Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Church, State, and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest

Tellenbach, Gerd.  Church, State, and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest, tr. R.F. Bennett. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1948.

Rather than the narrow conception of the Investiture Contest as that of the European nobility trying to maintain their dominance over churches, abbeys, and monasteries within their domains, Gerd Tellenbach argues that the real battle was over the correct relationship between Church and State in the Christian world.  This more nuanced view requires a more detailed understanding of the historical origins of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy, of the spread of monasticism, the rise of European monasticism, and efforts to eliminate corruption in the Church.  By addressing these issues, Tellenbach is able to present a coherent and comprehensive examination of both sides of the conflict over the proper ordering of the relationship between Church and State throughout Christendom.  As important as Tellenbach’s argument and evidence are, his work provides a look at other critical issues facing historians in all fields and eras.

Early on in Church, State, and Christian Society, Tellenbach stresses the need to understand terms and philosophies in the way that they were understood in the location and era studied.  Tellenbach’s key example is the definition of “freedom”.  In contrast to the modern American conception of freedom as the right to live without interference from the government or churches, Tellenbach argues that Medieval Christians defined freedom as freedom from passions, desires, and sins through their subjection to Christ.  In this, they follow the tradition of Stoic philosophy of the Roman imperial period, in which freedom was also defined as the state of being free from passions in order to make rational decisions, enabling the individual to live a moral life (pg. 5).

Tellenbach deploys this as the foundation of his discussion of the historical background of the Medieval Church, but this issue is important for other historians.  Unless historians understand past societies on their own terms, the inevitable problem of applying presentist definitions and attitudes them prevents historians from developing a useful picture of the past.  In this example, “freedom” has radically different meanings for modern Americans and medieval Europeans.  The gulf between these meanings may lead the careless to greatly misinterpret medieval sources.

When discussing Leo IX’s understanding of canonical election, Tellenbach makes another critical argument for caution in the historical profession.  He contends that while Leo gathered many opponents of monarchical domination of the Church to his papal court, it is not fair to claim that they were waiting for an opportune moment to put their ideas into effect.  Tellenbach bases this assertion on the belief that we cannot know what other people are thinking with any certainty barring concrete evidence (pg. 101).  This is a key point, as it is all too easy for historians to imply that they understand the motivating factors of individuals or societies even when they do not have records of their opinions or beliefs.

This makes finding or arguing causation or motive for complex events difficult.  My personal research interests require me to attempt determine what individual soldiers were thinking or feeling while witnessing, committing, or reporting atrocities.  It is impossible to do so with any certainty unless those individuals have left written records or testified in court regarding their motives.  Even if these responses exist, I’m left with a conundrum: is self-reporting trustworthy, or if it is not precisely contemporaneous with the actual “crime” is the soldier reporting what he later convinced himself happened?  Tellenbach illustrates this in his discussion of the Lotharingian schools of law, in which he argues the difficulty of attributing ideas or agendas even to larger groups of people, or even in defining who they actually were.

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