Notions of belonging in the tenth century: the example of Abbo of Saint-Germain and the ‘natio Tungrorum’

In the long tenth century various horizontal and vertical bonds as well as social and political boundaries were changed due to the fragmentation of the Carolingian empire which produced a variety of power relationships. These offered multiple possibilities of adherence to social entities which their contemporaries could align themselves with, or be assigned to. New designations had to be made, or existing nomenclature adapted, to describe these formations. The fragmented post-Carolingian world is therefore characterised by the continuous differentiation and categorisation of groups. In fact, it seems that the empire, which produced a hierarchically organised frame of belongings on different scales, had established a scope for alternative organisational approaches, which remained open even when the empire failed as a political framework. Ethnic and territorial nomenclature were associated within their texts, explicitly or implicitly, with terminology of order, such as imperium, gens, natio, patria, terra, res publica or christianitas.

When Abbo of Saint-Germain was confronted with internal and external threats in the 920s, he appealed in his sermons to different audiences offering different frames of solidarity such as a local one to the locals, but also a territorial one, reflecting the notion of the Francia, and an ethnic one, addressed to a wider public.  Between 922 and 926 he wrote, by the order of Bishop Fulradus of Paris (922-926/7) and Bishop Froterius of Poitiers (900-936), a sermon collection, ‘for the use of simple clerics …, so that they are able to take courage and draw material from it, for the preaching to the ones entrusted to them.’ First and foremost, Abbo understood himself as a servant of Saint Germanus, whom he recalls in the prefatory letter as ‘the protector of Paris from enemy siege’, demonstrating in the same time his strong civic loyalty. Over and above that he feels connected with all of Christendom, as the sermon titled Sermo de fundamento et incremento christianitas makes clear. In this text he describes the provenance of christianitas from the time of the apostles to his present, taking a tour that starts in India, continues in Persia and other provinces and kingdoms in the east, leads to Rome, and ends in Francia in the 920s. The apostles had laid the foundations for the universal Church in these different regions of the world. Pious kings then strengthened these foundations, by establishing cells and monasteries, and providing these with properties. In the cities they entrusted the Church with villae, from which cathedrals could be constructed, and the kings supplied them with fiscal rights. In this text the word christianitas is used no less than 40 times. Christianitas clearly embodies social cohesion, which is why Abbo also describes it as nostra fraternitas. According to Abbo, christianitas is a spiritual foundation, that manifests itself in the world as a hierarchically and economically clearly structured Church, and, as we will see, reveals itself indeed in every single monastery and bishopric. Correspondingly, christianitas consists of several spatially clearly structured parts.

Abbo’s world is wholly focused on territoriality, and for that reason continually under threat. Because these days, he laments in his text, all these accomplishments are squandered by the principes mundi. Abbo’s feeling of belonging extended itself to all bishoprics and monasteries. His understanding of christianitas is that of the ecclesia Dei, which stretches itself over the entire world and lasts forever, therefore being constantly under attack. Yet principally the hearer would not need to fear the pseudochristiani, who ‘oppress you on a daily basis’, for everything earthly is merely transitory, he comforts his audience. This attitude should also be upheld in the face of those rapaces lupi, who every day devastate the civitas. To the enemies of christianitas Abbo counts the gens Normannica and the gens Danica, as well as the impiissima natio Tungrorum , which all come from the north and the west. From the south and the east come, among others, the Agareni and the Ismaeliti, perhaps meaning the Hungarians and the Saracens. The crueller are however ours (nostri), continues Abbo, who falsely describe themselves as Christians, but who love their dogs and horses more than the starving poor. It is surprising to see a natio Tungrorum in this list. According to Tacitus the Tungri were the first Germanic peoples to cross the Rhine and harassed the Gauls. It was this gens after which the civitas Tungrorum, today’s Tongeren, is named. Indeed Abbo’s mention of the Tungri refers to a dispute over the bishopric of Liège, the ecclesia Tungrorum. After the death of Bishop Stephen on May 19th, 920, Charles III entrusted the bishopric to a certain Hilduin. Yet this Hilduin deserted and joined the rebellious count Giselbert, who owned lands in and around Maastricht and was now allied to Henry I. Consequently Charles put the Abbot of Prüm, Richar, forward as bishop and enacted a capitulary that sought to resolve the affair surrounding the ecclesia Tungrensis. In this capitulary it is argued that the conspirators appropriated the church treasuries of both the ecclesia Tungrensis as well as the church of Saint Lambert, which belonged to Aachen, and had used these new funds to buy themselves political support. It were these injustices of occupying the episcopal seat and the plundering of the church treasures that Abbo indirectly criticised in his sermon. These where then those principes mundi, who shook the foundations of christianitas, these were the invasiores ecclesiae, who assaulted the sedes episcoporum. Above all Giselbert, who had himself proclaimed princeps of Lotharingia, was in Abbo’s mind clearly one of them. Giselbert gathered several grandees around him, but he did not manage to retain their support for long. Furthermore, he positioned himself against Robert I and Rudolf of Neustria, when Charles III was deposed in 922. From the perspective of Abbo, this was a long list of betrayals.

Lotharingia was from 923 until 925 – precisely the time in which Abbo compiled his sermon collection – divided into two spheres of influence: the area surrounding the Maas and Trier belonged to Henry I’s sphere of influence, while the southern Lotharingian region belonged to that of Rudolf. The revolting groups in Lotharingia accordingly had no name of their own. Because the conflict had been inflamed by the struggle over the occupation of the episcopacy in Tongeren, Abbo ethnicised the inhabitants of the areas in Henry’s sphere of influence, and described it as impiissima natio Tungrorum. Natio here means those born there, and is thus distinguished from the gentes, Normans and Danes, with stronger territorial overtones. The qualification of the Tungri as a natio makes clear how unstable the political situation was in Abbo’s eyes, how quickly regional political groups acquired a supraregional importance, or how fast such a supraregional importance was applied to regional groups. It also shows how great the challenge was to find appropriate labels, and it underlines how much ethnicity mattered at that time, even when it is here applied in an almost apocalyptic way with very negative connotations.