Three sorts of priest, part 2: the lost mother churches of St Peter

It’s long past time for the second of these posts about priests. Last time I dealt with cathedral chapter priests spreading the Word in the cathedral’s different properties, books in hand; this time I have less of an answer and more of a question. As before, however, we’re still dealing with the servants of St Peter. In particular, the servants of this place here:

The ruins of Sant Pere de Roda de Ter, as they stand today

The ruins of Sant Pere de Roda de Ter, as they stand today

This is what’s left of the Romanesque church in the old Iberian fort of l’Esquerda, otherwise known as Roda de Ter, about which I’ve written before. The ruins in the photograph are pretty much all twelfth century except some of the floors which have been cleared down to the palaeochristian levels, but we first know about this place in documents, other than when it was sacked in 826 by the mysterious rebel warlord Aizó, because of the act of consecration of an earlier church, probably wooden, from 927. There is a pattern here, of places whose existence as a community we only see when their members get together and contact the bishop about this church they’ve built, rebuilt, restored or just decided to have consecrated, but they’re usually further out than this, which is actually on the inwards side of the then-new cathedral of Sant Pere de Vic relative to the frontier. For this and for other reasons, which I won’t go into here, it seems that this whole area had been somewhat left behind since being at the very edge of Empire in the time of Louis the Pious.1 This gives us problems in saying anything about it, as the charters relating to the place are very few. The church itself may have had a fair few, but as you can see it’s in no shape to hold them now, and they don’t seem to have made it anywhere else, so what we have is the records from other places who held land nearby, which were few; the good land round here appears to have been on the river, where a lot of mills were set up including some apparently operating commercially and one owned on a timeshare. Worse, about half the charters we do have, we don’t have full records of: those of Santa Maria de Ripoll all got burnt in 1835 and are now only known from archivists’ regesta, and those of the pre-monastic church of Sant Pere de Casserres, which we’ll come to in a moment, don’t appear to have made it through the later monastery’s rather curious preservation filter and are only known where the cathedral later acquired an interest in Casserres as a parish and made notes of its earliest records for its own purposes. Santa Maria’s regesta usually give boundaries, but Casserres’s don’t, and neither give witnesses, so all the stuff I would usually do linking people together through transactions can’t work here. That means that we may well not be getting the full picture and what I’m about to say could be changed by further evidence if there was any.

That said, even in what little there is there are loads of clerics: twenty-one in total between 927 and 1000. This is more than one priest per parish per life, you know? Four of these people are identifiably chapter priests from Vic, but the other seventeen do not appear at Vic, or, as far as I can tell, anywhere else; they’re just here. Most of them are priests, but sometimes they have juniors along with who are only described as clericus. When I first came across this material, therefore, having Anglo-Saxon history deep in my background, I thought, ‘well, it’s a minster, isn’t it? The old fort’s still a centre for this, they’re doing the pastoral care for the whole area from the old city’.2 But there’s a problem with this idea, alas, and it’s shaped like this:

Monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres, Osona, as it stands today

Monastery of Sant Pere de Casserres, Osona, as it stands today

The building you see here is the early eleventh-century monastery, but before that was here there was a church here, also dedicated to Sant Pere, and there was a castle at the other end of the stack in the middle of the Riu de Ter on which they both stand. It is about 3 miles from Roda de Ter (and, according to the Google Map below, about 5 km now by road; point A is Casserres, point B l’Esquerda), very definitely within any plausible term before industrial population levels, which in any case didn’t really hit this area.3 Most of this church’s early documentation is only known as regesta and there’s precious little of that, but after approximately 1005 (actually it must be later, but we’ve covered this already and it doesn’t affect what I’m observing) full documents exist from here and those, also, are full of clerics. Hardly surprising, you may say, given that the place was on the verge of being converted into a monastery, and that’s fair enough. It could just be that Sant Pere de Casserres, because of receiving patronage from powerful people whereas Sant Pere de Roda just had its own closed group, had a natural advantage and that the bishop or whoever was easily be persuaded to move the local pastoral care network out a bit further. Roda is, after all, very close to Vic, as dragging the map below so as to see south-west will show. But some of the priests at Casserres don’t go on for very long, and though they were apparently able to turn up to sign new documents of transactions that they originally witnessed, I wonder how long they’d been in the area. Also a complication, and a bigger one: Sant Pere de Roda itself owned land on the Casserres rock, so some of these priests of Casserres may actually have been priests of Roda. These things make a simple shift from one to the other, while not impossible, a bit messy. In any case, we seem to be looking at a system quite like an English minster system where a lot of clergy share a base, but it’s right close to the cathedral and they never turn up there. So I think this is the system before the cathedral and parishes, slowly being over-written by new jurisdictions in this centre that power left behind. What that doesn’t tell you of course is what these priests were like, whether they had any training beyond hand-me-down tradition, what their actual responsibilities were except for care of what was an ancient burial ground like so many other hilltops; but I think they were definitely a sort apart from the chapter clergy and their Carolingian Renaissance book-learning we saw in the last post.4


