The first cathedral canons in Merseburg, Zeitz and Naumburg were small communities of clergy that celebrated the liturgical services at the cathedrals. They assembled in the cathedral choir several times during the day and at night to worship with solemn chants and prayers. These early clergy are all but absent in charters and chronicles. A complete chapter list for Naumburg was recorded for the first time in the late 11th century. It lists – in deliberate emulation of the community of Jesus’s disciples – the names of twelve cathedral canons.
Over the course of the High Middle Ages, the cathedral clergy grew increasingly important for the administration of and ministry to the dioceses. They were dependable partners of the bishops who helped them attain greater authority and enhanced prestige. This was also manifested in a new self-confidence among the cathedral canons and chapters. They had to be consulted on important decisions made by the bishops, enacted statutes of their own, sealed charters independently and obtained access to private property. During the 12th and 13th century, most of the cathedral canons abandoned communal life (vita communis) in the buildings of the cathedral closes in order to set up manors and estates of their own in the direct vicinity of the cathedrals. These so-called curias still form a unique architectural wreath around the cathedrals in Merseburg and Naumburg.
The cathedral chapters’ heightened importance and the clergy’s lucrative income made the position of cathedral canon interesting for aristocrats, too. Later-born sons of lower nobility in particular were given the opportunity for a livelihood in keeping with their rank. During the late Middle Ages, the chapters evolved into self-contained institutes for aristocrats. Every candidate for a canonical prebend had to prove his noble ancestry over four generations in the paternal and maternal line. Striking manifestations of this phenomenon are the collections of ostentatious genealogical tables that have survived in Merseburg and Naumburg. Another requirement necessary for admission was a university degree. Many late medieval cathedral canons were highly qualified jurists who served important figures such as bishops and electors as counselors. During their frequent travels, they had vicars represent them at the cathedrals’ liturgical services.
After putting up fierce resistance against the Reformation well into the mid-16th century, the chapters in Merseburg, Naumburg and Zeitz also had to face confessional and political realities. They nevertheless managed to secure their existence and many traditional rights for their churches. One particularly noteworthy phenomenon was their retention of the old choral liturgy. The Latin Hours, which had constituted the heart of the cathedral canons’ religious activity in the Middle Ages, were retained into the 19th century.
The cathedral canons’ centuries-old distinctive image also changed when the diocesan territories devolved to Prussia in the wake of the Congress of Vienna of 1815. Under the influence of the King of Prussia, the chapters’ patron, distinguished political and military figures were awarded the title of cathedral canon in the 19th and early 20th century. Two former Vice-Chancellors of the German Empire, Karl Heinrich von Boetticher and Arthur Graf von Posadowsky-Wehner, held the post of dean in Naumburg from 1904 to 1930. The last dean of Merseburg Cathedral and first dean of the Combined Cathedral Chapters was famed Field Marshal August von Mackensen.
The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of a difficult time for the Combined Cathedral Chapters during which the further fate of the foundation and the chapter remained uncertain. Formally a foundation under the sovereign laws of the GDR, the chapter’s representatives invoked the chapters’ ecclesiastical tradition time and again in order to escape the clutches of the authorities. At the same time, the potential to operate independently with the foundation’s slight assets reached a historic low. Not only the land holdings but, above all, also the valuable churches went without proper restoration over many decades. The precious art and rare library collections were housed under catastrophic conditions.
A phase of reorientation began for the cathedral chapter, too, after the collapse of the GDR. It was essential to leave the days of retreat and hermetic seclusion behind. A new generation of cathedral canons, who had partly been able to draw on experiences with foundation work in West Germany, set the course for a new beginning. Some important changes went into effect when the statutes were reformed in 1994. The chapters and funds, hitherto formally existing as separate entities, were combined into a single foundation. Another necessary measure was the overdue opening of the chapter to women. The cathedral chapter entered the third millennium of its existence at the start of the 21st century.