The Failed Empire

Europe was a civilization. From Charlemagne until, say, the 16th century, European civilization was “Christendom.” “The Faith is Europe, and Europe is the Faith,” in Hillaire Belloc’s words.[1] Western Christianity had Rome as its capital, and Latin as its language. But this unity was, in theory, just spiritual. Rome was the seat of the papacy, and Latin the language of the Church, known only to a tiny minority. Europe therefore had a religious unity, but it had no political unity. Unlike every other civilization, Europe never matured into a unified political body. In other words, Europe has never been an empire in any form. After the failure of the Carolingian Empire, too brief and too obscure for us to distinguish its reality from its legend, Europe progressively crystallized into a mosaic of independent nation-states.

Nation-states were actually a European invention, their first embryos taking shape in the 13th century. Before the Middle Ages, there were only two kinds of states: city-states and empires; “Either the city-state became the nucleus of an empire (as Rome did) … or it remained small, militarily weak, and sooner or later the victim of conquest.”[2]

In addition to Christianity, the principalities of Europe were united, throughout the Middle Ages, by their sovereigns’ kinship, resulting from a diplomacy based on matrimonial alliances. But this community of blood and faith did not prevent states from being separate political entities, jealous of their sovereignty and always eager to extend their borders.

In the absence of an overarching imperial authority, this rivalry engendered an almost permanent state of war. Europe is an ever-smoldering battlefield. If you think of Europe as a civilization, then you have to think of its wars as civil wars. This is how the German historian Ernst Nolte did analyze the two European conflicts of the twentieth century.[3] Neither common religion nor family ties prevented European civilization from tearing itself apart with unprecedented hatred and violence. Remember that on the eve of the First World War, King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicolas II were first cousins ​​and all defenders of the Christian faith.

The stated aim of the “European construction” from the 1950s onwards was to make these European wars impossible or at least improbable. But this project was an anachronism, because it started at a time when European civilization was already dead, with no vital energy left to resist being colonized by the new empire on the block.

The European Union is not supported by any “civilization consciousness”—in the sense that one speaks of a “class consciousness”. Many people feel attached to their nation, and can say, as Ernest Renan did, “a nation is a soul, a spiritual principle.”[4] But no one perceives Europe as a spiritual being, endowed with “individuality” and a destiny of its own.

There has never been a great European narrative to unite with a common pride all these peoples crammed in the European peninsula. Each country has its little roman national, ignored or contradicted by the schoolbook narratives of its neighbors. There are certainly some shared myths. Charlemagne for example. But the endless quarrel about him precisely illustrates the point; as if Charlemagne has to be either French or German. The other European myth is that of the Crusades. But the Crusades illustrate just as precisely the inability of Europeans to unite on a project for Europe. By the Crusades, the popes told Europeans that the cradle of their civilization was a city at the other end of the world, disputed by two other civilizations (Byzantine and Islamic), and asked them to fight for it as if their own civilization depended on it. There cannot be a more anti-European project. The Crusades, in fact, only exported national rivalries into the Middle East. Sure, they make a good story, but it is mostly a great lie, since its only lasting result was the destruction of Eastern Christianity and the reunification of the Muslim world, soon organized into a new Ottoman Empire which would chip away parts of Europe.

The Middle Ages, anyway, are the beginning and the end of the European grand narrative. The notion of a “European civilization” calls to mind the Middle Ages and nothing else. And quite logically. Europe was a brilliant civilization during the classical Middle Ages (11th-13th centuries). But because this medieval civilization failed to form an integrated body, it fragmented into several micro-civilizations, each of them playing its own imperial game against the others. We therefore had, in the 19th century, a French empire, then a British empire and a German empire, all trying to destroy each other. They were colonial empires: having failed to create an empire at home, Europeans exported their rivalries in predatory conquests. Ultimately, they gave birth to the American empire, born in genocide and slavery, and destined to bring the woke plague on its genitors.

Hence the hypothesis put forth by the historian Caspar Hirschi, that European history is characterized by a rivalry between centers of power fighting for imperial supremacy without ever being able to achieve it:

an imperialist political culture, dictated by the ideal of a single universal power inherited from Roman Antiquity, coexisted within a fragmented territorial structure, where each of the major powers was of similar strength (Empire, Papacy, France, England and later Aragon). In the realm of Roman Christianity, this led to an intense and endless competition for supremacy; all major kingdoms aimed for universal dominion, yet prevented each other from achieving it.[5]

So nations are, according to Hirschi, “the product of an enduring and forceful anachronism.” And nationalism is nothing but “a political discourse constructed by chronically failing would-be-empires stuck in a battle to keep each other at bay.”[6]

Hirschi does not identify the mechanism that prevented one power or another from winning this competition. So let’s ask: What happened? Or rather, what didn’t happen? Everywhere else, civilizations tend to unify into some form of political unity, around one dominant city or ethnos. Only in Western Christendom do we have a civilization without a State, that is, a body without a head.
Why is Europe not an Empire? It’s not for lack of will—Hirschi is right on this point: Europe longed to be an Empire, willed it intensely, but failed. The peoples themselves aspired to this ideal, synonymous with unity, peace and prosperity. Empire should not be taken here it its modern sense. As Ernst Kantorowicz explains in his biography of Frederick II Hohenstaufen:

The ideal World-Empire of the Middle Ages did not involve the subjection of all peoples under the dominion of one. It stood for the community of all kings and princes, of all the lands and peoples of Christendom, under one Roman Emperor, who should belong to no nation, and who, standing outside all nations, should rule all from his throne in the one Eternal City.[7]

Even after the fall of the Hohenstaufens, who came close to achieve this ideal (more below), the dream lived on. The Empire was a metaphysical being, the very image of God, as Dante Alighieri argued in De Monarchia (c. 1310):

the human race is most like unto God when it is most one, for the principle of unity dwells in Him alone. … But the human race is most one when all are united together, a state which is manifestly impossible unless humanity as a whole becomes subject to one Prince, and consequently comes most into accordance with that divine intention which we showed at the beginning of this chapter is the good, nay, is the best disposition of mankind.[8]

Caspar Hirschi’s theory therefore lacks a clue of the inhibiting factor that prevented the unification of Europe, despite the collective—one could almost say organic—thrust. But Hirschi is also mistaken in his description of the European dynamic. The competition for Empire was not, as he writes, between “the [German] Empire, the Papacy, France, England, and later Aragon.” Until the middle of the 11th century, only the former, officially known as Romanum imperium, claimed imperial sovereignty. Then one other power emerged to challenge its claim: the papacy. For three centuries, the competition between the emperor and the pope dominated European politics. From intellectual debates down to the battlefields, Europe was entirely drawn into that struggle. No other factor is comparable in intensity and influence in the classical Middle Ages.

The popes deliberately and persistently prevented the expansion of the German empire, which was, for geographical and historical reasons, the only power capable of unifying Europe politically. The unification of Europe could only start by the unity of Germany and Italy, but this is precisely what the papacy resisted with all its might, and its supernatural powers. In the process, the papacy consolidated other emerging kingdoms, while preventing any of them from prevailing. Ultimately, neither the emperor nor the pope were able to reign over Europe. And so it was only in the 14th century, when the German empire had lost momentum, that France, then England and finally Spain, began to manifest their own imperial inclinations and entered into a competition that could only lead to a stalemate, and a permanently divided Europe.

Therefore, the political action of the popes, from the start of the Gregorian Reform in the mid-11th century, is the single reason why Europe did not become an empire—in the medieval sense of a “kingdom of kingdoms,” as was the Byzantine Oikoumene—and therefore could not build the foundations for its future cultural, linguistic and political unity. This is what I will try to show in this article. By clipping the German Empire’s wings and finally reducing it to the rank of one nation among others, the papacy turned Europe into a collection of rival states united by no other law than the laws of war.

