How to become bishop: ecclesiastical liberty in the ninth century

What’s the best way to become a bishop? Writing around 835, a cleric gave an example of how it should be done. Long ago, there was a rich man from a Lyon senatorial family called Eucherius. He gave away all his money to the poor, and went to live in a remote cave. There he hid alone for many years, fasting and praying, until the bishop of Lyon died. Then divine grace revealed Eucherius to the Lyon clergy as the best replacement, so they retrieved him from his cave and ordained him as their new bishop.

The cleric who tells us this story, Florus of Lyon, isn’t very well-known today outside the circle of specialists. That’s a pity, because he’s a fascinating figure. Steeped in patristic learning, he cultivated a range of interests, including UFOs (yes, really – see ‘Florus de Lyon et les extra-terrestres’ on Pierre Chambert-Protat’s highly recommended blog). Florus could be acerbic, and he could also be radical: and his account of how Eucherius became bishop of Lyon is a case in point.

That’s because Florus didn’t tell the story to suggest that all prospective future bishops should give away their money and live hidden in remote caves waiting for their moment (a rather risky career strategy). Rather, what he wanted to emphasise was that no king had been involved in Eucherius’s appointment. And that kings had no role to play in episcopal appointments was the point of the short treatise in which Florus included this story, On the appointment of bishops, and which you can read here in a draft English translation  (to my knowledge, the first time it’s been translated).

In this treatise, Florus used the example of Eucherius (who really did become bishop of Lyon, in the fifth century) to suggest that worldly rulers never really had played a role in appointing bishops. Certainly the Christian Roman emperors hadn’t, because they were too busy ruling the entire world to bother with every single appointment. Florus described this situation as one of church freedom, ecclesiastica libertas. Afterwards, princes in ‘some kingdoms’ began to be consulted on appointments, but nothing more. Florus observed that even in his own day, not only was the pope of Rome appointed without royal interference, the pope himself ordained bishops without royal involvement.

Florus suggested that this tradition was only right and proper, because worldly rulers did not have the capacity to appoint new bishops: ordination was a gift of the Holy Spirit, not of humans. In some ways, Florus was stating the obvious here, since medieval kings never claimed that they could themselves ordain bishops. But in other ways, this was a very radical argument, since in practice kings in Florus’s day exercised a lot of influence in the appointment procedure, up to the point of choosing the successful candidate.

Indeed, lots about Florus’s Book on the election of bishops has strong resonances with later currents of what we now call Gregorian church reform. For instance, the concern with drawing a sharper distinction between the church and the world; the focus on ecclesiastical appointments; the emphasis on the church’s freedom; the emphasis on the papacy; a distinctly polemical tone; and the use of Late Antique sources in new ways, for Florus’s short text cites Cyprian at length. In this respect as in other ways (hostility to Jews and heretics), Carolingian Lyons seems to have been something of a laboratory for later ideas.[1]

However, Florus’s argument wasn’t effective in the 830s. He seems to have written the treatise to stop the Frankish emperor Louis the Pious from imposing a new bishop named Amalarius on the church of Lyon. But directly challenging the emperor proved not to be the most tactful approach, so Florus gamely switched tactics, and mounted a no-holds-barred campaign to show instead that Amalarius was a heretic – a campaign which eventually worked much better.

Yet Florus’s text about appointing bishops is preserved in four manuscripts from around 900 (thanks to Gallica you can see one of them here), showing that near-contemporaries could see and appreciate the general significance of this work, even after the immediate controversy it was written for had died down. The so-called Gregorian Reform of the eleventh century, it’s becoming ever clearer, had very deep roots.

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Image: Wikipedia (the Prague Gospels, s. IX: Cim 2, knihovně Pražské metropolitní kapituly)

[1] See the very stimulating article by Warren Pézé, ‘Amalaire et la communauté juive de Lyon. À propos de l’antijudaïsme lyonnais à l’époque carolingienne’, Francia 40 (2013), pp. 1-25, open access here

6 thoughts on “How to become bishop: ecclesiastical liberty in the ninth century”

  1. Interesting stuff. And not just the UFOs. Florus is one of the cast of thousands that people the library catalogues of St Gall. As is Eucherius. Does the question of who appoints bishops link up with the ongoing controversy as to whether the post ofabbot should be bestowed to a crony or awarded by ballot?

    1. Hmm, interesting question. I think the stakes were rather different – not just because monasteries were usually smaller, but also because theologically speaking, an abbot could be a layman (ie, not an ordained cleric), so the question of appointment was a bit less fraught. Debates here tended to be on how far abbots had to be subjected to bishops, and whether they could ‘choose’ their preferred bishop to subject themselves to. That said, the rhetoric of ‘freedom’ was shared, so there was clearly some cross-over.

      1. Very sharp thoughts on the election of abbot in comparison with that of bishop! I think it is subject still understudied, at least in Anglo-phonic scholarship, about Carolingian monasticism.
        Could you please recommend some second literature on the theory and practice of election of abbot in the Carolingian era, either concerning the intervention of secular rulers or concerning the abbot-bishop relationship?

        1. In German, I think the classic work is Felten. In English, I’m not so sure! Would be interesting to compare Carolingian abbatial elections to some of the 10th-c. controversies (eg Ekkehard) – my sense is that things would probably turn out not to be that different, if there was some way of getting past the royal privilege charters which tend to dominate discussion.

    1. Thanks! Yes, you’re right: in a way it’s not surprising at all. But some historians tend to think the ninth century was all about king and church in harmony, as opposed to the eleventh century when it all went wrong (whereas in reality things were less clear-cut – as one might have guessed…). Florus is really interesting, but there’s almost nothing written about him in English, alas.

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