Academic journal article Church History

Past Convictions: The Penance of Louis the Pious and the Decline of the Carolingians

Academic journal article Church History

Past Convictions: The Penance of Louis the Pious and the Decline of the Carolingians

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

According to long-standing historiographical tradition, the Carolingian emperor Louis the Pious (814-840) provoked a dramatic crisis which brought his empire to the brink of civil war in June 833. As Frankish armies confronted each other on the Rotfeld--later called the "Field of Lies"--in Alsace, Louis's men deserted him, many joining the army led by his rebellious son, Pope Gregory IV, and a number of bishops. Then, in October, after several months in captivity, a group of bishops presided over Louis's public penance in the monastic church of St. Médard in Soissons. Watched by Lothar, his eldest son and would-be successor, lay magnates, clergy, and others, Louis confessed his sins and renounced his imperial office. Yet, as the rebellion foundered in 834, Louis recovered his throne and ruled until his death, in 840. Even so, historians often insist that the crisis of 833 weakened imperial power irrevocably. The decline and fall of the Carolingian empire was inevitable.

Booker argues that this historiographical tradition arose out of unthinking reliance on Carolingian narratives vindicating Louis, Enlightenment fascination with theater, and organic metaphors applied to the body politic. Historians often describe Louis's empire as senescent, prone to crisis, dissolution, and decay. Booker notes that the recent historiographical trend attempting to dispel this gloom may go too far in depicting the Carolingians as pragmatic and successful in adapting to change. To correct these distortions, Booker attempts what he considers a new approach, understanding Carolingian sources on their own terms, without the distortions of modern historiographical preconceptions.

Booker begins by analyzing narratives of the events of 833 from the Carolingian period through the Enlightenment. He concludes that Louis's supporters, Thegan and the Astronomer, had a preponderant influence in determining the historical memory of 833. Their authoritative interpretations of the contested events of 833 affirmed the legitimacy of Louis's imperial authority by shaping the events of 833 into a morality tale of a virtuous king, who, like Job or Christ, suffered injustice at the hands of hypocrites. In comparison, narratives written by the rebellious bishops were rarely copied, and when considered, only served as proof of the rebels' iniquity. After the ninth century, historical narratives represented Louis as a pious, benign ruler, although unable to control factionalism at court. Fascinated by theater and attuned, perhaps, to the Carolingians' own theatrical understanding of events, Enlightenment historians used the drama of 833 to reveal the forces leading to the Carolingian empire's demise, in an effort to trace the progress of civilization.

After this exhaustive historiographical analysis, Booker turns to often misunderstood or neglected sources justifying the rebellion of 833. The bishops' Relatio and an affidavit by Bishop Agobard of Lyon were written in October, 833, to describe Louis's sins and his public penance; during the 850s and 860s, Bishop Ebo of Reims wrote to defend himself against accusations that he was responsible for the rebellion and Louis's enforced penance. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.