POPE VS. EMPEROR
THE STRANGE DOUBLE LOYALTY OF THE PEOPLE OF THE MIDDLE AGES AND HOW IT LED TO ENDLESS QUARRELS BETWEEN THE POPES AND THE HOLY ROMAN EMPERORS
 IT is very difficult to understand the people of by-gone
ages. Your own grandfather, whom you see every day, is a
mysterious being who lives in a different world of ideas and
clothes and manners. I am now telling you the story of some
of your grandfathers who are twenty-five generations removed,
and I do not expect you to catch the meaning of what I write
without re-reading this chapter a number of times.
The average man of the Middle Ages lived a very simple
and uneventful life. Even if he was a free citizen, able to
come and go at will, he rarely left his own neighbourhood.
There were no printed books and only a few manuscripts.
Here and there, a small band of industrious monks taught
reading and writing and some arithmetic. But science and history
and geography lay buried beneath the ruins of Greece and
Whatever people knew about the past they had learned by
listening to stories and legends. Such information, which goes
from father to son, is often slightly incorrect in details, but
it will preserve the main facts of history with astonishing
accuracy. After more than two thousand years, the mothers of
India still frighten their naughty children by telling them that
 "Iskander will get them," and Iskander is none other than
Alexander the Great, who visited India in the year 330 before
the birth of Christ, but whose story has lived through all these
The people of the early Middle Ages never saw a textbook
of Roman history. They were ignorant of many things
which every school-boy to-day knows before he has entered
the third grade. But the Roman Empire, which is merely a
name to you, was to them something very much alive. They
felt it. They willingly recognised the Pope as their spiritual
leader because he lived in Rome and represented the idea of
the Roman super-power. And they were profoundly grateful
when Charlemagne, and afterwards Otto the Great, revived
the idea of a world-empire and created the Holy Roman
Empire, that the world might again be as it always had been.
But the fact that there were two different heirs to the
Roman tradition placed the faithful burghers of the Middle
Ages in a difficult position. The theory behind the mediaeval
political system was both sound and simple. While the worldly
master (the emperor) looked after the physical well-being of
his subjects, the spiritual master (the Pope) guarded their
In practice, however, the system worked very badly. The
Emperor invariably tried to interfere with the affairs of the
church and the Pope retaliated and told the Emperor how
he should rule his domains. Then they told each other to mind
their own business in very unceremonious language and the
inevitable end was war.
Under those circumstances, what were the people to do?
A good Christian obeyed both the Pope and his King. But
the Pope and the Emperor were enemies. Which side should
a dutiful subject and an equally dutiful Christian take?
It was never easy to give the correct answer. When the
Emperor happened to be a man of energy and was sufficiently
well provided with money to organise an army, he was very
apt to cross the Alps and march on Rome, besiege the Pope
 in his own palace if need be, and force His Holiness to obey
the imperial instructions or suffer the consequences.
But more frequently the Pope was the stronger. Then the
Emperor or the King together with all his subjects was
excommunicated. This meant that all churches were closed, that no
one could be baptised, that no dying man could be given absolution—in
short, that half of the functions of mediaeval government
came to an end.
More than that, the people were absolved from their oath of
loyalty to their sovereign and were urged to rebel against their
master. But if they followed this advice of the distant Pope
and were caught, they were hanged by their near-by Liege
Lord and that too was very unpleasant.
Indeed, the poor fellows were in a difficult position and
none fared worse than those who lived during the latter half of
the eleventh century, when the Emperor Henry IV of Germany
and Pope Gregory VII fought a two-round battle which
decided nothing and upset the peace of Europe for almost fifty
In the middle of the eleventh century there had been a
strong movement for reform in the church. The election of the
Popes, thus far, had been a most irregular affair. It was to the
advantage of the Holy Roman Emperors to have a well-disposed
priest elected to the Holy See. They frequently came
to Rome at the time of election and used their influence for
the benefit of one of their friends.
In the year 1059 this had been changed. By a decree of
Pope Nicholas II the principal priests and deacons of the
churches in and around Rome were organised into the
so-called College of Cardinals, and this gathering of prominent
churchmen (the word "Cardinal" meant principal) was given
the exclusive power of electing the future Popes.
In the year 1073 the College of Cardinals elected a priest
by the name of Hildebrand, the son of very simple parents in
Tuscany, as Pope, and he took the name of Gregory VII.
