Category Archives: benefit of clergy

Pope Leo of Bourges

One of the firmest proponents of judicial “benefit of clergy” in the ninth century was the great archbishop Hincmar (when it suited him, anyway). And one of his favourite texts for proving the point was a decree issued by Pope Leo I (d. 461) at a Roman synod. As Letha Böhringer has shown here, Hincmar quoted this decree three times and at length: “So holy Leo, when a Roman synod was held, wrote…”, “And holy Leo, pontifex of the Roman Church, decreed in a synod held at Rome…”; “And holy Leo and the Roman synod decreed…”.

Looking at the text, it’s no wonder Hincmar liked Pope Leo’s letter so much. A full English translation is provided below (based on Paris BnF lat. 12445), but in summary, Pope Leo complained about clerics going to the “examen saecularium” in spite of ancient (secular) laws prohibiting this.  In future, such clerics were to be excommunicated. If however a cleric accused a layman, it was possible for him to go to a secular court, with his bishop’s permission, if the layman refused to come before the bishop. Hincmar felt obliged to add that an advocate would be necessary in that case; but otherwise the text suited his purpose very nicely, when he was trying to persuade kings not to put bishops on trial.

So far, so good. The only problem is that in reality Pope Leo wrote nothing of the kind (even though a – poor quality – edition of the letter was included in the Patrologia Latina’s set of Leo’s writings) . The actual author of the text was a somewhat mysterious Bishop Leo of Bourges, working together with the bishops of Tours and Le Mans at some point in the mid-fifth century. The earliest manuscript of the text (the late 8th-century “Pithou collection” of Paris BnF lat. 1564) is quite unambiguous: in this version there’s no connection to Rome, and the text is copied down in a series of material linked to the Loire valley. Only in Hincmar’s own collection of legal texts, Paris BnF 12445 and Berlin SB 1741, has the Bourges letter become Roman – not least as marked by the insertion of the words “et synodus romana” into the letter in both manuscripts, a phrase conspicuously absent from the earlier version.

That a minor provincial synod issued a text like this is remarkable in itself; it’s important (and rather overlooked) evidence for the practical impact of clerical immunity in fifth-century Gaul. But how did this letter become transformed into a decree issued by Pope Leo the Great – at what point between c. 450 and c. 860  was the text “papalized”? And was this the result of genuine confusion between Leos, or a more deliberate attempt to put a crystal-clear statement about clerical immunity into a prestigious papal mouth? Given that the three manuscripts of the text I have mentioned are the only ones I know of, it’s not easy to say. One might conclude that innocent Hincmar knew the text only in the papalized version present in his own manuscripts.

And yet…. As it happens, Jinty Nelson has identified another occasion on which Hincmar drew on the text – one not mentioned by Letha Böhringer. This comes in a letter the archbishop wrote in the name of King Charles the Bald to Pope Hadrian II in the 870s. And this time there’s a surprising change in how he refers to it. Here’s the relevant passage: “And as Leo and the synod of Bourges (Byturicensis synodus) wrote, kings and emperors, whom divine power ordered to be in charge of the earth,  have permitted to bishops the right of dealing with their own affairs according to divine constitutions…”.

Misattributing a papal decree in a letter to Pope Hadrian would have been risky, because previous popes, like Nicholas, had learned to check up on Hincmar’s citations. In any case, although a papal association for the text had been useful for Hincmar previously, it was much less so here, because the thrust of this letter was all about kings not needing to depend on papal authority. Happily, on this occasion Hincmar somehow knew the Leo text was connected to Bourges, not Rome, after all. How convenient for the wily prelate!

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TRANSLATION. Note: some changes from the earlier version of the letter are marked in bold.

Leo, Victor and Eustochius  and the Roman synod sent what follows with their signatures to the bishops Sarmatio, Chariato, Desiderius, and to the priests of all the churches established within the Third Province.

