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Ivory bishop sitting in a chair, with a pointed hat on, holding a shepherd's staff curved at the top in a spiral.

A bishop from medieval Iceland (in the form of a chess piece). Now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York

What is a bishop?

A bishop was a man who was in charge of the Christians of a certain city. All big cities in the ancient Roman Empire and Sassanian Empire and medieval Europe had bishops.

What’s a cathedral?
History of Christianity
All our medieval Europe articles

How were the first bishops chosen?

The earliest bishops appeared soon after the crucifixion of Jesus, about 50 AD. A crowd of Christian people in a town would just go to some rich Christian man’s house and yell for him to be the bishop. If he agreed, then he was the new bishop and leader of the Christians in that town.

More about Jesus
St. Paul and the apostles

Councils of bishops

By the 100s AD, these bishops began to get together sometimes for councils, where they would try to decide how Christians should behave and what Christians should believe.

Christianity in the 100s AD

The councils choose new bishops

Soon these councils of bishops began to also choose new bishops when one died, and people didn’t choose their own bishops anymore. Instead of choosing any rich man, the councils chose men who were already priests (but usually men from rich families still).

Christianity in the 200s AD
Who is the pope?

In the early Middle Ages, some kings wanted to choose bishops themselves, instead of letting the councils do it. There were big fights between the councils and the kings. But by the later Middle Ages, it was pretty much the councils that won, and they chose the bishops for each town.

More about popes
More about Matilda of Canossa
Or more about saints
More about Christianity

Bibliography and further reading about the history of baptism:

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