The Medieval Review 15.01.04

Andrews, Frances, with Maria Agata Pincelli. Churchmen and Urban Government in Late Medieval Italy, c.1200–c.1450: Cases and Contexts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi, 411. $110.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9781107044265 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Maureen C. Miller
University of California, Berkeley

This interesting volume explores a phenomenon first analyzed by Richard Trexler in a 1978 article, "'Honor among Thieves': The Trust Function of the Urban Clergy in the Florentine Republic." [1] How widespread was the employment of members of religious orders by the urban governments of northern and central Italy? When and why did the practice begin, how long did it last, and what does it reveal about the development of governance in medieval polities? Churchmen and Urban Government offers answers to all these questions while raising even more that merit research. Divided into three discrete sections, the volume presents a dozen case studies focused on cities in the Po Valley, Tuscany, Umbria, and Lazio, followed by several essays focused on religious orders (the Cistercians, the Camaldolese), and then a comparative section briefly looking beyond central and northern Italy (at southern Italy, Sardinia, and England). An excellent introduction and epilogue by Frances Andrews bookend the collection.

Two essays treat Cremona, a case long ago used by Giovanni Tabacco to posit a simbiosi istituzionale ("institutional synthesis") between bishops and emerging communes in northern Italy. [2] Edward Coleman's chapter cogently sets out the Cremonese evidence for collaboration between the city's powerful bishop and the earliest representatives of the emergent commune, underscoring the importance of the episcopal court (curia) as a key site for the exercise of public authority. Coleman sketches the continued involvement of the city's prelates as mediators in internal conflicts and as envoys and participants in external relations, and he further adduces several parallel cases (Piacenza, Padua, Orvieto). This consideration of what one might call "traditional" ecclesiastical involvement in the birth of the communes serves as a prelude to the volume's real focus on the involvement of members of religious orders in specific functions of the mature institutions of urban governance created in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Christoph Friedrich Weber's chapter then goes on to contrast Bishop Sicard of Cremona's peacemaking in 1210 with the employment from the 1230s of members of the Humiliati as supervisors of mills, bridges, and toll collection; communal treasurers; and administrators of confiscated property. The practice intensified in the closing decades of the thirteenth century, with the appointment of a Humiliatus as treasurer required by communal statute; with new roles (supervisor of cathedral construction and wine-selling) filled by religious; and with an expansion beyond the Humiliati to employ other friars. Significantly, Weber demonstrates that the custom began in a period of Ghibelline domination and continued after the change to a Guelf popolo regime.

Other case studies reveal a range of evidence and considerable variation. The chapters by Frances Andrews on Parma and by Maria Agata Pincelli on Verona, for example, both use communal statutes. Andrews quite perceptively analyzes the statutes concerning communal employ of religious from 1235 to 1402 not as evidence of social practices in Parma but as sources for understanding the developing rationales for the practice or, as she nicely put it, "the rhetoric of employing religious" (49). From the initial use of "Penitent Brothers" to the employ of Humiliati from the 1260s and then still later the use of Cistercians, the statutes invoked primarily the prevention of fraud in the oversight of public works and communal funds. Resort to foreign chief executives (podestà), Andrews points out, were similarly justified. Pincelli's chapter on Verona's statutes documents employment of Humiliati after the demise of Ezzelino da Romano's regime in 1259 and the subsequent establishment of a governo di popolo under Mastino della Scala. Statutes from this period provide for the election of Humiliati brothers as salaried treasurers and for their appointment as collectors of taxes. The employment of friars ceased, however, in the fourteenth century as the Scaliger signori turned to lay professionals--mostly exiled Florentines--who could provide loans in addition to collecting taxes.

The evidence from Bergamo, ably analyzed by Teresa Brolis and Andrea Beneggi, reveals an overwhelming reliance on the Humiliati as public treasurers in the second half of the thirteenth century and as supervisors of public works. In this latter capacity, particularly overseeing the construction of bridges, the work of Humiliati administrators illumines relations between rural communes in the countryside surrounding Bergamo and the communal government in the city. Sarah Tiboni's contribution on Pistoia traces a shift in the 1280s from the use of secular clerics to reliance on religious and penitents for tasks such as a serving as treasurer, finding new podestà, carrying out censuses, managing communal properties, assessing the confiscated goods of rebels, and acting as custodians of prisons. Linking the change from employment of secular clerics to members of religious orders both to a communal dispute with the bishop over tithes in 1282 and to concerns that secular clerics might not recognize the sovereignty of the commune, Tiboni places the employment of religious in the context of Pistoia's subjugation to Florence and the rise to dominance of the popolo in the city's government. Giovanna Casagrande's chapter on Perugia provides the most varied evidence, with religious from many different institutions and orders filling myriad roles and functions from 1250 to 1350. This contribution provides excellent visualizations of the complex evidence, with pie charts and graphs breaking down the activities of religious in the service of the commune. In contrast to these rich cases, Piacenza and Lucca, treated respectively by Caterina Bruschi and Ignazio del Punta, reveal only very occasional or limited use of religious, while the final case study by Dennis Romano shows instead how the secular clergy--rather than members of religious orders--were integrated into "virtually all aspects of Venetian public (and, for that matter, private) life" (219).

