Charter a Week 44: Late Carolingian Absolutism

…so, I might be cheating again this week. For the second instalment in a row, we’re covering a charter I’m already in honest-to-goodness peer-reviewed print about; this time in the Journal of the Medieval Low Countries. This time, though, I’ve spoken less about it on the blog, so let’s start from the beginning.

Last week, we saw Charles and the prominent noble Gislebert of Lotharingia have a spectacular falling out. Gislebert raised the standards of rebellion, and one of the things he did at this time was to try and install a friendly bishop at Liège. The recently deceased bishop Stephen had been one of Charles’ most consistent supporters, and so there was a zero-sum game involved here. As for what happened, we have a remarkable and almost unique round letter from Charles explaining the events which have taken place, and why they are so bad:

MGH Conc. 6.1, no. 2 (920)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. The illustrious man Charles, by gracious favour of divine clemency king of the Franks, to all archbishops and bishops established in the realm committed to Us by God, peace and health from the same God eternal.

Cap I: Because We cannot possible enumerate the benefits of divine favour which We have known from Him from the cradle, therefore ‘shall my mouth speak the praise of the Lord and bless His holy name for ever and ever’ [Psalm 145:21]. Concerning the which, because (receiving Our just desserts) We have endured many adversities, We believe that this has been permitted to Us not to earn Our damnation but for the sake of reconciliation with Him, so that having been taught a lesson by His scourges We might learn to beware the perverse and obey His will in everything. As you know from many sources, some of Our followers deviated from the loyalty due to Us and tried to snatch from Us life and realm. They went to Our enemies and befriended them, and desired that they should give them the goods and bishoprics of Our realm. Leaving, therefore, many things unmentioned, We will make manifest to Your Sanctity of one of these men who poured into Our guts a serpent’s venom; that is, Hilduin, who acted against royal power and against the words of the Apostle, where it is said ‘Fear God, honour the king’ [1 Peter 2:17] and ‘whoever resists the authority resists against what God has instituted’ [Romans 13:2], ‘for there is no power except from God’ [Romans 13:1]; and against the words of David the harpist, who said to the Lord ‘You have set men over our heads’ [Psalm 66:12]. He crossed the Rhine to Our enemies, paying little heed to the oaths he had sworn to Us. Casting them over his shoulder, he asked for the bishopric of the church of Tongres [i.e. Liège] from Our enemy Henry [the Fowler, the East Frankish king], and usurped it to his own damnation against every statute both of the holy Fathers and of the kings, that is, Our ancestors. This is what the book of royal capitularies says concerning such matters: ‘If anyone should presume to a dignity he does not merit from a prince or just lord, he has committed sacrilege’. The blessed Gregory says ‘Just as he who refuses the invitation and flees the summons should be brought to the sacred altars, he who seeks office voluntarily and ruthlessly thrusts themselves forward should certainly be repelled. For what will he who struggles to reach a higher position do except diminish it by his gain? Why does he not consider that this blessing will become a curse for him who is promoted in such a way that he becomes a heretic?’

Cap. 2: When certain pestiferous men, as We said above, strayed from Our fidelity, We assembled 16 bishops and archbishops of Our realm, and no small number of magnates, margraves, counts and grandees, so that by their counsel, authority and virtue, We might resist such madness. It was found that new cankers should be severed and healed with new cures: by episcopal authority and the ordinance of the sacred canons, they should be driven from the company and consort of Christians. Hilduin united himself with their presumption and abominable tyranny, and gave Henry and his magnates many pounds of gold and silver. He not only knowingly joined in with them, but also, using the treasures of the church of Liège which he, instinct with the Devil, had snatched away and plundered, acted with threats and terrors to have himself consecrated as bishop by Hermann, archbishop of the city of Cologne, through the violence of Henry and his followers. Indeed, if Hermann had refused – as the venerable archbishop told Us later in the presence of many people – he would have taken his life and the goods of his church, butchered all its dependents and laid waste their goods. And so he consecrated him without the authority of legitimate precedents, as he himself has hitherto testified, but only because he was compelled by great terrors and dire cruelties. Concerning this, it is found in the Council of Nicaea: ‘If any clergyman is discovered to have communicated with an excommunicate, let him be deprived of communion like a rule-breaker. This is widely known from many councils and royal capitularies concerning excommunicates.

