Session 1: Ideals of the Holy Man: Bishops & Abbots in France & England – Gerald of Wales and the Episcopal Ideal

Gerald of Wales and the Episcopal Ideal

Matthew M. Mesley (University of Exeter)


This paper focuses on Gerald of Wales, a twelfth and thirteenth century clergyman and chronicler. Modern historians frequently focus on his views of monasticism and monks, yet Gerald’s writings often center around the ideal qualities of what would make a good bishop. As Gerald had wished to be one himself, this idea dominates his work. The question this paper sought to answer was how Gerald’s views on the ideal bishop were presented and to what extent this matched his audience’s understanding.

Many of Gerald’s texts were hagiographical, but the fact that he wrote five saints’ lives has been ignored or neglected by most previous historians. This paper examines Gerald’s understanding of the episcopal ideal by looking in particular at the Life of St Remigius, which was written at the end of the twelfth century for the secular canons of Lincoln Cathedral. In this text there is a section entitled De episcopis Angliae tergeminis, which expounds upon the merits of six contemporary bishops. What made Gerald’s work different? His focus, unlike monastic hagiographers, was on the insistence that bishops live up to the duties expected of them and the promotion of the active over the contemplative life. This paper also sheds light on the community’s expectations of their bishop.

Gerald had a pragmatic view of the episcopal office but was careful to edit his work to appeal to the secular canons. Gerald had a long standing interest in appropriate episcopal behaviour. Thomas Beckett and Hugh of Lincoln were examples of good bishops according to Gerald. He also perceived Welsh and Irish churches as backward and was highly critical of them.

To Gerald, the bishop should uphold the ideals of the church and be well educated. Gerald was concerned with pastoral care and in particular the relationship between bishops and their diocesan clergy. Gerald was considered a staunch reformer. Education was very important, as was a good knowledge of canon law – Gerald shared in this critique of the church and complained bitterly that bishops were chosen prior to looking at their expertise. He also judged the contemporary episcopate against the martyr, Thomas Beckett. Gerald held Beckett up as a fearless defender of the church against the king and in defense of the church’s liberties. According to Gerald, bishops should be “heirs to Beckett”.

Gerald’s De episcopis Angliae tergeminis is a useful starting point in looking at Gerald’s episcopal ideal and how he conceptualised the relationship bishops should have with the community.

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