The scene is a forest glade, in the middle of which is a log. On one end
of the log sits the Owl, a Medieval History Professor, and on the other end
sits the Cat, a Student. The Cat speaks in italics, and the Owl in plain
The time is early Autumn. Dappled rays of sunlight play about the
forest floor, and soft breezes send leaves twirling down upon the Owl and
the Cat from time to time. What better time and what better place to
discuss Medieval History?
So then to that forest glade let us now hoe,
to hear of the Investiture Controversie
The Pussycat Speaks.
Medieval History textbooks always devote a lot of space to the Investiture
Controversy, and have more emperors and popes running around getting excited
about rings, sticks, clumps of dirt, and such stuff that it's hard to figure
out what was going on. Just what is "Investiture" and what makes it important
enough that I should worry about it?
An "investiture ceremony" is when someone gets inducted into a new office
organization and is given some thing as a sign that he or she now
holds that office or belongs to that organization. The Chancellor has a chain
put around his neck (No Chancellor jokes, please. He's new so give him a
chance.), fraternities and sororities give pins, administrators get
nameplates for their desks, soldiers get chevrons or some other insignia, and
so forth. Nowadays, the ceremony is only symbolic, but in the Middle Ages a
person was not really inducted or whatever until he or she received the
insignia of office.
The Investiture Controversy was about the ceremony by which a man became a
bishop or an archbishop. During the investiture, the bishop or archbishop-
elect was given a signet ring representing his authority to act legally for
his territory (diocese or archdiocese), a long staff like a
shepherd's crook (crozier) signifying his spiritual leadership of the
people of the diocese, a lump of dirt (glebe) that demonstrated his
possession and ownership of the lands with which the churches in his diocese
had been endowed, and a white woolen stole to hang around his neck
(pallium) indicating that he was a legitimate successor to a long
tradition of spiritual teaching and leadership reaching all the way back to
the apostles (apostolic succession).
Since bishops and archbishops appointed and directed all the clerics below
them, either directly or indirectly, the investiture ceremony was the most
important single factor in selecting church personnel and setting the
structure of authority within the Church as a whole.
Okay, so the ceremony was important, but what was the "Controversy" all
Well, laymen took part in the investiture ceremony...
Why? I thought that you said that it was a ceremony investing
churchmen with their office?
I did, but remember that churchmen took part in the investiture of laymen.
Remember that it was a pope who put the crown on Charlemagne's head.
As I was saying, laymen took part in the investiture ceremony, claiming the
right to invest the candidate with some or all of the insignia of his
What did they base their claim on?
One argument was that by giving the bishop-elect his ring of legal authority
the layman was promising to back up the bishops authority by force if
necessary, by giving the glebe he was promising to defend the Church's
possessions, and by giving the crozier he was recognizing that the bishop had
powers over his -- the layman's -- subjects.
What about the pallium?
There was a lot of dispute about the pallium, which had to be sent by the
pope, but a layman could claim that by investing with the pallium, he was
recognizing the bishop's rights over him and his heirs. After all, when he
died, the bishop would have an important role in investing his successor.
That sounds reasonable. Why was there an argument about it?
Think about it for a moment. If the layman had the right to invest a bishop-
elect, he also could refuse to invest someone. It gave laymen a veto power
over the selection of church officials. After all the lay argument simply
boiled down to the view that investiture consisted of a series of acts in
which the layman transferred power from himself to a churchman. The Church
argued that its authority came directly from God and not from a bunch of
secular lords. The Bible had Jesus saying "You are Peter, and upon this rock
I will build my Church...." That's a pun, by the way. petros or Peter
means "rock" in Greek.
I didn't know that Jesus spoke in Greek.
He didn't, but that's another matter. The point is that the Church argued
that it, the Church, was established by Jesus and given to the disciple Peter
and his successors. Of course, Peter was the first bishop of Rome, so the
popes are his successors. That argument, by the way, is called the Petrine
If then churchmen felt that way, why did they let laymen take part in the
investiture ceremony in the first place?
They really didn't have much choice. When the central government of the
Carolingian empire lost power, there was no one to protect the Church, and
local strong men, hungry for land to support more fighting men to protect
their territories against civil war, and raiders like the Vikings, Magyars,
and Saracens, took control of church lands by appointing local church
Didn't any of the churchmen resist?
Yes, but they had to hire mercenary troops to do their fighting, and leader
of such troops usually ended up dominating the bishop and his lands. It
wasn't all bad, though. Many laymen built monasteries and churches and
endowed them with lands from their own estates. I suppose that it was only
natural that such men would continue to regard these establishments as family
property. Anyway, by the early 900's almost all of the diocese and
archdiocese, and monasteries and convents, were under the "protection," or
control, of some lay lord or another.
I'll bet that the pope was ticked off at that.
