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A journey back in time to the Middle Ages

What actions did medieval bishops take beyond their roles as clergymen? To what extent did they fail, and why were they even in mortal danger at times? Historians Frederieke Maria Schnack and Dr Nina Gallion are researching these questions.

Minden Cathedral
Aeggy, CC BY-SA-3.0, unverändert

Minden Cathedral, seat of the former diocese of Minden.

Managing diocese, holding sermons, serving as judges, going to war – medieval bishops performed a wide variety of tasks, some of them dangerous.

The churchmen constantly had to fulfil a double function, which made them key influential figures in medieval society. “On the one hand, bishops in the Middle Ages were bound to the hierarchy levels of the Church as holy imperial princes; they fulfilled consecration duties and took care of the cathedrals in cathedral cities,” explains doctoral researcher Frederieke Maria Schnack from the Regional History Department at the Institute of History. “On the other, their tasks and the challenges they faced were of a more worldly nature than you might suspect from a current standpoint.”

The spiritual and worldly tasks of late medieval bishops (ca. 1250 to 1500) have hardly been researched to date. To find out more about them, Schnack is taking a closer look at bishops’ scopes of action in her doctoral dissertation, using Minden as an example. This diocese, which was probably founded around 800 AD, was located right on the Weser in Westphalia. Today it is about an hour by car from Hanover. Since the former diocese was dissolved back in 1648, only Minden Cathedral and written sources serve as testaments to it. 

The fact that Schnack, a historian active in the field of Schleswig-Holstein’s regional history, is studying bishops from Minden has reasons beyond geography. “Past research has hardly addressed the diocese of Minden, which makes it a very exciting example to study,” the historian explains.

That is because the diocese of Lübeck and the diocese of Schleswig, located in the present state of Schleswig-Holstein, differed from the other nearby dioceses in several regards. In Lübeck, several bishops appear to have been of common origin, which was only rarely the case in other dioceses. The medieval diocese of Schleswig was under Danish influence. “Minden, on the other hand, is worth a closer look because it demonstrates parallels to many other dioceses. The comparison allows me to make further conclusions about bishops’ scopes of action,” Schnack adds. “With its rather small territory, the diocese was in the immediate vicinity of the dominions of families belonging to the high nobility, which tried to expand their influence on the ecclesiastical principality.”

For her research, Schnack sifted through quite a few historical documents: bishops’ chronicles, deeds, papal register records and even lists of the dead. The researcher even travelled to the Vatican Secret Archives in Rome, where she discovered an exciting story: a bishop living in the 15th century named Wilbrand von Hallermund got into trouble explaining to the pope and other ecclesiastics in his diocese when they found out a cleric had been murdered under mysterious circumstances in Minden – presumably by a man from the bishop’s environment.

Wilbrand was forced to exculpate himself before the church leader and assured him that he knew nothing of the man’s murderous intentions and immediately broke off contact with the accused party. In the end, Bishop Otto of Münster was commissioned to investigate the events in Minden. He was able to put Wilbrand under such pressure that he appointed Otto’s nephew as his coadjutor (adviser) and successor. “Stories like this fascinate me, and there are a lot of them,” Schnack says happily.

The doctoral researcher is still at the beginning of her investigative journey, but her colleague, Dr Nina Gallion, is already one step further. Temporally, however, she is further back in the past. The research associate is earning her qualification as a professor and researching the scope of action of high medieval bishops (around 1050 to 1250) in the entire Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation north of the Alps. She is comparing bishops’ failures in the process. 

“First and foremost, my research addresses the negative consequences of bishops’ actions, which is to say: Why were they suspended, banned or removed from office? Why did they withdraw from office of their own will? What caused some of them to even suffer violent deaths?” Gallion asks, describing her project. “I want to find out when we can really speak of failure; there are documented cases when bishops did withdraw from office – from an unfortunate situation – but they were still able to glean something positive from the situation, such as an aristocratic pension.

The bishop research community is going to have to wait a while before Schnack and Gallion have definitive results, however. Schnack began her doctoral studies in April 2015 and is currently putting everything on paper. And after a year of research, Gallion is still sifting through many historical documents and poring over books as thick as her arm. They have already shared their first insights with other early career researchers interested in the topic, though. To that end, the Kiel-based researchers organised an international workshop on bishops in the Middle Ages at the beginning of November 2018 with the help of the Graduate Center at Kiel University. The three-day exchange took place in Minden, of course.

Author: Farah Claußen