Gottschalk of Orbais: Life and Works

A Medieval Teacher of Twofold Predestination

Gottschalk of Orbais was the first, since the council of Orange (529), to apply so consistently the principles of later Augustine. He taught that God predestined both the elect to eternal life and the reprobate to eternal death. Several centuries would be needed until Thomas Bradwardine (c. 1290-1349), Gregory of Rimini (d. 1358) and John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384) could voice the same ideas. Gottschalk’s life, rich in dramatic events, is an integral part of the cultural and political life of Germany, France, Italy and Croatia at the dawn of their history. However, Gottschalk of Orbais still remains in the shadow of his more famous contemporaries. Indeed, if a bibliography of the works that treat on Gottschalk is rather large, it can hardly be said that his life and teaching are thoroughly researched.

     Gottschalk was born in Saxony, in the family of a count named Bernus. His date of birth is not known. However, since he was delivered as an oblate child to the monastery of Fulda together with his inheritance in Charlemagne’s lifetime (d. January 28, 814), and an oblate normally could not be younger than 10, Gottschalk was possibly born about 803. Saxony had been conquered not long before that, and Bernus seems to have been among the first counts appointed in the area.
Fulda was an important educational center, especially since 803, when Rabanus Maurus, Alcuin’s pupil, became the head of its school. Gottschalk studied Latin, the Bible, the fathers, and the basics of the classical literature. He probably did well, since they sent him to Reichenau, where Haito, Reginbert, Grimald and Wettin taught at the time. In this cloister located on a solitary island on the Untersee Gottschalk met Walafrid Strabo, with whom he came back to Fulda. There he might know deacon Lupus as well, who would later become abbot of Ferrières.
     Some time after 822, when Rabanus was appointed abbot of Fulda, Gottschalk became a monk, but upon his return from Reichenau he declared that he had done so under compulsion, and requested to give back his inheritance donated to the monastery by his father. In June 829 a synod was convened in Mainz, which had to pronounce judgment concerning this case. Gottschalk was given back his freedom, but under condition of an oath never to request back his inheritance. The young man left Fulda, but neither his abbot nor he himself felt satisfied with the decision.
     Gottschalk’s arguments were as follows: a monk is basically a slave, even though God’s slave. However, according to the Saxon laws a man could be bereft of his freedom only in presence of Saxon witnesses, which condition had not been fulfilled. Rabanus, on the other hand, emphasized that the property requested by Gottschalk had been inherited by Louis the Pious from his father and could not be given back to the rebellious monk. Moreover, he regarded as heretical the wish itself to be freed from the vows under such a pretext.
     In August 829 another synod took place, presided by the emperor Louis, where the case was considered a second time. The decision is not known, but it is reasonable to suggest that Gottschalk’s liberation from the vows was confirmed, even though he never got back his inheritance.
     Released, the young man set out for a journey. He spent some time at the monastery of Corbie in Picardy, where he met monks Gislemar and Ratramnus, with whom he would later correspond, and, possibly, Paschasius Radbertus, who in 843 would become abbot of Corbie and whose views on the Eucharist Gottschalk would attack in his treatise On the Lord’s Body and Blood. There is also no doubt that Gottschalk visited Hautvilliers, where he wrote a poetical dedication for the Ebbo Gospels, a wonderful work of the Carolingian art ordered by the archbishop of Reims to Peter, the then abbot of Hautvilliers. Under the protection of the Saxon archbishop the young man lived for some time at his residence in Reims.
     However, even before 835, when Ebbo was deposed, under the conditions that are not fully clear Gottschalk became a monk again, having entered the monastery of Orbais, near Château-Thierry, which lays in the archdiocese of Soissons. It is hard to determine how much time he spent there. However, it is possible that he did not stay at the cloister for a long time after the deposition of his former patron. In the political context of the time Ebbo’s enemies could become dangerous for Gottschalk. Nevertheless, a Benedictine could not leave his monastery without a special dispensation of an abbot or without a specific errand. Pope Gregory the Great had decreed that a monk could break the ties with the monastery in case he was needed as a priest in a mission. As it seems that was the reason why Gottschalk was ordained by Rigbold, an interim bishop of Reims. This happened without the knowledge of Rothad, the bishop of Soissons, which later was considered as a serious infringement upon the canon law.
