A Sacred Kingdom: Bishops and the Rise of Frankish Kingship, 300-850

A Sacred Kingdom: Bishops and the Rise of Frankish Kingship, 300-850

by Michael Moore


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Over a period of some five centuries, Europe was transformed by the emergence of barbarian kingdoms in the regions of the former Roman Empire. In the turbulent post-Roman world, the Christian church and its bishops had considerable sway, as these kingdoms developed new institutions such as Christian kingship. Warlike kingdoms competed with each other and took on projects of political consolidation, religious accommodation, and conversion. Religious imperatives shaped the understanding of political culture, alongside aristocratic consensus and cooperation. The Franks ultimately dominated Europe and built a great empire, pursuing a doctrine of missionary warfare. Carolingian kings and nobles were mobilized by a religiously saturated ideology and by the appeal of an aggressive and expansionist political order.

Throughout these changes, bishops played a guiding role. Their special garments, liturgies, and hairstyle indicated their character as a priestly brotherhood, set apart from the rest of society, whose task was to regulate the affairs of men and ensure the benevolence of God. The function of bishops as a cohesive religious order, and their collaboration with kings, meant that their ideas had a special prestige. By their blessings bishops could protect crops, houses, and even the kingdom and its warriors. By their mastery of laws—canon, Roman, and barbarian—the bishops grasped the right nature of the social order and indicated to others God's plan for the world.

Drawing on the records of nearly 100 bishops' councils spanning the centuries, alongside royal law, edicts, and capitularies of the same period, this study details how royal law and the very character of kingship among the Franks were profoundly affected by episcopal traditions of law and social order.


Michael Edward Moore is associate professor of medieval and European history at the University of Iowa.


"A masterly survey of the five hundred years in Gaul/Francia after the dissolution of the Roman Empire. It is elegantly and beautifully written, and Moore's impressive mastery of scholarship in some seven languages attests to his impressive command of the field. This book comprises a major new interpretation of the genesis of Frankish culture through the thought and actions of a Gallic episcopacy."—Sally N. Vaughn, professor of history, University of Houston

"Moore's emphasis on the role of episcopal models for royal office is both novel and engaging. His command of the secondary literature is impressive and his readings of primary sources are nuanced . . . This is a subtle, well-argued monograph that will greatly enrich our understanding of the early Middle Ages; it should be required reading for anyone interested in the religion and politics of the era." —Journal of Ecclesiastical History

"The book presents an excellent and nuanced understanding of early medieval kingship that situates it firmly in an ecclesiastical tradition stretching back to the Roman Empire. Michael Edward Moore is a legal historian at heart . . .yet this is no mere history of ecclesiastical law." -The Historian

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813218779
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 10/26/2011
Pages: 456
Sales rank: 1,099,290
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Michael Edward Moore is assistant professor of medieval and European history at the University of Iowa.

Date of Birth:

April 23, 1954

Place of Birth:

Davison, Michigan


Attended University of Michigan, Flint

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Bishops and the Rise of Frankish Kingship, 300–850


Copyright © 2011 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-1877-9

Chapter One


* * *

The ensuing chapter comprises an overview of key aspects of episcopal public life, legal activity, and governance. The social stature of bishops and the social doctrine of episcopal councils in Gaul were crafted during the fourth century, a period corresponding to what is customarily termed the Gallican period of episcopal law (314–506 AD). During this period, the political world of Gaul was transformed as the late imperial world of Rome gave way to newly dominant tribal kingdoms, most notably the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, and Burgundians. In the late Roman world, bishops served in the important role of mediating between imperial centers of power and regional communities. The level of education and aristocratic background of most bishops gained for them the cachet of being part of the urban elite.

Later on, bishops would represent their cities vis-à-vis the kings of emerging barbarian principalities, despite the traditional Roman perception, inherited and shared by bishops, that those kings were the leaders of pagan, heretical, and uncouth nations (nationes) or tribes (ethnici). In the rapidly changing political world of Gaul, bishops expressed their understanding of the church as a social and political entity and as having an exclusive right to protected holy spaces.

In the late Roman world the texture of aristocratic life was rapidly changing. Serving as bishops, aristocrats adopted a Christian manner and appearance and established emotional and legal ties to urban Christian communities. The social importance of bishops grew ever more significant in the late Empire and was deliberately and conspicuously advanced by bishops themselves through prominent activities such as magnificent building programs, leadership over cult and community, and unwelcome but vital service as judges in the episcopal court system. Alongside these bishops were many other types of clerics, such as deacons and priests or presbyters, although the episcopate began to distinguish itself more and more.

