Bishops, Clerks, and Diocesan Governance in Thirteenth-Century England: Reward and Punishment.
This study examines an important aspect of the thirteenth-century English episcopate: how bishops managed the clerks who administered their dioceses. Bishops needed to seek out and retain the most skilled and dedicated clerks, while clerical administrators sought bishops who could provide patronage in the form of financial security. Utilizing the abundant source material of the period, including bishops' registers, letters, and the ongoing publications of the English Episcopal Acta series, Michael Burger explores how this dynamic played out. Bishops cultivated their staff, he argues, almost exclusively by offering rewards for service; very rarely did they seek to punish those who failed in their duty.
The study is divided into three parts. The first, and shortest, illuminates the demanding nature of clerical administration by showing how clerks, moving in a world where disputants often turned to violence, faced physical dangers when representing their bishops. The second, and longest, section investigates the various strategies employed by bishops to reward their administrators. Benefices provided clerks with financial stability and a security of tenure protected by custom and law, and so were the ultimate prize. Yet the bestowal of such an award entailed risk for the bishop since the clerk was thus free to retire or take his services elsewhere. Bishops could deploy a spectrum of punishments to discipline erring clerks, but rarely chose to do so since this might have provoked a beneficed clerk simply to leave his post. Burger's third section considers the consequences of this situation; for instance, the pressure on bishops to increase their capacity to provide benefices, as well as how "affection and devotion" between bishop and clerk was represented in correspondence and expressed in the bequests and execution of episcopal wills.
Burger's analysis is rigorous, penetrating, and presented in a very readable style, and his central thesis is compelling. This work will appeal to specialists, who will admire the depth of his research and delight in the lavish footnotes filled with prosopographical detail, as well as to nonspecialists, for whom Burger has sympathetically explained key terms, described his sources, and outlined secondary literature. Its readership will hopefully include scholars of royal government and of the lay aristocracy who might be tempted to draw comparisons with royal and baronial strategies of patronage (11). The one weakness of Burger's study is his cursory discussion in the closing pages of "Culture of Context." A fuller exploration of concepts of accountability, hierarchy, and rulership is needed to make sense of the relationship between the bishops and clerks he portrays. A footnote suggests that ideas of episcopal familia might inform expectations of affection and devotion and, although Burger states his intention to pursue this avenue in a further study, such a discussion would have contextualized the conclusions of his present work (243 n.11). Still, this is a fine study that represents an important scholarly contribution while remaining highly accessible. It deserves to be widely read.
Sophie T. Ambler
King's College London