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13.04.13, Lauwers, ed., La dîme, l’Église et la société féodale

13.04.13, Lauwers, ed., La dîme, l’Église et la société féodale

This surprisingly original volume consists of sixteen articles on the tithe in western Europe (plus an introduction and a conclusion), ranging from late antiquity through the end of the Middle Ages. Most of the separate pieces were originally presented at roundtables on the topic held in Nice in 2007 and 2008. Although reference is constantly made to the work done in the 1960s by Giles Constable on monastic tithes, and Constable indeed attended one of the roundtables, the authors are primarily from the younger generation of French medievalists. In his long introduction, Michel Lauwers sketches a history of the tithe and of ecclesiastical lordship, though he insists that the volume is not intended as a synthetic work.

Rather, the volume's purpose is to break down the history of tithes as it is usually recounted--a version that, Lauwers says, has become essentially canonical yet is rarely examined closely. According to this old paradigm, tithes were established in the Carolingian era to provide income to the parish, but they then fell into the hands of the secular aristocracy, and only with the Gregorian Reform were they returned to the Church--although usually to monasteries rather than to parish churches, a practice that perverted tithes' original purpose. All the authors set out to problematize this paradigm.

Rather than treat tithes merely as sources of ecclesiastical income, many of the authors treat them as an example of the circulation of goods in the economy and as part of the social structure that held society together. Tithes were not restricted purely to churches even in the era of ecclesiastical reform, several authors point out, most notably Didier Fanfili and Florian Mazel. Indeed, laymen continued to refer to tithes as hereditary possessions well into the thirteenth century, even as they gave them to monasteries. The feudal society of the title here should be interpreted as meaning simply secular society, as no discussion of feudalism is involved. The term société féodale appears to have been chosen as a signal that the volume is in many ways closer in approach to the French monographs whose titles are some variant of "society and lordship in…" rather than to histories of the Church. Except for two articles on Italy by Simone Collavini and Luigi Provero, all of the pieces focus on France, including Languedoc (or at least on Carolingian Francia). In none of the various regions covered do the authors find evidence of the "classic" understanding of parishes and tithes.

An indication of how differently this volume treats tithes than have most previous works is found in the first pages of the introduction, where Lauwers suggests that tithes need to be seen as part of what he terms the territorialization of society. From the ninth century on, each church was supposed to collect tithes from all Christians living in its territory (terminum), which was not the same as a parish. Thus lay people were defined in part by the territory of the church in which they lived, and also separated in this way from other groups of people. This approach, analyzing tithes as part of the spatial organization of society, is taken up by several individual authors, most notably Thierry Pécout, but also rejected by several others.

As this example indicates, the articles in the volume are very diverse, sometimes repeating information from other articles, sometimes disagreeing with each other. Some are very technical, such as Isabelle Rosé's analysis of the vocabulary used for tithes in high medieval Burgundy, or Florent Hautefeuille's breakdown of mentions of the parrochia in cartularies from the Toulouse region. Others are more theoretical or philosophical, such as Elsa Marmursztein's piece on thirteenth-century scholastic debates over tithes. Some articles discuss at length the role of tithes in secular lordship, whereas others, such as the one by Germain Butaud, find tithes rarely under secular control in the period he studied. And there is one article that takes a literary rather than strictly historical approach: Stéphanie Le Briz-Orgeur devotes her chapter to the late medieval dramas of the "tithe of Judas." This diversity of approach and sources analyzed is treated as valuable, as an indication that there was no single definition or use of medieval tithes. It does mean, however, that the book does not come up with a coherent new discussion of tithes to replace the paradigm that the authors reject.

Perhaps the most important new conclusion to emerge from this volume is that, by the twelfth century, tithes were much more significant as sources of monastic income than as parish revenues linked directly to pastoral activities. Cécile Caby elucidates this point in an article tucked away in the middle of the volume. This focus of course leads back to Constable's work on monastic tithes from fifty years ago, but the real message of her piece is how differently different orders of monks--and different members of society--thought about tithes at the time, and how unlike the Carolingian-era version they were.

