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Empire and Imperialism

OverviewHoly Roman Empire And Church Versus State

The great medieval conflict between church and state from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries focused, for the most part, on the relationship between emperors and popes. Each party possessed a vision of Christian society in which it played the leading role. In the decretal Venerabilem (1202), Pope Innocent III (r. 1198–1216) spelled out in detail the papal conception of the function and role of the emperor within Christian society. He distinguished between the office of king of Germany, an office whose occupant was elected by seven electors, three archbishops, and four lay magnates representing the body of German higher clergy and nobles, and the imperial office, which was in the gift of the pope. The electors could elect anyone they wished to the royal office, but if they wanted their candidate to be raised to the imperial office, they had to ensure that he would be acceptable to the pope. In effect, the pope held a veto over the royal selection process. In Innocent III's view, pope and emperor were the coordinate but not coequal heads of Christian society. The emperor was the senior secular ruler with some vague right of precedence over all other Christian rulers, while the pope was at the peak of Christian society. In symbolic terms, the emperor was the strong right arm of the church, applying force when spiritual admonitions were not sufficient.

In 1356 the nature and status of the Holy Roman Empire received its final medieval shape when Emperor Charles IV (r. 1347–1378) issued the Golden Bull. This document generally restated earlier positions on the relationship between the papacy and the empire but with an important caveat. Under the terms of the bull, the pope had the authority to crown the emperor, but his relationship to the emperor ends at this point. The emperor is no longer seen as the agent of the pope, the strong right arm of the church to be flexed at the command of the pope. The emperor answers not to the pope but to God for his actions. By the end of the fifteenth century, the claims of imperial jurisdiction had so shrunk and its identification with German royal interests become so strong that the empire became known as the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

The notion of a Christian empire the jurisdiction of which coincided with that of the church itself did not die, however. In the De monarchia, the Italian poet Dante (1265–1321) outlined a Christian world order in which the emperor was the ruler of Christian society and, presumably, as missionaries converted the rest of mankind, would eventually be the ruler of the entire world. The theologian and philosopher Nicholas of Cusa (1401–1464) developed a similar theory of imperial jurisdiction in the fifteenth century. There was, however, a paradox in these fourteenth-and fifteenth-century discussions of universal imperial power. In reality, the actual power of the emperor, based as it was on the wealth and power of the king of Germany, was declining to its lowest limits as emperors such as Maximilian I (r. 1493–1519) struggled to maintain themselves in the face of the loss of most of the sources of royal revenue. On the other hand, although no one could have prophesied it, the Holy Roman Empire was about to be resurrected for one last tumultuous era in the sun as Maximilian was succeeded by his grandson, Charles V (r. 1519–1556), whose accumulated dynastic possessions were to include most of the Americas and much of the rest of the world as a result of the division of the New World by Pope Alexander VI (r. 1492–1503).

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEmpire and Imperialism - Overview - Roman Imperium, Christian Conceptions, Holy Roman Empire And Church Versus State, Evolution Of Europe