Charter a Week 40: What It’s Like to Become a Bishop

We’ve spokenbeforeon this blog about royal influence over episcopal elections. In general, though, when we have evidence for that it’s generally from a third party, or in the case of Charles the Simple, on the part of the king. This charter – probably my second favourite, for those of you sad enough to keep track – is a rare glimpse into, if not the mind, at least the self-presentation of a bishop chosen by royal (in this case imperial) authority. You see, at some point around 910 Bishop Remigius of Avignon died, and was replaced with some named Fulcher. As to how that happened… well, why don’t we let Fulcher take over from here?

ARTEM 915 (2nd May 916, Avignon)

Let the whole Church of the faithful know that I, Fulcher, humble bishop of Jesus Christ, when I first approached the height of this honour and the distinction of such a burden, at the suggestion of Boso [of Arles], prince of an imperial bloodline, approached the illustrious primate of Arles, Rostagnus, in order that, because the church of Avignon lay widowed, he might place a pastor in charge of the same see, if he thought it useful – above all, with the clergy and people asking for My Smallness for themselves in this matter. I sought it not out of desire for pomp nor to vitiate the necessity of poverty; but struck with divine fear and struck with zeal, to busy myself to raise up and ennoble with my own resources what barbarian devastation and depredation had everywhere, for the most part, wasted of worldly riches. Why say more? In the end, by the common ill, having joined together with the most shining of nobles Hugh [of Arles], I was shown into the imperial presence. I, appointed by his command to the episcopal through of Avignon, although unworthy, by the disposition of the will of the Highest, will take pains to protect it in every way, as far as my ability and knowledge allows, both spiritually and corporally.

For this reason, meditating on the thundering of the Gospels’ teaching, which says ‘Give alms, and you shall be purified with every splendour’ [variation of Luke 11:41]; and again, ‘lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven’ [Matthew 6:20] and the others which follow; and that which the prudent father told the prudent son: ‘alms free from death’ [Tobit 12:9], and ‘do not permit men to go into the shadows’ [Tobit 4:10]; and other wisdom: ‘the redemption of a man’s soul are his riches’ [Proverbs 13:8], and no few others. This succession of such voices clamoured together; and, as was related above, before I took up the height of the bishopric, I came to a decision, glorifying my God and redeemer, Who granted me body and soul out of spontaneous piety and Who gathered together every alleviation of human poverty. For the remedy of the souls of my father and mother, and also that of Prince Boso, and for myself, an unhappy sinner, I delegate and give my inheritance to His mother, the queen of Heaven and Earth, the undefiled virgin Mary, and the most blessed protomartyr Stephen (who after the first opening of the celestial paradise merited to enter into the hall of the eternal king first). Indeed, I know and believe with the greatest certainty that they reign with God!    Therefore, I bestow on them a worldly inheritance, that by their prayers we might receive pardon for sins, and when the day of our departure from this wretched world occurs, they might snatch us from the dark power of Satan, and make us consorts and co-heirs of that most shining dwelling which they enjoy in the sight of the King of Kings, where arises no sorrow, no fear, no grief, no hunger, no pollution; but all dwell in peace before His eyes, and delight without end in the vision of His light.

This, then, is the inheritance which We wish the aforesaid mother of God and protomartyr Stephen to have as successors, for the easing of our crimes: the church in honour of Saint Mary which is in the county of Avignon, in the vicariate of Valergue, with its advowson; in addition an allod in the same place, in the same estate, which is called Four, as much as I have and can acquire there. Next, a church named in honour of Saint Mary, Saint John and Saint Baudilius; and another church built in honour of the holy martyrs Cosmas and Damian nearby on the banks of the Rhône, in view of the castle which is called L’Hers, which I got by royal munificence through the testament of a precept, with the territory which is kept there, or which hereafter ought at any time to adjoin or be appended to it, and which both I and my successors will be able to seek out; also the port of the same place, which in a similar way I earned in its entirety by an imperial gift through a precept; no less, the church in honour of the holy martyr Genesius sited in the same county, in the place which is called Nidadis, with all its appendages. I give and donate all this inheritance to the aforesaid mother of God Mary and the blessed martyr Stephen and wish them to hold it perpetually without any disturbance.

