Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sacral Kingship: The Ottonians (Part 8)

It's been awhile since I posted on this series, so now is about as good a time as any to do some catch-up! This week we will look at how the institution of Christian monarchy was changed by the German Ottonian dynasty. To read the previous post in this series, click here.

The Ottonians

By the late 9th century, the Carolingian Empire that Charlemagne had forged was in desperate straits. Despite the suicidal implications for his empire, his successors followed the old Frankish custom of dividing their lands up among their heirs; the Treaty of Verdun in 843 delineated what realms would be ruled by whom. The so-called “Middle Kingdom” of Lothair was picked apart by its larger rivals to the east and west, and soon there appeared an “East Frankish” and a “West Frankish” ruler. The last Carolingians to hold these offices died in 987 and 911, respectively.
In the east Frankish holdings of Saxony and the German dukedoms, authority fell to the local dukes. After much civil discord, Otto I of Saxony was crowned king in 936 and Holy Roman Emperor by the Pope John XII in 962 [26]. The major problem facing him at the time was that the prevailing understanding of the political role of the office of the king was that he was only the highest lord in a series of lords and vassals. Beyond that, he held little power that was not honorary or ceremonial. Real power was vested in the body of dukes who had exercised authority ever since the late Roman times. The ducal office was hereditary, and thus ensured that any king would always have powerful opponents who presented a check to his power.
Otto, however, was not content with a merely honorary kingship. He took Charlemagne as his model and exploited to the fullest the prevailing attitudes towards sacral kingship in order to strengthen his position, the first of which was being crowned king at Aachen instead of his native Saxony, thus evoking all the connections with Charlemagne [27]. The major act he took against the power of the dukes, and the one for which he is most remembered, is his use of ecclesiastical persons to fill vacant secular positions.
This had three advantages: first, since the clergy was celibate, they had no offspring that they could pass on their titles to, and thus the offices could not take on a hereditary nature. Second, because they were put there by appointment and not birth, they owed their position to Otto personally and thus were usually very loyal. Third, because they were high level churchmen they were generally very well educated, or at least literate, which is more than can be said of most of the German dukes of the tenth century. This ensured a faithful, educated administration that could be switched around or altered if the king so chose and provided him with a bulwark against the recalcitrant dukes.
Otto did not “appoint” bishops in the direct sense, but manipulated their elections by requiring his assent to their appointment. He was doing nothing novel by this; as we have seen, kings going back to late Roman times were viewed as having some sort of authority over the Church. An extant letter of St. Ambrose of Milan complains bitterly to Theodosius about interference of the latter in Church affairs, saying that “bishops usually judge Christian emperors; not emperors, bishops.” [28] Nevertheless, Christian rulers continued their involvement in Church matters; the Patriarch of Constantinople, for example, was always an appointee of the Byzantine emperor. The 5th Council of Orleans in 549 in the west stipulated that bishops were to be appointed cum voluntate regis, that is, “with the will of the king" [29]. This led to immediate abuse by the Merovingians, and the 3rd Council of Paris in 557 tried to crush the abuse, but the practice of royal approval went on unopposed. As mentioned above, Charles Martel was one of the worst abusers of the privilege, and Charlemagne continued it, albeit in a manner more acceptable to the Church. Therefore, by the period of Otto, royal intervention in episcopal elections was a well established royal prerogative grounded in the king’s role as guardian of the Church in his realm. “For 200 years, then, there had never been a time when the western kings and emperors did not, more or less, exercise an arbitrary control over the candidates for the episcopal dignity." [30]
Though the early Church, and men like St. Ambrose, rejected this lay interference in their affairs, the clergy of Carolingian and Ottonian times were quite content with it. After all, it provided an excellent opportunity for the exercise of ecclesiastical influence at court. A bishop who received an appointment from Otto could wield a considerable amount of clout with the king on behalf of his diocese. As long as able and faithful bishops were appointed (and under Charlemagne and Otto, most appointments were wise ones), there was little cause for complaint [31]. Under Otto, the Church felt itself to be regaining its dignity and authority
Otto’s innovation was not in that he meddled in episcopal appointments, which as has been demonstrated, was nothing new. Rather, it was in his application of the method that was new. Never before had so extensive a program of episcopal election been undertaken, and never so methodically. But Otto had in mind the complete subordination of the German princes to himself, and the widespread use of the royal prerogative in episcopal elections was the surest way to accomplish this.

Once Otto was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 962, he further extended his power by claiming, on his authority as emperor and temporal lord of the Christian realm, the right to approve papal elections as well. The papacy was understandably unhappy with this situation, but it had little choice. Otto had come into Italy at the behest of Pope John XII with the purpose of freeing Rome from the military control of the usurper Berengarius. Before Otto agreed to this, however, he extracted the “Ottonian privilege” from the papacy, which was essentially an oath stating that a new pope could never be elected without he or his son’s permission [32]. This was a natural consequence of Otto’s interference in German episcopal elections. If the Church was to serve the crown, which was what Otto desired, then the Church must be under royal authority, which meant that the papacy had to be bent to serve the will of the Holy Roman Emperor. Had not the prevailing ideology since the Carolingian times been that the emperor was the earthly parallel to God, the “Emperor” of heaven? 

Essentially, the original plan of the papacy was backfiring. Pope Leo III had certainly crowned Charlemagne with the understanding that the imperial dignity of the Carolingians came not from themselves but from the papacy, who had the authority to “translate” it from the Greeks to them. However, Otto used this same authority to claim that the Holy Roman Emperor, by his divine appointment, had a special and authoritative role over the Church that no other prince did, by virtue of the very same privilege that Leo III had thought would keep the emperors beholden to will of the papacy. Otto had turned the tables on the papacy, and the Roman pontiffs were getting a dose of what the Patriarchs of Constantinople had been enduring for six hundred years under their meddlesome emperors.

What is the influence of Otto I on the understanding of temporal authority in the Middle Ages? His greatest contribution is in his understanding that the office of Holy Roman Emperor gave him a kind of lordship over the Church of Rome. Previous kings had applied this ideology to their own local churches and diocese, but Otto was the first to apply it to the Church of Rome itself, at least explicitly. Though Otto was solicitous to choose capable bishops to fill vacancies, the attention a bishop had to pay to temporal matters necessarily detracted from the time he could spend attending to spiritual ones. This had in it the seeds of abuse. Otto enmeshed temporal and spiritual lordship so tightly that it would take another three hundred years of vigorous debate to figure out where the boundaries of each lay. The Investiture Controversy was largely an attempt to undo Otto’s creation. It could be said that the Protestant Revolt was another.

Next time we'll look at the English house of Wessex, particularly the person of Alfred the Great.


26] Both his coronation as king and emperor were in imitation of Charlemagne; he was crowned king at Aachen, where Charlemagne had his court and, like Charlemagne, came to Italy at the behest of the pope, where he was crowned emperor on Feb. 2, 962.

27] John J.Gallagher, Church and State in Germany Under Otto the Great (University Press: Brookland, D.C., 1938), 22

28] Ambrose, Letter 21

29] Fichtenau, 56

30] Ibid., 58

31] “They [the clergy] never contested this infringement upon their canonical rights, for it was most desirable that their bishop have influence at court.” Ibid., 59

32] Ibid., 87

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