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The Emergence of the System of Duality in Medieval Europe

VOLTAIRE ONCE SAID THAT “HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE” WAS A MISNOMER. The Byzantines to the East were the true successors to the fallen Roman Empire; the constant quarrel between the German Kings and the Popes made them anything but Holy Defenders, and the Empire was really a loose confederation of German duchies and principalities, pledging nominal loyalty to their elected Emperor. The Holy Roman Empire, however, was more than a political entity—it was an ideology, going back to the days of Emperor Constantine. It was a dream of unifying all of Europe under the banner of Christendom, with a reconstituted Rome as the Church’s militant arm.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, however, Constantine’s Rome seemed far from reality. Successive waves of barbarian migrations and invasions destroyed the old political unity of the western half of the Roman Empire, until the deposition of the central authority in Rome was made official by the Ostrogothic King Odovakar (Hayes et. al. , 1962, p. 69). There was, in those turbulent years, a real political vacuum, and the temporal leadership of the cities and settlements passed to those the populace could trust: the Christian bishops. This was to be the seed that would later be at the heart of the dispute of Emperor and Pope.

In time, “newly reconverted” Europe would accede to the Pope as its spiritual (and at many times temporal) head. In the meantime, however, the barbarian kings sought legitimacy with their rule, and imagined a new Rome under their leadership. The Ostrogothic Kings Odovakar and Theodoric, as well as successive barbarian leaders sought, at the very least, their “appointment” to their respective kingdoms by the Eastern Roman Emperors in order to maintain a semblance of “Roman continuity” in the western half (Hayes et. al. , 1962, pp. 69-70).

It was not, however, until the Pope crowned the Frankish King, Pepin the Short, that this dream became reality. Under him and his successor, Charlemagne, the Franks forced the subjugation of the other pagan tribes and their conversion to Christianity (Hayes, et. al. , 1962, pp. 118-120). When this Carolingian Empire fractured, the eastern half continued this “Roman dream” as the Holy Roman Empire. There were therefore, two visions of Europe: one was united in Christ under the spiritual guidance of the Bishop of Rome, and the other was united in ideology under the successors of Constantine and Charlemagne—the Holy Roman Emperor.

These two visions ideally was actually one—that of a single unified Christian Europe. In due course, however, the two visions would prove irreconcilable. A Question of Leadership: The Road to Hildebrand The center of the disputes between Popes and their subject temporal rulers—from the Lombards to the Franks and finally to the German Emperors—was the practice of the latter in interfering with Church affairs, particularly the appointment and dismissal of bishops, and their being utilized in State affairs.

To the Holy Roman Emperors, this had a practical consideration: the bishops and abbots were both the spiritual and temporal head of German duchies and provinces (Medley, 1910, chap. 1). Giving the Pope exclusive jurisdiction to appoint the German bishops would leave their loyalties to the Emperor in question. This practice, however, threatened the spiritual independence of the Church. Thoughts of how the Eastern Churches had been reduced to obedience to the Byzantine Emperor and in support of the Monophysite Heresy (Chadwick, 1993, p. 205-206) must have plagued the minds of the successors of St.

Peter. At the time of the reign of the predecessors of Pope St. Gregory VII, the German emperors appointed bishops and popes at will, and the movement to reform the defect of the “bishop-governor” was slow-going. The reform, however, was very much alive. Pope Leo IX, himself appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor, took with him several dedicated reformers as counselors in setting the course for which, by the death of Emperor Henry III, the next Pope would not be appointed by the local aristocracy or the emperor, but elected by the clergy.

This was Pope Victor II, who continued the reforms of Leo and his successors. Following his death, there was a short struggle between those who tried to wrest control of the Papacy away from independence, and the reformers, led by the bishop Hildebrand, who incidentally was one of the zealous reformers in the staff of Leo IX. The latter succeeded, and the new Bishop of Rome, Nicholas II, issued a decree by which future popes would be elected by the cardinal bishops and cardinal clergy—taking one step towards the independence of the Church from the German emperors (Hughes, 1934, vol.

2 chap. 6). Following his death, however, the decree was challenged, and Papal succession was put in question. Hildebrand led the reformers to elect Pope Alexander II, while the German-backed bishops and princes chose a Pope Honorius II (Medley, 1910, chap. 1). After negotiation with the German diet, as well as a general council, Alexander II prevailed, and though the process of his confirmation as Pope had shaken the foundations of Nicholas’ decree, nevertheless he continued to extend the reforms throughout Europe (Hughes, 1934, vol. 2 chap. 6).

