Category Archives: HST 2520

A new podcast series

I was delighted to have been awarded a mid-career fellowship by the British Academy for a project centring on Europe in the 11th century.

As part of this project, over the next year I’ll be producing a roughly monthly podcast, interviewing an expert on the place of the 11th century in European history. The aim is to create an audio library, representing different perspectives from across Europe and beyond.

The first of these is now ready: it’s a conversation with Professor R.I. Moore. You can listen to it via the podcast’s home page or via the university’s own website.

Simony and the letter of Guido

I have just published an article on 11th-century simony (the illicit purchase of ecclesiastical office) in the Journal of Ecclesiastical History. The article argues that the ‘simony crisis’ was imported into Italy along with the German popes in the mid eleventh century, and amplified across the Latin west from there. You can read it here (£).

The article explores the issue through an important work known as the ‘Letter of Guido’, which it suggests might date to the 1060s rather than the 1030s. To accompany the article, I’ve drafted an English translation of this text, and I’ve posted this translation here (opens pdf).

The tolls of Koblenz

Tariffs and tolls are back in the news, as some people in the UK find themselves paying customs duties they hadn’t expected. This blog presents an English translation of one of the earliest medieval lists of tolls, levied at the river port of Koblenz in Germany, where the Moselle flows into the Rhine.

The document, whose earliest surviving copy was written in the eleventh century, describes how much traders from different towns (see the map above for their location) had to pay when they sailed through Koblenz. Some of the traders paid tolls in kind, in metalwork, goat-skins, herring, swords, etc – presumably the cargo on their boats. Other traders – including slave traders – paid in cash only.

The document flashes a light on the eleventh-century Rhineland trading network that connected the North Sea to Swabia and Bavaria. Perhaps the same traders from Huy and Liege also sailed their boats to London, where they are mentioned in a roughly contemporary document recently studied by Rory Naismith.

The Koblenz toll tariff raises a great many questions. Were these tolls charged for boats travelling in both directions? How was the system policed? How were records kept of which traders had paid? How much money did it raise? Did the traders find it difficult or easy to pay this much? What was the reason for the differentials: in other words, why did traders from Metz have to pay twice as much as those from nearby Trier? How did the traders prove where they were from? How far were they going? Where were the enslaved people brought by Jewish traders coming from, and where were they being taken to? How old were these tolls, and on whose authority were they established, and how old were the trading routes? Were similar charges being levied at other ports on the Rhine?

These questions cannot be answered here, but hopefully a translation will encourage more people to reflect on this remarkable document from 11th-century Germany.


Europe and Empire c.1115

On folio 241r of a manuscript known as the Liber Floridus, now in the care of the University of Gent Library, is a brightly coloured map of Europe. To modern eyes it might seem unremarkable, once one has understood that Italy is at the top and Spain at the bottom. But in closer inspection this map, drawn around 1115 by a Flemish canon named Lambert, is one of the most interesting things in a manuscript full of marvels. For this is not just a map of Europe: it is to my knowledge the first map of Europe.

Of course, maps had been drawn before that showed Europe, sometimes in greater detail than this. But in these maps Europe was always part of a wider context, part of the entire world (take for instance the famous Cotton Tiberius map drawn around a century earlier). In Lambert’s map, Europe is all there is to see, and that makes it rather peculiar.

Not only is Lambert’s map the first map of Europe, it is also often described as the first map to show political boundaries. As the rubric helpfully explains, ‘The kingdoms which are drawn around with red belong to the empire of the Romans and the Franks’. And sure enough, you can easily make out a red line that includes what we would now call France, Germany and Italy.

Drawing a line around an empire on a map might again seem unsurprising. Yet there does not seem to have been a precedent. After all, the ancient Roman empire had been strongly associated with universal rule and jurisdiction. It was written about as if it encompassed the whole earth. In Vergil’s Aeneid, the god Jupiter’s promise to the Romans is ‘For these, I set no limits in space and time; I give them empire without end’. The Roman empire had boundaries in practice, but not in theory.

Lambert’s map presents us with a very different concept of empire, one that is visually clearly bounded. It includes Italy, Aquitaine, Bavaria, Swabia and Saxony, which are all marked on the map; but not Spain, nor Scandinavia, eastern Europe or the Balkans – still less Britain, which is marked as inconsequentially floating in the Ocean. The empire is thus presented as merely a part of Europe’s territory, albeit a major one.

