greedy, deceitful & corrupt elites: a medieval perspective

Writing about 1020, the medieval schoolteacher Egbert of Liège contrasted the austere, pious lives of ancient Christian hermits with modern Christian bodily indulgence:

After a hard life, they deserved blessed rest.
But we, stuffed on fowl and fatty game,
are like filthy pigs, such as those who are Epicureans.
False Christians, called Christian in name only,
deviants in our deeds, we care only for our bodies,
not for our souls, made by bowels and lethargy.

{ Duram post vitam requiem meruere beatam.
At nos altilibus pleni pinguique ferina,
porcis inmundis similes, ut sunt Epycuri,
Christicolae falsi, solo de nomine dicti,
factis digressi, curamus corpora tantum,
non animas matie confectas atque veterno. }[1]

Too much food and too little activity make for neither a healthy body nor a healthy soul. Priests and bishops were supposed to instruct and guide medieval Christians in care for their bodies and souls. Some medieval priests and bishops, however, were greedy, deceitful, and corrupt.

making a boy abbot: twelfth-century simony

Drawing upon a homily that Pope Gregory I preached in 591, Egbert denounced bad priests and bad bishops. The Gospel of Luke describes the first Christian missionaries as being sent to be like lambs among wolves. That mission of self-sacrifice was subject to change:

God does not endure a greater injury, I think
than what they do, they whom he appointed to be teachers —
I speak about priests sent widely among the sheep
and to whom has been entrusted correction of their people.
They offer themselves as depraved examples of evil deeds,
when they sin, they who should be restraining others’ faults.
And what is even more serious, frequently they seize others’ goods,
they who should be distributing their own. What will happen to the flocks,
tell me, when the shepherds have become wolves?
We priests are not seeking profit for any souls,
but, intent on our concerns, we void our hearts.

{ Non preiuditium tolerat deus, ut puto, maius,
Quam fatiunt, quos constituit superesse magistros
(Dico sacerdotes late per ovilia missos
Et quibus est permissa suae correctio plebis):
De se prava operum prebent exempla malorum,
Dum peccant, qui debuerant compescere culpas;
Et plerumque, quod est gravius, rapiunt aliena,
Qui sua debuerant dare. De gregibus quid agatur,
Dicite, quando lupi pastores efficiuntur?
Lucra sacerdotes non querimus ulla animarum,
Intenti ad studium nostrum sed mente vacamus. }[2]

A shepherd not being a wolf isn’t enough for him to be a good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. The bad shepherd looks after his own interests. Drawing upon the work of the fifth-century Christian priest Julianus Pomerius, Egbert reproved priests for not reproving sins:

O you prelates, not in caring but in name only!
Seeing those entrusted to you struggling and downcast,
for love of filthy money you don’t reprove them when they slip.
You will be purified when God the Avenger hastens torments upon you.

A thousand coals will burn up your neglected acts
and in vain you will beg for the comforts of dripping water.

{ O vos prelati, non cura at nomine solo!
Commissos vobis niti per prona videntes,
Turpis amore lucri non corripitis labefactos.
Inproperante deo poenas ultore luetis,

Neglectus vestros carbonos mille cremabunt,
Et frustra stillantis aquae fomenta petetis. }[3]

Reproaching others is often an unpleasant endeavor. Here in this world, one gets along better by going along.

What can one do besides wait for God’s justice? Medieval authors wrote vigorous satire against greedy, deceitful, and corrupt elites. A twelfth-century cleric observed:

So as to allow their mortal mouths to be set against Heaven,
the people’s elders, the fathers, and rulers
to pleasures and corruption devote
time that they should be spending in contemplation.

Because our holy teachers are not occupied with good acts,
but are quick to wickedness and prone to self-indulgence,
deferring neither to God nor to religion,
what would you agree a tender beginner should do?

{ Ut mortale liceat os in caelum poni,
seniores populi, patres et patroni
quae deberent tempora contemplationi,
deputant deliciis et corruptioni.

Cum non bonis actibus studeant rabboni,
sed in scelus celeres et in luxum proni
neque Deo deferant nec religioni,
quid agendum censeas tenero tironi? }[4]

Drawing in part on the classical Roman satirist Juvenal, the medieval cleric contrasted God’s cosmic justice with pandering and hypocrisy:

When subordinates flatter their prelates with their tongues,
offering gifts with their hands, and seeking favor with their deeds,
subordinates share a role with Simon,
while the prelates follow Gehazi in seeking gifts.

