A walk to Canossa

by Thomas Stiegler

The quote “a trip to Canossa” is still used today to describe a humiliating plea to which one is forced by external circumstances.

It was already used in this sense by the German Chancellor Bismarck, who in his 18th Reichstag speech, referring to the rejection of a German envoy to the Holy See, concluded with the words: “Don’t worry, we are not going to Canossa, neither physically nor mentally.

With this phrase, which has since become a winged word, he referred to the climax of the medieval investiture dispute between the German King Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII.

The investiture dispute. At first glance, this conflict was about the right of investiture, i.e. the right to appoint bishops and abbots to their church offices, but behind this was the much older question of whether the emperor or the pope was the head of Christendom.

The Pope based his claim on the so-called doctrine of dual authority from the 5th century, which divided the world into a secular and a spiritual part and did not ascribe any spiritual power to the secular ruler as a layman.

The German emperors, on the other hand, saw themselves as direct descendants of the canonized Charlemagne and therefore felt called by God himself to rule over the Christian West.

 

In the High Middle Ages it became customary for secular rulers to claim the right of investiture and to confer high ecclesiastical offices at their discretion.

This of course brought some important advantages. For on the one hand, the bishops, as secular lords, were powerful princes of the empire, who, as directly appointed vassals of the king, were bound to loyalty to him, which in a time of fiefdom was an important pillar of royal power.

On the other hand, due to their celibacy they left no descendants, so that the king was able to fill these offices again with loyal followers after their death.

But when in the year 1073 the monk Hildebrand was elected pope (contrary to the custom at that time not by an election but by acclamation of the Roman people), this should change.

As Gregory VII he was a declared advocate of the doctrine of the branch of authority and in his decree “Dictatus Papae” he insisted that the pope was the supreme lord of Christendom and that he, true to his motto “All kingdoms are fiefdoms of Peter”, had the power to depose even kings.

This of course meant a massive attack on the rights of the German kings.

Henry IV, who at that time was at the first peak of his power (shortly before he had completely defeated the people of the Saxons in a bloody campaign), believed he could ignore this demand.

Convinced that he was king by the grace of God and thus also the head of the Church, he awarded the Milan bishop’s chair to one of his confidants.

 

But in doing so, he misjudged the new conditions in Rome, for Gregory VII, who was also referred to as “God’s rod” in passing, was unwilling to accept this curtailment of his power.

In the winter of 1075, he sent a letter to the German king concerning the “Milan affair”, in which he urged him to “obey the apostolic chair as is proper for a Christian king”.

Henry IV, however, convinced of the legitimacy of his claims, responded in complete disregard of reality, saying: “So you who are condemned, come down, leave the apostolic chair you have assumed… I, Henry, King by the grace of God, together with all my bishops, say to you: Come down, come down!”

 

Gregory VII then took a measure that would throw the whole Christian world into turmoil: he excommunicated the German king with the words

“l… denounce King Henry… the government of the whole Kingdom of Germany and Italy, and release all Christians from the bonds of the oath they have taken to him… and forbid anyone to serve him as king.”

 

This ban had far-reaching consequences for Heinrich.

Although the German bishops refused to recognise the papal decree, so Heinrich was able to continue to receive the sacraments.

But by dissolving all the oaths of allegiance that bound Heinrich’s subjects to him as king, he was effectively deposed.

The result was inner-German fighting between the warring camps, and at the princely assembly in Trebur it became clear that the king had to act if he did not want to lose his kingdom and crown.
Of course, the nobles acted less from Christian motives than from pure power calculations.

For every weakening of Henry IV also meant a weakening of the central power and served their efforts to establish themselves permanently in the principalities given in fief by the king, i.e. to shake off the king’s feudal rule.

But for the king this would have meant the loss of power over the free allocation of the highest offices of state, as well as the loss of financial means and the secure military following from these territories.

 

To prevent this, the then 26-year-old Henry went to Italy to meet the Pope.

However, this was more difficult than expected, because the southern dukes blocked the Alpine crossings and Henry had to take the long and dangerous detour via Burgundy and Mont Cenis.

The strenuous crossing of the Alps was described by the historian Lampert von Hersfeld as follows: “Sometimes they would crawl forward on their hands and feet, sometimes they would lean on the shoulders of their guides; sometimes, when their foot slipped on the slippery ground, they would fall and slide down quite a distance; finally they reached the plain at great risk of their lives. The queen and the other women of her retinue put them on cattle skins and […] pulled them down on them.“

 

The paths of Henry and the Pope finally crossed in the Po Valley. Gregory, who was on his way to the Reichstag in Augsburg, took refuge in Canossa Castle, for he did not know whether Henry and his accompanying troops were hostile to him.

For it would have been easy for the German king to take the pope prisoner and insist on the annulment of his ban.

Heinrich, however, decided to make a public penance in the cold winter of the Alps: “Here he stood, after having taken off his royal robes, without all the insignia of royal dignity, without displaying the slightest splendour, barefoot and sober, from morning till evening […]. This is how he behaved on the second and third day. Finally, on the fourth day, he was admitted to him [Gregory], and after many speeches and arguments he was finally […] released from the ban.”

 

However, we must not take this description at face value, for it too is by Lampert von Hersfeld, who was a loyal follower of the Pope and a party member of the aristocratic opposition.

Rather, holding out for several days in a penitential shirt (25-28 January 1077) was a common penitential act of the time, which was strictly formalized and in which no one was harmed.

In any case, Heinrich achieved through his “Go to Canossa” that he was freed from the ban and regained his freedom of action.

After his return to Germany and numerous battles, he was to rule as king and later as emperor for more than 40 years, while Gregory VII entered the Kingdom of God only five years after his victory at Canossa.

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