A History of Violence: Europe and the Conquest of Lisbon

Some 868 years ago today, on 24 October 1147, the city of Lisbon fell to a combined force of besiegers from England, Scotland, Germany, Holland and France. Thanks to a surviving report written by an eyewitness Anglo-Norman cleric, we have an excellent grasp of developments leading up to the siege, the weeks of the siege itself, and its immediate aftermath. From the point of view of a historian, that makes it an absorbing event to study. But it’s also an episode that raises troubling questions about coming to terms with a challenging past, in particular the way that violence has long been intertwined with European history.

At the time of the siege, Lisbon was under the control of a Muslim emir: it was part of Al-Andalus, the Islamic polity created in the eighth century by the invasion and defeat of the Visigothic kingdom. Its capture in 1147 was far from bloodless, as our chronicler, the author of the Conquest of Lisbon, recounts with relish, at least where enemy losses are concerned.[1] Heads are chopped off, ambushes bloodily sprung, and civilians killed (though most of the latter were in the end spared their life, if not their property, in contrast to the massacres commonly reported elsewhere).

Today, this kind of violence is increasingly segregated from general European history and treated separately as part of ‘The Crusades’, an active field of research for which there are specialised courses, journals, conferences, and of course shelves of books in libraries and any local bookshops that happen to survive.[2] In just this vein, the conquest of Lisbon is traditionally considered as part of the Second Crusade, indeed its ‘only success’, after the dismal failure (from a Latin Christian point of view, anyway) of expeditions in the Middle East.

Yet we need to be careful: any notion that there was an entirely distinct compartment of life in the Middle Ages labelled ‘crusading’ is misleading. Holy war or armed pilgrimage were thoroughly interwoven into medieval society, not separated from it. And despite common assumptions to the contrary, there is no convincing evidence that the participants in the siege were following any specific papal orders, or that the attack on Lisbon was pre-planned as part of the ‘Second Crusade‘. It was merely the latest in a series of ad hoc ventures launched by northern sailors (or pirates, depending on your point of view) passing through to the eastern Mediterranean, more or less under their own collective steam.

Viewed from 2015, what makes the violence carried out at Lisbon particularly troubling is precisely its importance in, and for, European history in general terms, beyond the study of ‘The Crusades’. That’s partly because the conquest of the city was a vital moment in the history of a major European state. In 1147, the kingdom of Portugal was just a few years old and was greatly strengthened by the victory at Lisbon. Understandably, the city’s capture resonates to this day in Portuguese culture, for instance in a celebrated (and highly recommended) novel, the History of the Siege of Lisbon by José Saramago, or in modern paintings like this blog’s header image.

More than that, though, the conquest itself was in a sense an example of collective European action, centuries before the European Union was dreamed up. To be sure, the besiegers did not think of it in those terms; they probably did not think of themselves as ‘Europeans’ at all (though the concept of Europe was not quite so unknown in the Middle Ages as is sometimes breezily asserted).[3] Yet the fact remains that the siege was undertaken by a multi-national group of people, or in the words of our eyewitness chronicler, ‘people of so many different tongues’.

What’s more, the besiegers were for the most part not knights, barons and kings, but townsmen from the growing urban communities around the North Sea. These ordinary men came together voluntarily and organised themselves in line with ideas of popular consensus, complete with elected officials. This was not modern democracy, but an arrangement closer to the parliamentary assemblies of medieval Europe – and the popular councils that increasingly ran its towns – than to its royal courts. That was something that the Portuguese king himself found out when negotiating terms with the assisting force:

And when the king inquired who our chiefs were or whose counsels were pre-eminent among us or if we had commissioned anyone to answer for our whole army, he was briefly informed that such and such were our chief men and that their acts and counsels carried especial weight, but that we had not yet decided on anyone on whom authority should be conferred to make answer for all.

In a sense, then, the Conquest of Lisbon was an early and quite remarkable episode of popular and effective international ‘European’ collaboration, undertaken not by heads of state but by ordinary people, giving an institutional form to the trust created through long-term friendly interaction, facilitated by geographic proximity, mutual interests and a broadly shared culture. The kingdom that they helped would go on to play a vital role in European affairs; conversely, so important to Portugal’s future was the siege that we could even say the kingdom was in part created by ‘European’ collaboration.

