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The Gregorian Reforms

(Informal essay, written for fun and inspired one of Professor Lansing's History 4B - Western Civilisation - lectures.)

The setting is the 11th an 12th centuries, age of the Gregorian reforms, but as Professor Lansing said, "reform" is really in the eye of the beholder. To King Philip of French in the late 11th century, the church was basically a group of power hungry bastards. Let me give you the context:

The Gregorian reform was an effort to build up the church as a separate entity from the secular world and the complicated political ties/bribes of the ruling class. They wanted to have distinct lives separate from the laity (common people) and to have their own taxes and laws. They wanted the clergy to lead lives independent of the people, celibate and spiritually focused, but acting as judges of the people. This was the complete opposite of the Greek church of the Byzantine Empire, where the ruler functioned also as head of church and religious authority; there was no separation of any kind of church and state, but then also no political power struggle.

The pretext of this that prompted the reform was the old proprietary church of the feudal kings: the lords would often build and maintain a church or monastery, giving it land an functioning as its patron. This way the lords hoped to pay penance for their sins, but they also gain vassals (those loyal to and in service of the lord, though without renouncing rank) from the clergy, thereby extending the limited power granted through network ties.

There were four sources of royal authority in [mainly Western] Europe around the time of the proprietary church.

The Sacred Rule:

This model came from the biblical image of the anointing of David and became particularly popular in France. The bishop would anoint the king-to-be with a "holy oil," signifying God's blessing upon the king. This later developed into the image of the king possessing two bodies: his earthly body and his anointed spirit, giving him a Christ-like image and implying his sacred right to rule. The idea was widely popular, and when the king travelled the country, peasants would often scramble to get close to him to receive his sacred touch, believed to have healing powers.

The Feudal Rule:

This was a much more limited rule and was found in England as well as early Medieval French history. Kings ruled through a network of vassals, like I'd mentioned earlier, and succession was based on designation and election. The monarch would designate a successor, and after the monarch died, the nobles would elect the designee as the new king and hold an acclamation ceremony. Of course, there was sometimes trouble if the nobles did not like or ant to elect a designee; this could (and did sometimes) lead to civil war, so the king had better make sure to designate a person whom the lords would support. During this time the idea of inheritance (read Raoul of Cambrai for an impression of the day's opinions and associated problems) of fiefs and positions was emerging, so the king would very likely designate a son.

The Imperial rule:

One of the most fascinating models, it emerged in Germany under the idea that the ruler was not just a king but also an heir to the Holy Roman Empire. This created a powerful, extended image of the ruler and gave him power beyond the church. The system also followed a tradition of papal coronations, however, so it still depended on close ties with the pope. (This was an interesting relationship, as you'll see later; the pope crowned the king, so his was holy authority, but the king could name or depose the pope.)

Strategies to Extend Rule

The rulers use a number of methods, including "dynastic marriages" - marriage to a powerful person to increase connections or to have more children. Another method was "lay investiture" - the naming of clergy such as bishops through vassalage. A strategy of kings was often to name their counts as bishops, so the king had command of the church, but the bishop could also not press for inheritance of this type of fief, as his children were likely not legitimate.


The reforms began with the establishment of the monastery at Cluny. It was an attempt to develop a purely spiritual centre, free from outside control and the political interference with church hierarchy. They achieved this with a document called the monastic foundation charter, which established their independence. The monastery flourished, and Cluniac monks began to establish a network of daughter monasteries. by the mid-eleventh century, there were over six hundred daughter churches.

Early Cluniac monks were responsible for the peace movement. Clerics, especially bishops, would call the local clergy and nobles together for meetings and make them take oaths to keep the "peace of God." This mainly pertained to keeping churches, monasteries, and God's servants - monks, nuns, and various clergy - safe.

In the mid-eleventh century this movement expanded into a movement called the "Truce of God." Oaths involved not carrying weapons or waging wars near monasteries and holy persons, and not fighting on God's days - the Sabbath, prayer days, feast days, and holidays like Christmas or Easter - all of which were later extended to fill up whole weeks and months.

The reformers also launched attacks on various practices, including simony, the buying and selling of church office. Up until this point, church offices were mostly given as fiefs and sold in promise by bishops with no heirs, and this practice was considered honourable. Tied to the attack on simony as the attack on the practice of lay investiture to make clergy of nobles loyal to the lords. The reformers argued that the things of God were not to be bought and sold or given as prizes.

Because of the movement for celibacy (being considered holier because of the detachment from the physical body and the things of this world), reformers also denounced clerical marriages. At this time many of the clergy were involved in informal marriages. This was all together natural and practical for them as not all were monks or nuns (isolated) but instead local parish priests, and they lived as the common man, wanting companionship and a regular household. The idea of clerical celibacy was not very popular or successful in the beginning. Part of this reform was also the effort to Christianise marriage.

