Chapter, as an ecclesiastical term, the name of a corporation of ecclesiastics, bound by canonical rules, and generally attached to a cathedral. The name chapter arose from the fact that the first communities of canons (q.v.) were called together daily in a common hall, to hear a chapter of the Bible, or of their common rules, read aloud. The hall was hence called the Chapter, or Chapter-house (q.v.), and the name finally passed to the body of ecclesiastics assembling in it.
Originally the property of the chapter belonged to the diocese; and the monks or canons had a common life, and kept strict obedience. Corporations of this kind rapidly multiplied, however, and soon began to have wealth of their own; by the 12th century these capitula canonicorum were attached to almost every see. The nomination of the bishop fell to the chapter, and this was allowed by the popes, thus enlarging greatly the power of the chapter, and diminishing the authority of the bishop over it. The nobility of Europe found the canonries rich, and the chapters were made sources of income for their children, who in some dioceses filled every stall. These secular canons absorbed the revenues of the chapters, and appointed vicars to do the work. The Council of Trent introduced many reforms (sess. 23, 25). In 1803 the chapters, as corporations, were abolished in South Germany, and in 1810 in Prussia. Whatever rights the chapters now have are based upon the canon law, and upon the special legislation of each country in which they exist. In Switzerland, Prussia, and other Protestant countries of Germany, the chapters have received the right of electing the bishops, who in most of the Roman Catholic countries are appointed by the sovereigns.
In England the chapter of a cathedral church consists "of persons ecclesiastical, canons and prebendaries, whereof the dean is chief, all subordinate to the bishop, to whom they are as assistants in matters relating to the church, for the better ordering and disposing the things thereof, and for confirmation of such leases of the temporalities and officers relating to the bishopric as the bishop from time to time shall happen to make" (Hook, s.v.). The dean and chapter had formerly the right to choose the bishop in England, but that right was assumed by Henry VIII as a prerogative of the crown. In Germany, Luther made an attempt to preserve the chapters as ecclesiastical corporations, but soon most of them lost altogether their ecclesiastical character, and nearly all of them perished at the beginning of the present century. A few chapters, like those of Halberstadt, Minden, and Osnabruck, had both Protestant and Roman Catholic canons, and in Osnabruck even the election of the bishop had to alternate between the two denominations. Herzog, Real-Encyklopädie, 2:554 sq.; Ersch u. Gruber, Encyklop. 26:383 sq. SEE CANON; SEE DEAN.