Medieval Authority: Pope vs. Emperor

power and authority in medieval times

Or Themes in Otto’s The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa

The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa written by Bishop Otto of Freising in the twelfth century sheds light on a general mood of the populace or theme of the Roman empire during this time. The general theme presented by Otto is the constant struggle for superior “divine” authority between Roman pontiffs and the emperors of the empire. Another minor theme is the struggle between reason and faith in the populace of the empire. Otto’s history on Frederick Barbarossa contains four books, the latter two being written by Rahewin, so this paper will focus primarily on the first two books of the history which were written by Otto.

Otto also presents a letter which he received from Frederick Barbarossa, where it is stated what this history should contain. In this letter, Frederick Barbarossa talks briefly of how Pope Hadrian had bestowed him with the crown of the Roman empire in the Basilica of St. Peter. [1] This marks the foundation of the history’s primary theme, as receiving the crown of the Roman empire and the crown of the German realm are two different things. Four years before Frederick Barbarossa became the official emperor, he had been crowned as king of the Germans in Aachen, March 9, 1152.[2] Frederick Barbarossa’s reign would continue until his death by drowning on June 10, 1190.[3]

It must be admitted that the bulk of Otto’s first book touches more on the histories of the great men who Frederick Barbarossa succeeded, namely his uncle Conrad who accomplished great things in raising the authority of the emperor to compete with the authority of the papal see. To touch on the overall history’s theme, this paper, too, will begin with a heavy focus on these earlier great men. But first, to set the history’s theme in stone, the reader should be given a taste of how great Frederick Barbarossa himself was held in esteem after his prestige had been settled throughout the empire. Otto describes Frederick Barbarossa as “our most victorious prince” and how “after the turbulence of the past … an unprecedented brightness of peace dawned [and] the authority of the Roman empire prevails.”[4] Frederick Barbarossa arguably surpassed the reputation of his uncle, Conrad, but he could not have done so without Conrad’s previous successes.

Before, when Henry IV was the king of the Germans, the struggle between pope and emperor could not have been more visceral as Pope Gregory VII called all of Henry’s bishops “necromancers,” which, having caused Henry to be outraged, lead the emperor to invade Italy as if embodying this struggle in a large-scale trial by battle for the world to witness who God favored more.[5] To strengthen the history’s theme, it seems, or must have seemed to the people of the time, that God had chosen the emperor, as Guibert was placed as the new pope in Gregory’s stead due to the conflict.[6]

Now a digression is due to clarify some important points. Today, historians refer to the aforementioned empire as the “Holy Roman Empire,” but, as Dr. Haskett pointed out in his lecture, this is a modern term and first starting in Frederick Barbarossa’s time the empire was merely called the “Holy Empire.”[7] This is important to note because, verily, Frederick Barbarossa did great things to see that the crown of the emperor had more divine authority than the mitre of the Roman pontiff, at least temporarily, marking the empire out as “Holy,” indeed. But in the emperors Henry and Conrad’s time, this notion of the empire being called “Holy” had not yet flowered.[8] Dr. Haskett also pointed out another key bit of information that can help the reader of Otto’s text understand the mood of the time. Today, historians refer to this said time as the Twelfth-Century Renaissance.[9] This could not be more evident in Otto’s history because, even he, in digressing to explain the definition of “Divinity” quotes Boethius, Plato, Socrates and Aristotle. [10]

The abovementioned Pope Gregory, before being deposed by Henry, was doing much to strengthen the divine authority of the papal see. With words alone he had persuaded the princes of the German realm to replace their emperor, showing the power that Frederick Barbarossa would later need to compete with.[11] Rudolf, duke of the Swabians, was chosen by the German princes and Gregory was assuaged.[12] Rudolf was given a diadem with the inscription “Rome gave Peter his crown, Peter bestows one on Rudolf.”[13] This suggests that Rome herself possesses the spiritual power that St. Peter had. Where exactly this power of Peter came from must have been discussed by the philosophers and theologians of the time, especially as this power of Peter did not prove powerful enough to stop the followers of the true emperor from slaughtering Rudolf soon after.[14] But Rudolf was buried like a king by his enemies nonetheless, a way for the true emperor to show his humility and humbleness.[15] For, as Otto, paraphrasing Cicero, said, of men in the highest places, “the greater they are, the more humbly they may conduct themselves.”[16]

