Charity and Kingship: Eleventh-Century Royal Diplomas

Yesterday was going so well. Writing the last bit of written work I’ve got scheduled for while I’m still here, I polished off one section, and prepared to move onto the next. So, King Robert the Pious’ chancellor puts together a new prologue to his charters, does he? Let’s pull out the textual models of that, write about how the historiographical consensus is wrong about him and monks, and then all I need to do is spend a few days counting witness lists and I can spend my last two months in Brussels napping and playing video games.

Several hours later, I’d spent so much time staring at the damn thing that I’d most of it memorised, but textual parallels weren’t going so well.

So what this means is that today on the blog, I’ll be using it for the purest form of its intended purpose: as a sketch pad. I’m going to take this new standard prologue, read it in excruciating detail, and try and work out what it means about Robert the Pious’ kingship. First, the text:

Cum in exhibitione temporalium rerum, quas humana religio divino cultui famulando locis sanctorum et congregationibus fldelium ex devotione animi largitur, tam presentis quam perpetue vite, ut jampridem multis expertum est indiciis, solatium adquiratur, saluberrimus valde et omnibus imitabilis est hic fructus primitive virtutis, scilicet caritatis, per quam et mundi prosperatur tranquillitas et felici remuneratione eterna succedit felicitas.

Since (as has been proved by many tokens) it is in the presentation of worldly goods, which, by the soul’s devotion, human religion bestows on the places of the saints and the congregations of the faithful for the service of divine worship, that the comfort of both this life and the next is acquired, such an action is very beneficial and imitable by everyone; it is the fruit of the first of the virtues, charity, through which the peace of the world prospers and eternal happiness follows by a happy repayment.

First appearing just after 1020, this prologue is the work of a man named Baldwin, chancellor under Kings Robert the Pious and Henry I. It will go on to be the standard opening of royal documents for most of the eleventh century, so it’s quite important. To deal with it, I’ll start by doing bullet points of each of the individual words, and then pull together some overall observations at the end.

  • Exhibitio temporalium rerum: An exhibitio is literally a handout, but it’s slightly unusual in the context of royal diplomas. Usually one would expect to see a word like largitio (grant), which emphasises royal generosity. Exhibitio suggests something more public – it’s an exhibition of generosity, geddit – which does fit with a consistent theme of Robert’s reign, which is that a lot of his kingship is performed in public, before large crowds.
  • Humana religio: This is an odd one. Religio can mean religion, in the sense that we’d use it day-to-day, but it’s also reverence, and religious awe… Mostly around this time, it would be connected to words like ‘divine’ or ‘sacred’, with the first meaning predominating. Here, though, it’s clearly being used as an opposition to divinus cultus (divine worship), which has the interesting function of really stressing the mediation provided by the clergy between the human and the divine.
  • Congregationes fidelium: This is particularly so in light of the use of the word congregatio, which literally means ‘assembly’ but almost always by the early eleventh century means ‘organised group of clerics’, and – as far as I can tell – usually monks. The word congregatio derives from the phrase for ‘to flock together’, and the word for flock, grex, is almost entirely associated with groups of monks in this context.
  • Fructus primitivae virtutis – Describing royal action as motivated by caritas (usually translated as ‘charity’ but better thought of as ‘lovingkindness’) is again unusual. The reference here is to Galatians 5:22: ‘the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith’. Caritas has a long Christian history, which Guyotjeannin points out about this formula, but it’s hard to find precise textual parallels for how its described here. The closest is perhaps the eighth-century scholar Alcuin’s treatise on Virtues and Vices. He describes caritas as ‘first place in the precepts of God’: to love both God and your neighbour with every fibre of your being.
A diploma of Robert to a church in Châlons, featuring a recognisable predecessor of this formula. (Source. Turns out its a lot harder to find nice images of Capetian royal diplomas than Carolingian ones. You know, the first three Capetians don’t even have their diplomas properly edited yet.) 

Thus: it is in giving alms to religious institutions, allowing them to mediate between God and the laity, that relief is acquired in both this life and that to come. This almsgiving is the product of an internal caritas, a virtue which is necessary for both worldly and heavenly success.

               It’s not very royal. This is important, because charter prologues are usually imbued with the language of, specifically, royal majesty; but not here. Note that the whole thing is written mostly in the passive: solace ‘is acquired’, for instance. If you parce it, the element of the sentence actually acting is the animus, the soul of the individual believer. It’s therefore noticeable that almsgiving is described as ‘imitable’; it looks rather like the king is being set up not as a figure separate from his subjects, but as an example for them to follow; as a man, not as a king. Geoff Koziol has written about Robert’s self-presentation as a Christian rather than as a king; as it happens, I disagree with him about his specific example (the use of Cross monograms) – I might write about why in the near future, actually – but the idea might be applicable here…

               Well, that was a helpful exercise. Much to chew over there, but it was good to get things written down. Am I missing anything? Please let me know if you have any comments – this formula shows up so often that unlocking it is a big deal.


The Nuns of Chartres, At Last

Going down my top 10 charters last time, I mentioned that I would finally get round to telling the story of the nuns of Chartres, and so here goes. These particular charters having been bothering me for a while, and I still haven’t worked out what’s going on here. First, a translation of the act, which was charter no. 6 in the list:

I, in the name of God Liutgard, most devoted and faithful of the servants of God. Be it known to all the faithful of the orthodox and catholic Church that I myself and another Deo sacrata, named Godeleva, joined to me both in body and soul [michi tam corpore quam anima conjuncta], having made an agreement, bought a certain allod from a certain man named Otbert, wholly and entirely, whatever was left to him by both his grandfather and his great-grandfather, in the villa which is generally known as Prasville, for an agreed-upon and suitable price, to wit, in the county of Chartres; on the condition that from this day until the end of the world, it might past from his right and person into our dominion and power. This purchase was made in accordance with this condition and vow, that as long as we live, it should remain at our disposition; but after our death, it should pass and go into the power and dominion of Saint Peter, established in the suburbs of Chartres, and the brothers serving God therein, in its entirety, and without calumniation from anyone. That this charter might be believed more firmly and truly, we had it strengthened by our own hand and the hands of the faithful of God’s holy Church.

Acted publicly at Chartres.

Count Odo. Conan, count of Brittany. Landric. Arduin. Robert. Erchambald the cleric. Teduin.

Given on the 15th kalends of September [i.e. 16th August], in the 25th year of the reign of King Lothar.

That ‘joined to me both in body and soul’ is a puzzler, isn’t it? If that were Liutgard and, I don’t know, Hucbert, I’d read it as a poetic description of marriage, but here I think it’s unlikely for two reasons. First, the ‘Count Odo’ in the witness list is actually Liutgard’s son by Count Theobald the Trickster, who we’ve met before. Both these men had lots of enemies, and given how despised same-sex relations were at this time, it seems unlikely that his enemies would pass up the opportunity to criticise Liutgard were she in a prominent-enough same-sex relationship to be putting it in her charters.

The other reason is that Godeleva actually appears elsewhere at around the same time, also donating to Saint-Père de Chartres: ‘Illuminated by [Biblical precepts about the joy of giving] and other proofs of good instruction, and the flame of the Holy Spirit, I, Godeleva, and my mate [compar, a Latin word as ambiguous as ‘mate’ in English] Clementia give… a certain church which we bought… from a canon… named Gerald… to Saint Peter’. So we’re unlikely to be dealing with an elderly nun free love commune.

Saint-Père de Chartres in the Early Modern Period. Source.

Still, this is some very strong language. Fassler says that phrases such as ‘joined in both body and soul’ indicate a kinship link, and I used to think she must be right, but now I wonder whether or not something a little more interesting is going on. Liutgard describes herself and Godeleva as Deo sacrata, a type of religious women who were not strictly speaking nuns, but rather women, often high-ranking widows, who chose to live lives dedicated to God. This seems to be the case here: certainly between them Liutgard, Godeleva and Clementia have cash to throw around and spend on their own salvation.

