Category Archives: simony

No mercy for the simoniacs

In 1059, the campaign to rid the church of the evil of simony moved up a gear. Simony was the sin – contemporaries said heresy – of acquiring ecclesiastical office in exchange for gifts, or promises of favour. At a council in Rome, Pope Nicholas II declared that all priests who had secured their position in this way were now deposed.

But Nicholas went further than that. He not only deposed priests who had paid for their offices, he also targeted priests who had been ordained by such priests, even if their own ordination had been carried out for free (gratis). This was a radical and controversial measure, reminiscent, as Conrad Leyser has pointed out, of the Donatist schism in the fifth century, because it implied that the sacraments of simoniac priests were invalid. Its practical implications were so great that Nicholas accepted that priests already freely ordained by simoniacs might stay in their offices – but by merciful concession, not by the letter of the law.

Nicholas’s decree also dealt with matters of papal election, so it might be tempting to read its far-reaching statements about simony as primarily an act of dramatic rhetoric, aimed at a local, Roman audience. Was it really intended to have an impact in the Latin church as a whole?

Actually, the answer might be yes. There’s a clue in the manuscript transmission – ie, how the text was preserved in the Middle Ages. Nicholas’s decree was copied not in manuscripts written in Rome, but in manuscripts based on a compilation of Archbishop Lanfranc of Canterbury – and quite separately, in a manuscript now preserved in Vic in Catalonia. As Rudolf Schieffer pointed out, this suggests that Nicholas II took care to promulgate his decisions beyond Rome, sending out not only this decree, but also related material such as an oath sworn by the recanting heretic Berengar of Tours, which accompanies the 1059 decree in all manuscripts.

The Vic manuscript is especially interesting, however, since it also contains a copy of Humbert of Moyenmoutier’s 1058 treatise Three Books Against the Simoniacs. It’s long been debated how much this radical text spread, since not many copies of it now survive. But its proximity to the 1059 decree about simony in the Vic manuscript suggests not only that it might have spread more than we might think, but that it might even have been actively disseminated by the papacy as part of its anti-simony campaigns.

The mid-eleventh-century papacy is often overshadowed by Pope Gregory VII, but it’s becoming ever clearer how much he was the product, and not the cause, of ‘reform’.

Pope Nicholas II’s 1059 decree (PDF)

Simony, the Latin West and Byzantium

It’s long been emphasised by historians of the European Middle Ages that their subjects did not think of themselves as medieval, a periodisation that was only invented and imposed later. Less often discussed, but perhaps just as important, is that they would not usually have thought of themselves as ‘European’ either. There certainly was a medieval concept of Europe (Europa). But as Klaus Oschema and Marie-Céline Isaia have suggested, that itself means that we should be cautious about using the term when the people we are studying did not.

To avoid the risk of anachronism that the language of “medieval Europe” might bring with it, historians have sometimes instead talked of the Latin West to describe their focus of study. In many ways this is both understandable and justifiable. People living in Carolingian Francia, for instance, did think of themselves as western, and the widespread use of Latin in liturgical and learned contexts – no matter what the vernacular – eased cultural transfer across wide areas, from Ireland to Hungary, and from Iceland to Sicily. There is a real cultural network here to be studied.

However, this cultural network was not strictly bounded or contained, and in fact many of its most central ideas developed in and through dialogue with those living elsewhere. As Saba Mahmood has put it when talking of European encounters with the wider world, ‘These encounters did not simply leave Christianity untouched but transformed it from within…’[1]

The text presented here in English translation is a case in point. It is a letter written on the theme of simony, that it is to say the purchase (or, according to this treatise, attempted purchase) of ecclesiastical office: paying to become a priest or bishop. Very likely this letter was written by Humbert of Moyenmoutier, since it seems in some ways a first draft of his much longer (and more celebrated) Three books against the simonists. This letter was therefore an important step in the elaboration of a key concept in medieval history.

Significantly, however, this “early draft” was written to a Byzantine governor in southern Italy – a representative of another socio-political complex, in which Greek, not Latin played the role of lingua franca, and in which ancient ideas of the state (and of office holding) seemed better preserved. In other words, we can see Humbert developing his ideas – ideas that proved central in the history of the Latin West – in dialogue with people located in overlapping but distinct cultural networks.

Encounters such as these were not marginal to the development of the cultural network we might label the Latin West: they were baked in.

‘On the heresy of simony’: translation (opens pdf)

[1] Saba Mahmood, ‘Can secularism be other-wise? (A critique of Charles Taylor’s A secular age)’, available via