Wednesday, June 20, 2012


Michael McCormick, Charlemagne's Survey of the Holy Land: Wealth, Personnel, and Buildings of a Mediterranean Church between Antiquity and the Middle Age. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Humanities. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2011. Pp. xxii, 287. ISBN 9780884023630. $39.95.

Reviewed by Scott G. Bruce, University of Colorado at Boulder (

Version at BMCR home site

At the heart of this meticulously researched and handsomely produced study are three allied texts that illuminate with unexpected clarity the activity of the administrative arm of Charlemagne's government in the Holy Land in the final years of his reign. In the first decade of the ninth century, most probably in response to a request from the patriarch of Jerusalem for funds, the great king dispatched a team of trusted envoys (missi dominici) to measure and verify in person the material needs of the patriarchate and to make inquiries about the state of Christian devotion in the Holy Land in general. These envoys returned to Europe in 808 and prepared a summary of their findings on a long scroll, which they presented to their king in 810. Their report comprised three short texts: An Inventory Memorandum of God's Houses or Monasteries in and around the Holy City of Jerusalem (Breue commemoratorii de illis casis Dei uel monasteriis qui sunt in sancta ciuitate Hierusalem uel in circuitu eius); A Memorial of the Monasteries that are in the Promised Land outside of Jerusalem (Memoria de illis monasteriis quae sunt in extremis Hierusalem in terra promissionis); and a now damaged budget report entitled Yearly Expenditures of the Patriarch (Dispensa patriarchae inter presbiteris, diaconibus, monachis, clericis et omne congregatione eccle[siae per unum] annum). These documents are preserved on a ninth-century scroll now housed in the Öffentliche Bibliothek der Universität Basel (hereafter the Basel Roll). Although published over a century ago, they have attracted very little attention from early medieval historians, in part because they presuppose a broad knowledge of an early medieval world that stretches from Aachen to Baghdad. Written in a late Latin that preserves echoes of conversations with Greek- and Arabic-speaking informants about the size of churches, the composition of religious communities and the budgets of church prelates, they require a rare interdisciplinary virtuosity to unravel. Fortunately for us, Michael McCormick traverses the early medieval Mediterranean with the unflappable poise of a seasoned traveler. In a work of microhistory that complements his sprawling book, The Origins of the European Economy: Communications and Commerce AD 300-900 (Cambridge University Press, 2002), McCormick has produced new critical editions and translations of these precious documents, buttressed with a rich textual commentary. In addition, he has worked diligently to construct the Carolingian and Byzantine contexts for these inventories in order to shed light on the information they contain. The result is impressive; McCormick offers us a vivid picture of "Carolingian royal governance in action." (154). In contrast to the presumptions of previous scholars, the end of Charlemagne's reign veritably crackled with the energy and ambition of a sovereign whose old age had not deprived him of his will to make his influence felt, even at great distances from the Frankish heartland.

McCormick divides his book into three parts. The first and by far the longest part comprises five chapters that elucidate what the information contained in these texts can tell us about the character of the Jerusalem church in the Carolingian period. Chapter One examines the annual expenditures of the patriarchate and uses these sums to reconstruct its "financial posture" (7) in the early ninth century. A comparative analysis of these totals with information about the wealth of church prelates around the Mediterranean rim from roughly the same period shows that the patriarch's modest budget was comparable to those of middling officials under the caliphate, but paled in comparison to the value of revenues and gifts that passed through the hands of comparable churchmen in western Europe and Byzantium. Moreover, records from late antiquity suggest that the wealth of the church of Jerusalem had diminished considerably by the time of Charlemagne. All of this evidence leads McCormick to believe that the patriarch had real economic concerns when he approached the great king for funds in the first decade of the ninth century. Chapter Two paints the portrait of a church on the wane in other ways as well. By comparing the Carolingian information on the numbers of personnel serving in the churches and abbeys of the Holy Land with evidence from late antique Constantinople and contemporary testimony from Lyons, McCormick argues that the religious houses in and around Jerusalem were in precipitous decline by the ninth century, in both relative size and aggregate number. There were many factors contributing to this, from the devastation wrought by the Justinianic plagues to the wars with the Persians in the decades around 600 to the conversion of Christians to Islam after the Muslim conquest of the Holy Land. Chapter Three exploits the information of the Basel Roll to cast light on what McCormick calls "the sociology of early medieval religious life" (49). Here he considers the distribution of male and female religious houses in urban and rural settings in comparison to comparable data from the Carolingian Empire and Byzantium. He concludes that the Christian religious life in the Holy Land was predominantly urban in its focus and overwhelmingly monastic in its character. Religious communities in Jerusalem tended to be smaller than their western European counterparts. Charlemagne's envoys noted the presence of hermits as well – they were particularly impressed with the three stylites they met – but more importantly they took care to record the languages of prayer used by these hermits in their cells (Table 3.2 on 57). This remarkable information demonstrates the continuing dominance of Greek in and around Jerusalem, but also shows the inroads made by speakers of Latin, Georgian and Armenian. One hermit even said his prayers in Arabic! Chapter Four presents what the Basel Roll can tell us about the origins and survival of a handful of western monastic establishments in the Holy Land, including a small group of Carolingian nuns who lived at the Holy Sepulchre, the inhabitants of the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul on the Mount of Olives, and the so-called Hostel (hospitale) of Charlemagne. Chapter Five treats the late antique monuments mentioned in the Basel Roll. The emperor's envoys recorded the precise dimensions of four major Christian buildings in order to calculate the cost of their reconstruction and repair: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Nea Church built by Justinian, the Nativity Church at Bethlehem and the Zion Church. Their unit of measurement (the dexter) and its interpretation have confounded historians for decades, because they do not match up with surviving data about the size of these buildings. With some impressive sleuthing, McCormick has solved this mystery: the envoys apparently used a measuring rod based on the local Byzantine foot but called it by the name of the Roman foot, which was 1.6 inches shorter than its eastern counterpart. With faith in these measurements restored, early medieval art historians will want to read this chapter first.

