Merchants in clerics’ clothing

Sorry: marking, a conference overseas and the finality of the semester’s teaching have kept me too busy to be active here; it’s not really catching up, is it? Still: if you were keeping an obsessive eagle eye on what I say on this blog, which presumably only I actually do, you might have noticed that by taking some affable and underresearched swings at David Bachrach’s recent book a few posts ago, I have moved into the posts promised in my catch-up post of last July that even now hangs at the bottom of the sticky announcement posts on the front page, and the new step towards Byzantium is also part of that. While reading Constantine VII, however, I was also reading the work of Mark Handley, a long acquaintance of this blog, and you can see from the catch-up post that I had high praise for it, and one tiny niggle.1

Photograph of a seventh-century funerary inscription from Capel Llanilltern, Wales

Photograph of a seventh-century funerary inscription from Capel Llanilltern, Wales, though not material for Mark since there’s nothing there to identify the deceased as non-local.2

The praise must come first, of course. Mark makes almost of all his contentions almost inarguable by virtue of having a well-managed database of evidence, in this case of inscriptions from right across the late Roman and early medieval Mediterranean, from which he selects those dealing with people who are identified in some way as being out of place, foreign, or else merchants or travellers, a sample of 621 people overall, and he uses this to test the many generalisations that are out there about such groups, like the predominance-to-exclusion of Syrians (or Jews) in Mediterranean maritime trade of the period, about directions of travel and foci of movement and so on. Some surprising things come out of this: for example, the largest sample of such inscriptions outside of Rome itself comes not from one of the other big maritime entrepôts but from Salona in the Balkans, which Mark admits he himself had not expected.3 Quite a lot of things come out of it that conflict with the views of other scholars too, and they get deliciously definite rebuttal in the extensive footnotes. I really do recommend this book as a scholarly read, I enjoyed it thoroughly. But of course, it being me, I do have a niggle.

Funerary stone of the priest Opila at Sant Pere de Vilamajor

Funerary stone of the priest Opila at Sant Pere de Vilamajor, again out of Mark’s compass but one of these things that I have actually seen

The niggle is in some ways a danger of database work as much as anything else. Obviously to make it usefully sortable, searchable and organisable you want your data as atomised as possible, and this makes fields that contain more than one sort of data difficult. If one has categories into which a datum, be that a person or whatever, needs to be fitted, it is sometimes hard to let it go into more than one category; otherwise it winds up getting double-counted. Perhaps something like that explains this:

“Secondly, the evidence gathered here firmly indicates that many Syrians, and indeed others from the East attested in the West, were not engaged in commerce. Many 5th-c. Syrian solders were commemorated at Concordia; two Syrian priests are known from Salona; a Syrian sub-deacon is known at Tomis; Flavia Marthana, a nun from Antioch, is commemorated at Bolsena; a Syrian primipilarius is known in Gigen; and the woman Eusebia from Syria had lived in Trier 15 years before she died in 409. A Syrian lawyer was commemorated at Kallatis, and a Syrian stone-worker at Sofia. We should not add a ‘dot’ on a map to indicate a Syrian ‘trader’ when Agnellus of Ravenna states that the first 16 bishops of Ravenna were Syrian, when a Syrian autocephalous bishop attended the second council of Seville in 619, or when the Syrian Johannes helped Gregory of Tours with some Greek texts. Not all Syrians in the West were traders.”4

You may be wondering what needs explaining here, since this is pretty obviously methodologically right in summary, and many of these people are clearly not traders. But were none of them? You see, this puts me in mind of a story from Catalonia, as so many things do. In 1018 the chapter of Barcelona received a substantial bequest of cloth from a Flemish merchant called Robert who had fallen ill at the city while on a voyage, and made an emergency will for the good of his soul before dying, this largely at the behest of a Barceona canon by the name of Bonnuç. This actually got the chapter into trouble, because a few days later Robert’s brother turned up to reclaim the goods, and in the end the canons had to pay him off to be allowed to pray for his brother’s soul and keep at least some of the bequest. But the interesting thing from our immediate point of view is that Bishop Æci also made a gift of cloth for the merchant’s soul, and he had bought that cloth from none other than Bonnuç, who suddenly appears to have been Robert’s contact in the city, at least by the time Robert’s final deal was closed.5 So does Bonnuç go into our notional database as a cleric, or as a trader?

