How diocesan synods helped priests stay sharp

Image: Troyes, Médiathèque Jacques-Chirac, Ms 1979, ff. 157v-158r

For the performance of their office, local priests depended heavily on different kinds of knowledge. As we have seen in a previous blog post, bishops had the responsibility to tell priests 'what they were supposed to know'. Yet, as memory fades, merely telling them was not enough. A certain form of quality management was required, to ensure that priests remained sharp and knew how to lead their flocks towards salvation.

There were several ways for bishops to maintain the knowledge of their priests. When it was time for priests to replenish their supply of consecrated oil, which usually happened on Maundy Thursday, they travelled to their bishop who sometimes quizzed them about the essentials of the Christian faith and asked them to present their books. Another possibility was for bishops to tour their diocese to inspect the local churches and inquire about the performance of their priests. As Christianity gained a foothold in Europe during the fifth and sixth centuries and the distance between episcopal sees and local churches increased, diocesan synods were introduced as an alternative control mechanism. At these gatherings, which seem to have gained in popularity during the reigns of Louis the Pious and his heirs, bishops extensively examined their priests while also fulfilling their role as ecclesiastical judges.

We known what happened during these diocesan synods from ordines that describe their course. An example of such an ordo can be found in four manuscripts from the tenth and eleventh centuries, originating in eastern France and southwestern Germany.[1] The ordo itself seems to be older, however. In the oldest version, which I will discuss below, the bishop is accompanied by his chorbishops, while in the newer version these have been replaced by archdeacons.[2] For this reason, the ordo is dated to the first half of the ninth century. As the ordo is often accompanied in manuscripts by texts connected to the archbishop of Mainz, it has also been suggested that the ordo might have originated there.

The version of the text I will discuss is found in the manuscript Troyes, Médiathèque Jacques-Chirac, Ms 1979. It is dated to the second half of the eleventh century and must have been produced somewhere in eastern France or western Germany. The manuscript is an episcopal handbook that would have been very useful for organising local synods or when a bishop toured his own diocese. Such a context of use is supported by its size (146x97 mm – which is slightly smaller than an A6 piece paper, with 338 ff.), effectively making it a pocket-sized brick. Below I will briefly discuss the relevant passages that tell us something about diocesan synods as a form of quality management.

Here begins the diocesan ordo in Troyes, MJC, Ms 1979, ff. 157v-158r

'sacerdotes' as an interlinear gloss in Ps.-Alcuin's exposition on the priestly office in Liber de divinis officiis found in Troyes, MJC, Ms 1979, f. 97r

When organising a diocesan synod, a bishop would summon all priests to his court for an event of one or more days. Upon arrival, priests would be greeted by the bishop with a reading from Scripture, as well as a passage from Gregory’s Regula pastoralis or a homily. Then the bishop would deliver a sermon in which he instructed his audience on the importance of being called ‘presbyter’ and ‘sacerdos’ and the responsibility it entailed.[3] Interestingly, elsewhere in the manuscript the priestly office is explained and only the word 'presbyteros’ is used, but another hand added ‘sacerdotes’ (image on the left).

After the welcome by the bishop, all priests would be examined by teachers (magistri) and examiners (inquisitors) together with the archpriests and cardinals using 'headings' (capitula). These headings located at the end of the ordo, where what priests should know is succinctly listed: how to sing the psalms, use the lectionary, administer sacraments, calculate the date of Easter and when to celebrate the most important ecclesiastical feasts. [4] This brings to mind the episcopal statutes issued by Carolingian bishops or the Admonitio synodalis, which also happen to be included in the same manuscript.[5] The user of the Troyes codex had a wide variety of capitula at his disposal and could, if he so desired, really put the screw to his priests. While the priests were being questioned, the bishop, together with the remaining clergy, would discuss the life and reputation of the priests.

Part of the short headings after the ordo listing what priests should know in Troyes, MJC, Ms 1979, f. 159r

After the examination, the bishop would be informed about the results. The priests would then present their inventory, consisting of their books, vestments and liturgical objects, so the bishop knew what kind of issues to address. Each priest that passed these three tests was allowed to return to their home after receiving the episcopal blessing. If priests somehow lacked essential knowledge, they would remain in the city for additional instruction or, if their situation was truly hopeless, their service would be terminated.[7] As a side note, if we also imagine manuscripts being created and used in an environment with such tight control, it is not surprising that priests' books from this period show many more similarities among themselves than their Carolingian predecessors did. What these similarities look like, I will address in future blog entries.

