by Richard Abels
In the ecclesiastical writings of the High Middle Ages, the 'Church' (Ecclesia) was the community of all baptized Christians, consisting of clergy (those who have dedicated themselves to the profession of religion) and laity (ordinary believers). The clergy included both the secular clergy, whose role was to live in the world and minister to the sacramental and spiritual needs of the laity, and the regular clergy or monks, who lived apart from the world and worshiped God in communities under a rule.
By the year 1050, the institutional Church (consisting of all the various churches and monasteries) possessed perhaps as much as a fifth of all the landed wealth in Western
Land meant wealth and power. Reluctant to alienate
property from their lineage, noble donors often founded proprietary churches,
religious foundations that were to be controlled by the donor's family. The
donor's family would retain the right of appointing the monastery's abbot, thus
retaining effective control over the land (and securing not only the spiritual
benefits of the prayers of the monks and Christian burial in land associated
with a saint, but a place for younger sons). Manorial lords, similarly,
regarded churches on their lands as belonging to them. Thus in 1050 many
monasteries and parish churches were effectively in private hands, and laymen
often had the hereditary right of bestowing a church with its tithes, burial
rights, and revenues to whomever they wishes, often pocketing much of the money
themselves. This privatization of religion meant a fragmentation of the
'Church,' much like happened with the 'state' with the passage of royal
prerogatives and rights into private hands. The idea of a universal Christian
community, the Church, was all but lost. In early 11th-century charters the
term ecclesia invariably came to be associated with the actual buildings, the
churches. The result was a clergy not only dependent upon the patronage of
powerful laymen but also often sharing their secular outlook. Priests usually
married or had concubines. Bishops were great nobles in their own right, the
lords of episcopal cities, of vast holdings belonging
to their sees, of delegated royal rights of justice and revenues (including
minting, markets, and tolls), and the masters of magnificent households. Such
prince-bishops not only supplied knights to fight for their lords, but often
led these warriors into battle. Some were holy men; many were more comfortable
on horseback on the hunt or campaign than they were saying the
Even the princes of the church, the bishops, were appointed by laymen. Early medieval kings depended upon the support of a literate clergy for the administration of their realms. They also depended upon bishops and the greater abbots to support them with knights owed from their vast landed holdings. A bishop's role as defender of his city meant that he had to concern himself with military matters. Between 886 and 908 TEN German bishops fell in battle. In the year 1000 Bishop Bernard commanded forces of Emperor Otto III and fought with lance that contained nail of the true Cross. The admittedly unworthy Pope John XII in 960s fought as armed soldier to defend
The theory behind this lay control over clerical appointment derived from a theocratic conception of kingship. Kings were consecrated and anointed to rule (by bishops). They reigned by grace of God and, according to the Bible (Romans 13.1-4), they were God's swords of justice on earth ruling with the power of God. In the
The idea that kings stood directly below God in a divine hierarchy of authority gave rise to the practice of LAY INVESTITURE. This was the practice of powerful laymen furnishing newly elected bishops and abbots with the symbols of their spiritual offices. (In the case of bishops this included the bishop's crozier, i.e. shepherd's staff, and his ring.) Kings would also bestow upon the newly created prelates the symbols of the temporal authority that they would now possess along with their episcopal and abbatial offices. These symbols of delegated royal authority (e.g. sceptres) were called regalia. Kings did NOT consider Lay Investiture an 'abuse' but a privilege emanating from the divine nature of kingship.
The wealth of episcopal (i.e., bishop's) sees and abbacies was so great that they became a sort of commodity. Kings would sometimes sell the ecclesiastical offices to clerical followers, who would then recoup their money from the peasants who worked the Church's lands. The sale of spiritual offices was known as simony (see below for further discussion). What complicated matters was the ethos of reciprocity and the confusion between the bishop's role as a spiritual leader and as a feudal noble. As a landed lord a bishop, like any other vassal, was expected to pay his lord a relief for the right to take up the fief. And by the ethical demands of reciprocity, a new bishop was morally obliged to thank his patron and lord with a suitable gift to show his gratitude. Thus what one man might consider the sin of simony, another might justify as being a proper gift of thanks. With the fragmentation of church authority and the springing up of multitudes of local churches and abbeys, this sort of transaction became ubiquitous. What exacerbated it was the rise of a cash economy, which made the exchange of spiritual office for gift virtually indistinguishable from a market transaction--and in some cases they undoubtedly were sales.