What is sometimes called the “balanced policy” of the papacy, playing one state against the other, and in particular France against Germany, was a means and not an end. The ultimate goal of the popes was not to create a “Europe of nations”, but to rule the Empire. This project was conceived by a group of intellectuals whose earliest central figure was the Cluniac monk Hildebrand, whom cardinal Peter Damian, who knew him well, once called “saint Satan”. He became pope under the name of Gregory VII in 1073. The main lines of his program are contained in the 27 propositions of his famous Dictatus Papae, including: “Only the Pope can with right be called universal. … He alone may use the Imperial Insignia. … All princes shall kiss the feet of the Pope alone. … It may be permitted to him to depose emperors.” That program defined the papacy for three centuries. One hundred and thirty years after Gregory VII, Innocent III claimed to sit above kings because: “The Lord gave to Peter not only the lordship over the universal Church, but also over the whole world.” On the very day of his consecration in 1198, he affirmed his right to make and unmake kings and emperors, because, “To me is said in the person of the prophet, ‘I have set thee over nations and over kingdoms, to root up and to pull down, and to waste and to destroy, and to build and to plant’ (Jeremiah 1:10).”[9]

It is a gross mistake to regard these words as metaphorical. The means used to turn them into reality (summarized in this article) show that they must be understood literally. The means included excommunication and deposition of any unsubmissive sovereign. In the Middle Ages, this was a very powerful weapon, for most people believed, or feigned to believe, in the pope’s power of sending people to heaven or hell. Innocent III’s record includes the excommunication of one emperor, seven kings and countless lords. Innocent III actually appeared to many of his contemporaries as the verus imperator. He conducted a foreign policy that can only be described as imperial: “It was his ambition … to bind as many as he could of the kings of Europe to the Papacy by ties of political vassalage.”[10]

Contrary to the empire of the German kings, the imperial project of the Vatican had no chance of ultimate success, because it had no other legitimacy than the gigantic lie of the Donation of Constantine (more below). The first setback was a famous slap inflicted in 1303 on Boniface VII, who had stated, quite simply: Ego sum Caesar, ego imperator. The French king Philip the Fair trialed the pope for sodomy, sorcery and heresy, and shook off the yoke. Bohemia revolted in the following century (the Hussite Revolution). Then German princes responded to Luther’s call (To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, 1520). The papal empire failed, but its lasting achievement is to have stood in the way of the only empire that could succeed, and to have left Europe chronically divided by both national ambitions and religious creeds.

But why talk of “failure”? One can, after all, see in the European order of nation-states a great success. Two questions must therefore be distinguished. The first one is: was the political unity of Europe possible, or even inevitable, without the opposition of the papacy? This question can be answered by an objective historical study. That is what I am going to do. The second question is subjective: was the imperial unity of Europe desirable? It then depends on the point of view. The nationalist will reply that it is fortunate that Europe was not an empire, for then nations would not have existed—or very little. So Thomas Tout can write: “The conflict of Papacy and Empire … made possible the growth of the great national states of the thirteenth century, from which the ultimate salvation of Europe was to come.”[11]

But what salvation are we talking about? That of a Europe set on fire and bloodshed during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), the Italian Wars (1494-1559), then the Thirty Years War (1618-1648)? The latter, by the way, was largely orchestrated by Cardinal Richelieu who financed and armed the Protestants (Lutherans as well as Calvinists) in order to ruin the Empire of the Catholic Habsburgs. It was, he said, “for the good of the Church and Christianity, because the universal monarchy, to which the [Habsburg] King of Spain aspires, is very harmful to Christianity, to the Church and to the pope.”[12]

In reality, the Thirty Years War was the birth pang of a Europe that no longer had anything Christian about it. “In the space of three decades, writes Arnaud Blin, the European geopolitical universe was completely transformed. The medieval idea of ​​a unified Christian Europe gave way to a political chessboard governed by a new mechanism of international relations based on conflicting interests, the balance of power, and the amoralism of realpolitik.”[13] What the Peace of Westphalia (1648) inaugurated, Montesquieu described a century later in L’Esprit des Lois:

A new disease has broken out in Europe: it has infected our rulers and caused them to maintain armies which are out of all proportion. It has its recurrences and soon becomes contagious; inevitably, because as soon as one State increased the number of its troops, as they are called, the others at once increase theirs, so that the general ruin is all that comes out of it. Every monarch keeps permanently on foot armies which are as large as would be needed if his people were in imminent danger of extermination; and this struggle of all against all is called peace.[14]

To pay these armies, more taxes and more debt were constantly needed, until finally, after the Napoleonic wars, Europe was enslaved to the war profiteers, with the Rothschilds as their champions. Europe, after inventing the nation-state, invented industrial war.

Assuming European nations could ever free themselves from financial parasitism, would they ever be able to live peacefully with one another while each being sovereign? No, and for a simple reason: the world is now composed of empires, and no nation can compete with empires. Without political unity, Europe will always be kept in the subservience of one empire or another.

To free itself from the clutches of NATO, Europe has, as things stand, no other alternative than to ally itself with the Russian empire—for the Russian Federation is indeed both a civilization and an empire, heir to the Byzantine civilization and empire destroyed by the papacy. Those who say that Europe should fear Russia as much as the United States (as do many affiliated to the French “Nouvelle Droite”) are even more inconsistent and dangerous than nationalists who long for their nation’s sovereignty. The realist sees no alternative between America and Russia, because there is none. The realist does not give up on Europe, but he is betting that the multipolar world order that Russia is promoting will be much more favorable to Europe than American domination.

Finally, the realist accepts that, despite so many odds, Germany still stands as the natural and legitimate leader of Europe. We can debate on why this is so, but we cannot deny it. It is not just about economy. In its highest achievements, European civilization is German (and this is coming from a Frenchman). Nothing will happen unless Germany has the guts to denounce and the will to resist Washington’s racket, and to form a genuine and lasting alliance with Russia.

After these preliminary remarks, I will now tell the story of Europe with the purpose of demonstrating the theory that the medieval papacy was the main cause for the failure of Europe to gain political unity, and therefore the ultimate cause of its complete subjugation by Washington. (Actually, what Washington is now doing to Europe is a lot similar to what the papacy was doing to Europe centuries ago, as Michael Hudson brilliantly argued.)

The papacy will be considered here solely as a political power, which it unquestionably was. There will be no discussion of Christianity as belief system or religious practice. The papacy and the religion of Christ are two separate—some would say opposite—things. In fact, until Gregory VII, “the papacy was almost absent from the lives of Christians outside Rome.”[15]

The Birth of Europe

Let’s start at the beginning. How did medieval European civilization originate? It is generally accepted that it sprouted on the ruins of the Western Roman Empire, whose fall is attributed to the Barbarian Invasions and dated in 476, three centuries before Charlemagne. The Belgian historian Henri Pirenne challenged this received idea in Mohammed and Charlemagne, published in 1937, and his theory still stands, for those who know it.

In reality, the Barbarian Invasions did not destroy the Western Roman Empire, because none of the “Barbarian” peoples who settled in the territories of the Empire ever sought to destroy it. “Nothing animated the Germans against the Empire,” Pirenne explains, “neither religious motives, nor racial hatred, still less political considerations. Instead of hating it, they admired it. All they wanted was to settle there and benefit from it. And their kings aspired to Roman dignities.”[16]

Moreover, they never thought that the Roman Empire had fallen, was falling, or would fall. All their eyes were set toward the capital of the Roman Empire, Constantinople. “Until the eighth century, there is no other positive element in history than the influence of the Empire.”[17]
 The bishop of Rome, naturally, was appointed or approved by the Basileus or his representative in Ravenna (this is referred to as the “Byzantine Papacy”).

