Introduction: interpreting Carolingian society
Afraid of meeting ‘dog-headed men’ on his travels in Scandinavia, the missionary Rimbert, some time in the middle of the ninth century, was moved to enquire of Abbot Ratramnus of Corbie whether such monstrous perversions of humanity had souls that could be saved. Ratramnus – a theological authority whose monastery had long-standing links with the Frankish mission in the north – replied that all the available information on contemporary Scandinavian societies pointed to familiar patterns of agrarian life: did not the Danes and Swedes follow laws, live in villages, farm the land, domesticate animals and indeed wear clothes similar to the Franks’? They therefore had souls; Rimbert's job was to save them for the true, Christian, God. Ratramnus's exchange with Rimbert belongs in a long tradition of Roman and Frankish ethnographic fantasies about their northern neighbours which were intended to assert the normality of home society by vividly defining distant and not-so-distant neighbours as ‘others’. But rather than identifying, as was customary, monstrous peoples as agents of God's wrath or actors in Biblical prophecies, here Ratramnus described the familiarity of the way of life of rural Scandinavia, regardless of the shape of its inhabitants’ heads. These rural communities resembled those whose labours sustained Ratramnus and his monks in Francia, and so were ripe for conversion under the aegis of a Christian empire.
As so often, in imagining others distant from home Ratramnus and Rimbert reveal social assumptions that would have been much harder to voice in a discussion of their own society. Indeed, direct commentary on the structure of Frankish society by the spokespeople of the ruling elites of Church and court is rare. When such commentary did occur, it was theological in nature and ecclesiological in aim, designed to explicate the proper harmonious relationship between the different orders that made up Christian society. The first decades of the ninth century saw a series of attempts to apply to Carolingian society the theory of ‘three orders of man’ developed by Augustine and elaborated by other late antique churchmen. At Aachen in 802, for example, the three orders of clergy, laity and monks were each encouraged to meditate on their roles, as reflected in authoritative texts from canon law, secular law and the monastic rule. A few decades later the monastic scholar Heiric of Auxerre, influenced by classical texts, inaugurated what was to become the dominant social theory of the Middle Ages by classifying society as made up of those who fight, those who pray and those who work. Fascinating though it is, such theorising is primarily a part of intellectual history: early medieval social theories do not aim at the kind of understanding sought by modern historians.