Seminary XXVII: educating Atto

Steffen Patzold is someone I mainly know from running into him with Theo Riches at Leeds, but his papers are, as Jinty Nelson said when introducing him at the Institute of Historical Research Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 14 May, always worth hearing, and knowing this I had made sure that I was there.

He was speaking to the title, “Educating the clergy: rural priests and their knowledge in Carolingian Francia”, and his basic case was that, although it was certainly patchy and variable, actually we can see genuine results of the programmes of the Emperors Charlemagne and Louis the Pious to improve standards of education among the clergy of their time, the basic aim of the so-called Carolingian Renaissance. His arguments were based on various manuscripts that seem to contain teaching texts for priests that had been laid out by capitulary legislation; that is, if he’s right, these texts might constitute a further fragment of otherwise terribly rare evidence that the Carolingians’ prolific legislation was ever actually enacted. This has previously been missed because of people studying these texts only from codicological or transmission angles, he suggested, but it obviously has quite far-reaching significance for assessments of what the emperors could achieve and what they actually did.1

Medieval lecturer addressing students

That said, as ever it was the detail that got me. He began the paper with a single example, which despite its difficult manuscript background looks pretty illustrative. But it also illustrates the realities of life in the period and is not without its unfortunate humour, so I thought it was worth giving here too. It’s a letter that appears to be addressed to Louis the Pious, and it’s from a guy called Atto.

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Louis the great emperor. To your authority, my lord, I would not dare speak so, but I seek your sanctity out of my great necessity. I Atto am so unworthy a priest and by my birth your slave. Now I seek your sanctity, that you may deign to turn your consolation to my sinful self, because I have no other refuge, unless it be you, where the whole people has refuge.

The cleric Frotwin has one church in the county of Erchanger. Then Frotwin placed me to sing in that church; and over all things I might have half of the dues of that tithe. In such a way I served thus at that church a year and a half, for which I received nothing there of which we had this agreement. Afterwards I asked that man for my part of that tithe. And he blazed up exceedingly with fury in his heart against me; and he came by night upon me with his kinsmen Alberic and Gebhard and Wolfram; thus they beat me, until they had all but released the life in my body. I, most wretched wretch, sought the mercy of God and Saint Remedius, and reclaimed [my rights] through your name. And those men said, neither saints nor any man should release me from their hands. Afterwards they dragged me to the altar of Saint Remedius and they made me swear constancy at that church. And they made me swear another oath, that I might not for all my days appeal to your piety or to your missus, so that they might do me justice. Then I sought my justice of them, but found the least possible. Now I fear for my ordination, I fear what those men do not. On account of this, I beseech your sanctity, so that my justice may achieve value. For I can find neither justice nor mercy at their hands, except through your mercy; and for the redemption of the soul of your father, whose slave I was before.2

Poor Atto! Browbeaten into preaching in someone else’s living for free and then actually beaten when he demands his pay! But he’s done well, you notice, not just a freed slave but a priest, and one apparently quite able to survive for a year and a half despite that lack of income, though he may of course have been on his uppers the whole time. And he writes, he doesn’t go to court as a fugitive. So, though the first time his house needed a bit of extra fortification it seems, he’s sitting tight. But he wants his money, so he pulls on old connections and hopes the appeal to Dad will convince Louis that he remembers him. Who knows if it worked? But it’s a good little story, and that’s what this blog would like to be about, sometimes.


1. Best immediate introduction to the idea of the Carolingian Renaissance is probably John J. Contreni, “The Carolingian Renaissance: education and literary culture” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History II: c. 700-c. 900 (Cambridge 1995), pp. 709-757. For the problems with capitularies and their effects, see now Christina Pössel, “Authors and Recipients of Carolingian Capitularies, 779-829″ in Richard Corradini, Rob Meens, Christina Pössel & Peter Shaw (edd.), Texts and Identities in the Early Middle Ages, Forschungen zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 12, Denkschriften der phil.-hist. Klasse 344 (Wien 2008), pp. 253-274.