Henry, the true emperor who humbly buried the traitor Rudolf in the fashion of a king, addressed one count of Swabia so: “Now, since all authority is from God, he who resists authority resists the Ordinance of God … so gird yourself like a man to overthrow the enemies of the empire.”[17] This Henry was soon succeeded by another Henry whom “subjected … [the] empire to his sway” that those outside the empire “trembled for the fear of his power.”[18] This says a lot of the history’s theme, as soon after a war broke out over who would gain the crown of the German realm next, and all who partook and witnessed such wars as these believed that verily God chose the successor. After much bloodshed and the death of the short-lived Emperor Lothar, the abovementioned Conrad was raised to the crown and made king of the Germans.[19] Now, Conrad was held in high esteem, particularly by one John of Constantinople, king of the Greeks, and this esteem is presented by Otto in a letter John wrote to Conrad which called Conrad’s empire the “New Rome.”[20] John, seemingly aware of the divine authority that granted Conrad his success, wishes to unite the West with the East as in times of yore, and says, “All shall see and hear with how little effort the brigands who rebelled against the authority of our two empires will be overthrown. Because, with God’s aid, if we extend our wings we shall soon overtake the fleeing enemy[.]”[21] Notice the term “authority” used by John and its connection to “God’s aid.” Truly, John must have believed that God was on the side of Conrad otherwise he might have tried to strike a deal with the Roman pontiff instead.

Conrad, too, must have been aware of this imposed divine authority on his brow, for in a response to John he stated, “France, Spain, England, Denmark and … other kingdoms … are ready to perform the commands imposed by our authority.”[22] Later in this same response, Conrad emboldened the history’s theme more with these words: “For if He Himself be in our midst, Who giveth salvation to kings, it is sure that our enemies will not rejoice.”[23] This theme and understanding of divine authority was not only shared among those in power. A letter sent to Conrad by distressed Romans fighting with the papal curia in Rome stated, “And since we desire to exalt and to increase the Roman kingdom and empire, vouchsafed by God to your governance,… to restore it to [what] it was at the time of Constantine and Justinian … we have by God’s grace reinstated the senate … and … trampled … those who were always rebels against your sway[.]”[24] Already an observer can see how even the Roman populace saw God’s favor to be on the side of Conrad, and this next passage of theirs also reveals how they believed the Roman pontiff had lost God’s favor long ago: “Let Your Perspicacity recall how many great ills the papal curia … have done to the emperors who were before you.”[25] They also inform Conrad that the pope has given his staff and ring to “the Sicilian” (Roger) whom has given money to the pope to harm the empire “which by God’s grace is yours[, not his!]”[26]

This theme of secular rulers having more divine authority than the popes in Rome continues in other avenues. Before the Twelfth-Century Renaissance, we might find the opposite theme as popes had the power to summon secular rulers on vast crusades.[27] Now, in the twelfth century, it is a secular ruler who calls such a summoning, one Louis of France who thought of the idea to travel to Jerusalem but asked one Bernard of Clairvaux, not the pope, what he and his followers should do.[28] Of course, Bernard of Clairvaux, being loyal to the pope and monasticism, recommended that Louis of France go to the pope for the answers to their question.[29] Other ecclesiastic elites were not as loyal to monasticism as Bernard of Clairvaux, however. To embody the general mood of the time, that being that secular kings had more divinity than hold-overs in the Church, Abelard and Bishop Gilbert were using philosophy in unconventional ways to argue their points on the Holy Trinity.[30] But not everyone shared this mood, of course. The said Abbot Bernard, in a letter to Pope Innocent, wrote, “by the grace of God supreme pontiff, Innocent[.]”[31] This way of addressing the pope reveals the duality of the situation, as verily this struggle between the popes and secular rulers was still just that, a struggle, and both sides still had potential to dominate.