“Of all the features of that wonderful human structure, the Roman Empire, the most striking, and the most essential, was its Mediterranean character,” wrote Pirenne. “The inland sea, in the full sense of the term Mare nostrum, was the vehicle of ideas, and religions, and merchandise.”[18]
 That is why all Barbarian peoples competed for access to the Mediterranean Sea. The southern part of Western Europe remained fully Roman as long as it traded freely with the East.

That changed in the middle of the 7th century, with the Arab-Muslim conquest. Unlike the Germanic Barbarians, the Arabs had the project of replacing the Roman-Christian civilization and empire with a new civilization and a new empire. Therefore, their conquest of Syria and North Africa destroyed the unity of the Mediterranean world. Navigation between East and West collapsed. “At the beginning of the 8th century, its disappearance was complete.”[19]
 Port activity ceased in the West. Europe closed in on itself. The coffers of the Merovingian kings were emptied, and so was their authority.

Northern Europe (Austrasia, Saxony and Friesland) was less affected, because its economy was based on the exploitation of large agricultural estates, and not dependent on Mediterranean trade. This explains the ascendancy of the Austrasian Franks, who even benefitted from an intensification of sea and river trade in the North, which partly compensated for the decline of Mediterranean trade. Constantinople started trading through the Scandinavian Russ who settled in Novgorod and Kiev.

Since the political center of gravity shifted to the North, the Roman papacy naturally turned towards it for protection. The popes were not the only ones to woo Pepin the Short and his heirs; in 781, a marriage was arranged between the son of the Byzantine Empress and the daughter of Charlemagne. But the engagement was broken because of religious quarrels, and the coronation of Charlemagne in Rome on Christmas Day of the year 800 marked the first breach between East and West.

The coronation ceremony manifested the complementarity of pope and emperor: the former crowns the second, has him acclaimed by the people of Rome, and then prostrates himself before him. This imitates the Byzantine pattern, except for one important detail: “In Byzantium the imperial coronation was never more than an accessory ceremony. When the sovereign was elected by the Senate or the army (whether by tacit or express acceptance, by legitimate or usurped enthronement), he immediately came into possession of all his powers. The coronation liturgy, which sometimes took place a year later, added nothing.”[20]

There was another major innovation from the Byzantine model: the agreement between Charlemagne and Pope Sylvester I included the confirmation by the former of a donation made by his father Pepin to Pope Stephen II, of the city of Rome and a vast territory around it. This “Donation of Pepin” itself used as its legal basis the “Donation of Constantine”, probably the boldest forgery in all human history, and certainly the one with the greatest consequences.

First of all, the Donation of Constantine is the foundation of the papal claim to rule over the emperor, for it shows Constantine the Great giving to “Sylvester the universal pontiff and to all his successors until the end of the world” all the imperial insignia: diadem, tiara, shoulder band, purple mantle, crimson tunic, scepters, spears, standards, banners, “and all the advantage of our high imperial position, and the glory of our power.” On the basis of this forgery, the popes would later claim to have been given, by the first Christian emperor himself, the full extent of imperial authority, and the right to confer it to the emperor of their choice, or to take it away from him—and even, in the case of vacancy, to rule as emperors themselves.

But why stop there, thought the forger. Constantine, now in underwear, ceded to the pope “our imperial Lateran palace”, as well as “the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts and cities of Italy or of the western regions.” And to make sure that the pope really owned the Western world, Constantine decided to move to Byzantium, “for, where the supremacy of priests and the head of the Christian religion has been established by a heavenly ruler, it is not fitting that there an earthly ruler should have jurisdiction.” On this basis, popes would later forbid Western emperors to reside in Rome.

As I said, the Donation of Constantine is the basis for the Donation of Pepin and its confirmation by Charlemagne. In truth, doubts hang over the existence of the “Donation of Pepin”, because no authentic act is known.[21] What is fairly certain is that the papal estate was secured at the end of the 10th century by the “Ottonian Privilege” (Privilegium Ottonianum), signed by Otto the Great, the original of which is in the Vatican archives. This document, explicitly referring to the Donation of Constantine (and quite possibly a forgery itself), grants the pope a long list of domains, including “the city of Rome with its duchy”, “the entire exarchate of Ravenna”, as well as Venetia, Corsica, and Sicily (then occupied by the Saracens).

This vast territory, later extended to the size of a duchy, crosses the Italian Peninsula right through. A quick look at it on a map explains why the popes will be obsessed with the fear of seeing their Patrimonium Petri taken in a pincer movement. Their constant priority will be to prevent any sovereign from reigning over both southern Italy and northern Italy. Therefore, even before asking ourselves why Europe did not achieve political unity, we have the answer to why Italy never achieved its own political unity: the unity of Italy was conditioned by the disappearance of the Papal States, and the proof of that is that both would happen simultaneously in 1859.

Considering that all the papal privileges listed above go back to the Donation of Constantine, it is no exaggeration to say that European history was, to a large extent, shaped—and doomed—by this single papal forgery. The Italian priest Arnold of Brescia (1090-1155) saw in it the hand of the Antichrist (he paid for the blasphemy with his life). One of his contemporaries, by the name of Wetzel, wrote to Emperor Frederick Barbarossa that it is known to everyone in Rome that the Donation is “a lie and a heretical legend.”[22] Yet from the 8th till the 15th century, when the forgery was exposed in a scholarly manner, the papacy’s imperial policy rested entirely on this gigantic lie.

The Ottonian Dynasty and the Promising Start of the Empire

The Carolingian Empire only lasted about forty years, until, we are told, it was split between Charlemagne’s grandsons in a way that defies logic (Treaty of Verdun, 843), and again in the next generation (Treaty of Prüm, 855).[23] So let’s not dwell any longer on the Carolingians, and let’s turn to the Ottonians, the true founders of what would come to be called the Holy Roman Empire.

Otto the Great is the son of Henry the Fowler, Duke of Saxony, who in 911 was elected king by a coalition of princes wishing to unite their five duchies (Lorraine, Saxony, Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria) against the attacks of the Danes, Slavs and Hungarians. The name “German” having little use at the time, he was designated “King of the Romans”, a testimony to the enduring prestige of Roman civilization, identified with Christendom.

Otto I was in turn elected King of the Romans in 936, and added to this title that of King of Italy through his marriage to the widow of the previous king, and a war of conquest. His victory over the Hungarians in 955 made him the savior of Western Christendom. In gratitude for his protection, Pope John XII crowned him “Emperor of the Romans” in Rome in 962. So it was Otto’s safeguarding of the eastern frontiers of Christendom, on the one hand, and the union of Germany and Italy, on the other hand, that constituted the starting point of the Empire. But the actual unity of Germany and Italy was always made difficult by the barrier of the Alps standing in between them, and by their different political traditions, Germany being still a lose confederation of feudal duchies, while Italy was more a constellation of city-States. The emperors, residing in Germany, would have the greatest difficulty in gaining and keeping the loyalty of the rich Italian cities, whose separatist tendencies the popes would exploit.

The son and grandson of Otto I, Otto II and Otto III, were in turn elected kings of the Romans and then crowned emperors, respectively in 973 and 996. The Ottonians thus established the tradition according to which the German princes elect their king, who by right becomes the candidate for the title of emperor until his coronation by the pope. In general, the reigning king obtains, during his lifetime, the agreement of the princes for the election of his son, but the Germanic kingship remains elective in principle.

