Locked down with the popes: the Codex epistolaris Carolinus

My constant companions during the isolation necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 were a group of long-dead popes. Gregory III, Zacharias, Stephen II and his brother Paul I, their luckless successor Pope Constantine II,[1] Constantine’s ruthless deposer Stephen III, and the ostensibly more urbane Hadrian I[2] ruled the see of Rome in the second half of the eighth century. Their letters to Frankish rulers during this period form the text, in the excellent English translation made by Richard Pollard (CC 1-11) and Richard Price (CC 12-99), with added introduction, historical commentary and notes, of the latest volume in the series Translated Texts for Historians.  

Pope Paul I, portrayed in the initial letter of his Life in a lost ninth-century copy of the Liber pontificalis, parts of which are preserved in facsimile in the edition of F. Bianchini, Vita romanorum pontificum a beato Petro apostolo ad Nicolaum I perductae cura Anastasii s.r.e.bibliothecarii (1718)  reprinted in J-P. Migne, Patrologia Latina 127 and 128 (Paris, 1852).

The popes clearly bombarded the rulers of the Franks with letters, with a constant stream of papal and Frankish envoys carrying letters, and gifts such as books and jewels too, back and forth across the Alps.  These letters, despite many being written by papal notaries rather than the pontiffs themselves, are full of querulous complaints, admonitions, mostly unsolicited advice, and reiterated assurances of friendship and spiritual solicitude to the Frankish rulers. Among them are a justly famous letter purporting to be from St Peter himself to the entire Frankish people which emphasizes the role of the Franks and the Carolingian rulers as St Peter’s special protectors, Stephen III’s vituperative reaction to a rumour that a marriage was being proposed between either Charlemagne or his brother Carloman and a daughter of Desiderius, king of the ‘treacherous and most foul’ Lombards, or Pope Hadrian’s reiterated complaints that the Franks were not doing as much as he had hoped to ‘restore’ the papal patrimonies or prevent the depredations of various Lombard dukes. Others are less well known, such as the long response Pope Zacharias wrote about ecclesiastical organisation and discipline to Pippin III before Pippin usurped the Merovingian throne, the substantial number of letters on a variety of topics from Pope Paul I to Pippin III, or the only two surviving letters from Pope Constantine II, are less well known. The letters themselves are substitutes for the physical presence of the popes and their delivery was often a ceremonial occasion in itself. The letters offer vivid and one-sided narratives of events in Rome, as well as many indications of the amount of responsibility entrusted to the Frankish kings’ envoys. The pope complains about the machinations of overambitious bishops, especially in Ravenna and, after 774, of a number of men whose loyalty to the new rule of Charlemagne within Italy was doubted. Throughout the letters are scattered references to the need for timber and lead to mend the roofs of Rome’s churches, predatory slave traders in the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas, liturgical celebrations, marble and mosaics to be taken from Ravenna to Francia, Byzantine encroachments in Italy, Lombard aggression, an alleged plot involving Offa king of Mercia, comments on the knowledge of Greek and the work of interpreters, and cantors being sent to Francia to teach chant. They provide many different perspectives and information on the relations between the Franks and the popes, Frankish involvement in Italy and Ravenna, and the activities of Lombard dukes as well as of popes which are to be found in no other contemporary source. In particular the letters complement and supplement the papal biographies for this period in the Liber pontificalis.[3]

This remarkable Frankish selection of 99 papal letters was assembled on Charlemagne’s orders in 791, yet it survives in only one medieval manuscript, now Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek Cod. 449, a copy made in Cologne c. 860. It is an outstanding example of the chance survival of historical evidence, without which we would know nothing of the development of the relationship between the popes and the Frankish rulers in the early middle ages. It is all the more important in that the Frankish compilers of the original compilation added their own Frankish commentary on the letters in the form of lemmata or headings, faithfully preserved by the Cologne copyists and elucidated by Dorine van Espelo in her commentary on the codex and the lemmata in the introduction to our book. The order in which the letters are arranged in the codex is also significant historical evidence in its own right. Unlike the nineteenth-century editors of these letters, who had attempted to rearrange the letters in what they considered to be the correct chronological order, we have restored the original manuscript order, in order to recreate the Frankish presentation. The lockdown periods of 2020 and early 2021, therefore, as I prepared the notes and commentary and finalised all the other preparations of the book for publication, were periods of communication across time and space in every sense of the words.

[1] ‘The damnatio memoriae of Pope Constantine II (767-768)’, in Ross Balzaretti, Julia Barrow and Patricia Skinner (eds), Italy and Early Medieval Europe: Papers for Chris Wickham on the occasion of his 65th birthday (Oxford: Past and Present Supplementary series, 2018), pp. 231-248

[2] ‘The Church and the Law in the early middle ages’, in R. McKitterick, C. Methuen and A. Spicer (eds), The Church and the Law, Studies in Church History 56 (2020), pp. 7-29

[3] Rome and the invention of the papacy: the Liber pontificalis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)

Rosamond McKitterick is Professor Emerita of Medieval History, University of Cambridge. Her most recent book is Rome and the Invention of the Papacy: The Liber Pontificalis (Cambridge 2020).

Find out more about Rosamond McKitterick’s new publication with Dorine van Espelo, Richard Pollard, and Richard Price, Codex Epistolaris Carolinus, on the LUP website.


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