The worldly authorities wished to hold the sacerdotal order in such reverence – even those whom divine power had ordered to be in charge of the earth under the imperial name – that they permitted the right of deciding cases (ius distringendorum) to be conferred to the holy bishops, according to the divine [imperial?] commands (divalia constituta). What was confirmed in the edicts of the ancient law and many times in the general laws, we find in the present time to be trampled upon by many people. For passing over the sacerdotal judgement, they pass to the examination of secular people (examen saecularium).

Therefore it seemed to us that a full punishment should avenge this insult to the holy laws and to our order in the present time, and should establish a formula to be kept in future. We accordingly decided that whoever passes over the bishop of his church and goes to the judgement (disceptatio) of the seculars will be expelled from the holy thresholds and kept away from the heavenly altar. Nor after this decision, which stands by common sentence, should anyone attempt to acquire for himself beyond what is prescribed. So may it happen that those who previously erred should correct themselves with a fitting emendation, and whoever was proven to serve in a clerical office under heavenly observation should know that he is cast out from the clergy if he passes over the judgement of bishops and goes to the authority of secular people.

We wish all individuals and everyone to recognise that what is constituted in the full order of justice and law shall take the effect of total confirmation in all the business of clerics. But if a cleric accuses a layman, let the cleric first demand to be heard by the bishop; then if he sees the layman is opposed to his demand, let him contend in the judgement of the secular moderator, with the permission of his bishop.

Bishop Leo signed
Victorius bishop signed
Eustochius bishop signed.
And all the other bishops who were there signed.

1066 and the other papal banner

In 1066, the Norman Duke William persuaded Pope Alexander II to send him a papal banner, signifying his approval of William’s cross-Channel enterprise (this banner may even be depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, in the image above).

But the fall of Anglo-Saxon England wasn’t the only major upheaval taking place in western Europe that year, and nor was William the only person to be sent such a banner. For the pope sent another one to a man named Erembald, who was involved in a conflict of arguably equal importance in European history to that of the Norman Conquest.

That conflict was taking place in what was probably by this date the largest city in the Latin west, many times larger than London: Milan. Defining precisely what it was about isn’t entirely straightforward, not for lack of sources but because it was complicated. What is clear is that a large group of Milanese inhabitants, led by two minor clerics called Ariald and Landulf Cotta, and later the layman Erembald, were attempting to impose a stricter lifestyle on the wider Milanese clergy, against the Milanese archbishop’s wishes: a ban on marriage, above all.

The emergence of this group, known as the Pataria, led to large-scale civil unrest in Milan – this is the period when the ‘crowd’ starts to make its appearance in western history after a long hiatus, and perhaps the first time when the authorities really lost control of a major political centre. For months – years – no one really controlled this city, with its tens of thousands of inhabitants, at all.

The Patarine movement enjoyed intermittent support from the papacy, which is why Alexander sent Erlembald the banner. After all, one of the objectives of popes in this period was to separate out clergy from the laity more sharply, which was what the Pataria were trying to do too, so the Pataria and the popes had a shared interest. But in 1067, Pope Alexander sent two legates to Milan to try to calm things down, and it’s the edict or Costituzioni (full Latin text available here) they jointly produced that interested me in the episode. That’s because two central clauses concerned legal clerical exemption:

But we set out how one of these [corrupt clerics] should lose his office and benefice for inequity of his order, or variety of sin: we wish every ecclesiastical office to remain in the dignity of its status, and we permit no cleric for the sin of whatever offense of his office in some way offensive to God to come before the judgement of laymen, but rather we prohibit this in every way.


[Let the archbishop] have the power of canonically judging and punishing all his clergy, both in the city and outside it, in all parish churches and chapels, so that safe from secular judgment, they may stand quietly in divine service and the authority of the canons, and devoutly obey their archbishop.

In this respect, then, the views of Pataria and Papacy diverged: the former prioritised moral standing, and saw clerical privilege as potentially protecting sinful clerics; the latter was determined to confer some institutional rigour on the separation between clerics and laity (in fact a Roman council of 1059 had previously made a similar decree). Erlembald seems to have taken it upon himself to pass judgement on clerics; banner or not, for the papacy this was a step too far.

