Eras and Their Highlights

The Middle Ages

What was the Investiture Struggle?

Also called the Investiture Controversy, it is the name for the power struggle between kings and popes during the Middle Ages (500–1350). Since the papal states played the same role in medieval society as the other states (fiefs and manors, which were held by kings), their lords, who were members of the clergy, eventually became subject to the same human weaknesses that guided the feudal lords and kings—namely, corruption and greed. Popes became powerful and worldly leaders. The struggle for supremacy peaked in 1075 when Pope Gregory VII (c. 1020–1085), who was trying to protect the church from the influence of Europe’s powerful leaders, issued a decree against lay investitures, meaning that no one except the pope could name bishops or heads of monasteries. German King Henry IV (1050–1106), who was engaged in a power struggle with Saxon nobles at the time, took exception to Gregory’s decree and challenged it, asserting that the kings should have the right to name the bishops. (This was an important point of disagreement, since kings wanted to be in the favor of the pope, and popes were selected from among the bishops. So, it was not purely a religious issue; political power was also at stake.) Henry was excommunicated by the pope. Though he later sought—and was granted—forgiveness by Gregory, the struggle did not end there. Henry soon regained political support, deposed Gregory (in 1084), and set up an antipope (Clement III), who, in turn, crowned him Holy Roman Emperor. The debate over whose right it was to invest clergymen with the symbol of office continued through much of the Middle Ages.


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