At his death, the Church had almost torn away from control of the German emperors, and declared complete independence. The final challenge, however, to this independence, was yet to come. Pontiff against Emperor: Gregory VII and Henry IV For years Hildebrand had worked in the sidelines, working to have the successive reform Popes elected as well as spearheading the movement throughout Europe. Upon Alexander’s death, however, the populace—together with clergy and bishopric—unanimously declared him as the next Pope. He assumed the title of Gregory VII, in honor of his service to the exiled Pope Gregory VI (Medley, 1910, chap.

2). Immediately he faced an unyielding Henry IV, who had assumed the throne as the next Holy Roman Emperor. The latter continued to sell and appoint bishops, though a revolt forced him to officially renege on these appointments. It was only a matter of time until there would be open confrontation (Hughes, 1934, vol. 2 chap. 6). It came in February 1075. Faced with stubborn opposition from the bishops in Germany, Gregory VII issued a decree, which forbid the appointment of any abbot, bishop or member of the clergy by any lay lord—of any station.

Emperor Henry IV defied the order, and was threatened with excommunication whereupon he summoned all the German bishops still supporting him, to declare in the Council of Worms, that Gregory VII was a false pope, having not been elected by the Emperor. “Come down, come down,” he afterwards wrote the Pontiff, “and be condemned for all the ages” (Hughes, 1934, vol. 2 chap. 6). Pope Gregory promptly excommunicated him. Excommunication is the final, and absolute penalty that the Church could inflict upon the individual.

He was expelled from the Faith; he was consigned to spiritual damnation, and prevented from receiving the sacraments. This carried political dangers as well for, as no Christian would associate with an excommunicate, if he were a leader he was practically deposed. This was further aggravated by the fact that the Holy Roman Empire was chronically beset with rebellion among the duchies, and sure enough, the duchies rose up again, and threatened Henry with deposition if he did not seek immediate absolution (Hayes et. al.

, 1962. p. 165). This led to the memorable episode of Canossa. Gregory VII, on his way to a council at Augsburg to decide on the fate of the Emperor, decided to stop first at the castle of one of his zealous supporters, the Tuscan Countess Matilda. Henry, eluding his enemies, walked for three days, barefoot, in the middle of winter to the Canossa fortress, as a penitent bereft of all imperial regalia. Pope Gregory was moved by such an act of humility that he absolved the German emperor (Hayes, et. al. , 1962. p. 165).

This was a culmination of the struggle of Church against State, ending in the latter bowing down in obedience. Though the struggle between Pope and King would continue beyond Gregory and Henry, the struggle had been won, in Canossa, for Church independence. Epilogue: Beyond Canossa This victory was not immediately apparent, and not even in Gregory’s lifetime. Henry waited only long enough to inflict a mortal blow against his rival Rudolf in 1077, and when the Pope excommunicated him a second time for his continuing lay abuse, had his bishops renew the declaration of Worms and invaded Rome itself.

Gregory, in vain, called the assistance of Norman allies, who sacked Rome and carried off the Pope in their “protection”. The Imperial armies then returned to Rome and installed the anti-pope, Clement III, securely in his position (Hayes, et. al. , 1962. p. 165). For a time, Henry IV seemed triumphant; his opposition remained rudderless for three years, and his forces remained in control of northern Italy for longer.

The groundwork of Canossa, however, could not be undone, and under the fiery leadership of Pope Urban II—the Pontiff who would later inspire the First Crusade to the Holy Land—as well as the Italian allies led by the Tuscan Countess Matilda, the Imperial Army was pushed back, and, in 1122, Henry’s son and successor concluded with the victorious Pope the Concordat of Worms, which recognized the absolute sovereignty of the Pope to appoint bishops, though acceding to minor concessions of Imperial preference (Hayes, et.

al. , 1962. p. 166). Thus, the vision of “Constantine’s Rome” was again transformed. The Holy Roman Empire’s legacy of opposition with the Pope politically may continue through the reigns of Frederick Barbarossa and even that of Charles V, nevertheless the Church had successfully become the undisputed spiritual head of Christian Europe. It was yet to reach the zenith of spiritual-temporal power, but the path was opened in Canossa, and through the strong reforms of Pope St.Gregory VII.

Works Cited

Books Chadwick, H. (1993). The Early Church. London: Penguin Books. Hayes, C. , Baldwin, M. & Cole, C. (1962). History of Western Civilization. New York: The MacMillan Company. Electronic Sources Medley, D. J. (1910). The Church and the Empire 1003-1304. Available from http://www. gutenberg. org/dirs/etext05/8ch0410. txt. Hughes, P. (1934). A History of the Church: To the Eve of Reformation. Available from http://www. franciscan-sfo. org/ap/hu/00-index. htm.

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