Cap. 3: Hilduin also invaded, pillaged and stole the goods of the aforesaid bishopric in Our realm at will, against the statue of Pope Anacletus, in which it is said: ‘St. Anacletus, who was ordained a priest by Peter the apostle, and was later made his successor as bishop of the see of Rome, with all the world’s priests, judged: “Whoever steals anything from their father or mother has committed murder. Our father is certainly God; our mother is the Church, who renews us in baptism. Therefore, whoever snatches away, steals, or defrauds the properties of Christ and the Church is a murderer, and will be regarded as a murderer in the sight of the Just Judge. He who snatches away the property of his neighbour is iniquitous; he who steals the property or goods of the Church has committed sacrilege, and should be judged as a sacrilege”’. 

Cap. 4: Finally, with insatiable greed, Hilduin carried off the treasures of the church of Liège and the palace of Aachen, which had been placed in a strong-box next to the body of the blessed martyr Lambert – he stole them from the Church and gave them to Our enemies, that is, his accomplices. Concerning this, the sacred canons decree that: ‘If anyone is found to have sold or stolen anything from the ministers of the Church, he has committed sacrilege. Let him not be kept in an ecclesiastical order.’ ‘Further concerning this matter, the blessed Augustine says in his 37th homily on the Gospel of John: “Behold, Judas is among the saints; behold, Judas is a thief; and lest you think little of this, this thief has committed sacrilege, for he has not stolen from just anywhere but from the Lord’s sacred treasures”. And a little later: “Whosoever should rob or defraud the Church of anything, let him be compared to Judas the traitor”.’  

Cap. 5: He gave these treasures of the Church to bishops and counts and accomplices for his ordination, not having before him the statutes of the Council of Africa, in which it is orders that no-one should be ordained for money, saying: ‘If any bishop pays money to obtain the dignity, let him be deposed and totally expelled, just as Simon Magus was expelled by Peter’; and in the Council of Chalcedon: ‘If any bishop, priest or deacon should to obtain the grace of the Holy Spirit for money, he will be in peril of losing his rank. Let this ordination or promotion, made for money, profit him naught, but let him be anathematized.

Cap. 6: The said Hilduin, to cap his damnation, came before the venerable Herman and swore an abominable oath on sacred relics: that I, Charles, gave him the bishopric of Liège; and he compelled some clerics and laymen to swear it as well. Various testimonies of holy writings prove that this is absurd and detestable.  

Cap. 7: Although called three times to a synod by lord bishop Hermann, so that he might, if he had just cause, respond to these things of which he was accused; or if he could not, be struck with the barb of the canons. Hilduin, because he put off coming, incurred the sentence of Pope Boniface, who said this: ‘He who does not want to come to refute what is said against him proves it to be true. And lest anyone doubt that the guilty flee judgement in this way, an innocent man seeks how he can be absolved.’ And a little later: ‘Whoever thinks themselves able to avoid judgement through delay confesses to everything’. Also: ‘If he wishes to be present in person, let him respond to the charges, if he is sure. If he neglects to be present, let him not win postponement of his sentence through his absence’.  

Cap. 8: All the clerics and laymen of the aforesaid church approached Our Sublimity, making it known to Us in mournful voices that Hilduin and his robbers had laid waste their property and taken away all their supplies and household goods. Nothing remained to them, even so much as to live off. They added in their prayers that this, by your counsel, lest they be exposed to further looting and plundering, it might be done that We should give them Richer to be ordained as pontiff, whom they had all elected. We beseech you pontiffs concerning everything which has been written in these chapters: for God and the due fidelity which you promised to Us, help as much as your strength allows in preventing Our honour from decreasing further in this matter and stabilising the state of the holy Church of God.


Image: the seal of Henry the Fowler (source)

The first thing to note about this letter is the emergence of a new figure in our cast of characters. In 918, the East Frankish king Conrad I had died. Conrad was a beleaguered figure who had already been beaten by Charles in their war over Lotharingia, and it seems that the threat he posed to Charles after that was minimal. Conrad’s successor Henry, though, was a different question: his position was more secure, and he appears to have been looking for ways to aggrandise himself at West Frankish expense. We will see him, and his descendants, ultimately achieve that over the course of the next sixty or so years.

