The History of Medieval Italy

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The history of medieval Italy


The history of medieval European states was significantly influenced by plenty of confrontations between the state, which was represented by emperors, and the church that was represented by the popes. By the end of the 11th century, the secular power, instead of church, had enjoyed the right to assign bishops, which was in contradiction with the theoretical idea of ​​the popes’ comprehensive power. This situation was possible because of the enormous disparity in the balance of power (Cantor 153). Since the 8th century, the papacy depended on secular rulers, the first Frankish kings, and later – the German emperors. Five out of 25 popes had deposed, while 12 had been enthroned between 955 and 1057. Random people became priests, even those who did not belong to the clergy. Selling church offices was a commonplace thing. Thus, bishops were simultaneously big landowners. They received parcels of land from the emperor, and in return, they took the vassal obligations (Waley and Dean 112). The secular power, in turn, needed the support of bishops. Of course, it could not be satisfied with such a strong dependence of bishops on the emperor and it caused confrontation. The struggle with the secularization of the church started in the 10th century. In 1059, the College of Cardinals was established with the exclusive right to elect the pope. The next step was to try to retrieve the right to appoint bishops. The dualism of secular and religious authority, which was so typical for the medieval Europe, caused bitter rivalry between the popes and secular rulers, who were the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, concerning the priority of their power. This can be easily proved by the three of those conflicts, and each of them happened with a different pope and emperor.

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The First Conflict

The first conflict between the emperor and the pope emerged, leading to the period called Investiture Controversy. Thus, obvious confrontation arose between ambitious Pope Gregory VII and the Emperor Henry IV. The reason for this was a controversial election of the Archbishop of Milan. In 1075, the Pope forbade the Emperor to assign prelates and dismissed several German bishops. In response, the Emperor gathered German higher clergy in Worms and announced the deposition of the Pope. Then, the Pope unchurched Henry and freed his vassals from any allegiance obligations. The German princes immediately took advantage of this, having stated that they refused to obey the emperor. Thus, Henry IV had no choice but to admit his defeat (Tellenbach 201).

In 1077, Henry IV crossed the Alps with a group of guards and met with the Pope in the castle of Canossa in Northern Italy. Deprived of the royal clothes, barefoot, and hungry, he waited for three days for the permission to meet the Pope. Pope granted him his pardon and temporarily went out of confrontation. In the meantime, the German princes elected the Duke of Swabia Rudolph to be the new ruler of Germany. In the following years, Henry suppressed internal opposition, and the Pope remained neutral. Only when Henry regained his power, the Pope acknowledged Rudolf and again subjected Henry to anathema. Soon, Rudolf was killed, and Henry nominated a new pope, Clement III, who crowned him in the occupied city of Rome (Waley and Dean 176). Later, Gregory VII called the South Italian Normans who severely looted Rome which caused discontent of the population. It was no accident that the Pope had been forced to flee to the Southern Italy and to live in exile until his death.

Consequences of the First Conflict

The consequence of the first conflict was the later development of the papal curia. Since 1100, instead of the previous designation Ecclesia Romana (the Roman Church), the Curia Romana (Roman Curia) was used henceforth. Curia consisted of two institutions – the Papal Chancery, which was headed by Cardinal-Chancellor, and fiscal Chamber (Camera thesauraria) that dealt with the economic affairs of the Holy See and then ran the Papal State (Tellenbach 93). The administrative center of the Papal States was the Lateran Palace in Rome. The territory of the Papal States was divided into administrative units, the provinces that were headed by the rector appointed by the pope. Since the 12th century, curia institutions have rapidly evolved.

Another consequence was that the pope had no longer conferred with the local councils; instead, he consulted with the Cardinals. Thus, the papal church administration, along with the curia, could also rely on the consultative body uniting Cardinals. A hierarchy of cardinals was formed, thus dividing them into three parts. Seven cardinal bishops of higher rank, those who were in close proximity to Rome, were Velletri, Porto, Albano, Sabine, Frascati, Palestrina, and Ostia. They were followed by 28 cardinal presbyters who headed some of the Roman churches. The lowest category of the cardinals included cardinal-deacons who performed their functions in the church administration and in the service of charity; they were headed by the archdeacon (Mason).

