Storm-Raisers and Blood-Drinkers: The Many Sides of Agobard of Lyon

Someone forgot to pay off the storm-raisers (source)

People from the past, particularly the very distant past, often appear to lack the complexity of their modern counterparts. That is of course when we can see those people at all. The names of the vast majority of the human beings who inhabited the medieval past are entirely unknown to us, and their lives are visible only in the aggregate. Even among those people we can identify by name, most are just that, names in memorial books or witness lists. But looking at the tiny minority we actually know something about as individuals – a category dominated by high aristocrats and religious specialists – most of them come across as straightforward types or characters, such as the wicked queen, the pious nobleman or the stubborn cleric, to list a few possibilities.

This is of course generally an artefact of the aforementioned lack of material. There’s a limit to how complex someone can be when their historical record can be summarised on a sheet of A4. It also reflects the nature of those sources. Even apparently private letters were often intended for large audiences, and therefore don’t include the more intimate reminiscences that can allow us to catch the human soul at war with itself. Medieval writing genres encouraged a tendency to present their subjects within the mould of previous models, so that princes and prelates often resemble their celebrated forebears. For this reason, I always get interested when I seem to stumble across the contradictions and complexities in a medieval person’s behaviour that seem to give us more of a hint at their personality. This is even more the case when it means that I get to talk about sky-pirates, as is the case today.

In around 815 or 816, probably in the vicinity of Lyon, Bishop Agobard (d. 840) encountered a curious sight. He found four captives in chains, three men and a woman, who were about to be stoned by an angry crowd. These prisoners stood accused of an unusual crime. According to the crowd, they were cloud-sailors from the distant land of Magonia, who sailed their ships in the sky, using flight to steal crops from the fields. They were enabled by storm-raisers, people who could make high winds and create hail and thunder. The cloud-sailors would pay the storm-raisers to help them carry off the grain via a mechanism that remains somewhat obscure to me but was presumably clear to Agobard and the furious mob. The unlucky individuals in chains had apparently fallen off their ships and were now fair game for the angered crowd. The bishop had to intervene to rescue them from their fate.

Agobard doesn’t specify precisely what he said in order to rescue these captives. But elsewhere in the same text where he talks about this incident, he gives us some sense of the type of reasoning he used to argue against belief in storm-raisers. This text is a curious work snappily entitled A Book against the Stupid Belief of the Common People on Hail and Thunder. Who the audience for this material was is a little unclear, although I like the idea that it was originally a sermon subsequently punched up to be read in more intellectual circles.

As Agobard is our only source for the events he describes, we have to be a little careful about assuming how much of this actually took place. Another reason for caution here is that Agobard may also have been motivated by seeing off competition as much as by saving souls. He complains in On Hail and Thunder that people have been giving the storm-raisers tithes that should have been going to the church. That said, I’m more interested in how he constructed his arguments than whether the confrontation actually happened or whether this was ultimately a battle over tithes (proof of the existence of cloud-sailors on the other hand would be very much appreciated).

So how did Agobard seek to disprove the existence of storm-raisers? As we might expect, there’s a fair amount of appealing to authority going on. Belief in storm-raising, he says, ‘should be verified by the authority of Holy Scripture’. Such an approach in Agobard’s mind was not irrational, indeed he writes:

‘Because this error, which in this area possesses the minds of almost everyone, ought to be judged by reason, let us offer up the witness of Scripture through which the matter can be judged.’

[Translated by Dutton].

Agobard makes reference to the story of Job, which makes clear that the weather is only under the control of God, and inaccessible to human weather-workers.

But Agobard also had other means of arguing his case. The first of these was personal experience, or the lack thereof. He observed that despite all the stories he had been told of storm-raisers ‘we have never yet heard anyone claim that they themselves had seen these things.’ Sorting through all the stories of the ‘my mate’s oldest cousin’s girlfriend who lives in Canada’ variety, Agobard actually tracked down and interviewed someone he was told had seen storm-raising in person. Possibly intimidated by the bishop, this man ‘declared that what he said was indeed true and he named the person, the time and the place, but nevertheless confessed that he himself had not been present at that time.’

The absence of witnesses was for Agobard a damning point against stories of storm-raisers. The bishop also sought to apply logic to the subject. If the farmers were willing to pay storm-raisers to protect their crops from storms, why didn’t they also ask them to bring rain in times of drought? Such a task should be straightforward to any manipulator of the weather. For Agobard, the fact that ‘you do not do that, nor did you ever see or hear of anyone doing it’ was an indication that not only did the storm-raisers have no real power, but that everyone really knew it.

