What local priests were supposed to know

Image: Copyright © Vatican Library, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 4322, f. 83r

Looking for an exciting and challenging job with a high degree of autonomy and attention for your personal and professional development? Being an early medieval local priest would probably have been a good fit. Local priests were central figures in their communities, who were in charge of organising the services in the church and administering pastoral care to the people around them. They had to live exemplary lives, also outside the church, and were closely monitored by their bishop, who held them responsible for the salvation of the laypeople that attended their local church.

For this demanding job description, priests required to have a vast amount of knowledge. Knowing how to sing Mass and how to baptise an infant, were no easy tasks. Besides knowing the liturgical procedures of said sacraments, priests were also expected to understand their meaning and be able to explain it to others. In addition, priests had to know their canons, how to administer penance properly, and be able to teach the laity all about the Christian faith, often in the form of the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed.

We know this from documents that bishops drafted for their priests, better known as episcopal statutes or capitularies. In these statutes, bishops listed what they expected of their priests, which could concern a wide variety of subjects, such as the performance of their duties, their behaviour, and their knowledge. One example I would like to mention here, are the statutes of the bishop Atto of Vercelli (ca. 885-957/8) from the middle of the tenth century. By mainly selecting articles from older sources, primarily the Collectio canonum Anselmo dedicata (882-96) and the episcopal statutes of Theodulf of Orléans (ca. 800), Atto created a clear framework for his priests to live and work by. It is striking, however, that when a priest’s knowledge is addressed, this is only done in very general terms and is never specific. So what, then, does it mean to know canon law? How is one supposed to baptise or sing Mass, when no more instructions are given? Can the Christian faith be explained in just any way?

For my part of the research project, I will examine what tenth-century priests knew and how this changed over time. The legacy of the Carolingians, who began a true pastoral revolution during the late eighth century, is particularly important here, as priests were the focal point for much of their policies to create a Christian empire with one Christian people. What remained of their efforts in a post-imperial world? Did the knowledge of tenth-century priests differ from their Carolingian predecessors and can this be differentiated regionally? These are some questions I hope to answer in the coming three years, for which I began to read through tenth-century normative sources that say anything about a priest's knowledge, such as episcopal statutes, collections of canon law and documents like the Admonitio Synodalis (which Charles West is examining as his part of the project on priests and normative expectations).

To give an indication of where this investigation might go, we have to go back to Atto of Vercelli’s episcopal statutes and look at the articles he did not copy from his source material. In one particular manuscript (Vercelli, Biblioteca capitolare, XXXIX (40)) from the middle of the tenth century, it is fairly simple to detect Atto’s personal additions, as almost every entry from his hand has been marked by a contemporary hand with his monogram (see image on the right - taken from a different manuscript).

Using this visual clue, it is possible to work out which issues were not covered in the available documentation and were pressing enough to be addressed by the bishop himself. Only three entries (cc. 29, 76, 77) were drafted from scratch, while the rest concerns small additions to existing material. The entries concern a wide variety of things, ranging from monthly gatherings for the diocesan clergy and whether to baptise the possessed to the prohibition of bathing in holy water and conducting trade in the church.

Atto's monogram in Città del Vaticano, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vat. lat. 4322, f. 83r

It is clear that Atto addresses very specific problems in his statutes. Fundamental issues, relating to the knowledge of priests, do not seem to be of his concern and seem to have been already firmly established. Still, tenth-century bishops were concerned with their priests’ knowledge. Atto also examined his priests before ordination and required them to bring their books with them, so that he could take a look inside. What kind of questions was he asking his priests and what did he look for in his priests’ books when examining them? These questions are the next step of the investigation and will be presented (on the blog) in the coming months.

BW, May 2021