Religious men 3: Gregorian reform and performance indicators

I’ve blogged a couple of times already on this summer conference at the University of Huddersfield on Religious Men in the Middle Ages: Day 1, Day 2). The final day was in fact a half-day, so I’ll talk briefly about the papers I heard before going on to a longer discussion of changes before and after the eleventh century. The papers I heard were:

Parallel Session 6 , Strand A (Leadership)
Benedict Coffin, Independent Scholar, ‘Bishops as holy men in Anglo-Saxon England.’

Helena Vanommeslaeghe, Ghent University, ‘Abbatial leadership and reform in the Benedictine institutions of tenth to twelfth century Lotharingia.’

Matthew Mesley, University of Zurich, ‘Omnibus omnia erat: episcopal gender and religious authority in the narratives of the First Crusade.’

Plenary lecture
Dr Jennifer Thibodeaux Associate Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. ‘The Discourse of Clerical Marriage: Masculinity and Sexuality in the writings of Norman clerics.’

We started off with Benedict looking at whether Anglo-Saxons thought bishops could be both holy and effective and arguing that they could be both. But ideas of what both “holy” and “effective” meant were very varied across the Anglo-Saxon period – Bede focused on the pastoral tasks, for example, while Wilfred was far more in the Merovingian tradition of an episcopal magnate (I thought this was a very useful comparison by Benedict). It was also interesting to hear how particular styles of “saintliness” could reappear, e.g. in parallels between the episcopal ideals of William of Malmesbury’s Vita Wulfstani and Bede’s holy bishops. This also once again suggests the importance of the male archive.

Helena was focusing on Abbot Poppo of Stavelot, looking at a rather different model of C10 monastic reform than that represented by Cluny or Gorze. Although Poppo established links with many other monasteries, what happened can’t be seen as top-down reform. Instead, there were more informal links, with other abbots wanting to be connected to Poppo and absorb some of his charisma. It’s also not clear how much long-term effect Poppo had on Stavelot-Malmedy. Helena was also making the intriguing suggestion that what mattered was less actual forms of abbatial leadership than the idea of it: Poppo as the perfect noble super-monk may have been more important than anything the real abbot did.

Finally, Matthew was talking about another religious man whose image may have been more important than his actual role: the titular leader of the First Crusade, Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy. It’s hard to be sure exactly what Adhemar’s role was, although it appears to have combined spiritual and military activities. Matthew argued that later authors increasingly stressed both sides of this role (rather than omitting Adhemar’s military activities, as Fulcher of Chartres does). In that way, the Crusades could be shown as a spiritual confrontation. Monastic writers also stressed the role of Adhemar in enforcing celibacy on the Crusaders’ camp; the Crusaders submitted to clerical oversight, as Gregorian reformers wanted all laymen to do. (There are interesting parallels here to Joanna Huntington’s paper the previous day on Hereward the Wake: secular males’ martial prowess could be celebrated, provided it was subordinated to clerical control).

The last paper of the conference was the one that went furthest to answering one of my initial questions: was there really a difference between the church in the eleventh century and the ninth? Jennifer, in a fascinating paper, proved there clearly was one difference, discussing at some length late C11 and early C12 texts from the Anglo-Norman world in favour of marriage. These may have had a common source, in the “Rescript of Ulric”. Jennifer argued that such texts showed a consensus, which did not attack the ideals of monastic masculinity, but defended an alternative practice as honourable. Such educated voices, however, were silences after about 1130, and (celibate) clerical masculinity became ideologically hegemonic (even though cleric al unions continued).

As compared to so many earlier controversies, where all we have is the voices of the winners, Jennifer’s paper did suggest a real widening of the educated classes able to discuss such issues. It was also a reminder (along with Kirsten Fenton’s paper from the previous day) that the imposition of celibacy was a slow and difficult process.

Some conclusions
One almost inevitable conclusion about hearing several days’ worth of discussion about masculinity is that there’s no core to it. There are recurrent themes in different periods, but there are no essential components (like self-control or domination of women) that are always there. Even the concept of hegemonic masculinity doesn’t really work for the Middle Ages. One group of elite men were expected to be celibate, one group of elite men weren’t. There are times when you wonder whether being “manly” wasn’t just a synonym for “good” in a patriarchal system where men were always ultimately superior to women.

On the other hand, while there wasn’t that much new theoretically that I learnt about masculinity from the conference, it did go a long way towards helping me with the other main question I wanted to consider: “what actually changed during the Gregorian reforms?” The rest of this post is therefore an attempt to prove very summary overviews of the ninth-, tenth- and eleventh-century Church and how it was changing. I also loop back to issues of masculinity in rather a different way, thinking about discourses on masculinity are influenced by varying levels of elite male co-operation and competition.

