The Roman Catholic Clergy

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  • 0:05 Introduction to Clergy
  • 1:03 Priests
  • 1:43 Bishops and Archbishops
  • 3:13 Cardinals
  • 3:54 Pope
  • 4:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will list and describe the different members of the Medieval clergy. Beginning at the lower levels and ending with the Pope, it will outline the duties of each office.

Introduction to Clergy

It's been said that every society needs structure in order to survive. In other words, someone's got to be in charge. If not, chaos ensues. After the 5th century fall of Rome, Europe found itself in just that - chaos. To fill the power void, the Medieval Church stepped up to give society order.

In this lesson, we're going to explore this order-giving institution by discussing the hierarchy of power within the Church itself. Starting at the bottom and working our way to the top, we'll discuss the role of the Church's clergy, or those who held religious responsibilities and duties. Although there are many sets and subsets within this group, we'll stick with these main categories: priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals and Popes. In other words, we'll go from the village priest to the Pope himself!


First, there were the priests. Priests were in charge of the individual parishes, or a small church area or district. These guys (and I do mean guys; there were no women priests), were the ones who had face-to-face interaction with the community. They provided sacraments, or religious ceremonies and rites, to the common people of the day.

Dressed very plainly in unadorned robes, they held mass, kept church records and visited the sick. Adding to their duties, they collected church taxes and used them to feed the poor. In short, they were the church's hands and feet to the people, the workhorses of the day.

Bishops and Archbishops

Moving up the clergy ladder were the bishops. Unlike the priests, bishops usually came from some money and some power. Overseeing several parishes, which made up a diocese, bishops usually dressed rather lavishly, often looking more like feudal lords than clergymen. Many even ruled from their very own castles and compounds. While the priests were visiting the sick and the poor, bishops were often found socializing at royal courts and trying their hand in politics.

In fact, during the Middle Ages, all courts were mandated to have a bishop with whom the king was forced to consult. Not all fun and games; bishops also settled conflicts pertaining to serious issues, such as church discipline, marriage and annulments, while also levying taxes on the people. On an official level, they were also supposed to see to the needs of the priests, sort of acting like a support system and advisor.

Next were the archbishops. The archbishop is the chief bishop with power over several dioceses combined to create an archdiocese. In other words, these guys were the top bishops of a designated area or country. Their job description was very much the same as a bishop, but their word held more force and power. To put it in modern terms, we could kind of call them the captains of the bishop squad. Yes, they were all players, but the archbishops had bigger megaphones!


After archbishops, we come to cardinals. Cardinals were the most important, senior archbishops. Numbering no more than 24 during the Medieval period, Cardinals were originally the senior clergy within the Diocese of Rome.

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