Scribe at a writing desk

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels…in Habits

In the second part of his blog set on political infighting in ecclesiastical courts, David Murray discusses factions, revenge, and nepotism.

Lucan famously wrote in his Pharsalia ‘Exeat aula qui volt esse pius; virtus et summa potestas non coeunt’ (‘Leave the court if you want to be virtuous, for virtue and great power do not go together’). Quoted in the twelfth-century philosopher and churchman John of Salisbury’s Polycraticus, this advice clearly struck a chord in the medieval world. Court criticism certainly colours much of the literature of the time and beyond. Think of the digs, sly and otherwise, that are so often made about King Arthur’s court in romances from the dawn of the genre in the twelfth century all the way up to Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

‘Leave the court if you want to be virtuous,
for virtue and great power do not go together’

An institution that ‘hangs’ around one person, and where preferment depends on seeking the favour and presence of that one person will inevitably give rise to in-fighting. And ecclesiastical courts are no different.


As I mentioned in my last post, the election of Gregor Schenk von Osterwitz as the provost in Salzburg in 1386 is a perfect example of revenge being a dish best served cold. It came to the rage of Ortolf von Ovenstetten who expected to succeed his own brother, the previous incumbent. The Archbishop of the time, Pilgrim von Puecheim, had been waiting for two decades to side-line the Ovenstetten brothers and their friends—his enemies—in Bavaria.  This, however, is to look at the affair only from the side of the Bavarian faction. Seen from the other side of the divide, it was merely Gregor Schenk von Osterwitz’s reward for long service. He had, after all, spent a decade as scholaster from 1371-1382, after arriving in Salzburg from the college of canons at Arnsdorf near Dresden.


Pope Boniface IX

The rewards (just desserts or otherwise) did not end there; Gregor was elected Prince-Archbishop on Pilgrim’s death in April 1396. This was certainly not surprising, though may well have raised eyebrows (or, more likely, hollow laughs) among the locals in the Getreidegasse. This is because, the year before, a Papal order commanded Pilgrim to investigate Gregor for falsely imprisoning two men, Dietling Pellendorf and Rudolf Turs. Pilgrim, always a loyal servant of the pope (in this case Boniface IX), appointed an investigator. By an extraordinary coincidence the investigator happened also to be his nephew—what are the chances of that? So perhaps Gregor’s rise was not so resistible. Gregor was certainly not forgiving about the episode: when he was elected Archbishop, the canon who delivered the papal letter, Friedrich von Pernegg, was sent on extended gardening leave at the universities of Vienna and Prague.

Given that, in my own field of literary studies at least, much of our perception of the court comes from the secular world, one is often tempted to think things might be rather different at an ecclesiastical court. The machinations of the canons at Salzburg rapidly disabuse of the reality that this was far from the case. This all leaves us asking more questions: what exactly is it (if anything at all) that makes the ecclesiastical court different?

Even if the ruler did not inherit his position from his father, there is still evidently a place for heredity—just think about Ortolf von Ovenstetten’s expectations of succeeding his brother—as well as nepotism. Pilgrim the Prince-Archbishop had a particular flair for this, and managed to place two of his nephews (not the one who investigated his successor, though) as suffragan bishops in Chiemsee and Seckau. Perhaps the long view is important here: where a king can dismiss lackeys with relative ease, a bishop, abbot or other churchman is part of a fixed hierarchy, where there is always a higher instance, normally Rome. Sometimes, in more political affairs, local rulers and the Empire too. Then, of course, there’s God too…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.