This perspective is echoed in the list of peoples that Lambert provides underneath the map. Lambert’s list seems to be based on one written (probably) in the seventh century, in a text known as Aethicus’ Cosmographia (I will check this once the libraries re-open).* In the Cosmographia’s list of peoples, the Romans enjoyed special treatment: they alone are described not just as a people, but as ‘senatum populumque Romanum gentemque togatam’ – the SPQR of imperial grandeur, with togas to match. But Lambert stripped the Romans of this distinction. In his list, the Romani (and the Franci) are just one of the many peoples who inhabited an ethnically fragmented Europe.

Why did Lambert draw this peculiar map which broke so many cartographical conventions? The historian Albert Derolez, who has worked extensively on the Liber Floridus manuscript, thought that Lambert had designed this map to accompany extracts from the Annals of St Bertin which Lambert had copied earlier in the manuscript, extracts which described the divisions of the Frankish empire in 839 and 870. This hypothesis has lots to recommend it: it might help explain why Lambert’s map includes all of the kingdom of France in the Empire, which was not exactly the reality of his own day.

Yet Lambert’s rubric is written in the present tense: he says these kingdoms ‘belong’ (pertinent) to the empire. And he also hints at present-day reality by colouring the Rhine in red, as if to distinguish the lands ruled by the French king from those ruled by the Salian emperor. And Derolez could not explain why, if Lambert intended his map to illustrate the historical extracts, he changed his mind and put it somewhere else instead. So perhaps the map might represent how this Flemish canon pictured the world of his own day, not how he imagined the ninth century.

Whatever Lambert’s motives, to limit the empire spatially, circumscribing it with a red pen and distinguishing it from the rest of Europe, was a remarkable step to take. In the early twelfth-century world of this Flemish canon, empire was a phenomenon that was meaningful, and one that transcended contemporary political borders – but it was not the overall frame of reference. This was empire conceptually and cartographically cut down to size.

  • Further reading. Lots has been written about the Liber Floridus, and quite a lot about this map. Here’s a selection:
  • You can see the whole Liber Floridus manuscript online
  • More information about the manuscript:
  • My attention was drawn to Lambert’s map by Klaus Oschema’s important Bilder von Europa, available open access online
  • The starting point for study of the Liber Floridus is now Albert Derolez, The Making and Meaning of the Liber Floridus (2015), unfortunately priced for libraries rather than individuals.

Update 06/10/21
* Lambert indeed cites a Cosmographia attributed to Aethicus Ister – but not the famous one translated by Herren, but a quite different one, edited by Riese. This cosmographia has been little studied as far as I can tell.

Update 23/10/21
On revisiting Derolez, I see that Lambert is generally thought to have used the version of the Cosmographia in St Omer MS 717 (s.XI). This MS has been digitised by the IRHT. The list of peoples is copied there at fol. 65r. It is interesting that the Romans are, just as in Riese’s edition, labelled as ‘senatum populumque romanorum gentemque togatam’, a label which Lambert dispenses with (and he also adds Hispani after them, so they are no longer the final gens). The Cosmographia moreover lists these as the peoples of the western ocean, not Europe.

‘Today many people despise the honest customs of our fathers’ – cultural change in 11th-century Europe

Perceived changes in male fashion annoyed several clerics in 11th-century Europe. Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester apparently waxed wrathful against English male elites for what he considered their effeminate long hair, while the Benedictine chronicler Raoul Glaber, writing around the 1040s, complained that French lay elites had begun to wear ‘indecent hose and shoes’.

Perhaps the angriest cleric of all however was Abbot Siegfried of Gorze, as comes across in a letter Siegfried wrote to a fellow abbot, Poppo of Stavelot, in 1043. This letter is extremely interesting, but not quite as well-known to Anglophone audiences, probably because unlike Wulfstan and Glaber’s texts, it has not been translated into English before (a draft translation is provided below).

Siegfried’s monastery of Gorze lay in the western parts of the empire, but though it was therefore close to France, there was no question about Siegfried’s political or cultural allegiances. He linked changes in clothing in the empire to the growing influence of the French, and this he in turn associated with a general moral decline, and damage to the honour of the kingdom (honestas regni). Until the 11th century, emperors Otto and Henry had kept out this pernicious influence; now, Abbot Siegfried lamented, it was growing in strength. He noted changes in beards, and in the cut and tailoring of clothes, and suggested that they were associated with an increase in crimes of various kinds, and with a general abandoning of the empire’s cultural heritage.

