Why was the Gregorian Reform Gregorian?

As far as I know, the Gregorian reform movement is still generally known as the Gregorian reform, even though it’s now accepted that the programme of changes to the medieval church involved wasn’t all down to Pope Gregory VII. But the movement is still firmly located in the eleventh century (or at least a ‘long’ eleventh century that nicks a decade or two from the tenth century). This raises the obvious question: why did the two key points in the programme (the opposition to simony and the demand for clerical celibacy) get enforced by the church then rather than at another time?

Unfortunately, there have been many scholars content with the view that reform happened in the eleventh century either a) because no-one had seen there was a problem before or b) no-one had really wanted to reform things enough before. Early medievalists, however, who are aware that the period 400-1000 isn’t just one great static Dark Ages, have started to look at this question in more detail.

So far, the only really successful socio-economic theory of why the reforms happened then is by Robert Moore, especially in his book The First European Revolution. Moore’s argument interconnects a lot of different factors and is quite hard to summarise, but on church reform he sees two phases. Firstly, there is a temporary alliance between the clergy and the ‘crowd’ against the brutal, oppressive, etc lords and knights of the early eleventh century (as seen in the Peace of God movement). Then the clerics sell out the common people by coming to an agreement with the nobles: church property will not be secularised, but in exchange celibacy will be enforced so that this property cannot be hoarded by particular noble families.

In last week’s IHR seminar, Conrad Leyser, formerly of Manchester and now of Worcester College Oxford, came to argue that we needed an alternative socio-economic explanation (though his turned out to be more socio than economic). He was proposing that the key factor for one interesting aspect, that the reform movement was a pan-European movement at a time of political fragmentation, could be found in the concept of clerical professionalism. Conrad’s argument was that clerical professionalism (which he defined as a sense that one’s clerical identity came prior to all other identities) developed in tenth century Italy and it was this that enabled the reform movement to spread so quickly.

Conrad had lot of interesting ideas in his paper, but I think it was generally agreed (as John Gillingham pointed out clearly) that there were a lot of gaps in his argument. In particular, there was two fuzzy bits. Firstly, how did discussions in the tenth century on whether bishops could be translated (moved to another see) and whether re-ordination of clerics was ever justified (if their ordination had been suspect) lead to an increased sense of professionalism among the clergy? Secondly, how did increased professionalism in turn lead to reform?

Conrad’s research so far has largely been on the first area, on the theology of translation and re-ordination and he admitted his second point, on professionalism as linked to reform was more a model as yet than supported by definite evidence. I actually think that the link between professionalism and reform is a useful one to make, but that the problem is that Conrad approached professionalism in the wrong way. But before I get onto that, I want to look more generally at some of the issues raised by this and other recent IHR talks on reform, and particularly clerical celibacy.

I’m focusing on clerical celibacy because it’s easier to see why simony was a greater concern in the eleventh century than before. The concept of simony is visible in the Carolingian period, but it doesn’t have the force that it has in the eleventh century. The obvious difference between the periods is economic: the eleventh century was more prosperous and also far more monetised. And I think it’s that that makes the difference. It’s one thing for priests to expect ‘presents’ from their congregation or even bribe a king for advancement. It’s another to buy a bishopric by handing over thousands of pounds of silver. Once simony becomes a blatant market deal rather than a hazy form of gift-exchange, it’s far more vulnerable to criticism. Clerical celibacy, on the other hand, was a demand first made in the fourth century West and repeated by the Carolingian reformers. It’s difficult to argue that there’s much new in the theology of the eleventh century on the topic or even the rhetoric (other than Peter Damian’s impassioned but slightly irrelevant ‘invention of sodomy’).