More than this, though, Godeleva’s language in that second document seems to imply that she perceived herself as perhaps a visionary, ‘illuminated by the flame of the Holy Spirit’. Equally, the use of terms like compar suggests a closeness between the women here which is hard to parallel from other charters in this region. So I wonder if we are not perhaps dealing a semi-communal but non-formalised small female religious community within Chartres: a group of high-status religious women bound together by an unusually intense piety to do acts of charitable giving.

There is another option: these charters are preserved in the cartulary of Saint-Père de Chartres, which was written in the twelfth century by a monk named Paul, who was not above forging documents to better establish his abbey’s claims to land. This does not necessarily make things less odd: instead of a tenth-century property-magnate prayer group, we could be dealing with a twelfth-century monk’s imagining of same…

Anyway, this whole knot still puzzles me somewhat. What do you all think?

What Counts As Precedent? Royal Authority over Episcopal Elections

During their heyday, the control that the predecessors of the Carolingian family as kings of the Franks, the Merovingian dynasty, exercised over the choice of bishops within their kingdoms had been quite substantial, both in practice and in theory. In 549, for instance, the council of Orléans had legislated that no-one could become bishop ‘without the will of the king, along with an election by the clergy and people’; and by early medieval standards you can’t say fairer than that. (There was also a long tradition of conciliar statements during this period which were opposed to royal influence in episcopal elections, but they seem to have had less impact in practice.) These conciliar decrees stuck around – the MGH edition is made up of no fewer than eleven manuscripts, which given that someone like, say, Flodoard survives in about three is a pretty generous distribution.

               Consequently, looking at things over the long term, it is fair to say that whatever was happening in the late- and post-Carolingian period, it’s part of an ongoing fluctuation of royal control over bishoprics which won’t actually become overwhelmingly dominant until the Early Modern period. That said, one thing which has been striking me lately is how this longer tradition seems to be ignored by tenth-century figures.

               In 920, a dispute erupted over the bishopric of Liège. A cleric named Hilduin, supported by the ruler of Lotharingia, Gislebert, took over the see with support of Henry the Fowler, king of Germany and against the rule of this blog’s old friend and Best King Ever, Charles the Simple. In response, Charles summoned a council to judge Hilduin and impose his own candidate Richer, and to explain his reasoning he sent a round letter to the bishops of his realm. The claims made in Charles’ favour during the course of this dispute have been called a ‘high point of royal absolutism in control over the Church’, and this letter is no exception. Charles calls Hilduin out, citing ‘the book of royal capitularies, which says that “if anyone presumes to a dignity they have not earned from a prince or just lord, let them be considered a sacrilege.”’ Among other things, this seems to equate bishoprics with other honores the king could bestow, which is quite a spectacular claim.

               What’s interesting here, though, is that it comes from the capitulary collection of Benedict Levita, a ninth-century composition. Looking at the authorities which Charles (or the person writing in his name) cites to justify the king’s position, a pattern emerges. For one thing, virtually everything cited is actually a forgery from the Dionysian Collection of canons; but taking them at face value, most of what is cited falls into three categories: Roman church councils (Nicaea, Chalcedon, an African council), Late Antique papal letters, and Carolingian-era capitulary collections. What’s doubly interesting is what each type of source is cited to justify. The Roman councils are cited against the crime of simony, and most of the papal letters and Martin of Braga against stealing Church property. The big thesis statement about royal control comes from Benedict Levita. Merovingian canons are conspicuous by their absence, be they never so useful in this case.

               This seems to say something interesting about what Charles’ court considered to be authoritative. When faced with a situation where it needed to make a strong statement about royal authority, it looked towards the traditions of something which was very definitely from its own political culture, not from the Merovingian period. This in turn implies that, whatever one can say about long-term fluctuations in royal authority, Charles perceived himself as doing something that, if not new, exactly, was at least specifically Carolingian.

888 And The Dynastic Crisis Which Wasn’t

Sorry about the lack of posts last week – I was on my way to one conference in Cork having just attended one in Canterbury. I’m back home in Brussels now, though, so this little moment of respite from your drab, wretched lives can once more take up its customary position.

