09.02.14, Bulman, Court Book of Mende

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Adam J. Davis

The Medieval Review baj9928.0902.014


Bulman, Jan K.. The Court Book of Mende and the Secular Lordship of the Bishop: Recollecting the Past in Thirteenth-Century Gévaudan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Pp. xii, 179. ISBN: 978-0-8020-9337-0.

Reviewed by:
Adam J. Davis
Denison University

In this book, Jan K. Bulman pursues two significant lines of inquiry that have been of interest to medieval historians in recent years: first, she examines the impact that the growth of French royal power had on the French episcopate during the thirteenth century, particularly the impact on bishops' seigneurial rights; second, she considers how the production of ecclesiastical court records shaped historical memory. Her case study is the south-central French diocese of Mende, located in the archdiocese of Bourges, which more or less corresponded with the medieval county of the Gévaudan. By studying individual bishops of Mende, beginning with Aldebert III (1151-1187) and ending with Guillaume Durand the Younger (1296-1330), Bulman surveys the course of episcopal secular lordship, including challenges to bishops' authority and the ways bishops responded to these challenges. Not all of the bishops of Mende were equally forceful in their claims to secular lordship. As Bulman demonstrates, however, those bishops who were most aggressive in their claims relied heavily on written records, such as registers of cases litigated in the episcopal court, as proof of episcopal secular lordship and sovereignty.

In Chapter One, Bulman examines episcopal lordship in the Gévaudan in the period up to 1200. During the twelfth century, the viscounty of the Gévaudan was either in the hands of the count of Barcelona or, after 1172, the king of Aragon. Yet Bulman warns against seeing secular power during this earlier period as only being exercised by viscounts, the count of Barcelona, and the king of Aragon. She points to evidence of bishops exercising some degree of secular lordship already in the twelfth century, whether in their role guiding the peace of God movement, or using "the associative power of St. Privat," the patron saint of the diocese, to strengthen their claims. Two narrative sources from the 1160s and 1170s, for instance, that dealt with the episcopate of Aldebert III, the Opuscula and the Chronicon breve de gestis Aldebertii, sought to depict the bishop as an active and authoritative lord of the Gévaudan. Although these sources are clearly biased in favor of episcopal claims, they reflect Aldebert's increased assertiveness in challenging comital authority and laying claim to episcopal secular lordship. The Chronicon, for example, related that the bishop, who was active in castle building, was not at all reluctant to use military force against his enemies, and he both purchased and seized property and income in the city of Mende. These narrative sources, however, also provide a glimpse into the ways that the bishop's power was severely limited by powerful local barons.

In 1161 King Louis VII of France issued the so-called Golden Bull of Mende. This royal concession, which was to become "the cornerstone of episcopal claims to secular lordship in the Gévaudan," granted the bishop of Mende secular lordship in perpetuity based on ancient custom and the royal concession of regalian rights (22). The bull claimed that the bishops of Mende had always possessed secular and ecclesiastical lordship in their diocese. While this royal grant would seem to have provided the bishops with powerful ammunition in their jurisdictional contests with the barons, Bulman shows that the bull failed to clear up all of the ambiguities concerning episcopal privileges. If the Golden Bull granted absolute, unconditional sovereignty to the bishop of Mende, how did the king have the power to grant this sovereignty? Did the king also have the right to revoke the bishop's overlordship? The bull only granted the Gévaudan and the regalia to the bishop and his successors after recording that Aldebert had publicly promised fidelity to the French king and sworn that his bishopric belonged to the crown. Although the royal bull was frequently invoked by subsequent bishops, it failed to settle the question of the secular lordship of the Gévaudan. Indeed, just two years after the king issued the Golden Bull, a baronial rebellion led by the bishop's own illegitimate brother led to the seizure of a number of episcopal castles; the bishop received no royal assistance. While the twelfth century may have laid the foundation for later bishops' claims to secular lordship, culminating in Guillaume Durand the Younger's Mémoire relatif au paréage, Bulman recognizes that "the course of episcopal lordship did not develop as smoothly as Guillaume's Mémoire suggests" (27).