Several other authors also stress that the tithes of the High Middle Ages functioned quite differently from the tithes of an earlier era, becoming reliable sources of income for the first time in the twelfth century. Yet there was still no close equation between tithe and parish, for, as Florian Mazel demonstrates, churches might receive income from tithes levied quite some distance away. In Normandy, as discussed by Grégory Combalbert, there developed a regular system of tithe collectors, to whom the collection was farmed out.

Yet the income sources that tithes represented, several authors suggest, were less purely ecclesiastical affairs in the High Middle Ages than they had been earlier. Tithes were commonly assigned to monasteries by lay lords as well as by priests or bishops, suggesting that these lords played an important role in the distribution of tithes, rather than being simply usurpers of ecclesiastical income against whom the churches had to struggle. Florian Mazel in fact suggests that the well-known fragmentation and division of tithes between multiple churches--rather than being a result of tithes falling into lay hands in the late Carolingian era, as was once assumed--was a product of the post-Gregorian efforts to assign tithe income to churches. Indeed, he argues that parish churches had never had clearly defined, contiguous territories from which they drew their tithes even during the age of Charlemagne.

Beyond this, several major points emerge. First, as Valentina Toneatto argues in the first article after the Introduction, tithes originally were considered less as a tax or impôt and more as an offering or form of alms, their Old Testament roots more important than any seigneurial desire to increase income. (Her article is the only one to touch on tithes in the pre-Carolingian era.) This point is taken up again toward the end of the volume by Emmanuel Bain, who discusses the biblical justification for tithes adduced in the ninth through thirteenth centuries. The volume's cover is illustrated with a ninth- century image of Abraham bringing tithes to Melchisedech.

Secondly, as both Lauwers and Toneatto point out, tithes may have eventually developed into a standard source of ecclesiastical income, but they were not intended to be standard from the beginning. The well-known capitularies of Charlemagne on the establishment of tithes were issued during exceptional times of famine and distress, as a way to alleviate the suffering of the poor. They were offered to the churches, but with the understanding that the churches were in the best position to distribute the offerings to the needy.

Third, not all ecclesiastics felt that accepting this income was appropriate. Guy Lobrichon's article consists of a close analysis and edition of a ninth-century treatise in which the anonymous author lambasts as heresy any refusal to accept goods and income--suggesting that such refusal could be quite real. Part of the author's argument in justifying the flow of goods and money to the Church was that these goods came as free-will offerings, an indication that they were not treated as a required payment. Just as tithes were not rigidly ordained in the Carolingian era, there was no standard parish to which they were supposed to be paid. Indeed, Jean-Pierre Devroey in his piece dismantles any presumed equation between the primitive parish and the supposed unit of seigneurial exploitation at that time.

It is impossible in a review to give proper appreciation of all the points raised in this six-hundred-page volume. In his concluding chapter (or rather postscript as it is here called, "postface"), Mathieu Arnoux gamely attempts to touch on many of the points the various authors have raised and raises the issue of the grange, something not really addressed by any of the authors. But his only real conclusion is that the social and ecclesiastical aspects of tithes need to be further explored, and that these articles have begun debates and discussions that need to be continued.

It is one of the strengths of this book that the authors have all tried to engage with anglophone scholarship as well as with other francophones. (The Germans, however, continue for the most part to be overlooked.) A great deal of important work on medieval France has been done in the last thirty-five years or so by American and British scholars, yet only recently has this work begun to influence French medievalists. A comprehensive bibliography would have been helpful, but there are separate indexes of people and of places. Overall, in spite of the sometimes frustrating multiplicity of approaches and conclusions, this is an important book that should have a major influence on how scholars think about lordship and the creation of territorial units, as well as about tithes.