Conflict in the Parish: Antagonistic Relations Between Clerics and Parishioners

A companion to pastoral care in the late Middle Ages (1200-1500)Conflict in the Parish: Antagonistic Relations Between Clerics and Parishioners

By Michelle Armstrong-Partida

A companion to pastoral care in the late Middle Ages (1200-1500), edited by Ronald J. Stansbury (Brill, 2010)

Introduction: Guillem de Bruguera feared for his life. As rector of the church of Sant Marie in the coastal village of Cadaques, Guillem had made numerous enemies when quarreling with parish members over certain rights to their parish church. Concerned about the “deadly blood feud” with his parishioners, their relatives and neighbors that jeopardized his safety, Guillem asked and was granted the right to be excused from personally residing in his church. The likelihood that parishioners might wound or kill their local priest was not an exaggeration on Guillem’s part. In the parish of Santa Eulàlia de Corró, the laymen Bonanat had “laid in wait at night” for the priest Pere Canyet and had wounded him twice with a sword in the arm and in the leg. The outcome did not satisfy Bonanat, since later, when the priest had recovered from his wounds and was making his way to the church, Bonanat once again attacked and injured the priest Pere. Although the details and the causes surrounding these incidents are often missing from the records, these disputes are nevertheless noteworthy as examples where the laity expressed their contempt for parish clergy to the point of outright aggression and even bloodshed.

Visitation records and ecclesiastical court documents from the diocese of Girona and Barcelona in fourteenth-century Catalonia reveal that parish communities had turbulent and often violent dealings with their local clergy. The conflict-ridden interactions among parishioners and their priests are commonly attributed to lay people’s perceptions of a negligent and uneducated clergy. Undoubtedly the poor quality of pastoral ministry was an issue that vexed the laity, but what is fre- quently overlooked are the personal histories between clerics and their parishioners. Parish clergy were affected by many of the same social tensions, power relations, and feuding factions as the lay people within their communities, and likewise were bound by the very same codes of honor in medieval society that could mean the loss of status and reputation. Violence touched the lives of many, and in late medieval Catalonia, clerics often committed crimes and acts of violence against their parishioners. A full range of human behaviors associated with the laity, like drinking, fornicating, stealing, and murdering could be found among them. Yet the issues that principally concerned episcopal authorities did not always correspond to what the laity found most troubling. Parishioners repeatedly complained about suffering under the rule of a petty tyrant who held grudges and exploited his power to administer the sacraments, or about the surly, combative temperament of their priest who was prone to fighting and creating discord within the parish. Conversely, episcopal efforts were focused on the endowment and provision of benefices, the execution of wills, and sentences of excommunication or interdict due to unpaid debts.

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