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A Sermon by Adémar de Chabannes on Famine in 11th-Century France: Translation and Overview
My esteemed friend and colleague Richard Landes, who last year had me translate a letter by Saint Agobard and other bishops on the “Jewish superstitions” in ninth-century CE Carolingian France, has drawn my attention to another interesting medieval text with a suggestion for translation- this time a sermon by the French monk Adémar de Chabannes, who lived in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries CE and is best known for championing the cause of Saint Martial (the first bishop of Limoges) and falsely portraying him as one of the original apostles when in fact he was a third century bishop. To support this false claim regarding Martial, Adémar engaged in literary forgery, and it is probable that his tendencies to fabrication were only exacerbated by the humiliation he endured at the hands of an Italian prior- Benedict of Chiusa- in 1029 CE as the supposed apostolic mass of Martial (which Adémar had invented) was about to be celebrated in front of a public audience. The audience ended up siding with Benedict.
This sermon by Adémar makes mention of Martial and associates him closely with Saint Peter, describing a supposed vision someone had in which Martial complained that he had been dishonoured in the treatment of the bringing across of his body by the people of Aquitania, and for this reason he wanted to bring punishment upon them. This supposed vision comes in the context of the reasons that Adémar gives for a terrible famine that struck Limoges and the wider region of Aquitania in western/southwestern France for years (as it would seem, from 1029-1033 CE). This famine is portrayed by Adémar as a divine punishment arising from (i) contempt shown by political leaders and others for excommunications imposed by the bishops and other church authorities in the area, and (ii) the general mistreatment of the church by laypeople. The latter includes the supposed disrespect shown towards Martial.
The issue of excommunication deserves a brief contextual explanation: it was specifically a tool used by bishops and church authorities who were part of a trend termed the ‘peace movement’ (‘Peace of God Movement’) in this period. This movement, as its name suggests, sought to limit infighting and violence among noblemen, particularly in the regions of western Francia/France. There are reports of numerous councils that were organised in this period in various localities as part of the movement for peace, but these councils could also have functions beyond encouraging noblemen to pursue peace, such as combating heresy and encouraging mass penance to avert God’s anger. Among the reported councils are two that reputedly took place at Limoges (one in 994 CE, another in 1031 CE).
Landes himself has noted that the documentation for these Limoges councils comes mostly from Adémar, and has discussed the problems of relying on Adémar’s documentation. To summarise Landes’ discussion: for the council of 994 CE, we have less detail from Adémar, but other independent accounts suggest it actually took place. In contrast, the supposed council of 1031 CE, which was extensively documented by Adémar but whose details are closely linked to Adémar’s own agenda of concocting material to support the supposed apostolic status of Martial, possibly did not take place.
Landes is far more versed with these topics than I am. I have only sought to present a brief condensed account- relying on his scholarship- for those who wish to understand the sermon I present here in translation and with footnotes. For a starting point of further reading:
Richard Landes, “Between Aristocracy and Heresy: Popular Participation in the Limousin Peace of God, 994-1033,” in Richard Landes and Thomas Head (eds.), “The Peace of God,” (De Gruyter, 2018).
Richard Landes, “Relics, Apocalypse, and the Deceits of History: Adémar of Chabannes, 989-1034,” (Harvard University Press, 1995).
I would of course like to dedicate this post to Landes, who is far more of a scholar than I am on these matters.
Here is the text in translation with the original Latin text. For any corrections or amendments, please let me know.
Oh most beloved ones, it is above all because of the just excommunication imposed by the bishops and the rest of the priests- an excommunication that is either observed with negligence or proudly despised by the subjects- that the plague frequently comes upon the people, and the just perishes for the sake of the impious. Behold how throughout these years that preceded, the just excommunication was despised by the earthly leaders and the juniors of the bishops. What is even more serious is that the bishops who should have been honoured in Christ’s place, were reduced to poverty and harassed by laymen as though they were vile. The gold of the church, according to Jeremiah, has been obscured in this time, and the best colour has been changed, and the stones of the sanctuary (that is, of the churchman) have been scattered on the head of all the streets.[i]
We have now seen that this prophetic pronouncement is being fulfilled in the priests of the Lord. He says: “The priest’s condition will be just like that of the people.”[ii] For just like the commoners, in this time the bishops and the ministers of the Church have suffered persecutions inflicted by the tongues and hands of laymen, and they have been heavily oppressed. As you know, a very terrible plague was sent by divine judgement onto the western peoples[iii] after the dedication of this holy temple,[iv] which was done on this very day before these years in honour of our Saviour, where in attendance were many bishops who were declaring peace, prohibiting injustice and excommunicating the violators of peace. This did not happen undeservedly, because the excommunication imposed by the bishops was not given any consideration by almost all people (whether leaders and subjects, urbanites and rural folk), and their orders were put aside, and, although the rich supply of all fruits and the fertility of things were in great abundance, peace and justice were violated among all. Thus, a raging fire particularly seized the Lemovican[v] people. A massive mortality rate also arose throughout other cities, among men and cattle. The harvest failed throughout all of Gaul, and an intense famine arose, such that countless people of the commoners were being killed, and the brother tore apart and ate his sister in the Sanctonican territory.[vi]
Concerning such afflictions the prophet[vii] says: “As they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, so the tongue of fire devours the stalk and the heat of the flame burns it up, and thus their root will be like an ember.” The understanding of root of the people in error is that it equates to their sons and daughters, slaves and slave-girls, who because of the sins of their elders and their own sins endured the punishment, such that they were burned by their feet and hands and thus seemed to be like an ember and dry wood.