1. All of what follows is based on either or both of J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (London forthcoming), Chapter 3 part 2, or the paper that I have to write for Leeds this year whose topic is basically the formal presentation of the second half of this blog post of the past.

2. For the ‘Minster hypothesis’, cf. J. Blair, “Ecclesiastical Organization and Pastoral Care in Anglo-Saxon England” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 4 (Oxford 1995), pp. 193-212, Eric Cambridge and David Rollason, “Debate: The pastoral organization of the Anglo-Saxon Church: a review of the ‘Minster Hypothesis'”, ibid. pp. 87-104, and David Palliser, “The ‘minster hypothesis': a case study”, ibid. 5, pp. 207-214.

3. I guess this will be covered in Teresa Soldevila i García (ed.), Sant Pere de Casserres. Llegenda i història (Vic 2004), which will also cover the 1993-1997 excavations that revealed the necropolis here (yes, here too), but I haven’t been able to get hold of that yet and am working from Antoni Pladevall i Font, Joan-Albert Adell i Gisbert, Xavier Barral i Altet, Esteve Bracons i Clapes, Marina Gustà i Martorell, M. Hoja Cejudo, Maria Gracià Salvà i Picó, Albert Roig i Delofeu, Eduard Carbonell i Esteller, Jordi Vigué i Viñas & Roser Rosell i Gibert, “Sant Pere de Casserres” in Vigué, Catalunya Romànica II: Osona I (Barcelona 1984), pp. 354-91. If by some mischance you don’t read Catalan and would still like to know more, the old monastery’s website is genuinely very good if you can stand Flash, but it doesn’t tell you much about the surrounding area’s demography, and the CR article does.

4. It’s not just in Catalonia that almost every hilltop appears to have an Iberian or Roman necropolis sunk into it, either; see José Antonio Benavente Sorriano, Juan Ángel Paz Peralta & Esperanza Ortiz Palomar, “De la Antigüedad tardía hasta la conquista cristiana en el Bajo Aragón” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes: Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 99-119 for more examples.

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6 responses to “Three sorts of priest, part 2: the lost mother churches of St Peter

  1. Julia Barrow

    There can be a tendency to assume that clergy in the earlier middle ages (say pre 1100) were principally involved in pastoral care, or perhaps it’s a tendency to assume that pastoral care principally meant outreach into the surrounding lay community, with preaching, hearing confessions and so on at the forefront. Preaching and confessions and so on mattered, but the bread-and-butter everyday work of one of these clerical communities was to chant psalms, i.e. to perform the clerical office. This was in a way a form of pastoral care, because the surrounding laity knew, or thought they knew, that the psalms were being chanted on their behalf, and quite often they specifically were because kings would demand it (cf. several bits of Anglo-Saxon legislation and a number of Anglo-Saxon charters – I don’t know the Spanish set-up, so I can’t comment on that) or the richer laity might make benefactions to pay for it.
    This also helps to explain why only a small proportion of these communities consisted of priests, with the majority in grades of ordination below the priesthood.

  2. That’s a useful insight, Dr Barrow, thankyou. My material does have the odd request for prayers to be said for the donors, but usually only donors to big places, and the two Sant Peres’ scant record before the monastic conversion of Casserres doesn’t have anything of it. However, it’s my experience with this stuff that actually the lower grades of clerics are under-represented at these places compared to the picture you give, and priests are more numerous, so I think there is something else going on in terms of local status and the priesthood, which is, indeed, where the third and last post is going.

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