‘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).

4 thoughts on “‘Giving for the sake of the good’: the defence of simony and intellectual plurality in eleventh-century Europe”

  1. Might your fragment represent an echo of the debate at Sutri in 1046, when Gregory VI (John Gratian) was deposed for buying the papacy, though for what everybody seems to have agreed were virtuous reasons? How much of that debate survives?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Bob! Very little of that debate survives, as far as I know, except unsympathetic reports. And I think this text is later. It talks about the sale of canonical prebends, so I think this is some disgruntled cathedral cleric. But it might very well reflect and pick up on some of the arguments that were made in Gregory’s favour.

  2. Thank you very much for this, dear Charles, and for your talk at our Departmental Seminar. What I find particularly interesting here is that the anonymous cleric uses the metaphor of the sheep and wolves which is common in the anti-heretical discourse. There it is used to draw attention to… the heretics’ double-speak.

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