Siegfried does not explicitly say why this was a pressing issue in 1043. One factor might have been the empire’s recent takeover of the largely Francophone kingdom of Burgundy which had taken place in 1033. But it’s probably relevant that most of Siegfried’s letter is an attempt to get the influential Abbot Poppo to prevent Emperor Henry III from marrying a French bride, Agnes of Poitou, the daughter of the duke of Aquitaine.

Siegfried was vehemently opposed to this marriage. He was determined to block it, and his chief tactic was to show that it would be incestuous, because Agnes and Henry were too closely related. He demonstrated this kinship with a now sadly lost figura, based on his extensive genealogical enquiries.

A visualisation of some of Siegfried’s family genealogies (his original version has not survived)

To hammer home the point, Siegfried drew on the Bible to argue that if they did marry, God would punish Henry’s incest, even suggesting that the king’s kingroup might die out. As such, the letter casts a fascinating light on 11th-century ideas about kinship.

With this in mind, it’s likely that Siegfried’s apparent tangent on pernicious French customs towards the end of the letter was not so subtly opening up another angle to persuade Emperor Henry not to marry a French woman, by drawing attention to the risks of introducing foreign customs into the empire. If incest wouldn’t put Henry off, maybe a bit of xenophobia might do the trick?

It was all in vain: Siegfried’s scaremongering didn’t work, and the marriage went through in November 1043. Agnes went on to become a truly remarkable empress – but that is a subject for another blog.

Notes: Thanks to Julia Hillner for suggesting a diagram would be useful.
Image: Genealogical table from a Beatus manuscript (Morgan 429)

Abbot Siegfried of Gorze’s Letter to Abbot Poppo of Stavelot, 1043 – translation

Translation based on the edition and French translation by Michel Parisse, ‘Sigefroid, abbé de Gorze et le mariage du roi Henri III avec Agnès de Poitou (1043). Un aspect de la réforme Lotharingienne’, Revue du Nord 356 (2004), 543-566, available online here . The text is preserved in a single early modern copy, now in Austria ( This was translated in some haste, so please do let me know if you spot any errors.

To the lord Abbot Poppo, who should be embraced with sincere love and perfect reverence, brother Siegfried, unworthy servant of the community of Gorze, wishes abundant happiness in this life and eternal beatitude in the next.

I have no doubt that your Paternity remembers that recently, when we met at Thionville, we greatly lamented the dangers of our age that the Apostle predicted – in people’s customs and behaviour, the incest and perjury of many, the decline of religion [religio] and the increase in perversity, and, to briefly sum up, the various dangers of the Church. Amongst these things, daring in your Kindness, I asked you why you had not told the king [Henry III] that the girl [Agnes] he has decided to marry is so closely related to him that she cannot be joined to him without grave offence to the Lord. You replied that you had not been silent, and that he did not wish to act against the Lord, but rather had many times asked you to look into the truth of the matter and give him certainty before he did anything against divine right.

Therefore, greatly reassured by his good intention, I told you everything which I had long known about their kinship. But I could not tell you the names of two women who at that time escaped my memory. So you asked that I should carefully look into the certainty about these and other names of this kinship (cognatio), and should take care to inform you in writing. To this request I obey readily as I am concerned that such a great harm should not come about.

So, after having left you, I learned from many people what I had not heard before, that his first wife and she whom he now wants to marry are separated from each other by no more than three or four generations. I omit to write out the kinship now, because of the barbarity of the Danish or Northman names, and for precaution in case things that have not been proven are taken as certain, and thereby false things are taken as true.

Leaving these things aside, let us come to those things that are very well known to many. King Henry had three sons with Matilda: Emperor Otto, Archbishop Bruno, Duke Henry. And he had two daughters: Gerberga and Hadewida. Of these, one, Hadewida, married Hugh; the other, that is Gerberga, married Duke Gilbert, and bore him a daughter named Alberada. After Gilbert’s death Gerberga was joined in marriage to King Louis of the Franks, and had with him two sons, King Lothar and Duke Charles, and a daughter Matilda, later the wife of Conrad king of the Burgundians.