Ninth century
Our understanding of the Carolingian church has been transformed recently by two authors. Albrecht Diem has demonstrated the move of monastic ideology away from male chastity as a heroic and almost unachievable pursuit by individual ascetics (as in John Cassian) to a corporate virtue that could be maintained successfully by carefully enclosed and observed virgins (the model proposed by Caesarius of Arles for nuns and subsequently adopted in western monasticism). More recently, Steffen Patzold in Episcopus has shown the development of a collective sense in the Carolingian empire from the early 820s of what a bishop should be like, which de-emphasised an individual bishop’s personal characteristics, such as nobility . In both the monastic and clerical spheres, therefore elite religious men were promoting an ideology of the collective virtue of the ordo as a whole.

Frankish religious life in the Carolingian period was also marked by restrictions on clerical careers. It was not yet possible for bishops to be translated between sees; at a lower level, it was regarded as unsuitably ambitious for a priest to want to change his parish. There was also a notorious distrust by Carolingian rulers of charismatic holy men and women, as reflected in e.g. few contemporary saints being recognised.

Finally, my own work has argued that this was a time when the elite view of masculinity was a relatively inclusive one and (homosexual) sodomy accusations were not used as a political weapon.

Tenth century
Tim Reuter’s work has been key here, especially his article on “A Europe of Bishops”, now available in English in Patterns of Episcopal Power, ed. Körntgen and Wasenhoven. Tim was talking here about the paradox of the similarity of European bishops to each other, across a fragmented political landscape (looking considerably more alike than European secular rulers). There was a shared elite culture and yet almost no formal structure: each bishop controlled his own little patch. (Tim, Theo Riches and Charles West have all referred to the concept of episcopal encellulement, and they all speak as scholars who have studied several different tenth century polities, so it’s not just France here). Tim argued for bishops in this period as having charismatic rather than institutional authority. And as I said above, Helena Vanommeslaeghe was suggesting the same may be true for monastic reformers of the period.

It was also a period when there were new possibilities for career moves, as Conrad Leyser has discussed, with the translation of bishops between sees becoming possible. Gerbert of Aurillac became pope from humble beginnings, after moving round half of Europe. It’s hard to think of any comparable Carolingian figures: we do have some lowly men raised by patronage (like Ebo of Rheims) and also foreigners brought in (like Alcuin), but not the same opportunity to move geographically and socially.

At the same time, we also get the development of new and larger monastic structures: Cluny and Gorze etc, may still be networks, not yet orders, but they’re bigger entities and those at the top are more important than previous pluralist abbots. Like bishops, such abbots have trans-polity connections (and trans-polity donors to their monasteries).

Meanwhile, one of the key figures in this early reform movement, Odo of Cluny, is also the man who returns to the theme of chastity as a difficult individual struggle (including the need to struggle against homosexual temptations). And by the end of the late tenth century, accusations of homosexuality are being used against clerical reformers by married clerics.

Eleventh century
There are various social factors in the late tenth/early eleventh century that can be seen both as contributing to the Gregorian reform movement and to explaining its focus on the issue of simony. Simony wasn’t a new concern; Matthew Innes has shown references to it as a heresy in Carolingian sources. But with increasing prosperity and monetisation of the economy, it was more blatant. The attack on simony also seems (as both Tim Reuter and Robert Moore showed) to be an attack by religious men on the principles of gift-exchange, allowing them to take from secular rulers and donors, without being beholden to them in the same way as previously.

The bigger question is why clerical marriage came to be one of the focuses of the reform movement. Often, this has been discussed in terms of purity: the urge to separate clerics from laymen and show the superiority of the clergy. Robert Moore has also suggested that the targeting of clerical wives, rather than reformers simply making demands for clerical continence, was to ensure that clerical dynasties didn’t develop, and to leave the rural priest free to act as an arbiter on the parish, an independent person between newly-powerful lords and the peasantry.

But these explanations don’t really hold water. Demands for the separation between religious men and the laity were a standard part of Carolingian (and earlier) reform. And clerical dynasties didn’t disappear with the outlawing of clerical marriage, they just mutated. The distribution of married priests in western Europe had always been very region-specific, as Julia Barrow has discussed. The acceptance of married clerics was also combined for centuries with expectations of post-marital celibacy. Why was this solution no longer acceptable?

One partial answer is that new tactics were now available to reformers. Robert Moore (and more recently Conrad Leyser) have made much of the new role of the crowd in the eleventh century. As a result of urbanisation, a gradually more Christianised populus, and possibly the after-effects of millennial fears, you get groups of relatively lowly lay enthusiasts who can be used by the reformers as shock troopers to enforce boycotts (or more) of married priests.

As Jennifer Thibodeaux discusses, you also have a new church bureaucracy which can be used to enforce these demands on recalcitrant priests – officials such as archdeacons, procedures such as episcopal visitations spreading more widely, rather than in a few zealous dioceses as in the late ninth century. Conrad Leyser (again) makes a convincing argument that canonists in the post-Carolingian world were learning to argue with one another, something that’s certainly visible in the tracts that Jennifer was discussing. (In contrast, much of Carolingian canon law consists of bishops called Hincmar arguing from detailed scrutiny of texts and everyone else ignoring them).

