Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Holy Shit, the Walk to Canossa!

Walk to Canossa

Once upon a time, there was a Holy Roman Emperor named Henry IV. He wasn't a big fan of the Catholic Church having control over his business. In particular, he wanted to be able to assign his loyal subordinates as bishops within the Empire. Pope Gregory VII felt differently about the matter.

This all more came to a head when the two of them assigned separate candidates for the same position. Fuming, the Pope decided to push the big red button. The one marked "excommunicate." He notified Henry that he had exactly one year to prove that he's stopped being a dick about this whole investiture thing.
Pope Gregory VII
All while giving the "Oh no you didn't" finger wag
This being the year 1076, being excommunicated was a much bigger deal than it is today. Especially for a Holy Roman Emperor. His right to rule was, in the public perception, a divine mandate from god. To have God's corporeal press secretary declare him unfit to be a member of the church was a huge blow to his authority. Rebellion sprouted up across the Empire. Rebellion that had been growing underground among the aristocracy for some time...but now it had a religious excuse, so it burst to the surface.

So Henry had to do something. In the Winter of 1077, he got an entourage together in Speyer and headed South, away from Germany and across the Alps toward Canossa. Legend has it that he made the journey barefoot, wearing a cilice, braving frigid temperatures, snow, and ice the whole way. When he arrived, he found that the Pope ordered the gates closed. So he knelt in the snow.
Speyer to Canossa
And after the whole "uphill both ways" journey, too.
A blizzard raged outside, and Henry IV stayed. He ate nothing and wore little to ward off the snow. For three full days, he stayed outside the gate silently begging the church for forgiveness. It became clear to Gregory that to refuse Henry reconciliation with the church after that would be impossible. So he invited the Emperor inside, where they shared Communion.
Henry IV at Canossa
I mean, how could you not?
The Pope still didn't support Henry as Emperor, but the effects of the Walk to Canossa were long-term and far-reaching. During the Protestant Reformation, Henry's Walk was a rallying symbol for Protestants in Germany, who decided that their nation's rulers (and their nation itself) should never again have to face such humiliating submission to foreign powers, especially the Church. This same language was used by Adolf Hitler in his rise to power, against both the imagined conspiracy of the Jews and against government officials when the Nazi Party was banned.

Even today, people of many countries refer to a humiliating apology as their "Walk to Canossa." Just goes to show that a little hiking can do a lot for history and colloquial language.

Holy shit.

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