This week a couple of different spheres of my life once again collided in a very peculiar way. I've been an intermittent writer of fanfic for several years and to try and get back into the mood, I joined a writing community that encouraged you to post snippets from your work regularly. However, for the last couple of weeks what I've actually been writing is the introduction to a collection of essays on Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims. More as a joke than anything, I posted the first paragraph from this introduction and got a non-historian friend saying very nicely that it didn't really encourage her to read more. To which I replied that I obviously should have started with the topless nun and the barrel of burning lard.

Rue Hincmar
A street sign in Rheims prove that someone, somewhere still cares about Hincmar

The topless nun (Duda) probably isn't actually going to be in this book, even though I discussed her briefly in a paper I gave on Hincmar last year. But a chapter by one of our contributors does mention the theologian Gottschalk's proposal that he should be dowsed in boiling water, oil, lard and pitch and then set alight in order to prove the truth of twin predestination. We've also got the case of a homicidal priest possibly using the work of the most prolific forgers in the Middle Ages to protect himself from punishment by Hincmar. And then there's the other book on Hincmar I'm co-writing, which includes an extensive discussion by Hincmar on what counts as sodomy.

In other words, it would be possible to write books or articles on Hincmar that were a lot more thrilling to the general public than the ones I'm currently planning. But they'd do so mainly by focusing on the sensational and the exotic, and that goes to the heart of the problem in talking about the Middle Ages to non-academic audiences.

One of the most acclaimed TV shows at the moment is Game of Thrones. I haven't watched it because I don't have a subscription to Sky or vast amounts of free time, but I'm still conscious of it as a phenomenon. Beneath the trappings of "fantasy", it's predominantly a version of the Middle Ages, and of the Middle Ages that twenty-first century people enjoy hearing about: a place of brutal violence, terrible suffering and sexual depravity, but with really impressive clothes and weapons.

What most modern people now want from the Middle Ages, it seems to me, is for it to be either a terrible warning (violence and attitudes we disapprove of are "medieval") or a glorious theme park in which we can vicariously enjoy the same violence and attitudes, as well as the material splendour that the elite possessed. And the difficulty for (professional) medievalists is how we respond to those wishes without just becoming zoo-keepers for the exotic. Roll up, roll up and see the funny medievals: aren't they almost human?

If you're teaching the Middle Ages, the exoticism is often deployed partly to sugar the pill: a bawdy fabliau or two to get you into thinking about gender roles; an account of a Viking massacre to introduce you to source criticism. But Hincmar doesn't lend himself easily to that kind of approach, and nor does the ninth century as a whole. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the "Carolingian Renaissance" could be gently patted on the head approvingly as an early attempt at civilizing the hairy barbarians. But our understanding of it now sees it far less as about an enlightened love of culture for its own sake and far more as about religious reform and political manoeuvring, neither of which has a good press in modern Britain.

So the fundamental problem with trying to write Carolingian history for a popular audience in the twenty-first century is that what we're mostly seeing in the Frankish sources is the point of view of men (and very occasionally women) who are trying to reduce the amount of sex, violence and disorder in their society. Carolingian intellectuals are hypocrites, on this matter of course: they want an ordered society in which they're still at the top and the lower orders are firmly ordered about. They want internal peace so Frankish armies can concentrate on conquering the peoples around them. And they can't really get beyond a sexual double-standard, even though some of them try to. But in terms of "exciting" medieval practices, they've now basically become the spoilsports. Bureaucracy and order aren't sexy and our negative reactions to organised religion and government tend to affect the values we respond to in the past.

Medieval heretics, for example, tend to be seen sympathetically now, victims of a controlling and persecuting orthodoxy that was obviously evil. If you look at the beliefs of "heretics", however (with all allowances for the distortions of the sources), what you often see is views that are even more inimical to modern day liberal values than the mainstream medieval church. Catharism was more hostile to sex than Catholicism. Gottschalk taught a view of Christianity in which some people were not just damned, but predamned: whatever they did or believed they were still going to hell. Many of Augustine's opponents were more hostile to marriage and sexual activity than he was.

It's also interesting how often the repressive sexual puritans of the late antique and early medieval period (such as John Chrysostom, Caesarius of Arles and Jonas of Orléans) are also the men most concerned about the proper treatment of the poor. It is powerful men at the heart of society that they mostly have in their targets, unlike the tendency of some modern Christians to concentrate on the sins of the marginalised.

But most Carolingian religious figures aren't going to come across as heroes or heroines: it's not an age of the kind of fascinating/appalling saints you find in Anglo-Saxon England or the twelfth century. Hincmar himself is not saintly, but nor he is the kind of depraved cleric who might answer other modern cravings for the medieval. He's not killing people; he's not consorting with prostitutes. Hincmar isn't a larger than life figure, and if I try and write something that makes him out to be that, I'm distorting the evidence.

What I think Hincmar does show is Carolingian society at work, and I use the phrase "at work" deliberately. There isn't much sign in Hincmar of the clever games you get in many near-contemporary authors: Alcuin's nicknames, Hrabanus' figurative poems, Hucbald's poem on baldness. And if you look through Hincmar's letters, as I'm starting to do, what you see is the relentless busyness of it all. Hincmar has to deal with Viking attacks and Carolingian invasions of West Francia and theological arguments about heaven and hell. But he spends a lot of energy too, on the smaller matters of life: the constant struggle to protect Rheims' extensive property and relatively minor matters of local church discipline. Flodoard's summary of Hincmar's letters has repeated references to him writing to other bishops about whether an excommunication was justified or who should be appointed to which see.

This is precisely not the Dark Ages, romantically simple or depressingly barbaric as your tastes may fancy. This is a society in which learning and organisation are always coming up against the brute practicalities of everyday life in a corrupt pre-industrial world. Lupus of Ferrières tells Hincmar he can't send him a copy of Bede's Collectaneum on the Pauline Epistles yet, because the book's so large it can't easily be concealed on one's person, and so might be vulnerable to theft. I don't know if Hincmar ever did receive Lupus' codex, but if so he probably wouldn't have used it simply for devotion, but also as ammunition in one of his interminable disputes.

Hincmar wasn't a saint, but if he was he would be the patron saint of those who had to multi-task and of middle managers. I can't make a glamorous or exotic world out of his life, but I nevertheless want somehow to try and use it to display something of the genuine texture of ninth-century Francia. I'm still not convinced, however, that that will interest my fanfic loving friends.