Alternative History

Woodcut depiction of the Investiture Controversy, showing the Emperor grasping for the crook of the Pope

The Gregorian Reforms was a period of time in the history of the Papal States in which sweeping reforms were gradually instituted and accepted across the Catholic Church, consisting of the supremacy of the Papal authority and centralized obligations of individual Priests. This was originally named after the architect of the early reforms, the Cardinal Hildebrand of Sovanna who was later elected as Pope Gregory VII.


The Roman Emperor and Bishop of Rome, which evolved into the Holy Roman Emperor of Germany and the Pope, held a complex duality of obligations ever since Rome's official conversion to Christianity in 383 AD. Starting with the Papacy of Leo I "the Great", the Church in Rome gradually assumed more de jure authority as the Roman Empire started to disintegrate. Although on paper these sporadic theological edicts dictated the ultimate authority of the Church over the State, the reality was harder to enforce with the onslaught of the Dark Ages. Political power shifted towards the Frankish Empire in the wake of the Filioque controversy that engulfed the Eastern Church.

After the disintegration of the Frankish Empire at the end of the ninth century AD, subsequent rulers of the Papal States were largely under the influence of local Italian noble families, causing fierce political rivalries that often left the city of Rome and surrounding areas in complete chaos. In order to put an end to the chaos, the German Emperors among the Ottonian and Salinan dynasties became the de-facto rule of order in Central Italy, effectively restoring the original, complicated relationship between Pope and Emperor.

Starting in the early-mid eleventh century, a new generation of reformers sought to place the earlier words and doctrines of the church into practice. In the creation of the elective body known as the College of Cardinals, the Catholic Church gradually adopted a fixed, formalized system that became entirely self-contained and self-regulated, and thus required no outside interference from secular authority. This also came with the impetus to put an end to numerous complaints against the church, including acts of political corruption and sexual scandals. Uniformity of doctrine, and uniformity of organized hierarchy, became the two prongs at the forefront of the reform movement.

The initial obstacle against Rome's independence came from the former de-facto rulers of the region, namely the Count of Tusculum and the Roman Emperor. Emperor Henry IV was in minority during this time, and so permission for the movement came through his Empress regent Agnes. Agnes was originally skeptical of permitting the Papacy's independence, and after the election of 1061 she temporarily set up the Antipope Honorius II with the support of the Count of Tusculum. After peace was reconciled with Agnes, Honorius was formally deposed in 1064, and fled to Parma until his death.


Clerical Obligations

Although various general principles had been proposed in earlier centuries, in practice there was very little effort to enforce a uniform practice for the day-to-day rituals and doctrines of individual lay priests, let alone any kind of real consequences for deviant practices. Although the Carolingian Empire did much work to reforming these practices years earlier, these efforts always came at the will of the Emperor instead of the Church.

The Gregorian reforms did little to actually change any of the existing doctrines or canon in the Church, as it existed up to that point. Rather, the reform movement took the canon law that already existed and created a new mechanism to enforce them down to the individual level. These systems included local Synods of Bishops across individual local regions and nations, which in turn reported back to a General Synod that was organized directly by the Pope in Rome.

Individual cases of accusations against priests was taken extremely seriously, sometimes even beyond the letter of the law. An investigation was conducted by the local Bishop within his jurisdiction, based on the format of court systems established by the Frankish Empire. This format consisted of a single judge calling various witnesses and evidence over multiple days, often using complex oaths or trials by ordeal to secure the witness' honesty. Although the maximum penalty for the priest is simply excommunication, the ordeals in the trial itself could be physically very demanding, if not torturous.

Deviation from canon law in any official liturgy or ritual, especially within the Seven Sacraments, would be liable as heresy. Laws against political corruption particularly aimed against simony, but also had provisions against nepotism as well. Sexual abuse and homosexuality within the Priests was a particular issue at the time, although most often kept secret, and these were all condemned along the same lines. Clerical celibacy was generally encouraged, but Priests were still allowed to marry from this point forwards, although any act of adultery were likewise condemned, both with and without consent.

These systems of enforcement was largely under control of the Cardinal-Priests, acting on behalf of the Pope. Their exact organization was never spelled out for quite some time, and for the most part they acted as self-organizing. All these reforms were entirely lost on the Eastern Orthodox Church spanning the Byzantine Empire, which had officially left the Catholic church in 1054. The Principalities of the Kievan Rus managed to remain loyal to the Papacy as the Macedonian Dynasty started to implode, but large pockets of Orthodoxy remained in eastern Europe for many years after this point.

