Canon Law as Reflected in the Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis

Chapter 13
Canon Law as Reflected in the Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis

Marjorie Chibnall

In discussing the legal norms regulating marriage in medieval society, James Brundage observed that they were both sacred and secular, “controlled in part by the legal norms and courts of the church and in part by the customary law of the earthly kingdom.”1 Though he was concerned specially with the “intersection of the two jurisdictions” in the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, his comments could be applied to other aspects of canon law in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries. While Orderic Vitalis would have been the first to claim that he was no legal specialist, he was too nearly concerned with the reforms that were gradually introducing changes in the Church and with the problems of inheritance and marriage experienced by the patrons and monks he encountered in his daily life not to include much that was relevant in his Ecclesiastical History. In several places he copied some of the canons of provincial and general councils; and throughout his work he unconsciously reflected the views of men, whether knights or monks, he met. So he gives hints both of the methods by which reforming canons circulated and of the leisurely pace with which changes in law and custom became accepted in Norman society. He wrote, in brief, at “the intersection of the two jurisdictions,” and because of this his book contains a certain amount of relevant information.

Before the formal promulgation of the canons of ecumenical councils became established, their appearance in the works of chroniclers was haphazard, and the same applies to the canons of provincial synods.2 Orderic gave most prominence to the 1095 Council of Clermont and the 1119 Council of Reims, both of which were attended by representatives from Norman dioceses and abbeys; he himself, indeed, may have been at the Council of Reims, and if not he certainly had the report of an eye-witness. The Second Lateran Council in 1139 took place when his historical work was nearing completion, and it received more summary treatment; he said little more than that many decretals were published, but they produced very little effect.3 There are passing and insubstantial references to some other councils, such as the council of Pisa; but as their legislation like that of Piacenza (1095) and Rome (1099) was often absorbed into the general canonical tradition, knowledge of them mostly reached Normandy indirectly.4 Some of their decrees were repeated in the synods of the province of Rouen, which were frequent from the 1050s, or in the English provincial and diocesan councils, which became more frequent after 1066.5 Orderic recorded the canons of two or three Norman councils almost fully, and gave brief summaries of others that were relevant to matters of particular moment in Normandy, or that touched his own monastery of Saint-Évroult. He also recorded legal disputes that for a time made a direct impact on the daily life of his fellow monks, even if they were too localized to give rise to immediate legislation. They had, however, some influence on the formation of canonical tradition. When they are compared with similar references in the work of English historians, they illustrate some of the regional differences affecting the slow spread of new canon law and the effects of the strengthening of the hierarchy that resulted from recent reforms.

In preserving and commenting on some of the records of councils and synods, Orderic has shown something of the workings of these assemblies in a formative period. His Ecclesiastical History has been quarried by writers on canon law, notably Robert Somerville, to elucidate procedure, and there is no need to dwell on Orderic’s modest contribution towards the reconstruction of the business of the great councils such as Clermont in 1095 and Reims in 1119.6 Orderic depended for his information on the documents circulated to participants in these assemblies and many of the scita recorded were actually synopses of more detailed canons, or drafts of canons to be discussed and refined later. As an historian, however, he added details of procedure and some of the business transacted during the sessions of these assemblies, known to him through participants. At Reims in particular he described the seating and named officials taking part in the promulgation of the canons. He also described some individual pleas brought before the pope as part of the curial business. These included the plea by the countess of Poitou, who had been abandoned by her husband. Consideration was postponed because of her husband’s alleged illness, and a date was fixed when he should appear and either take back his lawful wife or suffer excommunication. The fact that a woman, especially one of high standing should be able to initiate legal proceedings is not surprising; ecclesiastical courts were more ready than secular to admit women in their business.7

Orderic also followed-up the business when it was continued in Norman provincial synods, and in doing so he indicated the importance of pastoral legislation alongside better known rulings on matters that concerned both church and state, such as investiture or the strengthening of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. He wrote with knowledge of the reports of older eye-witnesses, and of records going back before 1066 in both England and Normandy. So he was able to show some of the effects of the Norman conquest in slowly producing a common practice that still left room for some differences in regional customs.

