[Sunflower logo of the Kansas Heritage
Group]The Owl, The Pussycat and the Investiture Controversy

The scene is a forest glade, in the middle of which is a log. On one end of the log sits the Owl, a Medieval History Professor, and on the other end sits the Cat, a Student. The Cat speaks in italics, and the Owl in plain font.

CHORUS SPEAKS: The time is early Autumn. Dappled rays of sunlight play about the forest floor, and soft breezes send leaves twirling down upon the Owl and the Cat from time to time. What better time and what better place to discuss Medieval History?

So then to that forest glade let us now hie,
to hear of the Investiture Controversie

The Pussycat Speaks.

Medieval History textbooks always devote a lot of space to the Investiture Controversy, and have more emperors and popes running around getting excited about rings, sticks, clumps of dirt, and such stuff that it's hard to figure out what was going on. Just what is "Investiture" and what makes it important enough that I should worry about it?

An "investiture ceremony" is when someone gets inducted into a new office organization and is given some thing as a sign that he or she now holds that office or belongs to that organization. The Chancellor has a chain put around his neck (No Chancellor jokes, please. He's new so give him a chance.), fraternities and sororities give pins, administrators get nameplates for their desks, soldiers get chevrons or some other insignia, and so forth. Nowadays, the ceremony is only symbolic, but in the Middle Ages a person was not really inducted or whatever until he or she received the insignia of office.

The Investiture Controversy was about the ceremony by which a man became a bishop or an archbishop. During the investiture, the bishop or archbishop- elect was given a signet ring representing his authority to act legally for his territory (diocese or archdiocese), a long staff like a shepherd's crook (crozier) signifying his spiritual leadership of the people of the diocese, a lump of dirt (glebe) that demonstrated his possession and ownership of the lands with which the churches in his diocese had been endowed, and a white woolen stole to hang around his neck (pallium) indicating that he was a legitimate successor to a long tradition of spiritual teaching and leadership reaching all the way back to the apostles (apostolic succession).

Since bishops and archbishops appointed and directed all the clerics below them, either directly or indirectly, the investiture ceremony was the most important single factor in selecting church personnel and setting the structure of authority within the Church as a whole.

Okay, so the ceremony was important, but what was the "Controversy" all about?

Well, laymen took part in the investiture ceremony...

Why? I thought that you said that it was a ceremony investing churchmen with their office?

I did, but remember that churchmen took part in the investiture of laymen. Remember that it was a pope who put the crown on Charlemagne's head.

Oh, yeah.

As I was saying, laymen took part in the investiture ceremony, claiming the right to invest the candidate with some or all of the insignia of his office.

What did they base their claim on?

One argument was that by giving the bishop-elect his ring of legal authority the layman was promising to back up the bishops authority by force if necessary, by giving the glebe he was promising to defend the Church's possessions, and by giving the crozier he was recognizing that the bishop had powers over his -- the layman's -- subjects.

What about the pallium?

There was a lot of dispute about the pallium, which had to be sent by the pope, but a layman could claim that by investing with the pallium, he was recognizing the bishop's rights over him and his heirs. After all, when he died, the bishop would have an important role in investing his successor.

That sounds reasonable. Why was there an argument about it?

Think about it for a moment. If the layman had the right to invest a bishop- elect, he also could refuse to invest someone. It gave laymen a veto power over the selection of church officials. After all the lay argument simply boiled down to the view that investiture consisted of a series of acts in which the layman transferred power from himself to a churchman. The Church argued that its authority came directly from God and not from a bunch of secular lords. The Bible had Jesus saying "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church...." That's a pun, by the way. petros or Peter means "rock" in Greek.

I didn't know that Jesus spoke in Greek.

He didn't, but that's another matter. The point is that the Church argued that it, the Church, was established by Jesus and given to the disciple Peter and his successors. Of course, Peter was the first bishop of Rome, so the popes are his successors. That argument, by the way, is called the Petrine Doctrine

If then churchmen felt that way, why did they let laymen take part in the investiture ceremony in the first place?

They really didn't have much choice. When the central government of the Carolingian empire lost power, there was no one to protect the Church, and local strong men, hungry for land to support more fighting men to protect their territories against civil war, and raiders like the Vikings, Magyars, and Saracens, took control of church lands by appointing local church officials.

Didn't any of the churchmen resist?

Yes, but they had to hire mercenary troops to do their fighting, and leader of such troops usually ended up dominating the bishop and his lands. It wasn't all bad, though. Many laymen built monasteries and churches and endowed them with lands from their own estates. I suppose that it was only natural that such men would continue to regard these establishments as family property. Anyway, by the early 900's almost all of the diocese and archdiocese, and monasteries and convents, were under the "protection," or control, of some lay lord or another.

I'll bet that the pope was ticked off at that.

