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Empire, Ethnic Election and Exegesis in the Opus Caroli (Libri Carolini)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 May 2018

Conor O'Brien*
Churchill College, Cambridge
*Churchill College, Storey's Way, Cambridge, CB3 0DS. E-mail:


Modern historians have long argued that the early medieval Franks thought themselves to be the chosen people or new Israel, especially as they gained a great empire under the Carolingian dynasty in the late eighth century. The Opus Caroli of Bishop Theodulf of Orléans has often been cited as one of the clearest expressions of this self-conception as God's elect. A massive work attacking the legitimacy of the Byzantine empire in the context of the iconoclasm dispute during the early 790s, it does indeed contest the Byzantine claim to be the Christian empire. But Theodulf's repeated statement that ‘We are the spiritual Israel’ is best understood not as an assertion of ethnic election, but as a reference to the Christian tradition of Scripture exegesis which should (he argues) underpin both the Frankish and the Byzantine understanding of images. The Carolingian claim to empire rested on the Frankish championing of the universal Church, and its traditions of orthodoxy and correct biblical interpretation.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2018 

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I am grateful to the Master and Fellows of Churchill College, Cambridge, for electing me to the research fellowship which made this work possible. Thanks are also due to Zachary Giuliano and to the anonymous readers for their detailed suggestions.


1 ‘[N]os, qui spiritalis Israel sumus’: Opus Caroli regis contra synodum [hereafter: OC] 1.17 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 183). All translations are my own.

2 OC 1.1–3, 3.15 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 105–24, 399–407). Ann Freeman argued that the Opus Caroli misrepresented the Nicene council, due to a poor Latin translation of its acts: ‘Carolingian Orthodoxy and the Fate of the Libri Carolini’, Viator 16 (1985), 65–108. Recent research has contested this, however, suggesting that the Opus displays a good understanding of the Greek arguments: Thümmel, Hans-Georg, ‘Die fränkische Reaktion auf das 2. Nicaenum 787 in den Libri Carolini’, in Berndt, Rainer, ed., Das frankfurter Konzil von 794. Kristallisationspunkt karolingischer Kultur (Mainz, 1997), 965–80Google Scholar; Noble, Thomas F. X., Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia, PA, 2009), 181–3.Google Scholar

3 Noble, Images, chs 4–5; idem, ‘Tradition and Learning in Search of Ideology: The Libri Carolini’, in Sullivan, Richard, ed., The Gentle Voices of Teachers’: Aspects of Learning in the Carolingian Age (Columbus, OH, 1995), 227–60Google Scholar; Mitalaité, Kristina, Philosophie et théologie de l'image dans les Carolini, Libri (Paris, 2007), 51Google Scholar. But contrast Ricciardi, Alberto, ‘Prima dell'impero. Antagonismo Franco-Bizantino, identità politiche e ideologia dal mito delle origini Troiane all’Opus Caroli regis contra Synodum (Libri Carolini)’, Rivista Storica Italiana 125 (2013), 643–80.Google Scholar

4 Dahlhaus-Berg, Elisabeth, Nova Antiquitas et Antiqua Novitas. Typologische Exegese und isidorianisches Geschichtsbild bei Theodulf von Orléans (Cologne, 1975), 196Google Scholar; Chazelle, Celia, ‘Matter, Spirit, and Image in the Libri Carolini’, Recherches Augustiniennes 21 (1986), 163–84, at 184CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Noble, ‘Tradition and Learning’, 239–40, 249; Morrison, Karl F., ‘Anthropology and the Use of Religious Images in the Opus Caroli Regis (Libri Carolini)’, in Hamburger, Jeffrey F. and Bouché, Anne-Marie, eds, The Mind's Eye: Art and Theological Argument in the Middle Ages (Princeton, NJ, 2006), 3245, at 36.Google Scholar

5 Mitalaité, Philosophie et théologie, 411. Ricciardi, ‘Antagonismo Franco-Bizantino’, 667–8, does not address the phrase, but the implications of his argument are that he would reject it as a claim for Frankish election.

6 For example, Conant, Jonathan P., ‘Louis the Pious and the Contours of Empire’, EME 22 (2014), 336–60Google Scholar, especially 357–9; Jong, Mayke de, ‘The Empire that was Always Decaying: The Carolingians (800–888)’, Medieval Worlds 2 (2015), 625CrossRefGoogle Scholar, especially 14–15 [online journal], at: <>, last accessed 12 December 2017.