     Between 835 and 840, probably with the permission of Bavo, the abbot of Orbais, and possibly at the head of a group of monks, Gottschalk made his way to the south-east of the empire, to Frioul. There he is received by the margrave Eberhard, a son-in-law to Louis the Pious. It is then that the monk from Saxony began to preach his teaching on twofold predestination on a large scale. His influence grew so wide that Rabanus Maurus, Gottschalk’s former abbot, wrote two letters: first to Noting (Rudolph of Fulda calls him a bishop of Verona), and then to Eberhard himself. In 846 Gottschalk went on a mission to Dalmatia. Even though in the Annals of St Bertin we read that the rebellious Benedictine was “shamefully ejected” from Italy (as it is often suggested, by Eberhard at Rabanus’ request), it would be hard to believe that a margrave of Frioul might allow a person denounced as a heretic to preach to the Slavs in the region for which he was personally responsible. It is more likely that the consequences of Rabanus’ involvement were felt only upon Gottschalk’s return from the Balkans. The monk at once felt compelled to make his way to Fulda.
     Back at the monastery, he was received by the abbot Hatto who had supported Gottschalk in his conflict with Rabanus when he was a simple monk himself as yet. As for Maurus, in the meantime he had become the archbishop of Mainz and an eminent political figure. However, it did not prevent Gottschalk from speaking against him at the synod of Mainz, which took place in October 848 in presence of Louis the German and several abbots and bishops of the Western Frankish lands, including Einhard, Charlemagne’s biographer and the bishop of Seligenstadt. In the annals’ reports the case is stated very briefly: Gottschalk was flogged, compelled to swear that he would never come back into Louis’ realm, and sent to Reims, since Orbais fell under the jurisdiction of that ecclesiastical province.
     Hincmar of Reims was eager to finish it off with the condemnation of the rebellious monk as soon as possible. This was done on a small synod, which took place at the royal villa named Quierzy in March 849, in presence of Charles the Bald. Gottschalk was accused of violation of the monastic regulations, deposed from priesthood, flogged again and compelled to throw into a fire a florilegium of scriptural and patristic quotations that he had compiled as a proof of the orthodoxy of his teaching. The sentence included a command of “eternal silence” and imprisonment at the monastery of Hautvilliers, where the condemned monk spent the rest of his life.
     The same year Gottschalk tried to obtain a test of his orthodoxy through the ordeal, but his challenge seems to have remained without any answer. Hincmar wrote a letter, in which he explained to the monks and simple of his diocese how pernicious the ideas of the dangerous trouble-maker were. However, the archbishop of Reims seems to have had doubts concerning the decision that was too hasty. He asked twice other bishops if he was to commune Gottschalk on Easter, and later addressed himself to the leading theologians of the period with respect to the problem of predestination. Prudentius of Troyes and Lupus of Ferrières answered that both Augustine and the Scripture taught the same way as Gottschalk. Rabanus Maurus was already about seventy and he refused to take further part in the controversy. Simultaneously, Charles the Bald asked for advice too, addressing himself to Lupus and Ratramnus. Their answers were in Gottschalk’s favor.
     Only John Scot sided with Hincmar and his party. However, the arguments adduced by this mind plunged into the mystical ideas of Dionysius the Areopagite were so sophisticated that they only bewildered everybody including Hincmar, who repeatedly denied that he ever read the work or knew who was its author. Nevertheless, it was too late: some scandalous assertions of John Scot (denial of the reality of hell as well as good and evil as such) allowed the church of Lyons to intervene. At the same time Prudentius of Troyes published a refutation of John Scot’s treatise at the request of his suffragan, Wenilo of Sens.
     As for Hincmar, he did not retreat. In 853, again in the presence of Charles and again at Quierzy, a large council was convened that accepted four capitula condemning the teaching on twofold predestination. It only gave occasion for new attacks from the part of Florus of Lyons in the realm of Lothair. In January 855 at Valence another council took place, where representatives of the archbishoprics of Lyons, Vienne and Arles accepted capitula, which acutely conflicted with those of Quierzy. Moreover, at the ordination of Aeneas as the bishop of Paris Prudentius of Troyes requested that Aeneas subscribed to a document, which spoke against the capitula of Quierzy.