Admittedly, the papal banner had as much or as little impact in Milan as it did at Hastings, and it’s safe to say that the Pataria paid little if any attention to the Costituzioni of 1067: their battles were fought on the streets as much as through pages of solemn canon law. But it’s a reminder – if reminder were needed – that ‘reform’ in the 11th century was a coalition of interests, much like William’s Norman expedition.

It’s a reminder too that not every element of church reform was new – for (as is becoming clearer to me) the legal dimension of a separation between clerics and laymen, crucial to the reforming papacy, was a late antique theme that had been already been revived anew in the 9th century.  To what extent should we think about the Gregorian Reform as a messy culmination of thinking and attitudes developed in the ninth century?

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Getting Rid of a Turbulent Priest

The exemption of clerics from secular jurisdiction presented powerful men and women of the laity with a challenge right through the Middle Ages.  Really, could nothing be done if your local priest was making a nuisance of himself? Did you just have to grin and bear it?

Of course not. Here’s a case from Francia showing that actually there was always scope for influential laymen to exert pressure on local priests, not so much in spite of canon law as through it.  We don’t know the name of the 9th-century priest in question, but we do know the name of his enemy: a powerful man named Anselm. This is what seems to have happened.

For some reason now unknown, Anselm had a grudge against a local priest: perhaps he had supported a rival candidate to the church, perhaps the priest had criticised him or blocked him in some way. Sometimes 9th-century priests were physically attacked and even maimed in these circumstances, but Anselm chose a different, subtler tactic. He reported the priest to his bishop, who happened to be Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, for having slept with a woman. This was a clever move, for Archbishop Hincmar was a stickler for clerical celibacy, and the priest duly appeared before a clerical court.

Now, the normal procedure in these circumstances in 9th-c. Francia was for the priest either to confess, or to clear his name with an oath – and, crucially, with the support of a large number of oath-helpers (at least seven), who would all swear that he was telling the truth. Anselm seems to have predicted this would happen. That’s why he sent a few men to intimidate the most likely oath-helpers, the other priests of the vicinity, in advance of the court meeting. (This kind of intimidation was a fairly typical use of aristocratic retinues, about whom I’ve written here). The aim was evidently to make it difficult for the priest to find enough oath-helpers to clear his name, in which case he would be facing deposition.

Unfortunately for Anselm, Archbishop Hincmar seems to have smelled a rat. The wily archbishop arbitrarily decided that on *this* occasion it wasn’t necessary for the priest to have many (plures) oath-helpers – just a few would do. Afterwards, Hincmar sent a stiff letter to Anselm, urging him (in modern parlance) to let go of his anger against the priest; and warning him that if he didn’t, he’d be in trouble. By happy coincidence, the oath by which the priest had cleared his name survives, and so too does the oath of those oath-helpers the priest managed to find (these texts are all provided below in English).

On this occasion, then, a layman’s attempt to manipulate canon law didn’t work out, and justice was preserved. With his exacting standards, Archbishop Hincmar might not have been the easiest of bishops to work under, but in this case, thanks to a little judicious flexibility, he came up trumps. Always assuming, that is, that the priest was telling the truth. After all, 9th-century rural priests were not above collective conspiracies to support each other in court…

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A letter of Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims [1]
“Hincmar, to the illustrious man Anselm about a certain priest, whom Anselm had accused before him [Hincmar], but had not come to the arranged court meeting. Hincmar explained that this priest had canonically purified himself there from the accusation in front of Anselm’s legates, in the sight of many people, both clerical and laymen, but had not sent many priests as his witnesses to the oath, because he did not have to.

And he [Hincmar] encouraged and exhorted that he [Anselm] should expel from his heart all the rancour which had had against the priest from his heart, showing how bad it was to retain hatred in his heart. And he forbade by the authority of God and His saints that he [Anselm] should carry out any prejudice or machination against the priest; for if he did this, he [Hincmar] would carry out his office (ministerium). And he also requested that he [Anselm] should do justice to God and to him about his men, who had dared to inflict injuries upon the priests and witnesses of the already mentioned priest. For if he [Anselm] did not do this, he [Hincmar] would carry out his office (ministerium) about them too.”

