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23.02.10 Gillis, Religious Horror and Holy War in Viking Age Francia

23.02.10 Gillis, Religious Horror and Holy War in Viking Age Francia

Momentous events were unfolding in Frankish realms during the generation-and-a-half this book surveys, from the 880s to the 920s. Viking rapine reached a fever pitch: marauders penetrated along every major riverway, besieged Paris, seized territory, birthed Normandy. Yet, in spite of passing mention of the Norse, this book is not about vikings. Dissension among Charlemagne’s great-grandsons kept rending the empire into steaming, bleeding hunks, laying the predators in turn open to predation by rival aspirants. Yet, though Count Odo of Paris has a cameo, this book is not about Carolingian decline or dynastic contest. Pseudo-Isidore’s legacy bearers--to tar a host of ecclesiastical influencers with a single broad brush--worked the bellows of practical theology, in the process forging what would in time harden into canon law, Gregorian Reform, and papal monarchy. Yet, despite the central role churchmen and their writings play here, this book is not about the formation of prelates’ power apparatus.

What is this book about, then? Gillis, a historian of early medieval religion, trains his gaze on the theology-to-pastoral-care pipeline, where spiritual jurisprudence plays out on lay practice and attitudes. His slender text, barely over 120 pages, is divided into four short chapters, here called “parts.” These focus, in sequence, on: the prologue to King Carloman II of West Francia’s 884 Capitulary of Ver; a contemporary hymn, Dominus, caeli rex et conditor, and slightly later commemorations of the excommunication of Count Winemar in 900 for his murder of Archbishop Fulco of Rheims; Abbo of Saint-Germain’s Bella Parisiacae urbis, a poem recounting the 885-6 viking siege of Paris; and three of the same author’s sermons, from a collection he compiled in the 920s. In these texts, Gillis discerns a unifying theme of “religious horror and holy war.” The right-thinking people who wrote and sponsored these texts, he says, appealed to images of unthinkable depravity in order to rally group cohesion against external enemies (such as the vikings) and, especially, to castigate internal enemies, those wrong-thinking people who did not accept the wisdom of submitting to the moral guidance of kings, bishops, and homilists.

Gillis spotlights largely neglected sources--even the best-known, Abbo’s poem, tops out at under two dozen hits on the International Medieval Bibliography--and charts some overlooked connections among them (110). Commendably, he not only supplies his own translations of the (often extensive) excerpts cited, but also provides the Latin in footnotes and occasionally references existing modern-language versions (10n13, 67n136). His translations are serviceable, if often woody: readers may wonder what it means to “operate iniquity” (operantur iniquitatem, 125; “commit” or “engage in” would have been preferable) or may imagine “the holy Christ [who] bore the lance in his holy side” more as a knight couching his weapon to joust than as the crucified deity (sanctus in sancto Christus latere ultro lanceam suscepit, 118; “received,” “took,” perhaps even “endured”?). A quo magno animarum periculo tribuat vobis salvator iugiter declinare et semper bene facere, quo possitis gratiam Dei obtinere per omnia secula seculorum seems quite straightforward, even if the English stumps me (“From which great danger to souls may the Savior constantly bestow on you to avoid and always do good, so that you can obtain God’s grace forever and ever,” 115). Typos are reasonably unobtrusive.

Beyond its value in bringing to the fore understudied medieval sources, the book’s own analytic contribution merits consideration. “Holy war” seems a transparent enough concept. There is nothing particularly surprising about bellicose rhetoric that invokes a moral obligation to fight evil-doers, nor, in an ecclesiastical context, about such rhetoric taking on the specific rhythms of Christian ideology. Gillis thinks something more, however, is afoot: in Abbo’s and others’ accounts of the siege of Paris, for practically the first time (84), Christian warriors who fell in battle were celebrated as martyrs, so that saber-rattling was wedded to the adulation of victimhood. This tectonic shift in the understanding of martyrdom, Gillis tells us, paved the way to the even more radical legitimation of righteous Christian violence in the High Middle Ages. By the concluding sentence, he explicitly deems it “reasonable to wonder whether” crusading ideologues at the turn of the twelfth century may have been “echoing, however distantly,” the messages Abbo and his circle crafted at the turn of the tenth (131).

