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Papal Election Decree (1059)


A judgment issued by the Roman Synod in April 1059, under the presidency of Pope nicholas ii, to regularize the procedure of papal elections.

Background. Earlier attempts had been made to avert uncanonical accession and the civil disorders that normally attended elections: the synodal decree of 816, the oath that Louis the Pious and lothair i required of the Romans (824), and the cession of Pope leo viii to otto i (963). All had tried to ensure orderly and canonical accessions by guaranteeing the emperor's role as arbiter in the elections. The decree of 1059, however, was the first effort to establish administrative machinery within the Church for that purpose. Prepared for by the development of the college of cardinals under the reformed papacy, the burden of the decree was anticipated early in 1059 when Nicholas II became the liege lord of Robert Guiscard, Duke of Apulia and Calabria, receiving Robert's promise in future to assist the "better" cardinals, the clergy, and the laity of Rome in electing and consecrating suitable men as popes.

Content. The framers of the decree began by recalling that the Roman Church had been endangered by simony after the death of stephen ix and stating their hope that the subsequent provisions would provide against the recurrence of such peril. They specified that on the death of a bishop of Rome the cardinal bishops should consider the succession among themselves, then admit the cardinal priests to their deliberations, and finally take counsel with the rest of the Roman clergy and with the Roman laity. Scholars interpret these rules to mean that the cardinal bishops were to nominate a candidate, that the lesser cardinal clergy were to approve him, and that the other clergy and the people were formally to accept him. The decree then quotes a passage from the letter of Pope leo i to Rusticus saying that no one could be truly a bishop unless he were elected by the clergy of his church, accepted by his people, and consecrated by the bishops of his province on the approval of their metropolitan. It adds that, since the Roman Church had no metropolitan superior, the cardinal bishops discharged the office of the metropolitan in the case of papal elections.

In accord with a decree of stephen iii, the 1059 decree required that the pope be elected from the Roman Church itself, and that to henry iv of Germany and his successors must be reserved the "honor" (i.e., the formal privileges) that Rome had already granted Henry in accepting him as emperor-designate, which his successors must personally request of the apostolic see. This provision is commonly understood to refer to the right of approval that Byzantine emperors from justinian i onward had demanded in papal elections and that the earlier regulations about accessions to the Roman See had guaranteed. The decree added that if civil conditions in Rome were too disturbed to allow the immediate enthronement of the bishop-elect, he might exercise the full authority of the papacy even before his formal installation, and it concluded by cursing those who would work to subvert its provisions and blessing those who observed them. The subscriptions of witnesses, led by the signature of Nicholas II, ended the text.

Significance. The appraisal of the decree's intent and importance is one of the most vexed problems of medieval history, and it has been complicated by the presence of a deliberately corrupted version of the decree written within 40 years after the issuance of the original. The earliest students of the problem distinguished the original as the "papal" version and the corrupted reading as the "imperial" and tended to judge the two documents outside their historical context. Scholars at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century generally accepted the distinction of "papal" and "imperial"; but they argued that the original decree was the first major effort of the gregorian reform to free papal elections from lay influence, especially from imperial intervention, and that, to achieve their goal, its authors ascribed the effectual act of election to the cardinals, leaving only ceremonial rights to the German king.

The decree was, scholars judged, the true cause of the repudiation of Nicholas II by German bishops in 1061 and of the schism that followed. In 1936 A. Michel brought this interpretation into doubt, setting the decree into the ecclesiological context of the Gregorian reform rather than into the conventional setting of the struggle between the Church and the temporal power; and H. G. Krause has recently developed and convincingly modified Michel's thought. Michel argued on textual grounds, and Krause has since confirmed, that the distinctions of "papal" and "imperial" were erroneous, and that the corrupt reading came not from the imperial chancery but from among the schismatic cardinals who abandoned gregory vii in 1084. Michel dated the false version for 1084, but Krause assigned it generally to the period 10851100. They both pointed out that the later version is much the same as the original and that such changes as it contains enhance, on balance, the powers of the lesser cardinal clergy, rather than those of the German king. This version, however, had only slight effect. Krause particularly contested the view that the original decree was designed to free papal elections from imperial control. He suggested rather that the authors of the decree intended to free the papacy from the schism and local conflict that attended Nicholas's accession in 1058 by confirming precisely those powers of arbitration that the earlier enactments on papal elections had described and that henry iii had vigorously exercised. In this way they hoped to subject local interests to the superior juridical competence of the Empire and to give the earlier process canonical force through synodal approval. Krause further maintained that the repudiation of Nicholas II by the German bishops and the schism of 1061 resulted, not from displeasure at the curtailment of imperial prerogatives by the decree, but from the quite unrelated animosity of Abp. anno of cologne toward Nicholas. In addition to its critical importance in polemical works of the investiture struggle, the decree has significance as the basis of modern procedure in papal elections.

Bibliography: Editions. Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Berlin 1826): Constitutiones 1:537551. h. g. krause, Das Papstwahldekret von 1059 und seine Rolle im Investitursteit (Studi gregoriani 7; 1960). Literature. a. michel, Papstwahl und Königsrecht oder das Papstwahl-Konkordat von 1059 (Munich 1936); "Das Papstwahlpaktum von 1059," Historisches Jahrbuch der Görres Gesellschaft 59 (1939) 291351. r. holtzmann, "Zum Papstwahldekret von 1059," Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung für Rechtsgeschichte, Romanistische Abteilung 27 (1938) 135153. b. schmeidler, "Zum Wahldekret Papst Nikolaus II. vom Jahre 1059," Historische Vierteljahrschrift 31 (193739) 554560.

[k. f. morrison]

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