Ambition and the ‘research-active’ cleric

Towards the end of May at the IHR Earlier Medieval Seminar we had Bernard Gowers (currently John Arnold, but soon to be Alice Rio) talking on “Stabilitas in clerical culture of the late tenth and early eleventh century”. This is part of a wider project of Bernard to look at the clergy in a ‘between period’ of medieval history, which tends to get overshadowed either by the Carolingians, or the Gregorian Reforms. He started with an anecdote from Thietmar of Merseberg, Chronicon 3-15, written in the 1010s, about Ochtrich, who had unsuccessfully tried to become bishop of Madgeburg:

Afterwards, Ochtrich went to Benevento and took sick. According to one of my brethren, Husward, he saw Adalleich, our deceased former provost, at a distance, offering him the prebend of St Maurice. Terrified at such a vision, he asked, ‘Brother, do you see anything’?’ Then, after telling him everything, he exclaimed ‘Woe is me, wretch and sinner, that I ever left my own church and obedience for the sake of ambition! And if, through God’s generosity, I should regain my health, I will humbly go there and never leave.’ Following these words, his illness worsened, and, after a few days, on 7 October, he died and was buried in the same city. He left no one behind who could equal him in wisdom and eloquence.

It was this implied contradiction of stability and ambition that Bernard wanted to explore, looking at both France and Germany. Stabilitas (firmness, immobility, stableness) was a central part of the Benedictine Rule, but its precise meaning could differ. It could be understood as literal lack of movement: in Ekkehard IV’s Casus sancti Galli there’s a story about Ratpertus, a brother who only wore out two pairs of shoes a year because he travelled so little. Abbots, on the other hand, were constantly on the move, so stabilitas for them could be interpreted as moral constancy. The opposite of this virtue was moral inconstancy and particularly pride and ambition.

Berhard was arguing that despite a lot of conflicts between monks and non-monastic clerics in the period, there were shared attitudes and often a common education. Stabilitas was not a controversial concept, but rather one taken for granted. Thietmar, for example, described Bishop Tagino of Magdeburg as wearing the vestments of a canon, but being a monk in his habits and also praised his stabilitas

Against this backdrop of expected stability, Bernard then sketched out a new world of clerical careers. Most monks and clerics still joined communities at an early age and never left them, but there was also movement. In particular, Bernard argued that there were more and bigger communities in the late tenth and early eleventh century than before, but that the expansion in ‘top jobs’ was relatively smaller. The number of sees only expanded very slowly, and he thought the same applied to lower posts, such as abbots and priors. As a result, there was an oversupply of young hopefuls for preferment and more intense competition at all levels. He mentioned, for example, a competition to become subdean at Notre Dame de Chartres at the end of the C10 that ended with murder.

There were other changes to clerical job patterns and culture as well. “International” possibilities are visible, like the series of external clerics brought into Normandy (Dudo of St-Quentin, William of Volpiano), and the new churches of Poland and Hungary being given German bishops. Bernard also saw clerical culture as becoming more homogeneous in many different ways, e.g. in terms of using the Benedictine Rule. This in itself led to more competition between monasteries, since it was now possible to compare them by the same criteria, and there was a reinforcement of a shared culture of ascetic Benedictine spirituality.

Similarly, a more homogeneous intellectual culture based around classical learning and the liberal arts developed. While scholarship on both ‘reform’ and educational developments have often focused on particular centres (Fleury and Gorze for the former), the Ottonian court for the latter (especially in the work of Stephen Jaeger), Bernard was arguing for a more diffuse and competitive activity in many centres, which itself increased conformity.

Competition at an individual level is also visible here: in Ravenna in 980, Gerbert of Aurillac and the luckless Ochtrich had a debate on the classification of knowledge, which Gerbert won easily. As a result, he came to the attention of the Ottonian court, and it was the start of a career that ended as pope. More self-conscious intellectual affiliations can also be seen, with some clerics being described as e.g. “pupil of Gerbert” rather than by an institutional affiliation. We don’t know the teachers of men like Fulbert of Chartres or Gerbert, which implies that at the end of the tenth century these facts didn’t matter. The new career structures and the culture they produce mean there is a new stress on pupillage by the mid-eleventh century. There are also more clerics from socially-low backgrounds: Gerbert is the supreme example, but there are also men such as Abbo of Fleury, and at least one abbot who was a former serf.

