1. The Title And Function Of Vidame
In the Carolingian era (9th century), after and during the Middle Ages, archbishops and abbots ruled important estates and lands, but Canon Law forbade the clerics to participate in the judicial and military aspects of the pre-feudal or feudal land administration. However, bishops and abbots appointed officers chosen among the officials or in other ways among important citizens.
These persons were the advocati (advocates) for the abbeys and the vicedomini (Vidames in French) for the bishoprics. So, during the Council of Mayence we read: ”We order to all the bishops and abbots and to the whole clergy to have Vidames and Advocates or good defenders as military chiefs.” In the Historia of Flodoard (10th century) we read that, “...they should have good and capable Vidames and Advocates, and where he should come, they should accomplish acts of justice...”; also in Le Carpentier (17th century): “In such a way that as the Advocates were established in time past to govern and to defend the temporal properties of the big and wealthy monasteries and churches, and the lords of the manor to maintain in the duty of the obedience and in a good discipline the towns and its people, so the Vidames were particularly created and chosen to the protection of the bishops and the administration of their properties.”
During the 9th century these terms are used indifferently. However, in the 11th century we see the term of Advocate reserved only for the protectors of abbeys while the Vidames were appointed by the bishop. Often the Advocates were powerful local lords. They added abbey function to their own like others such as the King of France, and also count of Vexin, who was the Advocate of the abbey of Saint Denis. Around the 13th century the institution of Advocate has virtually disappeared. On the other hand the Vidames were not high lords, and exercised always their powers under the control of their bishops. Originally officers, the Vidames became hereditary like all other feudal officers, passing to the eldest son and by default to the eldest daughter. The wife or the daughter of a Vidame was Vidamesse.
The historian François Velde writes: “As Loyseau (Traité des Seigneuries, 1608, p.153) says, the Vidame is to the bishop what the viscount is to the count. Their role was to manage and protect the estates of the bishopric, to exercise in his name the episcopal jurisdiction, to represent him at the count’s court, to lead the bishop’s troops in battle. [But the Vidames were sometimes also the administrators of the episcopal estates and possessions, and the officers in charge of the church taxes.] The lordship of the Vidame consisted in a house near the episcopal palace and a territorial domain in the city or nearly countryside: thus the vidamé [lordship of the Vidame in French] of Chartres consisted in a parcel in the city (located within the episcopal gardens, in the 17th century on the Grand Rue) and the lordship of La Ferté-Arnault, renamed La Ferté-Vidame.” The better known vidamés were the following: Amiens, Beauvais (Gerberoy), Cambrai, Châlons, Chartres, Laon, Le Mans, Meaux, all the Normandie, Noyon, Reims, Rouen, Sarlat, Sens, Senlis, Tulles.
The Lord-Vidame was a direct vassal of the Lord-bishop to whom he takes the oath and homage. A new Vidame would be appointed by the bishop who marked this establishment in the office by the presentation of a ring to the new officer concerned. As armiger the Vidames wore a coronet on their coat of arms; It was a gold circle, decorated with pearls and precious stones, and surmounted by four crosses. These coronets of rank didn’t come into use before the 16th century.
The Vidames could also be women, titled Vidamesses. Vidames were mainly found in Northern France, though some Vidames had existed in England, Germany and in the Low Countries (Netherlands and Belgium). In some bishoprics the title was Viscount (Vice Count) or Advocate, such as in Therouanne, Cambrai, or the Liège in Belgium. The Archbishop of Reims had both a Vidame and a Vice Count. The office of Vidame didn’t always make them nobility. They remained in whatever status they had before, but were still real representatives of their bishop.
Generally the title of Vidame was attached to a lordship, and the family holding the title bore the name of lordship over that of the bishoprics. Having become increasingly hereditary, the office of Vidame enmeshed with the feudal hierarchy. As royal government officials, the Vidames and Advocates were compensated for their responsibilities a lucrative, honorary and hereditary office. They left in charge persons of humbler origins the more mundane task of the duties. They retained for them only the title. In the Neherlands, it was never seen as nobility, but in France, more often than not it became a hereditary and title of nobility, ranked after the title of count and before the title of Vice Count. Gille André de la Roque writes in “Le Traité de la Noblesse” in 1678: “Pasquier (16th century) ranks the Vidames after the counts, and says that they must precede the viscounts because they represent the bishop.” The title survived as far as the ancient regime and as long as the ancient privileges were lucrative and honorary to live on.
Surely, this title as generally used in France was a title of nobility. In fact the revolutionary decree of the 19th and 23rd of June 1790 prohibiting the noble titles abolished also the title of Vidame placed in the nobility hierarchy between the Vice Count and the Baron. On the other hand, it was not a noble title in the Low Countries.
3. The Title Of Vidame Today
Because the bishop’s title is a traditional and legitimate fons honorum (fountain of honors), at least for the title of nobility, some Christian churches revived again the old noble title of Vidame or Vidamesse to reward their benefactors and above all the defenders of the faith, the Church and the Christian religion at large. For example a Canadian Church, fully recognized by the Government, awards titles of Vidame, founded on symbolic and tiny estates considered as “feudal lordships”. This system is probably today obsolete and a real anachronism. In fact, after the Ancien Regime since the 19th century, the new titles of nobility are used as surnames and not as lordships or other titled lands.
In this way, the Metropolia of the Greek Orthodox Church of Epirus grants today the title of Vidame or Vidamesse and has promulgated a decree restoring the ecclesiastic title of Vidame. Members of the Chivalric Order of St. Michael, upon additional support, are eligible for bestowal of the title of nobility.