Several texts composed at the same monastery over the span of roughly two hundred years all have something to say about a particular bishop. Each text relates the bishop's interactions with the abbey, to a greater or lesser extent. However, even though these texts thus discuss the same man, they portray him in starkly contrasting terms. The earlier texts paint him as the monks’ friend: a benefactor who generously supported their house and shrine. The later sources, on the contrary, make him out almost as a foe who made donations to the abbey only after trying – and failing – to take the monks’ relics. This contrast presents something of a riddle. How should historians interpret the monks’ seemingly unstable image of this bishop?
This riddle is particularly vexing because it makes it difficult to determine the kind of relationship that the bishop had with this monastic community. Understanding that relationship is not only key to reconstructing the history of this particular abbey and its bishops, but also contributes to wider discussions about the nature of episcopal authority, monasticism and reform. The riddle is worth trying to solve. Scholars have previously attempted to do just that by validating one portrait and dismissing the other. That solution does not always do justice to the sources, however. This article develops an alternative approach, in the hope of finding a better solution. Rather than asking which image of the bishop is the right one – friend or foe – it suggests that the monks’ unstable depictions reflect their changing notions of the proper relationship between themselves and their bishop. It thus considers the impact of ecclesiastical reform at the local level, as reflected in the shifting ways in which one monastic community viewed and depicted their bishop.
After tracing these contrasting portraits, the article outlines how scholars have tried to make sense of this riddle and the limitations of their solutions. It then proposes an alternative approach.
Portraying Bishop Theodoric I at Saint-Clément
The texts in question come from the monastery of Saint-Clément, Metz, which lay about half a mile south of the city's ancient walls. Originally dedicated to another saint, Felix, the abbey was increasingly associated with Clement, the city's first bishop, after Bishop Drogo (823–55) placed his relics there in the mid-ninth century.1 The abbey eventually became known as Saint-Clément and, although this change was gradual, for the sake of simplicity it is referred to here as ‘Saint-Clément’. At the time of the translation, the church belonged to the episcopal patrimony and the cathedral's archdeacon apparently presided over its clergy.2 Around the middle of the tenth century, Bishop Adalbero i (929–62) replaced these clerics with monks and entrusted the abbey to the Irish reformer Caddroë (d. 974/75).3 Adalbero also bolstered the abbey's material resources: shortly after the reform, for instance, he granted the monks the local church of Saint-André.4 The bishop thus instigated changes that would turn Saint-Clément into a well-endowed regular monastery. Not long afterwards, the newly established monks began to envisage their abbey's history in texts that touch upon the bishop's role there.
At the centre of this new historical vision, however, stood their saint.5 Roughly two or three generations after the monks’ arrival, sometime around the year 1000, the first vitae Clementis were composed, one in prose and one in verse.6 Both built upon the work of Paul the Deacon, who attributed the conversion of Metz to Clement, a disciple of the Apostle Peter, who sent him to Gaul for that purpose.7 The vitae claimed that Clement founded the abbey and designed its crypt as his sepulchre.8 They also attributed the monks’ recent advent to his ongoing concern for it. The metrical vita described the church before the monks’ arrival as ‘destroyed and abandoned’, with ‘nettles and brambles growing in the sanctuary’.9 In response to this woeful state of affairs, it said that Clement himself selected Caddroë and ‘brought [him] into accord’ with Bishop Adalbero.10 Whether or not the abbey had really fallen into such a grievous state, this carefully constructed history justified the monks’ claim to their new home.11 It also credited the abbey's renovation collectively to Clement, Caddroë and Bishop Adalbero.
