Home Time Period All History Medieval History Ch. 39: Church Reforms of the High Middle Ages, Lay Investiture, Simony, Mendicant Orders

Medieval History Ch. 39: Church Reforms of the High Middle Ages, Lay Investiture, Simony, Mendicant Orders

Medieval History Ch. 39: Church Reforms of the High Middle Ages, Lay Investiture, Simony, Mendicant Orders
Myers, Philip Van Ness (1905), A medieval king investing a bishop with the symbols of office

The following is an excerpt (pages 443-455) from Ancient and Medieval History (1944) by Francis S. Betten, S.J. Although some information may be outdated, the Catholic historical perspective it provides remains pertinent. Use the link at the bottom of post to read the previous/following pages. Use the Search box above to find specific topics or browse using the Resources tab above.





The crusades were wars undertaken, by Christian Europe for the recovery of the Holy Land from the oppression of the Mohammedans. They lasted from 1096 to 1291. They were possible only by the heroic sacrifices on the part of the Christians. These sacrifices would not have been made had not the nations of Europe been imbued with a very high degree of faith, in particular with a genuine love for Jesus Christ and His Church. Besides this the time of the crusades is also a period of wholesome developments in the religious, intellectual, and political life of Europe. Before proceeding to the study of the crusades themselves, we shall review several of the great movements which made for a higher purity and liberty of the Church, and devised new ways in the imitation of Christ, the Lord and Savior of mankind.

571. Concerning Church Reform. — We have observed repeatedly that the discipline of the Church and the morals of both clergy and laity were not what they should have been. Young Catholic students, accustomed to look up with great respect to their ecclesiastical superiors, are often shocked when for the first time it comes home to them that in the past there have been priests and bishops who were lukewarm in their faith, lax in their morals, and careless in the fulfillment of their duties; nay, that there have even been a few bad popes. But this should neither dishearten nor frighten us. Among the twelve apostles there was one Judas; and one, St. Peter, who in a moment of temptation denied his Lord, and one, St. Thomas, who at first refused to believe in the resurrection. And yet it was through the apostles that the Divine Redeemer built up His glorious kingdom on earth. And so, in spite of all the shortcomings of her ministers, the Church has been the great and efficient teacher of sanctity, the restorer of morality, the chief and, in a way, the only civilizer of the barbarian nations. (See §§ 311, 342, 376, 403, 404 ff.)

Moreover, being an organism which is animated by a Divine Spirit, the Church possesses the power of reforming both herself and her members, whenever a reform is needed. And when this is the case, God will not fail to see that such a reform be really inaugurated. The chief powers in every reform will be the authorities of the Church, above all the Papacy, though others, laymen included, may not only yield great assistance, but even, in a private way, originate the struggle against the evils from which the Church is suffering. (See, for instance, §§ 584 and 585.) In fact the whole activity of the Church, like the life of every good Christian, is a constant work of reform. Nor should it be forgotten that even during the worst periods there have never been lacking immense numbers who led the life of ordinarily good Catholics, and many that were eminent for their sanctity.


572. Lay Investiture. — We have seen previously (§§ 471, 3; 493) that practically all the great functionaries of the Church possessed feudal property, which the great lords or the kings themselves had bestowed upon them. For this property they and their lords went through the ceremony of investiture (§ 467). But as it was not thought becoming that a bishop or abbot should be handed a spear or banner or anything suggestive of warfare, it was customary to invest ecclesiastics by surrendering to them the ring and pastoral staff. This investing of a bishop or other prelate with a secular fief by a layman, by handing to him ring and staff, is called lay investiture. Lay investiture was likely to create an essentially wrong impression. Ring and staff were here used to represent the secular fief, while in themselves they were the emblems of spiritual jurisdiction. The act, therefore, was apt to create the opinion that the bishop received from the king not a temporal possession but the spiritual power itself.

As long as this lay-investiture took place after a canonical election (§ 493) the evil was not so considerable. But soon the king (or other temporal lord) simply demanded the ring and staff of the deceased bishop or abbot, and without further ado “ invested ” with them a person of his own choice, whom he ordered to be elected.

In practice, even this violent interference did not always work badly. Good rulers carefully selected their candidates and often succeeded in filling the sees of their territory with excellent bishops. But the principle was wrong in itself, and on the whole it had already done incalculable harm to the Church.

