|The Emperor Saint Henry, the last|
of the Ottonian Dynasty, with a
The Ottonian Reformation, you may remember, is named after the Emperors Otto I, II, and III—a series of German Holy Roman Emperors in the tenth century. Otto I (912-973), a descendent of Charlemagne but in the matrilineal line, in fact had restored the Empire in 962 after it had all but ceased to exist. His policy was to strengthen the Church by appointing capable bishops and abbots who, loyal to him, were a counterweight to the secular nobility who resented the expanding Imperial control over their ancestral princedoms, duchies, and counties. To do this Otto and his successors endowed the Church with considerable wealth to make it independent of all outside (except his, of course) control. He also needed to have capable men as Archbishops, bishops and Abbots—and capable women too as Abbesses who often held political and religious power and authority equivalent to the Abbots and Bishops—and not mere sycophants and dependants of the various dukes and counts who were threats to the expanding Imperial power.
There were two other aspects, also important, to the Ottonian Reform. The Emperors used the Church as a tool to expand the imperial power, particularly eastwards into the Slavic lands that today comprise the Czech Republic, southern Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. Establishing Archdioceses, dioceses, and abbeys in these new lands they expanded the Church and also brought the subjugated and converted peoples into the Empire as well as into the Church.
The final characteristic of the Ottonian Reformation was that after long struggles with the old Roman families (and here you should probably read “Mafiosi,” which while not technically true captures the nature of the problem) who controlled the papacy which they filled with some of the most profligate men known to history. The Roman Church was and had been through most of the ninth century and well into the tenth a scandal to Christendom and had lost the respect of all and thus any real authority. The Church in Rome, throughout most of Italy, and beyond the Ottonian Realm was of no better moral character than the secular nobility. There were isolated men and institutions of character—the Abbots and Abbey of Cluny and its dependencies being most notable—but the Church was almost universally beholden to the secular powers for its wealth, and bishops and Abbots were most frequently appointed not for their moral character but their family connections.
I do need to be careful here when I say “appointed,” as technically bishops and abbots were elected—bishops by their cathedral chapters, abbot by the monks of their abbey. But such “elections” were all but universally directed by the king or a more local political authority who had his favored candidate who, once installed as bishop or abbot, would do his bidding. And this would be the very abuse the Gregorian Reform would seek to end. Political control of the Church all worked fine where the Emperors Otto held sway, but what of the day when kings of lesser character sat on the Imperial throne and abused their powers over the Church? No, the honest prelates put in place by the Ottonians knew that the Church could not risk remaining under the imperial thumb. Otto III was succeeded by the last of his dynasty, the saintly (and indeed Sainted) Henry II. But Henry would die without an heir—supposedly he and his wife, also Sainted, Kunigunde, had committed themselves to celibacy within their marriage (no virtue in light of the royal responsibility to provide an heir)—and a new dynasty, the Salians, came to the throne. This was not good for the Church, but that is what we shall look at over the next few weeks with the Gregorian Reform.