Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.11.07 Thomas (ed.), Bishops’ Identities, Careers, and Networks in Medieval Europe

22.11.07 Thomas (ed.), Bishops’ Identities, Careers, and Networks in Medieval Europe

The composition of the medieval episcopate is of vital importance for scholars in a variety of fields. How bishops were chosen, elevated, and invested tells us a great deal about systems of power in medieval society, and how bishops leveraged their social, political, and religious connections sheds light on their efforts at building authority and support. Editor Sarah E. Thomas brings together thirteen articles arranged into four thematic sections and spanning a wide geographical and temporal range to examine those very aspects of medieval bishops’ careers. With a focus on the period after 1250 until the early sixteenth century, this volume succeeds in fitting the careers of bishops into broader contemporary trends in European society, including efforts at political and social centralization.

In her introduction, Thomas presents the bishops to be examined within the context of efforts at centralization within political units as well as the papacy. While the popes were attempting to implement a strong centralized system of governance over the dioceses, so too were secular rulers working to centralize their own power in their regions; these two efforts were based on similar premises but could come to oppositional outcomes with both the popes and rulers working to exert influence over the staffing of dioceses and the actions of bishops. Thomas also introduces the thematic methodology of the volume effectively, giving good overviews of the role of prosopography, social networks analysis, and family connections used by the contributors. Insofar as a general theme could be drawn between the disparate examples examined, Thomas shows how the value of previous royal service increased during the period under study. The introduction is effective at introducing the contributions as well as the thematic underpinnings of the volume as a whole.

Part 1, “Cohorts of Bishops,” contains four chapters examining bishops from England, Portugal, Italy, and France. Katherine Harvey’s chapter on the appeal of the courtier bishop in thirteenth-century England traces the rise in importance of previous administrative experience as a qualification for elevation. She demonstrates that dioceses increasingly sought out candidates with previous royal service (though she notes that most candidates were not intruded into their dioceses by the king) for the practical values that they brought to the position. This was in contrast to the twelfth-century preference for bishops from monastic backgrounds. Harvey shows that many dioceses wanted a balance between piety and political/business acumen, and that as historians we need to move beyond the normative assumption that non-courtier-bishops were somehow purer or more inherently suited for episcopal office.

Hermínia Vasconcelos Vilar’s chapter, “Bishops, Kings, and Grievances in Medieval Portugal” examines the period between the Portuguese bishops traveling to Rome to present grievances against King Alfonso III in 1266 and the signing of compromise agreements in 1289. She shows that prior to the mid-1260s we can account for the relatively genial relations between bishops and the king through the tendency to elevate bishops who had prior royal experience or aligned themselves closely to the king’s interests. Furthermore, the papacy had provided support for Alfonso III, and thus the Portuguese bishops were likelier to support him as well. Vilar argues, however, that as the king aggrandized more sources of revenue to himself and his closest noble allies, the bishops found themselves increasingly locked out of increasing incomes, thus precipitating the appeal to Rome. Her chapter goes on to lay out the growing conflict clearly and insightfully, bringing in a contest between pope and king over who could choose bishops (and resulting in episcopal complaints of royal interference in their affairs), and culminates with a good overview of the settlement. The chapter is well-constructed and informative, though more discussion and analysis of the agency of the bishops themselves would have broadened out the picture.

Stefano G. Magni’s chapter on nepotism and social mobility seeks to untangle how large a role nepotism played in the elevation of bishops in Italy in the fourteenth century. He begins with a working definition of nepotism, which he argues was “the practice of granting institutional wealth to kin or to very close friends, generally patrimonial or rent-oriented wealth” (68). He also argues that we must closely study available evidence to find examples of nepotistic behavior, rather than simply asserting or assuming that bishops were practicing it. He examines case studies of particular bishops and cities, and he shows where and how nepotism occurred. While each example differed as to the scale, scope, and effect of the practice, he does generalize that nepotism was an effective mechanism for asserting papal supremacy over the church.

The final chapter of this section, Christine Barralis’ examination of the bishops of Meaux from the late twelfth to early sixteenth century, represents a deep dive into an “average” French diocese. Her general takeaways in some ways mirror developments elsewhere in Europe. She argues that good noble birth and effective royal service were very helpful in gaining elevation into the episcopate. As the period went on having an academic degree loomed larger than previous experience in sacred orders, and those who studied law were more successful than those who studied theology; this mirrors the rise of the courtier-bishop in England, for instance. Furthermore, the shift of the papacy to Avignon helped papal efforts at centralization already underway. We also see a shift away from episcopal elections to papal appointments, coupled with the intervention of the king in how bishops were elevated.