573. Simony. — Simony is committed by buying, selling, or bartering for temporal goods any spiritual things or temporal things on account of the spiritual benefits annexed to them. This is the sin committed by Simon Magus, the sorcerer, who offered money to St. Peter to buy from him the power of communicating to others the Holy Ghost (Acts of the Apostles, VIII, 9-24). At the time of which we speak ecclesiastical positions chiefly were the “article” bought and sold. Lay investiture greatly increased the evil. It was of course very tempting for a ruler to accept a present or a contribution for his empty exchequer with the understanding that the donor would be granted a rich bishopric or abbey. Similar to this was the promotion of sons or relatives to important ecclesiastical positions, the duties of which they were neither able nor willing to fulfill. In some royal courts bishoprics and abbeys were occasionally put up at auction and sold to the highest bidder. The prelates who had thus obtained their position would then sell the lower offices in the same scandalous manner.

574. Nicolaitism was another evil, closely connected with the former two. From the beginning of Christianity deacons and higher ecclesiastics were strongly advised not to enter the state of matrimony. The life of celibacy for God’s sake is a closer imitation of Jesus Himself and His Virgin Mother; it enables priests to live exclusively for their sacred duties, and frees them from numerous worldly entanglements. About the end of the fourth century this had ceased to be merely a recommendation and had become a strict law in the whole West. But during the troubled period of the dissolution of Charlemagne’s empire and the inroads of the Northmen, the general confusion of the times caused the law to be widely disregarded. It was a serious violation of ecclesiastical discipline. Worse than this, there were those who even taught that married life was better for the clergy, thus adding the crime of heresy to that of disobedience. All these transgressions were comprised under the term of Nicolaitism. (In the first Christian centuries the Nicolaites formed a sect which taught that open immorality was pleasing to God. Its originator was a more or less fabulous Deacon Nicholas. (See the Catholic Encyclopedia, under “Nicolaites.”) In the Middle Ages the name was applied to those clerics who violated the law of celibacy.) They were never so general as to allow the law of celibacy to be forgotten entirely.

As a rule ecclesiastics who did not scruple to buy their offices for money cared little for the law which enjoined on them a celibate life. They tried to provide their children with Church offices obtained through simony, and aimed to have their own sons as their successors. There was indeed ground for fear that ecclesiastical positions be reduced to the rank of hereditary fiefs.

575. Evils Threatening the Election of the Popes. — In the earliest times the popes were elected much after the manner of the other bishops (§ 493). The act was performed by the clergy of Rome together with the prominent laymen and the people. After the reign of Emperor Justinian the Great (§ 412) the Byzantine emperors for some time claimed and exercised the right of approving the election before the elected could be recognized and crowned. This “right” ceased, of course, after the establishment of the Papal States. Pippin the Short and Charlemagne did not influence the elections. But it appears that the Carolingian emperors obtained the privilege of having their envoy present at the consecration of the pope-elect. The three Ottos went much further. In some cases they proposed the person they expected to be elected. Yet the election itself was always considered essential, and without it no imperial candidate would have been recognized as pope. St. Henry II and Conrad II did not interfere in the elections, while Henry III, who found a rather chaotic state of things in Rome, again made his influence strongly felt. The fact that he as well as the Ottos raised only worthy and able men to the Papacy cannot excuse the principle itself.

But whenever during these times the power of the northern emperors relaxed, there arose almost regularly that of Roman and Italian factions, which interfered with the elections generally in a much more detrimental way. Happily the principle of state interference was resisted at the moment when it threatened to produce the worst consequences.


576. Measures against Simony and Nicolaitism. — One of the most influential elements for a thorough reformation of the Church was the Congregation of Cluny (§ 501). Though the purpose of this far-spread organization was to preserve or restore religious fervor in the monasteries, its influence extended more and more to the secular clergy also. The monks of Cluny efficiently advocated correct practices and virtuous living among all they could reach.

