The Medieval Review 10.06.06

Booker, Courtney. Past Convictions: The Penance of Louis the Pious and the Decline of the Carolingians. . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009. Pp. 420. $75.00. ISBN 978-0-8122-4168-6.

de Jong, Mayke. The Penitential State: Authority and Atonement in the Age of Louis the Pious, 814-840. . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 340. $99.00. ISBN 978-0-5218-8152-4.

Molineaux, Natalie. Medici et Medicamenta: The Medicine of Penance in Late Antiquity. . Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2009. Pp. 334. $39.95. ISBN: 978-0-7618-4429-7.

Reviewed by:

Kevin Uhalde
Ohio University

Modern people may not suffer under "la tyrannie de la pénitence" that, according to Pascal Bruckner, crushes the spirit of Europe and especially France. [1] But we have no shortage of public penitents. Some of them seem mindful of their place in the history of sin and forgiveness, whose origins Natalie Molineaux surveys in her published dissertation. When, for example, the governor of South Carolina recently confessed to adultery and debated whether to remain in office, "a lot of soul searching" led him to ponder the biblical David--homicide, adulterer, and God's chosen king, the supreme precedent for a penitent politician not ready to step down. The governor found it "interesting" that the king had erred so spectacularly but afterwards "humbly refocused on the work at hand." [2] He did not mention how God also showed David the future and allowed him to vanquish Absalom, his rebellious son. Tanta vis fuit paenitendi, Cicero once observed--"so great was the power of repenting." [3]

When Louis the Pious did penance at Soissons in October 833, he had already faced revolt and seen much of his own support abandon him on the infamous "Field of Lies" the previous June. Indeed, Louis had repented already at Attigny in 822 for his alleged complicity in the death of his nephew, Bernard of Italy. Now, at the insistence of a council that met at Compiègne and under the gaze of Lothar, his son, Louis removed his military belt and donned penitential garb, thereby relinquishing his rule--only for the time being, as it turned out. Much to the surprise and inconvenience of those who had witnessed his humiliation, Louis was formally restored to the throne in 835 and reigned until his death five years later.

These events and the reactions of the deeply involved parties who wrote about them are the subject of Mayke de Jong's and Courtney Booker's fascinating books. Two studies so closely related in subject, sources, and methodology, both taking apart the evidence in meticulous readings and carefully assessing the literary and political contexts, beg to be read together. This is no simple task, and not merely because one author writes Ebo and the other Ebbo; one Radbert and the other Paschasius; one the Black and the other Nigellus. Later I shall address substantive differences between their approaches. Despite these, however, when it comes to particulars, De Jong and Booker share common points of departure and arrive at similar conclusions more often than not. Both insist generally that scholars take the religious and moral content of the polemical literature seriously. Both argue that the criticisms turned on Louis in 833 were an extension of his own reforming efforts, which demanded accountability. The language of correction and iniquity, derived from scriptural and patristic authorities, was the genuine political discourse of the age. But it was in flux, its boundaries being created and tested by its participants, who sometimes went too far. Both scholars identify themselves as revisionists with respect to traditional Carolingian historiography and, in Booker's case, to the "anachronistic hypercorrection" supplied by other recent revisionists as well (8). Both append their own translations of the same key text. [4] Finally, both authors have written books that are artfully constructed, wonderfully erudite, full of delightful excurses, and difficult to summarize adequately.

In her introduction, De Jong recounts the long gestation of her interest in Louis' repentance. A project born at least in part from research on the history of early medieval penance, to which she has contributed fine studies cited by both Booker and Molineaux, metamorphosed into a reassessment of Louis' political viability after the unrest that began in 828. Her main argument is two-fold. First, she agrees with Janet Nelson and others that Louis remained an effective ruler and that scholarly reports of his weakness have been much exaggerated. Second, her signal contribution to this reassessment is to demonstrate that Louis' penance, along with its discussion by supporters and critics alike, fit into an "implicit notion of accountability" (4) and "a normative frame of reference" (113) rooted in Charlemagne's reforms and deeper still in late antiquity. For Charlemagne, this had meant that the kingdom must make collective amends for its sins. What changed in the 820s and came to a head around 833 was the notion that Louis might shoulder that responsibility personally, as the minister of his realm, in the same fashion that bishops were accountable to God for the people of the church as its watchmen. The result was the "penitential state" of the title, in which ruler and subjects shared a common understanding of accountability before God, an accountability wholly embodied in the ruler as both prophet and king.

