The Medieval Review 14.10.15


Clarke, Peter D. and Anne J. Duggan. Pope Alexander III (1159–81): The Art of Survival. Church, Faith and Culture in the Medieval West. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. xxi, 427. $134.95 (hardback). ISBN: 9780754662884 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


John D. Cotts
Whitman College
cottsjd@whitman.edu

Pope Alexander III graces traditional accounts of the twelfth century in his guise as a consummate "lawyer-pope," a reformer who steered the Church on a course toward greater centralization while resisting imperial encroachments on the authority and patrimony of St. Peter. He presided over a major ecumenical council at Tours (1163) as well as the Third Lateran Council (1179), issued some four hundred decretals that found their way into canon law, and brought Frederick I Barbarossa more or less to heel with the Peace of Venice in 1177. As a result, most of the key trajectories of twelfth-century ecclesiastical politics can be traced quite frequently through his reign. Given Alexander's historiographical significance, and the great developments in twelfth-century studies in the last few decades, a reassessment of the pope's place in his world is very welcome indeed.

In their introduction, the editors note that the last collection of essays devoted to Alexander III, Miscellanea Rolando Baldinelli: Papa Alessandro III, edited by F. Liotta (Siena, 1986), focused overwhelmingly on his place in the canon law tradition, and thus they seek to create as broad a context as possible for the pope's career (3). The volume opens with an impressive new biography by Anne J. Duggan, and then moves both geographically and conceptually through the Alexander's relations with various components of twelfth-century Christendom. The quality of the submissions ranges from workmanlike and encyclopedic to delightfully original and provocative, and together they fashion a valuable resource suitable for advanced undergraduates and senior scholars in several disciplines.

The collection is quite wide in scope and the level of detail varies greatly from essay to essay, but three main trends emerge from the contributions. The first is rigorous attention to source topology. The authors repeatedly challenge us to reconsider the texts usually associated with Alexander (especially Boso's Vita Alexandri), and to peer under the corners of more obscure sources to re-evaluate some of the master narratives through which we have viewed the twelfth century. Second, most of the contributors consciously challenge--and even discard completely--those same master narratives. They are especially effective at breaking down modernist assumptions about the "crisis of church and state," and look at the myriad choices that Alexander made; his reign is presented as a series of targeted responses to particular crises, rather than crises approached through a monolithic, overarching ideology. Third (and this certainly springs from the first two trends), the volume considers Alexander's endeavors and their consequences at the most local level whenever possible.

Duggan's biographical chapter introduces Alexander as a pragmatist and problem-solver: "The secret of his success lay not in the elaboration of new theories, but in a clear-headed recognition of the uncertainties of the times" (48). This is a pope who tried to serve individual petitioners rather than use them to impose fundamental principles. At the same time, Duggan elegantly demonstrates the aptness of the book's subtitle--The Art of Survival--by presenting Alexander as a consummate survivor who consolidated his position by addressing pressing crises in their appropriate turn, and above all by administrating his Church competently.

Chapters 2 through 4 consider the most pressing of all crises, the papal schism that began on the day of Alexander's election in September of 1159. While John Doran explores the Roman context for the schism, Jochen Johrendt looks at it how it played out in the Empire (on both sides of the Alps). The splendid complementarity of these two articles provides a perfect example of how a collection like this should work. Both pieces emphatically reject the categories of nineteenth-century historiography. Doran, for example, shows how the Roman commune had no proto-liberal agenda in their dealings with Alexander, and the popes did not instinctively try to limit its self-governance (95). Johrendt, on the other hand, demonstrates that modern categories of "church and state" have limited explanatory power when discussing the actions of imperial bishops and, more importantly, local churches, during the schism (125-126). Following these chapters, Edward Coleman argues that the founding of the city of Alessandria, though it has become a classic symbol of the Lombard League's alliance with Alexander against Frederick Barbarossa, tells us much more about the immediate concerns of the Lombard towns. Not only did Alessandria grow more gradually than has sometimes been assumed, but the Lombard sources which describe it hardly mention the schism (144-145).

