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Medieval Sourcebook:
The Deeds of Bishop Arnald of Le Mans and the Le Mans Commune, 1065-1081


The Gesta Arnaldi appears in a compilation known as the "Acts of the Bishops Living in the City of Le Mans," a periodically updated history of the diocese of Le Mans from its legendary foundation under Bishop Julian to the early thirteenth century. The first redaction of episcopal deeds occurred in the mid ninth century, with subsequent sections added in the 1050s, the 1090s the 1120s, and so forth. The Gesta Arnaldi was written down in the 1090s, some 10-15 years after the events it describes. The scribe is unnamed, but was undoubtedly a canon of the cathedral chapter of Le Mans.

Arnald was bishop of Le Mans between 1065 and 1081. During his pontificate, Maine (the county of which Le Mans was the capital) was the object of a lengthy power struggle waged by the leaders of neighboring Normandy and Anjou. This struggle erupted after 1061, when the the last representative of the comital lineage of Maine, Count Herbert II, died without male heirs. Since Duke William of Normandy had long coveted Maine, Herbert's death and a ill-defined betrothal between Herbert's sister and William's own son Robert presented William with the justification with which to claim and overrun the county (1063). For much of the next 35 years Norman garrisons were present in Le Mans. Yet Fulk IV, count of Anjou (1068-1106), also had ambitions in Maine, and our text shows us that his influence was not insubstantial in Le Mans. Bishop Arnald, moreover, was himself hardly a neutral or passive observer of the struggle between Count Fulk and Duke William. As the Gesta Arnaldi relates, Arnald was a native of the Avranchin in Normandy and most probably owed his election to the influence of Duke William (this, at least, was what Count Fulk believed).

Arnald's pontificate also provides the most detailed evidence for one of the earliest French communes. In 1070, rising against William's Norman garrison, the citizens of Le Mans swore oaths in common and thereby formed a commune. Although no administrative records of the short-lived commune are extant (if, indeed, any were issued), the Gesta Arnaldi does show us the commune of Le Mans taking collective judicial and military action. The precise nature of the Le Mans commune is hard to grasp, given the patchy description given here, but enough evidence survives for us to see it as a bridge between the earlier social ferment of the Peace of God movement (which was particularly active in Southern France in the first third of the eleventh century), and the later, more-developed communal movement that swept through Northern France. Indeed, it is in some ways hard to distinguish the martial actions of the citizens of Le Mans, who impressed both the bishop and certain unwilling nobles into a sort of urban militia and went on to besiege the neighboring castellan of Sille, from those of the Peace League of Bourges [cf. Head and Landes, eds., The Peace of God (1992)].

The Deeds of Lord Arnald, Bishop of Le Mans [1065-1081]

After the death of Bishop Vulgrin, Lord Arnald obtained the bishopric of the city of Le Mans. This Arnald, born in the territory of Avranches, was the nephew of a certain Robert the grammarian, a wise and religious man. In his time Robert was known to have greatly devoted himself to the service of the church of Le Mans, through the exercise of holy doctrine, the teaching of holy books, and the restoration of destroyed churches. The aforesaid Arnald lived with Robert from childhood, and, having become highly educated through Robert's discipline, was eager to imitate the example of Robert's reputation [honestatis]. Whence after Robert's death, Arnald succeeded in his place and wisely directed the governance of the schools, first during the time of the venerable Bishop Gervais [1] and afterwards in the time of Vulgrin. Arnald may have been small in stature, but the probity of his habits adorned the smallness of his body with honor.

And thus when the aforesaid Vulgrin had departed from this light, the clergy and people of Le Mans elected Arnald to the episcopate. Nevertheless some objected to his election, advancing no other reason except that he was the son of a priest. Whence the Manceaux clergy sent a legation to Pope Alexander [1061-1073], seeking a judgement concerning the election of the aforesaid man and the objections of his adversaries. The abovementioned pope wrote back to them with apostolic authority: [he ruled] namely that, having been reborn spiritually in Christ, the generation of the flesh was in no way able to hinder him from being promoted to the priesthood if no one better than him could be found in that church. The Manceaux, therefore, having been propped up by this authority, caused the aforesaid Arnald to be consecrated as their bishop.

