Category Archives: Late Antiquity

How to become bishop: ecclesiastical liberty in the ninth century

What’s the best way to become a bishop? Writing around 835, a cleric gave an example of how it should be done. Long ago, there was a rich man from a Lyon senatorial family called Eucherius. He gave away all his money to the poor, and went to live in a remote cave. There he hid alone for many years, fasting and praying, until the bishop of Lyon died. Then divine grace revealed Eucherius to the Lyon clergy as the best replacement, so they retrieved him from his cave and ordained him as their new bishop.

The cleric who tells us this story, Florus of Lyon, isn’t very well-known today outside the circle of specialists. That’s a pity, because he’s a fascinating figure. Steeped in patristic learning, he cultivated a range of interests, including UFOs (yes, really – see ‘Florus de Lyon et les extra-terrestres’ on Pierre Chambert-Protat’s highly recommended blog). Florus could be acerbic, and he could also be radical: and his account of how Eucherius became bishop of Lyon is a case in point.

That’s because Florus didn’t tell the story to suggest that all prospective future bishops should give away their money and live hidden in remote caves waiting for their moment (a rather risky career strategy). Rather, what he wanted to emphasise was that no king had been involved in Eucherius’s appointment. And that kings had no role to play in episcopal appointments was the point of the short treatise in which Florus included this story, On the appointment of bishops, and which you can read here in a draft English translation  (to my knowledge, the first time it’s been translated).

In this treatise, Florus used the example of Eucherius (who really did become bishop of Lyon, in the fifth century) to suggest that worldly rulers never really had played a role in appointing bishops. Certainly the Christian Roman emperors hadn’t, because they were too busy ruling the entire world to bother with every single appointment. Florus described this situation as one of church freedom, ecclesiastica libertas. Afterwards, princes in ‘some kingdoms’ began to be consulted on appointments, but nothing more. Florus observed that even in his own day, not only was the pope of Rome appointed without royal interference, the pope himself ordained bishops without royal involvement.

Florus suggested that this tradition was only right and proper, because worldly rulers did not have the capacity to appoint new bishops: ordination was a gift of the Holy Spirit, not of humans. In some ways, Florus was stating the obvious here, since medieval kings never claimed that they could themselves ordain bishops. But in other ways, this was a very radical argument, since in practice kings in Florus’s day exercised a lot of influence in the appointment procedure, up to the point of choosing the successful candidate.

Indeed, lots about Florus’s Book on the election of bishops has strong resonances with later currents of what we now call Gregorian church reform. For instance, the concern with drawing a sharper distinction between the church and the world; the focus on ecclesiastical appointments; the emphasis on the church’s freedom; the emphasis on the papacy; a distinctly polemical tone; and the use of Late Antique sources in new ways, for Florus’s short text cites Cyprian at length. In this respect as in other ways (hostility to Jews and heretics), Carolingian Lyons seems to have been something of a laboratory for later ideas.[1]

However, Florus’s argument wasn’t effective in the 830s. He seems to have written the treatise to stop the Frankish emperor Louis the Pious from imposing a new bishop named Amalarius on the church of Lyon. But directly challenging the emperor proved not to be the most tactful approach, so Florus gamely switched tactics, and mounted a no-holds-barred campaign to show instead that Amalarius was a heretic – a campaign which eventually worked much better.

Yet Florus’s text about appointing bishops is preserved in four manuscripts from around 900 (thanks to Gallica you can see one of them here), showing that near-contemporaries could see and appreciate the general significance of this work, even after the immediate controversy it was written for had died down. The so-called Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century, it’s becoming ever clearer, had very deep roots.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Image: Wikipedia (the Prague Gospels, s. IX: Cim 2, knihovně Pražské metropolitní kapituly)

[1] See the very stimulating article by Warren Pézé, ‘Amalaire et la communauté juive de Lyon. À propos de l’antijudaïsme lyonnais à l’époque carolingienne’, Francia 40 (2013), pp. 1-25, open access here

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 – as marked by the inclusion 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 had 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 helped to write in the name of King Charles the Bald to Pope Hadrian II in 871. And this time there’s a surprising change in how the text is referred to. 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!

UPDATE & CORRECTION June 2017: The MGH edition of the letters to Pope Hadrian actually prints “Leo ac Romana synodus” here and here. And it turns out that’s what the manuscript, Paris BnF Lat.1594, says on f. 152v. It looks like Delande’s emendation of the text to ‘Bourges’ was a hyper-correction based on his erudition, not on the manuscript.

So, Hincmar was consistent in attributing this text to Pope Leo after all: more proof that Hincmar wasn’t always as devious as some people have thought! (and more evidence I think that he was very closely involved in writing this letter – but that’s a topic for another blog).

