A medieval, ecclesiastical institution peculiar to the Holy Roman Empire—even beyond the boundaries of Germany proper—denoting certain bishops (and abbots) who possessed not only spiritual jurisdiction but also temporal authority. They were independent governors of specific civil territories under the exclusive sovereignty of the emperor, and, like the secular princes, they participated in the governing of the empire itself.
Origin and Development. The origins of this institution lie in the early Middle Ages when the Germanic tribes closely associated priesthood with authority either among kinsmen or within a tribe. They lie also in the advancement of the social position of bishops effected by Constantinian imperial Church law, even though the episcopal power of arbitration was unable to make headway in Germanic territories. Furthermore, during the period of the migration of the barbarian nations bishops became the protectors of their flocks, saw that their people were fed and their cities defended, and handled all negotiations with the enemies. In consequence, by Merovingian times they had become almost lords in their sees—a situation comparable to that of the popes in the states of the church. The merovingian and the carolingian rulers, who, with few exceptions, named all bishops throughout their kingdom, generally attracted these educated, usually noble, and, because of the Church's property, wealthy bishops into government service. The bishops were treated as secular nobles. charlemagne entrusted all of them, as membra imperii, with the establishment of law and order. In return they were granted numerous civil privileges: tax exemption, legal immunity, and, eventually, such sovereignty rights as the privilege of market and mint. As early as 887 Emperor Charles III had granted the rank of count to the bishop of Langres, and in 927 Henry I did the same for the bishop of Toul.
The Ottonian System. This development reached its climax under Emperor otto i, who opposed the secular nobility within the empire by establishing a reliable aristocracy of churchmen who were extensively invested with imperial rights and property. The economic and military services that the bishops and abbots were to render the empire were precisely regulated, and with their help the German emperors ruled supreme. But difficulties arose when, because of the political influence of his prelates, the emperor felt he had the right to intervene in their appointment (see investiture struggle). The problem, however, was resolved in the compromise Concordat of Worms in 1122, after which the bitter investiture controversy subsided. Meanwhile the conceit of the hierarchy was severely shaken. During the Ottonian period they had considered themselves partners in the regale sacerdotium, living as they did in the security of an undivided secular and religious world (e.g., bruno of cologne, ulric of augsburg). But the investiture controversy had drawn them into a serious internal conflict, which each had to resolve differently, according to his own judgment and insight. Furthermore, the Concordat of Worms made them conscious of a certain independence and autonomy that they as churchmen possessed.
Religious Governors. The imperial reform of the 12th century connected princeship with a specific territory that was now within the feudal authority of the king. This was the origin of the first real "imperial" bishops and abbots. Through the letters of privilege of Emperor frederick ii (1220 and 1232), imperial bishops and abbots became completely sovereign within their territory: the membra imperii became principes imperii and were an integral part of the empire. The prince-bishops were elected by their cathedral chapters; they, in turn, through their superiors, the three ecclesiastical electors in the Rhineland (Mainz, cologne, and trier), soon won great importance at the election of kings or emperors. On an even broader scale, the prince-bishop (e.g., Berthold of Henneberg, Archbishop of Mainz), concerned with the imperial reform that Emperor Maximilian I had initiated in his German lands, made common cause with the gravamina of the German nation against Rome. The character and level of religious devotion evidenced by princebishops varied greatly over time and from place to place. In the later Middle Ages and the early modern period anti-clerical polemic and peasant rebellions frequently singled out the prince-bishops for some of their harshest attacks. Following the Council of trent many of the prince-bishoprics remained noble dominated institutions that were resistant to reform efforts. In modern times the prince-bishops tended to become the chief supporters of the empire, great patrons of art and culture (e.g., schÖnborn), and especially the exponents of the trend toward a German national church.
The territories controlled by prince-bishops were relatively small when compared with their political importance. Thus even the archbishop of Mainz, who from the 10th century was arch-chancellor of the empire, governed a territory that would be considered modest by modern standards. Besides the three Rhineland Archdioceses, Salzburg, aquileia, Utrecht, liÈge, and Würzburg were among the larger prince-bishoprics of the Holy Roman Empire.
Secularization. The so-called reform of Emperor sigismund had already broached the issue of secularization of ecclesiastical territories. Then, during the Reformation, the middle and northern German principalities were actually secularized; those of northwest Germany were preserved only through the military intervention of the house of Wittelsbach. Later frederick ii the great, as part of his anti-Hapsburg imperial policies, forced the dissolution of all prince-bishoprics in Germany. The 1803 enactment of the delegates of the empire (Reichsdeputationshauptschluss ) under Napoleon abolished them entirely, with the exception of Abp. Karl Theodor von dalberg, who remained for a few years more in Regensburg. A few dioceses in Austria still retained the title of prince-bishopric in the 20th century.
Not to be confused with the prince-bishops are those prelates of the very numerous (about 40) imperial monasteries, who did not hold lands through feudal tenure and who had a voice in the diet only insofar as they were associates of the bench of prelates, at whose invitation they could participate.
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