Be a Perfect Man

In Be a Perfect Man, Andrew J. Romig argues that Carolingian representations of caritas served as a discourse of power, a means by which early medieval writers made claims, both explicit and implicit, about the hierarchies of masculine power that they believed ought to exist within their world.

Be a Perfect Man
Christian Masculinity and the Carolingian Aristocracy

Andrew J. Romig

2017 | 264 pages | Cloth $65.00
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Introduction. Ideology, Gender, and Discourse in the Carolingian World
Chapter 1. The Authority of the Ascetic Male
Chapter 2. Manifestos of Carolingian Power
Chapter 3. Louis the Pious and the Manliness of Forgiving
Chapter 4. Questioning Caritas in the Time of Troubles
Chapter 5. The Emergence of the Secular-Spiritual Hybrid
Conclusion. Manliness and Empathy


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

Ideology, Gender, and Discourse in the Carolingian World

I advise you so that you can be a perfect man. The man who wears down his feet in the mud and the dust as he walks the earth is blessed on account of his worthy merits. He already has his name written in the heavenly kingdom.
—Dhuoda of Septimania to her son, William (ninth century)
Dhuoda of Septimania (d. c. 843/844) penned these solemn words to her absent son, William (d. 849/850), as her world was collapsing all around her. The year was 842 or 843, the most violent apogee of an era of political and social unrest that Dhuoda's contemporaries would come to call their tempus perturbationum—their "time of troubles." Anarchy and civil war had torn her family apart. Dhuoda's husband, once a powerful lord and trusted advisor to the emperor, now lived in exile. He had been forced to surrender William, a boy in his mid-teens, to live as a hostage ward in an enemy court. In his flight, furthermore, he had taken with him his only remaining heir, a baby born to Dhuoda no more than a year or two of age. Thus, Dhuoda wrote her words alone and bereft, left behind, sick in body and roiled in spirit, seeking what comfort she could in a final act of motherly love and protection. Her solace was the hope that her son might one day receive her little book of advice, learn from its wisdom, and live to become a vir perfectus—a "perfect man."

What it meant to be such a man within the aristocratic culture of Carolingian Europe during the late eighth, ninth, and early tenth centuries CE—the history of its definitions, its symbolic valuations, and its metaphoric associations—is the subject of this book. The typical life of an aristocratic Carolingian male such as William would have involved an array of behaviors and duties associated with his gender and rank: an education in arms and letters; training in horsemanship, soldiery, and hunting; betrothal and marriage; the virile production of heirs; the masterful command of a prominent household. Dhuoda's advice to her young son, however, contains almost no mention of these common badges of Carolingian manhood. Perfection in Dhuoda's world meant more than the sum of such parts—not to be without flaw so much as to be fully grown or mature—"thoroughly made," as the word etymologically suggests. To be perfect, in other words, meant to be complete in body and mind. It meant living up to the full potential envisioned by a deity who had shaped humanity in his own image, a deity whose essence was pure wisdom and whose highest command was infinite love. Only a man who was completely made, Dhuoda believed, could survive the troubling times in which her son now lived. Only a "made man" could be strong enough to help end the destructive violence, heal the broken community, and restore the world to prosperity. This sort of man, taught Dhuoda, lived unblemished by fault. He strove for justice. He spoke the truth. He did no harm to those around him, nor did he dissemble in his promises. He used his wealth to build, never seeking to acquire more. He spoke no ill of others. He took no bribes at the expense of the innocent. He endured those who wronged him with patience and not revenge. His conscience was clear. His heart was pure. His passions did not rule him. He knew the extent of his power, yet each day he chose to wield it for the benefit of the common good, helping any and all in need through assiduous compassion and largesse. Skill in the arts of war, bounties of wealth and children, heroic and prestigious service to kin and to king—these were the rewards of a man's perfection, its manifestations, not its causes. The perfect man was a spiritual being. His capacity to love marked his manly vigor. His care for others, not his sword-arm, was the truest testament to his mettle, for it proved that his power was righteous, that his authority came from God himself, and that he deserved in no uncertain terms to rule the world.

