How are Tenured Professors Like Medieval Christian Bureaucrats?

Patrick Hornbeck on Michael Burger’s Bishops, Clerks, and Diocesan Governance in Thirteenth-Century England

Hornbeck on Burger, Bishops, Clerks, and Diocenan Governance,
Michael Burger, Bishops, Clerks, and Diocesan Governance in Thirteenth-Century England: Reward and Punishment, Cambridge University Press, 2012, xviii + 313 pp., $99.

Bishops played a variety of roles in the high and later Middle Ages: serving as counselors to monarchs and lords, appointing clergy in their home dioceses, contributing to the growth of the university system through collegiate foundations, and prosecuting heresy. Yet for all these publicly visible roles, bishops were also managers of people and of resources, and in this capacity they drew on the services of an expanding bureaucracy. In this volume, Michael Burger adds to a trove of recent scholarship on medieval ecclesiastical administration.

The past few decades have witnessed a proliferation of studies of the English episcopate, for which the labors of the editors of English Episcopal Acta and of the volumes of the Canterbury and York Society have generated many crucial data. In a vein at once related and distinct, this book considers the careers of a separate cohort of men who carried out much of the administrative work of English bishops and dioceses in the thirteenth century: the so-called ‘bishops’ clerks’ who ‘held no definable office, but … did what the bishop needed and looked to him for reward’ (p. 7). Above all, Burger argues that practices of reward and patronage were central to the relationships between bishops and their clerks. While bishops also had at their disposal a series of punishments that could be employed against recalcitrant subordinates, far more often bishops rewarded their clerks for loyal service. The crown jewel of such rewards was indisputably the benefice, granted for life and virtually irrevocable; thus, transactions concerning benefices account for the bulk of Burger’s analysis.

Burger divides his study into four parts. Two introductory chapters introduce the position of the bishop’s clerk, distinguishing such men from other diocesan officeholders such as the bishop’s officialis and chancellor and stressing the extent to which bishops’ clerks often took significant risks, even corporeal risks, in the service of their masters. In the next part, five chapters examine the various rewards and punishments that bishops could bestow upon or mete out to their clerks. These chapters discuss the canonical rules concerning benefices, especially the arrangements for pluralism and the non-residence of incumbents. They also examine instances of conflict between patrons and incumbents, describe ways in which bishops sometimes sought to short-circuit the lifetime tenure of benefice-holders, and enumerate the other rewards (annual pensions, one-time gifts, and bequests) that bishops often gave to loyal servants. In keeping with Burger’s thesis that bishops employed rewards far more often than punishments, only one of these five chapters examines the ways in which bishops could discipline their clerks. Penalties such as deprivation, excommunication, and imprisonment occur only rarely in the extant records for most English bishops and, Burger contends, were not part of the ecclesiastical administrative culture to which bishops and their clerks belonged: ‘This was not because bishops had no disciplinary tools to hand … The bishops’ easier course was simply not to reach for the rod. I suspect they did not often even consider it’ (p. 165).

The third part of Burger’s volume considers a range of factors and practices related to the culture of patronage and reward. Chief among these is Burger’s notion of ‘patronage hunger’ (p. 169): in a situation where bishops’ clerks sought the status and stability that benefices conveyed, bishops were often under pressure to provide more benefices than were available. Some bishops responded by using resourceful techniques to create new benefices, for instance in the chapters of secular cathedrals. For the unbeneficed, the death or translation of a bishop could produce fear and anxiety, since new bishops often brought with them subordinates from their previous dioceses and did not always wish to retain their predecessors’ clerks. However, Burger argues, the relationship between bishops and their clerks was more often marked by affection (on the part of bishops toward their subordinates) and devotion (on the part of clerks toward their bishops). The final substantive chapter of the book examines the tenor of correspondence between bishops and their clerks as a way of making this point, although Burger too hastily dismisses the suggestion that such correspondence reflects the formulae of the medieval ars dictamen more than the existence of actual affective bonds between bishops and their clerks. The book’s conclusion evokes a number of striking parallels between the practices of ecclesiastical administration and analogous practices of secular administration in thirteenth-century England.

Burger’s study has much to contribute to our knowledge of the careers of ecclesiastical administrators in the high Middle Ages. By focusing in great detail on the experience of individual clerks, a cohort of individuals who, understandably, have often been overshadowed by the bishops they served, Burger helps us to understand something of what motivated these men, how they related to their masters, and how both bishops and clerks approached the giving and receiving of rewards for service. Yet the fine-grained prosopographical approach that allows Burger to reach these conclusions has its drawbacks: the way in which Burger’s study tends to pile example upon example may make this volume quite difficult to read for all but the most well-informed or interested reader. Likewise, the book’s exceptionally thorough documentary apparatus, whose footnotes often occupy as much as two-thirds or more of a page, ensures that readers can easily follow Burger’s analysis back to the primary sources but also renders the book less accessible to non-specialists. Notwithstanding these observations, the volume’s detailed index and its two appendices, with their lists of pensions granted by bishops and of the names of bishops’ lay servants granted bequests in episcopal wills, may make the task of apprehending the sheer volume of data in Burger’s book somewhat less daunting.

While grounded in careful analysis of the sources and recitation of the relevant facts, this volume also refreshingly looks outside itself. Particularly insightful are the string of comparisons – explicit as well as implicit – that Burger draws between clerical benefices in the high Middle Ages and modern systems of academic tenure and employment. As dean of the School of Liberal Arts of Auburn University at Montgomery, Burger himself surely has extensive experience of the range of incentives and disincentives that the American tenure system creates, and his analogies between contemporary academe and medieval ecclesiastical administration accordingly deserve to be taken especially seriously: ‘The tenured toil often because they work in a certain culture with certain expectations (e.g., that status, if not money, comes with publication or a reputation for excellent teaching). So did thirteenth-century diocesan bureaucrats. Among those expectations was devotion to one’s superiors and the affection of superiors for subordinates’ (p. 243).

Bishops, Clerks and Diocesan Governance will be of interest especially to those readers already acquainted with medieval ecclesiastical administration, but this volume also offers much to those interested in medieval networks of patronage, in a range of relationships between superiors and subordinates, and in the economics and politics of medieval religious life. Though Burger’s volume requires commitment on the part of the reader, it repays careful reading with a wealth of detail about one of the most important sets of relationships in the medieval church.

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