After his death in 814, Charlemagne’s crown and title of Holy Roman Emperor were passed to his son Louis in a ceremony conducted by Pope Stephen IV. This same Louis has gone down in the official rolls as the first of the eighteen French kings to bear that name, even though the nation of France as we know it today did not quite exist yet during this time. Whatever else he was or would become, however, Louis was no Charlemagne, and the deck was rather stacked against him.

For Europe was still an undeveloped continent in many ways, a place where even the most basic forms of transport and communication were perilous and uncertain. Louis’s European empire was far too large and diffuse to be managed using the tools he had to hand. His own sons staked personal claims to various chunks of its territory, plunging the realm into protracted internal conflict. Meanwhile the popes in Rome utterly failed to take the high ground, jockeying for advantage with one temporal political faction and then another, using the title of Holy Roman Emperor which it was within their authority to bestow as a trump card.

Indeed, the sheer venality of the popes of this period has caused Richard P. McBrien to declare the last two centuries of the first millennium after Christ “undoubtedly [the] lowest” point in the entire history of the papacy. It was a time when playing politics was among the least of the crimes of which these supposed holy representatives of God on earth could be credibly accused. Others included gluttony, fornication, financial skulduggery of every description, and even murder; five or possibly six popes were assassinated by their rivals in the course of only two centuries. Just a couple of snapshots from this era’s rogue’s gallery of pontiffs should suffice to capture the spirit of the age.

Pope Formosus I (891-896) was so hated during his life by his eventual successor Stephen VI (896-897) that Stephen ordered him put on trial after his death. His corpse was dug up, propped up in a courtroom Weekend at Bernie’s-style, and duly convicted of a multitude of crimes, whereupon the fingers of the hand that he had used for oaths and blessings were cut off and the body was thrown into the Tiber River. By way of completing the farce, Pope Theodore II, whose term in office lasted all of two months in 897 before he died under suspicious circumstances, found time to order Formosus’s long-suffering body to be dredged up and given a proper burial once again.

Pope John XII, who held the office from 955 until 964, was another typically depraved product of the age. He openly auctioned off bishoprics to the highest bidder; one “man of God” whom he elevated at the behest of his wealthy family was just ten years old. He also committed adultery with his father’s concubine, committed incest with his father’s widow and the latter’s niece, and held orgies in the papal palace. If you are wondering how he found the time to lead religious services, rest assured that he seldom bothered; he preferred to spend his Sundays hunting.

While the popes thus sinned and intrigued, another sort of dissipation was putting paid to any remaining semblance of Charlemagne’s unified empire. Already by the middle of the ninth century, it had fractured into three separate kingdoms, only one of them able to call itself the Holy Roman Empire at any given time — an honor the popes sold dearly. Yet, for all that his empire proved short-lived, that doesn’t diminish Charlemagne’s importance in the grand sweep of history. For Western Europe after him was a very different place than it had been before him — more settled, less febrile, more recognizable to modern eyes. Two of the three kingdoms into which Charlemagne’s empire split would become the nucleus of modern France and Germany. (The third, so-called “middle” kingdom, which lay in an unenviable position sandwiched between the other two, would be gradually absorbed by its larger, stronger neighbors.) The continent as we now know it was taking shape.

This emerging Christendom was still forced to contend with warlike peoples to its north and east who had yet to embrace the one true faith. The Vikings of Scandinavia were the terror of the age on both land and sea, what with their martial mythology of Thor, Odin, and Valhalla that stood in stark contrast to Jesus’s rhetoric of peace and love. “The number of ships grows, the endless stream of Vikings never ceases to increase,” wrote one despairing Christian chronicler. “The Vikings conquer everything in their path and nothing resists them.” At their peak, they occupied fully half of the island of Britain and much of the space that is filled today by the Low Countries; they even made it far enough south to lay siege to Paris on occasion. Often the only way to halt their depredations was to pay them off in the gold and jewels they coveted.