The Priest’s oath [2]
“I, priest N of St Mary in the village of N, declare concerning the woman N about whom I was accused by the illustrious man Anselm before my bishop H., prelate of the church of Reims: that I did not perpetrate a corporeal sin through the mingling of the flesh, for which I ought to be removed from the sacerdotal office. Thus may God help me through these holy relics.”

The oath-helpers’ oath
“As this Priest N has sworn here to clear himself of infamy, so I truly believe. Thus may God help me through these holy relics.”


[1]  Calendered by Flodoard in his History of the Church of Reims (10th century). The letter is undated, so could have been written any time between 845 and 882, when Hincmar was archbishop. The Latin text is here. 

[2]  Preserved in a 17th-century edition: trans. from Schmitz, De Presbiteris Criminosis, p. 30.

The testimony of no cleric… no, scratch that: of no *layman*.

Just yesterday I came across this manuscript, and thought it so exciting to deserve a quick blog post (this one’s a bit more ‘technical’ than the last couple of posts – you’ve been warned!). The manuscript’s now in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (Ms lat. 4281), and you can see the whole thing for free courtesy of the marvellous Gallica. As far as I can tell, it’s a composite manuscript, mostly of canon law from c. 900.

What interests me however is a folio that was written a bit later, and added into the manuscript – folio 65, from around the year 1000. The folio’s text is mostly a liturgical instruction for how to hold a church council (Schneider’s Ordo 2a, for those of you keen on that sort of thing). But the folio begins with an extract from the so-called Constitution of Sylvester. Now, this is a text in the name of the legendary pope who baptised Constantine in the fourth century, but in reality it was probably faked in the sixth, as part of a campaign by the embattled Pope Symmachus, and it has a section setting out rules for how clerics can be accused. The text was copied into Pseudo-Isidore’s notorious canon law collection in the ninth century – itself a forgery, in that it claimed to be something it wasn’t – through which knowledge of the Constitution of Sylvester subsequently spread (you can read it here).

Whoever wrote this folio copied out just that section about accusing clerics. That’s very interesting in its own right. But what’s more, someone later reader has subsequently made a subtle – but for me very important – alteration. A key sentence (probably) originally read “Testimonium clerici adversus laicum nemo recipiat”, ie “That no one should accept the testimony of a cleric against a layman”. The intention in the sixth century was to firm up the legal boundaries between secular and clerical. But for the corrector, working after 1000, that wasn’t good enough. As is clear just from looking at the manuscript, s/he has erased and rewritten words in order to swap around the clerics and the laymen. So now the text reads “Testimonium laicorum adversus clericum non recipiatur”, ie That no one should accept the testimony of laymen against clerics”: a beautifully clear, and much more powerful, statement of clerical privilege.

Who might have done this, when, and why? I don’t yet know, but hope to find out more soon (the manuscript was probably in Limoges at the time, which is a starting point). For the moment, though, it’s just a fascinating illustration of how sixth-century texts were still important enough to be not just copied but amended five hundred years later: and of how a Late Antique forgery was given life in the ninth century through another forgery, only to be altered in the eleventh century: a forged reforged forgery, in other words. More soon, I hope.

The Ostrogoth, the Pope and the Scholar

It’s only a small exaggeration to say that most of what we know about the Ostrogothic kingdom, we owe in one way or another to the indefatigable royal servant, bureaucrat and statesman Cassiodorus. Pride of place is taken by Cassiodorus’s remarkable letter collection, the Variae – letters mostly written on behalf of Ostrogothic kings. Cassiodorus’s Latin isn’t easy, so most students (and not just them) approach the Variae in translation.

Unfortunately, published English translations are either partial (Barnish) or ‘condensed’ (Hodgkin), and the same’s true of translations into other modern languages. Useful though of course they are, in some ways partial translations are worse than none – they discourage anyone from undertaking a full version, and they condemn whatever they miss out to relative obscurity (just think of the damage done by the admittedly handy selective translation of Alcuin’s letters by Allott).