As the book will show, the Carolingians constructed their conceptions of manly perfection not upon a revered collection of traits and behaviors but rather upon a profound cultural valuation of love, emotional sensitivity, and care for others. The discussion and representation of this love, sensitivity, and care, I will argue, functioned within their world as a gendered discourse of power, which Carolingian writers actively mobilized to link specific types of men with specific types of moral and political authority. In so doing, these writers made claims, both explicit and implicit, about the hierarchies of power that they believed ought to exist within their world.

Their discourse revolved around a central Latin term, caritas. The word meant "love" in its simplest denotation. As a discursive construct, however, it always referred connotatively to far more. Carolingian writers employed a rich vocabulary of affective language to describe the array of feelings and conduct that they associated with caritas: amor, affectus, benevolentia, benignitas, clementia, compassio, dilectio, misericordia, patientia, pietas. They drew from a vast body of inherited philosophical tradition, both Judeo-Christian and pagan, to contemplate the significance of caritas and the values that its enactment could represent. Alcuin of York (d. 804), arguably the most prominent scholar of the early Carolingian era and the most trusted advisor of the Carolingians' eponymous emperor, Charlemagne (d. 814), defined caritas as a complete and all-inclusive love, flowing from the whole heart, mind, and soul, as the New Testament Gospels dictated. It entailed not only the unquestioning observation of God's commandments but also a parallel duty of affective care for one's fellow human being. Alcuin's equation of caritas with the twofold "love of God and neighbor" was not at all his invention—it was, rather, a common shorthand, used generally and imprecisely throughout the entirety of the Middle Ages to refer to volumes of patristic debate about the affective relationships that were thought to exist between the divine and the human and among humans themselves. The nature of these relationships was often hotly contested within the learned circles of the late antique era and the Early Middle Ages, but the term caritas and the phrase "love of God and neighbor" allowed writers to refer generally to the ideal of other-oriented emotion that it entailed while masking the complex theological and social discourses that produced it. It was its imprecision as a term, not its precision, that gave caritas the power to be invoked in the service of numerous and diverse ends.

The ends that interest me most are Carolingian arguments about aristocratic male identity and authority. Carolingian culture used caritas discourse to place enormous pressure on its aristocratic men to perform their manliness in the service of their society. When problems arose during the period under investigation in this book—and arise they did—the Carolingians looked for solutions by trying to ensure that specific groups of aristocratic males were acting correctly as men. This is by no means to say that Carolingian culture placed less pressure on women to perform certain embodiments of womanliness, only that it was the perfection of the male body, far more than the female, that was seen to hold the most significant link to social well-being. This is very different from the European cultures that came after the Carolingian moment, in which the female body increasingly held as much or even more of this connection to social harmony than the male.

The Carolingians also invoked caritas as a means of defining and delineating the ideal forms that aristocratic masculinity could appropriately take—forms that have proven notoriously difficult for us to comprehend, especially in comparison to the later Middle Ages. We know that Carolingian aristocratic men self-identified under a range of labels and social roles—monk, priest, bishop, abbot, count, king, warrior, and so on—but also, and in combination, under more global designations such as "Frank" and "Christian." Historians have worked diligently to parse these identities by mapping the ideal traits that defined them, the methods and media through which these ideal traits were taught, and the contexts within which they were reinforced or undermined. The most recent studies have focused on the lay side. Thomas F. X. Noble, for example, has argued that Frankish aristocratic lay identity revolved around a common ideal of "secular sanctity." Elite laymen performed their station and their service to God by adhering to "a code of values and conduct" that they guarded closely for themselves: a Carolingian aristocrat's "sword, wife, and extended family were the chief badges of his rank." Rachel Stone, expounding further upon the nature of this code, has claimed that Carolingian lay masculinity involved a complex array of prescriptive practical ethical traits in the realms of warfare, power, and sexual conduct. Other scholars of the Carolingian world have identified additional core traits—equity, honor, loyalty—as crucial elements of the ideal aristocratic male.

