Praying in tongues in a famine year

Well, I had promised that the next post would be a report on an age-old seminar paper by Dr Conor Kostick. However, I figured that by now he must have published it, so I checked that, and in fact it seems that he has not. In that case, it seems a little unfair to have a go at it when apparently it didn’t go any further anyway, so I’ve decided to drop that and instead haul something out of my unfinished stub posts from about the same time with which to entertain you. So this comes from the early stages of the first run of my Carolingians module at Leeds, HIST2005 Rule and Reform under Charlemagne and his Successors, 768–987. This was the first time I’d taught the Carolingians for more than a week, and so it got me reading a lot of things I honestly should have read ages ago but somehow had not, and one of these was the Capitulary of Frankfurt.1 In the middle of that, I suddenly came upon a question I couldn’t answer, and I still can’t, so I put it before you all.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 10758, fo. 25r

Opening page of the earliest manuscript copy of the Capitulary of Frankfurt, from the ninth-century Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 10758, fo. 25r, image via Gallica

For those of you not quite as deep as some of us in Charlemagne’s world, firstly a capitulary is a species of law-code issued as items under headings or capitula, quite a vague category, and secondly that of Frankfurt was quite a big deal. It followed on two years of bad harvests and a minor rebellion, and it seems that these events all had the leading men of Charlemagne’s massive kingdom worrying about whether God had withdrawn his favour from the hitherto-successful Franks and what should be done about that. There was also a fairly large-scale three-way theological argument going on with the Byzantine Empire and the Papacy and it was deemed necessary to depose the erstwhile Duke of Bavaria, a ruler nearly as prestigious as Charlemagne himself.2 As a result, the council left very little untouched, and the measures range from what might seem to us very practical ones, such as opening state stockpiles of produce for famine relief and fixing maximum prices to try and stop hoarders exploiting shortage to sell high, through high diplomacy and politics to spiritual ones about tightening Church discipline. These do make sense together in that framework of winning back God’s support, of course, but it means that one jumps quite quickly from information vital to numismatists like what you should be able to buy for a denarius, through the stitched-up denunciation of Duke Tassilo to orders to close down fake roadside shrines that people may have set up (perhaps people like Aldebert of a few years before, for readers with long memories) and indeed fake bishops.3 It’s a rare scholar now who would focus on all this equally.4 And on this particular read-through, there was one bit that struck me especially, which goes like this:5

“That no-one is to believe that God may be prayed to in three tongues only; for God may be worshipped and a man’s prayer heard, if he ask for things which are just, in any language.”

I don’t know about you—and sadly, I don’t think it sparked anything for my students—but for me, at least, This Raises Questions. Firstly, why had this come up? Was someone trying to tell their flocks that they couldn’t pray in the vernacular but had to learn something else? Should we see this as connected with the false shrines and so on, was this more bad churchmen peddling a strange line that needed stopping?

A niche on the roadside of la Vinya de Vallfogona

A niche on the roadside of la Vinya de Vallfogona, which would probably not have been cool in 794. Photo by your author.

Then, I wondered if in fact it’s not more like clerical magic that’s being prohibited here: this was apparently about getting stuff one asked for, in which case it might be thought more like a spell or an incantation than a prayer as such, and we might not be surprised that people thought it was a special language. Still, if it really were that, I think the Church would probably have been as down on it as they were on most magical practice (most…), whereas it seems in fact that all this is cool, as long as one asks for “things which are just”. So, maybe not. So, what?

