Monday, March 04, 2013

Priests and Their Duties

Excerpt out of The Visitation of a Collegiate Church by Archbishop Odo of Rigaud, in November 1266.  From The Portable Medieval Reader:

Also, we found Lord Gilbert called Barrabas, priest and rector of the parish of St. Stephen, ill-famed many times; for he said that for many years he kept and still keeps his own niece and had begotten children by her. He did not have the letters of his ordination; he could not tell by whom or through whom he had been ordained; he was also ill-famed of trading; he celebrated [mass] insufficiently, was too solitary, being known to few.

Odo was doing the rounds around his diocese to check up on how things were going, and was pretty disappointed at what he saw in Rouen, St. Stephen in particular.  I find the account about Lord Gilbert interesting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how he lists Gilbert's infractions in order of descending importance.  I find that the opposite is more logical, and better storytelling, too, building up to what seems to me the biggest - turning his niece into a concubine "for many years".

It's like if you were to list the legal consequences for some crime or other:  "Penalties for jaywalking include death by firing squad, sale of children into slavery, and an eleven dollar fine."  Seems graceless, right?  You hit the climax early and the rest of the sentence is rather small beer.  Odo apparently wasn't trying to tell a compelling account - he was more worried about keeping priests like Gilbert in line.

The other thing.  The last item, whatever its importance, highlights the role of the parish priest as the most visible representative of the universal church in the lives of millions in western Europe.  It was essentially a social occupation, and Odo's concern about Gilbert's teaching and getting to know the people of the parish shows that he cared about how the church was fulfilling a purpose in peoples' lives.

For the most part parish priests were a humble and unprepossessing bunch, and (Gilbert notwithstanding) many of them were holy souls, devoted to the instruction and well-being of their flocks.  Chaucer, skeptical about other roles in medieval society, nonetheless made a humble parson one of the good guys in The Canterbury Tales:
His parishioners devoutly would he teach.
Benign he was, and [wonderfully] diligent,
And in adversity [fully] patient,
And such he was proved often [truly].
Wide was his parish, and houses far asunder,
But he never [neglected] [any], for rain nor thunder,
In sickness nor in mischief to visit
The farthest in his parish, [rich] and [poor],
Upon his feet, and in his hand a staff.
This noble example to his sheep he gave,
That first he wrought, and afterward he taught.
(I have updated the spelling and changed some of the more antique words.)

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