Category Archives: simony

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 http://www.academia.edu/916047/Can_Secularism_be_Other-wise_A_Critique_of_Charles_Taylors_A_Secular_Age_