The next three chapters move from the Patrimony of St. Peter in central Italy, to France and then Spain. Brenda Bolton considers Alexander's relations with the papal patrimony, focusing especially on the Ciociaria, to argue that far from being an absentee lord of the lands of St. Peter, Alexander used them as a kind of laboratory for his policies. In one of the most unambiguously positive judgments on the pope in this volume, Bolton presents the Ciociaria as a place where "he displayed discretion and a paternal solicitude in response to matters which ranged from the recovery of strategic territory or dispute settlement to clerical morals and the spiritual welfare of lepers" (180). Myriam Soria, writing about France, also lays great emphasis on the tension between the universalizing pretentions of the papacy and its activities at the local level. The pope balanced his use of the bishops as instruments of centralization with the granting of privileges to secular reasoning, which resulted in the paradox of "a centralizing pope who nonetheless favored the localization of the French Church" (201). Damian Smith carefully reads papal documents relating to Spain, focusing largely on relations between the provinces and the competition for privileges between sees like Toledo, Compostela, and Braga. Although Smith argues that papal policy toward Spain was complex, he argues convincingly that, whatever Alexander's particular successes or failures were, "there had simply never been so much papal government before" (240).

Chapters 8 and 9 turn to Alexander's dealings with England; traditional accounts have (perhaps understandably) given top billing to the Becket Controversy, during which Alexander famously exercised great caution. In "The Curious Case of Becket's Pallium: Guernes de Pont-Ste-Maxence and the Court of Alexander III," Katherine Christensen closely reads a short passage from Guernes's poem on Becket to argue (in admittedly speculative fashion) that Alexander may have fretted more about granting Becket the pallium than most English sources for the episode admitted. This fits into the volume's continuing portrait of Alexander as careful and deliberate rather than ideological. Nicholas Vincent then gives a masterful reinterpretation of late twelfth-century diplomacy between Rome and the Angevin kings of England. Re-reading chronicles, letters, and charters, Vincent reminds us that the role of the kings' continental possessions has been neglected in older scholarship. Moreover, Henry II continued to negotiate and compromise with Alexander for seven years after Avranches, and managed to steer ecclesiastical affairs in directions that could benefit both parties.

This is followed by three chapters on the reach of the papacy into the eastern Mediterranean. Jonathan Harris and Dmitri Tolstoy reconsider the evidence for Alexander's interactions with Byzantium, again making excellent use of Boso, and show that the eastern emperors saw the pope as simply part of a larger policy regarding Italy. Once more it is made clear that Alexander dealt shrewdly with his diplomatic partners, perhaps dangling the promise of recognizing Manuel I Komnenos as Emperor of the Romans in turn for support against Barbarossa. Thomas F. Madden vividly lays out the fraught ecclesiastical politics of twelfth-century Venice, and spins a lovely narrative of the doge's role in the Peace of Venice from the Venetian point of view. Turning attention further east, Iben Fonnesberg-Schmidt finds that Alexander made few original contributions to crusading ideology, and was not particularly interested in expanding the crusades to Spain or the Baltic. Still, he identified with Christ and His body in advocating the crusades and spoke about them with emotional urgency, suggesting that he was constrained by political quarrels with and among the kings of Western Europe from bringing his ideas of military pilgrimage to fruition.

Anne Duggan concludes the volume with an absolute tour-de-force of an essay on Alexander and the canon law tradition. Ranging widely over his decretals and the sorts of cases he confronted, Duggan argues that Alexander may have been a "lawyer-pope" after a fashion, but that he did not approach canon law systematically. Still less did he legislate from the curia. He became important to later systematizing precisely because of his practical approach to the legal conundrums that litigators brought to him.

One might object that, given the range of essays here and their tendency to argue from the point of view of Alexander's antagonists or negotiating partners, we lose focus on Alexander himself, and that in some of the essays Alexander's reign simply provides a framework for considering other issues, but given the increasingly universal reach of the twelfth-century papacy this seems quite sensible. And if Alexander's own character remains somewhat elusive, that is perhaps a worthwhile implied thesis for the book. Inevitably, there are a few gaps in the coverage: the schools of Paris, religious orders, and peripheral areas of Northern and Eastern Europe get only slight coverage. This, however, is an outstanding collection that will serve as a starting point for Anglophone study of a crucial pontificate for a long time.



Copyright (c) 2014 John D. Cotts



Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login