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  • The Bishop Reformed: Studies of Episcopal Power and Culture in the Central Middle Ages
  • Marcus Harmes
Ott, John S., and Anna Trumbore Jones, eds, The Bishop Reformed: Studies of Episcopal Power and Culture in the Central Middle Ages (Church, Faith and Culture in the Medieval West), Aldershot, Ashgate, 2007; hardback; pp. xvi, 282; 14 b/w illustrations, 4 maps; R.R.P £60.00; ISBN 9780754657651.

Although its focus is on one level of the order of ministry, this book is a wide-ranging survey, encompassing analysis of canon law, liturgy, religious art and the political structures of the post-Carolingian period. Its geographic [End Page 235] range is similarly diverse, covering the British Isles to Croatia.

The contributors, mostly from American universities, explore the period they describe as the 'Central Middle Ages', meaning the period from the final collapse of the Carolingian Empire to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Their studies of episcopal power are situated in a range of social, political and religious changes which characterize Western Europe in this period, including the development of municipal governments and city states, the concomitant development of papal power, and the development of new orders and monastic rules.

The editors locate their book in a recent historiographical context that has privileged the voices of women and minorities, voices silenced by hierarchies, including episcopal hierarchies. This book does not so much reassert a traditional focus on institutions and elites (although many of the chapters deal strictly with kings, emperors and noblemen) but instead charts interactions between this hierarchy and other layers of society.

The introduction sketches in the overall significance of bishops and the principal characteristics of the western episcopate, including the noble birth of many bishops. While it announces the editors' intention to provide the first generalized study of the episcopate in this period, the book as a whole offers a fairly impressionistic survey, and most chapters are themselves highly specialized studies of individual bishops, including Gerard of Cambrai-Arras and Wulfstan, Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Æthelwold II (the 'Unready').

Nonetheless, the book builds up some general conclusions. In particular most of the bishops surveyed operated within political contours shaped by the end of the Carolingian Empire, where territorial lordships supplanted centralized authority. These circumstances are even extended to Wulfstan in England, with Reneé R. Trilling suggesting that Carolingian ideas on power structures influenced English polity. Another theme uniting many of the chapters is the participation of the laity in the church and, conversely, the political importance of bishops in kingdoms, dukedoms and the Holy Roman Empire. Thus Chapter 2 charts the tensions between the bishops of Poitiers and local magnates, Chapter 3 studies canon law texts which reveal episcopal willingness to work with lay rulers and Chapter 4 on Wulfstan, reconstructs his impact on the law codes of this period.

However, Chapters 5 and 6 consider a more sacerdotal representation of bishops in contemporary sources. The brief Chapter 5 examines the construction [End Page 236] of the episcopal image in visual sources. This analysis precisely (and perhaps ambitiously) dates the emergence of a liturgy expressing the sacramental significance of bishops to the year 1000. Despite this precise dating, the chapter also charts a more gradual transition of bishops taking the lead over monks in the shaping of liturgy. Chapter 6 considers visual representations of bishops, which capture particular moments of bishops participating in liturgical acts. It examines a new iconography of 'liturgical postures' (p. 92). Their focus was benediction, an action which this chapter suggests was integrated in a wider set of religious expectations, such as healing.

Chapter 7 resorts to written rather than visual evidence to draw similar conclusions as to how bishops represented their functions within society and their necessity. It suggests that the work of bishops within the diocese of Cambrai-Arras illuminates how they laid out the parameters of their authority, such as demanding the non-burial of excommunicates. Later chapters draw out the implications of episcopal authority, actions and identity in the nebulous conditions of the post-Carolingian period.

Despite its title, The Bishop Reformed suggests less the reform of episcopal office and more the imaginative adjustment by individual bishops...


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