Later, from these sisters, born not from the same father but from the same mother, that is Gerberga, were born Ermentrude, daughter of Alberada, and Gepa known as Gerberga, daughter of Matilda. This was the first generation. Ermentrude bore Agnes, Gepa bore the august Gisela and her sister Matilda. This was the second generation. The son of Gisela, the lord King Henry, and the daughter of Agnes of the same name, that is the Agnes who this is all about, are in the third degree of the genealogy.

I head that it was told to the king that his grandmother Gepa was born not from Matilda but from the first wife of King Conrad. This is not the case, as both the account of truthful men and the naming of these women shows. For the genealogical line passes from Matilda, the wife of the great King Henry, to Matilda the aunt of this our king, through Matildas and Gerbergas, so that Matilda, daughter of Gerberga and namesake of her grandmother, gave the name of her mother to her daughter, and her own name to her granddaughter, as an inheritance (haereditarium).

There is another line of kinship (consanguinitas) which no one of sound mind will contradict, in this way: the great emperor Otto and his sister the oft-mentioned Gerberga both had daughters, one Dudica, the other Alberada. Alberada’s daughter Ermentrude bore Agnes, mother of the young Agnes. Duke Otto, the son of Dudica, name-sake of his grandfather, had Henry, the father of Emperor Conrad, who was the father of our Emperor Henry. And thus he is in the fifth degree, and the girl Agnes is in the fourth degree of the genealogy.

So that these things may be clearer, I have provided a diagram, in which we have written the above mentioned name and some other names of both sexes belonging to this kinship. Please show this to the king, and advise him humbly that when he finds the names of his kin written there and realises their danger, that he should not harden his heart, but should be moved not to wrath, but rather to regret and lament, lest the wrongdoings of his kindred should become his own – may it not happen. For their fault and the blame for that fault will redound upon him if he imitates them in wickedness. For God very terribly and truthfully threatens those who follow the vices of their kindred, that he will return  the injustice of the fathers to the sons and grandsons, to the third and fourth generation. Ask the king again and again, and warn him patiently and impatiently, so that he has this very fearsome declaration constantly in mind, and takes vigilant care to avoid such peril. For this vengeance should be feared as not just on the soul but on the body, since it is known for certain that the generation born from such an illicit union will not be able to successfully thrive (succrescere). The king can easily see that this is true, if he wishes to carefully consider how few now remain from his most noble and once most ample kindred.

Let him moreover hear and carefully understand from you that though infamy is to be feared by all, it must be as attentively avoided by the royal majesty as that majesty appears highly exalted over everyone. For like a city on the hill cannot be hidden, as the Lord said, and just as the candle lifted up on the candelabra gives light to everyone in the household, so the good reputation or infamy of the king cannot be hidden from many people living both within and outwith his kingdom. And, what is more serious, the customs of people are such that such a shameful reputation very quickly grows and spreads day by day more widely, and with growing wings, flies from mouth to mouth, ever increasing. A good reputation runs more slowly and more narrowly, and finding many detractors and few imitators, it quickly diminishes and fades away. If therefore the king puts his will ahead of the canonical sanctions (may it not happen) and does not fear to bring to completion what has begun, how many people who might have been coerced by fear of him not to do what they wish, will rejoice in his example and be emboldened, and will do similar and ever worse things – and if they begin to be warned or called out by someone, then they will immediately point to this deed of the royal highness in defence of their wickedness! We believe to be certain that the fault and blame of those whom he could have helped to salvation but instead made to sin and thus to perish by his example will rebound upon him.

Let him read if he wishes, or let him have read to him what holy Scripture says about King Jeroboam, and he will find that the sins which Jeroboam made others commit are more often mentioned than those he committed himself. About all the kings who acted like him, it is read that the sons of Nabat did not step back from the sins of Jeroboam – and it does not add ‘who sinned’, but rather it notes explicitly ‘who made Israel sin’, so that we can clearly understand how seriously we shall incur the wrath of God whenever we provoke others to sin by our bad example.

