Death as a Symbolic Arena: Abbatial Leadership, Episcopal Authority and the “Ostentatious Death” of Richard of Saint Vanne

SESSION IV: Abbots between Ideals and Institutions, 10th–12th Centuries

Death as a Symbolic Arena: Abbatial Leadership, Episcopal Authority and the “Ostentatious Death” of Richard of Saint Vanne

Steven Vanderputten (Ghent University)


This paper focused on the death of Richard and the abbatial discourses surrounding his death. The deeds focus on the Abbot’s handling of Richard’s death and perpetuating Richard’s identity with the monastic community. Reformist ideologies came into play – i.e., interacting with the outside world without being affected by it. Richard maintained close ties with the apostolic and secular circles in Lortharingia. He had good relations with his monastic subjects but he did not view himself as belonging to the monastic community; he viewed himself as an intermediary between the monastic and secular worlds. The relics passed over Richard’s body during his death ritual were associated with Christ’s passing. This symbolised Richard as a religious virtuoso who did not merely distinguish himself, but reminded the monks that he would likely become venerated himself. By taking this action, he solidified his place as a Holy man.

Richard’s succession – Richard abandoned the monastery toward the end of his life and lived a hermetical life. Towards the end of his life he returned to the abbey and decided to die there. He died a lavish death. The acts played out in Richard’s death were not just about Richard, but about the abbey’s relationship to episcopal power. Richard regarded the church as an episcopal necropolis. Richard initially did not allow relics to leave the abbatial church because he was trying to safe guard all his abbeys. Relations over Richard’s government had gradually deteriorated – due to competitiveness between the bishops and the counts of Verdun in this holy necropolis. The political situation became inflammatory and his death occurred in the middle of this tense environment. This transitional moment was used as a political arena where Richard actively participated in the struggled for dominance. This battle continued after his death when he requested to be buried in the abbatial church.

~ Sandra Alvarez

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine