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Sarah Hamilton, New Haven, CT: What’s the Use of Cursing?

It’s unusual for British universities to be in a position to buy medieval manuscripts. Yet the recent publicity given to the discovery of a unique leaf from the Sarum Ordinal printed by William Caxton in the 1470s amongst the binding fragments of various manuscripts and early printed books purchased by the University of Reading in 1997 testifies to the public interest in such materials. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, on the other hand, is in the fortunate position to be able to purchase entire medieval manuscripts as they come to the market. And I was lucky enough, when visiting Yale to deliver a paper to a conference on Medieval Rites: Reading the Writing last month, to consult one of their more recent purchases, Ms 1172, in the congenial surroundings of this beautiful modernist building.

Exterior: Beinecke Library, Yale University (image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)
Beinecke interior
Interior, Beinecke Library, Yale University (image courtesy of Yale University)

Ms 1172 is a chapter book owned and used by the eleventh-century cathedral chapter of Beauvais. It includes rites for the sick and the dying, two sermons to the Virgin, and a copy of Usuard’s martyrology; obit notices for various members of the Beauvais community were added in its margins over the course of the following century. Amongst the texts added in a slightly later eleventh-century hand is this text of an excommunication formula followed by antiphons, responses and a prayer.

Medieval excommunication, that is exclusion from the Church and Christian society, has its roots in the biblical, classical and early Christian pasts. An episcopal prerogative, the declaration of a formal excommunication sentence was accompanied by curses in a formal process of anathema or cursing using formula like this one, which was added later on a blank folio just before the start of the martyrology.

I am currently collecting examples of such supplementary  texts as part of my research into the afterlife of the Carolingian penitential state through a study of the records of excommunication rites and episcopal culture in the tenth and eleventh centuries. To date I have found some 30 examples of similar ad hoc formulae in manuscripts written across northern Europe and the former Frankish Empire in the tenth and eleventh centuries; ad hoc because most of them are different from each other; no doubt others exist, as yet unidentified by earlier cataloguers. Most of these, like this example, were added into the manuscript some years after it was first copied. They make for an interesting corpus because, although the Carolingians practiced and codified excommunication, they never thought to record its liturgy.

Yale MS
New Haven, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 1172 (image: Sarah Hamilton)

This particular example interests me as it is one of only four examples I know of when such an ad hoc excommunication formula was integrated into a fuller service. My research suggests all four of these examples are eleventh-century and they all have links to northern France. The text of the excommunication formula in the Beinecke manuscript is unique, but seems to have been improvised from a stock of phrases, as these can be found individually across various other examples.   The service which follows is similarly made up of commonly circulating texts, all of which have their roots in the ninth century. The initial antiphon, Congregati sunt (inimici nostri) (Our enemies are gathered together), and response, Disperge illos (in uirtute tuo) (Shake them so that you know it is none who fights for us than you, Our God) comes from the feast of Maccabees on 1 August, and appears in the earliest chant manuscripts from the tenth century. The prayer, Hostium nostrorum quaesumus domine (O lord we pray put down the pride of our enemies and overthrow it with the strength of your right hand), is from the ninth-century Carolingian collection, the Hadrianum Sacramentary, specifically from the ‘Mass in time of war’. By the later Middle Ages this particular Mass set had come, at least at Rouen, to be specifically associated with protection against enemies, being rubricated ‘Contra hostes’.

Quite why the canons of Beauvais recorded this rite in their chapter book is a question for another post. But it is worth pointing out here how texts like this can help to investigate wider questions. These include one puzzling those who work on liturgical texts: why, in an age where liturgical performance was largely dependent on memory, churchmen recorded in writing certain rites. It can also contribute to research into the transition between the rational, well-recorded ninth-century world of the Carolingians and the seemingly more ritualistic, less well-recorded, more ritualistic post-Carolingian world. The afterlife of the Carolingian world is currently the subject of both the HERA-funded project, After Empire: Using and Not Using the Past in the Crisis of the Carolingian World, 900-1050, and a more informal work of a larger network of scholars, The Transformation of the Carolingian World: Plurality and its Limits, 9th to 12th Centuries. By highlighting how rites like this one bridged the divide between oral performance and written record, and at the same time represented a real change from Carolingian to post-Carolingian practice, we will begin to investigate these areas.

Prof. Sarah Hamilton

Using the Past to Negotiate a Time of Change: A Medieval Perspective

Brevnov monastery, Prague, founded 993
Brevnov monastery, Prague, founded 993

Last month in the baroque splendours of the Brevnov monastery in Prague, HERA launched its third joint programme of European research on ‘Uses of the Past’.  Amongst the 18 projects being funded for the next three years is one based, in part, at Exeter on Europe in the long tenth century: After Empire: Using and Not Using the Past in the Crisis of the Carolingian World, c. 900 c. 1050 (UNUP).


Charlemagne (768-814) is remembered now as the ‘father of Europe’, establishing an empire which stretched from the Atlantic to the frontiers of modern Hungary, and from the English Channel to Catalonia and Central Italy, which came to an end only in 888.   In the century and a half which followed frontiers shifted, established centres became peripheral and peripheral regions became central within new power structures.   A time of turmoil, social and political change, the tenth century has also, since at least the seventeenth century, been seen as witnessing the emergence of  modern nations.   This project seeks to go beyond these modern nationalist teleologies to provide a comparative and cross-European perspective on developments, an aim which has acquired fresh resonances since it was orginally conceived in a pre-Brexit world.

In recent decades the period of Carolingian rule has attracted a good deal of attention from scholars, but the time between the end of empire and the mid-eleventh century remains largely ignored.   This three-year project (2016-19) will investigate the social, political and cultural developments in this century and a half from a fresh perspective.   In early medieval Europe the absence of clear structures meant that action in the present often drew authority from claims about the past.   Crises and change led to a search for legitimacy in the past.   Our hypothesis is that the changing landscapes of Europe and the increase in instability and uncertainty in the long tenth century are connected to the variety and complexity of attitudes to the past manifest in sources from the time.   Our aim is to explore that relationship from a number of dfferent perspectives (social, political, cultural) in order to offer a case study of post-imperial transition in a time of rapid change, and to allow comparison with uses of the past in other periods.  Some members will focus on materials from areas which had been the Carolingian heartland in the ninth century whilst others will investigate the ways in which people in regions which had been peripheral, including England and Catalonia, looked to the ninth century and the Late Antique pasts to legitimise their authority.

This is a collaborative project with other members being based in Barcelona, Berlin, St Andrews and Vienna.   It is an international team of 5 established scholars with 3 PhD students and 2 postdocs, and together we come from Austria, France/Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the UK.

The Exeter-based team comprises myself and Lenneke van Raaij, who has just begun her PhD, having recently complete her masters at the University of Utrecht.  We will both be focussing on the plentiful liturgical manuscripts produced in this period.  We’ll explore the ways in which Carolingian texts were taken up both in prestigious manuscripts, like this prayerbook made for Otto III (980-1002):

Otto III Prayerbook, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 30111, f. 90r
Otto III Prayerbook, Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 30111, f. 90r

and in seemingly more practical manuscripts like this one made for Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury (960-78):

Paris, BNdeFr, Ms 943, f. f.17r
Paris, BNdeFr, Ms 943, f.17r

Now almost two months into the start of the project we have (almost) cleared all the bureaucratic hurdles of government and university bureaucracy to do with new appointments, and begun research, developing our plans for engagement (including a website, to be launched in the spring, and a public exhibition) and a ‘kick-off’ international conference in Berlin in May 2017.

Prof. Sarah Hamilton

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