Well, I can’t answer that, but it’s all washed away by the biggest question of all for this particular Carolingians geek, which is of course: what languages? This is in some ways like our old question about the so-called ‘Third King of Spain’; it may be more important to ask about the first and second… Now, Heaven only knows how many languages were spoken in the Carolingian kingdom at this (or any other) point: Latin, obviously, because here’s a text in it, maybe some Greek, Frankish (Einhard tells us so, quite apart from any other evidence), rather a lot of late Latin/early Romance forms presumably (as would soon afterwards turn up in the Oaths of Strasbourg), and then Frisian, Breton, Old Saxon, Old High German, some forms of Slavonic, probably Arabic in places, Hebrew, Old English and Old Irish in certain monastic communities…6 More than three, anyway, so which were the three that were being allowed? Evidently it was restrictive, so I would tend to assume that they were not vernacular, or at least mostly not so. Latin, Greek and Hebrew, the languages of the Bible? Latin, Frankish and Romance, the three most widely spoken, but still difficult if you were Breton or Croat? The different possibilities have quite different implications about who was being shut out of worship by some clerics somewhere: the rustics, or the irredeemably local? Was this about suppressing regional identities or about confining the practice of Christianity to an educated elite? Or something else? Either way, we note that Charlemagne and his advisors didn’t like it. But who did, and what were they trying to do, eh?

1. Text to be found in Alfred Boretius (ed.), Capitularia Regum Francorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges: Capitularia) I-II (Hannover: Hahn 1883-1887), I, no. 28 (pp. 73-78), translated in P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: Translated Sources (Kendal 1987), pp. 224-230.

2. For background see Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 768–987 (London 1987), p. 59; for more on the theological dispute see now Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia, PA, 2009) and for Bavaria, Stuart Airlie, “Narratives of Triumph and Rituals of Submission: Charlemagne’s Mastering of Bavaria” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 93–119, on JSTOR.

3. See n. 1 for references. These are clauses 4 (King p. 225), 3 (King pp. 224-225), 42 (King p. 229) & 22 (King p. 227).

4. Though most of them come up in the course of Rosamond McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge 2008). Separate studies are most obviously combined in Rainer Berndt (ed.), Das Frankfurter Konzil von 794: Kristallisationspunkt karolingischer Kultur, Quellen und Abhandlungen zur mittelrheinischen Kirchengeschichte 80 (Mainz 1997).

5. King, Charlemagne, p. 229 (cap. 52).

6. I admit to not having gone and checked them for this, but my two stock references for language in the Carolingian world are Roger Wright, Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France (Liverpool 1982) and Michel Banniard, Viva voce: Communication écrite et communication orale du 4e au 9e siècle en Occident latin, Études augustiniennes: Moyen Âge et temps modernes 25 (Paris 1992). I suppose I should get a new one now. Any suggestions?

36 responses to “Praying in tongues in a famine year

  1. Allan McKinley

    Isn’t the key question here who the intended audience for this decree was? It was presumably not a philosophical musing (not that this is unknown in early-medieval pseudo-legal texts), so was a response to something, and a response that someone, probably not the originator of the query, felt should be recorded in writing for some reason.

    My gut instinct is that this is a decree against rigourists who might seek to try and regulate communication with the almighty to the Biblical languages. A time of famine was likely to bring out an insistence on ‘correct’ behaviour, which may not have been theologically or politically acceptable to those at the Council. I’d be inclined to wonder if this hadn’t arisen as an issue because of a challenge to the perceived ‘liberalism’ of the established church teaching here. This might point to the sort of movements that lie behind Adalbert and false shrines, but might also indicate that at least in some areas of the kingdom the ecclesiastical hierarchy was not so established that alternative views about proper practice weren’t raised to a degree that royal assertion of the accepted practice was required to (from the point of view of the source) end the debate. But it would take some evidence to substantiate this…

    • I agree, and I’m not sure what that evidence would be. Episcopal statutes, I suppose, and then maybe some useful priest examinations… But is what we then imagine a church where the officiant is teaching his congregation prayers in Greek or Hebrew? Because if it was just Latin I feel that the specification of three languages wouldn’t be necessary.

