The invention of tradition in the Middle Ages

Often, and not just in popular perception, the Middle Ages is characterised as static, trapped under the heavy weight of the past (indeed, an influential strand of modern argument even suggests that people in the Middle Ages had no real concept of the  future at all). It’s certainly true that old texts played an absolutely crucial role in medieval western society – the Bible, of course, but also other works inherited from Late Antiquity. Yet of course even the most ancient texts require interpretation, and here there was room for creativity and, whether people knew it or not, change.

A good example of this, which I’ve come across in the course of my current research, is provided by a couple of passages in the influential collection of church law put together by the lawyer Gratian in the middle of the twelfth century. Gratian used two texts (C.11, Q.1, D.18 and D.31), attributed to Pope Pius and Pope Fabian, to show that clerics who disobey or attack their bishops are to be handed over to the secular court (traditio curiae) for punishment, after their deposition. Gratian found this a bit difficult to square with his general position, that clerics should not be punished by secular courts. But he argued that since it only applied to civil, not criminal, cases, it was just about OK.

What Gratian didn’t know was that Popes Fabian and Pius were not, as he assumed, ancient Romans, but rather figments of fertile ninth-century imagination. They were created as part of the Pseudo-Isidorian decretals, a largely fictional text dreamed up for reasons that remain to this day somewhat mysterious (though historians are getting there!). Still, its compilers did not invent their texts from scratch, and for the ‘traditio curiae’ bit, they drew on authentic Roman law: all they really did was put it instead into the mouths of made-up popes. So up to a point, Gratian was indeed drawing on genuinely ancient texts, even if they had been filtered through ninth-century ingenuity.

But that Roman law had not meant what Gratian, or quite probably Pseudo-Isidore, thought it meant. In late Roman law, the curia was the city council, serving on which was a major obligation for late Roman elites, since it involved taking responsibility for raising the city’s taxes – a risky thing to do. Clerics were usually exempt from this burden, but under certain circumstances, that exemption could be removed. That was what the Roman law had originally meant, when it talked about the  traditio curiae: it was about returning the (former) clerics back into ruinous curial service.

Just what Pseudo-Isidore thought it meant in the ninth century isn’t entirely clear. But by the twelfth century, when Gratian was writing, curia definitely meant something entirely different: it meant a prince’s ‘court’. It’s no surprise then that Gratian happily interpreted the traditio curiae along lines that made sense to him: for Gratian, it meant handing the cleric over to the ‘secular’ court for disciplining. In this way, Gratian unwittingly transformed late Roman urban administration into practices of feudal justice, with significant consequences for later history: an invention of ‘tradition’ in quite a literal sense.

The take-home point in all this isn’t though simply that Gratian got it wrong. It’s a reminder of something that should be obvious, but that bears restating. Even when they’re copied faithfully across the generations, texts don’t – can’t – mean exactly the same thing a thousand years after they were written, when so much else has changed. Texts, even religious ones, always need context to make sense of them. To assume that any old text doesn’t need interpretation just makes the interpretative act invisible. Historians, in a word, are indispensible. But that you knew already.

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Secularity in the Middle Ages

It’s often assumed that there was no such thing as the ‘secular’ in the European Middle Ages. How could there be, when the public authorities were firmly and whole-heartedly committed to promoting religious observance,  even burning heretics when required? Wasn’t the secular invented along with rationality and progress by the Enlightenment?

However, we need to be careful not to confuse ‘secular’ with ‘atheist’. In fact, it can be argued that the secular is hard-wired into Christianity, as a religion (more controversially, it’s also been argued that secularity is an intrinsically Christian concept: but that’s a debate for another blog post!).

Early Christian thinkers, most notably Augustine of Hippo, were careful to distinguish things that were religious from things that were polluted (e.g. pagan sacrifice); but they also had a third category, of things that were neither inherently positive nor evil. For instance, Christians ought to obey pagan rulers, provided they were legitimate and did not command the faithful to carry out impious acts. Political authority could be in this sense secular.

This stance of neutrality has often been attributed to the circumstances of the religion’s origins: Christ was crucified by the Romans, but his followers (or most of them, anyway) did not call for the empire’s destruction. After all, had Christ not said that ‘My kingdom is not of his world’ [John 8:36]?

Of course, Christianity eventually took over the empire, and historians like R.A. Markus have talked of the secular being ‘drained out’ of the world as a consequence. Yet my initial findings suggest that we should tread carefully. People kept on reading the Church Fathers, including those who’d written before the Empire became Christian, long after circumstances had changed dramatically. Ideas about the secular might have changed, but we shouldn’t assume the concept itself just went away.

I came across an excellent example of this yesterday. In the late 12th century – many centuries after Augustine – Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, came into conflict with King Henry II of England over, among other things, the extent to which he and his church were subject to royal jurisdiction. One of the king’s claims was that even though Thomas was a cleric, he still had to come before the royal court concerning land that had been given to him: property was ultimately a matter for kings to decide about, not bishops.

But a near-contemporary biographer of Thomas, William FitzStephen, was having none of it:

[The property] was secular: given to God, it was made ecclesiastical. Secularity was absorbed in it by a claim of divine right. Hence the secular court has no right to hold the archbishop liable”*

(translation in Staunton, The Lives of Thomas Becket).

The Latin word translated as ‘secularity’ here is secularitas. What did William FitzStephen mean by that word, and by talking about the ‘absorption’ of the secular? Was he arguing that church land was holy, and outside even a Christian king’s control? In which case, was he suggesting (even if only rhetorically) that King Henry was a ‘secular’ ruler?

I admit that I’m not yet entirely sure of the answers to these questions. But I do think that ruling out the secular from the Middle Ages would not be a good place to start if we want to find out.

Charles West (@pseudo_isidore)

* For the keen Latinists, here’s the crucial text:
Fuit secularis; data Deo, facta est ecclesiastica. Absorpta est in ea secularitas a titulo divini juris
From Materials for the History of Thomas Becket (Rolls Series), vol. 3, p. 60.

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