The first among the so-called reform popes is St. Leo IX (1048-1054), who for several years traveled through France and Germany, expelling unworthy bishops and priests from office. Victor II and Emperor Henry III, his cousin, had mapped out plans for a world-wide campaign against simony and Nicolaitism, but died before these plans could be carried into execution. The succeeding pontiffs were by no means neglectful of their duty; but nobody undertook the struggle with such vigor as the great Gregory VII (see below). He appealed directly to the laity, forbidding them to hear the Masses or admit the ministrations of priests who openly defied the laws of the Church. Zealous men all over Europe seconded the endeavors of the Pope by word of mouth, by writings, and by their example, and helped to break the power of these evils. The struggle lasted many years. Simony and Nicolaitism were never to revive again in the same frightful and threatening degree.

577. Law Concerning Papal Elections. — After the death of the stern Henry III, the unruly elements in Rome raised their head again, and as usual caused difficulties for the papal elections. Under such circumstances Nicholas II ascended the Chair of St. Peter. He was determined to put an end to all undue interference. A new law confined the choice of the pope to the cardinal-bishops, that is, the bishops of certain towns in the immediate neighborhood of Rome. (Later this law was changed so as to admit all the cardinals to the election). The other cardinals, the lower clergy, and the laity were allowed merely to express by acclamation their consent to the accomplished election.

It should be remarked that the occasion of this incisive regulation was chiefly the violence shown by the Roman factions during late years, It was equally designed to exclude all imperial meddling as well. However, it reserved expressly the rights which had been lawfully granted or were to be granted to the Roman king or emperor personally.

578. Law against Lay Investiture. — In 1073 Cardinal Hildebrand was elected to the Papacy. He assumed the name of Gregory VII. Hildebrand, an Italian of German extraction, belonged to the Benedictine Order. At the Roman court he had ably assisted several pontiffs in their work of reform. Nobody had given more thought to the needs of the Church, and to the question as to how her difficulties might be remedied. In 1075 he solemnly prohibited lay investiture, threatening with excommunication any layman that would presume to perform it and any ecclesiastic that would submit to it. This law concerned all countries. But the opposition to it nowhere reached the violence with which the powerful kings of England and Germany resisted it.

579. THE CONTEST ABOUT LAY INVESTITURE IN GERMANY. — Henry IV (1056-1106, see § 557) soon was at variance with the Saxons, among whom he generally resided. By all known means of force and fraud and broken promises lie crushed their several rebellions against his tyranny, and punished their leaders with the most brutal cruelty. They were his principal but by no means his only enemies in the kingdom. At his court a lucrative traffic was going on in sacred offices. Whenever he was hard pressed by his enemies, he listened to the voice of the pope and his own conscience; when the danger was over, he returned to his former habits of luxury, tyranny, and oppression of the Church.

Henry IV was engaged in wreaking barbarous vengeance upon the Saxons when Pope Gregory’s law was promulgated. He openly defied it, and continued in his practice of lay investiture and all the scandalous manipulations connected with it. The Saxons appealed to Gregory VII for help against the tyrant. The Pope now summoned the king to Rome to answer to the charges made against him. Henry retorted by calling a sham synod of German bishops and abbots, which declared Gregory deposed, and he himself addressed to the Pope an insulting communication. The great majority of the bishops almost at once sent to the Pope a letter of confession, in which they pleaded fear of death as an excuse. The Pope then in a Roman synod solemnly excommunicated Henry IV, forbade him to act or appear as king, and threatened him with final deposition unless he should be absolved from the excommunication within a specified time (§ 495).

In Germany all those who sincerely sided with the Pope in his contest for right and justice and the liberty of the Church combined with the many who had been outraged by the despot. Soon the plan of electing another king was discussed. As the Pope had not yet rejected Henry definitely, he tried to mediate. It is entirely due to his efforts and the untiring activity of his legates that the plan was not carried out. An agreement was reached between the three parties, the Pope, the king, and the princes. Henry IV should appear in a diet at Augsburg, next Candlemas day, where the Pope would listen to the grievances that might be urged against the king. There all disputes were to be settled, provided the king would give satisfaction to both pope and princes. Until then he was to live as a private man.

