Ecclesiastical territories, 1648

Ecclesiastical territories, 1648

Ecclesiastical territories in the Holy Roman Empire, 1648

The role of the church was to provide cure of souls to every human being in Christendom.  Performing this function required the most sophisticated international bureaucracy Europe have ever seen.  Maintaining that administrative and spiritual hierarchy was very expensive.  In an agrarian economy, the resources required to meet these expenses were mostly generated from the land.  As a consequence, the medieval church gradually acquired vast tracts of land, both for the senior secular clergy (bishops and archbishops) and for the regular clergy (monastic orders). 

For ecclesiastical landholders, this gradual process of acquisition was rarely reversed.  Aristocratic families could die out, could divide their lands amongst descendants, could give land as dowries, or could lose them in war, law courts, or as punishments. Ecclesiastical corporations -- bishoprics and monasteries -- by contrast, were practically immortal. Moreover, wealth begat wealth: as monasteries became prestigious and desirable destinations for younger sons and daughters of noble families, entry into them sometimes required a dowry; and such gifts incrementally added further lands to their estates. As a consequence of this long-term process, ecclesiastical estates spread across the landscape of most regions of later medieval Europe.

In the Holy Roman Empire, however, the greatest of these ecclesiastical estates supported ecclesiastsical princes, that is, prince-bishops and prince-archbishops with seats of their own in the imperial Diet.  Much as the Pope simultaneously exercised supreme spiritual authority over Latin Christendom as a whole and supreme temporal authority over the papal states in central Italy, the prince-bishops and archbishops of the Holy Roman Empire exercised ecclesiastical authority over wide areas (subject to the authority of the pope) and secular authority over smaller principalities (subject to the temporal authority of the emperor). The greatest of these rulers -- the prince-archbishops of Cologne, Mainz, and Trier -- were numbered amongst the seven most senior princes in the Empire: the 'electors', so named because they elected the empreror himself.

Text: Howard Hotson (February 2023)