As the monks of the late tenth century brought their history up to the present, they portrayed Adalbero's successor as continuing this partnership. The Vita Caddroë, written at Saint-Clément shortly after the abbot's death in the 970s, praised Bishop Theodoric i (965–84), Adalbero's successor. Caddroë’s hagiographer described Theodoric as a man of ‘unparalleled talent’ who built or restored shrines, imported relics and supported monastic life. He reportedly ‘loved the conversation of the servants of God, he delighted in their company’ and granted the monks of Saint-Clément ‘benefices and estates’. Moreover, the Vita Caddroë related that Theodoric ‘listened to the blessed man himself [Caddroë] as to a revered father, and often called for him, since he knew that the man had “the spirit of counsel” (Is. 11.2)’. Caddroë’s discourse and example, the vita asserted, guided Theodoric toward ‘those things that please God’.12 The monk Reimannus, who wrote this vita during Theodoric's episcopate, clearly wished to enlist the bishop in the cause of Caddroë’s sanctity. Perhaps this hope inspired him to flatter Theodoric as a man of ‘unparalleled talent’. Yet Reimannus also depicted the bishop as deferential before Caddroë’s virtue. It therefore appears likely that Theodoric did indeed admire the abbot and seek his counsel, or he might well have objected to this characterisation. Good rapport between the monks and their bishop thus appears to have continued during his episcopate.
Nevertheless, it is this very Bishop Theodoric whom later generations of Saint-Clément's monks would portray so differently, as their abbey's antagonist. Additional tenth-century evidence about him is thus useful, even when that evidence is less explicit.
Such is the case with what appears to be a translation of Clement's relics. The metrical vita describes an ambitious architectural programme that enlarged and beautified both the crypt and the rest of the abbey church in its author's time. Among the later monastic sources that echo this report is one, the Miracula Clementis, which states that the building work included the transfer of Clement's relics, although it does not specify their new location.13 This scenario appears likely. Both tenth-century vitae imply that the tomb in the church's crypt was empty in their authors’ day. According to the prose Vita prima, Clement had occupied the crypt tomb for ‘a not inconsiderable time’ but apparently lay there no longer.14 The metrical vita was more explicit in saying that Clement ‘had formerly rested’ in the crypt.15 Although the language of these sources does not indicate just when the relics had been moved, it seems likely that the refurbishment of the abbey that followed the monks’ arrival had culminated in the translation of Clement's relics, presumably to a more exalted spot in the main church.
Contemporary sources suggest that Bishop Theodoric was ultimately responsible for this great building project. The monk Carus, author of the metrical vita, credited the renovation to one Vindricus, whom he praised and described as his friend. Carus further identified Vindricus as ‘the great primicerius of Metz’ – that is, as one of the highest-ranking members of the cathedral clergy.16 This cleric, more often called Wigericus (and subsequently called so here), had accompanied Bishop Theodoric to Italy in the early 970s, when he was the cathedral's cantor. He later served as its custos, before becoming primicerius. The trajectory of Wigericus’ career indicates that Theodoric respected and trusted him, as does the report that, in Italy, the bishop committed precious relics bound for Metz to his care.17 The power that Wigericus held at Saint-Clément thus most likely derived from Theodoric, just as the funds that he spent on this prodigious building project presumably flowed from the episcopal purse. The role of the cathedral's primicerius in the ambitious rebuilding of Saint-Clément suggests that Bishop Theodoric, like his predecessor Adalbero, devoted considerable resources to the abbey. All in all, the tenth-century evidence suggests that in his own day Bishop Theodoric was viewed by the monks of Saint-Clément as a benefactor and partner in bringing monastic life at their abbey to fruition.
Later sources, however, paint a very different picture: beginning in the second half of the eleventh century, the monks alleged that Theodoric had tried to remove Clement's relics from the abbey, and failed. This story first appears in the Miracula Clementis, probably produced before 1090.18 It then reappears, with new details, in the Chronicon sancti Clementis, around 1200.19 It is worth noting that tenth-century sources lend the story a certain credibility. Among other things, Reimannus praised Theodoric for having ‘turned his attention to building and restoring the shrines of the saints, for which reason, he transferred holy bodies and relics into his diocese from wherever he could’.20 Another contemporary source similarly reported that Theodoric brought back from Italy (with the help of Wigericus) the relics of no fewer than nineteen saints, including those of the martyrs Vincent, Lawrence and Lucy.21 According to his own eleventh-century vita, Theodoric gave many of these relics to the churches that he built or rebuilt, most notably the abbey of Saint-Vincent and the city's cathedral: he reportedly ‘enriched’ the latter with ‘ornaments’ and ‘precious gifts’ that he had either collected himself or received from powerful donors.22 In light of these depictions of Theodoric as an energetic church builder and avid collector of relics, the later story that he had designs on the bones of his city's founding bishop seems plausible – even if, as others have noted, these sources say nothing of any plan to remove Clement's body from the abbey.23 Instead, they highlight Theodoric's penchant for acquiring relics from far away.