While claiming the imperium for the West, the Ottonians recognized the Eastern emperors of the Macedonian dynasty. Otto I negotiated the marriage of his son Otto II with Princess Theophano, niece of the Byzantine emperor John Tzimisces. Otto III, the son born of this union, grew up under the influence of his mother and her Byzantine court. He himself obtained the hand of a niece of Emperor Basil II, but when she landed in Bari in 1002, it was to learn that Otto III had died. He was only 21 years old.

The Ottonians’ foreign policy was modeled after Constantinople’s concept of the Oikoumene. They favored the emergence of autonomous Christian kingdoms under their tutelage, the emperor becoming the godfather of the kings whom he authorized to wear the crown. In the East, the Ottonians undertook the Christianization of the Slavs beyond the Oder (Poland and Bohemia) and of the Hungarians. Bohemia (capital Pragues) eventually became an integral part of the Empire, while Poland would eventually drift away from the Empire but remain moored to the Latin Church. In Hungary, under Otto II, King Géza had his son baptized as Stephen, and Otto III granted him the royal crown.

In the West, the Ottonians took control of Lotharingia (the future Lorraine, including Alsace). Otto I entrusted it to his brother Bruno, also archbishop of Cologne. He married his sister Hedwige to the Duke of the Franks Hugh the Great, father of Hugh Capet, who was educated by Bruno. Archbishop Adalbero of Reims, also a member of the Ottonian family, and Gerbert of Aurillac, tutor and friend of Otto III, had Hugh Capet crowned King of the Franks in 987.[24] Thus, the Capetian royal dynasty was born in the shadow of the Empire, as part of what was called at the time “the Ottonian order”.

In their relationship with the Church, the Ottonian emperors sought to reproduce the Byzantine symphonia between the Basileus and the patriarch of Constantinople. By the Ottonian Privilege, the pope, once elected, had to take an oath of loyalty to the emperor. In 963, Otto I crossed the Alps to depose Pope John XII and appoint Leo VIII in his place. He required that the people of Rome pledge that “they would not elect or ordain any pope except with the consent of Lord Otto or his son.”[25] Otto III made pope his cousin Bruno (Gregory V), who crowned him emperor in 996. On Gregory’s death, he placed his tutor and friend Gerbert of Aurillac, who took the name of Silvester II—thus pointing to Otto III as a new Constantine. The emperor’s right to appoint the pope or depose an unworthy pope was considered part of his attribution, as protector of the Church—as was the case in the Eastern Empire.

Germany had a national Church, placed in the care of a few archbishops and about forty bishops, largely independent from Rome. Archbishops were also the chancellors of the Empire, and bishops made the backbone of the imperial administration, counterbalancing the power of the dukes. “The bishopric thus tended to become a fief, especially since, in addition to spiritual powers, the bishop had a temporal base made up of land and various incomes.”[26] It was therefore not uncommon for bishops to be chosen from among members of the royal family. As already mentioned, a brother of Otto I, Bruno of Saxony, was Archbishop of Cologne, and one of his bastard sons, William, was Archbishop of Mainz.

In conclusion, the Ottos laid the groundwork for a sustainable imperial structure which was respected by most princes in Europe. Although they competed with the Byzantine Empire on some territorial issues, there was a sense that they had restored the bipartite unity of the Roman Empire, synonymous with Christendom. Before Otto III’s premature death, there had been plans for the two empires to join forces against the Saracens occupying southern Italy and Sicily. Otto III would then had made Rome his capital.

The Ottos looked up to and followed Byzantine traditions. As protector of the Church—still understood as the community of Christians—they were also responsible for keeping the papacy from falling under factious interests.

However, the Donation of Constantine was the worm in the fruit. The pope’s claim of exclusive ownership over Rome and a vast principality around it would ultimately set him as a rival to the emperor. The religious head would soon start biting at the temporal head.

The Salian Dynasty and the Investiture Controversy

Otto III having died childless, the crown was entrusted to the grandson of Otto I’s brother, Henry II (1002-1024). Then the male branch of the house of Saxony died out, and the German princes elected Conrad of Franconia, founder of the Salian dynasty. In ten years of reign, Conrad II extended the domain of the Empire, securing the Kingdom of Burgundy, which had absorbed the Kingdom of Arles. He thus wore the three crowns of Germany, Italy and Burgundy, a triad that formed the basis of a political edifice of which the Empire was the crowning glory. Conrad II was succeeded by his son Henry III (1039-1056).

The “Imperial Church system” was then firmly in place. However, the emperors’ control over the papacy was always precarious, because the pope’s power and property were coveted by Italian aristocratic families. Between 1012 and 1045, the Counts of Tusculum monopolized the see of Saint Peter. In 1046, Henry III deposed three rival popes and appointed the bishop of Bamberg (Clement II) in their place. On the latter’s death ten months later, he appointed the bishop of Toul, Bruno von Egisheim-Dagsburg, who took the name of Leo IX. The emperor’s involvement in the pope’s appointment raised no protest, from either the Church or the people; it was conform to the tradition of Charlemagne and Otto III.[27] Leo IX is actually a good example of a pope appointed by the emperor, who is highly regarded by clerical historians. Thomas Tout writes about him:

Despite his high birth, Bruno had long turned from politics to the service of the Church, and had become the ardent disciple of the school of Cluny. Archbishop of Toul, he had governed his diocese with admirable care and prudence … For the short five years of his pontificate, he threw himself with all his heart into a policy of reformation. … the special characteristic of his pontificate was his constant journeying through all Italy, France, and Germany. During these travels Leo was indefatigable in holding synods, attending ecclesiastical ceremonies, the consecration of churches, the translation of the relics of martyrs. His ubiquitous energy made the chief countries in Europe realise that the Papacy was no mere abstraction, and largely furthered the centralisation of the whole Church system under the direction of the Pope.[28]

Leo IX wanted to ban the practice of “simony”, the selling of Church offices, which was considered a form of corruption. Henry III supported Leo IX’s reform. But Leo IX surrounded himself with more radical reformers, such as Hildebrand or Humbert of Moyenmoutier, who, in his Adversus Simoniacos written in 1057, took the radical step of assimilating lay investiture to simony.

The death of Henry III in 1056 left as heir a five-year-old son, already elected King of the Romans in 1054 but placed under the regency of his mother. The papacy took advantage of the minority of Henry IV to sever its ties of dependence on temporal power. The reforming party had their candidate Etienne IX named without imperial agreement, and his successor Nicholas II laid down new rules for the election of the pope: the seven cardinals (bishops from around Rome) should choose the new candidate, then get him accepted by he rest of the Roman clergy. In practice, this tended to reinforce the control of the aristocratic families of Rome, such as the Colonnas and the Orsinis (from whom would come Boniface VIII).

In 1073, it was Hildebrand, who, after working in the shadows of other popes, took power under the name of Gregory VII. The decree that he promulgated in 1075, forbidding any lay person to appoint a bishop or an abbot, marks the beginning of the Investiture Controversy: “If an emperor, a king, a duke, a count, or any other lay person presume to give investiture of any ecclesiastical dignity, let him be excommunicated.”[29]

Henri IV, who was then 26, did not take it seriously, but when he intervened in the election of the archbishop of Milan, Gregory VII reminded him that his orders were as binding as those of God. Henry IV replied with a brutal letter, calling “brother Hildebrand” a “false monk”, a fornicator and a sower of discord. He had the support of the German episcopate, who met at Worms on January 24, 1076, and declared Gregory VII a usurper.

Gregory VII then employed the magic weapon he has forged for himself: he declared Henri IV excommunicated and deposed, for, he says, “I have received from God the power to bind and to loose in Heaven and on Earth.”[30] In the climate of political instability of the Empire, several German lords threatened to elect a new king. In a desperate attempt to prevent this, Henri IV crossed the Alps in the middle of winter and implored, as a penitent, the forgiveness of Gregory VII, who let him wait three days and three nights, barefoot, in the snow, in front of the castle of Canossa. This is, at least, how this episode is told by the chroniclers favorable to the pope, who used it to demonstrate how the pope can crush a German king, then raise him by grace from his abasement.