When he had for some time dwelt in the episcopal seat, the fabric of the new cathedral, which Bishop Vulgrin had begun, ominously began to threaten its own ruin through the shifting of the foundations and the corruption of the stones [used] in countless foundations. Although the builders tried to prop them up, the new structure collapsed in the night with a sudden crashing noise. A great arch from this fabric had been built over the crypt, in which the body of blessed Julian rested, and which came together at the highest point from many directions in pyramidal form [2]. And there, the virtue of the most holy confessor shone forth indubitably, since, when the scaffolding of such great weight suddenly came tumbling down, the roof of the basilica in which his relics [membra] were kept remained whole and uninjured, such that not even the smallest shingle of his roof was brought to ruin by the terrible blows. After that the aforesaid bishop demolished the entire structure of the previous construction down to the deepest foundation, and began to build that church anew, with a firmer foundation and with more solid stone. He placed a roof on the upper part, which they generally call the chancel, and was building the most solid foundations of the towers and the aisles, which are called crosses, before he died.

But because during this episcopate the city of Le Mans was troubled by much civic discord, I reckon it suitable to briefly join to the deeds of Bishop Arnald some of the events that I consider worth remembering. For in Arnald's time, William, prince of the Normans, had already acquired the county of Maine, since the heirs of this county had been extinguished and wholly effaced [3]. William took a great army of French, Normans, men of Maine, and Bretons and sailed across to England, where he completely defeated the English in battle and where, once their king, Harold, had been killed in battle, he obtained the entire kingdom of England. When William was delayed in England on the business of war [4], the nobles of Maine, together with the people [populo], removed themselves unanimously from their obligation of fidelity to him. The Manceaux [men of Maine] sent to Italy where they invited a certain Marquis Azzo, his wife, and his son, Hugh, to come to Maine and take up the lordship of the city and the whole region [5]. In so doing the Manceaux expelled the royal garrison and all the Normans who had remained in Le Mans from the city's fortifications; in the process of this expulsion they even killed a certain Humphrey, King William's butler for Maine. When the bishop saw this he deserted the city speedily lest he be seen to have offered assistance to the treachery of the citizens. Having sailed to England in a fast boat, Bishop Arnald was received honorably by the king.

When the bishop's adversaries learned that he had fled the city, they immediately invaded his houses and all his possessions, stubbornly longing to plunder everything that belonged to him. Hearing of this, Arnald, after having delayed for a short time with the king and having received many gifts from him, arranged with the king's permission to return to his see. But because the citizens of Le Mans hated the king of England so much, they refused to allow him to enter the city, and he was forced to dwell with his entourage outside the city in the monastery of Saint-Vincent. Still, the clergy could not tolerate Arnald's absence from his see, and after they had made an agreement with his enemies, they restored him to his see.

Meanwhile Marquis Azzo had acquired the whole region of Maine with force and with gifts. But after Azzo had spent a huge sum of money winning their faith and was now short of funds, Azzo began to recognize that the men of Maine were fickle and had no real loyalty to him. So he returned to Italy, leaving behind his wife and son in the care of Geoffrey of Mayenne, a nobleman of a very devious nature [6]. The wife of the Marquis, moreover, was named Gersendis. She was the daughter of that Herbert, most illustrious count of the Manceaux, who had been called "Wake-Dog" [7]. Gersendis had first been married to a certain Theobald, count of Champagne, but having been repudiated by him, she was afterwards joined in marriage to Azzo.

Therefore Geoffrey of Mayenne became her tutor and quasi-husband [quasi maritus] [8]. Yet when he sought to raise certain taxes against the citizens of Le Mans, and when he attempted to oppress them with certain new exactions, they gathered together to consider how they might resist his improper inclinations and how they might arrange it so that they were not unjustly oppressed by him or any other person. And when they had formed a conspiracy, which they called a commune, they all swore oaths to bind each other equally under a common obligation. Then they compelled Geoffrey himself and the other nobles of the same region, most of whom were unwilling, to be bound by the oaths of their agreement. Following from the insolence of their common oath, they committed innumerable crimes, convicting many people at random without trial, plucking the eyes out of others for no reason, and - what is truly execrable to report - strangling others to death by hanging for the least infraction. The citizens also marched irrationally against neighboring castles during the holy days of Lent, and even during the days of the Passion of the Lord.

