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The History of Europe and the Church
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The History of Europe and the Church

Part Five

The First Reich

   FOR three decades the illustrious Charlemagne has lain in his grave at Aachen. The great Emperor had revived the tradition of the Roman Caesars, and shown Europeans the ideal of a unified Christian Empire in the West.
   But Charlemagne's New Europe is not destined to endure.
   His descendants have little of his genius. Charlemagne's quarrelsome grandsons finally settle their differences by the Treaty of Verdun in 843. The treaty partitions Charlemagne's Empire, foreshadowing the modern geography of Western Europe. In its wake, a French realm and a German realm will slowly begin to crystallize.
   But for the moment the domains of the once-great Carolingian Empire further disintegrate into warring principalities and kingdoms. The political unity forged by Charlemagne goes completely to pieces.
   Europe is a shambles.
   Europe's political weakness tempts outside powers, notably Norsemen, Slays, Magyars and Saracens. Destructive raids from the north, east and south place the vulnerable continent in imminent jeopardy.
   The Papacy, too, has sunk to a miserable condition. Several Popes openly lead corrupt lives and are widely despised by devout Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
   Battered and torn by invasions and civil strife, Western civilization appears to be on a fast slide downward. Throughout Europe the general mood is one of apprehension and foreboding.
   A great-grandson of Charlemagne is crowned Emperor by the Pope in 915. After his death in 924, there is an imperial vacancy for nearly four decades.
   Something must be done and quickly to rescue Europe. Who will resist the barbarian invaders and reimpose order on the fragmented West?
   The answer will come from northeast of the Rhine from the evolving power of Germany.

Sieg und Hell!

   There is no Emperor. But in Germany, kings still rule. The geographical territory of Germany has become the dominant region of Europe.
   In 918 the rulers of the great German duchies choose Henry the Fowler, duke of the Saxons, as their king. He is called Fowler because he was laying bird snares when informed of his election.
   Henry is founder of the Saxon dynasty of kings, which will rule until 1024. He strengthens the German army and confronts the many invaders threatening Europe.
   Upon Henry's death in 936, his 24-year-old son Otto is elected king by the German dukes. The people raise their right hands to show approval. "Sieg und Heil!" they shout "Victory and Salvation!"
   The archbishops of Mainz and Cologne crown Otto and hand him the imperial sword with which to fight the enemies of Christ.
   Otto quickly consolidates the German realm by suppressing rebellious nobles and ambitious relatives. By bringing the duchies under centralized control, he unites s Germany under his rule.
   Otto also intervenes in Italian affairs. In 951 he marches into war-torn Italy to assist Adelheid (Adelaide), the widow of an Italian king being abused by her husband's successor. Otto declares himself king of the Lombards and marries Adelheid, thereby becoming ruler of northern Italy.

Carolingian Tradition Revived

   In August 955, Otto halts an invasion of the pagan Magyars, who have been conducting annual raids on Germany. In this momentous Battle of Lechfeld (Augsburg), he delivers a decisive blow to the invaders. The Magyar menace is ended.
   Otto can now rightfully claim the title protector of Europe." He is widely viewed as another Charles Martel, who stopped the Islamic Saracen advance in Western Europe in A.D. 732. Otto was, in fact, a descendant of Charles Martel and of Charlemagne.
   Meanwhile, the Papacy continues in tragic decline. Sergius III (904-911) gains the papal chair through murder and lives openly with the prostitute Marozia. Their illegitimate son becomes Pope John XI (931-935). Under Pope John XII (955-964), the Literan palace becomes a literal brothel.
   Rome, and all Italy, are in chaos. Pope John XII appeals to Otto to restore order to the peninsula and to assist him against his adversaries In 961 Otto sweeps into Italy and defeats the enemies of the Pope.
   Pope John recognizes Otto's position in Europe by crowning him Holy Roman Emperor on February 2, 962. Not since that historic Christman Day in AD. 800, when the Western Roman Empire was restored by the coronation of Charlemagne, has an event of such magnitude occurred.
   Western Europe again has an Emperor! Charlemagne's Empire is revived in an alliance between Emperor and Church. With the support of the Church, Otto reigns supreme throughout Western Christendom over the German Reich, or Empire.
   The year 962 marks the restoration of the imperial tradition. Later historians will view it as the beginning of what would later be officially styled the Sacrum Romanum imperium Nationis Germanicae the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation." (The full term will not be officially applied until the 15th century.)
   Throughout the Middle Ages, the imperial title and German kingship will remain indissolubly united. It will be the kings of the Germans, crowned by the Pope, who will henceforth be named Holy Roman Emperors. Germany is the heart and core the power center of the Empire.
   The octagonal imperial crown of the Holy Roman Empire is made especially for the coronation of Otto in 962. For centuries to come, it will be the very symbol of the concept of European unity.

