High Middle Ages: Election of Popes in Germany

From the Lecture Series: The High Middle Ages

By Philip Daileader, P.h.D., College of William and Mary

In the High Middle Ages, German rulers had a strong influence over the election of popes. There was no such law, but in practice, the emperor chose influential members of the Church from those in his favor. Every king prefers his supporters to be in high positions, but in Germany, the coronation ceremony was bound to the Church. It was complicated.

Statue of Pope John Paul II at Basilica square of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico city.
Election of popes was a fundamental matter in the High Middle Ages due to the powers that papacy had. (Image: Belikova Oksana/Shutterstock)

During the High Middle Ages, England tried its best to keep its power, and France made a noteworthy comeback story after no one had any hope in it anymore. But what about Germany? The history of the kingdom of Germany is one of disintegration.

Kingdom of Germany

Around the year 1000, Germany was one of the top powers in Europe. It was an important part of the Holy Roman Empire that also included northern Italy, and eventually, the region of Burgundy.

Kings of Germany were the entitled Emperor, which was not beneficial, but prestigious. It reminded them of big names such as Constantine, the first Roman Emperor who had converted to Christianity. However, by 1300, Germany and the Holy Roman Empire were not one anymore.

It took Germany until the mid-19th century to get reunified after breaking away from the Holy Roman Empire. Why did they break away?

This is a transcript from the video series The High Middle Ages. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Investiture Controversy

The Investiture Controversy was a result of some clerics’ efforts to stop the empire’s control over the Church. Obviously, the secular leaders neither liked nor supported it. Despite what it seems, the state dominated the Church more often than the Church could dominate the state.

The canon law said that bishops and abbots had to be elected by the local clergy, but usually, kings, emperors, counts, and dukes appointed them regardless of what the local clergy thought.

The Importance of Ecclesiastical Appointments

The first reason for the state controlling these appointments was the wealth associated with these positions. Having these positions under control meant they could reward them to whoever they wanted and gather a loyal company around.

Painting of Pope Pius VII in the Sistine Chapel.
In the beginning, the Kingdom of Germany was an important part of the Holy Roman Empire. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Holy Roman Emperors had control over the election of popes, which was the most important election back then. Initially, popes were supposed to be elected by all the inhabitants of Rome, which was never realized. Emperors simply appointed whoever they wanted, either through a pre-set election of popes or directly.

The next reason was the popes’ role in the coronation of the emperor— it was completely dependent on the pope. A pope against the emperor could give him a hard time and withhold the coronation until he got what he wanted from the empire.

Learn more about the women in the medieval ages.

The Ceremony of Elections of Popes

Due to all the reasons mentioned above, the emperors preferred appointing the popes themselves. However, bishops and abbots could still be elected by laypeople. The ceremony held after the election to present the bishop or abbot with his new responsibilities was called an “investiture”.

During an investiture, the newly elected or appointed bishop or abbot would present himself to the local secular ruler. The secular ruler had to hand over a staff and a ring to him so that he could fully use his powers of the new position.

However, there were people who wanted to liberate the Church from the secular powers. The first thing that they went against was the investiture. The movement led to the Investiture Controversy mentioned earlier.

Learn more about Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan Movement.

The Gregorian Reform

Pope holding a Bible
The Gregorian Reform tried to take papacy and the Church to a “pure” state where no one could buy Church offices anymore, and no clergy would get married. (Image: uzhursky/Shutterstock)

The Gregorian Reform of the 11th century stirred a great controversy. The Gregorian Reform was named after one of the influential popes in the movement, but he was not the pioneer. Gregory VII, who was the pope from 1073 to 1085, supported the movement with all his might, and thus the reform was named after him.

The Reform wanted to revitalize the secular clergy and end simony, where anyone could buy Church offices. They were also strongly against clerical marriage and wanted to fully enforce clerical celibacy.

With the support of the Holy Roman Empire, a Gregorian Reformist was appointed as the pope, and some of the intended rules were applied. Later, their conflicts with King Henry IV led to big consequences that are beyond the scope of this article and will be discussed separately.

Common Questions about Election of Popes

Q: How were the popes supposed to get elected in Germany?

According to Church law on election of popes, and other papacy officials, bishops and abbots, were supposed to be elected freely by local clergy.

Q: Were the popes elected according to the law?

No. Although the election of popes was supposed to be a part of the local clergy’s responsibilities, in practice, kings, emperors, counts, and dukes controlled ecclesiastical appointments.

Q: Why did the German emperors care who got elected as the pope?

The election of popes was important to the emperors because the coronation of a new emperor was in the hands of the popes. If papacy was not in line with the king, they could cause trouble and would not go ahead with the coronation.

Q: Could the papacy affect the Emperor’s power?

To some extent, yes. The papacy had to confirm and hold the coronation ceremony of each new king. Also, if a king lost the support of the Church, he could lose the support of people, too, and rebellion would break out.

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