All the Bishops in the ‘Verse: Part 1 of the Ghent/Bruges Conference Report

Although the kind of reporting I ended up doing on the Tübingen conference was born out of necessity, I discovered that I actually enjoyed doing it more than a straightforward conference report. Thus, for the next conference on the reportage list, Bishops in the ‘Century of Iron’: Episcopal Authority in France and Lotharingia, 900-1050, I’ll do as I did before, only commenting on the papers where I had anything interesting to say in response.

The first of these was in fact the first paper, the keynote lecture, given by Professor John Ott of Portland State University, with the title ‘In Praise of Bishops’, a title originally picked, he told us, because ambiguous titles let you change your subject at the last minute; but as in this case the topic was episcopal praise-poetry, it was thoroughly appropriate. Professor Ott led us through a cavalcade of poets from the eleventh- and twelfth-century archdiocese of Rheims, arguing that poetry in episcopal courts was so common as to be omnipresent: from declamation before the bishop himself to little inscriptions engraved on common items. At Rheims, for instance, a chalice commissioned by Archbishop Adalbero bears these lines:

Hurry, O faithful, hunger and thirst flee from here:

Bishop Adalbero divides these treasures amongst the people.

This is not that chalice, nor from that century, but it is a chalice from Rheims.

Professor Ott argued that the Gregorian reforms of the late eleventh century saw the beginning of the end of these poetic practises: Pope Gregory VII and those of like mind to him just don’t seem to have been very interested in poetry. He noted that while Gregory received poetry, he never wrote any himself. This was seen as an important cultural change – he argued that because poems were so widespread in episcopal culture, poetry, from cups to epitaphs to letters in verse, needs to be taken more seriously by historians if we are get a proper idea of what the courts of tenth- and eleventh-century bishops were like.

I agreed with this, for the most part, but one niggling doubt stuck in my mind. The verse of Adalbero mentioned above rather sets the tone for the kind of poetry Professor Ott was dealing with; ‘worthy’, I think, would be the appropriate word. Something of the exception which proved the rule was an inscription on a (no-longer-surviving) bronze statue of a stag from Rheims, commissioned in the mid-eleventh century by Archbishop Gervaise. Gervaise was a Loire valley magnate who had originally been bishop of Le Mans, but had been kicked out and given Rheims instead: by all accounts, he was bellicose, flamboyant, and very wealthy. He commissioned the stag as a reminder of his old home to the west; the poem on it reads:

              When he wandered in the woods of Maine,

              Gervaise had many stags.

              So that it might stand always as a memorial to his fatherland,

              He had this one cast in bronze.

This in turn made me think of one of my favourite bishops, Archbishop Archembald of Sens, who reigned in the late tenth century. Archembald had a terrible reputation by the eleventh century, when he was accused of having kicked the monks of Saint-Pierre-le-Vif out of their monastery to make room for his hunting dogs, but seems to have been reasonably well-respected at the time. The question which arises for me, then, is ‘what was episcopal court culture like under Archembald?’

(The same question, albeit reversed, could be asked about Archembald’s successor Anastasius, who seems to have been extremely aesthetic, and – it might be speculated – have seen Latin poetry as frippery).

As I said, most of the poetry which survives is very worthy, moral stuff, supposed to teach the audience moral lessons and impart theological messages. This, though, presumably made it more likely to survive than, say, an episcopal joke-book, and certainly more so than hours and hours of silent prayer. Given this, I wonder if this kind of poetic episcopal culture was as pervasive as Professor Ott was arguing, or whether it was only one of a number of modes of tenth- and eleventh-century episcopal culture, and the one which just happened to be usable for other things outside its immediate context – and thus the only one which survives?

This post is the last before the Christmas break. I’ll be back in January. In the meantime, as, for the first time in a while, I’ll have access to a computer rather than a slowly-decomposing tablet, I’ll be putting up a poll about the look and layout of the site, so keep an eye out for that. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!


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