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...


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.

Seeking Worldly Things: the Ninth-Century Constantine the Great

Early medieval western European societies were characterised by an intrinsic tension, sometimes latent but never resolved, between the domains of the secular and the religious, set within a Christian framework – at any rate, that’s the hypothesis of this research project. The legacy of the late Roman Empire was of course essential in establishing this tension, and this blog examines one particularly interesting example of how it did so. [1]

One of the earliest occasions for arguments over the relation between clerics and external authorities was the Donatist controversy. Its origins lay in the imperial persecution of Christians in north Africa in the early fourth century. Hardly had this persecution ended than one group of Christians (known later as Donatists) accused another (who called themselves catholics) of having surrended to it, betraying the Christian faith instead of choosing glorious martyrdom. The arguments became increasingly bitter, with each group electing rival bishops. This escalation meant that after Constantine the Great’s embrace of Christianity, it was difficult for imperial authorities not to get involved.

And involved they duly became. A key source for the early stages of this dispute is a letter from Emperor Constantine himself to the catholic bishops. Stating of the Donatists that “so great a madness persists in them when with incredible arrogance they persuade themselves of things that it is not right either to say or to hear”, the letter makes it pretty clear whose side the emperor was on.[2]

But what made Constantine especially angry was the Donatists’ audacity in having appealed to him as emperor: “… I have discovered that they demand my own judgment! So strong and persevering is the wickedness of these men!” For Constantine, that meant that the Donatists “are seeking worldly things (saecularia), abandoning the heavenly (caelestia)” (a line that is unfortunately omitted in the standard English translation). The clear implication is that the Christian emperor’s judgement is worldly, that of the bishops’ heavenly.

Yet is Constantine’s letter all that it seems? Recently, the German historian Klaus Rosen has suggested not.[3] He points to various textual anomalies – possible dependence on other texts, problems with the wording, and so on – to argue that in reality it’s a forgery. An important plank of his argument is that the letter is preserved only in a single, ninth-century manuscript from Tours (Paris BnF. lat. 1711 – unfortunately not yet digitised), created some half a millennium after the supposed origin of the text it encloses. That’s not actually so unusual – lots of important Roman texts are preserved only in much later copies. But it means that strictly speaking, all we can say for certain is that the letter must have been written after c.314 (the events it describes) and before c. 850 (the date of the manuscript).

Rosen’s argument is chiefly about the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, which he thinks took place later than the current orthodoxy has it: the letter appears to contradict this by suggesting a thoroughly Christian Constantine already in 314, so it’s important for Rosen to show why it can’t be trusted. But he also ventures to connect it to disputes concerning a rather later emperor: Louis the Pious. Rosen draws particular attention to a rubric, probably written in the ninth century, which summarises the letter as follows:

“Where he [Constantine] says that the Donatist party are litigating like outsiders, denouncing, appealing, and wanting the emperor to hear them after the judgement of bishops.”[4]

Rosen never quite says that the entire letter itself was forged in the ninth century, and actually that seems to me somewhat unlikely. But he’s surely right to draw attention to the manuscript transmission, and to the rubric showing that the letter was being read, not just transcribed. In other words, an important context for the letter – and if we are to be hyper-rigorous, the only absolutely secure one – is ninth-century Tours, when it was copied out and interpreted; and that, at a time when (some) bishops were moving towards an attempt to depose one of Constantine’s imperial successors, on the grounds of the superiority of episcopal judgement, just as (Pseudo-)Constantine had set out.

The point is often and rightly made that much of the intellectual heritage of the late Roman empire was preserved thanks to Carolingian scriptoria. But what Rosen and the letter of Constantine encourage us think about is what these scribes themselves thought they were doing. Were they selflessly saving texts for 21st-century historians of late Rome, or were they more concerned with relating this material to their own ninth-century present? The answer is of course probably the latter: and that, I suggest, should give us pause for thought.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

[1] Many thanks to Conrad Leyser for bringing the text on which this blog concentrates to my attention.

[2] Translation in Optatus: Against the Donatists, ed. and tr. M. Edwards (Liverpool, 1997).

[3] Klaus Rosen, Constantin der Grosse, die Christen und der Donatistenstreit 312-314. Eine Untersuchung zu Optatus von Mileve, Appendix V, und zum Verhältnis von Staat und Kirche im 4. Jahrhundert (Paderborn, 2011).

[4] “ubi dixit quia pars Donati quomodo forenses sic litigant ut denuntient et appellent et imperatorem desiderent audire post episcoporum iudicata”.