15.06.35, Thomas, The Secular Clergy in England

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R.N. Swanson

The Medieval Review 15.06.35

Thomas, Hugh M. The Secular Clergy in England, 1066-1216. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. pp. xiv, 422. ISBN: 9780198702566 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
R.N. Swanson
University of Birmingham

The essential point about this book is that it offers a valuable, sophisticated, and needed overview of an important topic whose component elements have hitherto often been treated as a range of disparate segments. As Hugh Thomas rightly notes, taken collectively the secular clergy of Anglo-Norman and early Plantagenet England have been rather neglected by scholars, certainly as regards broad discussions. He aims to fill the gap, offering a "fully rounded portrait of the secular clergy" (5); but whether he provides it, or merely makes the gap and its gaping more obvious, will be a matter of judgement, maybe largely dependent on whether he has produced the book his readers hope to encounter under his title.

If taken at face value, the challenge ostensibly addressed by that title is daunting: the potential scope of that "fully rounded portrait" in his selected period is simply enormous. Thomas approaches his task as a social historian, seeing the outcome as "primarily a social history, albeit one of special interest to historians of religion" (5). The social focus dictates the book's structure in ways which initially seem convincing, but can eventually raise doubts.

The book is split into four parts, each comprising varying numbers of chapters. After providing the basic introduction, Part I, "Models of Clerical Behavior," tests the secular clergy against two basic models. The ideal offered by theorists--especially in the aftermath of Gregorian Reform--and the criticism of those who failed to achieve it, provide the basis for discussion of "The Model Priest and his Antithesis" (chapter two); while the expectations of social peer groups, notably among the high-born elite, and the tensions between clerical and lay life at that level, are tackled in chapter three, "The Aristocratic Cleric."

Part II even more explicitly sets the secular clergy in social context. Its six chapters tick all the essential boxes for Thomas's specific period and more widely across the later Middle Ages. Accordingly, chapter four, on "The Wealth of the Secular Clergy," tackles incomes and the role of secular clerics in economic development, with the backlash against increasing clerical wealth which is characteristic of the twelfth century--and of almost every later one. Chapter five examines "Patronage and Advancement," investigating issues increasingly addressed in assessments of clerical lives over subsequent centuries, as influence on careers and ingredients in the social cement of a world where concepts of "meritocracy" privileged characteristics and qualifications often very different from those now considered "meritorious." Most of the concerns of the chapter's sub-sections strike chords across centuries: "The competition for benefices;" "...simony, inheritance, and nepotism" (but with the period-specific issue of benefices still sometimes inherited in the direct paternal line); "...lordship, service, and friendship"--the feudalised, or bastard feudalised, relationships of dependence and connection as a means to promotion; "...morals and education"--the problem of worthiness, and how far education actually was a clerical qualification; ultimately the tension and anxiety produced by the need for patronage in a context where connections and networking were becoming increasingly important. Elements of this chapter receive more specific elaboration in the next. Entitled "Courtiers, Bureaucrats, and Hell," its somewhat mixed bag allows discussion of clerics as administrators in competition with lay rivals, comment on bureaucratic evolution, and examination of contemporary anticurial attitudes.

Among the many significant developments within the long-twelfth-century church, the double-sided problem of the campaigns against clerical marriage and for clerical celibacy (but ideally, chastity) generated much heat, then and more recently, as part of the campaign of "Gregorian" reform, and as a factor in the clergy's social transformation. This was an era of hard-fought battles in a long war. Thomas plays relatively safe, focussing on the practicalities of the campaigns and the realities faced by the priests, their partners, and their children. A brief appendage on same-sex relationships pays obligatory homage to Boswell, but adds little.

The two remaining chapters here are somewhat portmanteau accumulations, yet coherently so. Historiographical boxes are again ticked. Chapter eight looks at "Kinship, Household, Hospitality, and Friendship;" the title provides a straightforward checklist for the contents. Looking at "Violence, Clerical Status, and the Issue of Criminous Clerks" in chapter nine, much of the discussion deals with the Becket dispute and the problem of lay jurisdiction over criminous clerks. Thomas perhaps feels he is retreading overtrodden ground, and so assumes that readers will already know much of the core material. The discussion seems unduly compressed; the explanation of the problems posed by the Constitutions of Clarendon and the potential solutions arguably need more elaboration.