Stabilizing Influence

   Shortly after his coronation, Otto issues his controversial Privilegium Ottonianum, ordering Pope John to take an oath of obedience to him. The Pope rebels, and conspires with Otto's enemies.
   Late in 963 Otto calls a council at St. Peter's in Rome, which deposes John for conspiracy and misconduct. Otto's own candidate is now elected Pope in his place.
   Otto believes it is his duty to preserve and strengthen Church institutions. He seeks to use the Church as a stabilizing influence in Europe. But he also wants the Church subordinate to the authority of the Empire.
   On May 7, 973, Otto the Great dies and is buried in Magdeburg. He leaves a peaceful and secure Empire. His son Otto II (973-983) succeeds him.
   Otto III son of Otto II is crowned as German king at Aachen late in 983. He is but 3 years old, so his mother and grandmother serve as regents.
   The king comes of age in 994. Two years later he answers an appeal by Pope John XV and puts down a rebellion in Italy. By the time he reaches Rome, the Pope is dead. Otto then secures the election of his cousin, Bruno of Carinthia, as Gregory V. He is the first German Pope.
   On May 21, 996, Otto is crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Gregory. Otto makes Rome the administrative center of the Empire and spends much of his time there. In 998 Otto sets on his seal the inscription, Renovatio imperii Romanorum "Restoration of the Empire of the Romans." Roman ideals are still strong in Western Europe.
   Otto realizes that the united Europe he and his dynasty have envisioned must have a worthy religious head. The Papacy must be raised to a position of European esteem. Its influence must be revived.
   When Pope Gregory V dies in 999, Otto nominates his former teacher, the scholar Gerbert of Aurillac. Gerbert becomes Pope, with the name Sylvester II. He is the first French Pope.
   Both Sylvester and Otto dream of an Empire in which Emperor and Pope would serve as joint heads of a unified entity. Gerbert strives to raise the reputation of the Papacy throughout Europe. He denounces some of his unworthy predecessors as "monsters of more than human iniquity," and as "Antichrist, sitting in the temple of God and playing the part of God."
   Otto hopes for a harmonious alliance of future Emperors and Popes. But it is not to be so.


   Henry II (1002-1024) is the last of the Saxon rulers of Germany. At his death, Conrad II, duke of Franconia, receives the imperial crown.
   Conrad II (1024-1039) is the first Franconian or Salian German Emperor. His reign begins what later historians will call the great period of the Holy Roman Empire. The reign of Conrad's son Henry III (1039-1056) marks the zenith of German imperial power.
   It is during the reign of Henry III as Holy Roman Emperor that the final schism between the Western (Roman) and Eastern (Orthodox) churches takes place. The break had existed for centuries and had grown progressively wider. In 1054 it becomes formal and complete when the Pope at Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicate each other.
   Not long afterward comes another important development in the religious sphere. In 1059 Pope Nicholas II convenes the Lateran which decrees that future Popes will be elected by a college (group or body) of cardinals. This action takes away the Emperor's influence in Papal elections.
   The decree of the Lateran Council sparks a major rupture between Germany and Rome. Now begins the great medieval struggle between the Empire and Papacy.

Two Powers

   Henry III is succeeded by his young son Henry IV (1056-1106). He will play a major role in one of the most famous episodes in medieval history a personal confrontation between Pope and Emperor.
   The crowning of Charlemagne in AD. 800 by Pop e Leo III had initiated a close alliance between Pope and Empire. This "marriage" had formally linked the spiritual power of the Pope with the temporal power of the Emperor.
   The Empire is thereafter regarded as God's chosen political organization over Western Christenctom. The Church at Rome is viewed as God's chosen instrument in religious matters. Pope and Emperor are regarded as God's appointed vice-regents on earth.
   This concept perhaps will be best summarized late in the 19th century by Pope Leo XIII: "The Almighty has appointed the charge of the human race between two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, the other over human things."
   Leo will also point out that "Church and State are like soul and body and both must be united in order to live and function rightly."
   This intimate alliance of Church and State serves the needs of both institutions. The Empire exercises its political and military powers to defend religion and enforce religious uniformity. The Church, in turn, acts as a "glue" for Europe, holding together the differing nationalities and cultures within the Empire by the tie of common religion.
   As Leo XIII will also note in retrospect, "The Roman Pontiffs, by the institution of the Holy Empire, consecrated the political power in a wonderful manner."
   This harmonious ideal in Church-State relations, however, is never completely realized. The respective powers and privileges of Church and Empire are not clearly defined. The result is frequent conflict between Emperor and Pope for the leadership of Christian Europe.

