Growing Church Power and Secular Tensions

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Growing Church Power and Secular Tensions

A Period of Papal Weakness.

In the tenth century, as the Carolingian Empire started to break apart and the Germanic Empire rise, increasing tension developed between bishops, the pope, and secular rulers. Strong local nobility had begun to emerge during the age of the Viking invasions in Italy, France, Germany, and England, while the Roman bishops themselves were hardly in a position to wield significant political power at all. The last of the noteworthy early medieval popes was Nicholas I (858–867), after whom there would not be meaningful individual ecclesiastical authority directed from Rome until the eleventh century. In fact, the majority of the popes in the early Middle Ages functioned primarily as liturgical leaders and guardians of tradition (not political figures). While holy and accomplished Roman bishops such as Hadrian I, Nicholas I and John VIII did much to direct the positive course of early medieval Christianity, near the early part of the tenth century, a series of degenerate popes (John VIII, Formosus, Lambert, Stephen VI, Leo V, Christopher, and Sergius II) succeeded one another by each deposing his predecessor. These changes in leadership included a chain of nine successive pontiffs within the span of an eight-year period. Probably the most bizarre story connected to this era was that of Formosus (891–896), whose dead body was exhumed and put on trial by his rivals for a variety of offenses that he had committed while in office. After being found guilty, his corpse was defrocked of its vestments and his consecrated fingers (those used in blessing and holding the host, or consecrated bread, during Mass) were severed from his body. There was even a teenage pope (John XII) elevated in 955 whose father was the half-brother of a former pope (John XI). While abstinence from sexual activity among Western Christian clerics had begun to be legislated in the late 300s and several edicts in the 400s had imposed oaths of celibacy upon the clergy, there were still many who refused to comply. By the sixth century, only a small percentage of priests and bishops openly continued to have wives, but much larger numbers had focariae or mistresses. Violations of clerical celibacy defiantly continued through the eleventh century, particularly in the more rural areas. Pope John XII was himself openly sexually active (he is accused of turning the papal residence into a brothel) and was said to have died of a stroke while in bed with a married woman. However, historians remember John XII for breathing new life into the power of the western Christian Roman Empire. His coronation of the German emperor, Otto I, on Candlemas Day in 962 saw (through military means) the return of former Italian papal territories to the church. This also rekindled the strong ecclesiastical and secular relationship that had once existed between the Roman bishops and the powerful institutional western European kingdoms.



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The Investiture Controversy.

The Latin Church's dependence upon lay powers for support (both economic and military) had allowed for the development of a practice during the ninth and tenth centuries where kings and princes reserved for themselves the power of investiture over bishops and abbots. That is, these secular powers, operating according to the patterns established in the broader society, literally would invest high-ranking clergy with the symbols of their office. In the case of bishops and abbots, this was the presentation of the ring and staff (crozier) that served as visible signs of ecclesiastical authority. In return, the bishop or abbot would pay homage to the king and swear an oath of fealty or loyalty, just as a vassal or land-tenant might. The kings and nobility who owned much land might grant benefices or tenure on the land for a particular number of years. Powerful secular leaders granted such lands to local churches or even would give over church-owned lands to laity as they saw fit. By the mid-eleventh century, church leaders began to condemn the practice, which resulted in a contest between church and state. The Investiture Controversy was sparked by church legislation initiated in 1059, 1075, 1076, 1078, and 1080 under Popes Nicholas II and Gregory VII. Humbert of Silva Candida published a work entitled Three Books Against the Simoniacs which not only was a polemic against simony (the sale or purchase of a church office), but supported the notions of clerical celibacy and papal primacy. Humbert's treatise was also an attack upon lay authority as it related to the power of the priesthood. According to Humbert, church authority came from God and was to be carried out through the electoral will of his people and priests, not the kings and nobility, whose power extended only to secular matters. These reforms attempted to purify the ordination process from selfish secular interests, first by placing the election of the pope in the hands of the cardinals, and later by ruling against lay influence in ecclesiastical elections and, eventually, lay investiture of any kind under any circumstance.

An Authority Struggle.

Royal and noble compliance with these church directives was difficult to obtain, however. The distinctions between the spiritual office of the bishop and the material possessions or physical powers linked to the post were not clearly defined during the early years of the investiture contest. The issue came to a head with the authority struggle between Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085) and the German emperor Henry IV. Gregory was credited with issuing the famous decree Dictatus Papae which stated that the pope, not the emperor, was to be seen as the vicar of Christ. (It was the pope who was the successor of Constantine.) The pontiff alone could both depose and install princes, emperors, and bishops. The pope could be judged by no mortal man. He might also absolve individuals of their fealty to evil persons of power. While the struggles between the bishop of Rome and the German emperor were real, scholars now suggest that Dictatus Papae was later submitted into the register of documents for 1075 in order to bolster claims for papal power. It is likely that the term "paptus" was not even used until decades later, around the beginning of the twelfth century. In any case, Henry IV refused to recognize Gregory's authority, and the bitter struggle continued for some ten years. The crown attempted to depose the pope in 1076 and shortly thereafter the papacy declared the emperor excommunicated. Bishops and princes from all parts of Christendom intervened and took sides. The northern Italian and German bishops even went so far as to side with Henry and ratify the emperor's decision to depose the pontiff. Lay nobility who were plotting Henry's demise forced the emperor into reconciliation, and there appeared to be some change in the balance of power during the early part of 1077 when the penitent Henry appeared before Pope Gregory barefoot in the middle of winter at Canossa begging forgiveness for his immortal soul.