The Canterbury conference provided the opportunity to vent a rant which has been building up for several years now. The end of the Carolingian Empire is usually ascribed to the ‘dynastic crisis’ of 888, when the Carolingian family ran out of legitimate, adult males to be king, and a gourmet selection of new, non-Carolingian, kings emerged. Thing is (to put it as bluntly as possible): I don’t think there’s anything ‘dynastic’ about this dynastic crisis. Carolingian legitimism – the idea that the Carolingian family was specifically owed the crown by virtue of its being the royal family – was either non-existent or the view of fringe weirdos.

Let’s confine ourselves simply to two of the sources most often pointed to as evidence for the legitimacy problem which affected the new kings by virtue of their not being Carolingian. First, Regino of Prüm. Regino wrote his Chronicon in the early tenth century, and here’s how he describes the events of 888:

‘After the death [of Emperor Charles the Fat], the kingdoms which had been under his rule, as though they did not have a legitimate heir, dissolved into pieces, and did not wait for a natural lord, but created kings for themselves from their own entrails.’ [source]

‘Legitimate heir’, ‘natural lord’ – sounds like Carolingian legitimism here, right? Well, not so much. In 887, as Regino describes it, the leading men of Charles’ realm had overthrown him and made his illegitimate nephew Arnulf of Carinthia ruler in his stead. Regino is more-or-less a supporter of Arnulf, and the reason that he talks about natural lords and legitimate heirs is not because Arnulf is a Carolingian, but because he’s already been made king! There’s a ‘natural lord’ because a duly-designated king already exists – and it is noticeable that when the new kings proffer due submission to him as their overlord, Regino starts presenting them as legitimate. Their dynastic affiliation doesn’t change, but his presentation of them does – whatever’s going on here, it’s not dynastic.

The second source is a letter from Archbishop Fulk of Rheims seeking the aid of Arnulf in overthrowing the West Frankish king Odo on behalf of this blog’s favourite, Charles the Simple. Fulk refers to Odo as ‘not a member of the royal family’, and says that he ‘chose to have for his king he… who was from the royal bloodline [i.e. Charles the Simple]’. This is Carolingian legitimism here, but what’s interesting is that it appears to be fringe weirdness. Fulk’s professions of loyalty to Charles are somewhat disingenuous. In 888, he hadn’t supported Charles – or even Arnulf – but his own relative Guy of Spoleto, who became king of Italy, and whom Fulk had invited to become king in the West without any particular success. Fulk clearly indicates that his readers knew this, because he fills a good half the letter with rather weak justifications for why he did this, and it’s clear from context that what he refers to as the slanders and lies surrounding him at Arnulf’s court are in fact the well-justified scepticism of people whose memories stretch back longer than five years.

Fulk, it seems, disliked Odo intensely. He spent most of his reign in rebellion against him on any pretext, and it looks like his support for Charles was yet another one of these. (There’s more to his rebellion than personal dislike, of course, but it doesn’t detract from the main point.) It’s worth saying that his arguments don’t seem to have convinced many people – Arnulf didn’t join the war on Charles’ side, and Fulk’s party was consistently outmatched and defeated.

Carolingian legitimism, then, did exist, but its influence doesn’t seem to have been very great. Viewing 888 as this massive, seismic shift in the politics of Frankish Europe is somewhat misleading – in everything except which womb the king had come out of, the kingdom of Odo and that of the man reigning ten years before him, Louis the Stammerer, were basically similar. The imposition of later ideas about royal succession – and royal families – onto 888 has meant that historians have spent centuries seeing a gap where there isn’t one.

Magnates and Elections, or were there West Frankish ‘Princely Churches’?

Well, I’m now back from Paris, and the usual stately progression of Thursday posts can resume. For a couple of weeks now, in and around manuscripts and actually medieval history, I’ve been trying to do some comparative reading about kinship and patronage networks and their relationship with what you might loosely term ‘recruitment’. The reason for this perhaps unusual choice in recreational literature goes back to that question of the Reichskirche we looked at a few months ago. One of the points which has subsequently been raised in response to that was the question of how much control of the church is simply a feature of politics in general. This seemed fair enough, so I’ve been looking at how far the great West Frankish magnates controlled the bishoprics in their spheres of influence.

