Sources and translations

This blog provides our draft translation of Carolingian texts, mostly linked to Hincmar of Rheims or the divorce of Lothar II and Theutberga.

The texts translated are as follows:

Page references are given in square brackets in the translation. All these translations are works in progress and have not been checked for errors or readability. Readers are strongly advised to check the Latin text themselves.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Interrogatio 14/Responsio 14: about the oath

[203] Let the words of St Gregory in his book on the morals, c.33, be read for the question raised about the oath. For he says: “Imagine someone who seeks friendships of this world, and who binds himself by an oath to someone leading a life similar to his, that he will cover over his secrets in total silence; and that he to whom this was sworn is known to be committing adultery, and even tries to kill the husband of the adulteress. The man who swore the oath comes back to his senses and is buffeted about by various thoughts: he fears to keep silence about it, lest by keeping silent about the adultery he becomes a participant in the murder; but he fears also to betray, lest he render himself guilty of perjury. He is tied by the entwined nerves of his testicles. Fearing to come down on either side, lest he not be free of the sickness of transgression.” And a little later, “There is however a principle which is useful for eliminating these trickeries, which is that when the mind is compelled between lesser and greater sins, then if there is really no path of escape open without sin, the lesser sins should always be chosen. For he who is enclosed by a circuit of walls so that he might not escape jumps off in flight there where the walls are lowest.”

And the venerable priest Bede says in his homily on the Gospel according to Matthew, in which Herod’s foolish oath is described, “How greatly we should avoid the rashness of taking an oath, the Lord in the Gospel and James in his letter teach, saying “Before all things, my brothers, do not swear by the heavens nor by the earth, nor by any other oath.” Let your speech be ‘yes’ and ‘no’, so that you will not fall at the judgment. That judgement at which Herod falls, so that fearing perjuring or perjury, it was necessary for him to commit a sin. But if it happens perhaps that we should swear unwisely, which oath if kept would lead to worse consequences, then by wise counsel we know that the oath can be changed, and by force of necessity, we will have to perjure, rather than avoiding perjury only to fall into a more serious crime. For David swore by the Lord to kill Nabal, a foolish and impious man, and to destroy all that belonged to him. But at the intercession of his prudent wife Abigail, he revoked his threats, he sheathed his sword, and grieved that he had committed a sin with such perjury. And Herod swore to give to the dancer whatever she demanded of him, and, lest he be called a perjurer by the revellers, he polluted the revels with blood, making the death of the prophet into a dancer’s reward. A careful moderation is to be observed not just in swearing, but in all things. so if by the traps of the wily enemy we make such a slip from which we cannot escape without some stain of sin, let us escape it by seeking the outcome in which we foresee that we will commit the lesser sin. And so, for those shut in by enemy walls on all sides, and who trying to escape see all exits blocked off, it is necessary that they chose some place from which to jump, where from the lowest wall they run the least danger of falling.” And the Council of Lerida, “whoever obliges himself by an oath that he will in no way make peace with someone who he is suing, he will be separated from the communion of the body and blood of the Lord for one year for his perjury, and he will absolve his guilty with alms, tears and as far as he can, fasting, and hurry to return quickly to charity, which deals with a multitude of sins.”

[204] And since the questioners wished to ask about an oath of this sort, we thought it not irrelevant to write about such things which are accustomed to happen to human fragility. We will not attack anyone in particular with what we write, but rather in case there is such a person, whom this advice would be able to help, mindful of the scripture saying “whatsoever thou shalt spend over and above, I, at my return, will repay thee”. And so although we were not asked about it, we thought we should include [advice] for someone who must chose between two things and hesitates. For no one will easily find, indeed no one is able to find someone who is holier than David, wiser than Solomon, and stronger than Samson. And these, captured by love of a woman which tames iron wills by lust, and neither shrinks back from the rags of the poor nor fears the royal purple, did things which were not befitting. And women often come to us complaining that young men made them a pledge and then scorned them and left. And it has meanwhile been found by us that men leave their legitimate wives and adhere to adulteresses that they should keep the pledge they promised, and they struggle with great effort to be separated from these wives. About this business, St Augustine says in his book On the good of marriage “There is this further, that in that very debt which married persons pay one to another, even if they demand it with somewhat too great intemperance and incontinence, yet they owe faith alike one to another. Unto which faith the Apostle allows so great right, as to call it "power," saying, "The woman has not power of her own body, but the man; again in like manner also the man has not power of his own body, but the woman." But the violation of this faith is called adultery, when either by instigation of one's own lust, or by consent of lust of another, there is sexual intercourse on either side with another against the marriage compact: and thus faith is broken, which, even in things that are of the body, and mean, is a great good of the soul: and therefore it is certain that it ought to be preferred even to the health of the body, wherein even this life of ours is contained. For, although a little chaff in comparison of much gold is almost nothing; yet faith, when it is kept pure in a matter of chaff, as in gold, is not therefore less because it is kept in a lesser matter. But when faith is employed to commit sin, it were strange that we should have to call it faith; however of what kind soever it be, if also the deed be done against it, it is the worse done; save when it is on this account abandoned, that there may be a return unto true and lawful faith, that is, that sin may be amended, by correction of perverseness of the will. As if any, being unable alone to rob a man, should find a partner in his iniquity, and make an agreement with him to do it together, and to divide the spoil; and, after the crime has been committed, should take off the whole to himself alone. That other grieves and complains that faith has not been kept with him, but in his very complaint he ought to consider, that he himself rather ought to have kept faith with human society in a good life, and not to make unjust spoil of a man, if he feels with how great injustice it has failed to be kept with himself in a fellowship of sin. Forsooth the former, being faithless in both instances, must assuredly be judged the more wicked. But, if he had been displeased at what they had done ill, and had been on this account unwilling to divide the spoil with his partner in crime, in order that it might be restored to the man, from whom it had been taken, not even a faithless man would call him faithless. Thus a woman, if, having broken her marriage faith, she keep faith with her adulterer, is certainly evil: but, if not even with her adulterer, worse. Further, if she repent her of her sin, and returning to marriage chastity, renounce all adulterous compacts and resolutions, I count it strange if even the adulterer himself will think her one who breaks faith.” And this is equally to be understood about adultery, that someone breaches an agreement made with an adulteress, that adulteress cannot rightly say that he is a violator of a pledge.

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