Monday, August 29, 2011

The Gregorian Reform: Pope Versus Emperor or why Gregory is so Great

Henry IV, Holy Roman
Emperor from 1056-1106
We looked at the imposition of celibacy and the elimination of simony as two of the tree main issues of the Gregorian Reformation; the third issue is called the Investiture Conflict.  Bishops and Abbots of major monasteries were not only religious officials; they were important political officers in the Empire, in France, in England and other Christian states.  As a result, the Emperor or the various kings had a grave concern in who might be bishop or abbot in the various jurisdictions.  In England the bishops and great abbots were ex officio part of the King’s Great Council. (This is before the evolution of Parliament where the bishops and major abbots would sit with the peers.) In the Empire some bishops had a vote in the election of the German King (who in fact was the Emperor).  In all nations, the bishops and abbots controlled vast amounts of lands that belonged to the Church and most had feudal duty to their respective sovereigns to produce knights and soldiers to assist the king in time of war.  Moreover, most sovereigns relied on the leading churchmen to fill key government posts—or rather, named key advisors to lucrative Church positions in order to provide them with income rather than pay them from the often strained royal purse.  And many sovereigns placed junior members of their families, or members of the families of political allies into Church positions to provide these often unemployable folk with a job.  This does not make for good Church administration.  Of course bishops and abbots were technically “elected” by their respective chapters, but an Emperor or King would make some generous gifts of lands and or royal privileges to secure the necessary votes for their candidates to win the prelacy in question.       Once the papacy had freed itself from Imperial control by structuring the papal election to be the sole prerogative of the Cardinal Bishops, Priests, and Deacons of Rome, the popes were anxious to wrest control of the bishoprics from the secular princes.  They knew this would be a long and arduous task  but they also understood the power of symbols and rituals to shape the way people perceive reality.  Gregory VII (pope from 1073-1085) issued a canon (a church law) in 1075 prohibiting secular princes from investing bishops and abbots with the insignia of their office. (Gregory VII is one of the two popes referred to as "Gregory the Great"--the other being Gregory I.)   Up to this time the custom had crept in that the sovereign, Emperor or King as the case may be, gave the new prelate his ring, his miter, and his pastoral staff.  It was a clear sign to all present—prelate, clergy, and people—that the bishop or abbot held his authority from the Sovereign.  By taking away this privilege, the pope was making it clear to all that the Church was independent of the political power.  We Americans do not understand symbols and vastly underrate the power they have on the human consciousness and so it all seems to us like a tempest in a teapot.   Of course, burn a flag and suddenly we get the idea. It is just a piece of cloth, after all, isn’t it?  No.   But to the Emperor, Henry IV, Gregory’s depriving him of the right to bestow the signs of office on prelates was a very clear challenge to his imperial authority.  In fact, Henry was anxious to reassert imperial power not only over the bishops, but over the papacy.  He was not pleased that this system of Cardinals electing the pope had deprived him of the power his father, Henry III, had when he appointed Clement II, Damasus II, and Leo IX (see blog entry for August 13th).  Henry decided it was time for a showdown in the OK Corral, or in this case, the Forum Romanum.  Henry convoked a synod at Worms which declared Gregory deposed as pope.  To be fair to Henry, as stormy relations had developed over the Emperor’s declared rights to invest bishops (and in fact to name them to their sees) Gregory had threatened to declare the Emperor not only excommunicated but as an excommunicate deposed from Imperial office.  Now we come to the nub of the problem, it was not over investing bishops—that was just the neuralgic point—it was who was in chief in Christendom—pope or emperor.  Neither one was about to back down.  Well, unfortunately for Henry (and ultimately for Gregory, but for the good luck of the Church), the Emperor had to back down.  Henry was young (25) and inexperienced and he had some very rebellious nobles in Germany.  When they rose in revolt Henry realized he couldn’t fight his nobles at home and the pope abroad—and as the nobles were the most pressing threat, he had to make peace with the pope.  So off he went to Italy where he stood barefoot and in a hair-shirt for three days in the courtyard of the Countess Matilda’s castle at Canossa.   Matilda was an immensely power woman, Countess of Tuscany but with lands that bordered France and Germany as well.  She was (at this point) trusted by both Gregory and Henry—though her greater loyalty lay with Gregory as Henry would find out.  Gregory had sought refuge with her at her castle when he heard that Henry was coming down into Italy.  Gregory at first had not realized that Henry was coming as a penitent.  This was not a wrong judgment because Henry was, in fact, anything but penitent.   In the end, Gregory absolved Henry but alas, Henry was not sincere in his penitence.  As soon as he got back to Germany and whipped his nobles into shape and got his empire under control, he came back to Italy with an army and headed right to Rome.  Well, not right to Rome.  First he went after Matilda of Tuscany for her support of Gregory.  He managed to seize much of Tuscany and declare her deposed, but he never managed to defeat her and she and his allies would fight him, finally defeating him at Canossa in 1090.  But that takes us too far from our main story.  Henry arrived in Rome and declared Gregory deposed and arranged for the election of Clement III (whom history regards as an anti-pope).  Gregory ended up fleeing for his life and Robert Guiscard, the Norman conqueror of Naples took him in for refuge.  Gregory died at Salerno in 1085.  This was the beginning of a war relationship that would continue for just under two centuries between the papacy and the Salian and Hohenstaufen Emperors until the tragic death of Conradin in 1268. The Conradin story has always broken my heart.  You're going to have to look it up for yourself as it is not pertinent to our saga, but I would recommend Geoffrey Barraclough's version in The Origins of Modern Germany.
     Gregory lost the battle but the Church won the war.  Emperors still continued to meddle in the election of bishops and abbots, as did the other European sovereigns,  but the power of the Emperor over the Church was effectively broken—not shattered, but broken.  Winning the independence of the Church from the Empire was probably the most successful aspect of the Gregorian Reform—certainly more successful than imposing celibacy or eliminating the buying and selling of Church offices.  Perhaps in our next few postings we can look at some of the current issues of Church and politics and see what might need some reform today.     

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