Yet as Bulman herself shows in Chapter Two, assertions of episcopal secular lordship during the twelfth century were real and not merely the propagandized construction of Guillaume Durand the Younger and projected back onto an earlier period. Guillaume de Peyre, for instance, who came from a noble family from the region, and whose episcopate lasted from 1187 to 1222, expanded the episcopal domain by buying baronial estates, rights and revenues. Although the crown of Aragon technically held the rights of lordship during this period, developments connected to the Albigensian Wars strengthened the position of the bishop of Mende. Guillaume de Peyre exercised appelate jurisdiction over the Gévaudan, imposed a tax as the county's overlord, maintained public roads, and oversaw the minting of money. The bishop was eager to aggressively defend his rights even when it meant leading a military offensive against the king of Aragon. During the episcopate of Étienne de Brioude, however, episcopal power and revenues seem to have declined, as the bishop faced challenges from baronial families, the royal seneschal of Beaucaire, the king of Aragon, and the count of Toulouse. Odilon de Mercoeur (1247-74), on the other hand, forcefully sought to restore his jurisdictional rights as bishop and lord, appeasing aggressive barons and stemming a rebellion by the citizens of Mende who tried to establish a communal government. Odilon was far less successful asserting episcopal rights with the French king. In 1265 the bishop ceded the viscounty of Grèzes to the French crown, a major setback for episcopal claims to secular lordship. A few years later, however, in response to royal officials' repeated incursions into the bishop's temporal jurisdiction, Odilon brought a complaint before the Parlement of Paris. In his complaint, Odilon invoked the Golden Bull and argued that episcopal secular lordship had existed "from time immemorial." He further pointed to his exercise of lordship as proof of his lordship, specifically the civil and criminal matters that the episcopal court heard regularly.

In Chapter Three, Bulman closely examines the court book of Mende, which documents about 276 cases heard in the bishop's court, mostly from 1268 to 1270 (during the episcopate of Odilon de Mercoeur), with most of the cases touching on secular matters, particularly debts and assaults. Bulman provides a fascinating codicological analysis of this court book (twelve quires and 186 paper folios long) and compares it to other court books, such as two from the neighboring diocese of Le Puy, compiled just a few years later. The Mende court book provides a valuable window into thirteenth-century legal culture in the south of France and the functioning of an ecclesiastical court, revealing the kinds of cases the court heard, how often the court convened, and the identities of those who acted as judges. Bulman observes, for example, that different judges seem to have presided over different kinds of cases, perhaps evidence of the professionalization and specialization of the legal profession in the south of France. Bulman's analysis would have been enriched had she been able to uncover more about the training and background of these judges, including their personal ties to the bishop. A recent prosopographical study of ecclesiastics in the diocese of Mende, which Bulman does not appear to have consulted, reveals that Laurent de Condat, one of the two principal judges in the episcopal court, was not only a cathedral canon during the time that he served as a judge, but also rector of the hospital of Mende and a close associate of Bishop Odilon de Mercoeur, perhaps even a member of the bishop's familia. [1]

However, Bulman's primary interest is in learning more about why the court book of Mende was created in the first place, why it was organized in the way it was, and how it functioned. She sees the creation of the court book as an effort "to impose order in the episcopal archives. . . a utilitarian concern for [the] need to retrieve information" (67). In this way, it is similar to the kinds of research tools, such as biblical concordances and preaching aids that were being developed during the thirteenth century, often at the instigation of the mendicants. Yet the court book, as Bulman argues, was compiled to serve a very specific purpose, namely "to provide written proof of the assertion that the episcopal court heard cases of canon and civil law" (55). Bulman believes the court book was directly tied to Odilon's suit of 1269, proof that as secular lord, his court heard every kind of civil and criminal matter. Moreover, as the court book plainly showed, episcopal secular lordship was not merely an abstract concept, but an ancient and customary right that was exercised regularly. As Robert Berkhofer III, Constance Bouchard, Patrick Geary, and now Jan Bulman have shown, administrative documents (often cartularies) that at first glance appear to be unbiased, administrative records, were in fact often compiled and organized in such a way as to assert a right or make a jurisdictional claim.