Nevertheless, something did go awry in those tumultuous years. The rhetoric of admonition, which was the accepted counterpart to correction and accountability, turned so pointed as to exceed the acceptable limits of decorum. What De Jong does best is to introduce readers into the world of her authors and their audiences, "court- connected" persons with "shared notions of commendable behaviour or its opposite," delivering "a constant bombardment of messages...on who had lived up to expectations and who had not" (59-63). This is the critical framework for her detailed analysis of texts as they were enmeshed in political rivalries and the eschatological language of sin and atonement. The arguments accumulate over several chapters, with numerous and worthwhile digressions on topics ranging from Latin biblical vocabulary (see below) to sorcery. Throughout, De Jong makes her case by means of close, often line-by-line readings of her texts. I shall return below to one of the most important of these, the Relatio episcoporum drafted by the bishops at Compiègne in 833 (235-41), and to a letter purportedly written by Pope Gregory IV (220- 4). [5] Her book culminates, in the final chapter, not with the humiliation of Louis, but with the fall of Ebo, Archbishop of Rheims, who had abandoned his king after the Field of Lies and publicly confessed to his own, unspecified, capital crime. "Overheating," as De Jong puts it in a running metaphor, "the machinery of the penitential state spun out of control" (249, also e.g. 213).

Metaphors and colloquialisms throughout the book evoke the lively atmosphere of a seminar room, and the helpfully concise narrative of Louis' entire reign that constitutes the first chapter will be useful for future students. The informal mode, though, often signaled by expressions of doubt, suspicion, or inclination, sometimes stands insufficiently in the place of more systematic argument and proof. For example, De Jong "doubt[s]" that a knowledge of ancient tragedy influenced the Astronomer's work (88) pace a suggestion made by Booker and greatly extended in his book; [6] a reader may want to know why she doubts and what is the pertinent evidence, especially because De Jong soon after turns to a contemporary author who was famously well-versed in Terence, the comic playwright (110). [7] A different sort of informality affects "the Latin vocabulary of admonition," a crucial component of her subsequent textual analyses, because she chooses not to treat it "exhaustively but merely [to] indicate the biblical context of crucial words" (118). In fact, her analysis here is much more probing and consequential than "just a brief reminder" that Carolingian authors knew their Scripture (120). But I cannot be sure why certain "crucial words" were chosen over others, whereas Booker, as we shall see, demonstrates precisely where and why he isolates a similar "vocabulary of admonition." Nonetheless, what I have called informality also makes this a stimulating book to read, especially for graduate students, who will find many leads to promising areas for further research, some of which De Jong has staked out for her own future work.

According to De Jong, then, Louis came out not only undefeated but triumphant; he managed to bring back under control the "machinery" of the penitential state, while Ebo was crushed in its gears. Ebo--or Ebbo--figures prominently throughout Booker's study as well. Indeed, Booker turns the fate of this bishop into a major component of his argument (ch. 5). For in the course of several church councils and some remarkable letters from him, from his most ardent opponent, Hincmar of Rheims, and even from Charles the Bald, the "selective, obliging nature" of the events surrounding 833 was reshaped, not to vilify or vindicate Louis the Pious, but to justify the collective action of his bishops. Only later would "such malleable memories" harden into the "symbolic cliché" of the forsaken king (206-7). Meanwhile, political discourse had changed in ways that would forever affect the remembrance of Louis' penance. Instead of a direct continuation of the "notion of accountability" De Jong traces to Charlemagne, Booker argues in his final section (ch. 6) for a mode of criticism distinct to Louis' reign and based on equitable versus iniquitous rule, rather than on the assessment of utilitas dominating the discourse in Charlemagne's reign. Like De Jong, Booker musters evidence to show that not only bishops, whether they were for or against the king in the 830s, but Louis himself had promoted these terms of accountability: the king was "enframed" by his own "ideological program" (214). For Booker as for De Jong, Louis prevailed in his lifetime. But in the next phase of "discursive shifts," just as equity had replaced utility, authority would come to displace equity as the main criterion of good rulership. Thus Flodoard of Reims in the early tenth century substituted the word aequitas with auctoritas when he reworked the entry from the Annals of Saint-Bertin for Louis' restoration (248).

