Adulfus, Priest and Murderer

5 portraits taken from the Bamberg Apocalypse c. 1000 (Staatsbibliothek Bamberg Msc.Bibl.140) , 'Mrs White' from the Gospels of Otto III, c. 1010 (München, BSB, Clm 4453)

In 897, the Council of Tribur warned that ‘a priest should wear distinctive dress whilst travelling because, if he was robbed, wounded or killed when not wearing the stole which marked him out as a priest, then his attacker should make emendation at only one third of the rate he would have to pay if his victim’s sacerdotal status had been clear.’[1] To be a churchman in the tenth and eleventh centuries was a dangerous business, and narratives from scandalized writers described every manner of crime, from violence wrought against clerics by Scandinavian raiders to the assassination of popes, and from the poisoning of abbots to the deaths of bishops orchestrated by their political enemies.

The murder of a local priest serving at Auhausen, Bavaria, in the middle of the ninth century made far less of a splash than these high-profile cases. We learn of Otolt’s murder only because his books entered Fulda’s library, where they were recorded as having come from the named priest, ‘who has been killed’. But Otold does appear to be the exception, and though charters recording violence against priests and other churchmen are rare, such events impacted upon local churches and beyond.

If brought to account, perpetrators were often expected to make restitution through money and/or religious penance. Additions to the Lex Salica in 803 included amounts to be paid by those who had killed a churchman: the murder of a subdeacon required 300 solidi in compensation; a deacon or a monk 400; a priest 600, and a bishop 900 (online edition here). The Council of Mainz of 847 ordered trial by red hot ploughshares if a servus was accused of murdering a priest. A pastoral manual (Gent, Universiteitsbibliotheek, 506) stipulates that ‘Who murders a bishop or a priest or a deacon should be sent to the king for judgement. […] Who kills a cleric of a lower grade should be sentenced by the bishop to lay down his weapons and serve God in a monastery or do penance for seven years with lamentations’.[2]

Charters that describe harm to priests often contain little information on the crime itself or its causes (though inebriation and the devil feature prominently), instead focusing on the aftermath and restitution after the fact. In mid-ninth century Brittany Anau had tried to kill the priest Anauhoiarn, whipping him and binding his hands. Anau had been spared having his right hand cut off, and as recompense handed over his vineyard to Abbot Conuuoiono and the monks at Saint-Saveur. In 963 a gang of men surrounded the house of a local priest near León and set fire to it,[3] while around the same time one Rapinato drunkenly broke into a church and killed a monk of Sahagún, after which the king ordered the seizure of all his property.[4] Just over a century later Count Gilelmus Arnaldi gave the whole villa of Tremlada and its environments to Sainte-Marie, Auch, having killed a priest with his own hands.

But what of murders committed by churchmen? Again, there is a divide in the character of the evidence between the many narratives of scheming bishops eliminating their rivals in the corridors of power, and glimpses of crimes committed by priests at the local level.

What ought to be done with priests caught up in violent crimes became an (unwelcome) preoccupation of archbishop Hincmar of Rheims. The bishop of Cambrai had deposed one such individual after he participated in a brawl in which a man died; the priest claimed self-defence and, in any case, insisted he had not been directly involved in the death. Hincmar also considered a case from Amiens, when a priest complained that even though he had defended himself against a drunkard, his bishop Hilmerad had suspended him.[5] In an infamous case, the priest Trising admitted to attempted murder after he struck a relative by marriage with the victim’s own sword and fled, assuming he had died.

None of these cases are clear-cut, though, since the first two priests insisted on their innocence, and Trising had not actually killed his victim. It is only in the tenth and eleventh centuries that a number of murderous priests and their crimes appear in charter evidence, particularly in documents from the kingdoms of modern-day Spain and Portugal.

