Making Sense of Supplications in the Late Middle Ages

BnF MS Francais 2644

In my most recent post, I discussed some conflicting issues between different types of quantitative source material on late medieval confession and confessors.  There I argued that historians of late medieval religious life have mischaracterized the popularity and volume of confessional manuals as a denunciation of the capabilities and efficacy of late medieval confessors. As an alternative, I offered the huge number of requests, known as supplications, to the papacy for new confessors in the fifteenth century. These supplications show popular enthusiasm by the laity across all Western Christendom for personal confessors.

While there are almost 14,000 surviving supplications to the papacy for a new confessor, these requests were not distributed evenly. From my previous post, one can see that supplications from France account for over 50 percent of the source material. If we examine the supplications categorized by those historians as “French”, we see another interesting numerical imbalance:

Burgundian Total (Reg. Mat. Div. 1-41)[i] 1442
1409-1411 15
Eugenius IV, (1431-1447) 181
Nicholas V, 1447-1455) N/A
Calixtus III (1455-1458) 227
Pius II (1458-1464) 233
Paul II (1464-1471) 364
Sixtus 1471-1484 319
Innocent VIII (1484-1492) 118

The supplications from late medieval Burgundy, categorized as French due to current geographical boundaries by modern historians, account for 20.2 percent of French entries.

When we consider population estimates, a notoriously difficult issue to tackle, the proportion of Burgundian supplications proves even more striking. In 1450, the estimated population of French lands, including late medieval Burgundy, was around twelve million people.[ii] The estimated population of Burgundy, according to tax data collected from the same period, was 1.4 million people.[iii] Some quick math tells us that the Burgundian population made up about 11.6 percent of the larger French population.

As we can see by comparing the discrepancy in Burgundian-French supplications to the Burgundian-French population, there is a net difference of 8.6 percent between the two categories. Based on this information, we see that the people of late medieval Burgundy were more likely to request a personal confessor than population estimates would suggest. Indeed, Burgundian supplications make up a little more than 12 percent of all supplications to the papacy in the fifteenth century, although they account for around 4 percent of the population of Western Europe at the time.

BL MS Royal 18 E I f. 165v

The sheer amount of supplications coming from Burgundian lands begs the question as to why the people of Burgundy had such a disproportionate enthusiasm for the personal confessor. One potential explanation comes from the political realities of late medieval Burgundy, specifically the idea of representation by the more well-to-do citizens of Flemish cities.

The Flemish cities were, by far, the most populous lands within Burgundy, and had a long history of fighting and revolting against the Dukes of Burgundy for political representation and rights.[iv] These revolts happened so frequently that historians have gathered them into a distinct category called the fourth period of Flemish urban rebellions (1379-1453). Within this period, the people of Gent revolted at least eleven times in the fifteenth century, with the longest and most bitter revolt occurring from 1449 to 1453.

Most interestingly for our purposes here, the revolt of 1449-53 was followed by the largest spike in supplications to the papacy for new confessors both from dioceses in which the revolts occurred, as well as the Burgundian lands in general.[v] In the years that followed the revolt of 1449-53, Burgundian supplications to the penitentiary exploded to 267 requests in a five-year span. Before 1449, there are only 191 requests extant from the entirety of Burgundian dioceses in the first half of the fifteenth century, with 181 of those coming during the sixteen-year papacy of Eugenius IV (1431-1447).

Later revolts in Gent of 1467 and 1487 also saw large upticks in supplications to the papacy, especially the revolt of 1467 against Duke Charles the Bold. 1469 had the highest number of requests for a new confessor out of any year in the fifteenth century with 82.

These Flemish revolts do not conclusively explain the proclivity of the people in Burgundy to seek a new confessor. But they do give us a window into the wider political and social currents, which help to explain Burgundian enthusiasm in these requests, as well as the various upticks in those same requests in the fifteenth century.

Sean Sapp, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame


[i] Based upon my own research in the archives of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

[ii] J. C. Russell, “Population in Europe,” in The Fontana Economic History of Europe, Vol. I: The Middle Ages, ed. Carlo M. Cipolla, (Glasgow : Collins/Fontana, 1972), 25-71.

