When Arguments Go Wrong: Part 1 of the Tübingen not-conference-report

Having finally had some time in the British Library to brush up on some required reading, here is the first of a couple of posts about the oft-mentioned workshop at Tübingen on The Transformation of The Carolingian World. I’m not going to do a full conference report for a couple of reasons; partly because the papers were explicitly works-in-progress and partly because several of them were in German, which I don’t speak well enough to have followed (relatedly, I would rather shame-facedly like to thank the participants for doing the question-and-answers sessions in English for my sake…). So instead, the plan is to do a few posts on some things which the workshop left me thinking about, some about individual papers and others about wider themes.

The first thing relates to the very interesting paper given by Warren Pezé, whom I was very pleased to see because he’s always been very friendly but by unfortunate coincidence we have only previously met when I had been in a rather grim mood (the last time, for instance, we were both in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, but I was caught up in staring with mounting frustration at the world’s tiniest and least-legible sixteenth-century copies of medieval charters). The paper was about manuscript evidence of engagement with heresy in the ninth century and its potential application to the eleventh. The reason it’s been on my mind is, well, the method is certainly good as showing what it shows, and the results are definitely interesting; but I thought there’d been a category error somewhere and I’m not sure the problem isn’t on my end.

The question Warren was addressing was this: what can manuscript evidence show us about the heresy of double-predestination, promulgated in the mid-ninth century by Gottschalk of Orbais and viciously attacked by Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims. Hincmar was one of nature’s middle-managers, and Gottschalk appears to have been a person precisely geared to get stuck in his craw: fiercely intelligent, just as stubborn, and prone to attracting trouble. When Gottschalk advanced was – very­ loosely speaking – a doctrine about salvation which stated that God predestined the elect to be saved and the damned to be, well, damned. This was a function of God’s grace, and there wasn’t really a place for good works in it. Personally, I find the actual content of the controversy a bit esoteric, although it’s been keenly scrutinised by people wanting to see Gottschalk as proto-Protestant; for the purposes of this blog post, it’s perhaps best to see it as another iteration of the eternal Christian debate about faith vs works, with Gottschalk in the ‘faith’ corner and Hincmar over by ‘works’.

For the point which is interesting here isn’t so much the content of what Gottschalk was arguing as the response to it. Gottschalk was condemned as a heretic twice, once at Mainz in 848 by Hrabanus Maurus, archbishop of Mainz (who was still holding a grudge against Gottschalk for the lengthy legal case which Gottschalk had inflicted on Hrabanus when he was abbot of Fulda and Gottschalk was trying to get out of being a monk there…) and once again at Quierzy in 849 by Hincmar. However, Gottschalk refused to accept either council’s authority and, despite being canonically condemned, and thus a heretic, continued to argue his point.

As it turns out, the manuscript evidence can show us quite a lot about this – Warren had several examples of patristic texts which had annotations in the margin along the lines of ‘aha, Gottschalk is right!’, or which had been miscopied to sound less friendly to his point, some of which appear to have been produced at a relatively low social level. So, engagement with heresy, right?

This is where I start to raise questions. Despite Gottschalk’s condemnation as a heretic, the reality of his heresy wasn’t completely clear at the time – significant church figures and intellectuals thought he was right. The prominent theologians Ratramnus of Corbie (of dog-headed men fame) and John Scotus Eriugena (‘Irish-Born’) both came down much more on Gottschalk’s side than Hincmar’s, as did Bishop Prudentius of Troyes and (to a significantly lesser extent) Abbot Lupus of Ferrières (who temporised more than coming down on one side or the other).

So for me the question is, how far were the people in Warren’s manuscripts dealing with heresy, and how far was this instead Carolingian debate culture? The debate surrounding double predestination seems to have been very nasty – but this is largely from Hincmar, Hrabanus, and Gottschalk’s perspectives. Lots of things were bound up here, but at least two of them were strong, conflicting personalities, all of which had their personal authority on the line. Outside that particular hothouse, could it be that both sides looked like points which could have been proven right, and debating which was right was not to engage with heresy, but to try and work out a yet-undefined truth?

On the other hand, I worry that later ideas about heresy are swooping in to affect this picture. Gottschalk was condemned, after all. If I’m unwilling to accept double-predestination as a ‘heresy’, have I drunk the twelfth-century Church’s Kool-Aid and so see heresy as a matter of authority and condemnation rather than a rhetorical stance? If I am arguing that Gottschalk wasn’t really a heretic because there were authoritative people who didn’t condemn him, am I drawing too clear cut a line between heresy and not-heresy? I don’t know, but as my research draws dangerously close to 1022 trial of heretics at Orléans (the first executions for heresy in the West for centuries), these questions will only become more acute…

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