblies and using narrative sources to explore this. He focused on the text De iniusta vexacione Guillelmi episcopi, which discuss the trial of William of St-Calais, bishop of Durham, by William Rufus in 1088, and its representation of counsel. Concilium is a dominant theme in De iniusta vexacione and Rick was interested in when this happened and also when it didn’t happen. For example, Bishop William was deprived of the counsel of other bishops, but was allowed that of seven knights who came with him from Durham.

All this fed into wider discourses about counsel visible in this and other placita. Some of these are quite general, such as ‘evil counsel’ leading to hostile acts and ‘having taken wiser counsel’ as indicating a change of heart. But there are more specific discourses in De iniusta vexacione: Bishop William could not get the counsel he wanted (from religious, rather than secular men), while he complained that William Rufus had the whole kingdom to counsel him. Bishop William also made a sarcastic gibe at Archbishop Lanfranc: “this old wordsmith knows how to speak too well”. We can see here “counsel” becoming a political weapon, as a way of indirectly claiming an unfair trial. More generally, Rick saw traditions of disputing in De iniusta vexacione that were similar to those in western France, and also noted the primacy of personal relationships in such hearings.

The final paper, by Mark Hagger, remained in the Norman sphere, but focused on ducal Normandy in c. 1000-1135 and the “atmosphere of power” there. Mark started from an interesting quirk of the evidence: there was no ducal chancery before 1135, so all the charters we have were produced by beneficiaries. If you’re careful, Mark argued, you can use these to give us a bottom-up view of ducal power by its users.

These charters show beneficiaries coming a long way (and sometimes travelling to warzones) to gain ducal grants. They don’t say much about the nature of the duke’s rule (although some cheekily have the duke apologising for his previous ill deeds!) Surprisingly, the percentage of charters with petitions drops after 1066, although you might expect more grovelling to kings than dukes. (Mark reckoned that the most elaborate grovel in a charter was by Dudo of St Quentin in 1015).

Anathema clauses were common under dukes Richard and Robert, but died out later. Mark suggested such clauses might imply a lack of trust in dukes and also that whoever pronounced the anathema clause might take the spotlight away from the duke. He cited an act by Duke William for Saint-Ouen in which Archbishop Malger of Rouen pronounces a lengthy and vituperative anathema. Mark saw this as part of a wider pattern of (friendly) competition between beneficiaries, patrons, bishop and the duke himself for credit for the grant, a pattern which may have changed fundamentally after 1066. It’s an intriguing thought for any of us who work on charters for any period or place: do we need to think beyond a simple hierarchical model of giver as acknowledged superior to the recipient?

All the papers I heard over the two days of the conference had their individual points of interest, but I want to finish with three ideas that I think drew them together and might be useful when considering the advantages of studying political culture. One is that the broader definition of political action that cultural history encourages allows for the inclusion of individuals and groups who haven’t traditionally been considered as “political”, such as women and (non-elite) religious.

The other two ideas are more about two contrasting methods for studying political culture. One might be called zooming in. As Martin Aurell pointed out, he’s heard a lot more anthropology over the two days and much less legal history than normal at conferences considering political topics. Sources giving “thick descriptions”, whether they’re charters, liturgical sources or narratives, can provide a lot of important new information. They can get us nearer to the crucial questions about what the political arguments were in a particular situation and why they worked.

But what was also interesting was the contrary approach: zooming out to try and spot overall patterns of action across a group of political actors. At times this was done statistically or using social network analysis (as by Jonathan Gledhill and Mark Hagger). But it could also be combined with thick description, as in Thomas Foerster’s work on gift-giving, Stephen Marritt on archdeacons and my own paper on countesses. It seems to me that it’s this willingness to change scales, combined with a new awareness of who and what counts as “political” that makes the study of political culture an important method of reinvigorating and developing medieval political history.


