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21.08.26 Kramer, Rethinking Authority in the Carolingian Empire

21.08.26 Kramer, Rethinking Authority in the Carolingian Empire

In his superb new monograph, Rutger Kramer investigates the origins and manifestations of the striking, consequential self-consciousness of the Carolingian episcopate and argues that it developed during the early years of Louis the Pious's reign. [1]

Proudly acknowledging his contemporary influences, Kramer invokes as a source of inspiration a speech given in Berlin in 2008 by Barack Obama, who called for people to act on their self-awareness and identification as "heirs to a struggle for freedom," as a people of "improbable hope," who would remember history, "answer our destiny, and remake the world once again" (p. 13). Such self-conscious optimism and hope of renewal in the face of change, Kramer argues, was also prevalent during the beginning of Louis's sole assumption of the imperial throne and persisted through the various dialogues, debates, and reforming endeavors of the 810s. [2] As he notes, because "Louis' succession was the first instance of a transfer of imperial power in the West since the collapse of the political framework around the Roman empire in the fifth and sixth centuries, the transfer of power presented the court with an occasion to take stock of their accomplishments and reappraise the state of their Church" (p. 25). This stock-taking and reappraisal by the court, and the various initiatives that resulted from such self-conscious, heuristic processes of negotiation, would come to a turning-point with the public penance of Louis the Pious at Attigny in 822, "the first 'reality check' faced by Louis the Pious and his court, ushering in a new phase in his reign" (p. 25). Yet, while Louis's penance was "a logical consequence of the system" that the court had created for itself (p. 222), it was neither the end of that creation's beginning nor the beginning of its end. The relationship of Louis's court with this new system of ethical rulership and reform would develop in its own fraught ways over the course of the following two decades (especially during the "crisis" years of 829-833), while the system itself would continue to evolve and have a complex historical afterlife. As Kramer notes, the historical consequences of this ethical program, in which imperial responsibilities came nearly to overlap with the expectations of the ecclesia, have been treated in a number of recent studies and thus fall beyond his book's purview. [3] What has been lacking is a close, dedicated investigation of the context for the inception of this peculiar system of ethical leadership that in its early years invested the Carolingian elite with such "improbable hope." Kramer's book attempts to fill this lacuna through an examination of three case studies: the acta of five church councils in 813 and the Institutio Canonicorum of 819; the works of abbot Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel from the 810s; and the Vita Benedicti Anianensis from 822 by Ardo, a monk of the monastery of Aniane.

In a prologue entitled "Great Expectations," Kramer begins with Louis's striking penance at Attigny in 822 to show how the members of the Carolingian realm, from the peasants of the countryside right up to the sovereign, were bound together in a communal web of responsibilities; that they were acutely aware of when those responsibilities were shirked or flouted; and that a public demonstration of contrition for not fulfilling one's duties was considered therapeutic for the realm, for one's dependents and subjects, and for one's soul. Where did this vast web of mutual responsibilities, this set of great expectations, this vision of an all-encompassing community come from? To answer this question, Kramer notes that the many capitularies and admonitory texts circulating among the participants in the ongoing debate about the improvement of the Church need to be interpreted differently than they have been: not "as reflective of programmatic reforms propagated by and disseminated from the court, or even as singular statements meant to create uniformity and quell further discussions," but as a "series of never-ending conversations, pushing developments forward in their own rhythm while remaining tied together by the assumption that things should get better all the time" (pp. 23-24). They were the product of a dynamic process of negotiation and debate that demonstrates not only an existing awareness, but also an attempt to make others aware, of each group's or office's responsibilities, as well as of the stakes involved. This was an elite perspective, to be sure, but not necessarily one that assumed or endorsed a unilateral, strictly top-down process. It was to be change all should believe in.

Chapter One supplies not just a summary of Kramer's methodology and its historiographical foundations, but a perceptive, concise synthesis of a large body of scholarship in order to evince the complex social logic driving the reform initiatives and optimism associated with Louis's early reign. Sketching the interdependence of ecclesia, imperium, and ministerium--key contemporary concepts of polities, power, and their inherent responsibilities--he demonstrates how they were funneled by the Carolingian sovereign through a collective, constitutive notion of fides. To receive baptism now meant to swear an oath both in confirmation of one's Christian faith and in loyalty to one's king; the holy sacrament was understood to conflate a spiritual and political allegiance, whose promotion both consolidated the king's authority and fostered a court culture, identity, and special sense of unity among elites. By this means, the king divided his responsibilities among his "faithful" subjects, who would both shoulder these responsibilities and share them. This practice of delegation relied on a correlative ethical program that applied to all individuals, whatever their status or office, and carried with it the expectation that, when beyond the king's reach, subjects would judiciously and conscientiously govern themselves by its dictates; that they would be "kings of themselves." [4] Yet this division of responsibilities also carried with it almost continuous debate that was central to the heuristic system developing during Louis's early reign. Through a willingness to countenance, discuss, and argue divergent opinions, and the belief that such deliberation, debate, and compromise was in fact beneficial to all (rather than itself undertaken for the sake of pride), a sense of community gradually coalesced that was larger than one's immediate surroundings. Kramer sees this system of negotiation and trust arising within, then among, and then beyond, monastic communities, whose members were perceived as exemplars of continuous self-improvement in the quest for salvation. Their position "at the intersection between local aristocratic interests and religious idealism, combined with the fundamental importance of monasticism to the fabric of the Carolingian state, gave them an active role in the debates about the improvement of the ecclesia" (p. 50). Relatively quickly, monastic intellectuals became participants in the reforms emanating from court, despite their vows to remain isolated from the world. Such uneasy participation was incentivized by the court through guarantees of protection, immunity, and fundamental ecclesiastical reforms. Yet, these promised reforms were unlike those of Pippin or Charlemagne, who had previously endorsed the uniform adoption of the Regula Benedicti. Louis sought something much grander, for his reforms were meant to encompass all aspects of Christian life.