What else is new? I think Robert Moore is right about ‘the crowd’ as being a factor in the way it wasn’t before. Conrad was arguing that the existence of ordinary laypeople who cared about the purity of priests presupposes the professionalization of the clergy, but I think there’s a problem of levels here. He was talking very largely about ideas of professionalism among the higher clergy and the educated elite. I think that the ‘crowds’ are more likely to have got their ideas from their contacts with ordinary priests. I would say that this new lay concern reflects the long-term success of the Carolingian attempt to reform rural priests and ‘Christianize’ the countryside, so that it came to matter to ordinary people that Christian rituals were valid. Once you combine this with population growth and the beginnings of urbanisation, I think you have the ingredients for Robert Moore’s crowd.

What the crowd provides is a new method for the reformers to enforce their views on recalcitrant clergy, so that’s obviously one advantage that eleventh century reformers had over earlier ones. Conrad also mentioned that eleventh century reform was very much a matter of clerics coming to a sense of their unique moral responsibility. They could no longer rely on an alliance with kings, as in earlier reforms.

I think this is an important difference from earlier periods. In order to make their points forcefully, reformers such as Gregory VII had to take criticism of lay values to extreme levels. Marriage and money had to be stigmatised as deeply inferior, suitable only for the second-rate and impure. The Gregorian Reform was undertaken by men who had decided that they and the church didn’t need the support of rulers. That was partly due to political fragmentation and the weakness of Italian rulers at the time. But it also reflects the fact that Western Europe was less and less threatened by ‘pagans’ in the eleventh century, as the peripheral peoples (Vikings, Magyars, Saracens etc) were gradually converted or marginalised. Carolingian churchmen and ninth century popes couldn’t afford to stick two fingers up at their kings, even the more inadequate of them; Gregory VII could.

I now want to come back to Conrad’s professionalism argument, but by an indirect route. One of the biggest problems with looking at the issue of clerical celibacy is that it’s very hard to get away from one of two preconceptions about it (which depend on underlying views about male sexuality). One is that clerical celibacy is a positive Christian ideal and it was inevitable that devout clergy would adopt it. The other is that it is an unrealistic ideal and that no-one in their right mind would choose to be celibate.

Julia Barrow, in a talk at the IHR in April on ‘Uncles and nephews, fathers and sons among the clergy c. 800-c.1200’ tried to get away from this personalised approach by looking at where geographically clerical celibacy made early progress and where it didn’t. She pointed out that clerical celibacy didn’t actually preclude family inheritance of office (as Robert Moore’s model claims). As an alternative to father to son transmission of office, it was quite possible to have repeated transmission of office from uncle to nephew (so that, in the simplest pattern, in each generation one son went into the church and one of the sons of his brother/sister inherited his office on his death). This can be seen in naming patterns (for example Hincmar of Rheims’ nephew, who became a bishop, was also called Hincmar).

Julia argued that these alternative patterns of inheritance (father-son and uncle nephew) co-existed from late antiquity until the twelfth century, but weren’t evenly spread in northern Europe (the area she concentrated on). Father-son succession looks far more usual in Anglo-Saxon England and Normandy than in eastern France and Germany, with West France in an intermediate position. (Wendy Davies added that father-son transmission was strong in Brittany and Spain). In contrast, clerical celibacy (or at least a lack of clerical marriage) looks to have been fairly common among would-be bishops in Frankish successor states for centuries before the Gregorian reforms.

What was particularly interesting, though Julia only had time to touch on this in her paper, was how patterns of education might be influencing these contrasts. In particular, areas of father-son transmission seem to be connected to a tendency to ‘grow your own’ priests. In regions where few schools, father-son inheritance could ensure suitable training for would-be priests, either individually or in a community of canons.

Where all this connects back to professionalism is in the concept of communities of practice. I think Conrad’s focus on ideology as creating professionalism is misleading: instead I think the main way that a sense of professionalism and corporate identity is created is via a community of practice. You don’t really pick up the values of an academic (or any other profession) by reading and meditating on professional codes of conduct. Instead, you absorb them almost unconsciously from the people who train you and work with you.

This means that it’s crucial how large your professional community is imagined to be: you will have a different sense of professionalism if you feel yourself as part of a global academy as opposed to being an ‘Oxford man’. Similarly, I think that medieval clerical professionalism could be very different if a cleric’s identification was with the Roman Catholic Church as a whole as opposed to, say, the canons of Worcester Cathedral.

