Tenth-century expectation management: the Admonitio Synodalis in southern Italy

What were the standards by which local priests were measured in the long tenth century, between the Carolingian Empire and the revival of papal authority in the late eleventh century? There are different ways of approaching this question, but one is through a text known as the Admonitio Synodalis, designed as a sermon to be delivered to local priests.

The sermon is made up of a series of around 80 injunctions about what priests should, and should not, do.[1] These injunctions are mostly taken from earlier instructions for priests, compiled in Carolingian Francia. Amongst the Admonitio’s sources was the legal collection of Regino of Prüm, a work which it quoted in an interpolated form, made after 906.[2] And the earliest manuscripts of the Admonitio date from the mid tenth century.[3] So we can be fairly sure that the Admonitio dates to the earlier tenth century, although the precise origins of the text are still unclear.[4]

The Admonitio was extremely popular; I have so far counted 136 manuscripts, mostly from the 11th and 12th centuries (with a few from the 10th century, as just mentioned). It circulated in England, Italy, France and Germany, integrated into liturgical and legal compilations as well as in standalone format. And it continued to influence episcopal legislation into the later Middle Ages.[5] If we want to see a list of what local priests were supposed to do, then this text is not a bad place to begin.

But despite the Admonitio’s general appeal, scribes sometimes did not hesitate to adjust its content to fit individual local needs. This blog is on a manuscript which illustrates this point, Biblioteca Vallicelliana D 5 (I am very grateful to Eduardo Fernández Guerrero for his help in accessing this ms).[6]

This manuscript is a pontifical, one of a large group collectively known as the ‘Romano-German Pontifical’, many manuscripts of which contain the Admonitio Synodalis. The Vallicelliana manuscript was produced in or around Monte Cassino in southern Italy in the mid eleventh century, according to Gyug under Abbot Theobald; it is very close to a sister manuscript, Monte Cassino 451, which seems to have been copied from the same exemplar. However, as Henry Parkes has argued, we should remember that each manuscript of the ‘Romano-German Pontifical’ family was copied for its own merits, and should not just be treated as a witness to an imaginary model. As his concordance tables show, each manuscript was unique.

The version of the Admonitio Synodalis copied in the Vallicelliana manuscript attracted some interest from a later, but still broadly contemporary scribe, who made various changes and edits to the text.[7] What did this scribe think needed changing?

Some of the edits suggest that they were comparing the text with a version in another manuscript. For instance, when priests are enjoined to exhort married men ‘to abstain from their wives at certain times’ (fol 64v, ch. 65), the correcting scribe elaborated on when this was: at Christmas, Lent, all feast days, Ember Day fasts, and Sunday nights.

This is very similar to an elaboration found in some other manuscripts of the Admonitio Synodalis, so here (and perhaps at a couple of other places) the scribe may have had one of these manuscripts on their desk

But at other places in the text, the correcting scribe seems to have made amendations off their own bat:

They specified that the sick should be offered the rite of reconciliation when "in fear of death" (fol. 64r, ch. 32).

They allowed priests to sell property if they consulted the bishop first (fol 64v, ch. 68).

They emphasised that the bishops had been chosen or elected (electi) (fol. 63v, ch. 3).

They emphasised that the mass or eucharist should be taken with "great" fear (ch. 12).

They deleted a passage saying that churches should not be divided between many people (ch. 54).

When the Admonitio noted that some 'unfaithful people' might steal the chrism, they noted curtly: "women" (fol. 64v, ch. 80) - though as Mark Thakkar (@Brunellus) pointed out, the original scribe had already laid the way for this by writing the feminine "quasdam" instead of the male/indeterminate "quosdam", deliberately or not.

And the annotator also noted that it was OK for priests to drink in taverns if they were travelling (fol 64r, ch. 39).

None of these emendations can be paralleled in other surviving versions of the Admonitio. Rather than being copied in from some vanished archetype, it seems more likely that the scribe wanted to bring the instructions of the Admonitio into line with their own opinions about clerical expectations. This suggests that the Admonitio in this pontifical was not just ‘part of the package’, but a text that someone took quite seriously.

Yet while they did not shy from making some changes, they were evidently happy with the overwhelming majority of the text’s instructions. Precisely because they made a few discrete changes, in other words, we might infer that expectations around rural priests in southern Italy were not really so different from those in, say, northern France, other than on specific matters such as dividing up churches, alienating church property, and having a drink on the road.

Of course that is not to say that the priests themselves actually led similar lives. But how many of the differences in tenth-century local church organisation in Italy and north of the Alps are rooted in historiographical, rather than historical, divergences?

CW, August 2021

[1] The Admonitio Synodalis has been edited dozens of times. Semi-critical edition: Amiet, ‘Une admonitio synodalis’. Edition of Rather’s version: MGH. Edition of Ordo 14 version: MGH. Recent lit: Hamilton, Practice of penance, pp. 64-67; Hartmann, Kirchenrecht, 299-300; Miller, Clothing, p. 12. English translation: Reid, Complete Works, pp. 124ff.

[2] Pokorny, ‘Nochmals zur Admonitio’.

[3] The earliest manuscripts appear to be three tenth-century mss made in Verona for Rather of Verona from the 960s and 970s (Munich Clm 6340, Laon BM 274 and Berlin Phill. 1676), followed by two Mainz Regino manuscripts, c. 1000, in which the Admonitio text has been inserted by the same scribe (!) – Hoffmann, Buchkunst, pp. 262-3, 266.

[4] Parkes’s recent redating of the RGP to the eleventh century has significant implications for the transmission history of the AS. See Parkes, ‘Henry II, liturgical patronage and the birth of the 'Romano-German Pontifical’. Rather of Verona is now the earliest known witness to the work: could he have been involved in its compilation?

[5] Avril, ‘Les instructions’.

[6] On the manuscript, see Newton, Scriptorium, p. 144; Reynolds, 'South Italian ordination allocution'.

[7] Amiet says this was “une cinquantine d’années après sa transcription”, but I am not sure how precise we can be, given the fairly informal nature of the scribal interventions. These edits are not present in the Monte Cassino 451 sister manuscript (my thanks to Henry Parkes for assistance on this point).