Arnulf of Lisieux and the Crisis at Grestain 1164-6: Brother Bishops, Inherited Policies and Failed Leadership

Gustav Zamore. Journal of Medieval History. Volume 46, Issue 4, 2020.

From the second quarter of the twelfth century onwards, canons regular began to appear in Normandy as part of the efforts to reform the local church. Within a century from their first appearance in Normandy in 1118 or 1119, their houses almost outnumbered those of the Benedictines. In the eyes of reform-minded bishops, the discipline and pastoral focus of the canons regular (compared to what was perceived as Benedictine laxity and corruption) made them important allies in the reform of the church. But the assertion and consolidation of episcopal power through the introduction of canons regular was a far from straightforward process.

This article examines the attempt by Arnulf, bishop of Lisieux, to establish episcopal control over his diocese through his project of refounding the Benedictine house of Grestain as a house of canons regular, a project that was to end in failure. The abbot of Grestain, Herbert, had disappeared to England to pursue litigation, and in his absence the monks had not only failed to maintain their adherence to the Benedictine rule, but their discord had led to violence and murder in the cloister, even, according to Arnulf’s account, causing the death of an old woman from the neighbourhood in a failed attempt to bring about a miracle. In addition to disobedience, adultery, drunkenness, and murder, the monks refused to contribute to the construction of Arnulf’s new cathedral. Faced with disarray and insubordination, Arnulf sought regional support for a refoundation of the monastery and wrote to Pope Alexander III, seeking papal approval for the plan. This crisis presented Arnulf with the opportunity to implement church reform and to set an example for other monasteries in his diocese that showed disobedience. But reforming bishops and their ideologies did not appear from nowhere. Arnulf’s policies had taken shape in his younger years as an archdeacon under the tutelage of his older brother John, bishop of Sées (r. 1124-44), and his uncle and predecessor in his own bishopric John of Lisieux (r. 1107-41), as well as his patron Geoffrey of Lèves, bishop of Chartres (r. 1116-49).

In outlining Arnulf’s project, the importance of networks of mentors and patrons, in particular those of family, is highlighted in the formation of episcopal policies for reform. Through the documentation of Arnulf’s episcopacy and those of John of Lisieux and John of Sées, it is possible to trace the origins of the young Arnulf’s commitment to reform and canons regular, which would culminate with him living in the abbey of Saint-Victor at the end of his life (possibly as a professed canon). Arnulf’s conception of religious leadership was formed not only by familial networks, but also by the social and educational ideals of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, filtered through the Victorines, which influenced Arnulf’s perception and representation of the crisis at Grestain. This article therefore begins with an outline of Arnulf’s early life and career and his struggle to preserve his brother John’s reforms in Sées, which saw the introduction of Victorine canons to the cathedral chapter. The struggle to protect John of Sées’ legacy was not only born of fraternal diligence, but also reflected their shared commitments to reform, which Arnulf brought with him to his episcopate at Lisieux.

Arnulf rose to public prominence through his treatise Invectiva in Girardum, a blistering attack on Archbishop Gerard of Angoulême over the latter’s unflinching support of the antipope Anacletus II in the wake of the schism of 1130 after the election of Innocent II. Among Anglo-Norman historians, Arnulf is known for his quarrels with John of Salisbury, his role in the Becket conflict and his tumultuous friendship with Henry II, who ended up unceremoniously ousting the bishop from his see in 1179. Arnulf’s letter collection, which he partly edited himself, has provided historians with important information on the politics of twelfth-century Normandy and England, but also events further away, such as the treaty of Constance and the Second Crusade, in which Arnulf served as papal legate heading the Anglo-Norman contingent with Godfrey of Langres. The letters have also, together with his poetry, been studied in their own right as literary artefacts.

Early Life and Education

Arnulf was born before 1109 into a family that was increasingly establishing itself in the Church. His grandfather Norman had been dean of Sées, and some traditions connect his son and Arnulf’s father Hardouin to Neuville near Sées. Hardouin’s brother, Arnulf’s uncle, John of Lisieux (d. 1141) had been archdeacon of Sées, and later bishop of Lisieux (r. 1107-41). Arnulf’s older brother, John of Sées, served as archdeacon of Sées prior to his elevation to the bishopric of Sées in 1124. Arnulf’s brother and uncle would be important factors in his rise through the ecclesiastical ranks and, together with his later mentor Geoffrey of Lèves, would form the core of the network of reform-minded bishops from which Arnulf developed his policies and reform priorities.

Arnulf was in all likelihood first trained at Sées, when his brother John of Sées was still an archdeacon there. When John of Sées was elevated to the episcopate in 1124, Arnulf was made archdeacon in his place. The archidiaconate had become almost a family inheritance, with Norman handing it to his son John of Lisieux upon becoming dean of Sées. After his election to the see of Lisieux, John in turn was succeeded in the archidiaconate by his nephew John of Sées, who upon his elevation to the see of Sées was succeeded by his young brother Arnulf.

Lindy Grant has suggested that Arnulf was trained in Paris before being recruited to serve as a clerk under Geoffrey of Lèves, the bishop of Chartres. It was in Chartres, she argues, that Arnulf’s attitudes to the central role of the bishop in the organisation of Church and society under the direction of the papacy were shaped, in particular because of the importance of Geoffrey, and his predecessor Ivo, in articulating these views in their episcopal acts. As a clerk, Arnulf had probably helped Geoffrey in outlining and writing his acta. Geoffrey was one of the main allies of Pope Innocent II in France in the early stages of the 1130 schism, which may indicate that Arnulf’s virulent attack on Gerard of Angoulême (and by proxy the antipope Anacletus) was commissioned by his mentor, to whom it is dedicated. It is possible, Grant argues, that Arnulf had obtained a Parisian education before becoming a clerk under Geoffrey (and for which he would be well qualified thanks to his training), since the Invectiva echoes the style of rhetoric that was typical of Parisian disputations of this time. Geoffrey may have recruited Arnulf when he attended the consecration of the new cathedral in Sées in 1126 and may have been the one who sent Arnulf to Italy to pursue studies in law in 1133.

More important for the subject of this article, however, is Geoffrey’s support for the new religious orders and the Augustinian movement, and his attempts to promote them in his diocese. His predecessor Ivo (1040-1116) had played a crucial role in promoting regular canons in France, and replaced the secular canons at Saint-Jean-en-Vallée with regulars in 1099, after failing to establish the Augustinian rule in his cathedral; he was buried in Saint-Jean-en-Vallée. Geoffrey had founded the Cistercian priory of L’Aumône in 1121, a daughter house of Cîteaux and the second Cistercian house in northern France. The following year, he gave Bourg-Moyen to the canons regular. In 1149, his final year as bishop, Geoffrey introduced canons regular in the abbey of Chérons, which had originally been a Benedictine foundation but had been taken over by secular canons in the mid eleventh century. Ivo’s dream of a cathedral chapter staffed by canons regular lived on, however. Geoffrey unsuccessfully attempted to establish the same chapter in this way as canons regular. Arnulf’s uncle John of Lisieux had attempted the same with his chapter but failed, as had Stephen, the bishop of Paris, who also failed in 1128. Arnulf’s brother John of Sées was one of the few to achieve this reform.

When Arnulf arrived in Chartres, in other words, he found himself in the midst of a transformation of the spiritual geography of the diocese to which both secular and religious leaders contributed. In 1131, the abbey of La Madeleine at Châteaudun was handed from secular canons to canons regular, with the consent of Count Theobald IV of Blois, and confirmed in turn by Pope Innocent II. This reform in particular is important, because as Geoffrey’s clerk, Arnulf presumably helped his mentor in overseeing this transition.

Arnulf emerges from this period not only as an ambitious young cleric destined for high office, but as a part of a network of reforming bishops that served as his mentors and role models by virtue of their familial ties and prominence in the Norman and French Church. The reform policies pursued by his mentors and family members provided him with a template for his own reform attempts after his elevation to the episcopate.

