Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.03.14 Roberts, Flodoard of Rheims and the Writing of History in the Tenth Century

The Medieval Review

21.03.14 Roberts, Flodoard of Rheims and the Writing of History in the Tenth Century


Flodoard was a member of the Rheims cathedral community from c. 893, when he entered the school as a child, until 963, when he resigned his canonry to a nephew. As such, he was not only an important figure in the small world of his own locality, but had the opportunity to observe and participate in (as a secondary figure) the intellectual, ecclesiastical, and political life of West Francia, with connections to East Francia and Italy. His Annales and Historia Remensis ecclesia have long been recognised as indispensable sources for tenth-century history. He was also the author of the lesser-known De triumphis Christi, and a short text on the visions of a certain Flothilde.

This monograph seeks to put Flodoard's whole corpus (not only the Annales and Historia) into intellectual and political context. It fully acknowledges that this is not the first full-length study of the writer, but it offers two important new elements. First, it considers Flodoard's writings as a whole, rather than concentrating mainly or exclusively on the Annales and Historia. It decries the temptation to mine Flodoard's writing for nuggets of "fact," and demonstrates that the terseness of his Latin prose has caused him to be underrated as an intellectual, and overrated as a straightforward "objective" historian. Secondly, this study draws on--and makes a significant contribution to--the current reassessment of tenth-century Latin Europe, which seeks to rescue it from an "in-between" status, as a postscript to the Carolingians, and/or a precursor to the excitements later centuries. (This trend also includes insightful recent studies on Richer, Flodoard's successor as a writer of history based in Rheims.)

After a deft introduction, which places Flodoard in historical and historiographical context, the study consists of five chapters. Chapter 1 explores Flodoard's writing in relation to his career at Rheims, in particular to the protracted struggle over the archbishopric between 925 and 948, which brought in all the major players in West Frankish politics, and also Ottonian interests. Artold was the eventual victor over Hugh of Vermandois who had been installed by his father at the age of four. Flodoard favoured Artold, and Roberts shows how the writer became personally embroiled in the dispute, including three years of exile from Rheims. Yet Flodoard was not relentlessly partisan. Reticence was advisable as he added to the Annales each year, and by the time he wrote the Historia, the matter was settled. His anticipated audience would have been familiar with recent events. His real loyalty was to the church of Rheims, and the Historia sought to transcend recent dissention, and to provide a single coherent narrative reaching back into the distant past. It also sought to align with Ottonian hegemony in West Francia: the dispute at Rheims was settled under Ottonian auspices, although this would prove to last only a couple of decades.

Chapter 2 is a study of the Annales, which cover the period 919 to 966. Roberts convincingly disposes of the notion that the choice to write annals was due to any scholarly limitations on Flodoard's part. It was probably designed to be read alongside other annals, in some sense as a continuation of Hincmar's Annals of St Bertin. Flodoard had a pessimistic view of contemporary West Francia, and was nostalgic for the more orderly past, at Rheims and across Christendom, which he encountered in his reading. He may not have realised that the earlier annals he knew were often written retrospectively, or reworked: he appears to have left his almost unaltered. Perhaps this lack of textual architecture has contributed to the sense in modern scholarship of tenth-century West Frankish history being fractious and disjointed.

Chapter 3 explores the topic of ecclesiastical property in the Historia. This was clearly a preoccupation for Flodoard, as canon and writer. But the treatment of the subject in the Historia does not stem only from the generic interest of a loyal son of Rheims to defend the community's patrimony. Flodoard is well aware of property holdings going back to the time of Remigius, but the immediate context of composition is again crucial. He was interested in unravelling the complexities created by rival claims to the archbishopric, and using Ottonian patronage to secure control over Rheims' property in Lotharingia and elsewhere in East Francia. Flodoard may also have been aware of the creative use of documents to assert claims to land, adding another layer of complexity to the supposedly straightforward annalist.

Chapter 4 is on De triumphis Christi. This 20,000 line poem traces early Christian history in the Holy Land, Antioch, and Italy, and (as Roberts make clear) deserves further scholarly attention, not least because it lacks a modern edition. It is immensely learned, drawing on a vast range of sources, and expressed in an epic poetic idiom which both harks back to the biblical epics of late antiquity, and resonates with tenth-century interests in classical verse. Roberts uses the poem to locate Flodoard intellectually and socially, in a network of scholarly clerics from across Latin Europe, from Rather of Liège/Verona, to Odo of Cluny, to Adalbert of Magdeburg. It also recasts Flodoard--the pedestrian annalist of much modern historiography--as a far more ambitious and sophisticated figure.

Chapter 5 explores Flodoard's treatment of miracles. It is striking how his writing is imbued with the miraculous, which he treated increasingly confidently over his career. This is not only where it might be expected, in the heroic early Christian era of De triumphis Christi, but especially in his more recent history. All around him, Flodoard saw the active intervention of God and his saints, in cures and portents and dreams and visions. This is encapsulated in his short text recounting the intense yet curiously quotidian visions of Flothilde, a young woman from near Rheims. Juxtaposed with the violence and political machinations about which he wrote, this offers a note of optimism, and also a sense that the authority of the church of Rheims had a spiritual basis which transcended human squabbles.

This book is clear and persuasive. It carefully lays out the relevant texts and manuscript traditions: introducing De triumphis Christi to a wider audience is especially useful. It engages constructively with modern scholarship, even when advancing alternatives to familiar positions. It never loses sight of the texts themselves, but is helpfully informed by literary and historiographical scholarship, including the neat formulation "Texts do not belong to genres, but rather participate in them" (81).

The study prompts two general observations. One is to consider whether the term "historian" can be usefully applied to any early medieval Latin writer. Perhaps it conveys such unhelpful assumptions about their projects, and such dangerous temptations to cosy identification, that we should avoid the term altogether, and prefer formulations such as "cleric/scholar/writer who produced historical works." This is not to make a value judgement that they fail to live up to contemporary standards, but to acknowledge their very different aims. The second is to wonder about the term "post-Carolingian," used in this book and elsewhere. This is not merely because there continued to be Carolingian kings in West Francia until 987 (albeit with some gaps). In material terms, Flodoard was well aware that the patrimony of Rheims included properties owned by his community since the sixth century or earlier. In immaterial terms, Flodoard was inspired by spiritual heroes such as St Remigius, and informed by scholars such as Gregory of Tours, just as much as he admired a high Carolingian figure such as Hincmar of Rheims. "Post-Carolingian" does little to capture this, and contributes to the dangers of defining the tenth century by what it was not. It is difficult to find an alternative, but perhaps even a clunky formulation such as "late early medieval" or "very post-Roman" is preferable. Yet these musings are not criticisms of a fine study that will be of stimulating interest to scholars of tenth-century West Francia and beyond, and to those interested in medieval history-writing more generally.