But where swords and spears failed the Christians, the intrinsic appeal of their religion came through for them in the end, as even these fierce northern warriors proved unable to resist the promise of eternal life carried to them by the brave Christian missionaries who dared to proselytize in Scandinavia itself. Sometimes the evangelizers were martyred for their efforts, but the seed they planted slowly grew. Legend has it that, in about 960, a captured missionary was brought before King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, who demanded that his prisoner prove the existence of this God of his by picking up a red-hot poker with his bare hands. The missionary did so, and was not burnt. And so King Harald converted. The old beliefs would live on in parts of Scandinavia for a couple of centuries or more to come, but the trend was inexorable. Christianity was conquering yet another piece of Europe.

In fact, by the year 1000, the religion was dominant across most of Europe, having driven away or converted the vast majority of its enemies. At this time, the title of Holy Roman Emperor belonged to a Saxon dynasty that ruled over the territory of modern Germany. Meanwhile France was now in the hands of one Hugh Capet, whose descendants would remain that country’s monarchs until the very idea of a French monarchy was banished once and for all in the nineteenth century. England too was united under a Christian king, as was Denmark, while the religion was also making major inroads among the Swedes, the Poles, the Hungarians, and the Croats. The Byzantine Christians were making converts in Bulgaria and the empire of Kievan Rus (the forerunner to modern Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus). On the Iberian Peninsula, the Muslim caliphate that had once threatened the entire continent was tottering, with Christian kingdoms encroaching further and further into its territory from the north. It was only a matter of time until the few remaining non-Christian enclaves of Europe fell before the indomitable will of Christ.

Europe in the year 1000. (Mandramunjak)

And yet all was not peace and mutual good wishes inside Christendom. The Latin and Greek incarnations of the faith, which had been pulling against one another for centuries, finally split apart completely barely 50 years into the new millennium. It would be nice to be able to write that the proximate cause of Christianity’s first great schism was some sort of urgent moral dispute. But alas, it was not. Christendom split in two over a recipe for bread.

The ceremony of the Eucharist — a Greek word whose literal meaning is “Thanksgiving” — stems from something Jesus says in the Gospel of John.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life.

I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

It might seem more than reasonable to argue that, when Jesus speaks of giving his flesh “for the life of the world,” he is speaking strictly metaphorically, foreshadowing the sacrifice on the cross that he knows is coming. But within a few hundreds years after that sacrifice, Christians had begun to take his words more literally. At the ceremony of the Eucharist, worshipers ingested specially blessed bread and wine, which according to a doctrine known as transubstantiation became the actual flesh and blood of Christ at the moment of their blessing.

Latin and Greek Christianity agreed on all of the above. The dispute arose over what type of bread should be used in the Eucharist. The God of the Old Testament insists to his followers that on holy days they must eat only unleavened bread — i.e., bread made without yeast. The Latin Christians assumed for consistency’s sake that he still felt the same, and so used unleavened bread in the Eucharist. But the Greek Christians argued, by no means unreasonably, that the New Covenant initiated by Jesus had superseded all that had come before; Christians had, after all, ceased abiding by all sorts of other strictures of Judaism, from the requirement that they not eat pork to the requirement that all males of the faith be circumcised. Why, then, should this stipulation still apply and not any of those others? They raised something of an epistemological argument as well: was unleavened bread really bread at all? Wasn’t the presence of yeast bread’s defining attribute? With all this in mind, they explicitly required their priests to use leavened bread during the Eucharist. This point of contention had been festering for centuries.

In 1054, Pope Leo IX, who had taken on the mantle of reformer of a Roman Church in dire need of it, decided enough was enough. He sent a representative to Constantinople bearing a writ of excommunication for the patriarch there, the nearest Eastern equivalent to the Western pope. In what must have been a very dramatic scene, his messenger strode into the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, where the patriarch was personally conducting a service. Then he slammed the document down on the altar and marched out again, contemptuously shaking the dust of the place from his shoes, while the worshipers in the pews jeered. In theological terminology, the Christians of the West and East had gone “out of communion” with one another, meaning they no longer considered each other to be adherents of the same religion at all. There were now two Christianities in the world.

