Post-classical history


For throughout the region up to Romuald’s time the custom of simony was so widespread that hardly anyone knew this heresy to be a sin.

Peter Damiani, Life of Romuald, Chapter xxxv

At the beginning of the twelfth century the Cistercian order represented all that was most admired in the monastic movement. One of the great historians of the period, Orderic Vitalis of the Norman abbey of St Evroul, describes how it began. In the 1080s, in one of the most famous acts of ‘reform’, Robert, abbot of the traditional (‘Black Monk’*) monastery of Molesmes, in Burgundy, ‘examined the Rule of St Benedict very carefully and studied the writings of other holy fathers’. The Rule, believed to have been laid down by Benedict in the sixth century for the monks of Monte Cassino, and founded on their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the abbot and the Rule itself, had become the basis of monastic life everywhere in Latin Christendom. Robert, however, concluded that ‘we have many customs which are not laid down there, and we have carelessly overlooked a number of its precepts.’


We do not work with our hands, he told his assembled brethren, as we read that the holy fathers did. We receive abundant food and clothing from the tithes and oblations of churches, and by casuistry or force take for ourselves the tithes which belong to the priests. In this way we are gorged with the blood of men and are participators in sin.1

When his fellow monks, declining to accept his interpretation, refused to give up what Robert regarded as unsanctioned practices, he left Molesmes with the few who agreed with him to form the community that became the new foundation of Cîteaux.

Robert’s description of tithes reflected both a long-standing religious attitude to property and a realistic view of how it was acquired. Monastic writers were eager to praise those who refrained from abusing power in the pursuit of wealth. Bezo, a minor lord from Cucciago, near Milan, for example, and his wife, Beza, detested greed (rapacitas) so heartily that they would not allow their retainers to ride down other people’s standing corn. Destroying peasants’ crops was a notorious means of driving them into poverty, and so into servitude. Another was stealing their livestock, a practice strenuously denounced by the peace councils. When the hermit Romuald of Ravenna (d. 1027) cursed the bailiff of a ‘proud and greedy count’ who refused to return the cow he had stolen from an old woman, causing him to choke to death on its meat, Romuald was resisting, or avenging, an attempt to usurp the old woman’s land. This was a miracle much in demand from early eleventh-century saints. Its subversive potential is clearly intimated in a posthumous miracle of Romuald’s, when another old woman whose cow was being driven off rushed to his tomb, with an offering of two hens, to implore his help. ‘Wonderful news. Hardly had the bailiff left the woman’s house than he was struck by an arrow. He let the cow go on the spot, and on reaching home died instantly.’2 We need not be told where the arrow came from to see that the prestige of the saint is here endorsing what the bailiff, or his lord, would have described as an act of rebellion. The contrast with Ralph of Caen’s treatment of the Norman peasants who complained of the same kind of oppression is obvious.3


These connections between the gathering currents of religious reform and accelerating social change emerge especially plainly in the lives of the hermit preachers of early eleventh-century Italy, men such as Romuald, John Gualberti and Dominic of Sora. Among them the mightiest voice was that of the biographer of Romuald quoted above. He was the youngest of several sons of a nobleman of Ravenna. ‘How shameful’, one of his brothers had greeted Peter’s birth, in 1007. ‘There are so many of us that this house will hardly hold us – so many heirs for so small an inheritance.’4 That brother spoke for his generation. The concentration of property in the hands of a single heir, often the eldest son, was a widely and ruthlessly pursued family strategy, and the reason for many savage and desperate feuds. The traditional alternative of dividing it between all the children (partible inheritance) might also be productive of bitterness and division, as this story shows, if the property was not large enough to sustain the consequent fragmentation.

Fortunately for Peter, orphaned when he was two years old, he had another, kinder brother, Damian, who rescued him from a desperately cruel childhood and whose name he took as he would have a father’s. For fifteen years he was educated, and then became a teacher, in the schools of northern Italy. In 1035 he abandoned the schools and the world to devote himself to the monastic life at Fonte Avellano, at a remote spot in the Apennines, near Gubbio, becoming prior a few years later. Fonte Avellano was a monastery of the new style, in which the monks, imitating the desert fathers of old, sought salvation through the most extreme humiliation of the flesh. They lived almost as hermits, some near the church, two to a cell, others alone on the mountainside, their continuing ascent into greater solitude and harsher conditions symbolising their progress in the spiritual life. They devoted themselves to prayer, reading and chanting, coming together only for worship on Sundays and great feast days. They went barefoot in all seasons and restricted their diet to water, bread and salt, supplemented on three days of the week by a few herbs or vegetables.

