Renaissance and Reformation Bishops, 1400–1550
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0408


Within the hierarchy of the Church, bishops are regarded as successors to the apostles, ranking above priests and deacons. They are shepherds of the Christian flock, teaching the doctrines of the Church, leading their sheep along the path toward the salvation of their souls, and warning them of the dangers they incur if they choose to separate themselves from the love of God. The shepherd’s crook inspired the bishop’s crosier. In the earliest Christian centuries, believers in each city chose their own bishop, and many of those bishops were martyred for their faith. After the secular authorities adopted Christianity, asserted claims to appoint bishops over the heads of cathedral chapters, and made use of them for political and administrative purposes, bishops themselves acquired princely status, some even combining secular and ecclesiastical leadership in the title “prince-bishop.” In that context, the shepherd’s simple wooden crook could become a masterpiece of the goldsmith’s and the enameller’s arts. Prelates who put service to the secular powers over the cure of souls existed throughout Christendom and secular distractions inspired calls for reform “in head and members.” The division of Christendom into scores of ecclesiastical provinces, each of which was led by a metropolitan—that is, a patriarch or archbishop—and the division of each province into bishoprics, meant that there were thousands of bishops during the Renaissance period. Given those numbers, the best way to approach Renaissance bishops is by means of Reference Works. This article then proceeds to illustrate the essential features of the Renaissance episcopate by means of a selection of Primary Sources, which are, in turn, supported by Overviews of a pan-European nature. The literature on bishops is so vast that the student should allow plenty of time to explore Journals. However, the research process can be sped up a little by focusing on Collections of Papers, here subdivided into Group Studies and those devoted to Individual Prelates. Thereafter, the bibliography takes a tour of western Christendom, following the example of Eubel 1898– (cited under Reference Works), even if that risks engaging with the nationalism of Eubel’s day. The route begins in Italy, crosses the Alps into France and the Pyrenees into Iberia. The British Isles and Scandinavia are grouped together for convenience. Germany covers even more diverse realms. The eastern reaches of the western Church are dealt with in Poland, Hungary, and Dalmatia.

Reference Works

Because thousands of individuals held the rank of bishop in the Renaissance period, reference works are arguably more useful than any other sources of information. Some works are known for convenience by the names of their authors or editors, others by their titles. For basic information, the student may consult the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church Cross and Livingstone 2005. Only then does it make sense to identify specific individuals. This can be done with reference to Gams 1957, a work first published in 1873, though scholars tend to use Eubel 1898– instead. If online resources are preferred, then Catholic Hierarchy provides lists of bishops in the tradition of Gams and Eubel but it has a contemporary emphasis, meaning that there are many gaps in its earlier coverage. More detailed information can be found in biographical dictionaries, such as the Dizionario biografico degli italiani, though the level of coverage varies from publication to publication. Alternatively, bishops can be approached via their dioceses, as found in the various fasti cited here. The earliest of these works, Le Neve, et al. 1962–1967, accounts for all the relevant English and Welsh bishops, though the more recent Oxford Dictionary National Biography (Matthew and Harrison 2004) should be consulted for bibliographies relating to many, but not all, of those prelates. Watt and Murray 2003 offers similarly complete coverage for the holders of Scottish bishoprics. French bishops can be found in Millet 1996–, but the sheer quantity of dioceses eligible for coverage means that only a minority of the relevant material has been published to date. The geographical scope of Gatz, et al. 1990–2001 is even more extensive because the Holy Roman Empire covered territory from the Low Countries to Poland and Croatia. For the bishops and bishoprics of the Empire’s German heartland, Germania Sacra can direct students toward all relevant resources and publications. Nothing is comparable for the dioceses of Italy, which have remained the subject of local initiatives. Montini and Valetti 1987 is a bibliography relating to the bishops of one diocese, Brescia. Somewhat different is Fernández Collado 2000, which collates information about bishops who originated in the province—rather than merely the diocese—of Toledo in central Spain. One of the categories chosen by Fernández Collado for the examination of his cohort is membership of religious orders and congregations, which links to the final work included in this section: Pelliccia and Rocca 1974–2003.

  • Catholic Hierarchy.

    This lively website is weighted toward the modern period, but Renaissance bishops can nevertheless be found in its alphabetical “Bishops” section, via “Dioceses,” where the alphabetical list is perhaps more useful than the modern geography of the “structured view,” and in “Events,” where lists and statistics can be found for births, episcopal ordinations, and deaths. Lines of apostolic succession can be traced from today’s bishops back to the sixteenth century.

  • Cross, Frank L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    This is a standard reference work for all aspects of Christian history. Relevant entries deal with the episcopal hierarchy (“apostolic succession,” “archbishop,” “bishop,” “metropolitan,” “ordinary,” “patriarch”), the insignia and physical objects associated with episcopal or archiepiscopal office (“cathedra,” “crosier,” “mitre,” “pallium,” “pectoral cross,” “rings”), and selected individual bishops of the Renaissance period. Also available online by subscription. First published in 1957. All editions to date have a reputation for being somewhat weighted toward the Anglican tradition.

  • Dizionario biografico degli italiani. 100 vols. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1960–2020.

    The standard reference work on all major figures in Italian history took sixty years to complete and includes numerous bishops, though not all merit inclusion, as can be illustrated by the 15th-century bishops of Arezzo (as named in Eubel 1898–): there are entries for Filippo de’ Medici, Gentile Becchi, and Cosimo de’ Pazzi, but not for Roberto degli Asini or Lorenzo Acciaiuoli.

  • Eubel, Konrad. Hierarchia catholica medii aevi. Münster, Germany: Sumptibus et Typis Librariae Regensbergianae, 1898–.

