All we know about this case comes from part of a letter by Pope Nicholas I (which dates it to 858-867). The original letter does not survive, but an excerpt from it is included in later canon law collections. That means that we don’t know why Osbald had probably written directly to the Pope rather than to his superior, the Archbishop of Salzburg.
Osbald, whose name suggests Anglo-Saxon origins, was a chorbishop; an additional subordinate bishop helping to administer the vast diocese of Salzburg. (As an indication of its size, the later suffragan diocese covering Carantania/Carinthia had its first seat at Gurk, 120 miles away from Salzburg).
Pope Nicholas’ reply, however, demanded the involvement not only of the far-off Archbishop of Salzburg, but a considerably wider group of ecclesiastics. Here’s the first part of the surviving text:
"Let your sanctity apply yourself to persuading your bishop to unite together with himself the canonical number of colleagues, that is six brothers and fellow-bishops from neighbouring provinces, and with them deciding, joined to you, diligently apply yourselves to investigating and take care to examine carefully, with all striving, in order that you able to find whether the same deacon, who it is reported has died, died from beating/striking (percussio) by the priest named now [elsewhere in the letter] or from breaking his neck."
This had now turned into a complex detective and legal operation, which probably also involved some difficult logistics. So why had Osbald got the Pope involved in the first place and why was all this investigation needed to work out the deacon’s cause of death? Hints of an answer come in the next section of Nicholas’ letter:
"And if indeed he was not beaten to death (ad mortem percussus est) by the aforementioned priest, but falling from his horse, died from a broken neck, according to your judgement announce a corresponding penance for the priest beating/striking recklessly: and let him be suspended for some time from the solemnities of mass. After this he should once more be returned to priestly office.
"But if that deacon truly died from whatever beating/striking by that priest, we decree that this one is for no reason to minister in a priestly way, since even if he did not have the wish to kill, yet the fury and indignation by which a motion [of his] produced those deadly things, are to curbed in many ways in everyone, but especially in God’s ministers, and to be condemned everywhere."
This suggests that the case may have involved what modern lawyers would describe as a chain of causation. The question may have been not simply whether the deacon had died from falling off his horse, but whether the priest’s attack had led to that fall in some way. Many possible scenarios can be imagined here (and imagination is all we can go on, given the lack of detail). Had the deacon already been on horseback when a blow had disrupted his control of his horse? Had he jumped on a horse (perhaps not his own) and ridden away hastily to escape further violence from the priest?
Or had the priest’s attack happened at some earlier point, leaving the deacon suffering longer-term ill effects, perhaps via the aftereffects of concussion or even brain damage? As a possible parallel, in 864, Charles, the son of the West Frankish king Charles the Bald, was struck in the head with a sword by a friend during some horseplay. He suffered from fits as a result and died a year later (Annales Bertiniani, 864, 865). The verb used to describe Charles’ injuring (percutio) is the same one used for the priest’s attack on the deacon; it’s not therefore possible to be sure whether the priest had inflicted a single blow or a sustained beating.
It’s unlikely that Osbald and the other bishops were able to investigate the case thoroughly and discover the truth in the way that Nicholas wanted. Even if there had been witnesses to the attack, it would have been extremely difficult to get them to Salzburg, the most likely place for any episcopal judgement to take place. And without witnesses or forensic evidence, the only testimony available would have been from the priest himself. Dead deacons tell no tales.
Our modern categories of criminal law/civil law/church law or law as against penance are inadequate for describing this case. We don’t know whether the priest had paid wergild for the deacon’s death or not. There’s no mention of it in the portion of the letter that survives, but any such act wouldn’t necessarily have decided the issue for church leaders. What both Pope Nicholas and Osbald were concerned about was a complex blend of the subjective issues of the priest’s intentions and motivation and the objective effects of his acts, concerns common to many different legal and penitential systems.
But there’s a final twist to this story that takes it beyond purely legal courts and penitential judgements. Nicholas ends the surviving section of the letter with a judgement on a slightly different aspect:
"But if indeed the priest should perhaps make clear to Your Zealousness that he is guilty (noxius), we order that such a benefice should be conceded by his church to him, from which he and his (et ipse et sui) may be able to have enough compensation for their maintenance."
This looks at first sight like some incongruous form of plea-bargaining: Why should a guilty man be rewarded? One canonical collection has the priest making clear that he is obnoxius (which could mean either “guilty” or “submissive/compliant”). The original editor, however, preferred noxius and I think he’s right.
It’s instructive here to bring in a second letter that Nicholas sent in response to another question from Osbald. This question was whether clerics who had killed a pagan in self-defence should be allowed to remain in their current grade or advance to a higher one. Nicholas’ response was firmly worded.
He gave no-one licence to kill and he allowed no “soldier of Christ” (miles Christi) to defend himself other than the way Christ had defended himself, i.e. no resistance was allowed. If a cleric of the rank of priest or above should kill a pagan, the Pope advised him to consider giving up his office, rather than risking his soul. (It is interesting that Nicholas advises this but does not specifically decree it as a canon that must be followed).
Carantania was on the edge of east Francia; it was a region where potentially dangerous pagans might well be found. It was also a region undergoing missionary activity throughout the ninth century, carried out by missions that were sometimes rivals: Operations subject to the Catholic dioceses of Salzburg and Passau and also slightly later efforts by the Byzantine missionaries SS. Cyril and Methodius. A text from the 870s called the Conversio Bagoariorum et Carantanorum stressed the rights of Salzburg and included a reference to Osbald’s earlier missionary work.
In this missionary context, we need to consider the existence of another “court”: The court of public opinion. Whatever the details of the priest’s attack on the deacon, he was hardly setting a good example for a barely Christianised population, any more than priests who had shed the blood of pagans even in self-defence were.
Nicholas had harsh words for priests who had killed in self-defence, but he did not specifically attempt to remove them from office. The suspicion must be that the pope similarly hoped that Osbald might be able to “buy off” the angry priest from his office, whose scandalous behaviour might otherwise offend or deter new converts.
It is possible that, as happened frequently in other regions, the priest was himself from a prominent local family. The passing reference made to the priest’s dependents might indicate a married man, but it might also indicate a priest rich enough to own unfree people personally.
This cold case may therefore end by revealing further injustice, but it reflects the realities of the period. Any attempt by the church authorities to deal with a badly-behaved “turbulent priest” in the early Middle Ages always had to consider whether more harm than good to the church’s reputation could result from a disciplinary process.