Getting Your Property Back As A Tenth-Century Bishop

One of the texts I occasionally come back to is something called the Dialogus de statu sanctae ecclesiae (‘A Dialogue on the State of the Holy Church’).  It was written (probably) in the 960s by Macallan, the Irish abbot of the abbey of Saint-Vincent in Laon, in north-east France. (Side note: before I found that map reference, I actually didn’t know that the abbey doesn’t exist anymore, except for a burned-out shell of an eighteenth-century dormitory, which makes me a bit sad.)

The Dialogus was written for the attention of Macallan’s patron, Bishop Roric of Laon. Roric’s a more obscure figure than he probably deserves to be. He was the bastard son of King Charles the Simple (AKA, the greatest Frankish king), who became a royal scribe and thence bishop of Laon, one of the most important royal strongholds, under his half-brother King Louis IV. He was elected in 949, but was unable to take up residence in the city because it was at the time under the control of Louis’ arch-enemy, Duke Hugh the Great, and he was forced instead to remain in the fortress of Pierrepont, a short way north-east of Laon proper. He did eventually get into Laon, where he seems to have been an important figure at court until his death in 976. Among other things, he was briefly archchancellor (the man responsible, at least in theory, for the production of royal diplomas), and in 965, he mediated Louis IV’s son King Lothar’s conquest of Flanders after the death of Arnulf the Great. This last one is a particular mystery, and one I’d like to know more about – why him? There’s no particular indication from other evidence that he had any particular ties to Flanders… But I digress.

To return to the Dialogus, the subject of the treatise is Church property, and, more specifically, the inalienability of Church property. Macallan’s self-insert character Theophilus says:

And thus, the alienation of the holy Church’s patrimony (which is the coheir of Christ) by its guardians and promoters – that is, bishops and clerics – or its bestowal on their friends and relatives is fearfully opposed by laws both divine and human…’

(Although he goes on to say you can lawfully bestow the usufruct.) But, Theophilus says, previous bishops have ignored this rule, and the Church’s property is now in the hands of unsuitable people. This raises an obvious question: how does one reclaim it? Theophilus’ answer is that it’s the bishop’s job: he must persuade, cajole or coerce usurpers of Church goods to return them to the Church.

The question then becomes: what to do if asking nicely doesn’t work? Here, the interesting part is not so much the way Macallan answers the question (you go up the chain of command to your archbishop, and then to his primate), but the way he phrases it. Eutitius, the character Macallan uses as a stand-in for Bishop Roric, asks ‘What should be done for a bishop who defends justice and tries to reclaim these lost goods if he is not supported by the help of either the king or his men, whose job it is (qui esse debuerant)?’

What’s interesting here is the assumption that, in general, the normal way of things is that the bishop would, in fact, have royal help in reclaim his property – what Eutitius is asking about is if things go wrong with the way you’re supposed to do it. The reason this is interesting is that West Frankish kingship is, at this point, supposed to be down the toilet – as I mentioned earlier, for instance, Roric couldn’t originally get into his own city – the most important military hardpoint for West Frankish royalty – because King Louis was not actually in control of it at the time. Despite this, the first turning point for a bishop who needs actual, practical help is still thought of as being the king.

It’s similarly noticeable that, at the very beginning of the Dialogus, the reason Eutitius comes to Theophilus to ask about the question of Church property is that a discussion on the subject arose – while he was at the royal palace. Now, Roric himself was, as previously said, an important court figure, but Eutitius is fictional. Macallan didn’t have to portray him embedded in a royal context – he chose to, apparently because that was the most plausible place to find a local bishop.  This partnership between bishops and kings is, for me, one of the defining features of post-Carolingian politics. Even in the latter days of the tenth century, royal authority was still deeply intertwined with that of bishops.



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