Church Organization

Up until 1061, no singular procedure existed for the election of a Pope into office, and most appointments of clergy in the Church was done at the will of local secular powers. The Papal Bull issued by Pope Nicholas II in 1058 outlined the exact procedures and principles that factor into the Roman Conclave, known as In nomine domini. This organization of Cardinals effectively made the Church entirely self-sufficient, no longer requiring any outside secular interference to ensure the Papacy continued.

The exact composition of the College of Cardinals consists of both Cardinal-Electors and Cardinal-Priests, who each hold different responsibilities within the election and operation of the pontificate. The exact responsibilities that each of these offices hold, as well as how they were exactly organized, became more gradually solidified over time. All other offices of the Church, such as Bishops and Archbishops, became entirely centered back to the Church in Rome. Appointments of new Bishops must be authorized by the Pope, or the next highest authority in the chain of command. Any appeal of authority or judicial investigation worked up the chain of command back to Rome, which in turn is appealed to the Apostolic See.

Papal Supremacy

The overarching theme of the Gregorian Reforms revolved around the supremacy of the Papacy over all religious and secular powers, including the Emperor himself. While Pope Gelasius I was the first to assert a subordination of the Emperor to the Pope, it wasn't until the decree of Pope Gregory VII that made an official statement: that the Pope has the power to depose and appoint the Emperor at will.

The subsequent reforms of Pope Gregory VII aimed at the appointment of Bishops, and securing the power of appointment or "investiture" within the hands of the Papacy. The subsequent Investiture Controversy had this point at the heart of its contention within the Holy Roman Empire. In England, and to some extent the rest of Europe, the controversy of investiture of Bishops remains not fully resolved.

The summary of points on the Papal Supremacy at the heart of the Gregorian Reforms is written in the Dictatus Papae, which was created by Gregory VII in 1075 and written by the Cardinal-Priest Deusdedit di San Pietro. It's points are summarized here:

  1. The Roman Church was founded solely by God.
  2. Only the Pope can with right be called "Universal".
  3. He alone can depose or reinstate bishops.
  4. All bishops are below his Legate in council, even if a lower grade, and he can pass sentence of deposition against them.
  5. The Pope may depose the absent.
  6. Among other things, we ought not to remain in the same house with those excommunicated by him.
  7. For him alone is it lawful, according to the needs of the time, to make new laws, to assemble together new congregations, to make an abbey of a canonry, and, on the other hand, to divide a rich bishopric and unite the poor ones.
  8. He alone may use the Imperial Insignia.
  9. All princes shall kiss the feet of the Pope alone.
  10. His name alone shall be spoken in the churches.
  11. His title is unique in the world.
  12. It may be permitted to him to depose emperors.
  13. It may be permitted to him to transfer bishops, if need be.
  14. He has the power to ordain the clerk of any parish he wishes.
  15. He who is ordained by the Pope may preside over another church, but may not hold a subordinate position. Such a person may not receive a higher clerical grade from any other bishop.
  16. No synod shall be called a "General Synod" without his order.
  17. No chapter and no book shall be considered canonical without his authority.
  18. No one shall dare to condemn any person who appeals to the Apostolic Chair.
  19. The more important cases of every church should be referred to the Apostolic See.
  20. The Roman Pontiff, if he has been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made holy by the merits of St. Peter, St. Ennodius Bishop of Pavia bearing witness, and many holy fathers agreeing with him. As it is contained in the decrees of Pope St. Symmachus.
  21. By his command and consent, it may be lawful for subordinates to bring accusations.
  22. He may depose and reinstate bishops without assembling a Synod.
  23. He who is not at peace with the Roman Church shall not be considered "catholic".
  24. He may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.

Historical Consequences

Investiture Controversy

The claim of papal supremacy over imperial authority, through the Dictatus Papae, was not well received by the current Holy Roman Emperor of the Salian Dynasty, Henry IV. Henry was initially sympathetic towards the Gregorian reforms, and helped facilitate the general synods to enforce clerical celibacy. During the recent Saxon revolt of 1073-1074, the Emperor was compelled to accept an agreement with the Pope for giving his future support. After the Dictatus Papae was published, Henry revoked this agreement and proceeded to install an imperial Bishop in Milan. In addition, he dispatched a legion under Count Eberhard to occupy the city against a Papal counterattack, thus beginning the military conflict known as the Investiture War.

