12.11.20, Close, Uniformiser la foi pour unifier l'Empire

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Jennifer R. Davis

The Medieval Review 12.11.20

Close, Florence. Uniformiser la foi pour unifier l'Empire: contribution à l'histoire de la pensée politico-théologique de Charlemagne. Classe des lettres. Bruxelles: Académie royale de Belgique, 2011. Pp. 367. ISBN: 978-2-8031-0287-7.

Reviewed by:
Jennifer R. Davis
The Catholic University of America

Heresy has been a recurrent phenomenon in western European history, but it is also not a constant one. In the late eighth century, debates about heresy again became a major preoccupation of the intellectual elites in the Carolingian world. Florence Close's new book is a study of the main heresies and some of the theological disputes which attracted the attention of scholars and churchmen during the reign of Charlemagne, namely Iconoclasm, Adoptionism, and the procession of the Holy Spirit. By re-examining the response of the court of Charlemagne to these contested issues, Close demonstrates well the theological acuity of Carolingian scholars and illustrates the political resonance of these religious debates.

The book begins with an introductory section composed of two chapters. The first chapter provides background to the topic by considering certain aspects of the early history of church councils and responses to heresy. While the treatment of these issues in a book focused on the reign of Charlemagne must be brief, the selection of topics is limited. There is little said, for instance, about the history of councils under the Merovingians. Close does make some mention of earlier Frankish councils at various points, but more attention to the preceding currents of thought and mechanisms of debate would have provided contextualization for her discussion of theological contestation at Charlemagne's court. The second chapter looks at the Visigothic church, by way of illustrating the development of the Adoptionist heresy in Spain. The material on Visigothic Spain usefully situates the analysis of Adoptionism to come. These first chapters also include a brief introduction to the procession of the Holy Spirit and to Byzantine Iconoclasm, but in less detail than is devoted to Adoptionism. The emphasis primarily on Adoptionism in this first section creates some confusion about the focus of the book. Close explicitly frames her work as a study of the three main theological disputes which troubled the reign of Charlemagne, yet her presentation of introductory material emphasizes Adoptionism at the expense of the other two controversies. Similarly, the debate about the procession of the Holy Spirit is not a heresy in the same way as the other contested issues. It was certainly a debated topic, but it does not fully fit with the other two disputes.

The tension between an analysis of three debates and a particular stress on Adoptionism persists in the rest of the book. Part two is a careful, chronological examination of theological controversy from 767-794. The parameters of this section are set by two famous Frankish meetings (the status of the first as a council can be argued, as Close discusses): namely, at Gentilly in 767 and at Frankfurt in 794. While Close points out issues that arise in these years which will recur in debates about the procession of the Holy Spirit, this section of the book is primarily devoted to Iconoclasm and Adoptionism. The third part of the book continues chronologically, investigating in detail the years 797-799. However, the theological debates of this period that Close is interested in relate almost entirely to Adoptionism. The fourth and final section of the book moves on to address the procession of the Holy Spirit, but largely in terms of the ideas presented at the end of the eighth century and very early ninth. There is thus little discussion of the council of Aachen of 809, for example. The consequence of this organization is that the book shifts from issue to issue. The book is neither fully chronological nor organized around each debate separately, nor indeed around the thematic similarities Close sees in the three together. The structure of the book has entailed repetition that could have been eliminated. Most of the book in fact consists of an analysis of the Frankish response to Adoptionism. One wonders whether structuring the entire volume around this topic, with the other controversies brought in as comparisons, might have been helpful.

The treatment of the three issues together does have its advantages. According to Close, the three debates are linked by the Trinitarian concerns they raise and by their status as occasions the Carolingian court could exploit to encourage theological discussion. She fully succeeds in demonstrating both these points. All three controversies did involve, at least in some sense, debates about the relationship among the three persons of the Trinity. A primary concern of the book is to elucidate the development of Trinitarian theology in the Carolingian period, and Close usefully situates Carolingian ideas within the context of Trinitarian discussion throughout the Middle Ages. All three debates are also issues the court chose to respond to, and were situations in which successive Carolingians wanted to articulate the orthodox position.

This approach to the three debates as part of a unified theological discourse does introduce some problems, however. First, although Close is able to demonstrate ideas from one controversy recurring in another, most of the analysis actually focuses on how particular individuals, like Alcuin or Paulinus of Aquileia, both major scholars of the period, return to certain ideas in various contexts. Does this mean then that the three debates were part of a shared intellectual discourse, or that particular people, in responding to different issues, tend to draw on particular concepts they find important? Separating out the individual from the court is a persistent problem in historical evaluation of this period. It is one thing to identify certain individuals employing concepts to understand more than one controversy, quite another to posit the existence of an underlying Trinitarian concern guiding the response of the Carolingians to three distinct issues which arose and were dealt with in very different circumstances. Close's insistence on Carolingian contributions to ongoing medieval debates about the Trinity is compelling, but I remain unconvinced that there was a deep unity to the three debates under consideration here or to the Carolingian response to them. Second, the focus on continuities tends to limit the attention given to contestation. For example, Close examines different creeds produced during the period. She is interested in the particular circumstances and ideas surrounding each text and offers some fruitful comments on these issues. Yet, she also attempts to demonstrate how the different texts fit into the court's worldview, rather than seeing them as ideas that do not entirely coincide, not least because they were advocated by different people. I will return to the framing conception of "unity" below, but Close apparently presumes, and looks for, a unified court opinion on theological questions, when in fact the court of Charlemagne had room for, and indeed, depended on, contesting viewpoints. Finally, the three debates Close addresses were three disputed issues which attracted the attention of intellectuals in the Frankish world during the reign of Charlemagne. But they were far from being the only theological concerns of the period. For instance, there was a profound interest in baptism at the time. Many of the issues which came up during debates about Close's three theological questions were also relevant in discussions of baptism. Singling out three debates both overstates the unity of reactions to different issues, and also narrows the focus to just one aspect of theological speculation at the court of Charlemagne.

