Sunday, November 29, 2020

Medieval Church Officers

 We tend to think of the medieval church as monolithic, as a single, unified entity.  In fact, there were numerous different entities within it, as I have earlier discussed, popes, cardinals, archbishops and bishops, monasteries, shrines, houses of canons, nunneries, and they certainly did not always see eye to eye.

Even within a single entity there was a lot of difference and disagreement.  Cathedrals, for example, had a bishop but also a cathedral chapter.  This chapter had been separate from the bishop since the ninth century in most places, and the priests in it, who supposedly helped the bishop in administering the diocese, were quite jealous of their own prerogatives.  The property from which the chapter drew its revenue was different from the property that supported the bishop, and the chapter had its own elected officials who led them, often in opposition to the bishop.


The dean was the head of the cathedral chapter, but there were many other church officers, most connected with the chapter, some connected with the bishop.  Among the most important were the chancellor, who oversaw the chancery, where records were kept and documents written, and the provost, responsible for the land and other property belonging to the church.

(You will notice that dean, provost, and chancellor are still names for some of the major officers of a university, due to universities' origins in medieval cathedral schools.)

Also important were the sacristan, responsible for the bread and wine of the mass and for maintaining the sacred vessels and altars, and the cantor, who led the singing of the psalms.  By the twelfth century many dioceses were divided into what were called archdeaconries, with an archdeacon over each (you knew that was coming), someone who took responsibility for overseeing the various churches within that archdeaconry.

A monastery had many of the same officers, chancellor, provost, cantor, sacristan, but there was no dean.  This is because the monks did not constitute a separate institutional body from the abbot, even though the monks collectively were called a chapter, and they would have regular meetings in what was called the chapter house, to discuss issues and give erring brothers a chance to confess and mend their ways.  Unlike in the cathedral, where most of the officers were elected by the cathedral chapter, in a monastery most officers were appointed by the abbot.

Monasteries had always had schools, where boys who joined the house would be educated.  It was assumed that they would most likely grow up to be monks there.  From the eighth or ninth century on, cathedrals also had schools, to train the boys and young men of the diocese who hoped someday to become priests, although most would never join the cathedral chapter.  There was thus always a school master (school mistress in a nunnery), sometimes the same person as the chancellor.  A large monastery might have a separate Master of the Boys, someone who supervised them in areas other than their education, such as keeping them in line if they got too ramunctious, making sure they were properly clothed and fed, and arranging for them to have some exercise and time to play.

© C. Dale Brittain 2020

For more on the medieval church, see my ebook, Positively Medieval:  Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

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