A Letter from Abbot Odilo of Cluny

In the early middle ages, letter-writing was a difficult art to master. Letters were supposed to follow elaborate stylistic models. The language was supposed to be sophisticated and rhetorically complex. Many letters were conspicuously public documents, written to be read aloud, and not only by the recipient. But accomplished letter-writers could use their skills to do great things: show off their learning and wisdom, create communities of like-minded correspondents, and influence the great and powerful with sage and stylish advice. This blog post is a translation of a well-known and much-discussed but challenging and hitherto untranslated letter. We know it from an eleventh-century addition to a blank space in a tenth-century manuscript of mostly sermons, now in the Vatican Library (Vat. Lat. 8563). The scribe gave it the rubric Epistola Odilonis abbatis Cluniacensis ad Heinricum imperatorem augustum, ‘a letter from Abbot Odilo of Cluny to the august emperor Henry’. Assuming that the rubric is correct, the author is easily identified: the long-lived and learned Odilo, abbot of Cluny 994–1049, by the time of his death probably the most venerable churchman in the West.

Statue of St. Odilo of Cluny in Basilica of St. Urban, Troyes, France.

He was small of stature and devotedly humble, but also a dominant figure: his friend Fulbert of Chartres called him an ‘archangel of monks’, his antagonist Adalbero of Laon preferred ‘King Odilo of Cluny’.

To identify the recipient is, however, much trickier. Odilo’s long abbacy put him in contact with several generations of secular and ecclesiastical princes, and he appeared in the entourage of both Henry II (reigned 1002–24) and Henry III (reigned 1039–56). Scholars have argued for both Henries. The argument mostly hinges on the interpretation of a cryptic passage, describing some sort of dispute in the church:

Quod ille perdit qui totum dedit, non debet ille possidere qui totum tulit. Totum tulit, quantum in illo fuit. Si posset suum velle, nil valeret vestrum posse.

That which he loses, who gave everything, must not be possessed by him who took everything. He took everything, as much as he could. Should he have been able to realise his wishes, then your power would have been worth nothing.

When Ernst Sackur first published the letter, in 1899, he argued that it was written in 1046, and intended as advice for Henry III, preparing to take on a grievous dispute about the apostolic see. In 1046 there were three men claiming to be pope: Benedict IX, Gregory VI, and Sylvester III, who all held different parts of the city of Rome. Henry III resolved the dispute, drastically, at the Synod of Sutri in December 1046. Benedict IX and Sylvester III were deposed. Gregory VI admitted to buying the papacy from Benedict, that is to the heresy of simony, and abdicated. In his stead, Henry III elevated Bishop Suidger of Bamberg, who took the papal name Clement II. On Christmas day Clement II crowned Henry III emperor of the Romans in St Peter’s.

If the letter dates to 1046, then (following Sackur and Gerd Tellenbach) it would have been Benedict IX who ‘gave everything’ (by selling the papacy), and Gregory VI (who bought it) who ‘took everything’. Should Henry III not be able to depose Gregory VI, then his imperial powers would be useless. This is the interpretation that most historians have followed. But against Sackur weighs the word of the most renowned scholar of eleventh-century letter collections from the Empire, Carl Erdmann. In 1943, Erdmann argued that Odilo wrote the letter to Henry II during his second Italian expedition, soon after imperial coronation in February 1014.

Henry II from the Seeon gospel book (Seeon, 1002×14): Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek Bibliothek 95, fol. 7v. Image in the Public Domain.

The dispute, according to this reading, was not about the papacy but about the archbishopric of Ravenna. Henry II intervened on behalf of one claimant to the see, his half-brother Arnold, who had been expelled, and deposed his rival Adalbert in Ravenna in January. Arnold was formally enthroned and consecrated in Rome a few weeks later. Odilo was present on neither occasion, but had been with the king at Christmas. Erdmann read the letter as Odilo registering his disagreement with the emperor. Adalbert ‘gave everything’ when he was deposed; Arnold ‘took everything’. It was not Henry II’s direct fault, but it was in his power to correct it, and it was a matter of his soul.