The framing argument of this book is that the ultimate goal of theological discussion by Charlemagne's men was to introduce uniformity of faith in order to create unity in the empire, to paraphrase the title. Yet, this is not how unity worked in Charlemagne's world, because orthodoxy never required full uniformity and because Charlemagne's vision of unity left ample room for difference. Close assumes that orthodoxy equals uniformity and that uniformity equals unity in the empire, but neither equation is sustainable. Scholars have long recognized that the reality of religious life in the Carolingian world was one of diverse local practice. It used to be argued that the Carolingians wanted to foster unified religious behaviors and simply failed to achieve their aims. More recent work has elucidated the ways in which Carolingian regimes actually sought to create unity, and has clarified that uniformity was in fact not always necessary. Historians of the liturgy, to give one example, have demonstrated that liturgical unity was encouraged in a quite limited number of contexts; Carolingian liturgical reform left room for a fair amount of diversity, not just in practice, but in intention. Close is right that heresy had to be eliminated. Charlemagne insisted that people believe rightly. The ultimate end of Charlemagne's governance was salvation, which depended on Christian belief. However, all the unity that was required to achieve salvation was that people get the basics right; the details could, and did, vary. Unity in Charlemagne's empire was more a matter of correct belief than of uniform belief.

Close's claim that the point of a theological statement about a debated issue was to introduce uniform Christianity which would immediately lead to political unity leads her to try to link the writings of various individuals into a court viewpoint. She is careful to note that Charlemagne himself was not a theologian. But she at times does elide the perspective of a particular intellectual with the perspective of Charlemagne himself. Charlemagne certainly wanted men he trusted to respond to the issues of Iconoclasm, Adoptionism, and the procession of the Holy Spirit, among others. What the court aimed to foster, however, was debate and discussion. As a general point, Charlemagne sought to get things done in his empire in many ways at once. No one person was entrusted with a single task. The king depended on several people working on the same issues at the same time, which prevented too much power from accumulating with any individual, but also allowed Charlemagne to benefit from the service and ideas of multiple people at once. Theological debate was no different. Charlemagne wanted his men to clarify what was orthodox and what was not. One needed clarity on the essentials; for all else, those Charlemagne asked to advise him could disagree. Allowing scope for images in Christian worship, for example, was necessary. Unanimity about all aspects of the proper use of images was not necessary.

Despite my reservations about the framing of this study in terms of a unified religious and political discourse at the court of Charlemagne, the book makes a significant contribution to scholarship in three respects in particular. First of all, Close's clarity of expression is admirable. She is discussing complex and sometimes abstruse theological speculation. Yet, she does so in clear, precise language that is easy to follow, without simplifying the issues she is addressing. Second, her analysis of the stages of response to Adoptionism in particular is important and interesting. Much of our source material for this topic came from the pen of Alcuin. Close offers a sensitive reading of his texts and the development of his ideas, and re-dates some of the major letters he wrote relating to the heresy. Her analysis of the theological writings produced during these debates is cogent and often compelling. Third, this is a period whose theological thought is frequently denigrated by modern scholars, who see it as derivative and redundant. Close is well aware of the patristic foundations of Carolingian theology, but she takes Carolingian writers seriously. Her focus on ideas about the Trinity also allows her to place Carolingian thought in the context of Trinitarian concerns throughout the Middle Ages, illustrating how Carolingian ideas about the Trinity continued to influence later theology. It is impossible to come away from this book without a renewed appreciation of the serious work done by Carolingian theologians in response to the challenges of Iconoclasm, Adoptionism, and debates about the procession of the Holy Spirit.

Heresy and theological disputes have been a fruitful topic of research in medieval studies because what is seen at particular times and places as deviant tells us so much about the political center. However, studies of heresy and other theological controversies tend to overlook the Carolingian period. Close's book reveals that theological disputes in the late eighth and early ninth century offer an important window into understanding intellectual culture and the role of the center in trying to shape theological debates. All three controversies Close examines were battles the Carolingians chose to fight, with consequences which persisted for much of the Middle Ages. Her careful analysis of the nuances of response and the leitmotifs of debate invites us to appreciate the novelty and the intellectual vigor Charlemagne and his men demonstrated in choosing to take up these theological challenges.

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Jennifer R. Davis

The Catholic University of America