Medieval History

Selected Sources Full Text Sources Saints' Lives Law Texts Maps Medieval Films Search Help

Selected Sources Sections Studying History End of Rome Byzantium Islam Roman Church Early Germans Anglo-Saxons Celtic World Carolingians 10 C Collapse Economic Life Crusades Empire & Papacy France England Celtic States Nordic Europe Iberia Italy Eastern Europe Intellectual Life Medieval Church Jewish Life Social History Sex & Gender States & Society Renaissance Reformation Exploration
IHSP Credits

Medieval Sourcebook:
Agobard of Lyon:
On Injustices to Mathfrid (ca. 822-February 828)

Translated by W.L. North from Agobardi Lugdunensis Opera Omnia, Opusculum XIII, ed. L. Van Aacker, Corpus Christianorum 52, Turnholt: Brepols, 1981, pp. 225-227.


The addressee of Agobard's letter, Count Mathfrid of Orléans, was one of the most influential men at Louis the Pious' court during the thirteen years between 815, when he is first attested at Louis the Pious's court, and 828, when he was deposed, together with Count Hugh of Tours, from comital office for negligence during the previous year (827).[1] While acting as count, he received the dedication of Bishop Jonas of Orléan's On the Formation of a Layman, and is portrayed there as a man of the highest virtue.[2]

Although intended to criticize sharply the corruption rife at the Carolingian royal court in matters of justice, Agobard's letter nonetheless continued Jonas's image of Mathfrid as the just and virtuous ruler, chosen by God and the Emperor to distribute justice and administer affairs in peace. For by using such a literary image, Agobard was able both to justify his own criticisms (a just ruler wants to know whether justice is being carried out) and to shield himself from Mathfrid's wrath (if Mathfrid retaliated, he would prove himself the opposite of the image of a good governor).[3] Unfortunately, Agobard's letter to Mathfrid cannot be dated precisely, but it is generally agreed that it fell between 822 and his deposition in 828, with historians generally favoring the end of this period.[4] After his deposition, Mathfrid joined those, like Agobard, who were arguing for imperial unity against Louis the Pious's decision to divide the empire amongst his sons; in the civil war that broke out in 830, Mathfrid, like Agobard, took the side of Lothar I. When Louis the Pious returned to power in 834, Mathfrid accompanied Lothar to Italy and died during an epidemic in 836.[5]

[1] On the circumstances surrounding his deposition, see R. Collins, "Pippin I and the Kingdom of Aquitaine," in Charlemagne's Heir. New Perspectives on the Reign of Louis the Pious (814-840), ed. P. Godman and R. Collins, Oxford 1990, pp.363-89 at 378-82.

[2] PL 106, cc.121-278; on this work, see in general, R. Savigni, Giona di Orleans. Una ecclesiologia carolingia, Bologna 1989, passim.

[3] On this letter, see E. Boshof, Erzbischof Agobard von Lyon, Kölner Historische Abhandlungen 17, Köln 1969, pp.131- 134, where he places greater emphasis on the sharpness of the attack. The criticisms are incisive but Agobard gave his target opportunities to avoid their full force by linking exculpation with reform. Only if Mathfrid were slow to remedy these scandals, Agobard implied, would they reflect on him. See also A. Cabaniss, "Agobard of Lyons," Speculum 26 (1951): 50-76.

[4] For a discussion of the letter's date, see L. Van Acker in the introduction to the abovementioned edition, p. xliii.

[5] On Mathfrid's life, see B. Schneidmüller, "Mathfrid von Orléans," Lexicon des Mittelalters VI (Munich 1993), s.v. with further bibliography.

The Text

To Mathfrid, the most outstanding and illustrious of men, Agobard [sends] life and eternal salvation in Christ our Lord and Savior, who gives us life.

I beseech your most excellent brilliance to deign to listen with patience and clemency to what a faithful servant suggests. For as God, Who examines hearts and loins, is my witness, I speak for no other purpose than to increase your prosperity, present and future. Omnipotent, eternal, and merciful God – for Whom there is no past, present or future but rather to Whose eyes all the volumes of time remain present outside of time even as their pages turn for us time-bound mortals – this God chose you before the world was established to be a servant (minister) of emperor and empire in these dangerous times of ours. He has honored and enriched you more than others not only externally, but also internally with prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, [virtues] that are, according to Scripture, more useful than anything else.[Cf. Wisdom of Solomon 8:7] He has also placed you at the side of the one ruling the totality of affairs so that you might support him in the administration of equity and share in the reward of blessedness. Therefore, what could befit your most devoted intention more than that you, with all your might and mental strength, stand wisely vigilant in the administration of affairs so that iniquity is oppressed, fraud and treachery are destroyed, depravity is laid waste, cruelty is crushed, justice is raised up, humility is consoled, faith is strengthened, and the Church is made tranquil?