Erdmann pointed out that Odilo addressed the recipient of the letter with the imperial title, not only in the rubric: Henry was arx imperii, ‘the summit of empire’ and clarissimus caesarum, ‘the brightest of Caesars’. Sackur’s reading, however, dated the letter to before the Synod of Sutri—that is, to before Henry III’s imperial coronation. The letter is clearly intended for a ruler at the beginning of his imperial reign. It is, nonetheless, possible, and certainly not without parallels, that Odilo’s advice would have anticipated the coronation rather than followed it. Most of the advice is generally held: injunctions against simony, a plea to strive towards the conversion and baptism of Jews. Odilo’s central point is that Henry should be watchful in selecting his counsellors, and that he should make a strict separation between lay and ecclesiastical advice in affairs of the world and the church respectively. More striking, perhaps, is the lengthy panegyric which introduces the letter—pompous and hyperbolic, although in the subjunctive mood throughout, which makes it more cautious: were (whichever) Henry to follow Odilo’s advice, then he might be able to realise his potential as a hegemonic Christian emperor.

Then, there is a passage about Pavia to take into account. Pavia was the site of the most important royal palace in the Kingdom of Italy, but the Pavians were an unruly lot, and often rebelled against visiting rulers. Both Henries had passed it on their way to their imperial coronations: Henry II spent Christmas 1013–14 there, and issued diplomas for a number of churches; Henry III held a synod in Pavia in October 1046, which issued forceful decrees condemning simony. Odilo’s letter implies that Henry had promised to make amends for a harm done to Pavia, and to its patron saint St Syrus. Erdmann argued that Henry II made the promise to Odilo at Christmas, but that it referred to damages done in 1004, when he had quelled a Pavian rebellion with brutal measures, and Odilo had helped to negotiate the city’s surrender. Sackur argued that Odilo referred to Henry III’s campaign in Italy in 1036–7, although there is no firm evidence that the young king passed through Pavia in those years. In this respect, Erdmann’s reconstruction is probably neater, but overall it seems to me that all Ottonian and Salian rulers could reasonably have been expected to compensate for ills done against the stubborn citizens of Pavia at one point or another.

Dating the letter is made even more complicated by the inclusion of a few lines from a poem, manifestly addressed to Otto II (reigned as emperor 973–83). This opens up a third possibility: that the rubric is wrong, that the letter dates from the late tenth century, and that it was not written by Odilo at all. But the style—heavily rhetoricised, often rhyming Latin prose—and content of the letter seem congruent with other surviving writings by Odilo. It seems more likely that Odilo quoted an older poem, which he thought was a fitting address to the descendant, rather than the literal son, of Otto the Great and Adelheid. This could apply to both Henry II (Otto’s great-nephew) and Henry III (Otto’s great-great-great-grandson).

Henry III from the Evangeliary of Henry III (Echternach, 1039×43): Bremen, Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek B 21, fol. 3v.

The classicising grandiosity of the panegyrical passages also seem, to me, to be more in keeping with the early eleventh century than the late tenth. In fact, they have parallels in other letters to Henry III from around the same time, notably Anselm of Besate’s dedication of his (learned but strange) rhetorical treatise Rhetorimachia to the emperor from 1046×8. There are also similarities between the expectations that Odilo placed on the letter’s recipient and the accounts of Henry III’s activities in the mid-1040s in Jotsald of St-Claude’s biography of Odilo, and in Raoul Glaber’s Histories, dedicated to Odilo. As far as I see it, it is even possible that the letter postdates the Synod of Sutri, and was written in early 1047, as Odilo remained in Rome and Henry III travelled around Italy. Certainly Henry continued to be in need of advice: Benedict IX still had supporters in Italy, and some churchmen had begun to grumble about Henry’s heavy-handed intervention in the papal succession. Central to their case was the insistence that ecclesiastics be judged by ecclesiastics alone. The anonymous author of a treatise on papal succession (De ordinando pontifice), written soon afterwards, who made the case most forcefully, argued that ‘that vilest emperor’ should not even be allowed to judge laypeople, let alone churchmen. Odilo’s counsel would have been timely. On balance, a later date strikes me as more likely. But it is up to every reader to decide; and, dating problems notwithstanding, the letter is an intriguing source for imperial ideology, abbatial counsel, and Latin prose in the first half of the eleventh century.