Seen from one perspective, the schism was a dismaying development for a religion that had been born with a call for ending petty sectarian strife such as this and remaking the world on Jesus’s principles of universal peace and social justice. But seen from the perspective of realpolitik, it strengthened the hand of the Roman popes enormously. No longer did they have to moderate their statements to maintain the strained relationship with their fellow Christians of the East. From now on, the pope could claim to be the holy father, full stop — God’s one and only anointed representative on Earth, at the head of his one and only Church, the only path to salvation for all of the souls on Earth. To claim anything else would now be heresy according to Church doctrine.

And soon there came a pope who was ready to press this advantage to the full. Thanks to the split with Constantinople, Pope Gregory VII was, writes Diarmaid MacCulloch,

free to pursue the programme of Church reform which now had all Europe as its canvas, and which, in a series of formal statements entered into his administrative register, was centred on the definition of the pope as universal monarch in a world where the Church would reign over all the rulers of the Earth. This one man’s vision can be compared in its consequences over centuries with the vision of Karl Marx 800 years later; indeed, all the signs are that it will prove far longer-lasting in its effects.

Gregory VII held his office for an even shorter span of time than his august namesake Gregory the Great: from June of 1073 to May of 1085. Yet it was long enough to leave a mark on Catholic Christianity that has remained indelible to this day.

Gregory was born in Rome around 1020 under the name of Hildebrand. The story goes that, when he was a baby, his swaddling clothes gave off sparks of fire and a flaming halo could be seen around his head. Slightly more credibly, he is said to have had a vision as a young man, of Saint Paul shoveling manure out of a monastery. The metaphor was plain: Paul was cleansing the Church of filthy sin, just as God expected the future Pope Gregory to do. When he became pope as the capstone to a long ecclesiastical career, he operated from two basic principles: that the Church must become more holy, and that it must become more dominant in the day-to-day affairs of the world. He saw no tension between these two things.

In the service of his first agenda, Gregory broadened and deepened the reforms within the Church that Pope Leo IX had begun to implement before him. Many Catholics of today are surprised to learn that there was no ironclad requirement prior to Gregory VII that clergymen be unmarried and celibate. It was Gregory who declared that such familial baggage constituted an untenable conflict of interest for priests whose first and only loyalty ought to be to their God and the Church that served him. Many priests were already married at the time, and were thus forced to choose between giving up their holy calling or giving up their families. Some simply ignored the new rules, leading the uncompromising Gregory to excommunicate them if and when he learned of their defiance. Even such harsh measures as this weren’t able to end the practice of priestly marriage immediately in all of the remote nooks and crannies of Western Christendom, but Gregory certainly set the process in motion. By the thirteenth century, a married priest would be unheard of. (Which doesn’t mean that all of the clergy were celibate at this or any other date, of course…)

Gregory came down hard on corruption and venality in the Church everywhere that he found it, wielding the hammer of excommunication freely against those priests and bishops who extorted money and goods from the poorest of their flocks, as well as those who sold absolution to the richest sinners for coinage in lieu of more uncomfortable forms of penance. The latter practice, known as the selling of indulgences, made a sort of à la carte menu out of sins: so much for a bit of adultery, so much for a spot of gambling, etc., up to and including the ultimate sin of murder. By threatening the priestly waiters in this restaurant of sin with excommunication, Gregory was largely able to put a stop to the practice, if only for the time being. (As we’ll learn much later in this book, the selling of indulgences would come back with a vengeance in later centuries, becoming the proximate cause of the second great schism in Christian history.)