Yet the fact that this extraordinary and influential collaboration took place in such a terrible context – essentially an act of unprovoked aggression, notwithstanding the crusaders’ lipservice to the Islamic conquest of Spain some three centuries previously – should perhaps give us pause for thought, especially at a time when the European Union, and what Europe means, is once again under scrutiny. How best to deal with the violence inherent in European history is a challenge that isn’t restricted to the recent past, and a problem which hasn’t gone away.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

This was first posted on the History Matters blog.
For a longer study of the siege of Lisbon, see ‘All in the Same Boat? East Anglia, the North Sea World and the 1147 Expedition to Lisbon’ in David Bates and Robert Liddiard (eds.), East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 2013), pp. 287–300, or a pre-publication (unpaginated) version at academia.edu

[1] Conveniently available in English facing-page translation, together with a useful preface by Jonathan Phillips, in David, ed. and tr., The Conquest of Lisbon (2001). All quotations are drawn from this translation.

[2] Particularly recommended is Christopher Tyerman’s new How to Plan a Crusade (2015), with some luminous pages on the Lisbon siege.

[3] The most thorough guide is now Klaus Oschema, Bilder von Europa im Mittelalter (2013). For Anglophone readers, the best remains Timothy Reuter, ‘Medieval ideas of Europe’, History Workshop Journal 33 (1992).

How to deal with a vampire attack

The nights are drawing in, and the Halloween season is almost upon us. So I’ve put together what is I think the world’s first handy and practical flow-chart guide for how to deal with a vampire attack, based on an *actual event that took place in Derbyshire in the late eleventh century. Keep it close to hand – you never know when it might come in useful….
*well, according to a near-contemporary chronicler, anyway



Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

This flowchart is entirely based on a story reported by a twelfth-century chronicler, Geoffrey of Burton, in his Life and Miracles of St Modwenna (ed. and tr. Rob Bartlett, Oxford, 2002). Geoffrey wrote in the 1130s, but places the story c. 1090. It took place in the village of Drakelow, which was for a while abandoned as a consequence, but is now once again inhabited (for the time being…).

An excellent guide to revenants in the Middle Ages is provided by Jean-Claude Schmitt, Ghosts in the Middle Ages (1998); meanwhile, Alyx Mattison here in Sheffield is finishing a PhD examining the treatment of ‘deviant’ corpses in late Anglo-Saxon and early Norman England.

The doubting monk: atheism in the Middle Ages

Earlier this week I attended a workshop in Glasgow on atheism, organised by Callum Brown. Present were a number of modernists and early modernists, but also several medievalists too, because the idea behind the workshop was to examine the traditional grand narrative about the ‘rise of unbelief’. Was atheism really an invention of the Enlightenment; or were there sceptics around beforehand, hidden by the nature of the sources, all preserved by the Church? Or is an attempt to find such people, as John Arnold warned it might be, a kind of ‘heroic history’, seizing on rare, ambiguous and marginal references in the hope of identifying a few individuals who were ‘ahead of their time’?

It is often remarked upon that there was no word for atheism in the Latin Middle Ages. In fact, there is perhaps just one first-person account expressing doubt in the existence of God from the entire period (at any rate, it is the only one known to me). It comes in the work of a late eleventh-century monk, Otloh of St-Emmeram in southern Germany. In this work, written in the 1070s, Otloh explains how he was ‘tempted’ by the Devil, who whispered increasingly awful thoughts into his ears. Otloh should not have become a monk; Otloh was not a very good monk; God was severe and unkind.  Finally came the worst devilish thought of all: si vel ulla in scripturis sacris veritas sit ac profectus, vel si deus omnipotens constet prorsus dubitavi (“I wholly doubted whether there was any truth or usefulness in the holy Scriptures, or if Almighty God existed”).

Reading this passage after the Glasgow workshop, several thoughts come to mind. The first is that Otloh’s doubts were apparently not provoked by anything he had read, or any conversations he had had: they were purely the product of inward reflection. Otloh could not have read an atheist tract, for the good reason that none existed at this time. He worked out his doubts for himself. The second is that this moment of doubt in God – Otloh describes it as lasting for several hours –  clearly represented a crisis for Otloh, because he was a monk who had dedicated his life to serving God. For thinking doubters outside the monastery, the issue may well have been much less urgent, less in need of definite, definitive resolution.

A third thought relates to an aside of Otloh’s, that he did not dare tell anyone about his doubts: propter inauditam ipsius impugnationis qualitatem ulli fratrum aperte indicare vererer (‘because of the unheard of nature of this attack, I feared to mention it to any of the brethren’). This doubting monk had, it seems, never heard anyone questioning the existence of God before, so he did not talk about it either. Now, this can be interpreted in one of two ways: either such doubt was indeed incredibly rare, and Otloh was a very odd person; or it was quite widespread (even within monasteries), but taboo. The fact that Otloh wrote an account of his experience, in order to benefit future monks, strongly suggests that he at any rate suspected the latter. Perhaps many monks were afflicted by doubt at some point; perhaps every monk was.  But there was no possibility of forming a community of doubt; it was not a topic that could be discussed.

