The erasure of the eleventh-century simony debate

Amongst the many treasures of Bamberg’s city library, celebrated for its medieval book collection, is a manuscript shelved as Bamberg Msc. Can. 4. Made in the late tenth or early eleventh century in or around Milan, the manuscript is well known for its unique version of the ‘Donation of Constantine’, which has long been associated with King Otto I’s imperial coronation in 962. But in this blog I want to concentrate on an important yet mysterious text which was copied into the manuscript’s final pages around the middle of the eleventh century.

In the Bamberg manuscript, this text is labelled as ‘Letter of Pope Paschasius to the archbishop of Milan’. This is also the label that the text is given in many other manuscripts, and in some early modern editions based upon them. But looking closely, you can see that in the Bamberg manuscript, this title, or at least part of it, has been written over an erasure (see the blog’s cover image).

What was the original title of the letter written here? The question matters, because this is probably the earliest record of what was a very important text. The ‘Paschasius’ letter is generally thought to have been the very first text to argue that simoniacal ordinations were invalid – that in other words, priests and bishops who had paid money for their ordination were not bad priests, they were not priests at all. That was an argument that rocked the eleventh-century church, because it had enormous implications. Say a bishop had greased palms for his promotion – then any priests he subsequently ordained would not really be priests, and the sacraments they distributed would not really be sacraments either.

The ‘Paschasius’ letter’s dating and authorship are therefore crucial for an understanding of the arguments about simony in the 11th century. And whatever this and other manuscripts may say, we can be sure that the ‘Paschasius’ letter was not actually written by Pope Paschasius, because there has not yet been a pope of that name. So, who wrote it, and when?

In his edition of the text for the MGH in 1891, Friedrich Thaner attributed the letter to an Italian monk named Guido of Arezzo. He therefore labelled it the ‘Epistola Widonis’ (ie, Letter of Guido), and dated it to around 1031. But Thaner’s attribution has not gone entirely unchallenged. In 1941 Anton Michel argued that the letter had instead been written by Humbert of Moyenmoutier (or Silva Candida), on the basis of stylistic and content analysis, and also on the grounds that Guido of Arezzo showed no demonstrable interest in simony in any of his other work. In the 1980s, however, John Gilchrist dismissed Michel’s arguments and reasserted Guido’s authorship. Modern historiography has more or less followed Gilchrist’s lead. Yet Gilchrist was apparently unaware of arguments made in favour of Humbert’s authorship by Elaine Robison, arguments that were subsequently amplified by Margot Dischner.

Does it matter whether the ‘Paschasius’ letter was written by Guido of Arezzo, Humbert of Moyenmoutier, or any other author? Yes, very much so, for two reasons. Firstly, because as Michel, Robison and Dischner argued, the text is in some ways a précis of Humbert’s arguments in his ‘Three Books against the Simonists’ – but whereas the latter is known only from a handful of manuscripts, the ‘Paschasius’ letter was widely copied. Identifying Humbert as the author of the letter would change how we think about both texts. The letter would be the vehicle through which ideas elaborated at length in Humbert’s ‘Three Books’ were concisely disseminated.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the authorship has implications for the dating of the entire eleventh-century simony debate. If dated to 1031, the ‘Paschasius’ letter is the early opening salvo in a debate which then picks up speed in the 1040s. If however Humbert (or someone linked to him) was its author, the letter must have been written quite a bit later, most probably in the 1050s. In that scenario, the question of simoniacal ordinations may not even have arisen in Italy until the arrival of Pope Leo IX and his circle from Lotharingia, and the simony debate did not begin gradually in the 1030s, but with a bang in 1049.

The question of the original attribution of the text in its oldest witness, perhaps written not long after the text was first compiled, is therefore of considerable importance, and I hope at some point to visit the library in Bamberg to have a look at the manuscript myself, since sometimes it’s possible to see things in the flesh that can’t be discerned on the screen. If the erasure was thoroughly done, however, the manuscript may be able to hold onto its secret. Medieval history can, just sometimes, be a frustrating business.