Medieval political culture 1: let a hundred flowers bloom

This is my first report on the conference I went to in Manchester in July 2016 on “Political culture from the Carolingians to the Angevins, c. 800-1200”. One of the things that struck me during the conference was how wide a range of topics could plausibly come together under that theme. Usefully, Martin Aurell, during the keynote speech, described political culture as being about the ‘atmosphere of power’, not just political structures and institutions, but how politics was performed. Katy Dutton* had already pointed out one small example: how between 1090-1150 in Anjou royal and comital acts moved away from the king or count’s children acting as co-signers or consenters. Katy argued that the ending of this tradition of including children, which he saw as an assurance of continuity, wasn’t just as bureaucratic change, but affected the experience of ruling and being ruled.

Martin’s main focus was on the turbulent events of 1773-1774, when several of Henry II’s sons revolted against him. Could descriptions of these events by chroniclers be seen as propaganda or is that an anachronistic term? Although Jürgen Habermas claims that no political space existed before the emergence of the printing press, Jacques Le Goff argued for ‘informal propaganda’ in the Middle Ages, and Martin showed that the chroniclers’ accounts did look like propaganda.

One point that wasn’t raised in the paper or in questions afterwards is whether propaganda needs to be contemporaneous. Should the chroniclers’ work be seen more as after the fact justifications, a political genre that’s very familiar after the Iraq War? However, there’s surely an argument that chroniclers may be writing down arguments that were already circulating in 1173-74, i.e.  that what we have is fossilized propaganda.


Matthew Paris’ picture of kings from Henry II to Henry III

Martin’s interest was anthropological, looking not at possible structural reasons for the revolt, such as magnates’ reaction to the reinforcement of royal administration, but at what the chronicles themselves talked about, focusing on a series of images. Some are expected: the revolot of sons against their father as being the insanity of a revolt “against nature”; Eleanor of Aquitaine refusing to submit to her husband as she should. But there were also other narratives possible, such as justifications of Henry the Younger attacking the “avaricious” Henry II, or stories about the harmful effects of previous transgressions by the Angevin family (for example the claim that Eleanor had fornicated with Geoffrey of Anjou, before marrying Geoffrey’s son Henry). In the same way, as well as familiar colonial narratives contrasting civilised English to barbarous and bloodthirsty Scots and Welsh, there are positive depictions of Welsh warriors fighting on the “right” side. And while some chroniclers invoked the effect of the murdered Christian saint Thomas Becket on events, Gerald of Wales quoted Merlin’s pagan prophecies.

These varied perspectives support the idea of chronicles as propaganda, manipulating significant images (often Biblically-inspired) to support a particular side in the conflict. Martin’s final point was about the key role of fidelity as a value in this propaganda. The stress in the sources was on personal bonds of faith and fidelity, not on more abstract ideas of kingship or monarchy. To the twelfth and thirteenth-century chroniclers at least, the political was still personal.

After Martin’s paper we had Stephen Church on another aspect of Henry II’s reign. Stephen was focusing tightly on one small fragment of political culture: Prince John being called “dominus Hiberni” in charters from 1185. Stephen was arguing against Rees Davies, among others, who had seen this title as some distinctive form of dominion. Stephen argued from other examples that in fact it was the normal title of a king who had not yet been formally crowned.

From this very focused case-study, we went to a much broader view, by Thomas Foerster on “Plantagenet and European traditions of gift exchange in the late twelfth century”. Thomas argued for two different traditions, which he saw colliding in 1198, during the Third Crusade, when Richard I and King Tancred of Sicily made peace. On the first day, Tancred gave Richard rich gifts and would accept only the token countergift of a little ring. On the second day, however, Richard gave King Arthur’s sword to Tancred.

Thomas saw Tancred as acting within a Mediterranean/Byzantine tradition of lavish gift-giving, emphasising the incomparable wealth of the ruler. In contrast, English sources of the period have less to say on gift-giving and often regard it negatively as a sign of greed and corruption. (Nevertheless, they show Richard triumphing over Tancred in the gift-giving via a more culturally prestigious gift; the Sicilian sources don’t mention Arthur’s sword).