[iii] Norman J. G. Pounds, “Population and Settlement in the Low Countries and Northern France in the Later Middle Ages,” Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, vol. 49, fasc. 2, 1971. Histoire (depuis l’Antiquité) — Geschiedenis (sedert de Oudheid), 369-402.

[iv] Jan Dumolyn & Jelle Haemers, “Patterns of urban rebellion in medieval Flanders,” Journal of Medieval History, 31:4, (2005), 369-393.

[v] The registers of supplications in the Apostolic Penitentiary are fragmentary or lost for the first quarter of the fifteenth century, so it is unclear if this pattern holds true for the early revolts.

Practicality over Politics: Jean Gerson and the Dukes of Burgundy

Jean Gerson was perhaps the most influential religious figure in the fifteenth century, reaching nearly all Western Christendom through his preaching, his teaching, and especially his promulgation of his works to an eager body of readers and listeners. Modern scholars of Gerson have shown how widespread the writings of the French prelate were, reflecting a long-standing scholarly consensus that Gerson spoke, intentionally so, to the minds and hearts of the non-elites of the late medieval West. Gerson’s effectiveness as a religious communicator cannot be denied, yet such a conception strangely still understates his work’s reach and efficacy. Examining the surviving manuscripts in the ducal library of the Dukes of Burgundy, we see that Gerson’s works resonated even with those who personally despised the man.

Gerson had a complicated relationship with the Burgundian Dukes. He first made their acquaintance by helping to expel Duke Philip the Bold’s agents at the French court during the Immaculate Conception controversy in 1388. Gerson’s actions led directly to a loss of Burgundian power in France, a loss which Duke Philip spent much of the 1390s trying to recoup. Philip did not punish Gerson for his past transgressions against Burgundian interests. Instead, Gerson’s part in the Immaculate Conception controversy convinced Philip that he needed this talented theologian in his own camp. The duke offered the lucrative position of dean of St. Donatien’s in Bruges to Gerson, hoping the bountiful benefice would entice the theologian to his party. Gerson accepted the position and went to Bruges in 1399. Installing Gerson in Bruges was a coup for the Burgundians: it removed the most talented of the French theologians from the University of Paris, and it ensnared Gerson within the economic web of Duke Philip. Philip undoubtedly hoped his financial offerings would persuade Gerson to permanently abandon French interests for those of Burgundy.

London, British Library MS Harley 4379; Fol. 170v.

Gerson’s working relationship with Burgundy changed after the death of Philip the Bold in 1404. The new duke, John the Fearless, despised Gerson. Duke John lacked his father’s willingness to forgive Gerson for his actions against the Burgundians in the 1380s. Near the time of his ascendancy to dukedom, Duke John removed the Saint Donatien ecclesiastical benefice from Gerson’s possession, citing the canons’ dissatisfaction with Gerson’s methods of governing the church. Historians are unclear as to the root cause behind Duke John’s personal animus toward Gerson, suggesting that the duke viewed Gerson as a French loyalist and thus an obstacle to John’s own ambition at the French court. The tension between the two men reached its apex when Gerson personally sought a condemnation of Duke John by the Council of Constance in 1414 for the assassination of his political rival Louis d’Orleans. The council was a gathering of all the most powerful churchmen in the West, and a public condemnation would have been a devastatingly blow to Burgundian political standing in France. Gerson failed in this venture in Constance, ultimately succumbing to the Burgundian delegation at the council. Nevertheless, by 1414, Gerson’s name had become anathema in Burgundian circles, particularly at the Burgundian court.