Agobard is probably at his most sympathetic when he describes a nasty conspiracy theory that swept through Lyon in 810. A cattle murrain was afflicting the Carolingian world at the time, and people blamed Prince Grimoald IV of Benevento (r.806-817) because of his hostility to Charlemagne. It was said that the prince ‘had sent people with a dust which they were to spread on the fields, mountains, meadows, and wells and that it was because of the dust they spread that the cattle died.’ The consequences for anyone suspected of being a Beneventan agent, presumably mostly foreigners and other outsiders, were dire. Agobard describes people being captured and thrown into rivers to drown with plaques listing their crime around their necks. Most baffling to the bishop were the number of the accused who broke down and confessed to deeds they couldn’t possibly have committed, an all-too-common phenomenon of the twentieth century that he attributed to the Devil.

 The bishop challenged this conspiracy theory by attacking its logistical implications. He wrote that those who believed the story:

‘did not rationally consider how such dust could be made, how it could kill only cattle and not other animals, how it could be carried and spread over such a vast territory by humans. Nor did they consider whether there were enough Beneventan men and women, old and young, to go out from their region in wheeled carts loaded down with dust.’

In his search for the truth, Agobard combined analysis of relevant written authorities, personal testimony (or lack thereof) from witnesses and logical argument. In doing so he was drawing upon the skillset necessary of a bishop who would be called to sit in judgement in court cases. In other works, Agobard took aim at trials by ordeal, challenging their use in criminal justice as irrational.

Thus far, Agobard has played the role of the voice of wisdom. But what I find intriguing about this whole affair is the apparent contrast with the other Agobard we find elsewhere in his works. This Agobard is an altogether more unsettling figure, defined by his views on Jews and the campaign he waged against them in the 820s. In an age where Jews were largely tolerated in the Frankish world, the fact that Agobard wrote at least five tracts attacking Jews in the space of about five years marks him out as unusual in his own time. It put him on the wrong side of Emperor Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) and his officials, who passed legislation protecting Jews.

This Agobard comes across as very different to the rational rescuer of unlucky cloud-sailors. The archbishop repeatedly names Jews ‘children of the devil’. His claim that local officials in Lyon were so in hoc to Jewish interests that they had moved the market day from Saturday to Sunday in order to respect their Sabbath looks frankly ludicrous, as does his belief that Jews sold Christians adulterated goods such as wine mixed with dirt. Agobard is also quick to share questionable stories about Christian children being kidnapped by Jews and sold as slaves to the Muslims of al-Andalus.

It’s very tempting for me at this point to call it a day, having demonstrated the diversity that could exist within one medieval mind. But the more one reads Agobard, the more one sees the conspiracy debunker and the anti-Semite as part of a coherent whole. In reality, Agobard drew upon the same rhetorical tricks and forensic techniques for the latter campaign that he did for the former. He read widely, quoting earlier authorities such as Jerome and previous law. His work suggests some familiarity with material resembling the Toledoth Jeshu and the Sefer Yetzirah, hinting that he had either read texts from a Jewish milieu or had spoken with those who had. Agobard’s writings generally indicate that he had either talked to Jews or to former members of the community, and the stories he tells of Jewish doctors drinking blood looks like a misconstrued interpretation of the practice of smelling menstrual blood for symptoms of ill-health. This is not to say that his animus against Jews was in any way rational. Rather it is to observe that the weapons by which Agobard protected the afflicted outsiders accused of being cloud-sailors and dust-spreaders were the same ones he used to attempt to persecute another vulnerable minority.

The apparent contrast between the two Agobards is a product of a perspective grounded in the present day. By his own standards, there was nothing incoherent about his positions on cloud-sailors and Jews. Both emerged from his concern for the promotion of a Christian society, untrammelled by superstition and with non-Christian minorities very firmly in their place. Placed together, the two sides reveal an Agobard who was brilliantly intelligent and determined to use that intelligence to improve the world, and was frequently frustrated when the world refused to recognise his cleverness, fall into line and treat him with the respect he felt he deserved. Stubborn, proud, passionate, and possessed of little patience for fools, the Agobard who we encounter in these texts is a fascinating man, who wanted to save the little people, but who did not necessarily feel much affection or respect for them.

Examining the apparent contrast between Agobard the enlightened defender of the victims of mob superstition and Agobard the anti-Semite serves as a useful reminder that if we want to understand people from the medieval past, we need to do it (1) holistically, and (2) on their own terms. Any portrait of Agobard that doesn’t capture both of these facets of his thought is liable to misunderstand him. When we understand him on his own terms, we can see that what initially looks like contradiction actually makes sense as a thematic whole. We have to remember Agobard protecting the innocent from the crowd and spreading lies about Jews all at the same time, because they emerged from the same place in his personality and training.

Agobard was in many ways an unusual man. Certainly, his campaigns against Jews marked him out in his context. Although we can say that the way he argued and many of the concerns that motivated his writing emerged from his education, others from his background worked in very different ways and for very different causes. Drawing conclusions on the way people in ninth-century Europe thought based solely on his writing would be a misleading thing to do. Nonetheless, although he did not define his age, he was defined by it, and if we want to trace the contours of his mind, we must understand him as an inhabitant of the ninth century.

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