  2. Yes, latin, greek and hebrew are the primary option (Duoda’s Liber Manualis being a relatively close carolingian reference). Maybe this anti-rigoristic clause can be interpreted as an endorsement for some newly converted context. A way to legitimate ‘rustic’ behaviours (something not so easy to defend on more cristianized or ‘civilizated’ ones)? Just a guess…

  3. Allan McKinley

    I’m not envisioning multilingual practice here, but rather an opinion that only those languages can be used to talk to God, regardless of how much any of those languages might be used within the community following this teaching. A practical eighth-century Frankish application of the principle would effectively be monolingual Latin prayer. And I wouldn’t look for the ideology we’re hypothesising in the pastoral evidence in particular. Those holding such a view are likely to be educated and elitist: I’d suggest monastic. An argument from a monastic source that the general devotional practices of the population at large were lax due to not meeting a perceived standard of linguistic purity would not be out of place in Charlemagne’s realm in the 790s, and meetings such as that at Frankfurt would be the place to address these ideas as much as popular beliefs.

    So as to the sources: there may be evidence of the ideology in monastic writings or even courtly sources, but presumably nothing direct or it would likely have been highlighted by now. The other place I’d look is charters, where the choice of words and formulae might show signs of an ideological attachment to prayer in divine languages, which considering how rarely people consider the non-operative part of charters might actually show something! But then I would suggest that…

    It’s a hypothesis anyway. Is there a counter-hypothesis for some form of popular movement?

    • If I were going to make one it would be related to the Capitulare Saxonicum or similar and basically be about a short-lived attempt to prevent the pagans’ tongue becoming a language of Christian worship, but there’s no actual evidence in that text of this happening and of course it would have to be short-lived, firstly because the provisions of that document were and secondly because of all the pious Old High German glosses we have from monastic contexts and so on. So, it would not be my strongest argument. I think it does have to be about non-Romance areas, though, don’t you? Because the one thing that seems obvious here is that Latin would almost certainly have been OK by all disputants’ standards…

      I agree with you, of course, about the importance of the non-operative parts of charters. But that’s another story…

      • Allan McKinley

        I think there’s an interesting observation here about our assumptions which are based on what we would assume was normal practice in our ‘home’ research areas. Despite your dalliance with the Picts, I tend to see you as basing your understanding on Catalonia, supplementing it from elsewhere; likewise Joan also seems to have a body of knowledge based on Latinate Iberia. The use of Latin liturgically seems normal in that context i assume.

        I come from a basis in Anglo-Saxon studies, with some Alsace thrown in to keep me grounded. To me the idea of people praying in a non-biblical language with ecclesiastical approval seems to be given; even literate Anglo-Saxon nobles probably didn’t speak Latin after all. Bede translated the Lord’s Prayer into English, in definitely Christianised eighth-century Northumbria; prayer outside of the Biblical languages was apparently fine for a major advocate of orthodox Christian behaviour, as it was for the Irish before that.

        Therefore, to me this is not about mission fields but rather about established practice somewhere in the non-Romance speaking parts of Charlemagne’s realm. It’s tempting to see established practice clashing with reforming instincts, and unusually for a Carolingian court source, the reforming instincts lose out. But that’s the view from the North (relative to the historical horizon); it’s interesting that from the South this looks like a liminal issue instead and perhaps could be construed as reforming missionaries overcoming conservative local usages.

        • That makes sense. If Charlemagne was ordering churches and monasteries to pray God many of them were surely doing-it in non ‘sacred’ languages. And the resort to utilize those ‘sacred’ languages also makes sense from the ‘magic’ perspective (specially if famine lasts and prays were perceived not being effective). Now, who could try to promote such an orthodox agenda in this context…?

          • Claudius of Turin or Agobard of Lyons spring to mind as archetypes of a certain unforgiving kind of Carolingian bishop. If we preferred a more social-systemic answer, though, I might look to areas in Germany where monasteries partly staffed by foreigners were doing the pastoral care. But that takes us back to the mission field again! I should therefore say, in response to Alan’s comment, that I’m not seeing that as people trying to overcome ‘conservative local usages’, so much as an attempt to bring in worship in imperial rather than local languages, a colonialist endeavour more than a multicultural one. There, D.N.’s bringing-in of the trial of Cyril and Methodius does seem to have some relevance, but it is of course also later, after thirty years of the development of a ‘penitential state’…

    • I share your thoughts. In times of great stress a common reaction is to ask why God is not answering our prayers. Someone or some group puts forth the idea that the reason we are not being heard is – (fill in blank). In this case I can see the idea floated that we are using the wrong language. I agree the most likely source is as you say educated, elitist and most likely monastic.