Elevation and First Years as Bishop

Arnulf’s uncle John of Lisieux died on 21 May 1141, shortly after Geoffrey of Anjou, expanding his territory into the duchy of Normandy, had laid siege to the city. Two years earlier, at the Second Lateran Council of 1139, Arnulf had denounced Geoffrey’s wife, Empress Matilda, and her claims to be Henry I’s legitimate heir, and chose instead to support the claims of Stephen of Blois. Arnulf’s election to the see of Lisieux should therefore be seen partly as a rebuke to Geoffrey and Matilda, and an expression of the hope that he would continue the legacy of his uncle’s episcopacy in standing up against the count of Anjou. As Jörg Peltzer argues, the refusal to seek permission to elect a bishop was ‘a severe blow to [Geoffrey’s] efforts to establish his authority in the recently conquered territory’. Geoffrey protested the election on the grounds that Arnulf had been consecrated without his consent (although Geoffrey would only be formally recognised as duke of Normandy in 1144), but Innocent, mindful of Arnulf’s support against Gerard of Angoulême and the support Arnulf had from Bernard of Clairvaux and Peter the Venerable, gave his assent to the election. Although Arnulf would later boast that he had been elected without secular interference, Geoffrey prevented Arnulf from accessing the temporalities of his see for over two years and demanded a fine of more than 900 livres—a debt that would haunt Arnulf throughout his episcopate. Peltzer points out that the size of the fine indicates an ambivalence over Arnulf’s election: on the one hand, it appears to have been legitimate, but the fine shows on the other hand that the chapter had nevertheless infringed upon Geoffrey’s claims.

Arnulf would soon encounter Geoffrey again, and this time it struck to the core of the reform programme of his brother John of Sées during the contested election to the bishopric of Sées in 1144. John of Sées died that year after a 20-year long episcopate and 13 years after the completion of the reform of his cathedral chapter by staffing it with canons regular. Early on in his episcopacy, John had obtained the approval of Pope Honorius II (r. 1124-30) and the archbishop of Rouen to introduce canons from Saint-Victor in Paris to fill his chapter, and he had provided them with accommodation. In 1131, John had secured from Henry I the prebends that would sustain 36 canons regular.

In establishing canons regular in his cathedral chapter, John of Sées succeeded where his uncle—and Arnulf’s—John of Lisieux had failed. Robert of Torigni records that John of Lisieux had attempted to reform his cathedral chapter, as had Arnulf’s mentor Geoffrey of Lèves with his chapter in Chartres. Both of these bishops failed, and had to be content with the establishment of canons regular elsewhere in the diocese—Bourg-Moyen (diocese of Chartres) in 1122 and Sainte-Barbe-en-Auge (diocese of Lisieux) in 1128. John of Sées, however, went even further and adopted the habit himself before he gave the new canons their habits.

While John certainly had his religious motivations for his reform, they coincided with the practical and political interests of Henry I. In the eleventh century, the chapter had been dominated by the Bellême family with which Henry I often found himself at odds during the first two decades of the twelfth century. Roger II of Bellême had forced John’s predecessor Serlo (r. 1091-1123) to exile in England in 1103 or 1104, where he was joined by his archdeacon John, later bishop of Lisieux, who became a chaplain to King Henry I there. Two bishops of Sées during the eleventh century had a connection to the Bellême family, one of whom, Ivo (1047 or 1048-1071), was also the lord of Bellême. The elevation of two loyal men, John of Lisieux and John of Sées, to important ecclesiastical positions in Normandy should then be seen as a means of reducing the influence of the Bellêmes. The introduction of canons regular to the chapter of Sées should be seen in this light as well—as a means of gaining control over a chapter that was, in many ways, a Bellême institution: it had, after all, been established and endowed by William of Bellême (c.1005-35). Although the Bellême family was not as influential as it had been by the time of John of Sées, it would have been in both John’s and Henry’s interest to replace the secular canons with regular canons that were more obedient to a bishop that was also a royal ally.

John of Sées’ reform changed, as Peltzer argues, the composition of the body that would elect his successor, since the reform meant, in theory, that the electoral procedures of Saint-Victor were to be followed. These stipulated that on the death of the abbot (here, the bishop) the prior was to call upon the chapter to establish a group of brothers who would elect the new abbot, preferably from the local canons regular. But this rule appears not to have been implemented immediately, since the cathedral chapter of Sées remained a mixed body. Secular canons, among them Arnulf, remained in the chapter along with the 36 new canons regular, although John intended that, as the secular canons died, their prebends would be taken over by canons regular; in addition, John had arranged that all archdeacons were henceforth to be chosen from among the canons regular. Such an arrangement would have struck hard at family networks and other informal alliances in the chapter, and at their ability to secure their own successors in positions in the chapter and in particular to the archdeaconries, which were important stepping stones on the path to obtaining a bishopric. Since, after the reform, the majority of archdeacons were chosen from among the canons regular, this made the church of Sées unimportant as a reservoir of episcopal candidates in the Norman Church, and, as Allen points out, no archdeacon of Sées is known to have pursued a career outside his diocese for the remainder of the Norman period. The reform met with resistance soon enough. The mixed nature of the electoral body meant that the Victorine electoral procedure was not followed in its entirety, and may have been at the heart of the controversial 1144 episcopal election. John of Sées must have been aware that his reforms were not secure and that there was a party within the chapter poised to take over the electoral process, since the prior petitioned Archbishop Hugh of Rouen immediately after John of Sées’ death to send Arnulf and Bishop Routrou of Évreux to oversee the election. The choice of Arnulf as one of the overseers of the election was the result not only of his status as bishop of a neighbouring see, but also as John’s brother, which allowed him to act as the guardian of John’s reforms. In addition, the prior asked that anyone who nominated a candidate before the arrival of the two bishops be excommunicated. In spite of these provisions, a secular canon, Gerard, was nominated and elected before the assigned day. After an investigation, Arnulf reported on the issue to Pope Eugenius III and sought the support of the pope’s mentor, Bernard of Clairvaux, in denouncing Gerard’s election. A party appears to have been formed around Gerard, made up in Arnulf’s view of friends and family members of questionable character and intentions.

Once more, however, Geoffrey of Anjou took offence at not having been consulted over an episcopal election and sent his officers to Sées to intimidate the canons and Gerard. Faced with the possibility of appearing weak in the face of secular interference and violence, the pope confirmed Gerard’s election on the condition that Gerard become a regular canon and swore to uphold the regular life of the chapter. In forcing Gerard to become a canon, the pope here appears to have followed Arnulf’s advice. Arnulf had stated his aversion to the idea of a secular canon set to rule over regulars, likening it to a bronze head on a golden statue. In spite of the fact that Gerard had become a canon, he chose mainly secular canons and close allies from the old guard for his episcopal household—a move that was likely to have been troubling for Arnulf. Clearly, Prior Garin, whom John brought in from Saint-Victor and who sought to protect the episcopal election after John’s death, was soon excluded and had been replaced by 1148.

Gerard died in 1157, and this time the canons chose Achard, the abbot of Saint-Victor in Paris as their bishop. This choice must have delighted Arnulf, who had previously been a generous donor to Saint-Victor. But Arnulf saw his hopes dashed as Henry II objected to the election and instead imposed his almoner Froger, a former member of Arnulf’s household. Once more, there was a bronze head fitted to the golden statue—although there are indications that Froger was later professed as a canon. Arnulf would in the following years bitterly oppose Froger as he appeared to undo some of John of Sées’ reforms and denounced Froger to the pope in two letters. Arnulf’s scathing depiction of Froger needs to be contrasted with the fact that although some of Froger’s decisions ran counter to the 1131 reforms, he was nevertheless a generous supporter of his regular canons, and the Augustinian movement in general. At the time of his death in 1184, he is recorded in the obituaries of the abbey of Premontré and in Saint-Victor, among other places, as a generous donor. Both Gerard and Froger excluded the canons regular from their households. This may, however, not be as brazenly hostile to the 1131 reform as Arnulf believed in his criticism of Froger; it may, rather, reflect the fact that the canons regular did not necessarily have the administrative experience needed for the tasks associated with the episcopal household. Gerard’s and Froger’s benevolence towards the Augustinian movement notwithstanding, the irregularity of their election and their choice of household signalled a departure from the intentions of the 1131 reform in a way that alarmed Arnulf.

