The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250

By Colin Morris | Go to book overview

I
CHRISTIAN SOCIETY IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ELEVENTH CENTURY

i. Introduction

It is hard to give a fair account of the church of the mid-eleventh century. The severe criticisms of the reformers of the next generation came to be accepted by subsequent catholic thinkers, and left their mark on the work of historians until recent times. What is more, men of the earlier eleventh century did not leave an abundant record of their point of view, for they lived in a largely pre-literate age. This does not mean simply that many people were unable to read or write, but that it was not natural to resort to writing as a means of record or communication. The usual mode of formal expression was a symbolic action. A man was known to be king because he had been publicly anointed and crowned; another was known to have been appointed bishop because he had received the gift of ring and staff. Land was transferred through a material token such as a knife or a clod of earth. Some written record might be made of a donation, but even then it would not often define the privileges and duties which were being conferred. While bishops and abbots valued the documents which validated their rights of possession, lay nobles felt a healthy contempt for writing, and were not prepared to give weight to a mere scrap of parchment. The advocate (or lay protector) of the abbey of Prüm in the Rhineland expressed his feeling clearly in a dispute in 1063: 'he laughed at the record, and said that a pen can write more or less anything. He was not going to lose his rights because of that.' 1 This was not simply the attitude of a backwoods nobleman without sense or education; it was a fact that the available documents were unreliable, and that it was almost impossible to detect a competent, or even an incompetent, forgery. The memory of sworn witnesses seemed more worthy of trust than title-deeds of

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1
Cited H. Bresslau, Handbuch der Urkundenlehre für Deutschland und Italien, 2nd edn. ( Leipzig, 1912), i.651 n.

-11-

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