Episcopal authority and networks in Carolingian times: recent approaches and perspectives

From Firenze University Press Book:Networks of bishops, networks of texts

University of Florence
4 min readJan 16


Gianmarco De Angelis, University of Padua

Francesco Veronese, University of Padua, Italy

In the last two decades, studies on bishops and episcopal identity in the Carolingian age have participated in the profound renewal of interpretation to which the Carolingian world as a whole has been subjected1 . New approaches to the age-old question of the functioning — and, before that, the existence or otherwise — of state systems in early medieval Europe have led to a refocusing of attention on the vocabulary of the sources and the representations of public power they construct and transmit. The overlapping of meanings in the term ecclesia, highlighted by Mayke de Jong, has provided new bases for rethinking the relationship between public power and religious authorities.

The Carolingian ecclesia, as an ensemble of ecclesiastical structures and, in a broader sense, of all the people over whom the Frankish kings exercised their sovereignty, became the common framework within which to elaborate and give meaning to representations of society aimed at calling all its components to collaborate for the prosperity and stability of the social body and its rulers. A first, fundamental, subdivision was established between laymen and the clergy, based above all on the different ways in which the two groups reproduced themselves over time: through marriage and procreation for the former, through social and ritual means (priestly consecration) for the latter. Within the group of ecclesiastics, a further distinction was made, taking up pre-existing patterns, between secular clerics, specialised in pastoral care, and monks, experts in intercessory prayer. For each of these groups (ordines), specific models of life and behaviour were identified and applied, and as many texts were produced, for example Gregory the Great’s Regula pastoralis for clerics, and the Regula Benedicti for monks. The laity were the recipients of moral teachings by means of treatises (specula) composed by leading intellectual figures of the Carolingian world, such as Alcuin, Paulinus of Aquileia, Jonas of Orléans, and Dhuoda. The progressive elaboration of this image of society as divided into ordines aimed at framing each group — ideally, each individual — within it, establishing its position, and the contribution it was called upon to bring to the common good.

The Carolingian scheme of the ordines, long known and analysed in the historiography, has traditionally and for a long time been the basis of a clear distinction between the group of the laity and that of the ecclesiastics, meant as socially separate bodies, bearers of different interests and often in mutual conflict. This distinction and opposition were then used as instruments to interpret the peculiar (and ambiguous) political-institutional balance of the Carolingian world, and even the reasons for its dissolution. The sovereigns, especially from Louis the Pious (814–840) onwards, used the ecclesiastical structures and their leaders, bishops and abbots, to counter the centrifugal thrusts and individual interests of the secular aristocracies, especially of those among their members who held public offices (counts, dukes, marchiones). In this way, however, they would have bestowed increasing quotas of public functions and lands on their ecclesiastical allies, ultimately emptying royal and imperial authority of its meaning and practical effectiveness. More recent approaches have allowed these readings to be nuanced.

The greater emphasis on the ideological-discursive character of the distinctions internal within Carolingian society, has led to see them as a framework of representations and images aimed at legitimising the power of the Frankish sovereigns and at integrating the aristocracies into the shared management of public functions. On this basis, the social, familial and cultural practices of the elites of the Carolingian world have also been observed from different perspectives, which have attenuated the image of incompatibility between the interests of the rulers and those of the aristocracies. A decisive contribution came from the analysis of these dynamics in terms of collaboration, competition and the intertwining between them, i.e. coopetition. Collaboration was what, for example, bishops and counts were called upon to do on several occasions in the capitularies, in order to support each other in the joint exercise of justice, a fact which Gerda Heydemann has recently observed from the point of view of its exegetical justifications. The competition between kin and political groups, strictly supervised and regulated by the Carolingians, aimed instead at obtaining public offices, lands and movable goods and fiscal benefits, and a privileged relationship with the sovereigns themselves. Collaboration and competition were therefore both integral parts of the horizons and schemes of action with which the Carolingian elites elaborated their projects of social affirmation or reinforcement, conceived therefore in a framework that responds to the sociological definition of coopetition.

DOI: 10.36253/978–88–5518–623–0

Read Full Text: https://books.fupress.it/catalogue/networks-of-bishops-networks-of-texts/12883



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