Between 900 and 1100, religious society and culture in Europe underwent multifaceted changes, which reshaped the relationship between religious and secular society and the authority to each. Most historical narratives depict the changes in the church during this period is as the “Gregorian reform,” underlying the changes as a top-down and centralized reform. This characterization of reform views the agenda and activity of Gregory VII as the fullest expression of these goals and ushered in a radical reconceptualization of the relationship between religious and secular authority. I am not convinced by the notion of “Gregorian reform” or “Gregorian revolution,” instead, I view the changes as a process of gradual and localized reform movements from the Cluniac monastic reform, to episcopal reform, the imperial reform of the German and Italian churches, and the emergence of reformers in Rome. The focus solely on the reform papacy, and especially the pontificate of Gregory VII, not only obscures the earlier reform efforts, but fails to take into account the cultural context of the social, political and religious changes in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
With the rise of the proprietary church in Carolingian Germanic states, the bishops lost many of their diocesan rights; secular clergy administrated the local court and territory. In the Roman Empire, monasteries and churches, including their personnel and property, were subject to the bishop. The economic and religious consequence of the Viking raids in late ninth and early tenth centuries was disastrous for many monasteries and chapters. The properties of the monastery fell into the hands of large landowners. The reforming councils under Charlemagne in 802 and Louis the Pious in 818 devised a compromise between the old and the new ecclesiastical orders. Laymen were not allowed to install priests without the permission of the diocesan bishop, while reserving abbatial elections to the founders and their descendants. Royal protection had provided the rights of immunity since 815, which led abbeys and churches become institutions under secular power.
The Ottonian and Salian kings turned the church into imperial church system, Reichskirchensystem. The Ottonians and Salians appointed bishoprics and royal abbeys, and endowed them with land and rights as a counterweight to unreliable lay nobility. The German imperial church system paralleled those elsewhere in Europe. Yet, the royal exploitations of the Church were not consistent; there were considerable local variations. The recipients got the grant they most wanted, and the transactions were favors to the recipients rather than delegations of power. Except for Otto III’s appointments of Gregory V and Sylvester II, the other appointments before 1046 were local choices. Until 1056, neither did any pope express to control the imperial episcopate, nor did bishops turn to the papacy for jurisdiction.
Western Europe remained a world of regionalism around the year 1000. The disintegration of the Carolingian empire resulted in territorial principalities, especially in Germany and France. The Church was often organized around competing local power structures, with bishops answering to archbishops who in turn might be dependent upon secular rulers. The nature of the local church varied across Europe. The priest was often inadequate for his duties, having insufficient knowledge of Latin, little formal theological training, and married with a family. The bishop was the spiritual head of his diocese, with legal authority over the clergy, and responsible for the ecclesiastical property. A bishop was often a member of the local aristocracy, with wives or concubines. Although the pope was at the top of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the papacy during the tenth and earlier eleventh centuries was a passive institution. The increasing demand for papal privileges from the second half of the tenth century was due to the increase of monasteries and newly founded churches that needed the capacity for settling ecclesiastical disputes.
In Before the Gregorian Reform: The Latin Church at the Turn of the First Millennium, John Howe argues that the church reform in the 1040s presupposed an earlier ecclesiastical recovery of ecclesiastical structures after the Carolingian collapse and societal reorganization. The destruction of the Latin West by Vikings raids in the late ninth and early tenth centuries led to the reinvigoration of the millennial churches. Howe explains that lay aristocrats rebuilt and constructed new churches; patrons improved ecclesiastical furnishings, liturgy, spirituality; schools were constructed to train clergy; the statues, relics, and crucifix were installed; Christian communities were rebuilt; and the ecclesiastical patrimonies were restored. Generations of churchmen from the late Carolingian period through the early eleventh century rebuilt a church system, establishing the prerequisites for the theoretical developments of the Gregorian reform movements.
