The long and short of the bloodless sword

I’m trying to catch up on blogging some of the IHR Earlier Middle Ages seminars and next on the list is a paper I heard at the start of February: Sarah Hamilton from Exeter on “Bishops, books and excommunication in England and France, 900-1200”. Sarah’s starting point was that we ought to take excommunication – the “bishop’s bloodless sword” rather more seriously. (She also explained the difference between excommunication – a broader term for a time-limited exclusion from church community and anathema – which in theory excludes a person from salvation for all eternity).

From a modern secular standpoint, excommunication tends to be taken as obviously ineffective, but Sarah started by pointing out that a lot of cultures have cursing/excluding rituals, and that the key to the effectiveness of excommunication was widespread communication, which was why publicising it was important. Hincmar of Rheims, for example, says that sentences of excommunication should be read out in church before the gospel, because some people leave church before the gospel and then claim they haven’t heard about the sentence. Sarah also made the point that excommunication was often a contended sentence – one’s peers might not accept it, and by the central Middle Ages there are formal appeals against the process. (A man called Falcric appeals to the pope when he gets excommunicated by Hincmar in the mid-ninth century, as I’ve discussed in a previous article).

Excommunication should be seen as a tactic in disputes, Sarah reckoned and cited an example from Flodoard’s Annales from 953, where excommunication is used to bring a certain Count Ragenald to a synod to negotiate about church goods he’s “invaded”. She was arguing that there ought to be more study of such disputes, especially as visible through charters, but that this is a neglected field (though she mentioned work done by Brian Pavlac and Jeffrey Bowman).

What Sarah then went on to do was to use the evidence from one of her specialist interests: liturgical sources. In the late ninth and early tenth centuries you have the emergence of pontificals, which are books of rites specifically for bishops, which cover the things that only bishops are supposed to be doing, including ordination, the administration of public penance and excommunication (which had been reserved to bishops since before the sixth century). Sarah was pointing out that there’s now a move towards seeing such pontificals as locally produced rather than as standardised top-down products. And when she looked at excommunication rites, she found a particularly wide variety. Excommunication rites have a conspicuously looser format than for other liturgical events, and though there’s a lot of formulaic language, the texts are very rarely identical. What they suggest, she argued was “a vibrant, living tradition”.

Regino of Prüm, for example, right at the start of the tenth century, gives an elaborate liturgy for excommunication, which includes having twelve priests standing around the bishop holding lights. At the end, they throw down the lights and trample them under foot:

Debent autem duodecim sacerdotes episcopum circumstare et lucernas ardentes in manibus tenere, quas in conclusione anathematis vel excommunicationis proicere debent in terram et pedibus conculcare
(Regino, Libri duo de synodalibus causis ed. W. Hartmann, 2-413)

Rgeino, also however, gives a “excommunication brevis” which is just 33 words long. Sarah’s found about 35 examples of occasional formulae of excommunication, some of which look like they’ve been practically used. For example, in a tenth-century Noyens Sacramentary now in the British Library (MS Additional 82956), a formula has been added to the first folio. This has the names scratched out and a later hand adds in singular terms, suggesting that a specific excommunication was later intended for more general reuse. There are other texts that seem to have been reused and excommunication formulae also get copied into different types of text: there’s one lurking in the Textus Roffensis, for example, a twelfth-century collection of legal texts.

The “bloodless sword” then, looks potentially quite sharp, effective as a tool: we probably ought to look more seriously at exactly how it’s used across the varied political structures of differing central medieval societies.


One thought on “The long and short of the bloodless sword

  1. Glad to see this written up, I did wonder if Sarah could possibly have anything new to say about penance but it seems she did! The Bowman example is a classic: a man excommunicated by the teenage simoniac warrior Archbishop of Narbonne, Guifré, possibly least reformed medieval churchman ever, comes to a council and asks if, if he’s excommunicated by Guifré, it really counts? So much stuff hangs out of that and it’s just when one would want it, too, 1017 if I recall.


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