For that reason, here’s a draft translation of one of the Variae letters that hasn’t (I think) been fully translated into English before, but that’s very relevant to what I’m currently working on. It’s from King Athalaric to ‘the Roman clergy’, and its main point is that in future, anyone making an accusation against a (Roman) cleric has to go to the Pope first.  What it certainly isn’t is a blanket grant of clerical immunity, because Athalaric confirms that the plaintiff can subsequently turn to “secular courts” if he feels the Pope wrongly decided against him. So, no “privilege of clergy” here – though Athalaric does declare that if the plaintiff is proven wrong again in the secular court, he will face a double punishment.

I couldn’t help but notice that Hodgkin’s ‘condensed’ translation omits the bit about criminal accusations against a priest. That makes it easier for him state that Athalaric’s/Cassiodorus’s letter “relates to civil, not criminal procedure”, something that I think isn’t at all clear from the text. Hodgkin also argued that such an appeal from the pope’s decision could be carried out only with “immense difficulty” – a statement that again I’m not sure is warranted. Hodgkin (d. 1913) was a prodigiously talented and industrious historian, but he was also a writer of his time, and I suspect this may be another case of 19th-century assumptions about “clerical privilege” spilling over into scholarship – something I’ll be talking about again at the upcoming IMC in Leeds.


Draft Translation: Letter of King Athalaric to the Roman Clergy, c.527 (Variae, VIII 24)

As much we have received more than other mortals, so we owe more to the Divinity: for what can he who has received rulership repay to God that is comparable? But although for such a gift nothing can be suitably repaid, at least thanks are returned when He is honoured in His servants.

And so: in a tearful request, you complained that that this was instituted by long custom: that if anyone believes that a servant of the holy Roman Church should be accused of anything (aliqua actione pulsandum), then he should go to the bishop of that city to declare his business, lest your cleric, profaned by external  lawsuits, should spend his time in secular (saecularibus) matters. And you added that your deacon had been compelled by such bitterness of action, to the insult of religion, in that a saius [an Ostrogothic official] had dared to hand him over to his own custody. And you asserted that a priest of the Roman church had been accused of crime (criminaliter impetitum) for trivial matters [sentence omitted by Hodgkin].

We declare that this greatly displeased us, on account of the instilled reverence we owe to our Maker: that those who previously had deserved to serve the sacred mysteries should now be exposed to courts, and irreverently subjected to nefarious injuries. But this deception of others, which is to be punished, brings us the outcome of the greatest praise, the opportunity of providing assistance, which commends us to divine aid.

And so, considering both the honour of the apostolic see and listening to the wish of the supplicants, we define in the moderated order of this decree that, if anyone believes that someone pertaining to the Roman clergy should be accused in no matter what likely matter, then let him first go to be heard at the judgement of the holy pope, so that he [the pope] shall either decide between the two after the fashion of his sanctity, or delegate the matter to be settled by the zeal of equity. And if perhaps – it is awful to believe it – the worthy desire of the plaintiff shall have been evaded, then let him hasten to swear at the secular courts (saecularia fora), when he can prove that his petitions have been ignored by the already mentioned holy See.

If such a wicked litigator should exist, condemned by everyone’s judgement for sacrilege [?], who scorns to show reverence to such a see, and believes that something can be obtained by our decrees, then let be struck with a penalty of 10 pounds of gold before the outcome of any assembly, which shall be taken at once by the officers of the Sacred Largess and given to the poor through the hands of the above mentioned bishop, so that losing the business he was seeking, he might also be punished by a loss. For it is appropriate for him to be struck by a double penalty, who has dared go against both divine reverence and  our orders.

But you, whom our judgments venerate: live by church decrees. For it is a great wickedness for those to commit crime who ought not to have a secular way of life. For your profession is heavenly life. So do not descend to the errors of mortals and mean promises. Let earthly men be compelled by human law, while you obey holy traditions.

