THE "CHURCH" AND THE LAY ARISTOCRACY, CA. 950: The Case of Saint Ulrich of Augsburg

by Richard Abels
    In the ecclesiastical writings of the High Middle Ages, the 'Church' (Ecclesia) was the community of all baptized Christians, consisting of clergy (those who have dedicated themselves to the profession of religion) and laity (ordinary believers). The clergy included both the secular clergy, whose role was to live in the world and minister to the sacramental and spiritual needs of the laity, and the regular clergy, ordained monks who lived apart from the world and worshiped God in communities under a rule.
    By the year 1050, the institutional Church (consisting of all the various churches and monasteries) possessed perhaps as much as a fifth of all the landed wealth in Western Europe. This was the result of gifts to 'saints' donated by pious laymen, who saw such donations as a way to remedy their condition with God. Such gifts are best understood as part of a 'gift-giving' society shaped by the ethos of reciprocity, in which each gifts and benefit expected a gift/benefit in return (conversely, injuries had to be paid back with injuries). As expressed in early medieval charters, pious donations of land were given out of thanks to God for having blessed the donor with his wealth and out of hope that by giving God and his saints land, God might reciprocate with an eternal gift of salvation. In the language of the tenth and eleventh centuries, these nobles sought the 'friendship' and 'love' of the monks. Their association with a monastery gave them access to the monks' sanctity; among the returns that the monks gave their noble benefactors were a place for burial and even a place to spend their final months or years.  The general theme is that the goods of this transitory life ought to be used wisely to obtain a heavenly reward: Do ut des ('I give so that you will give').

    Land meant wealth and power. Reluctant to alienate property from their lineage, noble donors often founded proprietary churches, religious foundations that were to be controlled by the donor's family. The donor's family would retain the right of appointing the monastery's abbot, thus retaining effective control over the land (and securing not only the spiritual benefits of the prayers of the monks and Christian burial in land associated with a saint, but a place for younger sons). Manorial lords, similarly, regarded churches on their lands as belonging to them. Thus in 1050 many monasteries and parish churches were effectively in private hands, and laymen often had the hereditary right of bestowing a church with its tithes, burial rights, and revenues to whomever they wishes, often pocketing much of the money themselves. This privatization of religion meant a fragmentation of the 'Church,' much like happened with the 'state' with the passage of royal prerogatives and rights into private hands. The idea of a universal Christian community, the Church, was all but lost. In early 11th-century charters the term ecclesia invariably came to be associated with the actual buildings, the churches. The result was a clergy not only dependent upon the patronage of powerful laymen but also often sharing their secular outlook. Priests usually married or had concubines. Bishops were great nobles in their own right, the lords of episcopal cities, of vast holdings belonging to their sees, of delegated royal rights of justice and revenues (including minting, markets, and tolls), and the masters of magnificent households. Such prince-bishops not only supplied knights to fight for their lords, but often led these warriors into battle. Some were holy men; many were more comfortable on horseback on the hunt or campaign than they were saying the Mass.
    Even the princes of the church, the bishops, were appointed by laymen. Early medieval kings depended upon the support of a literate clergy for the administration of their realms. They also depended upon bishops and the greater abbots to support them with knights owed from their vast landed holdings. A bishop's role as defender of his city meant that he had to concern himself with military matters. Between 886 and 908 TEN German bishops fell in battle. In the year 1000 Bishop Bernard commanded forces of Emperor Otto III and fought with lance that contained nail of the true Cross. The admittedly unworthy Pope John XII in 960s fought as armed soldier to defend Rome. It is not surprising, therefore, that kings, dukes, and counts would have controlled the appointment of bishops in their territories. (The eleventh-century Capetian kings of France drew much of their power from their patronage over the French episcopacy.) The kings of Germany in the tenth and eleventh centuries, for instance, would often fill vacant sees with royal chaplains (priests of the royal household) who had distinguished themselves through service to the throne. An ambitious cleric would do well to seek a position in the king's court.
    The theory behind this lay control over clerical appointment derived from a theocratic conception of kingship. Kings were consecrated and anointed to rule (by bishops). They reigned by grace of God and, according to the Bible (Romans 13.1-4), they were God's swords of justice on earth ruling with the power of God. In the Eastern Roman Empire (Constantinople/Byzantium) this conception of kingship developed into the idea that the emperor was the living icon of Christ, possessed with the majesty of God. A similar view was taken by the Frankish king (and emperor) Charlemagne (768-814) and his successors. Though crowned emperor by the pope in 800 A.D., Charlemagne saw himself as entrusted by God with the welfare of his Church and, hence, responsible for its well being.
    The idea that kings stood directly below God in a divine hierarchy of authority gave rise to the practice of lay investiture. This was the practice of powerful laymen furnishing newly elected bishops and abbots with the symbols of their spiritual offices. (In the case of bishops this included the bishop's crozier, i.e. shepherd's staff, and his ring.) Kings would also bestow upon the newly created prelates the symbols of the temporal authority that they would now possess along with their episcopal and abbatial offices. These symbols of delegated royal authority (e.g. sceptres) were called regalia. Kings did not consider lay investiture an 'abuse' but a privilege emanating from the divine nature of kingship.
    The wealth of episcopal (i.e., bishop's) sees and abbacies was so great that they became a sort of commodity. Kings would sometimes sell the ecclesiastical offices to clerical followers, who would then recoup their money from the peasants who worked the Church's lands. The sale of spiritual offices was known as simony (see below for further discussion). What complicated matters was the ethos of reciprocity and the confusion between the bishop's role as a spiritual leader and as a feudal noble. As a landed lord a bishop, like any other vassal, was expected to pay his lord a relief for the right to take up the fief. And by the ethical demands of reciprocity, a new bishop was morally obliged to thank his patron and lord with a suitable gift to show his gratitude. Thus what one man might consider the sin of simony, another might justify as being a proper gift of thanks. With the fragmentation of church authority and the springing up of multitudes of local churches and abbeys, this sort of transaction became ubiquitous. What exacerbated it was the rise of a cash economy, which made the exchange of spiritual office for gift virtually indistinguishable from a market transaction--and in some cases they undoubtedly were sales.

