The Middle Ages

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What is the significance of the "Investiture Controversy?" 

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The Gregorian reform that strengthened the independence of the Catholic Church in relation to the secular powers was intimately connected to the Investiture Controversy in late eleventh to early twelfth century Europe. This controversy started in 1073 with a conflict between Gregory VII and the German emperor, Henry IV; it ended with the Worms Concordat in 1122, which represented the political compromise between the papacy and the empire. The Investiture Controversy's most dramatic moment came in 1077 when the pope publicly humiliated Henry IV by making him stand in the snow at the gates of the Castle of Canossa for days as an act of repentance for his sins.

The papacy’s strength during the Investiture Controversy paved the way for its rise in political importance in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries. The Catholic Church came to dominate Europe politically while remaining relatively independent from local and national feudal frameworks; this enhanced its ability to mobilize support for the other opponents of feudal politics, such as the rising communal movement in Italy (especially the Lombard League). The Lombard League of the North Italian urban republics and the papacy eventually became political allies; the pope supported the Lombard League in its war against the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, such as Frederick I Barbarossa in the twelfth century and Frederick II Hohenstaufen in the thirteenth century.

While in France and England, the papacy supported the gradual concentration of political power in the hands of centralized national monarchies. In Italy and Germany the papacy supported decentralization. The prominent role that the papacy played in the high medieval politics of these countries contributed to the ongoing fragmentation of the German and Italian political landscape during the later Middle Ages and for a long time afterwards.

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The significance of the Investiture Controversy was that it solidified the Pope’s control over many secular leaders, the most important of which was the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV. The Investiture Controversy signaled the beginning of the centralization of the Church/Pope’s power. The Controversy also oversaw the first excommunication of a secular leader.

Many secular (non-religious based) leaders had appointed church bishops in the areas and lands they controlled. This appointment process was called “investiture.” Henry IV, like his predecessors and contemporary rulers, appointed bishops. The Pope, Gregory VII, wanted to central the authority of the Church in the appointment of bishops and thusly claimed the power to appoint bishops.

The Investiture Controversy reached its zenith in 1075, when the Church formally prohibited secular leaders from appointing bishops. Henry refused to adhere to the new law and continued appointing bishops. As a result, Henry was excommunicated (banished from the Church and prohibited from interacting with other Christians). Furthermore, Gregory encouraged the German nobles to disregard Henry’s orders and authority since he had been officially excommunicated. Many German nobles followed the Pope’s advice and threatened open rebellion against Henry.

Facing challenges from the Church and his nobles, Henry sought the Pope’s forgiveness and the Church’s blessing. Henry met Gregory at Canossa (allegedly in peasant garb and barefoot) and received the Pope’s forgiveness. However, once he received his welcome back into the Christian faith, Henry continued to invest his own bishops.

The Investiture Controversy continued until 1122, when the Church and the Holy Roman Emperor agreed to the Concordat of Worms. Under this agreement, the Holy Roman Emperor could still appoint bishops but the Pope still approved the appointment, giving the position its spiritual authority.

The Concordat officially ended the investiture process that secular leaders had exercised without church approval. From 1122 onward, secular leaders had to have religious approval in the appointment of bishops. The Concordat however, was not a complete victory for the Church. Secular leaders still had some say (albeit minor) in bishopric appointments.

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The major significance of this controversy was that it increased the degree of conflict between church and state.

This controversy was over who would get to appoint bishops and other church officials.  Church officials were very important and influential people and secular rulers naturally wanted to control them as much as possible.  For this reason, secular rulers wanted to be able to appoint them.  King Henry IV of Germany tried to appoint the bishop of Milan in 1075.  This infuriated Pope Gregory VII.  The Pope wanted to hold on to the power to appoint bishops so as to keep power for the church and away from the secular leaders.  In the course of this controversy, Gregory excommunicated Henry.  Henry, knowing this could weaken his hold on power, begged forgiveness and a compromise was reached.

This controversy led to more such struggles between the Church and the state as both sides attempted to gain more power.

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