Renaissance and Reformation Bishops, 1550–1700
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 January 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 October 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0427


The church “thinks in centuries,” meaning that the role and significance of the episcopate remained the same in the period from 1550 to 1700 as it had in the time period covered in Oxford Bibliographies in Renaissance and Reformation article “Bishops, 1400–1550.”The same Reference Works can be consulted for both the earlier and the later period, though for the purposes of the current article they are subdivided between those of a General nature, spanning the whole of Catholic Christendom, and those with a Geographically Specific remit. Similarly, Journals specializing in ecclesiastical history publish articles about bishops of any and every century. When one turns to Overviews and Collections of Papers relating specifically to episcopacy in the early modern period, it becomes apparent that bishops have been historiographically unfashionable, for there are noticeably fewer publications relating to this period than there are for 1400–1550. Even though Lutheran and Calvinist reformers rejected episcopacy to varying degrees, the ecclesiastical geography of Europe changed little. In Germany the tradition of prince-bishops was so strong that some princes turned Lutheran but retained their episcopal titles, while the succession of Catholic bishops continued without any such confusion. In Scandinavia and the British Isles, that succession was simultaneously broken and maintained: bishops ceased to be appointed through a combination of secular and papal patronage but were retained because they were useful to the secular authorities; a hybrid of Protestantism and episcopacy was created, Lutheran or Anglican bishops sitting on the thrones of their Catholic predecessors. All the while, the bishoprics of southeastern Europe remained in the hands of the Ottoman Turks, but new dioceses were being created in Asia and the Americas. Confessional divisions and the diminished significance of bishops are reflected in the fact that Germany and the Low Countries are grouped together in this article. European Christendom’s retreat westward is apparent in the section devoted to Italy and the Eastern Mediterranean, in which Venetian bishops dominate. Much of Italy was ruled by Spanish kings and their viceroys, so Spain and Its Empire is treated next. From 1581 to 1640 the Spanish monarchs also ruled Portugal and Its Empire. Europe’s political center of gravity moved toward France, which not only incorporated bishoprics that had previously been outside its borders, but has also been the subject of the most important studies of early modern bishops. The shift toward the Atlantic is completed in the British Isles, where confessional divisions account for subsections on Catholics and Anglicans. In all these sections, no separation is made between primary and secondary sources. To conclude, diverse parts of Europe are united in Bishops in Early Modern Culture.

Reference Works

The number of reference works that could possibly have been cited is immense. Of the dozen that have been chosen, three are of a General nature, dealing with the Catholic Church in its entirety, while the other nine are Geographically Specific and, where appropriate, also include Protestant bishops.

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