In this case, though, he’s starting small, by helping Gislebert get his man in to Liège. Precisely what happened in these events has been confused because Hilduin claimed – and he was backed up by the usually reliable historian Flodoard – that Charles actually did appoint him before changing his mind. Now, Hilduin has an obvious motive for lying here; and, as it happens, so does Flodoard, who really doesn’t like Charles. Given this, I’d normally be inclined to dismiss the claim completely, except for the fact that Charles’ denial here is so weak. If he had a better case, I’d expect it to come with more force; maybe that’s just from dealing with Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims recently, who never met a weak case that prolixity couldn’t buttress. On balance, I still think the source tend towards Hilduin rather than Charles being the liar, but it’s not an open-and-shut case.

Whatever the actualities, we can see Charles responding to this particular problem in his time-honoured manner: calling an assembly and getting the appearance of consensus. In this case, though, that is paired with a remarkable emphasis on the inviolable nature of his royal authority. In fact, Charles’ stress on his own authority is not the most extreme version of this stance we have from this dispute: letters from the pope of the time are even more forthcoming about his absolute right to appoint a bishop. (Something, incidentally, noticed hundreds of years later during the Investiture Controversy when a writer from Liège used this example in his tract against papal power.) It’s a sign of how royal power had changed from the mid-ninth century by the time of Charles the Simple: the balance of authority had slowly changed in favour of kings, both relative to bishops and to aristocrats. However, all this garnish comes in a letter which is about how all these ostensible norms have been broken. There’s a kind of dissonance – Charles’ position is crystallised in the troubles, but it’s a position which might make solving the troubles themselves difficult. Charles’ royal authority might have been strong, but it was also brittle.  

Charter a Week 24, Part 2: Guilt and Negotiation

Robert of Neustria wasn’t doing nothing whilst Charles built up his allies in the north. In September 900 he issued one of the most peculiar magnate charters of the whole late-Carolingian period. Buckle in, people, because this is a long one:

DD RR no. 42 (13th September 900, Tours)

In the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity. We, verily, Robert, by grace of God Almighty abbot of the flock of the famous confessor of Christ the blessed Martin and as well count.

We desire for it to be well-known and manifest to all the faithful of Christ and the catholic Church and as well chiefly and above all the abbots of the aforesaid flock of the blessed Martin, Our successors, that the aforesaid venerable flock over which We are seen to preside undertook to gain recompense from Our Paternity and Our Guidance and Piety through a venerable deacon of that flock, Adalelm by name, humbly and tearfully lodging a complaint, namely, for a lost spiritual good. He said that Our predecessor, lord Odo, Our brothers, at that time abbot of the aforesaid flock, thereafter a most pious king of the Franks, We know not whether by the instigation or guile of certain of his so-called followers or seduced by the ruthless greed of his, as We said, so-called followers, without consulting the canons of Saint-Martin, to whom the role of giving out alms and hospitality specially pertained, had at his own pleasure and in accordance with his own fancy conceded all the goods pertaining to the hospice for the poor, which the ready devotion of divers of the faithful of Christ through the course of many times since passed bestowed on the same Saint-Martin, that is, to the little cell of Saint-Clément, to perpetually feed the poor there in alms and for the future remedy of all of the faithful who bestowed the same goods, to wit, present and to come, to one of Our canons, then his follower, as if they were his own goods, to be held in right of benefice, that they might be treated separately from those which provide food for the brothers and alms for the poor and thereafter serve him alone. Then We, succeeding him in the same governance, permitted the same goods of the poor to remain in benefice in Our time, subject to the same perilous invasion. Because of this, all the general kindness for guests and alms for the poor – which in olden days were studiously dispersed in the monastery of the blessed Martin to the poor, the wanderer, and the pilgrim for kings and all the orders of the holy Church of God and also for the magnates of the realm and as well, as We said, for those who bestowed the same goods and all the catholic faithful, both living and who have paid death’s due – had completely disappeared. In addition, all the general hospitality remained destroyed.

