Shepherds of the Lord: Priests and Episcopal Statutes in the Carolingian Period.
Nearly three dozen documents were issued between the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the tenth to which the name "Episcopal Statutes" has been applied. Although much of this material has been known for a long time, its proper study has only recently become possible with the publication of the Capitula (or Statuta) episcoporum by the Monumenta Germaniae Historica in four volumes between 1984 and 2005. Van Rhijn's is the first book to tackle this material and to try to make sense of it as a distinct corpus. She notes that Capitula episcoporum is not a coherent genre because the various capitula differ significantly among themselves and because the capitula bear close similarities to the acts of church councils and also to the capitularies of the Frankish kings. The items in the MGH edition have two things in common: they were all written by bishops, and they are primarily addressed to priests.
In the Admonitio Generalis of 789 Charlemagne and his key advisers announced a broad program of reform with ideas of corrcctio and emendatio at its heart. In the next decade or two both conciliar acts and capitularies spelled out the precise dimensions of the reform that was desired. This general legislation had very little to say about priests. At about the same time, a number of well-connected bishops, Haito of Hasel, Ghaerbald of Liege, and Theodulf of Orleans, issued the earliest of the episcopal statutes. They aimed to draw priests into the work of reforming the laity of the Carolingian world. They wished to enhance their own communications with their priests and to consolidate their authority over their dioceses. To accomplish these ends, the bishops wished for priests to live ordered lives under rules analogous to those followed by monks; to provide exemplary models of outstanding Christian behavior; and to preach and teach. The underlying idea was that the grand reform aspirations of the court could not possibly be achieved unless they reached every village and hamlet in the empire. By drawing the priests into the reform program, the bishops effectively made them into a coherent group and extended to them their own ministerium.
For several decades no new episcopal statues were issued (with one possible exception). Then beginning in about 850 a significant number of them began to appear. The new statutes appeared in troubled times marked by civil wars and Viking invasions. Increasing lay control over the church was disrupting bishops' control over their dioceses. The documents appeared only in the West Frankish kingdom (or along its Lotharingian flank) that was older and better organized than the East. Episcopal autonomy was greater after 850, because episcopal ecclesiology asserted the spiritual leadership of kings--earlier initiatives had come from Charlemagne himself--and because kings were weaker than before. In these circumstances, moreover, priests were both more imbricated in local society and more willing to challenge the authority of their bishops. The church councils that continued to meet in the West rarely took up either the large reform themes or the provisions touching diocesan management that were prominent in Charlemagne's councils. The later statutes tended to draw their material from earlier statutes or from collections such as those of Ansegis and Benedictus Levita. The bishops did not innovate and they spoke less resolutely in their own voices.
After helpfully characterizing the two main periods of statute activity, van Rhijn turns to priests. She focuses mainly on what bishops said about priests and on some large-scale generalizations about them. Apart from one or two anecdotes, van Rhijn does not assess the degree to which ideals and reality matched each other. This book is not a history of the Carolingian priesthood. That book is still very much needed, and van Rhijn lays some of the foundation for it.
Carolingian priests were expected to be models of good behavior. In particular they were to avoid involvement with women and otherwise not to cause scandal by drinking, fighting, and cursing. They were expected to be reasonably well educated and knowledgeable in the law of the church, in elementary theology, and in correct liturgical practice. They were to celebrate the sacraments properly, to preach and to teach--in Latin and in the vernacular. A different kind of study might have told us how effectively these rather lofty ideals were carried out.
On some general points van Rhijn has interesting and important things to say. She argues that the poverty and oppression of priests has probably been exaggerated. Priests came from a variety of social and economic backgrounds and, in view of the endowments of rural churches, most priests can be assigned to the local land-owning elite. Most priests seem to have served in the areas of their birth and had continuing family connections. Thus priests lived amid laypeople and had a kind of double identity. Coming together twice each year in synods and once at the chrism Mass meant that priests had opportunities to forge horizontal bonds and even to thwart the will of their bishops. These too are subjects that would repay further investigation.
Carine van Rhijn has written a useful book. She has thought hard about the episcopal statutes, and she has made sense of them. The book is repetitive and reveals some niggling errors, for example in tabulations of manuscripts or in a paragraph where she is speaking about Einhard and then slips and calls him Alcuin. One wishes that van Rhijn had asked one of her many Anglophone friends to vet the manuscript.
Thomas F. X. Noble
University of Notre Dame
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|Author:||Noble, Thomas F.X.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2009|
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