09.02.13, Wormald and Nelson, eds., Lay Intellectuals

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Mary Alberi

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.013


Wormald, Patrick and Janet L. Nelson, eds.. Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. 263. ISBN: 9780521834537.

Reviewed by:
Mary Alberi
Pace University

The sessions organized by the late Patrick Wormald at Kalamazoo in 1999 and 2000 challenged a number of scholars to reassess the laity's intellectual activities in the Carolingian era. The papers delivered at those sessions, published in this volume, rise to Wormald's challenge admirably, offering a stimulating portrait of lay intellectual life in Francia and England from the late eighth to the late tenth centuries. Regrettably, Wormald did not write an introduction to this collection before his untimely death. As editor, Janet L. Nelson pays Wormald fitting tribute by describing the scholarly interests which led him to this thought-provoking topic.

The lay intellectuals described in these papers were aristocrats, some of royal descent, or kings. Thomas F. X. Noble traces the fundamental values guiding their intellectual life to Charlemagne's program of correction, dating from the 780s. To be successful, correction required aristocrats, firmly committed to what Noble aptly calls the "ethos" of "secular sanctity," to hold royal office. This "ethos" reconciled cultivation of Christian wisdom with an active life in government and politics. Noble finds this "ethos" widely disseminated in ethical treatises, capitularies, and sermons written by eighth- and ninth-century Carolingian ecclesiastics. Lay aristocrats were more than passive recipients of the advice offered by these prescriptive texts, however, for they participated in discussions at court and royal assemblies. The "ethos" of "secular sanctity" served Carolingian kings by promoting consensus among officials participating in their royal ministerium. It also served aristocratic interests, because exemplary Christian conduct heightened their moral worth, confirming their noble status.

A number of papers consider lay intellectuals educated in this aristocratic "ethos" at Charlemagne's court, only to see it challenged later by political crisis. David Ganz confounds simple definitions of the lay intellectual's identity in a subtle portrait of Einhard. A pious lay abbot, Einhard called himself as a "sinner" to express his sense of humanity's fallen condition, which could only be remedied by the saints' intervention and the prayers of fellow sinners. Einhard assumed a different identity in his preface to his biography of Charlemagne, whom Ganz also considers a lay intellectual on account of his keen interest in learning. There, Einhard represented himself as a Frank, a barbarian, struggling to describe his great king adequately in the language of ancient learning, Latin. Ganz discerns a common thread running through Einhard's literary activity, the desire to urge the emendation of morals upon contemporaries whose sinful conduct merited divine punishment.

Another lay intellectual, Nithard--Charlemagne's grandson by his daughter Bertha--also received an education in the ideals of "secular sanctity" at court. Stuart Airlie's keen analysis of Nithard's Histories traces his increasing dismay, as the struggle to divide the Carolingian empire between 840-843 forced him to confront the disparity between his ideals and his contemporaries' treacherous conduct. Nithard wrote his Histories to convince his public, the supporters of his cousin Charles the Bald, of the righteousness of their lord's cause. Yet as he worked on the successive installments of his Histories, Nithard realized members of the royal family and their aristocratic supporters were destroying Carolingian political and social institutions in complete disregard of the public good. Nithard's moral outrage might have been repaid with the permanent loss of his lands.

Paul Kershaw focuses on Eberhard, margrave of Friuli, who seems to have avoided Nithard's inner conflicts. The son of Charlemagne's friend Unruoch, Eberhard married Louis the Pious's daughter, Gisela, then supported Lothar in the crisis of 840-843. Afterwards, Lothar entrusted him with command of Frankish forces against the Muslims in Italy. Kershaw skillfully demonstrates that patronage of Sedulius Scottus, Lupus of Ferrières, Hrabanus Maurus, and even the controversial Gottschalk of Orbais had a direct bearing on Eberhard's official duties, Frankish identity, and sense of himself as a lay miles Christi. In the 840s, Eberhard asked Hrabanus for a copy of his De laudibus sanctae crucis, whose opening dedication depicted Louis the Pious as a miles Christi. This book, together with the relic of the True Cross given to him by Louis, reminded Eberhard that the lay miles Christi must strive for spiritual perfection while governing and defending his empire's frontiers. Eberhard and Gisela's will of 846, which distributed their chapel's books among their many children, exhibits the same concern for Christian virtue applied to the performance of aristocratic duties.

Overcoming the limits normally imposed on women, the aristocratic and learned Dhuoda attained the status of an intellectual by writing her Liber manualis to guide her son William through the moral dilemmas of a politically troubled period. Through close analysis of the Liber manualis, Janet Nelson explains that Dhuoda could prescribe rules of conduct with double authority. As William's parent, Dhuoda wrote about honorable life at court and then, as his spiritual mother, instructed him about rebirth in Christ. Moreover, noble status and experience at Louis the Pious's court in the 820s enhanced Dhuoda's authority. Although a laywoman, Dhuoda possessed a remarkable degree of confidence in her own intellectual ability and expected her Liber manualis to circulate among an educated public at Charles the Bald's court.