Master of Emperors

   Pope Gregory VII comes to the Papal throne in 1073. He leaves no doubt as to his position. "The Pope is the master of Emperors!" he declares. A stern idealist, Gregory is determined to subordinate the authority of the Emperor to that of the Pope.
   Gregory insists that the Pope is above all nations and independent of every temporal sovereign, responsible only to God. The supremacy of Church over Empire, he asserts, is symbolized by the traditional crowning of the Holy Roman Emperors by the Popes in Rome publicly demonstrating that all political power comes from God by way of the Roman Pontiff.
   Henry IV is not impressed by such arguments. He becomes embroiled in a bitter dispute with Pope Gregory. The controversy focuses on an issue that has been a continuing irritant in Church-State relations: lay investiture.
   The question is whether secular rulers should be able to appoint bishops and abbots and invest them with symbols of spiritual authority. Emperors have long used and abused such control over Church offices to their own ends. Gregory wants it to stop.
   Henry defies the Pope, denounces him and attempts to have him deposed. The headstrong Henry ends a letter to Pope Gregory with the curse, "Down, down, to be damned through all the ages!"
   Gregory is not intimidated. The controversy now escalates. It is a life-and-death struggle between the Papacy and German imperial power!
   Gregory is determined to free the Church from secular control. He finally excommunicates the unyielding Henry. This action absolves all Henry's subjects from their oaths of allegiance to the Emperor, and triggers a baronial revolt in Germany.
   Henry's demise appears imminent. He now sees clearly that imperial power depends on the support of the Church. To save his throne, Henry must make peace with the Pope.
   In January 1077, Henry journeys to a castle at Canossa in northern Italy where Pope Gregory is temporarily staying. For three days the Emperor humiliates himself by standing barefoot and in sackcloth in the snow outside Gregory's window. Gregory finally grants absolution, and Henry is reconciled to the Church.
   The imperial capitulation at Canossa comes to symbolize the submission of the State to the Church. But it is only a temporary victory for the Church.
   Soon after Canossa, the struggle breaks out again. In 1122 the Concordat of Worms ends a bitter contest between Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (1106-1125) Henry IV's son and Pope Calixtus II (1119-1124). It settles the Investiture Controversy by stipulating that an Emperor can still nominate bishops and abbots, but the clergy will do the actual choosing and can refuse approval of an Emperor's nominees. Emperors are permitted to confer upon new bishops only the temporal insignia of their offices, due them in their position as vassals of the crown. The spiritual symbols the ring and staff can be bestowed only by the Church.
   Even after this compromise, the struggle for supremacy between Empire and Papacy will continue for centuries. But despite their incessant rivalry, the Papacy and Empire will remain closely associated throughout the Middle Ages. Their mutual need for each other will override disagreements of lesser importance.

Pope Versus Emperor

   The power and influence of the Papacy at this time is evidenced by the popular reaction to the Papal call, late in 1095, for the First Crusade. Pope Urban II exhorts Christians throughout Europe to come to the aid of the Byzantine Emperor, who is threatened by advancing Turks, and to free holy Jerusalem from the "legions of Antichrist" the Moslems.
   Reaction to Urban's plea is extraordinary. The outpouring of popular enthusiasm for the cause sets in motion a succession of military expeditions to the Holy Land that will continue for two centuries before ending in dismal failure. And for a time, the prestige of the Papacy is greatly enhanced by this wave of religious fervor.
   But the prestige and power of the Holy Roman Emperor has taken a turn for the worst. The Emperor's power has been seriously weakened by the lay investiture struggle. With the death of Henry V in 1125, Germany and the Empire are beset by civil strife and chaos. Many fear the Empire will fall completely to pieces.
   Two rival dynasties of German nobles scramble to gain the imperial throne the Welfs (or Guelphs) and the Hohenstaufens. The Hohenstaufens are descended from Henry IV in the female line.
   Finally, in 1138, Conrad III comes to the German throne. Conrad a grandson of Henry IV and nephew of Henry V is the first king of the Hohenstaufen family. The Hohenstaufens will preside over the Empire until 1268.
   Conrad is followed, in 1152, by his nephew Frederick, who will be known to history as Frederick I Barbarossa ("Red Beard"). Frederick is formally crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Adrian IV in Rome on June 18, 1155. He will reign for nearly four decades.
   Frederick Barbarossa considers himself the spiritual heir of his predecessors, Charlemagne and Otto the Great (from whom he is also descended physically), and of the great imperial tradition. His desire is to restore the glory of the Roman Empire. As a later chronicler will observe, "During all his reign nothing was dearer to his heart than the reestablishment of the Empire of Rome on its ancient basis."
   Frederick imposes order on Germany, and intervenes in Italian and Papal politics. This sparks a renewal of the imperial conflict with the Papacy in the form of a bitter feud with Pope Adrian.
   As had many of his predecessors, Frederick seeks to make the Church subordinate to the authority of the Empire. When asked from whom his imperial office is received, Frederick declares to Papal legates, "We hold our kingdom and our empire not as a fief of the Pope but by election of the princes from God alone."
   Pope Adrian counters, "What were the Franks till Pope Zacharias welcomed Pepin? The chair of Peter has given and can withdraw its gifts!"
   Frederick realizes, however, that a full-blown feud with Rome could have disastrous consequences. In 1177 he publicly makes peace with Adrian's successor, Pope Alexander III. But the peace is to be short-lived.