Much of the modern Western concepts of marriage comes from this: Marriage was to be indissoluble, monogamous, and, most importantly, it was a sacrament. As a sacrament marriage was the "ritual expression of a spiritual change" (Lansing). Again this idea was not popular, as people felt that it was none of the church's business. Up to this point one had to be a person of great important to even have a priest present at his wedding. Common law (informal) marriages were the standard practice. People asked then, "What part of a marriage made it a sacrament?" Reformers responded that it was the consent between two people that sealed the marriage in the eyes of God.

At this point in time there was no atheistic movement, so people struggled not to upset the church although they did find loopholes. It was common practice for noble families to betrothed their infant daughters early on in order to ensure a good life and name for the family and to develop political ties. With this they would say that the child showed her consent by smiling or giggling. The church in that day also defined incest very broadly: anyone who engaged in sexual relations with another who shared a great-grandparent would be committing incest. Only the nobles kept detailed records of their ancestry, however, so they would exploit the church's lack of knowledge (and time to sort through every great-grandchild of each of a noble's great-grandparents) by using the incest loophole as an excuse to divorce his/her (more often his) spouse and take on a new one. I can just imagine:


on his knees Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. I have taken on ________ as my wife, but in my ignorance and carelessness I had failed to notice that she and I were, in fact, both descendants of Lord _______ of __________, my mother's father's father.

It would allow them to take on spouses that would bear more children, expand their power, or give them better connections. Some, however, simply didn't care. They did exactly as they wanted and dealt with the church later. In 1092 the aforementioned King Philip threw his wife, Bertha, in prison, and took Bertrade as his new wife. Philip and Bertha had been married for twenty years, and she had borne him one son, Henry IV. Bertrade not only extended his political ties but did indeed bear him more children as well. The church, of course, challenged the validity of this marriage and excommunicated him. He had by then been excommunicated three times, and all times he got on his knees, repented, and was forgiven, except for this last time, when he continued to live in sin with Bertrade.

Why didn't the popes do much about this, though? The papacy was at the mercy of the local nobility. Nobles would fix up great, ancient buildings to use as forts, an example being the Colloseum, and would fight for the position of pope. Let's jump back in time a few years:

In 1040 the balance shifted; three nobles claimed the office of the pope. Under the threat of civil war, the Holy Emperor had all three deposed and appointed his own reform pope to attempt to elevate the office. This pope died of malaria, as did the one appointed after him. The third, Leo IX, however, survived to surprise everyone. In 1049 he travelled to Rheims for a reform counsel, and there he translated the relics of Saint Remigius. This was significant because Saint Remigius was credited with converting the French. Instead of handling the relics in a box, Leo laid all the bones out on the altar and asked all who were guilty of simony to confess right there. The event shocked the nobles so that many literally fled, but others bowed their heads to receive absolution, as almost all were guilty; how else would one get his office? This was the beginning of the shift to papal control. The church of the East and West made a permanent split after Leo IX excommunicated a leader in 1054. There was the idea that a bought office was an undeserved position, not one granted by God. In Milan the reformers were often called "rag pickers," for their criticisms, and as they considered the granting of church office to a noble by the king an act of simony, fights would break out in the streets.

By the time Pope Gregory VII (hence the Gregorian reforms) came to power in 1073, he was ready to take on the emperor. Gregory had pressed for reform on the election of the bishop, and the emperor at the time, Henry IV, had agreed, but by 1075, when Gregory passed a law forbidding lay investiture, Henry turned around and continued to support a candidate for bishop that would be loyal to him. The pope had become not just a political, social, and religious power by this time, but a military power as well. The Norman conquest of Sicily and southern Italy gave the new allies. As these mercenaries had no legitimate claim to rule, they became papal vassals. In the events that followed Henry and Gregory's disagreement over the bishopric, Gregory excommunicated Henry, and Henry deposed Gregory with the intention of appointing his own pope. Henry also went to the Countess Matilda, a strong military power at the time, to ask for support, but Matilda turned him down and became a great ally of the pope. It's interesting to note that in the documents of Gregory's and Henry's (and his supporters') debate, the bishops accused Gregory of "overly familiar living together and cohabitation with another person's wife." This woman that they mentioned was, in fact, Matilda, and although all knew that Gregory was not sleeping with her, they thought living in her castle was inappropriate, and they thought that the idea of a woman holding so much power in general was inappropriate. More interesting, however, is the language of these discourses. Both sides sincerely believed in the righteousness of their cause.