Not really. They didn't know or care much what was going on. You see, Pepin, the first Carolingian king, had given the Church most of central Italy. The popes weren't able to control the Papal States any better than the Carolingians had been able to control their empire. By 900, the Papal States were controlled by local lords, and the office of the papacy itself was under the control of political factions in the city of Rome. The popes were powerless to do anything about the feudalization of the Church.

Okay, so the whole Church was controlled by laymen, and all of the important Church offices were filled by secular appointees. How did the Church get to the point where it was able to challenge the Holy Roman Empire about this sort of thing?

A good question. Not all laymen were happy with the situation. They felt that European society lacked moral guidance, and they were probably right. You probably remember that Gerald the Good was trying to turn his lands into some sort of independent monastic state when he died in 909?


Well, check your notes. If you'll remember Duke William of Aquitaine was a neighbor and admirer of Gerald. In 910, William acquired some lands in Burgundy -- including a dog kennel way back in the boondocks -- that he couldn't defend, so he implemented Gerald's plan. He established the monastery, calling it Cluny, which means "dog kennel", endowed it with all of the lands he had in the area, and gave it a charter -- a legal document like a deed -- that made it independent of all local officials, both lay and clergy, and obedient and answerable only to the pope.

But I thought that the popes at the time were powerless.

That's just the point. Cluny was an ecclesiastical establishment but was practically an independent state.

Why didn't the local lords take it over?

A lot of the sons of local lords joined Cluny, and the Burgundian nobility became proud of the place and started giving it more lands. The monks in Cluny set up a very austere, regular, and religious pattern of living that impressed the nobles so much that they wanted to support it.


The monks said prayers nine times a day, and the people of the time considered those prayers something like payments to God in compensation for the sins of the world. The more society could pile up, the better off everyone -- even the dead ones -- would be. Barbara Rosenwein is an expert of Cluny, and her books Rhinoceros bound and To be a Neighbor of Cluny would give you a good idea of what was happening. It was a complex business.

Anyway, Cluny became very influential. Local landowners all over the south of France endowed Cluny with their private churches, asked Cluny to take over the monasteries they controlled and reform them into establishments like Cluny, and supported candidates for Church offices nominated by Cluniac leaders. Cluny went on the sponsor all sorts of reform movements, The Peace of God and The Truce of God that attempted to limit feudal warfare, the crusades, which got started first as French volunteers went to help the Christian states of Spain drive back their Muslim neighbors, and, of course, removing church offices from lay control. Another thing it did was to encourage monasteries and cathedrals to become centers of learning.

In the late 900's, a young man by the name of Gerbert of Aurillac

Is that the same Aurillac as the one that Apollinaris Sidonius and Gerald the Good had so much to do with?

Yes, Why?

Nothing, just wondering.

Well, Gerbert went to study at the cathedral school of Vic and the monastery of Ripoll in Catalonia, a region of Spain that bordered the lands of the Caliphate of Cordoba

The what of what?

The Caliphate of Cordoba. The richest lands of Spain were held by the Muslims, and they were ruled by a Caliph who had his capital at Cordoba in the South of the country. Cordoba was the richest city in western Europe, trading in African gold, slaves brought from overland through France, and the products and manufactures of Spain itself. When the largest library in the Christian West was the four hundred volumes of the monastery of Corbie in northern France, the libraries of Corboba had some 400,000 books. They said at the time

Excuse me, but you're beginning to digress

Oh, yes. I am, aren't I? What was I talking about?

Gerbils of Aurillac.

That's GERBERT. Well, Gerbert studied in these Catalan schools and learned a great deal, including some Muslim "science". The Muslims were much further advanced than the Christians, particularly in mathematics and astronomy, and

Are you digressing again?

No, it only seems that way. Anyway, when Gerbert returned to France, he became a renowned scholar. In fact, a medieval historian William of Malmesbury, believed that he was a magician and had made a pact with Satan. Read William's History of the Kings of England, if you like fabulous stories.

Otto II, the Holy Roman Emperor, was so impressed by Gerbert's reputation, that he hired him as tutor for the Crown Prince. Gerbert taught Otto Jr. a lot, and Otto Jr. got the idea of freeing the papacy and making the Holy Roman Empire a real successor to the Roman Empire in the West. When he took the throne as Otto III in 983, Junior kept Gerbert on as his chief Counsellor and together they planned the conquest of the North of Italy -- which was supposed to belong to the emperor --and cleaning up the mess in Rome. The Germans crossed the Alps in the year 1000, captured Rome, and Otto made Gerbert pope. Gerbert took the name of Silvester II. Silvester I had been the bishop of Rome when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ... do you remember about the Edict of Milan?


That's good. ...and so Gerbert's choice of name symbolized the liberation of the Church from long oppression.

