Priest as Criminal: Community Regulation of Priests in the Archdeaconry of Paris, 1483-1505
By Tiffany D. Vann Sprecher
PhD Dissertation, University of Minnesota, 2013
Abstract: This dissertation examines accusations of criminal behavior levied against priests in the archdeaconry of Paris from 1483 – 1505. It is a study of both justice and religion based on an analysis of ecclesiastical court registers. Within these registers are thousands of cases against laypeople and clergy. Focusing on priests, this dissertation scrutinizes the four most common charges brought against them: engaging in illegal business practices; participating in inappropriate leisure activities; committing violence; and having illicit contact with women. It reveals that parishioners had wide latitude and many tools to compel their priests to act in a certain manner. Community members were able to avail themselves of the ecclesiastical court to enforce church law. The ecclesiastical court also tacitly sanctioned the use of certain extralegal means, such as violence, that allowed community members to coerce priests into conforming to local expectations.
Finally, community members could ignore ecclesiastical laws altogether, enabling though inaction their priests to contravene church laws against, for example, gambling or living with women. This dissertation challenges a persistent historiography which portrays parishioners as languishing under the leadership of an incompetent and unscrupulous clergy at the turn of the sixteenth century. Historians have argued that this alleged misbehavior prompted parishioners to look elsewhere for religious leadership – namely to Protestant or reformed Catholic churches.
However, allegations of crimes committed by Parisian priests have not been systematically examined until now. This study argues that historians have exaggerated the prevalence of, and parishioner disillusionment with, sacerdotal misbehavior. Moreover, this work shows that parishioners had significant agency in the regulation of priests in their parishes. Parishioners were not necessarily looking outside the traditional church to fulfill their religious needs. Rather, they utilized the enforcement tools they possessed to shape the character of their local parish. This study therefore contributes to a growing body of scholarship that sees the church at the turn of the sixteenth century as a dynamic organization directed largely at the parish level by residents of the parish themselves.