Framing the Clerical Cosmos 1: the view on the ground

I didn’t get to the first Clerical Cosmos conference in Oxford in 2010, though Jonathan Jarrett did and reported on it, but I made it to “The Clerical Cosmos II: Ecclesiastical power, culture, and society, c. 900 to c. 1075” organised by Bernard Gowers, Hannah Williams and Kathrin Korn.

The programme was as follows:

  • Tom Pickles (York): The Church in Yorkshire during the long tenth century
  • Wendy Davies (UCL/Oxford): Local Priests in Northern Iberia
  • Henry Parkes (Cambridge): Liturgy and law: the Pontifical Romano-Germanique in an eleventh-century intellectual context
  • Helena Carr (Sheffield): An Alpine bishopric in the tenth century
  • Bernard Gowers (KCL): Comparing metropolitan authority in the long tenth century
  • Conrad Leyser and John Nightingale (Oxford): Bishops on the edge: the view from tenth century Merseburg

I am, of course, coming to this as an outsider, since I don’t work on the tenth century or predominantly on clerics, but I wanted to start, not at the beginning, but with two important points made later in the day. One was in Bernard’s paper, where he was arguing that too often the “long tenth century” (which he put from 888-1048) gets treated either as an after or a before, and not seen on its own terms. It gets seen either as “post-Carolingian” or as “pre-reform/pre-Gregorian”. Bernard objected to the first label because only 26/27 out of the 40 provinces in Latin Christendom at the time had previously been under Carolingian rule. He objected to the second both because of its teleological aspects and because “Reform” is such an amorphous concept. Almost every known bishop in the tenth century, he reckoned, could be seen as a reformer in some sense, whether in anti-simony activities, church building, an interest in canon law, etc. He was also unhappy with the way that research often focuses on one region as either typical/normal or else as exceptional (and hence showing, as by a mirror image, what is normal). He was arguing therefore for some serious attempts at comparative studies of regions across Latin Christendom, akin to what Chris Wickham has done for earlier medieval secular societies.
I’ll go back to discussing Bernard’s example of how we might do this kind of comparative study later on, but I wanted to add in here a very useful comment made by Theo Riches during the round table discussion: Did the tenth century actually come up with anything new and if not, does it matter? (One thing that does seem to be new in the tenth century is the political use of sodomy accusations, but I decided not to lower the tone of the discussion by mentioning this).

The interesting thing about the papers was not only their geographical spread (the organisers had deliberately tried to avoid just talking about “Francia”), but also the different levels of clerics they covered. The first two papers looked at priests in areas for which we have very different types and quantities of evidence. Tom Pickles was looking at an area (Yorkshire) for which we have almost no contemporary written sources; in contrast, Wendy Davies had thousands of charters available from northern Spain, even excluding Catalonia, as she did.

Tom pointed out that there were clearly some clerics in Yorkshire after the conquest of York by the Vikings in 876: For example, we can see repeated alliances of Scandinavian rulers with bishops via the coinage. Looking at place names derived from the Old Norse, such as Kirkby, we can also see a church presence. Tom was arguing that such names might refer to a place at which the church held land rather than “a farm with a church”, as had previously been argued. A lot of the names certainly occur in places where church estates existed earlier, e.g. Kirkby Overblow.

The question then becomes: who are the people connected with such churches? John Blair looked at clerical endowments in Domesday and found very little evidence for anything except archiepiscopal estates. Specifically there’s not much evidence for endowed priests (presumably what’s implied here is the minster pattern characteristic of early Anglo-Saxon England). But given that the Scandinavians in the area were converted, it’s likely that there was some clerical activity in the area.

The rest of Tom’s paper was then using one of the sources of evidence we do have: a considerable corpus of stone sculpture. He cited statistics of 185 sites in Yorkshire between the seventh and eleventh century. More than 80% of these are on modern church sites, and though some of them may be material that has been moved there later, geologically, a lot of the stone looks very local. On more than half of the sites, there are fragments from multiple periods, making it look like repeated re-use of the site. For at least some of the material there’s stratigraphical evidence, which Richard Bailey has combined with art-historical techniques to separate out pre C9 material.

Some of the sculpture seems to be associated with archiepiscopal estates, such as at Otley. This was the centre of a large estate by the early C11, and may have been granted to Wilfred in the C7. There are similar signs of stone sculpture at Ripon, Nunburnholme and Sherburn, all places which belonged to the Archbishops of York at some point in the C10.

