Power and Patronage in Early Medieval Italy: Local Society, Italian Politics and the Abbey of Farfa, c.700-900

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Founded around the beginning of the eighth century in the Sabine hills north of Rome, the abbey of Farfa was for centuries a barometer of social and political change in central Italy. Conventionally, the region's history in the early Middle Ages revolves around the rise of the papacy as a secular political power. But Farfa's avoidance of domination by the pope throughout its early medieval history, despite one pope's involvement in its early establishment, reveals that papal aggrandizement had strict limits. Other parties - local elites, as well as Lombard and then Carolingian rulers - were often more important in structuring power in the region. Many were also patrons of Farfa, and this book reveals how a major ecclesiastical institution operated in early medieval politics, as a conduit for others' interests, and a player in its own right.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"As its title implies, this book deals with a rather broad issue on several levels and as such might appear at first blush to be somewhat overreaching. However, as a result of his superb research, impeccable organization and disciplined writing style, Marios Costambeys, a Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool, has been able to synthesize enormous amounts of data into a coherent and insightful study that remains faithfully within the parameters of its main thesis." Mary Watt, The Medieval Review

"The author's arrangement of the book is traditional and is based on themes familiar to early medieval historians, including authority and rulership, legal and political structures, kinship, power negotiation, foundations of ecclesiastical wealth, and so on. As such, it will appeal largely to historians of early medieval Europe, particularly those interested in northern Italy." -H-Italy

"...a very well researched and thought-provoking book." -William S. Monroe, Speculum

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Product Details

Meet the Author

MARIOS COSTAMBEYS is Lecturer in History in the School of History at the University of Liverpool.

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Cambridge University Press
9780521870375 - Power and Patronage in Early Medieval Italy - Local Society, Italian Politics and the Abbey of Farfa, c.700–900 - by Marios Costambeys

Chapter 1



The same apostolic lord not only recognized that he himself had no lordship over the rights of that monastery, except consecration, but also reinvested Leo, who was advocate of our party and of the same monastery, with all the properties located both in the Sabine territory and in Romania, which the power of the predecessors of the same Pope Paschal had unjustly taken away from the same monastery through their orders.1

The diploma from which this quotation is taken, issued by Emperor Lothar I in December 840, was not the first attempt by a Carolingian emperor to settle matters between the abbey of Farfa and the papacy in the monastery’s favour; it was not even Lothar’s first attempt.2 The repeated efforts of Farfa’s abbots to stave off the threat of papal domination by appeal to the greatest secular power in the region do not simply indicate the feature of the abbey most often emphasized by the historiography – that is, its imperial affiliation.3 The fact that those efforts had to be repeated – that the issue of the control of the abbey and (perhapsespecially) its patrimony had to be continually revisited – also highlights quite how precarious was the situation in which the abbey found itself for most of the first four hundred years of its existence. It was precarious, but also influential. If Farfa courted the support of secular powers, it was itself courted: gifts of land and privileges of all kinds flowed to the monastery not just from Italy’s rulers, but from the propertied of all social levels. This book will investigate why this was the case, and what impact this extensive patronage had – on Farfa, on its immediate region and on Italy as a whole.

Patronage put the abbey among the great monasteries of early medieval Europe – the ‘multinational corporations’ of their era – and it is a standard saw that they should be accorded a prominent place in early medieval history. Nonetheless, despite significant attention to these institutions over decades, recent work focusing largely on the Frankish kingdom raises issues about how we can recapture the way monastic communities integrated with the societies from which they sprang.4 At the same time, the importance has also been recognized of the Italian monasteries of a similar size and wealth to those identified as influential north of the Alps. Many of those questions that have recently been asked of north European monasticism have yet to be posed in Italy. One task of this book, then, is to examine the former concerns through the prism of the latter, and specifically through the example of Farfa. A second aim arises from this choice of focus, for Farfa’s particular geographical position allows us to trace the development of a monastery in relation to the lay society around it, and to connect it with a problem of ‘global’ geo-politics. Because Farfa sits in the Sabina, on the edge of the hinterland of the city of Rome, it constantly felt the stresses involved in the continual struggle to define the city’s political status.