In questions, some of us raised the chronology of this proposed northern/southern European split (Thomas wondered if it was linked to Tim Reuter’s butter/olive oil line). There’s certainly an Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian tradition of rulers giving lavish gifts. Thomas thought the change came around 1100, when there was new emphasis on the humility of kings in gift-giving in more northern sources, (which he linked to chivalry)and less of an emphasis on the king standing out from all others. If Thomas is right about this pattern, it’s a useful example of how a specifically political culture can be influenced by wider cultural changes, such as the rise of chivalry.

After lunch, we had a session on gender history. I argued that countesses in the tenth century were able to carry out actions that they hadn’t been able to under the Carolingians (developing an argument I first made on this blog a number of years ago). I also in passing coined what became one of the key phrases in the conference, when in discussing the origins of the term “political culture”, when I referred to it as the “squidgy bits” in-between the normal nuts and bolts of political systems.

Amy Livingstone, meanwhile, talked about the twelfth-century Breton countess Ermengarde (wife of Alan IV), arguing that neither she nor twelfth-century Brittany was as marginal as conventionally thought. Amy is writing a biography of Ermengarde, who was noted for her religious patronage. In one sense her research might be seen as part of mainstream political history, but I think there are good reasons for including her research in a study of political culture. Ermengarde’s political role, like those of many “lordly women” has been underestimated by earlier research because of their underlying assumptions about medieval political culture. Part of the deliberate study of political culture should be to shine a spotlight on cultural assumptions made by previous generations of scholars.

The final session of the day looked at crusading culture. Natasha Hodgson talked about clerical masculinity on the First Crusade. There’s been a lot of recent interest in Crusade masculinity, but Natasha saw previous studies as focusing on investigating a single model of the ideal crusader. In contrast, Natasha was arguing for a variety of masculine models and using the example of Arnulf of Chocques, briefly the first Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Arnulf was a controversial figure, the son of a Flemish priest who rose because of his scholarship and preaching ability, but also his relationship to powerful individuals such as Odo of Bayeux, whose wealth he inherited. Natasha pointed out how often writers contrasted Arnulf with other men, implicitly setting up a variety of standards of masculinity. For example, in a debate in 1099 between Arnulf and Tancred, Arnulf stressed his own role in the success of the crusade and complained about Tancred despoiling the Temple of Solomon. Tancred in response said that as a mere soldier he lacked Arnulf’s eloquence: Arnulf’s strength was in his tongue, like a scorpion.

Natasha’s point about the opportunities for social mobility offered by the crusades was one that hadn’t occurred to me before, but her paper indirectly raised wider questions about the nature of ‘political culture’. Clearly there was politics going on within the Crusade armies themselves and in the Crusader States, but how does that relate to wider European political culture? And how does a model of political culture originally developed in the era of nation states deal with political entities such as the papacy?

The final paper of the day was by Jamie Doherty on “The Holy Land in the charters of the twelfth-century counts of Champagne”. There’s been increasing interest in using charters to look at political culture, because they potentially allow us to get nearer the perspective of individual rulers than narrative sources normally allow. Jamie was interested in how crusading could be used to gain cultural capital, and get a laugh for a reference to “the itinerant boasting campaign of William of Aquitaine after 1101”.

Jamie’s paper focused on two counts of Champagne, Hugh of Troyes and Henry the Liberal, who both led independent crusades (i.e. not connected to the main numbered ones). Despite issues about scribal versus issuer intent, Jamie argued that you can sometimes see the counts “performing crusader status”, e.g. when it’s explicitly mentioned that Hugh is confirming a number of acts before going on crusade, or Henry publicly states that he’ll deal with a dispute in Dijon when he returns from crusade.

This crusade performance may have spread lower down the social scale: twice in Hugh’s witness lists there’s a witness called “Bovo of Holy Sepulchre”. Jamie thought that it was too early for him to be a settler in the East, but that instead Bovo may have sworn himself to the Holy Sepulchre and continued to use that as an identification. In the comments afterwards, Charlie Rozier pointed out the key role of reputation in political culture; it would be interesting to consider if there are parallels or differences between how medieval and modern political figures create such reputations.

As my title suggests, I’m not sure there was a particular common thread connecting all the papers together, even though they all struck me as related to political culture. But as a taster of different ways you might approach medieval political culture, I certainly found it valuable.