Lying further beneath the undercurrent in the text is the hidden theme of scholasticism replacing monasticism, and this theme shines boldly when the figure Bishop Gilbert steps into the scene of events. Abbot Bernard and the archdeacons try to silence Bishop Gilbert, as if repeating the story of Peter Lombard, whom had been labelled a heretic, because of his unusual theological teachings, especially his view on the Holy Trinity.[32] However, Bishop Gilbert was not an easy man to silence, for he had a solid education from the great scholastic teachers of his time: Hilary of Poiters, Bernard of Chartres, the brothers Anselm and Ralph of Laon.[33]

At the same time as monastic theologians were harassing the unconventional ways of scholastic theologians, Pope Eugenius was residing in Rheims where it was safer for him than in Rome, that ancient city where the heretical writings of Abelard were resurfacing, for as Otto says, Pope Eugenius was in Rheims “to avoid persecution from his own people.”[34] Verily, the Pope had cause to be cautious, and a certain event would prove this. The holy senate of cardinals arrived at his papal court and said, “You … being made by us from a private person into the father of the entire Church, you cannot henceforth belong to yourself, but rather to us,” and they also rebuked him for overstepping his authority in the matter of attempting to condemn Abbot Bernard without their authorization.[35] To examine this event further it could be compared to the emperor handling secular problems with his dukes, and one can see that an emperor like Conrad, even though his dukes gave him counsel in many things, would not necessarily need their authorization for anything besides the election of the next emperor, which to a certain extent shows who has the most authority over his own people.[36]

The controversy over Bishop Gilbert was not over. After much debate between Pope Eugenius and his cardinals, Bishop Gilbert is able to return to his diocese with his “episcopal status unimpaired and in fullness of honor,” which sheds light on how it is becoming easier to disagree with conventional belief in public and get away with it, as reason and sound argument have earned their respect even among the cardinals.[37] Speaking of reason, Otto himself, as mentioned before, delves into immense digression, often using reason and logic, showing the mood of the time he lived in, as if it was expected by his readers. For instance, in one case he rants about where “good” comes from, using clever analogies like “henbane nourishes a sparrow but kills a man,” and, like Gilbert, he is a bishop![38]

To clarify this distinction between the authority of the emperor and that of the pope, Otto presents the reader with a letter Pope Eugenius wrote to Conrad after the controversy with Bishop Gilbert had been settled. In this letter, Pope Eugenius, one could say, writes very carefully in order not to overstep his bounds. For instance, he makes this flourishing introduction: “Bishop Eugenius, the servant of the servants of God, to his very dear son in Christ, Conrad, by the grace of God illustrious king of the Romans, greeting and apostolic benediction.”[39] This introduction alone could tell the reader whom was more powerful, but the matter is not that easy, as later in the same letter Pope Eugenius sneaks in a notable distinction between the “Holy Church and of the empire.”[40]

Conrad, however, like every man, passes away, and the dukes who live in the empire must elect a new king out of the princes. Indeed, if anything were to give this empire the right to call itself “Holy” like the Church, especially compared to all the other empires and kingdoms in Europe, is the fact that the emperor is elected. Otto himself of this says, “This is the apex of the law of the Roman empire, namely, that kings are chosen not by lineal descent but through election by the princes[.]”[41] This process of electing the emperor, even though certain families still wished to navigate in ways that their bloodline would continue to be elected, can be compared to the pope being elected by the cardinals, a pious process that arguably results in less corruption. In this case, after Conrad, the text’s main figure Frederick Barbarossa was elected by the dukes and crowned by the archbishop of Cologne.[42]

It would not take long before Frederick Barbarossa continued the general theme of conflicting with the pope for divine authority. In Saxony, Frederick Barbarossa, with his own hand, anointed Whichmann as the archbishop of the Church of Magdeburg.[43] This had been done because, as Otto finely explains, “When the controversy between the empire and the papacy concerning the investiture of bishops was settled, under Henry V, it was granted by the Church that when bishops died, if there happened to be a division in the choice of a successor, it should be prerogative of the prince to appoint as bishop whomever he might please, with the advice of his chief men; and that no bishop-elect should receive consecration before having obtained the regalia from the prince’s hand through the scepter.”[44] This is remarkable to observe because it proves that these contemporaries truly believed that divine authority could not only be passed down through pastoral hands but secular hands as well. However, when Pope Eugenius heard of this event he immediately charged said Wichmann with usurpation.[45]

