Framing the clerical cosmos 2: the connected church

In my first post about the Clerical Cosmos conference that I attended last month I discussed papers looking at clerics on the ground – the local priests of Yorkshire and northern Spain. The remainder of the day’s programme focused on the more traditional interests of early medieval church scholarship: the episcopate and the intellectual elite. First up was Henry Parkes on the Pontificale Romano-Germanicum (PRG), a huge liturgical compilation, of which we have forty C11 and C12 copies. The PRG has tended to be seen as an official document, created to serve the political ambitions of the Ottonians, but according to Henry we don’t have any solid evidence for where it was produced (or what its medieval title was).

Henry argued that, in fact, there’s little evidence for the PRG playing any practical role. Most of the manuscripts look too big to be used easily on a lectern and there are very variable contents to the manuscripts, with only 15 of 258 chapters common to all the sources. The individual texts themselves are provided with excessive numbers of variants. For example, there are 14 different prayers for the blessing of palms on Palm Sunday, which seriously breaks up the flow of the text. There are also duplicate rituals included and overall the texts are “massively overwrought”.

Rather than being a liturgical book then, Henry sees the PRG as being an encyclopedia of liturgy or a handbook of possibilities. In one copy of the text which Henry discussed (Vienne 701), some of the additional canons added into the text contradicted the parts to which they were added. He drew parallels with the development of canon law materials: just as canon law collections gradually developed from simple accumulations of material to produce a concordant and coherent whole, so texts of the PRG became progressively more “clean”, with some particularly contentious material, such as a priest’s vow of obedience to his bishop, disappearing.

The PRG then, at least in its earlier forms, might best be seen as a surrogate canon law collection: a way of resolving liturgical disputes. These did occur: Henry started his talk with a reference to problems around the date of celebrating Advent in 999 AD between the monks of Orleans and visiting clerics from Fleury. (A council of bishops next day found in favour of Fleury).

Henry was followed by Helen Carr talking about how the bishopric of Chur got its importance back in the tenth century. Chur had been very significant up till around 806, under the Victorine family, a number of members of whom held the bishopric, but lost influence in the C9, after the county of Rhaetia based at Rankweil was created; it was alleged that Count Hunfried stole some of the churches of Chur from the bishopric. The city was then badly damaged in the first half of the tenth century by Saracen and Magyar raids, but in the second half of the century, the bishopric’s fortunes improved.

The priest Hartbert was made first an abbot and then bishop of Chur in c 949 and was able to attract considerable patronage from both the Ottonians and Hermann, duke of Swabia, whose chaplain Hartbert had been. With increasing Ottonian involvement in Italy, the region, with its links to the Brenner Pass, regained strategic significance, and Hartbert also seems to have become politically useful as an envoy and negotiator. By the 960s he was one of three major royal representatives in Swabia. Hartbert probably developed some kind of fortified centre at the Abbey of Müstair and may be buried there, although no cult of him developed after his death, which happened between 968-972.

The bishopric’s position of strength continued after Hartbert’s death and by C12 there were prince-bishops of Chur. In contrast, the Upper Rhaetian countship disappeared at the beginning of the eleventh century. It’s possible that there was a vacuum of secular power after the raids of the earlier tenth century, though since we only have royal and episcopal sources, it’s hard to be sure. But Helen also suggested that bishops may have been more effective as administrators, given the network of priests they had on the ground, providing information, etc.

After lunch, we were back to bishops again, firstly with Bernard Gowers on metropolitan authorities in the tenth century. I’ve already mentioned in the previous post how Bernard was talking about possible ways to do comparative studies of the tenth century. A substantial part of his paper was devoted to this, and then he explained one possible parameter you could do comparative studies of in this way: the relationships between metropolitans and their suffragans. This is particularly interesting, Bernard thought, because there isn’t an obvious “trajectory” to such a relationship; it’s not an issue much discussed by either reformers or the fourth Lateran Council. And we can see very different amounts of control over suffragans. There are some very prestigious metropolitans, for example, such as Ravenna, Cologne, Rome and Milan, whose holders are deciding on appointments, making visitations and arranging synods. In contrast, the Archbishop of Tours couldn’t even consecrate Breton bishops.

Perhaps inevitably, given the broad reaches of such a comparative study, Bernard didn’t really have any answers to give yet, other than the differences in authority don’t seem to map onto the Carolingian or non-Carolingian origins of the provinces. It’s also likely to be quite complex to separate out the differing effects of support from secular powers and personalities: how much of Hincmar of Rheims’ problems with his suffragans, for example, was due to him simply being so annoying? But Bernard’s ideas do seem to offer a very intriguing new way of thinking about the early medieval church.

Finally we had Conrad Leyser and John Nightingale, who were allegedly going to give a joint paper, but in fact gave two separate papers on views from Merseburg. Conrad concentrated on a manuscript, Merseburg 104, which he described as a B list compilation of canon law. This is written about 900, possibly at Bobbio or somewhere else in northern Italy and then brought to Merseburg in the tenth century, judging by its marginal notes. In the 980s and 990s there were attempts to suppress the see of Merseburg in favour of Magdeburg, and Conrad thought the manuscript may have been relocated as support for one side in this quarrel.

The manuscript has been studied, if at all, because it contains the only copy of the accusations about Pope Formosus, the notorious victim of the Cadaver Synod, as well as texts supporting him. Conrad pointed out that the second and third parts of the manuscript also contained what amounted to a textbook of canons on reorganising sees and episcopal translation. The latter was one of the key points at issue in Formosus’ case. I’ve heard Conrad talk before on his view that the “professionalization” of the clergy via an acceptance of episcopal translation was the driving force behind the reform movement.