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A wave of transformed monasteries and the secular clergy emerged in the tenth-century Lotharingia and Burgundy. The Burgundy monastery of Cluny played a prominent role in the monasticism of the tenth century. It was the lay founder, Duke William of Aquitaine, who in 910 initiated the renewal by donating a house to the abbot of Cluny. The independence of Cluny was considered a key factor in its success. The foundation charter of 909 protected the monastery and its property from intervention by secular power, insured independent abbatial election, and subjected the monastery to the protection of the Holy see. Cluny did not seek to correct the boundary between secular and religious sphere, but to define the boundary between monastic and non-monastic clergy. Cluny under its second abbot, Odo, became an active force for reform, advocating the strict observation of the Rule of Saint Benedict. Odo’s hagiography The Life of Gerald of Aurillac articulates the hierarchy of good monks, good laypeople, bad laypeople, and bad monk. Gerald was a secular lord, who lived a monastic life; yet, some monk lived in secular life. Odo asserts a rigid line between the monastic and secular worlds. The protection of Cluny by kings and popes led to Cluny’s exemption from diocesan authority, and subject to the jurisdiction of Rome alone. Cluny’s independence from secular authorities to an exemption from diocesan authority, was advocated by reformers of the second half of the eleventh century as an argument for the liberty of the church.
The Latin Church and the Roman papacy redefined the relationship between religious and secular authorities in a gradual process. The tenth-century reforms of monastic life, such as the Cluniac, recognized the need to improve standard in religious life. Yet, local reform initiatives in later tenth- and earlier eleventh century were no longer sufficient. In the mid-eleventh century, reformers, including the future Pope Gregory VII, determined that the church reform required not only interior changes in clergy, but also external changes in church structure, a return to the early Constantinian and Carolingian beliefs and practices. According to Cushing, the reform of the eleventh century was not only about the issues of simony, clerical unchastity, ecclesiastical property, and freedom from lay control, but also about setting boundaries between religious and secular sphere, and within the ecclesiastic hierarchy itself.
Throughout the course of the eleventh century, the papacy underwent phenomenal transformation. The introduction of Christianity into early medieval Germanic kingdoms through the conversion of kings had a direct influence on law. The ideology of sacred kingship endowed kings with both royal and ecclesiastical authority. Most of the councils that took place in the later tenth and early eleventh centuries were still either diocesan or provincial ones, or were convened by the emperor or king rather than the pope. It was only with the elevation of Pope Leo IX in 1049, that councils began to be significant instruments of the papacy. Besides the papacy’s use of councils was the growing use of legates or special envoys as instruments of papal power. From the time of the early Church, the bishops of Rome had sent out envoys to represent their interests at the imperial courts in Constantinople and the Carolingian emperors. The use of legates as the pontiff’s personal representatives was after the mid-eleventh century, disseminating new ideas about papal primacy. By the pontificate of Gregory VII, the practice of employing standing legates had been adopted. The most significant extension of papal government in the eleventh century was a new emphasis on canon law and the compilation of canonical collections. While early eleventh-century complications were aimed at the regularization of ecclesiastical life, the later eleventh-century collection stress the papacy leadership of the Church. New works of canon law compiled in the 1070s and 1080s, as the Collection in Seventh-Four Titles reflected the significance of papal prerogatives and jurisdiction. The reform collections were more works of propaganda than manuals for bishops. As the Roman Church and its papacy claimed increasing authority throughout Christendom, the meaning of ecclesiastical law was transformed.
Only in the aftermath of the synod of Sutri in 1046, did simony become one of the chief preoccupations of the papacy, while preoccupation with clerical chastity emerged in the Council of Anse in 994. Simony had a long history within the Western Church. Throughout the eighth and ninth centuries, the bishopric had been enriched by extensive lay donations. Yet by the end of the tenth century, the local lordship had derived power from church property at the expense of episcopal authority. The exchange of money for offices was not seen as particularly objectionable from a sacramental point of view. Cushing argues that the issue of clerical marriage had more to do with the economic situation of the church than with promotion of clerical celibacy. Despite rich endowments, the alienation of church property to the sons of the clergy and for the support of their wives or concubines impoverished the Church as a whole. Although the issue of ritual purity was emphasized by pope Leo IX, Nicholas II and Gregory VII, church property were their primary concerns.
What mattered to eleventh-century reformers was effective action, the translation of reform ideals into practice, and the way that individuals lived their lives, not how they died. Peter Damian’s hagiography Life of Saint Romuald of Ravenna promoted strict clerical chastity from layperson. Romuald’s practices created a hard boundary between lay life and monastic life. At the beginning, Romuald submitted to emperor Otto to accept the abbacy; but at the end, the emperor submitted authority to Romuald, and would abdicate and become a monk. Damian asserts that religious authority was previously entangled with secular authority; and that in the context of reform, religious holy life owned the highest authority.