Bernard was arguing that all this brought an end to the microchristianities (local Christian cultures) envisaged by Peter Brown as characteristic of the early Middle Ages. In this more uncertain world, the rhetoric of stabilitas could be used in debates to score points against opponents as ambitious, inconstant, moving around. Such rhetoric, as usual, didn’t necessarily need to correspond to reality: Gerbert of Aurillac, for example, when aiming to become archbishop of Rheims, described himself as an abbot, and contrasted this with the instability of his rival As usual, it’s very hard to see the more genuine examples of stability, the men who preferred localism to this brave new world of a more European culture: by definition, they’re not likely to be the voices we hear in the sources.

It was a very interesting, if impressionistic view of a period that I don’t know anything like as well as I should. Bernard’s description of changing clerical culture and careers had such obvious resonance with the contemporary European academic scene, however, that the more sceptical among the audience were wondering if we were just seeing what we wanted to see. One of the most interesting possibilities is if we could start getting some more quantitative data (perhaps via Julia Barrow’s study of canons) to see whether the suggested career picture does hold. It certainly feels subtly different from the Carolingian model of successful clerics, which is much more court-focused, but it’s one of these areas where pinning down specific evidence of change when working from largely anecdotal evidence may be tricky. But it’ll be intriguing to see how this work (and similar studies, such as by Conrad Leyser) comes to fruition.

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3 thoughts on “Ambition and the ‘research-active’ cleric

  1. Interesting and thank you again.

    Parts of this, particularly the last few paragraphs, begiining with Similarly, a more homogeneous intellectual culture based around classical learning and the liberal arts developed reminds me of a paper I heard from Justin Lake at Kalamazoo last year. That had a bit of a different focus in discussing a transition to the acceptance of classical learning as beneficial for advancement (and a conflict between intellectual achievement and ascetic values – sort of a break with Jerome’s rejection of classical learning).

    A bit out of my period but there seems to be a transition going on in the 10th and 11th centuries. This increased competition may have been a spur to a growing emphasis on classical learning as a way for those seeking advancement to distinguish themselves from the pack. I’m going to have to read up a bit more on this.

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  2. This sounds like a fascinating paper, and I was sorry at the time not to be able to make it. And I still am, of course! But it does give me a couple of pauses, because if there’s one late-tenth-century intellectual I know a bit about it’s Gerbert. So, where you say this:

    Competition at an individual level is also visible here: in Ravenna in 980, Gerbert of Aurillac and the luckless Ochtrich had a debate on the classification of knowledge, which Gerbert won easily. As a result, he came to the attention of the Ottonian court, and it was the start of a career that ended as pope.

    That’s odd for a start because Gerbert had been in Italy for ten years by that time. Richer tells us about this; he came to Rome with a Catalan count (hence my interest) in 970 as part of a mission pleading for a local archbishopric (I say with reservations). He met Otto I there, so at the very least in 980 he must have been catching up with there being a new emperor. It didn’t usually take Gerbert long to lose favour, so I could believe that. Then this:

    We don’t know the teachers of men like Fulbert of Chartres or Gerbert, which implies that at the end of the tenth century these facts didn’t matter.

    We do know Gerbert’s teachers, actually, and Bernard ought to know better because he’s been in a room with me talking about one of them. Richer names Bishop Ató of Vic and we can also suspect Abbot Arnulf of Ripoll, Miró, deacon and Count of Besalú, to whom Gerbert wrote asking for books, and perhaps Archdeacon Sunifred Llobet of Barcelona, one of whose books Gerbert was asking for. All part of what Theo Riches called the “republic of incredibly pretentious letters”.

    I guess the point is maybe that Gerbert outshines all his teachers for renown, but of course he does, he goes to Rome and becomes pope, lots of people write about him. The ones who stay on the furthest edge of the Latin-speaking Mediterranean, rather less. But Pierre Rich&eacute’s book has got the Catalan phase of Gerbert’s education in, so I don’t know what got away from the paper here.

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  3. Thanks for this interesting and helpful summary of what sounds like a fascinating paper, which I’m very sorry to have missed. Though it’s always dangerous to wade into a discussion of a paper which one has not heard, I might make an exception here.

    Jon, your point is well taken and an important one. However, if I understand Bernard’s argument correctly (as presented in this post), then I think the central point is not so much that Gerbert’s teachers are not known, as that they are not highlighted by contemporaries – he is not described as ‘the student of ___’, as we might expect of an 11th or 12th century intellectual.

    That said, I appreciate your point that we sometimes do know these details and indeed that it is often difficult to quantify such changes. Certainly to take a different tenth-century example, Brun of Cologne’s teachers (one of whom was no less than Isreal the Grammarian) are mentioned very explicitly in Ruotgar’s Vita.

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