[3] AMIENS - Foundations: Commune and Clergy against Count

Abou-El-Haj sought to overturn the idea that the relations between the town of Amiens and the cathedral chapter in the thirteenth century were cooperative and consensual in regard to the construction of the cathedral. She traced the power relations from the early medieval period up to the communal rebellion that ended in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in an uneasy division of authority. She acknowledged that her discussion of the configuration of authorities, episcopal and communal, and the configuration of urban topography at Amiens depended substantially on the work of Desportes, Fossier, and Ott. The reader is encouraged to consult these authors when considering the points addressed below.

At least from the seventh century, Frankish kings were represented at Amiens by a count, who possessed extensive powers over the county of Amiens. By the beginning of the tenth century, in the aftermath of the Norman invasions, under a weak central authority, comital rights had become hereditary and lordship in the county of Amiens was fiercely disputed between Flemish princes and their Vermandois allies on one side and Robertiens and their local vassals appointed by the Normans on the other. In the tenth century, the county was controlled by allies of the last Carolingians and their successors, the Capetians.

The count possessed a castillon, a fortified tower, in the southwest central part of the town. An episcopal tower lay opposite, in the north east angle of the rampart, guarding the cathedral, the bishop’s palace, and, to the south, the canons’ cloister, the dean, servants and familia. The clerical quarter occupied almost the whole eastern section of the town. The bishop’s men guarded the rampart and possessed the keys to the city gates. [See Ott, “Urban Space,” 47; Bishops, Authority, and Community, 227, for a city plan]

Among the bishop’s dependents were the “men of saint Firmin,” who appear from the beginning of the ninth century as a small group under the protection of the bishop. From each of these dependents, the bishop received an annual cens of four deniers, the so-called “Respite of Saint Firmin.” This token of subordination to the bishop’s lordship was enacted as a tribute to the saint, delivered on his feast, September 25. In return, the bishop’s men were exempted from tonlieu, his regalian privilege to tax transactions. By the twelfth century the “men of Saint Firmin” comprised the entire burgher population. In Desportes’ view these possessions and privileges gave the bishop, in effect, part of the comitatus, dominion in the town, which naturally was contested by the count and his castellan. A long, antagonistic standoff between ecclesiastical and comital authority paved the way for the chapter, allied with the patriciat/commune (already granted by King Louis VI), to bring down a particularly oppressive count and castillon early in the twelfth century.  

From the mid tenth century, secular authority was possessed by the Counts of Amiens-Valois until 1070s. Three of their sons had been appointed bishops of Amiens. When the French regent, Baudouin V of Flanders, died and his son Simon entered the monastery of Saint-Claude in 1077, Philip I, among others, established his authority nearby at Corbie. Amiens, however, remained Valois under Bishop Guy of Ponthieu. When the county was annexed by Enguerrand de Boves, sometime between 1095 and 1104, who established his castellan Adam in the tower, Amiens became the site of struggle that ended with the violent defeat of the count by a commune allied with the bishop. 

Bishop Guy of Ponthieu sought to expand his authority by linking himself to Amiens’ hagiography and its sacred sites. Guy founded new churches and elevated older churches dedicated to local saints. He founded the collegiate church of St.-Nicolas, and renovated/restored St.-Martin-aux-Jumeaux, where he installed canons regular in 1073. In Guy’s foundation charter for St.-Martin, the bishop refers to himself with inflated Roman titles: “presul,” and “procurator rei publicae Ambianensis.” According to François Vasselle and Ernest Will, an older church dedicated to St.-Martin-ad-Burgum, on the border adjacent to the count’s jurisdiction, was likely the basilica cited by Gregory of Tours as marking the site where the saint had divided his cloak.

Testimony to (or perhaps a claim to) popular unity and piety is signaled in the late eleventh and early twelfth century in episcopal and comital charters. Guy’s foundation charter for St.-Martin-aux-Jumeaux was witnessed by “clergy and people of both sexes” (a hagiographical trope). The charter of 1091-1094 of the unknown counts Ivo and Gui cites “coram clero et populo.” A group of “cives ambianensis” signed Geoffrey’s charter for St.-Acheul in 1109.

Bishop Geoffrey (1104-1115) continued the celebration of local saints, a means toward civic unity. Charters confirmed donations to churches by the bishop’s sainted predecessors and recalled their miracles. Ott notes that consecrations and relic translations worked to or were intended to extend episcopal authority over Amiens’s sacred sites (hagiography, relic elevations, translations, and new miracles peaked in late eleventh and early twelfth centuries). All these activities would have been standard, but their particular form, time and place are specific to Amiens. In the city, the bishop is one player, in the struggle against the count and his chatellan, acting to enhance his clout within the city by performing stereotyped, hagiographical acts. Miracles recorded between 1060 and1150 occurred almost entirely in episcopal churches or on episcopal lands, never on comital possessions. Amiens’s principal cults remained those devoted to its bishop saints (Firmin, Firmin, Salve). These activities compensated for the absence of a tradition on the part of the canons to commemorate the deeds of their bishops or to write their vitae. 