The story of the attempted theft first arose in the Miracula Clementis, which related that Bishop Theodoric wished to move Clement's body to the newly rebuilt cathedral, ‘to be venerated there by all the people’.24 To this end, he organised a procession to transport the relics with due solemnity and before a great crowd of onlookers. With hymns, crosses and candles, the bishop and his attendants raised the saint's body from its crypt and set out for the cathedral. But, before they could reach their destination
the bearers of the sacred body were rendered immobile, fixed to the ground, and could neither continue the journey they had begun nor turn back. Therefore, with all those who were there more stunned than might be believed and with many offerings having been promised to saint Clement, if he would permit himself to be carried to the city, but with the faithful able to advance not at all, behold suddenly two youths of ineffable beauty, unknown to the onlookers, placed on their own shoulders the casket, which contained the most precious pearl, and with all recognising that this was a miracle of God, with the greatest speed they brought it back to the monastery and at once were nowhere to be seen.25
Faced with such supernatural opposition, Theodoric yielded. According to the Miracula, ‘the bishop, having been frustrated in his purpose, had [the saint] put back in the upper monastery next to the altar, in which place he lay until the primicerius …, with the monastery having been extended, placed [him] where he now rests’.26 This story, therefore, explains the transfer of Clement's relics from the abbey crypt to their new location as a result of the bishop's thwarted desire to remove the relics from the abbey altogether.
Bishop Theodoric does not figure in this tale as the monks’ benefactor and partner. Here, the bishop's plans and the saint's wishes collide, which implies that the bishop did not have the abbey's best interests at heart. The saint, of course, prevails, and the bishop is shown that he cannot do whatever he likes at the abbey, but must bow to the saint's will. Indeed, the story could be taken to suggest that Theodoric had his primicerius expand the church and elevate the relics in order to make amends for having violated Clement's wishes.
A similar image of Bishop Theodoric appeared roughly another century later. Around 1200 the Chronicon sancti Clementis retold the story of the thwarted translation once more. According to this text,
Bishop Theodoric, on account of the excellence of the highest pastor of the same city, the first bishop Clement, while he still lay in the sepulcher in which he had first been buried, wished to transfer him to the [cathedral]; but when he had carried him off, it happened, by angelic disposition, that the first pastor was returned to his first tomb accompanied by the chanting of psalms. Having seen this miracle, the bishop … disposed that all the outbuildings of that church should be improved for the use of the monks and he raised the brothers’ food allowance and ennobled their courts with his own seal and consecrated the enlarged and improved church.27
This retelling echoes the earlier Miracula in attributing good intentions to Bishop Theodoric. Nevertheless, here too the translation meets heavenly opposition and, consequently, fails. The bishop's subsequent benefactions to the abbey again appear almost penitential, as if he were seeking to make amends both to the saint, whose will he transgressed, and to the saint's guardians, the monks, whose most precious possession he nearly took.
These later depictions of Bishop Theodoric do not match the image found in the earlier sources. Whereas the earlier texts show him as giving Saint-Clément generous support out of zeal for the monastic life, the later accounts imply that he sought to improve the abbey only after having offended its saint – as if to make up for having offended him. This view contrasts sharply with the tenth-century sources’ image of the bishop and the monks as acting in concert and with the shared aim of fostering the abbey's success. Aside from their agreement that Theodoric was an avid collector of relics, these sources hardly seem to be about the same man.
The prevailing explanation
Other scholars have also noted this discrepancy in the monks’ depiction of Bishop Theodoric and have tried to make sense of it. Jean-Charles Picard led the way here and many others have subsequently endorsed his interpretation. Picard maintained that the tenth-century monks said nothing about this attempted translation because to admit that they had nearly lost their relics was ‘embarrassing’.28 They preferred, in his view, to pass over this episode in silence. Moreover, he thought that it was easy for the monks to remain silent about this incident, because they had no other reason to criticise Theodoric, who had not punished their resistance. Nevertheless, about a hundred years later, they decided to broadcast the truth, and so they penned the account of the saint's miraculous refusal to leave the abbey.
