The Letters of Arnulf of Lisieux

Although they were written by an old-style, pre-Gregorian bishop, rather than by a man in tune with the emergent forces of the age, the letters of Arnulf of Lisieux provide many insights, not least into the epistolary culture that was central to the conduct of affairs in twelfth-century Europe. Arnulf was a member of the Norman nobility and he could count among his kin several men who had held high ecclesiastical offices in the dioceses of Sées and Lisieux. He first made a name for himself with the composition of a pamphlet directed against the antipope Anacletus II (1131–38) which made much use of anti-semitic rhetoric. In the late 1130s, he was active in the service of King Stephen, representing him at the Lateran Council of 1139. He was elected bishop of Lisieux in 1141, but seems not to have spent much time in his diocese in the 1140s, when the duchy was under the control of Matilda and her son, Henry of Anjou. He accompanied Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine on the second crusade as a papal legate in charge of the Anglo-Norman contingent. But he succeeded in ingratiating himself with Henry soon after his return, and from 1150 to 1154 Arnulf was an active member of the duke’s entourage.

fire beastThe Polonius of his time, he remained heavily involved in royal affairs throughout the next two decades. He was appointed chief justiciar for Normandy in 1154, and attests Henry II’s charters at least 121 times between 1154 and 1179. He is often to be found representing the king in disputes: in the opening years of the Becket dispute, for example, he made six trips to the papal court at Sens in a fruitless attempt to persuade Pope Alexander III to confirm the Constitutions of Clarendon. In this dispute, however, he attempted to persuade both sides to compromise, but was frustrated in equal measure by the obduracy of both Henry and Becket. He continued to represent the king in the aftermath of Becket’s murder, but he lost Henry’s confidence by appearing to offer support to his son, the Young King, during the Great Rebellion of 1173/4. The canons of his cathedral seized the opportunity to get rid of him, accusing him of misusing the church’s money and forcing him to resign his bishopric in 1181. He retired to one of the great headquarters of the secular clergy, the Abbey of St Victor at Paris, where he died a disappointed man in 1184.

Arnulf’s letters also provide a noteworthy example of adherence to the rules of dictamen set out in the new-style manuals of the twelfth century. As Schriber explains in the introduction to her translation (pp. 16–17),

his letters scrupulously followed the established fivefold division of an epistle. His salutatio, wherever it has been preserved in the manuscripts, accurately reflected the rank of the recipient in relation to the writer. He addressed the ranking prelates of the church with all due reverence and obedience, heaped glorious titles of honor upon rulers, and cut off his subordinates with curt acknowledgments of their lowly offices. The full flower of his rhetorical style found expression in the exordium, designed to put his reader in a receptive frame of mind. The narratio and petitio were more straightforward explanations of his requests, and the conclusio neatly brought the argument to a close.

If the words of the prefatory text are to be trusted, Arnulf first assembled his letter collection in the late 1160s at the insistence of Archdeacon Giles of Rouen (1143–70). A nephew of Archbishop Hugh of Rouen, Giles had been marked out as a future leader of the Norman Church and would later become bishop of Évreux (1170–9), and it is to him that the first version of the collection is in effect dedicated. Arnulf says in this preface that he has put great deal of work into revising and organising the collection, and it seems clear that the original collection was carefully arranged to serve as a handbook of examples for letter writers. Grouped according to subject, it begins with a focus on the central issue of how to nurture amicitia before making a survey of the various types of business that might be expected of a great courtier-bishop.

Seven manuscripts bear witness to this first edition of the collection. Several intermediary manuscripts possibly derive from copies made whilst the collection was being expanded; but the second edition as finalised by Arnulf himself is represented chiefly by Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 14763. This version of the collection comprises seventy-one letters, still governed by the general aim of presenting its readers with models covering range of different subjects and issues. The second edition gave rise to two variant traditions, a French tradition attested in five manuscripts and an English tradition attested in three manuscripts. Two manuscripts of the French version add nine letters. The fullest manuscript in the English tradition—Oxford, St John’s College, MS 126—has seven of these further letters and adds another forty, bringing its total to 118. The most comprehensive version of the collection, it was compiled by Arnulf’s friend, Richard of Ilchester, bishop of Winchester (1173–88), and its additions mostly come from the final years of their author’s life. They tell the story of Arnulf’s falling out with Henry II, of his expulsion from his bishopric and of his retirement to the Abbey of St Victor. Rather than offering exemplary examples to how to conduct ecclesiastical business, these letters may have been appended for the sake of preserving the story of Arnulf’s fate. If so, it may be significant that the collection was not more widely copied in this form.

Online Facsimile: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 273, fols. 199r–229r (‘C2’ in Barlow’s stemma). Corpus 273 preserves the first edition of the letter collection in a form relatively close to that in which it first circulated. Its closest relative is the copy in Bern, Burgerbibliothek, MS 568. Both manuscripts have all forty-five of the letters in the first edition except for the penultimate item, Pro Simone nostro gratias. Corpus 273 also includes verses and one sermon by Arnulf; Bern 568 also has these verses and a fuller version of the sermon collection. Schriber describes them as ‘second generation copies’, derived from ‘a common but unidentified parent’. In Corpus 273, the text is written in a late proto-Gothic script or textualis formata dating from the end of twelfth or the beginning of the thirteenth century. It is laid out in a single column with decorated red initials. The folios measure 190×160 mm.

Printed Edition: Arnulf of Lisieux, The Letters of Arnulf of Lisieux, ed. F. Barlow, Camden Society, 3rd ser. 61 (London, 1939). Available online at Cambridge Core; MU6. Arranges the 140 letters now extant in chronological order.

Printed Translations: Arnulf of Lisieux, The Letter Collections of Arnulf of Lisieux, trs. C. P. Schriber, Texts and Studies in Religion 72 (Lewiston, NY, 1997). PN.DP.A7. Restores the letters to the order in which they are found in the manuscripts. For an annotated translation into French, see E. Türk, Arnoul de Lisieux (1105/1109–1184): Lettres d’un évêque de cour dans l’embarras, Témoins de Notre Histoire 17 (Turnhout, 2017).

Items for Discussion:

  1. Epistolas que aliquando diuersis (Corpus 273, fol. 199r; Barlow, no. 1; Schriber, 1.01). Though constructed as a letter to his friend Giles, this item was almost certainly written as preface intended to introduce the collection to the wider public. It is the first item in all nineteen manuscripts of the collection, and it re-works at length the modesty topos which is a commonplace of prefaces to literary works. Arnulf claims that he never intended to collect and circulate his letters, and that he would never attempted to do so without being prompted by others. For this reason, he explains, most of his earlier letters are now lost. These letters had been better written reflecting a time when his school exercises were still fresh in his mind, when he had a capacity for handling matters more swiftly and when he was able to furnish an abundance of accurate words. In those days, ‘learning drew on genius to hasten along the invention of things in a fitting eloquence of fruitful words’. However, as the topos requires, the grammatical precision, sophistication and rhythmic balance of the Latin with which these points are being made belies this pretense of modesty. It is worth considering, furthermore, whether in the late 1160s Arnulf will have wanted to include his early letters, many of which must have been written in the service of King Stephen and King Louis VII.
  2. De aduentu uestro nichil (Corpus 273, fol. 206r–v; Barlow, no. 13; Schriber, 1.17). Writing in February or March 1156 when Arnulf was in attendance upon King Henry II at Tours, Arnulf here expresses delight at the news that he will shortly be joined at Lisieux by the friend to whom he was writing, Arnold, the abbot of Bonneval (1138×44–1151×59, d. c. 1162). Mention is made of the negotiations that were then taking place between Henry II and Louis VII, but only in so far as this is his excuse for delaying his reply. For an analysis of Arnulf’s use of cursus in this letter, see the moodle site.
  3. Quanta tempestate laboret ecclesia (Corpus 273, fols 209v–212r; Barlow, no. 28; Schriber, 1.20). Arnulf’s most infamous letter, this item was written between May and June 1160, whilst the rulers of England and France were debating their responses to the papal schism which emerged in 1159 when the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa set up an antiope, Octavian. It appears that Arnulf had been entrusted with the task of ensuring that Henry II committed himself to the cause of Pope Alexander III. When Henry refused to come out in support of Alexander, leaving the decision to his assembled bishops, Arnulf took it upon himself to manipulate the bishops into making the ‘right’ decision. With this letter he informed them that the French king, the French bishops, and Henry himself had all agreed to support Alexander and that they were postponing their announcement until the English bishops could vote to join them. In reality, Henry and Louis had discussed the problem but had reached no settlement. Deceived by this letter, the bishops opted for Alexander at their synod leaving Henry II no choice but to join them. It is one of three letters in the collection which are concerned with the schism of 1159.

For texts and translations of all three items, please visit the Moodle website.


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