The Register of John Salmon, bishop of Norwich, 1299 – 1325

From the first line, recording the first known act of John Salmon as bishop of Norwich, this new edition by social historian Dr Elizabeth Gemmill brings life in a medieval diocese into sharp and scholarly focus.

Why would anyone want to make an edition of a medieval bishop’s register? And if they did, why would they choose this one, which has eluded publication until now because it is ‘only’ a record of institutions?

Elizabeth Gemmill’s research has always been characterized by close study of original manuscripts. She has a special talent for taking what seem to be rather routine and repetitive documents and realizing their potential to tell us about the lives of medieval people. The register of John Salmon gives us a window into the day-to-day world of the medieval bishop – and an intimate view of local power and influence in the administration of a prosperous and densely inhabited region.

Unlike some episcopal registers, with their letters speaking truth to power, their accounts of expensive new building projects, their descriptions of the bishop’s bitter quarrels with his cathedral chapter or recording his interesting visitations of wicked nunneries, the register of John Salmon is indeed narrow in scope.  But it is unique; it is complete; it is consistent; it is disciplined. As a manuscript it has its own kind of austere beauty.  

And it is the only continuous record we have of what John Salmon (alias John of Ely) actually did as bishop of Norwich between 1299 and 1325. We know plenty about his career as a royal administrator and diplomat, but practically nothing about his role as a diocesan. And it’s important to know about it.

It’s altogether too easy for historians to dismiss medieval bishops who were royal servants as necessarily second-rate, men who put their spiritual duties on the back burner in favour of their much more interesting day jobs. But (spoiler alert) while Salmon was perhaps no saint, this register shows that it was entirely possible to be conscientious, principled, and effective in both spheres.

Another point in this record’s favour: it is the first of its kind to survive for the diocese of Norwich.

Medieval East Anglia was literally bristling with churches and contained numerous religious houses, reflecting prosperity in the region and density of population settlement. The late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries saw the diocese at the peak of its ecclesiastical powers – and this register enables us to see their full extent in the years before huge economic and social changes – above all, those brought about by the Black Death.

The fact that the register is complete, starting at the beginning of Salmon’s episcopate in October 1299 and ending with his death at Folkestone Priory in July 1325 (on his way back from his final diplomatic mission to the French royal court) gives us confidence that we have a full record, if not of everything he did, at least of all the institutions.

And, after all, institutions were at the heart of the work of the medieval bishop. It is these above all that tell us about the quality and character of the clergy of the diocese. It is these that illuminate the use of patronage rights, which were a form of power and influence in the region, enabling families and institutions to provide for their members, dependants, and protégés. And there’s more to it than that.

Having this detailed and complete record of the distribution of patronage rights is also a key to our understanding patterns of landownership, inheritance, and influence in the region more generally, including, even, the control of property by women.

So, forget the anecdotes. Now we can do the sums. Here are 2,675 entries, edited and translated from the Latin, at last enabling authoritative, quantitative, and comparative analysis of the life of a busy diocese at a crucial point in its history. There is a full scholarly introduction and the bishop’s itinerary.  

This article on Dr Gemmill’s book first appeared on:

The Register of John Salmon, bishop of Norwich, 1299-1325
Edited by Elizabeth Gemmill
Hardback, 9780907239826, £22.75 or $39

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