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Abbo of Fleury: strategies for gaining influence and authority in tenth-century West Francia

Abbo of Fleury: strategies for gaining influence and authority in tenth-century West Francia

By Ruth Ann Mills Robbins

PhD Dissertation, University of Southern California, 2010

Abstract: This dissertation analyzes how a tenth-century abbot, Abbo of Fleury (ca. 945 – 1004), used learnedness, church precedents, and intimations of heresy as strategies to renegotiate the bonds between powerful persons in order to increase his authority and influence within the church and kingdom of West Francia. Study of his life and works increases the understanding of how ecclesiastical persons participated in the formation of political and religious order in West Francia.

Abbo’s formation as a monk at the monasteries of Fleury (West Francia) and Ramsey (England), and his experience with rivals for position and status both inside and outside the monastery helped him to identify the incursion of bishops and lay people on church property as the primary threat to monastic autonomy. Those experiences shaped his assertion that a monk owed complete obedience to his abbot and that, as with trials of bishops, only church councils should try abbots. He further acted to remove the power of interpretation of church precedent as found in ecclesiastical canons from the perspective of bishops and affirmed that only the pope had the jurisdiction to rule on the canonicity of a particular law or document.

Abbo defined those who opposed his positions as possible heretics and he sought to turn the powerful among his rivals into friends through argumentative treatises, letters, and the collection of church canons. By his arguments, Abbo motivated the king to withdraw his support from two bishops. Abbo further used his learning and knowledge of the canons to gain a friend in the pope. He continued to build and exercise his authority by correcting the behavior of abbots and by cultivating friendship with the powerful abbot of Cluny. The network of relationships that Abbo built allowed him to stipulate what the connection between monks and bishops should be in the kingdom of West Francia. Where Abbo did not have a network of relationships in place, his strategies of defining rivals as heretics and using his learning to gain powerful lords as friends proved ineffective. He did not have the time to build such networks before his death in the midst of a riot at La Reole in Gascony in 1004.

Abbo’s life and the texts that he produced show how one person participated in shaping the ecclesiastical and political order of West Francia. His actions resulted in an alliance between the king of West Francia and the pope. He changed the relationship between monks and bishops and corrected the actions of abbots. His strategies affected what it meant to be king, pope, bishop, abbot, and monk for at least the span of his abbacy.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Southern California

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