The first canons copied by Orderic were those of the 1072 provincial synod of Rouen. Called with the encouragement of the duke, it was held under the presidency of John, archbishop of Rouen. Its concern was with church discipline and ritual, fasts and the proper way to administer the sacraments. It was also one of a series of councils condemning the marriage of the clergy. Although it took place over 20 years after the great reforming council held at Reims by Leo IX, it falls into the category of regular local assemblies inspired by an important papal council. Unlike the later council of Lillebonne, whose canons were recorded by Orderic, amongst others, its business is known only from him;8 and it is evidence of the early reform movement in Normandy, in which both the duke and the bishops participated.

Orderic also noted the Norman sequel to the ecumenical councils of Clermont and Reims. As he relates, Odo bishop of Bayeux, Gilbert of Évreux, and Serlo of Sées, who had been personally present at Clermont, brought back letters that caused Archbishop William to summon a provincial synod to Rouen to confirm and record the papal decrees. The most important canons listed gave details of the enforcement of the Truce of God. Other canons forbade the holding of tithes, burial dues or oblations of the altar by laymen, and touched the burning question of the performance of homage by priests to laymen. This was forbidden at Rouen; but fealty was permitted if necessary for the lord’s safety. Orderic also described the procedure for promulgating the conciliar decrees; they were read out by some dignitary other than the president and confirmed by the archbishop and other prelates. By this time, however, William the Conqueror was dead, order had broken down under Duke Robert Curthose, and Orderic noted bitterly that these sound laws, promulgated with the best intentions, remained almost without effect.9

The immediate follow-up to the 1119 Council of Reims was at first even less effective. A council at Rouen was held by the fiery Breton archbishop, Geoffrey, and his passionate denunciation of any cohabitation with women provoked a riot. It was suppressed with such violence that proceedings had to be abandoned.10 Orderic gave no details of the other measures discussed; but since his description of the violence of the archbishop’s retainers mentions an unprovoked attack on two mature and pious old priests, who were quietly discussing confession and other similar topics, it seems likely that some of the business of the aborted council was pastoral. When another council was held at Rouen in 1128, it was summoned by King Henry I, and the papal legate, Matthew bishop of Albano, presided over its orderly proceedings. The prohibition of marriage was then applied only to priests, not to those in minor orders: an indication of the strong feeling that forced the introduction of the reform to be made in stages. Other canons dealt with the holding of tithes by monks. Orderic noted that King Henry was present as protector of the abbots and did not allow any burden to be imposed on them by the bishops.11

Orderic’s information came from Norman bishops, and he was not directly concerned with English provincial councils such as that of London in 1102.12 The condemnation of long hair was known directly in Normandy through the 1096 synod of Rouen, though possibly the London council inspired the dramatic scene in the church at Carenton, in 1105, when King Henry was moved by bishop Serlo’s denunciation of long hair to have his own hair and that of his knights cropped on the spot.13 What Orderic does show is the slow, piecemeal penetration of reforming canons into the dioceses. In doing so, he sometimes goes into detailed discussion of matters that impinged on the lives of Norman, but not English, monks. One of these was the question of written professions of obedience by abbots, which some bishops were demanding in the process of strengthening the hierarchy.

Unlike William of Malmesbury, Eadmer of Canterbury, Hugh the Chanter, and other chroniclers writing in England, Orderic had no interest whatsoever in the question of the primacy of Canterbury and the struggle of archbishops from Lanfranc onwards to exact written professions of obedience from the archbishops of York.14 Lanfranc was particularly strongly influenced by the legislation of the early Spanish church, and knew canon 10 of the eleventh council of Toledo, which expressed a widely-held view of the relation of a prelate to his superior. It did not become formally incorporated in the law of the Church until Gratian introduced it into his Decretum.15 But it helped to shape principles that were becoming accepted in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

In Normandy disputes arose from the attempts by some bishops to exact written professions from abbots. The trouble, however, may have been due to the indirect influence of Lanfranc’s views. Written professions of obedience to their metropolitan had existed in the Anglo-Saxon church, but had become rare in the eleventh century. Lanfranc made a vigorous new beginning and, after initial difficulties, secured a provisional written profession from Thomas, archbishop of York.16 Although his attitude towards abbots is scanty, the earliest surviving written professions begin in 1070 with the profession of Scolland, abbot elect of St Augustine’s Canterbury.17

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