In Chapter Two, Kramer focuses on the acta of the five reform councils of 813 and the Institutio Canonicorum of 819. The councils of 813 were initiated by Charlemagne to identify points of improvement of the ecclesia for the benefit of the realm; his bishops and abbots were to make a report to him on the results of their conciliar deliberations regarding how members of the canonical and monastic life should better their behavior. What is especially noteworthy is that unlike previous conciliar acta, which presented themselves as reactive, addressing immediate problems, thoseof 813 adopt a pro-active, self-critical stance and recommend corrections regarding ecclesiastical practice that the emperor should endorse for the sake of progress--not in terms of novel development, but through a return to the righteous path as paved by venerable tradition. With a keen eye, Kramer discerns and details the diversity of concerns within the five councils' acta, and the degree of dialogue and negotiation that characterized the entire enterprise, as the ecclesiastics in charge attempted to link up, if not exactly harmonize, such diversity with universal ideals.

Just as Charlemagne had initiated the councils of 813, Louis the Pious admonished his bishops to hold assemblies in Aachen from 816 to 819 in order to "educate 'the simpleminded and less intelligent' clerics, but also to explain what it meant to be a bishop, and to ensure that those who belong to the canonical profession would know which path to take" (p. 112). As the watcher of his watchmen, Louis tasked his bishops with producing guidelines by which members of the secular clergy could best meet the expectations set by the 813 councils. The result was the Institutio Canonicorum of 819, a massive compilation (prologue and 143 chapters) consisting of patristic and canonical texts, combined with a collection of rules aimed at the canonical clergy. The text reads like a speculum episcoporum: the bishops demonstrate a highly self-conscious concern over the distinctions between monastic and canonical communities, how they are to achieve and maintain these distinctions, and the proper cultivation and use of the moral high ground that such carefully maintained distinctions impart to their own authority. As with the councils of 813, the progress sought by the Institutio Canonicorum was guided by past authorities. It "was an Augustinian system, and a Gregorian, but also a Carolingian one, in which everybody knew their place for the greater good, and in which the court and the emperor were doing what they could to prevent their subjects from committing sins" (p. 111).

Chapter Three surveys the three major works of Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel to demonstrate how the ideals traced in the conciliar acta of the preceding chapter were understood by an individual and expressed in the name of the collective. A learned Visigothic abbot with close ties to the court, Smaragdus repeatedly used the metaphor of the via regia--the "royal road" or "king's highway"--in his ethical tracts for monks and kings to convey the common, difficult path on which all Christians walk (and from which many stray) in their quest for salvation. Kramer begins with an analysis of theVia regia, a short text (32 chps.) in which Smaragdus outlines the responsibilities of an ideal Carolingian ruler and underscores that the ruler's conduct always impacts the life of his subjects. Based chiefly on the work of Gregory the Great, the text offers a vision of rulership that is strongly abbatial; the sovereign should do what is right not from fear of punishment for transgressing external law, but from a deeply internalized love for God. All may be kings of themselves, but, for Smaragdus, the Carolingian monarch has a special responsibility to guide his people by example along the via regia. Kramer then turns to Smaragdus's Expositio on the Rule of Benedict, a large commentary written to explain to monks how they could maintain their own traditions in the face of the reform efforts being propagated from court. Clearly the product of the deliberations held at Aachen between 816 and 819, the Expositio underscored to its monastic audience that "the pastoral duties of an abbot and the responsibilities of a king came from the same place" (p. 145). As the final text of what he calls an "educational trilogy" or "triptych," Kramer outlines Smaragdus'sDiadema monachorum, a book for seasoned monks (consisting of 100 brief chps.) written around the same time as the Via regia and the Expositio. As the monks of Saint-Mihiel listened to selected chapters of the Diadema at mealtime in their cloister, they were told repeatedly that "they were not operating in a vacuum and that the ideal of monastic isolation should not be taken as an exemption from their responsibilities as exemplary Christians" (p. 156). Through their toil and right living, by their service, contemplation, and prayer, each could acquire a crown of his own, could be recognized as a submissive sovereign of himself.