That might be an important pointer for those interested in histories of unbelief (heroic or otherwise). What seems to have changed in later periods was not that people became more sceptical, questioning or rational. It’s quite clear that people were all these things before the year 1700. The change was sociological rather than psychological, in the formation of a subculture that allowed doubters to talk to each other, to create and to confirm self-narratives of de-conversion. Had Otloh stumbled across or remembered a bootleg copy of some atheist pamphlet at the moment of his crisis, or found some doubting confidant, then events could have taken a very different turn. Instead, Otloh prayed to God, found renewed certainty and purpose, and wrote a narrative of reconversion to demonstrate his confidence to others – and perhaps also to himself.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Further reading
Otloh’s work is not currently available in English, though a translation is apparently in hand for Broadview. The best edition, with German translation, is by Sabine Gäbe, Otloh von St Emmeram: Liber de Temptatione cuiusdam monachi. Untersuchung, kritische Edition und Übersetzung (1999).  Hannah Williams has recently written a number of sophisticated studies of Otloh’s  text, for instance here (£).

The best general guide to these issues is unquestionably John Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (2005), esp. pp. 216-229. As always, Susan Reynolds, ‘Social Mentalities and the Case of Medieval Scepticism’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Sixth Series 1 (1991), repays reading.

“Secular power” in early medieval Bavaria

Early medieval sermons are a lamentably underappreciated form of evidence. That’s because they’re often anonymous (or pseudonymous) and difficult to date, and are often based on earlier texts anyway, though in maddening variation. Plus there’s a pervasive (and pernicious) feeling amongst (some) medievalists that proper preaching didn’t start until the later Middle Ages, which creates a self-reinforcing impression: no one works on early medieval sermons, so we don’t know that much about them, so no one works on them…

Thankfully that’s now beginning to change – and about time too, because these sermons are often fascinating despite, or because of, being derivative, relatively unpolished works.  This blog’s about one such sermon, preserved in not one but three ninth-century manuscripts from Bavaria. It’s been studied and edited in an excellent KCL thesis by James McCune.[1] Unfortunately the thesis, from 2006, hasn’t been published as a book (yet? it certainly ought to be), but it’s now available online here (pdf), and I’d recommend a read.

The sermon in question is typical of the genre in that it’s squarely based on an older text, Isidore of Seville’s Sentences – a collection of moral and edificatory wisdom from the early seventh century. To write the sermon, the (Bavarian?) compiler picked one of these ‘sentences’, titled ‘On the justice of princes’, and which begins ‘Who rightly uses royal power…’. Isidore declared that kings ought to be humble and steady, and above all ought to rule for the benefit of the people, whose mortal condition they after all share.

The compiler thought this would make the basis of a great sermon, and so copied it out more or less verbatim: except for one change, which is what brought it to my attention. For whenever Isidore wrote ‘royal power’ (regni potestas), the compiler instead wrote ‘secular power’ (secularis potestas). This doesn’t seem to be the result of a variant text in Isidore’s works – it was a conscious choice on the part of the compiler.

Why? One answer is that the sermon was written in ducal Bavaria, so talking about royal power was inappropriate – there wasn’t a king. Yet McCune thought the sermon was written quite a while after Charlemagne’s takeover of Bavaria. In any case, the sermon compiler could easily have talked about ‘ducal power’, if the problem was with ‘royal’. So I think we should treat his decision not as a kind of circumlocution, but as a deliberate authorial choice; he wanted to talk about ‘secular’ power, so that’s what he wrote.

His decision is a particularly interesting one, because it’s usually assumed that ‘secular’ is a word with negative connotations in the early medieval world – that ‘secular’ things were bad things, to be avoided by the pious, and at most to be tolerated.  That may well be so in general. Nevertheless, for this particular writer, ‘secular’ power was potentially a good thing, if exercised well. And that was a message that he thought was worth sharing with a wider audience, too. In fact, it might be that imagined audience which shaped his choice, in a text designed not to encourage monks to turn away from the world but to exhort laymen in authority to use their power wisely.

Whatever the reasons, the sermon shows that for one person in the ninth century, at least three scribes, and who knows how many listeners too, not only could ‘secular’ power be distinguished from ecclesiastical or church power, but it could be a positive thing, in its own right. Here’s a translation of the text so you can make up your own mind…

Translation (based on edition in McCune, Study, vol. II, p. 59.)