Cautiously but illicitly they are preoccupied with selling.
The need is that they finally divest themselves of this work.
If they delude us in this, they will not mock God,
to whom those who conceal their crimes will reveal their secrets.

To speak about virtue after wriggling one’s buttocks
is sufficiently far removed from earning salvation.
The Lord indeed knows who, on the inside and the outside,
has the character of a well-ordered mind.

{ Cum praelatis subditi lingua blandiuntur,
manu dona porrigunt, factis obsequuntur,
subditi cum Simone partem sortiuntur,
praelati post Giezim munera sequuntur.

Caute sed illicite licitari student.
Opus est ut opera tandem se denudent:
si nos hi deluserint, illi non illudent,
cui, qui celant scelera, clausa tunc recludent.

Agitatis clunibus loqui de virtute
promerenda satis est procul a salute;
novit enim Dominus intus et in cute
cui sit mentis habitus bene constitutae. }[5]

Human beings are essentially ridiculous. The world has been going to Hell for a long, long time.

sixteenth-century corruption in acquiring a benefice

Nonetheless, today one can still see green trees and blue skies. Many human beings do many good deeds. While criticizing greedy, deceitful, and corrupt priests and bishops, Egbert, himself a priest, followed the biblical Letter of James and Saint Augustine in advocating mercy:

By no moral activity is the enemy so defeated
as when a person is warmed with the spark of a merciful heart.
In Judgment, one will be sentenced without any pity
if here he is not clement and pardoning of faults.
The clemency of a brother overcomes the fearsome Judgment.

{ In nullo morum studio sic vincitur hostis,
Quam cum quis caleat miserentis fomite cordis.
Iuditio multabitur absque ulla pietate,
Si non hic fuerit clemens culpaeque remissor;
iuditium superat pavidum clementia fratris. }[6]

To be merciful and to pardon sins, one must be able to recognize them. The medieval schoolteacher Egbert of Liège taught that forgiving wrongs isn’t the same as ignoring them. In this specific respect, he certainly should be regarded as a proto-meninist.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Egbert of Liège, The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis} 2.566-71, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Babcock (2013). These verses are titled “About Hermits {De heremitis}.” Subsequent quotes from Egbert’s Fecunda ratis are similarly sourced. Babcock’s Latin text is nearly substantively identical to that of Voigt (1889).

[2] Fecunda ratis 2.333-43, from poem titled “About any bishop you choose {De quolibet episcopo}.” Cf. Luke 10:3, Matthew 7:15.

For this poem Egbert evidently drew upon Pope Gregory I, 40 Homilies on the Gospels {Homilae xl in Evangelia}, Homily 17 on Luke 10:1-9, sections 14-18. Gregory wrote, “Consider therefore what would become of flocks when shepherds turn into wolves {Considerate ergo quid de gregibus agatur, quando pastores lupi fiunt}.” Latin text of Migne (1849) in Patrologia Latina 76.1075-1181, my English translation. Here’s an English translation of the whole homily. For English translations of all of Gregory’s homilies on the gospels, Hurst (1990).

Egbert elsewhere complained that men were becoming priests and bishops through bribes:

Some are ascending to the pulpit and ecclesiastical rank
not by merits, but indeed by money’s curse, I fear.

{ Orcestram aecclesiaeque gradus ascendere quosdam
Non meritis, immo dampnata per aera pavesco. }

Fecunda ratis 1.949-50.

[3] Fecunda ratis 2.36-9, 45-6, from poem titled “About those who don’t reprove those persons entrusted to them {De his, qui non corripiunt commissos}.” On the good shepherd laying down his life for his sheep, John 10:11. On a man in Hell begging for drops of water, Luke 16:24 (from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus).

Egbert here drew upon Julianus Pomerius, About the contemplative life {De vita contemplativa} 1.20. For an English translation, Suelzer (1947).

[4] Twelfth-century poem, incipit “Talking about the poor is a sign of an impoverished pen {Loqui de pauperibus pauperis est styli},” no. 4 in Chartres Anthology (MS. VAt. lat. 4389), stanzas 2-3, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Traill & Haynes (2021) p. 123.

