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Dodgy dossiers in the Middle Ages

Government advisers don’t regularly admit to handling doctored evidence. The extent to which the actions of recent governments may have depended on documents which had been ‘sexed up’ have—quite rightly—become matters for close scrutiny in recent decades. But the modern world has no monopoly over the spurious, the doubtful, and the falsified. Over one thousand years ago, a curious pamphlet arrived at the palace of the Frankish emperor, Louis the Pious (r. 814–840). It claimed to contain a complete and infallible report of the state of Louis’ kingdom. Along with it came a story that seems to epitomize all our stereotypes about the credulity of the Middle Ages. The pamphlet addressed to the emperor was in fact a message from heaven.

The story went like this. There was a blind man named Alberic who resided at a church in what is now Germany. Despite his blindness, it was rumoured that Alberic experienced visions. One winter’s night, Alberic was met by a spirit while he slept. The spirit appeared to him as an old man, robed in white and carrying a golden rod. He listed a series of grievances relating to the current state of the kingdom, and told Alberic to memorize a set of instructions that would allow the emperor to put them right. Alberic’s task was to dictate the commands to a local scribe when he awoke, so that a written copy could be taken to the palace. This Alberic did. At first, he assumed that he was acting on the orders of St Marcellinus, a long-dead Roman saint whose bones were kept in the church. The figure certainly looked like Marcellinus; but in a final twist, the spirit revealed that he was in fact the archangel Gabriel, who had merely assumed the form of St Marcellinus in order to deliver this message at the saint’s shrine.

Almost every aspect of this story now manages to raise our eyebrows.

Almost every aspect of this story now manages to raise our eyebrows. In what sense can blind men experience visions? Why should an archangel need to disguise itself as an obscure Roman martyr? Was there no other way to attract an emperor’s attention than for an angel to impersonate a saint, in order to instruct a blind man, in order to have the blind man tell a local notary, in order to make a written copy, in order to inform the palace? But these weren’t insurmountable difficulties for medieval Christians. Other people told stories of angels assuming such varied forms as beautiful birds, shipwrecked sailors, or mounted warriors if the circumstances required it. They also spoke of angels raising the sick from their beds, or appearing before the eyes of the blind, and explained that such wonders were intended to ensure that distractible mortals treated the angels’ messages with the seriousness they deserved.

No, the truly unexpected aspect of this whole affair was the reaction that these heavenly instructions prompted when they reached the palace. The booklet was received by Einhard, a prominent member of the royal court and the man who had built the church in which Gabriel had spoken with Alberic. He passed the archangel’s instructions on to the emperor as he was told to do—but only after he had rewritten them. According to Einhard’s own account of the events, he had the booklet “corrected and written anew.”

Why? Perhaps Einhard meant that he had simply tidied up the Latin. In his day, a major effort was underway to rid devotional texts of scribal errors and corruptions. Einhard must at least have ensured that his rewritten booklet bore no imperfections of that kind.

But did Einhard’s corrections go deeper than that, and extend also to matters of content? Had he sexed up the dossier? He held in his hands a list of commands which sought to steer a troubled kingdom in a new direction. As a man with the ear of the emperor, Einhard had his own views about the kingdom’s future. Here was an opportunity for such views to be articulated, and to be granted the authority that came with divine backing.

As modern interpreters, we are in a fix. We have only Einhard’s account of his actions, and that account would permit either interpretation to be true. We depend upon what we know of Einhard’s world to help us decide whether mere copy editing or fraudulent rewriting is the more likely scenario.

But at moments like this, we also realize how problematic our assumptions about the Middle Ages can be. To suppose that Einhard would not have dared to interfere substantially with this purported revelation is to resurrect old stereotypes of the Middle Ages as a simple ‘age of faith’. Medieval men and women did not think that they lived in such an age, and spoke openly about the possibility that there were individuals who peddled fake relics, made up miracle-stories, and fabricated letters from heaven.

If, however, we think instead that Einhard couldn’t have resisted the temptation to insert his own bugbears into the archangel’s complaints, we also resurrect stereotypes of another kind. After the Reformation, it suited many to think that the Middle Ages were not an age of faith, but of falsity. Every story of miracles, revelations, and apparitions was in this view a cynical ploy to pull the wool over someone else’s eyes. Yet if such deceptions truly were endemic in medieval Christianity, then what would Einhard stand to gain—for surely the emperor’s circle of intellectuals, clerics, and aristocrats, whom he hoped to convince, would have represented the major perpetrators of such falsehoods.

The Middle Ages resist our attempts to stereotype and to simplify them. Medieval writings tell us things that we do not believe, and that we must nevertheless take seriously if we are to understand the world which produced them. If nothing else, they require us to face up to the insufficiency of the easy answers we so readily turn to in the face of other cultures, other times, and other places.

Feature image credit: Detail from an ivory plaque (northern France, c. 850 × 900). New York, Metropolitan Museum, The Cloisters Collection, 1970.324.1. Photo by Sailko. CC ASA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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