Part of the enjoyment and challenge of this book is not knowing what will come next. Whereas De Jong is deeply interested in how relationships and events in the 820s and early 830s precipitated a breakdown in the acceptable discourse of accountability, Booker deliberately approaches his subject through the hindsight of his authors, so that events matter less than memories. Louis' penance at Attigny in 822, for example, was pertinent to how commentators assessed the sincerity of his later penance, but it receives the briefest attention here (159, 163; cf. De Jong , 122-32). Instead of dwelling on the past, Booker looks far into the future, spending the first half of his book investigating successive generations of chroniclers, historians, philosophers, and playwrights who rehearsed the events of 833--a thousand years of "theatrical duplicity" (121). Anyone eager to get to the events of 833 (for which see 161) will find these fascinating chapters a long route to travel if their only purpose were to justify analyzing neglected texts, namely those written by the bishops who heard Louis' confession and oversaw his penance (cf. 131 n. 9). Of course, it is the journey that interests Booker. Only his fourth chapter is focused squarely on the early 830s and Louis' penance. In the other five chapters, Booker is searching for how different generations thought about society and political change. Fortunately for readers who may lose their bearings in this broad panorama, Booker supplies tables showing which author wrote when and on what side of the question, tables worth having at hand while reading De Jong's book as well.

The difference between these books is not just one of chronological scope. Booker never includes De Jong among the historians whom he criticizes. Indeed, along with referring often to her important studies on early medieval penance, monasticism, and Carolingian historiography, he several times credits her in the text and endnotes with "path-breaking" work (e.g. 213). De Jong, too, cites Booker's previously published work and one essay, then still forthcoming, that would become his first and third chapters. Moreover, both draw inspiration from many of the same scholars, including Philippe Buc, Geoffrey Koziol, Janet Nelson, and Thomas Noble, whose commendation appears on Booker's cover and whom De Jong identifies several times as a correspondent. But, whereas De Jong writes to revise a traditional narrative, Booker proposes a new sort of narrative: "What happens if the 'pivotal' events of Louis' reign--and the events of 833, in particular--are instead seen within a continuum of process and transformation? My conviction is that they become understandable on their own terms, rather than tendentious in ours" (10). Booker's prose is polished, larded with literary allusions, but occasionally given to theoretical or otherwise difficult wordplay (e.g. 181: "Louis' concatenate iniquity was numerologically consummate"). And when Booker claims to discern the "intertextual, a priori influence" of the Rule of Benedict (175), we might anticipate De Jong's reaction, based on a comment she makes about a different scholar's argument: "This takes intertextuality one step too far" (74).

Although his scope is broad and his approach thoroughly "intertextual," Booker is careful and methodical when it comes to interpreting particular texts. The Rule of Benedict, for example, is of concrete importance when Booker analyzes the Relatio episcoporum, together with Agobard of Lyon's Liber apologeticus and a letter to Louis' loyal bishops from Pope Gregory IV. What Booker refers to as "the winding course of the textual analysis" (180) is an ingenious argument about this document's careful construction. Demonstrably aware of the Rule of Benedict's instructions for pastoral correction, the bishops open the record of their proceedings against Louis by explaining their responsibility to "reprove" and "entreat" (arguere and obsecrare) wayward Christians (140-2). But this invokes only two of the three escalating modes of correction that Benedict had derived from 2 Tim. 4:2 and which culminated in "rebuke" (increpare). Booker shows how the bishops drop this third shoe in their narrative only after Louis had confessed to the offenses ascribed to him and welcomed penance: then the bishops offer him their digna increpatio (165). De Jong also identifies a three-fold escalating vocabulary for correction in her third chapter, "Admonitio, correptio, increpatio," although she does not analyze the Relatio in this context or argue for the direct textual influence of the Rule of Benedict. Nevertheless, although they sometimes center their arguments on different evidence, both authors agree on the importance of monastic reform to those who debated Louis' penance and to the king himself, who after all was called "the Monkish" by Benedict of Aniane's biographer (Booker, 224).