580. Henry IV’s Penance at Canossa. Henry, who rightly did not trust the justice of his cause, wished by all means to appease the Pope before facing his enemies at Augsburg. He set out for Italy in the dead of winter under the greatest hardships, and crossed the Alps. The Pope had withdrawn to Canossa, a castle of the Countess Mathilda of Tuscany. Here in 1077 took place the famous meeting of Pope and king. (It must be kept in mind that there were three parties to the compact, and that all three must cooperate in the final settlement.) For three days the king appeared before the castle gate and stood there from morning till night in the garb of a penitent imploring absolution from the ban. The Pope was in a quandary. If he absolved him and restored him to his rights, he would break his promise to the German princes; if he did not absolve him, he would incur the charge of cruelty. He at length took a middle course. He absolved him from the excommunication as far as he was a private Christian, but left him as it were under its civil effects. Henry was not to act or appear as king and remained obliged to present himself at the diet of Augsburg and to submit to the verdict which would be reached there. This the king promised to do. He was then absolved and admitted to Holy Communion at the Pope’s Mass.

Henry IV’s act was certainly a humiliation, but not an extraordinary one in those days (§ 498). In the Ages of Faith public penance was of frequent occurrence and had nothing degrading attached to it. Men of high rank, kings included, submitted to it and lost nothing in the estimation of their subjects. Henry’s penance, moreover, was self-imposed. The Pope did not desire, much less demand it. The event, often represented as the triumph of a proud pope over a helpless king, was in reality an advantage won by Henry over his German adversaries.

It is worth while to see how Gregory VII himself describes this memorable happening. The following extracts are taken from two of his letters, one of which he wrote to the German princes in order to prevent misunderstandings and misrepresentations.

“Having laid aside all the belongings of royalty, wretchedly, with bare feet and clad in wool, he (the king) continued for three days to stand before the gate of the castle. Nor did he desist from imploring with many tears the aid of those who were present there, and whom the report of it had reached, to such pity and depth of compassion, that interceding for him with many prayers and tears, all wondered indeed at the unwonted hardness of our heart, while some actually cried out that we were exercising not the gravity of apostolic severity but the cruelty as it were of tyrannical ferocity. … I, seeing him humiliated, having received many promises from him concerning the bettering of his way of living, restored him to the Communion. But only that; I did not reinstate him . . . that I might do justice in the matter or arrange peace between him and the bishops and princes beyond the Alps.” (From Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages.)

581. Progress and End of the Contest in Germany. — There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of King Henry IV in making his peace with the Pope. But the good resolutions did not last long. Hardly had he left Canossa, when the numerous simonistic bishops of Lombardy surrounded him and by flatteries and threats of rebellion undid the work of Gregory VII. The vacillating king again disregarded his duty. As soon as this became known in Germany, his numerous adversaries made good their threat and chose another king, Rudolph, Duke or Suabia. After further attempts to restore unity Gregory at last excommunicated Henry again and recognized Rudolph as Roman King. Germany was torn by civil war. Rudolph, indeed, soon fell in a battle. But under the plea of zeal for the Church Henry’s own sons claimed the throne and found adherents.

The unfortunate Henry IV died while under the public excommunication. He was not buried in consecrated ground until it was learned, five years later, that before his death he had desired to be reconciled with the Pope. His son Henry V, who had so far feigned fidelity to the Church, continued the policy of his father with greater violence. Pope Paschal II, high-minded and generous, but better versed in spiritual matters than in secular diplomacy, was no match for the unscrupulous Henry and suffered the utmost humiliation at his hands.

The contest about lay investiture was finished, after nearly fifty years, by a concordat concluded in the city of Worms, in 1122. Pope Calixtus II granted that the election of the bishops might take place in the king’s presence but without simony. The prelate was to be invested with the temporalities of his see by means of a scepter. This certainly did away with the danger of a wrong interpretation of the ceremony, because the scepter does in no way denote spiritual power. The influence which this arrangement left to the monarch did not necessarily interfere with the liberty of election. It was thought to be excusable on account of the great importance of the ecclesiastical possessions for the crown in Germany.

582. THE CONTEST ABOUT LAY INVESTITURE IN ENGLAND. — The decree against lay investiture was published just nine years after William the Conqueror had won England. He simply refused to give up the evil practice. And since he selected his candidates with great care and promoted none but good men to ecclesiastical offices, Pope Gregory did not urge him any further. (See § 512.) The inevitable clash came under his sons (§§ 506, 507). William Rufus openly trafficked in spiritual offices, and of course clung to lay investiture. While most of the bishops either submitted to, or at least did not oppose the tyrant, St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate of England, became the champion of the rights of the Church. William drove him into exile. Under Henry I he returned, but was forced a second time to leave the country. The king relaxed, however, when threatened with excommunication by the Pope. St. Anselm returned to England. In 1107 it was agreed that there should be no investiture of ecclesiastics at all, but that the bishops should take an oath of fidelity for their feudal possessions.

