Authority and Power in the Medieval Church, c. 1000–c. 1500
edited by: Thomas W. Smith
Turnhout, Brepols, 2021, ISBN: 9782503585291; 412pp.; Price: £121.00
University College London
Date accessed: 28 March, 2023
Books that manage to encapsulate something essential but often elusive quickly turn indispensable for scholars. Authority and Power in the Medieval Church is one such volume. Expertly edited by Thomas W. Smith, the collection of essays tackles one of the most profound issues of studying the Medieval Church—the interplay between authority and power as understood, articulated, and exercised by ecclesiastic actors and received by their surroundings.
The dedication of this volume to Professors Barbara Bombi and Emilia Jamroziak could not have been more astute and appropriate. Their work on precisely these issues of abstract and tangible power and authority has shaped current medieval historiography. Bringing together scholars at all stages of their careers to celebrate Bombi and Jamroziak serves to show just how much we as a discipline stand to gain through ensuring that the field of medieval history is democratic and allows for open dialogue and collaboration, uninhibited by ossified hierarchies or a distrust of young scholars’ expertise.
Smith sets out the scope of the volume with great clarity and precision, identifying the crux of the matter: the Medieval Church had great claims to authority and the means of articulating this authority, but it did not necessarily have power. This, to someone who has been studying ecclesiastical history for nine years now, is obvious. However, Smith’s introduction was my first encounter with such a clear elucidation of this state of affairs. Even alone, the Introduction should certainly figure on the reading lists of any course on medieval history; all the better if the whole volume is recommended. Moreover, MA and PhD students should be encouraged to reread it periodically.
The volume follows a logical, thematic structure. The choice to start with a section dedicated to papal claims to authority and attempts to exercise power is only logical. Although episcopal authority and power had foundations separate from papal authority, it is interesting that the papal thread continues on through the rest of this volume, in all sections. This to me suggests that in the period covered (c. 1000 – c. 1500) papal primacy within Latin Christendom—and its extensive reach without—was a genuine factor that affected any and all dynamics of religious life. Of course, as someone who is primarily interested in the papacy, I would think this. But it bears highlighting just how entwined popes were in the business of religious and political life, as this book shows.
Robinson’s lucid narrative of how the articulation of the Privilegium Romanae Ecclesiae by legalists and theologians was used by the papacy to assert its position over Latin Christendom writ large sets out the stage for subsequent studies. In the following chapter, Wiedemann illustrates a key element of papal authority/power which is worth reiterating here: ‘different legitimations for the papal guardianship were used when they seemed more effective’ (p. 68). He is talking here about Pope Innocent III’s guardianship of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in his capacity of King of Sicily. However, the word ‘guardianship’ may very well be exchanged for ‘authority’ or ‘power’ to fit a broader picture. The papacy—made up of individual popes and members of the curia (cardinals, chaplains, confessors, lawyers, scribes)—was flexible, and could argue its case in a variety of ways. Often, works of history which are not explicitly dedicated to papal history present the papacy as monolithic and unidirectional. This is often read as the papacy following a ‘policy’ and, more implicitly, that the same arguments for primacy would be used by popes across the board. Wiedemann highlights how this was not the case with Innocent’s guardianship of Frederick II. Another example might be the choice of whether or not and when to use the so-called Donation of Constantine to argue a case. This was a weak weapon against the Holy Roman Empire, but a powerful one against other rulers. A variety of techniques was needed to effectively exercise authority and/or power (c.f. Kathleen Neal’s book, The Letters of Edward I: Political Communication in the Thirteenth Century).
Cleaver’s chapter on the visual representations of papal authority/power fits nicely within this discussion. She shows that the portrayal of papal lineage in relation to St Peter and Jesus was a powerful visual. Likewise, popes’ relations to other rulers—such as the English kings—could serve to bolster the authority of others. This is especially fascinating when individuals are seen as ‘interacting’ with one another on the manuscript pages: the illuminator was clearly attempting to create a particular understanding of the networks of elite authority through this operation (p. 124). The question of the creation of these illuminations, and the patrons of these manuscripts is important: the portrayal could change depending on both the owner and the intended audience. Once again, we see variety.