  4. It’s a reminder of the yarn about Charles V. “I speak Spanish to my generals, Latin to my Cardinals, Italian to my mistresses, French to my diplomats, and German to my horse.”

    I suppose the implication is that he spoke to God in Dutch.

  5. Perhaps the general idea was that prayer had to be addressed to the deity in the same languages as that deity’s scriptures.

    When Cyril and Methodius applied their new script in religious books for the Bulgarians, they were initially charge of heresy – to defend which one had to make the case in person before the western pope.

    But en route, they stopped at Venice where the local clergy harrassed them with a tirade which says in part…

    ‘….. We know only three languages worthy to be used in books for glorifying God: Hebrew, Greek and Latin.’

    His reply suggests that the same rule was applied whether the word of/to the deity was written or spoken, for he replied with a fascinating list of literate peoples, equating the written and the spoken word. The list is interesting, so I add that paragraph too:

    .. how is it that you are not ashamed to recognize only three languages, demanding of all the other peoples and tribes that they be be deaf and dumb? … We know many peoples who understand books and glorify God in their own [native] tongue.”
    The following are well known: Armenians, Persians, Abazgi, Georgians, Sugdites [=Sogdians?], Goths, Avars, Tirsi, Khazars, Arabs, Egyptians, Syrians, and many others…’

    His  ‘Egyptian’, of course,  meant Coptic.

    • And this brings us full circle, back to the mission field I just mentioned but from the other side. (It also links up because I was trying to explain Soghdians to a class earlier today. How often do Soghdians come up twice in a day in two different contexts? A Silk Roads conference is the only place I’ve hitherto known that happen.) Thankyou, this is also very useful. I think between you and Joan we can now say what the Carolingian default three languages of worship would have been.

      This instance has interesting implications, though, doesn’t it? Firstly, it suggests that the Venetians didn’t have or hadn’t paid attention to the legislation of their notional Carolingian masters on this issue, which may not surprise us. But secondly, it implies a lot more Gospel translations than we know about, unless I’m badly under-informed. Do we even know what language an Avar liturgy would have been in? And who do we suppose the Tirsi were? Fascinating stuff! What’s the actual source here?

  6. Hi, off topic but you are very welcome to draw on my unpublished seminar paper. I would be delighted in fact. Cheers, Conor

  7. Yulia Mikhailova

    I don’t know how relevant this may be in the context of the tenth-century Carolingians, but the so-called “three-language heresy” is a big deal in Slavonic religious literature. According to a Slavonic tradition, there were objections against Cyril and Methodius inventing a Slavonic alphabet and translating the Scripture into Slavonic, because there were only three accepted sacred languages, Latin, Greek and Hebrew. If I remember correctly, the argument was that these were the languages of the inscription on the Cross. So, the story was that Cyril and Methodius prevailed and the “three-language heresy” was condemned. Would it be possible that some ideas about “three languages” arrived from Byzantium? Through Theophanu, maybe? I will be happy to send some titles on Cyril and the “heresy,” but I need a few days time to find them – this is not exactly my field. Let me know if anyone is intrested

  8. Yulia Mikhailova

    Oh, sorry, I somehow overlooked the comment that refers to the same thing – I am new to this cite. Posted mine and then saw it.

    • Please don’t worry; that adds useful background. It begins to look as if maybe it’s contact with Byzantine theology in Italy or the Balkans that should be attracting our attention here, not the eastern mission frontier as I first posited…

  9. Thank you for your very kind reply. I am so happy htat I discovered your blog – I enjoy it greatly. I came across the blog when I googled “staatlichkeit” and “historiography,” and found your old post from 2014. I was very helpful, and I am already reading Pohl’s article that you cite there.

  10. Couldn’t in partly be about empire. From my hazy memory the definition of an empire was rule over several or many peoples. By emphasising the number and variety of languages in which God was prayed to, aren’t they also emphasising the breadth of the Carolingian rule.