His energy was unbounded. His belief in the supreme powers
of his Holy Office was built upon a granite rock of conviction
 and courage. In the mind of Gregory, the Pope was not only
the absolute head of the Christian church, but also the highest
Court of Appeal in all worldly matters. The Pope who had
elevated simple German princes to the dignity of Emperor
could depose them at will. He could veto any law passed by
duke or king or emperor, but whosoever should question a
papal decree, let him beware, for the punishment would be
swift and merciless.
Gregory sent ambassadors to all the European courts to
inform the potentates of Europe of his new laws and asked
them to take due notice of their contents. William the Conqueror
promised to be good, but Henry IV, who since the age
of six had been fighting with his subjects, had no intention of
submitting to the Papal will. He called together a college of
German bishops, accused Gregory of every crime under the
sun and then had him deposed by the council of Worms.
The Pope answered with excommunication and a demand
that the German princes rid themselves of their unworthy ruler.
The German princes, only too happy to be rid of Henry, asked
the Pope to come to Augsburg and help them elect a new Emperor.
Gregory left Rome and travelled northward. Henry,
who was no fool, appreciated the danger of his position. At
all costs he must make peace with the Pope, and he must do
it at once. In the midst of winter he crossed the Alps and
hastened to Canossa where the Pope had stopped for a short
rest. Three long days, from the 25th to the 28th of January
of the year 1077, Henry, dressed as a penitent pilgrim
(but with a warm sweater
un-  derneath his monkish garb),
waited outside the gates of the castle of Canossa.
Then he was allowed to enter and was pardoned for
his sins. But the repentance did not last long.
As soon as Henry had returned to Germany, he behaved
exactly as before. Again he was excommunicated. For the
second time a council of German bishops deposed Gregory,
but this time, when Henry crossed the Alps he was at
the head of a large army, besieged Rome and forced Gregory
to retire to Salerno, where he died in exile. This first violent
outbreak decided nothing. As soon as Henry was back in
Germany, the struggle between Pope and Emperor was continued.
HENRY IV AT CANOSSA
The Hohenstaufen family which got hold of the Imperial
German Throne shortly afterwards, were even more independent
than their predecessors. Gregory had claimed that the
Popes were superior to all kings because they (the Popes) at
the Day of Judgement would be responsible for the behaviour
of all the sheep of their flock, and in the eyes of God, a king
was one of that faithful herd.
Frederick of Hohenstaufen, commonly known as Barbarossa
or Red Beard, set up the counter-claim that the Empire
had been bestowed upon his predecessor "by God himself"
and as the Empire included Italy and Rome, he began a campaign
which was to add these "lost provinces" to the northern
country. Barbarossa was accidentally drowned in Asia Minor
during the second Crusade, but his son Frederick II, a brilliant
young man who in his youth had been exposed to the civilisation
of the Mohammedans of Sicily, continued the war. The
Popes accused him of heresy. It is true that Frederick seems
to have felt a deep and serious contempt for the rough Christian
world of the North, for the boorish German Knights and
the intriguing Italian priests. But he held his tongue, went
on a Crusade and took Jerusalem from the infidel and was
duly crowned as King of the Holy City. Even this act did not
placate the Popes. They deposed Frederick and gave his
Italian possessions to Charles of Anjou, the brother of that
King Louis of France who became famous as Saint Louis.
 This led to more warfare. Conrad V, the son of Conrad IV,
and the last of the Hohenstaufens, tried to regain the kingdom,
and was defeated and decapitated at Naples. But twenty years
later, the French who had made themselves thoroughly unpopular
in Sicily were all murdered during the so-called Sicilian
Vespers, and so it went.
The quarrel between the Popes and the Emperors was
never settled, but after a while the two enemies learned to
leave each other alone.
In the year 1273, Rudolph of Hapsburg was elected Emperor.
He did not take the trouble to go to Rome to be
crowned. The Popes did not object and in turn they kept
away from Germany. This meant peace but two entire centuries
which might have been used for the purpose of internal
organisation had been wasted in useless warfare.
It is an ill wind however that bloweth no good to some one.
The little cities of Italy, by a process of careful balancing,
had managed to increase their power and their independence
at the expense of both Emperors and Popes. When the rush
for the Holy Land began, they were able to handle the transportation
problem of the thousands of eager pilgrims who were
clamoring for passage, and at the end of the Crusades they
had built themselves such strong defences of brick and of gold
that they could defy Pope and Emperor with equal indifference.
Church and State fought each other and a third party—the
mediaeval city—ran away with the spoils.