Certain nobles of this region, especially Hugh of Sille [9], had inflamed the souls of the conspirators [conjuratores] [10] against them because of the wrongs they had committed. Accordingly, because Hugh of Sille had gone against the holy rules by raising up large troops of turbulent soldiers, the conspirators sent messengers among the people of the whole region urging them to organize themselves against Hugh. And when an army had been gathered, with the bishop and with priests of each of the churches leading the way with crosses and standards, they directed it against the castle of Sille in a furious attack. When moreover, they had pitched camp at no great distance from the castle, Geoffrey [of Mayenne], of whom we made mention above, having fraudulently added himself to their camp, built fortifications for the commune not far from theirs. Geoffrey conversed privately with the enemies of the commune through messengers and said he would work to destroy the efforts of the conspirators in all ways possible. Therefore, when morning had arrived, the enemy exited the castle with an army and began to provoke a fight. Our men were wakened suddenly by the noise and were preparing to rush into a meeting with the foes, when a rumor suddenly arose in the fortifications due to the trickery of the foot soldiers. These men falsely asserted, with the contrivance of certain evil-doers, that the city had been betrayed to the enemy. A multitude of the rustics, terrified by fear of the enemies and by the rumor, threw down their arms and turned in flight. It is not possible in this little book to describe how many were captured during their flight or how many were seized and killed amid the streams and narrow roads. And, though I should be silent about the other members of the communal army, the enemy force seized a great multitude, both of nobles and commoners. Of the nobles they seized not just the knights but also the women, who were scattered through the territory like little deer for a judgement. And, it is most sad to report, they seized Bishop Arnald himself and handed him over to custody. Because of which our city, placed in sorrow and fear, was led hither and thither like a ship without a rudder. And yet Hugh of Sille, because he was a noble and munificent man, and because he didn't want to inflict wrongs on the bishop, sent Bishop Arnald with honor and without delay to his own home.

Geoffrey of Mayenne, inasmuch as he had pretended to be a conspirator and because he mistrusted the citizens, sent the boy Hugh [son of Azzo] back to his father in Italy. Geoffrey himself withdrew to his castle of La Chartre-sur-Loir. Gersendis, however, remained in the city [11]. Gersendis saw that Geoffrey was hated by the citizens on account of his treachery and she knew that he would not easily be able to regain their friendship. But she, not able to bear his absence any longer because of the illicit intimacy that had wrongly grown up between them, began to plot how she could betray the city to him.

Thus on a certain Sunday, with the agreement of certain traitors, Geoffrey entered the fortress [donjon] located next to the Cathedral with eighty knights. Geoffrey then began to act hostilely and to strive with all his might for the destruction of the citizens. When his efforts were revealed, the citizens immediately called together the nobles of the whole region and especially Fulk, count of Anjou [Fulk IV Rechin]. These men shut Geoffrey and his men into the donjon and laid siege to it. The enemy [i.e., Geoffrey] made a night-time raid from the donjon and burned the suburb of Saint-Vincent to the ground. Geoffrey's men had seized two small towers near the donjon along with certain houses next to the towers for defensive purposes, but they could not easily be dislodged from these areas, even with force. Our men therefore threw fire on these same houses, which were exceedingly close to the cathedral. This fire forced the enemy to flee from there, although it took much effort. Our men had to fight hard from the roof of the cathedral to prevent the cathedral from burning. Our men, having sharply driven the enemy from these places and having raged against them with javelins and other military machines of diverse sorts, injected much terror into Geoffrey's men. Geoffrey, having become terrified too, exited secretly from the donjon with the help of certain of our men; trembling and in great danger, he fled in the night. His men were greatly deceived by Geoffrey's promises of aid and were now shut up on all sides so that no exit was open to them. With food running out, they realized that the repeated blows of the siege machines were about to destroy the donjon. Compelled by this necessity, they handed themselves and the donjon over to Count Fulk. The citizens, moreover, having been moved by anger [at Geoffrey's actions], sought to prevent a similar occurrence in the future. So they rebuilt the donjon such that its inside wall was the same as the outer city wall; in this way all the exterior walls were part of the city's defenses [12].

Meanwhile, Bishop Arnald had traveled to Rome. But as he was returning through the lands of Marquis Azzo, Azzo seized him and placed the bishop and his men in custody. Yet afterwards, moved by feelings of penance because he had afflicted such an honest man with these torments, Azzo apologized and tried to appease Bishop Arnald. After seven months in which Azzo honored him with gifts, Arnald returned with great veneration to his own see.

During the same time, William, king of the English, gathered an innumerable army and came into the county of Maine. He besieged the castle of Fresnay [13] and devastated with fire and sword all the fields and vines in the vicinity of the castle. And when the castellans of Fresnay found themselves unable to sustain his assault, they made peace with him as best they were able. After the castle had been reconquered and the king had installed his own garrison in its donjon, William traveled to Le Mans and set up fortifications at Mantula, which is near the city and the Sarthe River. The leading men of the city came out of Le Mans to Mantula where they held a peace conference with the king. The citizens accepted oaths from William: he promised them freedom from treachery and promised to uphold the ancient customs and laws [justiciis] of their city. In turn the citizens gave themselves and all their things completely into his power and authority. From that time on, Bishop Arnald, now quietly residing in his see, frequently provided for the good of his church. For he repurchased with a great expenditure of money the land which they call Muta and the church of Savigny, which had been alienated a short time ago from the jurisdiction of his see. And while he retained the land for his and for his successors' uses, he handed the church over to his canons on his deathbed.

