Private letters between popes and kings

When Charlemagne had been king for about twenty-three years he decided to enhance the royal archives by preserving a collection of letters written by the various popes to his grandfather, his father, and himself. The letters, some of which must have been more than fifty years old, were probably written on papyrus, and would last longer if transcribed to parchment. The king gave his rational for this effort in the preface to the collection, “So that no testimony whatsoever of the holy church which will be of use in the future should be seen wasting to his successors.” The work involved was not large, and comprised less than a hundred letters. The single compilation that has come down to us, from the ninth century, concludes with a biblical quotation, “The wise man will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients.”1.King, Charlemagne, Translated Sources, pp.36-38. This collection is called the codex carolinus.

The codex is heavily skewed, not too surprisingly, to Charlemagne’s end of the time scale. Two of the letters were sent to grandfather Martel, forty-two to father Pepin, and fifty-four to Charlemagne. There are almost certainly letters missing, both from the original collection, and from what has come down to us. No doubt some were cast aside in the initial survey as duplicative, incomplete, or inappropriate, and some were cleaned up. “This does not seem to have been a simple process of recopying, for some of the original letters, no doubt written on papyrus, were said to be in very poor condition and there was an effort both to renew (renovare) and rewrite (rescribere) the texts from memory onto parchment.” Some of the letters that were initially included are now lost, as the preface to the collection references letters from the emperor in Byzantium which we do not have.

The letters are not primarily theological in nature, which also should not come as a surprise. “[T]he collection is largely preoccupied with the pope’s efforts to persuade the Franks to offer the popes military support against the Lombards, and the working relationship between the Frankish king and the popes consequent upon Charlemagne’s conquest of the kingdom of the Lombards.”2.McKitterick, Charlemagne, pp.37-38. The letters speak of matters great and small, from the fate of duchies, to how miffed the pope felt when some of Charles’ emissaries passed by Rome without saying hello.

An oddity about the collection is that it is entirely one-sided. We see the letters from the popes, but not the replies. A lot of the time the letters leave you hanging, wondering what the king would have said in reply. Another oddity is that in the original codex itself the letters are not dated, nor even arranged chronologically. The 19th century German editor who first organized the collection put them in his own order, which modern editors have modified. Letters dated within a range of years are common.

Unfortunately for us non-Latinists there is only one English translation available, and then only the letters to Charlemagne. P.D. King has translated fifty-one of the letters, but for a lot of them he offers only a brief summary.

“41. Hadrian to Charles: 784-91
[The pope asks that Charles act to restore monastic  property seized by, among others, duke Gudibrand of Florence.]”3.King, Charlemagne, Translated Sources. His introduction to the letters, which he calls the “Caroline code,” is on pages 36-39. The letters themselves are on pages 269-307.

Other of the letters translated by King are a combination of summaries and literal excerpts.4.Loyn and Percival have translated three of the same letters as well, plus a letter from Charlemagne to his queen Fastrada. Reign of Charlemagne, pp.128-135. Now, I am very happy to have anything at all. But how about Pepin’s reign? Don’t we deserve to know what Pepin and the popes were talking about? Letters in general are fascinating sources, particularly if we have multiple correspondents. Imagine how much more interesting Boniface’s correspondence with Martel and Pepin would be if we could also read the letters the pope was sending as well! Hopefully some enterprising grad students out there will come to the rescue.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. King, Charlemagne, Translated Sources, pp.36-38.
2. McKitterick, Charlemagne, pp.37-38.
3. King, Charlemagne, Translated Sources. His introduction to the letters, which he calls the “Caroline code,” is on pages 36-39. The letters themselves are on pages 269-307.
4. Loyn and Percival have translated three of the same letters as well, plus a letter from Charlemagne to his queen Fastrada. Reign of Charlemagne, pp.128-135.

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