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Magonia #2: Agobard of Lyons May 20, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

bishop

Very few people who write on Magonia, describe the author who has preserved that land’s memory, or at least there is rarely more than a courtesy nod in the direction of Agobard of Lyons. Let’s, for the sake of novelty, go into more detail here. Perhaps the first thing to say about Agobard of Lyons (portrayed only figuratlively above, you don’t get ninth-century portraits!) is that Agobard was not actually from Lyons. Agobard was born, instead, somewhere in Visogothic Spain in 769. He was a young monk – an oblate – when the Saracens were tearing the kingdom apart and he became part of a group of monastic refugees that made their way over the Pyrenees in 782 (aged 13) to escape the sword of Islam. He became a priest in 804 (aged 35). By 816 (aged 47) he had become important enough in his adopted land (the French side of the Pyrenees) to be made bishop of Lyon: hence the name that posterity has given him. He died in 840 (aged 71) after having caused a lot of trouble.

There is little above to give us insights into the author of Against the absurd opinions of the people concerning hail and thunder (Contra insulsam uulgi opinionem de grandine et tonitruis), though it is always nice to be able to frame a writer with some basic dates. There are not many ninth-century men and women where we can give the kinds of details found in the last paragraph. More interesting than these bare bone facts are Agobard’s character and his intellect as they comes through in his writing: Hail and Thunder but also a dozen other works. Agobard is an interesting mix of a sceptic, an idealist and a fighter. Beach will take these points one by one.

Sceptic: Agobard’s American biographer, Allen Cabaniss sums up Agobard’s skepticism thus: ‘[Agobard] was an opponent of the reactionary elements of the time, the judicial ordeal, weather magic [relevant with Magonia], relic worship, pilgrimages, the excessive veneration of the saints, the use of images, Biblical obscurantism, [and] unrestrained ritualistic aberrations.’  Not enough is made of this skepticism, even in Cabaniss’s work. Of course, other Carolingian writers were doubtless skeptics about some of these points. But it is a repeating theme in Agobard’s work. Agobard had his Christianity, about which he wasn’t skeptical, of course, – drinking Christ’s blood in church was fine and dandy – but he balked at fringe beliefs and malpractice about which he was extremely vocal.  He lacked, in fact, the world-wearniness and passivity of many ninth-century churchmen: he would gladly wade into the sea and fight the waves.

Idealist: Agobard lacked this passivity because he was, at base, an idealist. He didn’t look for easy answers and he didn’t accommodate himself to power. This idealism comes out in even brief passages of his Latin. He is a hectorer and a trouble-maker: comparisons with the dreadful Tertullian are well made. When he disagrees with someone he is polemical and rips into them, if possible he rips several holes in them. If Alcuin (to name one ninth-century Christian whose work we know well) had been faced with Magonia, he would have shook his head (on the page) and then dismissed it all with a Virgillian tag and perhaps a line or two of his own hexameter or more likely, still, he wouldn’t have deigned to waste parchment. The existence of Magonia and associated beliefs offend, instead, Agobard’s sense of what is right and wrong. The best modern comparison in terms of sceptic would be with a virulent atheist (e.g. the tiresome Richard Dawkins): it is not enough that you don’t believe in God, you are offended by a universe where others dare to believe. Then you are never off the television…

A fighter: Agobard did not, as we note above, accommodate himself to power. In fact, he took up positions that put him in direct conflct with the Frankish crown and the consequences be damned. Perhaps particularly interesting for Magonia is the ninth-century Jewish question. Agobard was, like most early medieval and medieval Christians, an anti-semite: Christendom’s shameful ball and chain. More specifically, he disliked the fact that the Frankish monarchy allowed accommodations with resident Jewish communities. However, he was not a racial anti-semite: he supported the right of Jews to convert to his one true religion. And he went, in fact, out of his way and to great ends, however unpopular this made him, to defend the right of slaves to convert to Christianity even when they belonged to Jewish families. There is something heroic in this defence of the rights of the lowest of the low and something also slightly Savonarolan as it put him at odds with King Louis, who wanted to leave the Jewish sphere to govern itself.

What can we take away from this brief survey, back to our understanding of Magonia?  Beach would make two observations and would welcome any more: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

First, Agobard, far more than your average ninth-century French bishop would find (non-Christian) superstition offensive – this comes down to his skepticism and his idealism. Just because other people fail to talk about Magonia and associated beliefs doesn’t mean they didn’t know about them or that these beliefs were not around. It is, simply, that they didn’t care enough to write about them. The key word is the one we used above: they were ‘world weary’ and accepting of Europe’s incompletely converted peasantry.

Second, – and this is Agobard as fighter – when Agobard waded into the popular meeting and rescued the four Magonians he was acting in perfect character. He saw a situation where the powerful – men with stones and chains – were about to make an example of the weak: four scapegoats who, by the way, had almost certainly not dropped from the clouds. Other bishops may have looked the other way or quietly intervened through their servants. By his own account Agobard went in flailing, basing himself on his own and his understanding of Biblical authority.

As there will be a number of posts on Magonia here, Beach thought that he would point out here some crucial sources. First, there is a makeshift nineteenth-century Latin edition of Against the Absurd Opinions with French translation online  Second, there is (from what we’ve seen of it) a good English translation:  Beach should also take this opportunity to note that he’ll give the Latin from the nineteenth century, not the best modern edition, because he can scoop it up digitally. Likewise his translation in the first post and in future posts is not really publishable in that it is accurate (we hope), though not well written. Finally, let it be noted that we have this text and others only because of a book-selling miracle (another post, another day).