Therefore We, carefully considering this very lamentable complaint of this venerable flock and the danger We were in by pondering it in Our mind’s deepest contemplation, began to keenly and carefully consider what is asserted by the voice of Truth: ‘I was a stranger, and ye took me not in; naked, and ye clothed me not’ [Matthew 25:43], ‘I was an hungered, and ye gave me nought to eat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink (and so on)’ [Matthew 25:42]; ‘and inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me’ [Matthew 25:45], ‘depart from me into the eternal fire’ [Matthew 25:41].

Whereupon We were struck down with a mighty terror, for We had stolen hospitality away from the poor for Our personal use, We also began to consider what We also believe without doubt: that the very Christ himself is taken in in the poor and the wanderer, as he himself said: ‘I was a stranger and ye took me in; naked, and ye clothed me’ [Matthew 25:36]. He later made this manifest to us in the clearest of ways, when he showed himself in Heaven amongst the most blessed host of angels cloaked with half of the blessed Martin’s cloak, saying ‘Martin, though yet a catechumen, clothed me in this garment’ [Sulpicius Severus, Vita Martini, III.3], ‘I was an hungered and ye gave me something to eat (and so on)’ [Matthew 25:36].

Therefore, considering that not only had We not given to either Christ or Saint Martin from Our own goods that from which the poor might be restored, but in fact had also, as We related, stolen by Our own will and judgement that which the highest devotion of the faithful endeavoured to confer on God Almighty and Saint Martin to sustain the needy for the remission of their sins, despoiling Christ and Saint Martin and clothing Ourself alone, We began once more to be terribly sorry, and, blaming Ourself alone with bitter invective, We decided enough. We know, in addition, that all the good which are bestowed upon churches to sustain the faithful are alms for the poor – but also the price of sins. As the Lord said through the prophet, ‘they eat up the sin of my people’ [Hosea 4:8], and it is also written, ‘Whoso robbeth his father or his mother, death is the penalty’ [Proverbs 28:24/Exodus 21:15]. Moreover, We know that our father is Christ, who redeemed us, and our mother is the holy Church, who spiritually birthed us by Christ through the font of holy baptism. Therefore, whosoever takes anything away from Christ and the Church, from the goods bestowed on them by the faithful, from which the poor should be fed and clothed, will without doubt die an everlasting death, as Ananais and Saphira died, they who unjustly stole something from what they had of their own free will promised they would give to the poor.(*)

Therefore, stirred up by so many terrible spiritual warnings and such great terrors, so that We and Our aforesaid lord and Our brother the lord king Odo, in whose time general hospitality and the taking-in of the poor first disappeared from the monastery of the blessed Martin by his negligence, which was as fearful and grave as We recalled above, should not be struck down on the Day of Judgement by the sentence of the Just Judge saying ‘Because you did this, depart into the eternal fire’ [see Matthew 25:41], We made provision for our souls; and, with the counsel of Our followers, with swift and very ready devotion do restore the aforementioned cell of the blessed martyr Clement, which pertains to the hospice for the poor, with all the goods pertaining to it, from which the poor should be fed, to the old custom and order, and return it to the control of the brothers, with this point of plan and ordering: that Walter, the pupil of the aforesaid Adalelm who was the chief encourager and assistant of this holy work on behalf of all the brothers, might through this testament of Our authority and also the consent of the brothers quietly hold, order and possess all these goods for as long as he lives for the use of the poor and his own people. But after Walter’s death, let the brothers always have permission for themselves, as was ordained in olden times, to elect in accordance with the needs of the moment one of the brothers of the same flock, one who is foremost in total honesty and generosity, who hates all avarice, and who might be a most pious comforter to paupers and pilgrims, who should readily render due comfort from the same goods to his fellow brothers and should similarly not deny due aid to the poor. To him, through Our consent and that of Our successors as abbots of Saint-Martin, let them commit the hospice of the poor. And thus, let what the holy fathers, Our predecessors, moved by the Holy Spirit, established be forever done with the aforesaid goods, remain ever undisturbed.