St Ulrich, bishop of Augsburg 923-973, a model pre-reform bishop

    In the tenth and early eleventh centuries, bishops were great nobles, whose landed wealth made them among the most powerful secular lords in their dioceses.  It was possible for a cleric without wealthy and powerful kinsmen to rise to the office of bishop during this period--indeed two of the most renowned intellectuals of the early middle ages, Bishop Fulbert of Chartres (ca. 1020) and Gerbert of Aurillac, who became Pope Sylvester II in 999, had humble origins--, but such men were the exception. Most bishops came from the highest nobility, unsurprising given both the class assumptions of the time and the need in this gift-giving society to make presents to the right people. A bishop's nobility meant that he could enrich his church and monasteries with his familial wealth; a poor bishop, it was thought,  as more likely to use his position to help his kinsmen by transferring to them the church's lands, either as gifts or benefices. It was taken for granted that the secular aristocracy would support and foster their clerical kinsmen's rise in the church, and that bishops would use his position to benefit his blood relations. The career of Ulrich (or Udalrich), bishop of Augsburg in the first half of the tenth century, was typical (see Heinrich Fichtenau, Living in the Tenth Century). Ulrich was a saint, canonized within fifty years of his death, and we know so much about him because of the Vita, 'saint's life,' written to celebrate his holiness. A Vita was by no means a modern biography. The hagiographer's purpose was to glorify his subject. The author of the Life of St Ulrich, Gerhard of Augsburg, wanted to present his hero as holy and without blemish. It is therefore interesting how secular Ulrich appears in it. Ulrich's family was of comital rank, kinsmen of the dukes of Swabia. As was the custom, his parents presented him as an oblate (offering) to the church while he was still a child. He was educated in the monastery of St. Gall and distinguished himself as a student. His uncle Adalbero, the bishop of Augsburg, took him into his household, where he rose through his skills and self presentation to the office of chamberlain. When his uncle died, Ulrich left because he thought the new bishop came from too lowly a family to serve honorably.  His near kinsman Duke Burchard of Swabia came to his aid, presenting him at court to King Henry I of Germany. Henry showed the young cleric favor because of his noble blood and excellent bearing, making him one of his household retainers (fideles). Both Henry I and Count Burchard supported Ulrich's candidacy for the episcopacy of Augsburg when that see became vacant.
    During the civil war that plagued the early years of Otto I's reign, Ulrich supported Otto by holding for him the castle of Schwabmuenchen. One of Ulrich's nephews became count of Swabia, and another, Adalbero, succeeded him as bishop. In order to prepare Adalbero for the office, Ulrich took Adalbero into his household, first placing him in charge of the bishop's soldiers, then making him the bishop's representative to the royal court. Ulrich even gave Adalbero authority to receive oaths of fidelity to the bishop and to carry the bishop's crozier. This last favor provoked criticism from the other German bishops, who feared that the example would catch on. Ulrich saw the logic of their argument and removed his permission, but on condition that the bishops and clergy would agree to elect Adalbero as his successor on his death. Ulrich's attempt to resign his episcopacy in favor of his nephew led to his condemnation by a Church council at Ingelheim. Ulrich did penance and was forgiven, though notice of his absolution only arrived to him on his deathbed. He was 'canonized' (recognized as a saint) by the pope in 993, which was the first example of papal canonization and led to regularizing the process by which the Church recognized its saints.
     Ulrich's late tenth-century biographer describes his ecclesiastical activities, emphasizing his visitations to the churches and monasteries in his diocese, during which he would give sermons in Latin (presumably with someone translating them into German for the uneducated), preside over episcopal courts, supervise the morals of the clergy under his care, and perform sacraments and liturgies. The bishop's spiritual duty was to ward off evil spirits, and liturgies, prayers calling upon God to bestow blessings, were conceived to be, in Fichtenau's phrase, 'a presentation of the divinely ordained order, with the bishop in the center and his clergy serving him.' A typical liturgy for the dedication of a new church had the bishop rapping on the church door with his crozier three times before the clergy within opened it for him, then drawing the alphabet with his crozier diagonally across the floor of the church. This would be followed by the bishop blessing the church with water mixed with ashes and salt, symbolizing the Christian people (the water), Christian teachings (the salt), and the passion of Christ (the ash). Such liturgical and ritual duties were in the tenth century more deemed to be more important spiritually for the faithful than pastoral care. Ulrich instructed the clergy under him mainly through his own example. A bishop was also expected to care for the poor, and the traditional formula for episcopal finances reserved one-quarter of revenues for the feeding and clothing of the poor.
     Ulrich had other, less spiritual, duties as bishop. Another tenth-century bishop, Rather of Liege, explained his obligations as a newly consecrated bishop: "I was enthroned, I presided over an assembly of clerics, I led my military host against the enemies of the Emperor Otto (I), I returned, I received him who had consecrated me bishop (Bruno of Cologne) and served him, gave him gifts, accompanied him on his journey home as a most devoted servant. Then I turned around, traveled through the diocese, conferred with the most important clerics and laity about what was to be done in order to do justice with everyone" (from Fichtenau, p. 200).