In October of 1076, Gregory VII officially excommunicated Henry IV, and argued that by doing so he is officially deposed as Emperor. While Gregory was widely popular across Central Europe, there still remained enough clergy that were more loyal to the Emperor, and was willing to support the latter in the event of such controversy. So in February 1077, Henry called a council of Bishops in Brixin who declared the election of Gregory VII to be illegitimate, and thus deposing him as Pope. This mutual deposition between the Pope and Emperor caused a fission to rupture across the whole Holy Roman Empire, and both secular and ecclesiastical powers alike were divided on whether to support one side or the other.

The Saxon nobles, having recently fought the Salian Emperor, now saw the opportunity to revive the conflict. The Council of Forccheim in the summer of 1077 elected Rudolf of Rhenfeild, the Duke of Swabia, as the new King of Germany, with the backing of princes across the eastern half of the empire. This conflict, the largest phase of the Investiture War, is also known as the Great Saxon Revolt. Henry's initial reaction was to revoke the titles of the rebels, sending military to occupy Carinthia and Thuringia.

While Pope Gregory was staying in the Castle of Canossa as a guest of Countess Mathilda, Henry sent a delegation to ask the Pope for forgiveness. Gregory refused to comply, seeing such an action would accomplish nothing, since Henry was clearly not inclined to capitulate with the Dictatus Papae, while Rudolf was. While Gregory wasn't wedded to the loyalty of the Saxons, he felt that further escalation of the conflict might force Henry to negotiate. Thus, the Pope invited Rudolf to come to Canossa to be officially crowned as Holy Roman Emperor, on the grounds that Henry's excommunication has left a vacancy. However, due to the ongoing conflict Rudolf wasn't able to arrive until the spring of 1079. The coronation ceremony in 1079, in the midst of the Investiture War and the Great Saxon Revolt, is often referred to as the "Exaltation of Canossa".

Henry IV responded to the Exaltation of Canossa by appointing his own Papacy. In the spring of 1080, Guilbert of Ravenna was elected Pope under Henry's direction, taking the name of Clement III. Due to Henry gradually losing ground in the Great Saxon Revolt, he was unable to provide much support to enforce this action, in spite of Clement asking for his support to attack Rome. Starting in 1082, Pope Gregory started gathering an alliance of secular rulers in Italy, mostly under the banner of Mathilda of Tuscany, to form a temporary coalition for the war. Ostensibly, this was a pre-emptive measure for defending Italy, and especially Rome, from Henry's attempted invasion. However, in reality the Pope hoped to use this offensively to strike against the Imperial opposition, especially the Anti-Pope Clement. In 1084, this was finally executed when 5,000 troops, led by the French noble Thibaut de Montmorency, attacked Henry's forces of 4,000 at the Battle of Parma. Seizing on this victory, they proceeded to lay siege to the city of Ravenna, which fell in 1085, capturing Clement III alive.

Great Saxon Revolt

In the field, the forces of Rudolf and Henry were largely matched in strength. Rudolf overall was able to raise much more manpower to his ranks, but Henry was able to inflict much more damage by his tactics. The initial battles at Mellrichstadt (1078) and Flarccheim (1079) ended inconclusively, as the war continued to escalate. The ambitious attack at the Battle of White Elster (1080) again ended inconclusively, but the ongoing attrition to the imperial forces could not be withstood indefinitely. For many commoners and lower nobility, Rudolf had the undivided support of the Papacy on his side, and by extension divine authority.

While moving westward against the Emperor's troops proved unsuccessful, Rudolf turned his attention east for a greater alliance. The Kievan Rus had recently centralized under the charisma of Vsevolod and his son Monomakh, who had recently intervened in the Polish succession crisis. The Princes of Kiev were also strong advocates of the Papacy, seeing Catholicism as the best justification for their wars against the Tartars. So Rudolf invited the Rus to invade Germany as well, using their help for crushing one of Henry IV's biggest allies, Bohemia. The Bohemian forces were crushed by he combined Saxon-Rus coalition late in 1083, and pushed from there to meet Henry in Bavaria. It was at this final battle at the Danube that Henry was killed in 1084, bringing the conflict to an end.

Henry's only son Conrad was only eleven years old, but both he and his advisors in Franconia were willing to capitulate with the Gregorian faction. Gregory, sadly, did not live long after this victory as he ultimately died in May 1085. After the Papal Conclave during the summer, Pope Urban II called a negotiation to end the war in the Council of Piacenza in 1086.