Concerning this matter, We humbly beg all Our successors as abbot of Saint-Martin that, as We are ruined and condemned by Our obstinacy and that of Our brother, and We judge and accuse Ourself before the divine presence, so too should they see and completely beware that they do not presume to despoil Christ and Saint Martin (in the form of their poor) as We did. Rather, let them vest and permit this restoration of Our authority to endure forever inviolate.

Next, holy bishops, to wit, Archbishop Erbern of Tours, Bishop Raino of Angers, Fulcher of Nantes, Berno of Orléans, Anskeric of Paris, Otger of Amiens, embraced and confirmed Our free will and very ready consent in this matter (which is very salutary and profits our souls both temporally and spiritually) with the power to bind and loose bestowed on them by the Lord in the person of the blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, in his following words: ‘whatsoever thou shalt bind on Earth shall be bound in Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on Earth shall be loosed in Heaven. Truly, depending on the assurance of this power, they closed the gates of Heaven with the chains of anathema for all those whose greedy malice is a barrier and who wish to transgress this Our authority and restoration or correction, but also all those who consent and urge them on in this fault. Thus let them be cursed everywhere, and let all the curses with which God Almighty cursed those ‘who said unto Lord God, “depart from us, for we desire not the knowledge of thy ways”’ [Job 21:14] and ‘Let us take to ourselves the houses of God in possession’ [Psalm 83:13] come upon them: ‘let death seize upon them and let them go down quick into Hell’ [Psalm 55:16]. Let their part and inheritance be the torment of eternal fire, and let them receive the sentence and summit of eternal damnation with Dathan and Abiram, Judas and Pilate and all others who violate or transgress holy law, unless they quickly come to their senses and set themselves right from temerity of this sort.

And that, in God’s name, this might be believed more certain to have been done by Us and be conserved forever inviolate, We corroborated it with Our own hands with the sign of the holy Cross, and We asked the aforementioned bishops and Our followers to subscribe and affirm this authority.

Sign of the holy cross of lord Robert, most glorious of abbots, who asked this holy authority to be made and confirmed.

Erbern, by God’s mercy archbishop [of Tours], subscribed this authority. I, Raino, bishop of Angers, subscribed with my own hand. Fulcher, bishop of Nantes, subscribed. Berno, although unworthy bishop of Orléans, subscribed. Anskeric, bishop of Paris, at the request of Count Robert, confirmed this authority. Otger [of Amiens], episcophilax, strengthened this. I, Abbot Aimo [of Cormery] subscribed.

Sign of Viscount Atto [of Tours]. Sign of Viscount Guarnegaud [of Blois]. Sign of Viscount Fulk [the Red, of Angers]. Sign of Viscount Rainald. Sign of Maingaud the vassal. Sign of Walcher. Sign of Bernuin. Sign of Adalard. Sign of Eric. Sign of Ernust. Sign of Gerard. Sign of Walter. Sign of Alberic. Sign of Erwig. Sign of Wandalbert. Sign of Gundacer. Sign of Suger. Sign of Eudo. Sign of Berard. Sign of Teudo. Sign of Guy. Sign of Robert. Sign of another Walter. Sign of Landric. Sign of Blado. Sign of Odo.

The authority of this restitution was given on the ides of September [13th September], in the city of Tours, in the 3rd year after the death of the lord king Odo, in the reign of the lord king Charles.

I, Archenald, a levite of the flock of the blessed Martin, having been asked to do so, wrote and subscribed this.

(*) It’s not a specific quotation, but it’s remarkably reminiscent of some of the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals – we saw John VIII using Pseudo-Lucius saying much the same thing a few months back…

The church of Saint-Clément, which was demolished in the nineteenth century after having served as a wheat warehouse. (source)

First, the witness list. We’re looking here at most of Robert’s important fideles, the viscounts who run the Neustrian March on his behalf as well as most of the prominent local bishops. (Noticeably, the bishop of Le Mans is missing…) What we have here, it seems, is an emergency meeting convoked to decide what exactly to do about Robert’s sudden exclusion from court.

