18.09.18, Gillis, Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire

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Thomas F. X. Noble

The Medieval Review 18.09.18

Gillis, Matthew Bryan. Heresy and Dissent in the Caroliingian Empire: The Case of Gottschalk of Orbais. Oxford: OUP, 2017. pp. viii, 277. ISBN: 978-0-19-879756-6 (hardback).

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

Gillis presents an interesting, important, and largely original book. The author claims that his is the first book to treat Gottschalk and all his writings in detail. The claim is just. Gillis's approach includes an excellent Introduction and Conclusion and each of the book's seven chapters contains a very fine introduction and conclusion. This approach makes for a certain amount of repetition but Gillis leads the reader gently through a lot of dense, difficult material. One exceptionally valuable contribution of the book is its numerous, fluent, and often lengthy translations from Gottschalk's works. I suspect that these are not well known, and that Gillis's translations will be welcome to non-specialists and to teachers in history, divinity, and religious studies.

Gillis does four basic things in his book: 1) He painstakingly reconstructs what can be known of Gottschalk's life from his birth shortly after 800 to his death on October 30 in some year in the late 860s; 2) He analyzes meticulously Gottschalk's substantial corpus of extant writings (and he draws too on excerpts preserved only in the writings of Gottschalk's enemies); 3) He situates Gottschalk securely in his Carolingian context; 4) He makes a case for thinking about Gottschalk as a dissenter against overbearing authority whose life and career have lessons for students of later medieval and post-medieval periods. I found the first two issues to be handled beautifully but I have some quibbles with numbers three and four.

The book's tiny print belies its slim profile on the shelf. That means that I cannot tax the reader's time with a full summary. Here are, in some detail, the high points. Gottschalk appeared on the historical stage at Mainz in 829 when he got into a furious battle with his abbot, Hrabanus Maurus. Gottschalk insisted that he had been forcibly tonsured and professed as a monk. Fulda had been wracked with controversy under the abbacy of Ratgar a few years before so the scene was volatile. It seems that Gottschalk objected to child oblation--he was a Saxon noble whose father had offered him to Fulda--and perhaps to monasticism itself. Hrabanus vigorously defended both. The enmity between these Carolingian luminaries would persist until both were dead. Gottschalk seems to have won the sympathy of some Saxon nobles by means of his argument that the witnesses to his oblation were not Saxons, as Saxon law required. Gillis plunges into Saxon history, legal history, and works such as the Heliand to work out the context for Gottschalk's first unhappy encounter with authority. Gottschalk was, to Hrabanus's distress, freed in 829 and he began what might have been a promising career. He studied at Corbie and won the patronage of Archbishop Ebbo of Reims. Corbie's abbot, Wala, wound up on the losing side in the rebellion against Louis the Pious in 830 and Gottschalk was somehow implicated. His writing career began with 84 lines of rhyming prose sent to Ebbo to claim that as God's loyal, innocent, and suffering servant (his name literally means "God's Servant") he had been unfairly blamed. This text--Domino Clementissimo--is extraordinarily rich in complicated biblical allusions which give a first signal to Gottschalk's ample learning and to how he would portray himself for the rest of his life.

By 835 Gottschalk had become a monk at Orbais (hence he is always called "of Orbais" although as we shall see it would be better to call him "of Hautvillers") where he was also ordained a priest. His friend Walahfrid Strabo had connections at court and this brought Gottschalk into contact with Duke Eberhard of Friuli, whose son eventually married a daughter of Louis and Judith. Gottschalk spent some time in Italy and there he began to teach his doctrine of twin predestination: Before the beginning of the world God had predestined some to salvation and some to perdition, thus Christ died only for the elect. His teaching and early writing provoked opposition but also, judging from his correspondence with Bishop Lupus of Chieti, some degree of support. Gottschalk then went off as a missionary to the lands north and east of the Adriatic. Eberhard and at least some locals supported him while Hrabanus got wind of his teaching and penned his De praedestinatione as well as letter to Eberhard who sent Gottschalk to Hrabanus. In a synod at Mainz in 848 Hrabanus led his bishops in condemning Gottschalk's teaching and he sent him to Hincmar. Again, Gottschalk seems to have had some support, perhaps from Abbot Hatto of Fulda.

In the winter of 849 Gottschalk wrote his Confessio Prolixior which he cast as a prayer like Augustine's Confessions, making him the first author since Augustine to adopt that format. He also offered to undergo a spectacular ordeal through a series of boiling liquids to prove that he correctly represented God's teaching. Gillis suggests that Gottschalk was influenced by stories of the martyrs Crispin and Crispinian whose relics were housed at nearby Soissons. In 849 at Quierzy Gottschalk was condemned again, beaten, required to burn his Libellus, and imprisoned at Hautvillers, where he spent the rest of his life.