Let the Generosity of our king pay attention to this, and carefully reflect on how a manifold danger looms over him if he carries out the wickedness against the canons that he is thinking about. And if for the fear and love of God he renounces his desire and chooses not to follow his predecessors in their illicit deeds, if he continues as a lover of justice and piety, if he maintains his humility amidst his royal excellence and happy successes, if he seeks the glory of God rather than his own, and if finally he energetically represses the sins of not just himself but of others, and stimulates them to virtue – if, I say, he perseveres with vigilance in such actions through to the end, then he will not be bound by sin of his kindred and other people, but the grace of God will precede and follow him, and he will be worthy to reign with Christ in this life and in the future life. As it is fearsomely written about wicked sons that the sins of their fathers will rebound upon them, so it is mercifully written about good sons that ‘the son does not bear the iniquity of his father’.

When King Josiah, born from very wicked parents, discovered and recognised their sin from the book of divine law, and learned how great a vengeance loomed over him and his people, he grieved and wept bitterly, and tore his clothing as was then the custom to show his inner grief, and left behind his father’s wickedness and sought the Lord with all his heart, and made sure to serve Him carefully and to warn others in order to placate divine anger. Because of this, not only did the fault of his predecessors not count against him, but he was worthy to hear divine consolation in this way: ‘Because, said the Lord God Israel, ‘you heard the words of the Book and your heart was terrified and you were humble before the Lord, after you heard the sermons against this place and its inhabitants, that they would become the object of amazement and cursing, and because you tore your clothing and wept before, I heard you, says the Lord. Therefore I will gather you along with your fathers and you will be placed in your tomb peacefully, so that your eyes will not see the harm which I shall bring upon this place’. I wanted to put these words about King Josiah here so that the lord king, warned by you, will take care to imitate him; and when Henry holds in his hands the diagram I have made and sees the names of his kindred (parentes sui) there, he will be afraid for himself and for them, and to avoid provoking the anger of God upon himself and the people subjected to him, he will not act against the canonical decrees, but will decide to place the will of God before his own in all matters, so that he will be worthy to rejoice with Him now and always.

I remember one other thing. When his father [Conrad II] wished to marry the daughter of the king of the Franks, and decided to do this against divine right, as can be seen in the diagram, there were many who wished to be pleasing to the majesty of the emperor, and they competed to tell him that the marriage could be well and usefully carried through, because they hoped that thanks to it the two kingdoms could be joined in a single peace or brought into unity. And I think that now too there are such people who similarly flatter and claim to work for royal praise, and since they want to be pleasing to the earthly ruler, they speak falsehoods and so do not care about displeasing the Lord, not noticing or caring little about what is written, ‘He will dissolve the bones of whose are pleasing to men’.

It pleases me therefore to denounce the poisonous statement of those who promise peace to him and others through a transgression of divine law, and to show how much they are opposed to the truth. It is obvious and undoubtedly true that canonical authority is the law of God. Whoever acts against the canons, acts against the law of God. Who acts against the law of God, commits an impiety, and is made impious. And it is written ‘There is no peace for the impious’, says the Lord. From these things it can be gathered that the peace of those prevaricators of the canons is not a true peace. We say true peace, since we are not unaware that there is a false peace. For the reprobate and the transgressors have peace, that is adulterers with adulterers, murderers with murderers, and perjurers with perjurers. Sometimes these and others like them have a peace between themselves, but it is a simulated peace, a deceiving peace, a peace that is damaging to them and others. The Lord Jesus came to destroy this peace, and said about it to those listening to him, ‘Do not think that I came to bring peace upon earth. I came to bring not peace but the sword’. And the Lord said to his disciples about the peace that the world cannot give, ‘I leave my peace to you, I give my peace to you’, and the angels announced it singing ‘Glory in excelsis to God and peace on earth to people of goodwill’. As the Psalmist said, only the good and those who observe divine precepts can have this peace, ‘Much peace is given to those who love your law, O Lord, an it is not an impediment for them’.

It is carefully to be noted that when the Psalmist says ‘peace’, he adds first ‘Much’, so that it is given to understand how those who do not obey the law of God, even if they seem to have peace, do not have much peace, but only a short and swiftly changeable peace. And whenever they seem outwardly to prosper and relax, they are always inwardly agitated by all kinds of wickedness, and whenever they devote themselves individually each to their own vices, together they incur many occasions for sinning amongst themselves. But for those who love the law of God there is much peace, and there is no occasion for sinning, since even if they are outwardly disturbed by various storms of disorder, they are inwardly fixed in the solidity of true faith, firmly rooted in love, and they meet whatever adversities there are with tranquil mind in the hope of eternal reward. They desire to have peace with everyone if possible. They do not wish to risk falling into sin for any reason, nor do they wish to make anyone else risk falling int sin, but rather they always hurry towards better things, and reconcile themselves with the Lord and His angels, so that with their help they may reach eternal peace. We wanted to offer this digression to show that those who encourage their lords to do illicit things and promise them a firm future peace deceive themselves and others. It is just as if they say, ‘Let us do harm so that good may come’. If you meet someone like this, manfully resist them to their face, and beg our glorious king not to give his assent to it.

