03.11.04, Mommsen and Morrison, eds., Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century

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Jonathan Rotondo-McCord

The Medieval Review baj9928.0311.004


Mommsen, Theodor E. and Karl F. Morrison, eds.. Imperial Lives and Letters of the Eleventh Century. Records of Western Civilization. New York: Columbia Unviersity Press, 2000. Pp. xii, 223. ISBN: 0-231-12121-0.

Reviewed by:
Jonathan Rotondo-McCord
Xavier University of Louisiana

At first sight, this book might appear to be a useful but dated reprint of a classic teaching text on the Investiture Controversy. Indeed, Imperial Lives and Letters belongs to a popular teaching series in both its original (1962) and reprint versions. Its texts portray the imperial 'side' of the dispute between popes and kings, yet its readability, paperback format, and manageable size make it a worthy companion piece to Brian Tierney's venerable The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300, itself recently reprinted in the MART series. As with many such reprints adopted for college courses, the professor responsible for assigning it would have to take the 'older' historiography of editorial introductions and explanations into account in teaching the text.

First appearances do not always reveal every facet of a book's character, however. In the book under review, Karl F. Morrison has provided much more than just a useful collection of teaching texts, although the volume certainly lends itself to classroom use, as noted below. (An aside on authorship: although the reprint still bears Theodor Mommsen's name as co-author [Mommsen had died even before the book's first appearance in 1962], Imperial Lives and Letters was and is very much Morrison's book, especially in light of the introductory essay. With modesty and grateful generosity, Morrison retained in the reprint the original dedication to Mommsen.) Certainly, one can see elements of Morrison's introduction as dated; Morrison himself gracefully notes this fact in the only revision to the reprint, an appended annotated bibliography of publications after 1962. Current work on the eleventh century (such as I. S. Robinson's recent biography of Henry IV of Germany, 1056-1106) tends to see the actions of individuals during the Investiture Controversy as motivated by concrete and ever-changing political circumstances. Forty years ago, reading the clash between church and state in terms of ideology, constitutional history, and "political theory" (Morrison's own term) was still understandably in vogue.

From a somewhat different angle, however, Imperial Lives and Letters is remarkably current. Its major parts are Morrison's introduction, then translations of Wipo's gesta of Conrad II, the anonymous vita of Henry IV, and finally Henry IV's collected letters. When all four are taken as a whole, they provide the reader the opportunity for a sustained reflection not so much about the Investiture Controversy per se as about how medieval Germany's Salian kings and their followers perceived Christian royal identity and mission. Even after forty years, then, this book retains much value in the light of ongoing investigations into the relationship between self-perception, authority, and power in medieval Europe. I devote most of my remarks below to Morrison's opening essay, because of its significance for modern historiography on medieval Germany.

Imperial Lives and Letters opens with Karl Morrison's essay on the "regal pontificalism" (preferred here to the more recent term "sacral kingship") of Germany's eleventh- and early twelfth-century kings. Fully one fourth of the entire volume in length, Morrison's excursus methodically lays out the ideological context behind two world-views that would ultimately clash over the question of headship. Morrison is careful to focus his remarks on ideology rather than actual political behavior of kings and prelates, and so reveals much about kings' self-conception of the nature of their office and persons. He first lays out the fundamental characteristic of "pontifical kingship": the king shared "the ministry of bishops" (by virtue of an anointing and coronation ordo heavily laden with episcopal symbolism), but not their "priestly dignity," in that he was barred from performing purely sacramental acts. Nevertheless, the king's authority possessed a divine quality, since it had been ordained by God, and a king acted like a bishop in his role as protector of church and people. Kingship was thus "quasi-hieratic," and tended to test the limit between "temporal and spiritual" (by combining or synthesizing these two realms).

Morrison next traces the foundations and development of this royal and imperial ideology through time. Even before Constantine, Roman emperors defined themselves as vicars of the gods in connection with the imperial cult of the "unconquered sun." Fused with Pauline and Augustinian ideas on public authority into a Christian synthesis, the ideological current of "regal pontificalism" reached new heights under the "Caesaropapism" of Constantine and his successors. Then, Frankish kings readily received late Roman concepts of rulers as "vicars of God." Morrison notes Otto III's deliberate sacralization of his imperial office, and examines the possibility that the Monte Cassino evangeliary depicts Henry II as mediator between heaven and earth, actually wearing a pallium and so combining imperial and sacerdotal garb on his person. Much of the rest of the essay examines the "Salian theory of kingship" and the reforming papacy's rejection of it. For the Salians, the coronation ordo was a vivid proof of the priestly character of the new king, so similar was this rite to that of episcopal consecrations. Close cooperation (ideally) between king and pope in matters of governance, along with the common practice of enrolling kings as honorary cathedral canons, only served to reinforce the dual nature of anointed rulers as "fully kings and partially priests."

Morrison examines the continuity of "regal pontificalism" through the reigns of Conrad II, Henry III, Henry IV, and Henry V, and in so doing brings the reader closer to the translated sources that make up the rest of the volume. Morrison chooses a moment of public symbolic gesture to illustrate Conrad II's priestly character: his use of a processional cross (perhaps carried into battle) fortified with relics of the True Cross. Morrison also points to Wipo's language, which describes Conrad in traditionally pontifical terms.

After a brief excursus on Henry III (Morrison emphasizes continuity rather than innovation after Conrad II's reign), Morrison turns to the reign of Henry IV. Henry IV combined personal piety with a clear sense of his personal duty to rule for the benefit of both church and realm. Henry saw royal authority as bestowed directly by God, and exercised by the king as a bishop used his own authority. Indeed, Morrison finds significance in the reaction of Henry IV's supporters to attempts to depose the king: just as a prelate's enemies could not canonically indict him, so too could Henry's enemies not accuse him (the implication is that Henry was equivalent to a bishop in the eyes of canon law).