Henri IV obtained the lifting of the excommunication but the truce was short-lived. In March 1080, the Pope excommunicated Henry again and approved the king elected by the rebellious German princes, Rudolf, Duke of Swabia. At Rudolf’s death, the pope asked the princes to find “a suitable king for the honor of holy church,” and to have him take the following vow to the papal legate:

From this hour onwards I shall be the vassal in good faith of the blessed apostle Peter and of his vicar who now lives in the flesh, Pope Gregory; and whatever the pope commends me with the words ‘in true obedience’ I shall faithfully comply with, as a Christian ought … I shall, with Christ’s help, pay to God and St Peter all due honor and service; and on the day when I shall first come into the pope’s presence, I shall become St Peter’s knight and his by an act of homage.[31]

This was too much for the German princes, who now gave their full support to Henry IV. The German archbishops and bishops officially deposed Gregory VII and elected as new pope Wibert of Parma, the bishop of Ravenna, who took the name Clement III. When Henri IV marched on Rome, Gregory called for help the Normans, who freed him but plundered Rome and set it on fire. In March 1084, Henry IV was the master of the city and was finally crowned emperor by Clement III. Gregory VII died isolated in Salerno in May 1085.

The Gregorian party nevertheless remained strong and the struggle resumed when the Frenchman Eudes of Chatillon, the former prior of Cluny, was elected pope under the name of Urban II, with the same ideas and the same energy as Gregory VII. Urban II confirmed the excommunication of Henry IV, and determined to drive him out of Italy.

The conflict continued under Henri IV’s son, Henry V, who also suffered excommunication. It was temporarily solved by the Concordat of Worms signed on September 23, 1122. The emperor waived any right to appoint a bishop, while the pope recognized that the prelates were vassals of the emperor with regard to their domains, and granted him the right to be present or represented during their elections, and to intervene in case of discord. In his book On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, Joseph Strayer sees the victory of the papacy as the turning point in the destiny of Europe:

By asserting its unique character, the Church unwittingly sharpened concepts about the nature of secular authority. … When Church and Empire cooperated closely, as they had under Charlemagne and the Ottos, imperial supremacy could be admitted, at least in theory; but the Investiture Conflict weakened the Empire more than any other secular political organization. Other rulers settled their disputes with the reformers independently and on better terms than did the emperor. … Each kingdom or principality had to be treated as a separate entity; the foundations for a multi-state system had been laid.[32]

In fact, the Concordat of Worms was by no means a mortal blow to the Empire. But the Investiture Controversy was only one battle in a much bigger war for the supreme political power over Europe. The issue, explicit in the programmatic Dictatus Papae of Gregory VII, was the will of the pope to overpower the emperor. What we call the Gregorian Reform, after the name of Gregory VII, was more than a reform of the Church; it was a coup d’État led by a monkish conspiracy over two centuries to make the pope the “true emperor”.

The Papal Monarchy

The pope’s theocratic ambition relied on a doctrine known today as political Augustinianism, drawn from the work of the most influential Latin father. Augustinianism tends to absorb the natural order into the religious order. It challenges the classic understanding that, since God has created man as a social being, there has always existed a “natural law of the State” long before the existence of the Church.[33] The early Christians stuck to this principle, trusting the words of Christ and of Paul.[34] The Eastern Church never disputed it, for the simple reason that neither Emperor Constantine nor his successors, who made Christianity the religion of the Empire, derived their power from the Church.

The Gregorian reformers insisted, on the other hand, that the emperors, as well as all worldly sovereigns, could not receive their authority directly from God, but only through the Church. These reformers were mostly monks, who saw their otherworldly lifestyle as superior to the secular world. Their project, writes Robert Moore was “to divide the world, both people and property, into two distinct and autonomous realms, not geographically but socially.”[35] “The Church” was now understood as a separate elite society, excluding ordinary Christians. But from this first step followed a second, which was to place “the Church” above the rest of the Christian world, to make it a state above all states. Humbert of Moyenmoutier wrote in 1057: “just as the soul excels the body and commands it, so too the priestly dignity excels the royal or, we may say, the heavenly dignity the earthly.”[36]

Worse, Gregory VII declared that kingship derives not from God but from the devil: “Who does not know that kings and dukes are descended from those who, in disregard of God, through arrogance, plunder, treachery, murder, finally through almost all crimes, prompted by the prince of this world, the devil, strove to dominate their equals … in blind greed and intolerable presumption.”[37] This is why Gregory VII claimed to have received from Christ the power of St Peter “to withdraw and to concede to anyone whomsoever, according to his merits, empires, kingdoms, principalities, duchies, marches, counties and the property of all men.”[38]

There is a paradox, not to say a flagrant hypocrisy, in the papacy’s claim to be above the world. For the papacy had its own worldly realm, the Papal States. The popes therefore played the same geopolitical game as kings, only with different rules, and with a unique weapon that no other ruler could compete with. We saw that their first objective was to protect their Papal State by controlling northern Italy and southern Italy, and making sure they never fell into the same hands. But that was not enough. They developed a strategy of turning as many kingdoms as possible into vassal fiefs of the Holy See, with feudal obligations and the payment of an annual census in silver or gold.

It had started in 1059 under Pope Nicholas II (at the instigation of Hildebrand), with the Treaty of Melfi investing the Norman Robert Guiscard as duke of Apulia and Calabria (southern Italy) and, if he could conquer it, count of Sicily as vassal of the pope. “Thus the famous alliance between the Normans and the Papacy was consummated, which by uniting the strongest military power in Italy to the papal policy, enabled the Holy See to wield the temporal with almost as much effect as the spiritual sword. Thus the Papacy assumed a feudal suzerainty over southern Italy which outlasted the Middle Ages.”[39]

In 1073, Landolph VI, Prince of Benevento (southern Italy), recognized himself as a vassal of Gregory VII, and the principality passed under the direct domination of the Holy See on his death. Countess Matilda, a strong supporter of Gregory VII (the castle of Canossa was her main residence), also ceded Tuscany as a fief of the Holy See.

Gregory VII extended his lordly ambitions beyond Italy. He often played on the double meaning of fidelitas, as both religious “faith” and feudal “fidelity”, to claim the suzerainty of the Holy See over all Christian princes. Five Spanish princes accepted to become his vassals.[40]

The kind of racket that Gregory VII used in order to submit some princes into vassalage is best illustrated by this threatening letter of 1080 to the Sardinian prince Orzocor:

We do not wish to hide from you the fact that your country has been sought from us by many peoples: we have been promised great tributes if we would allow it to be invaded; such that they wish to leave one half of the whole land for our own use and to hold the other half in fealty from us. Although this was repeatedly demanded of us—not only by Normans, Tuscans and Lombards, but also by certain people from beyond the Alps—we determined never to give our assent to anyone in this matter, until we had sent our legate to you and discovered your opinion … If you persevere in your fealty to St Peter, we promise that beyond doubt his help will not fail you now or in the future.[41]

In an other example, Gregory proposed to King Swein II Estrithson of Denmark to invade “a certain very wealthy province by the sea, which is held by base and ignoble heretics, and we desire that one of your sons be made duke and prince and defender of Christianity in that province,” provided the Viking prince accepts to hold it as a fief of the pope.[42]

