The Investiture Controversy

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The Investiture Controversy is seen often times as a significant conflict between Church and State in medieval Europe. However, it was really a conflict over two radically different views of whether the secular authorities such as kings or dukes, had any legitimate role in appointments of spiritual offices such as bishoprics. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries the control of appointments or investitures of church officials such as bishops and abbots became a conflict between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor. This reveals that medieval society had to decide which authority figure to support, either the secular or spiritual authority, because each one believed that the other was entitled to more authority than the other. The Investiture Controversy was significant in medieval history because though Henry IV and Gregory VII had very different opinions of what the spiritual and secular authorities duties were they both wished to preserve the Catholic faith against corruption.

The Middle Ages began after the fall of the Roman Empire. Significant changes began to occur in every part of the continent due to the lack of an absolute ruler, which was Rome. The churches around Rome looked to the Pope for guidance but seeing that their needs were not being met, nobles and especially kings assumed numerous Christian duties, including the protection and foundation of churches and abbeys. Although canon law, which is the body of laws and regulations made for the government of the Christian organization and its members, declared that bishops were to be elected by the clergy and the people but the rulers ignored it. Secular authority slowly started to become more dominant than spiritual authority being that weak church authorities were monitoring their powers. During the eighth and ninth centuries, the Roman aristocracy dominated the election of the papacy due to no Carolingian powers to control them. The aristocratic family with the most power would have the ability to elect the pope or sell his office. Bishops and abbots were nominated and installed by rulers in a ceremony known since the second half of the eleventh century as investiture. This was a ceremony conducted by the king who granted the new bishop or abbots with a staff and, since the reign of Emperor Henry III (1039-1056), a ring signifying that they “receive the church”. By church it did not only mean the spiritual office but also the secular rights. In return to the king, an oath of fealty to the ruler was made that indicated homage to the king that the bishop or abbot would assist the ruler spiritually and materially, which would fulfill the requirement of “service to the king” including paying fees, distribution of fiefs to royal supporters, military support, and court attendance as an adviser and collaborator.

A notable monarch who practiced investiture was Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III. Henry III wanted to be crowned emperor but currently there were three popes, Benedict IX, Sylvester III, and Gregory VI because of the domination of the Roman aristocracy. Henry III reached Rome in 1046 and imposed his secular authority over the situation and elected as the new pope a German, Suidger, bishop of Bamberg, who was inaugurated as Clement II. Control over the Roman Church passed into the hands of the German king. In succeeding years, Henry III used his secular authority to appoint a pope at three more occasions. The spiritual authority was in ruins and a need for reformation within the church was necessary.

A man who began reforming the church was Bruno of Eguisheim-Dagsburg, who later became Pope Leo IX, was a German aristocrat and a powerful spiritual ruler of central Italy while pope. On the death of Pope Damasus II, Bruno was selected as his successor but as a condition of his acceptance for the papacy, he had to first proceed to Rome and be freely elected by the voice of the clergy and people of Rome. After receiving much support of his...
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