In their councils, meanwhile, bishops developed a specialized body of law expounding their stature in an official way. In conciliar law we observe the regional actions of this cultural aristocracy partaking in ritualized gatherings in which bishops mutually heightened their stature and laid down legal procedures from which they mutually benefited. The resulting body of law expressed universalized social doctrines and developed a mode of authority looking back to the ancient Christian past.

Aristocratic Temples

Bishops of the late Roman Empire crafted a powerful public image of themselves as pious men leading lives of monastic rigor and personal discipline, and at the same time as men of aristocratic mold who could be relied upon to wield power skillfully on behalf of Christian communities. The image of the bishop was developed as a combination of holy man and governor, a figure whose authority was charismatic but also grounded in law and ecclesiastical history. Although their role as governors of church and society expanded substantially in the course of the fourth century, the bishops often claimed in their councils that their religious stature and governance were ancient prerogatives, based on the decrees of the saintly men of Christian antiquity. Connections to this ancient past were maintained especially in the medium of law.

According to Jean Gaudemet, bishops must have been involved in legal activity from an early period of the church's history. While the earliest phases of episcopal lawmaking and adjudication are not documented, this activity comes into clear view in the early fourth century in the records of councils. Gathering periodically in regional bodies, the bishops discussed and debated problems relevant to their governance of Christian communities, issuing canons to address them. Episcopal law conveyed a complete social vision in its lofty, moralistic language. The legislation of councils offers insight into the mentality of this ecclesiastical and social elite. Episcopal claims to religious authority, an emerging governmental style, and a specialized language may all be found in the conciliar records. By the fourth century, moreover, bishops expected their voices to be heard. They preserved a familiar type of aristocratic leadership, but transposed into a new Christian key, with a new ethical tone. By serving as bishops, the well-educated and wealthy elites of the Empire could shape "alternative notions about leadership and authority in communities." Local elites of the late Empire were adept at mediating between the distant scene of imperial power and the local world of their constituencies. Bishops proved to be well-prepared to take over that mediating role as the arrival of barbarian tribes began to transform the Roman world. The lifestyles and activities of aristocratic Romans had to change, especially inside barbarian settlements.

Thus the imagination and hopes of the Roman aristocracy were turned toward the cool stone interiors of the church, where new opportunities for local leadership and mediation could be mapped out. Ambrose of Milan remained aware that the life of a bishop was distinct from a secular career, although it still involved the exercise of power. An ecclesiastical orientation helped to orient and stabilize an elite whose rise to prominence was in many instances recent. High clerical orders were absorbed into the aristocracy, which accordingly was "cloaked in ... sacred and secular prestige." Social power acquired a new guise with the dominance of these educated, elegant, and withdrawn gentlemen: the bishops maintained a style and appearance quite similar to the stoical ethos of earlier imperial elites, but they now engaged with their clientele in the intense, close-knit communal setting of Christian festivals and religious services.

The governors of the church were held to a seemingly contradictory set of standards. Theological discussions of political power in this period often reflected the ambition of Christian thinkers to serve as the privileged source of doctrine for the imperial state. According to Gregory the Great, the bishop should also live an ascetical life devoted to spirituality so that he could "glimpse the invisible world in contemplation," even while exercising a practical, effective, but nevertheless merciful style of government.

The coherence of episcopal power with earlier elites of the late Roman Empire may also be seen in the energetic building programs of bishops, above all of episcopal churches. Church construction went on at a steady clip during the final crises of the Roman Empire. The fifth century witnessed an episcopal building boom that transformed the topography of Gallic cities. In the apt phrase of Peter Brown, such foundations were "arguments in stone," meant to advertise the security of episcopal government during a period of troubling social and political change. Bishops built other civic structures, notably the bishop's residence, which combined the character of an aristocratic urban household with public spaces for meetings and the reception of visitors: "building patronage was ... a visible assertion of status within the city."

Most bishops had an aristocratic background and were accepted as highly qualified, therefore, to offer leadership for their communities. Most bishops came from curial and senatorial families. The church and its higher offices were an attractive alternative source of prestige and social position for the local aristocracy in Gaul and elsewhere in the Empire. These men were well-known to one another as the bluebloods of society, the "best men" (optimates viri), or even, in the phrase of Symmachus, "the better part of humankind" (pars melior humani generis), possessing a sensitive awareness of rank and hierarchy and always on the lookout for any slighting of their carefully nurtured prestige.

