The Three Orders and Adalbero of Laon

In 987, King Louis V fell off his horse and Hugh Capet became king. Soon after, Hugh made his son Robert the Pious co-king, and Robert went on to rule until 1031. For all that Hugh’s accession was the decisive break with Carolingian rule, it’s Robert’s reign that is perhaps the most interesting. A good chunk of the reason for this is that it is in texts from Robert’s reign that we start to get a sense about how varied – and polemical – ideas about kingship had become since the early tenth century. (I have a sneaking suspicion as to why these writings come disproportionately from the early eleventh century rather than the mid tenth, but that’s another story…)               

One of the most polemical authors of the period was Adalbero of Laon. We have discussed Adalbero before briefly on this blog, but the most relevant thing about him today is that he is usually considered a conservative thinker, a crotchety old man who didn’t like what he was seeing in the realm. At some point, possibly around the year 1003, roughly thirty years or half-way through his career, Bishop Adalbero wrote a lengthy and vituperative poem to Robert the Pious, excoriating what he perceived as a world turned upside-down and setting forth his vision for society as it should be ordered. The poem has attracted a lot of attention, for a couple of reasons: it is one of the most explicit and colourful reactions against monastic reform; and it sets out a vision of society known as the Three Orders, which would go on to have a very long life, and I mean a very long life – we still refer to the press as the ‘Fourth Estate’, and the other three ‘estates’ are the orders Adalbero lays out: oratores, bellatores, labores – those who pray (Churchmen), those who fight (nobles), and those who work (peasants).

A later medieval image of the Three Orders (source).

The poem has some wonderful imagery. Adalbero’s complaint is that the world is topsy-turvy, and no-one knows their assigned place any longer, and the main target of his bile is Abbot Odilo of Cluny. To emphasise how far he thinks Odilo has led monks from their proper role of cloistered contemplation, he images ‘King’ Odilo leading his warrior-monks to fight the Saracens in the south of France; but, of course, as monks, they are completely inept. “Ride two to a donkey! Ten to a camel!” “Upon your head, place a garland of flowers, and tie your helmet to your loins! Hold a sword in your teeth!” he exhorts his men. Unsurprisingly, they lose the battle.

The question of what exactly Adalbero is protesting here is open to more question than, to my mind, it has got. There are a couple of references to monks going to fight Saracens at around this period; but these don’t refer to an organised Cluniac proto-crusade but to a band of rag-tag monks from Provence forced into self-defence. Odilo himself, it’s worth saying, did not lead any military forces. Rather, what I think Adalbero is doing is parodying a work written by Odilo’s predecessor, Abbot Odo of Cluny, the biography of St. Gerald of Aurillac. In this work, Odo describes how Gerald, who was not a cleric, behaved in a particularly holy manner more befitting a monk than a layman. In particular, he tells of Gerald fighting a battle and ordering his men to fight with the butts of their spears and the flats of their swords. Odo is aware of how ridiculous this is, for the record; but he says that Gerald was so favoured by God that he won anyway. Of course, this kind of thing – making laymen behave like clerics – is exactly what Adalbero is complaining about, and his poem illustrates how little he thinks getting one type of person to do another type of person’s job would work in practice.

Odilo’s failure to defeat the Saracens lets Adalbero outline his own vision for society, and this is where his reputation for conservatism comes in. What Adalbero wants is, in content, very Carolingian, going back to the 829 Council of Paris. He wants the king to defend the Church, do justice, and crush the overmighty. He wants monks to be contemplative and cloistered, he wants bishops to pray for the community’s wellbeing and give learned advice to kings. However, it is also striking how Adalbero must find what are actually novel reasons for his conservative vision: new bottles for old wine, if you will. Old Carolingian justifications like royal ministerium are missing, and instead Adalbero justifies the royal duty of protecting the Church in terms of the schema of the Three Orders. The king’s duties come from his being a bellator, one of the order of those who fight.

Historians have pointed out that Adalbero’s scheme of the Three Orders was not a new invention. Two scholars in the ninth century named Haimo and Heiric of Auxerre described society as divided between ‘priests, soldiers and farmers’; this was possibly taken from the highly respected Church father Isidore of Seville. It may have been taken up in late tenth-century Rheims, and this may have been where Adalbero found it. However, it was not particularly common in either the ninth century or the tenth, and Adalbero’s use of it to justify what amounts to a caste system is completely new. Adalbero was not drawing on a common aspect of his time’s thought, but underpinning traditional conceptions of kingship with a new justification to make up for the fact that the old ones had gone. 