Part III brings a significant change in direction and tempo. Dealing with "The Cultural and Intellectual Impact of the Clergy" it is shaped, and functions, as a broad analysis of the place of England's secular clergy in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, itself broadly conceived. Firmly taking up a thread strongly promised in the introduction, these chapters form almost a book within the book. Here Thomas appears in fighting mood, determined to demonstrate that England was no mere appendage to a French cultural revolution, but fed from and into the continental evolutions with its own momentum and trajectories. Acknowledging that the English-based elements reflected more a cultural than an intellectual movement--in that the intellectual activity occurred primarily in France--Thomas directs attention more to artefacts than ideas, but the increasing accessibility of ideas is clearly a fundamental aspect of his overall theme. He starts with a broad-brush discussion of "English Secular Clerics and the Growth of European Intellectual Life in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance" (chapter ten). The next three chapters analyse how the English secular clerics participated in the movement, each dealing with "Secular Clerics as..." in turn "...Collectors and Donors of Books," "...Authors and Intellectuals," and "...Cultural Patrons and Performers." The argument is solid, solidly supported, and persuasive. Indeed, it might not go far enough: in down-playing the English clergy as intellectuals, Thomas may not say enough about the known centres of learning, including early Oxford and Hereford. Necessarily, he has to deal with the elite; so how the transition was disseminated is less successfully tackled, with concluding summaries which read somewhat lame. Yet this is an important analysis, making a forceful contribution to the broader theme.

Despite what would appear to be its fundamental importance for the title of the book, Part IV, the volume's final section, explicitly on "The Religious Life of the Clergy," appears as something of a coda, if not actually an afterthought. Limited to just two chapters, it deals in turn with "Clerics and Religious Life" (chapter fourteen) and "The War against the Monks." The former ranges in its subsections from pastoral care to core liturgical concerns, piety, and "skepticism and intolerance." Here, again, there is engagement with ongoing debates, summarising and enhancing. The rivalry with the regular orders turns to the elephant thus far largely excluded from the room (but intermittently poking its trunk in). Up to this point, the determined and commendable focus on the seculars has avoided much comment on the massive expansion of regular foundations in post-Conquest England, and their aggressive claims to apostolicity (and ecclesiastical resources) with limited active pastoral engagement. Here the competition bursts forth, Thomas concluding that the seculars almost unavoidably came off worse in the struggle. Whatever they did, in the end the outcome was "The secular clergy as second best"--the subtitle and message of the final sub-section of chapter fifteen. Criticism, mud, would stick; the real world always got in the way. Despite all the positive comments and arguments of preceding chapters, the last sentence of this part's last chapter returns to the dilemma inherent in its first ones, the problem of "how little success the secular clergy had in reconciling the tensions created by high expectations placed on them and the worldly duties, entanglements, and temptations they faced in the course of their lives" (364). Their designation as second best is a judgement hard to pull back from, and the somewhat desperate-seeming attempt to pull back from it in the book's conclusion, to defend and exalt the seculars and assert their significance for the future--with the final reminder that academics and students are all their heirs because these seculars started the whole university movement--rings rather hollow.

That sense of an anticlimactic conclusion (although, hopefully, not all readers will find it so) cannot derogate from the book's overall impressiveness. Thomas has mined the primary and secondary material to produce a magisterial survey. His forty-page bibliography (373-412) attests his scholarship, and offers a resource to be quarried as diligently as his text. This is a book which deserves to be much-used, and doubtless will be, for a long time to come.

But...there are caveats.

