pre-Crusades: Church vs. State

We traced earlier how the rise of the Pope’s power was always tied into the military support of Charlemagne’s family. After the land of the Franks broke up for the last time in an inheritance distribution, separate branches of the family ruled in Paris and Aachen. The King of the Germans was by far stronger during the 10th and 11th centuries. Most of the German kings were also separately crowned as King of Italy in Pavia.

The north of Italy was still called Lombardy; Pavia was its capital and they still had their historical “Iron Crown” that was used in each coronation ritual. Any King of Germany and Italy also controlled Rome. Being crowned Holy Roman Emperor was a separate deal; it doesn’t seem to have come automatically but had to be negotiated with the Pope in each generation.

In the years leading up to the First Crusade, the balance of power between King and Pope became a crisis. The key problem was that the church drew its financial support from land ownership; a bishop was not only a “Prince of the Church” but also the secular ruler of fairly extensive lands. Remember that government was managed by means of the pyramid of feudalism; each manor was part of a larger unit, and each of these part of a larger region, all under the king. The Church didn’t rule any particular region, but they owned patches of land all through every county and dukedom. Bishops were technically independent, but in fact they were woven all into the governance of a kingdom.

If the King could appoint bishops in his territory, he could make sure that they were agreeable to his rule. It was easiest to appoint younger sons of the local ruling family as bishops. They were already part of society and its structure of loyalty. It was easiest of all if the King/Emperor could appointed the Pope, too, and several of them did, including the Empress who was regent for her son, the future Henry IV.

The Popes began to see the danger of leaning too much on the Franks. If the Pope was entirely dependent on the kings of France and Germany, the Church would cease to have any real meaning. A new Benedictine monastic movement in Cluny, France insisted that the Church must be separate and higher, to honor God.

In the middle of the 11th century, the Pope’s legal adviser and ambassador, Hildebrand, steered Rome through several smaller crises in which the city had elected a different pope from the one appointed by the German Empress. In 1073, during the previous pope’s funeral rites, the people of Rome formed a mob and demanded that Hildebrand himself should become Pope to fight for Roman independence. Hildebrand wasn’t even a priest, but at popular request he was quickly ordained priest, bishop and Pope. Right around this same time, Henry IV became an adult and took power in his own name as King of the Germans.

The new Pope Gregory VII opposed the German King in every way possible. As his most lasting reform, he set up a separate governance structure, the Roman Curia, to elect popes and appoint bishops. It’s hard for us to understand, from our viewpoint, just how important this was in Europe’s history. We associate the Curia with everything old-fashioned, hidden and authoritarian. But in its creation, it was an institution to maintain distance between church and state. It was part of the long European conflict that finally gave us our modern theory of private religion. The young Henry IV knew exactly what was at stake and opposed everything Gregory VII did.

During Henry IV’s 50 year reign, he deposed the Pope *twice* (appointing his own counter Pope) and was excommunicated (twice). The first time, he was still in his early 20s and found a way to turn his excommunication to strategic advantage. He begged the Pope for forgiveness by standing barefoot for 3 days in the snow, outside the castle where the Pope was staying. It was great religious theater, but it also gave him a reason to keep his army stationed nearby. (His later capture of Rome could only be reversed by the Pope’s allies fighting pitched battles.)

The Pope worked on strategies to weaken Henry IV. German aristocrats were generally willing to rebel against their king, who was usually some kind of relative. Also, there was genuine debate over the Emperor’s control of the church. Pope Gregory’s supporters, many of them powerful Cluniac monks, pointed out how morally wrong it was for the church to become a puppet of any state. Various Counts and Dukes began to ally with the Pope. A noble widow, Matilda of Tuscany, could claim the lands of Tuscany, Lorraine and Swabia against the German king’s wishes, so the Pope supported her in this act of rebellion. The Pope also encouraged and allied with the Norman brothers who were storming southern Italy and Sicily.

Gregory VII believed that the Church should be not just independent, but also higher in authority than even the Holy Roman Emperor. He wrote to some of the newly-converted places, seeking to set up feudal vows to Rome in places like Denmark and Hungary. He also wrote to the Byzantine Emperor, trying to solve the schism of the 1050s. He left a mandate for his successors to try to bring the branches of the Church back together, so that it could stand stronger against kings. Henry IV had actually taken money from Constantinople to undermine Rome, which showed just how dangerous it was for the church to be a house divided.

Last, out of Gregory VII’s troubles came an idea of holy war. This Pope had a vision of how all Christendom could come together under the Rome’s authority and push out the invaders. The church could lead by promising forgiveness of sin in exchange for military service, something the German king could never do. Taifa-riddled Spain was a perfect first proving ground.


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