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

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