ICMS Session Report III: Session 148 – Carolingian Studies: Secular Culture III

22 May

Thursday, May 13
Session 148
Carolingian Studies: Secular Culture III

I very nearly went to a different session on this one. SLA had a “Late Antique Texts” session at the same time. But I decided to take advantage of the full Carolingian experience, at least for Day 1 of Congress.

The first paper was by Valerie Garver of Northern Illinois University on, “Keeping Up Appearances: Clothing and the Carolingian Lay Aristocracy.”

Garver’s paper addresses the concept of Carolingian norms of dress and contrasted that with how the lay aristocracy actually clothed themselves. She opened with the frescoes from the Church of San Benedetto in Malles Venestra, Italy. This is a 9th century Church where some frescoes have been discovered relatively recently after a whitewash layer was removed from church walls. One of the frescoes is of a man often interpreted to be the founder or benefactor of the Church. This man is dressed relatively conservatively with the most prominent aspect of the image being his sheathed sword, however he does have some color on his person, particularly his leggings. Garver continued with several other images which showed that Carolingian aristocrats liked to include a little color with their clothing – however to me none of these appeared overly ostentatious in the images.

 Frescoe from the Church of San Benedetto, Malles Venosta, Italy. Public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Clothing was used as a means of display and identity in Carolingian culture. How would Joe/Jane Peasant know if the person he or she was looking at was an aristocrat or member of the clergy without it?

Garver then proceeds to a discussion of the contrast between the ideal and reality. The ideal Carolingian dressed conservatively, with simple clothes and free from jewelry and other adornments. However frequently they didn’t adhere to this. Garver detailed information from several sources that address this. She discussed Odo of Cluny’s Life of Gerald of Aurillac. Gerald was a lay saint who also happened to be an aristocrat – a count. Among other things, Odo contrasts Gerald’s dress as he doesn’t wear gold, silk, decorative belts and buckles, etc. In this vita Odo offers a nice scolding to those who value fine clothing as having compromised their morals and that it would be more worthwhile for them to cultivate their souls rather than their clothes.

She recounted the anecdote from Notker where the Carolingian nobility, freshly arrived from a festival and adorned in all their finery (I’ve always liked the peacock feathers part of this myself) are invited to hunt with Charlemagne, dressed as they are. Charlemagne, of course, as the model Carolingian goes out wearing a simple sheepskin. As expected, the clothing of the nobility gets torn up, dirty and muddy and Charlemagne orders first, that they dry their clothing on their backs that day and, second, that they appear the next day in those very clothes. Charlemagne then gives them a scolding over their clothes, punctuated by another of my favorite images, a feat of sword-bending.

Clearly the ideal Carolingian as portrayed in the sources dressed modestly. Just as clearly, they did not all live up to this standard.

The second paper in this session was “Louis the Pious, Lord of the Hunt” by Eric Goldberg of MIT.

This paper discusses the portrayal of Louis as being an extremely enthusiastic huntsman, to the extent where his hunting has been characterized by modern historians as a reckless indulgence. Goldberg discussed the contemporary evidence which shows 27 distinct references to Louis hunting. Goldberg asks the question; Is this portrayal accurate?

Goldberg provided a brief summary of the evolution of Carolingian hunting. The Franks inherited hunting from the late Roman Senatorial Class and made it an integral part of the social institutions of the lay aristocracy. Clerics were prohibited from hunting but occasionally they did. Charlemagne is portrayed as hunting however it received much more emphasis in the sources later, particularly in sources written during or about Louis’ reign.

This paper then dives into the sources. Among those mentioned are Einhard, the Royal Frankish Annals, the Annals of St. Bertin, Nithard and The Astronomer’s Life of Louis the Pious. I won’t detail the entire use of the sources though a couple of details stood out and may be worth mentioning.

Goldberg believes that Louis’ hunting may have been frowned upon however certainly not by all sources. For example, Nithard rarely mentions hunting in association with Louis but is critical of Lothar’s hunting following the truce negotiated at Ansilla with Louis and Charles. (not mentioned by Goldberg that I recall is that Nithard was generally pretty critical of Lothar throughout) The Astronomer provides 17 accounts of Louis hunting but he also notes his fishing once and at that time compares Louis to the Apostles.

In essence, Goldberg believes that hunting was an integral, accepted part of Carolingian aristocratic life. The number of accounts of Louis hunting may be a simple distortion caused by the number of ninth century Carolingian sources and believing that contemporaries viewed Louis negatively because of his hunting may not be justified.

The final section of the Carolingian Secular Culture Sessions was a response by Dr. Thomas F. X. Noble of Notre Dame. This was largely a summary of the three sessions so I won’t recount it in detail however there were two items I marked in my notes as being of interest.

First, he does not believe we can identify Carolingians as secular but believes we should restrict the terminology to “lay.” It is just too difficult, based on the sources, to eliminate religious influences from their activities.

Second, in response to Dr. Golberg’s paper, he believed that Carolingian hunting may have been an activity associated with the start of Carolingian assemblies – sort of a “meeting before the meeting” or fulfilling the function of the modern pre-conference “golf social” many of us may be familiar with (I don’t golf so I’m usually anti-social during these).

This session was good, but for me it was less valuable than the previous two Secular Culture sessions. The speakers provided some good information, their papers were well organized and they utilized a considerable amount of source material. However, while I think Goldberg offered a fair amount of analysis and something new to think about, I’m afraid I can’t say the same for Garver. I think it’s fairly well known that the ideal was for aristocracy to dress conservatively and not devote themselves to ostentatious displays. And I think it’s fairly well known that this ideal wasn’t always followed. I don’t see where Garver’s paper went beyond that. If someone else in attendance has an alternative view, I’d certainly welcome it – possibly there was something there I didn’t see.

Overall, I enjoyed the three sessions. This is a touch beyond my period though I have read many of the sources and feel pretty comfortable discussing the Carolingians through Charlemagne. I am less acquainted with the later Carolingians, which is something I need to work on. In particular I enjoyed the papers by Pössell, Kershaw, Davis and Reimitz however I learned something from all of them and Dr. Kershaw deserves considerable credit for organizing this series of sessions.


Posted by on May 22, 2010 in Conferences


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2 responses to “ICMS Session Report III: Session 148 – Carolingian Studies: Secular Culture III

  1. magistra

    May 31, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    The really funny thing about Gerald of Aurillac, however, is that his modest consumption only went so far. There's a bit where he forgives a thief who's trying to steal from his tent – but what the man is trying to steal is a silk cushion. I suppose maybe it was a guest cushion, but that certainly suggests limits to his asceticism. In fact I once wrote a whole paper about contradictions in Gerald's asceticism.

  2. Medieval History Geek

    June 1, 2010 at 12:25 am

    Yes – I seem to remember on anecdote when he was whining because all he had to eat was bread – until a fish miraculously flopped onto the bank. And he was certainly stingy with his hand-washing water! I guess once Odo thought he had a good thing he ran with it but in a fairly long vita I thought that the hand-wash-water-cure story seemed a bit overused. Couldn't he have had someone cured of blindness by getting a stray beard-hair in his or her eye?I'll always remember Gerald as "that hand washing dude."


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