"On the offspring of clerics"

Image: Copyright © Vatican Library, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 4322, f. 48v

For my part in this research project on the life worlds of tenth-century local priests in post-Carolingian Europe, I shall be investigating the normative framework of these priests, both legal and moral. What kind of standards were they supposed to live up to, and how did these standards vary over time and space?

A very widely disseminated text known as the Admonitio Synodalis will be at the heart of my enquiry. But here I want to introduce another, more eye-catching work, which I shall call De subole clericorum.

De subole clericorum takes the form of an edict, issued in the name of the Roman emperors Theodosius, Honorius, Arcadius, Gratian, Valerian and Valentinian, about the children of clerics. It orders that the children of any deacon, priest or bishop who were born after their ordination should be barred from clerical office. More than that, those children should be denied access to the public courts, and they should be immediately seized and handed over to work in the hot kitchens, dirty toilets or filthy sewers (!) (aut igniferae coquinae sive latrinae stercora vel sordes cloacarum).

De subole clericorum is not in the modern canon of texts about ‘church reform’. It’s fair to say that the text has not been much studied; just a handful of publications refer to it, mostly in the course of making other arguments (as indeed did I, in an article co-written with Giorgia Vocino). It’s been edited more often than it’s been fully discussed (most recent edition by Annamaria Ambrosioni in 1976, pp. 302-3).[1]

Presumably that’s because De subole clericorum is a flagrant medieval forgery unconvincingly masquerading as a Roman imperial decree. No Roman emperor would ever have issued a decree like this. But as many historians have shown (including Levi Roach in his forthcoming book) forgeries can be as revealing as ‘authentic’ texts. And this particular forgery seems to have been reasonably influential, in that I’m aware of at least five manuscripts (Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana E 144 sup, fol. 214, s. XI2/2; Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare ms XV, s.Xex, fol. 158v; Vercelli, BC ms. LXXVI, fol. 1, s.XIin; Châlons BM 32, fol. 50, s. XI; as well as Vatican BAV lat. 4322, fol. 48v, not known to Ambrosioni). This manuscript transmission suggests that tenth-century Vercelli is as plausible a time and place as any other for the text’s creation; one wonders whether the bishops Atto or Leo of Vercelli might have had a hand in it.

But why did someone go to the bother of making up a Roman law text like this? (and it’s worth emphasising that the forger has tried reasonably hard to imitate a Roman text, even though the effort is not remotely convincing to a modern critical eye). And why invent such an absurdly harsh punishment for individuals who had, after all, themselves done nothing wrong at all – and a punishment for whose enforcement no mechanism existed? And why extend the decree to cover priests and deacons as well as bishops?

The very fact of the text’s existence suggests that a) there was a perceived problem with clerical children succeeding their parents in office and b) that turning to the idiom of Roman law offered a solution, filling a normative gap as it were in complement to existing written norms. And if De subole does date to the tenth century, as seems likely, it illustrates how anxiety about clerical families and sexuality was growing in profile long before it became a hot-button issue of ‘Gregorian Reform’ (as forthcoming work by Fiona Griffiths brilliantly demonstrates).

There is still much that remains mysterious about the work – origin, purpose, reception and historical implications. This is something I’m hoping to explore more in future, when libraries open up again; in the meantime, comments and suggestions are very welcome.


[1] A bibliography of works mentioning the De Subole

Giacomo Vignodelli, Il Filo a piombo: il Perpendiculum di Attone di Vercelli (2011)
Suzanne Wemple,
Atto of Vercelli (1979)
Annamarie Ambrosioni, 'Il più antico elenco di chierici della diocesi ambrosiana ed altre aggiunte al decretum di Burcardo in un codice della Biblioteca Ambrosiana (e 144 sup.): una voce della polemica antipatarinica?', 1976 (includes edition)
Federico Patetta,
Studi sulle fonti giuridiche medievali (1967)
Gustav Haenel, 'Ueber eine bisher ungedruckte Constitution de subole clericorum' (1868) includes edition