The first book of the Epitaphium covers the period from Wala’s youth at Charlemagne’s court until the years 822–5 when the great man, by then known as ‘Arsenius’, served as deputy to Louis’ son Lothar, who was king of Italy and was crowned emperor in Rome in 823. In 814 Wala, banished from Louis’ court, had retreated to Corbie, yet in 821 he and his half-brother Adalhard, abbot of Corbie, had been reconciled with the Emperor Louis. About all this, the first book is almost entirely silent. The main theme of a lively dialogue among three monks, with some additional interlocutors, is the deep grief about Wala’s recent death. We get brief hints to all this political trouble, but most of this is obfuscated by deft literary tactics, in which citations from Terence play a central part. The first book is a masterpiece of allusion, and also gives an indication of the intended audience: not just the monks of Corbie, but also a literate Carolingian leadership impressed by Radbert’s brilliance, and perhaps persuaded to look differently at Wala/Arsenius, who had died in 836 in Italy. Shortly thereafter Radbert embarked on this first book.
The second book runs from the political crisis of the winter of 828/9 to Wala’s death in August 836, but was written with emphatic hindsight. The general drift of the narrative is backward-looking: if the rulers had heeded Wala’s advice in the early 830s, the empire would not lie in ruins in the 850s. Radbert had been abbot of Corbie since 843/4. About seven years later he was forced to retire from this illustrious office. The ex-abbot added a polemical second book to his funeral oration to Wala, in which he attacked Wala’s main enemies: the Empress Judith (Justina), the chamberlain Bernard (Naso) and, to a lesser extent, Emperor Louis the Pious (Justinian). The second book is set in an imaginary late antique Christian empire, and reflects deeply on the lost unity of the Carolingian polity. It is a treasure trove of political terminology, which was derived from classical and patristic writing but imbued with new meaning in the turbulent mid-ninth century.
This book presents a new and accessible translation of a well-known yet enigmatic text: the ‘Epitaph for Arsenius’ by the monk and scholar Paschasius Radbertus (Radbert) of Corbie. This monastic dialogue, with the author in the role of narrator, plunges the reader directly into the turmoil of ninth-century religion and politics. ‘Arsenius’ was the nickname of Wala, a member of the Carolingian family who in the 830s became involved in the rebellions against Louis the Pious. Exiled from the court, Wala/Arsenius died Italy in 836. Casting both Wala and himself in the role of the prophet Jeremiah, Radbert chose the medium of the epitaph (funeral oration) to deliver a polemical attack, not just on Wala’s enemies, but also on his own.
This chapter focuses on the biographical, political and literary aspects of the Epitaphium Arsenii. It introduces the author, Paschasius Radbertus, who was a monk of Corbie and later its abbot, and his subject, Abbot Wala of Corbie (d. 836), who was Charlemagne’s controversial cousin. It explains the different political context in which the two books of this work originated. Whereas the first book was probably composed while the Emperor Louis the Pious was still alive, the second followed only in the mid-850s, when Louis’ son Charles the Bald ruled the West-Frankish kingdom. The changed perspective of the second book and the author’s polemical stance stand in contrast to the more reticent first book, which makes this such an interesting text. Furthermore, this introduction also explicates this funeral oration for Wala as a literary work, and comments on the author’s Latin and his use of classical and patristic sources.
An ad hoc extension, comprising sporadic annual entries, begins with the author’s first-hand experience of being cured from a spiritual malady by a drink from a chalice holding the tooth of the monastery’s founder. The author also discusses the monastery’s involvement in and experience of larger events in the mid-twelfth century, including the Second Lateran Council, the Second Crusade (and St. Bernard’s journey through Germany), and an extended period of famine and scarcity that compelled the monks to sell many prized works of art and other goods. A brief hagiography on St. Ratpero, whose oratory was located on land owned by Petershausen, is included. Several chapters that describe the death of religious women and men and other later entries offer a rare acknowledgement in the CP of religious women and men of various sorts at Petershausen, including those the chronicler identifies as hermits and inclusi. This section closes with a dramatic description of the fire that destroyed the monastery in 1159. In offering an eyewitness account of the extent of the devastation and the efforts of the monks to rebuild, the chronicler spins a narrative of trauma that lays the blame with the monks for their many moral failings.
A fifth book, partly the work of a continuator, begins with the continued efforts of the monks to rebuild after the fire. After a brief description of Frederick Barbarossa and the Alexandrian Schism, most of the rest of the book focuses on Abbot Conrad (r. 1127–1164) and his exploits, including some pointed critiques of his many missteps.
Book Four continues the history of the monastery from the death of Theodoric to the author’s own time with an eclectic collection of colorful stories continuing many of themes introduced in Books Two and Three – conflicts with bishops and lay patrons, internal politics, relations with daughter houses, and various miracles. Twice the bishop-proprietor Ulrich I of Constance attempts to intervene in the election or abdication of an abbot, spurring the monastery to assert its libertas in active resistance. Hints of profound troubles in the wake of reform are introduced, including violence in the abbey, economic mismanagement, and failed attempts to found and reform other houses. The monastery is miraculously spared from fire on multiple occasions.
Book One tells of the origins of the monastery, beginning with a hagiographical account of the monastery’s founder Bishop Gebhard II of Constance (r. 979–995). After an imaginative retelling of Gebhard’s illustrious ancestry and early life, the author describes his founding of the monastery, including information about the provisions of land and laborers, the original art and architecture of the church, the procurement of a papal privilege, and the acquisition of saints’ relics. The first book concludes with stories from Gebhard’s later years and an account of his death and burial at Petershausen.
The brief sixth book opens with the election of Abbot Gebhard I (1164–1171) and continues with sporadic entries in various hands, ending in 1203. Donations by and conflicts with lay patrons are discussed in brief. A short entry informs us that Abbot Gebhard, who was possibly the original chronicler, was deposed.
Book Three begins with the arrival of the Hirsau reformers at Petershausen, including a brief biography of the reforming abbot Theodoric (r. 1086–1116) and a detailed description of his material renovation of the monastery. An extended series of miracles, visions, and anecdotes follow, many of which serve as subtle commentaries on the success and challenges of the reform. The book then describes the efforts of the monks to establish and manage daughter houses, which presents many setbacks and challenges for the monastery. In the midst of these efforts, the investiture controversy emerges again, but this time at the local level. Conflict and even a short exile ensue when a pro-imperial bishop is installed at Constance. After the conflict ends in Theodoric’s favor, an account of his death follows, commemorating his unique character and contributions to the library.