The tomb of Arnulf the Bad of Bavaria, whom I mentioned in the last post in this context… (source)

Turns out, if you read about this, the answer people give is ‘yeah, duh’. If you ask why people are saying this, though, direct evidence is in most cases non-existent (and I’d argue in a lot of the cases it exists it doesn’t say what people think it does, but that’s another story…) so it rests on inference from indirect evidence. So the question became, what counts as good grounds for inference?

Hence why I was reading about eighteenth-century German elections, specifically Carola Lipp’s article on local elections in Esslingen, a large town in southwest Germany. Esslingen was reasonably significant, but its council elections were not subject to any particular degree of high-political interference: the (in this case) duke of Württemberg was not imposing his own candidates onto the town government. Instead, the people who got chosen seem to have had strong local ties, usually kinship ones. Alternatively – particularly amongst the artisanal class – the key political bond appears to have been the guild. This fits with what one might assume based on simple common sense: all other things being equal, the choice of local officials in a situation where recruitment is based on the decisions of a relatively small group of locals is probably going to be based on who-you-know, and that mean family or institutional ties. After all, if you know someone from family gatherings or guild meetings, you have a reasonable idea of their character, resources, competence, and whether or not they can be made to owe you favours.

Esslingen today (source)

This fits neatly onto earlier medieval bishoprics. To take as an example my pet area of Tours, between about 920 and 1050, there were eight archbishops. Of those, we know nothing about the background of one. Of the other seven, three were from the local nobility and one from the regional nobility. Four had held positions of importance in the abbey of Saint-Martin – the dominant institution in Tours at this time – one in Tours cathedral, and one more can be tied to their predecessor’s ecclesiastical networks in a somewhat indirect way. In short, Tours looks awfully like Esslingen: the overwhelming majority of the archbishops have strong family and/or institutional ties to the see, with the latter being particularly important.

You’d never guess this from the literature, though. I’m going to single out Boussard’s article on the Neustrian episcopate as a particularly egregious example of the sort of thing I was complaining about at the start: he gives the family and institutional background of each of the archbishops, and also spends a few lines speculating about which prince appointed them. Is there any evidence for this? Is there heck. Not only is there no direct evidence, there is – as the above indicates – no reason to think that anything other than local dynamics are at play here.

My research is showing that this is reasonably typical. How this relates to specifically royal authority over the Church is something I will probably blog about at another time. For the moment, can we please stop saying that episcopal elections are being influenced by the great nobles unless there’s a reason to say it?

Blogging at the BnF 1: Aides-Memoires in Eleventh-Century Tours

There’s nothing like Paris in the spring: swearing at a microfilm reader because the zoom function won’t focus properly. Yes, this month your humble blogger is in one of his least favourite major world cities, working his way through a fearsome array of Early Modern charter collections, and discovering that, whilst there are people out there who care about the endless undated chart-notices of dispute settlements from eleventh-century western France, he’s not one of them… In any case, what that means is that this month the blog will be doing something different. Rather than the usual stately progress of one post every Thursday, I’ll be putting something up every time I find an unpublished document interesting enough to blog about. (Of course, if it’s really interesting I might hold it back for publication down the line…)

The first thing to go up, then, is something I came across in MS Lat 5441(4), a collection of the charters of Marmoutier made in the late seventeenth century(ish). The charters of the two major abbeys of the city of Tours, Saint-Martin and Marmoutier, are in a fairly chaotic state, and there are all kinds of things from them that have never seen the light of print. This charter, dating from 1044, is one of them.

Marmoutier today; I believe it’s a girls’ school, actually…

How do I know it dates from 1044? Because when describing when the transaction took place, it begins ‘this is the exchange which took place when Count Geoffrey captured the city of Tours’. This phrase is actually the only dating element, but it’s relatively common in Marmoutier practice: there are several examples of Marmoutier scribes dating charters by newsworthy events, from Hugh Capet destroying a local fortification to King Lothar invading Lotharingia.