Whether Booker takes "intertextuality one step too far" may be a matter of taste. De Jong at times could go further and more carefully. Gregory IV's letter to the loyalist bishops is a case in point. While Booker should have alerted his readers to the arguments made from as early as the seventeenth century against its authenticity (135-6, cf. 356 n. 214), De Jong (220-1) presents these doubts as more creditable than Egon Boshof, whom both authors cite, showed them to be. [8] Here also is an instance where De Jong's mix of translation and close paraphrase is too imprecise. "The bishops," as she writes in the voice of Gregory, "should remember that the more one shakes a sewer, the more shit comes out of it" (223). This is an impossible image and not what the Latin says. The original text (MGH, Epist. 5: 231) reads: "In hac re memor esse debuerat sollercia vestra, quia quicumque cloacam commovet, quanto amplius commoverit, tanto ampliorem fetorem exalari facit." Booker points to a possible parallel in Augustine (339 n.27; Civ. Dei 1.8); still closer possibilities are to be found in Cassian (Coll. 20.10) and Prudentius (Psych. 721-3). But I first thought of the sermon on penance preached by Pacian of Barcelona in the early fourth century, in which the bishop ridiculed the notion of rousing the impenitent to repentance: "filth stinks most when you stir it." [9]

Penance has a history, and a literature, of its own. That is not the subject of either of these wonderful books, but it might one day enrich and even alter their arguments, once that history is better understood. Neither author discusses whether and how Carolingians who were not kings did penance, but there have been important recent studies, some of them by De Jong. [10] Before deciding to situate her present study against the "modern grand narrative" (e.g. 100) of Louis' shame and decline, she wrote influentially against another "grand narrative," according to which the practice of penance fell rapidly into decline after the fourth century, recovering only with the rise of private penance beginning in the Carolingian period or even later. [11] In this book De Jong refers directly to these larger issues only in passing (esp. 233-4); for his part, Booker relies mostly upon De Jong when it comes to the practice of penance. The legacy of ancient penance here is represented above all by Emperor Theodosius I, the first Christian prince to perform public penance in 391 at the insistence of a bishop, Ambrose of Milan. This famous event was the point of departure for Rudolf Schieffer's important study, "Von Mailand nach Canossa: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der christlichen Herrscherbusse von Theodosius der Grosse bis zu Heinrich IV," which both authors cite frequently. [12] But surely Carolingian ecclesiastical writers had more than Theodosius on their minds when it came to penance. Might authors so familiar with Ambrose's letters, his De officiis, and his De apologia prophetae David (Booker 203-8, 220-1), or with Leo the Great's letters and homilies on episcopal authority (Booker 176-9, 245-6), also have studied those authors' famous reflections on the practice of penance? More thorough and systematic attention to the penitential literature from late antiquity might reveal other important influences on our Carolingian authors. It falls to historians of late antique penance, not to De Jong or Booker, to catch up with those who have been studying later periods.

Natalie Molineaux has made a courageous attempt to do so. A book of such scope is exactly what is needed to supplement or replace older surveys of the sources, most notably those by Oscar Watkins and Cyrille Vogel. [13] Her study is divided into two parts. The first reviews the scholarship on penance from the sixteenth century up to De Jong's essay in 2000. The second samples sources ranging from Mesopotamia through Gregory the Great. Molineaux's main historical argument is that a salutary, inspiring, and accessible form of penitential life--couched in medical metaphors--is traceable from the Desert Fathers to Cassian. Because of its influence, "confession and penance came to be valued as a means of empowerment rather than humiliation" (xvii). But her method and aims are less to do with exactly how this might have happened and more with "modern philosophical discourse, particularly as regards the origins of religion and a belief in the existence of a religious a priori" (3). I confess that by the end I still do not understand how "the notion of a religious a priori" (279) furthers her historical analysis, unless it means that "the medicine of penance" is intrinsic to the human psyche or human society and needed only a religious veneer--a theological framework--to become palatable and useful for Christians.