Evidently, because of the sins of the people, the bad leaders are allowed to reign, so that by the just judgement of God, the lesser ones should endure the punishment because of the sins of the leaders. For because of Saul’s offence against the Gibeonites, long after the same king’s death, a famine arose during the reign of David for three years through all of Judaea.[viii] Because of David’s sin, when he ordered to count the people, a plague was sent not onto David’s house, but onto the people.[ix] Also a famine arose during Claudius’ reign throughout the whole world, because the leader of the Roman army who was sent by him into the East disdained to pray at the temple of the Lord God of Israel while he was crossing through Jerusalem. When the Augustus[x] heard of this deed, he praised it, and through the just judgement of God, because of the leader’s elation, a famine took hold of the Roman Empire, although he was a pagan.
Concerning such afflictions that have recently happened in Aquitania,[xi] the prophet also says: “Behold the name of Lord (i.e. the power of God): from afar (i.e. from the sentence decreed in heaven) has come His fury that is burning and is heavy to bear. His lips have been filled with indignation, and His tongue is like a devouring fire to wipe out the peoples into nothingness, as well as the bridle of error that was on the jaws of the peoples.”[xii] This bridle of error is the contempt shown for excommunication. For whenever the bishop justly excommunicates someone, that person deems the pastor’s excommunication as meaningless because he does not immediately feel the plague of his body.
Immediately after the dedication of the holy church, on the third night after the Lord’s birthday, a certain person had a vision, and no one should have any doubt regarding his assertion. He saw the seats of the seniors placed inside the tomb of the blessed Martial, and Peter the first apostle was sitting on one of them, as though holding a council. Martial, sitting on another seat, thus complained to Peter, saying: “I am troubled by the temerity of these people, who very recently in the dedication of the church of the Lord seemed to have little regard for the bringing across of my body. Because of this matter, I wish by your counsel, my lord, to deliver a severe judgement upon them. For I have not done nor do I ever wish to anything without consulting you. Indeed through you the Lord sent me into that province.” Peter repeatedly replied: “Oh most dear one, spare your people, spare your people, and rather exercise mercy instead of judgement. For your ministers have done that deed with devotion, and whatever offence they have committed through human error, they have now washed it away with penance.” While Martial was following these and similar things up with Peter as though he were sad, and Peter was turning him away from applying this judgement, the former said: “As you do not allow me, my lord, to receive a judgement concerning these guilty people, I will go with you to Rome and I will not visit Aquitania for up to five years and I will hear what will have happened to them.”
This vision was not vain. Indeed soon the plagues began to appear throughout Aquitania and had a predetermined end at the right time, through the mercy of God. Also at that point in time it was shown to certain people through a vision by night that this wondrous matter was not for nothing. The apostle of God[xiii] seemed to proceed from his tomb with great splendour, accompanied by many men glowing with their raiment. He headed to the western region, and through the path that his feet touched, flames burst out from the land, and then he returned to the temple of the Saviour. As though he were sitting on a throne by the Saviour’s table, he was bound with a sword, and drawing out the middle of the sword from a sheath (as it were), he threatened revenge in his anger with these people who were accused of having molested him. In these matters, per God’s revelation, it was shown that not without the will of the patron saint did disaster befall the people of Aquitania and that quiet finally arrived. For the fire that had consumed the common people for so long, was suddenly absorbed and extinguished throughout all the Lemovican land on the past feast of the blessed Martial (on the very last day of June).[xiv]
Not long afterwards, hostility turned into peace, disaster into safety, the sterility of the land into fertility, and hunger transformed into satiety. Indeed regarding the fact that plagues are sent onto the land because of the contempt for divine mandates, the Lord speaks through the prophet, saying: “I gave you numbness of teeth in all your cities, and a lack of bread in all your places, and you did not turn back to me, says the Lord. I kept the rain away from you, when there were still three months left until the harvest, and I poured rain over one city, and I did not pour rain over another city. One part was filled with rain, and the part over which I did not pour rain grew dry. Two and three cities came to the one city in order to drink water and they were not satiated, and you did not return to me, says the Lord. I struck you with a burning wind and mildew, while the locust ate a multitude of your gardens and vineyards, olive trees and fig trees, and you did not return to me, says the Lord. I sent death and hostility into your midst, I destroyed you just as God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and you became like a firebrand seized from the fire, and you did not return to me, says the Lord.”[xv]
As for the fact that the land is struck with plagues because the impious oppress the holy Church and the ministers of the Lord, the prophet Joel thus says: “The sacrifice and libation have perished from the Lord’s house; the priests who are ministers of the Lord have grieved; the region has been depopulated. The ground has grieved, for the wheat has been devastated. The wine has been confounded, the olive has withered. The farmers have been confused and the vinedressers have howled for the corn and the barley, because the harvest of the field has perished. The vineyard has been confused, and the fig tree has withered. The pomegranate tree, palm tree, apple tree and all the wood of the field have withered, as joy has been confounded by the sons of men.”[xvi] This is because the impious disturb the joy of the Church. So these evils come upon the people. Indeed in some way the sacrifice has perished from God’s house, when the property of the Church is diminished by fraudsters, those who alienate and predators, and because of poverty, ministers who can adorn the churches with God’s sacrifice are lacking, when either the priests are afflicted by the lay people, or a general excommunication is ordered, because of the contempt of the impious, who even as they are justly excommunicated by the bishops, inappropriately force themselves upon the halls of the Church as though they have a good conscience.
