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13.09.24, Keefe, The Explanation of the Creed in Carolingian Manuscripts

13.09.24, Keefe, The Explanation of the Creed in Carolingian Manuscripts

Anyone who has read Agobard of Lyon's early ninth-century treatise Liber contra insulsam vulgi opinionem de grandine et tonitruis ("A book against the absurd belief of the common folk concerning hail and thunder") comes away with the distinct impression that, despite Charlemagne's best efforts, the tenets of Christianity had very little adhesion in the Carolingian countryside. [1] As the work of the late Susan Keefe has already shown, this was not for want of trying. [2] Throughout the age of Charlemagne and his successors, Christian intellectuals produced thousands of manuscripts for the purpose of educating parish priests in the fundamental principles of Christian belief and providing them with instruments of reference to aid them in the instruction of their congregations. In the book under review, Keefe has assembled an impressive catalogue of Carolingian manuscripts containing explications of the creed and other statements of faith. The book is unusual for a catalogue, because it presents both an argument and an agenda for future research. In her short introduction, Keefe argues that Carolingian intellectuals did not compose many original texts to explain the creed, but rather gathered bits and pieces of late antique and Merovingian texts from a surprising number of genres and reorganized them into pastoral manuals and clerical study books. [3] Beyond the scope of Keefe's book was an investigation of the degree to which the impressive variety of source materials collected and deployed by the Carolingians in the service of religious education "reflects local preferences and even differences in the teaching and understanding of the faith" (11). Fortunately for early medieval historians and their students, the exploration of this important question will be much easier thanks to the monumental efforts that went into the assembly of this excellent resource.

Keefe's catalogue comprises two interdependent parts. While the organization of the book seems confusing at first, the introduction does a good job at explaining her rationale for presenting the material in this way. The first part of the book is a straightforward list of 393 individual works composed or selected by Carolingian compilers for the purpose of explicating statements of faith. These works are listed alphabetically according to their incipit. Each entry assigns the text a number (to aid in cross-referencing), provides the name of the author and the title of the work (when known), lists medieval manuscript witnesses and modern critical editions of the text in question, and gives some idea of the function of the particular document. Keefe identifies four broad categories of texts related to instruction in the faith: (a) creed commentaries (expositiones symboli), in which the author presents a word-by-word or line-by-line explanation of a popular statement of faith, usually the Apostles' creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed or the Athanasian creed; (b) explanations of the faith, in which the author provides a summary of Christian beliefs, including the nature of the trinity; the meaning of the incarnation, passion, death, resurrection, ascension and second coming of Christ; forgiveness of sins and salvation; and so on; (c) professions of faith, either personal statements attributed to patristic authorities or the pronouncements of church councils; and lastly (d) polemical tracts that reaffirm the faith against the encroachment of heretical ideas. As Keefe explains, these texts were surprisingly varied in their literary forms, despite their common function: creed commentaries could be short sermons or lengthy treatises; explanations of the faith could take the form of patristic florilegia or a personal letter, etc.

What makes Keefe's book so useful, though, is the second section, which describes the contents of every Carolingian manuscript in which the works listed in the first part of the catalogue were found. This section is organized alphabetically by the name of the library holding the manuscript, from the Bibliothèque municipale in Albi to the Zentralbibliothek in Zürich. Here Keefe provides the date and place of origin of the manuscript (when known), the number of folios, and its physical dimensions, as well as a brief mention of any additional information of use (like the presence of decoration or marginal glosses or Old High German). She sometimes offers her own tentative ideas about the function of particular manuscripts, with descriptions like "clerical instruction reader" or "monastic schoolbook" or "perhaps a bishop's collection of works for the instruction of his clergy." This attention to the manuscript context of each individual work is crucial for understanding how early medieval compilers understood these texts in relation to one another and how these manuscripts compilations may have functioned as a whole.

I came away from this catalogue with a much greater appreciation of the pragmatism with which Carolingian intellectuals combed late antique and Merovingian sources for useful tidbits of information pertaining to instruction in the faith. I was particularly struck by the way that they excerpted passages from Gregory of Tours' Historiarum libri decem, a work that I did not expect to find in this context. In one case (no. 80), a compiler copied out the personal statement of faith that Gregory included in his prologue to Book 10 of his Historiarum, attributed it falsely to Pope Gregory I and circulated it under the name Fides sancti Gregorii papae. In another case (no. 163), a compiler braided together separate narratives of debates with heretics and a Jew that appeared in Books 5 and 6 of Gregory's Historiarum to create a programmatic defense of the faith.

Needless to say, this work is a veritable treasure trove of information for scholars interested in Christian instruction in the parishes and missionary fields of the Carolingian world. Appended to the book are short indices of authors and places, but the anonymity of so many of these texts limits their utility. It is much more rewarding to sit with this book for a while, leafing back and forth between the two sections to get a feel for how it works. Once I understood how the book was organized, I spent much more time reading through the second section describing the content of the manuscripts, because I found it easier to move from the manuscript descriptions to the individually numbered texts rather than the other way around. Anyone interested in the spread of Christianity in the early Middle Ages should spend time with this valuable resource. Seasoned scholars are sure to gain insights from this book and graduate students will find an incomparable resource for research topics on the contested parishes and missionary outposts of the Carolingian countryside.



1. The most insightful study of this text remains Paul Edward Dutton, "Thunder and Hail over the Carolingian Countryside," in Agriculture in the Middle Ages: Technology, Practice, and Representation, ed. Del Sweeney (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995), 111–137; reprinted in idem, Charlemagne's Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 169-188.

2. See her Water and the Word: Baptism and the Instruction of the Clergy in the Carolingian Empire, 2 vols. (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002). Professor Keefe died unexpectedly in August 2012 at the age of 58.

3. This was an expression of a distinctly Carolingian aesthetic process that Lynda L. Coon has called "bricolage." See Coon, Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), esp. Chapter 2. Keefe does not use this term in her catalogue.