The Miracle of St Eligius by Sandro Botticelli, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The Miracle of St Eligius by Sandro Botticelli, now in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Clerics are in general a potential problem with this sort of categorisation, in fact. As a sometime numismatist I think rapidly of Bishop Eligius of Noyon, Saint Eloy, who was a goldsmith before he came to the Church and who seems to have continued to dabble thereafter.6 And at roughly the same time, as Mark himself notes:

“Gregory of Tours, Hist. 7.30 and 10.25, record a Syrian merchant Euphronius at Bordeaux and another Syrian merchant Eusebius becoming bishop of Paris, respectively.”

The latter is actually 10.26 and Gregory says no more about the guy than that he was a merchant and a Syrian by race (“negotiator genere Syrus”), and that he was elected by bribery.7 Do we know anything else about the guy? I don’t think, in any case, we should assume that this precludes him nonetheless being in holy orders, or indeed precludes him continuing trading once appointed. The more I look at the Catalan Church the more I see deacons with day-jobs being involved members of the chapters of cathedrals precisely because of those day-jobs, and yet the more I look at churches in other areas the less unusual the Catalan one seems to be.8 Mark may have accidentally provided me with more evidence for this! I’m sure that in outline and in most of his detail he’s right, and I don’t by any means want to restore the Syrian people’s historiographical monopoly on early medieval sea travel, but it is as I say the devil of database work on people that they won’t stay in the categories we set up for them.

1. M. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores: travel and mobility in the late-Antique West, Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplement 86 (Portsmouth RI 2011).

2. It is V. E. Nash-Williams (ed.), Catalogue of Early Christian Monuments of Wales (Cardiff 1950), no. 214, for those that care about such things.

3. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores, p. 97, with detail pp. 78-82.

4. Ibid., pp. 83-84, with the copious references to inscriptions in his appendix cruelly elided here.

5. The documents are now best printed as Josep Baucells i Reig, Àngel Fàbrega i Grau, Manuel Riu i Riu, Josep Hernando i Delgado & Carme Batlle i Gallart (edd.), Diplomatari de l’Arxiu Capitular de la Catedral de Barcelona: segle XI, Diplomataris 37-41 (Barcelona 2006), 5 vols, online here, doc. nos 121 & 125. The canonical study is Philippe Wolff, “Quidam homo nomine Roberto negociatore” in Le Moyen Àge Vol. 69 (Paris 1963), online here, pp. 129-139.

6. Bishop Dado of Rouen, Vita sancti Eligii, ed. Wilhelm Levison as “Vita Eligii episcopi Noviomagensis” in Passiones vitaeque sanctorum ævi Merovingicarum, ed. Bruno Krusch, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) IV (Hannover 1902, repr. 1997), online here, pp. 669-742, transl. Jo Ann McNamara as “Life of St. Eligius of Noyon” in Thomas Head (ed.), Medieval Hagiography: an anthology (New York City NY 2000), pp. 137-168, a fuller version without notes online here.

7. Handley, Dying on Foreign Shores, p. 84 n. 104. The source is Gregory of Tours, Libri decem historiarum, edd. Bruno Krusch & Wilhelm Levison as Gregorii Episcopi Turonensis Libri Historiarum X, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores rerum merovingicarum) I.1 (Hannover 1937-1951, repr. 1992), transl. Lewis Thorpe as The History of the Franks (Harmondsworth 1974, many reprints).

8. See Paul H. Freedman, The Diocese of Vic: Tradition and Regeneration in Medieval Catalonia (New Brunswick 1983), online here, pp. 21-25; cf. Jonathan Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 122-125.


7 responses to “Merchants in clerics’ clothing

  1. Kind words. So long as no one argues that Syrian priests/deacons are more likely to have also been merchants because they are SYRIAN priests/deacons, then I have no problem with that.

