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By Tierney, Brian
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1964
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 64-23048
210 pages

Bob Corbett
July 2015

Brian Tierney begins his exploration of the “crisis” as early as the 4th century, but the focus will be on the period from 1050 to 1300. However, he begins earlier to set the stage for later more detailed history.

The structure of the book is quite useful and interesting. For each section the author sort of lays out the basic argument he wants to make in the section, then, once he’s set the stage and overviewed the period under question, he then chooses several short pieces of material from the actual period and presents those so that the principal actors in each section can have their own say in their own words. I very much appreciated that structure.

Below are some notes I took while reading to remind me of highlights of his claims. They are not meant to be evaluative; I simply don’t know the period at all well and am in no position to evaluate the truth or reliability of his analysis although I have been very impressed by his supporting his views with primary source excerpts. However, what is below is a light overview of the primary claims, developments and arguments which Tierney provides in the text.


He argues that it wasn’t until the 4th century and the conversion of Constantine to Christianity that a problem really arose. After that there came a harking back to the Gospel injunction “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s: and to God the things that are God’s.”

However, an important factor was that after 330 (and the fall of Rome) that the location of church governance shifted from Rome to Constantinople.

St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan asserted that divine things were to be controlled by the Church.

St. Augustine suggested the division: The City of God and The City of World. This was a dominant influence until the end of the 13th century.

By 550ish Rome again was the center of the Church and it broke with Constantinople. In Rome and its immediate area, both religious and secular power was in the hands of the Church.

There was an important development in 752. Pepin was the de facto ruler but not the king. He sought the papal blessing on the view that the king must be the actual person with state responsibility. The pope agreed and a union was formed.

There was a quick benefit to the pope when just 4 years later the Lombards threatened Rome and Pepin came to Rome’s rescue.

By 800 The Holy Roman Empire was established. Charlemagne was emperor (Pepin’s son) and the pope was head of spiritual affairs in Rome.

This set a precedent for hundreds of years. It was the pope, not the people, who named the emperor. This led to the historical precedent of the pope always ruling Rome.

(Note that it wasn’t until Feb. 1929 that the Papal States were removed and The Vatican became the “nation state” and location of the church’s center.)


The Breach with Byzantium

Pope Gregory II threatened Emperor Leo III that if he followed those who would depose the pope the people would rise up and Leo’s forces would be soundly defeated. Leo agreed and accepted the pope.

Pepin and the Papacy

By 900 Charlemagne’s empire was corrupted by hereditary rule and the church was in total crisis.

The abbots of Cluny were the hope of the future. They were more remote and were actually spiritual people. They were established in 901. Later they became the Benedictines and were very important to the church’s growth.


Henry III of Germany went to Rome to be crowned. There were 3 pretenders to his throne. Henry took matters into his own hands and established a “real” pope in Leo IX. Leo revised the Roman system and brought some order back to Rome. He travelled, held meetings, revived Roman authority and the church.

The Council of Reims, with the leadership of Leo IX changed things. There were to be no further cardinals or bishops not established by Rome.


From the anarchy of The Dark Ages there came a reform in the Middle Ages. Peter Damian and Humbert were important figures in this movement. Humbert wanted radical change and Peter Damian wanted to continue the former system with the greater power in the hands of the kings.

Humbert’s view won and the current system of cardinals alone electing the pope was established as well as the process for the establishment of cardinals. In 1059 the election of the pope by the cardinals was re-established.


Alexander II followed Leo IX. Then Pope Gregory VII was the next pope and he and King Henry IV of Germany were at odds over lay investiture (kings making bishops, cardinals or even priests) and other issues such a simony which was the selling of clerical offices or indulgences.

A crisis of leadership of Christian society was at stake. Two key issues were the king appointing clerical people to positions and the issue of married priests.

In 1076 Pope Gregory excommunicated King Henry for his appointing of clerical persons and when the pope excommunicated him he claimed the divine right of kings. They were at logger heads and each said and wrote things that should have been more thoughtful and exact.

Eventually the pope demanded a “diet” (a meeting called by the pope) which was held on the Italian side of the Alps. It turns out the pope had actually overplayed his position and Henry prevailed via military action. He marched on Rome, sieged it, and eventually Pope Gregory was taken prisoner and died in captivity.

Author Brian Tierney maintains that neither view, one that would defend either of them, would be correct. Both arguments used by the opponents were ultimately incorrect.


After the conflict between Gregory VII and Henry II it was clear that new ideas must be developed to define the power, roles and limits of both king and pope.

The notion of any complete separation of church and state seemed impossible, yet any theory of a “dominating” of either position also seemed unacceptable and unworkable.

There were various solutions proposed which would effectively render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and to the Church what was God’s. However, the “details” of this separation were far from clear.


The struggle over “investiture” (the making and defining the role of the monarchy in relation to the church) continued on after Gregory VII. At the same time the importance of the issue spread to England and France as well.