Not really. They didn't know or care much what was going on. You see, Pepin,
the first Carolingian king, had given the Church most of central Italy. The
popes weren't able to control the Papal States any better than the
Carolingians had been able to control their empire. By 900, the Papal States
were controlled by local lords, and the office of the papacy itself was under
the control of political factions in the city of Rome. The popes were
powerless to do anything about the feudalization of the Church.
Okay, so the whole Church was controlled by laymen, and all of the
important Church offices were filled by secular appointees. How did the
Church get to the point where it was able to challenge the Holy Roman Empire
about this sort of thing?
A good question. Not all laymen were happy with the situation. They felt that
European society lacked moral guidance, and they were probably right. You
probably remember that Gerald the Good was trying to turn his lands into some
sort of independent monastic state when he died in 909?
Well, check your notes. If you'll remember Duke William of Aquitaine was a
neighbor and admirer of Gerald. In 910, William acquired some lands in
Burgundy -- including a dog kennel way back in the boondocks -- that he
couldn't defend, so he implemented Gerald's plan. He established the
monastery, calling it Cluny, which means "dog kennel", endowed it with
all of the lands he had in the area, and gave it a charter -- a legal
document like a deed -- that made it independent of all local officials, both
lay and clergy, and obedient and answerable only to the pope.
But I thought that the popes at the time were powerless.
That's just the point. Cluny was an ecclesiastical establishment but was
practically an independent state.
Why didn't the local lords take it over?
A lot of the sons of local lords joined Cluny, and the Burgundian nobility
became proud of the place and started giving it more lands. The monks in
Cluny set up a very austere, regular, and religious pattern of living that
impressed the nobles so much that they wanted to support it.
The monks said prayers nine times a day, and the people of the time
considered those prayers something like payments to God in compensation for
the sins of the world. The more society could pile up, the better off
everyone -- even the dead ones -- would be. Barbara Rosenwein is an expert of
Cluny, and her books Rhinoceros bound and To be a Neighbor of
Cluny would give you a good idea of what was happening. It was a complex
Anyway, Cluny became very influential. Local landowners all over the south of
France endowed Cluny with their private churches, asked Cluny to take over
the monasteries they controlled and reform them into establishments like
Cluny, and supported candidates for Church offices nominated by
Cluniac leaders. Cluny went on the sponsor all sorts of reform
movements, The Peace of God and The Truce of God that attempted
to limit feudal warfare, the crusades, which got started first as
French volunteers went to help the Christian states of Spain drive back their
Muslim neighbors, and, of course, removing church offices from lay control.
Another thing it did was to encourage monasteries and cathedrals to become
centers of learning.
In the late 900's, a young man by the name of Gerbert of Aurillac
Is that the same Aurillac as the one that Apollinaris Sidonius and Gerald
the Good had so much to do with?
Nothing, just wondering.
Well, Gerbert went to study at the cathedral school of Vic and the monastery
of Ripoll in Catalonia, a region of Spain that bordered the lands of the
Caliphate of Cordoba
The what of what?
The Caliphate of Cordoba. The richest lands of Spain were held by the
Muslims, and they were ruled by a Caliph who had his capital at Cordoba in
the South of the country. Cordoba was the richest city in western Europe,
trading in African gold, slaves brought from overland through France, and the
products and manufactures of Spain itself. When the largest library in the
Christian West was the four hundred volumes of the monastery of Corbie in
northern France, the libraries of Córdoba had some 400,000 books. They said
at the time
Excuse me, but you're beginning to digress
Oh, yes. I am, aren't I? What was I talking about?
Gerbils of Aurillac.
That's GERBERT. Well, Gerbert studied in these Catalan schools and
learned a great deal, including some Muslim "science". The Muslims were much
further advanced than the Christians, particularly in mathematics and
Are you digressing again?
No, it only seems that way. Anyway, when Gerbert returned to France, he
became a renowned scholar. In fact, a medieval historian William of
Malmesbury, believed that he was a magician and had made a pact with Satan.
Read William's History of the Kings of England, if you like fabulous
Otto II, the Holy Roman Emperor, was so impressed by Gerbert's reputation,
that he hired him as tutor for the Crown Prince. Gerbert taught Otto Jr. a
lot, and Otto Jr. got the idea of freeing the papacy and making the Holy
Roman Empire a real successor to the Roman Empire in the West. When he took
the throne as Otto III in 983, Junior kept Gerbert on as his chief Counselor and together they planned the conquest of the North of Italy -- which was
supposed to belong to the emperor --and cleaning up the mess in Rome. The
Germans crossed the Alps in the year 1000, captured Rome, and Otto made
Gerbert pope. Gerbert took the name of Sylvester II. Sylvester I had been the
bishop of Rome when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ... do you
remember about the Edict of Milan?
That's good. ...and so Gerbert's choice of name symbolized the liberation of
the Church from long oppression.
