The Papacy in the Middle Ages

While this is not my best paper on merit of its writing style alone, I believe it to be a topic worth deep consideration…
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The Papacy in the Middle Ages

According to an expert on monastic reform, “The second half of the eleventh century and the first half of the twelfth was one of the most significant periods in what may be called the social history of Christianity, when traditional institutions and attitudes were stretched to the maximum and made to accommodate new forms of life and new sentiments” (Constable, Reformation and the Twelfth Century). The ‘traditional institutions’ referred to here are monasteries and the Catholic Church (in particular, the Papacy). The changes that took place during this time revolved around a struggle between the Crowned King, Henry IV and the Pope, Gregory VII.. Each was trying to gain power over the other, thereby insuring superior power over the entire realm. The strain between the two powers had always been there, and the uncertainty and gray areas between temporal authority and spiritual authority were ever subtly shifting and wreaking havoc within the supposed unity of the Church. In the meantime, while the king and the pope were arguing over the secular domain, monasteries were gaining power in the spiritual domain. Their influence swept throughout the land, and because the Christian world began to have an example of what it was like to be truly spiritual they clustered to the monasteries to hand over their lives fully to God and the good of His creatures. Some came simply because in a monastery there was a dependability, a regularity to life— they knew that their basic needs would be met there. But droves of people flocked to these simple havens where one’s only focus need be God, obedience, and love.

Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV’s correspondence shows an incredible kind of hatred, a hatred that feeds on the spirit of Truth. The propaganda and twistedness apparent in these letters shows neither to be acting honorably in any way at all towards each other, and the further one reads, the more obvious it becomes. Henry had made alliances that were unacceptable to the Pope, alliances which could be threatening, and refused to cut off communication with them. He was also allowing simony in his realm, this being the practice of obtaining positions of power within the Church, and besides the fact that this was wrong in and of itself, some of the simoniac bishops were abusing the power they had bought. At least that was what Gregory accused them of. He was all out to get them though. He wanted to show them all up as the worst of sinners and needing the forgiveness of (and therefore the higher power of the Church to cleanse them and give them back their authority) well…himself.

This argument goes all the way back to when Charlemagne was King of France. He gathered scholars around himself as he was attempting to resurrect the Roman empire who translated and preserved things from that time period, and they left behind them a concept of kingship which drew both from the Bible and from Roman times. This was the idea that the ruler was Christ’s vicar, that ‘the king’s authority… was not merely secular, nor was obedience to him merely a secular duty. These were the kind of ideas which lay behind the eleventh century claim of Gregory of Catino: ‘Divine scripture admonishes us that we ought to understand that the king is the head of the church.’’ (Keen, 65).

Cardinal Hildebrand was elected Pope in 1073 as Pope Gregory VII, and he was dead set against the papacy being in any way dependent on the empire or the emperor. He wanted the Church to be able to choose its leaders on its own, and he did not want the emperor and secularity interfering in the business. That’s really what his whole life was about. He had spent twenty years setting things up and arranging this and that, influencing who he could towards this goal: making the Church the supreme power over the land, to have the last say in all matters, because really everything was spiritual in one way or another and the way he saw it a secular leader should not be allowed to rule in the spiritual realm. Henry was a child when his father died, and so Gregory (Hildebrand at the time) had had all the time he wanted to plan and scheme and figure his way around this problem in the political turmoil after Henry III died.

When Henry IV became king, everything was in place and Gregory was able to pursue his dream. He excommunicated a group of bishops whom Henry was close to and this started the wheels turning. He demanded that Henry cut off all contact with the renegade bishops, but Henry refused. Henry saw through his machinations and (though by no means innocent for his own part) gathered all his bishops around him and protested Gregory’s intentions, demanding that he descend and lay down the papacy. They claimed that he was no longer Pope, ‘but false monk’ (Geary, 280). They went through a series of promises and promise-breaking on the part of Henry IV and excommunications and forgivings on the part of Gregory VII. There was one memorable scene where Henry stood barefoot in the snow, wearing rags for three days, groveling for forgiveness from the pope so that he could be readmitted back into the Church. Because when he was excommunicated from the Church he basically had no official authority at all. He was a false king, and no matter how many people remained true to him he did not have the right to rule. It was a rather desperate measure for Gregory to excommunicate him, but he was determined and desperate to dominate in the situation. They played at this tug of war for about five years, and then in 1080 Gregory excommunicated Henry once and for all. Later his son, Henry V, would make an incredibly important compromise at the Concordat of Worms (1122), where spiritual and temporal authority were officially distinguished from each other in writing, and there was finally a concrete way to know what one owed the Church and what one owed the king.

The monasteries also were gaining influence during this time. Religious influence. Benedict’s Rule was the rule the monasteries had followed for ages, but now they were beginning to focus on praying for society— intercessory prayer— as opposed to Benedict’s simple retreat from the world and its ways. People flocked to the monasteries, both for material and spiritual reasons. Children were dedicated at birth to monastic lives, as this was the best way many parents could see to provide for them and to make sure they did not lead spiritually insignificant lives. Monastic ties gave a peasant and his family protection in that as serfs and workers of a monastery’s land, their well-being was secured. The monasteries began to be important in to more than just the laymen, however. Cluny was a monastery founded in Burgundy in 910 by Count William of Auvergne, and this marked the beginning of a huge change, which saw monks and abbots gaining significant moral influence over political figures and powerful figures in the Church, as well as laymen. But it was moral influence. They were stuck in their monasteries for the most part, although a few particular abbots did travel. Although their land came from political authorities (and it wasn’t until Boniface VIII that the clergy were relieved of the duty to pay taxes on their land), the monks had by far the most deep and important role in society. It was a society that (as a whole) took for granted that there were spiritual things at work behind everything invisibly, and that gave the monks a highly respected position as those who lived higher up and closer to those spiritual powers. Closer to God. Powerful people began to consult them from all over, asking for their wisdom in one situation or another until almost nothing was done without their advice being asked. It was truly an amazing situation.

The social history of Christianity includes some major changes in the second half of the eleventh century and the first half of the twelfth— changes that meant a whole new world, politically and spiritually. Both Henry IV and Gregory VII and later Henry V contributed to a definition of the difference between spiritual authority and temporal authority, drawing lines for future generations about where allegiances were due in what situations. The uncertainty and gray areas between temporal authority and spiritual authority were finally resolved, at least to a certain extent. The monasteries’ influence increased an incredible amount during this time as well, especially over the common man. They became ‘fortresses of prayer’ (Keen, 62) rather than simply escapes from the extravagance and worldliness of the culture of the day. People’s focus became more spiritual in nature, and they desired to live closer to God— or at least to understand the invisible forces at work behind everything they experienced. The wisdom of these prayerful men often guided those in political papal power. These historical events and the tides they created meant a lot for the future development (and demise?) of ‘The Christian World’.

Katie Huffman (married, Gough) / History 263 A / ProfessorVan Liere / Take-Home Essay, Exam 1

c. Mary Kathryn Gough

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