Indeed, Pope Eugenius was a competent man who did great things for the papal see, but not every pope was as competent as he was. On July 8, 1153, Pope Eugenius passed away and the papal see was left to one Anastasius.[46] It would not be long before the empire would learn that this meant great things for Frederick Barbarossa, and the reader of the text that perhaps it was not divine authority that gave the pope or the emperor more power but rather their own character and competence. Under the leadership of Pope Anastasius, a cardinal named Gerard was sent to Frederick Barbarossa to resume the debate over the archbishop-elect of the Church of Magdeburg.[47] However, Frederick Barbarossa angrily turned Gerard away and sent messengers of his own to Pope Anastasius and by this secured the pallium for his man Wichmann.[48] This goes to show how competence and to some extent confidence has more of a role in authority than divinity, for as Otto puts it, “[T]he authority of the prince has very greatly increased in … the administration not only of secular but also of ecclesiastical affairs.”[49]

From the text one could see that Frederick Barbarossa was not undeserving of this ecclesiastical authority, for Otto frequently describes him piously celebrating many Christian holidays, even while campaigning in Italy. After destroying several Milanese strongholds, Frederick Barbarossa celebrated the Lord’s birthday (Christmas), showing that he wielded both swords.[50] Moreover, even the enemies of the emperor were aware that he wielded both swords. While Frederick Barbarossa was besieging Tortona, Otto describes the torment on the consciences of the dwellers inside for it is one thing to resist undeserved punishment from a tyrant but another thing to resist deserved punishment for treason from, as Otto puts it, “a righteous judge but also a pious ruler.”[51] Indeed, the enemies had nothing to observe but piety, as while Easter was arriving Frederick Barbarossa “out of respect for religion” lulled his attacks on the citadel for four days.[52]

Later, after many victories in Italy, the highlight of the text’s theme presents itself in Rome. Envoys were sent from the people to meet Frederick before he could arrive and while boasting of their heritage demanded a payment and other conditions before he could be crowned prince of Rome, but Frederick was greatly displeased by this, and said, “Let him who can, snatch the club from the hand of Hercules,” in other words stated that Rome already belonged to him.[53] On the next day, June 8, 1155, behind the backs of the said people, Pope Hadrian gave Frederick the crown of the Emperor, which proved how the power of a few could thwart the power of so many, especially as a battle was fought here over the matter where Frederick’s army made a mockery of the Roman people.[54] Now it can be argued that Pope Hadrian was obedient to Frederick, absolving his army for spilling blood, because he knew that pleasing the emperor was the wisest course of action, for Frederick might have deposed him otherwise.[55]

Frederick would go on to continue his reign, but the events and discussion laid here already shows the theme of the text clearly, as the struggle for power between the emperors and the popes would continue to cause strife in the empire. Although Frederick during the beginning of his reign swayed authority to his favor, later popes would do the same for themselves. Nevertheless, for now, in this little gap of time, it is clear to say, and many contemporaries in the text agree, that Frederick Barbarossa had more divine authority than even the pope in Rome!

[1] Otto of Freising, The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa, tr. C.C. Mierow, R. Emery (1953). p. 19

[2] Otto 17

[3] Otto 4

[4] Otto 25

[5] Otto 29

[6] Otto 29

[7] Haskett, 2019

[8] Haskett, 2019

[9] Haskett, 2019

[10] Otto 31-33, 35

[11] Otto 40

[12] Otto 40

[13] Otto 40

[14] Otto 40

[15] Otto 41

[16] Otto 31

[17] Otto 41

[18] Otto 44

[19] Otto 51, 53

[20] Otto 54

[21] Otto 55

[22] Otto 55

[23] Otto 56

[24] Otto 61

[25] Otto 62

[26] Otto 63

[27] Haskett, 2019

[28] Otto 70

[29] Otto 70

[30] Otto 72

[31] Otto 84

[32] Otto 88

[33] Otto 88

[34] Otto 94

[35] Otto 99

[36] Otto 115

[37] Otto 100, 101

[38] Otto 105

[39] Otto 106

[40] Otto 107

[41] Otto 115

[42] Otto 117

[43] Otto 119

[44] Otto 119

[45] Otto 120

[46] Otto 123

[47] Otto 123

[48] Otto 123

[49] Otto 123

[50] Otto 132

[51] Otto 134, 135

[52] Otto 137

[53] Otto 145-148

[54] Otto 150, 151

[55] Otto 152


Otto of Freising, The Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa, tr. C.C. Mierow, R. Emery (1953).

Haskett, Tim. “The Medieval Beginnings of Everything.” Lecture, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, January 21, 2019.

Haskett, Tim. “The Medieval Beginnings of Everything.” Lecture, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, February 14, 2019.

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