Cesari of Montserrat, tenth-century weirdo

Medieval religiosity can often seem very strange to the modern viewer, not least because decrying the Middle Ages as superstitious has been a major trade since the Renaissance, as Eamon Duffy and Kathleen Davis would in their very different ways contend. Monasticism, I think, we usually just about get, although we perhaps see it too much as the retreat from the world that we most of us sometimes want and too little as voluntary self-imprisonment under continual surveillance, which would be just as true. The cult of relics, on the other hand, is often beyond our sympathy. This runs us into another problem with studying other societies, now or then, which is that of normality. What seems odd to us may be or have been normal to them. This makes it difficult to recognise when something genuinely unusual is or was being done. But I think this one is a fair cop.

The hermitage of Santa Cecília de Montserrat

The hermitage of Santa Cecília de Montserrat

I’ve spoken of Abbot Cesari of Santa Cecília de Montserrat here before, because of his having been one of the four archbishops of Tarragona that tenth-century Catalonia didn’t have. I actually think the case for Cesari’s having been given some kind of uncanonical episcopate is all right, but if so it’s clear that no-one gave it any credit except in the immediate environs of the house he’d founded out on the wild frontier with several other companions from deep-south Hispania in 947. Now, that makes him odd for a start: it isn’t just everyone who wants to be a monk, and still fewer of those wander hundreds of miles north to an occasional warzone and beg land from a potentate with whom they have never before had contact in order to start their monastery. When, having done all that, such a person then starts getting himself called Archbishop, and claiming a synod in León made him so, I think it is fair enough to speculate that his contemporaries did not think this was perfectly regular practice or one of some set of competing norms…

The actual politics behind this episode are extremely tangly and if you want to know what I think in more detail than I’ve given it here before, you can see my upcoming article about the four fake archbishops.1 But when I first looked at the episode, it wasn’t just circumstantial evidence that made me think Cesari was a nutter. In 970, you see, he seems to have written to Pope John XIII asking for support in claiming his archiepiscopal rights. The document survives in Vic, and it is a star piece of diplomatic oddity both intrinsically and extrinsically.2 Quite apart from the actual claims it makes,

The document itself only adds to the impression of strangeness: its orthography is peculiar, phrases that the redactor presumably felt to be important are written in uncials, the florid and almost-incomprehensible arenga appears to be unconnected to the subject matter, and there is a peculiar and repetitive emphasis laid on the personal beauty of the Leonese bishops.

That’s from an earlier version of my article, but the final one says the same thing only shorter.3 But at the time I put this down to Cesari being old, possibly not very well and basically arguably no longer right in the head, or you would think that the various ways in which the content is barking would have been trapped also.4 Now, continuing the trawl through Catalunya Carolíngia IV, I find a longer perspective forming. The text in this case is the act of consecration of Santa Cecília, from 947 as I say, and as soon as I saw it I recognised the style: rambling verbose sentences of pious diction that don’t necessarily make sense, and amid all the pious formulae about why monasteries are great and necessary and deserving of princes’ favour, this:5

Eo videlicet ut isti neophyti quibus ita res a Domino fuit revelata et neofiter rehedificata, sic incomvulsi et absque terrore et sine infestatione malignorum ibidem maneant et sub regimine monastico Domino deserviant…

Now, stop me if I’m wrong—I know you will, which is part of why I put this stuff up here indeed—but I think that can be Englished as:

In such a way, namely, so that those neophytes to whom the property was revealed thus by God and rebuilt in neophytes’ manner, may thus stay there undisturbed and without terror or the infestation of evil men and serve the Lord under a monastic régime…

So, stop me, but is he not claiming that he’s establishing a college of visionaries? I realise that he could just be being metaphorical about the revelation but it sounds a lot more structured than that to me, what with the emphasis on their uneducated status (especially since two of them are actually priests); I think he’s stressing their holy innocence and purity as vessels for the Lord’s will. So, I had the natural thought of a medievalist in these circumstances, to wit: “that’s weird. I wonder if it’s Augustine?” But I hit up the Patrologia Latina database and it seems to be original, at least I can’t get ‘neophyti’ and ‘revelata’ out of it in the same sentence. So, I don’t really know whether this gives us valuable insight into the mind of a monastic founder, or if it just confirms my general feeling that the man was a fringe mystic who doesn’t really represent anything. I suppose it does help explain, in conjunction with work like Peter Brown’s on the charisma of holy men, how he managed to get his locality calling him archbishop and indeed how he persuaded Countess Riquilda to persuade her husband to give him so much of the locality in the first place.6 I mean, I imagine his preaching was pretty powerful, if a bit disorganised and frothing. Even that just goes to show how much of a journey it is for me to try and get anywhere near this man’s mind when I’m sat so firmly in a secular early twenty-first century, though. Maybe if I can get to Santa Cecília I’ll have a better grip on him and his like, if there were in fact any others like him…


1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Archbishop Ató of Osona. False metropolitans on the Marca Hispanica” in Archiv für Diplomatik Vol. 56 (München forthcoming), pp. 1-42.