Your prudence should know that in the regions bordering on us, impiety has now become so secure that there is almost no one to be found who loves justice and retreats from injustice, unless it is someone whose mind has been touched, whose will has been guided, by divine inspiration. As a result, it is considered an act of grace whenever we glimpse the traces of goodness. In many people the fear of the king and the laws has grown so silent that many currently suppose that no one need be feared, since they think to themselves and say in their hearts: If a complaint about me comes to the palace, the case will be referred to the causadici.[2] There I shall find many relatives and friends, through whom it shall undoubtedly come to pass that I shall not incur the king's offense. For a secret gift shall extinguish the rage and with these others placed in the way, the one who is to be feared, shall not see our foolishness. On such occasions, noble sir, almost everything has befallen our wretched age that the most blessed martyr Cyprian gloried that the Christians had escaped in his own time, but which, he lamented in a very sad and mournful tone, burned even hotter among the pagans. Thus, he said:

Amidst the laws themselves crimes are committed, amidst rights there are sins, innocence is not even preserved where it is defended. – Amidst all this, who shall help? A patron? But he shall prevaricate and deceive. The judge? But he sells his sentence. The one who sits to avenge crimes allows [this] and he becomes a "hanging" judge so that the innocent man accused perishes. – No one is fearful of the laws; of the quaestor and the judge there is no fear. What can be redeemed [through payment], no one fears to allow. – Laws have consented to sins, and what is public has begun to be licit. What decency, what integrity of affairs can there be, when there is no one who condemns the wicked and only those who are condemned come to you?[3]

[2] A causadicus was a lawyer or advocate.

[3] Cyprian, Ad Donatum X 9 (=Ep. I), trans. E. Wallis, Ante-Nicene Fathers V, Grandrapids, MI, 1971), pp.275-80 at p. 278.

And it is not without risk that I say that many such people think that you are a wall between the emperor and themselves, and that they are defended by you from correction. O most outstanding of men, strive instead to be a wall for the increase of happiness, a wall which defeats the harmful, protects the innocent, befits God, is at odds with the enemy, and accumulates his compensation in heaven.[4]

[4] That is, instead of accumulating treasure on earth through accepting bribes and gifts.

Although our intention shines forth clearly enough from the preceding words, you should know without a doubt that I am not lamenting my own complaints. Rather your kindness should recognize that I would not be able to say all this against our count, Bertmund, who indeed keeps his county in very good order as far as judgments are concerned. This is because he set up a man in his place to carry out these matters who not only acts strenuously out of love and fear of his own lord but also – and this is more laudable and sublime – out of his love of God and for the love of His equity and justice, so that it seems to us that [justice] has never been done with such care and attention.

We are also saying all of this because of the fidelity that we owe under God to the lord emperor and for the sake of your eternal blessedness and your attainment of happiness in the present life. For, as you yourself well know, the great familiarity which God has allowed you to obtain in the king's eyes, shall be reckoned against you as a great spiritual talent by the almighty Lord himself, and we desire you to deserve rightly to hear from the Lord at His judgment: Well done, good servant, because you were faithful regarding a few etc., and that you escape that harsh and irrevocable reproach: You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and I gather where I have not scattered, etc.[5]

[5] Cf. the parable of the talents in general (Mt.25:14-30); Agobard quotes Matthew 25:23 & 26 verbatim.

Now then, I must not name the people who need much emendation, lest this [letter] seem to be an indictment (accusatio) – that is not my office. But I do want you to take care, as the most zealous servant of God and the emperor's agreeable helper that you are, so that when you are found worthy and faithful by both lords,[6] you may rightly deserve to receive recompense from both.

[6] Agobard here means both God and the emperor Louis the Pious.


© W.L. North

Translated by W.L. North from Agobardi Lugdunensis Opera Omnia, Opusculum XIII, ed. L. Van Aacker, Corpus Christianorum 52, Turnholt: Brepols, 1981, pp. 225-227.

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Unless otherwise indicated the specific electronic form of the document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source. No permission is granted for commercial use.

Paul Halsall, January 1999


The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of  Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University.  Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.

© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 31 May 2024 [CV]