ICMS Session Report I: Session 4 – Carolingian Secular Culture

19 May
2010 International Congress on Medieval Studies
Thursday, May 13
Session 4
Carolingian Secular Culture I

This was my first session of Congress (you could probably figure that out based on the session number but I thought I’d re-confirm my stature as “Master of the Blatantly Obvious”). In reading back over my notes I have one desire – that I had taken better notes. I improved as Congress went on but they aren’t up to snuff for this one – and I have a feeling my summary won’t be either.

I felt that this was a very good session. All three speakers presented their ideas clearly and with a great deal of justification.

The first paper was titled, “Was there Such a Thing as Carolingian Secular Ritual?” by Christina Pössel of the University of Birmingham.

She opened with a description of the scene as recounted by Ermold the Black (a Carolingian poet) which related a highly stylized meeting between Louis the Pious and the Pope (Stephen IV). This is available elsewhere so I won’t go into detail but the message is simple – Carolingian rituals were often suffused with religious meaning. From this Pössel proceeds to her main discussion points; What is secular? How can the secular be separated from religious ritual?

She discusses how the Carolingians were highly religious – or at least surround themselves with religion. The Carolingian monarch is considered to rule due to God – certainly not an uncommon theme throughout the Medieval period. They use rituals to emphasize their “godliness.” And Carolingian education, for nobles and non-nobles – was all about exegesis (detailed study of texts). They were trained to closely examine and analyze the Bible, other religious texts, signs and symbols.

At this point Pössel’s message was clear – Carolingian ritual invoked a great deal of religion. However she believes there may be some areas which involve true secular ritual. To discuss this, she turned to Salic Law.

There are items in Salic Law which are described in great detail. In the Pactus Legis Salicae LVIII (pp 121-22, Drew, 1991) a ritual regarding payment for a homicide is recounted in which a person should throw earth over his shoulders with his left hand at various relatives, then, barefoot and shirtless (Pössel discussed without a belt – I’m using the translation I have at hand), and holding a stick should jump over a fence.

Pössel believes that these rites may be 6th century additions to the law and needed to be described in such detail because they are new. She believes it is possible that those rituals described with this kind of detail may be completely secular in nature. These would very much be a minority of rituals and would not impact the monarchy.

In essence, Pössel believes most Carolingian ritual is, if not religious in origin, then at least strongly influenced by it. However there may some isolated rituals that were performed based on older, pre-Christian superstitions and can be described as completely secular.

I enjoyed this paper. It discusses the kind of details of Carolingian culture that interest me. Her arguments were clear, as was her message, and her description of some of the oddly detailed Salic Law rituals was entertaining. For myself, even if these few rituals are purely secular, it’s pretty clear that they were far and away the minority and based on what we know, we can’t separate the religious from the secular in the vast majority of cases.

The second paper in this session was from Paul Kershaw of the University of Virginia, “Membrosus Heros: Theodulf, Wibod and Carolingian Categories of Secular Identity.”

This was a very entertaining paper. Kershaw was very animated  – I have to think he teaches a great class. In it, he uses Theodulf’s Ad Carolum Regum to discuss Carolingian secular norms and values and how they are displayed in this poem. I haven’t read this poem but I have heard of it as being descriptive of the Carolingian Court and Charlemagne and his family.

In this poem, Kershaw focuses on one passage in particular which I’ll reproduce below:

Perhaps the large membered hero, Wibod, will hear these verses,
shaking (striking?) his hairy head three or four times.
And staring with a harsh glare, I’ll be threatened by expression and exclamation.
He’ll bury my absent self beneath his threats.
If, by chance, he is summoned by the gracious kindness of the king,
He’ll go forward with sideward step and shaking knee,
His swollen stomach goes before his chest.
His feet, like Vulcan’s, his voice, like Jove’s. 1

Kershaw took this passage and flat-out ran with it. He discusses how Wibod is portrayed in contrast to other members of the court. He is loud, uncultured, barely able to control his emotions. His stomach implies gluttony and his “large member” implies other unseemly hungers. By his comportment, he is grouped with the barbarians who have been brought to the court.

This was a lot of fun. I have, not exactly a disagreement with Kershaw, but an area where I thought a bit more analysis may have helped. Again, not having read the poem I need to be cautious as I don’t know precisely how barbarians were characterized in this particular poem, however from what I’ve read elsewhere I don’t believe Wibod was actually grouped with barbarians but as a Carolingian who was not exactly what a Carolingian should be. While he is at the edge of his emotions, they don’t completely rule him. Quite often barbarians are portrayed as wild men – filthy, malodorous and completely unkempt. Theodulf doesn’t take things quite that far. And I’m reminded of the passage from the vita of Sturm where Sturm came upon some slavs and was so overcome by their stench that even he, saintly though he was, couldn’t bear to remain near them. (p 172, Noble & Head, 1995)

(I hope Wibod and barbarians aren’t characterized identically in this poem or I shall be as embarrassed as Theodulf must have been when he entered the baths accompanied by membrosus Wibod!)

So at least Wibod didn’t smell. Still, his characterization is such that it is clear who Theodulf thought was a “proper” Carolingian, and who was not. And it provides some insight into a culture that did not value power and strength above everything else – at least not without some reservations.