Moreover, we see change over time in Rist’s exploration of popes’ attitudes to Jews and Christendom’s Jewish population. These attitudes were informed by many sources—the Bible, theological and legal writings, actual events. In her discussion of the differences between anti-Semitic and anti-Judaic ideas, Rist stresses that these attitudes developed over time and in reaction to specific events, and varied from pope to pope. Therefore, while the papacy held authority, and sometimes even power, over European Jews, this authority was not static.
It is interesting to see that, for the most part, authors of the chapters on the papacy are reluctant to ascribe outright power to it, focussing more on authority. As Smith outlines in the introduction, this can be explained by the dependence of the church (and especially the papacy at its head) on those it interacted with: ‘the church asserted its authority most effectively when the actors with which it engaged stood to gain from the acceptance and recognition of that authority’ (p. 18). There is much truth to this—popes were mostly isolated in Rome or Avignon, with limited finances and even more limited military capabilities. However, the notion of power can be quite broad. The first assumption can be of course brute force—the capability to raise an army and direct it to overpower an enemy. But as Hill hints—though does not develop—power broadly understood is the ability to make someone do what you want them to (p. 193). In this sense, the papacy did possess huge amounts of power—it was just a different, less straightforward type of power. This power was certainly elusive, and definitely not infallible. But it was present, and it was used.
Another important dimension within which the interplay between power and authority played out, in perhaps more tangible and concrete ways, was the employment of envoys by the papacy (and by others); the focus of Part II. Here, we have chapters on papal legates and nuncios, which explore just how effective the theory of bestowing the papal plenitudo potestatis was in practice. This is another essential aspect of medieval history that deserves attention. The fact is that the bulk of medieval business—ecclesiastical, political, commercial—was carried out by proctors and envoys of various sorts. I suppose this was the case until very recently, when the immediacy and intimacy of correspondence grew from personal letters to phone calls, emails, and, most prevalently now, Zoom meetings. Therefore, a great weight rested on the ability of envoys and proctors to emanate the type of authority and power that was ascribed to them and, crucially, in a way that would bring about results.
Smith deals with this issue by studying how legates’ audiences received them as wearing papal ‘masks’ (p. 139). Looking at Southern France during the height of the papacy’s struggle against the Cathar heresy, Smith illustrates the failure of the papal exercise of power, even if its authority was well-represented. The struggle against the Cathars brough ‘church’ and ‘state’ together, which is an important theme in the chapter by Barabás, dedicated to papal legates in Hungary. The Hungarian case is extremely interesting, for two reasons. First off, we have a Hungarian King Béla IV petitioning the pope for legatine powers, by virtue of the sacred nature of his crown (p. 146). This petition failed, unsurprisingly. But nevertheless, the pope’s legates active in Hungary were intimately tied with royal politics and the king’s agenda, illustrating to us an important aspect of papal activity: the legitimation and strengthening of secular rule. Mesiano and Dunbabin continue this thread of papal involvement in high politics and kingship through envoys by looking at Sicily and the papal envoys involved in securing the Sicilian throne for particular claimants. Their role, and their ability to obtain results acceptable to the parties involved was key, as Mesiano shows with the example of Master Rostand. Dunbabin's focus is slightly different, illustrating how Cardinal Gerard of Parma actually became a co-ruler of Sicily. There were multiple ways of exercising authority/power by means of representatives.
