00.02.14, Willjung, ed., MGH: Das Konzil von Aachen, 809

Main Article Content

Martin Claussen

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.014


Willjung, Harald, ed.. Das Konzil von Aachen, 809. Concilia, Tomus II, Supplementum II.. Munich: Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1998. Pp. x, 666. ISBN: 3-775-25426-9.

Reviewed by:
Martin Claussen
University of San Francisco

Those of us whose scholarship is concerned with the early medieval period regularly meet with, and just as regularly are frustrated by, the entrenched belief that the era from between, say, 450 and 1050 was unsophisticated and indeed barbaric, and that it in fact deserves its common epithet of 'The Dark Ages.' These centuries are viewed as theologically and philosophically simple, their holiest men rule-bound conformists, their greatest thinkers mere epitomists, its greatest leaders only warlords. We find this depiction of the early middle ages in the historical surveys, textbooks, and even scholarly monographs on philosophy and theology, and they often, and indeed mainly, leap blithely from Augustine to Anselm (seven centuries!), with only a requisite stop at Eriugena to comment on his uniqueness.

But work over the last generation should go a long way towards correcting this injustice: Sidonius Apollinaris, the great fifth century poet, thinker, and bishop, has been the subject of much recent and welcome revision; the seventh century Liber scintillarum has begun to receive more attention; and the Carolingians themselves are finally beginning to be recognized for their contributions to the western theological tradition. Scholarship in English, beginning with Ann Freeman's important series of Speculum articles on the Libri carolini in the late fifties and progressing through her edition of this seminal text for the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, has been complemented with other recent studies on Carolingian theology, such as Susan Rabe's Faith, Art, and Politics at Saint-Riquier (Philadelphia, 1995), and Thomas Noble's forthcoming book on the Carolingians and images.

But despite the work of these and other important scholars, prejudices still remain. The most significant of these is the sense of a sort of intellectual inferiority when faced with the supposed theological and philosophical sophistication of the Greeks. This of course is not only an early medieval problem. The Romans certainly acknowledged the superiority of their Greek subjects in philosophy, and the same is often true in the early history of the church: wisdom was found in the eastern half of the Empire, and especially in those who were trained in the philosophy of Plato and his successors. In fact, one can see in the first ecumenical councils, with the notable exception of Ephesus and the appearance of the Tome of Leo, a condescending attitude by the eastern fathers towards their provincial western counterparts. While this particular attitude has been lost by the end of the twentieth century among philosophers, it is still quite prevalent in intellectual historians and those who are interested in church history. The west is always portrayed as simple, simple-minded, and simplistic in its theological pretensions. Even the blame for the eventual parting between the two halves of the Empire is usually laid at the feet of the Latins: it was they who stopped studying Greek, for it is never the fault of the Greeks who rarely bothered to learn Latin. And the same sort of blame is usually the underlying assumption for any discussion of western theology. Despite a number of recent English-language books that have tried to portray western theology as having different concerns that eastern, but no less orthodox for it--for instance, John Cavadini's The Last Christology of the West (Philadelphia, 1993), and Virginia Burrus' The Making of a Heretic (Berkeley, 1995)--many who study the theology of the early medieval west often will argue that early medieval Latins simply were not smart enough to understand the subtlety and sophistication of their Greek brothers, and that they consistently over-reacted to misunderstood Greek ideas: we see this in all sorts of literature, but it is especially clear when we examine the image controversy at the end of the eighth century, and the filioque controversy of the early ninth.

Harald Willjung, in the recent Monumenta volume here under review, has done medievalists a great service in presenting a new scholarly edition of the major texts associated with the filioque controversy. He has put forward coherent and compelling arguments regarding the real, not attributed, authors of some of these texts. He has demonstrated how these authors and their works are related to each other. And he has made some suggestive remarks about the Arbeitsweise karolingisher Gelehrter--the Carolingian way of proceeding--that should show once again that Carolingian thinkers were not mere compilers of patristic wisdom, but creative thinkers responding to real theological, philosophical, and political concerns. But as if this all of this were not enough, he has provided an enormous amount of background to, and discussion of the course of, this conflict on the nature of the Holy Spirit. The centerpiece of the book are the editions that Willjung has produced: Arn of Salzburg's Testimonia ex sacris voluminubus collecta, which has traditionally been ascribed to Alcuin; Heito of Basel's Testimonia de processione spiritus sancti; Adalwin of Regensburg's Testimonia de aequalitate spiritus sancti; and the better-known works on pneumatology by Smaragdus and Theodulf of Orleans. Also included are the decrees of the Aachen synod of 809, and the "Ratio romana de symbolo fidei. Each of these texts is preceded by a full discussion of the various manuscript traditions, the variations in the text under review, and of course a very complete apparatus criticus.