In conclusion, the organisation of a diocesan synod described in this ordo made sure that priests were periodically reminded of the key aspects of their office. Bishops would examine not only their priests’ knowledge but also their morals and the tools they used to perform their task. If this was indeed done annually and concerned all priests (no exceptions seem to be made), episcopal quality management in certain dioceses of eastern France and southwestern Germany was not to be underestimated.

BW, November 2021

[1] Köln, DB, cod. 120, ff. 107v-171v - s. X in. @ France N/E; Châlons-sur-Champagne, BM, Cod. 32, ff. 43r-44r - s. X @ St. Peter in Châlons or Trier; Salzburg, SB, a.ix.32, ff. 147v-149v - s. XI 1/2 @ Köln; Troyes, MJC, Ms 1979, ff. 158r-159v - s. XI 1/2 @ France E/Germany W.

[2] The older version is found in the Köln, Châlons-sur-Champagne and Troyes manuscripts. The manuscript from Salzburg contains the newer one.

[3] All following transcriptions are based on Troyes, MJC, Ms 1979, ff. 158r-159v: 'Presbiteri cum ad synodum evocati convoniunt, primo post sollempnem episcopi salutationem legendum erit in consesisu sacerdotali initium et pars aliqua libri curae pastoralis aut certe omelia de evangelio designavit dominus, et faciendus ad eos sermo quo eis ostendatur pondus et periculum, simul etiam dignitas officii sacerdotalis, et demonstrandum quoque erit ipsius vocabulum. Unde scilicet et qua ex cause presbiteri et sacerdotis appellatio constet.'

[4] 'Deinde ponendi erunt per distinciones archipresbiterorum magistri et inquisitores, qui separatim cum archipresbiteris vel cardinalibus urbis ipsius presbiteris residentes vicanorum et reliquorum presbiterorum scientiam cognocscere studeant, quique per distincta capitula qualiter quisque eorum officium suum implere valeat percunctentur.' The capitula after the ordo read as follows: 'QUALITER MISTERIUM REQUIRATUR. De psalmis, quomodo eos memoriter teneant propter graviores psalmos. De lectionario, qualiter episolas vel evangelia legant et intellegant. De canone, missae secretae utrum memoriter teneant aut intellegant. De cantu antiphonarii, quantum vel qualiter canere scient. De baptisterio, quam bene et distincte noverit. De penitentiali, qualiter illud impleant. De compoto, qualiter feria inveniri valeat cotidie et luna, et termini paschales in quali feria ponendi sunt [...].

[5] Included are Admonitio synodalis (ff. 159v-162v), the first episcopal statutes by Theodolf of Orléans (ff. 164r-175v), a selection of statutes from Herard of Tours (ff. 177rv: cc. 132, 135, 133, 7, 101-3), one capitulum from the Capitulare ecclesiasticum (f. 180r: c. 17), capitula from Ansegis’ collection of capitularies (ff. 213v-214r: cc. 1.104. 1.111 (added later); ff. 224r-225r: cc. 1.10, 1.13, 1.35, 1.37-8, 1.54, 1.131, 4. 59) and, lastly, the Admonitio generalis (ff. 227v-238r). A complete description of the manuscript does not yet exist but will be provided in an upcoming article on this particular codex.

[6] 'Episcopus vero, dum presbiteri requiretur, in loco congruo cum corepiscopis et diaconibus et reliquo clero residens de vita presbiterorum et fama tractabit, de singulis quantum erit possibile cuius sint aput suos opiniones inquirens.'

[7] 'Postquam fuerit ea examinatio habita et de singulis episcopo fuerit intimatum, cuncti qui aderunt sacerdotes libros et vestimenta, missalia quoque reliquumque instrumentum sui ministerii episcopo presentabunt, ut in hac maxima parte quid probandum, quidue corrigendum improb[r]andumque sit, possit agnosci. […] Postquam fuerint omnia haec ordinabiliter expleta, et causae singulae terminatae, benedictione ab episcopo postulata et accepta inpropria sua recedant, nisi forte necesse erit, aliquos pro sui ministerii emendatione in urbe retinere.'