Gateway to the Classics: The Story of the Middle Ages by Samuel B. Harding
The Story of the Middle Ages by  Samuel B. Harding

Papacy and Empire

W E 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. In Italy and Germany, as well as in France, 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—revived the empire which Charlemagne had founded. This was in the year 962, and Otto had already been King for twenty-six years. After he became Emperor, Otto ruled over Italy as well as over Germany; and he proved to be as good a ruler as Emperor as he had been as King. 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 had controlled the Papacy for selfish ends. After many efforts it was taken from their control, and soon the position of the popes was higher than it had ever been. Then the question arose as to what their position 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.

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; and this compromise was acceptable to both sides.

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. Everybody agreed that there must be one head to rule over the Church, and one head, above all kings and princes, to rule over the states of Europe; but they could not settle the relations which these two should bear to each other. Some said that the power of the Pope in the world was like the soul of a man, and power of the Emperor was like his body; but when the popes claimed that because the soul was above the body, the Papacy was above the Emperor, the emperors would not agree. In one passage in the Bible, the apostles said to Christ: "Behold, here are two swords;" and Christ answered, "It is enough." By the swords, it was said, was meant the power of the Pope, and the power of the Emperor. Those in favor of the Papacy tried to explain that both the swords were in Peter's hands, and that as Peter was the founder of the Papacy, Christ meant both powers to be under the Pope. To this those who favored the Empire would not agree. When Frederick Barbarossa was Emperor there was another long quarrel; and one of the Pope's officers tried to show that Frederick held the Empire as a "benefice" from the Pope, just as a vassal held his land as a benefice from his lord. This claim raised such an outburst of anger from the Germans, that the Pope was obliged to explain it away.

The last great struggle between the Papacy and Empire came when Frederick II., the grandson of Frederick Barbarossa, was Emperor. Frederick II. ruled not only over Germany and Northern Italy, but over Southern Italy as well. His mother was the heiress of the last of the Norman kings in Italy; and from her Frederick inherited the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The pope was afraid that the Emperor might try to get Rome also, so a quarrel soon broke out.

Frederick had taken the cross and promised to go on a crusade. When he delayed doing this, the Pope excommunicated him for not going. Frederick at last was ready, and went to the Holy Land. Then the Pope excommunicated him a second time for going without getting the excommunication removed. In the Holy Land Frederick had great trouble with the Pope's friends because he was excommunicated. At last he made a treaty by which he recovered Jerusalem from the Mohammedans, and returned home Then he was excommunicated a third time. It seemed as if there was nothing that he could do that would please the Pope.

For a while peace was made between the Pope and Emperor; but it did not last long. The Papacy could never be content so long as the Emperor ruled over Southern Italy. A new quarrel broke out; and this time it lasted until Frederick's death in the year 1250. After that, the struggle continued until the Papacy was completely victorious, and Frederick's sons and grandson were slain, and Southern Italy was ruled by a king who was not, also, the ruler of Germany.

Thus the Papacy was left completely victorious over the Empire. For nearly a quarter of a century there was then no real Emperor in Germany; and when at last one was chosen he was careful to leave Italy alone. "Italy," said he, "is the den of the lion. I see many tracks leading into it, but there are none coming out." From this time on the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire comes more and more to be merely the ruler over Germany.

At about the same time the Popes began to make greater claims than ever. One Pope, Boniface VIII., clothed himself in the imperial cloak, and with the scepter in his hand and a crown upon his head, cried: "I am Pope; I am Emperor!" This could not last long. The Empire was gone, but there were now new national governments arising in France, England, and elsewhere, which were conscious of their strength. Boniface soon got into a quarrel with Philip IV., of France about some money matters; and the way he was treated by the servants of the King showed that the old power of the popes was gone, equally with the power of the emperors. Boniface was seized at the little town in Italy where he was staying, was struck in the face with the glove of one of his own nobles, and was kept prisoner for several days. Although he was soon released, the old Pope died in a few weeks,—of shame and anger, it was said.

Nor was this the end of the matter. Within a few months the seat of the Papacy was changed from Rome to Avignon, on the river Rhone. There, for nearly seventy years, the popes remained under the influence of the kings of France. When, at last, a Pope sought to remove the Papacy back to Rome, this led to new trouble. A great division or "schism" now arose, so that there were two popes instead of one; and all the nations of Europe were divided as to whether they should obey the Pope at Rome, or the one at Avignon. "All our West land," wrote an Englishman named Wiclif, "is with that one Pope or that other; and he that is with that one, hateth the other, with all his. Some men say that here is the Pope at Avignon, for he was well chosen; and some men say that he is yonder at Rome, for he was first chosen." A council of the Church tried to end the schism; but it only made matters worse by adding a third Pope to the two that already existed. At last, another and greater council was held; and there, after the schism had lasted for nearly forty years, all three popes were set aside, and a new one chosen whom all the nations accepted.

So, at last, the Papacy was re-united and restored to Rome. But it never recovered entirely from its stay at Avignon, and from the Great Schism. The power of the popes was never again as great as it had been before the quarrel between Boniface VIII. and the King of France. The Papacy had triumphed over the Empire, but it could not triumph over the national kingdoms. "We look on Pope and Emperor alike," said a writer in the fifteenth century, who soon became Pope himself, "as names in a story, or heads in a picture." Thenceforth there was no ruler whom all Christendom would obey. The end of the Middle Ages, indeed, was fast approaching. The modern times, when each nation obeys its own kings, and follows only its own interests, were close at hand.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Life of the Monastery  |  Next: The Hundred Years' War
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.