It is difficult to adequately convey today just what a terrifying weapon excommunication was to an individual of the Medieval mindset. To be excluded from the Holy Mother Church was to be excluded from any hope of salvation, to be condemned to an eternity of torment in the fires of Hell. And make no mistake: Hell may not have have been described in any explicit way in the Bible, but it was the farthest thing from a speculative abstraction during the Middle Ages. It was a real prospect, in some ways more so than the promise of an infinite life of peace and ease in Heaven.

In compensation for the strict ascetic code by which he expected his clergymen to live, Gregory demanded that laypeople treat the officers of the Church with enormous worldly deference. This demand applied most of all to himself, the man at the head of the Church. Not long after becoming pope, he issued an extraordinary pronouncement of the honors and powers that naturally went with his office. “[The pope] alone can use imperial insignia”; “The pope’s feet are to be kissed by all princes”; “It is licit for him to depose emperors”; “No synod [an assembly for discussing and making determinations about theological questions] ought to be called ‘general’ without his command”; “He ought to be judged by no one.” The pope, that is to say, should be considered at least as far above the kings of the world as said kings were above the peasants who toiled in their fields. For, just as peasants must obey the dictates of kings, so must kings obey the dictates of the pope. After all, said Gregory,

Who does not know that kings and rulers are sprung from men who were ignorant of God, who by pride, robbery, perfidy, murders, in a word, by almost every crime at the prompting of the Devil, who is the prince of this world, have striven with blood cupidity and intolerable presumption to dominate over their equals, that is, over mankind. Who can doubt that the priests of Christ are to be considered the fathers and the masters of kings and princes and all the faithful?

Needless to say, the kings of Europe weren’t overly fond of Gregory. Nor, for that matter, were many powerful bishops and priests, whose cushy lives of ease and luxury were being overturned by his new rules about celibacy, indulgences, and all the rest. These clergymen were more inclined to cast their lots with the kings of this world than with their own holy father. At bottom, it was a case of two competing visions of the Church. Was it to be a highly centralized, supremely authoritative institution, as Gregory desired, or was it to continue to be a decentralized body that was deferential to royal authority and local customs, as it had more or less been since the time of Charlemagne?

The nub of the issue was the question of “investiture.” Again, many modern Catholics would doubtless be surprised to learn that the popes before Gregory VII’s time had little to no authority to invest — i.e., to appoint — bishops beyond Rome. This was typically done by the kings of the lands in question or by their lieutenants, who were of course motivated to choose men who were amicable to their wishes. Gregory, however, wished to replace this system too with one driven exclusively from Rome.

One of the monarchs who especially disliked Gregory’s new order was Henry IV of Saxony, who as the current Holy Roman Emperor ought to have been the king who was most simpatico with the pope in Rome. That fact notwithstanding, in early 1076 he called on his own initiative an assembly of disgruntled bishops — some of whom had already been excommunicated — to the Rhineland city of Worms, in direct defiance of one of Gregory’s recently declared sole prerogatives. (“No synod ought to be called ‘general’ without his command.”) The message this gathering sent back to Rome was blunt: “Let another sit upon Saint Peter’s throne.” The address written on the envelope that contained the message was even more insolent: “From Henry, king by God’s ordinance, to Hildebrand, not pope, but false monk.”

This sort of blatant kingly interference in the Church’s affairs had been by no means uncommon during recent centuries. Gregory’s reaction, however, left no doubt that he considered a new era to have dawned: rather than step down as he had been so peremptorily ordered to do, he excommunicated Henry IV, along with everyone else who had attended the assembly in Worms who hadn’t been excommunicated already. Then he formally released all of Henry’s subjects from their oath of obedience to the Holy Roman Emperor. In fact, he declared, it was not just their right but their duty to God to rebel against this “antichrist.”

