Frances Andrews

title.none: Ramseyer, Transformation (Frances Andrews)

identifier.other: baj9928.0711.016 07.11.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Frances Andrews, St. Andrews University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Ramseyer, Valerie. The Transformation of a Religious Landscape: Medieval Southern Italy, 850-1150. Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past, 13. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. xvii, 222. $42.50 0-8014-4403-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.11.16

Ramseyer, Valerie. The Transformation of a Religious Landscape: Medieval Southern Italy, 850-1150. Conjunctions of Religion and Power in the Medieval Past, 13. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. xvii, 222. $42.50 0-8014-4403-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Frances Andrews
St. Andrews University

The key virtues of this study of ecclesiastical life in the principality of Salerno are twofold. First, it documents change over a three hundred year period, which is no easy task. Second, it uses a particular case to inform our understanding of both a much broader geographical region and the thriving historiographical debate concerning the transition from the pre-reform world of the early medieval church to the apparently clear-cut structures of the twelfth and later centuries. Salerno is treated as a genuine case study, repeatedly contextualised in the south of Italy and against the rest of the medieval West. Thus on p. 108, following in the wake of Peter Brown and John Thomas, Ramseyer argues that the region was typical of much of early medieval experience outside Francia, and goes on (for example), to parallel the large number of small, private religious foundations found in Salerno with the mosques of tenth-century Palermo (109). Her work also, admirably, looks both forward to the reform world and backwards to the world of the early Church, here characterised as based primarily on custom and communities of believers, to which she likens the Lombard south (107). In the Anglophone world, the work of Maureen Miller on Verona is perhaps the most obvious forebear [1], but Ramseyer starts earlier and, whereas Miller was writing against the backdrop of the changing loci of power which generated the autonomous communes of the twelfth century, Ramseyer's book documents a region rather less familiar to historians of ecclesiastical reform. Its more obvious neighbours among Anglophone scholars are perhaps John Howe on Dominic of Sora or Graham Loud on the monastic economy of the principality of Salerno. [2] The juxtaposition with Miller is however crucial, since in the first part of the book Ramseyer's account of Christianity in the Lombard era (c. 849-1077) frequently contrasts her own case material with that of a Carolingian and northern norm. Thus she emphasises how local and disparate the "decentralised" structures of ecclesiastical authority in the south were. Whereas in "Carolingian" Europe, she argues (3), single political or religious leaders (ie. dukes, princes and bishops) claimed authority over churches and religious life, in Lombard Salerno the ecclesiastical landscape was controlled by individuals, families or groups of citizens (consortia). Bishops exercised almost no jurisdictional authority, local custom prevailed and "religious practices differed not only from one town to another but also from church to church" (3). These practices included some which may startle those accustomed to the more divided world of the late middle ages: most notably that the owners of churches sometimes alternately appointed Latin and Greek priests (91). A consequence perhaps of the lack of centralised structures in the Lombard era or indeed of any over-arching external authority, this was also, as Ramseyer rightly suggests, because distinctions between Latin and Greek practices were not yet as evident as they were to become. They were simply not of great interest to locals, as against to papal or patriarchal propagandists. She also underlines the relative lack of differentiation in Lombard Salerno between the functions of monks, priests and deacons, or between clergy and laity (pp. 109, 193).

Having established the diversity of Christian practices in the Lombard era, in part two Ramseyer uses her detailed knowledge of the Cava archives to explore the transformative activities of the archbishops of Salerno and the abbots of Cava in the eleventh century and later. The main drivers of change identified are hierarchy, a clearer definition of roles, jurisdiction (taxation) and the development of territorial lordships (explained in part by a desire to avoid confiscation during the Norman conquest, p. 120). Interest in the means of reform leads her to use papal bulls confirming each successive archbishop to trace the changing concerns of the popes and their awareness of, for example, pastoral care. While showing that papal activity once again "became a consistent and significant force" in the region between 950 and 1050, she realistically rejects Taviani-Carozzi's vision of the popes as propagators of the Norman conquest so as to "pull southern Italy into the western sphere" (p. 122 n. 36). The power of the archbishops grew not from papal support, but largely through grants from lay lords (a stark contrast with the divestment occurring at this date in the north of the peninsula), grants which brought with them judicial, economic and political authority as well as new sacramental responsibilities. The two emergent forces--the archbishops of Salerno and the still more powerful abbots of Cava-- accepted some aspects of reform from Rome and not others. While Gregory VII was fuming against lay intervention in the Church, in the diocese of Salerno (where, ironically, he was famously to die an exile in Norman hands), lay ownership of churches and appointment of clerics continued to enjoy the support of churchmen such as Archbishop Alfanus (1058-85) (155). The clergy continued to marry (153) as they did throughout southern Italy until the late twelfth century. Greek practices survived even longer. The evidence Ramseyer presents thus underlines the adaptability and complexity of the reform process: "religious homogeneity [did] not necessarily seem an important goal" (156).