Who invested him?
Well, local church officials at the direction to Emperor Otto.
It doesn't seem as if Gerbert helped get rid of Lay Investiture very
effectively what with the emperor directing all the action.
One of the things you learn from history is that things don't happen all at
once. Rome didn't decline and fall in a day as we medieval historians say.
Take my word for it, this was an important event leading to the investiture
Okay. I'll take your word for it.
Now the Church's attention was fixed on the German emperor. When Henry the
Fowler... Do you remember Henry the Fowler?
That's fine. Keep up the good work. When he took over leadership of the
German dukes in 919, he asked only that he have control of the Church
throughout their lands....
Why in the world did they give it to him?
If you had a horde of murdering Magyars at your door, you might be willing to
give up something, too. In any event, many of the districts of Germany were
actually under the political control of the local bishops. Some of the most
important of them were the prince-bishops of Mainz, Bingen, and Liege.
Their lands were wealthy, and the emperors needed their assistance in
defending the empire. It was only natural that the emperors should want to
make certain that the prince-bishops would be loyal to them, so -- during the
time that the pope was without power -- they took the lead in choosing the
bishops, investing them, and protecting their positions.
So Gerbert hadn't done anything to change that situation.
No, but that was because the popes still depended on the emperors to protect
them from the local lords of the papal states. In fact, the emperors more or
less dictated who would be pope. That was changed by two remarkable imperial
appointees. Pope Leo IX held office from 1049 to 1054 and travelled
about Europe, holding councils and organizing local reform. He also
established the College of Cardinals, a permanent group of papal
advisors and officials, and appointed a number of reformers to the College.
Up to this time, the leaders of the movement for church reform had been among
the Cluniacs; now the popes had taken over direction of reform movement and
had gained a lot of moral support.
Emperor Henry III died in 1056. His son and heir was underage.
Medieval governments generally did not operate too well under such conditions
because officials never knew what the new ruler would do when he came of age.
So the imperial officials decided to go along with another reformer as pope
since they didn't want the other reformers in the Church making problems for
them. The new pope was Nicholas II (1059-1061), and he made two
important moves. First, he passed a decree that, from then on, popes would be
selected by the College of Cardinals, and, second, he made an alliance with
the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. Now the papacy had some protection from
the German emperors.
What about the German kid? How did he take all this when he came of
Well, that was when the Controversy part of the Investiture Controversy
Henry IV found that his secular princes had taken away a lot of imperial
power and wealth while he had been growing up, and he needed the support of
the prince-bishops. But there was a churchman, a monk by the name of
Hildebrand, who was determined that Henry wasn't going to get any more
control over the German bishops. Hildebrand was a leading reformer and the
chief papal counselor, and became pope himself in 1073 with the name of
Gregory VII (1073-1085). Both Henry and Gregory were very determined
men, and were soon at each other hammer and tongs, as we used to say.
Hammer and tongs? You really used to say that?
Yes, but that's beside the point. Gregory VII claimed not only that the pope
was independent of all earthly monarchs, but was superior to them in that
their authority came from God and the pope was God's voice on Earth. Henry IV
and his successors claimed that the lands and secular authority of the German
bishops came from the emperor.
Henry and his son, Henry V, tried to keep control of the German bishops, even
to the point of using force, while Gregory VII stirred up the local German
lords against the emperors. In 1122, when it became clear that both the
Church and the Empire were on the point of wrecking each other, they reached
a compromise with the Concordat of Worms.
Concordat of Worms? You're making that up, aren't you?
Don't be funny. Worms is a city in Germany pronounced "voorms", and a
concordat is a formal, written agreement of compromise. The Concordat of
Worms was the formal agreement that representatives of the Church and the
Empire signed at the city of Worms.
I thought you were building up to a joke. So what was the outcome?
The emperors gave up the right of investing the bishops with the crozier and
So the Church won?
I'm not sure. The emperors kept the right of being present at the ceremony.
If I were a bishop-elect, I think that I would want to make sure that the
emperor approved of me, especially with him sitting there and his army
So nobody won?
Not really. That's what a compromise means.
So what was the point in my learning all of this?
Well, the Investiture Controversy had some far-reaching effects. The Church
was now under the control of a professional elite and had established the
principle that non-professionals shouldn't have any say in how the Church ran
its affairs. When the Protestants rebelled against the Catholic Church four
hundred years later, one of the things that they demanded was that lay people
should have a big role in running the Church. Then, too, the Church had
gained its ends through politics and had to continue playing politics.
In Germany, the authority of the emperors had been damaged to the point that
the region didn't develop a national government until 1870 with a war against
France. The First and Second World Wars -- which took about 100,000,000 lives
-- were continuations of that first conflict. I suppose that you could say
that there wouldn't have been any Adolf Hitler If there hadn't been an
Isn't that stretching things a little?