It was a bold move to say the least, backed only by the conviction of a true believer. Henry, by contrast, had the strongest military in Europe at his beck and call. But, in another astonishing testimony to the Medieval mindset, Gregory’s gambit worked. Henry’s empire evaporated around him under the threat of eternal damnation. A scribe in the service of the pope recorded how, less than one year after he had called his high-handed assembly to show Gregory who was boss, Henry

came in person [to the pope], bringing with him only a small retinue. He presented himself at the gate, barefoot and clad only in wretched woolen garments, beseeching us with tears to grant him absolution and forgiveness. This he continued to do for three days, while all those about us were moved to compassion at his plight, and interceded for him with tears and prayers. At length, we removed the excommunication from him and received him again into the bosom of the Holy Mother Church.

The scene of Henry IV’s humiliation was not Rome but rather Canossa Castle in northern Italy, where Pope Gregory VII had taken shelter while he waited for his dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor to be resolved. The ruins of the castle still exist today. (Simona65)

The spectacle of the emperor groveling in the snow for an audience with the pope was the very picture of the new age of papal authority which Gregory was earnestly striving to bring about. He had defeated the most rarefied temporal monarch in his world without firing a shot, then driven him to publicly humiliate himself in the basest imaginable fashion in order to restore himself to papal favor. Gregory’s message was clear: from now on, he said, European kings would reign only at the sufferance of the pope.

Unfortunately for Gregory, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was the most cunning European monarch since Charlemagne, being a man always prepared to do the needful in the moment without ceasing to think about the longer term. He proved this as soon as he got through kneeling before the pope. With that distasteful act having restored his temporal authority, Henry set about devising a more methodical method of working his political will.

In 1080, three years after his humiliation in the snow, Henry called another council of bishops and priests who were unhappy with Gregory’s reforms. Despite having no formal authority to do so, this group voted to depose and excommunicate Gregory on the spot, electing in his place a new pope named Clement III from their own ranks. Predictably enough, Gregory in turn excommunicated Henry, the “antipope” Clement, and everyone else involved in the affair as soon as he heard the news, and once again called upon Henry’s subjects to revolt. But his royal rival had anticipated this and prepared for it beforehand. When Henry declared that Clement was the real pope and Gregory the antipope, some but not all of his citizens believed him.

The Holy Roman Empire was plunged into a civil war that also engulfed the Papal States. The tide gradually turned in Henry’s favor. In 1084, Gregory was forced to flee Rome in the face of Henry’s invading army, leaving the city to Clement. Gregory died the following year. “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity,” he sniffed in his final hours. “Therefore I die in exile.”

It appeared that Henry’s vision of the relationship between Church and monarch had won out, that he had forcibly restored the papacy to a position of subservience to the Holy Roman Emperor. But, as we will see, it was the spirit of Gregory VII who would get the last laugh. His vision of a Holy Mother Church that reigned supreme over all the kings and emperors of Europe had been delayed but not abolished.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

16 Comments for "Chapter 3: A Deposer of Emperors"

  • Ilmari Jauhiainen

    Great article, but in the current geopolitical situation I’d be wary of saying things like “the Byzantine Christians had won over the Russians”. The straightforward link between Kievan Rus, which I assume you are referring to, and later Russian empire is contentious at best, the former being centred around Kiev and the latter around Moscow, and with centuries of Mongol rule between them. What’s more, the Russian propaganda has always used and still uses this historically contentious link to justify their regarding Ukraine as inherently belonging to the cultural and political sphere of Russia. The phrase you use may seem innocent enough, but it has its dark undertones.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks! I confess to not knowing much about the claims to history used to justify the war. I changed the sentence.

  • Leo Vellés

    “wielding the the hammer of excommunication”. A double “the” there Jimmy. By the way, another great entry, as usual

    • Jimmy Maher


  • Sir Harrok

    Another great essay!

  • The Pachyderminator

    > At the ceremony of the Eucharist, worshipers ingested specially blessed bread and wine, which according to a doctrine known as transubstantiation became the actual flesh and blood of Christ as they were swallowed.