2. Edition of resort Eduard Junyent i Subirà (ed.), Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segles IX i X), ed. Ramon Ordeig i Mata (Vic 1980-1996), doc. no. 404, with partial facsimile ed. Miquel dels Sants Gros i Pujol, “Lámines”, ibid. pp. 681-890, lám 90; more convenient, however, is perhaps Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia IV: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció històrico-arquelògica LIII (Barcelona 1999), doc. no. 1080, which reprints that text.

3. Jarrett, “Ató”, pp. 13-14.

4. They are listed in vituperative style by José María Martí Bonet, “Las pretensiones metropolitanas de Cesáreo, abad de Santa Cecilia de Montserrat” in Anthologica Annua Vol. 21 (Roma 1974) pp. 157–182, where he decried the letter as a forgery, although in “Entre dues obediènces. Roma i Compostela” in Analecta Sacra Tarraconensia Vol. 67 (1994) pp. 387–397, he seems to have changed his mind.

5. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 543.

6. I suppose I think here mainly of Peter R. L. Brown, The Cult of the Saints: its rise and function in Latin Christianity, Haskell Lectures on the History of Religion (Chicago 1981), which is the one that bit me particularly, though idem, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity” in The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 61 (London 1971), pp. 80-101, repr. in idem, Society and the Holy in Late Antiquity (Berkeley 1982, repr. 1989), pp. 103-152, is more usually referred to.

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17 responses to “Cesari of Montserrat, tenth-century weirdo

  1. Not sure about Cesari as being visionary, his texts are really different (maybe an asturian influence?). But what it seems clear to me is that he was a ‘political’ figure; not only the special relation with the wife of the count of Barcelona, but the doctrinal reply that the gothic bishops gave to his nomination (‘apostle James came to Hispania only after death’ was a clear disalowal targeted to Cesari’s nominators), hardly a personal matter. Now, I was told that some of those texts were fabricated/manipulated in the eleventh century, so I am not sure about the correctnes of that point of vue. Just a comment to emphasize the public side of the figure.

    • I suppose that is true; it kind of emerges from the way his title is used in donations by others. The bit about James as Apostle is truly weird, though—this is what Martí Bonet’s second article cited is about, as you may know—because it serves no-one’s interests, especially when it’s in a letter to St Peter‘s vicar.

      What makes you say Asturian? Do you know some work on his background that I don’t? I had always assumed, given the Arabic name of at least one of his companions, that he had come from the South.

      • Well, the Cesari’s letter to the pope already enumerates bishops from the north-west of hispania. As for articles about him, two of them comes to my mind : Adabal’s :’L’abat cesari, fundador de Santa Cecília de Montserrat i pretès arquebisbe de Tarragona. La falsa butlla de Santa Cecília’ (in ‘Dels visigits als catalans’) and Ramón Martí’s : ‘Delà, Cesari i Ató, primers arquebisbes dels comptes-prínceps de Barcelona’. in ‘I Congrés d’Història de l’Església Catalana des dels Orígens fins Ara : Solsona 1993′.

        • Yes, I’m aware of them, cool. The letter does indeed mention a variety of Leonese and Galician bishops, but that is surely just because if he wanted an archiepiscopal consecration and his immediate fellows wouldn’t do it that court was the only halfway-near place where qualified ecclesiastics could be found, no? I don’t suppose he could have hoped for a synod in al-Andalus…

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  3. When talking about medieval religiosity and how “we” try to engage with it … well, that may depend on who “we” are. From where I stand (or sit, typing, anyway) in Latin America, there are many aspects of contemporary religiosity that strike me as rather more “medieval” in character than one is accustomed to in (northwestern) Europe or (even) the US. Indeed, one is often reminded that the Reformation never really lapped against these shores. In a certain way, I _think_ (though I could be deluded) that there are no aspects of medieval religiosity that I understand better for seeing them (or in some cases at least something strongly reminiscent of them) all around on a day to day basis. Sure, 21st century Colombia is not 10th century France, but certain echoes ring quite loudly in my ears in any case!

