There are not many people who appear in the indexes of all three of these books, on quite different topics: A Handbook of Medieval Sexuality; Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900; and The Proprietary Church in the Medieval West. One of the few who does is Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims in 845-882 and one of the most important political, religious and intellectual figures in the ninth-century Carolingian Empire (essentially the French, Italian and German-speaking worlds). That’s because Hincmar had something to say about everything and everyone, from dancing bears to witchcraft, from the baptism of the first Frankish king Clovis in around 508 to a vision of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald (840-877) in hell, and from how popes should make judgements to how much wine parish priests might drink at banquets (he allowed them three cups). Hincmar was still scribbling away as he was carried in a portable chair out of his city of Rheims to escape a Viking attack, shortly before he died.
All this makes Hincmar one of the most important informants on the early Middle Ages; but his individual works have tended to be read in isolation by historians interested in a particular topic. Covering all his interests has seemed too daunting: the last book to deal with the whole of his life was by Jean Devisse, whose three volumes weighed in at 1585 pages. Forty years on, the new book we have edited and that’s published today, Hincmar of Rheims: Life and Work, is a slim 309 pages; and rather than write it all ourselves, we have drawn on the expertise of historians from Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA and Canada.
The title of our book was deliberate: we wanted to show how Hincmar’s texts (especially those on political matters) should not be read in isolation, but considered in the context of his own life. Hincmar was a controversial and quarrelsome figure, as fellow bishops, kings, noblemen and popes all found out. His writings respond to particular events in the world around him and subtly or less subtly reflect his concern to protect his own particular interests; anyone who uses a passage from his works to make a general point about early medieval society (as is quite common) will do well to appreciate this.
But as is so often the case, what people write about Hincmar says something about their times as well as his, inadvertently or not. Jean Devisse, writing in the 1970s, saw Hincmar as a heroic if unappreciated champion of the church and social justice; other twentieth-century scholars saw him as a Machiavellian figure, a partisan putting his learning at the service of his king. Our Hincmar, by contrast, moves in a world of spin-doctors and dodgy dossiers, letter exchanges that sometimes look like slow-motion flame wars, multi-tasking and micro-management. And he’s a man who must have suffered from “long-hours culture”. What the chapters in our book collectively show is someone always at work, who could seemingly never relax: an abrasive intellectual and politician, but also a fraught middle-manager, trying to administer his archdiocese effectively in the teeth of relentless pressures.
Our Hincmar is placed amid rival royal advisors, bolshy subordinates ingeniously trying to achieve their own ends and a distant superior (the pope) frustratingly inclined to believe the worst of what he heard about Hincmar and to make arbitrary decisions on inadequate evidence. We see Hincmar dealing with violent local priests, and with a know-it-all, dangerously persuasive heretic, as well as with powerful and unpredictable kings and emperors. Our book discusses Hincmar’s vision of the ideal and harmonious society, linking together the authority of the king with that of the father of a household, the bishop as successor to the apostles with the humble parish priest. But it also reveals how much effort it took Hincmar to maintain his position, whether (to pick just a few examples) rewriting history to get his own back on dead opponents, creating the picture of the perfect Archbishop of Rheims, St Remigius (who coincidentally happened to share many of Hincmar’s own theological and legal concerns!); or worrying that the church of Rheims’ control over its own slaves couldn’t be maintained effectively.
Is the Hincmar that emerges from these pages a more sympathetic character than the one previously seen? That’s hard to be sure of. But he does, we hope, become more understandable. Hincmar is no longer the only ninth-century figure we can see exploiting, rewriting and manipulating texts to achieve his ends; his notorious self-plagarism looks like an understandable response to the repeated recurrence of the same problems. Even his willingness to malign his enemies after death becomes explicable, given his failure to achieve a permanent victory over them in their lifetime. Hincmar the long-hours worker, determined if cantankerous, under pressure and often frustrated, but despite it all not prepared to give up just yet, might seem once again an oddly familiar figure to at least some within the modern academic world.
Charles West is a Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Sheffield, and Rachel Stone is an honorary Research Associate at King’s College London. A full list of the book’s fourteen contributors can be found at the Manchester University Press website.
*MUP is offering a 10% discount on the book if ordered before 10 July: just go to their distributor website and enter the code OTH544. A discount will be available at the IMC in Leeds.*