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10 - Killer Clergy: How did Clerics Justify Homicide in Petitions to the Apostolic Penitentiary in the Late Middle Ages?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 August 2020

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Summary

Violence in its many forms – warfare, murder, manslaughter or assault – was an omnipresent phenomenon in medieval society. It was especially linked to lay society, but members of the clergy were not immune to it either. Medieval sources – court records, annals, treatises and many others – tell about clergymen involved in violent events. In these sources clergymen are typically victims of a violent act committed by a layperson. But, even though the ecclesiastical legislation strictly forbade members of the clergy from acting violently, medieval sources also contain a lot of information about clergymen who committed violent crimes. Particularly good source material for the study of clerical violence comes from the register series of the apostolic penitentiary, which contains numerous petitions from clergymen all over Christendom asking for pardon because of violent behaviour.

The aim of this chapter, which is based on the late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century penitentiary documentation, is to examine what kinds of strategy the clergymen who turned to the penitentiary applied in order to get their consciences cleansed. In particular, it analyses the wording that the clients of the penitentiary accused of homicide used in their petitions in order to convince papal officials of their innocence.

Canon Law and Violent Clergy

According to the principle of the fifth commandment (‘Thou shalt not kill’, Ex. 20:13), the ecclesiastical norms did not tolerate any form of violence or killing. Since members of the clergy were supposed to act as models for laypeople, the ecclesiastical norms required clergymen to abstain from violence. In order to protect the peaceful clergymen from lay violence the Second Lateran Council (1139) stipulated in its constitution no. 15 – known as Si quis suadente – that anyone who laid violent hands on the members of the clergy or on men or women in monastic vocation incurred automatic excommunication, which could be lifted only by a papal absolution. This constitution became part of what is now known as privilegium canonis and refers to the special protection of clergymen against any kind of assault. As Peter Clarke has pointed out, this was not the only way the Church tried to protect its officials. The Church introduced also another privilege, privilegium fori, according to which only a clergyman could judge the misdeeds of another clergyman. In practice, this privilege meant that the crimes committed by clergymen had to be judged in ecclesiastical tribunals.

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Petitions and Strategies of Persuasion in the Middle Ages
The English Crown and the Church, c.1200–c.1550
, pp. 202 - 218
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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