    • This is a sort of parallel that’s struck me before, yes, though it’s very definitely high medieval, no? Syncretised local Maries and so on. After talking with an anthropologist I am less and less sure that I can do anything with that sort of parallel except use it as a guide to pencil in missing structure and process. Mentalities don’t quite belong in that category, for me at least.

      • Yeah, I’m not sure the parallel is particularly — or at least specifically — useful in an academic context (though I suppose someone with the appropriate expertises could do an interesting compare-and-contrast study). it’s just — you know — kind of “there” ….

  4. highlyeccentric

    Huh, what an interesting bloke. Weird. But interesting.

    Even that just goes to show how much of a journey it is for me to try and get anywhere near this man’s mind when I’m sat so firmly in a secular early twenty-first century, though.

    Yes, that! I keep coming up against the fact that few historians seem to take ‘fervent belief’ into account as an historical force, and those best equipped to do so (those who are strongly religious themselves) often seem to take it for granted, and thus don’t articulate it.

    • In as much as professing deep spiritual belief is often felt rather embarrassing in the UK and maybe wider Western Europe, the pope actually has a point about it being a hostile place for him to come. I don’t necessarily agree with him about anything else of course, and in any case he loses because of Godwin’s Law. Leaving all that aside, though, there is a problem here, you’re quite right; but there is also the problem beyond it, that though obviously he was a man of fervent belief, the fervent beliefs that Cesari professed may have been unusually fervent… but how can we tell? He’s one of our sources…

      • As The Economist points out, Britain is just more “rude and secular” than it is anti-Catholic (or anything else): http://www.economist.com/blogs/bagehot/2010/09/pope_visits_britain

        And both are probably points of pride, so there we go ….

        But I thought highlyeccentric’s point that possibly the majority of people who take fervent (religious) belief as a motivating historical force may themselves possess fervent beliefs and, so, take such things for granted — with the presumed corollary that people without fervent beliefs might not consider such things as important motivating historical forces. I don’t know whether there is data to say whether it’s _true_ — but it’s an interesting idea. :)

        • Even where we consider it, there is the question about whether we can really understand it. These days I feel that that is something of a red herring though, and a two-headed herring too (a prodigy!) because firstly, there is plenty of medieval experience even the religious cannot share and so their increased perspective can only be a matter of degree, not of quality; and secondly, because modern-day religious sentiment, however fervent, must be quite different to the medieval variation because, for example, of Popperian science, large-scale atheism, religious plurality and various other things that have forced Christianity to define and assert its position in a much less universal and assured way than it needed to in the Middle Ages. Belief certainly needs remembering, but it’s only one of a range of things we can only hope to nearly-understand, rather than ever being sure about…

          • highlyeccentric

            Belief certainly needs remembering, but it’s only one of a range of things we can only hope to nearly-understand, rather than ever being sure about…

            Oh, absolutely, yes. And, as you say, being a person of faith oneself doesn’t necessarily equip you to understand anything historical: there’s always at least ONE mad protestant in an undergrad class who can’t get past ‘but these monks are wrong!’ BASICALLY, we’re all screwed.

        • I do think there’s basis for suggesting that Britain is more anti-Catholic than it is any other kind of anti-religious, though. I don’t like it—as you know, Catholics feature large among my nearest and dearest—but it’s still out there.

  5. Cullen Chandler

    Jonathan,
    I’ve found a citation of the Ato/False metropolitans article online and placed a request for it. Being able to cite it will save me a few hundred words out of what I’ve been trying to wrap up the last few weeks. But as its arrival in my inbox is unpredictable, is there any chance of scoring a pdf from the author?

    Meanwhile, let me admit publicly that I envy your access to all the scholarship, your time to plow through it, and your determination to do so. I’ve found that teaching and serving my college, while things I believe in wholeheartedly and love doing, make it impossible to keep up with the herculean efforts of peers such as yourself. And, supposing I ever get this monkey off my back, do read the meager bit on the tenth century with pity in your heart!

    Cheers!

    • Ooh, is this for the book? I’m excited by this, I am hoping you will save me a lot of work trying to figure out the ninth century a bit. As for the article, it and one or two others can be downloaded from my Academia.edu pages. I’ve got hard-copy offprints of this one, though, so if you also e-mail me a postal address you can have one with my best wishes for your work.

      I am very very lucky with my library access, and my teaching load is also enviable for all that it swamps me in term-time. That said, I wrote this post nearly two years ago and only actually finished going through Catalunya Carolíngia IV about a month ago… And everything else cited here I read long long ago in the salad days of my Ph. D. I do try and keep up, but there is just too much being written, you know?

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