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23.10.13 Wiedemann, Papal Overlordship and European Princes, 1000-1270

23.10.13 Wiedemann, Papal Overlordship and European Princes, 1000-1270

Benedict Wiedemann’s Papal Overlordship and European Princes, 1000-1270 is an intriguing and insightful study of an important but poorly understood phenomenon in medieval history: instances where kings and other political actors willingly sought out the bishop of Rome as a protector, guardian, and lord. Frequently, historians of the Middle Ages have seen in such instances a deftly political papacy bending monarchs and the heads of smaller polities to their will. But as Wiedemann’s careful analysis shows over seven substantive chapters, kings, nobles, and even members of the episcopate who controlled large territories had much to gain from submitting to papal overlordship. Such relationships, which were often the result of carefully crafted negotiations that were situational while evolving over time, could--perhaps contrary to our expectations--increase rather than undermine a ruler’s secular authority, because kings were then “able to use papal authority--the pope’s position ‘over the nations, and over the kingdoms’--for their own purposes” (1). Taken as a whole, Wiedemann’s conclusions are a useful and important contribution to our larger understanding of how papal governance worked in practice, and, more broadly, to what has traditionally been called “Church-State” relations in the Middle Ages.

The larger backstory to Wiedemann’s work--and a major influence on the trajectory of his study--is a longstanding debate between historians who see the papacy as a forceful, proactive governing force in medieval European affairs (adherents to the idea of “papal monarchy”), and those who see the institution instead as largely reactive one that functioned by rescript. Until the 1970s, the papal monarchists were decidedly ascendant, fueled by decades of scholarship (often based on narrative histories, canonistic writings, and analysis of papal ceremonial) that pointed to the ways that generations of popes used institutional tools such as councils, legates, liturgy, and decretal letters to forge an increasingly centralized system of governance between about 1050 and 1250. But the pioneering work of Brigide Schwarz and especially Ernst Pitz in the early 1970s fundamentally altered the landscape by showing through detailed analysis of papal chancery procedure that the vast majority of papal privileges and letters were issued in response to petitions presented to the papal curia. [1] Suddenly, papal governance was turned on its head: the initiative for many papal actions came from below rather than above. Today, most historians of the papacy fall decidedly in the rescript camp, but the idea of papal monarchy (complete with its emphasis on administrative centralization and the initiative of individual popes) remains surprisingly alive and well in the writings of many influential scholars. [2] Enter Wiedemann’s study, which relies on papal letters as its principal source base to analyze the relationship between popes and those to whom they became overlords. In the introduction to Papal Overlordship, Wiedemann outlines his larger aims and comes down definitively on the side of the rescriptists. In doing so, however, he does not suggest that the papacy was a neutered institution. Quite the contrary. He writes, “One of the broader implications of my approach--emphasizing petitioners as the driver of papal government--is that the papacy ceases to be the enemy of monarchy or of the territorial state, and becomes instead a potential resource for kings and states (and, indeed, their subjects)” (8). This theme--the inherent utility of papal overlordship to those seeking such a relationship--is both a major thread and also a major contribution of Wiedemann’s study, one that reveals how the papacy used creative means to exert authority.