Despite its impressive scholarship, there is a sense of mismatch between the book's comprehensive title and its more restricted content. Thomas seemingly intends the volume to be primarily a social and cultural analysis of the secular clergy of post-Conquest and early Plantagenet England. The aims set out in the introduction home in on debate with R.I. Moore over the clergy's role in the transformation of central medieval society, and on England's place in the Twelfth-Century Renaissance. The methodology is declared prosopographical, which means privileging of the elite. The book's contribution to church history, whether generally western or solely English, appears subsidiary or secondary (" of special interest to historians of religion" (5, emphasis added). Yet its title emits a siren call to ecclesiastical historians, and accordingly invites assessment specifically for its contribution to church history. From that standpoint it can appear flawed, because of what the book is not, does not set out to be, but fails to exclude from its purview, or--perhaps--from his readers' expectations.

This long twelfth century was a time of major transitions for the secular clergy of the western, catholic, church, as much in England as elsewhere. The move to celibacy, clashes with the regular orders, and the evolution of the commercialised economy, were essentially social transitions, but this was also a period of extensive institutional change. In England those transformations particularly included the greater consolidation of the parish, enhanced episcopal oversight of the clergy and their dioceses, and the growing impact of canon and common law. Many of these developments remain shadowy, but all were important, and inter-connected. The reshaping and refining of ecclesiastical benefices certainly mattered to all concerned--to clerics anxious about tenure and revenues; to bishops consolidating their dioceses; to the laity in general because the clarified concept of the parish established their roles, the property rights of patronage, and the fiscal rights of incumbents; and to kings because of the jurisdictional issues which resulted, notably over patronage disputes. These were all complex, protracted, and technical developments, still ill-charted for England in the evidence and in the historiographical gap between broad-brush surveys and precise case studies, but all mattered for the future. Little of this is considered by Thomas; where it is, his grip can appear insecure. The move at proto-parochial level from an initially "proprietary" church to the canonical "patronal" church certainly needs more comment, especially with the implications for both clerics and patrons of the new writs made available by Henry II's. Concurrently, theoretical changes consolidated the sacramental authority and status--the inherent power--of priesthood, formalising and reinforcing the boundary between laity and clergy. The redefinition of the subdiaconate as a holy order also shifted the goalposts for commitment to celibacy, and so the minimum age for a potential commitment to ultimate (but not necessary) priesthood.

Alongside, some of the basic parameters of clerical status stayed technically unchanged. Tonsuring made one a cleric; priesthood completed the process of becoming one. Unless committed to the regular life, any male who had received even the lowest of the minor orders was a secular cleric, whatever his age; but the minimum age for priesthood was formally 30--a decidedly mature age. Thomas writes of "seculars," but a subversive issue throughout the book, never fully addressed, is: which seculars? Dividing men into sheep and goats, clerics and laity, in the archival voids of the twelfth century, is a challenging task, even more so when the precise dividing line is insecure in individual lives, and when clergy had to transition from the lay state into holy orders. Thomas writes mainly of priests (although not of priests once made bishops); but signs of imprecision break through, creating uncertainty. That the clerical voices he cites are always priestly is not always assured; but clerics below the rank of priest receive little overt attention.

The prosopographical approach with a cultural focus also brings a dependence on those who do speak, rather than on basic administrative records, when recreating the clerical milieu. His clerics are the articulate ones, the successes, the intellectuals, the elite--men by definition unusual. Silent are the ill-rewarded clerics of uncertain education and even more uncertain prospects trying to survive in a parish still crystallising around its church, where their obligations and spiritual responsibilities were still being defined and relations with parishioners (and with neighbouring priests in a similar position) still being worked out by experiment as the diocesan machinery and canon law slowly codified and reinforced practices. The medieval church was always a work in progress, a continuous experiment in administration, pastoral care, and the cure of souls; but possibly at no time more critically than in the twelfth century. That tentatively evolving local church is missing from Thomas's analysis, a gap still to be filled--if it can be.

However, to suggest deficiency is not to insist on defect. That Thomas leaves unanswered questions which were not on his agenda is not a valid criticism, even if it matters to prospective readers. The volume has to be acknowledged, ungrudgingly, as a truly significant achievement. It is a work of considerable scholarship, reflecting intense involvement with the sources and the literature. As a major synthesis it will surely stimulate further work and further debate. Its broad range and deft treatment should ensure that it is widely used, and not just by scholars or students working on this long twelfth century in England. It is to be welcomed, applauded, and appreciated.

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