For Damiani only such a pattern of life contained the possibility of union with God and of defeating the two great forces of sin by which, in his eyes, the world was ruled: sex and power. In two remarkable books he described how they dominated the church. TheBook of Gomorrah assailed the sexual laxity of clerks and monks in terms so frank and vivid that until late in the twentieth century it was considered impossible to edit or translate it in full, even for scholarly purposes. The Book of Graft* discussed the evils that arose from payment for ordination, for office in the church and for the sacraments. In these works, as in all Damiani’s voluminous writings, sexual indulgence and the improper conferring of the sacraments, especially that of ordination, were excoriated as vices which disabled the church and surrendered the world to the devil.

It is easy to dismiss the horror of sexual desire – and especially same-sexual desire – so obsessively expressed by Damiani and many of his contemporaries as ‘medieval’ superstition. But eleventh-century Europe was no different from almost every other known society in understanding its customs regarding who could do what with whom, and on what conditions, as fundamental to its organisation and social structure. The turmoil of its social relations, at every level, was naturally expressed and indirectly discussed in its impassioned debates about sex and the agonising efforts necessary to control it. Count Gerald of Aurillac, the saintly layman whose Life had been written by Odo of Cluny around 920, was saved by a miracle when a serf’s daughter by whose clear skin he was ‘tortured, allured and consumed as though by a blind fire’ became hideous in his eyes, just when he had arranged with her parents to have her placed at his disposal. To preserve himself from further temptation he ordered her father to give her away in marriage, gave her her liberty and presented her with a smallholding.5 Dominic Loricatus, whose biography Damiani wrote, discharged his guilt for the payment his socially ambitious father had made to have him ordained priest while still a child, by wearing instead of a hair shirt next his skin the coat of chain mail (lorica) from which he took his name and becoming a virtuoso in the art of flagellation, said to inflict on himself 300,000 lashes in a six-day period.

The relentless competition for control over land and those who worked it, common everywhere in Europe, was intensified in Lombardy and Tuscany by the rising profits of increasing local and long-distance commerce and the revenues from markets and tolls associated with it. Both in the countryside and in the cities, which by the end of the tenth century were growing rapidly, the terrifying force of change was embodied in the man of power and wealth who was constrained by no law in the pursuit of his own advantage – or, it goes without saying, of sexual gratification. It was in contrast to such a man that Bezo and Beza of Cucciago, ‘although they could freely threaten their neighbours in every way, and could be constrained by none of them if they didn’t want to be’, voluntarily submitted themselves to ‘every decent custom’; in contrast to him that John Gualberti, in embracing the religious life, renounced ‘landed honours and false riches’. These are references to the power of the seignurial ban, the pretext of delegated – but long since usurped – royal authority to exact services and seize animals and goods that provided the theoretical justification of these practices. Gualberti, who as the son of a noble had been born to such power, demonstrated his renunciation in saintly fashion when, seeing a fine herd of cattle grazing in an Apennine meadow, he called on Paul, his patron saint, to give him one of them for the poor.

At his words one immediately fell dead, and he ordered its body to be cut up and distributed among the poor. When it was eaten, he took another by praying in the same way, and a third, and a fourth.6

At this point the unfortunate herdsmen tried to save their flock by driving it off to another part of the mountain, to be told sharply that they might evade Gualberti that way, but not St Paul. To make himself clear Gualberti took another beast, followed by a sixth, a seventh, an eighth and a ninth. The herdsmen plucked up their courage and told the saint that he would do better to go back to his monastery than deprive poor men of their animals. He took the point, promised to do them no more harm and kept his word, thenceforth confining his charity to the distribution of such animals as came to him by way of gift.

