Book Review

Bishops, Authority and Community in Northwestern Europe, c.1050– 1150, by John Ott

Matt Firth (reviewer) – Journal of the Australian Early Medieval Association 12 (2016)

In his first full-length authored book, John S. Ott draws together his career-long research into the bishoprics of north-western France in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, their power structures, and the execution of episcopal authority. While this topic itself is not innovative—both Giles Constable and R. I. Moore, among others, have written extensively on the dichotomies of clerical power—Ott’s approach to analysing contemporary conceptions of ecclesiastical authority is innovative.

Ott bases his analysis upon written materials produced within regional ecclesiastical centres and the ideal characteristics these seek to project upon a bishop. With these societal notions of idealism established, Ott is then able to examine how bishops managed those expectations and balanced the demands of regional and spiritual power in practical expressions of authority. It is an ambitious methodology, yet a volatile one whose conclusions are subject to the cultural variations of geography and time. The author has thus necessarily restricted the scope of the book. The study is geographically confined to the regions of Flanders and Picardy—the archdiocese of Rheims—disregarding Scandinavia, England, and other regions that could reasonably be associated with ‘north-western Europe’. Likewise, it is limited to the years 1050– 1150, a century that Ott argues represents a brief period of episcopal authority in which bishops were free of the traditions of their forebears, and the bureaucratic concerns of their successors.

Chapter 1 establishes and justifies these temporal and geographical parameters before going on to delineate the frames of reference for subsequent chapters. Ott declares that his study is intended to focus on ‘the episcopal office and its responsibilities’ more so than ‘political power and institutional relationships’ (p.7). This implies that, in eleventh- and twelfth-century northern France, ecclesiastical and political power were wielded independently—a problematic concept. Ott attempts to focus upon the authority granted to the bishop in his role as priest by giving greatest weight to sources that cast light upon how the role of bishop was understood by the wider community. Yet the inseparable nature of church and state within western Christendom belies any attempt to clearly delineate ecclesiastical and political spheres of authority. As such, the study Ott presents in subsequent chapters ultimately appears as an analysis of the tensions within the authorities wielded by bishops—men who acted as regional political figures, preeminent spiritual authorities, and the vehicles of papal power.

Some brief comment is necessary on Ott’s style. The opening quote to his acknowledgements—and thus the opening quote to his book—is disconcerting. The indulgent self-deprecation of the statement from Martial’s Epigrams, that ‘some things you will read herein are excellent, some mediocre, and several defective’, suggests to the reader that the author himself is not entirely satisfied in what follows. Ott perhaps underestimates the quality of his scholarship. The book is thorough, the stated aims and parameters rigorous, and the methodological framework clear. Yet it is also true that at times Ott’s expression shows somewhat of a clumsy turn. It is unfortunate that, in this way, Ott undermines what would otherwise be perspicacious assertions. For example, in the midst of the aforementioned discussion of his focus upon ecclesiastical authority as opposed to secular authority, Ott asserts that political and military power were routine elements in the exercise of a bishop’s authority (p.7). It is a point provided without context, without supporting discussion, or even reference, and it serves only to reduce that clarity in methodology he otherwise so successfully establishes.

In total the book comprises ten chapters thematically grouped. Chapters 2 and 3 continue to establish the critical background to understanding how episcopal authority was created, exercised, and understood in Rheims. The role of bishop was a privileged one—granted as a result of societal position and political manoeuvring—and Ott gives extensive consideration to how bishops were created, and the interrelation with the ecclesiastical entities that allowed such progression. He then goes on to analyse the social currents of Rheims in the years 1050–1150, thereby establishing the challenges the bishops faced in both exercising their authority and retaining the veneer of legitimate authority. Having thus established the understanding of the bishop’s power within both the ecclesiastical establishment and the wider community, Ott turns to case studies in chapters 5 to 7.

These chapters form the core of the book’s analysis, for here Ott draws together historical record, hagiography, administrative documentation, and even controlled population centres to form a picture of how the bishops of Rheims managed the identity of their post. It is clear that, over the century, all the men who took on the role in Rheims had a sense of that identity and the necessity of its continuity to their authority. These were men who professionally performed the role of bishop, using language and symbolism to curate the public’s expectations, and establish the boundaries of their political and spiritual authority. Ott carries this thesis into chapters 8 and 9, with a particular focus on language. He argues that, through their promulgations, the bishops established a deliberate and recognisable link between language and authority. By accessing this language of authority, they were thus able to augment the spiritual and temporal authority they held over their communities.

Chapter 10 concludes the book. Ott ultimately asserts that, for all the individuality and independence represented by the different men who held the role of bishop in Rheims, they shared a projected authority. It was a projected authority that relied both on performing to societal ideals, while simultaneously shaping those expectations. Thus the bishops of Rheims moulded societal perceptions of ecclesiastical authority, creating an identity invested in the role of bishop, rather than the individual performing that role.

Ott has produced an interesting and thought-provoking book that, while in detail is specific to location and time, conceptually and methodologically provides useful frameworks within which to further analyse expressions of episcopal authority.

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