The securely historical foundation of Farfa took place between 680 and c.700, the work of Thomas, a monk from Maurienne in Provence.5 Although there is no evidence of Thomas’s personal background, we know something of the state of Christianity in the area from which he hailed at around this time, because the will survives of Abbo, who by 726 was rector of the region encompassing Maurienne and Susa (now on the French and Italian sides of the Mont-Cenis Alpine border respectively), and perhaps later also patricius of Provence. On 30 January 726 Abbo issued the foundation charter of the monastery of Novalesa, which he had built on and from his own property. Of this splendid charter, which still survives, two things are especially relevant to the early history of Farfa. First, Abbo enjoined that the abbot and monks should live ‘according to the evangelical norm and the rule of the lord Benedict and the institutes of the early orthodox fathers’.6 A concern for the Rule of St Benedict is, at this date, quite precocious but, as we shall see, it was probably shared at Farfa in its early years.7 Secondly, Abbo, through his capacity as rector of the region (a secular position, in this context), granted his foundation freedom from the control of the local bishop. This attention to the monastery’s independence, frequently echoed by the words and actions of Farfa’s abbots in its first two centuries, should not be seen as having been diluted by the proviso in Abbo’s testament of 739 that Bishop Walchunus (presumably bishop of Maurienne)8 should take authority over the community after the founder’s death. As Patrick Geary has pointed out, Abbo was seeking someone closely connected to himself on a personal level to replace him as ‘secular’ overseer and protector of the monastery. Later in the eighth century, the Carolingian kings would confirm Novalesa’s independence of the bishop, and take over the role of its secular protector themselves.9

It will be evident from what follows that Farfa too was concerned both to secure its freedom from local bishops and to develop and exploit a relationship with the Carolingian kings. As with adherence to the Rule of St Benedict, however, these parallels between Novalesa and Farfa cannot be ascribed directly to Thomas. They become apparent in the Farfa evidence only some years after his abbacy. Nor are Novalesa and Farfa alone in attaching importance to such things as episcopal immunity and the Rule of St Benedict: these were two strands in a new fabric of monasticism that was being woven in the late seventh and earlier eighth century in a number of different parts of Europe. It may be significant for Farfa, nevertheless, that its founder’s place of origin suggests that he may have been influenced by this development.10 The foundation of Farfa was, in an Italian context, an exceptional event, but it did not happen in a vacuum.

Farfa shared one other general feature with Novalesa: it stood on, or very near, a political frontier. The spot where Thomas was to found Farfa was at that time in the debatable region between the Lombard duchy of Spoleto and the ducatus around the city of Rome ruled over, whether directly or indirectly, by the eastern Roman emperor in Constantinople. Abbo’s Novalesa perched on the very edge of Frankish territory, just a few miles from the fortified clusae – the passes over the Maritime Alps – at Susa, in the valley of the Dora Riparia, which marked the entrance into the Lombard kingdom of northern Italy.11 Thomas must have come from Maurienne into Italy through the pass that led across the Mont Cenis gap down to this border post. Later, this was to be the route that Charlemagne’s army took when it came to conquer the Lombard kingdom in 773.12 In being located in such politically sensitive areas, Farfa and Novalesa were not alone among the monasteries founded in late seventh- and eighth-century Italy: Nonantola, San Salvatore on Monte Amiata, Monte Cassino and San Vincenzo al Volturno can all be said to occupy similarly liminal positions on or near the borders of political territories (as indeed can Bobbio, founded much earlier in 613). All were also founded with the support of a king or duke. Bobbio, the earliest foundation among them, was established in the Ligurian mountains at a time when these formed the barrier between Byzantine Liguria and the Lombard hinterland.13 Nonantola was close to the debatable territory between the Lombard kingdom and the Byzantine exarchate of Ravenna.14 Three monasteries ringed the Roman ducatus: Monte Amiata in southern Tuscany, Farfa in the Sabina, and Monte Cassino, overlooking the Via Appia that led from the city to the south.15 The locations of these monasteries were to prove of great political importance. San Vincenzo al Volturno occupied a key position on the frontier between the duchies of Spoleto and Benevento.16