Who rightly uses secular power ought to excel over all others, so that the more he shines in the eminence of honour, the more he humbles himself in his mind. Let him place before himself the example of the humility of David, who did not swell with pride on his royal throne, but humbly cast himself down, saying ‘I shall enter in humbly before God, Who chose me’.

Who rightly uses secular power must demonstrate the form of justice more in deeds than in words. He is such a person who is not raised up by prosperity nor disturbed by adversity, who does not trust in his own strength, nor does his heart depart from the Lord. Iniquity delights him not, nor does cupidity inflame him, nor does he unjustly make wealth by defrauding any of the poor, and what he is able to obtain by just authority from the people, he often gives away with clement mercy.

God gave rulership to princes for ruling the people, and he wished them to be of use to the people, with whom they share the condition of being born and dying. Rulership ought to be of use to the people, not to harm them nor to oppress them by domination, but to give advice by condescension, so that this emblem of power may be useful, and they [the rulers] may use the gift of God for the defence of the limbs of Christ. For the faithful people are the limbs of Christ, and when they rule them well with that power which they take from God, they restore to God the giver a good thing in turn. The good prince turns back from crime to justice, when he is moved from justice to crime. He ought never to depart from truth in his intention: so that if by chance he should waver, he may call upon the grace of God so that he may rise up, and when he has risen up he will live more cautiously.
Through Him who lives and reigns forever, Amen.

[1] J. C. McCune, An Edition and Study of Select Sermons from the Carolingian Sermonary of Salzburg, 2006.


Religious Exemption and the State 400-1300, 14th-16th April 2016: call for papers

*** For the conference programme and other relevant information, see the conference website ***

Call for Papers (deadline Friday 19th September 2015)

Throughout history, religious groups across the world have claimed exemption from their rulers’ demands, with a considerable degree of success. Such exemptions were prevalent in the pre-modern world, from Buddhist monks’ accumulation of tax-free lands to Latin clerics’ assertion of ‘benefit of clergy’ and Islamic charitable waqf. Although the particular forms of exemption varied according to religious practices and the nature of the political systems in which they operated, a common set of core similarities is apparent.

A full appreciation of these exemptions’ significance in the pre-modern world has however been impeded, on the one hand by their embedding in traditional narratives such as the rise of the modern (Western) state, to which they are often represented as obstacles, and on the other by the conceptual difficulties posed by the categories at the historian’s disposal, such as ‘religion’, ‘secular’, and indeed ‘state’, when applied to the pre-modern period.

This conference, supported by the AHRC, seeks to engage with these problems as a contribution to developing a comparative global historical understanding of religious exemption from state demands in the pre-modern world. Confirmed participants include R.I. Moore (Newcastle), Naomi Standen (Birmingham), and Andrew Wareham (Roehampton).

The conference, held at the Department of History in Sheffield from Thursday evening  (14th April 2016) through to Saturday morning (16th April 2016), will address three key questions. Firstly, how common were these exemptions on a global scale, and what kind of commonalities did they share? Secondly, what kind of structural role did these exemptions play: did they weaken the states that conceded them, or did they rather – as some recent research has suggested – strengthen them, whether by providing legitimacy or by supporting the informal networks underpinning the formal exercise of power? Thirdly, how should the demarcation they created best be conceptualised in an age thought not to have been structured by the modern secular/religious distinction?

We welcome proposals for 20-minute papers addressing these questions, whether on the basis of case studies or through critical engagement with specialist historiography, with a preference for studies concentrating on the period 400-1300 CE. Speakers will be requested to pre-circulate their papers in March 2016 in a form accessible to non-specialists, and we are in discussions with a  journal for post-conference publication. Limited travel funds are available, and accommodation for the duration of the conference will be provided for speakers.

Paper proposals and all other queries to c.m.west@sheffield.ac.uk, by Friday 19 September.

The secular university?

The secular university?

A recent article for the Times Higher Education Supplement calling on universities to consider religion as a diversity issue brought a furious response from one reader:

In my view a university is a secular place of learning. If you want attention paid to your religion you should go to a theological college. It is not a university’s job to pander to superstition. Religion, unlike race, gender, sexual orientation and disability, is a choice and if you can’t modify your choice to cater for the university’s rules you should go elsewhere.

The comment interprets “secular” in the sense of excluding religion, rather than of a religiously neutral arena. It also displays little historical awareness: the university as a “secular” space is a relatively new phenomenon. In England, only after more than 600 years of universities did the first religiously neutral university appear, with the foundation of University College London. But rather than trace the overall history of the secular university, I instead want to use my own personal history to illustrate the difficulties of the concept.