Describing masculine identity in terms of traits such as these has provided invaluable insight with regard to the historical continuities between Carolingian aristocratic masculinity and the masculine identities of both Late Antiquity and the later medieval cultures that followed. It has certainly given us a far richer and more nuanced understanding of the Carolingian aristocracy than we had before. J. M. Wallace-Hadrill's summation of "cutting throats, but endowing churches" as the quintessence of Frankish aristocratic values no longer conveys the extent of our comprehension. Nevertheless, the study of aristocratic masculinity in terms of traits has also revealed just how much Carolingian masculinity stubbornly resists consistently definable patterns beyond only the most general of trends. There seem to be almost as many exceptions, that is, as there are rules. Variations abounded. Abbots could be monks, but they could also be nonmonastic laymen. Laymen could be warriors, but professional soldiers could also be called to the pastoral care of souls. Bishops could be powerful landholders and military leaders. Monks could serve at court. Priests could be married. The study of Carolingian masculinity in terms of ideal traits has brought us no closer to solving the perplexing questions of how aristocratic men negotiated these seemingly mixed identities, many of which appear (at least to us) to involve conflicting cultural ideals. In turn, this has forced scholars to label these compound identities as peculiarities or anomalies and with binary language—devotion and apathy, corruption and orthodoxy, rules followed and rules ignored.

Scholars commonly argue, for example, that because the Frankish aristocracy was a warrior culture, Christian ideals of pacific manhood must necessarily have been at odds with secular male values. Because sexuality was crucial for the production of heirs and the promulgation of family lines, the logic goes, there must have been friction with Christian ideals of celibacy and monogamous marriage. Because land and war spoils were chief sources of Carolingian social prestige, Christian warnings against the accumulation of wealth must have been difficult to follow. In related fashion, scholars have commented repeatedly on the "worldly" character of Carolingian-era bishops and priests. Ecclesiastics controlled vast territories of private lands, commanded private armies, hunted and fought with secular weapons, and yet still made successful and regular claims to spiritual authority. It has been common to read these men as somehow compromised, even "corrupt," because of the "secular" traits that they regularly exhibited as "spiritual" men. In the aggregate, scholars have argued, all of these apparent conflicts of interest must have caused attempts to "Christianize" (which is most often the verb used to describe the interplay between these phenomena) the Carolingian aristocracy either to fall upon deaf ears or to reduce themselves to banality and diluted religiosity. Wallace-Hadrill's condescension draws its humor precisely from the fact that the evidence clearly shows Carolingian aristocratic men negotiating all of these apparent contradictions and only very occasionally with consternation or anxiety. The regularity with which they did so presents us with a significant puzzle and begs the question of whether our conclusions of banality, dilution, corruption, or ignorance can truly explain what we see.

My book proposes that if we are to understand Carolingian masculinity on its own terms and to find answers for why what appears conflictual and contradictory to us may have been not only acceptable but also even logical to the Carolingians themselves, we need a different theoretical approach. Specifically, I propose to study gender not as a collection of ideal traits but as what Gail Bederman has called "a historical, ideological process." To study gender as an ideological process is to recognize that gendering involves more than the association of particular anatomies with particular gender labels (male or female, in the case of the Carolingians) or traits (warfare, wealth, sexual conduct, etc.). Gendering involves instead the normative association of particular anatomies with particular configurations of power and authority—configurations that dictate what individual people can and cannot do, who they can and cannot be, and under which circumstances these allowances and restrictions occur. As with all cultural constructions, such normative associations are never inherently consistent. There is no essential connection between authority and anatomy. It is only gender ideology that makes such connections seem "natural." And thus we can study not only the ways in which particular individuals become positioned by gender ideologies but also the ways in which individuals actively exploit the constructed nature of ideologies and adapt them to their own purposes.