What makes this an example of Gualberti’s holiness is not his power to take the cattle but his magnanimity in forgoing it. These stories show how immediately the universal touchstones of holiness – chastity, the renunciation of property, extreme bodily asceticism, devotion to prayer and spiritual exercises – appealed to people who were troubled by rapidly increasing disparities of wealth and power. The miracles of these Italian holy men, demanded and acknowledged by popular acclamation, cast them in the roles of ideal lordship, settling disputes, feeding the hungry, protecting the weak and punishing the wicked and the oppressor. The holy men themselves tended to come from families that expected or aspired to exercise lordly powers, but were not so grand as to do so securely, or to be immune from the turns of fortune and the whims of the great. They knew both the temptations of avarice and the anxieties of the poor. Gualberti and others like him abjured the ambitions of lordship in its worldly form but now exercised its prerogatives in a nobler cause, in the service of a greater and more potent lord, and often in quite explicit opposition to the customs and behaviour of their brothers who had remained in the world. This did not mean that their ideas and values were embraced only by the poor. The eleventh century was not the last time in European history when the most passionate and radical critics of privilege and its abuses included some of those who had been born to it.


One such was Bezo’s and Beza’s son Ariald, educated as a clerk, who on 10 May 1057 launched a public attack on the clergy of Milan, gathered for the solemn translation of the relics of one of the city’s many saints. Not only did they live in concubinage, as everybody knew, he said, but they were so deeply involved in the heresy of simony that none of them, from the highest to the lowest, had been admitted to any degree of holy orders or held any office in the church unless he had bought it as he might have bought a cow. He urged the people to stay away from their churches, which were as filthy as stables, and to refuse their sacraments, which were no better than dog turds. He started a riot, and many of the clergy were seized by the crowd and forced, under threat of death, to swear oaths of celibacy.7

Ariald’s sermon began a period of nineteen years during which, if the Patarenes (as his followers were derisively called by their enemies, after the lowliest workers in the cloth trade) did not rule Milan themselves, they made it ungovernable by the archbishop and the nobles. The city had been restless since the bloody suppression of a rising against Archbishop Aribert II (whom we met at Monforte in Chapter 2) some years before his death in 1045. Aribert’s successor, Guido da Velate, was objectionable to traditionalists as neither nobly born nor a member of the higher clergy of the city, and despised by reformers as ‘an illiterate man, living in concubinage, a simoniac without any shame’.8 Ariald had begun to preach reform in the villages around before moving into the city itself. His closest associates were Landolf Cotta, a notary from one of the ruling families, and Landolf’s brother Erlembald. Some said they had been put up to it by a priest from another aristocratic family, Anselm of Baggio, of whom Archbishop Guido rid himself by commending him to the imperial court, where he made a good enough impression to be appointed bishop of Lucca; in 1062 he became Pope Alexander II. Among Ariald’s lay supporters were Benedetto Rozzo, who had founded the church that the Patarenes took over as a base for their worship and operations, and Nazarius, both members of an influential group of citizens who had the hereditary privilege of striking coin, and so had been well placed to take advantage of the rapid growth of Milan’s markets and the dizzy rise in land prices over the previous half-century or so. For Ariald’s biographer, Andrew of Strumi, the movement divided not so much classes as families: ‘One household was entirely faithful, the next entirely faithless; in a third the mother believed with one son while the father disbelieved with another. The whole city was thrown into disorder by this confusion and strife.’9

Ariald formed around him a community of priests who had renounced the service of the archbishop, and of laymen and women. Abjuring all possessions, they lived chastely under a common rule – so their community became known as the Canonica – in a cloister that they built beside the church that Nazarius had given them. From this base Aribert organised what amounted to an alternative clergy for the city, preaching and conducting services for people who flocked from the nearby towns and villages. Every day, surrounded by his followers, he left the Canonica to visit Milan’s many shrines, praying and chanting at each, and in the process creating and consolidating a close identification between his movement and the community of the city, openly and successfully challenging the authority of the archbishop and clergy, whose legitimacy he continually disparaged.