Given these facts, scholars have long recognized that in endowing these monasteries rulers were helping to establish institutions that had the potential to maintain and administer tracts of otherwise sparsely populated land as bulwarks on the fringes of their territories. Their association with these monasteries, therefore, allowed rulers to stake a claim to areas that were marginal, both geographically and politically.17 Yet frontiers were not simply barriers: at least potentially, they were areas of interaction between different polities, different groups of landholders. Richard Hodges has stressed this aspect of San Vincenzo’s position, and the archaeological discoveries there have revealed that it had an economic dimension too: it was partly through its role as an entrepôt that San Vincenzo was a forum for negotiation between the Carolingians and the dukes of Benevento.18 It is not clear, however, that the choice of such locations was deliberate: that the potential in a monastery’s location was recognized from the outset by its founder. The monastic ideal of creating havens of retreat from the secular world may seem sufficient explanation of the foundation of the eighth-century houses at some distance from centres of lay power. It may equally be important that they were distant from episcopal power. Nevertheless, it is the case that the choice of a monastery’s location had more usually been dictated by the property interests of its lay benefactors. These could not be bypassed by avoiding population centres. As the example of the ‘Columbanian’ monasteries in Francia shows, foundation in the countryside did not necessarily imply removal from secular influence.19 That influence may primarily have been motivated more by considerations of landholding than by direct political imperatives. The large tracts of land that formed monastic terrae were more likely to exist in economically marginal areas. Add to that the spiritual mystique associated with certain out-of-the-way places, and the now little-appreciated need to evangelize in the countryside, and we may have sufficient explanation for the foundation of monasteries there.20 The notion that ruler-benefactors had a clear appreciation of the geo-political importance of rural monasteries when they first endowed them perhaps benefits too much from hindsight. Nevertheless, discussion of the problem highlights some of the issues involved in explaining not only the fact of these new foundations, but their location. The significance of the location of these abbeys can be explained in two apparently contrasting ways. It could be, and has been, said that political topography dictated that monasteries should be founded in these political frontier zones.21 On the other hand, it could also be argued that these abbeys themselves, by dint of the nature of their landholding, and the legal status, both secular and ecclesiastical, that they enjoyed, actually contributed to defining or reconfiguring political boundaries. That these two explanations need not, in fact, be mutually exclusive will already be obvious. It is one of the goals of this book to explore further the political and social geography of such monasteries through the principal example of Farfa.

Both location and success direct the choice of Farfa. In the size and eminence that it had attained by the ninth century – attested by the privileges issued in its favour by the Carolingian emperors – it was apparently rivalled only by Nonantola.22 But its sources are far more extensive than those for the latter, as we shall see. In the second half of the eighth century, Farfa was the point at which four powers met. Our earliest documents for its foundation show that it provided a unique opportunity for co-operation between the popes and the dukes of Spoleto.23 As it attracted donations from ever further afield, the abbey also became a crucial meeting point for landholders from the duchy of Spoleto and from the Lombard kingdom.24 The advent of Carolingian power into northern Italy in 774 reconfigured the balance of power between the popes, the dukes of Spoleto and Benevento, and the Frankish king.25 Farfa was, I shall argue, pivotal in these relationships. Not only its presence, but its very existence, tells us something about the modalities of power in this period.

Thomas of Maurienne himself seems to have taken the route across the frontier for a very different reason from that of the Frankish armies that periodically used it. If we can trust the report of our earliest (but still much later) sources (see below), it was on his return from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Thomas came to Farfa. The story as told by Farfa’s great high medieval historian, Gregory of Catino, has Thomas embarking on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem having a vision of the Virgin Mary, who instructed him to return to Italy and to reopen an abandoned basilica dedicated in her name. With divine guidance and accompanied by a small group of followers, Thomas arrived in the Sabina and discovered the ruins of an ancient sanctuary, where he established his monastery.26 Gregory’s tale stands in a long tradition of narratives of monastic foundation, and several elements of it are topoi: Thomas was inspired by a saintly vision, he was a pilgrim, he founded his monastery in a deserted place far from habitation.27 Yet in laying out his story, Gregory was not simply following monastic or hagiographical convention. Pilgrimage to Rome was established and relatively popular by the eighth century.28 That pilgrims could and did also visit the Holy Land in this period is evident from other contemporary sources. Notable among these are two insular texts. In his De Locis Sanctis, Adomnán, the abbot of Iona (d. 704), reported the journey of the otherwise unknown Frankish bishop Arculf to the Holy Land, which must have taken place shortly before 683 × 688.29 Forty years later (723–9) the Anglo-Saxon Willibald (d. c.786) journeyed first to Rome, and thence to the Holy Land, returning via Constantinople and Sicily to Monte Cassino, whence he was plucked by Boniface in 741 to be bishop of Eichstätt. His travels are related by Hugeburc, a nun of the double monastery of Heidenheim, in her Hodoeporicon, written c.780.30 These sources testify that the path to the Holy Land was relatively well trodden at the turn of the eighth century and, crucially, that that path led through central Italy. Remote as it may have been, in relative terms, the Monte Acuziano was not far distant from the Via Salaria that linked Rome with the Pentapolis. It is not inconceivable that Thomas had already travelled down this road. The evidence for habitation of the surrounding area – the Sabina – at this time, drawn from Farfa’s own documents, reveals that, although it cannot be described as populous by early medieval standards, it was not quite the ‘desert’ that Gregory depicted. Many of the early donations to the abbey constitute land already parcelled out into cultivated farms.31 Gregory may, in fact, have derived his image of Farfa in its early years from the description of the foundation of San Vincenzo al Volturno by the latter’s eighth-century abbot, Ambrosius Autpert. He ascribed to Thomas of Maurienne a speech directing San Vincenzo’s founders, who were three monks of Farfa, to a spot in the wilderness: ‘In which place is situated the oratory dedicated to Christ’s martyr Vincent, and on each side of the river is a thick forest which serves as a habitation for wild beasts and a hiding-place for robbers.’32 The tradition at San Vincenzo, therefore, placed the site of the monastery in a silva densissima: in fact, San Vincenzo was founded on the site of a former villa in a settled landscape.33

