Helgaud of Fleury, Buzzkill

Medieval humour doesn’t often tend to be all that funny. There are a few exceptions – Liutprand of Cremona springs to mind, although that story is definitely NSFW – but in general there aren’t many jokes in my period, or at least laugh-out-loud ones. There are various reasons this is so. Take this example from the Historia Normannorum of Dudo of Saint-Quentin:

‘The bishops said to Rollo, who didn’t want to kiss the king’s feet, “Anyone receiving such a gift [as Normandy] should want to kiss the king’s foot”. He replied: “I will never bend my knees to anyone else’s, nor kiss anyone’s foot.” And so, compelled by the Franks’ requests, he commanded one of his men to kiss the king’s foot. He immediately grabbed the king’s foot and brought it to his mouth, remaining standing to kiss it, and so threw the king on his back. And thus a huge gale of laughter arose amongst the people. Otherwise, King Charles and Duke Robert and the counts and magnates, bishops and abbots, swore an oath of the catholic faith to the patrician Rollo…’


And so it goes on.

I’ve tried to be as generous as possible with my translation here, but there’s several ways in which this isn’t funny. First, the phrase ‘the king’s foot’ (pedum regis) is repeated too many times. Second, Dudo adds the crowd’s laughter as an eleventh-century laugh track. Third, the timing’s off: with the ‘otherwise’ (caeterum), Dudo moves quickly onto something a bit more dignified.

Today, though, I think I may have found an example of someone sabotaging a joke deliberately. First, however, I need to introduce our protagonists. Gerbert of Rheims, also called Gerbert of Aurillac, was a monk and bishop of the latter part of the tenth century. He was famed for his learning, being the man who introduced the abacus to Europe, and ran a school at Rheims with a number of illustrious pupils. Politically, he was a close associate of Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims, and, as his letter collections reveal, spent much of his time brown-nosing the Ottonian rulers of Germany. When Adalbero died, Gerbert sought the see of Rheims for himself – but the new king, Hugh Capet, gave it to a man named Arnulf instead. When Arnulf took the wrong side in the civil war which followed Hugh’s accession, Gerbert tried to take advantage and gain the see for himself. He did become archbishop, but Arnulf’s deposition proved hugely controversial, and Gerbert was out on his ear after a few years. He then became important in the court of the young emperor Otto III, becoming first Archbishop of Ravenna and then pope under the name Sylvester II. He died in 1003, leaving behind a decidedly mixed reputation.


The other man is Helgaud of Fleury. Helgaud was a monk at the abbey of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, AKA Fleury, in the early-to-mid eleventh century. Fleury was one of the most important monasteries in the kingdom, and under Abbot Abbo in the early eleventh century, it became both a centre of learning and a focal point for a kind of church politics which were, if not actively radical, at least quite controversial. In particular, Abbo pushed for the exemption of his monastery from episcopal oversight, and in the process managed to spectacularly piss off several important bishops. In the 1030s, Helgaud wrote a biography of King Robert the Pious, and, as Robert was a pupil of Gerbert’s, he included a brief synopsis of Gerbert’s life:

‘This Gerbert, having received the archbishopric of Rheims by the gift of King Hugh owing to his world-renowned knowledge, adorned it splendidly with everything a church needs, although not for very long. Having abandoned that bishopric, he was made governor of Ravenna (rector Ravennatium) by Otto III; from whence he quickly advanced to the apostolic see of St. Peter. He carried out many good works, chiefly in giving alms, which he took care to do while he lived faithfully. Among other things, he made a joke – which he found very funny – about the letter R: “Gerbert rose from R to R, and then became pope of R”, clearly indicating by this that the three bishoprics which he received, ruled and held after professing a monastic life under the rule of St. Benedict, all begin with the sign of this letter R.’

Left to its own devices, that would be a reasonably amusing joke; not hilarious, I admit, but enough to raise a wan smile. Helgaud, however, utterly kills it by over-explanation – I mean, thanks Helgaud, we’d worked out what he meant by the three Rs.

Thinking on it, though, I think he’s doing it on purpose. Helgaud clearly doesn’t want to criticise him too explicitly, but he also evidently doesn’t like Gerbert all that much. He specifies that Gerbert didn’t stay in Rheims very long and that he abandoned (derelicto) the see. He says that he carried out many good works, and then, as an example, gives us a mildly-humorous play on words, painting Gerbert in the process as one of those annoying people who laughs at their own jokes: it might be funny enough, but it’s not going to make anyone laetus et hilaris.

I think the clue here is that he says that Gerbert held three bishoprics after being made a monk. Precisely what the criticism here is I’m unsure of – maybe that, as a monk, he was too embroiled in worldly affairs (Abbo of Fleury once described the difference between monks and other clerics as being between the better and the best); maybe that he was an inconstant pastor of his sees. In any case, this sentence seems to indicate that Helgaud had some kind of ideological opposition to Gerbert. He may not have been able to do much about it without it reflecting badly on the king whose life he was writing, but at least he could have his own little revenge: taking a joke which Gerbert was clearly very proud of and ruining it for posterity.


*(not the original one, but it was definitely Open Source when I used it the first time…)


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