Compendium of Church History - Notre Dame

Eleventh Century
The Century of Pope Gregory VII

With the Pontificate of Gregory VII a new era opens in the Church. An era of freedom and independence succeeds one of enslavement; an era of reformatory zeal succeeds one of moral and religious decay. Gregory VII is "one of the few men who have made and molded the history of their own and subsequent times."

Pope Gregory VII, better known in general history as Hildebrand, was the son of a Tuscan craftsman. He passed his youth in the shelter of the cloister, and completed his studies at the famous monastery of Cluny, where the Abbot Odilo foretold that he "should one day become great in the sight of the Lord." From Cluny he passed to the court of Henry III, of Germany, where his preaching impressed everyone by its apostolic vehemence. In I044 he went to Rome to assist Pope Gregory VI. After the death of the latter he returned to Cluny with the intention of spending the remainder of his life in that holy solitude, but as Pope Leo IX passed to Rome, on his way to take possession of the Holy See, he called at Cluny and requested Hildebrand to accompany him to Rome.

Created a cardinal-deacon by Leo IX, and appointed administrator of the Patrimony of St. Peter, Hildebrand at once gave evidence of that extraordinary faculty for administration which later characterized his government of the Church.

For twenty-five years Hildebrand was the counsellor of the six popes who followed one another in rapid succession. At the funeral of Alexander II, in 1073, the people and clergy with a sudden outcry declared, "Let Hildebrand be Pope." All remonstrances were vain, Hildebrand's protestations were futile, and he ascended the papal throne with the title of Gregory VII.

Difficulties of Gregory's Pontificate.

  • Nomination of Unworthy Pastors.
    The Feudal System left the Church at the mercy of sovereigns and nobles; as a result, unworthy persons were nominated to sees, abbeys, and other benefices.
  • Vices of the Clergy.
    These lay nominees were often men of scandalous lives, who purchased their benefices with heavy bribes.
  • Investiture by Laymen.
    This was an abuse arising from feudal customs by which sovereigns took to themselves the right of giving the ring and crozier to their nominees.

The Struggle Between the Papacy and the Empire.

In 1074 Gregory forbade all ecclesiastical investiture by laymen.

The opposition to this decree was headed by Henry IV, of Germany. Gregory VII called Henry to Rome. The Emperor not only refused to obey, but convened an assembly of bishops and abbots at Worms and pretended to depose the Pope. Such a crime deserved excommunication, and the sentence was pronounced. Never was the authority of the Holy See more completely vindicated than when, on the publication of the sentence, Henry was immediately deserted by all his followers with the exception of his wife and a few attendants. A Diet of the German nobles met and declared, that unless Henry became reconciled with the Church within a year, he should forfeit the crown. They begged the Pope to preside at the coming Diet of Augsburg. Henry, fearing that the decision of the Diet would be adverse to him, determined to seek reconciliation with the Church before the electors met.

Setting out for Rome, Henry met the Pope at the Castle of Canossa, and after a penance of three days the Emperor was released from the censure of ex-communication. Faithless to his promises to the Pope, Henry was deposed by his nobles, and Rudolph of Swabia was chosen Emperor. Civil war ensued, which continued to distract Germany until the death of Rudolph decided the struggle in Henry's favor. Henry's misgovernment drew on him a second sentence of excommunication, to which he retaliated by setting up an antipope, Clement III, in Germany. Crossing the Alps with his antipope, Henry besieged Gregory in Rome. The siege lasted for three years, after which the Germans were put to flight by the approach of Robert Guiscard. Gregory withdrew to Salerno and died, uttering these words: "I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile." Twelve years after, Henry IV died in exile at Liege, unreconciled to the Church.

The question of Investiture was settled in the Concordat of Worms by this compromise: Investiture given to the Pope and homage for land given to the Emperor.

Heresy of the Eleventh Century

Heresy of Berengarius.
The first Christian who can be said with any certainty to have denied the doctrine of the Real Presence was Berengarius. As teacher in the ecclesiastical school of Tours, this heresiarch publicly maintained that Our Lord is present only in figure in the Holy Eucharist; that the Sacrament produces its effects only in virtue of the faith of the receiver, and not from the real and true presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In 1078 Berengarius abjured his errors, and, retiring to an island monastery in the Loire, he spent the ten remaining years of his life in penitence. He is the only heresiarch who returned to the allegiance of the Church.

Truce of God.
One of the greatest benefits conferred on Europe was the Truce of God, that wonderful institution which put an end to the continuous strife between the feudal nobles.

Provisions of the Truce.

  1. Not to fight in private quarrels during Lent and Advent, on any festival, from Wednesday night until Monday morning of every week.
  2. Not to attack unarmed persons.
  3. Not to violate the sanctuary—churches, burial grounds, and monasteries.

Though Chivalry did not attain its full development till the twelfth and succeeding centuries, its origin can be traced back to the beneficial influence of the Truce of God.