Unauthorised miracles in mid-ninth-century Dijon and the Carolingian church reforms
By C.M.A. West
Journal of Medieval History, Vol.36:4 (2010)
Abstract: In the early 840s, Archbishop Amolo of Lyons wrote to one of his suffragan bishops about extraordinary miracles reportedly taking place at Dijon in the wake of the arrival of mysterious new relics. Re-examining the complex interaction of these relics with preexisting social and political processes in the region and locally, this article also explores other aspects of Amolo’s letter which have been less discussed, notably its manuscript transmission and the insights it offers into structures of religious organisation. Finally, it argues that the way issues treated together in the letter tend to be separated or even opposed in the historiography points to the need for renewed, critically reflexive attention to the specificities of the Carolingian church reforms.
Introduction: In the middle of the ninth century, the bones of an unknown saint, carried from Italy by travelling monks, were brought inside the church of St-Bénigne in Dijon, Burgundy. Almost instantly, the church was electrified. Terrifying miracles (miracula) started to take place in the bones’ vicinity: visitors to the church began to be buffeted by invisible forces and were thrown to the ground, writhing and shaking, and if they tried to leave, these supernatural assaults only intensified. Yet no trace of bruising or injury could subsequently be discerned on the visitors’ bodies. Not only was the number of people affected in this way surprisingly large – three hundred or more – but the disturbances also showed signs of spreading throughout the diocese and even beyond, touching the church of Saulieu in the neighbouring diocese of Autun.
We know all this because Bishop Theobald of Langres, the bishop responsible for Dijon, contacted his metropolitan, Archbishop Amolo of Lyons, to seek advice, and the letter the archbishop sent in response happens to survive. It is clear from this letter that the news had made Archbishop Amolo uncomfortable. He thought the travelling monks’ claim to have ‘forgotten’ the name of the saint whose relics they carried preposterous and unconvincing, and the lack of any prospect of establishing this saint’s true identity – for one of these two monks had subsequently died, and the other had set out to find more information but had unaccountably never returned – alarming. Further deepening Amolo’s concern was the nature of the miracles generated by these unauthenticated relics. As he explained to Theobald, proper miracles cured people, they did not hurt them; and Amolo was quite convinced that these relics had only produced harmful miracles, because if any cures had taken place, they would be better attributed to St Bénigne, whose remains were equally present, and better certified.