Heresy and Dissent in the Carolignian Empire

The Case of Gottschalk of Orbais

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Matthew Bryan Gillis
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , April
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his lucid and well-researched first monograph, Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire: The Case of Gottschalk of Orbais, Matthew Gillis reconstructs the tumultuous life and challenging doctrines of the foremost heretic of the Carolingian era (c. 733- 888 CE), Gottschalk of Orbais (c. 808- late 860s CE). A rebel monk and unrepentant preacher, promoting a strict Augustinian theology of the predestination of the blessed and the damned, Gottschalk incited the wrath of contemporary bishops for his views while cultivating a network of subterranean support from the confines of his monastic prison long after his condemnation at the synods of Mainz (848) and Quierzy (849). Approaching the fragmentary sources for Gottschalk’s career with the focus of a micro-historian and the perspective of a biographer, Gillis weaves the story of “a Carolingian rarity—a heretic in the flesh” (1) as a means to address important questions about the ways in which Carolingian bishops dealt with resistence to their religious authority. The result is a learned and compelling character study of the foremost Christian maverick of the early Middle Ages.

Over the course of seven chapters, Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire proceeds chronologically through Gottschalk’s life, from his youth as a child oblate at the monastery of Fulda to his final years as a prisoner at the abbey of Hautvillers. Chapter 1 revisits the first stage of Gottschalk’s notorious career that earned the lasting enmity of his abbot Hrabanus Maurus: his objection to his status as a monk on the grounds that his childhood oblation took place against his will. Gottschalk won his freedom from the abbey of Fulda at the synod of Mainz (829), prompting Hrabanus to compose a treatise branding the bishops’ verdict as heresy. Gillis frames this issue in the context of the conversion of Saxon elites like Gottschalk, evidence for the coercive and abusive treatment of young monks at Fulda, and the monastic reforms of the early 9th century responding to these problems. Chapter 2 follows Gottschalk out of the cloister and explores his friendship with Archbishop Ebbo of Reims, whose patronage allowed Gottschalk to pursue his studies at the abbey of Corbie in the early 830s. Unfortunately, during this time Gottschalk was implicated in political intrigue fomented against the emperor at Corbie by Abbot Wala, which compelled him to compose a versified letter to Ebbo in 831 proclaiming his innocence. Gillis provides the first thorough analysis of this letter in the context of the rebellion, casting light on the intellectual currents at Corbie that shaped its composition. Chapter 3 explores the development of Gottschalk’s predestination theology during his missionary activities in Italy, Dalmatia, Croatia, and among the Bulgars during the 830s and 840s. Gottshalk formulated his views based on a direct reading of Augustine, prompting a rebuttal from his old abbot Hrabanus Maurus, whose treatise De praedestinatione was informed by moderate interpretations of Augustine’s thought about grace and free will by 5th-century authors like Prosper of Aquitaine and Gennadius of Marseilles. Hrabanus’s efforts led to the condemnation of Gottshalk at the synod of Mainz in 848. Chapter 4 sifts through the fallout of Gottshalk’s condemnation with an analysis of his Confessio prolixior, written in 849 during the first year of his imprisonment. Modeled in part on Augustine’s Confessiones, this work framed Gottshalk’s “theological argument as a confession of faith, linking his resolute dissent, defense of his doctrine, and identification with the church father in a single artistic expression” (118). But it was all to no avail: a mere six months after the synod of Mainz, Gottshalk was found guilty of spreading dangerous doctrines at the synod of Quierzy (849). As punishment, he was beaten, forced to burn his own writings, and imprisoned perpetually in the abbey of Hautvillers.

Gottshalk’s sentencing at Quierzy could have been the end of the story, but the rebel monk remained defiant for another two decades, despite his prison sentence. Chapter 5 shows how his influence persisted both through his correspondence with powerful prelates and through a subterranean network of supporters who circulated his works in pamphlet form, including young monks of Hautvillers. As a result, in the early 850s, Gottshalk’s subversive activities benefited from “a conspiratorial vitality” (176) that kept his theological rebellion alive. Chapter 6 plays out the consequences of Gottshalk’s resistence to episcopal authority, which successfully undermined his archenemy Hincmar and resulted in a full-blown debate about free will and grace among northern European elites: the so-called predestination controversy. As Chapter 7 makes clear, Gottshalk remained an active agitator long after the controversy died down, and continued to resist Hincmar from captivity until his death in the late 860s.

Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire is successful at portraying the career of a rogue 9th-century theologian. Although Gottshalk’s case is exceptional, it illustrates in vivid and compelling ways the means by which one stubborn thinker could challenge church authorities about fundamental Christian doctrines, even from prison. It also underscores how Carolingian bishops dealt with dissent in their communities, a strategy that Gillis calls “coercive reform” (7), and the limitations of this method. Lastly, Gottshalk’s imprisonment in Hautvillers provides an excellent example of the networks of information exchange that made the walls of early medieval cloisters much more porous than they usually seem. Historians of early medieval religion will find much to ponder in Gottshalk’s notorious career, which Gillis has presented with admirable erudition and attention to detail.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott G. Bruce earned his doctorate in History at Princeton University.  Aftern seventeen years at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he now teaches Medieval History at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Bryan Gillis is assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His research and teaching focus on early medieval Europe.


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