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Investiture Own Risk

A striking example of the conflict created by the struggle between the crown and the cross during the Late Middle Ages is the exchange between Henry IV, then Holy Roman Emperor, and the young, but brash, Pope Gregory VII. The subject of contention between the two is the determination of who may appoint church officials, but more than that, it is the clash of will and ego for the supremacy of authority. While it is not a matter of historical debate to speculate which authority wields greater responsibility- he who provides for the defense against invading forces and famine, or he who guides souls toward salvation, it is clear from the tone between these two historic figures that neither has any intention of willful surrender to the other, however politics may shape their initial approach.

A casual reading of Henry's letter to Gregory in 1073 might lead the reader to conclude that Henry cows to the Pope with fair speech flattery, as might be expected of him, but perhaps another view of this text is appropriate. The structure of the letter is pretty straight-forward. Henry begins with a thick layer of adulation, offering the sense of parity to the Pope (“...the kingship and the priesthood [should] not disagree, but rather to cling to each other...”) effectively assuming the virtue of cooperation and the co-equal roles of these two rulers within their respective spheres. “Thus, and in no other way...the condition of the church's religious life are preserved in the bond.” This could be taken to imply that the continued authority of the church might just be subject to the whim of the crown.

In any case, Henry proceeds to confess to a number of blatant offenses, in which the Pope cannot fail to discern a pattern of disregard for apostolic instruction. The suggestion here is that this is exactly what Henry intended. There seems to be a general tone of scathing challenge in this letter, thinly veiled by an indulgent, and perhaps mocking respect. Henry may be saying to the Pope, “I need your help with this one little thing, but you'll notice I basically conduct myself as I see fit, and that's not really up to you.” Gregory's response seems to hint that he is not exactly sure how to respond to this kind of candor. The older, wiser Henry is playing a game with a young impetuous pope, testing him for cunning, wit, and brass. Gregory, to his credit, seems to volley this attempt right back to Henry, wrapping his own scathing criticisms in overly friendly, flowery condescension- “However, since the long-enduring patience of God summons you to improve...”
Gregory has shown great political skill and instinct, but in a sense, has fallen right into Henry's trap, if the reader will speculate that perhaps Henry was teasing Gregory with his own inflated sense of control, to get him to address the king scornfully (a practice rarely tolerated by most kings in history.)

With this, Henry may take off the gloves, and speak to Gregory as though he were scorning an unruly child. He calls Gregory “ not pope, but false monk.” The premise laid out in this essay, that Henry's first address was not just “accidentally” provocative, but deliberately so, is supported by Henry's response to Gregory. It is here that Henry tells Gregory, without restraint, what he really thinks of him: “For you have risen by these steps: namely, by cunning, which the monastic profession abhors, to money; by money to favor; by favor to the sword.” This is a long view, one that Henry would have gradually accumulated over time through familiarity with Gregory's ascent. It is not the view of someone simply shocked to find a few shelled admonitions in an otherwise seemingly-friendly letter. The reader gets the sense that Henry has salivated for some time over a legitimate opportunity to speak freely to this surly interloping child.

With this view of Henry in mind, it is not difficult to imagine him standing for three days in a show of penance with his hair shirt outside the Pope's door. Henry might just have been the type of king to understand that his remarkable outward show of penance would force Gregory, by the nature of his own institution, (Gregory even recounts that during this experience he was encouraged by others to accept the kings 'plea' on account of Henry's visible dedication) to recapitulate and restore Henry's status. Henry might just have been the type of man to endure the discomfort for the pleasure of bending the impetuous pope to his own will, while allowing Gregory the sense of control that empowers his authority. Gregory had to believe the show, and the results would suggest that he did (Gregory does communicate Henry's restoration to the German nobles), but Henry's personality makes it unlikely that his act of penance was sincere, instead of an act of pure vindictive will.

Whatever the motives of these men may have been, their encounter foreshadows the greater conflicts that follow in Europe as clergy and kings vie for immutable power. The suggestion that separation of church and state is a Christian concept forgets that Christianity got its start as a function of the Roman Empire, and then all but disappeared in the west until the Merovingian kings breathed new life into the obscure institution by establishing a reciprocating structure of endorsement. The Crusades are proof of the church's understanding that it couldn't survive real encroachment from Muslims, Turks, or any other hostile forces. Without the kings to whom divine power flows through the church, the church would inevitably suffer eradication as the influence of the east grew nearer. “Peace” between the two in the Late Middle Ages could only exist in cooperation, because though kings and emperors could overrule papal authority in their own lands, the effects of these attempts on relations with other European powers were more difficult to mitigate.

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