This poem in written in Goliardic stanzas. Goliardic poetry came mainly from the highest institutions of medieval learning:

Goliardic poetry was written in a time frame between circa 1115 and 1255 in the school system of secular clergy between Loire and Somme, and mainly in the cathedral schools of that region

Weiß (2018), abstract.

[5] “Loqui de pauperibus pauperis est styli,” stanzas 9-11 (of 11), sourced as previously. Simon Magus attempted to purchase the early Christian apostles’ ability to confer the Holy Spirit. Acts 8:9-24. Simon’s commercial orientation originated the term “simony.”

Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, sought money from Naaman the Syrian for Elisha having cured Naaman of leprosy. 2 Kings 19-27.

In denouncing hypocrisy, Juvenal scornfully declared, “they talk of manliness / after wriggling their buttocks {de virtute locuti / clunem agitant}.” Juvenal 2.20-1, cited in Traill & Haynes (2021) p. 173, n. 33. Walter of Châtillon similarly used Juvenal’s phrase. Id.

Jerome castigated the Deacon Sabinianus for his lechery: “like a glutton you ran through filthy whorehouses {per lupanaria inpurus et helluo cucurristi}.” Jerome, Letter 147, “To Deacon Sabinianus exhorting him to penance {Ad Sabinianum Diaconum cohortatoria de paenitentia},” section 4, Latin text from Hilberg (1910-1918) p. 319, my English translation. Freemantle (1892) has an English translation of Jerome’s letter to Sabinianus.

About 1050, the Benedictine monk Peter Damian in his Book of Gomorrah {Liber Gomorrhianus} condemned simony, priests maintaining women as concubines, and priests having sex with men and boys.

[6] Fecunda ratis 2.187-91, poem “On mercy {De misericordia}.” Cf. James 2:13 and Augustine of Hippo, Expositions on the Psalms {Enarrationes in Psalmos} 144 (143) 2.

[images] (1) Making a boy abbot: twelfth-century simony. From a twelfth-century instance of Gratianus’s Decretum. On folio 59v of Douai, Bibliothèque municipale, MS. 0590. (2) Corruption in acquiring an ecclesiastical benefice: Cardinal Marco Corner making the young boy Marco the abbot of Carrara. Girolamo Corner, the boy’s father and Cardinal Corner’s young brother, observes the transaction. Painting by Titian, c. 1520/1525. Preserved as accession # 1960.6.38 in the National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC). Credit: Timken Collection. The seven-year Marco Corner received this benefice in 1519. The National Gallery’s overview for this painting observes, “The Corner family was one of the wealthiest and most influential in Venice.”


Babcock, Robert Gary, ed. and trans. 2013. Egbert of Liège. The Well-Laden Ship {Fecunda ratis}. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 25. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Hilberg, Isidorus, ed. 1910-1918. Sancti Eusebii Hieronymi Epistulae {Letters of Saint Eusebius Hieronymus (Jerome)}. Vindobonae: Tempsky. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 54 (Epistulae 1-70), 55 (Epistulae 71-120), and 56 (Epistulae 120-154).

Hurst, David, trans. 1990. Gregory the Great. Forty Gospel Homilies. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Suelzer, Mary Josephine, trans. 1947. Julianus Pomerius: The Contemplative Life. Ancient Christian Writers, 4. Westminster, MD: Newman Press.

Traill, David A and Justin Haynes. 2021. Education of Nuns, Feast of Fools, Letters of Love: Medieval Religious Life in Twelfth-Century Lyric Anthologies from Regensburg, Ripoll and Chartres. Leuven: Peeters. Latin text and English translation, with commentary.

Voigt, Ernst, ed. 1889. Egberts von Lüttich Fecunda Ratis, zum ersten Mal herausgegeben, auf ihre Quellen zurückgeführt und erklärt von Ernst Voigt. Halle A.S.: M. Niemeyer. Online presentation.

Weiß, Marian. 2018. Die mittellateinische Goliardendichtung und ihr historischer Kontext: Komik im Kosmos der Kathedralschulen Nordfrankreichs {Medieval Latin Goliardic Poetry and its Historical Context: Comical Elements in the Cosmos of the Cathedral Schools of Northern France}. Inaugural-Dissertation zur Erlangung des Doktorgrades der Philosophie des Fachbereichs 04 der Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen.

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