This scheme of the Three Orders was not conjured out of whole cloth. Haimo and Heiric of Auxerre has described something very similar in the ninth century, and versions of their formulation appeared in Alfredian England and mid-tenth century Italy. However, in Gaul it was not common in either the tenth century or the ninth, and it is noticeable that when in the eleventh century it gains two very high-profile spokesmen, Adalbero and Bishop Gerald I of Cambrai, both of whom were educated at Rheims in the late tenth century. This is notable because Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims (Adalbero of Laon’s uncle) renovated the cathedral school at this time. What I suspect we are seeing, therefore, is not a widespread intellectual idea, but a development in political thought specific to Rheims c. 970 which then found some long-lived and voluble advocates. In short, Adalbero’s nominal conservatism illustrates how little purchase Late Carolingian thought had in early Capetian political debates, and how fragmented the landscape of post-Carolingian political thought had become.


The Bishop of Laon is Minted, and Career News II

Some good career news came down the pipeline last week: I have been elected to be an Associate Committee Member of the SCBI/MEC projects! What this means in practice is loads of coins – the M[edieval] E[uropean] C[oinage] project has been well underway for a while, and further volumes are in preparation as we speak. Further news on the projects’ activities as and when it’s ready to print; but from my point of view what’s exciting is being able to talk about some of my previously-mentioned difficulties in understanding tenth-century coinage with some of the best numismatic minds in the country…

Meanwhile, to celebrate, a post on some coins which I think I do have a handle on. As it happens I have written about these elsewhere, but not here, and not really with the textual links in play. So, let’s talk about Adalbero of Laon. Famous as ‘the old traitor’ because of his betrayal of the last Carolingian candidate for the West Frankish crown into the hands of Hugh Capet, he left behind a relatively extensive corpus of work, including a poem excoriating Count Landric of Nevers as an ambitious and scheming womanizer, and another work addressed to King Robert the Pious complaining about how kids these days weren’t doing things properly. There’s lots in this poem, the Carmen ad Rotbertum Regem, but one clear thing is that Adalbero is worried about the blurring of social roles. He particularly takes to task Abbot Odilo of Cluny for leading a monastic ‘army’ which, as monks aren’t supposed to fight, is useless as well as wrong. What does he propose instead? Well, in the words he gives to the king,

Let [Saint] Basil and [Saint] Benedict[, two of the founding fathers of monasticism,] possess their realms,

Let their realms observe and hold all of their commands.

Let bishops never throng fields hereafter,

If they would keep their rights; if not, let them tend crops!

Let Our order [of warriors] never dare to give up the rule of justice;

Rather, let it apply itself thereto with the greatest effort.

What Adalbero wants is for all the different bits of society to do what they’re supposed to and stop doing otherwise: monks should observe the monastic Rule, bishops shouldn’t be messing around in the fields like peasants, and warriors should protect clerics and labourers justly.

Whatever one might think of Adalbero as politician or as social philosopher, there’s no doubt that he was committed to this point of view, and this does come through in the coins of Laon around the year 1000. During the reign of Louis V (986-987), the mint at Laon began to mint a very unusual double portrait issue. As you can see, the figure on the right is supposed to be a king. I’m not sure the figure on the left is supposed to represent anything – the coin is too worn to tell any iconography, and the inscription around that side is just the word for ‘Minted at Laon’.

obole louis v
Gallica says it’s an obol of Louis IV for some reason, but the numismatical consensus is Louis V (source)

By the 1000s, however, Adalbero had taken this design and changed it slightly towards his ideological views of society. Have a look at this:

That’s more like it! (source)

As you can see, Adalbero had evidently found a slightly more technically-skilled mint master since 987. The design of the coin has also been updated, too. The portrait of the king is not simply a king, it’s a reasonable facsimile of Robert the Pious’ seal.

A picture-heavy post, today (source)

The other portrait is now not just any old male figure, it’s specifically Bishop Adalbero himself. Partly you can tell this from the stonking great cross on his head, and partly from the fact that the coin has the name ‘Adalbero’ engraved around the outside. What we have here, then, is coinage as medium for the political message outlined in the Carmen: the king doing his job, the bishop doing his job, each distinct, both together the two authorities ruling Christian society – in a quite literal sense, two sides of the same coin.