This logic is not entirely convincing. As Patrick Geary has shown, stories of relic thefts thwarted commonly served to advertise both a saint's power and a firm commitment to his or her current guardians.29 Therefore, the failure of an attempt to remove their patron's relics would surely have gratified – rather than embarrassed – the monks of Saint-Clément. Nor did Picard's interpretation explain why a later generation of monks decided to recount the story that ostensibly mortified their community a century earlier.
Moreover, this interpretation accepts too readily the allegation that Bishop Theodoric tried to take the relics. Despite Theodoric's well-attested interest in relics, no contemporary source alleges that he tried to move Clement's body to the cathedral. Picard's argument rests instead on the assumption that a growing rivalry between the suburban abbey and the cathedral played out in competing claims to Clement's relics.30 Picard recognised that the first vitae Clementis legitimised the monks’ guardianship of Clement's relics by reporting that he had founded the church that would later become the abbey and chose its crypt as his resting place. In Picard's view, this story fortified the monks against the bishop's aggressions. However, as noted earlier, sources contemporary with Bishop Theodoric hint at good relations between him and the abbey, rather than antagonism. Nor did Picard offer any evidence for such a rivalry, apart from the efforts of the vitae Clementis to tie the saint to the abbey and the later allegations against Theodoric. Perhaps the monks wished to legitimise their possession of the relics – and indeed, of the abbey itself – not because they faced outside antagonism, but merely because they were newcomers. Taking over a church without any Benedictine history, and possibly displacing other clerics in the process, may have caused the newly arrived monks some anxiety. Making the saint responsible for their advent, as the new vitae did, likely assuaged that anxiety, even as it strengthened their claim to guard the founding bishop's tomb. Rivalry with the cathedral is thus not necessary to explain the monks’ desire to establish themselves as Clement's rightful guardians.
Most significantly, Picard's interpretation places more faith in an account written a century or so after the time in question than in the contemporary sources. As he noted, the story that Theodoric tried to remove Clement's relics from the abbey first appeared in the Miracula Clementis, probably composed in the second half of the eleventh century and before 1090.31 Neither the tenth-century Vita Caddroë nor the eleventh-century Vita Deodericii, which drew on tenth-century sources, said anything of such an episode. Another supposedly eleventh-century reference to the event occurs in a charter attributed to Bishop Hermann of Metz (1072–90), but in fact heavily interpolated in the twelfth century.32 Although aware that contemporary evidence, such as the Vita Caddroë, depicted Theodoric as on good terms with the abbey, Picard nevertheless believed that rivalry was the dominant tenor of this relationship.33 Consequently, he interpreted the silence of earlier sources as deliberate omission, and accepted the allegations of later sources – the Miracula Clementis and the Chronicon – that Theodoric attempted to steal Saint-Clément's relics. This reading seems unsatisfactory.
Might it be possible to make sense of these conflicting portraits of Bishop Theodoric without discounting the contemporary evidence? One alternative would be to pay close attention to the sources’ chronology. Rather than trying to reconcile these sources, to flatten them into one consistent narrative, this approach regards them as products of a changing context.
An alternative approach
The monks’ contrasting depictions of Bishop Theodoric took shape over many years. Consequently, the later accounts look back on his reign across a considerable interval – a century or so in the case of the Miracula, and roughly two centuries in the case of the Chronicon. Perhaps these later works portray Theodoric differently than do the tenth-century sources because the monks’ view of the period following their arrival altered over time. Perhaps, in other words, it would be most sensible to approach all these sources as products of the monks’ evolving ideas.
For surely the story of Theodoric's failed theft reflects the concerns of those who recounted it, first in the later eleventh century and then around 1200. Rather than an accurate depiction of the relationship between Bishop Theodoric i and the late tenth-century monks of Saint-Clément, it conveys the way in which these later generations looked back on their abbey's history. The recollection, the story suggests, made them somewhat uneasy. For, as related by both the Miracula Clementis and the Chronicon, the episode does more than simply assert the monks’ right to Clement's relics. It also conveys an implicit warning to the bishops of Metz not to take too free a hand with the abbey. The story makes plain that transgressions against the monks’ rights – such as that attempted by Theodoric – risked provoking heavenly displeasure. This implicit warning suggests that, by the later eleventh century, the monks had come to look back on the bishops’ continued intervention in their house after the establishment of monastic life there with some misgiving.