Part 2 of the collection, “Episcopal Networks,” contains three chapters spanning medieval Norway, Poland, and Castile. The first chapter, by Jacek Maciejewski, examines the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Polish episcopate with a focus on familial connections. His interest is what role family connection played in elevation. His general takeaway was that while royal and papal support could certainly help, local noble familial support was vital to the successful elevation of a candidate to the episcopate. Aída Portilla González’s chapter on the cathedral chapter at Sigüenza in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries examines the networks that guided the granting of benefices. She demonstrates that, once again, social relationships and familial connections were vital to getting these lucrative positions. Finally, Steinar Imsen’s chapter on the church of Nidaros discusses how the diocese of Nidaros used episcopal networks to expand its reach into the region of the North Sea and Iceland. Each of these contributions effectively contextualizes the role of episcopal networks both for the elevation of particular candidates as well as the expansion of episcopal authority.

Part 3 of the collection, “Individual Bishops,” has three chapters examining specific figures in medieval Spain and Italy. Jacopo Paganelli’s chapter on the Scolari family and the bishopric of Volterra is cast in an effort to revitalize the scholarly examination of Tuscan rural lordships. He studies the consolidation of rural lordships in Tuscany and he shows that bishops could bridge the gap between the urban and rural centers of power more effectively than most others. Fernando Gutiérrez Baños’ chapter on Pedro Pérez de Monroy, bishop of Salamanca, gives a good history of the diocese, Pedro’s family, and the role played by royal and papal patronage. Clement V’s choice of Pedro reinforced a preference for clerics from well-connected noble backgrounds. Susana Guijarro’s chapter on Luis de Acuña, bishop of Burgos, brings the section to a conclusion by examining the career of another noble bishop inserted into episcopal governance. Guijarro gives a comprehensive overview of Luis’ family, political maneuvers, and role in the civil war in late medieval Castile. She broadens the depiction of the nobleman bishop by also discussing his attempts to grow episcopal power over the cathedral chapter and his interest in humanism.

The final section, “Bishops and the Papacy,” has the final three chapters examining episcopal/papal relations in Italy, Sweden, and Croatia. Fabrizio Pagnoni examines episcopal appointments in northern Italy during the pontificate of John XXII. His focus is on the way that Pope John extended his power over bishops through the appointment process. In keeping with discussions elsewhere, Pagnoni notes that the importance of election by cathedral chapter declined in the fourteenth century in favor of papal appointment (dovetailing with the move of the papacy to Avignon). In the case of John XXII, he also used his influence over episcopal appointment to reinforce the Guelph cause in its conflict with the Ghibellines. Mišo Petroviæ’s chapter on the archbishopric of Split from 1294-1426 examines individual episcopal elections to situate them in the context of the competing interests for control. He shows that periods of regional fragmentation coincided with growing papal centralization and that the power of the bishops, communes, and cities were all intertwined. While the popes sought dominance over Split, they never developed a concerted political program, which allowed local elites and cities to assert greater control over episcopal elections. In the final chapter Kirsi Salonen examines the contacts between the medieval Swedish episcopate and the papacy in the later Middle Ages. Her focus is on the visits to Rome for episcopal appointment and ad limina visits by bishops, mostly due to the paucity of evidence for other forms of visit. Her study shows that relatively few Swedish bishops traveled to Rome for their appointment, or really for any other reason. She argues that the size of Swedish diocese necessitated a great deal of internal travel by the bishop and that the wars between Denmark and Sweden would have made travel to Rome difficult. She shows that the use of episcopal representatives in Rome could serve as career stepping-stones for those representatives, but more discussion of the effects of a relative lack of papal connection to the bishops in Sweden would have been welcome.

Overall, this is an impressive volume that advances our understanding of episcopal matters in medieval Europe. The geographical and temporal range of the volume is welcome, and the studies presented here are of excellent quality, readability, and value. The range and scope of the volume does lead to one criticism: this volume would have benefited from a unifying conclusion. With so many complementary themes made manifest in the chapters, bringing them all together (and discussing the points of departure) would have provided a strong thematic finish to the collection. Regardless, this volume is a triumph and will serve scholars very well.