In 1983, aged 18, I went to St Anne’s College, Oxford to study mathematics. During term-time, I spent substantial portions of the week in the lecture theatres at the old Mathematical Institute. Lectures were the main form of teaching mathematics and regular attendance at them was expected and required in order to do well.

But my time at Oxford was also expanding my experience in other ways. For the first time, I was exploring my Christian faith independently, away from the limits of attending the churches where my father was rector. I came to follow a regular routine on Sundays; the college Christian union met for breakfast and then parties of us walked down to the main student churches. In my case, I went to St Aldate’s, and after a long service (the morning service averaged about 90 minutes), then walked back to St Anne’s in time for lunch.

I was aware that religious commitment was out of fashion, so I was interested when I read an article in one of the student newspapers which quoted a mathematics student, Danielle, whom I knew slightly. She was a religious Jew, something that in my naivety I hadn’t realised, and she talked about observing the Sabbath, for example by not using her bicycle on that day. Later in the year, when we received the thick booklet with Oxford’s examination decrees and regulations, I noticed that there were provisions for Jewish students who felt unable to take examinations on the Sabbath to sit them at another time and presumed that such measures acknowledged the existence of students such as Danielle.

Fifteen years later, in 1998, I was off to Cambridge, this time to study for a master’s degree in medieval history. But as I looked at the general lecture lists, I noticed something odd about the mathematics lectures: some of them were held on Saturdays. Cambridge, like Oxford, also holds some exams on Saturdays. On their website, I can find information on special arrangements for examinations for disabled students, but not Jewish ones. A mathematics student like Danielle might have to make difficult choices if she went to Cambridge rather than Oxford.

So is Oxford “pandering to superstition”, while Cambridge is not? The question is misleading, unless you bring into the equation not only Danielle’s experience, but mine. As a Christian, every British university I’ve ever been to is set up to observe my main holy days. If they hadn’t been and I’d been expected to attend lectures on Sundays, I don’t know what I would have decided to do. Either my beliefs or my mathematical training would have had to suffer, and the suggestion that I should simply “go to a theological college” would also have excluded me from the highest level of academic education. Unlike Danielle, however, I didn’t have to make such choices, since I belong to the historically dominant religion of Britain.

The university that excludes religion then, is finally a myth, since it is inevitably embedded within wider systems that have already determined religious or non-religious parameters of acceptable behaviour. Making a university secular in the sense of religiously neutral, meanwhile, remains a difficult proposition; an awareness of the historical background is likely to be essential to doing so successfully.

The image is of Penrose tiling outside the Andrew Wiles Building, where the Mathematical Institute is now based in Oxford

Policing periodisation; or, the Carolingian poverty debate

When historians point out that something familiar in later periods was attested, and maybe quite normal, in the period they study too, they can find themselves accused of ‘precursorism’ – that is, the mechanical assertion that the antecedents of something really lie in a more distant past, in an anachronistic way (e.g. claiming that the Middle Ages were ‘democratic’, etc.). Sometimes the charge may be justified, but we should be careful that it isn’t being used simply as a means of discounting awkward evidence, evidence that poses a healthy challenge to conventional historical orthodoxies: that it’s not just policing periodisation, so to speak.

Here’s a case in point. Christianity was ambivalent about personal wealth from the very earliest days (as recently discussed by Peter Brown), but it’s generally agreed that calls for the medieval Church as an institution to return to a state of poverty only came somewhat later. The conventional chronology would suggest that this began in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with various heretical movements, developed in the Franciscan poverty debates of the thirteenth century, and culminated in the critiques expressed in the Reformation. That chronology implies these calls were a response to the growth in wealth, autonomy and self-consciousness of the post-Gregorian Church of the eleventh century. After all, as a thousand textbooks repeat, “there was no separation of State and Church in Charlemagne’s empire”, and so criticism of this kind wasn’t really thinkable earlier.[1]

However, a text in a manuscript from Auxerre suggests that it’d be worth rethinking some of these assumptions. I make no claim to have discovered this text myself (alas), which was edited by Guy Lobrichon in 2012, but it seems to me to be interesting enough to bring to the attention of a wider anglophone audience. It’s a treatise written in response to unnamed critics who were apparently pointing out that there is no biblical justification for a property-owning Church. At 30 pages long, it’s much too long to translate here in its entirety, but here’s a sample in English.