* Update (10/9/16): I’ve been reminded that it was Katy Dutton who talked about witnessing by children, not Martin Aurell, so have corrected this.




The creation of Carolingian homosociality

I’ve recently been thinking about masculinity again and was reading with interest Rachel Moss’ discussions of her new project on medieval homosociality. Rachel states:

I will argue that homosociality was a cultural mindset that, by privileging bonds between men, made it possible to create networks of socially-codified relationships that supported hegemonic norms and facilitated the structuring of patriarchy.

I also discussed the concept briefly with her on Twitter, when she was explaining that she saw homosociality as “a set of socio-cultural mechanisms of which socialisation is an element”.

Rachel works on the late medieval period, so most of the key sources she used in her previous book on fatherhood aren’t available for early medievalists or only in very small quantities: conduct literature written by the laity, gentry letters and chivalric romances. In fact there’s probably only one Carolingian status group about whose socialisation and male bonding we know in detail; that’s monks, whose homosociality is likely to be considerably different from that of other men.

What I started thinking about instead is what type of consciously-created homosocial  structures exist in the premodern West (and in the Carolingian period specifically) and when and why they are created. I’m focusing on deliberately-created structures because there’s one immediate difference between the twenty-first century West and most earlier periods. Both work and education are now substantially less sex-segregated than they used to be. Educating boys and girls together (past their early years) isn’t the historic norm and while officially mixed-sex working places have existed, they’ve normally been less common than single-sex ones, from the weaving shed to the regiment. So the question becomes why homosociality in the premodern world wasn’t just left to arise naturally, as a by-product of such segregation. Why was it made to happen? (I realise that you can have socio-cultural mechanisms for homosociality that arise incidentally from institutions/cultural patterns created for other ends, but “mechanism” does imply at least some purpose).

These are my four suggestions of where and why such (male) homosocial structures were created:

Read More »

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.

Political smears, then and now

I’m currently writing a paper about political propaganda in the Carolingian empire and it’s getting more topical than I’d like it to be. My focus is on a chain of events between 827 and 860, which in a simplified version goes like this:

1) (827-828) Two important magnates of the Emperor Louis the Pious, Hugh of Tours and Matfrid of Orléans are accused of military incompetence and removed from office. The accusations about them have probably been trumped up by Bernard of Septimania, who then goes on to enjoy Louis’ favour.

2) (830) Bernard is accused of adultery with Louis the Pious’ wife; some of Louis’ sons stage a coup against him, with the backing of Hugh and Matfrid, but Louis soon regains control.

3) (833-834) Louis’ sons again stage a coup; Louis is accused of numerous crimes and forced into doing penance for them, with the aim of removing him permanently from power. One of the leaders of the bishops imposing this penance is Ebbo, Archbishop of Rheims. Louis, however, regains the throne  again.

4) (835-851) Ebbo is made a scapegoat for the penance imposed on Louis and forced into “voluntarily” renouncing his office on the grounds of his unworthiness. However he continues to dispute the validity of this loss of office and attempts to regain his archbishopric.

5) (857-860) Louis’ grandson Lothar II attempts to get rid of his wife Theutberga by falsely accusing her of incest with his brother Hubert and then forcing her to make a “voluntary” confession of this and ask for penance.

6) (860) Some of Lothar’s opponents ask for advice on the legal validity of this process. One archbishop writes a long text De divortio on the topic: Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims, the successor to Ebbo.

What I’m focusing on in my paper, building on work by Mayke de Jong and Courtney Booker, is how the mechanisms of penance and accusations of sinfulness get repeatedly used against opponents, and how those who’ve denounced false accusations and lack of proper procedure against someone on their own side go on to use the same techniques against their opponents. How partisanship trumps principle in other words, by people who are nevertheless trying to claim the moral high ground. And the last few days have given a depressing insight into the mentality behind this.

I considered becoming a registered supporter of the Labour party and voting in the leadership election, but I didn’t in the end: there wasn’t any candidate I was positive enough about.  But though I don’t agree with some of Jeremy Corbyn’s positions, I can see his appeal, the promise of a different kind of politics. It wasn’t surprising that the right-wing media decided to attack him with repeated unfounded smears.

