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21.08.25 Hehl, Gregor VII. und Heinrich IV. in Canossa 1077

21.08.25 Hehl, Gregor VII. und Heinrich IV. in Canossa 1077

"Seien Sie außer Sorge, nach Canossa gehen wir nicht--weder körperlich noch geistig." With these famous words Otto von Bismarck addressed the Reichstag on 14 May 1872 as he stood upon the threshold of his new Germany. The meeting between King Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII at the Italian fortress of Canossa in late January 1077 has exerted an ineluctable attraction to generations of commentators and has frequently been portrayed as a turning point in the first conflict of empire and papacy. Part of Canossa's attraction was that it spoke to historians of wildly different religious and political stamps: in the sixteenth century it featured in clashes between Protestant and Catholic partisans while in the nineteenth it could be taken to represent the humiliation of "Germany" by a hostile "foreign" power.

Ernst-Dieter Hehl's book is not about whether Canossa represented a defeat for the king, a triumph for the pope or many of the other interpretations that have been foisted upon it and that say more about the preoccupations of subsequent generations of historians than they do about what happened in Italy in January 1077. (For those interested, the unique historiography on Canossa and how it has been understood has been skilfully outlined by I. S. Robinson. [1]) In his tightly argued book of 130-odd pages, Hehl takes what might seem, to some, an old-fashioned approach. With Chapter 1 subtitled "two alternative accusative objects for one predicate" and the stark warning of the staccato sentence "It will be philological" only three lines in (p. 9), it might seem that the author plans to take us upon a rarefied linguistic masterclass. But such a conclusion would be false and superficial. For, while Hehl's argument is indeed technical and detailed, it is also keenly attuned to modern historiographical trends: this is work of an accomplished scholar who successfully marries technical skill with cultural and historical sensitivity.

At a basic level, Hehl situates his argument with reference to the interpretations of Johannes Fried on the one hand, and Gerd Althoff and Steffen Patzold on the other. [2] Fried emphasized that in any attempt to understand Canossa, memory and memory criticism must precede philological source criticism, since the narrative accounts of and reactions to what happened there were so coloured by partisan prejudice. While acknowledging this, Hehl nevertheless argues that documents created in media res can and should be the subject of philological investigation. Chief among these and at the centre of Hehl's investigation are Register 4.12 (a letter that Gregory wrote to the German bishops and princes from Canossa explaining what had happened at the meeting) andRegister 4.12a ("The oath of Henry, king of the Germans"). Hehl suggests that the "oath," which appears in the papal Register just after the letter, should more correctly be understood as a written record of the promises Henry made to Gregory in order to be forgiven, and thus essentially predates the letter. The "oath," argues Hehl, gives the most faithful indication of what was agreed at Canossa--since even in the very short period between Henry's promise and absolution, memory had a chance to mould Gregory's explanation of events in his letter to Germany.

Hehl's discussion of Henry's oath (Chapter 1) begins by considering the different German translations of the key phrase aut iustitiam aut concordiam facere offered by Fried and Althoff/Patzold (pp. 9-15). Ultimately, Hehl concludes that the grammatical structure of the formulaaut iustitiam aut concordiam facere as well as the parallels of the phrase iustitiam facere in the documents and letters of the main protagonists--namely Gregory VII, Henry IV and Countess Matilda of Tuscany--show that Henry himself was to "establish justice" in Germany as a prerequisite for the steps planned to resolve the conflicts between him, Gregory and the princes.

At this point (Chapter 2) Hehl broadens his argument in an important and very useful way by considering this oath in the context of contemporary liturgical orders for excommunication and reconciliation. Referring both to eleventh-century evidence (such as Burchard of Worms), as well as to modern research on this topic, Hehl shows how Henry's oath represents an essential element in the lifting of excommunication and the reconciliation of an excommunicate. It builds on orders for reconciliation from the tenth century onward and even Gregory's letter to the German bishops and princes (Register 4.12), written very soon after the recording of the oath, refers to these liturgical traditions by emphasizing that penitentia was a prerequisite for absolutio. In Gregory's eyes, then, as Hehl argues, Henry had performed the appropriate satisfactio--otherwise Gregory could not have forgiven him.

Was Canossa the turning point as has frequently been thought? Hehl addresses this question in Chapter 3 with an important distinction. While the meeting might have resolved the specific fallout from the Council of Worms in January 1076--in which Henry and many of the German bishops had attempted to compel "Hildebrand, now not pope, but false monk" to abdicate--the conflict between Henry and his opponents within Germany remained unresolved. Indeed, one of Gregory's preconditions for lifting the excommunication was that Henry give securities (securitates) for the forthcoming council in Augsburg at Candlemas 1077 to which Gregory was then travelling. As Hehl points out, Henry's securitates did not relate just to Gregory but also to the princes and bishops who opposed him (p. 45). From this perspective, Canossa was an interim step. Ultimately, this interpretation leads Hehl to consider whether Henry's "oath" (Register 4.12a) is, technically speaking, strictly an oath at all (pp. 53–6). Pointing out that a mixture of "promise" and "oath" appears in the item's archival tradition, Hehl concludes that the Register does not contain the text of an oath, but the wording of a promise and declaration of intent that Henry gave to Gregory before his release from excommunication. Sacramentally, the distinction between promise and oath is important: Henry could only promise; he could not take an oath because he was still excommunicate.