    In total, Hierarchia catholica consists of nine volumes and lists popes, cardinals, and bishops up to 1922, but only the first three volumes, those compiled by Eubel, are relevant for the Renaissance period, covering the years 1198–1431, 1431–1503, and 1503–1592 respectively. Bishops are listed by diocese; dioceses are listed alphabetically, not geographically. Appendixes provide the names of auxiliary bishops, and arrange bishoprics by province.

  • Fernández Collado, Angel. Obispos de la provincia de Toledo, 1500–2000. Toledo, Spain: Estudio Teológico de San Idefonso, 2000.

    Although only a minority of the material collated in this volume derives from the Renaissance period, it has the potential to be a model for other provinces and other time spans. Potted biographies provide the bulk of the content, but the bishops are also arranged chronologically, identified by place of origin, by the dioceses to which they were appointed (throughout the world), and by membership of religious orders and congregations.

  • Gams, Pius Bonifacius. Series episcoporum Ecclesiae Catholicae. Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck, 1957.

    This single-volume list of all bishops up to the author’s own time was originally published in Regensburg in 1873. Beginning with the popes and the bishops of the suburbicarian sees around Rome, it proceeds through Iberia, Asia, the Americas, the British Isles, the Low Countries, Germany, Scandinavia, Poland, Hungary, the Balkans and Greece, Australia, Africa, and France, before concluding back in Italy, all arranged according to 19th-century political geography.

  • Gatz, Erwin, Stephan M. Janker, and Clemens Brodkorb, eds. Die Bischöfe des Heiligen Römischen Reiches: Ein biographisches Lexikon. 3 vols. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1990–2001.

    Volume 1 covers the years 1198 to 1448 and consists of short biographical articles about bishops, arranged alphabetically by diocese. Volume 2 deals with the period from 1448 to 1648 and is principally composed of short biographical articles about bishops, listed alphabetically by name, followed by others on sixty-three dioceses that were then within the bounds of the Holy Roman Empire, from Aquileia to Würzburg. Volume 3 covers the years 1648–1803.

  • Germania Sacra.

    The histories of German dioceses have long been published under the auspices of Germania sacra, but that title now extends to a major project hosted by the Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen to digitize information relating to bishops and bishoprics, monks and monasteries. Individual bishops can be located by a number of routes within the website, including Digitales Personenregister and Bischofsreihen which, in turn, indicate what is available in the printed volumes.

  • Le Neve, John, H. P. F. King, B. Jones, and Joyce M. Horn, eds. Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, 1300–1541. 12 vols. London: University of London (Institute of Historical Research), 1962–1967.

    The careers of English and Welsh bishops can be traced in this series, which is divided as follows: 1: Lincoln; 2: Hereford; 3: Salisbury; 4: Monastic cathedrals (southern province); 5: St Paul’s, London; 6: Northern province (York, Carlisle, and Durham); 7: Chichester; 8: Bath and Wells; 9: Exeter; 10: Coventry and Lichfield; 11: Welsh dioceses (Bangor, Llandaff, St. Asaph, St. Davids); 12: Introduction, errata and index. The contents are most easily accessed online.

  • Matthew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    The ODNB includes many—but not all—of the bishops of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales during the Renaissance period. However, one relevant feature of the ODNB website not shared with its print counterpart is the compilation of “Reference lists,” including archbishops of Canterbury, St. Andrews, and York. Many lord chancellors of England and of Scotland, and some lord treasurers of England, were also bishops.

  • Millet, Hélène, ed. Fasti Ecclesiae Gallicanae: Répertoire prosopographique des évêques, dignitaires et chanoines des dioceses de France de 1200 à 1500. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 1996–.

    The first twenty-one years of this ongoing project saw volumes published on the dioceses of Agen, Amiens, Angers, Autun, Auxerre, Besançon, Bordeaux, Chalon-sur-Saône, Châlons-en-Champagne, Mende, Poitiers, Reims, Rodez, Rouen, Sées, Sens, and Toul. Each contains biographical and bibliographical information for bishops, canons, and other diocesan officeholders. To qualify for inclusion in the series a diocese has to be or have been within the borders of modern France. Details of each volume are on the Brepols website.

  • Montini, Chiara, and Ornello Valetti, eds. I vescovi di Brescia: Ricerca bibliografica. Brescia, Italy: Ateneo di Brescia, Accademia di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, 1987.

    At the heart of this volume is a lengthy bibliography of works relating to all periods of Brescia’s ecclesiastical history. More useful for the student of the Renaissance period is the list of bishops in chronological order, each with the short titles of relevant works from the main section. Among the Renaissance bishops were the humanist Pietro del Monte, the politically ambitious Lorenzo Zane, and the latter’s long-serving nephew, Paolo Zane.

  • Pelliccia, Guerrino, and Giancarlo Rocca, eds. Dizionario degli istituti di perfezione. 10 vols. Rome: Edizioni Paoline, 1974–2003.

    Whether or not a bishop was himself a member of a religious order, he was obliged to deal with religious communities within his diocese, including those headed by mitered abbots whose status was equivalent to his own. The scope of this reference work stretches well beyond what is required for study of the Renaissance period, but it nevertheless incorporates all relevant features of the orders and congregations active in that era.

  • Watt, D. E. R., and A. L. Murray, eds. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae medii aevi ad annum 1638. Rev. ed. Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society, 2003.

    There can be few dates in the history of episcopacy more decisive than 1638, when the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland deposed the bishops who had hitherto survived the process of Protestant reform and committed itself to an exclusively Presbyterian future. The Bishops’ War ensued. The first edition of this record of Scotland’s senior clergy up to 1638 was published in 1959. It has been considerably augmented since then.

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