Here he was more interested in how we see the period intellectually. Is it best seen as a period of rationalization, funnelling down into the eleventh century? Or is instead, better seen as a period of improvisation? Conrad mentioned the example of the very varied formulae of excommunication, which Sarah Hamilton is currently working on: “jazz curses”, as he described them. Then with typical Conrad flair for a paradox, he argued that both rationalization and improvisation might be true: bishops and canonists are learning how to argue with one another via such dossiers, and from this you get reform. (Or, in the mixed metaphor I suggested later, clerics were now arguing from the same hymn-sheet).

John Nightingale, meanwhile, was looking at Thietmar of Merseburg’s Chronicon and its view of episcopal elections. Thietmar discusses these frequently, especially those to the see of Magdeburg, and shows a complex process of negotiation. The king called the shots in practice, but there were repeated attempts by the canons of Magdeburg to assert their right to elect. The result was a need for negotiations, ways of saving face, where, for example, the chapter’s candidate might instead get some other preferment, e.g. as happened to Thietmar’s cousin Dietrich in 1012 (Chronicon 6-74, 81). There are also indignant stories about how some bishops were wrongly chosen, with warning visions seen by their predec essors or the king about to appoint them.

What do you get if you put all the papers together? To go back to a point made by Theo Riches, is there something new in the tenth century, and does it matter if there isn’t? The theme I felt coming up again and again throughout the day was that of self-sustaining clerical networks; that is ones that don’t primarily rely on the active intervention of superiors, whether rulers or clerical superiors.

At the lowest level, such networks are visible in the independent Spanish priests, getting educated and consecrated somewhere. They’re also possibly there in Yorkshire, though the lack of evidence makes it’s harder to be sure. The situation in these two regions could perhaps be seen just as another version of Peter Brown’s MicroChristendoms, but at the level slightly further up, there’s more obviously a change from the situation in the sixth to eighth centuries.

In intellectual terms, you can see self-sustaining networks in Conrad’s “B list” canon law collection and the Pontificale Romano-Germanicum. These are not the products of a top-down Carolingian/Ottonian reformation, but suggest a cultural harmonization that is more “bottom-up” than “top-down”, or at least is independently developed by mid-level clerics, rather than court elites. Meanwhile, despite all their subservience to Henry II’s decisions, the chapter of Magdeburg clearly had a well-developed sense of itself as a community; it’s hard to point out many Carolingian parallels for that. And Helena Carr shows a bishop with what looks like a viable network for ensuring the surveillance and possibly even the effective control of strategically valuable areas.

All this suggests that one of the key comparisons we should be making across regions is the strength of the vertical bonds, both between metropolitans and suffragans (as Bernard suggested) and also between bishops and the clergy of their diocese. It is in these hierarchical relationships that the wider significance of such networks come in: that they could potentially be used by more powerful figures to project their power downwards more effectively, reaching into more localities and communities more deeply. There are interesting parallels to the current model of Carolingian secular power. This sees royal power as based on the supporting of local elites who then are connected into the central network by patronage. These local elites survive into the tenth and eleventh centuries: what changes is that the “top node” is repeatedly sliced off this model as networks fragment, with first kings and then sometimes counts becoming irrelevant and powerless.

I’d argue that what the Carolingian reforms create is several new kinds of clerical elites who gradually become more self-conscious and independent of royal control. At the lowest level, while there may not be a parish system everywhere, there are more local churches and clerics. (The size of the clerical prosopography we get from the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe project should be an interest contrast with Robert Godding’s listings of priests in sixth and seventh century Gaul.) Intellectually, the end of the ninth century is marked by the emergence of figures who are not court-centred, from Notker the Stammerer to the school of Auxerre. Stephen Patzold has argued for the development of a self-conscious episcopal ideology in the 820s; by the end of the century you have a figure like Regino of Prüm providing model handbooks for episcopal visitations.

What is distinctive about the tenth century then would be the scaling up of these Carolingian innovations. It’s no longer just an exceptional bishop like Hincmar of Rheims who compiles canon law dossiers, but a more widely acquired technique. Reforms no longer have to be initiated top-down by rulers (though some examples still are, such as the Benedictine reforms of tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England). Bernard was arguing about the concept of “reform” as being meaningless, because so many bishops were involved in some such activities, but maybe that’s part of the point. If a “papal monarchy” develops from around 1050, it may be partly because there are already existing networks that it can “capture” and build on. From the ninth century, there is certainly an ideological and professional underpinning to church hierarchies that most secular powers simply don’t have. Lacking strong royal support in many areas, bishops, chapters, groups of local priests etc built on their own traditions, but also had interchanges with other similar groups, not necessarily within the same polity. In the process, a thousand ecclesiastical flowers bloomed. Mostly, of course, to be cut down and tidied up during the Gregorian Reformation itself, but that’s another story.


One thought on “Framing the clerical cosmos 2: the connected church

  1. The theme I felt coming up again and again throughout the day was that of self-sustaining clerical networks; that is ones that don’t primarily rely on the active intervention of superiors, whether rulers or clerical superiors.

    Yes, this. It’s like the difference we discussed at mine ages ago between the Carolingian importance of Königsnähe and the post-Carolingian preference for ‘Königsfern’. These priests and clerics can if they need to access higher levels of authority, up to and including the papacy, but most often they’d expect to manage without and resist intervention from those higher levels if it goes beyond a certain customary level. The reform movement is first noticeable in that changing and higher-level intervention becoming more common.

    Wow, I’d never have been able to put that that cogently without your prompt.


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