Economic expansion coupled with an oppressive comital lordship prepared the terrain for a communal rebellion backed by a wealthy patriciate. The immediate origins of Amiens’ communal rebellion can be traced to the final decade of the eleventh century. A document dated between 1091 and 1094 signed by Guy and Yves, who are identified as counts of Amiens but otherwise unknown, is addressed to their vice count or chatellan, installed in their castillon, who exercised justice in their names. This chatellan had been accused of “intolerable abuse” in the exercise of lucrative judicial monopolies. The charter aimed to correct abuses that were compared in high decibels with the afflictions suffered by the Israelites under the pharaohs. It noted and fixed procedures designed to protect the accused, including his or her entitlement to counsel (to have a witness before a judge), and limited the amount and number of fines assessed for each misdemeanor. To that end an assembly was gathered in the cathedral: bishop Gervin and his two archdeacons; the leading men of the town (the milites Ambianenses); and finally the notables of the clergy and people (alii viri autentici in clero et plebs habentes pondus testimonii). The assembly includes names of burghers: Mainier le Monétaire and Milon le Tonloyer. Desportes cautions, however, that such an assembly had its origins in the Peace of God over half a century earlier conducted under the auspices of the church, and does not necessarily suggest a commune because the count and his agent remained the only guarantors of the law instituted.

Bishop Geoffrey of Amiens (1104-1115), appointed following a three-year vacancy (1101-1104) after Gervin, was unable to exert his authority over his own vidame, Guermond of Picquigny, who had ambushed the count’s castellan and dragged him away in chains. Geoffrey resorted to a humiliation of St. Firmin’s relics (1107) and to “publicizing the vidame’s crime before a large assembly… [but ultimately, Geoffrey] was unable by himself to win the castellan’s release” (Ott, “Urban Space,” 57). If the account of Geoffrey’s episcopate, composed some twenty-two years after his death (1137/8) at Soissons, is to be credited, it would seem that his strategy in the face of weak authority was to enhance his position by means of the pious performance and liturgy summarized above. The bishop staged his entry into Amiens by first dismounting from his donkey, and then processing through crowds barefoot and in tears, following the same route as Bishop St. Salve, when he ceremonially translated Firmin’s relics to the cathedral (Ott, “Urban Space,” 60). Geoffrey performed an ostentation in the cathedral on All Saints’ Day, suitably dramatized in the Soissons narrative—barefoot and sobbing, clutching the relics in a purple pallium to his chest as he had the Gospels on his equally theatrical entry into the city (Ott, “Urban Space,” 66-7). In these performances, Geoffrey aimed to link his episcopate to those of his most prestigious predecessors, such as Salve, whose relics he elevated (1111 and 1113). Like his contemporaries, he collected (or plundered) relics. 

Ott describes the concentration of relic elevations in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries narrated in the vita as the bishop’s response to the increasing struggle over authority in Amiens leading to the communal rebellion. A coalition uniting the bishop and his chapter with Amiénois elite were granted a commune in 1113, following precedents established within the province of Reims, particularly in Picardy, where communes of varying duration and violence were formed in the eleventh and early twelfth century (at Saint-Quentin before 1081, Beauvais before 1096, Noyon 1108, and Laon 1111).

The events of the communal struggle in Amiens are found in a single source, hostile to all players – the communiers (members of the commune), the counts, and the bishop of Amiens – the memoirs of Abbot Guibert of Nogent written around 1115. In the course of Guibert’s vivid, self-interested, and scathing account of the violent events of Laon’s 1112 communal rebellion against Bishop Gaudry (Book Three), Guibert gives a brief account of Amiens, where the same cast of characters appears: Enguerrand of Boves, the son of Count Enguerrand de Coucy; and Thomas of Marle, accused by Guibert of robbing the poor and pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, incest, horrific torture and murder, among crimes of surpassing cruelty (Guibert, Archambault trans., 166-7). Guibert laments: “After the tragic event that was the destruction of Laon, the citizens of Amiens, having bribed the king with money, created a commune with the bishop, who…should never have agreed” (Guibert, Archambault trans., 183). Unlike the burghers of Laon, who assassinated their rapacious bishop and cut off his finger when the episcopal ring could not be removed, at Amiens, the commune in 1113 benefited from the support of a bishop who might have hoped to acquire comital authority, privileges, and properties. 

