On the Disappearance of West Frankish Church Councils

*IMPORTANT NOTE* As you’ll have noticed, I’ve changed the title of this blog. Being in Schwäbisch Hall, I’ve had reason to talk with people about my work, and in doing so have realised that the old title was really hard to Google. Hopefully now it’ll be easier; plus the new title has the happy benefit of better explaining what the blog is about. Anyway, on with the subject.

As half-a-dozen-odd huge volumes of Latin show, there were a lot of Church councils – meetings of bishops and other ecclesiastical figures to determine doctrine and practice – in the eighth- and ninth-century Carolingian empire. These were important occasions: lots of flash, lots of pomp, and lots of opportunities for bishops to admonish the ruler about how he should rule. It’s therefore not surprising to discover that a lot of ideas about the theory underlying the royal and episcopal offices comes through largely in documents from major Church councils.

In the East Frankish kingdom, this tradition continued into the tenth century, and councils such as that of Hohenaltheim in 916 or Ingelheim in 948 are fairly well-known by historians. However, in the West, the tradition ends. The council of Trosly in 909 is the last West Frankish council we have any texts from, and they seem to have stopped entirely from around 930. Why this should have been the case is a question which is increasingly preoccupying me.

An obvious answer to suggest is that of violence: the late 920s also happens to be a time period when the West Frankish kingdom descends into the civil war which will occupy it until about 950 or so, with aftershocks until the late 960s. Maybe the political situation was too disordered to bother holding councils?

This strikes me as unlikely. In the East Frankish kingdom, a comparable, if admittedly shorter, period of civil war in the 910s under King Conrad I produced the aforementioned council of Hohenaltheim, which not only brought together the kingdom’s bishops, but provided a more exalted definition of royal authority than ever – Conrad was referred to as a Christus! Besides, under Ralph, West Frankish councils continued to meet, even if we don’t have documents from them – the last one on record met during the siege of the fortress of Chateau-Thierry in 933. It seems to be in the reign of King Louis IV that the change really takes place.

What I think may be happening is that we’re seeing an honest-to-God Anglo-Saxon influence on West Frankish kingship. Despite its political importance, despite the close ties between West Francia and England, and despite the fact that Louis IV spent his entire pre-royal life in England, after years of searching I have yet to find concrete evidence of Anglo-Saxon practices affecting Louis’ kingship – but here may perhaps be such a thing. As in the Frankish realm, eighth- and ninth-century England had a tradition of church councils such as those held at Clofesho (distressingly, despite the importance of the councils held there, we don’t actually know for sure where Clofesho was…). But by the late ninth century, this tradition had ended, or at least transformed. Not currently having access to a research library I want to be cautious here, but it looks as though the questions which had previously dealt with in Church councils was now dealt with in royal assemblies. This is not to draw a hard-and-fast dividing line between the two types of meetings; but the change in emphasis might have been significant in terms of having different corporate traditions.

If Louis had been raised in such an environment, his ideas of how to deal with significant churchmen may not have involved the calling of capital-C Church Councils; certainly, he didn’t call any in his reign. (Ingelheim in 948, in which he was involved, clearly came out of East Frankish political practice.) Such a change in practice may have led to the changes in mentality that we can see in the latter part of the tenth century. But that’ll be the next post…


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