    Of course (being ever so slightly tongue in cheek now) in all the instances I give/you cite, there is no evidence of any occupation or role other than that recorded on the stone, so the same logic would enable an argument that all of them might have doubled as sous-chefs, playwrights, or sommeliers.

    • Indeed, and who are we to deny them those outlets for their self-expression? Slightly more seriously, of course (as you say in the book) we are looking with your data at one aspect of these people only, that someone thought they were worth commemorating and did so in terms that marked them as somehow outsiders. In these cases that was a primary identity, at least as seen from outside; for my sidelining churchmen, their primary identity was as churchmen even if they were actually cloth dealers or estate developers some of the time. At least, that was the identity that they preferred to stress when dealing in property. But as locals, they had more roots on which to batten. I assume that Bishop Eusebius hasn’t left us a funerary inscription, but if he did, I wonder if it would have mentioned his origins or whether the important thing there would have been his time as bishop? And you carefully stress all these difficulties of generalising from the marginal, but it’s so unusual that I find myself really wishing for the stories we don’t have that would explain why, in this single-figure percentage of inscriptions, people chose to make this point about the deceased.

      • Agree with you again.

        A classic example of what you are describing is the epitaph of Sidonius Apollinaris – long known from a 10th-century manuscript, and found in its lithic form in Clermont in the late 1990s. His epitaph only describes him as a bishop. It makes no mention of his earlier secular career, and no mention of him ever having held the post of Urban Prefect of Rome (a role in which he oversaw the annona shipments to Rome).

        Another example would be the epitaph of bishop Fidelis of Merida. Known from the Lives of the Fathers of Merida as a Greek, related to his predecessor Bishop Paul, and arriving in Spain on board a merchant ship – his epitaph only refers to him as a bishop, no reference to his foreignness, nor to a possible merchant past.

        Or take the epitaph of Monica (Augustine’s mother) from Ostia, again known from manuscripts, and again found in the 20th century in lithic form – no mention of her African origin.

        It is very, very rare to have a second source for any of the commemorated individuals, but when we do there is very often a disconnect or lack of overlap between what we know about the person from the other source, and what we know from the epitaph.

        Definitional question: is a deacon charged with overseeing church property and turning landed property into income (via rents and/or the sale of produce) really a “merchant”?

        • No, sorry, mental slippage. The only one I’ve found so far I’d call a merchant, or at least a dealer (negotiator, after all), is Bonnuç in Barcelona with his rolls of cloth. But I was also thinking of Vic’s various later estate managers and the deacon Guadamir, a tenth-century land developer—there’s no better word for it, he buys up land and establishes new cultivators on it—who is usually taken to be one of Vic’s churchmen but actually has no visible connection there, all as examples of people whose ecclesiastical rôle doesn’t really describe what we can see them doing. Great examples!

          • On the other hand, given my evidence, of course it’s sometimes really hard to see Catalan churchmen doing what their rôle suggests, rather than as power-hungry litigants and speculators… No sermons, hardly any liturgy, just land charters, until the 1000s at least.

  2. I’ve always thought of some great religious houses in medieval Britain to be concerned to a degree with trade (and that degree increased as, say, agricultural technologies, and so surplus, increased–think of the great Cluniac foundations with their wheat and wool). However, given the evidence found of Anglo-Saxon metal-working at Whitby, the coins minted in York, etc. and the fact that both were good spots for water-borne trade, I’d be quite surprised if Anglo-Saxon religious institutions didn’t have a hand in regional commerce. Of course I couldn’t say whether that interest was regulatory, tax-based, or full-on commercial but in my heart (as a Tolkien character might say) I’m convinced ‘trader’ would not be an inaccurate descriptor of some religious.

    Religious houses produced goods. They often produced a surplus. It seems likely they traded. But were they travelling traders–merchants? That’s an interesting thing to think about…

    • Well, Abbot Ceolwulf had no problem finding boats to hop down the coast on when he wanted to go to Rome, or at least that’s how Bede makes it sound, and King Æthelbald of Mercia gave exemption from tolls to the Kentish nunnery of Minster-in-Thanet for two ships which they apparently had. I don’t know about the monks themselves actually being merchants; but I think the odds look pretty good that they had ships and crews on their payroll.

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