18.06.12, Coss, Episcopal Power and Local Society

Main Article Content

Adam Davis

The Medieval Review 18.06.12

Coss, Peter, C. Dennis, M. Julian-Jones, A. Silvestri (eds.). Episcopal Power and Local Society in Medieval Europe, 900-1400 . Medieval Church Studies (MCS 38). Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2017. pp. xi, 293. ISBN: 978-2-503-57340-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Adam Davis
Denison University

This edited collection grew out of a conference held at Cardiff University in 2013. Whereas most recent edited volumes on the medieval episcopate have tended to cover the period roughly from the tenth through the twelfth centuries, this volume covers a longer chronological span, extending from 900-1400, thereby permitting a greater sense of both continuity and change over time. England receives a disproportionate amount of attention here, but there are essays that deal with Iceland and the dioceses of Coutances, Cambrai, Liège, Avignon, Brescia, and Sion (in the modern Swiss canton of Valais). Central and eastern Europe and the Iberian peninsula are not covered.

As the editors' introduction indicates, the last twenty years have seen a burgeoning scholarship on the manifold functions and activities of bishops during the high and later Middle Ages. As a result, we now know more about episcopal lordship, the career trajectories of bishops, the nature of their devotional lives, how they were perceived by others, and even the relationship between architecture (or the topography of a diocese) and a bishop's authority.

Surprisingly few of the essays in this volume make use of episcopal acta as a source. While such sources surely carry their own biases, they at least serve as a valuable corrective to the depiction of bishops in monastic narrative sources, which, as Peter Coss's essay on twelfth-century Coventry shows, often had a pronounced anti-episcopal bias, depicting bishops as vile predators of monastic wealth and haters of religious life. As a result of these monastic sources, as Coss points out, we have often tended to inherit a warped picture of medieval bishops. In contrast, an essay in this volume by John Jenkins challenges what he believes to be our overly favorable and "illusory" perception of John Grandisson, the fourteenth-century bishop of Exeter. According to Jenkins, Grandisson has received far too much credit simply because he was a prolific letter writer who often expressed outrage. Jenkins describes Grandisson as an ineffectual bishop who showed an inability to work within local secular power structures.

As the title of this volume indicates, the dominant theme is episcopal power and local society, and as many of the essays reveal, medieval episcopal authority was expressed in a variety of ways. Some bishops had a far easier time than others in making their power felt. Several of the essays attribute this to the specific strategies that bishops employed in an effort to enhance their power. As Melissa Julian-Jones shows, seals and iconography were one way that a bishop could project a particular identity. Julian-Jones observes that it was only in the thirteenth century that English bishops began giving distinctive visual expression to their episcopal identity by employing secular symbols, such as armorial and canting allusions, indicating a family or personal connection. In studying an eleventh-century bishop of Cambria, Pieter Byttebier calls for the need to examine the "dynamic, adaptable strategies behind the formulation of specific images of power" (176), including the production of saints' lives, the popularization of cults surrounding local saintly bishops, and the use of liturgical rituals. In particular, the bishop of Cambrai linked his own power and authority with that of saintly bishops from the past. Byttebier's essay demonstrates the ways that a bishop could use the past (and reconstruct memories of the past) as an "instrument" to augment his authority. Andrew Fleming's superb essay on popular perceptions of late medieval episcopal power, like Byttebier's, underscores the "power of memory as a political tool" (268). One of the miracles attributed to Thomas de Cantilupe, who served as bishop of Hereford from 1275-82, and was canonized in 1320, alleged that the late bishop had resuscitated a woman following her unjust hanging in 1294. Fleming asks whether this posthumous miracle, in which Thomas de Cantilupe was depicted as "a corrector of secular justice" (267), reflected popular views of episcopal power, perhaps due to memories of the bishop's clashes with temporal authority during his life? Or was the bishop's image as a "saintly deliverer of justice" (266) only possible after his death?

A number of the essays highlight that a bishop's power could be challenged, whether by a monastery (or abbot), a secular ruler, a city, a rival bishop (or archbishop), or even the bishop's own cathedral chapter. Maria Chiara Succurro's essay on twelfth-century Brescia, in Lombardy, illustrates the manifold challenges that the abbots of Leno posed by exercising episcopal-like authority through their pastoral care and juridical authority, with the abbot even wearing a mitre and pontifical gloves, episcopal sandals, and an episcopal ring. The emerging autonomy of cathedral chapters is the focus of Charlotte Lewandowski's essay on Durham. As she shows, already in the late eleventh century, cathedral chapters were seeking to marginalize the person of the bishop while laying claim to aspects of episcopal authority. In her fascinating study of a bishop's relationship with his cathedral chapter in the diocese of Sion, Melanie Brunner draws attention to the "politics of space." From the mid-thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, the diocese of Sion was unusual not only in its linguistic division between French and German speakers, but in having two cathedrals, a single chapter, and two deans (who also functioned as archdeacons), who were elected by the chapter and shared oversight over it. The deans and the chapter tended to view the bishop, who was a count and imperial vassal, as a rival. Even after a new cathedral church was completed in Sion, the chapter continued to be based at the older church and residential complex at Valeria, and the canons zealously guarded their sovereignty over this complex, placing various restrictions on the bishop's right to enter and use the space. In short, Valeria served as a "symbol of the chapter's independence from the bishop and a concrete tool in the canons' assertion of their authority" (111).

