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Medieval Sourcebook:
Papacy and Empire: The Besançon Episode

The Besançon episode was another in the long string of imperial-papal conflicts which extended from the time of Pope Gregory VII until the mid-thirteenth century. The ostensible cause of conflict varied from episode to episode, but the underlying issue remained the same - who held supreme authority? Although the details may seem minor at times, the disputes clarified for western culture the distinction between church and state. Whether this is and advantage or disadvantage remains a matter of dispute.

Although a historiographical account of the Besançon episode was left by Otto of Friesing, here the conflict is documented with the following original texts:

A: Letter of Adrian IV. to Frederick Barbarossa, Sept. 20th, 1157.

B: Manifesto of the Emperor, Oct. 1157

C: Letter of Adrian IV. to the German Bishops

D: Letter of the German Bishops to Adrian IV - including Frederick's defence of his position

E: Letter of Adrian IV. to Frederick Barbarossa, Feb, 1158.

all from Doeberl: Monumenta Germaniae Selecta, vol. iv. pp. 107-115.

A: Letter of Adrian IV. to Frederick Barbarossa, Sept. 20th, 1157.

Bishop Adrian, servant of the servants of God, to his beloved son Frederick, illustrious emperor of the Romans, greeting and apostolic benediction.

A few days ago we remember to have written to thy imperial Majesty recalling to thy Highness's memory that, as we believe, that horrid and execrable crime and impious deed of evil committed in our time in Germany had remained for some time uninvestigated,--and observing, not without great wonder, that thou had'st allowed the barbarity of so pernicious a crime to pass until now without taking the severe vengeance that was fitting. For in what manner our venerable brother Eskill, archbishop of Lyon, while returning from the apostolic see, was captured in that land by certain impious and godless men-we cannot speak of it without great grief of mind,-and is at present kept in custody; how, moreover, in the aforesaid capture the impious men, the seeds of evil, the sons of crime did violently and with drawn swords rise against him and his followers; and how vilely and disgracefully they treated them, taking away all that they had:-thy serene Highness knows on the one hand, and, on the other, the fame of so great an outrage has already reached the most distant and most unapproachable regions. In vengeance of which most violent crime, as one to whom, as we believe, good things are pleasing and evil ones displeasing, thou should'st have arisen with more steadfastness; and the sword, which was given thee by divine concession to punish evil-doers but to exalt the good, ought to have raged above the neck of the impious and most sternly to have destroyed the presumptuous. But thou art said so to have hushed this up - or rather to have neglected it - that they have no reason to repent of having committed the deed, inasmuch as they already feel that they have gained immunity for the sacrilege Which they committed. As to the cause of this dissimulation or negligence we are entirely ignorant, since no scruple of conscience accuses our mind of having offended thy serene Highness in any respect; but we have always loved thy person as that of our most dear and special son, the most Cbristian prince, whose power we do not doubt to have been founded by the grace of God on the rock of the apostolic confession. And we have treated thee always with the partiality of due benignity. For thou should'st, Oh most glorious son, bring before the eyes of thy mind how graciously and how joyfully thy mother the holy Roman church received thee in a former year; with what affection of heart she treated thee; what plenitude of dignity and honour she granted thee; and how, most willingly conferring upon thee the distinction of the imperial crown, she strove to cherish in her most bountiful lap thee at the summit of thy sublimity - doing nothing at all which she knew would even in the least be contrary to the royal will. Nor, indeed, do we repent having fulfilled in all things the desires of thy heart, but would, not without right, rejoice if thy excellency had received from our hand even greater .benefices (beneficia), if that were possible knowing, as we do, what great increase and advantage can come through thee to the church of God and to us. But now, since thou dost seen, to neglect and gloss over so monstrous a crime-which is known, indeed, to have been committed to the shame of the universal church and of thy empire-we suspect and likewise fear lest perhaps thy mind has been led to this dissimulation and neglect for the reason that, at the suggestion of a perverse man sowing discord, thou hast conceived against thy most lenient mother the most holy Roman church, and against our own person, some indignation or rancour-which God forbid! On account of this, therefore, and of other matters which we know to be pressing upon us, we have seen fit at present to despatch to thy serenity from our side two of the best and most beloved men whom we have about us, our dear sons, namely, Bernard, cardinal presbyter of St. Clement, and Roland, cardinal presbyter of the title of St. Mark- and our own chancellor-as being men who are conspicuous for their religion and prudence and honesty.