But even with these developments (and the more consistent commitment to reform you get from a papal monarchy) it was hard work getting rid of clerical wives. Legal training could be used to support their retention, as well as oppose them; the men who were supposed to be enforcers in the church might themselves be married (as Kirsten Fenton’s paper showed me). And according to Jennifer Thibodeaux, some laymen reckoned that if a priest had his own wife, he would be less of a threat to theirs!

Given all the difficulties, why was this issue of purity chosen to be the key norm and not the other obvious one – sodomy? Peter Damian tried to create a moral panic about this topic and failed. As I’ve discussed before gays are a very useful target for religious reformers, both medieval and modern. Why weren’t they the target this time?

I’m starting to wonder whether the Gregorian reform wasn’t one of those rare occasions where the point was having a large target group of offenders, not a few lurking scapegoats. Bernard Gowers has suggested that there was more intense competition for monastic and episcopal posts in the late tenth and early eleventh century. One way of improving your chances was via erudition. But were some clerics getting on the band-wagon of being reformers, because it gave them a chance to get a large number of their potential rivals removed from their posts? As Robert Moore points out, clerical marriage was a clear-cut issue, unlike simony: one either was or wasn’t married. That therefore surely makes it ideal as a SMART performance indicator.

This is where masculinity comes back in. You start with a Carolingian clerical world with relatively limited competition, together with an inclusive rhetoric of masculinity and an emphasis on the institutional authority of clerics over the laity. You then move to a more loosely networked world in the tenth century, with fewer constraints on competition. There’s a new emphasis on chastity as a battle and on the charisma of particular holy men. Finally, in the eleventh century, you get an increasingly hierarchised church, intense competition, and reform rhetoric about the reformers’ superior masculinity.

The usual view (e.g. in Maureen Miller’s discussion of the ‘lone manly bishop’) is that rhetoric stressing the masculinity of the reformers was intended to contrast clerics favourably with laymen. But in fact the reformers’ tactics (as some of their indignant opponents pointed out), were precisely intended to lower the esteem of “sinful clerics” in the eyes of the laity. As the Carolingian reform movement suggests, a social structure which wants to exalt “clerics” over “laity” doesn’t stress competitive manliness: if clerics are manlier because they are celibate, then celibate laymen morally trump misbehaving clerics/monks. Odo of Cluny, in a more fragmented clerical world, might be prepared to show Gerald of Aurillac as a model for monks, but that wasn’t Carolingian style.

Similarly, twelfth-century texts which want to show “the Church” as guiding for the laity (as discussed by Joanna Huntington and Matthew Mesley) have positive visions of laymen as capable of listening to wisdom, not as intrinsically disordered by any sexual activity (as suggested in the Vita Geraldi.

A shrill rhetoric of the superior masculinity of the celibate clergy, by contrast, looks more like a contest within the clerical ordo itself, with men prepared to throw their rivals under the bus of the populus just as long as this got them to the top. In fact, it looks rather like a re-run of the conflict in the fourth century, when Jerome was coming up with claims for the superiority masculinity of monk-bishops and denigrated marriage. David Hunter has suggested that in late antiquity, the monk-bishop didn’t win out in the west; instead the preference often remained for senatorial men who committed themselves only to post-marital celibacy. In the eleventh century, however, it appears that the careerist celibates may have had rather sharper elbows than before and finally managed to get the upper hand.


2 thoughts on “Religious men 3: Gregorian reform and performance indicators

  1. This is all really interesting, and to pick up tiny points is somewhat invidious, but also kind of what I do, so I hope you’ll forgive. When you say of the Carolingian period:

    It was not yet possible for bishops to be translated between sees

    I confess to some cynicism, in that usually when something is repeatedly outlawed in Carolingian legislation I would assume that this tells us that it was rife and couldn’t be stamped out. If there are genuinely no good examples from the Carolingian era (and I certainly can’t think of any) is it possible that this was a relatively common practice that the Carolingian reform emphasis brought to a temporary end before its revival in Gerbert’s time? I should know, but I find myself weirdly short of knowledge of the pre-Carolingian Church.


    • OK – I was misrembering the early position slightly by saying no translation. There’s more detailed information in: Mary E. Sommar, “Hincmar of Reims and the canon law of episcopal translation”, Catholic Historical Review (2002) 88:429-445 (which I’ve read) and Sebastian Scholz, Transmigration und Translation: Studien zum Bistumswechsel der Bischöfe von der Spätantike bis zum hohen Mittelalter. Cologne, Böhlau, 1992 (which I haven’t yet read). Translation in the Carolingian and pre-Carolingian period was occasionally allowed for the “utility of the church”, but it wasn’t standard practice.

      That’s not altogether surprising if you consider the late antique bishop as the successor to the civilian elite of a city – there’s immense civic pride about your particular city and your church and part of the role of the bishop is to make the city great. The career bishop who moves on to greater things is, in some ways, a breach of that personal bond. (It’s interesting to hear even now the complaints of churchgoers from the see of Durham about *their* bishop (Justin Welby) being taken away very quickly to be Archbishop of Canterbury).


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