Teaching the Investiture Controversy

One of the most difficult things to teach in a medieval course is the Investiture Controversy. Students will grasp, more or less easily, the crusades, monasticism, “feudalism” if you simplify it enough, even saints’ lives and pilgrimage, but the Investiture Controversy usually puts them to sleep.

Which it shouldn’t because it was the most significant “event” in the Western Church between the death of Augustine in 430 and the Protestant Reformation in 1517. Perhaps the pontificate of Innocent III, 1198-1216, as well, in between these two. But the list is definitely limited.

Yet the Investiture Controversy is…boring. The facts that it centered on spiritual qualifications for office and the technicalities of who should preside over the ceremony of office are both lost on most students of today’s generation, because we simply don’t have context today. Students have to imagine a past where a) separation of church and state didn’t exist, and simultaneously b) where the Church, separate from the State (in this case, the complicated Holy Empire), wielded significant influence and authority in everyday life. And then students have to try to understand the monastic aspirations of the reformers, to bring back some measure of the spiritual vitality that made the Church an institution worth caring about. It’s all very complex, and by the time you get there either you’re out of time or they’re out of patience.

Gelasius 1 Jarrett
Jonathan Jarrett’s diagram of the issues; click image to read his excellent post and see the larger original diagram.

It’s not helped by the fact that, unless you’re giving a course specifically on the medieval church or even better the high medieval church, you can’t well assign a great sourcebook like Maureen C. Miller’s Power and the Holy in the Age of the Investiture Conflict (her introduction is superb), or the over-priced but excellent edition of Frutolf of Michelsberg’s chronicle. Generally, I’ve stuck with the famous  exchange of letters in 1076 between Henry IV and Gregory VII, and the Dictatus Papae (naturally), but again,the language is rough going for those who don’t know the period. Boiling events down to the Concordat of Worms in 1122 is another practical approach, since the statements of both sides are short and succinct–but again, one loses a sense of complexity and moment.

St. Bruno refusing the archbishopric

A different text that I’m thinking of assigning in the spring might might be beneficial for different reasons: Saint Bruno of Segni’s treatise on simony, composed sometime before 1107 and translated here by the redoubtable Professor William North (seriously, check out his collection of primary and secondary sources at Carleton College).

Saint Bruno’s treatise is useful for several reasons, especially when paired with Jean Leclercq’s essay on the “heresy of simony”: a) it is a longer selection, so when properly prepped students can sink their teeth into a longer argument; b) it contains a life of Pope Leo IX and functions as a foundation history of the reform movement; c) it illustrates how Scripture, the Patristics, papal government, and contemporary politics intersected; d) it lays out, as clearly as any source I’ve read, why exactly “simony” was so offensive and destructive to the church (chapter 10 and chapter 15); e) it was written by a man, Saint Bruno, who was a close adviser to four successive popes, and was widely regarded as one of the leading intellectuals in the reform movement (well-written, researched, and illustrated biography here). Granted, some of the legalistic parsing in chapters 11-14 might get a bit dry, but a lot comes down to how you frame the readings–put some faces to the names, and locations to the places, and things should liven up (Canossa, Normans, and Matilda of Tuscany, for example).

Hopefully this approach, together with some presentations that bring the historical figures to life, will breathe some vitality into the Investiture Controversy this spring. I plan to follow on our discussions with a focus on the first four Lateran councils, as a way of organizing the complex twelfth century, before arriving at papacy of Innocent III which is a unit on its own. But without understanding what was at stake in the Investiture Controversy, the rest of medieval history, all the way to Luther’s protests in 1517, will make rather less sense.