In the tenth and early eleventh
centuries, bishops were great nobles, whose landed wealth made them among the
most powerful secular lords in their dioceses. It was possible for a
cleric without wealthy and powerful kinsmen to rise to the office of bishop
during this period--indeed two of the most renowned intellectuals of the early
middle ages, Bishop Fulbert of Chartres (ca. 1020)
and Gerbert of Aurillac,
who became Pope Sylvester II in 999, had humble origins--, but such men were
the exception. Most bishops came from the highest nobility, unsurprising
given both the class assumptions of the time and the need in this
gift-giving society to make presents to the right people. A bishop's nobility
meant that he could enrich his church and monasteries with his familial wealth;
a poor bishop, it was thought, as more likely to use his position to help
his kinsmen by transferring to them the church's lands, either as gifts or
benefices. It was taken for granted that the secular aristocracy would support
and foster their clerical kinsmen's rise in the church, and that bishops would
use his position to benefit his blood relations. The career of Ulrich (or Udalrich), bishop of
During the civil war that plagued the early years of Otto I's reign, Ulrich supported Otto by holding for him the
Ulrich's late tenth-century biographer describes his ecclesiastical activities, emphasizing his visitations to the churches and monasteries in his diocese, during which he would give sermons in Latin (presumably with someone translating them into German for the uneducated), preside over episcopal courts, supervise the morals of the clergy under his care, and perform sacraments and liturgies. The bishop's spiritual duty was to ward off evil spirits, and liturgies, prayers calling upon God to bestow blessings, were conceived to be, in Fichtenau's phrase, 'a prsentation of the divinely ordained order, with the bishop in the center and his clergy serving him.' A typical liturgy for the dedication of a new church had the bishop rapping on the church door with his crozier three times before the clergy within opened it for him, then drawing the alphabet with his crozier diagonally across the floor of the church. This would be followed by the bishop blessing the church with water mixed with ashes and salt, symbolizing the Christian people (the water), Christian teachings (the salt), and the passion of Christ (the ash). Such liturgincal and ritual duties were in the tenth century more deemed to be more important spiritually for the faithful than pastoral care. Ulrich instructed the clergy under him mainly through his own example. A bishop was also expected to care for the poor, and the traditional formula for episcopal finances reserved one-quarter of revenues for the feeding and clothing of the poor.
Ulrich had other, less spiritual, duties as bishop. Another tenth-century bishop, Rather of Liege, explained his obligations as a newly consecrated bishop: "I was enthroned, I presided over an assembly of clerics, I led my military host against the enemies of the Emperor Otto (I), I returned, I received him who had consecrated me bishop (Bruno of Cologne) and served him, gave him gifts, accompanied him on his journey home as a most devoted servant. Then I turned around, traveled through the diocese, conferred with the most important clerics and laity about what was to be done in order to do justice with everyone" (from Fichtenau, p. 200).
In the tenth and
the eleventh centuries kings relied upon bishops to be administrators and
justices. They also relied on them for military service. Though canon law had
long forbidden priests to shed blood, bishops nonetheless led troops into
battle. The most holy of them, like Udalrich, did so
unarmed, relying only on prayer to defend them. Many winked at the restrictions
and emulated the model of Turpin in Song of Roland. In the year 1010 the
bishops of Vich,
Ulrich’s activities in defense of Augsburg against the Hungarians highlights the blurry boundaries between the secular and the spiritual in the tenth and eleventh centuries and the responsibility of bishops both for the material and spiritual welfare of the inhabitants of their sees. Ulrich acted recognizably as a secular commander in directing the repair of the town’s walls. But undoubtedly he regarded his prayers, sermons, and liturgical duties as his most critical contribution to the successful defense of the city. Unlike the fictional Bishop Turpin, Ulrich refused to dress in armor even in the presence of the enemy. He relied upon his ecclesiastical vestments to protect him from God’s enemies. Whether or not God heard the saint’s prayers, Ulrich’s calm demeanor and quiet confidence certainly contributed immeasurably to the morale of his troops and encouraged them to withstand the Hungarian assault until King Otto I arrived with a relief army.
Ulrich’s participation in combat was not extraordinary for a bishop of his day. What was more unusual was Ulrich’s careful attention to his liturgical and spiritual duties. In fact, many tenth and early eleventh century bishops differed little in their lifestyles from their comital kinsmen. The concern of monastic reformers about the falconing, hunting and dicing that went on in bishops' households is evidence of this blurring of distinction between the secular and spiritual aristocracies of the tenth and eleventh centuries.
Bachrach, David. Religion and the Conduct of War in the West c. 300-1215. Woodbrige: Boydell Press, 2003.
Fichtenau, Heinrich. Living in the Tenth Century.
Trans. P. Geary.
Prinz, Heinrich. Klerus und Krieg im frűheren Mittlelalter.