The happy conclusion of the fierce struggle did not, in fact, prevent all royal interference with the liberty of the elections. Unscrupulous rulers, high and low, found other means to get their candidates into ecclesiastical positions. The Papacy was not excluded. Charles of Anjou (§ 568), for instance, brought about the election of his Pope by the incarceration of two cardinals who would have opposed him.


583. Character of the Mendicant Orders. — At the beginning of the thirteenth century there existed a great and ever-growing prosperity all over western Europe. In many quarters it was accompanied by a decrease in morality. Together with greed and avarice went a general luxury and dissipation among the higher classes which rendered the condition of the poor more helpless and degrading. The clergy did not keep entirely free from these evils. The number of worldly-minded ecclesiastics lent color to violent accusations against bishops and priests.

One of the most striking acts of Divine Providence was the establishment of a new kind of religious order, called the mendicants, from the Latin mendicare, to beg. Our forefathers styled their members friars, from the Latin frater, brother. In the older orders the unit was the individual house. Though a monk was privately poor (§ 410), the house was supposed to possess property. Self-sanctification was their aim. Hence monastic institutions were originally located in places far remote from the turmoil of the world, on hilltops or in solitary valleys. In the new orders the unit was the whole organization ruled by one general superior; or a “province” consisting of several houses, the members of which might be sent from place to place as conditions required. The houses were to subsist entirely on alms, hence their name. Besides the spiritual perfection of the individual members there was a second purpose; namely, preaching and other priestly and spiritual ministrations. This made it necessary to locate the residences near the people in villages and cities.

The principal mendicant orders are the Franciscans and Dominicans.

584. The Franciscans. — When St. Francis of Assisi heard the words of the Gospel, “ do not possess money in your purses, nor scrip for your journeys, nor two coats, nor shoes, nor a staff,” he resolved to carry them out literally. He chose the “Lady Poverty” for his spouse. Soon enthusiastic companions gathered around him, with whom he began to preach, chiefly to the poor and wretched. This was the beginning of the Franciscan Order. It was solemnly approved in 1223 and spread rapidly. Its influence has been wonderful. The friars alleviated the misery of the poor, the sick and forsaken, and taught them by their example and by pointing to the poverty of Jesus Christ to accept their condition with resignation, if not with joy. Many of the higher classes joined the devoted followers of the “poor man of Assisi,” and all learned not to look with contempt upon the lowly, and to make a Christian use of the possessions God had granted them. “St. Francis and his companions,” says the author of an excellent work on political economy, “ have roused in millions of souls the love of poverty, simplicity, and contentedness, in a society which threatened to succumb to the dangers of avarice and greed.” Though chiefly devoted to humbler pursuits, the order has given to the Church many learned and otherwise prominent men.

St. Francis encouraged a young lady of Assisi, St. Clare, to become under his direction the founder of an order of women, the Poor Clares. They follow a life of great strictness and seclusion from the world.

585. The Dominicans. — After making brilliant studies, St. Dominic, a Spaniard, accompanied his bishop on a journey through southern France. When passing through the districts infested by the Albigensian heresy (§ 543), he noticed that the preachers who tried to convert them indulged too much in the outward display of pomp, while the leaders of the heretics were known for their abstemious life. This suggested to him the idea of a new order, which would combine the austerities of the older communities with learning sufficient to refute and bring back to the Church the Albigensians and other heretics. The Dominican Order, therefore, besides practicing poverty in a style similar to that of the Franciscans, makes preaching and teaching and the pursuit of learned studies its peculiar end. The order was approved in 1216 and extended very rapidly. It has done great service to the Church in every sphere of piety and charity and above all in combating heresies by means of example and instruction. The “Prince of the Christian Schools,” St. Thomas Aquinas (§ 622), belonged to the Sons of St. Dominic.

St. Dominic, too, founded an order of women. The Dominican Nuns are bound to an active life of industry and educational work.

Many of the Franciscan and Dominican sisterhoods of our days, which labor so successfully in the fields of education and charity, are institutions of later date with rules based upon those of the two great ancient orders.