Ariald is readily recognisable as a product of the currents of reform that flowed in early eleventh-century Europe. He was a zealous and educated devotee of the apostolic life – his sermons used the neoplatonist language that had been heard at Orléans and Monforte – who had found the condition and practices of the church at odds with what his reading had led him to believe it should be. To his followers he was a saint. He became a martyr in 1067, when he was murdered by the servants of a niece of Guido da Velate. His horribly mutilated body was dumped in Lake Como, to be recovered by his followers and borne in solemn procession back to the city for burial. From the beginning it was as heretics, not merely as sinners, that he had denounced the Milanese clergy. ‘They deserve to be overthrown’, he said, in the sermon that launched the rising, ‘because every kind of pollution, including the simoniac heresy, is rife among the priests and deacons and the rest of the clergy; they are all Nicolaitists and simoniacs.’

The clergy of Milan accepted neither this valuation nor Ariald’s authority to pronounce it. To them he was a heretic in his turn, and the founder of a heretical sect. Their see had been founded in the fourth century by St Ambrose, one of the greatest of the chuch fathers, and they firmly maintained that Ambrose had established the customs attacked by the Patarenes, including their right to marry and to observe distinctive liturgical observances, such as a three-day feast before Pentecost. In insisting on the authority of their patron saint, the Milanese clergy were not simply rationalising privilege. The bishoprics of Italy and Gaul had been established under the Roman empire, and their bishops spoke directly as the successors of their founding saints and martyrs. Their authority as such was not understood to be diminished by the acknowledged primacy of the bishop of Rome. In the eleventh century the burgeoning cults of their patron saints fostered and symbolised the vigour and independence of the emerging cities, among which Milan itself was the richest and most powerful. This became increasingly a source of tension after 1046, when popes began to convene councils that claimed general authority and to send representatives (legates) acting in their name to enforce their decrees and intervene in local disputes. The Milanese clergy responded that the Ambrosian church was not subject to Roman laws, or to the authority of the Roman bishop. They were not, historically speaking, strictly correct, but their view was deeply rooted and widely shared in their time.


The conditions that identified Milan so closely with the sin of simony had been formally established in 987. In that year the archbishop distributed the extensive and wealthy lands of his church as fiefs among a number of the leading families of the region, whose heads became known as the capitanei (‘captains’). Thenceforth the offices of the church and the benefices that went with them, from canonries of the cathedral downwards, were disposed of to the families and followers of these lords. What seems to have made the practice especially unacceptable was not only the sense that was growing everywhere in Europe that the church, its ministers and its services ought to be disentangled from the sordid and undignified structures of secular power but also the fact that here in Lombardy, most of all in Milan, money was now flowing in ever greater quantity and ever more visible streams as a great commercial revival got under way. The return that was made for appointment to a position in the church, or for a baptism or a funeral, was increasingly likely to be a bag of coins rather than a share of the annual vintage or a gift of livestock or produce, such as the two hens the widow brought to Romuald when she sought his help against the rapacious count. The offices of the church of Milan, it began to be said, were available for purchase on a fixed tariff. The cost would be recovered from the profits of the ecclesiastical duties attached to them, including the administration of the sacraments.

The sin named after Simon Magus had not always been as easy to recognise as to condemn. His offence had been that, seeking to buy from the apostles their power to confer the Holy Spirit, he ‘offered them money, saying “Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands he may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said unto him, “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money”’ (Acts of the Apostles 8: 18–20).

In the early middle ages money was not much used from day to day. Goods and services were generally exchanged in kind, and the services of the church, like any others, were expected to be reciprocated. Additionally, Christians had had from the earliest times a religious duty to devote a tenth of all their revenues and produce to the support of the church and the poor. In the eighth century the Carolingian kings made this a civic obligation, which meant that everybody had to pay, and therefore to be attached to a particular church, and that collection was enforced, in principle, by royal authority. Churches and monasteries were supported by endowments of land from which, like any other landlord, they took the profits both from direct cultivation by slaves or serfs and from the rents and services of tenants. Since the bishopric was usually among the largest landholders of its region and the holdings of other churches and monasteries were often substantial, these were very considerable and dependable sources of income, and therefore also of power. Control over them became ever more desirable and rivalry among the followers correspondingly intense in the tenth century, as the ability of the kings to reward, and therefore to restrain, their followers declined. All land came to be treated for practical purposes as family land, whose revenues could be divided, distributed and redistributed to support the retinues and secure the alliances necessary for survival in a fiercely competitive world.

