Seminar LXX: why you have to stay married, according to Hincmar of Rheims

From the web’s reaction to the last post I learn that ‘lottery’ is a bad keyword to give the spammer’s robots. Nonetheless, I struggle on with the backlog. You may be aware of a ninth-century churchman called Hincmar, who rose to be archbishop of Rheims and wrote a huge amount of stuff that survives, including perhaps most famously a Carolingian government manual called the De Ordine palatii, ‘On the Arrangement of the Palace’. You may also be aware, not least because this material is slowly being translated online in the Collaborative Hincmar Project Blog, that he got very deeply involved in the attempt of King Lothar II, one of Charlemagne’s great-grandsons, to divorce his wife and marry a concubine of his, something that his Carolingian uncles were keen to prevent as the wife was not making heirs and thus the uncles stood to inherit.1 Hincmar’s involvement in this case was largely on behalf of King Charles the Bald, westerner of those two uncles, and it caused a lot of writing. If you know this much, you would probably have been interested in Rachel Stone‘s paper at the Institute of Historical Research’s Earlier Middle Ages Seminar on 27th October (for yes, I am that far behind) to the title, “Hincmar’s Use and Abuse of the Canon Law of Marriage”.

Grand sceptre of Cathedral of Rheims, a fourteenth-century depiction of Charlemagne

Images are hard to find for Hincmar. This is the Grand sceptre of Cathedral of Rheims, a fourteenth-century depiction of Charlemagne, which is maybe a bit relevant at least

Rachel, who cheerfully described Hincmar as “advisor to kings and pain in the neck”, had got into the canon law material used by Hincmar in this very same case, where he was drawing on whatever sources he could find to work out, or allow others to work out, what exactly the Church’s rôle in such cases could and should be, something which this case tested the boundaries of fairly thoroughly due to the involvement of kings, the bending of principles and the absence of decent evidence of quite a lot of what was being thrown around. Hincmar, like many of his contemporaries, was nothing if not an avid collector of authority, from the Church Fathers, from canon law, from secular law where it was available, anything that was endowed with reputation and, well, authority, to justify his positions. As Rachel made clear, he was less concerned with being fair to those sources or reconciling the inconsistencies of what he cited. Indeed, he was fairly unconcerned with rendering them accurately or completely either.

The material was also not used under any kind of detectable overall judicial system. There wasn’t a clear space allocated to courts of the king and another allocated to episcopal courts, if those even existed this early which Rachel questioned. The divorce was shunted from one to the other with each side insisting its incapability to deal with such questions; a hot potato no-one wanted to pick up, and presumably one that would, as famously they don’t, get hotter and hotter if it were left alone. The bishops were willing to act in cases that were pastoral concerns, but we see no sign of them setting secular penalties or taking fines so early on. (They did of course set penances in more regular cases, but that was pastoral really, it benefited them not at all.) Likewise, it is never reasoned out here whether secular law could bind the Church or Church law outrank secular law. Another thing that came out of this that I should own up to myself is that I have often cited, including here, the Council of Laodicæa, 298, as being one of the more crazy texts left over from the early Church and mentioned that as well as outlawing women priests and mathematicians it also says you can only name three angels, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, because others lack the authority of Scripture and may therefore instead be demons. It turns out the names are a Carolingian addition; the original just has a blanket ban on invoking angels and I only knew the Carolingian version, repeated in Charlemagne’s ‘General Admonition’ of 789, and had assumed they’d used the text accurately.2 This is exactly the sort of free improvement and adaptation Rachel was seeing in the canon law material and it caught me pretty thoroughly out. In questions Rachel described Hincmar’s technique as less argument and more exegesis, teasing out a helpful meaning of a text rather than constructing an evidenced set of points with it.

Contemporary manuscript of the Admonitio Generalis of 789

Contemporary manuscript of the Admonitio Generalis of 789, from Wikimedia Commons

Through all of the paper, anyway, Rachel showed us a highly learned and extremely resourceful churchman arguing what was largely a line of political convenience, but one designed more to suspend and prevent judgement than to sort out what it should be and how it should be given. Politically, after all, it was only necessary that the divorce never be granted, not that it be refused (although at points it was). Though there were in all this certain things that Hincmar would never concede, his tergiversation here made him a source for many subsequent malpractitioners (though I can’t help feeling that the excellent survival of his material may be more of a factor—but you could argue that it survives exactly because people liked it and found it useful, and Rachel did so argue). Susan Reynolds argued strongly in questions that one of the reasons Hincmar was so free to produce wildly inconsistent answers in the case was that in reality there really wasn’t an answer yet that he had to show or hide; the synods and councils were genuinely trying to work out what should happen, whatever political pressure they might be under, because it hadn’t yet been settled. John Gillingham added that in such a situation Hincmar was indeed exactly the man with exactly the tools they needed, and that concluding something may not have been what was wanted of him. This may be the first time I’ve ever seen these two agree, and it was worth going for that alone, but in general it was a good discussion about exactly where authority lay in this period and how far it was constructed the way we would normally now understand it in the twenty-first century. There may also be coverage of this at Magistra et Mater, for reasons that are probably obvious, and that will be better as Magistra knows this stuff much better than I do, but for now, there’s a report.


1. There is now a book on this in English, a Dutch one by Karl Heidecker translated as The Divorce of Lothar II: Christian Marriage and Political Power in the Carolingian World, transl. M. Tanis (Ithaca 2010), but there must also be coverage in Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald (London 1992), and Rachel has started taking apart the bits of the theology in her “The invention of a theology of abduction: Hincmar of Rheims on raptus” in Journal of Ecclesiastical History Vol. 60 (Cambridge 2009), pp. 433-448.

2. A. Boretius (ed.), Capitularia Regum Francorum Vol. I, Monumenta Germaniae Historica inde ab anno Christi quingentesimo usque ad annum millesimum et quingentesimum. Legum Sectio II: Capitularia Regum Francorum I (Hannover 1883), online here, no. 22, pp. 52-62, angels canon being cap. 16.

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11 responses to “Seminar LXX: why you have to stay married, according to Hincmar of Rheims

  1. Middle C9th west europe it’s surely not the right place to look for stablished aucthority. Wasn’t Bodo who said that he heard of no less than fourteen opinions about the same subject on the frankish court?

    • Thankyou for the comment, I’ve not heard that one! I don’t suppose you can find the cite, can you?

      • This is the former courtier Bodo in his post-838 guise as Eleazar, exile in Muslim Spain and convert to Judaism, and his statement (as reported by the Christian Álvaro of Córdoba) that he had once seen 14 people at court hold 14 different religious opinions… Frank Riess discusses Álvaro’s correspondence with Bodo/Eleazar, in which the comment is preserved, in his article in Early Medieval Europe 13 (2005). Following Reiss, p. 148, the reference is in Álvaro’s Letter XVIII, section 14 (J. Gil, Corpus Scriptorum Mozarabicorum, 2 vols [Madrid, 1973]).

        • Thankyou! I figured it must be in the CSM, given the person involved, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to hunt it down myself… Much appreciated.

          • I must confess to feeling a trifle disoriented and strangely embarrassed at turning up unexpectedly this far south with a surprising bit of second-hand information. Must have turned left by mistake coming out of the Kattegat. Don’t mind me, I’ll find my own way home.

  2. Great Post!
    Would you mind if I linked to it for the upcoming history carnvial – 1st and 2nd Janaury?
    Thanks,
    Kaye Jones

  3. Pingback: Leeds 2012 Report 3 | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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