And since the day fixed for the marriage is now approaching, I beg you, blessed father, to go to the king and not to delay in showing him all this, since you yourself asked for this investigation and a great peril looms over you if you a great harm is carried out through your delay. Hurry then to show him this letter with the diagram, and we steadfastly beseech him that his Highness will not be angered by our Smallness because I have dared to say and write such things, nor let him pay attention to the rusticity of our speech, but let him consider the intention of my heart and recognise how much sollicitude I have for him and the safety of his kingdom. From that day when first at Aachen and then at Metz he humbly asked me to pray for him, he has never been absent from the little prayers of myself and my brothers. We will regret that this will have achieved nothing or little if we hear that he has fallen into this wickedness. But if – and may it not happen – he grows angry that we have written this, let him know that even if we honour him as is right, we must fear and love God more, and therefore we cannot be silent about the truth. We think it more appropriate to warn him humbly before the deed than to criticise him more fiercely and thus more dangerously afterwards.

O venerable father, press these and similar things without delay, as much as God permits, since whatever you give in addition, the good Samaritan when He comes to judgement will restore to you many times over. And if you can bring the king back from what he has begun, you will receive a reward from the Lord. If not, you will free yourself from the blame of keeping silent.

Moreover, I see may things which are displeasing and in need of emendation, but I keep quiet about them for the moment, so we do not annoy the king’s ears. But there is one thing which upsets me very greatly and which I cannot allow to pass over in silence, that is about the honour of the kingdom (honestas regni). In the times of previous emperors, this honour flourished very properly in clothing and comportment, in arms and horseriding. But in our days this has been put in second place, and the ignominious custom of French ineptitudes has been introduced, in the shaving of beards, in the shameful shortening and deforming of garments, and in many other novelties which it would take too long to list, and whose introduction was forbidden in the times of the Ottos and Henrys.

But today many people despise the honest customs of our fathers, and seek the clothing, and at the same time and very quickly, the perversities of foreigners. Through all this, they wish to be similar to those whom they know to be enemies and traitors. And what is be lamented even more, such people are not only not chastised, but are even treated as close companions by kings and other princes, and everyone received a greater reward the more promptly they copy these stupidities. The others see this and do not blush to copy them, and because they see the that they are tolerated and rewarded, they rush to think up even greater novel insanities. For these and other things, O father, I grieve very greatly, since with these foreign changes so too customs change, and we see in a kingdom hitherto more honourable than others that murders, rapine, perjury, betrayal and various deceptions are gradually increasing, and we fear that these are signs of greater ills. This is why we suppliantly beseech you, and in the name of God’s love, we ask you to take care to counter and cure these harms, through the king and through whomever you can. Farewell.

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

Fresh heresy in 11th-c. Lotharingia?

In 2016, the MGH published Benedikt Marxreiter’s edition and German translation* of a hitherto unknown text – a work on demonic magic by an eleventh-century monk, Bern of Reichenau.

As well as Bern’s treatise, De nigromantia, there also survive two cover letters, which accompanied copies of the work that he sent to people, which are also included in Marxreiter’s edition. One of these letters was addressed to Archbishop Poppo of Trier (d. 1047). Here’s a quick draft translation of a key passage:

“Those people stir up foolish, useless and vain questions, who watch the movement of the stars because they think that every human is born under a constellation, who seek answers from demons, who demand divinations, who foster the magical art, and who destroy themselves. Following the Apostle Paul’s words, they ‘introduce sects of perdition, and denying the Lord who bought them, they bring swift destruction on themselves’. We have heard that these people sprouted forth in Italy in the kingdom of Charles, emerged forth for their own ruin, came to Lotharingia and sowed the poisonous seeds of their lethal teaching, for the destruction of many. Your Authority [Poppo] resisted them according to the wisdom divinely given to you, argued against and contradicted them many times… And recently some news that was not good reached me, which reported that certain seedlings of error have again sprouted in Francia, which strive to contaminate the harvest of the catholic faith…”

What does Bern’s letter mean for students of 11th-century heresy – a long vexed historiographical field? On the one hand, it could represent new evidence for the existence and spread of heretics in post-1000 Europe, moving up from Italy into Lotharingia, and connected moreover with the well-known appearance of heretics in France around this time (e.g. the famous 1022 Orleans burnings).