The period that separated Theodoric's episcopacy, in the tenth century, from the first report of his attempt on the relics, in the later eleventh, of course witnessed widespread debate about monastic life, episcopal authority and the proper relationship between bishops and Benedictine communities. By the time that the monks of Saint-Clément first told the story of Bishop Theodoric's attempted theft, therefore, they had most likely encountered various interpretations of this relationship. No evidence reveals exactly where the monks stood in this debate. The question may have divided their community, as the Investiture Contest seems to have done.34 While the debate unfolded, however, the relationship itself began to change. The bishops of Metz continued to play a key role in monastic reform in their diocese and to retain a good deal of control over many reformed abbeys, even as more radical conceptions of monastic liberty from episcopal intervention gained influence.35 By 1100, however, the turmoil of the Investiture Contest had significantly weakened the bishops’ power and eroded the patrimonies of many religious communities, regular and secular alike.36 In a series of especially dramatic episodes, the emperor Henry iv drove the pro-reform Bishop Hermann into exile in 1084 and personally installed Bishop Walo in his place. For the monks of Saint-Clément, this event may have seemed especially worrisome, since Walo had until that moment been abbot of their great rival, Saint-Arnoul. Walo's episcopacy proved short-lived, however, and he soon withdrew to the abbey of Gorze. The emperor then placed another of his supporters, Bruno of Calw, on the episcopal throne. In 1088 the townspeople, reportedly outraged at Bruno's depredations of church property, drove him from his see and restored Bishop Hermann.37 Even if Saint-Clément did not suffer materially from these events – Walo hardly had time to move against his erstwhile rival, and no evidence suggests that Bruno harmed the abbey specifically – the turmoil may well have made them wary of episcopal intervention.
Certainly in the aftermath of the Investiture Contest, the monks strove to bolster their abbey's fortunes and to assert its autonomy. Within the numerous properties that they claimed, they asserted extensive judicial and economic rights, often at the expense of the bishop and his agents.38 They also claimed control of several parishes, where they sought to exercise authority and to collect tithes and other offerings that would normally belong to the cathedral canons.39 On multiple fronts in this era the monks of Saint-Clément asserted their independence.
Ironically, the monks often pursued their autonomy by invoking the bishop's authority. To sanction their ambitions, they obtained genuine episcopal charters and forged others.40 Perhaps the most important example is a charter bearing the name of Bishop Hermann.41 He ostensibly granted it in 1090, shortly before his death, after translating Clement's relics to the cathedral for one night. In reality, however, the monks extensively interpolated this charter in the early twelfth century. The resulting text detailed a wide array of rights and possessions, affirmed grants supposedly made by earlier bishops, and curbed the authority of the cathedral canons and the bishop's own agents within the monks’ possessions.42
These efforts to constrain episcopal agents and the cathedral clergy contrast sharply with the tenth-century evidence. The monk Carus, who wrote the metrical Vita Clementis around the year 1000, celebrated the work done at the abbey by his friend, the ‘great primicerius’ Wigericus. The monks’ determination to curtail the authority that episcopal agents and cathedral authorities had over them and their properties in the early twelfth century suggests a different attitude. That is, it seems that, around the same time that the monks first alleged that Bishop Theodoric had tried (and failed) to take their relics, or not too long afterward, they valued their autonomy far more than they had when they apparently welcomed the intervention in their house of a high-ranking cathedral official over a century earlier.
Amid widespread debate about how bishops and monks ought to interact, relations between Saint-Clément and Metz cathedral thus did in fact change. Whether the monks sought to implement reform ideals by distancing their bishop, or merely wished to improve their worldly position, remains unclear. But their attitude toward episcopal intervention in their affairs appears to have shifted. Perhaps this shift altered their view of the past. Perhaps they came to look askance at the late tenth-century bishops’ continued involvement in their house and to express this misgiving by means of a story, in which the monks’ rights were miraculously defended against episcopal transgression. However speculative, this hypothesis points up the need to take changing attitudes into account when attempting to explain the evidence.