Although the essays in this volume reflect some of the commonalities in the experiences of bishops in different parts of Latin Christendom over several centuries, the volume as a whole also illustrates that the exercise of episcopal power was shaped by local particularities, customs and traditions. Living on the edge of western Christendom, for example, Árni Þorláksson, the thirteenth-century bishop of Skálholt, in southern Iceland, had a unique set of political players with whom he had to operate. As Heidi Annet Øvergård Beistad shows, with Iceland and its church having recently been integrated into the Norwegian realm, Bishop Þorláksson had to choose whether to ally himself more with local Icelandic chieftans, as earlier bishops had, or whether to shift his orientation eastward across the Norwegian Sea, to the archbishop of Nidaros and the Norwegian king. Although the Icelandic bishop displayed some degree of independence, he increasingly allied himself with the Norwegian king and archbishop, and in so doing, according to Beistad, showed a remarkable "ability to operate within several spheres of power" (41). During roughly the same period, but some 3,000 kilometers to the south, the Italian scholar-turned bishop, Zoen of Avignon (1241-61), was caught between the papal-imperial struggle over Provence. Christine Axen argues that Bishop Zoen was liberated by his outsider status. He attacked Count Raymond VII of Toulouse as a way of undermining the imperial-Avignon connection in his efforts to centralize episcopal power and implement the papal centralization program. Zoen's English contemporary, Robert Grosseteste, in contrast, who served as bishop of Lincoln from 1235 to 1253, was the ultimate insider. Angelo Silvestri argues that Grosseteste's pastoral commitment and loyalty to his diocese stemmed from the fact that he was a product of the local community. Far less convincing is Silvestri's claim that in defending local and ecclesiastical privileges, Grosseteste "initiated the modern division between church and state" (91).

A number of the contributors to this volume point to some of the ways that episcopal power changed over time, particularly the increasing "territorialization" of bishoprics during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Jelle Lisson's essay charts the evolution of the large diocese of Liège "from a fragmented, fragile, and incoherent collection of dependent institutions, lands, and privileges," into a "solid, integrated diocese" (169). Already in the period from the tenth to the twelfth centuries, the diocesan borders of Liège became more clearly defined and were expanded to include the large deanery of Leeuw, which had been associated with the bishops of Metz. Lisson explores how the bishops of Liège wrested Leeuw away from the bishops of Metz and effectively incorporated the deanery into their own diocese. Aaron Hope's essay argues that during the thirteenth century the diocese was increasingly conceived as a jurisdictional unit requiring continuous administrative functioning. The office of vicar general was created so that a diocese could be managed during a bishop's absences (which were becoming more frequent). Hope's legal analysis reveals that while bishops were not thought to be able to transfer their sacramental power, which belonged to their order, they were able to delegate what derived from their jurisdiction. As bishops' consecrated functions became less important and the scale of their administrative roles grew, the notion that "spiritual government or administration was separable from the person of the bishop, and more particularly from the consecrated person of the bishop" (207) became the legal basis for the office of vicar general.

Taken together, the essays in this volume suggest that episcopal power rarely changed quickly, that the processes of change in a bishopric tended to be gradual. This is reflected in Chris Dennis's study of the reintegration of the episcopal office in Coutances (after a long period in which its bishops lived in exile in Rouen). Yet as Dennis's essay also demonstrates (as do a number of the essays in this volume), individual bishops could and did leave a lasting influence on their church and office. Geoffrey de Montbray (1048-93), for example, used his strong relationship with William the Conqueror to help bring new wealth and prosperity to the church of Coutances in the post-Conquest period.

While the quality of the essays in this volume is uneven, a number of them are excellent. The continuing influence of the "spatial turn" is reflected in just how many of the contributors see space and its representation as vital for understanding episcopal power. The way that the performance of rituals enhanced a bishop's authority is also explored in several of the essays. This volume reminds us of the dynamism of episcopal power during this period, with bishops seeking to assert their spiritual and secular authority, but also often finding that authority to be fragile and contested from various quarters.

Article Details