What is especially striking is that it was at exactly this moment at the height of the Burgundian and Gersonian feud that the works of Gerson entered the Burgundian court through the patronage of the ducal family. A member of the ducal household commissioned a manuscript of Gerson’s Opus Tripartitum around the year 1410 (Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België MS 11133-35). The Opus was a collection of three small treatises addressing the Ten Commandments (De praeceptis Decalogi), confession (De confessione), and death (de arte moriendi). The Opus Tripartitum was a short work, meant to serve as a practical guide to laypeople and less-educated priests on proper methods for handling these weighty religious issues. The treatise was an international best-seller, gaining even more popularity with the advent of printing and becoming one of the most widely published religious works in the fifteenth century. It enjoyed sixteen printings in the fifteenth century, with versions published in Latin, Spanish, Swedish, German, and Flemish.

So, why did the Burgundian ducal family want a copy of the Opus Tripartitum, a piece crafted by one of the household’s most prominent enemies? If they solely sought thorough theological instruction on the contents of the Opus Tripartitum, there were many such other works readily available to them, such as the Guido of Monte Rochen’s Manipulus Curatorum. If the ducal family sought personal religious instruction, they had their own bevy of Parisian-trained theologians to personally oversee their religious lives. Their choice of Gerson’s Opus Tripartitum indicates that the dukes were not seeking sophisticated explanations of these weighty theological concepts. They instead wanted clear, concise instruction on how to approach issues that weighed on the mind of any conscientious Christian at the time. That the dukes of Burgundy patronized Gerson’s Opus in the early years of the fifteenth century, a period characterized by fraught relationships between the Burgundians and the French (and by extension between the Burgundians and Jean Gerson) speaks to the overwhelming efficacy of Gerson’s work.

As the fifteenth century waned, the popularity of Gerson’s writings waxed at the Burgundian court. By the death of the last Valois Duke Charles the Bold in 1476, the dukes possessed at least five manuscripts by Gerson, and most likely had more. Of the surviving ducal library housed in the Royal Library of Belgium (Koninklijke Bibliotheek van België), Gerson authored the largest number of manuscripts in the dukes’ theological holdings. Despite their political rivalry with the cleric, the Dukes recognized the efficacy of Gerson’s writings, and they put political prejudice aside for their own spiritual instruction. His work was simply the best at what it did. Even his enemies would have been remiss to ignore it.

Sean Sapp
Ph.D. Candidate

Further Reading:

Bernard Guenée, Between Church and State: The Lives of Four French Prelates in the Late Middle Ages trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

Bernard Guenée, Un Meurtre, Une Société: L’assassinat du Duc d’Orleans 23 Novembre 1407 (Paris: Gaillimard, 1992).

E. Steenberghe, Gerson A Bruges Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique 31, no. 1 (1935): 5-51.

What’s in a name?

Titular Confusion in the Economic Records of Late Medieval Burgundy

Queen Elizabeth II. The Earl of Grantham. The King in the North. Rank and titles from popular television shows like The Crown, Downton Abbey, and Game of Thrones capture the modern imagination with images of conniving courts, opulent balls, and fancy dinners. But what did rank and title signify to the medieval mind? This question has provided the backdrop for some of the most prominent works of medieval scholarship, and the question has continued to interest and influence current work. One medieval society, in particular, had a healthy respect for, and perhaps an unhealthy obsession with, titles and status: late medieval Burgundy, the Grand Duchy of the West.

Burgundy earned its name of “Grand Duchy,” by the power of its statecraft and economy. At any given point, the Duke had a massive entourage of counselors. For major affairs of state, such as making peace with France, the numbers could go into the hundreds of men (Russell, Congress of Arras). The Duke kept very careful economic records of his payments to his subordinates at court, in what is called the Recette Générale. In studying the Recette, one is immediately struck by the length and structure of the titles of each person receiving payment. Titles mattered to the people of Burgundy. The order in which their titles were listed mattered too:

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1945, f. 330v.

The picture above is a standard entry in the Recette Générale. It reads (translated from middle French) “to the Reverend father in God, the bishop of Bethlehem, counselor and confessor to monseigneur the duke.” The order of the confessor’s titles here is consistent with the economic records in Lille: first came the appellation, here “reverend father in God,” but it could also be something like “sir,” or “my lord.” Following next generally was the name of the individual, which is omitted in this instance. Luckily we do know the name of this confessor was Friar Laurens Pignon from payments in earlier records. After the name came the confirmation of any title held by the payee and the place it was held. Here it is “the bishop of Bethlehem.” Lastly, the record includes the position (if any) the person in the entry held at court: “counselor and confessor of monseigneur the duke.”