Within the Carolingian world, gender ideologies revolved around an axis that extended between poles of male and female. That is to say, Carolingian men imagined themselves to be categorically different from women, and they believed furthermore that social power and authority were "naturally" theirs to hold, to command, and to maintain. Carolingian gender ideologies also revolved, however, around a second axis that stretched between poles of worldliness and nonworldliness—secularity and nonsecularity. As Rachel Stone has demonstrated in convincing and startling fashion, Carolingian sources reveal remarkably little use of feminizing language between male groups. Being "less of a man" did not always mean and perhaps did not even usually mean being feminine. As the Carolingians established and reinforced their power through allegiance with Christian authority, the aristocracy increasingly adopted an ideology of Christian masculinity that defined the ascetic male as the paragon of manhood. Lynda Coon has shown, and my book shows further, how deeply and pervasively this Christian gender ideology reached into Carolingian aristocratic culture during the course of the ninth century. Distinctions between ascetic masculinity and worldly masculinity became at least as important to male identity as distinctions between male and female. Male and female, nonsecular and secular—all of the hierarchical relationships that the Carolingians presumed to exist between these categories were the completely constructed product of gender ideology. There was no logical connection between the Carolingian male and his claim to power, nor was there a logical connection between the ascetic male and his claim to divine authority. It was only the associative process of gender ideology that framed masculinity, asceticism, and authority as intimately interconnected and interreliant.

Caritas discourse played an integral role within these dynamics of Carolingian gender and power. The same Christian ideologies that made the ascetic male the epitome of manhood also associated the ascetic male with a "natural" capacity for caritas. Thus, the performance of caritas became one of the most important means by which Christian men who lived and worked within secular space—bishops and priests and, for a time during the Carolingian era, laymen—could perform their world denial and gain access to ascetic authority symbolically. Discourses of caritas were not only an instrument for indoctrinating and situating Carolingian men within Christian hierarchies of male authority but also a means by which these men could adapt and manipulate those ideologies for their own use, making claims to divine authority and wielding that authority in the service of their own diverse ends.

My opening chapter sets the stage for these arguments, narrating the long pre-Carolingian history of the ideological associations that gave caritas its discursive force. Its account begins with Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) and his deep preoccupation with early Christian challenges to the fundamental assumptions of Stoic and Manichean moral philosophy. Caritas, for Augustine, encapsulated the essence of these challenges: a degree of emotional interconnection between self and other that extended far beyond anything that the ancient world had conceived as a social ideal. The chapter ends with Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) and the ideology of Christian male authority that he articulated in his highly influential Book of Pastoral Rule. As Christianity evolved into the majority religion of the European continent, communities began to associate caritas with their moral elite who sought to escape the bounds of common society: the holy hermits and early cenobitics of the late antique world. Gregory's ideology allowed Christian communal leaders who lived and worked within the secular world—bishops and priests—to perform caritas as a means of linking themselves to the divine authority thought to be held by these ascetic men. Central to this history, I demonstrate, is a series of linguistic associations that emerged during the fifth and sixth centuries between caritas and more ancient moral ideals, specifically pietas, clementia, and misericordia. Chapter 1's discussion of these terms, their interrelationship, and the new connotations that they acquired informs all subsequent chapters of the book.

Chapter 2 focuses on two early Carolingian writers, Paulinus of Aquileia (d. 802) and Alcuin of York, who adapted the Christian male ideology discussed in Chapter 1 into a universal ideology of power for all Frankish aristocratic men, both priestly and lay. Paulinus and Alcuin were each powerful members of Charlemagne's royal court and key architects of the social and cultural reforms that Charlemagne set into motion during his reign. Following the long doctrinal tradition in which they were trained, Paulinus and Alcuin together invoked caritas to unite the Frankish aristocratic caste under a common Christian identity and shared sense of purpose. They taught that emotional interconnection and care for the lives of others was more than just an ideal of spiritual enlightenment and personal fulfillment. It was the source of Carolingian authority itself.

