Most priests in tenth-century western Europe, north of the Alps at least, served small churches in villages in the countryside. They were supposed to live alone, with the assistance of only one or two clerics in minor orders to help with the liturgy and practical issues.
However, although they worked in relative isolation, the priests of a diocese were supposed to come together twice a year for the ‘diocesan synod’, held at the cathedral church. What happened at these synods in the long tenth century?
The short answer is that it’s very hard to know (though see this earlier blog for another take). However, an insight is given by a set of sermons written by a monk in Aquitaine, Ademar of Chabannes, around the year 1030. In a manuscript now in Berlin, Ademar wrote dozens of sermons designed for diocesan synods, presumably intended for the bishop of Limoges, who was in charge of the several hundred churches in the large diocese. These have recently been edited by Bruno Bon for his PhD thesis, and Dr Bon has very generously made his edition available for free online.
Let’s take the first of Ademar’s sermons as an example. It’s a sermon on the chrism, the special oil used for baptism and certain other rituals. The sermon was loosely based on an earlier work by the Carolingian bishop of Orléans, Theodulf, on the importance of baptism. Ademar used this work to explain to his captive audience why chrism was so important, but he also expanded on his base text in various ways.
For instance, Ademar added a discussion on the importance of balsam, a crucial ingredient for chrism. It was expensive, he acknowledged, because it came from the lands of the ‘Saracen people’: but bishops had no alternative, since to use honey, spit, or butter instead was a clear sign of heresy. For this reason Ademar advised priests to label their chrism bottles, to ensure they didn’t get confused with the oil for anointing the sick (which didn’t need balsam). They should bring their old chrism into the cathedral, where it could be burned in lamps, or if need be mixed with the new.
Ademar also added another practical point. All the priests of the diocese (omnes vos de nostra diocesi presbiteri) had to come every year to get fresh chrism on Maundy Thursday, so they had some for Easter Sunday (this presumed that it would not take more than a couple of days to travel home to their own churches). If, however, they couldn’t come to Limoges, they had to acquire their fresh chrism from the neighbouring priests instead. Indeed, Ademar insisted that a ‘skeleton’ service was maintained, so that the churches were not left entirely empty while all the priests were away, lest someone die without penance, viaticum or baptism.
Ademar also threw in a couple of references in the sermon to Saint Martial, who he insisted had been one of the Apostles, sent to Aquitaine by St Peter himself. Let no foreign people stir up any dissent amongst you about this, he warned his audience: it is terrible (nefas) to doubt the history of Martial’s deeds.
Did the priests of the diocese of Limoges silently roll their eyes at this? (the apostolicity of Martial was one of Ademar’s favourite topics, indeed his all-consuming passion, and is worked into most of the sermons in the Berlin manuscript). Were they even listening? Ademar’s sermon would have taken around an hour to read out in full, in Latin, and would not have been easy to follow.
Indeed, towards the end, even Ademar seems to have acknowledged that the concentration of the priests assembled might have been flagging:
“Why the Paraclete Spirit, which is transferred by bishops to the baptized, is called seven-fold, we will explain to you carefully in another synod, since this speech has now gone on for a long time.”
As Ademar seems (belatedly) to have grasped, in sermons as in any other public speaking, you should always leave your audience wanting more...
CW, March 2023