Mamertus, Bishop of Vienne (ca. 461–477) was one such, who relied on the weight of his personal background and his office when he established Rogations processions during a period of crisis in his city. When he built the Basilica of the Holy Apostles in Vienne in about 475, the church took its place in a cityscape already dense with Christian chapels, monasteries, and baptisteries. Bishops such as Mamertus were frequently involved in the basic planning of such building programs, right down to organizing the work of craftsmen and builders. His new basilica was intended to serve as the chief episcopal church of the city, a monument to Vienne's grand tradition of bishops going back to the time of the apostles. He also wished it to serve as a resting place for the bishops of Vienne, whose worthy bodies could be archived there as a tangible record of religious accomplishment and continuity. Indeed, as time went on, the church was overcrowded with the close-set ranks of stone tombs and graves of many bishops. The edifice conveyed a wonderful sense of confidence as Mamertus led his city in dealing with the Burgundians and their kings, who had occupied the city from the middle of the fifth century. The basilica announced that episcopal continuity would be maintained even under the dominance of the heretical Burgundians.

A bishop's cathedral was the centerpiece of his ritual stature in social affairs and his role as judge and governor. The cathedral, baptistery, and bishop's palace, arranged around the edges of the main square or forum in the heart of a city, gave the bishop a central stage of power befitting his governing role. Seated on his episcopal throne (cathedra), with his clergy gathered around him, the bishop faced his congregation much like a civil magistrate seated in one of the former city basilicas. This was a position both lofty and protective. For the bishops of Vienne, rivals of the bishops of Arles for religious prominence in Gaul, the basilica was a great jewel flashing the depth and extent of their significance. From such a center, the bishop's influence could be seen to extend over all Vienne's ecclesiastical institutions and the Christian people whose salvation he safeguarded.

A bishop's preeminence took visible shape in such buildings. The central basilica represented the government of the bishop over his community. Le Goff calls this the "remodeling of space." Episcopal prestige was also demonstrated in legal activities and ecclesiastical struggles. The bishops of Vienne had played a role in episcopal legislation and politics as early as 314, when Bishop Verus, accompanied by his exorcist, Beflas, attended the Council of Arles. In 398 Bishop Simplicius of Vienne sought to challenge the presumptive dominance of Arles before a council in Turin. A generation later Bishop Claudius, his deacons, and his suffragans were at the Council of orange in 441. This was a time of disruption as the invading Alans settled in the region. We know that Bishop Mamertus, in his turn, attended a council held in Arles in 470 to settle a dispute over the theology of predestination between Faustus of Riez and Lucidus. The participation of bishops in these councils gave them a voice in the operation of regional networks of aristocratic government.

The Ancient Canons

Ever since the days of St. Paul, Christian leaders had claimed a unique prerogative and responsibility to assemble and judge and make rules for the Christian community. In the late Empire, there were two types of councils, the big ecumenical or church-wide councils, meeting with the direct patronage and explicit interference of the emperor, and smaller regional councils. The latter were by far the most numerous. The records of such regional councils display many differences of style, relevant problems, and organization. African councils tended to be highly centralized, well-organized events. Councils held in Carthage possessed a special prestige and formed an unbroken order of authority throughout the fifth century. These were grand affairs: Carthage (398) was attended by 240 bishops. Gallic councils, in contrast, were more localized and dispersed, meeting in various cities. As a consequence they were often rather small. The Council of Riez (439) gathered eleven bishops to discuss an austere set of seven canons in this metropole of the old Roman province of the Maritime Alps. Two years later, the Council of orange brought together seventeen bishops. Despite such small numbers of attendees, Gallic councils gave bishops an opportunity to assemble as a privileged group and to forge personal ties with other bishops, sometimes across considerable distances.

As modest as these occasions may seem, given the numbers involved, the bishops presented their activities in tones of high seriousness. As legislators and governors, bishops claimed that it was their role to uphold "authority and tradition"—if need be, even in opposition to the power of emperors and kings. "Let us risk our souls for the flock," Hilary of Poitiers exclaimed, "because thieves came in, and a raging lion walks about." The raging lion in this case was Constantius II, a precursor of the Antichrist, Hilary declared, because of his interference in episcopal action and his promotion of the Arian heresy. The aristocratic groups of southern Gaul attempted to moderate the impact of imperial power and its intervention in the affairs of the church. The participation of bishops in regional governance, as religious figures protected by the sanction of holiness, added the subtle complicating element of religion. In the setting of the episcopal council the bishops of Gaul created and elaborated a legal and moral tradition to which they soon looked back as if it were something ancient and authoritative. By no means was this tradition simply inherited, but it was actively assembled, transposed into a Christian frame of meaning, and expanded.