Arnulf had sentimental reasons for defending his brother’s legacy, but his motivations also appear to be rooted in their shared commitment to Church reform. Arnulf’s account in 1161 of the reform of the cathedral chapter of Sées claims that Pope Honorius II, himself a former regular canon and good friend of Geoffrey of Lèves, was the inspiration for this reform. But it does not explain the choice of Victorines: this led Grant to surmise that Arnulf, possibly influenced by a Parisian sojourn in the 1120s, was the one who picked the Victorines for his brother. It was not the most obvious choice, given that of the 50 establishments of canons regular in the diocese of Rouen in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, only four were Victorine, and Sées was one of the earliest, if not the first, to affiliate with Saint-Victor. It gave the movement of canons regular a new coherence in Normandy. If Arnulf was this closely involved in the reform, he would have had even more reason to defend his brother’s legacy, and it becomes an even stronger motivating force for his later attempts at reform. John’s work was of great strategic importance for the continuous reform and introduction of canons regular to Normandy. Protecting this reform would have been a high priority for a reform-minded bishop such as Arnulf.

Arnulf maintained an interest in the new religious orders throughout his life, although he did not join his brother in becoming a Victorine in 1131. If the purpose of John of Sées’ reform was to secure the succession of a regular canon, this would have excluded Arnulf from succeeding his brother as bishop of Sées, although he was clearly destined to be a bishop. It is likely that John of Sées banked on his own longevity and on his brother succeeding their elderly uncle in Lisieux, so that they could pursue a reform agenda together. In light of John of Lisieux’s failed attempt to reform his cathedral chapter, Arnulf’s decision not to take the habit in 1131 makes sense as a way of reassuring the secular canons of Lisieux of continuing stability in their election of a young candidate; but Arnulf was not easily manipulated and began immediately to implement reform.

If the members of the cathedral chapter of Lisieux had hoped that Arnulf had no plans to reform his chapter after his uncle’s abortive attempt, they were soon bitterly disappointed. One of Arnulf’s first actions was to impose celibacy on his canons, demanding that 18 of them publicly renounce their concubines. From this time up until his ousting almost four decades later, he was continuously at odds with his canons, who were led by his nephew Silvester. Reforming the chapter by importing canons, as his brother John had done at Sées, would have been difficult, because it would have required substantial funds for new prebends and therefore probably ducal or royal support, which was unlikely at this point. The chapter was, furthermore, more than well staffed at this moment. Any meaningful reform that created a majority of canons regular, thus securing future episcopal elections, would either have needlessly expanded the chapter or required Arnulf to persuade the secular canons to accept the rule. Arnulf therefore had to be content with celibate secular canons and, like his uncle and Geoffrey of Lèves, he tried to introduce canons regular elsewhere in the diocese.

The issue of clerical celibacy would surface occasionally in his interactions with the diocesan clergy and his cathedral chapter. At the start of 1160, there was a renewed attempt to reform the cathedral chapter and impose celibacy after younger canons—with new concubines—had replaced the older canons. But it was the monasteries that caused him the most trouble. Arnulf strongly asserted the right to episcopal authority over parishes that had been under the jurisdiction of local monasteries. He came into conflict with Henry of Sully, abbot of Fécamp in 1159, over the abbey’s claim to the parish of Hennequeville-sur-Mer, which lay in Arnulf’s diocese. The matter had to be settled by papal judges-delegate who ruled that satisfaction had to be made to Arnulf and that the priest that had been appointed should help the bishop in ensuring that the church and the laity remained obedient to him. The abbot attempted to circumvent the process by appealing to Archbishop Hugh of Rouen, asking that he confirm the appointment. Eleven years later, in 1170, a similar conflict erupted with Abbess Mathilda of Montvilliers regarding the jurisdiction over Sainte-Germaine-de-Vasouy.

In 1159, a protracted conflict also broke out between the bishop and the new abbot of Saint-Evroult. Arnulf reminded the abbot, probably Robert of Blangis, that he was obliged to repay the debts incurred during the abbacy of his predecessor, for which Arnulf, who had stood as guarantor, was now being chased by creditors. The failure of Robert to comply would result in suspension from the active priesthood. Arnulf would eventually act on his threat, suspending and excommunicating Robert over his debts, around 1165. Robert was undeterred and continued celebrating the sacraments. In addition to this contumacy, the monks of Saint-Evroult had occupied the hermitage of Rupe, which belonged to the bishop and his canons, and claimed possession of it.

If Arnulf had reasons to be sceptical of the Benedictines and their privileges, their behaviour in general also caused concern. At the behest of Adrian IV, Arnulf had served as papal judge-delegate in Jumièges in the conflict between the monks there and their abbot, Peter of Cluny. Peter had been elected in 1155, but relations appear to have deteriorated quickly: the monks charged Peter with simony, squandering monastic funds, and of ‘foul and unnatural incontinence’ (‘de turpi et innaturali incontinentia’), demanding that Pope Adrian IV depose him. Arnulf dismissed the charges, but reported back that the famous monastery had fallen into both spiritual and temporal disrepair. The conflict had become so bitter that Arnulf despaired of reconciling the parties: the grave allegations publicly levelled against the abbot made it hard to restore trust.

In this way, Arnulf emerges as both an administrator and papal ally in Normandy, but also as an idealist who held the episcopal office high, at the expense of the many persons and institutions of the diocese he relied upon for managing it. Grant’s description of Geoffrey of Lèves’ ideal bishop as not only a servant of the people of God, but as a paternalistic ruler who, always knowing what was the best for the diocese, assumed top-down control of the entire management of the diocese, might equally describe his disciple Arnulf. As bishop of Lisieux, he showed no concern for how his reforms might antagonise the chapter he relied on for the daily running of his diocese. If it proved impossible to imitate his brother John of Sées in reforming his cathedral chapter, he could follow the example of his uncle John of Lisieux and of his patron Geoffrey of Lèves in establishing regular canons elsewhere. Such an occasion arose during the crisis at Grestain where the institutional tensions of his episcopacy, as well as Arnulf’s personal commitments to reform, would come to the fore.

The Crisis at Grestain

The abbey of Our Lady of Grestain had been founded in 1050 by Herluin of Conteville and his wife Herleva, the mother and stepfather of William the Conqueror, who had approved of the foundation. Early on, it received generous endowments from the founder’s family and in particular Count Robert of Mortain. Its fourth abbot, Herbert, had been elected in 1139, while Arnulf’s uncle was still bishop of Lisieux. In 1164, Herbert had travelled to England to pursue litigation over his monastery’s properties there. The dispute probably concerned the church of West Firle and the chapel of Charleston in Sussex, where Herbert had appointed a priest, John, and sent one of his monks, Henry, to supervise him. John did not agree to this arrangement and appealed to the pope, who appointed Bishop Gilbert Foliot of London, as judge-delegate—who adjudicated in favour of John. It appears Herbert went to England to appeal the sentence, and during his absence the abbey reportedly descended into chaos. We only have Arnulf’s letters to document the events at Grestain, two letters sent to Herbert in 1165 and 1166, and two to Pope Alexander III in March and the early autumn of 1166. In his letters to Pope Alexander, Arnulf outlines the nefarious deeds of the monks and their abbot. Once the ‘odour of sweetness’ emanated from the monastery, but now only scandals come out from the walls. As discipline inside the walls declines, Arnulf observes, the practice of charity and hospitality does too. ‘These are small matters’, he writes, ‘but their insanity bursts forth into bloodshed, so that their hands in no way are kept clean of any crime.’ Arnulf goes on to claim that the monks even fought with their knives (the cultelli which the Rule of Benedict prescribes that monks wear) which have left scars and fresh wounds on the monks’ bodies. But, as Arnulf reports, the monks not only killed each other, they also caused the death of a local woman by lowering her seven times into ice-cold water while uttering mysterious incantations (‘nescio quibus carminibus’) in an attempt to bring about a healing miracle. This was apparently an occasion to which they had invited outsiders as witnesses to their would-be miracle. Arnulf describes this exercise as a profana religio, which provoked nature to have its course with the old woman, rather than bringing about God’s mercy. Moreover, Arnulf claims that when the monastic cook’s lay assistant complained that one of the monks took more than a pastoral and canonical interest in his wife, the accused monk beat the man to death with his own pestle so ferociously that his innocent blood mixed with the food he was preparing for the monks.