Evidently, whenever the bishops unwillingly excommunicate the churches of their diocese, then the original priestly office ceases, as though the sacrifice perishes from the house of God (that is, it ceases), and both the bishops and the remaining priests grieve because of the innocent churches that have been shut because of the impious. Certainly now all the Pictavian[xvii] and Engolismensian[xviii] churches have been excommunicated by their bishops who participate in this council, in such a way that the doors have been shut with thorns, the altars have been stripped, and none of the lay people are permitted to enter the church in any way, but individuals engage in prayer in front of the doors.
The corpses of all who are now dying there lie unburied over the land throughout the streets in every place. Many have now become food for the birds of the sky and the beasts of the land, because there is no one to get rid of them. The signs of the churches and the praises of God are not heard. We now see the fulfilment of what John says: “Silence arose in heaven,”[xix] while the serpent engaged in war: that is, because of the general excommunication, silence arose in the Church on the part of the divine offices, so that all the things should be done in silence and grief by the clerics, as the serpent through its limbs engages in war against the poor and ministers of the Lord. Thus it is unworthy to hand over what is holy to the dogs and give pearls to pigs, that is for predators to carry out the divine task and for the impure to celebrate the mysteries regarding peace and justice. Baptism is only handed to those people who are in danger of death, per the counsel of the bishops.
So this excommunication will last until all their leaders should contract justice and peace among themselves at the hands of the bishops. Indeed let the prophet give orders in such great grief and oppression of the Church as to what the pastors must do, when he says: “Gird yourselves and grieve, priests. Howl, ministers of the altar. Enter, lie in a sackcloth, ministers of my God, for the sacrifice and libation have perished from the home of your God. Sanctify the fast, call for meeting, bring together into the house of your God all the elders who inhabit the land, and cry to the Lord.”[xx]
You have seen this established so many times by this holy Lemovician seat. For because of the savagery of the wicked that should be restrained, because of the oppression of the Church and the overhanging plagues arising from God’s anger, litanies have been frequently proclaimed, three-day fasting in the manner of the people of Nineveh[xxi] has been ordered by the bishop, and with the priests and elders in age gathered, counsel is held in accordance with God’s will, discussing how the state may be improved with God’s help. The bishops do not dare to cease in any way from vehement refutation of the unjust and defence of the Church and poor, because they fear more the One who can destroy the body and soul in Hell than those who can kill the body alone.[xxii] I say: the pastors do not dare to cease for any reason from prohibiting the wicked, because they very much fear that which the Lord says through the prophet to the pastors: “Against the pastors has My fury raged.[xxiii] The pastor, abandoning his flock, has become like an idol The sword will be over his arm and over his right eye, his arm will be withered through dryness, and his right eye will grow dark and be blinded.”[xxiv] Thus the prophet says about the silent and idle pastors: “You have not risen up from the other side, nor have you put in place a wall for the house of Israel, so that you might stand in battle on the day of the Lord.”[xxv] Glory and honour be to Him forever and ever. Amen.
[i] Cf. Lamentations 4:1.
[ii] Hosea 4:9.
[iii] i.e. The peoples of western Francia/France.
[iv] At first sight, this would seem to refer to the dedication of Martial’s basilica at Limoges in 1028 CE, but it seems more plausible from context as Landes suggests that Adémar has in mind the apostolic mass inauguration and the fallout of his own humiliation by Benedict of Chiusa in 1029 CE.
[v] Corresponding to Limousine in France.
[vi] Corresponding to Saintonge in France.
[vii] Isaiah 5:24.
[viii] Cf. 2 Samuel 21.
[ix] 2 Samuel 24.
[x] i.e. The Roman emperor.
[xi] A region of southwestern France.
[xii] Isaiah 30:27-28.
[xiii] This appears to be referring to Martial.
[xiv] 30 June, which is Martial’s feast day.
[xv] Amos 4:6-11.
[xvi] Joel 2:9 and 12.
[xvii] Corresponding to Poitiers in France.
[xviii] Corresponding to Angoulême in France.
[xix] Revelation 8:1.
[xx] Joel 1:13-14.
[xxi] Referring to a reputed three-day fast of the people of Nineveh as a mark of repentance (cf. Jonah 3).
[xxii] Cf. Matthew 10:28.
[xxiii] Zechariah 10:3.
[xxiv] Zechariah 10:17.
[xxv] Ezekiel 13:5.