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Carolingian Religion

  • Thomas F. X. Noble


The Carolingian period, roughly the eighth and ninth centuries, was dynamic and decisive in European religious history. The ruling dynasty and the clerical elite promoted wave after wave of reform that I call “unifying,” “specifying,” and “sanctifying.” This presidential address argues that religion was the key unifying and universalizing force in the Carolingian world; that the Carolingians were obsessed with doing things the right way—usually the Roman way; and that the Carolingians sought to inculcate Christian behavior more than religious knowledge. The address concludes by arguing that the Carolingians put a markedly European stamp on Christianity and that they Romanized Christianity well before the papacy attempted to do so.



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1 Capitularia regum Francorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (hereafter MGH), Legum Sectio II, vol. 1, ed. Boretius, A. (Hannover: Hahn, 1883), no. 71, c. 9, p. 161.

2 Smith, Jonathan Z., Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982), xi.

3 Smith, Jonathan Z., “Religion, Religions, Religious,” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Taylor, Mark C. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998), 269284.

4 Smith, Wilfred Cantwell, The Meaning and End of Religion (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1991). For some interesting reflections on this book see Asad, Talal, “Reading a Modern Classic: W. C. Smith's ‘The Meaning and End of Religion,’History of Religions 40, no. 3 (February 2001): 205222.

5 Quoted by Gustav Niebuhr, “A Religious Quilt That is Largely Patchwork,” New York Times, Saturday, November 23, 1996.

6 See, for example, de Jong, Mayke, “Religion,” in McKitterick, Rosamond, ed., The Short Oxford History of Europe: The Early Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University, 2001), 131164.

7 The literature is impossibly vast. A lively starting point is Bartlett, Robert, “Reflections on Paganism and Christianity in Medieval Europe,” Proceedings of the British Academy 101 (1999): 5576.

8 I am unaware of any study of Muslim people living inside the Carolingian world. A good introduction to Jews in the Carolingian world is Albert, Bat-Sheva, “Christians and Jews,” in Early Medieval Christianities, eds. Noble, Thomas F. X. and Smith, Julia M. H., The Cambridge History of Christianity 3 (New York: Cambridge University, 2008), 159177.

9 E. Ann Matter, “Orthodoxy and Deviance,” in Early Medieval Christianities, 510–530.

10 Ganz, David, “Theology and the Organization of Thought,” in The New Cambridge Medieval History, c. 700–c.900, vol. 2, ed. McKitterick, Rosamond (New York: Cambridge University, 1995), 758785. He points out that discussions were essentially confined to the elite.

11 Countless examples could be cited. See e.g. Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 174, c. 2, p. 357; no. 150, c. 15, p. 305; Council of Paris (829), MGH, Concilia Aevi Karolini, ed. Albert Werminhoff (Hannover: Hahn, 1908), vol. 2, pt. 2, pp. 600–601.

12 Opus Caroli regis contra synodum, ed. Freeman, Ann, MGH, Concilia, vol. 2, Supplementum I (Hannover: Hahn, 1998).

13 Opus Caroli regis, 3. 15, p. 404.

14 Noble, Thomas F. X., Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2009), 208209. The intensity of historical thinking in the Carolingian period is explored by McKitterick, History and Memory in the Carolingian World (New York: Cambridge University, 2004).

15 Sancti Bonifacii et Lulli epistolae, no. 23, ed. Tangl, Michael, MGH, Epistolae Selectae 1, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Weidmann, 1955), 3841.

16 Nigellus, Ermoldus, In honorem Hludowici Christianissimi Cesaris Augusti, lines 1911–1947, ed. Faral, Edmond (Paris: Société d'Édition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1932), 146148.

17 Ibid., lines 2070–2123, pp. 158–162.

18 Momigliano, Arnaldo, “Pagan and Christian Historiography in the Fourth Century A.D.,” in Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University, 1982), 107126.

19 Codex Carolinus, no. 39, ed. Gundlach, Wilhelm, MGH, Epistolae Karolini Aevi 3 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1892), 552.