"The Beast"

   Emperor Frederick Barbarossa dies by accidental drowning in 1190, while leading the Third Crusade. His son, Emperor Henry VI (1190-1197), further strengthens the Hohenstaufen Empire. But after his death, civil war erupts in Germany. In 1212 a new German king finally emerges from the chaos. He is Frederick II, Frederick Barbarossa's grandson.
   In 1215 Frederick II is crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Innocent III.
   It is under Innocent III (1198-1216) that the Church reaches the height of its medieval power. Virtually every European nation feels the power of this Pope.
   Innocent seeks to reduce the Empire to a plaything of the Pope. He asserts that kings derive their powers from the Pope, just as the moon derives its light from the sun. Innocent declares that the Pope is "less than God but more than a man."
   "No king can reign happily," Innocent claims, "unless he devoutly serves Christ's vicar."
   Emperor Frederick II does not openly quarrel with Innocent III. He does, however, wage a fierce struggle with later Popes, notably Gregory IX (1227-1241).
   Frederick's ambition is to rule all of Italy, including Rome. This desire for full control of Italy brings him into direct conflict with the Papacy. Frederick is finally excommunicated by Pope Gregory, who calls the Emperor a heretic and the personification of Antichrist.
   "Out of the depths of the sea rises the beast," shouts Gregory in a reference to Revelation 13, filled with the names of blashemy......... Behold the head, the middle and the end of this beast, Frederick, this so-called emperor."
   Pope Gregory also speaks of Fredcrick as "this scorpion spewing poison from the sting of his tail."
   Frederick lashes back, labeling Pope Gregory the Antichrist.
   "The Roman Church has never erred," Gregory counters. "To resist it is to resist God!"
   The Papacy and the "viper brood" of Hohenstaufens are locked in a mortal struggle. In its wake, the last remnants of imperial power will be damaged almost beyond repair.

The "Terrible Time"

   Frederick II dies in 1250. He is the last of the great Hohenstaufens. With his death, the Empire crumbles.
   The last of the German Hohenstaufen dynasty is Conradin, grandson of Frederick II. In 1265 the Pope forms an alliance with Charles of Anjou, the brother of the king of France, in which he offers Charles the kingdom of Sicily as a reward for ridding Italy of the Hohenstaufens. By 1268 the Hohenstaufen forces are defeated. Young Conradin is beheaded in the public marketplace at Naples.
   The Papacy has won its victory over the Hohenstaufens. The dynasty is extinct. But the Papal victory has brought political instability to Germany. Germany becomes more a geographical term than a nation. It is a loose confederation of separate princes. The German king has become one of the weakest rulers on the Continent.
   The Great Interregnum (1254-1273), as this period will be known to history, is a stormy and confused period. It is the kaiserlose, schreckliche Zeit "the terrible time without an emperor."
   Western Europe is now about to enter a new phase.
   The Great Interregnum comes to an end in 1273. In that year, the imperial crown is revived and given to the Austrian Count Rudolf of Habsburg. The Empire now has an Austrian head.
   Rudolf's ancestors of Trojan and Merovingian descent had built a family castle in Switzerland in the 11th century. They had called it Habichtsburg Castle of the Hawk. Hence, the word Habsburg.
   Rudolf is the first Habsburg to ascend the imperial throne. He will succeed in establishing some degree of order within the Empire.
   The House of Habsburg will play a leading role in European affairs for centuries to come. The ideal of universal rule unity under a single authority is by no means dead.

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Publication Date: 1983
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