     In the tenth and the eleventh centuries kings relied upon bishops to be administrators and justices. They also relied on them for military service. Though canon law had long forbidden priests to shed blood, bishops nonetheless led troops into battle. The most holy of them, like Udalrich, did so unarmed, relying only on prayer to defend them. Many winked at the restrictions and emulated the model of Turpin in Song of Roland. In the year 1010 the bishops of Vich, Barcelona and Gerona all fell in battle. Popes John X and XII led papal armies in full armor.  According to Gerhard, Bishop Ulrich took the lead in the defense of Augsburg against the invading Hungarians in 955.  On the first day of the attack, Bishop Ulrich rode out to encourage the towns’ soldiers in their frantic defense of the city’s gate. While the battle raged, the bishop, dressed in his ecclesiastical robes without armor or shield to protect him, calmly looked on, protected, according to his biographer, by God’s favor.  His presence inspired his men, who drove off the attackers.  Ulrich returned to the city to direct throughout the night the repair and strengthening of its walls.  As David Bachrach notes, Ulrich also strengthened the “spiritual defenses” of the city. Not only did he pray throughout the night, but he ordered half the women of Augsburg to march in a religious procession around the city and had the other half “cast themselves to the ground, flailing themselves and begging for mercy from the mother of God.” After he celebrated a public morning mass, he gave the soldiers communion before they returned to the fight against the heathen Hungarians. (Bachrach 79). Throughout the siege Ulrich encouraged the defenders with sermons that promised them the support of God.

            Ulrich’s activities in defense of Augsburg against the Hungarians highlights the blurry boundaries between the secular and the spiritual in the tenth and eleventh centuries and the responsibility of bishops both for the material and spiritual welfare of the inhabitants of their sees. Ulrich acted recognizably as a secular commander in directing the repair of the town’s walls.  But undoubtedly he regarded his prayers, sermons, and liturgical duties as his most critical contribution to the successful defense of the city.  Unlike the fictional Bishop Turpin, Ulrich refused to dress in armor even in the presence of the enemy.  He relied upon his ecclesiastical vestments to protect him from God’s enemies. Whether or not God heard the saint’s prayers, Ulrich’s calm demeanor and quiet confidence certainly contributed immeasurably to the morale of his troops and encouraged them to withstand the Hungarian assault until King Otto I arrived with a relief army.

     Ulrich’s participation in combat was not extraordinary for a bishop of his day.  What was more unusual was Ulrich’s careful attention to his liturgical and spiritual duties.  In fact, many tenth and early eleventh century bishops differed little in their lifestyles from their comital kinsmen. The concern of monastic reformers about the falconry, hunting and dicing that went on in bishops' households is evidence of this blurring of distinction between the secular and spiritual aristocracies of the tenth and eleventh centuries.




Bachrach, David. Religion and the Conduct of War in the West c. 300-1215. Woodbrige: Boydell Press, 2003.

Fichtenau, Heinrich. Living in the Tenth Century. Trans. P. Geary. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984.

Prinz, Heinrich. Klerus und Krieg im frűheren Mittlelalter. Stuttgart, 1971.

“St. Ulrich.” Catholic Encyclopedia.


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