First of all, perhaps my terminology is dodgy here, but by nobleman I mean A member of a noble family, of noble birth and by lord I mean a ruler -- that is, the Duke of Somewhere would be a lord; his second son (no land, no title) would be a nobleman. Probably not right, but for the purpose of this question I'll stick with that.

Also, by Middle-ages I (perhaps incorrectly) refer to Europe, roughly 11th-16th Centuries.

Could a nobleman join the clergy (and become a priest or whatever -- my knowledge on church titles isn't massive)? If so, would he still be a nobleman? I mean, he'd be of noble birth (in most cases) but would he be considered a nobleman still after joining the church?

Perhaps further, could a lord join the clergy? And if so would he have to relinquish his title and lands?

I hear of, for instance, the second son of a king joining the clergy while his older brother becomes king: it's one of those things that one hears, but I cannot actually find any evidence of it -- and again, even if it's true, would he still be considered a nobleman?

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    This is trivium that any reading on medieval society could answer. – Samuel Russell Jun 3 '14 at 23:20
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    Quick research through wiki en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… three categories backgrounds of bishops (1) younger sons of nobility (seems to be larger part) (2) clerks to important people like kings (clerks often clergy as source of literate people) (3) general clerical background. Appointment of bishops seems to be more often than not official favours. Bishops often serve Kings in official roles (chancellors, justicars etc) I know later it was quite common for a man hold several bishoprics at once and have substitute do the actual duties. – pugsville Jun 4 '14 at 6:10
  • Question, is there ANY example of a bishop of noble birth resigning from the church and succeeding to a title (younger son when the eldest dies sort of thing) I can't find a case looking around. – pugsville Jun 4 '14 at 6:15
  • @SamuelRussell, no it isn't. For a start, I didn't know where to look. Secondly, I've read quite a bit of medieval society and still had to ask the question. – Mac Cooper Jun 4 '14 at 12:58
  • Four centuries across an entire continent full of countries that were often an odds with eachother and you think there is going to be a simple concrete answer to this? The issue isn't even thoroughly settled among very specific theological camps today. See for example According to Two Kingdom theology, could a man hold both secular and spiritual office? – Caleb Jun 4 '14 at 18:42

In the church of Rome there was no contradiction between being both a member of the church and being titled. In fact, some entire states were ruled by priests. For example, the Archbishopric of Salzburg was an independent principality for centuries right in the middle of Europe which was ruled by an archbishop who was inevitably from some noble family. The ruler of state was called a prince-bishop. A typical example was Conrad I of Salzburg.

  • That's interesting, I didn't know that, thanks. How about in states in which the church and monarch are seperate? For instance, would an English duke be allowed to join the church? And would he remain a duke? – Mac Cooper Jun 3 '14 at 22:16
  • By "join" I assume you mean become a priest, bishop or monk. Normally you would not remain a duke in that case. Remember, a priest must renounce all worldly goods and become a servant of the Pope. Since a duke normally has lot of land, he would have to give up all his land. – Tyler Durden Jun 3 '14 at 22:32
  • Yes, that's what I mean :) So would the lands be given to the Church or revert to the lord who owned them previously (a mesne lord / monarch)? And would the duke remain noble in the eyes of the clergy, or of the other nobles, or of common folk? – Mac Cooper Jun 3 '14 at 22:34
  • Being "noble" normally depends on birth. Your class doesn't change if you become a priest. As far as the land is concerned it would depend on the place and situation. I would expect that a duke who wanted to become a monk would appoint an heir that would become duke after him. If he vacated the foef, then most likely the prince or king would give the lands to a new duke, or revert them to the crown. The duke could theoretically try to give his land to the church, but how that would work out in practice would depend on political factors. – Tyler Durden Jun 3 '14 at 22:48
  • Note that in England the church and state are legally not separate - the head of state is the head of the church. – MCW Jun 4 '14 at 13:41

At some points in some areas it was common for the second son to join the Church

The first would inherit the father's land, possessions, title etc. in full, to avoid the problem created by consecutive division the father's possession (especially with land).

Sending the second son to the Church would give the family some standing in the Catholic Church, which could be useful to gain some political/religious advantages and facilitate the 'lobbying' of high-ranking Church members

The 'rank' and speed with which he could expect to climb the ladder in the clergy could be influenced by the family's standing.


(Actually memories from my high-school History class but this page is all I could find in a 2sec search) Lords and Ladies - Mediaval Monestary

  • You are mixed up. This was the practice in post-medieval England. The church they were joining was the Anglican church, not the Catholic church. – Tyler Durden Jun 4 '14 at 2:51
  • The practice of being the second son who joined the church could be more or less standard in different times and places, but it was common for younger sons of nobles to join the church in middle ages. A good example: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abbot_Oliba – Pere Jan 1 '17 at 23:48

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