With such careful attention placed on the titles, it is especially interesting when the accounts strayed from their standard formula. One mild variation is the exclusion of the episcopal title in payment to the confessor Pignon from two years earlier:

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1942, f. 56r.

As one can see, the expected “reverend father in God, the bishop” is missing. The receiver general has replaced the longer title with an abbreviated “monseigneur of Bethlehem.” Such a title does not indicate his episcopal role, although the normal positions at court are included, “counselor and confessor.” The omission of the first half of the bishop’s title is not especially surprising here. The confessor had appeared multiple times earlier in the accounts with his full title included (f. 27v-29r). In all likelihood, the explanation here is an instance of rushed record keeping. There was only one monsieur of Bethlehem, after all.

A more interesting “error” in the accounts concerning the confessor occurs in only one year of the Burgundian accounts: 1432, the same year that Pignon transferred from his old diocese of Bethlehem to the more prestigious diocese of Auxerre.

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1945, f. 60v.

Here, the title proceeds according to the expected formula: “to the Reverend father in god, the bishop of Auxerre, counselor and confessor of monseigneur the duke.” According to the careful naming conventions of the Recette Générale, the title of Auxerre should be found throughout the rest of the year. In fact, the opposite is true. The title of Auxerre appears one additional time in the accounts of 1432. However, the Duke of Burgundy pays Pignon ten more times in the year, always with the title of “Reverend father in god, the bishop of BETHLEHEM, counselor and confessor of monseigneur the duke.”

Archives départementales du Nord série B 1945, f. 103r.

The reversion by the Recette Générale to Pignon’s old title is undoubtedly an aberration- in the following years until his death in 1449, Pignon is identified as the Bishop of Auxerre. More importantly, the title of Bishop of Bethlehem no longer correctly referred to him- A fellow Dominican by the name of Dominic filled the post in 1433 (Eubel, Hierarchia Catholica vol. 2, 118).

There are a number of explanations for the oversight. The easiest one to dismiss would be the intentional disrespect of Friar Pignon by the Recette Générale by referring to him in a less prestigious way. No surviving evidence suggests that Pignon ever had issues with the Duke’s accountants. Indeed, he even helped them perform their duties in rare instances. Another explanation is that the members of the Recette Générale did not know of Pignon’s promotion- there were many members of the accounting body, sometimes with multiple receiver generals in a year. Perhaps the lower levels of the administration simply did not know of Pignon’s advancement to a higher bishopric. A third possibility is that the Recette Générale knew Pignon too well- again, Pignon shows up in the economic records every year he was in the Duke’s service, from 1412-1449. In 1432, he had been at court for 20 years and had been the Bishop of Bethlehem for almost a decade. To my mind, this is the most sensible and likely explanation.

This example of Laurens Pignon is meant to show something simple about the use of titles in the medieval period. Even a culture highly cognizant of standing, title, and rank made mistakes in this regard. The members of the Recette Générale knew Laurens Pignon, and had known him for many years. To them, he was the Bishop of Bethlehem, the counselor and confessor to the Duke. The promotion to Auxerre undoubtedly felt real to the confessor, but to the rest of court, it perhaps took more time to register.

Further Reading-

Blockmans, Wim, Antheun Janse (eds.). Showing Status: Representation of Social Positions in the Late Middle Ages. Turnhout: Brepols, 1999.

Duby, Georges. The Three Orders: Feudal Society Reimagined. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Eubel, Konrad. Hierarchia Catholica medii aevi vol. 2. Regensburg: Monasterii Sumptibus et typis librariae Regensbergianae, 1913.

Russell, Joycelyne Gledhill. The Congress of Arras, 1435: A Study in Medieval Diplomacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955.