Seminary LVI: what use a Carolingian chronicle?

Before I disappeared once more into unseminary occlusion, I made it to one at least of the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminars, not least because the speaker was Dr Simon MacLean of the University of St Andrews, long-time acquaintance of yer humble blogger and someone who will expect to see his paper mentioned here… Also, because of the subject, though mainly because I didn’t have to write a lecture for the next week. The subject was, “Recycling the Franks in 12th-Century England: Regino of Prum and the Monks of Durham”, and since Simon has been raising interest in Regino for some time, to the extent of recently translating his Chronicon into English, I wanted to hear what he was going to say.

Durham Cathedral by Mel Harland

Durham Cathedral, photographed from the river by Mel Harland

As the title suggests, the paper was more about twelfth-century Durham than anything Regino would have recognised, and needed a lot of setting up in terms of the contemporary politics, which were, on the grand scale (and usefully, since I’d been reading up on it for teaching at the time) the Investiture Contest and the aftermath of the marytrdom of Thomas à Becket. Durham, facing Scotland as it did and endowed with plenipotentiary powers which led its incumbent to be called the Prince-Bishop and the associated county a palatinate one, was a see over which royal control was very tight and the incumbent was frequently absent. It was also very often in dispute with its own cathedral chapter, and the special place of the bishop in the kingdom made it easy for the monks of the cathedral to obtain papal judgements against him when they came into dispute. Since Henry II was for a large part of his reign in breach with Rome, it is not a small thing that the monks of one his major sees were regularly going there to get judgements against their own bishop, and it shows you how the big agendas were pulled on by and pulled in smaller disputes and polarised them (as with family, chariot racing factions, Christianity at the adoption stage, and many other grand themes).

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 139, fo. 17r

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 139, fo. 17r, where the excerpt of Regino's Chronicon starts

Somewhere in all this the monks amassed a historical compilation, apparently put together out of several lesser parchment pamphlets, themselves all compiled for separate purposes. The result now survives in one lump as Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 139, which of course means that it’s online if you’re in the right places, but Simon was interested in the first pamphlet component, which contains a load of Durham-centric texts and an abstract of Regino’s Chronicon. This looks extremely out of place among its insular companion pieces, but Simon argued, with painstaking analysis lying behind his argument, that it had been selected carefully to make a point, and one of the reasons that we can believe this is that the manuscript of Regino that was being used is still at Durham where you can, apparently see that the text is marked up for excerpting in just the places it was done in CCCC 139. (Not sure if I have this right: the MGH suggests that the antecessor of CCCC 139 is (now) British Library MS Arundel 390 and mentions no Durham MS, but I think that’s what Simon said. The Durham MS collections are not catalogued online yet, sadly.) Regino’s original purpose was, says Simon and I don’t doubt him, to write a dynastic history of the Carolingians charting their rise and fall, but he was also very interested in their relations with Rome, and indeed saw that as crucial to the explanation of that rise and fall. (He is, for example, one of the best sources we have on Nicholas I, who as I keep telling you keeps coming up. Simon made this point without my having to question him, too, and I hadn’t stuck any of my rants about the neglect of the man up here yet.) The monks of Durham didn’t really care too much about the Carolingians, but they certainly cared about kings being deferential to popes, and that’s what they went through this text for, there being plenty to find. They included other things too, and what the agenda was there other than interest Simon admitted he could not yet tell, but where there was something that made that point it was included, and where there was something that went against that particular grain, it was not. All seemed plausible enough to me. That’s what Carolingian history was good for to some twelfth-century English monks, it would seem.

Chapels in the southern transept of Sawley Abbey church

Chapels in the southern transept of Sawley Abbey church

I accept all this, but I would still like to know—not that I know how we find out—more about the audience of the manuscript. Simon said that within a few years of its compilation and binding it seems to have been passed on to the new Cistercian foundation of Sawley Abbey, whose ex libris is visible under UV. Why that might be was hard to understand, given it was so Durham-centric in contents, and Sawley’s a long way from Durham, but Simon said that it did seem to have been connected to the contemporary Bishop Hugh de Puiset. That, to me at least, raised the intriguing (and unverifiable) possibility that the audience, in the end, had been the bishop, for whom many of the texts in the book could have been seen as exempla, and he hadn’t liked it, and had decided to piously get rid of it as far from his rebellious monks as he could easily manage… I like it as a theory, anyway!

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12 responses to “Seminary LVI: what use a Carolingian chronicle?

  1. Thanks for reminding me at the end of this article that the audience for medieval literary works could be very very small, no matter if it was picked up by a wider than expected circle.

    • I wonder occasionally if John of Salisbury would be pleased or horrified that his Policraticus got out into the world. OK, very occasionally, but honestly I have wondered this more than once, though these days I don’t know how general is what I was taught, that it was written for his own little circle of chancery mates. And Gildas’s De Excidio: his audience clearly know everything he’s on about, how big can it be? And so on. So, er, my pleasure!

  2. “The monks of Durham didn’t really care too much about the Carolingians, but they certainly cared about kings being deferential to popes”

    Interesting thought (and a topic that I’m obviously interested in) but I’m not sure about the conclusion. How can a historical compilation charting the Carolingians not be “about” the Carolingians?

    • It’s not about the Carolingians in the same way as a history of later Europe isn’t necessarily about the Habsburgs, I think; they make the history from which the examples come but aren’t the subject. Consider as a parallel the Alexiad, a work which is not, primarily, about the First Crusade but that’s what we Westernists mostly use it for. So with these monks and Regino.

      • Perhaps and I take your point (and sorry for the long delay in responding) but I think this case is a bit different than your examples above. The Carolingians, in Regino’s case, are ESSENTIAL background, aren’t they? I mean, the story changes fundamentally if you take the Carolingians out — changing in a way that doesn’t necessarily happen if you take the Habsburgs out and put in the Capetians or take the Crusade out and put in rampaging Turks.

        • Well, I guess I’d have to have actually read the excerpted text myself before I could answer this in any more detail, but if what you’re saying is that it must indicate an interest in the Carolingians per se, then it sits very oddly with the rest of the collection. Perhaps Simon himself can be induced to comment again, but failing that, the impression I took away was that as excerpted it was about popes and kings, and yes, the kings were Carolingians because that’s who was in the chronicle but that’s not what they used it for.

          • Hi, well in a way it’s chicken/egg, since if you want to use history to do popes/emperors in the 12C, the Carolingians are pretty much the de facto choice, so this need not be significant. But I reckon it must be in this case since Charlemagne esp has such a high profile mid-12C, and this MS is done shortly after the canonisation of Ch in 1165 (by Frederick Barbarossa). Ie anything you say about the Caros in that context is likely to have an edge.

  3. I like so much gothic archiceture.

  4. Hi Jon, thanks for blogging me up – as a confirmed lurker, obviously only the mention of my own name draws me out. On the MSS, I think the Durham MS which is marked up for excerption might be DCL B IV 15, though that’s off the top of my head. Arundel 390 is one of the oldest Regino MSS and one of the archetypes used by Kurze to divide the family into two groups – so he’s probably using it just assign the Durham ones to a group. Also, think Kurze didn’t look at nearly all the MSS, or know about them, can’t remember if the Durham one was one he missed…
    Merry Christmas!

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