Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Triumph of Papacy over Empire

We have seen, in another chapter, how the bishop of Rome became the head of the Western Church, with the title of Pope; and we have seen how Charlemagne restored the position of Emperor as ruler of the West. We must now follow the history of these two great institutions,—the Papacy and the Empire,—and see how they got along together.

After Gregory the Great died, it was long before the Church had a Pope who was so able and good; and after Charlemagne was dead, it was long before there was another Emperor as great as he had been. Charlemagne's empire was divided by his grandsons, as we have seen, into three kingdoms; and though the oldest of them received the title of Emperor, he had little of Charlemagne's power. Afterwards the descendants of Charlemagne grew weaker and weaker, and finally their power came entirely to an end. We have already seen how their rule ceased in France and the power passed to the family of that Count Odo who defended Paris so bravely against the Northmen in the year 886. In Italy and Germany also, at about the same time, the rule of the "Carolingians" ceased, and new rulers arose.

In Germany it was the Saxons, whom Charlemagne had conquered with so much difficulty, who now took the leading part in the government. A new and stronger German kingdom was established, and then of these Saxon kings—Otto I., who was rightly called Otto the Great—gained the rule over Italy also. When this was done, he revived the title of Emperor, which meant something more than King. It meant not only the rule over Italy and Germany, but also a supremacy over all the kings of Western Europe, such as Charlemagne had exercised. This occurred in the year 962. Otto had already been King for twenty-six years, and he ruled for twelve years longer, proving to be as great a ruler as Emperor as he had been as King.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


One of the first things he did in Italy was to put the Papacy in a better condition. During the troubled times that had followed the fall of Charlemagne's empire, Italian nobles oppressed teh popes and even attempted to set them up and pull them down at pleasure. The Papacy had no army of its own, and when there was no one who was acknowledged as Emperor there was no one to whom the Pope could turn for aid. When Otto I. revived the Empire, it became his duty to protect the Pope. After many efforts the emperors succeeded in taking from the Italian nobles their power, and soon the position of Pope was higher than it had ever been.

Then the question arose as to what their relation should be towards the emperors.

Just one hundred years after the death of Otto I., a man became Pope who had very decided opinions on this subject. His name was Hildebrand. He was the son of a poor carpenter, and was born in Italy, but he was of German origin. His uncle was the head of a monastery of Rome, and it was there that the boy was brought up and educated. When he became a man, he too became a monk. Circumstances soon led him to France, and there for a while he was a member of the most famous monastery of Europe—the one at Cluny, in Burgundy.

Not only the Papacy, but the whole Church, had fallen into a bad condition at this time. Monks had ceased to obey the rules made for their government, and lived idly and often wickedly. Priests and bishops, instead of giving their attention to the churches which were under their care, spent their time like the nobles of that day, in hunting, in pleasure, and in war.

There were three evils which were especially complained of.

First, priests, bishops, and even popes, often got their offices by purchase instead of being freely elected or appointed; this was called "simony."

Second, the greater part of the clergy had followed the example of the Eastern Church, and married, so breaking the rule of "celibacy," which required that they should not marry. This was especially harmful, because the married clergy sought to provide for their children by giving them lands and other property belonging to the Church.

The third evil was the "investiture" of clergymen by laymen. When a bishop, for example, was chosen, he was given the staff and the ring, which were the signs of his office, by the emperor or king, instead of by an archbishop; and this "investiture" by laymen made the clergy look more to the rulers of the land than to the rulers of the Church.

The monastery of Cluny took the leading part in fighting against these evils. Its abbots joined to it other monasteries, which were purified and reformed, and in this way Cluny became the head of a "congregation" or union of monasteries which numbered many hundreds. Everywhere it raised the cry, "No simony;—celibacy;—and no lay investiture!"

When Hildebrand came to Cluny this movement had been going on for some time, and much good had already been done. But it was through the efforts of Hildebrand himself that the movement was to win its greatest success.

After staying at Cluny for some months, Hildebrand returned to Rome. There for almost a quarter of a century, under five successive popes, he was the chief adviser and helper of the Papacy. Several times the people of Rome wished to make Hildebrand Pope, but he refused. At last, when the fifth of these popes had died, he was forced to submit. In the midst of the funeral services, a cry arose from the clergy and the people:

"Hildebrand is Pope! St. Peter chooses Hildebrand to be Pope!"