    • I think that definition is from Bede, of all places, though he may have had earlier sources and of course his definition would have been known to the Carolingians. I certainy do agree that what you suggest is probably one of the points of issuing legislation about this issue in a major council, probably with representatives of most of those language groups present. I’m not sure that explains what the people who were being contradicted here had been up to, however, though a consensus around that does seem to be emerging.

  11. Allan McKinley

    A further thought here. There was possibly a precedent for the use of another language for holy rites, in the use of Gothic.Considering this precedent was linked with ‘Arianism’ it might explain some concern here.

    If course, the Irish had been translating holy texts for centuries, but I doubt that was going to reassure anyone in the Carolingian court circles…

    • Yes, OK, it’s a possibility, isn’t it? I wonder how much we know about how much the Carolingians knew about the mission to the Goths. They didn’t have Ammianus, and Orosius is slippery about Arianism. They had Theodoric’s statue, but would they have known what language he prayed in? (Greek, quite possibly! But if not, then presumably Gothic; yet that hierarchy had been gone for two centuries by Charlemagne’s time.

      • Allan McKinley

        They had the Gregories (the Great and of Tours) who were fairly uncompromising on the Arianism of Theoderic and the Goths. There’s a body of liturgical and canonical material concerned with Gothic teaching that was probably available in Italy at least. And the live example of Gothic Christianity for the Frank’s had probably been the Visigoths anyway (hey, another frontier where the inspiration for linguistic orthodoxy could have arisen). How easy this would be to piece together to get an accurate picture of Gothic-language liturgy would presumably require proper source digging to establish though.

        I would note though that the various manuscript witnesses to the Gothic bible text are seemingly preserved through Carolingian contexts. Codex Argentus went to Werden at some point, interestingly for a discussion which keeps touching on the eastern mission field, and Codex Carolinus apparently from Bobbin to Wissembourg (I’m looking at Otfrid here though as someone this might interest, so this might be after the Capitulary of Frankfurt). Other than the lead plates from Hungary as far as I can see all witnesses have an Italian and often a later Frankish transmission. Whether they were recognised as ‘Arian’ texts is a totally different question though.

        • I think your second point is stronger than your first one here, which may just be because as a McKitterick-taught medievalist I think manuscripts are real evidence… But I don’t think there’s much evidence at all for Gothic still being used in Spain by the Visigoths, other than personal names, so I’d be inclined to assume that their Arian liturgy was in Latin. Like you. however, I wonder how obvious the Gothic Bible text makes its theological position. Presumably things like the Creed have to be different, but that’s not actually in the Bible, is it?

          • Allan McKinley

            Sorry, I wasn’t implying Gothic liturgy was an issue for the Carolingians in the Spanish March, as I’m pretty sure someone would have recorded something about it, either to complain about it or to discuss its theological significance, this being the Carolingians. It was live in the sixth century, whilst Gothic Christianity was still separate from Catholicism. I don’t know of any evidence about the language of the liturgy of the Visigothic version of Gothic Christianity, but the continued label of Arianism might suggest it was Gothic: since there’s no evidence I’ve encountered of any Ostrogoth or Visigoth actually denying the divinity of Christ, the Arian link could well be the use of Wulfila’s liturgy, as he was an actual Arian. The lack of surviving early Hispanic manuscripts means that there’s much less chance of preservation of any Gothic liturgy than in Italy, where preservation is much better, so the lack of manuscript evidence is probably not significant.

            I suppose though that for these points to be relevant the hypothetical Gothic-language liturgical manuscripts would have to be known in the eighth-century Spanish March though. Unlike in Italy (and Pannonia) there’s no textual evidence surviving to suggest this was the case though, so it’s a bit of an intellectual cul-de-sac…

            • All of that agreed, but to which I’d have to add, in that area Adoptionism had rather replaced Arianism as the Christological heresy du jour. I’m sure one could make the link, and for all I know Alcuin did it in his various beat-downs of Felix of Urgell, something I should know. But the fact that the literature seems determined to see that as the influence of Islam rather than the influence of Arianism suggests to me either that this is not the right tree up which to bark, or else that there’s a theology thesis here for somebody (or of course, that I have missed something relevant in the course of my limited background work on the area this far back). I feel like this is something that Joan Vilaseca may know, if he’s reading still…