Reformers used vestments as instruments to reinforce hierarchies within the clergy and to make claims for the elevated status of the clergy. The ornate vestment was most cultivated in Rome during the period of the reform movement. Maureen C. Miller in Clothing the Clergy: Virtues and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200 argues that eleventh-century reformers deployed clerical clothing as a visual language to articulate ecclesiastical hierarchies, cultivate female patrons, and claim status of the clerical order. There was a crucial shift in Christian ideas about the appearance of its ministers, from resistance to clerical finery in early Christianity to the gold-embellished clerical garb. When the clerics in ornate vestments became acceptable in the mid-ninth century, ecclesiastical power was still dependent on secular rulers. The involvement of bishops as partners with kings in the governance of Christian society correlated with changes in ecclesiastical vestments. By the late eleventh century, ornate vestments adorned with gold were appropriate clerical attire. The twelfth-century canon sought to constrain superfluity in clerical clothing, when they advanced the clerical order and asserted the holiness of the entire clerical order. Miller argues that the ornate vestments was a shared language of holiness and power in clerical culture.
On 23 August 1073, Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII in a tumultuous election. He acted with conviction of the pope’s independent authority to intervene at all levels of Christian society. Real innovation could be seen in Gregory VII’s The Dietatus Papae (Statement of the Pope) of 1075 that the pope alone was to be called universal, that he could depose the absent, that he could depose emperors, that with his permission inferiors could judge superiors, and that he could absolve sworn oaths of fidelity. Apart from the decree against lay investiture, most of his decree against simony, clerical marriage and lay interference were not new in themselves. They were promulgated in the context of the ecclesiological and political battles between Gregory and his secular opponents in northern Italy and Germany. In March 1080, Gregory condemned the practice of lay investiture; the reform movement became the Investiture Controversy, waged by the reformers for the authority of an independent Church.
The deteriorating relationship between Gregory and Henry IV led to their first rupture in 1076, and the final clash in 1080 that resulted in Henry’s promotion of the anti-pope Clement III. At the outset of his pontificate, Gregory looked to Henry IV as a partner in the promotion of reform. But Gregory and Henry’s conceptions of their respective authority within Latin Christendom made a clash inevitable. This was exacerbated by Henry’s need to consolidate his kingship after the long years of minority, the revolt of the Saxons in 1073, and the growing resentment of German and northern Italian bishops towards the pope’s heavy-handed tactics. Cushing. Even after the reconciliation of the pope and the king at Canossa in 1077 following the first excommunication of Henry IV, Gregory continued to secure the authority and objectives of the apostolic see. But the withdrawal of allegiance by the German and northern Italian bishops and the election of Wibert of Ravenna as anti-pope Clement III at the synod of Brixen in 1080, together with Henry’s siege of Rome after 1082, meant that Gregory’s visions could not be realized. p. 80-81. In 1088, Urban II inherited a papacy in exile, which was the result of a reassertion of papal primacy of the cardinals. p. 81. By 1096, the reorganization of the papal administration had begun, and Urban had set the papacy as the head of a supranational institution whose authority was throughout Latin Christendom.
John Howe in “The Nobility’s Reform of the Church” argues that the nobility of pre-Gregorian and Gregorian Europe played an essential role in restoring the churches and in promoting ecclesiastical reform. Before the reform period, bishops were generally wellborn, resulting from the proprietary church system. Nobles’ interest in ecclesiastical reform stemmed from their desire for salvation and economic benefits from religious patronage. The German nobility’s recognition of the papal excommunication of Henry IV set the stage for the king’s humiliation at Canossa.
While it has often been thought that reform in the eleventh century were centralized and top-down attempts to separate the clergy from secular power structure, the evolution of reform objectives and their implementation was regionalized and varied. Reform encompassed material renewal, and relied on legates and canons promoting free election and clerical chastity. Campaigns against simony and clerical marriage began in the late tenth century and were prompted both by secular kings and nobility, and by popes and bishops to impose better standards in religious life. Following the elevation of Leo IX in 1049, these issues took on an urgency as the papacy struggled to impose its agenda. Gregory VII became the prominent agency in the context of the battles between religious and secular power. The ultimate goal of the reformers was the separation of the spiritual from the secular with a clear boundary line. As the consequences, papal power was increased, secular power in ecclesiastical practices was confined, cathedral church began to choose their own bishops, and simony and clerical marriage became less acceptable.