Gregory asked William the Conqueror that he “perform fealty” to him, reminding him “how effective I showed myself in your affairs and with how much effort I labored so that you might attain the dignity of the kingship.” He complained that his reputation had suffered from his support: “It was for this that I was branded with infamy by some of the brethren, who complained that by conferring such a favor, I had devoted my energies to perpetrating so many murders.” Indeed, the anti-Gregorian polemicist Wenrich of Trier satirized the papal policy in a letter of 1081: “There is no lack of men who seized kingdoms by tyrannical violence, whose paths to the throne lay through blood, who set a gory diadem upon their heads. All these are called the friends of the lord pope; all are honored by his blessings and saluted by him as victorious princes.”[43]

The policy of Gregory VII was carried out by his successors. After the crisis triggered by the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket (1170), Henry II Plantagenet was forced to revoke the Constitutions of Clarendon, which had placed clerics under royal jurisdiction, and to declare by letter to Pope Alexander III: “The Kingdom of England is under your jurisdiction; I do not recognize, in feudal law, any other suzerain than you.”[44]

In 1139, Alfonse I of Portugal recognized himself as a vassal of the Roman pontiff and paid him tribute. When his son Sancho neglected to pay, Innocent III threatened him with excommunication. Peter of Aragon went to Rome in 1204 and handed over his crown to Innocent III, to receive it in return from his hand, declaring Aragon a fief of the pope. After Peter’s death, Innocent III took over the guardianship of his son, appointed his own advisers and constituted the government of the minor king.[45]
 “During his eighteen years as pope,” writes Malcolm Barber, “Innocent made and unmade rulers; presided over, at one time or another, as vassal states, the kingdoms of Sicily, Iberia, and England, as well as possibly Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria.”[46] This is an imperial policy by any other name.

It was also the emperor’s prerogative that popes seized when they raised armies of “crusaders” in all the kingdoms, duchies and counties of Europe, again using their magic power to decide the salvation or damnation of men: lords doomed to hell for crimes of blood will get their ticket to heaven by shedding the blood of the infidels or the heretics. The First Crusade was preached by Urban II at the Council of Clermont on November 27, 1095. The extraordinary echo of his sermon, throwing thousands of knights and crowds of ordinary people onto the roads, must have appeared to the pope himself as the dazzling manifestation of the power that God had given him to reign over Europe. While preaching the crusade, Urban II confirmed the excommunication of Henry IV, and excommunicated the king of France Philip I for having repudiated his wife and taken that of another. Thomas Tout point out:

Nothing shows more clearly the strength and nature of the papal power than that this greatest result of the universal monarchy of the Church should have been brought about at a time when all the chief kings of Europe were open enemies of the Papacy. Henry IV was an old foe, Philip of France had been deliberately attacked, and William Rufus of England was indifferent or hostile. But in the eleventh century the power of even the strongest kings counted for very little. What made the success of Urban’s endeavour was the appeal to the swarm of small feudal chieftains, who really governed Europe, and to the fierce and undisciplined enthusiasm of the common people, with whom the ultimate strength of the Church really lay.[47]

The Hohenstaufens

Let us now take up the epic story of the fight between popes and emperors where we interrupted it, and bring it to its sorry conclusion. On the death of Henry V in 1125, the Salian dynasty came to an end. Then began a period of rivalry between two powerful German families: the Hohenstaufens from Swabia, and the Welfs from Saxony and Bavaria.

The Hohenstaufens prevailed with the election of Conrad III in 1138. He was succeeded in 1152 by his nephew Frederick, nicknamed Barbarossa. The fact that his mother was a Welf played in his favor. Frederick I arranged the marriage of his son, the future Emperor Henri VI, with Constance of Hauteville, daughter of the Norman King of Sicily. When in 1189, William I of Sicily died childless, his inheritance went to Constance, which made the son of Henry VI and Constance, the future Frederick II, King of Sicily. This is how the Hohenstaufen realized the dream of Otto III—nightmare of the pope—, the junction of southern Italy to the Empire.

As might be expected, the Hohenstaufens were almost constantly in conflict with the popes. Barbarossa was the first to attach the adjective Sacrum to the Romanum Imperium, to signify that it drew its legitimacy directly from God and not from the Church. An incident that occurred during a diet convened by Barbarossa in Besançon in 1157 illustrates the bone of contention. The papal legate, cardinal Roland Bandinelli, came to remind the emperor that he had received his imperial title from the pope. Barbarossa replied by circulating the following statement:

The Empire is held by us through the election of the princes from God alone, who gave the world to be ruled by the two necessary swords, and taught through St. Peter that men should fear God and honour the king. Whosoever says that we received the imperial crown from the lord Pope as a benefice goes against the Divine command and the teaching of Peter, and is guilty of falsehood.[48]

When Roland Bandinelli became pope as Alexander III, Frederick refused to recognize him and supported a rival. Alexander III excommunicated the emperor, and stirred a rebellion among the cities of northern Italy. During his career, Barbarossa led four military expeditions to submit them, and razed Milano in 1162. It was a failure. With the support of the pope, the rebel cities formed the Lombard League and rebuilt Milano. In Venice in 1177—one hundred years after Canossa—Barbarossa humbled himself before Pope Alexander III and recognized the autonomy of the Lombard cities.

Ten years later, another pope, Urban III, was about to excommunicate Frederick Barbarossa again when news reached Europe of the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Urban died and was replaced by Gregory VIII, who called for a new crusade (the third). Frederick left before Philipe Augustus and Richard the Lionheart in 1189. He was hoping to seize this opportunity to take the lead and forge an alliance with the Byzantine emperor. But after some military successes against Saladin, he died.

He was succeeded by his son Henry VI, who died in 1197, leaving an only son of three years old. The feud between the Welfs and the Hohenstaufens was renewed. A group of German princes elected Henry VI’s younger brother Philip of Swabia, while the supporters of the Welfs elected Otto IV of Brunswick. The young and energetic Pope Innocent III intervened. Fearing the unification of all of Italy under the same family, he sided with Otto and excommunicated Philip, after having made Otto promise never to attempt to unite Sicily with the Empire. A decade-long war ensued between the two factions.[49]

As soon as he was crowned emperor in 1209, Otto IV betrayed his promise and launched his army on Sicily. Innocent III immediately excommunicated him and convinced the princes of Germany to elect a new king. Philip of Swabia having died in the meantime, their choice fell on his nephew, the son of Henry VI Hohenstaufen, Frederick, who was now sixteen years old and in full possession of his title of King of Sicily.

The Pope had no choice but to support him against Otto IV, but conditioned his support on Frederick’s commitment to swear allegiance to him, to protect the papal principalities, and to renounce Sicily in favor of his son Henri, born of his recent marriage to Constance of Aragon. Frederick acquiesced and, during his coronation as King of the Romans at Aachen in 1215, he even made the unexpected promise to lead a crusade to retake Jerusalem. Here is how Ernst Kantorowicz explains this initiative that took the pope by surprise:

It was an almost inspired masterstroke of diplomacy that prompted the young King to set himself at the head of the crusading movement. Unwittingly he thus took the leadership and direction of the Crusade out of the hands of the papal Imperator.[50]

Abandoned by the pope, Otto IV allied himself with the King of England John Lackland, while Philipe Augustus supported Frederick II. The defeat of Otto IV at the battle of Bouvines, on July 27, 1214, ensured Frederick II the rallying of the majority of the German princes. He spent eight years traveling through Germany to pacify the kingdom, then returned to Sicily while leaving the government of Germany to his son Henry. This was contrary to the oath he had sworn to Innocent III, but the new pope, Honorius III, was accommodating and crowned him emperor in 1220, while urging him to fulfill his crusading vows.

The project took a new turn in 1225, when, having become a widower, Frederick married the daughter of the King of Jerusalem John of Brienne, and immediately asserted himself as the new King of Jerusalem.