Extract from the Letter of Gregory VII to Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor (December, 1075)

[...]For the rest it seems strange enough to us that, although you send us so many and such devoted letters; and although your Highness shows such humility through the words of your legates - calling yourself the son of holy mother church and of ourselves, subject in the faith, unique in affection, foremost in devotion - although, finally, you commend yourself with all devotion of sweetness and reverence, you nonetheless in stubborn deeds show yourself contrary to the canonical and apostolic decrees in those matters which the religion of the church enjoins as the chief ones. [...] Since you confess yourself to be a son of the church, it would have become your royal dignity to look more respectfully upon the master of the church - that is, St. Peter, the chief of the apostles. To him, if you are of the Lord's flock, you were given over by the Lord's voice an authority to be fed, Christ himself saying, "Peter, feed by sheep." and again, "To you are given over the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatsoever you shall bind upon earth shall be bound also in Heaven; and whatsoever you shall loose upon earth shall be loosed also n Heaven." Inasmuch as in his seat and apostolic ministration we, however sinful and unworthy, act as the representative of his power, surely he himself has received whatever, through writing or in bare words, you have sent to us.

Gregory clearly makes a reference to Jesus' final words to Peter as a claim to his papal authority and calls for Henry to bow down and submit to him as the one who inherited Peter's authority, for though Gregory, as a human, is "sinful and unworthy," he also holds "the keys of the kingdom of Heaven," and Henry should submit himself to Heaven if he claims to be a "son of the church." Henry, however, shot back at Gregory, believing himself to be in the right as he had received his power through a long line of holy papal coronations. Henry believed that he had rightfully earned his authority from God as well!

Extract from the Letter of Henry IV to Gregory VII (January 24, 1076)

Henry, king not through usurpation but through the holy ordination of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope but false monk. You have merited such a greeting through your disturbances, inasmuch as there is no grade in the church which you have omitted to make a partaker not of honour but of confusion, not of benediction but of malediction. For, to mention a few outstanding cases out of many, not only have you not feared to lay hands upon the rulers of the holy church, the anointed of the Lord - namely the archbishops, bishops, and priests - but you have trodden them under foot like slaves ignorant of what their master is doing. You have won favour from the common herd by crushing them; you have looked upon all of them as knowing nothing, upon yourself alone, moreover, as knowing all things. You have used this knowledge, however, not for edification but for destruction...

[...]You, however, have understood our humility to be fear, and have not, accordingly, shunned to rise up against the royal power conferred upon us by God, daring to divest us of it. As if we had received our kingdom from you! As if the kingdom and the empire were in yours and not in God's hand! And this, although our Lord Jesus Christ did call us to the kingdom, He did not, however, call you to the priesthood. For you have ascended by the following steps: by wiles, namely, which the profession of monk abhors, you achieved money; by money, favour; by the sword, the throne of peace. And from the throne of peace you have disturbed peace; inasmuch as you have armed subjects against those in authority over them and inasmuch as you, who were not called, have taught that our bishops called of God are to be despised; inasmuch as you have usurped for laymen the bishops' ministry over their priests, allowing them to depose or condemn those whom they themselves had received as teachers from the hand of God through the laying on of hands of the bishops. On me also who, although unworthy to be among the anointed, has nevertheless been anointed to the kingdom, you have lain your hand. I, who, as the tradition of the holy Fathers teaches, am subject to the judgement of God alone, and am not to be depose for any crime unless, God forbid, I should stray from the faith. For the wisdom of the holy fathers committed even [the Roman emperor] Julian the apostate not to themselves, but to God alone, to be judged and to be deposed. For himself, the true pope, Peter, also exclaims, "Fear God, honour the king." But you who do not fear God, dishonour in me his appointed one.[...]

Things were at a stalemate like this until Henry made his most brilliant move. He travelled to Canossa, Matilda's castle, where Gregory was staying, and asked for forgiveness. Legend has it that he knelt outside in the cold for three days and nights, but that is most likely false. As a member of the clergy, Gregory was required to accept his apologies and forgive him. The issue at hand here was that since Henry was excommunicated, he no longer had holy authority, so the fickle German nobles rebelled against him. By asking forgiveness, he regained his position long enough to suppress the rebellion and regain control. Empowered, Henry went to Rome with his troops in 1084 and there deposed Gregory, named his own pope, and had himself crowned. Gregory was furious, so he called upon his Norman allies and sent them to Rome. Henry, by then, had left Rome, but the Norman mercenaries sacked Rome like it had never been sacked, and the city was reduced to ash. Gregory was obviously not popular after this, so he fled with the Normans to an obscure island and stayed there until his death. It's sad to think that such a powerful figure is a nameless pile of bones in a church somewhere.