By contrast, Herbert enjoyed a pleasant sojourn in England under the pretext of managing the monastery’s estates, leading an unsupervised life (‘sine consorte et iudice’) in gluttony (‘gule et lateri, sicut dicebatur, indulgens’). Arnulf brought up the problems at Grestain with the abbot, who preferred to deal with the crisis discreetly, rather than doling out punishments, leaving the bishop frustrated that he could not do much to force the abbot into taking action. As Arnulf saw it, Herbert had engaged in pointless travel and litigation. After 14 months away, Herbert received a stern letter from Arnulf, recalling him to his monastery to set it in order. Upon Herbert’s return to Grestain, Arnulf took the opportunity to begin what he saw as necessary reforms. Having called upon religious and venerable persons he sought to find a new set of rules—that is, customs—for the government of Grestain according to the Rule of Benedict and to keep Herbert from transgressing his vow of obedience to his ordinary. Arnulf relaxed his initial prohibition on travels after Herbert had returned, and he allowed him to travel again as necessity required, whereupon Herbert almost immediately set sail for England once more without informing Arnulf and without setting things in order. Soon enough, the remaining monks lapsed into their old ways. There was no discipline in the chapter and silence was not observed, the divine offices were neglected and not performed with reverence. Instead, the monks preferred loitering by the crossroads, frequenting taverns and ‘adulterous beds’. When the wine in the refectory was not to their liking at a particular feast day, they all left for the tavern, save for four old brothers, and they took the bell ropes with them, silencing the call to divine office for a few days. The drunken brawls of the monks led to even more bloodshed. Arnulf had instructed Herbert not to leave for England again without nominating deputies, to be approved by Arnulf. Herbert probably felt that this arrangement infringed on his rights as abbot and left for England without having a deputy approved by Arnulf. The person he did leave in charge lashed out with a knife against two other monks in the refectory in a drunken rage, and he was beaten to death with a large stick by the two monks in self-defence.

This act of violence appears to have been the final straw, and calls were made for the monks to be ejected and for men of a new order to be introduced. Arnulf removed the murderers and tried to bring some order to the monastery. Arnulf had some of the worst offenders removed to rule-abiding monasteries (religiosa monasteria) after which the troubles subsided. A regional consultation demanded that the monastery be dissolved and that the remaining monks be dispersed and sent to monasteries that followed the rule (regularia monasteria) that knew nothing of their behaviour so that they might lose the occasion for sin by being robbed of their bad company. The decision was taken to turn the monastery into a house of canons regular—which met with royal approval. Arnulf claims that the idea of introducing a new order originated locally, but these calls could have been for any religious order, such as the Cistercians or the Cluniacs, which would have preserved the Benedictine nature of Grestain. The idea of bringing in canons regular was approved by common consent (commune uotum), but Arnulf was without doubt the driving force in getting this proposition approved before the matter was brought to the pope, as procedure demanded. Arnulf then adds to his account what must have been his own motivation for this move:

so that the renewed appearance of [the] order may erase all trace of the past and inspire fear into the other monasteries by virtue of its example. For there are others, whose dissolute ways have burst forth into such audacity that even after their iniquity has been discovered they refuse to feel shame, but with hardened faces they continue to grow in obstinacy.

For Arnulf, the reform was not just about restoring the monastery to discipline, but to set a clear example, one that would inspire terror among the insubordinate monks and abbots in his diocese.

Shortly after his first letter to Pope Alexander in March of 1166, and the regional consultation, Arnulf issued a second letter to Herbert in May in which he threatened Herbert with suspension from the active priesthood if he did not return within 20 days. Herbert returned, although late, in the summer of 1166 and refused to respect the suspension he incurred by not arriving on time. He never presented himself to the bishop, but remained near Lisieux for 40 days. By avoiding a confrontation with the bishop, he had hoped also to stall his actions, so that he could appeal to Archbishop Routrou of Rouen, and even to the king himself, but to no avail. At this point, Herbert appealed to the pope, hoping for an audience by 1 October.

Arnulf pauses his account here to make yet another excursion into the crimes of the monks. At some point, probably after his first letter to Pope Alexander in March 1166, Arnulf sent out a priest and a subdeacon to seek contributions for the construction of his new cathedral. When they arrived at Grestain, while the monks were eating in the refectory, they entered the monastery to seek charity, but were stopped by the senior proctor. Together with the porter, he beat the priest and the subdeacon, had them thrown out and sent away empty-handed as well as seriously injured. Arnulf sent for the perpetrators, who refused to come and were forbidden to do so by Herbert. As a result, Arnulf publicly anathemised the proctor, who was nevertheless allowed by Herbert to say Mass publicly. Arnulf now feared that by participating in the sacraments performed by an excommunicated man who celebrated the mysteries with polluted and bloody hands, the whole chapter might become ‘a synagogue of Satan’. He therefore visited the monastery together with abbots and other venerable persons that served as his witnesses. He did so, without any prior invitation (non vocatus), to speak to the monks directly, but Herbert refused to allow his monks to come into Arnulf’s presence. Arnulf, presumably standing outside the walls, warned the monks and told them that they could be forgiven since they may have acted out of simplicity, as long as this was not turned into contumacy. After this they would have no more refuge: if the monks refused to heed his call and repent, they would all be excommunicated. Since their crimes were publicly known, he added, they had condemned themselves. Arnulf appears to have been on the brink of swaying the monks, but Herbert eventually prevailed over them and he refused to receive with penance and humility the absolution Arnulf offered.

Arnulf had the sentence confirmed by the archbishop of Rouen and his fellow bishops. King Henry intervened after hearing further reports about the state of Grestain, and tried to persuade Herbert to come around and assent to the judgement of the archbishop and the bishops of the province. Seeing no way out, Herbert then acquiesced and respected the sentence, withdrew his appeal, and forbade the chapter from entering the church and from the celebration of the divine offices. Arnulf interpreted Herbert’s action not as a mark of humility or obedience, but as an attempt to portray Arnulf as acting harshly in imposing silence on the church. Three months later, however, Herbert allowed the sacraments to be celebrated again at Grestain, without Arnulf’s permission. Those who saw this, Arnulf writes, thought Herbert to be mad, since he showed no privilege that gave him permission, nor did he give any reason, but claimed simultaneously that he remained obediently under Arnulf’s jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, Arnulf had through his archdeacon Robert of Arden obtained papal permission to remove Herbert with the help of Abbot Geoffrey of Mortemer. Herbert had found out about this turn of events before Arnulf could act and rushed to the papal court in the autumn of 1166 to have the decision overturned. Herbert succeeded, although the sources give very few indications about how he managed this; and Herbert remained in office until his death in 1179, aged more than 100. Grestain remained Benedictine until its closure in 1757.

