Magnates and Elections, or were there West Frankish ‘Princely Churches’?

Well, I’m now back from Paris, and the usual stately progression of Thursday posts can resume. For a couple of weeks now, in and around manuscripts and actually medieval history, I’ve been trying to do some comparative reading about kinship and patronage networks and their relationship with what you might loosely term ‘recruitment’. The reason for this perhaps unusual choice in recreational literature goes back to that question of the Reichskirche we looked at a few months ago. One of the points which has subsequently been raised in response to that was the question of how much control of the church is simply a feature of politics in general. This seemed fair enough, so I’ve been looking at how far the great West Frankish magnates controlled the bishoprics in their spheres of influence.

The tomb of Arnulf the Bad of Bavaria, whom I mentioned in the last post in this context… (source)

Turns out, if you read about this, the answer people give is ‘yeah, duh’. If you ask why people are saying this, though, direct evidence is in most cases non-existent (and I’d argue in a lot of the cases it exists it doesn’t say what people think it does, but that’s another story…) so it rests on inference from indirect evidence. So the question became, what counts as good grounds for inference?

Hence why I was reading about eighteenth-century German elections, specifically Carola Lipp’s article on local elections in Esslingen, a large town in southwest Germany. Esslingen was reasonably significant, but its council elections were not subject to any particular degree of high-political interference: the (in this case) duke of Württemberg was not imposing his own candidates onto the town government. Instead, the people who got chosen seem to have had strong local ties, usually kinship ones. Alternatively – particularly amongst the artisanal class – the key political bond appears to have been the guild. This fits with what one might assume based on simple common sense: all other things being equal, the choice of local officials in a situation where recruitment is based on the decisions of a relatively small group of locals is probably going to be based on who-you-know, and that mean family or institutional ties. After all, if you know someone from family gatherings or guild meetings, you have a reasonable idea of their character, resources, competence, and whether or not they can be made to owe you favours.

Esslingen today (source)

This fits neatly onto earlier medieval bishoprics. To take as an example my pet area of Tours, between about 920 and 1050, there were eight archbishops. Of those, we know nothing about the background of one. Of the other seven, three were from the local nobility and one from the regional nobility. Four had held positions of importance in the abbey of Saint-Martin – the dominant institution in Tours at this time – one in Tours cathedral, and one more can be tied to their predecessor’s ecclesiastical networks in a somewhat indirect way. In short, Tours looks awfully like Esslingen: the overwhelming majority of the archbishops have strong family and/or institutional ties to the see, with the latter being particularly important.

You’d never guess this from the literature, though. I’m going to single out Boussard’s article on the Neustrian episcopate as a particularly egregious example of the sort of thing I was complaining about at the start: he gives the family and institutional background of each of the archbishops, and also spends a few lines speculating about which prince appointed them. Is there any evidence for this? Is there heck. Not only is there no direct evidence, there is – as the above indicates – no reason to think that anything other than local dynamics are at play here.

My research is showing that this is reasonably typical. How this relates to specifically royal authority over the Church is something I will probably blog about at another time. For the moment, can we please stop saying that episcopal elections are being influenced by the great nobles unless there’s a reason to say it?


4 thoughts on “Magnates and Elections, or were there West Frankish ‘Princely Churches’?

  1. Ok, fair enough that all makes sense, but where do the regional ‘princes’ fit into this picture then? How do they keep their ears to the ground on a local level, if not through familial and patronage links, which revolve (as far as we can see, although it’s undoubtedly a problem of evidence survival) around major churches? Or is there just a massive disconnect between local elite networks and the kingdom-wide networks of ‘princes’?


    1. Good question, and one which lets loose a number of interesting flights of thought… One of the most immediate, though, is that the major churches which the upper nobility patronise and dominate tend to be abbeys and particularly reformed abbeys rather than cathedral churches. Regional variations apply here, but off the top of my head I think this is pretty much the case in most of the dioceses I know except maybe Orléans. This makes an important difference insofar as it’s a lot harder for an aristocrat to find an excuse to meddle in a cathedral chapter than an abbey, whereas ‘upholding the moral standards of our regular clergy’ provides a decent excuse to go into an abbey every generation or so and kick out your opposition (not looking at any counts of Flanders in particular).

      (This is actually how I got started looking at bishops, actually, because I was looking at princes and kept noticing that you could make a picture with upper nobility and monks and bishops didn’t seem to fit it, so I’m happy to keep open the possibility that there really is some kind of disconnect, even if only one of head-space, between abbey/prince-centred networks and cathedral-church-centred ones.)


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