Church-building under Bishop Arbeo of Freising

Posted: Feb. 20, 2015, 10:18 a.m. by Edward Roberts

I’ve just finished inputting the last Freising (FRE) charter from the episcopate of Arbeo (764/5–783). The database now contains about 80 charters from Arbeo’s tenure (a few more exist for the period 764–768, i.e. before Charlemagne became king). The database will ultimately contain about 320 charters from Freising; production ramps up quite a bit under Arbeo’s successor Atto (783–811), doubtless due to the fact that Charlemagne deposed the duke of Bavaria in 788 and formally incorporated the region into the Frankish kingdom. As in other instances of Carolingian conquest (cf. Lombardy), the imposition of new Frankish authorities caused considerable turmoil, as can be seen in a proliferation of dispute charters and confirmations of earlier rights. Warren Brown investigated precisely these processes in eighth- and ninth-century Bavaria, and his study remains an essential guide to Freising’s rich charter evidence [1].

Arbeo (or Heres, a Latinised form of his name that he tended to use in charters) was probably born in the 720s, likely into a noble Bavarian family [2]. He can be glimpsed in Freising charters from the 750s as a priest and scribe under Bishop Joseph. In 763, Arbeo was appointed abbot of a new monastery at Scharnitz, but he remained there only for perhaps a year or two. When Joseph died in 764/765, Arbeo was summoned back to Freising to succeed him. His renown almost certainly stemmed in part from his learning: Arbeo composed Lives of two Frankish missionaries who evangelised Bavaria, St Emmeram and St Corbinian. Arbeo translated the latter’s relics to the cathedral church of Freising in 769. In addition, Arbeo may have been involved in the production of the Codex Abrogans, a Latin–Old High German glossary, which survives in a ninth-century copy from the monastery of St Gall. This work is the earliest written example of the German language. Under Arbeo's guidance, the cathedral school of Freising flourished, producing talented men like Arn, who would go on to become archbishop of Salzburg and a major figure in the Carolingian Renaissance, and Leidrad, a future bishop of Lyon.

One thing that really stands out in Arbeo’s charters is the amount of church-building undertaken during his episcopate. Well-known Bavarian monasteries such as Schliersee (FRE 94) were founded during this time. Schäftlarn, a monastery founded in the early 760s which had close ties with Freising, had its endowment reconfirmed (SFL 1). The monastery of Scharnitz was relocated to Schlehdorf (FRE 53). A large number of smaller, non-monastic institutions were also founded during this time. In fact, of the 98 miscellaneous events covering foundations of churches or monasteries currently in the database, 23 of these are from Freising charters issued during Arbeo’s tenure. We know very little about most of these churches – sometimes only a location is given (which may or may not be identifiable with a modern place), or the saint(s) to whom the church was consecrated. Quite often neither of these things is provided, which, considering all churches are entered in the database as agents, results in the occasional nebulous entity like 'Unknown church (granted by Sandrat 7635)'. Many of these churches disappear from the historical record; a Freising charter might be the only evidence that a particular institution ever existed. Indeed, whether we can really be speaking of ‘churches’ is another tricky question, on account of the imprecise and varied terminology that appears in Freising charters. What we as data inputters describe as a ‘church’ is variously described as an ecclesia, oratorium, cella, cellula or titulus. Initially, distinctions were made between, e.g., the appearance of the term ecclesia (‘church’, generally speaking) and oratorium (‘oratory’). This quickly proved inadequate, however, as many Freising charters refer to the same institution as both an ecclesia and an oratorium. Clearly we are dealing with a range of religious houses, from parish churches where local congregations might regularly attend services, to small, private chapels erected for personal use by wealthy benefactors. Drawing the line between a 'church' and a 'chapel' or 'oratory' is not something the team really has time to do, however, so we settled on inputting such institutions under the category ‘church (non-episcopal)’, distinct from 'episcopal church' (i.e. where the bishop sits, such as St Mary's, Freising) and from monasteries, which are generally easier to identify in charters.

So why was Arbeo keen to sponsor all this church-building? Well, for starters, just about every one of the churches he consecrated was subsequently donated by its founder(s) to the patrimony of Freising [3]. There’s an obvious material benefit for the bishop and the prestige of his see, as the episcopal church would have gained additional revenues from smaller churches (and the properties attached to those churches). However, we shouldn’t dismiss the notion that genuine piety on Arbeo’s part was also a factor in all this. He was a deeply learned man in the service of a rather young church: Bavaria was only partially organised into bishoprics when Arbeo was born (the Anglo-Saxon missionary Boniface reorganised the Bavarian episcopal structure around 739). Church-building was a practical source of income for the fledgling church of Freising, but it was also the kind of activity that any good evangelist - like Emmeram and Corbinian, the subjects of Arbeo’s hagiographical works - would have supported.



1. W. Brown, Unjust Seizure: Conflict, Interest and Authority in an Early Medieval Society (Ithaca, NY, 2001).

2. Arbeo has not been studied in some time, but in general see I. Eberl, 'Arbeo von Freising', Lexikon des Mittelalters 1 (Munich, 1979), col. 888; H. Glaser, F. Brunhölzl and S. Benker (eds), Vita Corbiniani: Bischof Arbeo von Freising und die Lebensgeschichte des hl. Korbinian (Munich, 1983); Brown, Unjust Seizure, ch. 1.

3. On this phenomenon of the ‘proprietary church’ (Eigenkirche), see above all the magisterial S. Wood, The Proprietary Church in the Medieval West (Oxford, 2006), with discussion of Freising at pp. 33-48.