Whether or not Molineaux intends to go so far, the problem throughout her book is discerning what sort of penance is under discussion by any given scholar or in any given text. In his own sweeping study of confession, Raffaele Pettazzoni once wrote, "altro è la sanzione del peccato e altro la confessione." [14] Molineaux quotes several times from an English summary of this three-volume work--in fact she relies heavily on translations, as well as reference works, throughout the book--but Pettazzoni's point is vital. The historical study of penance always demands discrimination, because once one begins reading the late antique sources, no differently than Booker and De Jong's Carolingian sources, penitential language seems to be everywhere. Molineaux has found many older scholars worth revisiting and ancient texts needing further study. But hers is a very difficult book to read. Riddled with mechanical errors and ungrammatical prose, the text enjoyed no copyediting.

Still, Molineaux's ambitious scope and her willingness to consider non-Christian ideas about repentance suggest where we may expect the most fruitful new research into the history of late antique penance: namely, into its own past. Classicists such as David Konstan have begun exploring the possible influence of Greek and Roman philosophical notions of repentance in early Christian writers. [15] Even those writers' memories of penance could be fraught and consequential. A recent article by Allan Fitzgerald on Innocent I's important letter to Exuperius of Toulouse in 405 reveals the bishop reaching back uncertainly into the age of persecutions in order to justify forgiveness for a dying penitent. [16] The same week in which a modern governor invoked King David as his penitential role model, I was reading a homily by an author from around the 380s called Ambrosiaster. The fact that David remained on the throne was for Ambrosiaster proof that the king "deserved pardon and was restored to his pure condition." But more than just his throne, David's repentance won him foresight, for David had made his famous plea for mercy--the Miserere mei Deus (Ps. 50[51])--before God revealed to him in a dream his coming victory over Absalom's forces (Ps. 3; cf. 2 Sam. 18). [17] Other penitents also became prophets. Origen in the third century recalled that eleven of the Psalms were written by sons of Korah, who had rebelled against Moses and was swallowed up by the earth along with hundreds of his followers. Three sons, however, "poured out a prayer of repentance" so sincere that, like David, they won God's forgiveness and the gift of prophecy. Moreover, Origen tells us, the fortunate sons would enjoy only happy prophecies containing "nothing grievous or bitter against sinners." [18] Tanta vis fuit paenitendi. There is much more research to be done in the late antique sources. But we may hope one day to read a book about the penance of Theodosius I that is as novel and brilliant as what De Jong and Booker have written about Louis the Pious.


[1] Pascal Bruckner, La tyrannie de la pénitence: essai sur le masochisme occidental (Paris: Grasset, 2006), now translated by Steven Rendall as The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). See Nathan Bracher, "Bruckner and the Politics of Memory: Repentance and Resistance in Contemporary France," South Central Review 24:2 (2007): 54-70.

[2] Taken from his statement at the televised confession and from another statement immediately following: Zachary Roth, "Sanford: King David Didn't Resign, So Why Should I?," Talking Points Memo, June 26, 2009 didnt_resign_so_i_wont_either.php (accessed December 15, 2009).

[3] Tusc. 4.79, where Cicero describes Alexander the Great tormented by remorse over having killed Clytus in a fit of rage.

[4] Booker translates from his own edition of the Relatio episcoporum, published too late for De Jong to use it: "The Public Penance of Louis the Pious: A New Edition of the Episcoporum de poenitentia, quam Hludowicus imperator professus est, relatio Compendiensis (833)," Viator 39 (2008): 1-19. De Jong also translates Agobard's testimony to Louis' penance, the only such affidavit to survive.

[5] One error in De Jong's book that may confuse non-expert readers is the sole full citation of the Relatio in the Abbreviations, p. xv, which refers to MGH Conc. II/2, pp. 51-5. This should be p. 695, while the actual text is at MGH Capit. 2, pp. 51-55, no. 197.

[6] "Histrionic History, Demanding Drama: The Penance of Louis the Pious in 833, Memory, and Emplotment," in Vergangenheit und Vergegenwärtigung: Frühes Mittelalter und europäische Erinnerungskultur, ed. Helmut Reimitz and Bernhard Zeller (Vienna: Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 2009), 103-128.

