Biography 25.2 (2002) 382-386
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Episcopal biography is a respectable, if not always appreciated, subspecies of the genus biography, species biography of ecclesiastical officeholders, often related to and sometimes confused with the species hagiography. The genre itself grew out of the early lists, then series of lives, of bishops in the larger Christian communities of the Roman empire, particularly that of Rome (the series of papal biographies known as the Liber Pontificalis [Noble]), and then from the series of abbatial lives produced by several monasteries in northern Europe in the eighth and ninth centuries (Sot, Gesta). Paul the Deacon's Deeds of the Bishops of Metz, written in 784, is generally regarded as the first northern European example of the genre, although, as Walter Goffart and Michel Sot have shown, Paul's agenda, and presumably those of later writers, were far more varied than the limitations of the genre might suggest: "The Metz we are invited to contemplate [in Paul's work] is not a humdrum diocese, but the ecclesiastical symbol of the new Frankish régime" (Goffart 374). From time to time, biographies were also written of individual bishops outside of series, but these were often produced as much for hagiographical purposes (the best-known case that of Gregory the Great), as chapters in the history of missionary activities, as exemplary models for episcopal successors, [End Page 382] or as components of urban, diocesan, or regional history, as for those of open-ended accounts of the holders of local episcopal office.
When modern historians use or write episcopal biographies, they must do so on the basis of other criteria than those of local pietism or the establishment of the continuity of incumbency. Until the modern period, of course, bishops—and often abbots—who ruled ecclesiastical principalities were very important regional and transregional figures, in many instances comparable to kings and lay nobles. Constance Bouchard, for example, has used contemporary biographies of the twelfth-century bishops of Auxerre to illuminate the complex and varied roles and influence of twelfth-century Burgundian bishops and society. Other modern historians have made similar virtuoso use of the genre (for example, Knowles, Southern, Bartlett, Martínez Pizzaro, Coué, and Sch¨utte). With the records of episcopal acta, visitations, and correspondence, episcopal biographies constitute the main source for the history of a powerful office and how it was used by the individuals who held it.
Even in later periods, particularly during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when ecclesiastical principalities survived and became bargaining chips and frontier outposts in the confessional and political debates of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, episcopal careers and, where they exist, lives, provide useful and illuminating information (O'Malley). In some cases, notably that of Carlo Borromeo, archbishop of Milan from 1560 to 1584, bishops of this period deliberately modelled themselves and their conception and exercise of episcopal office on the biographies of earlier bishops, as Borromeo did on the life of his remote but exemplary predecessor St. Ambrose, who, with Gregory the Great, was the model held up to all later bishops. In other cases, bishops were sometimes forced to leave ancient dioceses, and their importance is rather that of episcopal exiles (Tyler). Especially in those areas in which the weight and responsibility of both reform and defense against confessional opponents in nearby territories fell heavily onto episcopal shoulders, the life of a single bishop, whether written at the time or by a modern historian, can constitute a valuable historical perspective.
Mathias Hovius, third archbishop of Mechelen (abp. 1589-1620) not only kept a meticulous account in ten volumes (of which only the last volume survives) of his own pontificate, but his career has attracted the very competent and eloquent attention of two modern historians, Craig Harline and Eddy Put, an American and a Belgian, whose account of their own experiences in the...