During the eleventh century the archbishops extended their power beyond the city, increasing contact with Rome and the north, but it was the Benedictine abbeys, exempt from Episcopal authority, that were the most influential: they acquired the donations, trained the clerics in the region and developed extensive networks of dependent churches. The last chapter of the book accordingly documents the history of the monastery of Cava and the construction of monastic lordships under Abbot Peter (1070-1123). In the process Ramseyer suggests that "purchases rather than donations [may have been] the main impetus behind Cava's rapid economic growth" (183), a picture which fits well with her account of the incorporation of houses and the later use of forgeries to affirm monastic rights.

Although the source base is of course narrow (this is, after all, a case study), it nonetheless enables Ramseyer to propose an explanation for the difference between the experience of Church reform in the south as against elsewhere. Whereas most northern prelates saw the papally-driven reforms as an intrusion, Salernitan prelates, she argues, did not, both because they were insufficiently prestigious or powerful and because when they failed to institute reforms, popes "did not push the issue" (192). Moreover, as she amply demonstrates, despite the persistence of diversity, reform tended to increase their authority rather than infringe on it, so they supported the popes. It is an approach which deserves to be tested by further research elsewhere in the south.

An overarching theme of Ramseyer's work is the strength of diversity as against uniformity, a subject which fits easily into contemporary historiographical concerns (as well as modern political debates). Uniformity was not (is not) all. As she demonstrates, bishops and abbots were able to accumulate power and authority despite the persistence of distinctive local practices. Nonetheless, I suspect that her contrasts with other regions and periods are mildly overstated (no doubt for good rhetorical reasons). Even in the relatively codified, centripetal world of later centuries, local customs remained strong and distinctions between types of clergy were never very clear-cut, either to churchmen and women or to lay observers. As is well known, monks were often priests and provided pastoral care, whilst regular canons adopted many of the practices traditionally associated with their monastic counterparts. More sophisticated churchmen endlessly sought to define and clarify their separate status but, as Christopher Brooke has observed, "in all sorts of ways the religious impulses of the age tended to obscure these frontiers". [3] A more fruitful way to think about the distinctions between laity and priesthood in the medieval church (at any date) may be as a graduated continuum with numerous intermediate shades of difference, from lay penitent or anchorite to acolyte, deacon and priest. Brooke also commented that twelfth-century religious impulses "created new frontiers". [4] Indeed, by that date local churches in the north were marked by the emergence of new ideals and "enlivened by a multitude of diverse religious institutions". [5] Even in the north, then, the direction of change was not always towards greater uniformity. The long twelfth-century was very creative in terms of modes of religious behaviour, but this aspect of reform is largely missing here.

This is an intelligent and lucid book which balances documentary detail and interpretative contextualisation very effectively. It deserves to be on the shelves of all historians of the reform movement and to be taken into account by all those interested in Italy in the ninth to twelfth centuries. It will also make very interesting reading for that vast sea of historians concerned with the eternal problem of tracing and explaining change.


[1] Maureen C. Miller, The Formation of a Medieval Church. Ecclesiastical Change in Verona c. 950-1150 (Ithaca and London, Cornell University Press, 1993).

[2] John Howe, Church Reform and Social Change in Eleventh- Century Italy (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylavania Press, 1997); Graham Loud, "The monastic economy in the principality of Salerno during the eleventh and twelfth centuries," Papers of the British School at Rome 71 (2003) 147-179.

[3] C. N. L. Brooke, "Priest, Deacon and Layman. From St Peter Damian to St Francis," Studies in Church History 26 (1987) 65-85, at p. 69.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Miller, Formation, p. 1.