Andrew the priestly pretender

Costume design for priest-like figure by Daniel Rabel for an unidentified court ballet of Louis XIII, ca. 1615-1635. Accession no. S.1158-1986, ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

My priest of the month is one Andrew, who in 1069 revealed that he was, in fact, not a priest: “I Andrew confess that I have gravely erred, and have negligently sinned against my lord God, because I said that I was a priest, when I had never received the blessing of the priest’s grade, and I sang mass to the ignorant.” The document that records the scandal and Andrew’s consequent penitential donation to the cathedral of Saint-Nazaire Béziers is preserved in a seventeenth-century paper copy of the cathedral’s Livre Noir (no. 78). It is the only evidence for the swindling sacerdos, his family or the lands he owned.

Veüe de l'Evêché de Béziers, le 22e Novembre 1616, by Etienne Martellange. Image in public domain, available at

We know that Andrew was probably not a mysterious stranger who had arrived with forged documents or letters of recommendation, because his family lived in the area. Andrew says that he gave “all my allodial property … in the area of Sauvian which came to me from my mother, named Peltrudis”, with the support and consent of his three brothers, Augerius, Salvatore and Sonierus. Though we do not know where Andrew had served as a priest, he and his mother and brothers were an established part of the community around Béziers.

How had Andrew ended up in this position? We know he had been acting as a counterfeit cleric for a while, because he says: “… I persisted in this deception for a long time, and falsely made a fool of many unwary ones”. This lengthy deception suggests that he was a convincing fraud, either with sufficient training but unordained or perhaps the reverse. It also strongly points to members of his flock either colluding in the ruse or at least tolerating the situation. For all that his is a very unusual case, the issue of pastoral care given by unqualified priests was not unique to this context.

Hrabanus Maurus (L) as depicted in his lifetime: Wien, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, cod. 652, fol. 2v (Fulda, s. ix 2/4). Image in public domain

The ninth-century theologian Hrabanus Maurus responded to a letter covering this exact subject (c. 6), since ersatz ecclesiastics such as Andrew raised a number of theological and pastoral issues. These included what should happen to those who had been baptised by charlatan churchmen (the answer: their baptism was still valid, if imperfect). Hrabanus’ letter (visible here in its earliest extant copy) was reproduced in a number of tenth- and eleventh-century manuscripts from Reims, Köln, Mainz, Liège, Cambrai and Trier, suggesting the topic was of relevance and interest in these centres of ecclesiastical thought and writing (my thanks to my colleague Bastiaan Waagmeester for pointing me to Hrabanus' letter and its later copies!)

Costume design for a Priest in the Prologue by Barry Kay, The Sleeping Beauty, Deutsche Oper Ballet, October 8th 1967. Accession number S.555-1978. Image ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

How was the swindling sacerdos unmasked? Andrew’s penitence is said to have been the result of his own guilt rather than an external process. He ‘remembered the word of the prophet, who said: “You destroy those who speak lies; the Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man” [Psalm 5.6], and of the apostle: Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” [1 Corinthians 11.27]’. This was not an uncommon way to frame such donations, since it looked better for the penitent donor if they could claim to be prompted by moral rectitude rather than external pressure. Yet there may be some truth to Andrew’s claim to remorse, or at least a question over where external pressure had come from. The bishop is notable for his absence in this and other charters of the time, which often describe donations made to God, and “to Saint Nazaire and the canons”, suggesting that there may have been a vacancy in the episcopal seat at the time (1066-1077). This doubtlessly contributed to the unorthodox state of affairs represented by the charter.

But in the decades before Andrew made his confession, the seat had been continuously occupied, and Bishop Berengar III is last attested in 1066, just three years earlier. If Andrew and his family were local it stands to reason that the incumbent bishop (whoever this was) would have known of Andrew and perhaps even ordained him, raising further questions about the lack of episcopal oversight in the diocese. Elsewhere on this blog Bastiaan Waagmeester has written about the examinations priests were expected to pass to demonstrate their knowledge to the local bishop, whose job it was to check regularly that shepherds of the flock came up to scratch. Clearly in Béziers this was not the case. While we cannot know what prompted the production of the charter, the text as it survives stands as an unusual and intriguing snapshot into the lives of local priests and their relationship with both their bishops and communities in the later eleventh century.