Rulers were not indifferent to the dangers that these facts held for religion and learning. In 909 the duke of Aquitaine founded at Cluny, in Burgundy, a monastery whose security as a haven of prayer for the redemption of his soul and those of all its friends and patrons was to be assured by the paradoxical device of granting it immunity from the powers of ducal officers – who would have used those powers to annexe its land and income for their own use. Later in the century the pope was persuaded to grant it the same exemption from the authority of the bishop of Mâcon. The formula was repeated all over Europe. Many new monasteries were founded in imitation of Cluny, and many old ones placed under the authority of its abbot, who became the head of a chain of monasteries – what would later become known as an order – that spread through Burgundy and the Auvergne, then into northern Italy and beyond. Similar developments were associated with Gorze in the Rhineland, Brogne in Flanders, St Victor in Marseille and Winchester in England.

Reform was not always a peaceful process. When Odo of Cluny was entrusted with the reform of Fleury – which subsequently became itself a centre of reform – there were threats that the monks would kill him rather than submit to his authority. They did not go so far, but when he began ‘to persuade them to give up eating meat, to live sparingly and to possess nothing of their own’, they gave away the property of the monastery to their relations rather than return it to the common holding, and tried to exhaust their supply of fish so that Odo would be forced to let them eat meat again.10


In the middle decades of the eleventh century the currents of reform which had flowed occasionally and intermittently came together in a raging torrent that swept the old world away. It was precipitated not only by social tensions of the kind that were so divisive in Milan but also by the scandals of the Roman papacy. In Rome, as in other cities, the bishopric was the object of intense rivalry between the leading families. Its special standing lent them high visibility and occasionally attracted outside intervention, as on the famous occasions in 800, when Charlemagne had come to rescue Pope Leo III from deposition and found himself crowned Holy Roman Emperor, and in 961, when Otto I secured the same reward for a similar service to Pope John XII. The intervention of Henry III came after Benedict IX was expelled from the city to be replaced by Sylvester III, and then restored, to resign shortly afterwards, in May 1045, in favour of a reformer, John Gratian, who assumed the pontificate as Gregory VI. Such sensational events were naturally accompanied by scandalous accusations. Bonizo of Sutri, for example, a committed reformer writing some forty years later, claimed that Benedict, ‘after committing many squalid adulteries and murders with his own hands’, gave up the papacy because he wanted to marry his cousin the daughter of Gerald de Saxo, who demanded this price for her so that he could place his own man on the papal throne as Sylvester III.11 However all that may have been, the accession of Gregory VI, Benedict’s godfather and a high official of the papal court, was received with rejoicing by Italian reformers, Peter Damiani among them, in whose eyes he had done a fine thing in persuading Benedict to stand down for a second time.

The emperor took a different view. Benedict’s resignation had been expensive. To procure it John Gratian, a wealthy man, had paid him off with a very large sum of money. It was generally acknowledged that he had done so to secure the abdication of his universally despised predecessor rather than to buy the office for himself, but the distinction was too fine to save him from the accusation of simony. Henry, anxious to be crowned by an undisputed pope, summoned synods at Sutri and Rome in 1046, which – Benedict IX and Sylvester III having revived their claims – deposed all three. In their place the emperor appointed a German bishop, who was killed within a year by the foul air of the Roman marshes, and then another, who lasted for two months. With a persistence worthy of Gualberti, Henry sent in his kinsman Bishop Bruno of Toul, who was made, in every sense, of sterner stuff. In his five years (1049–54) as Leo IX, he inaugurated a transformation of the papacy that turned out, when the dust eventually settled (if it ever has), to have been a decisive moment in European history.

One of Leo’s first acts was to hold a synod in Rome at which simony was outlawed and several bishops found guilty of it deposed. Among them was the bishop of Sutri, who had intended to brazen it out with the help of false witnesses but suffered a fatal stroke as he was on the point of doing so. ‘All who heard of it were so terrified’, says Leo’s biographer, ‘that no one thereafter attempted to escape ignominy by taking a false oath in the presence of the pope.’12 The lesson was driven home at the consecration of the new basilica of St Remigius at Reims a few months later, when Leo placed the relics of the saint on the high altar and demanded that every bishop and abbot present should stand up, one at a time, and swear before them that he had paid no money for his office. The archbishop of Besançon was struck dumb as he was about to embark on the defence of a notorious simoniac, Bishop Hugh of Langres, and recovered his speech only with the aid of Leo’s fervent prayers on his behalf.

