Professor Sarah Hamilton – A Virtual Lecture and Q&A

by | Jun 18, 2020 | Online Events, RHS Work | 0 comments

“Responding to Violence: Liturgy, Authority and Sacred Places c.900-c.1100”


Professor Sarah Hamilton was due to give her lecture in the Gustave Tuck Lecture Theatre at UCL, London on Friday 1 May.  As COVID-19 made this impossible, she agreed to deliver her lecture virtually.

This enabled far more people to access the lecture (in both video and audio format) than would have been able to attend in person. To date, more than 1200 people have engaged with the lecture online. Over two weeks from 11-25 May 2020 some took the opportunity to share their questions as well.

We are extremely grateful to Professor Hamilton for being willing to act as our first virtual lecturer, and for everyone who watched the lecture or got in touch subsequently.

This updated post presents the full lecture together with a written Q&A. As a permanent record of the event, we hope that this will be a lasting resource of use to researchers, tutors and students alike.


About Sarah Hamilton

Sarah Hamilton is Professor of Medieval History in the Department of History, University of Exeter, UK. Her research focuses on the religious, social and cultural history of early medieval Europe between c. 900 and c. 1200. From 2014-2019 she was Honorary Treasurer of the Royal Historical Society.

Lecture Abstract

Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury cathedral in December 1170 is one of the more well-known incidents of medieval English history. But while murder inside a cathedral was actually very rare throughout the Middle Ages, reports of violent acts in the precincts of churches, especially in graveyards, are much more common. How did bishops and priests react to such events?

Set apart through rituals of consecration, grants of immunity and rights of sanctuary, local churches with their graveyards came to constitute important sites of ecclesiastical authority across the medieval West from the tenth century onwards. As such, both church and cemetery were vulnerable to attack from non-Christians and other Christians.  And as open spaces, graveyards, in particular, routinely attracted incidents of drunkenness, dancing, brawls, and, if only occasionally, murder.

Scholars are well aware that the principle of sacred space is a specific feature of medieval Christianity. There is a rich body of research focusing on how churches and their precincts, including graveyards, came to be defined and maintained as holy by churchmen in the medieval world.  We know, also, how episcopal and monastic communities reacted to violent incursions into their own consecrated spaces with specific acts. They met in council and issued legislation, or recited curses against their enemies, imposed excommunications, or humiliated saints’ relics. For all its strengths, this latter approach focuses upon unusual and atypical events.

What is missing from this picture is the evidence of the much more common rites by which bishops and their priests sought to restore and reconcile holy places, including graveyards, which had been violated by acts of bloodshed, drunkenness, negligence and obscenity. This lecture will investigate how, why, where and when churchmen developed these rites, anchoring their development in the years after the dissolution of the Carolingian Empire.


Watch the Lecture

An audio-only recording can be accessed here (right click to save).


Q&A – Sarah Hamilton

I’m immensely flattered that so many people have engaged with my (and the RHS’s) first venture into virtual lecturing.  It is a disconcerting experience to record a lecture from the comfort of one’s own study, without the opportunity to “read” one’s audience and receive immediate feedback: I’m therefore very grateful to everyone who raised questions, and to the RHS for offering me this chance to answer them here. Before I do so, however, I should like to thank three people in particular who helped me successfully record this lecture:  Katherine Foxhall, the RHS’s Research and Communications Officer, for her help and advice, Andrew Smith, RHS Co-Director of Communications, for his editing, and Stephen Lee, who offered valuable technical support not just on how to operate the video recording software but also lighting and volume.

In tribute to the fascinating and often lengthy ‘Discussione’ printed verbatim after each paper in the volumes of the annual early medieval conference held in Spoleto I have added my answer after each question.


Thank you Sarah for your talk!  I was struck that the first detailed reconciliation rites came from tenth-century England.  Do you think this is just a quirk of the evidence, or something more significant about the place of the church in English society at the time, compared to Francia?