As Gillis himself shows, however, Carolingian hagiographers seem to have taken pains to paint their martial martyrs as non-combatant at the moment of death: one falls into a pit and is skewered while immobilized in the trap, others surrender on the promise of safe-conduct but are betrayed and executed (84-6). These men earn their crowns in ways more reminiscent of Saint Martin or other Roman soldier-martyrs than of later beneficiaries of remission of sins. Unlike in Bernard of Clairvaux’s day, the biographical fact of their having committed as well as suffered violence is carefully edited out of their saintly résumé.

In 1095 and subsequent centuries, the calamities perceived as justifying the call to holy arms are well known, but what analogous catalyst does Gillis identify in the environs of Rheims around 900? There may have been no shortage of abuse, forceful redistribution of wealth, and outright killing, as anyone with even a cursory familiarity with viking incursions and the “bad customs” of castellans knows. In places, Gillis seems to say that such hardships alone constituted “religious horror” and so possess sufficient explanatory power: Sigloard’s graphic description of “Winemar’s gang of soldiers gathered around the archbishop, bludgeoning him with clubs as their leader put him to the sword” (54), allegedly would have fueled Christians’ fury. Gillis seems to forget that such pathos-filled narratives, precisely because they seem aimed at fanning emotion, may attest to their audience’s baseline apathy. As some of the international responses to current events in Ukraine and elsewhere remind us, there may also be a wide gulf between bystanders’ feelings of outrage and their actual willingness to do anything about the atrocities that provoke it.

For the most part, however, Gillis focuses on specific motifs that upgraded mere malefactors into “monstrous soldier robbers” (97, 102). One recurring set of images, indexing utter depravity, involves cannibalism, sketched in terms drawn from authoritative passages like Galatians 5:15 (9, 16-17). Another imaginary indexes not the crime but its punishment: the torment of rotting alive, maggots generating spontaneously in one’s flesh--preferably the genitals--to devour it. As Gillis acknowledges, such stomach-turning word-pictures already had a long pedigree, going back to Lactantius and Jerome and beyond, and would flourish for centuries to come--shout out to Menocchio and Sepúlveda--but in the immediate context, he avers, they sought to whip Christians’ moral revulsion at the catastrophes afflicting them into a violent counter campaign, a holy war.

The thesis is provocative, but does not hold water. Contemporary authors did denounce affronts against the Church, its property, and its people, sometimes using the kinds of lurid language Gillis highlights. But it is neither particularly salient nor especially agentive in the sources he analyses. Carloman II (or the churchman who used him as a mouthpiece), silent on the subject of worms, warns that “if we devour and consume ourselves, that is we pillage, we soon come to naught” (si nosmetipsos comedimus et consumimus, id est depraedamur, cito deficiemus, 8-9, 10n13); Gillis expansively glosses this rather bland exegetical alliteration as depicting “sinners as flesh-eating, blood-drinking horrors haunting the kingdom” (8). Winemar, for Flodoard, is a “murderer” (interemptor), not an anthropophagus; he suffers a fatally gangrenous wound, “so that his flesh rotting...he was living devoured by worms [until] no one could approach him on account of the immeasurable stench” (62-3). Rather than seeking to incite Christians to action, this (firmly conventional) description of a bad sinner coming to a bad end--unquestionably disgusting--establishes God’s propensity to dish out appropriately severe vengeance without human intervention. Abbo, meanwhile, has hardly any use for either motif (except perhaps once, in passing, in one of his sermons, 105).