7 For example, Kantorowicz, Ernst, Regiae, Laudes: A Study in Liturgical Acclamations and Medieval Ruler Worship (Berkeley, CA, 1946), 56–9Google Scholar; Ewig, Eugen, ‘Zum christlichen Königsgedanken im Frühmittelalter’, in Atsma, Hartmut, ed., Spätantikes und fränkisches Gallien. Gesammelte Schriften (1952–1973), 3 vols (Munich, 1976), 1: 3–71, at 41–5Google Scholar; Nelson, Janet L., ‘The Lord's Anointed and the People's Choice: Carolingian Royal Ritual’, in Cannadine, David and Prince, Simon, eds, Rituals of Royalty: Power and Ceremonial in Traditional Societies (Cambridge, 1987), 137–80Google Scholar, reprinted in eadem, The Frankish World, 750900 (London, 1996), 99–131.

8 Continuation of Fredegar, Historia vel gesta Francorum 20 (MGH SRM 2, 177); Royal Frankish Annals, s.a. 750 (MGH SRG i.u.s. 6, 8, 10); Alcuin, Epistola 41 (MGH Epp. 4, 84).

9 Garrison, Mary, ‘The Franks as the New Israel: Education for an Identity from Pippin to Charlemagne’, in Hen, Yitzhak and Innes, Matthew, eds, The Uses of the Past in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge, 2000), 114–61.Google Scholar

10 Jong, Mayke de, ‘The State of the Church: Ecclesia and Early Medieval State Formation’, in Pohl, Walter and Wieser, Veronika, eds, Der frühmittelalterliche Staat – europäische Perspektiven (Vienna, 2009), 241–54, at 250–1Google Scholar; Heydemann, Gerda and Pohl, Walter, ‘The Rhetoric of Election – 1 Peter 2.9 and the Franks’, in Espelo, Doreen van et al., eds, Religious Franks: Religion and Power in the Frankish Kingdoms. Studies in Honour of Mayke de Jong (Manchester, 2016), 1331.Google Scholar

11 Quotation from Innes, Matthew, ‘“Immune from Heresy”: Defining the Boundaries of Carolingian Christianity’, in Fouracre, Paul and Ganz, David, eds, Frankland: The Franks and the World of the Early Middle Ages. Essays in Honour of Dame Jinty Nelson (Manchester, 2008), 101–25, at 124Google Scholar. See also De Jong, ‘State of the Church’, 248–51; Reimitz, Helmut, History, Frankish Identity and the Framing of Western Ethnicity, 550–850 (Cambridge, 2015), 295422, 451–5.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

12 Freeman, Ann, Theodulf of Orléans: Charlemagne's Spokesman against the Second Council of Nicaea (Aldershot, 2003).Google Scholar

13 Nelson, Janet L., ‘The Voice of Charlemagne’, in Gameson, Richard and Leyser, Henrietta, eds, Belief and Culture in the Middle Ages: Studies Presented to Henry Mayr-Harting (Oxford, 2001), 7688, at 77.Google Scholar

14 Noble, ‘Tradition and Learning’, 232, 249–50. Freeman argued that Charlemagne discontinued the project when faced with papal support for Nicaea II: ‘Carolingian Orthodoxy’. More recently, Noble has proposed that Rome and the Franks agreed to disagree: Images, 172–8.

15 McCormick, Michael, ‘Western Approaches (700–900)’, in Shepard, Jonathan, ed., The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, c.500–1492 (Cambridge, 2009), 395432, at 414–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brubaker, Leslie and Haldon, John, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c.680–850 (Cambridge, 2011), 258–9Google Scholar. For the circumstances of Irene and Constantine's reign in relation to the council of Nicaea, see ibid. 260–76.

16 Cavadini, John C., The Last Christology of the West: Adoptionism in Spain and Gaul, 785–820 (Philadelphia, PA, 1993)Google Scholar; Close, Florence, Uniformiser la foi pour unifier l'Empire. Contribution à l'histoire de la pensée politico-théologique de Charlemagne (Brussels, 2011).Google Scholar

17 ‘Coniungentibus . . . cunctis regni Francorum seu Italiae, Aquitaniae, Provintiae episcopis ac sacerdotibus synodali concilio’: Capitulare Francofurtense 1 (MGH Conc. 2.i, 165).

18 Marie-France Auzépy, ‘Francfort et Nicée II’, in Berndt, ed., Das frankfurter Konzil, 279–300, at 289–90; Close, Uniformiser la foi, 126–9; Noble, Images, 169–72, 178–80; Royal Frankish Annals (and their ninth-century reworking), s.a. 794 (MGH SRG i.u.s. 6, 94–5); Annals of Lorsch, s.a. 794 (MGH SS 1, 35–6).

19 OC 3.11, 4.13, 4.28 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 376–8, 515–22, 557–8); Close, Uniformiser la foi, 144–9.

20 ‘Quod non solum omnium Galliarum provinciae et Germania sive Italia, sed etiam Saxones et quaedam aquilonalis plagae gentes per nos . . . ad verę fidei rudimenta conversae facere noscuntur’: OC 1.6 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 136).