This isn’t to say that Robert is operating from a position of strength; far from it. Being appropriately penitential can do wonders for your authority in the Carolingian world, but this is quite excessive: not merely Robert but also Odo come in for criticism – both are presented as greedy, negligent, and easily-swayed by bad advice. The implication is that he has had to submit to pressure from the canons.

Note also in the witness list the presence of Bishops Anskeric of Paris and Otger of Amiens, both of whom are allies of Charles not Robert. I haven’t even tried to translate episcophilax, which is a unique word. Etymologically, it is derived from a Greek word meaning a guard or sentinel. The closest parallel from this time is a late tenth century reference to a crisonphilax (sic), a word used by Harmer, the author of the Miracula Sancti Maurilii to describe a treasurer, presumably a ‘gold-guarder’.  Episcophilax, then, would seem to be a ‘guard-bishop’ – an ‘episcopal ombudsman’? Either way, I think it’s fair to see Anskeric and Otger as part of a royal delegation to Robert, using their authority to bolster the canons’ position.

The whole charter is remarkably authoritative. It’s one of the few private charters from the period to have strong liturgical overtones: that bit about ‘paying death’s due’ comes from a Saint-Martin mass for the salvation of the living and the dead. But this bolsters the authority of Saint-Martin rather than of Robert. By storming out of Charles’ court, losing his closeness to the king, Robert had opened himself up politically.

Charter a Week 23: Kingship and Bishops in Langres

Remember how Burgundy was unusually violent during the civil war? Well, now it’s 899 and we’re still dealing with the fallout from that. Bishop Adalgar of Autun’s murder wasn’t the only bit of violence Richard the Justiciar oversaw – he also tried to take advantage of a dispute in the see of Langres. There was a dispute between two candidates, Theobald and Argrim. Of the two, Theobald looks to have been the local choice but Argrim was more willing to lend a hand to Richard, and so Theobald was blinded and Argrim supported. Argrim, however, ordained Bishop Walo of Autun and this ticked off Pope Stephen V, who deposed him. Stephen’s successor Formosus, however, restored Argrim as Archbishop of Lyon. Then, however, Argrim was moved back to Langres, and everyone basically agreed on him as a candidate. This is where our story starts:

Papsturkunden no. 10 (May 899) = JL no. 3520

Bishop John, servant of the servants of God, to his beloved sons the clergy and people of the holy church of Langres.

We accept this trust from the blessed Peter, the lord of this holy see and the founder of the apostolic church, and the prince of the apostles: that We should with an energetic disposition labour for the whole Church redeemed by the blood of Christ, and succour all the servants of the Lord and help out everyone living piously with apostolic authority, and not delay to correct and emend, by the Lord’s assistance, whatever is harmful.

To this end, the foresight of divine dispensation has established divers grades and distinct orders, so that when lessers show reverence to the more powerful and the more powerful give love and assistance to their lessers, one bond of concord should be made out of diversity and the administration of each office should be borne correctly.

We freely received the letters of Your Belovedness, indeed, which you sent to the see of the blessed apostle Peter to deal with your affairs not simply once, but twice and even three times, along with the letters of Our beloved son King Berenger [I of Italy]. Indeed, We sorrowed to no small degree over your afflictions and misfortunes, which you sorrowfully complained of having endured for such a long time: to wit, that your church, worn down by many calamities, should be devoid of all pastoral solace from the point when the venerable Bishop Argrim – whom you testify that you all concordantly elected, sought and acclaimed –  left his church owing to the deceitful theft of certain people, and you did not receive any bishop after him of your own free will, as the outline of your complaint fully laid out.

In fact, We already knew this thanks to Count Ansgar [of Ivrea], Our beloved son, who humbly confessed that he had gravely erred in this. We, therefore, who bear the care and concern for all the churches of God and wish and ought to incontestably observe undefiled right and canonical authority for every church, shall not permit you to endure such a thing. Rather, having compassion for Your Brotherhood and confirming by truthful assertions that your tearful complaint is true, with a college of Our brother bishops, with the service of the other orders, We canonically restore to your Our aforesaid confrere the venerable bishop Argrim, and We send him into his church, which is in need of restoration. We do not find fault with the sentence of Our predecessor Pope Stephen [V] but We do change it for the better for the sake of advantage and necessity, in the same way that We are manifestly aware that Our predecessors did in many cases.