Scandalous priests and bishops

In April 2014, Canon Jeremy Pemberton became the first priest in England to enter into a same-sex marriage. In September 2014 he filed a discrimination claim with an employment tribunal after he had been blocked from taking up a position as an NHS chaplain in Nottinghamshire because of his marriage.

The case is obviously personally difficult for Jeremy Pemberton and his husband, Laurence Cunnington. But for a historian it also offers some fascinating comparisons and contrasts with earlier church practice, and in particular how clergy have been disciplined over prohibited sexual behaviour. Legally, it is a relative novelty that Canon Pemberton is able to take his case to a secular employment tribunal at all. His case is complicated because of the question of whether he is employed by the NHS or by the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham (whose bishop removed his permission to officiate, which he needed for the NHS post). But employment tribunals have increasingly become willing to accept that in some circumstances ministers of religion do count as employees and thus have employment rights, although the Church of England still argues that their clergy are not employees. Secular jurisdiction over priests has historically been something that individual clerics have tried to avoid, seeking the ‘benefit of clergy’. Now, however, some of them are actively seeking it.

Canon Pemberton’s case shows more historical continuity in other respects, however. Partly this is because it raises interesting jurisdictional questions. His previous position as an NHS chaplain, which had not been threatened, was in the diocese of Lincoln, in the archdiocese of Canterbury. His new job would have been in the archdiocese of York. The implication is that different bishops and archbishops have chosen to enforce the Church disciplinary rules prohibiting same-sex marriage in very different ways. Such episcopal leeway would have seemed very familiar in the Middle Ages, where the zealous (or overzealous) enforcement of priestly good conduct by some bishops might be ignored by their successors or fellow-bishops.

And the case also displays the perennial difficulty for any Church on sexual matters: how far should it intrude into the bedroom? Sexual behaviour is by its nature private and the Church of England has stated that clergy can legitimately be in civil partnerships (and can even theoretically become bishops) provided that their relationship with their partner is celibate. There are intriguing parallels with priests in the pre-eleventh Catholic church, who could theoretically be married, though not sexually active within such a marriage.

Canon Pemberton’s offence, therefore, is not strictly speaking a sexual one, unless the bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has evidence to the contrary. Instead, it is a breach of the Church of England’s rules prohibiting clerics from entering same-sex marriages. The justification for this prohibition is taken from a canon that talks of the need for clerics and their families to be ‘wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ’.

Such language concerning reputations would have been familiar to an early medieval bishop like Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims (845-882). He wrote numerous episcopal statutes setting out how the priests and laity of his archdiocese should behave and the means for ensuring correct behaviour. His second episcopal statute from 852 gave instructions for archdeacons and rural deans as to how they should run regular investigations into priests’ behaviour. A long section is devoted to the need for priests to avoid too close contact with women, such as allowing unrelated women to live in the priest’s house.

Hincmar, however, was not concerned only with illicit sexual activity by such priests. Almost as important was the ‘evil reputation’ (mala fama) that such priests might gain within the community. As c. 21 (p. 56) of the statute points out, Hincmar’s concern is that such behaviour by priests ‘may damage the conscience of the weak by evil suspicion’ (mala suspicione infirmorum conscientias maculent). His statute details the procedure by which such priests could be removed from office if sufficient of their congregation were prepared to testify against them. Such witnesses did not have to prove immoral conduct by their priest. They had to swear only that they had seen or knew certainly that ‘women had such access or frequenting or cohabitation with that priest, from which there could be evil suspicion and an evil reputation could get out’ (c. 21, p. 58: si vidisti aut pro certo scis talem accessum vel frequentiam aut cohabitationem feminas habere cum isto presbitero , unde mala suspicio esse possit et mala fama possit exire).

In the modern Anglican church, similar principles seem to be at work, but on a much wider canvas. Public opinion and rumours about gay priests and sexuality more generally now extend not through a small rural parish, but across the globe. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, claims that the Church of England accepting gay marriage may lead to attacks on African Christians, while another bishop reports that he was once asked in Central Africa why you now had to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. Yet at the same time, the most common reason for people in Great Britain to have a negative view of the Church of England is that it is too prejudiced against women and gay people (as Linda Woodhead found in a recent survey). How can ‘scandal’ be avoided when different audiences are scandalised by diametrically different actions?