[7] Similarly at p. 74, De Jong expresses her inclination to follow Ernst Tremp's rather than Matthew Innes' take on Thegan's use of Einhard but does not explain why. In her introduction, however, De Jong does warn the reader, though with specific regard to ch. 1 (12): "Choices had to be made, and one of these was not to engage in protracted footnote wars with fellow specialists."

[8] Boshof, Erzbischof Agobard von Lyon: Leben und Werk (Cologne: Boehlau, 1969), 225-8, who concluded: "Die Kritik, die die um Ludwig den Frommen versammelten Bischöfe an seiner Parteinahme übten, hat er dann mit der schroffen Zurückweisung beantwortet, die ihn nun noch fester an die Lotharpartei band."

[9] Pacian, Sermo de paenitentibus 1.4, ed. C. Granado, trans. C. Epitalon and M. Lestienne, Sources chrétiennes 410 (Paris: Du Cerf, 1995), p. 120: "Atque ut caenum solet tum maxime foetere cum moueas, et incendium tum magis...ita illi obiurgationis necessariae stimulos contraria calce fregerunt, non sine suo quidem malo et uulnere repugnantes."

[10] Some recent work on penitential practice includes Rob Meens, "The Frequency and Nature of Early Medieval Penance," in Handling Sin in the Middle Ages, ed. P. Biller and A. Minnis (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1998), 35-61; Richard M. Price, "Informal Penance in Early Medieval Christendom," Studies in Church History 40 (2005): 29-38; Catherine Cubitt, "Bishops, Priests and Penance in Late Saxon England," Early Medieval Europe 14 (2006): 41-63; Abigail Firey, "Blushing before the Judge and Physician: Moral Arbitration in the Carolingian Empire," in A New History of Penance, ed. Abigail Firey (Leiden: Brill, 2008),173-200.

[11] Especially De Jong, "Transformations of Penance," in Rituals of Power: From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, ed. Frans Theuws and Janet L. Nelson (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 185-224. Also see Rob Meens, "The Historiography of Early Medieval Penance," in A New History of Penance, 73-95; Sarah Hamilton, The Practice of Penance, 900-1050 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2001).

[12] Deutsches Archiv für Erforschung des Mittelalters 28 (1972): 333-70.

[13] Oscar D. Watkins, A History of Penance, 2 vols., repr. ed. (New York: Franklin, 1961); Cyrille Vogel, Le pécheur et la pénitence dans l'église ancienne, repr. ed. (Paris: Du Cerf, 1982); idem, Le pécheur et la pénitence au moyen âge, repr. ed. (Paris: Du Cerf, 1982).

[14] La confessione dei peccati, 3 vols. (Bologna: Zanichelli, 1929-36), vol. 1, p. 49.

[15] E.g. David Konstan, "Assuaging Rage: Remorse, Repentance, and Forgiveness in the Classical World," Phoenix 62 (2008): 243-54; his Before Forgiveness: The Origins of a Moral Idea is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press. Also see Robert A. Kaster, Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), ch. 3.

[16] Allan D. Fitzgerald, "Innocent I: Insight into the History of Penance," Revue d'études augustiniennes et patristiques 54 (2008): 95-110.

[17] Ambrosiaster, Quaestiones veteris et novis testamenti, ed. Alexander Souter, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 50 (Vienna: Tempsky, 1908), Quaestio 102.5, pp. 202-4; also see ibid. 112.1, p. 286. For knowledge of Ambrosiaster among Carolingians, see e.g. Luitpold Wallach, Diplomatic Studies in Latin and Greek Documents from the Carolingian Age (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1977), ch. 6 et passim.

[16] From the translation by Thomas P. Scheck, Origen: Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press of America Press, 2002), p. 270. For Carolingians and the penitential Psalms, see Jonathan Black, "Psalm Uses in Carolingian Prayerbooks: Alcuin and the Preface to De psalmorum usu," Mediaeval Studies 64 (2002): 1-60; idem, "Psalm Uses in Carolingian Prayerbooks: Alcuin's Confessio peccatorum pura and the Seven Penitential Psalms (Use 1)," Mediaeval Studies 65 (2003): 1-56.