A letter from Abbot Odilo of Cluny to the august emperor Henry

To the august H(enry), the godliest, most deserving of all good will, the seat of government for all the poor and all the suffering, the summit of Empire, every catholic man, every religious order, wishes the grace of God and the joys of heaven.

As you wage battle in your first encounter of your first campaign in the war of God the Lord, arm yourself with the weapons of justice, put on the clothes of rejoicing, let not love of money corrupt you, and do not let the esteem of anyone turn you from the truth. May pride terrify you; may all humble things please you; may the defeated pride of your enemies suffer; may the vanquished cupidity of the proud decay; may the innocence of the afflicted poor heal! May the kingdom of Italy rejoice in your arrival there; may the Roman Empire exult in your approach! May the bishops, the rich and the poor, abbots and monks, and all the sons of the church be filled with joy! The more powerful must not oppress the powerless; instead, may the lower classes learn to obey their superiors! May your reign uproot vices; may the virtues flourish under your rule; may the heresy of simony sink into pig excrement! May illicit profits vanish, just like the cult of idolatry; may every heresy evaporate like steam! May the faithless Jew blush in confusion, unless he finds your grace, reborn in the true faith. Those touched by holy baptism must rejoice in your defence—let there be no risk of them straying from their faith! If they wish their olive trees to bear fruit again, if they wish to enjoy their inheritance, then they must not tear them up, and they must not be disinherited. May they be nourished by maternal and Catholic love, so that they can persevere in the strength of their faith! May the kingdoms subject to you grow strong under your protection; may they flourish under your watchfulness! May neighbouring nations either hurry to submit to you or dwindle in anticipation from trembling after hearing of your virtues! May the Slav grunt; may the Hungarian squeal; may the Greek marvel and be astounded! May the Saracen be struck with terror and flee! May the Punic pay tribute; may the Spaniard request lordly support; may the Burgundian revere and esteem you; may the Aquitainian run to join you cheerfully!

May all of Gaul exclaim: ‘Who has heard of such things?’;

May all of Italy raise its hands in the air and exclaim:

Per quel deu!

‘He is the sole son of the great Emperor Otto!’;

May our thousands of paupers exclaim: ‘By my very soul,

Our mother and lady Adelheid begat him!’.

See to it that your most worthy promise to that father of the fatherland, that is the blessed Syrus, the governor of Pavia, is not broken. And this will agree with your own truthful words, for you said, if you deign to remember: ‘Should God grant us a successful return to these regions, then I will honour the church of St Syrus as it deserves, and should not be enraged that it has thrown itself into such a dispute’.

Moreover, my lord king, most prudent of kings and brightest of emperors, manage the state with care, and the apostolic see with exceptional diligence! Rejoice in helping the world, rather than in commanding the people. We, your servants, wish for you to govern us happily and support us in all things, and to reign with Him Whose being is eternal. And indeed it follows, and is exceedingly praiseworthy, that your enemies shall rejoice in your mercy. For Truth Himself prescribes it: love your enemies; do good to them that hate you (Matthew V:44). And it is doubtless an enactment of God’s command, if love is extended even to an enemy. On the other hand, it is the exact opposite and a most dishonest thing, if those who have been faithful sense that they have been deceived. Let them hear us say to him who labours for you: Come to me, all you that labour, and are burdened, and I will refresh you (Matthew XI:28). Place on them a yoke so light and sweet that they can bear it with calm and faithfulness.