When Hildebrand sought again to refuse the office, his voice was drowned in cries:

"It is the will of St. Peter! Hildebrand is Pope!"

So he was obliged at last to submit. Unwillingly, it is said, and with tears in his eyes, he was led to the papal throne. There he was clothed with the scarlet robe, and crowned with the papal crown; then, at length, he was seated in the chair of St. Peter, where so many popes had sat before him. In accordance with the custom, he now took a new name, and as Pope he was always called Gregory VII.

The Emperor at this time was Henry IV., who had been ruler over Germany ever since he was six years old. One of his guardians had let the boy have his own way in everything; so, although he was well meaning, he had grown up without self control, and with many bad habits. Gregory was determined to make the Emperor give up the right of investiture, and also tried to force him to reform his manner of living. Henry, for his part, was just as determined never to give up any right which the emperors had had before him, and complained bitterly of the pride and haughtiness of the Pope.

A quarrel was the result, which lasted for almost fifty years. The question to be settled was not merely the right of investiture. It included also the question whether the Emperor was above the Pope, or the Pope above the Emperor. Charlemagne and Otto I., and other emperors, had often come into Italy to correct popes when they did wrong; and at times they had even set aside evil popes, and named new ones in their place. Gregory now claimed that the Pope was above the Emperor; that the lay power had no rights over the clergy; and that the Pope might even depose an Emperor and free his subjects from the obedience which they owed him. The Pope, he said, had given the Empire to Charlemagne, and what one Pope had given another could take away.

The popes relied, in such struggles, on the power which they possessed to "excommunicate" a person. Excommunication cut the person off from the Church, and no good Christian, thenceforth, might have anything to do with him. They could not live with him, nor do business with him; and if he died unforgiving, his soul was believed to be lost. This was the weapon which Gregory used against the Emperor Henry, when he refused to give up the right of investiture. He excommunicated him, and forbade all people from obeying him as Emperor, or having anything to do with him. Henry's subjects were already dissatisfied with his rule, so they took this occasion to rise in rebellion.

Soon Henry saw that unless he made his peace with the Pope he would lose his whole kingdom. So with his wife and infant son, and only one attendant, he crossed the Alps in the depth of winter. After terrible hardships, he arrived at Canossa, where the Pope was staying, on January 25, 1076. There, for three days, with bare feet and in the dress of a penitent, he was forced to stand in the snow before the gate of the castle. On the fourth day he was admitted to the presence of the Pope; and crying, "Holy Father, spare me!" he threw himself at Gregory's feet. Then the Pope raised him up and forgave him; and after promising that henceforth he would rule in all things as the Pope wished, Henry was allowed to return to Germany.

Henry VI at Canossa


This, however did not end the quarrel. Henry could not forgive the humiliation that had been put upon him. The German people and clergy, too, would not admit the rights which the Pope claimed. Gradually Henry recovered the power which he had lost; and at last he again went to Italy,—this time with an army at his back. All Gregory's enemies now rose up against him, and the Pope was obliged to flee to the Normans in Southern Italy. There the gray-haired old Pope soon died, saying:

"One thing only fills me with hope. I have always loved the law of God, and hated evil. Therefore I die in exile."

Even after the death of Gregory the struggle went on. New popes arose who claimed all the power that Gregory had claimed; and everywhere the monks of Cluny aided the Pope, and opposed the Emperor. Henry's son, too, rebelled against him, and at last, twenty years after the death of Gregory, Henry IV. died broken-hearted and deprived of power.

When once Henry's son had become Emperor, he found that he must continue the struggle, or his power would be nothing. At last it was seen that each side must give up something, so a compromise was agreed to. The Emperor, it was settled, should surrender his claim to give the bishops the ring and the staff. On the other hand, the Pope agreed that the Emperor might control the election of bishops, and bind them to perform the duties which they owed as a result of the lands which they received from him. The whole trouble had arisen from the fact that the bishops were not only officers of the Church, but that they held feudal "benefices" of the Emperor. By a compromise which was agreed to in the year 1122, the Emperor surrendered his claim to give the bishops the ring and the staff. On the other hand, the Pope agreed taht the Emperor might control the election of bishops, and bind them to perform the duties which they owed as a result of the lands which they received from him.

This, however, did not settle the question whether the Pope was above the Emperor or the Emperor above the Pope. On this point there continued to be trouble throughout the Middle Ages.