Chapter 3 moves forward in time to the turbulent political world of Charlemagne's heir, Louis the Pious, and an anonymous writer whom we call "the Astronomer." His biography of the emperor Louis, written shortly after Louis's death in 840, drew upon the discourse of caritas and authority to promote a radical form of secular masculinity as a solution to the violence and discord that plagued and eventually consumed Louis's reign. For the Astronomer, Louis's boundless capacity to forgive and to care for his enemies demonstrated his divine authority even in political defeat. As a model of masculine power, Louis represented a means for Carolingian men to make peace in a world where disagreements appeared intractable and equal justice was no longer possible.

Chapter 4 turns to a pair of cultural crises that then shook the foundations of Carolingian aristocratic identity in the wake of Louis the Pious's passing. In the context of the first crisis, a bloody civil war between Louis the Pious's heirs, I present new readings of a well-known series of coeval texts: Dhuoda's handbook of prose and acrostic verse for William; two lamentation poems that reflect upon the war itself, one by Florus of Lyon (d. c. 860) and another from a man calling himself Angelbert (d. unknown); and finally, the most comprehensive narration of the war that we have, the four-part contemporary account composed by an illegitimate grandson of Charlemagne, Nithard of Saint-Riquier (d. c. 844). Each in its own way, these works of literary art collectively demonstrate the extent to which the discourse of caritas and authority permeated mid-ninth-century aristocratic self-conception. The core assumptions of this self-conception suffered serious challenge, I then show, during a second cultural crisis, a far-reaching theological controversy sparked by the predestinarian rebel monk, Gottschalk of Orbais (d. c. 867). Like Paulinus and Alcuin before him, Gottschalk also invoked caritas to preach the equality of all men; only all men were equal, for Gottschalk, in their utter powerlessness to control their collective fate. For Gottschalk, caritas derived solely from God's grace, not human deeds. Gottschalk was imprisoned, his preaching was condemned as heresy, yet his arguments for the primacy of grace and the inefficacy of deeds in the economy of salvation would weaken the ideological links between lay power, caritas, and divine authority forever.

Chapter 5 explores the weakening of these links further through examination of the rhetorical tactics employed by the Monk of St. Gall (d. 912, presumed to be Notker Balbulus) and Odo of Cluny (d. 942). Both monastics but each of a very different stripe, these writers invoked caritas to articulate ideologies of masculine authority that would presage the male gender hierarchies of the High Middle Ages and beyond. After a brief exploration of how an early Carolingian monastic, Ardo Smaragdus (d. 843), described a range of ascetic observances that were available to the laymen of his world, the chapter shows how the Monk of St. Gall and Odo redrew stark boundaries between lay and nonlay identities. Caritas and ascetic authority remained intimately connected for these writers, but they exploited that connection to diminish rather than to augment the capacity of the laity to attach themselves directly to the divine. In promoting the principles of bodily renunciation and monastic moral authority that Odo and the Monk of St. Gall themselves held most dear, their pens wielded caritas to subordinate and to segregate laymen from the ranks of elite discipleship and the highest echelons of Christian authority.

Finally, a conclusion draws together the long arc of the book's historical narrative, its interventions, and its contributions. I offer thoughts about how my Carolingian case study can inform us more generally concerning the cultural contingency of gender's construction. I also suggest some of the modes by which the deep cultural structures that influenced Carolingian thought about caritas may continue to shape our own discourses of fellow-feeling, masculinity, and social responsibility today.

The lives of the book's protagonists overlapped only slightly. Paulinus of Aquileia and Alcuin of York are the sole members of the group who knew one another well. It is unlikely that Gottschalk of Orbais would have been much aware of Dhuoda of Septimania, his contemporary. We know that Dhuoda read Alcuin, but we can only guess whether she ever came across the work of Paulinus. The Monk of St. Gall and Odo of Cluny probably never concerned themselves much at all with the works of these earlier writers. Together, however, they comprise an interrelated family of main characters for the simple reason that each worked to construct and to manipulate ideologies of masculinity through discourses of emotional fellow-feeling. My intention is not to argue that these figures definitively and widely influenced and transformed Carolingian thinking, although some may indeed have. Nor is it to argue that these figures were representative, necessarily, of the aristocratic groups with which they associated themselves, although some may indeed have been. Instead, I seek to hear and to clarify how each voice spoke individually, not necessarily for or even to the collective but rather about the collective. To study their different discursive strategies in this manner is to paint not a still-life image of what all Carolingian aristocrats believed but instead a more dynamic landscape of what they could believe—a vivid and diverse illustration of Carolingian thought possibility, cast in the unique tonal hues of their world.

