Why Walahfrid? Or: Why Theology Mattered in the Early Middle Ages

One of the hardest concepts for medieval historians to grasp, and one of the hardest ideas to articulate to a generally secular public sphere, is the idea of religion as something other than the realm of private spiritual belief. Despite occasional clashes and intrusions into politics and society, organised religions in the west have largely shed their aspirations to police the dogmas believed by ordinary people.

In the past few decades, a great deal of research has gone into exploring the idea that power and theology were closely intertwined. Holding and teaching correct beliefs about the Christian faith was considered one of the primary duties of rulers. This ideology was particularly developed in the case of the Carolingian dynasty, a family that ruled western Europe (encompassing modern day France, western Germany, and northern Italy) in the late eighth and ninth centuries. These rulers, in collaboration with the Church, were considered accountable for the salvation of the souls they governed.

Rulers’ responsibility resulted in numerous theological controversies in Carolingian Europe, as monks, bishops, and lay elites often disagreed on the content and practice of orthodox Christianity that kings were supposed to guard. Such conflicts were never abstract philosophical disagreements; they had direct implications for the exercise of political control, since they directly affected the possibility of salvation of souls entrusted to rulers.

No conflict more obviously exposed the divisions in the Carolingian order than the question of predestination. At stake was the matter of whether God had, by a double predestination of salvation and damnation, already ordained the state of souls in the next life. This possibility raised the disquieting possibility that the Carolingian project to try to save all souls was confounded at its very root by the existence of an elect and a reprobate, of whom only the former would win their battle against sin. If double predestination was correct, nothing rulers could do would alter the reckoning on the final day of judgement. As the player of our game will discover, the public intellectuals of the age disagreed vehemently about this question. Luckily for historians, they also tried to influence the opinions of a wide range of other clerics, religious, and even laity to accept their own doctrine allowing us to gain access to the bitter (and often personal) contests this involved.

Recent academic scholarship (see below for bibliography) has laid out the contours of this conflict as it raged through the 840s and 850s in extraordinary detail. We can trace the debate in the margins of manuscripts, in the production of voluminous theological treatises and also in letters and poems. Understandably, such conflicts can only remain remote in the popular imagination since the culture and ideas of ninth century are so far removed from our own. We wanted to design a game in which a player could get to interact with these ideas for themselves, prod their logics, and form an impression of the personalities and power structures that underpinned them first-hand. What better way to do this than by re-opening the case of Walahfrid, one of the most suspicious ‘accidents’ to happen in the ninth century, in which a member of the political and spiritual elite, and a potential ally to a condemned heretic, happened to fall and get swept away by a river, never to be heard from again…

A (very brief) bibliography

In making this game, we have drawn from two recent studies of the predestination crisis (although we have not necessarily followed all of their conclusions):

Matthew Bryan Gillis, Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire: The Case of Gottschalk of Orbais (Oxford, 2017).

Warren Pezé, Le virus de l’erreur. La controverse carolingienne sur la double prédestination. Essai d’histoire sociale. Collection du Haut Moyen Âge, 26 (Turnhout, 2017).  

These are both redoubtable works – for a more succinct entry into the Predestination Crisis, there is still no better place to start than David Ganz, ‘The debate on predestination’ in M. T. Gibson and J. L. Nelson, eds., Charles the Bald. Court and kingdom. Papers based on a colloquium held in London in April 1979 (Oxford, 1981), pp. 353-373.

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