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Townson University Journal of Historical Studies, Vol.8 (2011), pp. 22-50.

Introduction: Medieval Concepts of Authority and Origins of the Conflict

The relationship between the German monarchs and the Roman papacy in the Middle Ages was an accepted partnership of mutual interests. The theme and scope of this essay is to explore the historical processes that fashioned such interdependence. The origins of this relationship lies with the rise of the Franks, particularly with the coronation of Charles at the end of the 8th century, as well as the papacy‘s claims to the leadership of Christendom since the Fall of the West (476). Despite such mutual accord, over time this dependency would deteriorate, not necessarily due to desires for autonomy but because of assertions of dominance of one institution over the other. The inevitable culmination of this narrative is the clash between royalty and papacy in 1075 over the investiture of bishops. The claims for primacy on the part of the Bishop of Rome brought about this climax by interpreting the doctrine of the early Church in an evolving way, one of the questions addressed in this paper. However, the paper will take a broader perspective by explaining what this conflict meant for the historical development of Europe, going beyond the events at Canossa and the contemporary dialogue between emperor and pope. Later developments, however, will not be examined in detail, as that would be far too ambitious for this essay. If they are mentioned, it will only be in passing, and only to lend a visible support to the claims of the argument.

Eminent men considered the conflict between different forms of Christian authority long before the so-called ‘investiture controversy.’ Constantine’s successor, Constantius II (r. 337-61), was urged by Hosius of Cordova not to interfere in clerical matters. The relationship, at this time, had not yet been clearly defined, and that constituted a problem for the Church giving rise to a doctrinal literature concerning the interaction of earthly rulers and the priests. Clerics whose ideas had become the basis of Church doctrine such as Augustine of Hippo (354-430) asserted the role of the clergy as the judges of morality and that earthly rulers undermined their kingly dignity by sinning and mismanagement. In the Civitas Dei, Augustine writes that divinely ordained earthly governments can assist mankind towards salvation but still remain inherently sinful. By Augustine‘s theological doctrine—not only is the saeculum susceptible to sin, but that is its very nature. The influence of Augustinian doctrine on the reformers of Gregorian times is recognizable centuries later, but he was not the only author to be employed in their arsenal. Pope Gelasius I (r. 492-6) was the first Bishop of Rome to distinguish between regal and sacral authority in a letter to the eastern emperor, Anastasius I. Though he made the distinction, Gelasius made no assertion in his letter of the superiority of the Supreme Pontiff over the Emperor. In fact, the pope still allowed that the emperor was divinely ordained and, as far as earthly matters were concerned, responsible to the Almighty alone.

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