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The Catholic Historical Review 87.4 (2001) 569-602

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Court and Piety in Late Anglo-Saxon England

Mary Frances Smith, Robin Fleming, and Patricia Halpin*


Already, by the early twelfth century, the kind of piety practiced by Anglo-Scandinavian elites in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries was considered old-fashioned, even vulgar. The almost complete annihilation of the upper reaches of this aristocracy, both lay and ecclesiastical, in the decade following the Battle of Hastings left this group open to a set of wide-ranging critiques by the Norman victors; and Anglo-Norman churchmen, kings, and historians were quick to point out pre-Conquest earls' and bishops' impious behavior, their lack of generosity toward the Church, and their worldliness. To further complicate matters, from the middle decades of the eleventh century on, Gregorian and other reform efforts were radically altering contemporary assumptions about proper pious behavior, and an unprecedented flurry of literary activity in the twelfth century both reinforced the new piety and denigrated the old. Beyond this, historians' (both modern and medieval) enthusiasm for tenth-century spirituality, in particular reformed Benedictine monasticism, and their disinterest in, even hostility toward, other forms of religious life have led them to view many great men and [End Page 569] wealthy women of the late Anglo-Saxon period as irreligious at best. What follows is an attempt to take a fresh look at the religious practices and interests exhibited by three groups found in and around the Anglo-Scandinavian court in the first half of the eleventh century--the bishops, the earls, and aristocratic women. It sets out to describe the religious enthusiasms and pious practices of the late Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, lay and ecclesiastical, and to reconsider its piety and its liberality toward the Church.

Episcopal Piety

More than thirty years ago, Dorothy Bethurum argued that the great wealth of Anglo-Saxon bishops was interpreted by contemporaries as a reflection of God's majesty on earth. 1 Bethurum's article, boldly entitled "Episcopal Magnificence in the Eleventh Century," was somewhat revolutionary in its approach to the topic of episcopal piety. While the majority of historians tended to view piety through a monastic filter, Bethurum offered a much more balanced and nuanced approach to contemporary norms and expectations as they related to ecclesiastical wealth, power, and piety.2 Despite the even-handedness of her approach, however, Bethurum's article did not alter the course of Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical historiography. With very few exceptions, historians have continued to privilege the cloistered church of monks and abbots over the worldly church of canons and secular bishops. 3 That this imbalance persists is even more surprising given the publication of Stephen Jaeger's two masterful studies of continental courtier bishops [End Page 570] and eleventh-century cathedral culture. 4 What is missing from the modern historiography of the English Church, then, is an appreciation for the kind of piety practiced by bishops in the late Anglo-Saxon period, a piety as out of vogue in the twelfth century as it is in the twentieth. 5

As Jaeger and others have demonstrated, however, piety is of tremendous significance to social as well as ecclesiastical historians since it was a defining characteristic of nobility in the early Middle Ages. 6 Piety in this period was characterized by active devotion rather than introspection, and it was made visible through public acts. Entrance into confraternity with an ecclesiastical community, for example, almost always entailed a reciprocal gift symbolizing the establishment of a spiritual relationship, a relationship that was often proclaimed publicly through the laying of a bit of sod or a gospel book on the altar. 7 Because of their participation in the king's witan, their broad-ranging economic and judicial powers in their dioceses, and their pastoral mission centered on ordination and visitation, bishops were public figures of unrivaled magnitude. But they were also models of aristocratic behavior in their generosity to religious communities both monastic and secular. Hagiography, charters, libri vitae, and chronicles all demonstrate that good bishops...