What’s particularly interesting about this is the lack of precision. As someone who’s recently lost several bets to his colleagues about when such-and-such a song was a number 1 hit (I could have sworn that Pretty Fly For A White Guy was no. 1 in 2000…), ‘the year when event x occurred’ is no guarantee that you’ll get the right year. But of course, for these purposes, you don’t need exactitude: it doesn’t matter exactly when the transaction took place, so long as you can say ‘oh yeah, when Count Geoffrey took over, I remember that land sale…’ There’s a kind of ‘memory palace’ effect at work here, associating something big with something small so that the one prompts the recollection of the other. It’s a neat little trick to ensure that your transaction can enjoy a few decades of permanence, as long as there are people around to remember it…

The transcription of the document follows; obviously it’s not a formal edition, but if you want the text, here it is:

BnF MS Lat 5441(4)

Fol. 57:

In illa rerum conuersione et mutabilium commutatio=/ne quae facta est cum comes GAUSFREDUS TU=/RONORUM Ciuitatem cepisset aliorum ad alios/ incolarum ad extraneous possessiones & hereditates Deo/ cuique iusta tribuente, transierunt. Unde factum est/ vt prefati comitis satelles quidam nomine andreas/ cognomento ARRIBATUS omnia que fuerant/ Rainaldi IUUENIS civis olim Turonici sortiretur/ Sed quoniam mentis humane auditas limites de=/dignatur habendi et concessa fastidiens in non con=/cessa caeco ruit impetu ambitu, miles ille in terram/ quamdam Sancti Martini Maioris Monasterii, Sapalicum nomine/ quam naturaliter et antiquitus solidam quietamque/

Fol. 58:

Tenebat, violentas inferre manus moliens, totam/ prorsus sibi illam quibusdam quod est ejus generis ho/minum, occasionum preiudiciis vindicare nitebatur./ loci autem Illius monachi conatibus iniustis ob=/viare jus suus reclamando illius iniusticiam ra=/tione convincendo, querelas iustas apud memoratum/ comitem persepe deponendo, stagebant. Tandem/ pars utraque concordie favens in hanc hommuni/ decreto venere sententiam, ut permissu domini/ alberti abbatis maioris monasterii fratrum dimidiam in/ ipsa terra consistentis luci partem, reliqua omnia/ Sancto Martino sicut antea Libere possidente, invita/ duntaxat sua pretaxatus andreas possideant, ita ta=/men ut neque vendat neue donet, neque dissipet quic/quam de sua illa parte, sed tantum ad sua necessaria/ id est ad se calefaciendum vel domum suam, vel vineas/ meliorandas inde accipiat et cetera conseruet & de=/fendat, post mortem uero eius id ipsum in sancti Martini/ dominium redeat, luci uidelicet pars concessa, et ut ali/quam beneficii huius gratiam mercedem maioris mo=/nasterii c [space of around 11 characters, presumably ‘comes gaufridus’ or something] retribueret, sepefato sancto post suum/ itidem decessum x agripennos vinearum dedit, ad locum/ qui dicitur Monasteriolum et II. pratorum ad mem=/breolam. Hec omnia asensu & auctoramento/ comitis Gauzfr{e}idi (e crossed out w/ i) et Vxoris eius comitisse AGNE=/TIS. facta sunt prima[?]tibus ipsis et hugone archiepiscopo/ VESANTIAE, et domno abbate ALBERTO, aliis/que quamplurimis clericalis monastici laïcalis/ ordinis, quorum aliquos firmitatis gratia huic sub=/scripsimus noticiae.

3 cols:

Col. 1:

Domnus Airardu

Walterius precentor

Petrus canonicus

Warnerius maior

Col. 2:

Rainaldus maior.

Ricardus maior.

Rotbertus maior.

Otbertus senior.

Col. 3:

otbertus iunior

Arnulfus malus finis

Rotbertus caput lupi

Martinus furnerius

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 lams, 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…)