20 Ed. Eckhardt, K., MGH, Leges 4, 2 (Hannover: Hahn, 1962), 2229.

21 Opus Caroli Regis, 1. 17, p. 183.

22 Vita Willibrordi, c. 9, ed. Levison, Wilhelm, MGH, Scriptores rerum Merowingicarum 7 (Hannover: Hahn, 1920), 124.

23 Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 22, c. 62, p. 58; Annales regni Francorum, anno 791, ed. Kurze, F., MGH, Scriptores in usum scholarum (Hannover: Hahn, 1895), 88; Paulinus of Aquileia, Libellus adversus Elipandus, ed. Werminghoff, MGH Concilia 2.2, p. 142; Alcuin, epp. 41, 121, 174, ed. Dümmler, E., MGH, Epistolae Karolini Aevi 4 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1895), 84, 176, 288. Mary Garrison is more skeptical than I am about the identification of the Franks as “New Israel.” See her The Franks as a New Israel? Education for and Identity from Pippin to Charlemagne,” in The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages, eds. Hen, Yitzhak and Innes, Matthew (New York: Cambridge University, 2000), 114161.

24 This finds broad treatment in Phelan, Owen M., The Formation of Christian Europe: The Carolingians, Baptism, and the Imperium Christianum (New York: Oxford University, 2014).

25 “The Empire as ecclesia: Hrabanus Maurus and Biblical historia for Rulers,” in The Uses of the Past, 191–226; Ecclesia and the Early Medieval Polity,” in Staat im frühen Mittelalter, eds. Airlie, Stuart, Pohl, Walter, and Reimitz, Helmut (Vienna: Austrian Academy of Sciences, 2006), 113132.

26 Van Engen, John H., “The Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem,” The American Historical Review 91 (1986): 519552; Van Engen, “The Future of Medieval Church History,” Church History 71, no. 3 (September 2002): 492523; Constable, Giles, “From Church History to Religious Culture: The Study of Medieval Religious Life and Spirituality,” in European Religious Cultures: Essays Offered to Christopher Brooke on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday, ed. Rubin, Miri (London: Institute of Historical Research, 2008), 316; Arnold, John, “Introduction: A History of Medieval Christianity,” and “Histories and Historiographies of Medieval Christianity,” in The Oxford Handbook of Medieval Christianity, ed. Arnold, John (New York: Oxford University, 2014), 119, 23–41. The broad subject was ventilated in Forum on the ‘Burden of Church History,’Church History 83, no. 4 (December 2014): 9881018 which was itself a set of reflections on Maffly-Kipp, Laurie's “The Burden of Church History,” Church History 82, no. 2 (June 2013): 353367.

27 Various studies give slightly different tallies. A sound basis is Roger Reynolds, “The Organisation, Law and Liturgy of the Western Church, c. 700–900,” in The New Cambridge Medieval History, 587–621. See also Karl der Grosse: Werk und Wirkung (Düsseldorf: Schwann, 1965), 388.

28 The preceding details are readily available and not the subject of any contention.

29 On the court see: Nelson, Janet L., “Was Charlemagne's Court a Courtly Society?” in Court Culture in the Early Middle Ages, ed. Cubitt, Catherine (Turnhout: Brepols, 2003), 3957; McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (New York: Cambridge University, 2008), 137213.

30 Magisterial work on the bishops is Patzold, Steffen, Episcopus: Wissen über Bischöfe im Frankenreich des späten 8. Bis frühen 10. Jahrhunderts (Stuttgart: Jan Thorbecke, 2008). Fascinating insights into connections between bishops and the court are transmitted by Notker, Gesta Karoli, 1. 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 16, 17, 18, 19, ed. Haefele, Hans F., MGH, Scriptores rerum Germanicarum 12 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1962), 12, 4, 5–6, 7–9, 19–21, 21–22, 22–25.

31 Standard on the councils is Hartmann, Wilfried, Die Synoden der Karolingerzeit im Frnkenreich und in Italien (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1989). The conciliar records are published in the MGH Concilia series.

32 Ep. no. 50, ed. Tangl, 82.

33 Capitula Episcoporum, ed. Brommer, Peter, vols. 1 and 2, MGH (Hannover: Hahn, 1984, 1995). Brommer, Capitula Episcoporum: Die bischöflichen Kapitularien des 9. und 10. Jahrhunderts (Turnhout: Brepols, 1985).

34 van Rhijn, Carine, Shepherds of the Lord: Priests and Episcopal Statutes in the Carolingian Period (Turnhout: Brepols, 2007).

35 The best study of Carolingian preaching remains Thomas L. Amos, “The Origin and Nature of the Carolingian Sermon” (PhD diss., Michigan State University, 1983).