In Guibert’s account, Count Enguerrand, seeing that “the association of burghers (Amiénois) being formed threatened his ancient rights, attacked the rebels” along with Adam, his castellan, with whom the count hid after being driven from the city. The burghers then laid siege to the tower or castillon and called upon Thomas of Marle to swear allegiance to their commune. Later, having depleted his funds, Thomas switched allegiances and offered to support Enguerrand against the burghers and their allies, the bishop and his vidame, Guermond de Picquigny. Thomas invaded, pillaged and destroyed with fire church manors. He is accused by Guibert of burning to death men and women who had hidden in one church and of other acts of torture and murder (Guibert, Archambault trans., 186). Guibert’s spiteful account of Bishop Geoffrey, his predecessor at Nogent, explains the bishop’s withdrawal from the town (1115) as prompted by a premonition of evil after he discovered water rather than wine in his chalice. “When he realized that his presence was desirable neither to the clergy nor to the people, since he could please no one … he gave … what you might call a letter of annulment,” returned his ring and sandals to the archbishop of Reims, and retired to the Chartreuse, only to be recalled by the archbishop after two months (Guibert, Archambault trans., 186). 

With Bishop Geoffrey’s return, rebellion against the count continued. As reported by Guibert, eighty women were charged to jettison the large stones placed in two catapults. And while the men defended their ramparts …, the women, not to be outdone, hurled stones from the catapults and destroyed the two towers … all eighty women, it is reported, were wounded” (Guibert, Archambault trans., 189, n. 150). The soldiers in the siege machines fled, and the defenders of the tower smashed the machines and dragged the pieces back inside the tower. And the monk’s narrative ends with an accusation against Bishop Geoffrey, who is warned that “God’s judgments [are not] so equal toward all as to give a bishop license to incite others to murder” (Guibert, Archambault trans., 190).

The story of the early twelfth-century battles in Amiens ends with a triumph for the bishop and the commune, over and against the power of the count. For King Louis VI stepped in, and required Thomas to repay the Amiens clergy for its losses, and royal troops attacked the castillon. Louis, moreover, removed the county of Amiens from the house of Boves and restored it to the heirs of Amiens-Valois under countess Adèle of Vermandois, niece of Simon de Valois. The new lords of Amiens, Adèle and her husband Renaud de Clermont, recognized the commune and accepted a charter for it (not extant, but reproduced word for word in the first fifteen articles of the charter confirmed by Philip Augustus in 1185). The so-called law of Amiens, one of the oldest communal charters was adopted by a large number of towns in Ponthieu and the Amiénois, the whole region of Picardy. At the cathedral of Amiens meanwhile, the canons, perhaps as a compromise or reward for a return to peace, designated as successor to Bishop Geoffrey one of Count Enguerrand’s sons, who had been archdeacon.

While the aftermath of the rebellion is significant for Abou-El-Haj’s investigation of the effects communal-episcopal relations in the thirteenth century, the events of 1115-17, as recounted by Guibert most interest her for their vehement tone and the violence of their details. For Guibert’s attestation to the tensions in the city in the early twelfth century seem to encourage Abou-El-Haj to seek out similar (if more muted) hostilities in the city in the first half of the thirteenth century, when the Gothic cathedral of Amiens was under construction.


  1. What are the limits of speculation? That is, in Guibert of Nogent we have vivid accounts of a cleric’s violent sentiments against communiers, and against a particular bishop of Amiens. How far can one go in seeking to extrapolate from that account the endurance of or varied iterations of similarly hostile sentiments among vying political factions in thirteenth-century Amiens?
  2. How would consideration of the fabric of Amiens Cathedral in the twelfth century (in its pre-Gothic form) contribute to Abou-El-Haj’s discussion?

Bibliography for Foundations: Commune and Clergy against Count 

Primary Source

Guibert of Nogent, A Monk’s Confession: The Memoirs of Guibert of Nogent, trans. Paul Archambault (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1996), 183-90 (book three).

Secondary Sources

Desportes, Pierre, Aspects de la Picardie au Moyen-Âge (Amiens: Centre d'histoire des sociétés de l'Université de Picardie, 1995).

Hubscher, Ronald, Histoire d’Amiens (Toulouse: Privat, 1986).

Ott, John S., “Urban Space, Memory, and Episcopal Authority: The Bishops of Amiens in Peace and Conflict, 1073-1174,” Viator 31 (2000): 43-77.

Ott, John S., Bishops, Authority and Community in Northwestern Europe, c. 1050-1150 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).