An archival record such as Odilon's court book could also be used by later bishops to make a jurisdictional claim. As Bulman vividly illustrates in Chapter Four, the Mémoire relatif au paréage, which was probably composed sometime between 1300 and 1307, was a narrative history of episcopal lordship in the Gévaudan (on behalf of episcopal rights) that drew heavily on Odilon's court book, the Golden Bull, and other written and oral evidence. Although the Mémoire's authorship remains uncertain, Bulman accepts that it was written (or at least closely supervised) by Bishop Guillaume Durand the Younger (the nephew of the preceding bishop and legal scholar, Guillaume Durand the Elder). Around 1300, the royal counsellor Guillaume de Plaisians argued that the lawsuit begun by Odilon some thirty years earlier should be suspended, since in his view the king was sovereign over all men and property in the royal realm. The author of the Mémoire, in other words, was responding to the arguments of this royal advocate and trying to resolve the longstanding royal-episcopal dispute in the bishop's favor. The Mémoire built on many of the arguments developed earlier by Guillaume de Peyre and Odilon de Mercoeur, suggesting, for instance, that the Golden Bull was merely an affirmation of a pre-existing and ancient episcopal right. Odilon's court book was also a central piece of evidence invoked by the author of the Mémoire. Seventeen cases from the court book were cited as examples of episcopal secular lordship in action, with the scribe providing cross-references and highlighting each case with the mark of an "x" or a stylized index finger at the top of the page. Bulman shows how, like a skilled legal scholar, the author of the Mémoire methodically built his case, carefully selecting from the evidence, combining some details, omitting or distorting others. Archival documents were thus used to construct a particular memory of the past, one designed to solidify (or challenge) political authority.

The suit brought by Odilon was finally resolved in 1307 in a paréage, which, while by no means a total loss for the bishops, did give the king far more jurisdiction in the Gévaudan than Odilon or Guillaume the Younger would have liked. In this sense, as Bulman acknowledges in her conclusion, the 1307 settlement can be viewed as representing a failure of archival records and scholarly treatises, such as the Mémoire, to preserve episcopal lordship. Yet in the period after 1307, the bishops of Mende continued to be recognized as the counts of the Gévaudan and exercised wide jurisdictional authority. One can only wonder whether this would have been true had bishops like Odilon and Guillaume the Younger not preserved written records in the name of episcopal lordship.

There is a kind of inherent teleology in the way that this book's argument is constructed. In her discussions of the twelfth and thirteenth-century bishops of Mende, Bulman at times almost makes it sound as if these earlier bishops kept careful records so that Guillaume Durand the Younger would be able to use them in his defense of episcopal rights in the early fourteenth century. As Bulman herself shows, though, Guillaume was hardly the first to offer a vigorous argument on behalf of episcopal lordship. What is striking, moreover, is the degree to which Guillaume's arguments were reformulations of arguments that had already been made by earlier bishops. Perhaps Odilon de Mercoeur had future bishops in mind when he compiled his court book, but he may also have planned to use it himself, either in connection with his suit or in some other context.

One of the great strengths of this book is in highlighting the fragile and contested nature of episcopal secular lordship. In tracing the course of episcopal power in the Gévaudan from the twelfth to the early fourteenth century, Bulman shows that there were no straight lines of inexorable growth or decline. The jurisdictional conflicts in which the bishops of Mende became embroiled shaped the production and use of written records, as evidenced in Odilon de Mercoeur's court book and Guillaume Durand the Younger's Mémoire. In order to support episcopal claims to secular lordship, a particular kind of documentary record of the past was created, one that was highly organized, easily searchable, and would, it was hoped, legitimize the exercise of episcopal power.


[1] Philippe Maurice, DiocèÉse de Mende, vol. 8 of Fasti Ecclesiae Gallicanae: Réèpertoire prosopographiques des évêques, dignitaires et chanoines de France de 1200 à 1500 (Turnhouot: Brepols, 2004), 207.

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Adam J. Davis

Denison University