In order to make his case for reform at Grestain in his first letter to Pope Alexander, Arnulf had exaggerated the state of affairs here to some extent and added some literary flourishes. The classification of the failed miracle as a profana religio which took place under mysterious incantations may have been an attempt at invoking the canons of Lillebonne of 1080 that enabled the ordinary to discipline clergy that performed magic or necromancy. As one of his motives for introducing canons regular to Grestain, Arnulf claimed that those with a vocation for this religious life had to move to other dioceses as there were so few houses of canons regular in his (only one, in fact: Sainte-Barbe-en-Auge), and because they were so poor. Arnulf deemed it best to replace the few monks (paucitas monachorum) at Grestain with a multitude of canons regular (multitudo regularium clericorum). Although regular canons with their austere life may have been less costly, Arnulf could not have it both ways, claiming that the monks were so poor that they must turn to vagrancy and begging, while at the same time wanting to appropriate their resources at Grestain for the canons so that he might expand the number of inhabitants there. Rather, Arnulf’s description of the monks’ vagrancy as caused by poverty was intended to cast a shadow over Herbert, who lived in luxury at their expense. Begging was not appropriate because it required monks to come into contact with the outside world rather than depending on God to take care of them. The Cistercians, by contrast, refused to beg even in the most extreme circumstances.

In spite of royal and regional support for a reform of Grestain, Arnulf did not convince the pope. He did eventually get papal support for deposing Herbert, but even that failed in the end. Arnulf may have turned local Benedictine abbots against a reform that would have been a dangerous precedent for monastic autonomy and at the same time a move that introduced a competing order to the diocese. Arnulf had made it clear in his presentation of the reform to Pope Alexander that one purpose was to allow more opportunities for those with a calling to the canonical life to remain within the diocese, as the only other option did not have sufficient resources. If it is not yet possible to speak of a corporate Benedictine order at this point, then, Mathieu Arnoux’s suggestion that le lobby bénédictin at the royal and papal courts had thwarted Arnulf’s attempts has greater plausibility. The fact that Herbert had foreknowledge that Arnulf had secured papal permission to depose him and, as it appears, managed to overturn the decision suggests that he had connections high up in the papal curia.

In his second letter to the pope, Arnulf attempts not only to depict Herbert as a cunning and dissolute man, but also to cast his own actions as more conciliatory. At some point shortly after his first letter, Arnulf’s plan must have gone awry. Understandably, he does not give the reasons for this failure, but he was probably made to appear by Herbert’s allies as acting too drastically in attempting to oust the Benedictines. Arnulf had proposed that Grestain be turned into a house of canons regular, setting up new or additional consuetudines for the monastery. These consuetudines were probably intended to address how the monastery was to be governed in the abbot’s absence, the bishop’s right to recall the abbot and to approve of his nominated deputies. This gradual approach to the crisis only appears in his second letter to the pope. It is also in this letter that we see his attempts to forgive and absolve the monks and the obstinate Herbert cum omni caritate, even after they had physically abused his priest and subdeacon. These events probably took place after the first letter was written and were therefore not taken into account there, but Arnulf’s sudden offer to put everything behind him and absolve the monks without any significant concessions strikes one as odd after everything that had already transpired. Arnulf’s description of Herbert’s obstinate refusal humbly to accept penance and absolution, while Arnulf stands like a father waiting for his prodigal son, is intended to make Arnulf appear as a good Christian who seeks to forgive, while the sinner continues with a hardened heart. This depiction resonates with the overall purpose of the second letter: to warn Pope Alexander that Herbert is en route to the papal court, intending to dissuade the pope from his decision approving Herbert’s removal from office.

Given that Herbert was at least 87 years old when Arnulf proposed his reform, his insistence on pursuing the abbot instead of waiting for nature to take its course may have appeared vindictive and more a matter of asserting episcopal authority than a concern that the problems would continue for long. Since so many of the problems at Grestain had originated, in Arnulf’s view, from Herbert’s lack of leadership and his mismanagement, the problem would have resolved itself on the abbot’s death.

Institutional Challenges

In the absence of other sources describing the crisis, it is hard to establish the truth of Arnulf’s claims. Without a doubt, Grestain was in serious crisis, and the involvement of local leaders as well as the king in the attempt to resolve the issue testifies to this. Arnulf’s narrative, however, was at times contradictory, as in the case of the monastery’s alleged poverty, tapping into the discourse of Benedictine decadence and the perceived crisis of cenobitism that defined the religious reform movements of the late eleventh and early twelfth century. As John Van Engen has shown in his study of the period between 1050 and 1150, this description of Benedictine life should be seen as an attempt to bolster the new religious movements, not necessarily as an accurate description of contemporary Benedictine life overall.

Arnulf had to make a strong case in order to convince Pope Alexander to place Grestain firmly under episcopal control. From the seventh century onwards, monasteries could obtain varying degrees of exemption from episcopal authority, including protection of property from the bishop; the freedom to choose and install the abbot; freedom to choose which bishop would perform the blessing and consecration of the new abbot and perform the ordinations at the monastery; freedom from the bishop’s jurisdiction; freedom from the bishop entering the monastery at will; and, finally, the abbot’s right to discipline his monks as he saw fit (correctio). It is difficult to establish what freedoms Grestain may have enjoyed—monastic exemptions and privileges of jurisdiction could take different forms in Normandy during the eleventh and early twelfth century. Although there are some indications that Herbert was freely elected (electus) by the monks in 1139, that is, without external pressure, there are no signs of a guarantee of free elections. In fact, there are almost no surviving documents from the abbey. Nevertheless, Arnulf’s brief mention that he approached the monastery uninvited (non vocatus), without being allowed to enter, and that he had no means of coercion other than giving admonitions with due charity (caritas debita) to make Herbert impose discipline are indications that Grestain enjoyed some freedom from episcopal control.

Such exemptions persisted in spite of legislation at the First Lateran Council in 1123, which reasserted the canons from the Council of Chalcedon in putting all monasteries under the authority of the bishop. The continuing crisis at Grestain and public calls for reform provided Arnulf with the opportunity to stamp his authority on the diocese and bypass any exemptions that may have existed. In setting out his motives for the reform, he points to other disobedient monasteries, and he here clearly has Saint-Evroult in mind, which had defied his excommunication of the community in 1165. Both Grestain and Saint-Evroult were symptoms of the same problem—how the bishop’s excommunications, which were often and easily disregarded, should be enforced. It was crucial in this case to convince the pope of the depravity and need for reform at Grestain, not only to do away with any existing exemptions, but also to replace the monks and expropriate their property for a new order for which royal consent would also be necessary. Any new arrangement would be certain to give the bishop greater control and oversight over the monastery.

This was the opportunity that Arnulf needed to assert episcopal authority, by making an example of Grestain. In his account to Pope Alexander, Arnulf emphasises abbatial profession of obedience: Herbert had ignored Arnulf’s episcopal authority which he had sworn to obey. This argument is worth comparing to his intervention, in 1159, on behalf of the monk William of Saint-Evroult, excluded from that monastery. Arnulf ends his letter to Robert of Blangis, the abbot of Saint-Evroult, with the stern reminder of his own profession of obedience:

For you ought to know that disobedience is a crime for the person who has professed the religious life, and that he is held to the most exacting diligence who has signed his promise of obedience to his prelate orally and in writing, and with the addition of a corporal oath, to which the salvific sign of the cross has been added.

