Bishops in the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages was a time in the history of Europe when society was structured on well-defined classes. If you were born in one class of the society, you belonged to that class for your entire life with no chances of improving your status through hard work.

The type of home you lived in, the type of clothes you wore and your class determined even the type of food you ate.  These classes in order from high to low were King, Nobles, Clergy and Peasants. Out of the four, the clergy was one class that had its influence on all the other three classes in every way of life. The rulings of the clergy affected everyone during the Middle Ages.

Roman Catholic Church was the single most influential and unifying body in the Middle Ages. The Clergy at all times represented it.  The hierarchy of the church from high to low was as follows: Pope, Cardinals, Arch Bishop, Bishop, Priest, Monk and Nun.

Bishops in the Middle Ages were very important as far as the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is concerned. This is because they were next only to the Cardinals, who were there to assist the Pope, the sole caretaker of everything related to the Roman Catholic Church. Officially, the Pope was none other than the Bishop of Rome who was and still is elected by the Roman Catholic Church.

Duties of the Bishop

During the High Middle Ages, Bishops had become so powerful that it was mandatory for the king to take orders and consult the Bishop in everyday affairs over the state. In fact the Bishops were considered above all the heads of states in whole Europe even in the Holy Roman Emperor. Every king was supposed to have one Bishop in his court for consultation.

This was because Bishops were instructed men who had studied hard for years, often in foreign universities. Bishops were fluent in Latin. They were generally from a noble family or a wealthy family from some town.

The Bishop was a very important member of the clergy.He was responsible for a diocese that belonged to him. A diocese consisted of deaneries that were headed by their own deans or priests who answered directly to the bishops. The whole country was divided into a number of Parishes containing only one church headed by a priest. Parishes collectively formed a deanery.

Therefore a Bishop was at an extremely high post in the hierarchy of the clergymen. He used to take tours around the country to many churches within the country. There was a seat reserved for the Bishop in every church in the country. Above all the Bishops, there was the Arch Bishop. He was the leader and head of all the Bishops in the country during the Middle Ages.

Therefore the duties of the Bishops included:

  • Listening to the plights of all the priests and clergymen below him;
  • Levy taxes on the peasants;
  • Settling of important issues such as annulment of marriage;
  • Maintaining an army of his own to assist the king during war;
  • Leading his army in the war was common in the Early Middle Ages for Bishops;
  • Take care of the spiritual soundness of his diocese;
  • Implement the code of the church in the diocese;
  • Take care of the business of the church in their diocese and supervise the priests, nuns and monks in their activities.

Clothing of the Bishop

Alb– this piece of clothing bears its resemblance to the white tunic with long sleeves. These were accompanied by various ornamental pieces and colored stuff. This was worn by the Bishops in the Middle Ages as an element of the ordinary dress.

Cincture– due to the form of the alb, this piece was a necessity. Preference was given to linen although silk and wool was dominant due to the wealthy nature of the Bishops. It served as a splendid decoration during the Middle Ages. The cincture was usually heavily ornamented with precious stones, silver and also gold.

Maniple– This was a kind of stole, a narrow strip of cloth that was worn on the left side over the upper arm or the forearm. The ends of the maniple hung freely and loosely down the forearm.  The material used was generally linen only. Ornamentation on the maniple was limited to embroidered crosses on it.

Dalmatic– in the beginning of the Middle Ages, this was introduced for Bishops exclusively. This piece of clothing resembled a tunic but it was more elaborate than this. This was the result of costly workmanship and thus was an expensive piece of clothing.

Episcopal shoes and Stockings– this was the privilege of the Bishops alone. The stockings were usually made of silk.

Ring– This served more or less as an insignia, it was worn on the right hand on the fourth finger. The rule stated it to be a single gold circlet and a single stone fixed to it.

Rational– This was awarded by the Pope to the Bishops to mark a special distinction. Worn over the shoulder, it was ornamented with hollow plates on the shoulder or on the breast.

Pectoral Cross– During the Middle Ages this was restricted to the Bishops. The material was always gold and it signified acquiring special powers.

Crozier– This was something like an accessory carried by the Bishops in the Middle Ages. It was always heavily ornamented with patterns and figures carved on it. An emblem on the crozier was permitted for the bishops only in their diocese. The material was ivory.

Manteletta– The Bishops wore this piece of clothing when they were out of their jurisdiction.

Mozetta– this was a vestment worn by the Bishops when they were not performing any religious ceremonies. It was a short cape or a cloak that was open at the front but buttoned on the top with a hood for the head.

Residence of the Bishop

The Bishops being a key figure of the society and being wealthy by virtue of his position in the clergy used to live either in a castle or a manor.

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