36 Concilium Turonense, (813) c. 17, MGH, Concilia, ed. Werminghoff, vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 288. These provisions were repeated at the Concilium Moguntinense (847) c. 2, MGH, Concilia vol. 3, ed. Hartmann, (Hannover: Hahn, 1984), 164.

37 Pope Zachary to Boniface, epp. nos. 58, 61, ed. Tangl, 108 (“normam rectitudinis”), 121 (viam rectitudinis); Concilium Vernense (755), Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 14, p. 33 (“rectissima norma”); Chrodegang of Metz, Regula Canonicorum, c. 20, Migne, Jacques-Paul, ed., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Latina, 221 vols. (Paris: Imprimerie Catholique, 1841–1866), 89: 1057c (“norma rectitudinis,” “linea rectitudinis”).

38 The classic study remains Fleckenstein, Josef, Die Bildungsreform Karls des Grossen als Verwicklichung der Norma Rectitudinis (Bigge-Ruhr: Josefs-Druckerei, 1953).

39 Codex Carolinus, no. 41, ed. Gundlach, Wilhelm, MGH, Epistolae Aevi Karolini 3 (Berlin: Weidmann, 1892), 553554.

40 Notker, Gesta Karoli, 1. 10, 12–15.

41 Admonitio Generalis c. 80, Capitularia regum Francorum, 61.

42 Mordek, Hubert, “Kirchenrechtliche Autoritäten im Frühmittelalter,” in Classen, Peter, ed., Recht und Schrift im Mittelalter, Vorträge und Fortschungen 23 (Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke, 1977), 237255.

43 Epistula ad regem Karolum de monasterio sancti Benedicti directa et a Paolo dictate, ed. Hallinger, Kassius, Corpus Consuetudinum Monasticarum, vol. 1 (Siegburg: Schmitt, 1963), 157275.

44 Semmler, Josef, “Benedictus II: Una Regula—Una Consuetudo,” in Benedictine Culture 750–1050, eds. Lourdaux, Willem and Verhelst, D. (Leuven: Leuven University, 1983), 149; Wallace-Hadrill, J.M., The Frankish Church (New York: Oxford University, 1983), 229231, 264–266; Lawrence, C.H., Medieval Monasticism: Forms of Religious Life in Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (London: Taylor and Francis, 1989), 6985; de Jong, “Carolingian Monasticism: The Power of Prayer,” in The New Cambridge Medieval History, 630–634.

45 Hen, Yitzhak, The Royal Patronage of Liturgy in Frankish Gaul (London: Henry Bradshaw Society, 2001), 7478.

46 Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 30, pp. 80–81.

47 John J. Contreni, “The Carolingian Renaissance: Educationand Literary Culture,” in The New Cambridge Medieval History, 712–725.

48 Admonitio Generalis, c. 72, MGH, Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 22, p. 60.

49 Epistola de litteris colendis, MGH, Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 29, p. 79. The key study of the letter is Martin, Thomas, “Bemerkungen zur ‘Epistola de litteris colendis,’Archiv für Diplomatik 51 (1985): 227272.

50 Smaragdus, Via regia, PL 102: 931–970; Ermoldus, Ad Pippinum regem I and II, ed. Faral, Edmond (Paris: Société d'Édition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1932), 202232; Orléans, Jonas of, Le métier de roi (De institutione regia), ed. Dubreucq, Alain (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1995); Hincmar, regis persona et regio ministerio, PL 125: 833–856; Sedulius, Liber de rectoribus Christianis, ed. Hellmann, Siegmund, Sedulius Scottus, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur lateinischen Philologie des Mittelalters 1 (Munich: C. H. Beck'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1906), 191. Still the best study of these texts is Anton, Hans Hubert, Fürstenspiegel und Herrscherethos in der Karolingerzeit, Bonner historische Forschungen 32 (Bonn: Ludwig Röhrscheid, 1968).

