03.02.01, Esders and Mierau, Der althochdeutsche Klerikereid

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Richard Ernest Walker

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.001


Esders, Stefan and Heike Johanna Mierau. Der althochdeutsche Klerikereid: Bischofliche Diozesangewalt, Kirchliches Benefizialwesen und volkssprachliche Rechtspraxis im fruhmittelalterlichen Baiern. MGH Studien und Texte 28. Hannover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 2000. Pp. v, 316. ISBN: 3-775-25728-4.

Reviewed by:
Richard Ernest Walker
University of Maryland

Those working in the Germanic Studies area will find the title of this book provocative: "Old High German Priests' Oaths." Given the time period, the early Middle Ages, and the locale, Bavaria and, more specifically, the diocese of Freising, questions will arise as regards the nature of these oaths and why they were in the vernacular rather than in Latin. The sub-title expands the scope and, while it does not immediately explain the title, it does suggest the richness of this subject and the cultural, historical, and linguistic significance of the book. The evolution of the power of the bishop within his diocese, the role and use of benefices, the expression of legal obligations in the vernacular language, these are all topics that have relevance in the context of oaths of loyalty and obedience. One of the central issues being addressed in this very thorough and comprehensive study is how the oath evolved from an expression and promise of loyalty to an office, the bishopric, to an oath of fealty by a priest, and possibly other clerics, to a specific individual, the bishop administering the ordination rite. The analogy to the lord-vassal relationship is not difficult to see, and it is the task of this study, one which it accomplishes in proficiently argued phases, to suggest how and when this transition to or adoption of the secular form took place. In the course of the discussion the implications of the oath and its evolution point to the power of the bishop, the way bishop's used the benefices awarded to them, and the process by which, at least in Freising, the legal language of a binding oath is translated from Latin to Old High German (OHG).

The existence of an Old High German oath dating from the early ninth century is in itself a riddle, as the authors point out by reference to the queries raised by the Germanist Wolfgang Stammler. Despite the fact that there are numerous extant manuscripts from Germany containing Latin versions of the ordination liturgy, the Old High German oath occurs only in two tenth- century manuscripts written in Freising (clm6241, clm27246, both now in the Bavarian State Library). The authors ask, quite appropriately, whether it could have been that the priest(s) taking the oath and/or the bishop(s) receiving the oath did not know Latin? This is convincingly shown not to be the case.

As the authors point out, it is difficult to explain the meager interest in this text shown by historical and linguistic researchers of early medieval culture in Germany. This gap is all the more puzzling, given the frequent use of loyalty oaths between bishops and clerics, on the one hand, and, on the other, the uniqueness of the Old High German oath both in form and content. The authors provide a thorough, critical treatment of earlier attempts to view the oath as a manifestation of germanic thought forms. Their copious footnotes, a laudable feature of the book as a whole, are especially welcome in this section to illustrate the fallacy of linking a priest's loyalty to the bishop and the concept of "Huld" in the germanic value system. While pointing the reader in the direction of research that has effectively invalidated views that saw the use of such oaths as efforts to move the secular meaning attached to vassalage into the ecclesiastical realm, the authors pose the more important issue of how to view such oaths once they are removed from the germanic cultural context. How should we interpret the tripartite oath that emphasized loyalty (Treue), the counterpart of the Latin oboedientia, as well as stability/stabilitas (Ortsgebundenheit) and respect for the limitations imposed by canon law [Beachtung des kanonischen Rechtes]? Since the possibility remains open that such oaths were required of deacons, sub-deacons, and other lower clergy, the authors have chosen to avoid the customary term, Priestereid [Priest's oath], in favor of Klerikereid [cleric's oath] or Ordinationseid [oath of ordination].

The investigation of structure and content of the OHG oath begins with an exclusionary process, i.e., to show that the German version is not to be seen linguistically as a precursor of later Latin versions, specifically, the tenth-century Pontificale Romano-Germanicum, the most important source for the liturgical rite for the ordination of priests north of the Alps. The subsequent creation of the historical context for the German form of the oath, based on its content and apparent use, begins with references to obedience requirements in canon law records from the fourth century onwards and draws upon capitularies from the Carolingian period for further development of this aspect of the oath. The authors spend, quite profitably, a considerable amount of time and space describing the conciliar process and Papal pronouncements that essentially concretize the loyalty/obedience issue as a matter of Canon law. Given the understanding of the priest and the expectation of the bishop, it is a short step, the authors suggest, from acknowledging loyalty to a person's office, the bishopric, to accepting a legal obligation to the person occupying the office, the bishop. As a consequence of this development, it is not difficult to understand how the failure of a priest to perform expected duties could and did have legal consequences. The OHG priest's oath became an instrument whereby the scope of canon law was expanded by adapting/adopting legal forms from secular law.

This is an important book; there are a number of linguistic, cultural, and historical topics that could be pursued with profit using the guidelines presented here. Unfortunately, most of these cannot be enumerated in a review nor can one hope to do more than give a flavor of the richness and competence of the research that went into it. In addition to the introduction, a survey of previous research, and an overview of the goals and methods of the study, the book only has three chapters. Chapter I examines the formulaic structure of the OHG oath and analyses the legal implications of its content. Chapter II discusses the episcopal claim to authority and the exercise of that role within the diocese of Freising. Chapter III looks at the problematic aspects of the use of vernacular German in the cleric's oath. The sixteen page conclusion, which ends with an interesting excerpt from Stricker's Pfaffe Amis [mid-thirteenth century] which is relevant to a discussion of the role of the bishop, is a comprehensive review of the major points made throughout the book, as it should be, but is also a convincing statement of the importance of this study for our understanding of early medieval thought and practice in Church organization in Bavaria.

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Richard Ernest Walker

University of Maryland