Considering more specifically the issue of investiture, Morrison links it clearly to the practice of "regal pontificalism." "The concept of ... the king as the temporal head of the spiritual order as well as of the secular state ... received its practical expression in the ceremonial of lay investiture, just as it received its theoretical expression in the rite of coronation" (33-34). Of course, this was the claim against which a reforming papacy marshaled all its authority and energy. In presenting the royal and papal sides of the dispute, however, Morrison is not content to cast the controversy in terms of a generic power struggle. Rather, he explores the new historical factors and changing world-views (especially on the part of the church) that made the conflict so bitter. In the light of modern scholarship, this is perhaps a part of the original essay where caution is in order: Morrison attributes Henry IV's attempt to restore royal power to a rise in feudal relationships in late eleventh-century Germany and the king's exploitation of a "state-church system" inherited from the Ottonians. In the decades since Morrison first penned his essay, both feudalism as a historical force and the existence of an imperial church 'system' have come under much scrutiny. Also, part of the essay's historical arguments rest on the formerly common assumption that Gregory VII actually decreed a comprehensive ban on lay investiture in 1075; this assumption too has been seriously challenged by more recent scholarship. Morrison's essay casts the conflict chiefly in terms of a world-view dispute between a regnum that saw the king as pontifical "vicar of God" and a reformed sacerdotium that aimed to define the ruler solely as a lay subject of the church. It paints a classic but ultimately unsatisfying picture of a struggle between church and state based on "one elegantly simple organizing principle," namely, the nature of political authority as shared by two powers only (acknowledged in Morrison's afterword). Perhaps one should take this up with students when teaching the text. However, these points are not negative criticisms of the quality of Morrison's essay in the light of scholarly debate forty years ago.

Lucid, careful translations of three key primary sources make up the rest of the volume (Morrison provides useful introductions to the textual history of each at the end of his introduction): Wipo on Conrad II, a life of Henry IV, and Henry IV's letters.

Wipo's narrative of the deeds of Conrad II (1024-1039) provides not a theoretical discourse on kingship, but rather a vision of how an ideal king should conduct himself. Wipo's chief intended audience was presumably Conrad's son Henry III (r. 1039-1056), himself father of the future king Henry IV. Wipo uses the recorded memory of Conrad's deeds to portray a king who above all maintains order in the realm--his chief responsibility--by balancing severity and magnanimity, justice and mercy, in the public sphere. In the course of his narrative, Wipo describes several instances of fractious nobles forced to submit publicly to royal justice. The text thus nicely illustrates the work of Gerd Althoff, Geoffrey Koziol, and other scholars who in recent years have drawn attention to the importance of gesture, ritual, and emotion in medieval political communication. In the context of the entire volume, Wipo's text can be read as a mirror of what a Salian king ought to perceive his role to be, an ideal that Wipo hoped Henry III would emulate. In this respect, Wipo also provides evidence of the newness not only of Salian dynastic self-consciousness, but also of what Stefan Weinfurter (in The Salian Century) has identified as a new "command-oriented" and "transpersonal" style of kingship on the part of the Salians, a rulership style not always well received by eleventh-century contemporaries.

The next piece, the anonymous twelfth-century life of Henry IV, is composed in a very different style. Teachers and students of medieval history can draw profit from comparing this work to Wipo's. Although both biographies make ample use of classical, patristic, and scriptural sources (Mommsen and Morrison provide frequent helpful citations throughout the texts), Henry IV's vita is a highly personal, at times passionate work of rhetorical emotion in praise of the dead king. It provides the student with an excellent example of a type of medieval historiography that made no pretense of describing events as they actually happened. Instead, such a panegyric was intended to persuade the reader of the justice of Henry's cause and the wickedness of his enemies in personal, moral terms. It sets forth no "political theory" of the sort examined in Morrison's opening essay, but it does portray the king in terms of Christ-like suffering, a righteous man, a defender of the poor, brought low and humiliated by his enemies, especially by the treachery of his son Henry V in the final years of his reign. Though written after Henry IV's death, the anonymous vita probably reflects a perception of the king that he would have had of himself, as evidenced by his letters, which make up the final main part of this volume.

These letters of Henry IV can be used as individual teaching texts for close primary source analysis, but can also be read together as a record of the king's projection of himself. At times, the letters portray a ruler dispensing justice and solicitous for the welfare of his subjects: many letters touch upon the disposition of benefices, tithes, and revenues, and are valuable case studies for any classroom discussion of medieval methods of government. On other occasions, the letters show Henry in a very human light: outraged at the injuries he deems his enemies (including Gregory VII) to have perpetrated upon him, or, late in life, wearied and crushed by the humiliations inflicted upon him by his rebellious son Henry V. These late letters especially seem to betray the aging king's direct authorship, as he relates the pitiable tale of his imprisonment and deposition at the hands of his son. Given the effectiveness of letter collections as teaching tools (one thinks of Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter, usually well received by students), this collection of Henry IV's letters can be usefully incorporated into a variety of courses on medieval history.

As noted earlier, Karl Morrison has appended a brief but useful overview of new suggested readings to the verbatim reprint of the original. The new bibliography contains usually accessible works (in English and some in German) dealing not only with the Investiture Controversy, but also with the general history of medieval Germany, the papacy, politically powerful women in the eleventh century, and the Salian dynasty.

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Jonathan Rotondo-McCord

Xavier University of Louisiana