Three final comments about the parameters of my study may be helpful. The first involves my unabashed focus on "discourse," which can still be something of a dirty word in early medieval historical scholarship, thought to lead us away from rather than toward the historian's holy grail of the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen," to quote Ranke's famous maxim. This book is most certainly about the actual world of the men and women who lived on the European continent more than 1,200 years ago. Where it can, it traces their active and heartfelt expression of their most pressing concerns. Yet it will be important for my reader to recognize that this book is perhaps less about the specific experiences of historical actors than it is, once again, about elucidating the thought-worlds that those actors inhabited and the guiding narratives by which they sought both to explain and to shape the world around them. It is a book about writers and writing, in other words, just as much as it is about gender and emotion. Of primary interest is the vast array of imaginative ways in which Carolingian writers used conceptions and representations of fellow-feeling to argue that certain types of authority and power should be the domain of certain types of men. Studying cultural discourse in this way allows us to analyze the agency that men and women have over the ideologies within which they are inextricably bound and thus still very much to tell the stories of the men and women themselves.

Second, I encourage my readers to consider my discussion of Carolingian caritas in dialogue with Karl Morrison's insightful historical studies of medieval empathy. Indeed, I sometimes use the term "empathy" to describe the ideal of emotional interconnection to which Carolingian caritas discourse often gestured. In so doing, I agree wholeheartedly with Morrison's recent assertion that although "empathy" is a neologism, coined from Greek linguistic roots at the end of the nineteenth century, there was indeed consciousness of what we label empathetic fellow-feeling in the premodern past that we can legitimately identify and study. Which is to say, my book proceeds, following Morrison, from the premise that we can and should attempt to study empathetic thought and behavior "before the word," so to speak. At the same time, however, I am fully cognizant of what Michel Foucault famously theorized—namely, that language always does more than simply describe phenomena. It also creates them. The discourse through which we describe fellow-feeling today reflects that discourse's roots in the discussions and debates of nineteenth- and twentieth-century aesthetic theory, psychology, and sociology. Discourses of fellow-feeling in other cultures must of necessity reflect different concerns. Such discursive dissonances are in fact my quarry, for they provide us with a means for studying cultural variance and contingency across time.

Finally, in my thinking about a discourse of emotion within a community of the distant past, I have found Barbara Rosenwein's path-breaking work on the history of early medieval emotions, particularly her concept of "emotional community," to be helpful. Without a doubt, the men and women of the Carolingian aristocracy were such a community. They shared a common emotional language through which they described and explained their experiences of particular behaviors, feelings, and ideals. While I absolutely see this book as a contribution to the history of early medieval emotion, I branch away from Rosenwein in that my purpose is not to identify the boundaries of the emotional communities and subcommunities that existed within Carolingian society. Nor do I attempt to count word frequency or to survey ranges of semantic inflection in search of specific lexical meanings. Rather than trying to pin down caritas within the Carolingian world by charting and assigning taxonomies to the usage of certain terms or phrases throughout the Carolingian literary corpus, I seek instead to show the multifaceted ways in which the Carolingians invoked caritas as an unfixed notion, the product of nebulous and sometimes even contradictory discourse. Its lack of fixity rather than its stability, its essential malleability rather than its referential exactitude, were what gave the word its ideological power.

Historically, it has been rare for individuals to create completely new ideologies. We all must deal with the ideological constructs of the cultures in which we live, whether that involves acceptance, denial, or something in between. Yet while it might be impossible to escape ideologies completely, men and women have shown remarkable creativity in their capacity to adapt and to modify existing ideologies, taking advantage of their internal inconsistencies and fallacies and making those ideologies do important work on behalf of specific people and groups. This book is about that creativity.