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A Clergyman out of Control: Portrait of a Bishop Around the Year 1000

A Clergyman out of Control: Portrait of a Bishop Around the Year 1000

By Helmut Flachenecker

Concilium medii aevi, Vol.17 (2014)

Medieval bishop depicted in Eichstätt Cathedral - photo by Mattana / Wikimedia Commons
Medieval bishop depicted in Eichstätt Cathedral – photo by Mattana / Wikimedia Commons

Introduction: The following short article is about actions of bishops and their interpretation as they are illustrated in the genre Gesta episcoporum. Medieval contemporaries called this type of historiography about a bishop and his diocese by various names: Chronicon, Historia, Vita, Gesta, Catalogus, Series episcoporum. The outline that was used for this type of writing usually followed the chronological succession of the bishops. Ideally, the information about the bishops described their duties, be it their duties as pastor or secular ruler and warlord. This manner of religious historiography probably originates from the Liber pontificalis, the original book of biographies about popes. The Liber Pontificalis was likely first compiled at the end of the 5th century and written down in the curial records starting in the year 520. The book of popes is structured in chronological order of their pontificates starting with Saint Peter. The Liber pontificalis influenced bishops chronicles, known as Gestae episcoporum, that can be found in Western and Central Europe between the 6th and 13th century. In 748, Paulus Diaconus wrote the first diocesan chronicle, the Gesta episcoporum Mettensium, North of the Alps. His chronicle closely followed the example of the Liber Pontificalis. Despite all differences in terms of content, both historical sources have similarities in terms of structure and chronological order. In the Gesta episcoporum Mettensium chronicle, the bishops are sorted by numbers indicating the place in the succession of the first bishop. Furthermore, both sources often contain the diocesan foundation process described through hagiographical elements.

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Occasionally, the chronicles include notes about cathedral and monastery buildings as well as the acquisition of relics, liturgical instruments, and books. The individual bishops were characterized by their standing with regard to King and Pope as well as in greater regard to their ability to acquire secular possessions. This demonstrates that the bishops chronicles possessed a practical as well as an administrative component. In most cases, cathedral chapters ordered the redaction of bishops chronicles. In the broader sense bishops chronicles are part of the administrative records of a cathedral. They include certificates for recording goods, rights, and claims that stood as secondary insurance in addition to the original documents. Moreover, the Gestae episcoporum wanted to strengthen the remembrance or memoria of the bishops and were used in the liturgy of Mass. In this context, they occasionally included prayers but almost always references to commemorate the deceased bishops.

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