What Was the Holy Roman Empire?
The Holy Roman Empire existed from 962 to 1806. Otto the Great reunited most of the lands of Charlemagne’s empire, which had been divided and given to Charlemagne’s sons. Otto’s being crowned emperor marked the beginning of a succession of emperors that would continue unbroken for over eight centuries. Otto involved the church in his government, but he tried to limit its power. The church leaders slowly acquired power until they had almost full control over the everyday activities of most citizens. Corruption of the church leaders due to this gain of power, led to the practice of simony, the buying and selling of important positions. One of Otto’s legacies was the rivalry between the church and the state.
First, let’s consider a very brief overview of the rise of the Catholic Church. Initially persecuted by the Roman Empire, Christianity was legalized and eventuality adopted as the Empire’s religion in the fourth century CE. To cut a very long story short, by 600 CE Christianity had spread across Western Europe and parts of North Africa to become the dominant religion. By the 11th century the divisions between the west and east, which had originated in the 395 split of the Roman Empire, grew into a formal break between the churches of Rome and Constantinople. The Great Schism of 1054 saw mutual excommunication between the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch in Constantinople.
The Pope was a fairly peripheral figure in European politics until the 11th century. Much of the early spread of Christianity came from monasteries established across the Roman world. They acted as important, and typically the only, centers of education and literacy in the medieval world. Monasteries would act as propaganda centers, and their favor could give a sense of legitimacy to local rulers. This became a source of conflict between the church and the crown – were church officials loyal to their king or their pope?
Pope Gregory VII wanted to retain the church’s power to appoint officials and maintain independence from secular rulers. This brought Gregory into conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV.
Because much of Henry’s military power came from church-owned lands, the threat by Gregory to excommunicate church officials who supported Henry forced the Emperor to seek terms with the Pope. In the winter of 1077 a tense meeting took place between Gregory and Henry in northern Italy. This became known as the Investiture Controversy, the results of which led to nearly 50 years of German civil war.
Henry’s grip over the German states was greatly weakened and the possibility of a true German empire was postponed until the 19th century. German churches were no longer the intellectual center of Christendom because of the great conflict. The papacy grew enormously in influence but also caused a great deal of tension between other rulers and Rome. Urban II, one of Gregory’s successors, sought to restore unity by calling Christian states together in common cause.
The First Crusade of 1095 was the first of several holy wars sanctioned by the church. The campaign ended with the successful capture of Jerusalem in 1099. Several more crusades would be called over the next few centuries with varying degrees of success and outright failures. The fact that the church could compel leading monarchs of the time to commit vast resources to distant lands demonstrated just how influential the church had become.
That influence reached its peak by the 13th century, dominating many aspects of medieval society. The poorest not only had to give up 10% of their meager income through tithes but were also expected to provide free labor to the church. Further streams of income to the church came from fees for baptism, which was thought to be required for entry into heaven, and fees for performing marriages. Richer members of society could purchase absolution not just for sins committed but for future indulgences as well. On top of that, the churches were not obligated to pay taxes and frequently benefited from land donations from wealthy owners. In fact, as much as a third of the land of medieval Europe was church-owned.
The power and influence of the papacy owed a great deal to the individual diplomatic skill of the pope. Just as the prestige of the papacy could be raised by the ability of one pope, it could be reversed by the poor decisions of another. The decision to call a crusade against the Kingdom of Aragon in 1284, for political rather than religious reasons, led to a disastrous defeat and damaged relations with the Kingdom of France, the venture’s main backers. Pope Boniface VIII inherited a tricky situation upon his election in 1295 which he made worse with some ill-judged moves.
When war broke out between France and England over the province of Gascony in 1294, both kingdoms looked to fund their respective war efforts by any means necessary. Boniface issued a proclamation expressly forbidding the taxation of the church in 1296. The incendiary language drew an unexpectedly strong reaction from the French crown and forced Boniface to back down. When Boniface attempted to reassert papal authority in 1302, he drew an even fiercer reaction from the court of King Philip IV. A series of wild accusations were leveled against the pope and with news of the pope’s intention to excommunicate Philip, agents loyal to the French king kidnapped Boniface. Though the pope was soon released, he died on the way back to Rome.
In 1309 the Papacy moved from Rome to Avignon in Southern France where it would remain until 1376. The popes who followed Boniface were a great deal more compliant towards the Kingdom of France. The election of Urban VI ended the Avignon Papacy but brought about yet another great split in the Church. The Western Schism of 1378 saw some cardinals withdraw back to Avignon to declare another pope. Different kingdoms lined up to support one or the other and the situation became even more farcical with a third “true pope” emerging in 1410. The matter was largely resolved by 1414, but not without doing a great deal of damage to the image of the church and laying the foundations for the Reformation of the sixteenth century.
To review, in this video we provided an overview of the influence of the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. We looked at how the Church rose in influence following a split with the East in the 11th century and how it dominated the lives of almost everyone in Western Europe.
Let’s look at a couple of review questions:
How did peasants support the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages?
- Free labor
- Paying for religious ceremonies
- All of these
The answer is D). These were all ways that the Roman Church was supported in the Middle Ages by peasants.
The Investiture Controversy was a struggle between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor over which issue?
- Support for the crusades
- Appointment of church officials
- None of these
The answer is C).
Thanks for watching, and happy studying!