Some of these sculptures have specifically clerical imagery e.g. scenes of priests at mass, others have more general religious imagery. But Tom argued that some North mythological scenes may also be evidence of clerical activity: there appear to be a few very specific scenes that are frequently repeated and which in C12 and C13 Scandinavian contexts have Christian referents/parallels: Weland being bound into a flying machine, Sigurd slaying a dragon, Ragnarok.

There are also what look like some local identities developing, where you have sites stylistically linked together, over a fairly small area (such as Ryedale sculptures influenced by Sinnington) without links further afield, such as to York sculpture. As discussed in the questions, this possibly indicates some clerics not connected to the archbishopric, but independently active.

For hard evidence of local priests, however, we needed to move thousands of miles away to northern Spain, where Wendy Davies has loads of them. Her definition of “local priest” was also useful: a priest not in an episcopal or royal household or in a monastery. She was also looking for men connected to a named church, although not a named parish (parish organisations only came to this area in the late C11). She found 350 probable individual local priests, who fell into three categories:

1) priests in lay religious households (i.e. headed by the laity). These are very small-scale groups, unlike the monasteries that are visible.
2) small groups of priests connected with a specific church.
3) priests in aristocratic households (Wendy didn’t discuss these further, since they weren’t necessarily providing local services).

It’s very hard to distinguish between categories 1 and 2 in practice, because “church” and “monastery” are often used interchangeably, but what you have is small groups of committed religious, very different from the monasteries of thirty or more men that are also visible.

Some of these 350 men also looked local on other criteria: they are named in boundary clauses, they carry out transactions only in a small area, they’re called the priest of a particular place, or they’re carrying out small-scale joint transactions with peasants. For example, one priest called Daniel sold two-thirds of a mill to a monastery, while a layman sold the other third.

Men became priests in different ways: some were appointed by the church’s lay proprietor, others by a monastery. Bishops rarely control churches and appointments, and when they do so it’s more as proprietors than as diocesans. Often hereditary rights of the priests also seem to be involved: priests gave or sold churches, or there was inheritance from relatives. Interestingly, although there were some married priests, they weren’t that common. More frequent was uncle-nephew or cousin-cousin transfer.

Priests were always associated with literacy, so they must presumably have been trained somewhere: probably some went to monastic or episcopal schools. However, some locations were so isolated that local churches were probably training people as well, and Wendy even wondered if absolutely all these priests had been ordained. The main resources of these men, meanwhile, were income from landed property, especially family property. They may also have got some money from fees for carrying out church services, but this was before the institutionalisation of tithes, which are rarely mentioned.

By the second half of the tenth century local identities are very clear, although there’s evidence of collective action even before this. In particular, rural community groups called “concilia” are mentioned, sometimes defined by the name of a particular church. The members of such groups (clerics and laymen) often act as witnesses and sometimes the priest records the transaction, implying he is the incumbent of that community.

We also have some hints of pastoral care being provided – although there are no references to baptism, one local community asked for someone to preach to them. There are several big C11 liturgical collections from the area that may have C10 models, but more importantly, we know that some of the priests themselves had books. There are a series of examples where endowments of books (typically a collection of 4-5 books) went with a particular churches, as well as donations of specific books to churches.

We can therefore presume that the priests could provide basic rites, and we can also see them carrying out other local roles: as de facto notaries, as sureties and oath-helpers. Some were saiones, one of the lower-level judicial functionaries.

One of the most interesting aspects of these Spanish priests, as was brought out in the discussion, was how independent they were. Wendy was saying that you couldn’t see many bishops in the area at all (apart from the Bishop of León) and you don’t even get them turning up in dating clauses (unlike with the Breton charters she worked on before).

In my next post, I’ll talk more about some of the other papers from the day, which were dealing with more high-ranking clerics, but what Wendy and Tom’s papers together already showed is that a couple of the variables we need to be looking at for Bernard’s comparative studies is the existence of these kinds of local, rural priests and the degree of control that bishops have over them. Whether we have got the kind of evidence from most regions that would actually enable us to answer these questions is a different and difficult problem, but any analysis of the tenth-century church does need to start thinking about how that church was experienced at the ground level, and how such local connections were or were not linked into wider hierarchies.


One thought on “Framing the Clerical Cosmos 1: the view on the ground

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s