As his final case study, Kramer devotes Chapter Four to an analysis of the vita of Benedict of Aniane (d. 821) written in 822 by Ardo, a disciple of Benedict and monk of the same monastery. As Kramer notes, the Vita Benedicti Anianensis (= VBA) has played an outsized role in fostering the narrative that Benedict was largely responsible for the religious reforms of the empire. Yet, rather than directly critique this tenacious heroic-narrative tradition, Kramer seeks to explore how the VBA embeds Benedict within the overarching Carolingian system itself: what does the text expect its audience to assume or understand about that ethical system in order for its narrative on Benedict to have its desired effect? The timing of the text's composition, written within a year of Benedict's death, has everything to do with its purpose, argues Kramer, for Ardo sent the VBA to court in order "to secure continued imperial sponsorship for his own monastery, which would then remain tied into a network centred on the palace now that their direct link had passed away" (p. 172). As Ardo tells it, Benedict lived a remarkable life and had attained the highest possible monastic ideal. The astute emperor recognized the value of having such a man near at all times, and so built for him the monastery of Inda within a short walk of the palace at Aachen. Constantly scurrying between Inda and the court, and training his monks according to his highest of standards, Benedict worked tirelessly in consultation with Louis to reform the empire's monasteries through the placement of representatives who embodied his ideals. According to this vision, reform and unity would be achieved not by coercion, but by guilt and competition, peer-pressure and desire: monks across the realm would be systematically confronted with a higher standard against which they should measure themselves, discern their deficiencies and faults, and strive to improve and achieve spiritual perfection (which was not tantamount to uniformity, stresses Kramer). In short, Carolingian monastic culture propagated from Inda would serve as the empire's conscience, with the monks of Aniane--Benedict's original monastery, and thus the site of his saintly development--themselves serving as the conscience of Inda. Such conscience was not a silent witness, but would constantly goad and prick its fideles through discussion, persuasion, and "javelins of debate" (pp. 203-5).

Explicit references to Carolingian self-consciousness appear on nearly every page of Kramer's study. What Kramer shows with astonishing clarity is the extent to which the "Carolingian experiment" was characterized by--indeed, was constituted by--a constant watching, and the implications of this surveillance. The Carolingians were incessantly watching each other and also watching themselves. As the ancient proverb had it, conscientia mille testes, "conscience is a thousand witnesses." They were acutely sensitive to scandal, the public transgression of their collective conscience. Again and again, the people were reminded that they were not only under God's penetrating gaze, but were being observed by everyone in the ecclesia. As part of his plan, Louis did not simply appoint inspectores for each monastery; he expected all to be inspectores of themselves. But there was a dark side within such an "awakened," watchful realm, for suspicion, mistrust, and pessimism would grow corrosively in proportion to conscience and consciousness, and come to define the latter stages of the great Carolingian experiment. [5] What Kramer's book shows us so compellingly is its hopeful, improbable beginnings.



1. The chronological terminus given in the book's subtitle, 828, is perplexing, as it occurs nowhere in the book apart from the subtitle and in the caption to a map (p. 5).

2. Cf. Janet L. Nelson, "Charlemagne and the Bishops," in Rob Meens et al., eds., Religious Franks: Religion and Power in the Frankish Kingdoms: Studies in Honour of Mayke de Jong(Manchester, 2016), pp. 350-69.

3. See Philippe Depreux, Stefan Esders, eds., La productivité d'une crise: Le règne de Louis le Pieux (814-840) et la transformation de l'Empire carolingien / Produktivität einer Krise: Die Regierungszeit Ludwigs des Frommen (814-840) und die Transformation des karolingischen Imperium (Ostfildern, 2018); Theo Riches' extensive review of Steffen Patzold, Episcopus: Wissen über Bischöfe im Frankenreich des späten 8. bis frühen 10. Jahrhunderts (Ostfildern, 2008),together with the author's reply: <>; Andrew J. Romig, Be a Perfect Man: Christian Masculinity and the Carolingian Aristocracy (Philadelphia, 2017); and above all, the important overview by Geoffrey Koziol, "Leadership: Why We Have Mirrors for Princes but None for Presidents," in Celia Chazelle, Simon Doubleday, Felice Lifshitz, Amy G. Remensnyder, eds., Why the Middle Ages Matter: Medieval Light on Modern Injustice (London, 2012), pp. 183-98.

4. Cf. Koziol, "Leadership," pp. 188-93. The expression is Koziol's. Kramer opts for an inverse image, of the realm being "acephalous" in practice (p. 45). Both authors rely on the famous pronouncement from the Capitulare missorum generale of 802 that "the lord emperor cannot himself provide the necessary care and discipline for each man individually."

5. Courtney M. Booker, "Hypocrisy, Performativity, and the Carolingian Pursuit of Truth," Early Medieval Europe 26.2 (2018), pp. 174-202. On a remarkable Carolingian lament about the failure of this experiment, see Mayke de Jong, Epitaph for an Era: Politics and Rhetoric in the Carolingian World (Cambridge, 2019).