A solution seemed to come about under Pope Calixtus (1119 – 24) at the Synod of Worms. Basically the pope would name the bishops and their lands would be their own, but the king could refuse a bishop. This bargain dominated the Medieval World of Germany, England and France.

The question of the pope’s ability to depose an emperor or king was left undecided.

Cistercian, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, proposed a solution that won much of the period. The essence of his view was that popes and the church controlled the spiritual affairs and worked WITH the state to delegate control over the material aspects of the world, normally though the emperor or king.

Hugh St. Victor held a similar view and expanded on it in a relatively similar manner as did St. Bernard.

The Concordat of Worms is a key document of their policies (Sept. 1122). It sketches the separate duties of Emperor/King and that of the Pope/Church.


The problems between the popes and the German emperors were not solved by the uneasy arrangements of the last period. The whole century from 1150 – 1250 was “. . . marked by a series of clashes between the popes and the Hohenstaufen dynasty of German emperors.”


In the early Middle Ages scholars were moved to create a legal system which would be “ . . . a coherent body of ordered deductions from rational principles.” This was an age of “. . . rapidly advancing civilization and expanding economic activity.”

In about 1140 Gratian, a monk, created a massive compilation of historical legal material. His work was widely accepted and influential.

The first emperor of the Hohenstaufen emperors was Frederick Barbarossa. He wanted control over Rome and Pope Hadrian IV insisted that Rome “belonged to St. Peter.”

When Hadrian died there was a split and two men were elected pope by different factions of the cardinals. Pope Alexander III was opposed to Frederick, so Frederick supported the other, Victor IV. Eventually because of much costly descent in his empire, Frederick relented and recognized Alexander III. The Peace of Venice settled the issue of future papal elections. The key decision was an agreement of a process of electing a pope:

  1. Every cardinal held a single vote, each equal to the other.
  2. It took a 2/3 majority to elect a pope.


Innocent III’s reign was from 1198. He was just 37 when he became pope. While some scholars had argued that Innocent III was aiming at a Europe controlled by the pope, author Tierney argues that many scholars of Innocent seeing him as a serious and scholarly man trying to fairly mitigate the differences between the roles of the church and state.


Innocent III championed the case of Frederick II as emperor at a time of major dispute. Ironically, significantly because of the Pope’s support, Frederick II prevailed and became one of the most dangerous rulers to the papacy in the period.

Frederick kept enlarging the lands under his control, especially with later popes. Eventually Pope Innocent IV took on Frederick, but eventually Frederick died and his son succeeded him but was a weaker leader and the pope prevailed.

After Frederick died the Hohenstaufen dynasty and most of the rulers of other areas of Europe welcomed the demise of Frederick’s power, but didn’t support the militancy of the papacy either. They saw these battlers as more a secular struggle within Italy.


During the first half of the 13th century Aristotle was “rediscovered” and spread widely in universities. His political writings were powerful in that they made no appeal to divine intervention, nor any religious notions, but arrived at a compelling theory of the state with an appeal to reason alone.

At the same time the church was becoming wealthier and its properties were not taxed. Aristotelian principles aided in a 13th century attack on this situation.

Ironically the “non-religious” arguments rooted in Aristotle received a useful ally from a religious source – the “poverty-minded” followers of St. Francis of Assisi who encouraged the church to embrace poverty!

These and other similar movements were putting a great pressure on a more significant separation of church and state.

Aquinas developed a theory of a rational state rooted in the nature of man and appealing to a more philosophical theory of the (secular) state.


While this dispute between a religious notion of the state and a secular view of the state had been developing in the 13th century it played itself into the clash of two very strong opponents, Pope Boniface VIII and King Phillip IV of France.

Their first clash was over the right of the king to tax the church. A combination of Phillip’s martial power and a double edged attack from within Christianity forced Boniface to backtrack on his positions.

The attack from within the church came from an opposing family of cardinals who wanted power and wealth for themselves. The other was a group of strong Franciscans who objected to the worldliness and wealth of the church. Boniface, faced with three strong sets of opponents was forced to make some serious concessions.

A few years later the pope, still smarting from his rebuke at the end of the 13th century, interfered with Phillip’s arrest of a bishop in France. Boniface felt he was in a strong position and he tried vehemently to humiliate and cower Phillip. His tactic backfired and Phillip responded to the pope’s condemnation.

The pope had gone too far for Phillip and a French force attacked the pope, planning to depose him. Boniface escaped death, but soon died. His successor tried to again denounce Phillip, but he too soon died. The next pope, Clement V, was French and in sympathy with Phillip.

The battle between the church and state seemed to have come to a new understanding with a much greater separation of church and state resulted.

The ultimate outcome of this seeming standoff had been greatly instantiated in fact, but not fully accepted by the church or the whole of Europe. However, it set the stage for the Middle Ages and an eventual readjustment and lessening of papal and church power in the political realm.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett