Lay Investiture

Lay investiture was the appointment of bishops, abbots, and other church officials by feudal lords and vassals. No one questioned a king or noble's right to grant a bishop or abbot a fief and have him become a vassal, but the church did object to kings and nobles naming bishops or abbots.

There was a close association between church and state which, in a sense, had started with the pope's crowning of Charlemagne in 800AD. With whom the final authority rested was unclear. In theory, the clergy, representing heavenly power, was higher than the nobility, who represented earthly power.

Many kings were dependent upon the clergy for communication and political advice, therefore the persons acting in this capacity occupied an important position in the state. At the same time, the clergy naturally saw their roles as defending the powers of the church at the expense of the powers of the king.

Lay investiture became the focal point for the struggle between church authority and secular authority. Did a king have the final authority in his state? Should not a monarch have the right to choose a man he trusted to be his adviser and spiritual head of his kingdom?

The two most well-known cases that involved the issue of lay investiture were those of Thomas Becket with Henry II of England and Pope Innocent III with Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire.

As a teaching tool, the issue of lay investiture can be used to illustrate the church-state power struggle. This struggle eventually led to several other situations such as the rise of nationalism in the nation-state and the Reformation. In both of those cases, the kings eventually proved supreme. Royal authority and its official protection of religious dissenters was the reason that the Reformation leaders were able to finally triumph.

Teaching Lay Investiture

Student Activities

1. Draw a diagram of the structure of feudal society illustrating kings, lords, vassals, knights, and serfs. Some of the lords and vassals should be clergymen. Include a description of the roles and obligations of the people at each level.

2. Draw a similar diagram for the church hierarchy illustrating pope, archbishops, bishops, and priests, including the same descriptions as in number one.

3. Students can write and read dialogue for an imaginary conversation using the characters of Henry IV, Innocent III, a vassal of Henry, various townspeople, and a modern newscaster as if the newscaster is interviewing the participants.

4. Students can write and read dialogue between Henry II and Thomas Becket illustrating their quarrel after Becket's appointment. (The teacher can show the movie, "Becket," if the incorrect history portrayed in the film is explained.)

5. Students can hold a "trial" of Henry II in regard to the murder of Becket. They should present a case for motivation by exposing the reasons for Thomas's appointment.

6. Individual student reports can be written on any major characters.

7. Students can debate the role of religion in modern day America. They should see the difference in our system of separation of church and state and an essentially theocratic state such as that in the Middle Ages.

8. Students can debate whether it was beneficial to a nation to have a strong king or one "checked" by religious officials.

Teacher Activities

1. Teach the necessary vocabulary especially the terms, canon law, interdict, and excommunication.

2. Explain the difference between secular law and canon law. Explain the separate roles of the king's courts and the church's courts.

3. Explain taxes and tithes.

4. Explain how the Medieval church structure and operation reflected those of the Medieval kingdoms. In a sense, every citizen of the kingdom was also a member of the church from birth, the church had its own laws and courts, the church had its own tax structure (obligatory tithes), the church had its own hierarchical system and vassals, etc. Thus, there were two parallel systems.

5. Lead a discussion as to whether the church's political interests led it away from spiritual concerns.

6. If the subject matter permits, a contrast between the role of the Byzantine emperor in the religion of his nation and the more decentralized system of the West can be made.

Books for Teachers

Cavanagh, Agnes. Pope Gregory VII and the Theocratic State. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1934.

Durant, Will. Age of Faith. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1935.

Fremantle, Anne. Age of Faith. New York: Time, Inc., 1965.

Internet Links

This is a great site. It makes suggestions for reading as well as suggested questions for students.

This is a good source for anything you could possibly want to know about the Middle Ages!

This is the Becket site from the Fordham source above.

Interesting site for general information.

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