51 Ambrosius Autpertus, De conflictu vitiorum et virtutum, ed. Weber, R., Ambrosii Autperti Opera, in Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Medievalis 27b (Turnhout: Brepols, 1979), 909931; Paulinus, Liber exhortationis, PL 99: 197–232; Alcuin, De virtutibus et vitiis liber, PL 101: 613–638; Dhuoda, Manuel pour mon fils, ed. Rich, Pierreé, Sources chrétiennes 255bis (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1997); Jonas, De institutione laicali, PL 106: 121–78; Hincmar, De cavendis vitiis et virtutibus exercendis, PL 125: 857–930; Rather, Praeloquiarum libri sex, PL 136: 145–344. On these texts see Noble, “Secular Sanctity: Forging and Ethos for the Carolingian Nobility,” in Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World, eds. Wormald, Patrick and Nelson, Janet (New York: Cambridge University, 2007), 836; Stone, Rachel, Morality and Masculinity in the Carolingian Empire (New York: Cambridge University, 2012).

52 De institutione clericorum, ed. Zimpel, Detlev (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1996). Book V of Rather of Verona's Praeloquiarum is also a “mirror” for bishops.

53 Amalarius, On the Liturgy, 2 vols., ed. and trans. Knibbs, Eric, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 35 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2014); Walahfrid, Libellus de exordiis et incrementis quarundam observationibus ecclesiasticis rerum, ed. Harting-Correa, Alice, Mittellateinsiche Studien und Texte 19 (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

54 I have discussed these issues fully in Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians, 158–286.

55 Cavadini, John, The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785–820 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1993).

56 Gemeinhardt, Peter, Die Filioque-Kontroverse zwischen Ost- und Westkirche im Frühmittelalter, Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte 82 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2002).

57 There is no recent and comprehensive study. See Vielhaber, Klaus, Gottschalk der Sachse, Bonner historische Forschungen 5 (Bonn: L. Röhrscheid, 1956); Ganz, David, “The Debate on Predestination,” in Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom, eds. Gibson, Margaret and Nelson, Janet, BAR International Series 101 (New York: Oxford University, 1981), 353373.

58 Noble, Kings, Clergy and Dogma: The Settlement of Doctrinal Disputes in the Carolingian World,” in Early Medieval Studies in Memory of Patrick Wormald, eds. Baxter, Stephen, et al. (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2009), 237252.

59 Phelan, The Formation of Christian Europe, 164–206.

60 Keefe, Susan A., Water and the Word: Baptism and the Education of the Clergy in the Carolingian Empire, vol. 2 (Notre Dame, Ill.: University of Notre Dame, 2002), 154633.

61 “Clerical Culture and Folklore Traditions in Merovingian Civilization,” and Ecclesiastical Culture and Folklore in the Middle Ages: Saint Marcellus of Paris and the Dragon,” in his Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980), 153188.

62 Das Frühmittelalter: Die abendländische Christenheit von 400 bis 900 (Stuttgart: Jan Thorbecke, 1990), 4350. I incline more to the view of Henry Mayr-Harting, Charlemagne's Religion,” in Am Vorabend der Kaiser Krönung, eds. Godman, Peter et al. (Berlin: Weidmann, 2002), 113124.

63 The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1991). See the review article by Alexander Murray, “Missionaries and Magic in Dark-Age Europe,” Past & Present 136 (1992): 186–205.

64 Admonitio Generalis, 16, Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 22, ed. Boretius, p. 55.

65 Synodus Franconofurtensis, c. 42, Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 28, ed. Boretius, p. 77.

66 Admonitio Generalis, c. 78, Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 22, ed. Boretius, 60.

67 De grandine et tonitruis, ed. Van Acker, L., Agobardi Lugdunensis Opera Omnia, CCCM 52 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1981), 315.

68 Admonitio Generalis, 65, Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 22, ed. Boretius, 65–66.

69 For example, Theodulf, Erstes Kapitular, c. 22, Capitula episcoporum, vol. 1, p. 119.

70 Karoli Magni ad Ghaerbaldum episcopum leodiensem epistola et Ghaerbaldi ad dioceseos suae presbyteros epistola, Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 122, ed. Boretius, 241–242. See also Nelson, “Religion in the Age of Charlemagne,” 491–492.

71 McKitterick, The Frankish Church and the Carolingian Reforms, 789–895 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1977), 184205; Edwards, Cyril, “German Vernacular Literature: A Survey,” in McKitterick, ed., Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation (New York: Cambridge University, 1994), 144149.

72 Jungmann, Josef A., The Mass of the Roman Rite, vol. 2 (1959; repr. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 2012), 287290. There is an excellent discussion of this in Nathan J. Ristuccia, “The Transmission of Christendom: Ritual and Introduction in the early Middle Ages” (PhD diss., University of Notre Dame, 2013), 426–429.

