One of the reasons I’ve been shorter than usual of blogging time lately is that I’ve been attempting to make it to rather more seminars than I did the previous term. Of course, this then leaves me more to write up in less time… But still, we try. I have been especially trying to make it to the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, because the program’s been very interesting to me this term. Thus, on the 3rd February I made it down there in order to hear Professor Mayke de Jong of Utrecht speak to the title, “The penitential state – a year later”.
For those not deep in Carolingian history, the title derives from the fact that last year Professor de Jong published a history of the reign of Louis the Pious (“Son of Charlemagne”!) entitled The Penitential State: authority and atonement in the reign of Louis the Pious 814-840, and she was supposed to be coming and giving us a retrospective on its publication and where she was with those ideas now. Where she is, however, is starting another book centering on one of the key sources, the Epitaphium arsenii by Paschasius Radbertus, sometime Abbot of Corbie, provisionally to be entitled Epitaph of an Era. This is a tricky source, because it’s a highly allusive political dialogue written with all the characters given meaningful pseudonyms, in very stylised Latin, and according to Professor de Jong the current English translation is not really up to representing this complexity. Underneath its distancing strategies, it tells the story of how Abbot Wala of Corbie, noble and illustrious predecessor of Radbert, was exiled from the court for standing up for truth, virtue and the Carolingian way. It is therefore very partisan, and extremely bitter, not least because by the time Radbert was writing the latter part of it he’d been expelled from Corbie himself (which raised the question of what sources he had, but Professor de Jong was pretty sure he had places he could go—this is interesting mainly because whereas the earlier part of the text is absolutely singing with Scriptural allusion the latter has no Biblical cites at all, and this would seem therefore to be a deliberate choice). Nonetheless, it’s been quite influential, firstly in damning the character of the Empress Judith, accused of adultery with Bernard Marquis of Septimania but cleared after the coup of 830, and secondly in presenting that coup as a desperate attempt by supposed loyalists to rid the Emperor of his dubious advisors (not least Bernard), rather than, well, you know, a coup. (I have argued before that I think the representation of Bernard as a dandyish incompetent based on this source has sunk far too far into the historiography when he was actually clearly a scheming unscrupulous dissimulator who was far too effective to remove simply.)
So, it is a problem, and there isn’t really that much scholarship on it (that which there is being basically the work of none other than David Ganz). Mayke is set to change all this and what she did was to talk us through the book structure as she plans it and some of the issues it presents. I shan’t try and summarise those, because they’re quite technical and I’m not really the person to deal in the subtleties of the Scriptural usage. I will wait for Professor de Jong’s translation! But the points that seemed to catch the interest of the seminar were, firstly that this is one of a wave of several pieces of historiographical writing by court exiles who really want back in, insiders who lost the court politics game and want to put across that this is because they were too righteous to win when everyone cheats; that it is very hard to see through these texts to a real course of events (especially when a lot of the course of events must only have been taking place in the courtiers’ heads anyway) but that we can at least bring to life the personal subtexts of our authors, and this may be a way in which early medieval biography is possible (a relief to some I’m sure); and lastly (and this was mainly Michael Wood’s point, for lo he was there) that there are other kings who subsequently pick up Louis the Pious’s penitential style, and we wondered what they were reading or to whom they were listening so as to get the idea. Much to think about, and all fairly high-level, but it is of course by this kind of intense engagement with the sources that we can equip ourselves to look out at the society from which they came and see it with eyes more like those of our writers.
The actual text of the Epitaphium was edited by Ernst Dümmler as “Das Epitaphium Arsenii” in Abhandlungen der königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, philosophisch-historische Klasse 2 (Berlin 1900), pp. 1-98; for reference to an older online version see here. Currently the only translation into English is Allen Cabaniss (transl.), Charlemagne’s Cousins: contemporary lives of Adalhard and Wala (Syracuse 1967). For work on it, and the events it describes, see most immediately David Ganz, “The Epitaphium Arsenii and Opposition to Louis the Pious” in Peter Godman & Roger Collins (edd.), Charlemagne’s Heir: new perspectives on the reign of Louis the Pious (Oxford 1990), pp. 537-550, and of course now M. de Jong, The Penitential State: authority and atonement in the reign of Louis the Pious 814-840 (Cambridge 2009), for now…