I think Conrad was right that professionalism aids the rapid spread of reform, but I see communities of practice as the key to this. Once people are in a professional community, if a few key members of that community accept a reform, most of the rest of the community are likely to do so as well: that becomes what ‘we’ do. You don’t, in other words, need to work on every member of the group, just ‘convert’ the influential ones and the rest will soon follow. So the key question becomes not just professionalism, but connectedness into a wider system. Clerical communities which may be very professional (in the sense of having a strong corporate and individual identity) may, if they’re isolated from other communities, nevertheless be very slow to adopt celibacy. This would explain why married clergy persist so long both in some geographically isolated areas (such as Iceland) and also some intellectually/culturally isolated communities (such as some English cathedral chapters).

Looked at in terms of communities of practice, there are lots of new factors in the tenth and eleventh century that helped spread reform. A common education, whether in the canon law schools of northern and southern Italy or the cathedral schools of France and Germany helped to create wider communities. So did the fact that microChristianities, small areas with their own distinctive Christian traditions, were on the decline in the West (whereas they remain more prevalent to this day in ‘Eastern’ Christianity). Even if the Carolingian empire didn’t create a unified western Christianity, it did create the ideal of a unified Christianity, and that ideal was then exported both to the newly converted northern and central Europe and to Anglo-Saxon England (and, via the Normans, to the Celtic fringe). The Carolingian period left the church in the West more connected than it had ever been before. Once papal reformers could work out how to plug into that network, they could feed in long-established ideas to new effect.

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6 thoughts on “Why was the Gregorian Reform Gregorian?

  1. Very interesting stuff, but a few thoughts to further discussion.

    1) I’m currently waging a 1-man battle to rename the Gregorian reform here at Virginia Tech. To me, and this is just related to papal reform, it’s the Leonine reform.

    2) But it also reflects the fact that Western Europe was less and less threatened by ‘pagans’ in the eleventh century, as the peripheral peoples (Vikings, Magyars, Saracens etc) were gradually converted or marginalised. Carolingian churchmen and ninth century popes couldn’t afford to stick two fingers up at their kings, even the more inadequate of them; Gregory VII could.

    I’m not sure I agree. If you look at Gregory’s letters, he’s very concerned about “external” enemies assailing the Christian community. Early on, it’s the Seljuks (ca. 1074-5), then it’s the forces of Henry IV and his allies. The language Gregory uses in describing the 2 enemies are strikingly similar. They’re both membra diaboli working towards the same end against the libertas ecclesiae.

    3) This means that it’s crucial how large your professional community is imagined to be: you will have a different sense of professionalism if you feel yourself as part of a global academy as opposed to being an ‘Oxford man’. Similarly, I think that medieval clerical professionalism could be very different if a cleric’s identification was with the Roman Catholic Church as a whole as opposed to, say, the canons of Worcester Cathedral.

    I agree here but not here

    A common education, whether in the canon law schools of northern and southern Italy or the cathedral schools of France and Germany helped to create wider communities. So did the fact that microChristianities, small areas with their own distinctive Christian traditions, were on the decline in the West (whereas they remain more prevalent to this day in ‘Eastern’ Christianity).

    Can you really say that any monastic or cathedral school in the early 11th-century shared much in common with any other? There inherent difference is part of the reason why, I think, you have all these theological controversies springing up in this period, leading in some cases to “heresy.” Now, things certainly change by the time you get to the universities (and Innocent III, for example), but if anything, educational practices in the 11th century served to further strengthen “microChristianities” in the West — England vs. Francia vs. the empire vs. Rome vs. Iberia, and then within those categories (as in Francia) Reims vs. Paris vs. Toulouse vs. Cluny, etc.

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  2. If you are concerned with Magistra et Mater you should consider the Mother of the Gregorian Reform, Matilda of Canossa, and read my book: Tuscan Countess: the Life and Extraordinary Times of Matilda of Canossa (Vendome 2004)
    Michèle Spike

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