And we most urgently request thy Highness to receive them honourably as well as kindly, to treat them fairly and to receive without hesitation, as though proceeding from our lips, whatever they say on our part to thy imperial Majesty concerning this matter and concerning other things which pertain to the honour of God and of the holy Roman church, and also to the glory and exaltation of the empire. And do not doubt to lend faith to their words as though we ourselves had happened to utter them.

B: Manifesto of the Emperor, Oct. 1157

Inasmuch as the divine power, from which is every power in Heaven and on earth, has committed to us, his anointed, the kingdom and the empire to be ruled over, and has ordained that the peace of the church shall be preserved by the arms of the empire,-not without extreme grief of heart are we compelled to complain to you, beloved, that, from the head of the holy church on which Christ impressed the character of his peace and love, causes of dissension, seeds of evil, the poison of a pestiferous disease seem to emanate. Through these, unless God avert it, we fear that the whole body of the church will be tainted, the unity riven, a schism be brought about between the kingdom and the priesthood. For recently, while we were holding court at Besançon and with due watchfulness were treating of the honour of the empire and of the safety of the church, there came apostolic legates asserting that they brought such message to our majesty that from it the honour of our empire should receive no little increase. When, on the first day of their coming, we had honourably received them, and, on the second, as is the custom, we sat together with our princes to listen to their report,-they, as if inflated with the mammon of unrighteousness, out of the height of their pride, from the summit of their arrogance, in the execrable elation of their swelling hearts, did present to us a message in the form of an apostolic letter, the tenor of which was that we should always keep it before our mind's eye how the lord pope had conferred upon us the distinction of the imperial crown and that he would not regret it if our Highness were to receive from him even greater benefices. This was that message of paternal sweetness which was to foster the unity of church and empire, which strove to bind together both with a bond of peace, which enticed the concord and obedience of the minds of the hearers to both. Of a truth at that word, blasphemous and devoid of all truth, not only did the imperial majesty conceive a righteous indignation, but also all, the princes who were present were filled with such fury and wrath that, without doubt, they would have condemned those two unhallowed presbyters to the punishment of death had not our presence since many similar letters prevented them. Whereupon, were found upon them, and sealed forms to be filled out afterwards at their discretion - by means of which, as has hitherto been their custom, they intended to strive throughout all the churches of the kingdom of Germany, to scatter the virus conceived by their iniquity, to denude the altars, to carry away the vessels of the house of God, to strip the crosses: lest an opportunity should be given them of proceeding further, we caused them to return to Rome by the way which they had come. And, inasmuch as the kingdom, together with the empire, is ours by the election of the princes from God alone, who by the passion of His Son Christ subjected the world to the rule of the two necessary swords; and since the apostle Peter informed the world wih this teaching, "Fear God, honour the king": whoever shall say that we received the imperial crown as a benefice from the lord pope, contradicts the divine institutions and the teaching of Peter, and shall be guilty of a lie. Since, moreover, we have hitherto striven to rescue from the hands of the Egyptians the honour and liberty of the church which has long been oppressed by the yoke of an undue servitude, and are striving to preserve to it all the prerogatives of its dignity: we ask you as one to condole with us over such ignominy inflicted on us and on the empire, trusting that the undivided sincerity of your faith will not permit the honour of the empire which, from the foundation of Rome and the establishment of the Christian religion up to your own times has remained glorious and undiminished,' to be lessened by so unheard of an innovation. And be it known beyond the shadow of a doubt, that we would rather incur danger of death than in our day to sustain the shame of so great a disaster.