21 Dahlhaus-Berg, Nova Antiquitas, 200–1; Auzépy, ‘Francfort et Nicée II’, 299–300.

22 Noble, Images, 209.

23 Ibid. 234.

24 Chazelle, ‘Matter, Spirit, and Image’, 176; Noble, ‘Tradition and Learning’, 241–4; Morrison, ‘Anthropology’, 33–4.

25 ‘NUTU DEI REGIS FRANCORUM, GALLIAS, GERMANIAM ITALIAMQUE SIVE HARUM FINITIMAS PROVINTIAS . . . REGENTIS’: OC preface (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 97). This was not the standard form of Charlemagne's title in the early 790s, which was usually ‘king of the Franks and Lombards, and patrician of the Romans’.

26 ‘Contra cuius errores ideo scribere conpulsi sumus, ut . . . inertem vel potius inermem orientali de parte venientem hostem occidua in parte per nos favente Deo adlata sanctorum patrum sententia feriat’ (‘Against whose errors therefore we are compelled to write, so that . . . the opinion of the holy fathers, conveyed (with God's support) through us in the Western region, may strike the incompetent, or rather unarmed, enemy coming from the Eastern region’): OC preface (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 101). Probably this represents the royal ‘we’ of Charlemagne's voice, used also elsewhere: OC 1.6, 4.3 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 136, 494–5).

27 For Easterners, see OC preface, 1.6 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 98–9, 132); Theodulf described the priest John, the representative of the Eastern patriarchs, as ‘legatus Orientalium’ throughout the Opus, which may have been understood in this sense. For Greeks, see OC 3.11, 4.18, 4.23 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 375, 532, 546).

28 ‘[U]nius partis ecclesia . . . totius mundi ecclesias conetur anathematizare’: OC 3.11 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 376).

29 OC 2.9, 2.31, 3.18 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 253, 325, 420).

30 OC 2.30 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 317).

31 For example, ‘ut illi stultissime et inrationabiliter dicunt’: OC 1.16 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 175).

32 ‘Cum ergo nostrum esse tantum distet a Dei esse et nostrum vivere ab eius vivere et nostrum regnare ab eius regnare, dolenda potius quam admiranda est illorum vęcordia, qui . . . Deum sibi conregnare etiam dicunt’: OC 1.1 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 105).

33 ‘Nos . . . qui et Veritatis sectatores et ab ipsa Veritate redempti sumus, sicut sprevimus gentilium deorum mendacium, spernere debemus gentilia vocabula’: OC 1.3 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 124).

34 Cf. Nees, Lawrence, A Tainted Mantle: Hercules and the Classical Tradition at the Carolingian Court (Philadelphia, PA, 1991), 118Google Scholar.

35 ‘[N]obis, qui post incarnationem dominicam ad fidem venimus’ (a quotation from Bede, De Templo 1 [CChr.SL 119A, 183]); ‘Nos vero, qui ea, quae de Christi adventu et vocatione gentium prophetata sunt, non ut futura autumamus, sed ut pręterita devota mente tenemus et credimus’; ‘nos, qui uni et soli Deo . . . servimus’: OC 1.20, 2.11, 3.18 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 202, 257, 420).

36 See also OC 3.15 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 405–6).

37 ‘[S]ive ad dinoscendum populum Israel, ut essent signum in veste, sicut circumcisio signum in corpore, sive ut nos, qui spiritalis Israel sumus, habeamus pro indumento iustitiam et sanctam conversationem, huius indumenti extremitas fimbriis iacinctinis sit ornata, quatenus vita nostra sanctarum Scripturarum sit testimoniis erudita’: OC 1.17 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 183); text in italics is from Jerome, Commentarii in Matheum 4 (CChr.SL 77, 211).

38 ‘[S]ic nobis christianis donata est crux et sanctorum imagines ad . . . adorandum’: OC 1.19 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 192). Theodulf directly quotes the Latin translation of the Nicene acts available to him.

39 ‘[I]llos, qui umbram legis sequebantur, habuisse foederis tabulas continentes legis decalogum, nos, qui veritatem, quae Christus est, sequimur, habere opera quorumlibet artificum’: OC 1.19 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 192–3).

40 ‘Nos enim, qui non sequimur litteram mortificantem, sed spiritum vivificantem, qui non carnalis, sed spiritalis Israhel sumus, qui spretis visibilibus invisibilia contemplamur, non solum imaginibus maiora mysteria, quae omni mysterio carent, sed ipsis tabulis seu duobus cherubim maiora et eminentiora mysteriorum insignia a Domino accepisse nos gratulamur. Cum videlicet tabulae et duo cherubim exemplaria fuerint futurorum, et cum Iudęi habuerint carnaliter res, quae typicis opertę figuris praefigurationes fuerint futurorum, nos habemus in veritate spiritaliter ea, quae illis exemplaribus sive pręfigurationibus carnalibus pręfigurabantur’: OC 1.19 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 193).