73 Admonitio Generalis, 82, Capitularia regum Francorum, no. 22, p. 61. This fairly basic articulation of the faith is repeated in essentials in Concilium Arelatense (813), c. 1, Concilia Aevi Karolini, ed. Werminghoff, vol. 1, 249–250.

74 Ratio de cathecizandis rudibus, ed. Heer, Joseph Michael, Ein karolingischer Missions-Katechismus, Biblische und patristische Forschungen 1 (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1911), 7788.

75 Synodus Franconofurtensis (794), c. 52, Capitularia regum Francorum, ed. Boretius, no. 28, p. 78; Concilium Turonense (813), c. 17, MGH, Concilia Aevi Karolini, ed. Werminghoff, vol. 1, p. 288; Council of Mainz (847), c. 2, MGH, Concilia Aevi Karolini, ed. Hartmann, vol. 3, p. 164.

76 The material is effectively surveyed by Edwards, “German Vernacular Literature,” 141–160, with further references.

77 Wright, Roger, Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France (Liverpool: Francis Cairns, 1982). Technicalities proved controversial and Wright edited a collection to address some of them from various angles: Latin and the Romance Languages in the Early Middle Ages (New York: Routledge, 1982).

78 Precum libelli quattuor aevi karolini, ed. Wilmart, André (Rome: Ephemerides Liturgicae, 1940). I discuss these in “Secular Sanctity,” 28–30. See also Phelan, The Formation of Christian Europe, 249–252.

79 Precum libelli, 13.

80 Epistola de litteris colendis, MGH, Capitularia regum Francorum, ed. Boretius, no. 29, p. 79.

81 Ganshof, François Louis, Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne, trans. Bryce and Lyon, Mary (New York, 1968), 2734; Ganshof, Recherches sur les capitulaires (Paris: Sirey, 1958), 5565.

82 Nelson, “Religion in the Age of Charlemagne,” 496–497.

83 Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians, 338–340.

84 Capitularia, nos. 23, c. 18, 25, cc. 1–2, 33, c. 2, ed. Boretius, 63, 66, 92.

85 The best assessments are Chélini, Jean, L'aube du moyen age: Naissance de la Chrétienté occidentale (Paris: Picard, 1991) and Julia M. H. Smith, “Religion and Lay Society,” in McKitterick, ed., The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 2, pp. 654–678.

86 Legislation required both, e.g.: Duplex legationis edictum, c. 25, MGH, Capitularia regum Francorum, ed. Boretius, p. 64; Concilium Cabillonense (813), c. 47, MGH, Concilia Aevi Karolini, ed. Werminghoff, vol. 1, p. 283.

87 Admonitio Generalis, c. 81, MGH, Capitularia regum Francorum, ed. Boretius, no. 22, p. 61; Concilium Arelatense, cc. 10, 16, Concilium Moguntinense, c. 37, Concilium Remense, c. 35, Concilium Turonense, c. 40, MGH, Concilia Aevi Karolini, ed. Werminghoff, vol. 1, pp. 251–252, 270, 256, 292.

88 Chélini, L'aube du moyen age, 133–237.

89 Albert, Bat-Sheva, Le pèlerinage à l'époque carolingienne (Brussels: Nauwelaerts, 1999).

90 Meens, Rob, Penance in Medieval Europe 600–1200 (New York: Cambridge University, 2014), 101139.

91 Smith, “Religion and Lay Society,” 668.

92 John J. Contreni, “Masters and Medicine in Northern France in the Reign of Charles the Bald,” in Charles the Bald, 33–50.

93 Ristuccia, “The Transmission of Christendom,” 396–414.

94 L'aube du moyen age, 496.

95 “Religion in the Age of Charlemagne,” 506. Mayr-Harting's “Charlemagne's Religion” aligns with Nelson.

96 The fundamental work remains Arquillière, Henri-Xavier, L'augustinisme politique, 2nd ed. (Paris: J. Vrin, 1955).

97 Heitz, Carol, L'architecture religieuse carolingienne: les forms et leurs fonctions (Paris: J. Vrin, 1980).

98 Dawson, Christopher, The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History of European Unity (London: Sheed and Ward, 1932) and many subsequent editions; the book is still in print.

99 Brown, Peter, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200–1000, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University, 2003).

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