Thursday, March 25, 2010

The First Words of Pseudo-Isidore

No posting for a week: the Medieval Academy and preparation for class have forced me to think about other things. But now we're back to work.

All those long intro posts have brought us to the gates of the castle -- Pseudo-Isidore's first words. It should be no surprise that there's a lot to say about these: For one thing, they're the first thing scholars see when they open the Pseudo-Isidore, and so there's been a lot of thought about them. And, for another thing, we might imagine that our forgers also anticipated that they'd have the biggest audience with their opening lines, and filled them with hidden meaning. So goes the theory anyway.

Pseudo-Isidore starts off with an invocation: "In nomine domini nostri Iesu Christi incipit praefatio sancti Isidori libri huius" -- "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, here begins St. Isidore's preface to this book." Now that sounds ordinary enough, and in fact Hinschius found it so unremarkable that he left it out of his edition (even though it's in all the MSS). But it's not so innocent. In fact, it's clearly derived from the invocation used by Lothar's chancery -- the little intro formula that they used to start out their documents. Lothar and the unity party were allies, remember, so this is highly significant.

Then we have the address: "Isidorus Mercator servus Christi lectori conservo suo et parenti in domino fidei salutem" (Isidore the Merchant and servant of Christ to his reader, fellow-servant and adherent to the faith in the Lord -- good health.) Lots to say about this too. First of all, this exact address occurs in one of the letters of Marius Mercator -- the guy who gave Pseudo-Isidore his by-name. The only difference is that our forgers have changed out "Marius" for "Isidorus." If nothing else, this shores up our earlier observation that "Isidorus Mercator" is a conflation of Isidore of Seville and Marius Mercator.

But things get more mysterious when we wade into the work of Nißl, some German guy who published a short five-page article way back in 1890 that everybody cites but nobody really knows quite what to do with. He suggested that the address was an anagram, and pointed out that by rearranging the letters one could arrive at a hidden message. Namely, this hidden message:

"Rottadus vero civitatis Suessionensis rector Incmaro Remensi foedo archipresuli dolum."

Which we might translate as follows:

"But Rothad, [bishop] of the city of Soissons -- a trick for the foul Hincmar, archbishop of Reims."

Rothad, bishop of Soissons from ca. 835 until the early 860s, was -- as Schon points out -- one of the only Reims suffragans to occupy a see throughout the entire period of forgery. He and Hincmar were also at each other's throats from around 850 onward, and Rothad is the very first character we can catch using the forgeries.

So is this anagram an illusion? Is it the Pseudo-Isidore unmasked? How to know?

Emil Seckel, famous German legal historian and Pseudoisidorian expert from the late nineteenth/early twentieth century, has a few thoughts. He points out, first of all, that the address is borrowed word-for-word from Marius Mercator, save for the substitution of Isidorus for Marius. Which either deflates this crazy theory straight out or makes Rothad one clever dude, who perceived that within an address authored by Marius Mercator he could build an anagram, giving Hincmar the finger, by sticking in Isidorus in place of Marius. Not impossible, to be sure, but still troubling.

Seckel is also nervous about what he calls the slightly unusual orthography of the names, Rottadus and Incmarus , though a) it's always possible the forger was willing to let the spelling slide to get his joke to work, and b) it's not clear to me how much ninth-century variation there is in the spelling of these names, and Seckel doesn't say. The omission of an initial H in Hincmar doesn't strike me as all that important. Rothad is a different story. I'm assuming the difference between "Rott-" and "Roth-" in Rothad's name bears on the length of that first vowel, right? That is, a short o in Rottadus and a long one in Rothadus? Correct me if I'm wrong. But then what are our sources like for Rothad anyway? Hincmar's name is doubtless all over the place in ninth-century documents, but I'm thinking Rothad's doesn't occur all that often. I'll poke around for a bit and let you know what I find out.

Anyway, so much for the names. The other problem with Nißl's theory, as Seckel sees it, is the word archipresuli (for archbishop). This is an unusual term, and he can only find one other ninth-century author who uses it. Which would also seem to be a serious problem, except that this other author is Ebbo of Reims. The very Ebbo who preceded Hincmar in the archdiocese, and whom the Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries seem designed to defend. I'll let you think about whether that's really a problem at all, or something more like a coincidence, or maybe something even more like an argument in favor. Incidentally, the word archipresuli also made Nißl nervous, because in the ninth-century they were sticklers about the ae-diphthong, and thus a well-educated cleric like Rothad would've wanted to write archipraesuli. Not the worst wrinkle, but there you go.

My verdict? I'd be much closer to thinking there was something to Nißl's anagram if the address weren't borrowed from Marius. But I might still be willing to consider it if someone can find a way to place Rothad at Corbie for any significant length of time following his installation at Soissons. I also want some clearly defined link between Rothad and Ebbo, because the Hincmar/Rothad quarrel just isn't enough. It's clear that significant stretches of the forged decretals were compiled with Ebbo in mind, and there are good reasons to believe that work began in the later 830s. Rothad and Hincmar didn't have their falling out until around 853.

More on the preface later today, I hope.


  1. A pretty cool idea for a blog. Now I can finally learn about Pseudo-Isidore scholarship without having to wade through Fuhrmann and other dense secondary sources. The anagram is pretty cool. I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand just because the line is mostly taken from Marius. The medievals could be extremely clever. If you're interested in puzzles and hidden messages, you should look over the awesome article by John V. Fleming, "The Iconographic Unity of the Blessing for Brother Leo," Franziskanische Studien 63 (1981): 203-220. It may also help you dismiss your worries about the small Latin bloopers in the anagram.

  2. Thanks for the reference! I'll definitely have a look. And I'll avoid outright dismissal of Nißl, however tempting that may be....

  3. Not such a good idea to circumvent Furhrmann. --- I find it hard to think that "archipresul" is out of the way. Presul = bishop seems to me to be pretty standard Latin. And e for ae is among the most commonplace practices of scribes. WG

  4. You're right about archipraesul of course., I've also done some more digging in databases, and it's not as rare as Seckel claims -- I've got a few other ninth-century hits now. Still unusual for the period, though not at all out of the question.

  5. Years late, I discover this blog, and you are indeed to be congratulated for making a thorny subject so accessible. Can I unkindly raise a small query, though? When you say:

    "In fact, it's clearly derived from the invocation used by Lothar's chancery -- the little intro formula that they used to start out their documents."

    as a charter-geek, I get doubts. Firstly, I bet you could find that phrase in at least some charters of almost any Carolingian king after Charlemagne and I'd be surprised if it weren't in Louis's or even Charles the Bald's here and there. The kings tended to vary in their subscription and intitulatio more than in the structural formulae. Secondly, even if it were specific to Lothar, the invocatio is pretty basic. If you wanted to open your text with "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ", which doesn't seem like a cunning or specific thing to want, it'd be hard not to hit on something very like that phrase. I think that the person who came up with that theory had been thinking about just these texts for a bit too long, myself, though if they did do the comparative work and prove it's specific, I'll humbly back down.

    1. Thanks for the query! It seemed important enough to require its own post, here:


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