At first sight, Valerie Garver's paper might seem out of place in this collection, for the women whose activities she describes, based on perceptive reading of the late ninth-century Vita Liutbergae Virginis, were not intellectuals. While still young, Liutberga was taken from a convent and adopted by a Saxon noblewoman, Gisela. Eventually she became a recluse at Windenhausen, a convent founded by Gisela's daughter Bilichild. Liutberga's biography offers incidental information about the practical skills aristocratic women taught each other about managing an aristocratic household and estates, or a convent. Aristocratic laywomen also played an important role in the religious instruction of children, supervising a household's pious devotions, and charitable works. Garver clearly demonstrates that the learning of aristocratic women was in harmony with the ideals of "secular sanctity."

Celia Chazelle examines an ivory made for a royal intellectual, Charles the Bald, in the third quarter of the ninth century. This ivory, which depicts the crucifixion, was later inserted into the cover of the early eleventh-century Pericopes of Henry II. Instead of searching for antique models, Chazelle draws upon her extensive knowledge of Carolingian sources to place the ivory in its ninth-century context. In particular, she modifies her earlier interpretation of two women depicted to the right of the cross. Seated under a gabled portico, one woman, wearing a crown and holding an orb, represents imperial rule; standing before her, another woman, representing the Church, holds a banner and touches the orb with her hand. Chazelle argues persuasively that this design, inspired by Hincmar of Rheims, taught Charles a moralizing lesson about Christian monarchy. By touching the orb, the woman representing the Church taught Charles that rulers must rely on ecclesiastical mediation of divine grace. Her gesture warns him to restrain his imperial ambitions, which evoked for Hincmar pagan Rome's distorted morality.

David Pratt confronts doubts raised by literary criticism about King Alfred's translations of works by Gregory, Boethius, and Augustine. Pratt argues convincingly that the translations were, indeed, Alfred's work, based on careful analysis of the texts in question and Asser's description of the king's scholarly activities within his household. Pratt suggests Alfred and his advisors discussed Latin texts which the king wished to adapt for an aristocratic West Saxon audience; then the king provided the vernacular translation, inserting his own comments on lordship and the responsible exercise of power. Alfred's personal conduct exemplified the Christian wisdom of his translated sources for the royal officials who helped him govern his kingdom.

Michael Wood's sympathetic portrait of Aethelstan depicts another intellectual king trying to rule with Christian wisdom. Aethelstan ruled according to the values of his boyhood education at Alfred's court. Once he established his "imperium" as "rex totius Britanniae," he brought scholars to his court to assist him in his kingdom's religious renewal. Close examination of manuscripts written for Aethelstan by these learned men sheds light on the king's intellectual interests and demonstrates his contribution to the renewal of learning in tenth-century England.

Scott Ashley's paper on Aethelweard, ealdorman of the western shires, has broad implications for understanding the intellectual life of the Carolingian era. A descendant of King Aethelred I, Alfred's older brother, Aethelweard translated the Anglo-Saxon chronicle into Latin for his kinswoman, Abbess Matilda of Essen, in the late tenth century. Loyalty to Carolingian intellectual traditions and Alfred's dynasty led Aethelweard into suppressing the troubled memory of recent political conflicts. Instead of recounting the royal family's violent disputes, his Chronicon fosters the illusion of order maintained by peaceful succession to the throne.

Richard Abels's conclusion draws a comprehensive picture of the early medieval intellectual while suggesting areas for further investigation. He emphasizes the unresolved tensions between the ideal of "secular sanctity" and the warrior aristocracy's military values. He also stresses the need for more research on the question of gender and learning. The term "Carolingian," which obscures Insular contributions and Alfred's use of the vernacular, also troubles Abels. He briefly considers defining England's intellectuals as "European," but does not pursue the point.

All the papers in this book are of high quality. They reveal the christianization of intellectual life among important lay nobles and kings, the result of education at royal courts and personal association as lay abbots or patrons, with ecclesiastics and ecclesiastical institutions. The intellectuals portrayed in these papers display few traces of secular or pre-Christian culture. Instead, their intellectual activities are focused on the attainment of Christian wisdom and performance of public duties with Christian virtue. Within their aristocratic, courtly society, highly educated lay intellectuals tried to use their Christian wisdom for the public good. They were acutely aware that the conduct of powerful men and women might influence their political communities for good or for evil. The papers in Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World demonstrate how thoughtful and learned individuals tried to find an honorable path in the active life, often in the midst of tumultuous political events.

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Mary Alberi

Pace University