You hear people talk about how crazy politics “has become”, or how “these days” things are so divisive, or how crazy and dramatic our political personalities are “lately.” Is it really a recent thing? Let’s take a look.
The place is Germany, the year is 1065. Politics is controlled by three centers of power: the King, the Pope, and the Free Nobles. You can think of these as kind of being like our “three branches of government”, except that there is no agreement to “co-equality” or “balance” and no explicit division of duties. Indeed, the balance between these three groups is an uneasy and constantly shifting pattern of manipulation and allegiance.
The King is Henry IV, and he is 15 years old. That’s right, 15 years old and the ruling King of Germany. The Pope is Gregory VII, and he is over it. His clear and expressed goal is to put this little King in his place and make sure that nothing challenges the church’s power. Meanwhile, the Nobles are increasingly possessive of their freedoms and don’t really see a point to there being a King at all.
So check out this sequence of events.
1070 and 1073, Otto of Bavaria (a Free Noble) wants the King gone for good, and he knows a strategy to do it: populism. He rallies the serfs and the peasants. “You shouldn’t be paying taxes to the King!” he says. (Sound familiar?) He gets them all riled up, and leads a series of revolts. They all fail, but all of the hassle and effort weakens King Henry. Let’s just say: his poll numbers are down.
Perfect time for Pope Gregory to step in.
1075, Pope Gregory sends out a decree to let people know who is boss: The Pope is the only one who can issue new laws; the Pope is the only one who can appoint bishops; the Pope should be able to depose emperors; the Pope can never be judged; the Pope’s decision can never be retracted; and so on and so forth. Oh, and by the way, you aren’t allowed to kiss the hands of anyone but the Pope.
It was a slap in the face to the already weakened King. It was the Pope placing himself clearly and without question as superior to young King Henry.
King Henry IV, King since the age of 15 and now 25 years old, did not take it well.
December 8, 1075, King Henry writes a letter to the Pope that basically says, “screw you” (paraphrased). The letter literally ends with the words, “We, Henry, King by the grace of God, with all our Bishops, say to you: Descend, descend, and be eternally damned!”
The Pope to the King: Screw you, you’re excommunicated.
The King to the Pope: Screw you, I excommunicate you right back.
The Nobles, of course, were watching all of this nervously from the side-lines, looking for a way to take advantage of the situation. Remember that they want to get rid of the King permanently, and so as a matter of political convenience decided to side with the Pope.
The Nobles to the King: You can’t talk to our Pope like that! Outrageous!
At this point, King Henry pulled off a brilliant, over-the-top, pure political-theater type of move. He shows up on the Pope’s doorstep (literally: at the front gate of the castle where the Pope was living at the time), wearing a shirt made of hair (symbolizing penance and self-denial), and begged for forgiveness. Waiting in the same spot for three days, refusing shelter, food, and water, he begged.
I can only imagine how pissed off the Pope was. He was put in an impossible situation. If he forgave the King, he would piss off the Nobles, who wanted the King taken down at all costs. But how could he–a religious leader–deny someone who was so visibly abasing himself and asking for forgiveness?
So, completely cornered by political manipulation, the Pope gave in and forgave the young King.
The Nobles were furious.
The Nobles to the Pope: Fine, we don’t need you! We’ll get rid of the King our ownway!
So in 1077, the Nobles appointed Rudolph as the “anti-King,” with an army of serfs and peasants behind him.
The Pope, perhaps with traces of religious inspiration coursing through his veins after the King’s recent display, tried to play the role of the Wise Mediator.
The Pope to the Nobles: Hey guys, don’t appoint an anti-King, you’re just making things worse.
I can only imagine that the Pope expected his poll numbers to go up. I’m sure he thought he would gain some popularity by appearing wise and generous and peaceful. But what actually happened was, he ended up seeming weak. Popular opinion turned even further against him, and in favor of King Henry
So in 1080, the Pope does a complete flip-flop.
The Pope to the King: Screw you. You’re excommunicated, again! And I’m going to support Rudolph as the anti-King!
The King to the Pope: Screw you. I’m appointing an anti-Pope: Clement III.
Anti-Pope to the King: Thanks. You want a promotion? LOL
And thus, in 1080, the would-be Pope thanks the King for his would-be position by turning around and crowning King Henry as Emperor.
The next several years, King (or Emperor, depending on who you asked) Henry had some good luck. Rudolph died in battle. The Nobles elected a new anti-King, the inept and useless Hermann, who died in 1088, to be succeeded by Eckbert, who died two years later. Completely demoralized by this sequence of events, the support of the peasants and serfs completely crumbled and the Noble rebellions went into hibernation.
By coincidence, Pope Gregory VII also died during this time, and the official successor, Pope Urban II, was appointed. Of course, Henry still supported his anti-Pope, Clement III, and Pope Urban II renewed the excommunication of King Henry, so the tension between the crown and the church continued.
Henry IV was eventually succeeded by his son, Henry V, who was able to unify with the Nobles to confront the new Pope, and the dramatic tale continued.
So just look at the amount of drama, hysteria, manipulation, and political theater that went on in just the 20 short years from 1065 to 1085. That is the same amount of time from that passed from the inauguration of Reagan to the date that Clinton left office.
This is why it always makes me smirk a little bit when someone talks about “how bad things have gotten” in politics “these days.”
Has it gotten bad?
Not really. Politics has always been like this.