  1. There are many within the holy Church who assert in different ways but with a single aim that it [the Church] ought not to have accepted property or slaves or other gifts from the faithful, or if accepted, that it ought not to keep them. And they look in the holy scriptures for an authority justifying that the faithful should rationally have given these things, or the leaders of the churches should have accepted them, or their successors should have kept them without guilt. They say that the Church ought to be content with the poverty of apostolic times. But if that is so, then it will have the same small size [of those times] too. And just as the religious order has grown through the accumulation of time, so gradually the scarcity of the starting point will return …
  2. It is clear to all those considering it carefully, how in the Old and the New Testament the status religionis grew according to the words of the holy lesson. For Abel is read to have taken gifts to the Lord, but not to have put them on an altar. However Noah, growing a little further in religion, built an altar and made a sacrifice to the Lord from all his unstained flock…
  3. And whoever thinks that he can usurp church property consecrated to God and keep it and turn it to his own uses with impunity, let him be warned by the punishment of Achan who brought about a great disturbance of the people of Israel and a terrible fate for himself and his household, because he usurped things that had been consecrated to the Lord….”

As Lobrichon says in his excellent discussion, we might believe that we are reading a polemicist attacking the Waldensians or Francis of Assisi: were it not that the manuscript is from the ninth century.

Now, it can be doubtless be argued that the treatise is exceptional and unrepresentative. So it may be. Still, somebody (probably in Burgundy) put a great deal of effort into it, and painstakingly trawled through the Bible to find passages that supported his point (unless he relied on an already existing compendium, which is also possible). Perhaps he made up a debate with non-existent people – even so, the question of institutional poverty had crossed his mind.

To suggest on the basis of this text alone that there was a ‘Carolingian poverty debate’ comparable to that of the Franciscans would be precursorism, to be sure. Yet it surely also matters that people were thinking about what poverty meant, and whether the institutional church should own property, of what kind and how much, long before St Francis stripped off in Assisi, and even long before Pope Gregory VII started firing off his remarkable letters. If that poses a problem to conventional chronologies, then that’s something we need to think about, and not ignore.

Has this post changed your views on the topic?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...


[1] This quotation is in fact drawn from Hoppenbrouwers and Blockmans’ Introduction to Medieval Europe, but it’s a typical sentiment to be found in many general textbooks of medieval Europe (especially those written by later medievalists!).

The Ostrogoth, the Pope and the Scholar

It’s only a small exaggeration to say that most of what we know about the Ostrogothic kingdom, we owe in one way or another to the indefatigable royal servant, bureaucrat and statesman Cassiodorus. Pride of place is taken by Cassiodorus’s remarkable letter collection, the Variae – letters mostly written on behalf of Ostrogothic kings. Cassiodorus’s Latin isn’t easy, so most students (and not just them) approach the Variae in translation.

Unfortunately, published English translations are either partial (Barnish) or ‘condensed’ (Hodgkin), and the same’s true of translations into other modern languages. Useful though of course they are, in some ways partial translations are worse than none – they discourage anyone from undertaking a full version, and they condemn whatever they miss out to relative obscurity (just think of the damage done by the admittedly handy selective translation of Alcuin’s letters by Allott).

For that reason, here’s a draft translation of one of the Variae letters that hasn’t (I think) been fully translated into English before, but that’s very relevant to what I’m currently working on. It’s from King Athalaric to ‘the Roman clergy’, and its main point is that in future, anyone making an accusation against a (Roman) cleric has to go to the Pope first.  What it certainly isn’t is a blanket grant of clerical immunity, because Athalaric confirms that the plaintiff can subsequently turn to “secular courts” if he feels the Pope wrongly decided against him. So, no “privilege of clergy” here – though Athalaric does declare that if the plaintiff is proven wrong again in the secular court, he will face a double punishment.

I couldn’t help but notice that Hodgkin’s ‘condensed’ translation omits the bit about criminal accusations against a priest. That makes it easier for him state that Athalaric’s/Cassiodorus’s letter “relates to civil, not criminal procedure”, something that I think isn’t at all clear from the text. Hodgkin also argued that such an appeal from the pope’s decision could be carried out only with “immense difficulty” – a statement that again I’m not sure is warranted. Hodgkin (d. 1913) was a prodigiously talented and industrious historian, but he was also a writer of his time, and I suspect this may be another case of 19th-century assumptions about “clerical privilege” spilling over into scholarship – something I’ll be talking about again at the upcoming IMC in Leeds.