In this case, We admonish you and We exhort you through these letters of Our pontificate and We order by the authority of God and Us, that you should receive the same Bishop Argrim, whom We have restored to Your Unanimity as you sought, with beneficent love and harmonious devotion without any delay; and be obedient to him in everything, and you should honourably hold and cherish him as a pious pastor of your souls, observing his canonical commands in everything.

If any of you presume to act against this Our apostolic judgement and statue or to minister without Bishop Argrim’s consent in his church of Langres and do not want to receive him in accordance with Our decree, let them know themselves to be excommunicated and damned by Our authority. Farewell!

Written through the hand of Samuel the notary and secretary of the holy Roman church, in the month of May, 2nd indiction.

The Lateran Palace in Rome, where all this decision-making took place (source)

This is massaging events. Argrim was probably not the local choice, and it’s noticeable that Pope John IX (for it is he!)’s letter is mostly taken up with implicit threats. In fact, John probably knew this, because he sent a second letter:

Papsturkunden no. 11 (11th May 899) = JL no. 3521

Bishop John, servant of the servants of God, to his most beloved son the glorious king Charles.

Because We know from the report of many that you, most beloved of sons, manfully act in accordance with the custom of your royal predecessors for the defence and profit of the holy Church of God against the madness of crooked men and also pagans, We rejoice in every way and We venerably embrace you as Our son in Christ, and paternal exhort you that you should work hard to improve, love peace, justice and truth; and never deviate in any way from the right path either, so that you might attain a blessed from Our most clement of lords Jesus Christ as from his gatekeeper and the prince of the apostles Peter, for love of whom you busy yourself with such great things.

Accordingly, We wish it to be known to you, Our son, that the groaning and tearful complaint of the church of Langres came to Our Clemency’s ears not simply once, but twice and even three times, concerning the deposition of their pastor Bishop Argrim, whom they witness that they had all unanimously elected, sought and acclaimed, but who was separated from them owing to the deceitful theft of certain people. Because of this, the church is devoid of pastoral consolation and shaken incessantly by sundry disturbances and misfortunes, so much so that it appears nearly reduced to nothing.

Carefully considering this case with a college of venerable bishops with a diligent examination, and investigating the truth of the matter, and mercifully succouring their unhappiness, We canonically ruled that his church should by Our authority be restored to him, changing the sentence of Our predecessor Pope Stephen [V] to a better one for the sake of necessity and advantage, as We are manifestly aware that Our predecessors to have done in many cases.

We provided for this, and We admonish Your Glory and Religiosity that, because We have canonically restored him to his aforesaid church of Langres, you should always extent a helping hand to him and consent to what We have instituted, and be to him a helper and defender whenever it is useful, for love of God Almighty and reverence of the blessed apostles and Our Apostolic Paternity, so that he might be able to rule the same church peacefully and worthily under your royal munificence, so that he might be able to profit those over whom he should preside. Farewell!

Written through the hand of Samuel the notary and secretary of the holy Roman church, on the 5th ides of May [11th May], in the 2nd indiction.

John here commissions Charles to go and sort out any disturbance in the bishopric, essentially inviting him to give his royal imprimatur to the final settlement of Argrim on the episcopal throne. Given Langres had been so prominent under Charles’ predecessors, this was a sensible decision. What interests me about John’s letter to Charles is two things. First, this letter is absolutely dripping with a very traditional description of Charles in the best traditions of Carolingian kingship. Second, John apparently expects Charles to be able to help him.

This speaks volumes about the efficacy of Charles’ regime. As we saw last week, Charles was able to put together an invading army at short notice in 898, and this letter indicates that he had sway at home as well. There is a certain tendency to chalk this kind of rhetoric up to a kind of wilful blindness on the part of the popes: after all, we already know that kingship had Declined by this point. This has the distinct demerit of assuming that we know what was going on better than contemporaries did. John wasn’t an idiot, nor was he uniformed about events in the West Frankish kingdom. If he thought Charles could help him, that’s probably because he had good reason.

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 (translated here). 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.