I agree that it is striking that the earliest reconciliation rites for cemeteries to survive come from southern England. No, I don’t think this is just a quirk of evidence. Rather (and this is something I hope to make clearer in the published version of this essay), this picture fits with Helen Gittos’s research into Anglo-Saxon rites for the consecration of cemeteries (as opposed to those for the reconciliation of violated cemeteries).   In her 2002 essay ‘Creating the Sacred: Anglo-Saxon Rites for Consecrating Cemeteries’, she demonstrates that consecration rites for cemeteries first emerged in southern England in the early tenth century, but only from the eleventh century onwards in Frankia. Helen situates the rites for the consecration of cemeteries in the context of other evidence that Anglo-Saxon churchmen, especially bishops, were precocious in their interest in controlling the burial of the laity: the earliest Anglo-Saxon evidence for the collection of soul-scot dates from the 870s and is similarly much earlier than that for burial taxes elsewhere in Europe. She concludes that Anglo-Saxon bishops displayed a precocious interest in recording consecration rites for cemeteries as part of their interest in controlling burial rites for the laity. To that extent, the evidence suggests that the role of bishops within southern English society in this respect potentially differed from those of their Frankish colleagues.

That reconciliation rites for cemeteries where violence has taken place emerge at the same time and in the same place is consequently unsurprising.  For the concepts of consecration and reconciliation are paired together in liturgical collections from the eighth century onwards: thus in Frankish eighth- and ninth-century materials, rites for the consecration of the altar and the church are generally followed by prayers for reconciliation if it that space is defiled. It is therefore not unsurprising that rites for cemeteries follow an identical model. Such pairings are not accidental: pollution has to be followed cleansing.   The pairing of these models therefore also reveals the ways in which these spaces are conceived. The language used throughout the reconciliation rite is that of disease and pollution: words such as spurcalium, sordium (filth), culpae contagii (contagious sins), maculata (taint), pollutio (pollution).   The church and cemetery are conceptualised as sacred places, rendered holy, a new Jerusalem, and polluted by such acts.  What is required to restore them to purity is therefore exorcism and reconciliation.


Could the hesitancy about the process of reconciling Canterbury be attributed to the amplified importance of papal approval in that era?

To some extent that is, of course, the case: the decision to defer to Rome about the reconciliation of Canterbury cathedral after Becket’s murder would not, I think, have occurred in a previous century.  It is, however, striking that the papal correspondence I cited is recorded in a wider manuscript context alongside other correspondence to do with the Becket dispute; to that extent, I think it suggests that this decision is linked to the case itself, rather than the increased importance of papal authority in this era.


Your illumination of the development of the reconciliation ritual and the role of bishops as integral to the ritual itself was absolutely fascinating, as was your important insight about marginal glosses providing insight into the execution of ritual. After your presentation, I pondered the gap between your material and the 13th century, when Durandus will produce such a detailed explication of the process and meaning of the reconsecration of churches and churchyard.  What do you think might have happened in the development and understanding of the ritual from your period to the time of Durandus’s writing?

William Durandus. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Thank you for raising the evidence from this rich text. William Durandus (d. 1296) was bishop of the southern French see of Mende (1286-96) and wrote his exposition on the divine liturgy in the last decade of the thirteenth century.  I agree with you that the level of detail in Durandus’s text on this issue (Rationale divinorum officiorum I, 6) is fascinating.  It is also seemingly one of the earliest detailed medieval discussions of this rite.