Part III deals with the issue of authority and power in relation to the Latin Church’s—and so the papacy’s—position vis-à-vis the Eastern Churches. These held a precarious position in religious and political matters, existing between Rome, Byzantium, and their immediate Muslim surroundings. Together, the chapters by Hamilton and Hill give a thorough and comprehensive overview of how and why the Armenian or Syrian churches could keep their particular rights and customs but work together with the papacy: the key was accepting papal oversight and supremacy—something which was easier to do politically for the representatives of these Churches than it was for the Greek Church. On a related matter, Carr explores the issue of trade with the East. This is important because trade licenses given by the papacy could ostensibly be granted for the aid of Eastern Churches. But, more broadly, this section again portrays the papacy as pragmatic and flexible when dealing with situations in which it could assert some authority—whatever shape this authority took. Moreover, there is a nice link to the chapter by Perisanidi in Part V, which looks at how authority and power within collectives differed between the Latins and the Greeks.
This next key issue—of participating in a process and/or institution—underpins the final two sections of the volume, which are dedicated to cultures of authority and power (Part IV) and their collective aspects (Part V). Here, we move away from the papacy per se but, as I mentioned, it does not disappear completely. Group identity and the actions that could follow are two key elements of medieval history that permeate the field, and yet still new things can be said about them.
Ross explores a dynamic seldom addressed in relation to the papacy: namely, the issue of papal chaplains and the liturgy and music incorporated into the everyday life of popes and their immediate surroundings. Moving beyond the papacy, Vanderburie shows how an individual—Jacques de Vitry—could navigate personal and collective identity between West and East in his capacity as bishop of Acre. Crucially, Lawless and Day move the discussion beyond just men, and focus on female piety and patronage, in Florence and Central Europe respectively. This is a much-needed intervention in the book, as it illustrates the importance of women in the Medieval Church (though that is not to say that others do not discuss women: Wiedemann, Carr, and Meek all discuss the agency and authority of women in their chapters). Lawless and Day demonstrate how women (lay and religious) could use their interactions and relations with mendicant communities to influence devotional practices of not just themselves, but their surroundings. Lawless’s examples of particular images articulating female piety, combined with Day’s exploration of elite women establishing ‘heavenly courts,’ both in some cooperation with friars, illustrate the various ways that authority and power could be employed.
Counsel was a powerful driving force of medieval rulership, and the theme of Part V. Therefore, reiterating that collective decisions, such as those of cardinals analysed by Brunner, were key to the papacy asserting and exercising its authority is important, lest we assume that popes made decisions individually—which is sometimes implied. Taking a step back, Vincent illustrates how the very arrangement of how groups such as the episcopate were meant to function could impact how authority/power worked.
Moreover, cultures of power could differ—as explored by Perisanidi with a focus on the vita of a particular Byzantine priest, vis-à-vis norms accepted by Latins. Cultures of power also needed to be flexible, as the attempts to enclose the nuns of S. Giustina in Lucca described by Meek show. Bishops, convents, and the communities surrounding them had to resolve conflicts in ways acceptable to all involved. Finally, Philipps, Nicholson, and Borchardt explore issues of clerical exemptions: Philipps with regard to English clerics, and Nicholson and Borchardt in relation to the military orders of Hospitallers and Teutonic Knights. In these chapters, we see how different sources of authority or special status could interact with one another, and how groups wishing to assert their authority had to navigate such intricacies in pragmatic ways. Variety once again comes to the fore of our discussion of Authority and Power, alongside pragmatism.
Defining the ‘Medieval Church’ is a notoriously difficult exercise. Nevertheless, almost all facets of religious, political, and everyday life that form the Medieval Church are present in this volume. From popes and bishops, through nuns and clerics, to friars and merchants, the reader is presented with an overview of the key dynamics of ecclesiastical medieval history. Moreover, each chapter captures just enough detail and nuance to truly illustrate the big question that the volume grapples with. The inclusion of discussions about manuscripts, dress, and music are a welcome addition that moves this work beyond ‘just’ history, indicating how useful a variety of approaches is in explaining complex institutions.
I am much indebted to Dr Zielinska for this generous and detailed review, and very much appreciate the time and effort involved in crafting it.