              • Yep! A lot of possibilities for the ‘gothic’ factor. Yes, adoptionism was seen as a form of arrianism to frankish catholicism (probably a political issue, if we remember that Alcuin was acting with Beatus against Felix and Elipandus), and yes, the gothic liturgy was mediated/preserved by ‘mozarabic’ contexts. In that sense I was just trying to relate the ‘lingua inerudita’ (Epistola Litteris Collendis) almost from the very same context of the post, and the later ‘conversatio rusticorum’ on Barcelona (a.860-878) denounced at Troyes and the change in Lex Visigothorum to include provisions against sacrilege promoted then by pope John VIIIth. (although, is not clear to witch extend in has to be understood as a linguistic or ritualistic matter, probably both, as it seems there’s a semantic overlap between language and rite/custom for ‘conversatio’). In any case, the push for language orthodoxy of Charlemagne’s times was contested in C.IXth as there was a couple of frankish councils to favour the use of local lingua… Witch take us back to the initial point, as the need to make explicit calls also indicates a continued local tension between clerics and populace… :(

                • Thanks Joan. I continue to find the controversy over Felix of Urgell hard to understand. I don’t think it’s as simple as his loyalty to the Frankish effort being questionable because of his links to Toledo, or they surely wouldn’t have left him in charge at Urgell so long, or tried to put him back. I think they genuinely needed him there and just couldn’t persuade him to pretend to be orthodox enough to allow that. Likewise, the stuff at Troyes I have written about here before, as you know, and I think there’s probably a local political context for that too, with the Frankish-backed bishop of Barcelona facing vocal and well-supported claims by others to his bishopric’s lands, also visible in Charles the Bald’s documents for the area. I think the phrasing of the document makes it clear that they want to condemn theft of Church property as sacrilege to make it more fiercely punishable, much like the later move of settlement into sagreres to achieve the same result; I don’t think this bit’s about language.

                  I had, however, forgotten the bit about conversatio rusticorum in that council; in fact I’m not sure I ever noticed it! I very much doubt that’s Gothic: how would Gothic have percolated down to the peasantry from a military élite of four hundred plus years before? I think you’re probably right that it’s not speech but worship that’s at issue here, unlike in De litteris colendis. But as you also point out, the Carolingian intellectual élite could take both sides on this issue, and I wonder if really, this dispute was ever about the actual worshippers, rather than the clergy who ministered to them…

  12. The idea of Greek, Hebrew and Latin as the three sacred languages comes in in Patristic times, based on John’s Gospel account of Pilate having the sign over Jesus’ crucifixion in these three. And the relevant German wikipedia page ( says this description is in Isidore and Hrabanus Maurus and thus would probably be known to a wider monastic audience. So is this possibly a response to some overconfident monks implicitly or explicitly telling potential donors that only their monastic prayers work properly, especially when even in western Francia, most of the population are only speaking “rustic” Latin, not proper God-pleasing Latin? Perhaps this is Charlemagne’s concerns about the need for proper Latin coming back to bite him?

    • Thankyou! It’s interesting that it’s in Hrabanus, whose work presumably postdates this same council and so in that sense should have ‘known better’. But I suppose that prayerful and sacred aren’t the same thing, necessarily, and the point about correct Latin is very sharply made; did Carolingian intellectuals see normal spoken Latin of this era as Latin at all, or something more romana-ish? I should know, and don’t.

  13. Sorry to come into the conversation so late (traveling), but the Irish tradition of Biblical exegesis has a particular fascination with the three sacred languages, to which they felt free to add their own vernacular gloss or macaronic text (as does my friend Aldred in the Lindisfarne Gospels gloss and colophon). See McNally, Robert E. “The ‘Tres Linguae Sacrae’ in Early Irish Bible Exegesis.” Theological Studies 19 (1958): 395–403.

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