There has been something of a Carolingian renaissance of late. While it remains true that that was a terrible attempt at a joke, it also remains true that there has indeed been a relative boom of studies reassessing eighth- and ninth-century Francia, with some even (rightly, to my mind) seeing lines of continuity stretching well into the tenth century.  Andrew J. Romig's just-published book is a fine addition to this corpus, as it pushes us to fundamentally rethink what we know about the Franks and how they conceptualized the world around them. Romig does so by focusing on discourses of gender among and about the Carolingian aristocracy. In so doing, by tracking this discourse across multiple centuries, he convincingly analyzes the shifting intellectual climate and perhaps more importantly demonstrates how these discourses delimited the fields of action within which Frankish aristocratic men--both lay and clerical--could operate, responding to successive crises but shaping how they responded in ways that had very real political and cultural ramifications.
After a brief introduction, Romig's first chapter begins his story in late antiquity, focusing on Augustine and Pope Gregory I the Great but ultimately demonstrating how a conscious choice of translation by Jerome transmitted agape to the Latin West as caritas. Augustine used caritas in his philosophical debates with the Stoics but it was really the Rule of St. Benedict and the work of Gregory the Great that demonstrated how caritas "properly understood" could provide a model of asceticism, and by extension a path to salvation, that would be applicable to all men. Chapter 2 then shows how these ideas applied to the reign of Charlemagne. The key text here is the 789 CE Admonitio Generalis, which "framed caritas not simply as an ideal that Frankish men were encouraged to enact but quite literally as the foundation of Frankish authority" (35). Paulinus of Aquileia and Alcuin subsequently took these up in their Laienspiegeln for, respectively, Eric of Friuli and Wido of Brittany. In both, the authors charted paths for laymen and clerics alike within the Frankish realm as both sharing the moral burden of carrying God's realm forward. Hierarchy mattered of course but there seemed to be a real sense of partnership between laymen and clerics. But by the time of Jonas of Orleans, writing another text in the same genre but this one after Charlemagne's death, things had changed. The ideas were (mostly) the same but the attitude was different. Whereas Paulinus and Alcuin were teaching, Jonas was enforcing. The aristocracy had failed in their duty, caritas had waned, and the empire suffered because of it.
This concern about decline is the focus of chapter 3, which concentrates on the reign of Louis the Pious. Romig, here drawing heavily on the excellent recent work by Mayke de Jong and Courtney Booker, charts a shift that moved the burden of the welfare of the empire from the aristocracy as a whole to its ascetic extremes--the emperor and the monk. This move, which actually began at the end of Charlemagne's reign and carried over to Louis', demonstrating more continuity between the two than oftentimes imagined, was also a conceptual shift. Caritas was no longer so much a prophylactic against bad things happening but a process of atonement for sins already committed. Thus, the Astronomer provided his readers with an emperor whose masculinity was centered on forgiveness as a positive trait.
Dhuoda's famous letter to her son, which opens chapter 4, shows how these ideas carried forward. Although the heaviest burdens lay on the extremes of society--king and monk--the conduct of the aristocracy as a whole still bore great weight in shielding the empire from God's wrath. And when that shield broke, particularly with the bloodshed of Fontenoy in 841, the blame was squarely placed at the aristocracy's feet. Evinced in the poetry of Florus of Lyons and Angilbert, as well as Nithard's Histories, the aristocrats' collective sin led to the destruction of their world. This led Frankish society to look for answers. Thus, we better understand the outrageously heated arguments of the Predestination controversy beginning in the late 840s and lasting into the 860s spurred by the teaching of Gottschalk of Orbais. Complementing Matthew Gillis' excellent recent book, Romig here convincingly situates this debate as a response to Fontenoy and a continuation of the development of the discourse around caritas. Although Gottschalk "lost" the debate, thereafter all public discussions on salvation had to incorporate a conceptualization of the role and/ or requirement of grace.
This change became particularly important in the tenth century, the subject of the final chapter of the book. Notker the Stammerer constructed a tale about an emperor but intended for his fellow religious. So too did Odo of Cluny with the vita brevior of his hagiography of Gerald of Aurillac.  Drawing on recent cultural theory, Romig positions Gerald as a hybrid. A hybrid here works against our expectations. It reveals a conflict among forms, a crisis of definitions, and one that ultimately essentializes and separates the types being hybridized. In other words, Gerald of Aurillac--the nobleman who acts like a monk--actually affirms the boundaries between those two statuses. Gerald is, in Romig's words, "safely irreproducible" (153) but functions effectively as a critique of monasticism in the early tenth century generally. Gerald, Romig reminds us, so wanted to be a monk but was dissuaded because the monks weren't manly enough. Therefore he--and he alone--embodies caritas and so crosses the newly-created boundary between the aristocrats and ascetics in order to teach ascetics (monks) a lesson about themselves.
Overall, this book is a tremendous contribution to how we think about early medieval Europe. It shows how words and ideas move history, how important it is to always remember that the periods we study were populated by real live human beings who cared about things, and how important it is to forsake scholarly pieties and return ad fontes in order to listen to what they really were trying to say to their own time. The Franks struggled mightily to understand their place in the world and particularly in the arc of sacred history. This was, as has been well demonstrated by others as well, a collective endeavor and it was far from an abstract, inconsequential concern. What it meant to be an aristocratic man in the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries impacted how they interacted with their rulers, their subjects, their friends, their enemies, and each other. Romig has hear taught us that those fuzzy lines we see between secular and sacred, between lay and clerical, between politics and religion can be as solid as stone or as insubstantial as air, but those lines are almost always constructed by words. And those words made people do things.
1. I think here, for example, of recent work by Matthew Gillis, Valerie Garver, Lynda Coon, Courtney Booker, Jennifer Davis, and Anne Latowsky, among of course many others.
2. Romig here follows Mathew Kuefler's argument about the eleventh-century origins of Gerald's vita prolixor and so focuses on the shorter version. I am not convinced the longer text is substantially later but that argument doesn't bear on Romig's points.