Who invested him?

Well, local church officials at the direction to Emperor Otto.

It doesn't seem as if Gerbert helped get rid of Lay Investiture very effectively what with the emperor directing all the action.

One of the things you learn from history is that things don't happen all at once. Rome didn't decline and fall in a day as we medieval historians say. Take my word for it, this was an important event leading to the investiture struggle.

Okay. I'll take your word for it.

Now the Church's attention was fixed on the German emperor. When Henry the Fowler... Do you remember Henry the Fowler?


That's fine. Keep up the good work. When he took over leadership of the German dukes in 919, he asked only that he have control of the Church throughout their lands....

Why in the world did they give it to him?

If you had a horde of murdering Magyars at your door, you might be willing to give up something, too. In any event, many of the districts of Germany were actually under the political control of the local bishops. Some of the most important of them were the prince-bishops of Mainz, Bingen, and Liege. Their lands were wealthy, and the emperors needed their assistance in defending the empire. It was only natural that the emperors should want to make certain that the prince-bishops would be loyal to them, so -- during the time that the pope was without power -- they took the lead in choosing the bishops, investing them, and protecting their positions.

So Gerbert hadn't done anything to change that situation.

No, but that was because the popes still depended on the emperors to protect them from the local lords of the papal states. In fact, the emperors more or less dictated who would be pope. That was changed by two remarkable imperial appointees. Pope Leo IX held office from 1049 to 1054 and travelled about Europe, holding councils and organizing local reform. He also established the College of Cardinals, a permanent group of papal advisors and officials, and appointed a number of reformers to the College. Up to this time, the leaders of the movement for church reform had been among the Cluniacs; now the popes had taken over direction of reform movement and had gained a lot of moral support.

Emperor Henry III died in 1056. His son and heir was underage. Medieval governments generally did not operate too well under such conditions because officials never knew what the new ruler would do when he came of age. So the imperial officials decided to go along with another reformer as pope since they didn't want the other reformers in the Church making problems for them. The new pope was Nicholas II (1059-1061), and he made two important moves. First, he passed a decree that, from then on, popes would be selected by the College of Cardinals, and, second, he made an alliance with the Norman Kingdom of Sicily. Now the papacy had some protection from the German emperors.

What about the German kid? How did he take all this when he came of age?

Well, that was when the Controversy part of the Investiture Controversy began.

Henry IV found that his secular princes had taken away a lot of imperial power and wealth while he had been growing up, and he needed the support of the prince-bishops. But there was a churchman, a monk by the name of Hildebrand, who was determined that Henry wasn't going to get any more control over the German bishops. Hildebrand was a leading reformer and the chief papal counselor, and became pope himself in 1073 with the name of Gregory VII (1073-1085). Both Henry and Gregory were very determined men, and were soon at each other hammer and tongs, as we used to say.

Hammer and tongs? You really used to say that?

Yes, but that's beside the point. Gregory VII claimed not only that the pope was independent of all earthly monarchs, but was superior to them in that their authority came from God and the pope was God's voice on Earth. Henry IV and his successors claimed that the lands and secular authority of the German bishops came from the emperor.

Henry and his son, Henry V, tried to keep control of the German bishops, even to the point of using force, while Gregory VII stirred up the local German lords against the emperors. In 1122, when it became clear that both the Church and the Empire were on the point of wrecking each other, they reached a compromise with the Concordat of Worms.

Concordat of Worms? You're making that up, aren't you?

Don't be funny. Worms is a city in Germany pronounced "voorms", and a concordat is a formal, written agreement of compromise. The Concordat of Worms was the formal agreement that representatives of the Church and the Empire signed at the city of Worms.

I thought you were building up to a joke. So what was the outcome?

The emperors gave up the right of investing the bishops with the crozier and ring.

So the Church won?

I'm not sure. The emperors kept the right of being present at the ceremony. If I were a bishop-elect, I think that I would want to make sure that the emperor approved of me, especially with him sitting there and his army standing outside.

So nobody won?

Not really. That's what a compromise means.

So what was the point in my learning all of this?

Well, the Investiture Controversy had some far-reaching effects. The Church was now under the control of a professional elite and had established the principle that non-professionals shouldn't have any say in how the Church ran its affairs. When the Protestants rebelled against the Catholic Church four hundred years later, one of the things that they demanded was that lay people should have a big role in running the Church. Then, too, the Church had gained its ends through politics and had to continue playing politics.

In Germany, the authority of the emperors had been damaged to the point that the region didn't develop a national government until 1870 with a war against France. The First and Second World Wars -- which took about 100,000,000 lives -- were continuations of that first conflict. I suppose that you could say that there wouldn't have been any Adolf Hitler If there hadn't been an Investiture Controversy.

Isn't that stretching things a little?



Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of
Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas

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