But in 1227, Frederick was busy reorganizing Sicily and had still not left for the Holy Land. The new pope Gregory IX (parent and pupil of Innocent III) used this as a pretext to excommunicate him. After a stormy interview between the two men, the pope called Frederick “a monster out of the sea, whose mouth opens only to blaspheme God.”

Frederick nevertheless embarked for the Holy Land in June 1228, assuming, wrongly, that the excommunication would fall by itself. But “what the imperial galleys were carrying on this 28th of June, 1228, was not an army of fearful warriors and fanatics ready to fight, it was a cultural, scientific, artistic and technical mission.”[51] That is because, in the meantime, Frederick had established friendly relations with the Emir Fahkr ed-Din, ambassador of the Sultan of Egypt Al-Kamil, and had exchanged with the latter a profusion of luxurious gifts. He sent the sultan jewelry, silk robes, Sicilian falcons (Frédéric was a falconry enthusiast and the author of a treatise on the subject), and his own horse with its jeweled saddle and harness. In return, he received equally prestigious gifts, including a priceless planetarium, and an elephant that became very dear to him. Although half-German and half-Norman by birth, Frederick had grown up in Sicily in contact with Arab culture. Fond of mathematics, astronomy and medicine, he wanted to make his “crusade” a bridge between two civilizations. In the Arab world, “no western prince has ever evoked so much affection and understanding as he,” writes Kantorowicz. “Not only did they admire the encyclopaedic learning of the Emperor, who maintained erudite correspondence with the learned men of Egypt and Syria, Iraq, Arabia, Yemen, as well as Morocco and Spain, but they followed all the more important events of his life with unflagging interest.”[52]

Frederick met with his friend Fahkr ed-Din in the Holy Land and, after peaceful negotiations, reached an agreement with Sultan Al-Kamil in Jaffa on February 18, 1229. The sultan returned Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth and some other cities, with no other counterparts than possession of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Frederick crowned himself King of Jerusalem before hurrying back to Sicily, where the pope had spread the rumor of his death and launched his own army to seize Sicily.

The prestige of Frederick on his return was immense, and forced the pope to lift the excommunication. Frederick easily regained control of his Sicilian kingdom. The Byzantine Emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes, who from his exile in Nicaea was preparing the reconquest of Constantinople from the Latins, sent him an embassy laden with rich presents.[53] The friendship between the two emperors will be sealed in 1244 by the marriage of Constance de Hohenstaufen, daughter of Frederick, with the Greek emperor.

Frederick’s return from the Holy Land inaugurated a period of ten years during which he was to mark his century with an indelible imprint in fields as diverse as political institutions, law, science, art, and architecture. He is credited with the construction of more than 200 castles, some of spectacular originality like the octagonal Castel del Monte in Apulia, expressing his love of geometry.

This period saw the expansion of the Empire to the East, with the help of the Teutonic Order, of which the Grand Master Hermann von Salza was his most faithful friend. “Within two decades the Teutonic Knights conquered Prussia and Livonia, founded towns (Thorn, Kulm, Elbing), built fortresses there and attracted German settlers. … At the same time, the German influence spread in the neighboring states of the Empire, in Bohemia, in Hungary, in Poland, where the sovereigns welcomed in large numbers the German ssettlers to develop the riches of their country.”[54]

Frederick created a university in Naples and a medical school in Salerno, both free from canonical prohibitions and the exclusive use of Latin. He drew up for this kingdom a code of law, the Liber Augustalis, bearing in its preamble that the princes of the nations were created “by the imperative necessity of things, not less than by the inspiration of Divine Providence.”[55] The scientific spirit and the experimental approach that Frederick encouraged were especially fulminated by Pope Gregory IX, who again excommunicated him in 1239 and cursed “this king of pestilence [who] openly asserts that man should only believe what can be demonstrated by experience and reason.”[56]

Frederick did not forget Germany, and after deposing his son as king for rebellion, he solemnly restored “Public Peace” at a great Diet in Mainz in 1235 (the edict was issued in German, a first in history).

In 1236, Frederick mobilized a large army to subjugate the rebellious Lombard cities that, with papal encouragement, were forbidding him access to Italy. He received the support of many European kings, including Louis IX of France, Henry III of England (whose sister Isabelle he married) and Béla of Hungary. Europe was in the process of reaching its unity. Frederick therefore hoped to remake Rome the capital of the Empire. This was, of course, contrary to the unchanging policy of the popes, who, by invoking the Donation of Constantine, reserved the imperial prestige of Rome for themselves.

The energy deployed by Gregory IX to harm Frederick II (including by assassination attempts) would be matched only by that of this successor, Innocent IV, who held to the same principle of the pope’s plenitudo potestatis. In July 1245, at the Council of Lyon, Innocent IV rejected Frederick’s overture to appease their differences, confirmed his excommunication and declared him deposed. It is noteworthy that, in this occasion, the devout king of France Louis IX protested:

As powerful and respected as he is, the Pope does not have the right to depose a king. Every monarch is on his throne by virtue of Divine Right, and Divine Right is superior to the Apostolic Right which the Pope holds as heir to Saint Peter. We therefore formally oppose Pope Innocent’s deposition of Emperor Frederick, because this act, which generates endless disorder, would have the main effect of shaking the Christian community to its very foundations.[57]

Faced with the pope’s refusal to negotiate, Frederick called on all the princes of Europe to a general revolt against the papacy, in a manifesto that must have smelled of the most dangerous heresy to the pope:

God is our witness that our intention has always been to force churchmen to follow in the footsteps of the Primitive Church, to live an apostolic life, and to be humble like Jesus Christ. In our days the Church has become worldly. We therefore propose to do a work of charity in taking away from such men the treasures with which they are filled for their eternal damnation. … Help us to put down these proud prelates, that we may give mother Church more worthy guides to direct her.[58]

Frederick died in 1250 at the age of 55. His son Conrad, son of Yolande of Brienne, left Germany for Sicily but died two years later, at the age of 26. His half-brother Manfred declared himself regent of the Kingdom of Sicily on behalf of Conrad’s son, Conradin, who was only two years old. But the pope gave the kingdom to Charles of Anjou, an ambitious and unscrupulous character, quite different from his brother Louis IX. Charles landed in Sicily in January 1266 with a powerful army of mercenaries, and overcame Manfred, who was killed in battle (the pope had his remains dug up and thrown into the Garigliano river). Charles captured Conradin and had him beheaded. Manfred’s young widow was also captured and thrown into prison, where she died after five years. It is said that the eyes of her three male children were gouged out and that they also quickly died in prison.


Fighting against the formidable power of four popes, excommunicated three times, Frederick II had nevertheless succeeded in giving the Empire an unparalleled influence and prestige, which could have transformed Europe forever. But his death and the planned extermination of his offspring by the papacy broke the momentum.

Despite all the efforts of the papacy to liken him to the Antichrist, legends began to develop around him, conflating him with his grandfather and namesake. In the words of Francis Rapp:

The two great Hohenstaufen took the role of Endkaiser, of “emperor of the end of time”, who one day will come out of the mountain to renew the Empire and bring to the world a long era of peace. Charged with this messianic hope, the imperial idea kept all its vitality despite the miseries that afflicted the Empire in reality. This expectation of a bright future comforted the Germans who were saddened by the spectacle of the present. When they remembered the past, they found reasons to be proud, of a pride mixed with bitterness, because if the century of the Hohenstaufen symbolized in their eyes the Empire in full force, this glory had the heartrending light of the sunset, since at the apogee, immediately followed the fall, the ruin that the pope had wanted … In the memory of the German people the image of the Hohenstaufen Empire was deeply engraved, superb and tragic.[59]

After 1250, the imperial seat would remain vacant for sixty years, as the papacy refused to crown a successor. It was not until 1310 that a king of Germany, Henry VII of Luxembourg, descended on Rome to be crowned emperor. But the Empire had been deprived of all its Italian conquests, while the Capetians had seized its western provinces. The weakening of imperial power had plunged the Germanic duchies themselves into feudal wars and banditry.

