Title: De dignitarissen en grote kanunniken van het kapittel van Sint-Goedele en Sint-Michiel te Brussel (1430-1559)
Authors: Van Hofstraeten, Bram # ×
Issue Date: Mar-2011
Publisher: Uitgeverij Verloren
Series Title: Jaarboek voor Middeleeuwse Geschiedenis vol:13
Abstract: The article summarizes the results of a prosopographical study of the dignitaries and canons of the collegiate church of Saint-Michael and Saint-Gudule in Brussels from 1430 to 1559. By means of a prosopographical inquiry I have tried to enrich our knowledge about late medieval and early modern secular clergy in the Netherlands. The study is based on the origins and careers of 97 canons and focuses on various aspects of the life of a Brussels secular canon, as there are: geographical and social origin, academic education, appointment to the Brussels canonry, level of ordination, etc. From the year 1226 onwards, the chapter of Saint-Michael and Saint-Gudule consisted of two colleges of secular canons: twelve canons belonging to the college of the first foundation (1047) and ten canons composing the college of the second foundation (1226). The members of the first college, who were the true leaders of the chapter, were called canonici maiores or ‘great canons’; the latter group was made up of the so-called canonici minores or ‘small canons’. Since the administration of the collegiate church was exclusively in the hands of the great canons and the dignitaries of the chapter, the prosopographical investigation was limited to the lives of the chapter’s dignitaries and the twelve canons belonging to the college of the first foundation. The set of biographical data, based on extensive archival research in combination with the material already available in literature, enabled me to sketch a general portrait of the fifteenth and sixteenth century canon in Brussels.
Except for the two sacerdotal canonries, of which the owners had to be ordained to the priesthood, there existed no formal requirements in order to be admitted to the chapter of Saint-Michael and Saint-Gudule. Still, in Brussels more than two thirds of the great canons had received the priestly ordination. Evidently, the higher the level of ordination one had obtained, the more attractive the ecclesiastical benefices one could acquire and accumulate. Next to a certain level of ordination, a university degree could also be imposed on the candidate-canons as a formal requisite. Such condition, however, was lacking in Brussels as an official requirement. Still, taking into account the number of canons that had visited one or more European universities, an academic diploma could also be interpreted as an unofficial must in order to gain access to the lucrative prebends of the chapter. Indeed, despite the absence of formal requirements about the education level of the candidate-canons in Brussels, at least three-quarters of the great canons graduated at university before making their entrance in the collegiate church of Saint-Michael and Saint-Gudule.
However; it should be noted that these academic degrees are to be interpreted primarily in light of the canon’s activities outside the chapter walls. After all, a university degree was in the first place a means to enhance one’s competitiveness on the market of administrative and governmental positions within secular and ecclesiastical authority. Especially in Brussels, where all great canons were to be nominated by the secular ruler, the acquirement of similar administrative functions within the service of subsequently the duke of Brabant, the duke of Burgundy and the king of Spain was a necessary condition to gain access to the Brussels canonries. Therefore, the candidate-canon started his career with a visit to one or more European universities. Hence, at least half of the great canons in Brussels had obtained a university degree in one of the higher academic disciplines (theology, law, medicine) before entering the chapter. After the foundation of a studium generale in Louvain in 1425, the majority of the Brussels canons obtained their degree in this newly founded university at the expense of other older and nearby situated universities as those in Paris and Cologne. Among the degrees obtained by the Brussels canons those in both legal disciplines, civil and ecclesiastical law, were the most popular ones. After all, these diplomas could be considered as the perfect launch pad to reach the offices of public administration. After a career in the state’s administration, the ecclesiastical hierarchy or local university life, the former graduate is being rewarded with ecclesiastical benefices as the prebends of the collegiate church of Saint-Michael and Saint-Gudule.
Due to the high costs of academic education and the importance of the tasks most canons fulfilled in the service of secular and ecclesiastical authority, one may assume that a large part of them was raised in and recruited from influential and wealthy families. Indeed, whereas the local bourgeoisie of the city of Brussels is a permanent supplier of great canons, one can also identify a solid increase in the number of prebendaries originating from noble families. This increase ought to be explained by means of the growing number of civil servants whose efforts were to be rewarded with their incorporation in the nobility. Hence, the preponderate of the lower nobility and the almost complete absence of canons born within the social stratum of higher nobility becomes clear. Nonetheless, the social background of these great canons is not to be considered as the primordial explanation for their acceptance in the chapter, for the majority of them owed his seat in the chapter’s choir to his personal achievements within the service of the ruler, who was the sole collator of the Brussels canonries. Since the activities of the canons in the service of public authority generally precede their admission to the chapter, these merits are to be considered as the key that opens the doors of the Brussels collegiate chapter.
Since prominent families from the city of Brussels have always played an important role in the recruitment of the chapter’s members, it does not come as a surprise that the majority of the canonici maiores originated from the city of Brussels, and more in general, the diocese of Cambrai. As one may expect, the number of canons born in a certain region increases when the distance between the region and the chapter’s location decreases. Moreover, the establishment of the Burgundian court in Brussels during the course of the fifteenth century as well as the creation and development of several central institutions of government in the same city during the first half of the sixteenth century, causes a shrinkage of the geographical field of recruitment towards the centre, the city of Brussels.
The image of the typical Brussels canonicus maior, as portrayed above, is applicable to at least three-quarters of all canons of the collegiate chapter of Saint-Michael and Saint-Gudule. It seems that only a minority prefers the tranquillity within the chapter’s walls above a career in the service of worldly or ecclesiastical power. This statement leaves but one conclusion: only a very small percentage of the members of the Brussels chapter can truly be called a canon. After all, the majority of them primarily had different priorities. Consequently, one should contemplate on the changing role of canonries within late medieval and early modern society. At least when the privilege to nominate the prebendaries was in the hands of a secular ruler, the canonries seem to have degenerated to a mere instrument to finance and reward civil servants.
ISSN: 1388-6649
Publication status: accepted
KU Leuven publication type: IT
Appears in Collections:Research Unit Roman Law and Legal History
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