This reference to the two forms of sworn profession indicates the adoption of the new practice of documenting it in writing, that the bishop might refer to it when necessary. The written profession in which reverence and obedience were promised to the see was a part of the development of oaths of obedience, taken during the blessing of the abbot, that began to emerge in the second half of the eleventh century. The oath and written profession were controversial, however, and might be the source of serious conflict between a monastery and its bishop, as many monasteries resisted these developments. Serlo, abbot of Saint-Evroult and later bishop of Sées, clashed with bishop Gilbert Maminot of Lisieux (r. 1077-1101) by refusing to submit a written profession. As a result, he never received episcopal blessing. His successor, Roger of Sap also clashed with Gilbert over the same matter and, according to Orderic Vitalis, it was only through the intervention of William Rufus that Roger was reconciled with the bishop after a seven-year conflict. In 1088, the year before Serlo clashed with Gilbert, Arnulf of Troarn resisted the attempts by Odo of Bayeux to exact a written profession and found a steadfast supporter in Anselm of Bec. Anselm himself, upon becoming archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, instructed his successor at Bec to resist the attempts by the archbishop of Rouen, William Bonne-Âme, to exact a profession, while Anselm himself sought to stall Archbishop William through his connections at court. While Hugh of Amiens was archbishop of Rouen (1130-64), several attempts were made to exact oaths and written professions: in 1136, Theobald of Bec took the oath but refused the written profession. By the mid twelfth century, the pontifical of Rouen even included written profession in the ritual for the blessing of an abbot.

This development towards oaths and written profession was accompanied by the notion that the abbot was constituted in his office by the bishop. Some Norman pontificals do not include the written profession, but introduce the rubric consecratio abbatis into the ritual, which now incorporated the laying on of hands by the bishop and prayer. One of the pontificals to use this rubric, but without any mention of a written profession, is a late eleventh-century volume from Sées. If this pontifical was in use at the time Arnulf served his brother as archdeacon, it is possible that the implications of the passage on the consecratio abbatis later shaped his attitude towards the abbots of his own diocese.

The reference to a written profession that Arnulf makes in his letter to Robert of Blangis is, however, noticeably absent in his interactions with Herbert. This indicates that the practice cannot have been fully established in his diocese, as Arnulf would certainly have used it in recalling and disciplining Herbert. In his report to Pope Alexander, Arnulf refers to Herbert as being bound by his sworn profession, but unlike the letter to Robert of Blangis at Saint-Evroult, Arnulf does not mention a written document. Herbert had been elected abbot in 1139, during John of Lisieux’s episcopacy, and the absence of a reference to a written profession is an indication that the practice of exacting them was either novel, not consistently applied in the diocese of Lisieux, or had met with strong resistance. The election and blessing of Robert of Blangis had taken place more recently, in 1159, so Arnulf’s reference to a written profession invokes the shared memory of an event from only a few years before—the turmoil at Saint-Evroult, where the previous abbot had been deposed on account of profligacy, which had probably provided the impetus for a written profession.

Uncharismatic Leadership: A ‘Victorine’ Reading of Arnulf’s Perception of the Crisis

The crisis at Grestain did not only typify the institutional challenges of Arnulf’s episcopate, but evoked a response that merits a deeper contextual reading of his assumptions about religious life and leadership. Arnulf chooses to frame the crisis as ultimately brought about by weak leadership, and he does so in a way that appears to borrow from the canonical, and more specifically Victorine, conception of the religious life and leadership. Although Arnulf does not specify which order of canons regular he wanted to bring to Grestain, his background as archdeacon of Sées is a strong indication that he had Victorines in mind. Furthermore, if Lindy Grant is correct in her thinking that Arnulf was the prime mover in choosing the Victorines for the chapter of Sées instead of, for example, Chartrain, Arrouaisian, or Premonstratensian canons, or even unaffiliated canons—all viable options—this makes a ‘Victorine’ reading of Arnulf’s perception of the crisis at Grestain and his solution to it more pertinent.

Herbert, Arnulf thinks, is ‘a dissolute and deceitful man, who has never desired to observe monastic discipline with regard to himself, nor worked to inform others of its observance’. Through inaction he had lost all authority, and when he eventually returned he was besieged by the monks. Whilst in England, as we have seen, Herbert reportedly lived a life of indulgence, without supervision, and he had engaged in little else than ‘errant travels and pointless litigation’ (‘preter uagos discursos et lites superuacuas’). Arnulf has chosen his words carefully to echo the well known condemnation of vagrant monks, gyrouagi, in the Benedictine Rule, men who were ‘always travelling and never remained in one place’ (‘semper uagi et numquam stabiles’) and who only served their own will and appetite (‘propriis uoluntatibus et gulae illecebris seruientes’). Arnulf manages here to strike a balance by not being too blunt, while being clear enough to sow doubts about Herbert’s commitment to the monastic life.

Herbert’s failure of leadership meant that ‘no authority of discipline remained for the abbot, because their [the monks’] discipline is despised even by the reprobate in whom the works of a well composed mind cannot be seen.’ What Arnulf signals with this phrase is not only that the monks behaved so badly that even the sinful laity despised them, but that there is a dialectic between the inner state of mind and outer appearance. Beginning with Herbert and his habits, Arnulf crafts a narrative of how inner decadence manifests itself, first in Herbert, but later in the monastery itself, so that their state was ‘offered for the public to see and was the subject of public conversation’. In other words, Herbert’s fault was that he did not embody the Benedictine Rule and offer himself as an example for the monks to follow. The sins of the monks were therefore the outward signs of an inner disease which began with Herbert—and which explains Arnulf’s insistence on having the abbot replaced after the initial strategy of introducing the canons failed. The problem went beyond the fraught relationship between abbot and bishop: it concerned the principles of religious leadership.

Arnulf’s position exemplifies the ideals of courtly culture as applied to religious life. The dialectic between inner virtue and external behaviour, and its results on the behaviour of others, was a recurring theme in eleventh- and twelfth-century courtly culture and the cathedral schools. The inner state of the teacher informed his behaviour, speech and gestures, encompassing his whole comportment, so that he became the textbook itself. In this way, mores and honestas were imparted to the student. Arnulf, himself a product of the cathedral school of Sées and a frequenter of several courts, expressed this sentiment on a number of occasions in his letters. Writing to the future Pope Alexander in 1158, Arnulf praises Alexander’s protégé Bandinus and his positive influence on the French court through his good mores which were ‘formed naturally by his innate prudence and kindness’. Similarly, in a letter to Archbishop Henry of Rheims, Arnulf extols Philip of Chaumont, whom he had met at the archbishop’s court, and who had distinguished himself by his good conduct (honesta conuersatio). The son of Louis VI’s illegitimate daughter Isabel and William fitz Osmund, Philip’s actions at court had made his royal heritage apparent, and his great prudence gave all his actions such nobility that he seemed to stand above all others by virtue of his mores.

Arnulf also shows his commitment to the cultivation of virtues (cultus uirtutum) in the account of the reform of his cathedral chapter that he sent to Pope Alexander. The entire province could testify to the moral magnificence of his church, and its discipline, he claimed, was so famous that many were drawn to a chaste life by virtue of the example set by Arnulf. Indeed, Arnulf’s church had set the forma continentie for others to adopt. Freed from its previous vices, the members of the chapter now strove to excel each other ‘in the study of uprightness’ (studia honestatis). This idealised account glosses over the many conflicts that Arnulf’s reform caused (which were later used by Henry II’s men to force Arnulf out of his diocese), but it speaks to Arnulf’s ambitions beyond the enforcement of celibacy: to inspire moral reform in his diocese and the province through exemplary behaviour. Here he appears to envision his chapter as an extension of the cathedral school, to which he had brought lettered men known for their honestas. In both the chapter and the cathedral school, under Arnulf’s guidance, the members competed with each other in virtue. What made this possible was the imposition of celibacy and the introduction of skilled teachers: both functioned as a rule for life in a broad sense, a forma uiuendi, organising life in its totality and making virtue possible.