Even where the purple motifs Gillis singles out do show up, they need not signal the kind of moralizing revulsion he supposes them to. Speaking of one of the heroic defenders of Paris, Abbo notes that he could “spit seven [vikings] on a single shaft, / Whom joking he ordered the living to offer to the cook” (Quos ludens alios iussit prebere coquina, 79). Gillis does not seem to notice that he here cites one of his authors bantering in light-hearted approval about shish-kabobbing human flesh. And unlike the allegorically flavored allusions Gillis interprets in earnest, here the reference is clearly to literal (if counter-factual) transformation of men to meat. No opprobrium clings to the suggestion of cannibalism--quite the opposite--so long as it is our guy impaling theirs.

The evidence for what Gillis terms “religious horror” is thus by and large simply not there. He makes up for this absence by introducing his own excess-marking, hence excess-making, labels: citing Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and others, Gillis sprinkles “monstrosity” and related words, on average, once per page. Is monster theory relevant at all, however, when its terminology corresponds to nothing in particular in the sources? Gillis’s “monstrous soldier robbers,” cited above, might just as well be stripped of tendentious intensifiers and labelled “robbers” tout court, as the medieval sources often call them (e.g., Abbo’s Sermo adversus raptores qui bona pauperum hominum diripiunt, 102).

Dwelling on the second qualifier in Gillis’s phrase reveals another cluster of problems. Are these robbers “soldiers”? The use of such anachronistic language--likewise, “murder” and its derivatives--speaks to Gillis’s reluctance to engage with scholarship on feuding societies (which Francia in the period surely was), on the so-called anarchy of the tenth century (which, some historians maintain, really only existed in the minds of ecclesiastical propagandists, who would have readily embraced Abbo and Sigloard as their own), and on the Peace of God movement, only touched on in brief (129n291). Gillis is quite right to suggest “that medieval rhetoric of correction and condemnation might generally be regarded as a form of spiritual warfare that authorities waged against Christians, whose sins and crimes endangered the church” (129-30)--only, substitute “feuding” for “warfare,” qualify “authorities” as “in their own (but not necessarily their rivals’) eyes,” and understand the imperiled “church” to mean “the self-proclaimed authorities’ position of social privilege.” To students of tenth-century social and political realities, there is really nothing surprising about any of this.

To his great credit, Gillis lays bare both his evidence and his inferential process, making such critique of his analysis possible. By the same token, he allows his reader to benefit from aspects of his analysis which he himself perhaps does not sufficiently foreground. Most importantly, to my mind, he identifies a distinctive strain of theodicy in how Abbo writes in his Sermo de fundamento et incremento Christianitatis of “an ongoing struggle against evil, which involved not only the lamentable persecution and suffering of Christians, but also their punishment when their sins incited divine wrath” (12): so far, nothing an Alcuin or a Photius didn’t also surmise when shaken by viking depredations. Where the latter concluded that all of Christian society was diffusely infected with sin and must repent as a whole if it had any hope of being spared further chastisement, however, Abbo distinguishes “God’s servants [from] their oppressors, who included those expected to fight [vikings]” but who had been rendered impotent by their innate sinfulness (116). In delivering such delinquents into the hands of their enemies, God repaid them appropriately. At the same time, He condemned the innocents they had been tasked with defending to no less grim a fate.

The same gory cataclysm thus simultaneously signifies divine retribution against some Christians--the unworthy bellatores routed and slain by the Norse--and exultation of others, “the faithful and especially clerics and monks” (117), similarly massacred but to their (spiritual) benefit. As Gillis recognizes (128), Abbo has here abandoned any hope of converting “monstrous eaters of Christian flesh into heroic would-be martyrs defeating Satan’s minions” (107-8); instead, he seems to flirt with predestination.

Religious Horror and Holy War in Viking Age Francia is the first volume in a new series, Renovatio: Studies in the Carolingian World. The series editor is Matthew Bryan Gillis. Although his own book might perhaps have benefited from rigorous scrutiny by a more dispassionate editor, who could have helped weed out excesses and play up subdued insights, there is every reason to anticipate future offerings in this series with optimism and delight.