2. The Latin text is edited as “Epistola Variorum 25” in Ernst Dümmler (ed.), Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolarum tomus V, Ævi Karolini III (Berlin 1899), pp. 339-340. The translation is my own, and as you can tell the rather broken syntax and odd phrasings have given me some trouble. Atto was clearly an educated man who knew how a letter like this should go; but this didn’t make him a natural at Latin! All the same, he could sing Mass and compose letters to an emperor, I can translate him fairly easily, he would have managed.

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9 responses to “Seminary XXVII: educating Atto

  1. What I missed for a load of John Tosh!

    What I find fascinating is how it shows once again legalism invading the minds of Carolingian Franks, even Carolingian criminals. After the baddies have manhandled Atto, they make him swear an oath to obey them. And when they want to prevent him going to the authorities, do they say: ‘Do that and you’re toast. We know where you live’ (or possibly ‘where your wife and family live’)? No, they get him to swear another oath! Even men breaking the law seem to think that other people ought to abide by such things. Despite all the inefficiency of Carolingian law, it really does seem to mess with people’s heads in some deep way.

  2. Can I say again how envious I am? Can I say again how much I really need to emigrate to where the fun Carolingian things are? Except I’d probably have to give up my career because there are no jobs for the likes of me!

    Seriously, though. Living on that side of the Atlantic would make all parts of my life better in so many ways…

  3. ADM

    I’m near the point of giving up on a UK academic career and a number of my friends haven’t even tried to stay in the field after getting the PhD. The entry-level jobs market is extraordinarily difficult (as Jon can also testify). If you really wanted to come, you probably need a solid body of research work, and you have then got a slightly better chance of competing for lecturing posts. (For example, Caroline Goodson at Birkbeck came from the States).

  4. Magistra — that’s sort of what I meant. No solid body of research, although that is starting to change. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind an editing job with time to teach a night class, but going back to being contingent faculty is not my idea of a step up.

  5. Magistra: ah, but is the law exploiting the medieval penchant for oaths, or does the penchant for oaths come from the law? Why do the Carolingians expect the Vikings to stick to their oaths? It’s not like the Carolingians did… And so on. It’s not just a vertical thing, is what I mean.

    ADM: the balance of required experience is very different over here. I feel quite ashamed reading blogs like yours or Dr Virago’s sometimes because of the time you put into making your teaching good; we’re expected to deliver research and be capable of teaching, not the other way round. This means that it’s probably much easier for me to come to the States than for you to come here. The market here is sufficiently bad, and recent events in my life sufficiently, er, liberating, that I’ve almost been considering it despite the administration. And, like Magistra, I have also considered chucking it in entirely, especially when it seemed like the wait for an academic job might kill my relationship. But the time to quit the hunt is not the year that one has a book and hopefully three papers coming out, is it? Ask me again when they’re still not hiring me even with that…

  6. Eep! A book, too!

    Well, if teaching ever gets the kind of appreciation over there that it gets here, I’m golden :-)

    Of course, some people, like LDW, are also fantastic teachers as well as Scholars. But I think that’s more in his nature than that anyone ever taught him.

    Maybe this summer we won’t have to run off and will both be able to sit down and chat!

  7. Oh — and you’re right about the job market over here. You’d probably do well getting a job at a research-heavy U. At places like mine, you have to teach a class under some observation AND be interviewed by students, who have input into the hiring process.

  8. I have some of both teaching training and experience, but no-one’s ever asked about the training at interview, and the closest I’ve come to having to demonstrate that I can teach is give a research presentation. I always felt that that was a bit unfair, because what I mainly got asked about that was how I thought I would pitch my stuff to students, to which the obvious answer was, “I wouldn’t: this is specialist stuff, it would be at most one class in something broader! This was supposed to be about my research, if you’d wanted to see me teaching I’d have done that instead!” I don’t think that response increased my hirability…

    As for the summer, you have my e-mail; let me know your intinerary and I’ll make another-damned-sure I’m there for a decent chat this time…

  9. Pingback: Seminars XCVI, XCVII & XCVIII: lectures and learning in Oxford « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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