After a brief introduction, Willjung introduces us to the "problem" of the filioque--that is, the issues regarding the nature of the Trinity, and the relationship of the persons of the Trinity to one another. He begins, as is appropriate, with the first ecumenical councils, and the various creeds they produced. But he notes that although these declarations of faith state only that the Spirit proceeds from the Father ("spiritum sanctum dominum et vivificatorem ex patre procendetem"), the tradition that he proceeds equally from the Son appears very early in the west, perhaps by the time of Tertullian, and that it certainly has scriptural justification as well. The belief of the dual procession of the Spirit seems to have been especially strong in Visigothic Spain, and Willjung suggests that it was transmitted from there into Gaul through the dispersal of the Collectio Hispana, an early collection of canon law. Its first controversial appearance in Francia seems to have been at the 767 Council of Gentilly, where our reports indicate it was discussed along with the image question that would concern the Franks for the next 60 years and more.

In both the iconoclast and filioque controversies, the Carolingians staked out a position that was different than and opposed to both Rome and Constantinople. This might surprise those who would see in the Franks an unswerving devotion to the imperial city, to St Peter, and to his earthly vicar. But as the prologue to the Salic Laws make clear, the Franks saw themselves not as the heirs of Rome, whose citizens "had mutilated with fire or sword or else had thrown to the beasts to be torn" the bodies of the saints, but as the true followers of Christ. While the Romans had martyred the Christians, the Franks had their tombs "decorated with gold and precious stones." And so too with doctrine. Willjung argues that the eighth and ninth century popes saw both these questions as primarily political, and while there is no doubt that Charlemagne and his scholars understood the political implications of what they perceived as Byzantine heresy, we should take them at their word that they were also concerned to maintain the truth of Christianity. And when the popes urged caution or reticence in dealing with the Greeks, the Carolingians were adamant, at least initially, in staking out their position with the greatest possible clarity. And in staking out their claims to orthodoxy, the Carolingian thinkers, whether Alcuin or Theodulf or Smaragdus or Arn, all looked to the same sources. Willjung calls our attention to the fact that the authors cited in the Libri carolini appear over and over again in the context of the filioque as well. These authors, scriptural or patristic, were part of the "arsenal of the Frankish intellectuals," he says.

The course of the conflict over the filioque is well- known, but what is less well-known is how systematic the Carolingians were in developing and deploying their own position. Willjung argues that the Franks understood the controversy over images and that regarding the procession of the Holy Spirit to be connected, for both were symptomatic of misunderstandings about the person of Jesus Christ, his relation to the Father, his full assumption of manhood in the Incarnation, and his salvific work. These concerns were addressed over and over during Charlemagne's reign, in connection with adoptionism from Spain, iconoclasm from Byzantium, and the filioque dispute. To come to as full an understanding as possible about these issues, Charlemagne called together synod after synod during his reign, including the famous meetings at Regensburg in 792 and at Frankfurt in 794. But other regional meetings were held as well, such as the one in the mid 790s, led by Paulinus of Aquileia at Cividale. What is remarkable here is the degree to which the Frankish leaders expended resources to come to a consensus on a theological issue that, while it might strike us as arcane, was clearly very important to the Franks. Equally remarkable is the complex relationship to the past evinced in these texts.

It becomes more and more clear with each new study and edition published that the Carolingians were not parroting the classical and patristic world, but rather were engaged in a very complex relationship with the past. This relationship, which involved both a critical understanding and a pious reverence towards Christian antiquity, was the result of a serious contemplation about how the societas christiana should understand itself, its history, and its future. Harald Willjung has done the historical community a great favor by bringing together in an excellent edition yet another example of how seriously we must take the eighth and ninth century thinkers in their quest to understand their religion, their past, and ultimately, themselves.

Article Details

Author Biography

Martin Claussen

University of San Francisco