These were two of a dozen synods in Italy, Germany and France in which Leo, making the solemn progress of a monarch through his dominions, placed the war against simony at the top of the church’s agenda. In doing so he also served notice that papal leadership would henceforth be exercised much more vigorously and directly than through the letters and decrees that had sufficed even the most active of his predecessors. Not many of his successors travelled as often and widely as he had done, except when compelled by their political misfortunes, but from now on they were represented increasingly frequently, and often very effectively, by legates whom they appointed to act in their name and with their authority. What immediately ensured that Leo’s policies and influence would outlast his brief pontificate, however, was the cadre of committed and talented reformers whom he brought to Rome as cardinals, many of them from his native Rhineland and several of them future popes. Among them were: Humbert, a monk from Moyenmoutier in Leo’s former diocese of Toul, who became a formidable polemicist of reform and the hammer of everything that he saw as heresy or the source of heresy, above all the simoniacs and the Greeks; Peter Damiani, wrenched from his mountainside to wage his battle against the flesh on a wider front; and Hildebrand, nephew and devoted admirer of Gregory VI, who had followed his uncle into exile but now returned to become ever more influential, and an ever more uncompromising proponent of papal supremacy.


The new men in Rome soon became closely allied with the Milanese Patarenes. In 1057 Ariald and Landulf Cotta were excommunicated by Archbishop Guido da Velate for their assault on his authority and his clergy. They appealed to the pope, who sent as legates to deal with the dispute the bishop of Lucca, their old ally Anselm of Baggio, and Cardinal Hildebrand. In 1059 Anselm was dispatched again, this time with Peter Damiani, who imposed a settlement in line with the argument of his Book of Graft. The clergy of Milan were required to give up simony and marriage, and to do penance for their sins, but on those conditions were permitted to retain their offices. It was a compromise that in the short run satisfied nobody, but which in the longer term avoided an error that might easily have been fatal to the authority of the Roman church. If the Patarenes had had their way the argument of Cardinal Humbert’s thunderous Books against the Simoniacs (1058) would have been applied, and the orders of the Milanese clergy declared invalid on the ground that, as simoniacs, they were heretics and had been ordained by heretics. This would have raised inescapably the question whether anybody remained in the Latin church who had been validly ordained. Damiani had acted on the crucial distinction that Augustine of Hippo had made in his writings against the Donatist church of north Africa. The ordination conferred by a bishop known to be a heretic could not be accepted as valid. But sacraments, including ordination, received in good faith even from a sinful minister were valid in God’s eyes. As Augustine had put it, ‘Let it be God’s merit in giving and my faith in receiving: for me two things in this are certain, God’s goodness and my own faith. But if you [the priest] intervene how can I know anything for certain?’13The priest was the conduit of God’s grace. That a conduit should be correctly connected to its source is essential; its inner cleanliness, though much to be desired, is not. Failure to insist on this principle would have created insuperable difficulties for the church. As many heretics would point out in the centuries to come, an authority transmitted from the time of the apostles must inevitably have passed through a succession of mortal sinners.

Despite this settlement, the Patarenes did not abandon their struggle against ‘the captains and the lesser vassels, the sellers of churches and their kindred and the kinsmen of their concubines’. Nor did they lose their supporters in Rome in consequence. Indeed, when Anselm of Baggio became Pope Alexander II, in 1061, he appointed Erlembald as his personal representative in Milan, presenting him with a ‘banner of St Peter’ to proclaim the office. With that impetus, and it was said with funds provided by Hildebrand, the Patarene movement spread to other cities in Lombardy and Tuscany. At Brescia, when the bishop, a reformer, read out the papal decree against simony, ‘he was beaten by the clergy and almost killed’, but there, as in Cremona and Piacenza, married and simoniac priests were driven out of the churches, and their services boycotted.14 In Florence a similar campaign, led by John Gualberti and his monks of Vallombrosa, triumphed when an enormous crowd watched a monk named Peter, from that day known as Petrus Igneus, walk unscathed through the flames to prove their charges of simony and concubinage against the bishop and his clergy. As it turned out, these were early battles in a war that would rage through Italy for decades to come.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!