Praying in tongues in a famine year

Well, I had promised that the next post would be a report on an age-old seminar paper by Dr Conor Kostick. However, I figured that by now he must have published it, so I checked that, and in fact it seems that he has not. In that case, it seems a little unfair to have a go at it when apparently it didn’t go any further anyway, so I’ve decided to drop that and instead haul something out of my unfinished stub posts from about the same time with which to entertain you. So this comes from the early stages of the first run of my Carolingians module at Leeds, HIST2005 Rule and Reform under Charlemagne and his Successors, 768–987. This was the first time I’d taught the Carolingians for more than a week, and so it got me reading a lot of things I honestly should have read ages ago but somehow had not, and one of these was the Capitulary of Frankfurt.1 In the middle of that, I suddenly came upon a question I couldn’t answer, and I still can’t, so I put it before you all.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 10758, fo. 25r

Opening page of the earliest manuscript copy of the Capitulary of Frankfurt, from the ninth-century Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Latin 10758, fo. 25r, image via Gallica

For those of you not quite as deep as some of us in Charlemagne’s world, firstly a capitulary is a species of law-code issued as items under headings or capitula, quite a vague category, and secondly that of Frankfurt was quite a big deal. It followed on two years of bad harvests and a minor rebellion, and it seems that these events all had the leading men of Charlemagne’s massive kingdom worrying about whether God had withdrawn his favour from the hitherto-successful Franks and what should be done about that. There was also a fairly large-scale three-way theological argument going on with the Byzantine Empire and the Papacy and it was deemed necessary to depose the erstwhile Duke of Bavaria, a ruler nearly as prestigious as Charlemagne himself.2 As a result, the council left very little untouched, and the measures range from what might seem to us very practical ones, such as opening state stockpiles of produce for famine relief and fixing maximum prices to try and stop hoarders exploiting shortage to sell high, through high diplomacy and politics to spiritual ones about tightening Church discipline. These do make sense together in that framework of winning back God’s support, of course, but it means that one jumps quite quickly from information vital to numismatists like what you should be able to buy for a denarius, through the stitched-up denunciation of Duke Tassilo to orders to close down fake roadside shrines that people may have set up (perhaps people like Aldebert of a few years before, for readers with long memories) and indeed fake bishops.3 It’s a rare scholar now who would focus on all this equally.4 And on this particular read-through, there was one bit that struck me especially, which goes like this:5

“That no-one is to believe that God may be prayed to in three tongues only; for God may be worshipped and a man’s prayer heard, if he ask for things which are just, in any language.”

I don’t know about you—and sadly, I don’t think it sparked anything for my students—but for me, at least, This Raises Questions. Firstly, why had this come up? Was someone trying to tell their flocks that they couldn’t pray in the vernacular but had to learn something else? Should we see this as connected with the false shrines and so on, was this more bad churchmen peddling a strange line that needed stopping?

A niche on the roadside of la Vinya de Vallfogona

A niche on the roadside of la Vinya de Vallfogona, which would probably not have been cool in 794. Photo by your author.

Then, I wondered if in fact it’s not more like clerical magic that’s being prohibited here: this was apparently about getting stuff one asked for, in which case it might be thought more like a spell or an incantation than a prayer as such, and we might not be surprised that people thought it was a special language. Still, if it really were that, I think the Church would probably have been as down on it as they were on most magical practice (most…), whereas it seems in fact that all this is cool, as long as one asks for “things which are just”. So, maybe not. So, what?

Well, I can’t answer that, but it’s all washed away by the biggest question of all for this particular Carolingians geek, which is of course: what languages? This is in some ways like our old question about the so-called ‘Third King of Spain’; it may be more important to ask about the first and second… Now, Heaven only knows how many languages were spoken in the Carolingian kingdom at this (or any other) point: Latin, obviously, because here’s a text in it, maybe some Greek, Frankish (Einhard tells us so, quite apart from any other evidence), rather a lot of late Latin/early Romance forms presumably (as would soon afterwards turn up in the Oaths of Strasbourg), and then Frisian, Breton, Old Saxon, Old High German, some forms of Slavonic, probably Arabic in places, Hebrew, Old English and Old Irish in certain monastic communities…6 More than three, anyway, so which were the three that were being allowed? Evidently it was restrictive, so I would tend to assume that they were not vernacular, or at least mostly not so. Latin, Greek and Hebrew, the languages of the Bible? Latin, Frankish and Romance, the three most widely spoken, but still difficult if you were Breton or Croat? The different possibilities have quite different implications about who was being shut out of worship by some clerics somewhere: the rustics, or the irredeemably local? Was this about suppressing regional identities or about confining the practice of Christianity to an educated elite? Or something else? Either way, we note that Charlemagne and his advisors didn’t like it. But who did, and what were they trying to do, eh?


1. Text to be found in Alfred Boretius (ed.), Capitularia Regum Francorum, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Leges: Capitularia) I-II (Hannover: Hahn 1883-1887), I, no. 28 (pp. 73-78), translated in P. D. King (transl.), Charlemagne: Translated Sources (Kendal 1987), pp. 224-230.

2. For background see Rosamond McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 768–987 (London 1987), p. 59; for more on the theological dispute see now Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia, PA, 2009) and for Bavaria, Stuart Airlie, “Narratives of Triumph and Rituals of Submission: Charlemagne’s Mastering of Bavaria” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th Series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 93–119, on JSTOR.

3. See n. 1 for references. These are clauses 4 (King p. 225), 3 (King pp. 224-225), 42 (King p. 229) & 22 (King p. 227).

4. Though most of them come up in the course of Rosamond McKitterick, Charlemagne: The Formation of a European Identity (Cambridge 2008). Separate studies are most obviously combined in Rainer Berndt (ed.), Das Frankfurter Konzil von 794: Kristallisationspunkt karolingischer Kultur, Quellen und Abhandlungen zur mittelrheinischen Kirchengeschichte 80 (Mainz 1997).

5. King, Charlemagne, p. 229 (cap. 52).

6. I admit to not having gone and checked them for this, but my two stock references for language in the Carolingian world are Roger Wright, Late Latin and Early Romance in Spain and Carolingian France (Liverpool 1982) and Michel Banniard, Viva voce: Communication écrite et communication orale du 4e au 9e siècle en Occident latin, Études augustiniennes: Moyen Âge et temps modernes 25 (Paris 1992). I suppose I should get a new one now. Any suggestions?

Praying in tongues in a famine year