Whilst the cultus uirtutum originated in the cathedral schools of the eleventh century and was primarily concerned with secular life, the Victorines channelled these ideals into the religious revival of the twelfth century. Although the canons regular and Benedictines were not as far apart as their often heated exchanges and treatises would lead one to believe, the former were characterised by their repeated commitment to teach by word and example (‘docere uerbo et exemplo’). In virtually every treatise on the canonical life, the concept of teaching by word and example surfaces. This outward and pastoral orientation of the canons made exemplary behaviour even more crucial in that it set the forma for the life of the laity, and was thus a powerful tool for a reforming bishop. Although sometimes less explicit on this point in their exchanges with the canons, during the tenth and eleventh centuries the Benedictines nurtured a similar culture, inspired by the cathedral schools and the Rule itself, in particular in terms of abbatial leadership. The Benedictine Rule already stipulated that the abbot must be able to teach in both word and deed, to benefit both learned and less learned monks. The monk that has reached perfection on the ladder of humility knows how to exhibit it not only in his heart, but also in his body, so that it becomes evident in everyday life. At Bec, abbatial leadership by word and example was considered the norm for at least the first 200 years from its foundation in 1034. In this regard, they were preceded by charismatic Benedictine leaders such as William of Volpiano (962-1031) and Richard of Saint-Vanne (d. 1046). Richard, steeped in the cathedral school of Reims, saw exemplary religious life not only as a model for his own monks, but for the laity in general. As Isabella Rosé points out, abbots such as Odo of Cluny (c.878-942) and William of Volpiano functioned as ‘active extramundane ascetics’ who, through their frequent interaction with the world on behalf of their monasteries, communicated the virtues they had acquired in the monastery.

Herbert, as he is presented in Arnulf’s letters, falls short both with regard to exemplary leadership of his own community and in communicating monastic virtues to the world. Arnulf clearly believed, however, that Benedictines were capable of reforming sinners through positive example. This belief underlay his relocation of some of the monks of Grestain to monasteries following the Rule (regularia monasteria): they would lose the opportunity for sin that the bad company at Grestain had offered, and their reform would come through association with monks that embodied the Rule. As Martha Newman has argued with regard to Bernard of Clairvaux, a close ally and source of inspiration for Arnulf, communal life under a discipline ‘shaped patterns of thought and redirected misguided desires so that thought, action and the meaning of salient symbols could be brought into harmony’. Discipline, in other words, establishes a composed body and mind. Arnulf’s reform programme thus connected with a culture that had found its way into both the Benedictines and the Augustinian movement. Arnulf’s early career at Sées and his clear admiration for the Victorines, however, suggest that his perspective on reform was born not out of the Benedictine cultivation of charismatic leadership, but out of the programme of religious life articulated at Saint-Victor in Paris.

To teach by example meant always to pay attention to how one’s conduct affected the beliefs and behaviours of others, to serve both coram Deo and coram hominibus. Hugh of Saint-Victor warned his readers that good behaviour was even more important when seen by others than by God alone, since bad behaviour in public could cause scandal. A good example, on the other hand, was the foundation of the restoration of humanity to its pristine state: ‘For in them the form of the likeness of God is expressed, and therefore when we are pressed against them through imitation, we, too, are formed into that same likeness.’ Hugh famously compared this process to the impression of a seal on hot wax. This model for religious life was intended to serve both the discipline inside the monastery and the moral reform of the laity.

To receive the imprint of the seal which Hugh mentions, the wax needs to be hot. One had first to be humble to be taught by the charismatic and exemplary leader. Anselm, while still abbot of Bec, had similarly insisted on obedience and humility as the foundation of the monks’ ability to receive the exemplary teaching of their abbot. Arnulf appears to take a similar position in his letters, and in regard to the crisis at Grestain, not to mention humiliating his own canons by having them publicly renounce their concubines, so that they could become the forma continentie for others to adopt. It took a firm hand to create this receptiveness, and in the absence of a good and strong leader, Arnulf thought, the vices of audacity and temerity (audatiatemeritas) emerged quite naturally. The monks at Grestain (and Saint-Evroult) had not shown humility, but audacity and temerity, which made them unreceptive to correction and discipline from the abbot and the bishop. In his denouncement of Froger of Sées to Pope Alexander, Arnulf noted: ‘For just as discipline creates circumspection, slackness creates audacity’, and, earlier, ‘Leniency should not precede the sin, lest security nourishes audacity and the certain knowledge of forgiveness invites to transgression.’ Herbert’s reluctance to impose discipline had given the monks confidence (fidutiam) in their errant ways, since ‘they believed that nothing was forbidden, whom neither their own reason nor the correction from others could refrain’. In the absence of discipline, reason yields to licentiousness. In Herbert’s absence, ‘audacity grew out of impunity, and the desired opportunity to live more loosely returned, and discipline was no longer maintained in the chapter.’

An example from a later controversy may shed further light on how Arnulf conceived monastic leadership. His friend Robert, abbot of Mortemer, had risen through the ranks by virtue of his exceptional life (‘ob insignis uite merita’) and shone like a light for the order and benefited (‘profuit’) his monks with the example of his good conduct (‘bone conuersationis exemplo’). In spite of this, his monks had conspired to have him deposed so that, Arnulf claims, they could lead a more dissolute life. Robert stands in stark contrast to Herbert, yet they both failed. Robert’s monks were insubordinate and not receptive to his charismatic leadership, whereas Herbert had failed to exercise such leadership in the first place. Robert had fulfilled his duty according to the Benedictine Rule to ‘do good rather than govern’. Herbert had failed both to do good and to govern Grestain. Herbert’s failure, in Arnulf’s view, consisted in not maintaining monastic discipline for himself whilst on journey, and failing to uphold it in the monastery and to make provisions for its administration during his long absences. Herbert had led an unsupervised life, more like a gyrouagus than a monk.

Arnulf here points out, consciously or not, a potential weakness in the Benedictine form of life in that the Rule itself does not regulate the abbot’s journeys outside the monastery and how the monastery was to be managed his absence. By comparison, the Liber ordinis S. Victoris, which regulated life at Saint-Victor in Paris (and which was presumably adopted at Sées) covers these issues in greater detail. When leaving the monastery, the abbot must tell the chapter the reason for his journey either in person or by proxy, or, if neither is possible, after he has returned. He is not to take more than one brother with him and two servants. The abbot’s journeys are therefore regulated in the sense that he must render account for his journey and its utility for the community, working on the assumption that the abbot does not leave the house unsupervised. If the abbot has been away for more than two months, he is to be welcomed back with great ceremony, after which he is to give an account of his journey to the brothers. In his absence, the Liber ordinis gives a precise outline of what the prior is to do, stipulating that he is to be obeyed as if he were the abbot.

In the section immediately following the regulation of the abbot’s absence, the Liber ordinis deals with limitations on the abbot’s right to sell or exchange the monastery’s property. He must hold nothing as his own, but if he needs to cover certain expenses, these will be taken from the common purse, and the camerarius will note the transaction. It is also in this context that the Liber ordinis addresses how an abbot who has sinned ought to be corrected: first by secret admonition by the senior brothers, and, if he did not mend his ways, to be repeated twice before the matter is brought to the chapter. The inclusion of the procedure for correcting an abbot in this section makes it clear that his management of the economy of the house overall is under constant scrutiny, and his conduct during journeys is so by implication. This stands in stark contrast to Herbert’s apparently unilateral and untrammelled pursuit of litigation, which Arnulf sees as the cause of the deterioration of his monastery.

The comparison with the Victorine conception of religious life merits one further point of discussion. The first outward sign that the Benedictine Rule was not being followed at Grestain and that discipline was not kept was the monks’ lack of charity and hospitality. ‘Just as there was no or little observance of regular discipline’, Arnulf writes, ‘there was little outward exhibition of charity, because they were accustomed neither to greeting guests nor to giving whatever they have to the poor.’ Arnulf admits that these are small matters, but that their insanity led them to bloodshed. In other words, the lack of hospitality and charity was a sign of the same inner dysfunction that led the monks to murder.

