Between Church and State:
The Lives of Four French Prelates in the Late Middle Ages

Bernard Guenée

translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer
The University of Chicago Press 1991
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
An attempt to combine biography and history, Between Church and State contains four lives of medieval French prelates. The first two are short, just over thirty pages each. The Dominican Bernard Gui (1261-1331) was prior, inquisitor, and bishop in southern France. An able administrator and a historian of note, he bears little resemblance here to the bloodthirsty inquisitor portrayed by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose. Gilles Le Muisit (1272-1353) was abbot of Saint-Martin. After going blind in 1346 he devoted himself to dictating poetry and prose in French and Latin.

The other two prelates had more important political roles and Guenée devotes considerably more space to them. His life of Pierre d'Ailly (1351-1420) is almost a mini-history of the French Church during the Great Schism. Ambitious and talented, Pierre d'Ailly rose to be head of the College of Navarre at the University of Paris, chancellor of Paris, chaplain to Charles VI, and then bishop of the important diocese of Cambrai. A renowned orator, he played a leading role in the political and theological debates of the period, over issues such as an unpopular chancellor, the immaculate conception, and the withdrawal of obedience from the Pope. Pierre d'Ailly's career culminated in leadership of the French "nation" at the council of Constance.

Along with his native Normandy, Thomas Basin (1412-1490) endured a troubled mid-fifteenth century. Appointed bishop of Lisieux, he swore loyalty to Henry VI of England in 1448; in 1449 he negotiated the bloodless surrender of his episcopal seat to Charles VII, retaining his position. He played an important role in the debates over the Norman Charter and the acceptance of the Pragmatic Sanction. Having taken the wrong side in the War of the Public Weal, in 1466 Thomas Basin had to flee in order to avoid the wrath of Louis XI. He resigned his bishopric in 1474 and spent his old age as a refugee, moving from one town to another in search of security. His writings included lives of Charles VII and Louis XI.

Guenée does not indulge in dramatisation or psychological speculation. Neither can he provide much in the way of biographical minutiae: his primary sources are his subjects' own writings and those of their peers and his lives are, as a result, stronger by far in intellectual than in personal detail. Guenée does, however, make connections with broader themes in the history of ideas — such as the position of ambition among the other sins, the distinction between different kinds of fears, or the justification of capitulation to superior force.

I expected it to be dry and scholarly, but Between Church and State turned out to be rather easy to read. It is definitely more appealing as history than as biography, but it should be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in the period, not just by specialists in the medieval French Church.

July 1996

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%T Between Church and State
%S The Lives of Four French Prelates in the Late Middle Ages
%A Guenée, Bernard
%M French
%F Goldhammer, Arthur
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1991 [1987]
%O hardcover, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0226310329
%P 447pp