    I don’t think this is correct. Eucharistic doctrine holds that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ at the consecration takes place, not at the time of consumption. Hence all the rituals involving the display or procession of the consecrated elements, which would make no sense if transubstantiation only occurs later. (Also, I don’t know if the word “transubstantiation” was in widespread use at the time of the east/west split, though the idea was essentially the same.)

    • Jimmy Maher

      Yes, that makes sense. Thanks!

  • Michael

    > Meanwhile the Byzantine Christian were making major inroads in Bulgaria and Kievan Rus

    “Christians were”, or “Christianity was” perhaps? I think “Kievan Rus” might also need a “the”

    • Jimmy Maher

      Kievan Rus’ is the name of the state, so no “the” is required. Thanks!

  • Peter Olausson

    Thanks for another splendid post.

    Worth mentioning the name of the place where Henry humiliated himself? Especially since it’s been used for acts of penance or submissions, even since von Bismarck, in a very different setting, said, on behalf of his country, that ”We will not go to Canossa!”.

    • Jimmy Maher

      I try to keep the number of such passing proper nouns to a minimum for readability’s sake, but perhaps you’re right in this case. I added a picture. Thanks!

  • Steve T

    I understand that you are focusing on the political and cultural issues in the Church, rather than the theological, but the Great Schism was based on more than the type of bread. Among several other issues, there was a division over iconography, specifically whether religious images could be used. The East, similar to Islam today, prohibited nearly all religious images. If that had remained as the rule within Christianity the Sistene Chapel would never have been illustrated. Also, the theological division was over the role of Jesus within the Trinity, hardly a small issue. Typically termed the ‘filioque controversy’ the East for centuries had placed God the Father in a higher position than God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

    • Jimmy Maher

      While there certainly was a whole range of variant practice between West and East, I believe based on my readings that the issue of leavened versus unleavened bread really was front and center among them. In Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes, Eamon Duffy introduces the schism by writing how “a deepening rift opened between East and West, with the Byzantine Church denouncing Latin liturgical practices like the use of unleavened bread in the Mass, and the pope making ever stronger claims of papal supremacy.” In Christianity: The First 3000 Years, Diarmaid MacCulloch states that “the immediate issue” behind the schism was “a dispute about eucharistic bread.” In his capsule biography of Pope Leo IX in Lives of the Popes, Richard P. McBrien tells how the Eastern Church “vehemently attacked various Latin practices, including the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist.” And in The Age of Faith, Will Durant tells how the Eastern establishment “closed all those churches in Constantinople that observed the Latin ritual [i.e., using unleavened bread], and excommunicated all clergy who should persist in its use.” I find it telling that all of these diverse scholars and many others mention the Eucharist bread first, and often exclusively.

      That said, and as you allude, a different, less sweeping sort of history might wish to include more nuance about these things. Even when writing, I was leery of being too flippant. But it really does seem that a recipe for bread was the most dominant ostensible — and that adjective is important; the real dispute was at least as political as theological — reason behind the schism.

  • Will Moczarski

    Eucharist — a Latin word whose literal meaning is “Thanksgiving”

    -> A Greek word, actually. It is used as the most common phrase for “thank you” in modern Greek to this day (usually romanized as efcharistó but that’s due to its pronounciation; it comes from the same word).

    (One can’t help but be reminded of the Blefuscudians and the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels, who go to war over whether the faithful should crack their eggs at the big end or the small end.)

    -> I understand perfectly well what you mean to express here but it feels anachronistic to put it this way. It’s a question of perspective, of course, but I would find it more natural to write that Swift’s book echoed the argument at the core of the schism.

    • Will Moczarski

      Whoops, pronunciation, of course.

    • Jimmy Maher



Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RSS Articles Feed
RSS Comments Feed
Twitter: DigiAntiquarian

All writings on this site except reader comments are copyright Jimmy Maher. All rights reserved.