And Other Clergy

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the September 1982, A.S. XVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

The secular clergy formed the backbone of the Church. While not possessing the influence of the monks or friars, their importance is unmistakable, for upon them fell the task of the daily administration of the needs of the people. So, as this “backbone,” they formed the government of the Church.

Like the secular government, the Church had its own hierarchy. At the bottom were those who had only taken the Minor Orders, and functioned as assistants to those in the Major Orders. Above them were the archdeacons, bishops, archbishops, and the cardinals, all ruled by the pope. In addition, there were the canons who were the officer corps for the bishops.

The entry level jobs in the Church are the Minor Orders. Four in all, they were usually given all at once and covered by the term “clerk.” These jobs were door-keeper, reader, exorcist, and acolyte. The clerk occupied an ambiguous place, enjoying many of the benefits of the Church, without many of its restrictions. He could marry and have children, and could leave the Church at any time. The main disadvantage was that he could not directly enjoy any of the Church revenues. Thus, many clerks led a hand-to-mouth existence. And yet, in the later part of the period, many would enter the Minor Orders without further though of advancement in the Church. The draw was the growing bureaucracies of the secular government.

The next step is the Major Orders, which carry a permanent commitment. Consisting of the sub-deacon, deacon, and priest classifications, this step was the foundation of the Church. Those taking the Major Orders were no longer allowed to marry, nor could they leave the Church without express approval from the pope. The question of the celibacy of the clergy was a major issue during the early Middle Ages. While the prohibition dates back to the early Church, it was not greatly enforced until Pope Gregory VII, and not universally until a century later. Since it was a requirement for further advancement, taking the Orders was a major watershed for many a career.

The Major Orders also mark a class division. While not strictly true, nevertheless, the majority of the higher hierarchy was drawn form the aristocracy. Those below, particularly out in the rural parish churches, were from the lower classes. Many a local lord had the son of a favorite serf installed as priest in the local church. This practice led to a continuing scandal in the church of the priest who could not read the services or sing the Mass. But for whatever educational defects, the average priest made up in religious zeal and added a civilizing influence to the population.

A side track is needed here to explain the difference between a rector, a vicar, and a parson. A parson is a person of the church, and usually refers to the person who conducts the services at the church. Usually a priest, he was sometimes a deacon. A rector controls, or rules, the church, particularly the finances. The parson and the rector were sometimes the same person. But in the latter part of the period, for many churches, the rector was a nearby monastery. In that case, the parson would be a vicar, it from the Latin word “vicarius,” meaning substitute.

The archdeacon was a sort of executive officer to the bishop. His main functions were to supervise the parish churches that were under the bishop and the operation of the church court. The office of archdeacon began life with the name of “archpriest.” These were later replaced by rural deans, who were themselves parish priests. The archdeacon only partially supplanted the rural deans and was directly attached to the offices of the bishop. The archdeacon had the additional duties of acting lawyer in the church courts, this court having jurisdiction over all cases involving the clergy, church sanctions and other church functions, particularly marriage.

In addition to the arch deacon, the bishop had several other officers generally connected to the cathedral which he used as his headquarters. These officers, by the eleventh century, had formed a corporate body within the cathedral clergy, and were called canons. They were headed by an elected dean, who was second only to the bishop. It was the canons who represented the clergy in the elections of a bishop.

Next to the priest, the bishop is the oldest ecclesiastical office in the Church. It was with the bishop that the responsibility of the smooth running of the Church rested. Only the bishops could ordain a priest and was responsible for the worthiness of the candidate. And in the e beginning, he had control of all the personnel and property of the Church in his diocese. In time, however, the monasteries became independent of the bishop, while the friars never were under him.

In the beginning, the archbishop, or metropolitan, was merely a bishop with a much larger diocese. Later, he obtained control over the bishops within a given province. An archbishop had all the duties of a bishop. In addition, he could call a provincial council of the Church, which was a gathering of bishops, to determine church law.

Bishops and arch bishops were often great feudal lords, and in Germany were intimately involved in the government of the Holy Roman Empire. Many bishops were more feudal lords than churchmen, and until the eleventh century were usually appointed by the king or emperor. The Investiture Controversy changed this, giving control over the pope.

The cardinals were created in 1059 for the purpose of electing the pope. In a sense, cardinals existed before this, but the title was purely honorary. The College of Cardinals was established to prevent imperial interference in the election. In the beginning, there were seven cardinal bishops, twenty-eight cardinal priests, and eighteen cardinal deacons. In time, the vote was restricted to the cardinal bishops, whose number had increased to seventy.

Of all the men who aspired to ruling all of Europe, the pope came the closest. The Church under Innocent III had no rival in power or prestige. In the early church, the pope was merely the bishop of Rome. Situated at the center of secular power, and keeper of the tomb of St. Peter, his power grew, until in the fourth century, he was one of five Patriarchs. The Patriarchs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria fell with the Moslem conquest, leaving only Constantinople to contest Rome for supremacy. This contention for control was on of the reasons why the Eastern and Western Churches drifted apart.

The papacy first came into its own under Gregory VII, as he led the reform of the Church, of which the Investiture Controversy was only a part. From there, the power of the pope grew as the church expanded its jurisdiction, until under Innocent III, the pope was a king maker.

The power of the papacy declined as its only weapons, excommunication and interdict, became overused, and lacked the subtlety necessary for government. The decline was hastened as political disputes clouded the election of the pope, causing the Great Schism. The end came with the emergence of the strong national governments of France and England, both of which claimed the primary allegiance of the people.

The Church and the clergy of the Middle Ages were vastly different from what they are today. In the background of everything stood the Church, and omnipresent were the clergy. Whether they were monk, friar, or simple priest, they had as much influence and impact on history as any king. These articles do little justice to their diversity or genius. Neither the world, nor the Middle Ages would have been the same without them.



Coulton, G.G. Medieval Panorama. New York: Norton & Company Inc., 1938.

Durant, Will, and Ariel Durant. The Story of Civilization: The Age of Faith, A History of Medieval Civilization. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1950.

Sidney Painter. A History of the Middle Ages, 284-1500. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.

Southern, R.W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics) Books, 1970


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