 In answer to your question, I think Durandus’s account has to be set against a wider textual and intellectual as well as historical context.  As I explained in answer to the first question, reconciliation was twinned with the consecration rite from the eighth century onwards; both rites offer ways for churchmen, through the liturgy, to reflect on the idea of what constitutes sacred space: how it is defined and defended.  We would therefore expect, in a comprehensive text like Durandus’s, to find consecration rites linked to reconciliation rites.  Whilst Durandus’s account of the process seems to be based on the twelfth-century Roman ordo, what is striking is the moralising gloss he puts on the rite: ‘And the reconciliation is done as an example and to cause fear, so that those seeing a church, which in no way has sinned, being washed and purified for the sin of another, will think to themselves how much more should they labour in the expiation of their own sins.’ (The Rationale divinorum officiorum of William Durand of Mende, trans. Timothy M. Thibodeau (New York, 2007), p. 75).  He seems concerned to close possible loop holes, asserting that if violence or pollution is perpetrated in one part, all the other parts of the church or cemetery are considered violated, because they are considered parts of a single whole, and conversely if one part is reconciled, all the other parts are reconciled.  This sits alongside other displays of casuistry in this section.  He acknowledges that the rite of consecration is a sacrament, and therefore a church or cemetery does not require to be reconsecrated if it has been consecrated initially by an excommunicated bishop.   But he allows that if an excommunicate is buried in a cemetery, then that person should be dug up and the cemetery should be reconciled before it is used again because the sacraments have passed through the mouth of an excommunicate and contaminated the place.  These concerns reflect the worlds of the papal curia and southern France (a hotbed of heresy) in which he operated; they are both environments in which excommunication was a routine occurrence.  I think it is also important to remember Durandus was trained in canon law at Bologna, and was author of a work on procedural law, as well as having a successful career in the papal curia prior to becoming Bishop of Mende: he is behaving very much like a lawyer here.   More interesting to my mind is his acknowledgement that some people argue that it is not necessary to reconcile a cemetery which has been polluted by the burial of excommunicant on the grounds that the pontifical doesn’t include a rite for the reconciliation of cemeteries.   Even at that late stage, such rites were seemingly not universally known in southern France.


Thank you, Sarah, for such an enjoyable and fascinating lecture.  Just a couple of questions:

(1) You said that the earliest references mention bloodshed and adultery as reasons for the reconciliation of a church or churchyard.  In your lecture you focused on how bloodshed in churches and related sacred spaces contributed to the emergence of a rite for reconciliation.  Is there a similar impetus resulting from ‘adultery’ in the development of the rite or is the focus primarily on bloodshed?

(2). In this period is it only bishops who can reconcile a church or churchyard?  By the sixteenth century, abbots who have the authority to conduct pontifical rites are recorded reconciling churches and in some cases delegating authority to do so to lower ranked churchmen.

Thank you for two very interesting questions.   (1)  I will be brief: sadly, I haven’t been able to find any further discussion of adultery in the development of the rite: the focus seems to move firmly on to violence and bloodshed in later texts.   (2) In this period it does seem to be only bishops who can reconcile a church or churchyard; although certain abbots acquire pontifical responsibilities, I haven’t come across any examples of an abbot reconciling a sacred space in this period.   By the later Middle Ages bishops can and do get permission from the pope so that they can delegate authority to reconcile churchyards where blood has been spilt: the bishops of Exeter do this for the cathedral close, for example.   I don’t know if this is also the case for bishops, but I’d expect it to be the case.   One of the challenges we need to remember, however, is we have a good deal more evidence for the workings of diocesan government from the thirteenth century onwards.


Is there any East Frankish evidence of villages/towns seeking refuge inside their church (as the only stone building) in the face of Magyar attacks?

 I’ve been looking for evidence of other Northmen and Magyar attacks, and I have yet to come across a story of the inhabitants doing so explicitly, although it’s implicit in the accounts of the destruction of Pavia and its churches in 924.   I’ve come across various stories about monks and churchmen taking refuge in churches including a wonderful one in the eleventh-century Gesta episcoporum Cameracensium in which the Hungarians set fire to a church as part of unsuccessful peace negotiation but a cleric miraculously puts the fire out.  I suspect I need to work more systematically through the hagiographical material than I’ve had a chance to do so to date, but I will keep digging.   Many thanks for the suggestion.


If the questioners or anyone else who watched the lecture wants to follow up these answers with me via e-mail, please do get in touch.  And finally, I’d like to end by thanking Margot Finn and the other members of the RHS Council for the invitation to give this lecture: I certainly have learnt a lot.


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