Unwilling Pilgrimage: Vikings, Relics, and the Politics of Exile during the Carolingian era

Unwilling Pilgrimage: Vikings, Relics, and the Politics of Exile during the Carolingian era

By Daniel C. DeSelm

PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2009

Abstract: This dissertation investigates the flight and exile of Christian clergy during the Viking attacks along Europe’s Atlantic coasts during the ninth and early tenth centuries. These displaced clerics invariably brought the relics of their saints with them as they fled into exile. Because of this, these flights into exile carried broad repercussions in societies that looked on relics as healers, guarantors, patrons, and protectors. This dissertation argues that the movements of churchmen and their relics had vast religious, political, economic, and ideological significance that resounded far beyond churches and monasteries.

The wanderings of dislocated Carolingian relic cults have been overlooked as a coherent phenomenon, but studied as a group, relic transfers c. 830-c. 930 offer a counterpoint to the triumphal narrative of Christian expansion in Europe. The unwilling movements of relics also help chart the political changes that unfolded in the West Frankish Kingdom as Carolingian hegemony gave way to the feudal age.

The dissertation examines the literary traditions surrounding the movements of relics in three key Atlantic provinces of the Carolingan empire (Brittany, Neustria, and Aquitaine), and argues that relics, in addition to being material objects of devotion, provided a stable source of “spiritual capital” during the Viking attacks. Such “capital” could be leveraged by monks and clerics seeking to recoup losses sustained during the Viking raids, and also by local political leaders eager to legitimize themselves through protection of cult institutions threatened by the attacks. The dislocation of West Francia’s relic cults facilitated widespread re-localization of cult patronage relationships, weakening central Carolingian authority and empowering new groups of aristocrats to replace them.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Michigan

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