With the coming of the age of gunpowder and Machiavellian politics, the medieval ideal of the Empire as a God-ordained spiritual unity receded into myth. The focus of political philosophy shifted from the concept of auctoritas (metaphysical legitimacy) to potestas (physical power).[60] When France started manifesting its own imperial ambitions under Louis XIV, diplomats from other countries advocated the balance of power between of European states.

Paradoxically, when French imperial hubris resurfaced under Napoleon, it was the occupation of Germany and the dissolution of what was left of the Holy Roman Empire that gave Germans a new national consciousness, and revived the memory of the greatness of medieval Germany. In 1815, the poet Friedrich Rückert composed his ballad “Barbarossa” reviving the myth of the great emperor. The great Richard Wagner asked: “When will you come back, Frederick, splendid Siegfried?”[61]

It seems as if the bloody and angry ghost of the Hohenstaufen was coming back to haunt Germany and Europe. It is no coincidence that the most exalted biography of Frederick II was published in German in 1927. We can notice on the cover of the original edition a symbol promised to a brilliant but tragic future. It is said that Ernst Kantorowicz’s book made a great impression on Hitler and Goering, who offered it to Mussolini. It is not by chance that the operation on which Hitler bet the future of Germany was codenamed “Barbarossa”.

To the American journalist Hubert Knickerbocker, who asked him in 1938 for his opinion on Hitler, Carl Jung replied:

He is the loud-speaker which magnifies the inaudible whispers of the German soul until they can be heard by the German’s conscious ear. He is the first man to tell every German what he has been thinking and feeling all along in his unconscious about German fate … Hitler’s power is not political; it is magic.[62]


[1] Hillaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith, 1920.

[2] Joseph Reese Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, Princeton UP, 1973, p. 11.

[3] Ernst Nolte, Der Europäische Bürgerkrieg 1917-1945. Nationalismus und Bolschewismus, Herbig, 2000. The title translates as “the European civil war.”

[4] Ernest Renan, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation? 1882.

[5] Caspar Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism: An Alternative History from Ancient Rome to Early Modern Germany, Cambridge UP, 2012, p. 14.

[6] Ibid., p. 2.

[7] Ernst Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second (1194-1250), (1931) Frederick Ungar publishing, 1957 (on, p. 385.

[8] De Monarchia of Dante Alighieri, trans. Aurelia Henry, Boston, 1904, Book I, chapter VIII, pp. 26-27, on f

[9] Malcolm Barber, The Two Cities: Medieval Europe 1050-1320, Routledge 1992, p. 106.

[10] T. F. Tout, The Empire and the Papacy (918-1273), fourth edition, Rivingtons, Londres, 1903, p. 325.

[11] Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, op. cit., pp. 6 and 2.

[12] Quoted in Arnaud Blin, 1648, La Paix de Westphalie, ou la naissance de l’Europe politique moderne, Éditions Complexe, 2006, pp. 70-71.

[13] Blin, 1648, La Paix de Westphalie, op. cit., pp. 5-6.

[14] Montesquieu, Esprit des Lois, Livre XIII, chap. xvii, quoted in Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: Its Nature and the History of Its Growth, Beacon Press, 1962, p. 383, on

[15] Jacques Van Wijendaele, Propagande et polémique au Moyen Âge : La Querelle des Investitures (1073-1122), Bréal, 2008, p. 111.

[16] Henri Pirenne, Mahomet et Charlemagne, 1937, Texto Tallandier, 2021, p. 23.

[17] Ibid., pp. 71-72.

[18] Ibid., p. 19.

[19] Ibid., p. 162.

[20] Ibid., pp. 112-113.

[21] A notice relating the promise made by Pepin the Short to Pope Stephen II to restore to him the lands taken from the Roman Church (known as the Fragmentum Fantuzzanum, from the name of Fantuzzi who published it in his Monumenti Ravennati), is preserved only in a manuscript of the end of the 15th or the beginning of the 16th century.

[22] Marcel Pacaut, La Théocratie. L’Église et le pouvoir au Moyen Âge, Aubier 1957, p. 117.

[23] To be honest, I doubt that these theoretical partitions have much historical value.

[24] Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, op. cit., p. 74.

[25] Francis Rapp, Le Saint Empire romain germanique, d’Otton le Grand à Charles Quint, Seuil, 2003, p. 56.

[26] Henry Bogdan, Histoire de l’Allemagne, Perrin, 1999, Tempus Perrin, 2003, p. 66.

[27] Pacaut, La Théocratie, op. cit., p. 66.

[28] Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, op. cit., p. 101-102.

[29] Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, op. cit., p. 127.

[30] Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, op. cit., p. 129.

[31] I.S. Robinson, The Papacy, 1073-1198: Continuity and Innovation, Cambridge UP, 1990, p. 411.

[32] Joseph Reese Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State, Princeton UP, 1973, p. 22-23.

[33] Henri-Xavier Arquillière, L’Augustinisme politique, essai sur la formation des théories politiques au Moyen Age, J. Vrin, 1972, p. 37.

[34] Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17): “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1).

[35] Robert I. Moore, The First European Revolution, c. 970-1215, Basil Blackwell, p. 11.

[36] Barber, The Two Cities, op. cit., p. 88.

[37] Robinson, The Papacy, op. cit., p. 399.

[38] Robinson, The Papacy, op. cit., p. 296.

[39] Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, op. cit., p. 115.

[40] Robinson, The Papacy, op. cit., p. 303.

[41] Ibid., p. 310.

[42] Ibid., p. 317.

[43] Ibid., p. 314.

[44] Achille Luchaire, Innocent III. Les Royautés vassales du Saint-Siège, Hachette, 1908, reprint Collection XIX, BNF-Partenaires, p. 99.

[45] Ibid., pp. 6-94.

[46] Barber, The Two Cities, op. cit., p. 105.

[47] Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, op. cit., p. 138.

[48] Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, op. cit., p. 254.

[49] It was from this time that Guelphs and Ghibellines, whose names are derived from the Italian forms of Welf and Weiblingen (the stronghold of the Hohenstaufen) designate respectively the supporters of the pope and those of the emperor, whose clashes will continue in Italy up to the Renaissance.

[50] Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second, op. cit., p. 73.

[51] Pierre Boulle, L’Étrange croisade de l’empereur Frédéric II, Flammarion, 1968, p. 137.

[52] Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second, op. cit., p. 196.

[53] Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second, op. cit., p. 207.

[54] Bogdan, Histoire de l’Allemagne, op. cit., p 123.

[55] Kantorowicz, Frederick the Second, op. cit., p. 246.

[56] Jacques Benoist-Méchin, Frédéric de Hohenstaufen ou le rêve excommunié (1194-1250), Perrin, 1980, 2008, p. 361.

[57] Ibid., p. 465.

[58] Tout, The Empire and the Papacy, op. cit., p. 389.

[59] Rapp, Le Saint Empire romain germanique, op. cit., p. 218.

[60] Bruno Arcidiacono, Cinq types de paix. Une histoire des plans de pacification perpétuelle (XVIIe–XXe siècles), Graduate Institute Publications 2015 p. 1-74, quoting Andreas Osiander, “Before Sovereignty: Society and Politics in Ancien Régime Europe,” Review of International Studies, XXVII, Special Issue, December 2001, pp. 119-45, on /

[61] Pierre Racine, Frédéric Barberousse, 1152-1190, Perrin, 2009, p. 11-12.

[62] Hubert Knickerbocker, Is Tomorrow Hitler’s?, Penguin, 1941.