If, though, at Satan’s instigation, any of Our kinsmen or direct or indirect heirs might undertake to disturb or infringe this testament of Our donation, unless they come to their senses, let them be tormented in the perpetual torments of Hell with Dathan and Abiron and Korah and with Judas the traitor, Ananias and Caiaphas; and may the donation of this Our offering flourish and endure undisturbed and stable forever, signed by the subscription of our hands.

Enacted publicly in the city of Avignon, in the 916th year from the Lord’s Incarnation, in the 4th indiction, on the 6th nones of May (2nd May), on the day of the Lord’s Ascension, in the 13th year of the imperial reign of Emperor Louis, son of Boso.

Bishop Fulcher of the holy church of Avignon, who confirmed this donation with my own hand. Rainald wished and consented to this. The humble bishop Gunther [probably of Maguelone] confirmed and was present in person. Rainard, humble bishop of the holy church of Cavaillon. Count Boso confirmed. Sign of Viscount Hugh, a witness. Leotard, having been requested. Sign of Walter, a witness. Pons, having been requested. Sign of Walcavus, a witness. Sign of Albert, a witness. Sign of Adelelm, a witness. Sign of Silvio, a witness.

The original charter of Fulcher of Avignon. Photo by author.

The first thing to say is that everything Fulcher is describing here happened about half a decade earlier. Bishop Remigius died around 910, and we have a surviving precept from Emperor Louis the Blind (for it is he) giving to Fulcher to properties he describes here, dated to the year 912. So what we are dealing with is a retrospective perspective, but no less valuable for that. In particular, this charter is a revealing guide to Fulcher’s priorities about his own ordination, and four things stand out in that regard:

First (perhaps unsurprisingly) is the vestigial role of the people and clergy of Avignon. Election by people and clergy was the gold standard of the Carolingian church, but – by parallel to Early Modern English elections – the key there seems to be their right to participate, rather than any expectation that they’ll have a say in who the actual candidate is. In general, episcopal candidates were acceptable to local audiences – and where they weren’t, such as in the case of the infant archbishop Hugh of Vermandois in 925, it generally helped to have the candidate’s father’s soldiers standing around looking menacing – but often the clergy and people were not where decision-making power resided.

Second, the who-you-know is unsurprisingly significant. As we’ve seen before, Hugh of Arles and his brother Boso are particularly influential at this time and place, which might lead an ambitious bishop to stress his connections with them. However, numerous studies have emphasised the importance of intercessors in royal courts of this period (and, as it happens, the 912 diploma does mention that it was petitioned for by both Hugh and Boso), so this is likely a matter of rhetorical emphasis rather than fiction. Fulcher’s appointment, then, was particularly helped along by his powerful friendships, and he wasn’t shy about letting people know it.

Third, and perhaps more surprisingly, the role of Rostagnus of Arles, Fulcher’s metropolitan bishop, is stressed. This raises my eyebrows a little more – ornery gits like Hincmar of Rheims might like to puff up an archbishop’s authority, but that it gets more play here than the clergy and people is a bit unexpected. Still, for all that I think Hincmar was happy being a voice in the wilderness, he was also a very experienced political operator (if not perhaps an instinctual savvy one) – he must have been trying to appeal to someone.

Fourth and finally, the role of Louis the Blind is interesting, both practically and rhetorically. Practically, because Fulcher clearly understands the key moment which made him bishop as being the point when Louis gave him the nod (maybe it was an unproblematic election and he would have been a bit more ambiguous if Louis had given him the cold shoulder, but rejected episcopal candidates such as Hilduin of Liège also seem to have thought this so it’s clearly a mainstream part of Late Carolingian political thought. Rhetorically, though, Louis is a bit like looking at the sun – he’s not even mentioned by name, he’s just ‘the imperial presence’. It’s a remarkable reminder of the strength of royal legitimacy, even with a ruler traditionally dismissed as ineffective.   

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