15.08.14, Gantner, Freunde Roms und Völker der Finsternis

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Thomas F. X. Noble

The Medieval Review 15.08.14

Gantner, Clemens. Freunde Roms und Völker der Finsternis: Die päpstliche Konstruktion von Anderen im 8. und 9. Jahrhundert. Vienna: Böhlau Verlag, 2014. pp. 322. ISBN: 978-3-205-79593-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Thomas F. X. Noble
University of Notre Dame

Building primarily on a close reading of the Liber Pontificalis and of the Codex Epistolaris Carolinus, Gantner attempts in this interesting and valuable book to explore how, when, and why papal discourse was deployed to the "other," the various peoples with whom the popes interacted. In particular, he looks at portrayals of the Byzantines, Lombards, Franks, and Saracens.

His first chapter examines the sources. Gantner's summation of current thinking on the emergence and continuation of the Liber Pontificalis is the most thorough and up-to-date account of the long controversy over this crucial text. He does not have his own theory on the topic. In general, he agrees with the views of Louis Duchesne, and where the actual production of the book is concerned he holds to the interpretation of François Bougard that it was prepared in the chancery on the basis of careful research in the records of the vestiary. I have taken this view myself. The Codex Carolinus presents other problems, ably summarized by Gantner. In about 791 Charlemagne ordered the preparation of a book containing Frankish correspondence with both papal Rome and imperial Constantinople as well as the papal and imperial letters to the Franks. In one late ninth-century manuscript we find only some of the papal letters to Francia. As Achim Thomas Hack showed a few years ago, some--how many?--papal letters were apparently omitted from the original collection and the extant manuscript may represent a further selection. While I am confident that Gantner has excavated a "papal" discourse, I do think he might have cross-examined his evidence a little more fully. I put papal in scare quotes because I am not certain that we can know who is actually speaking in these sources. Does the Liber Pontificalis represent the views of popes, of papal bureaucrats, of elite Romans? In so far as theCodex Carolinus constitutes no fewer than two Frankish initiatives can we, even though no one denies the authenticity of the ninety-nine surviving letters, be confident that we have in those letters unfiltered "papal" views? What is more, I think that Gantner could have been more rigorous in trying to identify the audiences for these sources.

In extracting a discourse from his Roman/papal sources, Gantner takes a quick run through some of the leading lights of discourse and post-colonial theory: Tzvetan Todorov, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, and others too. This discussion is interesting, albeit fairly limited in scope, and permits Gantner to arrange his discussion around such terms as alterity, othering, sameing, and so forth. As his extremely careful reading of the sources shows (see below), Gantner did not really need any of this theoretical ballast but perhaps it was irresistible for a young scholar. That is, in his conclusion he says, rightly, that shifts in discourse always attended shifts in political realities. I believe that discovery is empirical, not theoretical.

Gantner's first main chapter turn to relations with and perceptions of the empire. Of course, no one ever used the word Byzantine. In the seventh and early eighth century, if the term "Greeks" was used it was neutral and did not apply to any specific persons. From the 720s to the 740s the popes several times confronted "Byzantine" officials who mounted plots against them and sought to impose onerous taxes. These individuals were explicitly named and negatively described but no ethnic terms were applied to them. The iconophobe Council of Hiereia in 754 changed things dramatically for some fifteen years. Now the term "Greeks" appeared regularly and always pejoratively. From about 768 to 774 Popes Stephen III and Hadrian I were more circumspect because they faced intense Lombard pressure and lost confidence in their Frankish alliance. Once Hadrian and Charlemagne confirmed their pact, the nefarious, perfidious, heretical Greeks reappeared pretty much never to go away. This all makes good sense in the light of political developments in the eighth century. Gantner does make one very interesting point in his discussion of popes and Greeks: There was a sizeable Greek population in Rome and the popes had to take their sensitivities into account when speaking about "Greeks."

Gantner then turns to the Lombards. Down to the 720s they made little mark on papal sources. As the Lombards began to pressure Rome, papal discourse changed and became seriously negative. But the popes faced a complex situation: They sometimes allied with the Lombard dukes of Spoleto and Benevento against the kings in Pavia. Aistulf's conquest of Ravenna in 751 and his threats to Rome turned papal discourse about the Lombards decidedly sour. Pippin III twice brought the Lombards to heel (in 755 and 756) but in the 760s King Desiderius took advantage of Frankish preoccupations in the north and refused to make good on the promises of 756 and he even mounted new threats. Generally papal discourse remained negative, the Lombards were "othered," but things got a little tricky in the years 768 to 774--just when "Greek" discourse softened a bit--because of civil strife in Rome, uncertainties about the Frankish alliance, and perhaps a papal recognition that Rome might need to find a modus vivendi with the Lombards. Charlemagne's conquest of the Lombard kingdom in 774 changed things definitively. Although papal sources after 774 rarely speak about the Lombards, they were effectively assigned to the outer darkness.

Down to the middle of the eighth century papal sources treated the Franks just like many other peoples; they were one gens among many. From the 750s on the Franks were always characterized in friendly and positive terms. Unsurprisingly the Liber Pontficalis devoted considerable attention to the papal-Frankish alliance down to 774, but thereafter the Franks rarely appear in this source. The survival of the Codex Carolinus, however, constitutes a distorting lens. So few papal letters to anyone other than the Franks survive that it appears almost as if the Franks were the papacy's primary preoccupation. Gantner tries to make a case that the popes "othered" the Franks but did so without any negative connotations. When the popes spoke about their peculiaris populus they were referring to their "friends" (the friends of the book's title). The Franks were friends too but in a different way than the Romans and central Italians. I think Gantner is probably right about this, but the evidence is very thin.

Saracens come last, and receive scant attention. Gantner mentions the few instances where eighth-century papal sources make any mention at all of Saracens. The references are all negative, but there are too few of them to permit the construction of a coherent picture. Gantner then jumps to the letters of John VIII. In fact, in his opening chapter on sources, Gantner talks about the eleventh-century Collectio Britannica that contains the substantial surviving fragment of John's registers. Papal discourse treated all the Saracens as a single people. Partly Saracens were discussed as people threatening Rome and partly they were dismissed as non-Christians. In Gantner's way of looking at things, the Saracens were doubly "othered."

Above I expressed a couple of reservations about the production, voice, and audience of the sources. Let me conclude with a couple more reservations. Gantner's title features the eighth and ninth centuries, but his book is overwhelmingly about the eighth. In some ways it is legitimate for Gantner to drop the Lombards of the kingdom from his discussion after 774. He does, however, make some intriguing remarks about the emerging Lombard principalities of southern Italy and yet he does not follow this up. Papal Rome was hardly finished with the "Greeks" after II Nicaea (787). Iconoclasm flared up again in the ninth century. What is more, the letters of Nicholas I are packed with spicy discourse about the "Greeks." I wish Gantner had carried his analysis forward at least to the Photian/Ignatian problems and the Council of Constantinople in 870. Gantner's treatment of the Saracens is, frankly, perfunctory. Perhaps it is unfair to criticize a book for what it does not do. Maybe I am signaling ways for someone--Gantner himself?--to carry the research forward.

But I do not want to close on a negative note. This is a good book and what it does, it does very well indeed. No one has ever read these papal sources so carefully with such a gimlet eye for the question of how and why papal sources talked about the various people with whom they interacted. Gantner's "Vienna School" pedigree is clear. Gantner offers a new and more nuanced way of reading the political history of the eighth century. His book shows a mastery of the sources and scholarship, is nicely written, and carefully argued.

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