The Bible and the Law in Carolingian Europe (BIBLACE)

Scriptural Exegesis and (Royal) Legislation from Charlemagne to Charles the Bald

Charles the Bald, Vivian Bible. Paris, BNF lat. 1, fol 423r (Tours, 845/6)

In what ways did the Bible shape the formation of political communities and legal order in early medieval Europe? This project studies the impact of biblical models on legislation and legal thought in the Carolingian period (ca. AD 767-880). In the Carolingian empire, efforts to promote the legal and moral reform of society in accordance with divine law were persued with remarkable intensity and sophistication. The Bible was crucial to the ways in which the Carolingian elite thought, debated, and wrote about politics and law – it provided a vocabulary to speak about social relations and social norms. We can observe this in the texts issued by Carolingian rulers or by assemblies of lay and clerical advisors, in which they set down legal and moral norms for the realm, or addressed social and religious problems. The so-called (royal) capitularies and related texts, conciliar decrees and episcopal statues frequently contain verbatim citation of the Bible or allude to biblical precedents in order to justify and explain the norms they seek to impose.

To understand this convergence between biblical law and ninth-century legislation, the rich material of Carolingian biblical exegesis is of crucial importance, since it provides access to the concepts and interpretative traditions associated with specific biblical texts in the minds of contemporaries. Authors and readers of exegetical commentaries were often at the same time advisers to kings and important political decision makers, and they often directly participated in the drafting of normative texts.

The project thus proposes a comparative study of legal and exegetical texts and of their dynamic relationship over the course of the ninth century. The goal is to determine the patterns of interpretation and argument underlying the legal uses of the Bible, and to contrast them with those current in the contemporaneous biblical exegesis.

Key questions include:

1) What can exegetical texts tell us about the ways in which scripture was used and understood by the authors and recipients of normative texts, and about the impact of the Bible on Carolingian notions of justice and legal order?
2) How was the relationship between the Old and the New Testament addressed in both types of texts? Was there a tension between the pragmatic use of the Old Testament lex and its spiritual interpretation, and what was its legal force in a Christian society?
3) What type of models of the political community and its religious dimension were conveyed through the biblical quotations?
4) In what respects did the use and interpretation of the Bible in legal texts differ from the approaches of scholarly exegesis?

Several case studies are envisaged in order to develop this approach in more detail. They focus on

1) the significance of the Gospel of Matthew and its exegesis for Carolingian ideas about law, justice and legal practice;
2) the reform legislation of Charlemagne’s later years and the work of the first generation of Carolingian exegetes closely connected to the royal court (for example, Theodulf of Orléans);
3) the exegetical background to the debates about the reform of the empire under Louis the Pious in the late 820s and early 830s.