The Church under Norman rule

New organisations : priests & parishes

The parish model, as the basic unit of the Christian community where the inhabitants of a country village or an urban neighbourhood gathered round the cemetery, the church and its incumbent, was not generally widespread in southern Italy at the time of the coming of the Normans.

In some cases, the monastic communities played the role of organizers of pastoral life and they continued to have this influence. But there were also secular lords who took over the patronage of the churches by organizing their territories. They appointed the priests and collected their benefice. Incapable of standing up to the secular powers, the bishops of the small dioceses of the Mezzogiorno often accepted a de facto situation by granting the churches deeds known as "charters of liberation" whereby they gave up their rights to church property and the appointment of priests, but claimed to hold on to their disciplinary superiority.

This situation was opposed by ecclesiastical reform which, with the help of the Normans, was gradually imposed in the 11th and 12th c. Meanwhile, the Normans imposed the organization of the seigniory and the parish network, which also helped to control the population. The ecclesiastical hierarchy was recognized, but the lord too had considerable authority. He was the owner of the parish and played a crucial role in appointing the priests.

The priests were recruited from among the humbler layers of the population on which the reforming popes tried to impose new ways of life. Priestly celibacy however seems to have gradually become the rule in a context marked by the nearness to the Greek churches, which never adopted this reform.

Within the parish setting, the priests administered the vital sacraments: baptisms, marriages, burials… They also helped in community life with tasks requiring someone with writing skills (notarial work, drawing up legal documents), but doubtless very few were able to master all at once Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic like this clerk of the court of the Norman king, who left in a church of Palermo an epitaph written in four languages.

previous page  The Normans in the Mediterranean  next page