41 Dahlhaus-Berg, Nova Antiquitas, 191–5; Chazelle, Celia, ‘Images, Scripture, the Church, and the Libri Carolini’, Proceedings of the PMR Conference 16–17 (1992–3), 5376, at 59–61Google Scholar; Noble, Images, 187–91; Mitalaité, Philosophie et théologie, 410–13.

42 ‘Nos autem, qui opitulante Deo psalmorum prophetiam spiritaliter . . . intelligimus’; ‘nos, qui secundum Apostolum legem spiritalem esse scimus’: OC 1.30, 2.9 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 231, 253).

43 Markus, R. A., ‘The Jew as a Hermeneutic Device: The Inner Life of a Gregorian Topos’, in Cavadini, John C., ed., Gregory the Great: A Symposium (London, 1995), 115Google Scholar; Fredriksen, Paula, Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism (New York, 2008), 73–8.Google Scholar

44 The Nicene bishops are compared to Pharisees at OC 1.17 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 184).

45 ‘Nos enim, qui non sequimur litteram mortificantem, sed spiritum vivificantem’: OC 1.19 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 193); ‘Nos autem qui non sequimur occidentem litteram, sed spiritum uiuificantem’: Jerome, Commentarii in prophetas minores: In Sophoniam 3 (CChr.SL 76A, 700); a borrowing not noted by the excellent MGH edition.

46 Jerome, Commentarii in Esaiam 6.15.1 (CChr.SL 73, 254).

47 ‘[S]piritalis Israhel, id est populi christiani’: Bede, Homeliae evangelii 1.17 (CChr.SL 122, 124); ‘catholica, id est universalis, ecclesia spiritalis uidelicet Israhel’: idem, In primam partem Samuhelis 1 (CChr.SL 119, 38–9); ‘illa propagationem carnalis Israhel ista spiritalis significat . . . qui de uniuersis cognationibus terrae in Christo saluator’: idem, In Genesim 3 (CChr.SL 118A, 169).

48 Augustine, De doctrina christiana 3.34.47 (CChr.SL 32, 106–7).

49 ‘Sic fit Israhel spiritalis non unius gentis, sed omnium, quae promissae sunt patribus in eorum semine, quod est Christus. Hic ergo Israhel spiritalis ab illo Israhele carnali, qui est unius gentis, nouitate gratiae, non nobilitate patriae, et mente, non gente distinguitur’: Augustine, De doctrina christiana 3.34.48–9 (CChr.SL 32, 109).

50 Chazelle, Celia, ‘“Not in Painting but in Writing”: Augustine and the Supremacy of the Word in the Libri Carolini’, in English, Edward, ed., Reading and Wisdom: The De doctrina Christiana of Augustine in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame, IN, 1995), 122Google Scholar. Theodulf also knew the writings of Jerome and Bede well.

51 ‘Fecerat Hebraeos hos gloria sanguinis alti: / Nos facit Hebraeos transitus ecce pius’: Theodulf, Carmina 69 (MGH Poetae 1, 558). The transitus is presumably both the Christian's crossing from earthly to heavenly things mentioned next in the poem and Christ's crossing over in death on the cross; it also hints at the crossing from species to genus, a movement Augustine expressed using transire: De doctrina christiana 3.34.48–9 (CChr.SL 32, 107, 109).

52 OC 1.6, 2.17 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 132–5, 267); Close, Uniformiser la foi, 147–50.

53 See Noble, Thomas F. X., ‘Review Article: From the Libri Carolini to the Opus Caroli Regis’, Journal of Medieval Latin 9 (1999), 131–47, at 138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

54 ‘Sancta synodus et venerabiles in Christo patres cum omnibus episcopis Germaniae, Galliae et Aequitaniae et toto catholicae pacis clero praesulibus Hispaniae’: the Frankish bishops to the bishops of Spain (MGH Conc. 2.i, 143).

55 ‘Hanc igitur fidem orthodoxam et ab apostolicis traditam doctoribus et ab universali servatam ecclesia nos . . . ubique in omnibus servare et praedicare profitemur’: Charlemagne to the bishops of Spain (MGH Conc. 2.i, 158). On these letters (both of which Alcuin probably wrote), see Close, Uniformiser la foi, 115–19; Phelan, Owen M., The Formation of Christian Europe: The Carolingians, Baptism, and the Imperium Christianum (Oxford, 2014), 53–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

56 ‘Anathematizat enim, “qui non instruunt omnem Christo dilectum populum adorare imagines”’: OC 3.7 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 368).

57 ‘[V]idelicet pene totus mundus Christi populo plenus sit’: OC 3.7 (MGH Conc. 2 Suppl. 1, 368); the marginal note reads ‘summe’: ‘excellently [said]’.