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.
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.