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Home arrow History arrow Officers and accountability in medieval England : 1170-1300


Midway up Mount Purgatory, in the middle of Dante’s Commedia, Virgil gives an extended theological discussion of the heavenly good.

Perche s’appuntano i vostri disiri dove per compagnia parte si scema, invidia move il mantaco a’ sospiri.

Ma se l’amor de la spera supprema torcesse in suso il disiderio vostro, non vi sarebbe al petto quella tema; che, per quanti si dice piu li ‘nostro’, tanto possiede piu di ben ciascuno, e piu di caritate arde in quel chiostro.[1]

Dante is a ‘high’ medieval source to cite. But the ideal of individuals subsuming themselves within a wider collective without sacrificing their individuality was one that founders such as Sorbon or Merton were attempting to institutionalize practically. Their institutions were not (quite) as grand then as their names sound today, and these founders had a very mundane question in view: how to secure a balance between omnes et singulos within their foundations.[2] Dante’s envisaged balance was heavenly and frictionless. Merton’s and Sorbon’s was not—although ‘love’ and solidarity played dominant roles which their ‘law’ sought to regulate.[3] Once founders were dead there were three prisms through which to focus on the charitable purposes they had outlined. One was through the merely temporary, living embodiments of a foundation’s charitable purpose: the perspectives of a John of Wyly, a Robert Finmere, or a William of Heytesbury at Merton. Another was through the necessary officers who regulated them: the Warden Trings. Yet another was through that of the permanent, impersonal interests of the foundation itself: its bricks and mortar. It was to be hoped that a Tring or a Heytesbury could articulate those permanent, impersonal interests. In case they could not, a visitor, a Pecham, was provided for. Each perspective alone was inadequate or unreliable—too partial in the first two cases, too detached perhaps in the third. Combining them offered the best chance to see the wood for the trees and the trees for the wood. Hence the odd combination above was required, and hence the calculated eclecticism of collegiate constitutions in seeking to create wholes greater than the sum of their parts. Merton was one solution, the Sorbonne’s another. The optimal configuration was arguable, not least because of the ambiguous status of fellows as both beneficiaries and regulators of the institutions that housed them. And because it was arguable, it was argued about. Just as Pecham did in 1280.

Founders attempted to construct accountable, collegial statutes through interlocking mechanisms that both asserted group solidarity and reconciled variant interests within that group. The strength of the approach adopted by drafters was the prescriptive licence they offered to temporary members, officers, and visitors in resolving this. Intentions and aims were specified, but significant levels of discretion variously reserved for members in disciplining, accounting, or determining what was useful for serving the institution’s purposes. This was a challenge. Far bigger institutions—such as the Franciscans—can be seen ungainfully wrestling with the question. The utile apparatus of statutes and rules was intended to articulate the honestum purpose. It was critical that accountability went up, down, and across if this was to work, involving both warden and fellows. In observing that, we observe an interlocking mechanism where weight braces counterweight. Collegial statutes provided for both the resolution of disputes and the avoidance of them. If accountability is ultimately a way of regulating conflict, the threat of that conflict may well also have been a disincentive— forestalling other conflicts of which we lack all trace. It is anyway the longevity of the foundations rather than some imperfect avoidance of dissentio or discordia which is the better measure of how far founders’ ideals of collegiate accountability were achieved. The institutions for holding the temporary members of colleges to account—wardens and fellows both—were after all only a means to that enduring end.

  • [1] ‘Because your human longings point to where | portions grow smaller in shared fellowship, | meanness of mind must make the bellows sigh. | If love, though, reaching for the utmostsphere, | should ever wrench your longings to the skies, | such fears would have no place within yourbreast. | For, there, the more that we speak of ‘ours’, | the more each one possesses of the good | and,in that cloister, love burns brighter.’ Dante, Purgatorio, 15 ll. 49—57, trans. Robin Fitzpatrick, slightlymodified (London, 2007).
  • [2] A common form of address in statutes: e.g. Statutes of the Colleges of Oxford, i. Oriel, 10, 12(May 1326); Glorieux, Origines de la Sorbonne, i. #41 at 230; A Cartulary of the Hospital of St Johnthe Baptist, ed. H. E. Salter, 3 vols., OHS 66, 68—9 (Oxford, 1914—17), iii. #1 at 6; Statutes of Autun,1341 statutes, caps. 15, 19 at 46, 47. See Maddicott’s complementary discussion of ‘collegiality’ atStapeldon Hall, Founders and Fellowship, 49—50.
  • [3] I use the terms, again, a la Clanchy, ‘Law and Love’.
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