The Third Paper was titled, “Lay Bodies” by Lynda Coon from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville.

This will be an entirely inadequate description of a paper as the major topic of discussion involved the Plan of the Monastery of St. Gall. Those of you familiar with this era will know that while a much smaller monastery was actually built, historians have devoted much attention to the original plan which details a tremendous building complex including an extremely large church. Coon’s paper depended strongly on copies of the plan, for the church only, which she passed out so my description will be far briefer than this paper deserves.

Dr. Coon utilized the plan to show us how the Carolingians granted access to the sacred spaces of the Church and, through this access, how there appeared to be classes of pilgrims – all were granted some access, but the level varied.

The small, restricted entrance into the Church implies a closed place which is not entirely open to the world. Only a sixth of St. Gall was accessible for lay pilgrims while the remainder was reserved for members of the religious community.  Lay visitors were divided into two groups for the most part – invited guests and your “run-of-the-mill” pilgrims and no layperson, not even the Emperor, would receive the same level of access as clerics.

Pilgrims had access to the altars of some of the saints but not all – that of St. Peter was off-limits to the unconsecrated. While invited guests had some enhanced access compared with other pilgrims, this was not unlimited. Queens were granted the same level of access as other invited guests and women in general had access to the sacred space. There were precautions to keep pilgrims from mingling with residents but, at least from my notes, there weren’t additional precautions taken in the case of women.

Women were allowed to be present for the binding ritual of their sons – the ritual where initiates were “given to God” as clerics. The Church had altars dedicated to female saints and the plan does not appear to indicate a fear of women or of granting them access – which is a contrast to some monasteries which had male-only access.

To sum this all up, based on the Plan of St. Gall, the most important distinction appears to have been that between lay and clerical visitors. A second distinction was between invited guests and those who just showed up. Women do not appear to have suffered any substantial restrictions beyond those imposed on them by their lay and invited/uninvited distinctions. In essence, St. Gall was a sacred, restricted place, yet the designers appear to have intended it to be a place of such importance that visitors – male and female – would be granted limited access.

I am certain this is an inadequacy of my note-taking but I don’t have anything on where Dr. Coon received her information about access levels or routes through the Church pilgrims took. This may have been from her own analysis – I just don’t have anything written down and don’t recall it discussed. Thanks to Jonathan Jarrett for filling in this blank for me in his comment, below.

This was another good paper to top off a very good session. There was a lot of brainpower in this room – folks instantly recognizable to anyone remotely familiar with Carolingian studies. The papers were fairly diverse – some sessions will have papers which may overlap and even disagree with one another, which can make for a fun discussion. In this case the topics covered were independent of one another and included; one indicating how Carolingian culture was highly influenced by religion; another providing information related to Carolingian cultural norms and expectations and; a third indicating that even in their most sacred places, Carolingians recognized the importance of lay individuals as well as women – at least when it came to their spiritual well-being.

1 As cited by Kershaw: Theodulf, carm. 25 (Ad Carolum Regum), MGH Poetae I, 483-9, at 488, lines 205-212.

Drew, Katherine Fischer, trans. The Laws of the Salian Franks (Philadelphia, 1991). ISBN: 978-0812213225.

“The Life of Saint Sturm, Eigil”, translated by C. H. Talbot, in Noble, Thomas F. X. and Head, Thomas, eds. Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints’ Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (University Park, PA, 1995). ISBN: 978-027013459.


Posted by on May 19, 2010 in Conferences


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6 responses to “ICMS Session Report I: Session 4 – Carolingian Secular Culture

  1. Jonathan Jarrett

    May 20, 2010 at 9:19 am

    Again, seems like a fair write-up! May I clarify a couple of things? Firstly, Christina is at the University of Birmingham (UK) not Binghampton; and secondly, I think most of the details about pilgrim routes given by Professor Coon were coming off the plan itself, which is heavily annotated. There's a good enough facsimile of it on Wikimedia Commons here which, even without Latin, will give you some idea of how each area and chamber is marked for its purpose.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    May 20, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Thanks Jonathan – bit embarrassed about typing in Binghampton – and not catching it at least one of the 4-5 times I re-read it.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    May 21, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Well, I don't know much about Birmingham AL, but I can imagine that the name Birmingham may not ring with the sound of Carolingians to a US citizen!

  4. Medieval History Geek

    May 21, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I'm originally from New York State – about an hour's drive from Binghampton. I have a feeling I know why I typed it in without thinking – or maybe I was just trying to steal her for American academia!

  5. magistra

    May 21, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Thanks for the write-up of the session – it was one I was particularly interested in. If you want the full text plus translation of the poem Paul discussed, it's in Peter Godman's Poetry of the Carolingian Renaissance (pp. 151-163). But it's not the only depiction of laymen in the poem, some of whom, such as Einhard, are more politely treated. And Theodulf follows this with an even more vicious passage on a fellow cleric.

  6. Medieval History Geek

    May 21, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Thanks very much for the comment and the reference. If I had to guess I'd say he went after Alcuin since they had that stretch that was pretty ugly. I've seen it described as a "poetic debate." Not sure that terminology exactly captures the essence of it.


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