Near contemporary reactions to Canossa are the subject of Chapter 4 ("Dating and interpretations"), not necessarily for their own sake, but as a critique of Johannes Fried's view that Henry and Gregory concluded a formal pact at Canossa. [3] Hehl identifies the accounts of Donizo of Canossa (written almost thirty years after events) and Arnulf of Milan as the most important in this respect (pp. 64-7). Donizo narrated Canossa as a failed settlement between pope and king, and squarely put the blame on Henry’s shoulders. Arnulf of Milan is the key witness for Fried's thesis that the pope and the king had concluded a formal treaty in Canossa. This treaty would have been primarily concerned with the future settlement of the conflict between Henry and his opponents, and would have been a separate secular-political agreement from Henry's ecclesiastical absolution from excommunication. Hehl's detailed analysis of Arnulf's report (pp. 67-70), however, concludes that nothing in it contradicts Gregory's account of proceedings at Canossa in his own letter to Germany (Register 4.12) and points out that Fried's argument separates religion and politics with a sharpness that Gregory, Henry or their contemporaries were not (yet) capable of. This final, contextual, turn leads Hehl to an astute observation. Strangely--to the modern observer--Gregory did not say anything about the exact course of Henry's reconciliation in his letter to the German bishops and princes. He did not need to: at the very least the clerical recipients of this letter would have imagined it in a similar way to the liturgical and legal orders (ordines) of the time. The historian of today must be more careful to remember this.

An important point, long latent in Hehl's study, now emerges and acts as a backdrop to the rest of the book: Canossa--whatever exactly was planned there between Gregory and Henry--was essentially ephemeral. Other events rendered it moot. Interim as the participants may have understood it, Henry's opponents interpreted the absolution--and by extension the meeting--as definitive and final. The planned council at Augsburg never took place. Henry's opponents in Germany felt a sense of betrayal and saw no possibility of concordia with the king. Meanwhile, the elevation of Rudolf of Rheinfelden as anti-king at Forchheim in March 1077 stymied the pope's plans for reconciliation. He could now no longer achieve peace north of the Alps, but had to chose between one of two kings. The effects of all these occurrences and their presentation in the narrative sources occupies much of this chapter and recurs in parts of Chapters 6 and 7. Any attempt to understand Canossa, Hehl observes, must take into account the election of Rudolf of Rheinfelden as anti-king. This event changed the perception of Canossa in historiography north of the Alps. It was now a matter of justifying one's own position; and in the narrative sources, gaps in erroneous memory were filled by plausible knowledge.

Ultimately Hehl's book is an attempt to separate the documentary sources on Canossa from the historiographical ones and to try to understand what the participants and contemporaries thought about the meeting before perceptions were irrevocably changed by subsequent events. The book is unashamedly in dialogue with recent German historiography on the subject and seeks to modify the conclusions of Johannes Fried in significant ways. But it is also keenly attuned to liturgical context and, in drawing attention to the absolute necessity for historians to view Canossa through that lens, makes a signal contribution. Hehl's clearly written and sensitive treatment of the evidence provides a masterful case study in the art of historical epistemology: in the complementary endeavours of realizing that the sources--intentionally or unintentionally--shape what we know and can know of the past, and in thinking more about how we as students know what we think we know. Canossa was not, as the older historiography sometimes saw it, a surrender (deditio), for surrender implies an end to conflict, and none of the participants considered what had happened there definitive. For Hehl, attempting to see it wie es eigentlich gewesen, Canossa was a place of the penance of the king and the absolution and reconciliation performed by the pope.



1. I. S. Robinson, Henry IV of Germany, 1056-1106 (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 162-5.

2. See, for example, J. Fried, "Der Pakt von Canossa. Schritte zur Wirklichkeit durch Erinnerunganalyse," in W. Hartmann and K. Hebers (eds), Die Faszination der Papstgeschichte. Neue Zugänge zum frühen und hohen Mittelalter (Forschungen zur Kaiser- und Papstgeschichte des Mittelalters. Beihefte zu J. F. Böhmer, Regesta imperii 28; Cologne, Weimar and Vienna, 2008), pp. 133-97; Fried, Canossa. Entlarvung einer Legende. Eine Streitschrift (Berlin, 2012); G. Althoff, "Das Amtsverständnis Gregors VII. und die neue These vom Friedenspakt in Canossa,"Frühmittelalterliche Studien 48 (2014), 261-76; S. Patzold, "Frieds Canossa. Anmerkungen zu einem Experiment," Geschichte für heute. Zeitschrift für historisch-politische Bildung 6 (2013), 5-39.

3. See Fried, "Der Pakt von Canossa."