Bishops in the Medieval Christian Church

The history and duties of the medieval episcopate

Pope Innocent IV. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome
Pope Innocent IV. The Pope is the Bishop of Rome.

 Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the Christian Church of the Middle Ages, a bishop was the chief pastor of a diocese; that is, an area containing more than one congregation. The bishop was an ordained priest who served as pastor of one congregation and oversaw the administration of any others in his district. 

Any church that served as the primary office of a bishop was considered his seat, or cathedra, and was therefore known as a cathedral. The office or rank of a bishop is known as a bishopric.

Origins of the term "Bishop"

The word "Bishop" derives from the Greek epískopos (ἐπίσκοπος), which meant an overseer, curator or guardian. 

The Duties

Like any priest, a bishop baptized, performed weddings, gave last rites, settled disputes, and heard confession and absolved. In addition, bishops controlled church finances, ordained priests, assigned clergy to their posts, and dealt with any number of matters pertaining to Church business. 

Types of Bishops in Medieval Times

  • An archbishop was a bishop who oversaw several dioceses besides his own. The term "metropolitan" has sometimes been used for the archbishop of a city.
  • The Pope is the bishop of Rome. The holder of this see was considered the successor to St. Peter, and the office grew in prestige and influence over the first few centuries of the Middle Ages. Before the end of the fifth century, the office was established as the foremost authority in the western Christian Church, and the bishop of Rome became known as the father, or papa, or pope.
  • Patriarchs were bishops of particularly important sees in the eastern churches (which, after the Great Schism of 1054, would eventually become known as the Eastern Orthodox Church). This included the apostolic sees -- those believed to have been founded by Apostles: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem
  • Cardinal-bishops (now known simply as cardinals) were a privileged class as far back as the 8th century, and only those bishops who had received the red hat (a mark of a cardinal) could elect the pope or become pope.

Secular Influence as Well as Spiritual Power

Some Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, maintain that bishops are the successors of the Apostles; this is known as apostolic succession. As the Middle Ages unfolded, bishops often held secular influence as well as spiritual power thanks in part to this perception of inherited authority. 

A Three-Fold Ministry by the Second Century

Just exactly when "bishops" attained a separate identity from "presbyters" (elders) is unclear, but by the second century C.E, the early Christian Church had evidently established a three-fold ministry of deacons, priests, and bishops. Once the emperor Constantine professed Christianity and began to help followers of the religion, bishops grew in prestige, particularly if the city that constituted their diocese was populous and had a notable number of Christians. 

Filling the Void After Collapse of the Roman Empire

In the years following the collapse of the western Roman Empire (officially, in 476 C.E.), bishops often stepped in to fill the void secular leaders left behind in unstable areas and depleted cities. While theoretically church officials were supposed to limit their influence to spiritual matters, by answering the needs of society these fifth-century bishops set a precedent, and the lines between "church and state" would be fairly blurry throughout the rest of the medieval era.

The Investiture Controversy

Another development that arose out of the uncertainties of early medieval society was the proper selection and investment of clerics, especially bishops and archbishops. Because various dioceses were flung far across Christendom, and the pope was not always easily accessible, it became a fairly common practice for local secular leaders to appoint clerics to replace those who had died (or, rarely, left their offices). But by the late 11th century, the papacy found the influence this gave secular leaders in church matters opprobrious and attempted to ban it. Thus began the Investiture Controversy, a struggle lasting 45 years that, when resolved in favor of the Church, strengthened the papacy at the expense of local monarchies and gave bishops freedom from secular political authorities.

The Protestant Reformation

When the Protestant churches split from Rome in the Reformation of the 16th century, the office of the bishop was rejected by some reformers. This was due in part to the lack of any basis for the office in the New Testament, and in part to the corruption that high clerical offices had been associated with over the preceding few hundred years. Most Protestant churches today have no bishops, although some Lutheran churches in Germany, Scandinavia and the U.S. do, and the Anglican church (which after the break initiated by Henry VIII retained many aspects of Catholicism) also has bishops.

Sources and Suggested Reading

Eusebius. The History of the Church: From Christ to Constantine. Edited and with an introduction by Andrew Louth; translated by G. A. Williamson, Penguin Classics.

John D. Zizioulas. Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity of the Church in the Divine Eucharist and the Bishop During the First Three Centuries.

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Snell, Melissa. "Bishops in the Medieval Christian Church." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, Snell, Melissa. (2023, April 5). Bishops in the Medieval Christian Church. Retrieved from Snell, Melissa. "Bishops in the Medieval Christian Church." Learn Religions. (accessed June 9, 2023).