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  • Bishops, Clerks, and Diocesan Governance in Thirteenth-Century England: Reward and Punishment by Michael Burger
  • R. N. Swanson
Bishops, Clerks, and Diocesan Governance in Thirteenth-Century England: Reward and Punishment. By Michael Burger. (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2012. Pp. xviii, 313. $99.00. ISBN 978-1-107-02214-0.)

Attempts to break through the institutional structures of the medieval church to analyze more personal relations among its personnel face considerable challenges, of both evidence and interpretation. Michael Burger firmly acknowledges and confronts those challenges, as he seeks to understand how thirteenth-century English bishops acted as “line managers” (although he does not actually use the term) within their dioceses, rewarding and (if necessary) disciplining their administrators—by whom he means the clerics, not the laymen. His main sources are, necessarily, the somewhat impersonal administrative records, in a critical transitional century for bureaucratic processes and record keeping. Much of the relevant material is now printed, and so the book is firmly anchored in the volumes of the English Episcopal Acta project and editions of bishops’ registers; it also reflects solid engagement with other material and direct archival work.

The short part I sets out “The Problem”—how might a bishop use carrots and sticks to reward or punish his clerical administrators? As Burger points out, a life in episcopal service was not always easy; it had its costs, dangers, tensions, and potential insecurities. Yet it was a career path that could bring opportunity and lifelong financial security.

The book’s core is part II, precisely on “Rewards and Punishments”—although the former allow more comment than the latter. For Burger (and, as he convincingly argues, for the administrators) the key reward was a benefice, ideally a rectory, specifically because it gave lifelong and almost unbreakable tenure. Benefices therefore head the list of rewards, being discussed in chapters 2 and 3. Chapter 4 turns to pensions, whether granted unconditionally by the bishop, or offered (possibly by third parties following episcopal pressure) as stopgaps until replaced by a benefice. Chapter 6 deals with lesser rewards, including straightforward gifts, secular grants, and turning a blind eye to malfeasance. Only with chapter 7 does “Punishment” provide a chapter title. The mechanisms considered there—ranging from bonds and excommunication to imprisonment and social exclusion—were not the only ones available to a bishop. The chapters on benefices and pensions incorporate the potential for disciplinary action into their commentary, citing temporary sequestration or permanent deprivation of benefices; intermittent nonpayment or actual cancellation of pensions; and failure—or refusal—to provide a benefice instead of a pension.

Part III suggests “Consequences,” with three very different foci. Chapter 8 addresses issues of “Patronage Hunger,” primarily bishops’ responses to their own [End Page 780] need to acquire and exploit opportunities to appoint to benefices in order to enable them to meet the expectations of their administrators (without mentioning any others expecting their patronage). Chapter 9 examines in some detail issues of “Continuity and Discontinuity of Service,” tracing careers across episcopates and the administrative caesuras brought by a new bishop. Chapter 10—perhaps the most speculative and least convincing—seeks to assess “Affection and Devotion,” by breaking through the documents’ formulaic language to unveil a culture of friendship and devotion that potentially made the links between bishops and their clerks human as well as institutional.

Punishment—or disciplinary action—is less evident than reward in the analysis. Burger suggests that it happened rarely; but here the sources may deceive. It is possible that low-level action, especially temporary sequestrations, is under-recorded, whereby even beneficed knuckles could be legally rapped. Here, however, the volume’s subtitle really is subsidiary. Primarily, this is a valuable and useful discussion of the career relations between English bishops and their dependent administrators. Its evidence may derive from the thirteenth century; but its analysis applies across the later medieval period.

R. N. Swanson
University of Birmingham, United Kingdom


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