The Reassertion of the Christian Roman Empire.

Henry's apparent sincerity demonstrated in the Canossa incident was short-lived. In fact, some historians have suggested that this entire act of penitence may have been a ploy on the part of Henry to buy the cooperation of German nobles. Several years after he had been forgiven, in 1080, the emperor managed to invade Italy and forcibly have Pope Gregory exiled and deposed. Henry elevated a new pope, Clement III, who officially restored Henry IV's place as emperor of the Romans. Henry IV renewed his quarrel with the papacy after the elevation of Urban II (1088–1099), whose organization of the First Crusade helped solidify the public view of the papacy as the visible head of the Roman Church in administrative, judicial, and military capacities. Urban eventually succeeded in rallying the bishops of Germany against lay investiture, but after Urban's death Henry IV again came into conflict with Pope Paschal, and the emperor was again excommunicated by Rome in 1102. The controversy between the German emperors and popes continued for another generation as each side gained and lost ground. Some of the difficulties between spiritual and temporal powers during these decades may have been tied up in disagreements over valid canonical election. Between 1059 and 1179 a series of some fourteen anti-popes served sporadically alongside or in conflict with the pontiffs now recognized by historians. With rival claimants to support, emperors, princes, and kings were not always in agreement over who represented the church's position and which religious leader the secular powers should choose to recognize. A compromise between German kings and bishops of Rome finally came at the Concordat of Worms in 1122 with an agreement executed by Pope Calixtus II and Henry V of Germany. A similar compromise had been struck in England during the early 1100s between Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry I, who had agreed that secular leaders would still invest bishops but with the understanding that they were only granting the bishop earthly temporal authority. The church would also have its representative (usually a higher ranking bishop, pope, or cardinal) invest the bishop with symbols of priestly authority, namely the ring and staff. In some areas the king conferred power through the touch of his scepter. While the presence of the king or secular noble leaders was permitted at a bishop's elevation, it was by the authority of the leading local bishops that a candidate was placed in office. However, it is more likely that leaders in significant church positions (such as bishops, abbots, and even popes) had the blessing of both clergy and secular leaders.


introduction: During the period of the Investiture Controversy, when lay rulers struggled with the papacy over the right to ordain or depose princes and bishops, one of the most dramatic confrontations was a ten-year struggle between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV, who refused to follow church directives and even attempted to depose the pope. Finally, after the pope declared the emperor to be excommunicated and other princes began plotting against him, Henry was forced to attempt reconciliation, which he did by appearing barefoot outside the pope's residence at Canossa in the middle of winter. The following account (dated the end of January 1077), which relates the Canossa event, appears in a letter to the German princes written by Gregory:

Whereas for love of justice you have made common cause with us and taken the same risks in the warfare of Christian service, we have taken special care to send you this accurate account of the king's penitential humiliation, his absolution and the course of the whole affair from his entrance into Italy to the present time. According to the arrangements made with the legates sent to us by you we came to Lombardy about 20 days before the date at which some of your leaders were to meet us … [and] we received certain information that the king was on his way to us. Before he entered Italy he sent us word that he would make satisfaction to God and St. Peter and offer to amend his way of life and to continue obedient to us, provided only that he should obtain from us absolution and the apostolic blessing. For a long time we delayed our reply and held long consultations, reproaching him bitterly through messengers back and forth for his outrageous conduct, until finally, of his own accord and without any show of hostility or defiance, he came with a few followers to the fortress of Canossa where we were staying. There, on three successive days, standing before the castle gate, laying aside all royal insignia, barefoot and in coarse attire, he ceased not with many tears to beseech the apostolic help and comfort until all who were present or who had heard the story were so moved by pity and compassion that they pleaded his cause with prayers and tears … At last overcome by his persistent show of penitence and the urgency of all present, we released him from the bonds of anathema and received him into the grace of Holy Mother Church, accepting from him the guarantees described …

source: Pope Gregory VII, Letter to the German Princes, in The Correspondence of Pope Gregory VII., Book IV, 6, Columbia University Records of Civilization. Trans. by Ephraim Emerton (New York: W. W. Norton, 1960): 109–110.


A. L. Barstow, Married Priests and the Reforming Papacy (Lewiston, New York: Mellen Press, 1982).

Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002).

Gerd Tellenbach, The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century. Trans. Timothy Reuter (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

—, Church, State, and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Controversy (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1959).