Canon Lawyer, Papal Legate: Gille of Limerick

Imago Ecclesiae (Durham Cathedral Library MS B.II.35, fol 36v)
Imago Ecclesiae (Durham Cathedral Library MS B.II.35, fol 36v)

“For the early Irish Lent began the Sunday after Ash Wednesday. Gilbert of Limerick (†1145) insisted on Ash Wednesday” 1. This injunction was part of the programme of church reform that took place in the 12th century, reform that Gilbert (or Gille) of Limerick was deeply involved with. Gille was also “a philosopher whose philosophical thinking form[ed] the basis of his canon law” 2.

We know very little about Gille’s life: there are even numerous versions given of his name. He refers to himself both as Gille and Gillebertus 3. It is not even clear whether he was of Irish or Norse extraction. John Fleming suggests that his family roots are almost certainly in the Hibero-Norse city of Limerick 4, but his choice to retire to Bangor, Co. Down where he died may suggest that as his birthplace 5

The first record we have of Gille is a letter that he sends in 1106 as bishop of Limerick to Anselm, at that time Archbishop of Canterbury, sending a gift of pearls and congratulating him on “the victory of your labours in subduing the indomitable minds of the Normans” 6 Anselm’s reply states that the two “have known each other and delighted in friendship since our time in Normandy”. This may suggest Gille had been a pupil of Anselm in north-eastern France. Fleming suggests the history of learning in the area influenced Gille’s work 7:

the earthly and heavenly hierarchies of Eriugena; the tripartite division of the role of the laity put forward by Adelbero and his cousin…and, in particular, a preoccupation with heresy.

The balance of evidence suggests that Gille was papal legate for almost all his time as bishop of Limerick, and that he headed the Synod of Raith Bressail in 1111 8. According to Bernard of Clairvaux, he was the first to be legate ‘per universam Hiberniam’ 9. The Synod of Raith Bressail was the second aimed at reforming the Irish church and the first that covered the whole country. The first, held in Cashel in 1101, legislated against the purchase of church positions, and regulated the relationship of church and state, marriage and clerical celibacy 10.

St Mary's Cathedral, Limerick (c) John Armagh/Wikipedia, Public Domain.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick
(c) John Armagh/Wikipedia, Public Domain.
The Synod of Raith Bressail went further, instituting for the first time a full system of dioceses in Ireland in a hierarchy subject to a Primate of all Ireland, and through him to the see of Rome. This was the greatest change in the Irish Church since the 5th century. A document, the Acta, from this synod gives further circumstantial evidence for Gille’s origin in Limerick. Limerick is given as a model diocese (with “St Mary’s church” as its cathedral church) in a level of detail suggesting local knowledge 11.

Gille records in his treatise De statu ecclesiae that many Irish bishops and priests requested he explain the hierarchy he advocated 12. As a canon lawyer, Gille was working in the Paris tradition which was founded on law based on custom, rather than the compilation and reconciliation of texts as practised by the (later) Gratian. As such his style is very different, “exhortatory rather than prescriptive, encouraging rather than demanding” 13 – very different from what we would regard as a legal text today. The law was based on a common vision of life; an inportant aspect of it was the rights and duties owed to a lord 14

The treatise itself is a commentary on a diagram (the image at the top of this post) in which the hierarchical structure of the church is shown as a pyramid, made up of further interlocking pyramids. The pope is at the apex, balanced by the emperor and Noah at the other two points. The pyramids below balance the archbishop with the duke, then the bishop with the count and finally the priest with the soldier. 15

The pyramidal structure “expresses a theory of authority in the Church, it represents a vision of an ordered ecclesiastical organisation and it demonstrates the neoplatonist philosophical background in which [Gille] was educated.” 16. This hierarchy reflects the hierarchy of Being outlined by Pseudo-Dionysus, with the One (God) at the top, with higher levels more perfect and receiving more power than lower levels.17

The three corners reflect the three-fold classification of the laity into those who plough, those who fight and those who pray, a classification formulated by Adelbero of Laon and Gerald of Cambrai in northeastern France 18 Each of these form an ordo or social group, each with their own duties and function, which interlock to form an ordered, Christian society. 19

Gille is recorded as being present at the consecration of a new bishop of St David’s in Westminster in 1115. Bernard of Clairvaux records that Gille, along with Maek Isu of Lismore prevailed on Malachy to accept the vacant see of Armagh in 1129, and that Malachy became papal legate in 1140 due to the retirement of Gille due to old age and infirmity 20.

Gille’s death, his only mention in the Irish annals, is recorded in 1145 in Bangor Co. Down. The De statu ecclesiae survived in two manuscripts and a prologue to it, De uso ecclesiastico in three. The two parts were published by Archbishop James Ussher in 163221.

Further Reading

Sean Duffy (2004) “Gilbert [Gille, Gilli, Gillebertus; called Gilla Espaic] (d. 1145), bishop of Limerick” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, DOI:

John Fleming (2001) Gille of Limerick (c. 1070-1145), Dublin:Four Courts Press, p. 11]

John Fleming (2009) “Gille of Limerick (c. 1072-1145), an Irish canonist” in James McEvoy and Michael Dunne (eds) The Irish Contribution to European Scholastic Thought, Dublin: Four Courts Press, pp. 37-48.

Further Listening

Peter Adamson’s The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast includes episodes on early medieval political philosophy and law. Of the figures mentioned, Ivo of Chartes was roughly contemporary with Anselm, the generation before Gille. Gratian and Lombard were the generation after.

Peter Adamson (2015) Two Swords: Early Medieval Political Philosophy

Peter Adamson (2015) Early Medieval – Law and Order: Gratian and Lombard.

Peter Adamson (2015) Caroline Humfress on the Roots of Medieval Law


  1. Per tweet from @Peritia:

  2. John Fleming (2009) “Gille of Limerick (c. 1072-1145), an Irish canonist” in James McEvoy and Michael Dunne (eds) The Irish Contribution to European Scholastic Thought, Dublin: Four Courts Press, p. 46
  3. Sean Duffy (2004) “Gilbert {Gille, Gilli, Gillebertus; called Gilla Espaic} (d. 1145), bishop of Limerick” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, DOI:
  4. John Fleming (2001) Gille of Limerick (c. 1070-1145), Dublin:Four Courts Press, p. 11
  5. John Fleming (2009), pp. 37-8n.
  6. Fleming (2001), p. 165.
  7. Fleming (2009), p. 41.
  8. Fleming, 2001, p. 45
  9. Duffy, 2004
  10. Fleming, 2001, p.33
  11. Fleming, 2001, pp. 36-40
  12. Fleming, 2001, p.44
  13. Fleming, (2009), p. 43
  14. Fleming (2001), pp. 53-4
  15. Fleming (2009), p. 43
  16. Fleming (2001), p. 77
  17. Fleming (2001), p. 75
  18. Fleming (2009), p. 41.
  19. Fleming (2001), pp. 50-1
  20. Duffy (2004)
  21. Duffy (2004)

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