It also suggests that how the sources are read affects our ability to see such changing attitudes at all. If these particular sources, written over a period of roughly two hundred years, are expected to express unchanging ideas, then they will indeed appear baffling. In light of such expectations, the monks of Saint-Clément seem to have been simply unable to get their image of Bishop Theodoric straight. If, instead, these sources are read as products of different eras, then the disjuncture in their presentations of Theodoric becomes meaningful. It becomes a possible clue to changing attitudes. This reading lets the tenth-century portrait of the bishop as the monks’ supporter stand, and it turns the story of his attempted theft into the creation of a later age – as, indeed, the weight of the evidence indicates that it was.
Making sense of these conflicting depictions of Bishop Theodoric is only partly a matter of taking the sources’ chronology seriously – and thus allowing them to reflect their authors’ changing ideas. It also depends on how the relationship between medieval monks and bishops is conceptualised. It thus holds implications for our understanding of ecclesiastical reform.
Picard contended that Theodoric had not only tried to steal the relics, but had mistreated the abbey in pursuit of this goal. Caddroë is believed to have died in 974 or 975, roughly ten years before Theodoric's own death.43 His successor as abbot of Saint-Clément is generally believed to have been Fingenius.44 Yet Carus reported that it was Theodoric's successor, Adalbero ii, who appointed (vocavit) Fingenius.45 It is thus unclear who was in charge at Saint-Clément during the last ten years of Theodoric's reign. Since Carus also credited Wigericus with overseeing the abbey's renovation, Picard inferred that this powerful cathedral figure had taken control of the abbey altogether, at the bishop's behest.46 This scenario is certainly possible, if uncertain. In Picard's view, however, Wigericus could only have taken charge of the abbey illicitly. He proposed that Theodoric had granted Saint-Clément to the primicerius as a benefice, because ‘he wished to transfer St Clement's body to Metz cathedral and feared the opposition of a regular abbot’.47
There are several problems with this argument. One is the likelihood that the alleged relic theft was the invention of a much later age. If Theodoric did place Wigericus at the head of Saint-Clément, therefore, it was probably not for the sake of stealing the relics. In addition, there is no evidence that Theodoric granted Saint-Clément in benefice either to Wigericus or to anyone else. Perhaps most significant, however, is Picard's contention that, had Theodoric given the primicerius control of the abbey, the move would have constituted a betrayal of the reform initiated by his predecessor. In Picard's view, to give this cathedral dignitary authority over Benedictine monks amounted to Theodoric's having ‘temporarily abandoned the cause of monastic reform’.48 According to this logic, the bishop's choice of a cathedral official to exercise authority at the abbey, into which his predecessor had introduced monastic life, was inherently suspect.
Picard implied that the abbey, once reformed to house a community of regular monks, should have been separate from the cathedral and, perhaps, free from episcopal intervention altogether. Late eleventh- and twelfth-century monks may have seen the matter in this way – although the evidence for their views on this subject is inconclusive. But sources contemporary with Theodoric's reign suggest that the tenth-century monks saw it otherwise. Carus praised his ‘friend’, the cathedral's primicerius, precisely for his work at the abbey. It thus seems wise to allow that monks’ views of how their bishops ought to intervene – or not intervene – in their abbeys were not static, but changed over time.
This approach yields several dividends. First, it clears Bishop Theodoric from the charge of having tried to steal the relics – a charge that never really fitted in any case. Second, it suggests that the relationship between the monks of Saint-Clément and their bishop was fluid, shaped by evolving ideas and expectations, which sometimes occasioned the renegotiation of institutional ties and boundaries. This interpretation frames that relationship as an ongoing process, one not unlike what Steven Vanderputten has described for monastic reform in Flanders.49 Third, this reading underscores the tendency of monastic authors to construct narratives, which sometimes obscure the evolution of ideas and relationships. Lastly, it also reminds us to read our sources carefully. For if late eleventh- and twelfth-century monks writing at Saint-Clément may have projected their own ideas about this question onto the past, then monks elsewhere almost certainly did so too. In order to see the changes in ideas and relationships that we wish to trace and explain, historians must be wary of accepting monastic authors’ constructions of history – or, indeed, our own – too readily. Instead, we must be alert to the riddles that the texts pose. For such riddles may reflect changing attitudes lurking behind the stories that the sources tell.