Freedom and Protection

Monastic Exemption in France, c.590-1100

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Kriston Rennie
  • Manchester, England: 
    Manchester University Press
    , October
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Freedom and Protection: Monastic Exemption in France c. 590-c. 1100, Kriston R. Rennie examines an important aspect of the relationship between the papacy and French monastic houses between the 6th and 11th centuries. During this period, the bishops of Rome forged new alliances with Northern European abbeys by granting them privileges of exemption from the spiritual and administrative oversight of local lay lords and bishops, and bestowing upon the monks the protection of the Papal See. Rennie analyzes what these privileges entailed and traces their development from the Merovingian era to the age of the Gregorian reform. Throughout the book, Rennie argues “for the exemption’s importance in the emerging identity of papal authority and primacy for Rome, especially in the centuries prior to the turn of the first millennium” (8). His argument unfolds over the course of six chapters. After delineating the tensions between the desire for monastic autonomy and the demands of episcopal oversight in the Merovingian church (chap 1), Rennie turns to Rome, where he examines how the popes began to grant exemption privileges in the 7th century as a way of asserting their own claims to power and governance beyond the Eternal City (chap 2). In the 9th century, formulas of monastic exemption began to include the promise of papal protection (tuitio) as well, a pattern clearly evident in the charters of Pope Benedict III (855-858), and his immediate successors (chap 3). As a case study of Abbot Abbo of Fleury (998-1004) illustrates, by the turn of the first millennium, “exemption privileges were instrumental political weapons in the formulation of debates on monastic autonomy and protection” (120), which inspired canonists to compile them as legal precedents (chap 4). In chapter 5, Rennie argues that the granting of monastic exemptions was not a deliberate attempt on the part of the popes to undermine the power of lay lords and bishops, but rather expressed “a new fidelity towards Rome and a conscious move away from overpowering local and regional lordship” (154). By the 11th century, the papacy wielded monastic exemptions as a tool to extricate abbeys from lay and episcopal oversight in a political climate increasingly dominated by discourses about the freedom of monastic communities from outside control, including simony and lay investiture (chap 6). By the year 1100, according to Rennie, the papacy had established a fully realized “Roman tradition” of monastic exemption with firm juridical underpinnings. 

There is much to admire in Freedom and Protection, which offers a welcome recapitulation of a century’s worth of highly technical scholarship—in English, French, and German—on the history of the relationship between the papacy and French abbeys in the early Middle Ages, through the lens of monastic exemption. However, there are several ways in which a more broad-minded approach may have resulted in a more nuanced and original examination of this well-studied topic. First, Rennie limits his geographical range to modern France (Merovingian Gaul, Carolingian Francia, Capetian France, and the kingdom of Burgundy) on the grounds that it offers “the richest diagnostic slice for investigating the institutional growth of exemption in a critical period of its early development” (9), but a regional comparison of the French evidence with even a sampling of relevant sources from England, Germany, and Italy would have yielded a more well-rounded treatment of the practice in early medieval Europe. Second, while Rennie is correct that monastic houses always initiated their relationship with the papacy by means of requests for exemption, he provides no indication of the other means of protection at their disposal (liturgical cursing, the humiliation of the saints, etc.) during those occasions of lay or episcopal encroachment, when the protection of the papacy failed to materialize. Lastly, despite Rennie’s insistence that he is critical of earlier teleological approachs to his subject, the book’s narrative gives the reader the impression that the papacy acted throughout the early Middle Ages with a single-minded intention. What Freedom and Protection does not convey clearly is the sense that the bishops of Rome usually made claims about their power in those situations when their authority was most precarious. In short, it seems much more likely that papal power in this period was presumptive rather than actual, and that its eventual actualization—even in the decades around 1100—cannot be taken for granted. These comments aside, historians of early medieval monasticism and the papacy will appreciate this useful book, which will be the starting point for many future discussions about monastic freedom and papal authority in the early Middle Ages.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott G. Bruce is Professor of Medieval History at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kriston R. Rennie is Associate Professor of Medieval History at the University of Queensland.



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