Papal Overlordship unfolds over seven substantive chapters that are organized mostly thematically, although they also follow a rough chronological sequence, which allows the reader to see how the language and practice of papal overlordship changed over time. In chapter 1, Wiedemann uses a variety of case studies from across Europe to show how kings and other political actors in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries often described their submission to the pope in terms of investiture, a practice that eventually fell out of favor when they realized that, in the wake of the Concordat of Worms in 1122, doing so “could give the pope a claim on their realm” (58). Chapter 2 ably navigates the thorny topic (and historiography) of “feudalism” to argue that homages performed by the Norman rulers of Sicily in the twelfth century should not be seen as “the outward sign of a permanent legal relationship--vassalage or fiefdom--but as ad hoc rituals needed in politicking between neighbouring powers,” who required a degree of flexibility in their relationship. (61) In the early thirteenth century, more formal relationships based on vassalage developed between the papacy and kings in England, Man, and--briefly--in Sicily and Aragon, all of which are discussed in depth in chapter 3. Here, Wiedemann also demonstrates usefully how networks of cardinals, notaries, and other papal courtiers fueled the proliferation of feudal language throughout these polities. Chapter 4 uses a decidedly smaller canvas, the southern French county of Melgueil, as a fascinating case study to show how the bishops of Maguelone harnessed their feudal relationship with the papacy to strengthen their own power vis-a-vis a variety of political opponents, a process Wiedemann describes as “state-making.” This chapter also leads to one of the study’s most intriguing--and perhaps most widely applicable--conclusions: that “a pan-European institution (the papacy) was useful to the increasing centralization of territorial kingdoms (because kings could instrumentalize papal authority for their own ends)” (150). Finally, having documented a set of key changes that took place in the thirteenth century, Wiedemann turns more fully in chapters 6 and 7 to the theory underpinning relationships between the papacy and other political actors. Specifically, chapter 6 grapples with papal wardship of underage rulers to argue that such relationships were often specific, transactional, and flexible in ways that defied uniform classification. Chapter 7 looks at instances before and after the First Council of Lyons in 1245 when popes marshaled a variety of justifications when considering whether to depose a ruler and thereby confiscate the kingdom that had been placed under papal protection. Finally, Wiedemann concludes his study with a short Epilogue that mostly summarizes the principal arguments of each of his individual chapters.

One of the greatest strengths of Papal Overlordship is Wiedemann’s evident mastery of the intricate political histories of a large number of polities over nearly three centuries. He moves seamlessly from England and Aragon to Hungary, Sicily, France, Denmark, and other regions of Europe in a way that demonstrates clearly how well he has done his homework. That is no mean feat. Indeed, the breadth of this study is also what will make it interesting and useful to scholars who work well beyond the field of papal history. Although the title of the work suggests it is intended primarily for those invested in the personalities, institutions, documents, and theoretical underpinnings of the papacy, the simple fact is that Wiedemann’s book will challenge many scholars of medieval politics to rethink how they see relationships between popes and other political actors in their own geographical and chronological areas of interest. This book is a classic example of how looking at a well-worn subject (in this case, the relationship between kings and popes) from an atypical angle yields fascinating results and, perhaps more importantly, opens new avenues for future research.

Some readers, of course, may struggle with the organization of this book, specifically the density of political narrative that moves from place to place in rapid succession. In a way, the sheer breadth of the book both makes it an occasionally challenging read and also perhaps at times obfuscates some of Wiedemann’s more intricate observations. Familiarity with at least some of the details of the case studies Wiedemann examines will undoubtedly help readers more fully grasp the author’s arguments and their overarching significance. Scholars who do not specialize in papal history would benefit from a fuller description of the inner workings of the papal curia, its chancery, and the intricate processes of petitioning the pope, especially given that a major argumentative thrust of the book as a whole is that papal governance was largely a ground-up affair. Finally, all readers, regardless of specialization, may find themselves wishing for an Epilogue that pulls together the argumentative threads of the book in a holistic and punchier way. But, ultimately, all good books--and even many truly great books--have their minor flaws. Noting them is not a criticism but rather a way of helping readers make the most of what an author has produced. Papal Overlordship is an important, useful, and interesting contribution to the fields of medieval papal and political history, and Benedict Wiedemann has announced himself as a new and talented voice in those areas of study.



1. Brigide Schwarz, Die Organisation kurialer Schreiberkollegien von ihrer Entstehung bis zur Mitte des 15. Jahrhunderts (Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1972); Ernst Pitz, Papstreskript und Kaiserreskript im Mittelalter (Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1972); Ernst Pitz, “Die römische Kurie als Thema der vergleichenden Sozialgeschichte,” Quellen und Forschungen aus italienischen Bibliotheken und Archiven 58 (1978): 216-245.

2. I have tried to compile a short--and very incomplete--list of examples in Jeffrey M. Wayno, “Governing through Influence at the Thirteenth-Century Papal Court,” Journal of Medieval History 48:5 (2022): 609, n. 7.