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The Penitential State: Authority and Atonement in the Age of Louis the Pious, 814-840.

The Penitential State: Authority and Atonement in the Age of Louis the Pious, 814-840, by Mayke de Jong. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009. xv, 340 pp. $99.00 US (cloth).

In September 813, Charlemagne's sole surviving legitimate son, Louis, travelled to Aachen to stand in his father's presence and receive the imperial title. In the eyes of many contemporary and posthumous critics, the son's reign could not help but pale in comparison to that of the illustrious father. This was due in no small part to Louis's response to two rebellions led by his own sons in 830 and 833. Although the emperor regained his power in both instances, historians have debated whether Louis's reputation ever completely recovered from the supposed humiliation of performing a public penance at Soissons in 833. Some have even gone so far as to identify this moment as a tragic step towards the eventual political dissolution of the Carolingian empire. Although the modern rehabilitation of Louis the Pious's reputation began in earnest in 1990 with the publication of Roger Collins and Peter Godman's Charlemagne's Heir: New Approaches to the Reign of Louis the Pious, and has continued steadily since, only very recently have serious reconsiderations of Louis's public penance appeared. The publication of two monographs on the topic by Mayke de Jong and Courtney Booker came in 2009. While only the former will be considered in this review, the two books are complementary in many of their arguments, and should be read concurrently.

De Jong, who has published extensively on the intersections between politics and religion in the Early Middle Ages, elucidates the events of 833 by contextualizing them in relation to early ninth-century Carolingian political theology. She argues persuasively that it would be inaccurate to dismiss the emperor's public penance as mere "empty rhetoric," a cynical gesture justifying a deposition that had already occurred (p. 3). Louis, as much as any of his critics, she maintains, believed that the emperor was not above reproach. In a polity in which the separation of church and state was unthinkable, let alone desirable, Louis assumed, along with his bishops, the leadership of the Christian community, a ministry (ministerium) bestowed upon him directly by God. Should Louis neglect his ministerial responsibility (negligentia), it was the right and responsibility of his bishops to admonish him, just as it was the emperor's duty to admonish his subjects for the sake of their salvation and the well-being of the realm. De Jong is able to demonstrate how even when Louis was the target of admonitio, he could use the occasion to reaffirm his ministerial role. In 822, at a royal assembly held at Attigny, Louis publically confessed his culpability for the death of his rebellious nephew, Bernard of Italy. For his sins the emperor performed penance, an act which de Jong rightly argues was a calculated, albeit sincere, move by Louis to reconcile with both family members and God, to demonstrate his clemency, and to disavow his own negligentia.

In de Jong's reconstruction of events, admonitions directed at the emperor became increasingly hostile following several major military defeats in 827, which were interpreted by some contemporaries as reflecting God's displeasure at Louis's performance of his ministry. Louis only made matters worse by attempting to make scapegoats of Counts Matfrid of Orlrans and Hugh of Tours, two influential magnates, and promoting to the office of chamberlain his godson Bernard of Septimania, who was soon accused of blocking access to the king and conducting an affair with the empress Judith. The subsequent revolt led by Louis's sons was inspired, in de Jong's view, at least in part by the rebels' desire to restore order and good rule to the empire. While Louis was able to regain his imperium by demonstrating humility and an apparent willingness to compromise, his revisions to his plans for the royal succession in the aftermath of the revolt helped to fuel the crisis of 833. Important for de Jong's interpretation of Louis's public penance at Soissons is the second Apologia of one of the bishops present, the ever-combative Agobard of Lyons, a treatise which de Jong convincingly dates to the months between July and October 833. Intended to justify public penance to the attendees of the imperial assembly at Compiegne, the Apologia maintained that God had punished Louis by taking away his earthly kingdom, and that the former emperor's primary concern now had to be his own soul. While, as de Jong correctly maintains, public penance in the Carolingian period owed more to the Merovingian tradition of monastic exile than to late antique traditions of voluntary penance, the bishops who urged Louis to perform public penance would later take great pains to argue that the emperor's submission had been of his own free will and not coerced. Naturally, when Louis recovered his throne, his supporters argued the very opposite. However, de Jong shows that they never questioned the efficacy of voluntary royal penance or the appropriateness of public penance as a penalty for public crimes. Thus, she concludes, the events of 833 did not set a precedent for the justification of royal depositions by mandated public penance, although rulers of the ninth through the eleventh centuries continued to perform voluntary acts of humility and repentance. De Jong's conclusions cohere with Timothy Reuter's reinterpretation of Henry IV's penance at Canossa, a study she cites on several occasions.

An impressive work of historical scholarship, The Penitential State succeeds on several levels. First, de Jong establishes that the emperor and his supporters were just as invested in "the machinery of the penitential state" as their opponents, and that once Louis regained control of this machinery he simply restored it as a royal prerogative (p. 249). Even more significantly, de Jong's study cogently demonstrates the impossibility of interpreting Carolingian politics apart from the religious rituals and discourse that permeated every aspect of public life. Historians of Carolingian Europe would do well to follow de Jong's lead in taking these as seriously as did their original practitioners.

Greg Halfond

Framingham State College
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Author:Halfond, Greg
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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