The second part of the book turns a closer eye to the documents themselves. Chapter Six provides an introduction to the history of the Basel Roll as a medieval artifact. Here McCormick relates the nineteenth-century discovery and publication of this precious witness to Charlemagne's reign, provides a codicological and paleographical analysis of the Roll (agreeing with Bernhard Bischoff's assessment that that the scribe's hand dates from the second quarter of the ninth century, making this surviving document a slightly later copy of the 808 original), and discusses the organization and nomenclature of the three documents. Each of the documents shares the same formula of presentation, which suggests that they were written at the same time for the same administrative purpose. Moreover, the names of the first two texts (breue and commemoratorium) are Carolingian in flavor and appear almost exclusively in documents related to the royal court. Chapter Seven examines the languages of the Basel Roll. Idiosyncrasies of word choice and syntax clearly demonstrate that the same person, a speaker of "late Popular Latin or proto-Romance," wrote all three texts (136), but there are subtle, irrefutable traces that the author had conversations with Greek and Arabic speakers when he undertook his investigations. Chapter Eight takes on the thorny question of the genre of the texts on the Basel Roll and makes the case for viewing them as capitularies in the broadest sense of the term, that is, as texts that have some bearing on decisions made by the king. McCormick then rehearses the date and purpose of the documents on the Roll and marshals the evidence for the identity of the envoys most likely to have undertaken this mission. He concludes that these texts were "most likely composed before the autumn of 810, and very possibly in 808 in connection with the embassy of Agamus and Roculf" to Harun al Rashid and the Holy Land (177). This chapter concludes with a brief discussion of the mid-ninth-century context in which the Basel Roll was copied. McCormick surmises that either Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) or his son Louis the German (r. 843-876) made copies of these documents when he calculated the aid that he would offer to the patriarch of Jerusalem during his reign. Chapter Nine sums up these findings and underscores what they say about both the motives for Charlemagne's interest in the Holy Land and his ability to marshal the resources to research the needs of the Jerusalem church before determining how much money he would send.

The final section of the book presents a transcription of the texts on the Basel Roll with a facing English translation and many pages of textual commentary intended both to elucidate the documents and to justify some of the reconstruction that was necessary to make sense of the damaged text. In a folder on the inside back cover of the book, the reader will find an attractive fold-out poster that reproduces a facsimile of the Basel Roll in its actual size with the Latin and English versions of the texts alongside it.

This book is a masterpiece of early medieval scholarship, firmly grounded in a rigorous philological analysis of these long-overlooked texts and deeply enriched by McCormick's ability to bring to bear comparative evidence from Carolingian Europe and Byzantium to elucidate their content. The organization of the volume leads to an unfortunate amount of repetition, particularly in the later chapters, where the author has a tendency to repeat many of the presumptions upon which the arguments of the earlier chapters are made. None of this detracts, however, from the achievements of the book, which invites us to imagine in unparalleled detail the character of religious life in the Holy Land during the Carolingian period, while at the same time correcting our misconceptions about the ability of Charlemagne to administer aid to Christian communities on the far side of the Mediterranean. In the final years of his reign, it is clear that the great king had not yet tired of ruling.

1 comment:

  1. A note to Michael McCormick: this is a splendid piece of scholarship.!