Category Archives: simony

‘Giving for the sake of the good’: the defence of simony and intellectual plurality in eleventh-century Europe

Here’s a ‘research postcard’ hastily written amidst the turmoils of term – some early reflections on a topic I’m hoping to work on more in future, prompted by the opportunity to present at a department seminar on the theme of intellectual plurality.

Eleventh-century Europe was not short of big issues, but one of the biggest of the lot was simony. That’s the term given to the illicit purchase of ecclesiastical office, i.e. paying to become a priest or a bishop, or conversely selling the roles. The involvement of money in advancement became a hot topic in the church centuries before it was considered controversial in secular contexts, where state offices were openly and unproblematically trafficked into the early modern period. And the eleventh century played a special role in this development. Though simony was an old concept, it wasn’t until the eleventh century that the noun itself, “simony”, named after Simon Magus in the bible, was coined. That makes the eleventh century a pivotal period in the deep history of European corruption.

In the abundant eleventh-century arguments about simony, it can be hard to find traces of intellectual pluralism. There were plenty of debates, but they mostly concerned the consequences of simony rather than its nature: these were debates about just how bad simony was, not debates about whether it was actually bad. We do have some reported defences of simony and simoniac practices, but these defences are almost always embedded within criticism of the practice: critics imagining how wicked simoniacs might defend themselves, for instance by sneakily distinguishing between the office and the revenues that came with the office, before the critics go on to demolish these flimsy arguments with ease and panache.[1]

In a way, this makes the eleventh-century simony crisis hard to explain. If everyone agreed simony was wrong, why was it so commonly practised, and so hard to eradicate? There are lots of answers to this, but one is double-think. Corruption is after all famously subjective in all its forms. My little token of appreciation is your underhand bribe; my hint that you might show some gratitude for my help is your shameless extortion. As we all know from experience, it’s perfectly possible for people to employ double standards – to keep doing something that we would loudly condemn if we saw others doing it.

But was that all there was to it? Another potential explanation is suggested by one text – and only one. It survives in just a single manuscript, kept in the library established by Nicholas of Cusa in the tiny town of Kues in Germany, where it’s shelved as Codex Cusanus 52. The text itself is written on a single fragile parchment leaf which was originally an independent sheet, only later bound into this manuscript.[2] This is a work that is preserved by the skin of its teeth. And it is unique in apparently representing a genuine and sincere argument made in favour of simony: in favour, in other words, of paying for clerical office.

The treatise, perhaps intended as a sermon, was written by an educated cleric, maybe around the 1080s, and the surviving copy is not much later, depending on how one assesses the palaeography (see helpful comments from Twitterstorians here, with a broad consensus on c. 1100 – possibly earlier, maybe Italian). I won’t rehearse all the treatise’s arguments now; it’s enough to say that its basic emphasis is on intention. It’s not bad to pay for office if it’s done for good reasons: for instance, to stop someone really terrible from taking the post instead, or to give something back to the church in return for all the revenues that one receives as a consequence of promotion. As the text says, ‘Perhaps foolishly, we think that it is possible to give money for consecration without blame’ (…pro consecratione interdum pecuniam sine culpa dari posse forsitan stulte putamus). And it illustrates this point with an analogy. To defend a flock of sheep from wolves, one needs a staff or a stick: what does it matter exactly how one acquires the stick, provided one intends to use it well, and to keep the wolves away from Christ’s sheep? A stick that you’ve paid money for hurts the wolf just as much. In short (to quote the treatise), “To give for the sake of good is always good’ (dare causa boni semper bonum sit).

So, what to make of this unique text? Although it was edited in 1905 by Siegmund Hellmann, it’s been little studied (probably because it wasn’t included in the main body of simony materials which had been published a decade earlier); indeed it still doesn’t have a generally acknowledged name or title. Is it an intellectual exercise, an early example of the kinds of scholastic practice arguments designed to improve scholars’ logic and rhetoric – in other words, not to be taken at face value? Or does it rather suggest that serious arguments in defence of simony were sometimes made, even if they have been obscured by archiving pressures, which tended over time to weed out works making uncomfortable arguments? (along similar lines to works by people later judged heretical, which stood fairly little chance of being preserved, at least from this distant period).

I need to do more work on this. But at the moment, I’d incline towards the latter interpretation, because it helps explain the tenacity of simony. As Roman Deutinger suggests, we can understand better why simony was so difficult to eliminate if there were people resisting the wave of condemnation, in reasonably sophisticated ways, even if their line of argument did not in the end carry the day. In other words, perhaps simony’s persistence was not just the product of double-think or double-standards, or of the challenge of shifting economic realities, but of genuine intellectual plurality, even though that diversity of views has now become very hard to hear amidst the din of the polemics that triumphed.

By implication, I’d argue the treatise suggests that the eventual hegemony of now common-place assumptions about corruption and office in the European context was contingent. The acceptance that paying for office is unacceptable, which eventually crept into secular life too, wasn’t inevitable or pre-ordained, but the result of arguments and debate. Perhaps we didn’t need to read an eleventh-century treatise to realise that, but it’s good to be reminded.

[1] The best analysis of these defences is Roman Deutinger, ‘Simonisten rechtfertigen sich: mittelalterliche Antworten auf den Vorwurf der Simonie’, Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 120:2 (2009 ), pp. 145-159. I am grateful to Herr Deutinger for sharing his article.

[2] Codex Cusanus 52 (Kues). On the manuscript, see Becker, Benediktinerabtei St. Eucharius, who associates the ms with St Eucharius of Trier (though without discussing this particular inserted page).

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.

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