Gottschalk of Orbais – Bold Witness and Sweet Poet
Few Medieval Christians would profess to be in disagreement with Augustine of Hippo and his writings about grace. Yet, many praised him and contradicted him at the same time.
Copyists were in part to blame. Given the high price of hand-copied books, many chose to produce collections of quotations instead of full volumes. People then took these collections as authoritative, even if the quotations were taken out of context, often misquoted, and sometimes misattributed (much like what happens with our online quotes).
Things got so bad that a work by Pelagius was wrongly entitled Sermon of Augustine and included (with that title) in a four-volume work commissioned by Charlemagne. Another work by Pelagius was attributed to Jerome.
That’s why, even though three church councils had condemned Pelagius in the fifth and sixth centuries, by the eight century his teachings were at least partially accepted. During the so-called Carolingian Renaissance, however, both kings and scholars began to give greater attention to details related to God’s grace (such as predestination, free will, and the extent of the atonement).
The discussion might have stayed fairly quiet in royal courts and monasteries if a rebellious missionary hadn’t brought it to light by challenging one of his former teachers during a church synod. The missionary was Gottschalk of Orbais (808-867) and his superior Rabanus Maurus (780- 856). The year was 848.
Gottschalk had been preaching in the eastern region of the Alps and in today’s Croatia and Bulgaria, using the castle of Count Eberhard of Friuli (815-866) as his base. His emphasis was on God’s sovereignty and on the absolute necessity of God’s grace in salvation.
One of his listeners, however, told Rabanus (then bishop of Mainz) that Gottschalk was teaching that God determines the eternal destiny of both the elect and the reprobate, and that no one could do anything about it except maybe pray for a milder sentence in hell. It’s unlikely that Gottschalk, who had been trained as missionary in the monastery of Corbie, France, phrased his teachings that way. In any case, he decided to meet Rabanus at the synod in order to clarify his views.
He might have felt confident. In 829, he had been released of his monastic vows by proving that Rabanus, then abbot, had forced him to take them. Coerced admission of children in monasteries, usually on request of their families, was a common practice at that time, and few – if any – spoke against it. There were runaways, but no public protesters. In challenging the practice at an ecclesiastical synod, Gottschalk attracted much attention and turned Rabanus into a life-long enemy.
If Gottschalk had expected a similar victory at the 848 synod, he was sorely disappointed. In spite of the fact that his teachings coincided with those of Augustine, as well as recent, well-respected theologians like Ratramnus of Corbie, Alcuin of York, and Ambrose Autpert, the bishops had him flogged for heresy, and forced him to swear he would never preach again in the eastern Frankish kingdom. He was then placed under custody of Bishop Hincmar of Reims – in the same region where he had first become monk.
Gottschalk didn’t lose hope. He had several supporters both in his previous monastery and in the abbey at Corbie (including Ratramnus, Prudentius of Troyes, and Lupus of Ferrières), and trusted he would be vindicated at the upcoming Synod of Quierzy. Hincmar, however, remembered him as a rebellious monk and condemned him again for his “incorrigible obstinacy and pestiferous teachings.” Excommunicated and beaten almost to death, Gottschalk was forced to burn some of his writings and was kept confined, in forced silence, at the monastery of Haurvillers.
The story didn’t end there. Gottschalk kept producing new writings and found ways to maintain a frequent correspondence with friends outside his walls, thanks to a group of young monks who smuggled his papers and provided him with books and writing materials. Hincmar complained that Gottschalk, as a demonic agent, was corrupting the monastery’s ingenuous youth. Besides, Gottschalk’s frequent oddities, including a refusal to wash any part of his body, convinced Hincmar the ex-monk was not just dangerous: he was insane.
Far from backing down, Gottschalk appealed to Pope Nicholas for justice. In 863, Nicholas summoned a meeting at Metz where Hincmar and Gottschalk could explain their views. Hincmar refused to attend. As for Gottschalk, he became gravely ill.
In 866, another monk, Guntbert of Hautvillers, traveled to Rome with the secret intention of bringing Gottschalk’s writings to Nicholas, who was known for his Augustinian tendencies. At that time, however, the pope had other serious matters on his hands, and nothing came of this.
As Gottschalk neared death, Hincmar gave him one last opportunity to recant. When Gottschalk refused, the archbishop ordered that he be buried as an unbeliever, outside consecrated grounds and without sacraments.
The debate on Gottschalk’s views came to a temporary end in 860, when the Synod of Tusey agreed with Hincmar that free will was not lost after the fall, but cooperated with grace in order to obtain a salvation that Christ had made possible to all. As for predestination, the synod agreed that some were predestined to salvation, but made no mention of the others. It also based predestination on foreknowledge rather than divine decree. In this, Pelagius had subtly won the day.
Even though the Synod of Tusey was not an ecumenical council, its views prevailed for most of the Middle Ages. As for Gottschalk, his writings remained fairly unknown until 1631, when James Ussher, an Irish archbishop, published his Confessions. Other works were discovered later.
If Gottschalk’s most radical writings were destroyed, many others survived, including two confessions of faith (short and long) and a few letters and poems. The longer confession was written as a prayer, probably in imitation of Augustine’s Confessions, with the addition of frequent references to the Bible and the church fathers.
Gottschalk’s poems are fervent and display a sincere love for Christ, who was obviously his “all in all.”
My hope, Christ, blessed King, pious light of life
and expert leader, pastor worthy of love and reverence,
Highest creator and restorer, be unto me a patron and always a leader,
be my animator and restorer.
From a purely esthetic point of view, Gottschalk’s poems have been praised for their interesting use of rhythm through the emphasis of two or three-syllable rhymes, well expressing the passion and intensity of his words.
Particularly tender is Gottschalk’s nostalgic cry, reminiscent of Psalm 137, Ut Quid Iubes Pusiole.
Why do you bid me, little boy?
Why, little son, do you ask me
to sing a sweet song, while
I am in exile, far away
in this sea?
O why are you asking me to sing?
After a direct reference to Israel who couldn’t bear to sing by the rivers of Babylon, Gottschalk yields to the insistence of his young companion, who wants the song “anyhow.” The poet ends with a commitment to sing willingly, in spite of his pain, to his God, “Father, Son, and Paraclete, Triune God, One God, Sovereign God, Holy God, Righteous God.”
To Him I’ll sing willingly
in the meantime, little one,
I’ll sing with my mouth, I’ll sing with my mind,
I’ll sing in the day and I’ll sing at night,
a sweet song,
for You, most Holy King.
 Quoted in Gillis, Matthew Bryan, Heresy and Dissent in the Carolingian Empire: The Case of Gottschalk of Orbais, Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 4.