     Political unrest of the period postponed further discussion for some time. By 859 Hincmar grew so influential that his adversaries were ready for any compromise. The case was again considered at the conference at Langres and then at the council of Savonnières in June 859, but the final decision was not made because of the pertinacity of Hincmar’s party. The strife was ended by a conciliatory and a rather vague document accepted at the council of Tusey in October 860, which in fact meant that Hincmar had no more adversaries who would be ready to contradict him. When in 863 Pope Nicholas I summoned the archbishop together with Gottschalk at the council of Metz, Hincmar did not consider it necessary to appear there. He wrote to the Pope that he had not received the summons in due time.
     Gottschalk died in October 868. According to Hincmar, he refused to receive clothes from the monks who were in communion with the archbishop, walked naked and didn’t want to take baths and even wash his face and hands. Gottschalk asserted that the Son entered him and then the Father and the Holy Spirit, having scorched his beard around the mouth. He also said that God forbad him to pray about Hincmar and prophesied that the archbishop would die and he himself would occupy the chair of Reims, but would be poisoned seven years later and die himself as a martyr. These prophesies were not fulfilled, and Hincmar wrote explicitly that his prisoner was possessed by a demon.
      As for Gottschalk’s theological works, beside the fragments, only two of his writings were known for a long time: the Shorter and the Longer Confessions. Both were several times published by the early researchers of Gottschalk’s theological heritage. The first to publish them was James Ussher (1581-1656), an Anglican archbishop of Armagh. He did not mention which manuscripts he used. Jilbert Mauguin (d. 1674), a French Jansenist, mentions that Usher had taken the text ex pervetusto codice, which codex had been delivered to him by Jacques Sirmond (1559-1651), but only for reference, not for publication (the learned Jesuit probably planned to publish the Confession in his own book). However, in a letter dated by December 10, 1630 that was addressed to S. Ward, the archbishop of Armagh wrote that he had received the texts of both confessions from Corbie, which freed him from the obligations that he assumed with respect to Sirmond.
     Nowadays only one manuscript containing the Shorter Confession is known: it is the ms. 12292 of the National Library in Paris, fol. 2rv. It goes back to the 9th century and comes from the library of Saint Germain des Près (ms. 623, later ms. 852), to which it was brought from Corbie. However, the archbishop of Armagh did not use this manuscript: ms. 12292 does not contain the Longer Confession (no ancient copy of that text is now extant). Moreover, Ussher’s edition of the Shorter Confession contains important variant readings as compared to ms. 12292.
     Trying to determine where the manuscript used by the first editor could go, Dom Cyrille Lambot was able to ascertain that in 1666 the archbishop’s library was passed over to the Trinity College in London, but the manuscript was not there by that time: it was acquired by James Ware (1594-1666) and later by Henry, duke of Clarendon, in whose library it was catalogued as ms. 89 in 1697. This collection was partly delivered to the British Museum (Clarendon Collection) and partly to the Bodleian Library (Rawlinson Collection), but the manuscript was not found either in London or in Oxford.
     In 1650 both Confessions were also published by Mauguin. He took the text of the Shorter Confession from the manuscript which is known to us as BN lat. 12292. As for the Longer Confession, the editor only mentioned Ussher’s edition, but his version has important variant readings as compared to the editio princeps. Lambot suggested that Mauguin also used Sirmond’s manuscript.
     The second of the extant manuscripts is the ms. 1831-1833 of the Royal Library of Brussels. It goes back to late 9th or early 10th century and contains one of Gottschalk’s Trinitarian works.
     The most important find was made as late as in 1931, when Dom Germain Morin discovered a rich collection of Gottschalk’s theological texts in the ms. 584 in the Library of Bern. The manuscript goes back to the 9th century and came to Bern from the Bongars library. This event prompted a critical edition of Gottschalk’s works, which was effected in 1945 by Lambot.
     Gottschalk’s doctrine still waits for its researchers, who have to determine its correlation both with the teaching of later Augustine and the opinions of Gottschalk’s contemporaries. The influence that the 9th century controversy over predestination exerted on the western church is not fully appreciated as yet. However, Gottschalk’s genius, thanks to precious finds of the 20th century, begins to shine forth, which puts him on the same plane with other great Carolingians.

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