The murder of Bishop Leodeger, in a manuscript fragment from c. 1200, now at Koninklijke Bibliotheek)

One such case concerns the priest Adulfus, who admitted that he had murdered a man named Leo. In 943 Adulfus produced a charter in which he gave all his property, including the church he owned at Luzim and its accoutrements, to his lord Ansur Godesteiz and his wife Eileuva. The knotty Latin of this text (preserved in a single sheet and a late medieval cartulary, the latter available here) means the translation of the preamble below is intended for readability rather than strict accuracy, informed by Wendy Davies’ discussion of the text[6]:

I, Adulfus the priest, because of my sin and the snares of the devil who deceived me, committed murder of a man named Leo. And I paid compensation for that murder to his people, and of that [compensation] there remained upon me [a sum] that I could not satisfy, and they brought me for death, and I came before my lord Ansur Godesteoz and his wife Eileuva, and I asked the boni homines to intercede with him for me, to furnish some stock (i.e. funds) so that he would free me of this murder because I had no way to satisfy them, and I would give to this lord Ansur all my inheritance so I might be free from this murder for all the days of my life. This he did.

While many details must remain shrouded in mystery, the charter gives a keen sense of the fallout. Unlike some of the accused covered above, there is no evidence that Adulfus fled from the area, nor tried to plead his case to higher episcopal authority. Indeed, he confesses to the murder without justification, providing only the explanation that the devil had ensnared him.

Adulfus, unable to pay the required compensation, would have been put to death despite his clerical status, because of his inability to compensate Leo’s kin, who were presumably influential. But Adulfus evidently had some connections of his own, since he interceded with his lord through boni homines (‘good men’) to seek financial assistance, perhaps those listed as having witnessed the grant.

Depiction of the payment of Wergild from Heidelberg, UB, Cod. Pal. germ. 164, f. 11r (Sachsenspiegel, s. xiv in.)

A document from seven years later reveals that the transfer of Saint John’s was a permanent affair, rather than a temporary measure. When the church’s new owners gave it to their monastic foundation at Arouca, the charter’s author wrote that the couple had obtained it from ‘the priest Adulfus’ (text online here). No mention is made of Adulfus’ crime or the manner in which the church had come to them.

Adulfus’ church was founded in the casale that had belonged to his father Prudenzo, though it is unclear which of the two had built it, assuming it was not older still. Although a church dedicated to Saint John survives in Luzim to this day, in the cartulary of Arouca the villa appears to have been only a small settlement. The family of Ansur and Eileuva retained some of Adulfus’ land, mentioned in subsequent charters issued for the monastery in the eleventh century.

It is unclear whether Adulfus remained a priest despite the murder: it would certainly seem unlikely, and his status as a priest and these omissions were perhaps present in the lengthy and important document as a means to celebrate the couple’s foundation and generosity rather than reflect on the scandal that had brought the church into their hands. In handing over the church and losing his patrimony, Adulfus walked away with his life, but little else.

AH, October 2022

[1] Summarised here by Sarah Hamilton in her Church and People in the Medieval West, 900-1200, p. 70.

[2] The text is translated by Carine van Rhijn in her excellent new book Leading the Way to Heaven: Pastoral Care and Salvation in the Carolingian Period, p. 151, as are the texts stipulating compensation and ordeal, accompanied by discussion and analysis.

[3] Colección documental del archivo de la catedral de León, vol. 2 (953–985), ed. E. Sáez and C. Sáez, no. 360.

[4] ‘Et illi ebriati a vino subtraxit eos diabolus’: Colección diplomática del monasterio de Sahagún, vol. 1 (siglos IX y X), ed. J. M. Mínguez Fernández León, no. 287.

[5] Flodoard, Historia Remensis Ecclesiae, III, 23, ed. M. Stratmann, pp. 305-6 and 312-3.

[6] Summary Justice and Seigneurial Justice in Northern Iberia on the Eve of the Millennium, The Haskins Society journal vol. 22 (2010) pp. 43-58 at p. 43.