Seminary LVII: Prof. de Jong is unpenitent

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”.

Cover of Mayke de Jong's The Penitential State

Cover of Mayke de Jong's The Penitential State

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.)

Abbey church of Corbie

Abbey church of Corbie, from Wikimedia Commons

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…

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11 responses to “Seminary LVII: Prof. de Jong is unpenitent

  1. Thanks for your comments to my blog. I add yours to my select list.
    Moltes gràcies !!!

  2. Um, did Courtney Booker’s new book come up? He deals quite a bit with that source.

    • He’s mentioned in The Penitential State, where de Jong says she doesn’t buy the antique-drama, ‘emplotment’ argument he makes in the article ‘Histrionic History’. His book seems to argue the same thing, so I suspect there’s not much overlap.

      • She didn’t mention him, no. The book looks quite interesting though, albeit that my interest would be rather later crisis points of similar paradigmatic importance (Barcelona 985 for example).

      • Perhaps she doesn’t like Booker’s argument, but to summarily ignore another scholar’s work by saying that no one’s worked on the Epitaphium arsenii?

        I’ve read both books and liked them both. In fact, I think they’re quite complimentary in many ways — implicitly reinforcing the other’s points — and I say as much in my review of Booker’s work forthcoming in Early Medieval Europe.

        Moreover, and in response to Cullen below, there is the stuff about histrionics and emplotment, but ultimately Booker’s looking at the historiography of Louis’ reign both medieval and modern and pointing out how perilous some of our readings of those medieval sources really are. You don’t have to buy that but you do have to deal with it.

        • Did she say “no one” has worked on it? Maybe I missed a bit, but all I can see is JJ’s second-hand report. And, from a glance at the index of Booker’s book, it doesn’t seem contain much discussion of the source as such (as opposed to, say, Paschasius Radbertus). So, in that case, a book on the Epitaphium itself would be new.

          Still, you’ve read the book but not been to the seminar, JJ’s been to the seminar but not read the book, and I’ve done neither, although I have read The Penitential State. Given the fact that none of us has all the pieces, it might be wise to avoid some “perilous readings” of our own…

          • But Theo, as we do with our fragmentary, incomplete sources, don’t we work with what we have?

            Granted, I may have been reading too much into John’s report about de Jong’s paper though. If so, I retract.

    • Cullen Chandler

      Courtney’s book sure is longer! I had a chance to read them both fairly recently, and while Booker has some good ideas to offer, you have to wade through the histrionics and drama bit to get there. If that’s your cup of tea, great. The one great advantage that de Jong’s book has, is that I think I could use it in an undergraduate course. It’s written in such a way that it should work. Not much in the way of the problems people note for others, e.g., McKitterick’s Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians in terms of assumed knowledge and so forth. At least that’s my impression from a first read. Booker’s book would not go over quite so well with that same audience.

      I saw the two authors share some time at Leeds last summer, but I didn’t bother to eavesdrop or butt in on the conversation. But certainly they have thoughts on each other’s work, even though I didn’t detect much cross-citation in the books.

  3. I was at the seminar and have read Penitential State, but not Courtney’s book, so score me at 2 out of 3. Mayke wasn’t really discussing the current scholarship, she was talking fairly specifically about what she was planning to do with her new book, so I don’t think it’s surprising she didn’t mention Courtney. (She did say, however, that Cabaniss’ translation in ‘Charlemagne’s Cousins’ was ‘rotten’, and she is not one to mince her words generally, so if she did have strong objections to Courtney’s work, I think we’d have heard them by now).

    A few things to add briefly to Jon’s report (since he’s been more diligent in posting about this than I have). One is that Mayke had some interesting stuff about Radbert’s background, and how he was probably a foundling, raised in the convent of Notre Dame Soissons, where Wala’s sister was abbess (so he had a near familial relationship to Wala and his siblings).

    Secondly is that the book is apparently going to look at the argument by Klaus Zechiel-Eckes that Radbert was responsible for the Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore. Finally, for those who want an advance preview of some of Mayke de Jong’s thoughts on Radbert, there’s a paper forthcoming in a conference collection called Ego Trouble.

  4. Thankyou for fielding this for me Magistra! In answer to Matt’s question, I have probably been too sweeping in reporting Mayke as saying no work had been done on the source beyond David’s and her own, but those were the two she mentioned. Of course David was in the news that week and would ordinarily have been there so that may have been courtesy as much as anything. She did say that it hadn’t had enough attention, though, and there I suppose that Booker would agree.

    Back now into silence I’m afraid.

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