On the other, it could simply show how what was changing was not the heretics but the church’s classification of people perceived as dissenters. Bern was after all a well-networked ‘reforming’ monk, closely connected with both Fleury and Gorze, and thus perhaps prone to see the devil’s work in any resistance to a programme of reform. His association of heresy with demonic magic and astrology certainly suggests that we are dealing with very thick layers of ecclesiastical interpretation. As Marxreiter points out, it certainly can’t be a coincidence that Archbishop Poppo had accused nuns in his diocese of magic, as a justification for dissolving the convent of Pfazel**.

Either way, it’s exciting to have a new piece of the heresy jigsaw to play with.

Image – Wikipedia

* Another edition and German translation came out less than a year later, by Niels Becker. I haven’t yet been able to consult this.

** There’s discussion and an English translation of this episode in Vanderputten, Dark Age Nunneries.

1066 and the other papal banner

In 1066, the Norman Duke William persuaded Pope Alexander II to send him a papal banner, signifying his approval of William’s cross-Channel enterprise (this banner may even be depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, in the image above).

But the fall of Anglo-Saxon England wasn’t the only major upheaval taking place in western Europe that year, and nor was William the only person to be sent such a banner. For the pope sent another one to a man named Erembald, who was involved in a conflict of arguably equal importance in European history to that of the Norman Conquest.

That conflict was taking place in what was probably by this date the largest city in the Latin west, many times larger than London: Milan. Defining precisely what it was about isn’t entirely straightforward, not for lack of sources but because it was complicated. What is clear is that a large group of Milanese inhabitants, led by two minor clerics called Ariald and Landulf Cotta, and later the layman Erembald, were attempting to impose a stricter lifestyle on the wider Milanese clergy, against the Milanese archbishop’s wishes: a ban on marriage, above all.

The emergence of this group, known as the Pataria, led to large-scale civil unrest in Milan – this is the period when the ‘crowd’ starts to make its appearance in western history after a long hiatus, and perhaps the first time when the authorities really lost control of a major political centre. For months – years – no one really controlled this city, with its tens of thousands of inhabitants, at all.

The Patarine movement enjoyed intermittent support from the papacy, which is why Alexander sent Erlembald the banner. After all, one of the objectives of popes in this period was to separate out clergy from the laity more sharply, which was what the Pataria were trying to do too, so the Pataria and the popes had a shared interest. But in 1067, Pope Alexander sent two legates to Milan to try to calm things down, and it’s the edict or Costituzioni (full Latin text available here) they jointly produced that interested me in the episode. That’s because two central clauses concerned legal clerical exemption:

But we set out how one of these [corrupt clerics] should lose his office and benefice for inequity of his order, or variety of sin: we wish every ecclesiastical office to remain in the dignity of its status, and we permit no cleric for the sin of whatever offense of his office in some way offensive to God to come before the judgement of laymen, but rather we prohibit this in every way.


[Let the archbishop] have the power of canonically judging and punishing all his clergy, both in the city and outside it, in all parish churches and chapels, so that safe from secular judgment, they may stand quietly in divine service and the authority of the canons, and devoutly obey their archbishop.

In this respect, then, the views of Pataria and Papacy diverged: the former prioritised moral standing, and saw clerical privilege as potentially protecting sinful clerics; the latter was determined to confer some institutional rigour on the separation between clerics and laity (in fact a Roman council of 1059 had previously made a similar decree). Erlembald seems to have taken it upon himself to pass judgement on clerics; banner or not, for the papacy this was a step too far.

Admittedly, the papal banner had as much or as little impact in Milan as it did at Hastings, and it’s safe to say that the Pataria paid little if any attention to the Costituzioni of 1067: their battles were fought on the streets as much as through pages of solemn canon law. But it’s a reminder – if reminder were needed – that ‘reform’ in the 11th century was a coalition of interests, much like William’s Norman expedition.