He also gave to his church a silver goblet with a cover in which to preserve the head of Saint Vincent the Martyr; he gave silver candelabra, since to this date the church had possessed only bronze or tin; and he gave an episcopal chasuble, decorated with the best golden embroidery, in which on feasts days and also at the present time he might minister to the Lord in the same church.

And indeed these things might have seemed small in the remembrance of such a man, if the difficult and costly renewal of his church had not protected him; indeed, he demanded such cost and so much zeal that it was by no means finished in the space of sixty years.

Having been held back by a grave infirmity of the body, he let pass by many things that he had arranged to do. When he had been vexed by this illness for almost three years and had ruled the church of Le Mans for almost fifteen, he died at a ripe old age on the third of the kalends of December, having almost lived for seventy years. He obtained the honor of burial in the monastery of Saint Vincent, in the very oratorio of the monks, namely before the elevated part from which one mounts to the altar. May Almighty God grant eternal rest and life to his soul. Amen.

Finally his body was translated to the chapter of the same monastery, in the time of Lord Bishop Hugh, and was placed to the left of Lord Bishop Hoel, in the year of the Lord 1040 [recte, 1140], on the day of the translation of Saint Bertramnus, bishop [of Le Mans].


[1] Bishop Gervais of Le Mans was also the secular lord of the important castle of Chateau-du-Loir. After being defeated by Count Geoffrey Martel of Anjou and enduring a lengthy imprisonment, Gervais delivered his castle to Count Geoffrey. The conditions of Gervais' release included his vow to never reenter Le Mans. For this reason Gervais was translated in 1055 to the archepiscopal seat of Reims.

[2] The translation of this sentence is tentative. Here is the Latin: "Erat autem ipsius fabrice arcus maximus, super criptam, in qua beatissimi Juliani corpus quiescebat, exstructus, hinc atque inde piramidibus ingenti altitudine collocatis."

[3] The last direct representative of the comital dynasty of Maine, Herbert II, died in 1061. Duke William of Normandy had betrothed his son, Robert, to the daughter of Herbert. Even though she died before 1061, William insisted that the betrothal to his son gave him the right to rule Maine. In 1063, then, William invaded Maine and set up Robert as Count of Maine. To ensure this, William placed Norman garrisons in Le Mans and in the important castles of the county.

[4] This refers to William's campaign in the north of England c.1069-1071.

[5] Azzo, Marquis of Liguria, was distantly related to the main lineage of the counts of Maine, which our chronicler has just asserted had been "wholly effaced" from the earth. Azzo's wife, Gersendis, was the daughter of a previous count of Maine, Herbert I. It is worth noting that "Hugh" (the name of Azzo's son) was one of the primary leitnamen of the Manceau comital lineage.

[6] Geoffrey of Mayenne was the lord of the castles of Mayenne, La Chartre-sur-Loir, Ambrieres, and Gorron. He was one of the most powerful nobles in the county.

[7] Count Herbert I (c.1015-c.1035) earned this nickname by leading nighttime military raids against his neighbors, the counts of Anjou: these raids were so sudden they were said to "wake the dogs".

[8] Most scholars take this to mean that Geoffrey and Gersendis had an affair. It is likely that Geoffrey hoped to become Count of Maine by associating himself with Gersendis.

[9] Hugh was lord of the strong castle of Sille, located fairly close to Le Mans.

[10] The text refers to the members of the commune as conjuratores. Although conjuratores literally means "those who have sworn oaths together," it also carries a strongly negative connotation. I translate it as "conspirators."

[11] Gersendis seems to have been exercising comital authority in the place of her husband and son (and in the absence of William the Conqueror). Two charters of this period describe her as holding court in the comital palace. See Cartulaire de Saint-Vincent du Mans, ed. R. Charles and S. Menjot d'Elbenne (Le Mans, 1886-1913), nos. 178 and 251.

[12] This is a bit obscure, but it seems to imply that previously the donjon could be entered from outside the city, as Geoffrey and his men had done. The citizens were acting to ensure that the donjon would be under the control of the city, and not vice-versa.

[13] One of the northernmost castles of Maine, on the Norman border. Fresnay was the possession of the viscount of Maine.


Actus Pontificum Cenomannis in Urbe Degentium, ed. G. Busson and A. Ledru (Le Mans, 1900), pp. 376-381.

For discussion of the dating of the Actus Pontificum, see Robert Latouche, "Essai de critique sur la continuation des Actus Pontificum Cenomannis in Urbe Degentium," Le Moyen Age 11 (1907): 225-275.

© Translation, introduction and notes, by Richard Barton, 1998

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Paul Halsall, October 1998
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