I will say one thing more publicly, which I fear would be judged much more bitterly were it to be concealed: that which he loses, who gave everything, must not be possessed by him who took everything. He took everything, as much as he could. Should he have been able to realise his wishes, then your power would have been worth nothing. The affair referred to here is a matter for the soul or, to put it better, God’s cause. It is seemly that God’s cause should be handled by those who love God. You should commit the cause of your soul to those who seek to love theirs rather than to obey. He who loves iniquity hates his own soul. Those, whose judgment you deem should rule the Roman Empire, should be selected from the whole world. Just as military matters should be negotiated with warriors, so ecclesiastical affairs should be discussed with religious men, mercy for the wretched with the merciful, and penury with paupers.

If you were to increase your number of counsellors, or, as Solomon said, have one chosen out of thousands (Song of Songs V:10), let them be such as those whom David rejoiced in having, when he said: My eyes were upon the faithful of the earth, to sit with me: the man that walked in the perfect way, he served me (Psalms C:6). See to it, that they are not such of whom Isaiah might have reprehended you, saying: Thy princes are faithless, companions of thieves: they all love bribes, they run after rewards. They judge not for the fatherless: and the widow’s cause cometh not in to them (Isaiah I:23). David refused to hear wicked advice from such men, and said: Depart from me, ye malignant: and I will search the commandments of my God (Psalms CXVIII:115). May almighty God turn such counsellors into great pests in your eyes, as He sends support and counsel from heaven, He who will live and reign through all ages. Amen.


Adalbero of Laon, Carmen ad Rodbertum regem, ed. Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologia Latina 141 (Paris, 1844), cols 771–86.

Anselm of Besate, Rhetorimachia, ed. Karl Manitius, MGH Quellen zur Geistesgeschichte 2 (Weimar, 1958).

Ovidio Capitani, ‘Ancora della lettera di Odilone ad Enrico imperatore’, in Miscellanea Gilles Gérard Meerssemann, [no ed.] (Padua, 1970) I, 89–106.

De ordinando pontifice, ed. Ernst Dümmler, MGH Libelli de lite I (Hannover, 1892), 8–14; with emendations and German translation in Quellen zum Investiturstreit II: Schriften über den Streit zwischen Regnum und Sacerdotium, ed. and transl. Irene Schmale-Ott, Ausgewählte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters XIIb (Darmstadt, 1984), 46–67.

Carl Erdmann, ‘Das ottonische Reich als Imperium Romanorum’, Deutsches Archiv 6 (1943), 412–41; repr. in his Ottonische Studien, ed. Helmut Beumann (Darmstadt, 1968), 174–203.

Fulbert of Chartres, Letters and Poems, ed. and transl. Frederick Behrends (Oxford, 1976).

Jotsald of St-Claude, Vita des Abtes Odilo von Cluny, ed. Johannes Staub, MGH SS rer. Germ. 68 (Hannover, 1999).

Raoul Glaber, Historiarum libri quinque, ed. and transl. John France (Oxford, 1989).

Ernst Sackur, ‘Ein Schreiben Odilos von Cluni an Heinrich III. vom October 1046’, Neues Archiv 24 (1899), 728–35.

Synod of Pavia, 25 October 1046, ed. Detlev Jasper in Die Konzilien Deutschlands und Reichsitaliens 1023–1059, MGH Concilia 8 (Hannover, 2010), 172–83.

Gerd Tellenbach, Libertas: Kirche und Weltordnung im Zeitalter des Investiturstreites (Stuttgart, 1936).

Jacques van Wijnendaele, ‘Silences et mensonges autour d’un concile: Le concile de Sutri (1046) en son temps’, Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire 83 (2005), 315–53.