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Synod of Reims

The City of Reims

The city of Reims in northern France rose to prominence during the Medieval Period when the Frankish king Clovis had himself baptized in the city. Merovingian and Carolingian kings who succeeded Clovis held their coronations in Reims. The city later earned the nickname the ‘City of Coronations.’ Apart from its political legacy, Reims was also important to shaping the ecclesiastical heritage of France after the Synod or Council of Reims was held there in 991 AD. Because of this, the city was considered to be one of the most important cities in Medieval Period after Rome and Milan. The Synod of Reims is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during 991 AD.

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Gerbert of Aurillac and the Synod of Reims

Gerbert (the future Pope Sylvester II) was born from commoner parents in the Auvergne region and educated in the monastery of St. Gerald of Aurillac where he eventually became a monk. His lowly birth did not stop him from rising to prominence as he was renowned as a very smart and politically savvy man. When Count Borrell II of Barcelona visited Aurillac, Gerbert asked to accompany him to Catalonia so he could study there. The Count agreed and upon reaching Spain, Gerbert studied in the monastery of Santa Maria de Ripoll in Catalonia. The scholarly Gerbert took to Catalonia like a duck to water and learned all he could during his stay there.

This was cut short when Count Borrell II took him to Rome on a pilgrimage. It was in the holy city where Gerbert met John XIII and Emperor Otto I. With the help of John XIII, Gerbert became Prince Otto II’s tutor when the emperor summoned him to his court in around 971 and 972 AD. Gerbert was so impressed with Gerannus (the renowned logician and ambassador of the Frankish king Lothair) when he visited Otto I’s court that he requested to come with the envoy to Reims to be his student.

“Arnulf, Archbishop of Reims at the Council of Reim”

Gerbert was promoted as the abbot of Bobbio Abbey in Italy. He left in 984 AD and returned to Reims in the same year where he joined a new mentor, the Archbishop Adalbero. In Reims, he worked with Adalbero to secure the throne of Otto III in Germany and Hugh Capet in France against the last Carolingian king Louis V the Lazy. Gerbert first became a secretary of Emma, Louis’ mother and aunt of Otto III, while his mentor Adalbero served as the queen’s adviser. Louis was never on good terms with his mother. He resented the clergymen’s support of the young Otto III, so he decided to attack Reims but later failed to take it. The humiliated king ordered the destruction of the archbishop’s properties in retaliation. The frightened Adalbero sent Gerbert to Theophanu, mother of Otto III, to ask her for help. Before the conflict could be resolved, Louis V died on the 21st of May, 987 AD.

The childless Louis V was the last of the Carolingians to rule the Franks. Hugh Capet, Duke of the Franks, succeeded him as king on the 3rd of July, 987 AD. Archbishop Adalbero had died before he saw the accession of Hugh Capet. Gerbert expected the new king to appoint him as archbishop in return for his support. Hugh Capet had other plans as he chose Arnulf, the son of the deceased Frankish king Lothair and nephew of Charles of Lorraine, as the Archbishop of Reims. Hugh Capet’s motive was simple: by choosing Arnulf, he sought to divide and weaken the remaining Carolingians by building an alliance with one of their own. He knew that this rejection would sting Gerbert’s feelings, so Hugh offered any position that he wanted except the Archbishopric of Reims.

He stayed on as Arnulf’s secretary, but it seemed Hugh’s strategy backfired as the newly appointed archbishop, as well as his uncle Charles of Lorraine, started to rule Reims without the king’s authorization. Gerbert, for a short period of time, sided with the Carolingians out of fear for his safety or perhaps his wounded feelings over the appointment. However, his conscience did not allow him to play the game for longer as he sided with Hugh once again after some time. Hugh Capet welcomed him back to his court in 990. Together they assembled a council in the city of Senlis to condemn “those who betrayed Laon and Reims.” Gerbert also wrote to Pope John XV and requested for him to condemn and depose Archbishop Arnulf. Nothing ever came out of this particular request.

Since the request did not get the intended effect from John XV, Hugh and Gerbert once again assembled a provincial council at the parish of St-Basle at Verzy (near Reims) in June, 991. This would later be known as the Synod or Council of Reims. When it was over, the council decreed the removal of Arnulf from his position as archbishop of Reims because he was elected via irregular means. Gerbert was “elected” by the council in the same position. The council described Arnulf as immature and ambitious, and therefore unfit for the position. Gerbert became the archbishop of Reims, but Arnulf was not really amenable to giving up his position. The issue dragged on over the years until the coming of age and reign of Otto III as Holy Roman Emperor, as well as the appointment of Pope Gregory V in Rome.

Picture By Anonymous – BL Royal 16 G VI Chroniques de France ou de St Denis, f. 258, Public Domain,
“Council of Reims.” World Public Library. Accessed September 21, 2016.
Mann, Horace K., and Johannes Hollnsteiner. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages. 5, The Popes in the Days of Feudal Anarchy: Formosus to Damasus II., 891-1048. Vol. V. London: Kegan, 1925.
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