As at San Vincenzo, so at Farfa, later tradition has the monks reoccupying an earlier Christian site. Thomas of Maurienne is said to have established his monastery in an abandoned late antique basilica, reputedly the remains of a monastery built by the obscure St Laurence of Syria.34 Laurence defies attempts to identify him securely. He was certainly not the famous third-century Roman martyr of that name, to whom, inter alia, the Roman basilica of San Lorenzo fuori-le-mura was dedicated. Farfa’s great high medieval historian, Gregory of Catino, thought that his monastery’s Laurence was a Sabine bishop of the sixth century, an opinion apparently based on no more evidence than is now available. The recent attempt to identify him with a sixth-century bishop at ‘Forum Novum’ (modern Vescovio) is equally incapable of proof.35 On the available evidence, not only the identity but even the existence of Laurence must be questioned. The existence of the late antique church is less doubtful, but still difficult to establish. Excavations to the west of the present church by the British School at Rome between 1978 and 1985 uncovered a late antique phase of occupation, but no structures beyond a walled enclosure.36 Traces of a church, however, are most likely to be found under the present church, where no excavation has been possible. It is at least clear that the terrace on which the abbey church now stands was created in the late antique period. It is also clear that legends linking this site with a St Laurence were current when Thomas of Maurienne arrived there. In the papal privilege granted to the abbey in 705, Pope John VII recorded that a monastery had been built there by a Bishop Laurence.37 All that we can say for certain, therefore, is that Farfa was a recognized cult site by the time Thomas arrived there, albeit one that had fallen into disuse.

The terrace on which the abbey stands is on the north slope of the hill now called Monte San Martino, but then known as Monte Acuziano.38 This rises above the left bank of the stream Riana, which flows into the Farfa river just to the north-west of the monastery. The Farfa itself joins the Tiber about 7 kilometres to the west. The quality of these swift-flowing waters had been recognized since antiquity.39 The surrounding banks were as fertile in the nineteenth century as they had been in the first.40 English travellers in the nineteenth century also noted that the slopes of the hill were heavily wooded, as they apparently were in the early middle ages, and still are to some extent today. Lower down on either side of the Riana and Farfa vines and olives have been cultivated at least since our records begin.41 It is the Farfa river which gives the abbey its modern name. In eighth-century documents, the abbey appears, in its most elaborate form, as ‘monasterium sanctae Dei genetricis semperque virginis Mariae, quod fundatum est in territorio civitatis … Reatinae in fundo Acutiano’.42 (Sometimes the territory is named as that of the Sabina rather than that of Rieti.) In general fundus was a term for a landed estate common in both late Roman and early medieval documents. The ‘fundus Acutianus’ seems to have been a relatively large coherent block of land. Some, if not most, of this, however, was not included in any initial endowment – any terra – that the abbey may have received: Farfa later acquired from Duke Lupo a church and lands ‘in casale Acutiano’.43 Unlike the terrae of San Vincenzo al Volturno and Monte Cassino, acquired in the same period, the extent of Farfa’s endowment remains obscure. Gregory of Catino reported that Faroald’s initial endowment constituted eleven curtes, totalling 11,000 modia of land, but he admitted that their whereabouts were now unknown.44 Lupo’s grant suggests that Farfa may not have been blessed with such a massive initial endowment as the other two abbeys.45 It may have come to possess the core of land around it through not one but a series of conscious decisions made by landowners in the eighth century.

Explaining the rise of the abbey to the position of pre-eminent landowner in the Sabina will be a central concern of what follows. Here it suffices to say that the establishment of the material resources for Farfa’s success was an achievement of Lombard landowners that mostly took place before the Frankish conquest of the Lombard kingdom in 774 (though Farfa received not inconsiderable lands from Hildeprand, duke of Spoleto from the time of the Frankish conquest until 788/9; a Lombard allied, for the most part, with the Franks). As we shall see, the abbey’s relationship with the Carolingian family of Frankish kings was crucial both for the maintenance of its position and for the political situation of the region as a whole. That relationship must have rested in part on the reputation that Farfa had already established, one that was fully

© Cambridge University Press

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction; 2. Patronage and Lombard rulers; 3. Authority, rulership and the abbey; 4. The Farfa monks and abbots: identities and affiliations; 5. Sabine lands and landowners; 6. Elite families in the Sabina; 7. Farfa and Italian politics in the Lombard era; 8. Farfa, Italian politics and the Carolingians.

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