The ideal of conciliar freedom and the mutuality of bishops were sometimes declared to be fundamental values, for in theory the will of God appeared to a council through the miraculous agreement of the attending bishops. Mutual recognition of episcopal power took the form of acquiescence in the exclusivity of each bishop's territory. It was believed that the Holy Spirit and attending angels were present at such assemblies. The brevity and reticence of council records do not enable us to peer into the actual give and take of debates within the council meetings, but conciliar decisions were always presented as certain and unanimous. While they continued the functionality of regional aristocratic assemblies, the councils possessed a new, distinctive religious dimension, as well.

Despite the claim of unanimity, the canons of many councils appear to record the successful arguments made by one victorious side in a dispute. In a study of the use of the Bible in later Merovingian councils, for example, Brigitte Basdevant-Gaudemet argued that bishops looked for a confirmation of their ideas and arguments from biblical passages, and did not find in them "an imperative juridical norm." Her findings seem applicable to the Gallic period, as well. In preparing to attend an important and possibly contentious council, it seems that leading bishops would prepare dossiers of legal and sacred texts for presentation. Strategies, debates, and arguments have left for us only subtle traces in the quotation of Biblical texts, as we see in the councils of Macon (581–583) and Lyon (583). The same can be said about the earlier Gallic councils: we know that debates were part of the basic functioning of the councils, but little trace of those debates remain. The presentation of dossiers of texts at Gallic councils is amply testified, and these were seemingly supported by Biblical passages or by collections of canon law. The values of collegiality and unity seem to have dampened the open expression of hostility.

The increasing depth and luster of the conciliar tradition provided bishops with a platform from which to view and attempt to shape the world around them. The legal tradition was crafted so as to offer stability to every bishop, filled as it was with directives and justifications for episcopal government. For that very reason, it can be difficult to distinguish the idealism of episcopal law from the actual activities of bishops. Often the councils were concerned with current problems arising from their governance over clerics, chapels, and monasteries and their control of land and buildings. Beyond this, moreover, Episcopal law had a spacious horizon. The law of episcopal councils included wide-ranging social doctrines regarding the nature of Christian society, which were expressed as the authoritative, communal decisions of episcopal authority. Good power was legal power. The concept of legality was an ancient Roman principle that shaped episcopal understanding of their role as regional judges and governors.

The bishops legislated as governors of the People of God, the Christian society that bishops themselves brought into existence through baptism. As will be seen, this society, the "people of God" (populus Dei), "Christian people" (plebs christiana), or "holy people" (plebs sancta) was intended as a contrasting category to the many clans or tribes (gentes) out of which it was created. In the developing Christian and episcopal social model it was the task of bishops to bring the gentes into the sheep-fold of the Christian people, and subsequently to govern them. New political federations of the Goths, Burgundians, and others were incorporated within the frame of ancient patterns of organized space, which continued to provide, in Christian guise, the unity and interconnectedness of the old Roman regions. Christian space largely adhered to this pattern.

From the fourth to fifth century, one can observe a flexible Christian historical vision: under the still-flourishing Roman Empire many Christians had come to believe that Divine Providence allowed the Roman Empire to arise in order to secure and pave the way for the Christianization of the world, the familiar concept of praeparatio evangelii. With the gradual collapse of Rome and the establishment of new barbarian kingdoms in its place, the historical perspective of Christians was transmogrified into a program of missionary expansion with a more central and independent role for bishops in bringing about the conversion of these barbarian peoples before the approaching end of time. Eschatological energy was added to the magnificence of episcopal government.


Excerpted from A SACRED KINGDOM by MICHAEL EDWARD MOORE Copyright © 2011 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Abbreviations xi

Introduction 1

1 Governing the People of God 21

2 The Spirit of the Gallican Councils 52

3 Bishops and the "Nations" 85

4 The Dignity of Power 122

5 Occupation of the Center 161

6 Missionary War and Reform of Kingship 203

7 Heresy and Consensus 243

8 A Kingdom of the Faithful 286

9 The End of Unity: The Abomination of Desolation 328

Conclusion: Yoking the Bull 368

Bibliography 377

Index 427

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