Chapter 53 of the Benedictine Rule required a monastery to receive a guest with all due reverence, as if he were Christ himself. Although the link Arnulf makes between hospitality and charity and the inner state of a religious house is absent in the Rule, it was cultivated among Benedictines by the twelfth century, partly influenced by the social ideals of eleventh- and twelfth-century humanism. What is significant in this context is that the Victorines articulated their ideals of hospitality with great care, inspired by contemporary humanism and courtly culture, in the Liber ordinis itself. The Liber ordinis emphasises that it is important that the porter, that is, the first person a visitor meets at Saint-Victor, is demonstrably a man of ‘good manners, affable and good-natured, who, instructed in the discipline of manners and words, is set as an example and sign of the whole house for everyone to see’. His first duty is to address guests in a polite way so as to not insult them. Rather, guests are to be received with great kindness and politeness (‘cum magna benignitate et humanitate’). This conception of hospitality is an expression of what Stephen Jaeger has aptly called ‘Victorine humanism’ in that it draws from the humanistic and courtly traditions with its emphasis on courtliness and exemplary behaviour. This emphasis on hospitality among the Parisian Victorines was partly intended to attract new members, and it was not always applied in Victorine houses outside Paris. Whatever flaws there may have been in Victorine hospitality in the abbeys affiliated with Saint-Victor, Arnulf had a good impression of it from his brother’s reformed cathedral chapter in Sées. Under the newly introduced Victorines, Arnulf writes in 1161, 30 years after the reform, the chapter had made such progress in their holy task ‘that among all the churches of Gaul this one would begin to be considered to be among the more noble churches of this order, if one would consider their gracious hospitality or the discipline of their order’. That Arnulf should highlight their discipline and hospitality as the main external signs of a well run community five years prior to his reports on Grestain to Pope Alexander is another indication that Arnulf saw that crisis and the way out of it through a Victorine lens. This is not to suggest that contemporary Benedictine monasteries did not conceive of their government and hospitality in similar ways through written and unwritten customs. The customary of the English Benedictine abbey of Eynsham, for instance, quoted the Liber ordinis’ prescriptions for the behaviour of the porter almost verbatim. The point, rather, is that these aspects of Victorine life were so minutely described and regulated in the Liber ordinis itself that it provided a ready-made set of guidelines that were turned to naturally by a bishop with Victorine affinities.

The changes Arnulf had in mind for Grestain were probably not only of a practical and regulatory nature but also visual, in that he hoped that a renewed appearance of order (species ordinis innouata) would inspire fear in unruly monasteries by virtue of the severity of his example. Arnulf’s use of ordo here is somewhat ambiguous in that it can refer both to the re-establishment of orderly behaviour and the renewed appearance of a particular religious order, as in ordo Cisterciensis. The black and white habits of the canons regular stood in contrast to the black habits of the Benedictines. The new canons were meant to serve as an example for the diocese not only by virtue of their moral lives, but through the visual change implied in the reform. In both cases, as a renewed form or organisation and visual change of habits, the reform of Grestain was intended as a visual act of communication, the monastery now inhabited by ordered and charismatic bodies that revealed their virtue and inspired virtue in others. Where once ‘such evil could be seen coming out from the sanctuary’, causing public scandal, virtue would now emanate from the interior of Grestain. In addition, the new clothing of the inhabitants of Grestain would in itself serve as a constant reminder that a radical reform had taken place, as well as of Arnulf’s sovereignty and power as bishop through the ‘severity of the example’ (exempli seueritate), a monition for the other monasteries that might cause him problems.


Arnulf’s plan for Grestain was therefore to implement a programme of reform, familiar to him from his training under his brother and uncle, and during his time as a clerk for Geoffrey of Lèves. But this programme was situated in a set of assumptions about religious leadership and the force of exemplary behaviour and charisma. The attempt to reform Grestain should therefore be seen as part of his ambitions for the reform and centralisation in this diocese, as well as an expression of his affinity and predilection for the canonical way of life.

By the time Herbert died in 1179, Arnulf’s episcopate was effectively coming to an end. His friendship with Henry II had deteriorated further in the 1170s: Henry thought him disloyal and sought to oust him from Lisieux. In late 1177, it was agreed between Henry and Arnulf that he retire on condition that Henry paid Arnulf’s debts. Arnulf was later required also to secure the election of Henry’s vice-chancellor Walter of Coutances as his successor in Lisieux, something Arnulf refused. In 1178, Henry’s seneschal of Normandy, William fitz Ralph, barred Arnulf from his temporalities, and Walter of Coutances stirred his cathedral chapter against him: Arnulf’s rebellious nephew Silvester now became an important ally, working with Henry’s men from inside the chapter. Betrayed, Arnulf found himself homeless, without an income, and requested permission from the pope to resign his see at his own discretion, in order to salvage his revenues, and withdrew to the abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris. His request was granted in 1179, after he had been partially suspended from his office by the pope after accusations by his cathedral canons of financial mismanagement. At a meeting with Henry at Gisors in Normandy in 1181, the king and bishop reached an agreement after which Arnulf’s resignation formally came into effect. He was by then a permanent resident at the abbey of Saint-Victor in Paris, where he perhaps also became a Victorine canon, ending his days there in 1184. Humiliated and freed from the obstacles of the world, Arnulf could turn his failures and defeats into a moment of redemption, by following ‘poor and naked the poor and naked Christ’.


The crisis at Grestain provided Arnulf with the opportunity he sought to implement the reforms he had seen proposed during his formative years under his brother John of Sées and Geoffrey of Lèves, as well as to continue the efforts of his uncle and predecessor, John of Lisieux. Arnulf failed, a testament both to his own rash approach, but also to the resistance a reforming bishop might encounter in twelfth-century Normandy. He appears here first and foremost as an ideologue, whose commitments override day-to-day practical concerns. As with his attempt to reform his cathedral chapter, his desire to impose his authority on Grestain and make an example out of the monastery appears not to have taken into account how he would further alienate the persons who made up his diocesan infrastructure.

From this investigation of Arnulf’s failure, we can draw a number of brief conclusions. Firstly, Arnulf’s early experience under John of Sées and Geoffrey of Lèves, as well as the example set by John of Lisieux, were crucial elements in shaping his priorities for reform. In his first years as bishop, Arnulf vigorously attempted to impose celibacy on his chapter, in lieu of implementing a rule for canons there; and he tried to defend the reforms that were the legacy of his brother, John of Sées. John of Sées had accomplished something remarkable and rare in transforming his cathedral chapter into a house of Victorine canons, and Arnulf saw it as a positive force in the province, whose existence was, however, still precarious under John’s successors. By the time the chapter of Sées was reformed, canons regular had only existed in the province of Rouen for some 13 years, and, given their importance to reforming bishops, maintaining their hold on Sées was in Arnulf’s strategic interests.

These priorities for reform come to the fore in Arnulf’s representation of the crisis at Grestain, a crisis which he saw through the lens of the Victorine conception of religious life and the humanistic ideals of the cathedral schools. The problems at Grestain are described in terms of an external manifestation of an inner disease caused by Herbert’s lack of leadership and his long absences in England. For Arnulf, lack of leadership and discipline led naturally to vice. One of the first signs that something was awry was a lack of charity and hospitality: these virtues were part and parcel of Benedictine life, but for the Victorines they were exemplary signs of the state of the religious house.

The attempt to reform Grestain was not only driven by Arnulf’s personal and spiritual preference for the new religious movements, but also by the institutional need to assert episcopal authority over previously independent monasteries, and to inject energy into the pastoral reform of the laity. For Arnulf, transforming Grestain would set an example for other monasteries whose temerity had led them to oppose their bishop. Arnulf clearly overreached in his management of the crisis: although he had secured local and royal support, he underestimated the resistance he would face; he appears more as an ideologue who waited for his opportunity to pursue his agenda, rather than as a pragmatist.

From these events there emerges a picture of a bishop who strove to follow the exemplum set by an earlier generation of bishops and whose ideological commitment to reform overrode other practical concerns. In joining the Victorines himself, formally or by association, Arnulf managed to live up to the figure whose example he must have had in mind for over four decades—his brother John, the bishop and regular canon whom he had sought to imitate and whose legacy he fought so hard to defend.