And now a week or so on, we have “Piggate”, and David Cameron being attacked with dubiously based smears by a right-wing newspaper. And a number of the people who’ve been talking about principles in politics are eagerly pointing and laughing (though to be fair, not Corbyn himself). It now turns out that the media lying and smearing people is fine for many people when it happens to someone whom you dislike.

The excuse for why this is OK seem oddly familiar too. There’s very little evidence for the specific accusation about Cameron and a dead pig, but that doesn’t matter. Because it’s the sort of thing that someone like him would do or the sort of initiation rite that an Oxford dining club would have and thus if it’s not true, it’s truthy. Theutberga’s brother Hubert had a bad reputation: it’s perhaps not surprising that Lothar used sexual slurs against him to justify ending his marriage to Hubert’s sister.

And then the further excuses come and more principles crumble. Many liberals and left-wingers have rightly spent years calling for a less prurient sexual morality, to treat sexual conduct as about consistent notions of harm, not just what is “normal”. And now they’re making school-kid smutty jokes about someone else’s behaviour, because he’s a Tory and so that’s OK.

It’s funny, of course, so I’m told, and he’s a powerful man, so why shouldn’t we mock him? It doesn’t do any harm. But the original accusations were clearly intended to do harm: that’s the point of making them. And humiliation and ridicule are a common part of smear campaigns. One of Louis’ partisans, Thegan, reported how Hugh of Tours’ servants laughed at him for his cowardice; as Mayke de Jong puts it (Penitential State p 252): “such mocking songs roared by one’s retainers and servants strike me as a Carolingian aristocrat’s worse nightmare. This is why Thegan integrated it into his strategies of defamation.”

Humiliation as part of a strategy of defamation: that’s what people cheering on Piggate are supporting. And then the final excuses come. Cameron’s a man who’s done evil things, so it’s OK to smear him. Or he’s palled up to a billionaire, so it serves him right when his former friend turns on him.

If the accusations were true about him, then they’d be more force to this: the equivalent of Al Capone getting brought down for tax evasion. But as I’ve said, the specific evidence for this claim is so far very weak. Swap the situation around politically. Jeremy Corbyn has associated with some unsavoury characters in his opposition to what he sees as imperialism. (To avoid confusion, I accept that there are reasons why he felt this to be necessary, such as furthering peace processes or as part of a movement focused on stopping a particular war). So does that mean that he’s fair game if one of them subsequently spreads lies about him?

So we get to the final argument. The right-wing media will smear left-wingers/Labour politicians anyhow, so why shouldn’t we do it too? What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. But here we get to the nub of the matter. Jeremy Corbyn and his campaign were supposed to be something new. The concern of this new politics isn’t supposed to be about popularity or electoral tactics but about principles. There are odd similarities with the idea of the prophetic voice in Carolingian politics: the man whose focus is on right and wrong, denouncing sinners and protecting the weak, without any thought for his own advantage. The truth-teller, who doesn’t care whom he offends or what the consequences are. Corbyn fits rather well into that tradition in many ways, although he’s milder in personality than your average Old Testament prophet.

But if you want to stand on your principles, as the Corbynistas do, it helps not to abandon them whenever it’s to your partisan advantage to do so. Speaking truthiness to power isn’t terribly inspiring. Hincmar poses as a man concerned only with justice, but he wriggles uncomfortably as he tries to explain why Theutberga’s supposedly voluntary confession can’t be used as evidence against her. Why? Because it was the same method used to remove his predecessor Ebbo: if he says this method of proof is invalid, Hincmar’s own hold on office is potentially weakened.  So instead we get some feeble excuses about how the situation is not the same.

In the UK, the left-wing doesn’t have the power and influence that the right-wing does, in terms of money and media access. Its key weapon is its morality: it stands for fairness and for truth, for something better. Or so it claims: unfortunately, after Piggate, it’s going to be a little harder for it to make that claim convincingly, any more than Louis the Pious or Thegan or Hincmar could in the ninth century.