Edition: http://www.mgh.de/dmgh/resolving/MGH_Auct._ant._12_S._255

Draft Translation: Letter of King Athalaric to the Roman Clergy, c.527 (Variae, VIII 24)

As much we have received more than other mortals, so we owe more to the Divinity: for what can he who has received rulership repay to God that is comparable? But although for such a gift nothing can be suitably repaid, at least thanks are returned when He is honoured in His servants.

And so: in a tearful request, you complained that that this was instituted by long custom: that if anyone believes that a servant of the holy Roman Church should be accused of anything (aliqua actione pulsandum), then he should go to the bishop of that city to declare his business, lest your cleric, profaned by external  lawsuits, should spend his time in secular (saecularibus) matters. And you added that your deacon had been compelled by such bitterness of action, to the insult of religion, in that a saius [an Ostrogothic official] had dared to hand him over to his own custody. And you asserted that a priest of the Roman church had been accused of crime (criminaliter impetitum) for trivial matters [sentence omitted by Hodgkin].

We declare that this greatly displeased us, on account of the instilled reverence we owe to our Maker: that those who previously had deserved to serve the sacred mysteries should now be exposed to courts, and irreverently subjected to nefarious injuries. But this deception of others, which is to be punished, brings us the outcome of the greatest praise, the opportunity of providing assistance, which commends us to divine aid.

And so, considering both the honour of the apostolic see and listening to the wish of the supplicants, we define in the moderated order of this decree that, if anyone believes that someone pertaining to the Roman clergy should be accused in no matter what likely matter, then let him first go to be heard at the judgement of the holy pope, so that he [the pope] shall either decide between the two after the fashion of his sanctity, or delegate the matter to be settled by the zeal of equity. And if perhaps – it is awful to believe it – the worthy desire of the plaintiff shall have been evaded, then let him hasten to swear at the secular courts (saecularia fora), when he can prove that his petitions have been ignored by the already mentioned holy See.

If such a wicked litigator should exist, condemned by everyone’s judgement for sacrilege [?], who scorns to show reverence to such a see, and believes that something can be obtained by our decrees, then let be struck with a penalty of 10 pounds of gold before the outcome of any assembly, which shall be taken at once by the officers of the Sacred Largess and given to the poor through the hands of the above mentioned bishop, so that losing the business he was seeking, he might also be punished by a loss. For it is appropriate for him to be struck by a double penalty, who has dared go against both divine reverence and  our orders.

But you, whom our judgments venerate: live by church decrees. For it is a great wickedness for those to commit crime who ought not to have a secular way of life. For your profession is heavenly life. So do not descend to the errors of mortals and mean promises. Let earthly men be compelled by human law, while you obey holy traditions.

The Irish Referendum: What Would Augustine Say?

What would the fifth-century writer and theologian Augustine of Hippo have said if consulted for his opinion on the results of Ireland’s recent same-sex marriage referendum? Augustine was seldom short of opinions, and given his known views on marriage, which helped shape the institution for centuries, we might suppose that he would have been shocked, vehement, and strongly condemnatory.

Little wonder then that the airwaves and newsprint have been full of commentary on how the referendum shows that Ireland is now  rapidly secularising, breaking away from the grip of a Catholic Church whose official position remains in many ways still faithful to that set out so influentially by St Augustine over a millennium ago.  The result has even been described as a ‘Copernican revolution’. Yet as so often with debates that revolve, implicitly or explicitly, around a concept of secularisation marking a break with tradition, things are not quite so clear-cut on closer inspection.

Marriage, for St Augustine, was defined by three things: children, loyalty between the spouses, and the sacramental bond that reflected Christ’s union with the Church. People on both sides of the Irish referendum seemed to take positions which reflected these concepts. Everyone accepted that marriage creates a family unit ideal for bringing up children, that it is designed to allow two people to commit to one another indefinitely, and that the institution says something about Irish society as a whole: that in other words, marriage represents a bigger reality.

All this suggests that the debate was conducted essentially within a Christian tradition: no one, for example, suggested that marriages should be possible between numerous people, or that it should be open to brothers and sisters,  or that it should be time-limited, or that it should be abolished altogether.

As a result, the referendum’s outcome could be seen as an updating of that Christian tradition as much as a rejection of it. That a fifth-century Augustine would have been opposed to same-sex marriage seems quite clear: but which side of the referendum a twenty-first century Augustine would have stood is not quite so obvious.

Scandalous priests and bishops

In April 2014, Canon Jeremy Pemberton became the first priest in England to enter into a same-sex marriage. In September 2014 he filed a discrimination claim with an employment tribunal after he had been blocked from taking up a position as an NHS chaplain in Nottinghamshire because of his marriage.

