Publication Date

Summer 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




John Bernhardt


Abbots, Bishops, Germany, Ottonian, Reichskirchensystem, Warfare

Subject Areas

Medieval history


The Frankish kingdoms of the early Middle Ages were the inheritors of both Germanic warrior culture and the Christian institutions of the late Roman Empire. Under Charlemagne, the Franks conquered most of Western Europe by the early ninth century and established a new empire of their own. To do so, they had to reconcile the Christian doctrine of peace with the necessity of killing the enemy during war. This was especially challenging for the highest ranks of the clergy. Though forbidden by canon law to commit violence, bishops and abbots were responsible for defending the property and people in their jurisdictions. The pious Carolingian kings endowed the Church with more property but required service of their land-holding prelates in exchange, which included providing troops for the royal army and, frequently, leading those troops themselves. By the time of the Ottonians (919-1024), rulers of the East Frankish kingdom that developed into the medieval German empire, the participation of bishops and abbots in war had become institutionalized. Even so, opinions within the Church remained divided on the morality of clerics taking an active part in combat. The context of Ottonian rule and the complex relationship between the German emperors and their ecclesiastical magnates are examined in this study. This is followed by an analysis of the primary narrative sources from the period. The textual evidence shows the range of opinions held by the clerical authors and the extent of Ottonian prelates’ military roles and allows a conclusion to be formed as to how common the phenomenon of the “warrior bishop” actually was.