The Church of England may well be legally successful in Canon Pemberton’s employment tribunal. While exemptions from the law of the land for churches and their ministers are now far narrower than in the days of benefit of clergy, such exemptions are well-established and not under serious threat from secular politicians. But in an era of rapid global communication, it is far harder to ensure that either individual clerics or the Anglican church itself does not end up having ‘an evil reputation’ among many laypeople.

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Mabel of Sleaford

One of the things it can be hard to explain to the wider public is quite how fragmented History is as a field. To be sure, TV historians will cover anything and everything, but those carrying out research tend, inevitably, to be specialists in particular periods and particular places, and quite often, in particular methodologies or approaches. So, historians who focus on the earlier Middle Ages don’t tend to read later sources much.

There are of course sound reasons for this, but there are costs too. And the project I’m working on at the moment, which is taking me well into the twelfth and even thirteenth centuries, is a powerful reminder of just how much we early medievalists are missing out on as result. For those adjusted to the peculiar pleasures of making the most of scraps of evidence, looking at post-1200 records can be a disorienting experience.

This week, I was looking at early assize rolls from Lincolnshire. Assize rolls are records of English court judgements, initially kept so the king’s agents could know how much revenues they were owed in fines and penalties. From around 1200, these documents are preserved in ever-increasing volume, representing the precocity of English royal government (there’s not really anything comparable on the continent at this time). The two rolls I was looking at were made during a visit by the king’s judges to Lincoln Castle in June 1202, where they dealt with a large number of cases, including, which is what interests me, a few cases involving clerics.

Here’s one of the cases they dealt with. A woman named Mabel lived near Sleaford with her husband Godwin. At some point before June 1202, a carpenter named Alured killed Godwin. Alured had then fled into the church, which probably saved his own life, but he had to go into exile, and all his property was confiscated. The newly widowed Mabel, though, wasn’t satisfied. She accused a man called William of having held down her husband while Alured murdered him. However, William was a subdeacon, and as such, was able to claim ‘benefit of clergy’: so he was allowed to leave the courtroom, and handed over to the ecclesiastical court, or ‘court christian’. What happened to him afterwards isn’t known, but he was probably defrocked.

Mabel didn’t give up though on getting justice for poor Godwin: she next accused Alured’s wife and daughter, Juliana and Isabelle, of having advised Alured to kill him. But because Mabel wasn’t able to prove their involvement, she ended up with a fine for a false accusation, though the judges let her off – out of pity, or maybe because she couldn’t pay.

For the historian acclimatised to the wealth of legal thirteenth-century sources, much of this is fairly hum-drum. But for the early medievalist used to reading between the lines, this is a remarkable account in every way. It demonstrates that wives and daughters were plausibly involved in driving male relatives to commit murder, that women could make use of the royal court system, that practices of sanctuary actually worked, and that goods could be valued and confiscated. And to top it all, it’s specific: we know that this was all discussed in Lincoln Castle one summer, eight hundred years ago.

For my purposes, what’s particularly significant though is that William, the cleric, was able to pull the clerical card. Historians of English law have tended to play down the extent and effectiveness of ‘benefit of clergy’, arguing that it was a fairly marginal affair, more honoured in the breach than the observance. If one works primarily from the normative sources (what ought, or ought not, to have happened), that’s not surprising. Actually, just a couple of decades later, the bishop of Lincoln was writing letters complaining about royal judges putting clerics on trial. So clearly claims of exemption didn’t always work, and maybe weren’t even always made.

Yet in this particular instance, it probably saved someone’s life. And – though here I’m speculating – it made a difference to Mabel too, denying her what she would probably have seen as justice. Historians, then, might say that clerical exemption wasn’t a major issue in medieval England. I suspect Mabel would have strongly disagreed.