The case is obviously personally difficult for Jeremy Pemberton and his husband, Laurence Cunnington. But for a historian it also offers some fascinating comparisons and contrasts with earlier church practice, and in particular how clergy have been disciplined over prohibited sexual behaviour. Legally, it is a relative novelty that Canon Pemberton is able to take his case to a secular employment tribunal at all. His case is complicated because of the question of whether he is employed by the NHS or by the diocese of Southwell and Nottingham (whose bishop removed his permission to officiate, which he needed for the NHS post). But employment tribunals have increasingly become willing to accept that in some circumstances ministers of religion do count as employees and thus have employment rights, although the Church of England still argues that their clergy are not employees. Secular jurisdiction over priests has historically been something that individual clerics have tried to avoid, seeking the ‘benefit of clergy’. Now, however, some of them are actively seeking it.

Canon Pemberton’s case shows more historical continuity in other respects, however. Partly this is because it raises interesting jurisdictional questions. His previous position as an NHS chaplain, which had not been threatened, was in the diocese of Lincoln, in the archdiocese of Canterbury. His new job would have been in the archdiocese of York. The implication is that different bishops and archbishops have chosen to enforce the Church disciplinary rules prohibiting same-sex marriage in very different ways. Such episcopal leeway would have seemed very familiar in the Middle Ages, where the zealous (or overzealous) enforcement of priestly good conduct by some bishops might be ignored by their successors or fellow-bishops.

And the case also displays the perennial difficulty for any Church on sexual matters: how far should it intrude into the bedroom? Sexual behaviour is by its nature private and the Church of England has stated that clergy can legitimately be in civil partnerships (and can even theoretically become bishops) provided that their relationship with their partner is celibate. There are intriguing parallels with priests in the pre-eleventh Catholic church, who could theoretically be married, though not sexually active within such a marriage.

Canon Pemberton’s offence, therefore, is not strictly speaking a sexual one, unless the bishop of Southwell and Nottingham has evidence to the contrary. Instead, it is a breach of the Church of England’s rules prohibiting clerics from entering same-sex marriages. The justification for this prohibition is taken from a canon that talks of the need for clerics and their families to be ‘wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ’.

Such language concerning reputations would have been familiar to an early medieval bishop like Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims (845-882). He wrote numerous episcopal statutes setting out how the priests and laity of his archdiocese should behave and the means for ensuring correct behaviour. His second episcopal statute from 852 gave instructions for archdeacons and rural deans as to how they should run regular investigations into priests’ behaviour. A long section is devoted to the need for priests to avoid too close contact with women, such as allowing unrelated women to live in the priest’s house.

Hincmar, however, was not concerned only with illicit sexual activity by such priests. Almost as important was the ‘evil reputation’ (mala fama) that such priests might gain within the community. As c. 21 (p. 56) of the statute points out, Hincmar’s concern is that such behaviour by priests ‘may damage the conscience of the weak by evil suspicion’ (mala suspicione infirmorum conscientias maculent). His statute details the procedure by which such priests could be removed from office if sufficient of their congregation were prepared to testify against them. Such witnesses did not have to prove immoral conduct by their priest. They had to swear only that they had seen or knew certainly that ‘women had such access or frequenting or cohabitation with that priest, from which there could be evil suspicion and an evil reputation could get out’ (c. 21, p. 58: si vidisti aut pro certo scis talem accessum vel frequentiam aut cohabitationem feminas habere cum isto presbitero , unde mala suspicio esse possit et mala fama possit exire).

In the modern Anglican church, similar principles seem to be at work, but on a much wider canvas. Public opinion and rumours about gay priests and sexuality more generally now extend not through a small rural parish, but across the globe. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, claims that the Church of England accepting gay marriage may lead to attacks on African Christians, while another bishop reports that he was once asked in Central Africa why you now had to be gay to be ordained in the Church of England. Yet at the same time, the most common reason for people in Great Britain to have a negative view of the Church of England is that it is too prejudiced against women and gay people (as Linda Woodhead found in a recent survey). How can ‘scandal’ be avoided when different audiences are scandalised by diametrically different actions?

The Church of England may well be legally successful in Canon Pemberton’s employment tribunal. While exemptions from the law of the land for churches and their ministers are now far narrower than in the days of benefit of clergy, such exemptions are well-established and not under serious threat from secular politicians. But in an era of rapid global communication, it is far harder to ensure that either individual clerics or the Anglican church itself does not end up having ‘an evil reputation’ among many laypeople.

Image credit

A research project blog by Charles West (Department of History, Sheffield)