The Second Conflict

The second conflict was about Friedrich Barbarossa’s struggle with the papacy. The German Hohenstaufen Dynasty had some great personalities like Frederick I. Being nicknamed as a Redbeard (Barbarossa) by the Italians, he remained on the throne for almost the entire second half of the 12th century. He restored peace in Germany, won the war against House of Welf, and went to Italy to get the imperial crown. At that time, the republican movement against the Pope and the nobility had gained momentum among the common people in Rome; this movement was headed by a scholastic theologian Arnold of Brescia who was suspected of heresy. The insurgents captured the city, and they would have willingly recognized Friedrich Barbarossa as the emperor, had the latter not been afraid of such a revolution. He hastened to restore Pope Adrian IV to his rights and then executed Arnold (Cantor 58). However, North Italian regions, such as Lombardy and Tuscany, having become a real republic, did not want to agree Barbarossa’s request to restore his royal rights. First, the emperor broke the resistance of the Lombards, who were headed by Milan and, having destroyed the city, appointed his own judges there and obliged the local population to pay cash contributions.

Meanwhile, after death of Adrian IV had returned the power by Barbarossa, some cardinals chose one pope, while others chose another one. To resolve the dispute, the Emperor called the Council in Pavia, to which the bishops from all over Germany and Italy arrived, but one of them did not want to come, considering himself independent of the Council. It was Alexander III, the defender of the theocratic ideal of papacy. The Council decided in favor of his opponent, but other countries did not want to accept the German masters of the world and took the side of Alexander III. In France, the latter had even found an asylum, from which he unchurched the emperor. Then, the Lombards again rose against Frederick Barbarossa and rebuilt the ruined city of Milan (Tellenbach 132). The Emperor waged a war against them without sufficient armed forces, and his most powerful vassal, the Duke of Bavaria Henry the Lion of House of Welf, refused to help him. It was considered that Frederick had asked him for help on his knees, but if this were true, this obviously showed the weakness of the Holy Roman empire at that time. In Legnano, the Lombards defeated Friedrich Barbarossa, and it forced him to forget about the subordination of the pope and the Italian city-states (Halsall). Peace between the church and the secular power of Western Christianity was sealed during a meeting of both of them in Venice, during which the Emperor kneeled before the Pope. Having restored his authority in Germany, Friedrich Barbarossa lost his life in the Third Crusade.

Consequences of the Second Conflict

The main consequence of the second conflict between the church and the state was that after the last great crusade, serious military campaigns in Palestine ended. The importance of these wars was in the fact that it was not about their duration and conquest but about the result of contact between the Christian spiritual and material culture and those of the Arab East. As it later turned out, the East again positively influenced Europe. While traveling to Palestine, crusaders started to treat the East with respect rather than hostility. Culture and the luxury of Byzantium brought a sense of wonder and envy among the crusader troops.  

After the extraordinary death of the last knight Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the German throne was occupied by his son Henry VI who was crowned to be the emperor by Pope Celestine III. In 1194, Henry also took the Sicilian throne, and the island was united with the empire (Mason). Thus, he became sovereign over Italy, with the exception of the Papal State. Henry moved the center of the empire to the south, in Sicily. Thus, Germany acquired a secondary meaning for him. His death came early, depriving him of the opportunity to fulfill his conceived plan to create a world empire with the center in the Mediterranean region. Therefore, the issue of the final settling of scores between the pope and the imperial power was not resolved but only postponed by almost two decades.

The Third Conflict

The third conflict took place when Pope Innocent III occupied the papal throne in the late 12th and early 13th century. After Gregory VII, it was the most wonderful medieval pope. Innocent III came from a count’s family, he studied law in Bologna and theology in Paris and became the Pope even though he was not 40 yet. His reign was a solid success for papal authority that Innocent III has strengthened greatly. Despising the world, as he stated in his book On the Contempt for the World and the Human Disasters, he thereby struggled with the world to subjugate it. His ideal was a worldwide theocracy Pope, and he even introduced directly into the teaching of canon law that papal power was above the secular, and that the pope had the right to dismiss sovereigns and to interfere with all political affairs. He was not satisfied with the title of vicar of Saint Peter and he began to call himself the vicar of Christ. According to his theory, the transfer of rights of the empire of the Greeks to the Franks was a matter of papal counsel (Cantor 49).

Having recognized the emperor of Welf at first, Innocent III unchurched him and then crowned Frederick II Hohenstaufen, which he himself had first denied. In other countries, he also established the rule and full power of papal authority. The French King Philip II Augustus, who remarried while his first wife was still alive, was forced by Innocent III to abandon his second wife and bring back the first one. The Pope imposed an interdict on France and the king had to concede defeat. John of England did not want to recognize the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed by the pope. Consequently, Innocent III unchurched him, deprived of the throne, granting it to the French king, and declared a crusade against England itself (Tellenbach 140). Then, John proclaimed himself as a vassal of the Pope, putting his crown at the feet of his legate. Other kings of the West also recognized the papal authority over them. When Innocent III formed the Latin Empire, one more crusade was carried out. His rule is also sometimes connected with the introduction of the inquisition and the establishment of the University of Paris. Finally, this pope deprived the laity of the right to receive communion and read the Bible. The successors of Innocent III supported his policies and continued to fight with the empire in the name of Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica).

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Having occupied the imperial throne, Frederick II changed the policy of his predecessors. Those were German kings, but they had Italian mother, Italian education, and Italian sympathies. He was not much interested in Germany, and he even recognized the rights of German princes as long as they assisted him in the war. On the contrary, in Southern Italy, he sought to make his power autocratic. Being an extraordinarily intelligent and energetic man, Frederick II grew up in a constant contact with the Greeks and Saracens in his Neapolitan state. He was interested in secular philosophy, he eagerly talked with Arab scholars on subjects, such as the immortality of the soul, patronized schools in its capital and Salerno, and in matters of faith, he showed a free-thinking attitude or even indifference. Even though he had taken the fifth crusade, it was a purely political measure. Following Ghibelline policy in Italy, Frederick II met here with the strong Guelph opposition represented by the popes and the cities in Northern and Central Italy (Waley and Dean 176). The successors of Innocent III, whom Innocent IV had been seen dealing with it and who called Hohenstaufen the most indomitable malice, had a fierce war with him. Frederick II was declared unchurched and deprived of the throne, and his tenure was imposed interdict. After the emperor’s death, his son Conrad IV reigned Germany only for four years, but then, it was a great interregnum in this country as South Italy had been given by Pope to the French Prince Charles of Anjou. Following the steps of Frederick II, his son Manfred was defeated; likewise, the attempt of young Conradin, son of Conrad IV, to take Sicily and Naples from the French ended in the complete failure of the applicant and with his subsequent execution (Mason).

Consequences of the Third Conflict

The main consequence of the third conflict was the fall of the Hohenstaufen in the middle of the 13th century. The struggle with the papacy led to the fall of the imperial power in the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation. Empire itself became now just a fiction. Italy and Germany were disconnected, and both were quite fragmented. However, the papal power, which appeared victorious from the struggle, soon fell into disrepair. Popes found support in the Italian cities, as they were afraid to come under the power of the German kings, who called themselves the Roman emperors, but with the disappearance of danger in Italy, the terrible civil wars of cities began. Therefore, Popes were no longer comfortable living in Rome, and at the beginning of the 14th century, they moved their residence to the French city of Avignon (Tellenbach 139). On the other hand, the power of the national kings at this time became stronger, and the fight with them became difficult. Finally, the anti-pope Hohenstaufen began to take care of purely political interests and material resources more and more, even resorting to treachery and others similar methods of struggle, which, of course, only undermined their moral authority. Thus, the 14th-15th centuries were the time of terrible decline of the papacy.



To conclude, it is assumable that the confrontation between the church and the secular power in the medieval European countries has largely influenced the future history of the Holy See and Italy in terms of their structure, administrative and political issues. By the end of the 11th century, the secular authorities, instead of the church, had enjoyed the right to assign bishops, and this was in the contradiction with the theoretical idea of ​​the comprehensive power of the popes. This situation became possible because of the enormous disparity in the balance of power. The first conflict was the Investiture Controversy, and as the result, Pope Gregory VIII restored the right to appoint bishops. However, he was forced to flee from Rome, and he died in exile. The main consequence was the rapid development of the papal curia that gained independence from the secular power to assign bishops. The second conflict was Friedrich Barbarossa’s struggle with papacy. The main consequence of this confrontation between the church and the state was that after the last great crusade, serious military campaigns in Palestine ended. The third controversy took place when Pope Innocent III occupied the papal throne in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. He crowned Friedrich II, which he himself had first denied. Their conflict came ended with the fall of the Hohenstaufen in the middle of the 13th century. All the tree conflicts chosen could prove that Investiture Controversy and other disputes between the representatives of secular power and church were an indispensable part of the medieval European history, and their long-term consequences proved that as well.