It’s a reminder too that not every element of church reform was new – for (as is becoming clearer to me) the legal dimension of a separation between clerics and laymen, crucial to the reforming papacy, was a late antique theme that had been already been revived anew in the 9th century.  To what extent should we think about the Gregorian Reform as a messy culmination of thinking and attitudes developed in the ninth century?

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Pope Leo! Or, a sketch about a dead parrot

In whimsical moments, I sometimes think how fun it would be to write a book that explored the major lineaments of the European early Middle Ages through animal-human interaction.  It could start with the ponies of the nomads who helped bring down the Empire, then consider the diminishing size of post-Roman livestock. There’d be a chapter on  Merovingian sea-monsters, another on Charlemagne’s elephant, and inevitably there’d be one on how the boundaries between human and animal were ‘negotiated’ through bestiality, a matter of concern in some penitential texts (and occasionally outside them).  It would have to consider microbes – do they count? – and a final chapter would emphasise that so much of what we know depends on animal skin (ie, parchment).

But there’d also be a chapter on an animal that I encountered  in the course of my current research: Pope Leo IX’s parrot.

The pope received his parrot as a gift from the king of Dalamarcie, probably around 1050.  There’s some debate as to where Dalamarcie was, but the most likely guess is Denmark. That would make the king in question Swein (who contemplated conquering England like his Viking ancestors).  It’s not clear where Swein had sourced the bird, but most medieval parrots came ultimately from India.

This was not just any old parrot, though – this was a miraculous parrot. On the way to Rome, it kept on saying ‘I am going to the pope’. And when it was presented, it spontaneously (?) exclaimed ‘Pope Leo!’.  [For the full story, see the extract below].

Pope Leo IX is a celebrated figure in medieval history, famous for his role in church reform – attacking clerical marriage and simony, and strongly asserting the superiority of St Peter’s see within the church. He had also been deeply affected by the attack of a demonic toad  (!) during his childhood, which one might imagine would encourage a degree of circumspection about animals.

Yet  the Toul Life of Pope Leo IX, from which this information comes, makes it clear that this deeply serious man was thrilled by the gift of a bird that talked (presumably in Latin). Whenever implementing Church Reform and papal primacy just got a bit much, Leo would go to his rooms, and be cheered up by listening to his parrot saying ‘Pope Leo’, over and over again.

It’s revealing that the bird was not taught to say ‘Libertas Ecclesiae!’, or ‘Simoniaca haeresis!’, or other church reform catch-phrases. Perhaps it was enough for the embattled Pope to hear someone, at least, providing unconditional recognition of his status, unlike all the troublesome bishops or kings who wouldn’t do as they were told (some of whom were, unlike the parrot, miraculously struck dumb). It’s also interesting that this odd anecdote reached the ears of a writer in far-off Toul, hundreds of miles away from Rome. Evidently it was widely discussed.

Pope Leo died in 1054. One might wonder whether his successor, Victor II, would have found the parrot’s constant repetition of ‘Pope Leo!’ quite as endlessly entertaining.  Luckily for him, he did not have to put up with it. For according to a number of manuscripts, the parrot fell into Leo’s grave and died ‘from excessive grief’, ‘as if it were unwilling to live without him’. Leo’s affection for his divinely-inspired pet was, apparently, reciprocated.

Extract from the Life of Pope Leo IX, tr. Robinson (The Papal Reform of the 11th Century, Manchester, 2004)

Among the many who strove to visit his [Leo’s] presence, the king of Denmark sent him a parrot as a gift, in which divine grace appeared through an admirable virtue. Certain birds can indeed be mastered by hunger and taught to pronounce human words; but it is said that this bird without compulsion throughout the journey on which he was brought to the lord pontiff continued to say, ‘I am going to the pope.’ Immediately on being presented to him, without being taught, the bird exclaimed in a sweet voice, ‘Pope Leo!’ Whenever this venerable pastor, fatigued by the conduct of business, retired to his private room or when some sadness chanced to oppress his mind, afflicted by excessive cares, this bird often alleviated his distress and, by sweetly and succinctly repeating ‘Pope Leo’, he restored his mental vigour.

Cover image: a 15th-century parrot, from a manuscript in Denmark (!):