The volume's second section shifts the perspective from individual cities to the religious orders that provided men for communal service. Two scholars who have published larger studies offer concise syntheses here. Paulo Grillo provides a broad overview of the Cistercians' involvement, emphasizing the deliberate nature of the relationships forged and the utility of communal service for the order (particularly in gaining privileges and protections from varied regimes). Probably the most interesting contribution of this piece is that its broad geographical perspective makes visible the choices not made: just because there was a Cistercian house nearby, does not mean communes sought their services. Political ties of individual monasteries could condition choices. Cécile Caby's chapter treats the Camaldolese, drawing upon the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century registers of the priors general of the order. She contributes further examples of religious being held accountable for debts occurred while performing public offices but also, more interestingly, considers space. The priors' registers reveal Camaldolese houses providing space for communal judicial hearings and receiving rent for this service. Chapters on Cistercian manufacture of "casting counters" used in communal treasuries (William R. Day, Jr) and on preachers paid by communes to deliver sermons (Stefan Visnjevac) are less closely related to the central themes of the volume but, nonetheless, present interesting evidence of ties between urban governments and religious orders.

The final comparative section presents essays on southern Italy, Sardinia, and England. Hubert Houben finds no use of religious in the municipalities of southern Italy and only very limited royal resort to their services. He does present evidence, however, of differences between the reign of Frederick II and the later Angevin kings of Naples. The greater use by the latter of Templars, mendicants, and Benedictines in royal administration was "an 'ideological' choice, determined by their closer ties with the Roman Church" (318). The chapter on Sardinia, by Andrea Puglia, offers a starker contrast: the island's political system made no "systematic use of the clergy, regular and secular, as agents of regional public power, or as employees of city administration" (330). The final contribution by Martin Heale outlines "the modest but enduring role in national and local government played by abbots and priors in late medieval England" (333), a kingdom in which the secular clergy "exerted far more influence" on government (334). The most interesting finding here is the appointment of abbots as justices of the peace, a practice that increased from the mid-fifteenth century: this increase in abbatial involvement in the maintenance of law and order in the shires is attributed to their local influences as major landowners.

Some conceptual and analytical problems emerge across the twenty chapters. While some authors clearly distinguish between secular clerics and vowed religious, others reveal confusion over the distinction (does a communal statute prohibiting clerics from holding office indicate opposition to the employment of Humiliati brothers?) or mingle examples of the employment of clergy and religious in order to present wider evidence of ecclesiastical involvement in communal governance. No shared standards to measure the extent of communal employment of religious inform the volume, so readers might wonder how use deemed "inconsistent" (75), "not particularly intense" (125), or "temporary" (241) in some cases really compares to use characterized as "widespread reliance" (180) or "longterm" (242) in others. But overall the volume documents a continuing interdependence between "church" and "state" in a region often represented as the birthplace of secular polities. It also expands our understanding of the multiple strategies, beyond the well-known employment of foreign podestà, that the Italian communes invented to try to achieve impartiality in government. In sum, although the essays vary in quality, collectively they make a valuable contribution to the comparative study of medieval governance.



1. In Essays Presented to Myron P. Gilmore, ed. Sergio Bertelli and Gloria Ramakus (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1978), 317-334.

2. Giovanni Tabacco, "Vescovi e comuni in Italia," in I poteri temporali dei vescovi in Italia e in Germania nel Medioevo, eds. Carlo Guido Mor and Heinrich Schmidinger (Annali dell'Istituto storico italo-germanico Quaderno 3; Bologna: Società editrice il Mulino, 1979), 253-282; English translation: "Appendix: The Institutional Synthesis of Bishop and City in Italy and the Succeeding Communal res publica," in Giovanni Tabacco, The Struggle for Power in Medieval Italy: Structures of Political Rule, trans. Rosalind Brown Jensen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 321-344.

Copyright (c) 2015 Maureen C. Miller

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