Gottschalk seems to have won friends at supporters at Hautvillers who provided him with books and writing materials and smuggled his pamphlets on predestination out of the monastery. Gottschalk wrote to Ratramnus of Corbie--remember he had studied there--and asked him his views on predestination. Gottschalk also wrote to several other major and minor figures, partly to explain his views and partly to solicit theirs. In the 850s Hincmar decided that he had trouble on his hands after he learned that Gottschalk was circulating his writings and that in at least one case, that of Amolo of Lyon, Gottschalk had been severely censured both for his teachings and for rejecting ecclesiastical authority. Hincmar wrote deferentially (something he rarely did!) to Hrabanus to ask his views, probably because Gottschalk had labeled all those who disagreed with him "Hrabanian Heretics." Hrabanus wrote back once again condemning Gottschalk's contumacy and heretical madness (Gillis has interesting things to say about how, when, and why people were called "mad"). He also criticized Hincmar for not dealing more forcefully with Gottschalk. Subsequently a series of Synods from 851 down to 860 condemned Gottschalk again and again, always in the same terms: His teaching was heretical madness and he refused to accept legitimate ecclesiastical authority. During these years Gottschalk continued to distribute his writings, and he took up a new battle, over the meaning of trina deitas. The problems surrounding grace and free will, around foreknowledge and predestination, were, and are, extremely difficult for Christian thinkers. But Gottschalk's argument over the triune God simply flabbergasted his opponents who said they had never heard this phrase, had no idea where it came from, and were sure it was heretical.

During the 860s Gottschalk continued his battles with Hincmar. These battles were both principled and personal. Samizdat copies of Gottschalk's writings continued to circulate, and he found a new field on which to do battle. Hincmar undertook serious liturgical reform in his archdiocese and one dimension of this was the preparation of a new antiphonary. Gottschalk blasted this revision as blasphemous and heretical.

I have slighted Gillis's excellent discussion of the theological issues involved in Gottschalk's battles over predestination. It would simply take more space than I have already used to deal with them. Suffice it to say that he treats these issues both intelligently and sensitively. It was largely a battle over who properly understood Augustine, early or late, and the later Augustinian interpreters. Let me conclude with some broader historical reflections.

Gillis has read widely and has made admirable use of the scholarship. I might point out, however, that his fine discussion of Saxon context would have profited from attention to Caspar Ehlers's, Die Integration Saxons in das fränkische Reich (Würzburg, 2005) and Robert Flierman, Pagan, Pirate, Subject, Saint: Defining and Redefining Saxons 150-900 AD (Utrecht, 2015). More serious because of his central thesis is the omission of Marta Cristiani, Dall'unanimitas all'universitas da Alcuino a Giovanni Eriugena: Lineamenti ideologici e terminilogia politica della cultura del secolo IX (Rome, 1978).

Central to Gillis's book is an argument that "cosmic politics" were involved in the case of Gottschalk. Cristiani had already argued that if all were predestined then the whole Carolingian program of reform and renewal was utterly pointless. This is right. It is also a key aspect of Gillis's argument. There was something fundamental at stake in the battle over predestination.

Again and again Gillis says that Gottschalk's case reveals the "dark side" of Carolingian history. He means the oppressive, hierarchical, institutional side. The Carolingians worked by collaboration and consensus. I do not see why that is "dark", but I can see why Gottschalk thought so. He was condemned by council after council for more than a decade. Even though he called his opponents heretics we do not know for certain of anyone else who did so and figures such as Hincmar and Hrabanus were not lightweights. In light of the Christian tradition up to the ninth century, it is entirely legitimate to argue that Gottschalk was simply wrong. And in the context of Carolingian history, his condemnations were neither arbitrary nor extraordinary.

Gillis argues that Gottschalk was a unique figure. That he was. He must have been a compelling personality. He was brilliant, learned, a gifted poet, and a trenchant writer. He was also obstinate, querulous, and rude, not to mention supremely self-satisfied and pleased with himself. Gillis also speaks about "underground friendship networks" and "networks of dissent." He is for sure on to something here. And he is right to say that Gottschalk's case reveals how relatively powerless even a figure like Hincmar was in the face of a determined opponent. But how successful was Gottschalk? The monks of Hautvillers entered his name into their necrology under October 30 so they must have prayed for him as for other deceased brothers. Some other writers came down on different sides of the predestination case than Hrabanus and Hincmar but none as, as far as I can see, were fully on Gottschalk's side. How many others were there? And is it not significant that we do not hear a peep out of them after about 860? Gillis is right to say that Gottschalk was the only one in the Carolingian period to suffer the condemnation and punishment that he did. Others submitted. But I think this tells us more about Gottschalk than about the Carolingians. Gillis argues that Gottschalk accomplished much "through a unique array of strategies for causing controversy and scandals" (237). But is sheer obstinacy a strategy? For however much Gottschalk viewed himself as a martyr, as a wronged and loyal servant of God, are we to take him at his word and believe that the Carolingian establishment was "dark"?

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