West Frankish ‘Reichskirchenpolitik’? Or, This Title Isn’t Going To Get Many Hits, Is It?

So I mentioned last week that I had papers to write, and several of them relate to the question of how the last Carolingian kings exercised authority over their church. What with this being the research I am currently being paid to do, this probably isn’t much of a surprise (and, indeed, we’ve covered some of this ground before). However, I confess that I’m currently in a state of confusion about the nature of this authority, and so, as is this blog’s wont, have decided to write down the problem in the hope of making things clearer.

For historians of the East Frankish kingdom during the tenth and eleventh centuries, the relationship between the kings and the church was expressed in terms of something called the ottonisch-salischen Reichskirchensystem; the ‘imperial Church system’. Timothy Reuter gave a neat little summary of this idea, which I summarise as follows:

In its idealised form, the Reichskirchensystem under the kings of the Ottonian and Salian dynasties consisted of:

  1. Tight royal control over bishoprics and abbeys, particularly with regard to the appointment of bishops and abbots.
  2. The systematic appointment of royal chaplains to vacant bishoprics and abbacies.
  3. The endowment of bishoprics and abbeys with lands and rights.
  4. The expectation that these lands and rights would be used in royal service.
  5. All this being done in order to gain the support of the more reliable episcopate against the less reliable secular magnates,
  6. And all of this being done deliberately and systematically.


Emperor Henry II being crowned (source)

Thanks not least to Reuter, historians are now rather wary of this idea, and certainly of points 5) and 6); there aren’t very many hard-core proponents of the imperial Church system left. However, a more moderate version – which Scheffer calls Reichskirchenpolitik – does seem to me to be viable, particular with what interests me about this, i.e., points 1) and 2). It might be a bit haphazard, and there might be lots of qualifications and asterisks which need to be attached to it, but it does look to my eyes that the German kings have a lot of scope to intervene in episcopal elections and to appoint their own men to these positions. And so the question comes up semi-frequently in this context: can we see a West Frankish equivalent to Eastern Reichskirchenpolitik?

Most historians who’ve looked at the question give what amounts to a lukewarm ‘yep’. Me, I don’t know, and this is why. As noted above, one of the big ideas about what makes the Eastern kingdom distinct is the role of the imperial chapel as a ‘nursery for bishops’. However, the Western chapel is tiny, and doesn’t seem to have been very significant – Western kings only usually have one chaplain at once, or at least only one we know about; and between, say, 950 and 1000 only a handful of them seem to have been appointed to bishoprics. Moreover, if Eastern intervention in episcopal elections is unsystematic, in the West it’s outright erratic – whilst I have hyped up King Lothar’s ability to put his own people in bishoprics before, it must be said that in absolute terms, we’re not talking large-scale appointment here. Lothar ain’t exactly Philip II of Spain, if you get me…

But, there’s still something going on. There develops around King Lothar a group of several bishops who, insofar as we can tell, have similar educational backgrounds, close family ties, and who owe their appointments to the king. This original charter from 978 (I know the site says 986; it’s wrong) gives a good idea of this: we see in the witness list Archbishop Seguin of Sens, Bishop Gibuin of Châlons, Bishop Adalbero of Laon, Bishop Liudolf of Noyon, Bishop Widric of Langres and Bishop Ralph of Chalon, several of whom we’ve had cause to talk about before; this is a pretty good chunk of the ‘royal’ bishoprics, and while Widric of Langres doesn’t seem to have been as tightly integrated into Lothar’s political networks as his successor Bruno (who I’ve spoken of elsewhere as well), this kind of gathering is significant.

That is, it’s significant by the standards of non-royal lay rulers, even important and powerful ones. The dukes of Aquitaine and Bavaria, for instance, don’t seem to have had this amount of success building up a network of bishops around themselves. This is particularly interesting in the case of Bavaria, because Duke Arnulf the Bad of Bavaria is supposed to have strong-armed the right to oversee the bishoprics in his region out of King Henry the Fowler – but it seems he never had any luck putting it into practice. The closest analogy is perhaps Richard the Justiciar of Burgundy (who we will examine further in that next tria regna post – I swear it’s coming soon), who had a decent-ish amount of success putting bishops in post in Auxerre, possibly Autun, maybe Langres? Still, it’s not quite on Lothar’s scale, and certainly not with the kind of legitimacy he’s able to command.

And so, we have Lothar: nothing like as commanding as the Eastern kings, but noticeably more so that Just Your Average Lay Magnate. Is this ‘the Ottonians but smaller-scale’ or something sui generis? The question isn’t just one of categorisation – Lothar was raised by his Ottonian mother with close links to the Eastern court, so if we are dealing with ‘smaller-scale Ottonians’, then odds are good we’re dealing with a transfer of political culture from one court to the other, which in turn points towards a genuine transformation of Western kingship in response to Ottonian models in the latter part of the tenth century. Wish me luck in working out the answer…


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