C: Letter of Adrian IV. to the German Bishops

As often as any thing is attempted in the church against the honour of God and the salvation of the faithful, it ought to be the care of our brothers and fellow bishops and especially of those who are impelled by the spirit of God-to discover a means of correction pleasing to God for the evil things that have been done. In the present time, indeed,-a thing which we can not mention without extreme grief,-our most beloved son, Frederick emperor of the Romans, has done a thing such as we do not read to have ever been perpetrated in the times of our predecessors. For when we bad sent to his presence two of our best brothers, Bernard, namely, of the title of St. Clement, and Roland our chancellor, 'of the title of St. Mark, cardinal presbyters,-he, when they first came into his presence, received them with open arms. But, on the following day, when they returned to him and our letter was read before him, exception being taken at a certain word which was contained in the course of that letter, viz.: " we conferred upon thee the 'beneficium' of a crown," he burst forth into a fit of such anger that it is shameful to hear and grievous to mention the insults which he is said to have heaped upon us and our legates, and to relate how disgracefully be compelled them to retire from his presence and swiftly to depart from his land. And when, moreover, they had left his presence, passing an edict that no one from your land should go to the apostolic see, he is said to have placed guards at all the boundaries of that kingdom who should turn back with violence those who wished to approach the apostolic see. Although we were somewhat disturbed by this measure, nevertheless we personally received the greater consolation from the fact that it did not proceed from the counsel of yourselves and the princes. Wherefore we trust that he can easily be recalled from this auger of mind by your counsel and persuasion. And so, beloved brothers, since in this matter not only our interest but yours and that of all the church is known to be at stake, we urge and exhort ye in the Lord, that ye oppose yourselves as a wall of protection before the house of God - and that ye strive to bring back, as quickly as possible, our aforesaid son to the right path-paying most particular heed to this, that because so great and such evident satisfaction to be rendered by Rainald his chancellor and by the count Palatine who presumed to vomit forth great blasphemies against our aforesaid legates and your mother also, the holy Roman church, that, according as the bitterness of their words offended the ears of many, so also their atonement may recall many to the right path. Let not this same son of ours acquiesce in the counsels of the wicked; let him consider the newest laws and the old, and let him tread the path along which Justinian and the other catholic emperors are known to have passed. By their example, indeed, and by imitating them, he will be able to heap up for himself honour upon earth and felicity in Heaven. But ye also, if ye bring him back to the right path, shall both perform a service pleasing to St. Peter the prince of the apostles and will preserve your own and your churches' liberty. Otherwise let our aforesaid soil know from your admonitions, let him know from the truth of the promise of the gospel - that the holy Roman church is founded on a most firm rock, God placing it there; and that, no matter by how great a whirlwind of words it may be shaken, it will remain firm, God protecting it, throughout all the ages. . He ought not, as ye know, to have entered upon so arduous a path without your advice; whence we believe that, hearing your warnings, like a discreet man and catholic emperor, he may most easily be recalled to the enjoyment of a more healthful pursuit.



D: Letter of the German Bishops to Adrian IV

Although we know and are sure that neither the winds nor the waves of tempests can cast down the church of God which is founded on a firm rock; we nevertheless being very weak and timid are shaken and tremble whenever such attacks occur. Wherefore we are very gravely disturbed and frightened concerning those things which seem about to furnish, unless God avert it, a fruitful source of great evil between your Holiness and the your most devoted son our lord emperor. Indeed, by those words which were contained in the letter which you sent through your most prudent and honest envoys, master Bernard and master Roland, venerable cardinal presbtyers, the whole public of our empire has been set in commotion. The ears of the imperial power were not able to hear them patiently nor the ears of the princes to bear them. All present were so deaf to them that we saving thy grace, most holy father, on account of the sinister interpretation which their ambiguity permits, do neither dare, nor are we able to defend or to approve then by any form of consent - for the reason that they are unusual and have not been heard of up to present time. Receiving with due reverence, however, and putting into effect the letter which you did send to us, we did admonish your son, our lord emperor, as you did order, and thanks be to God, we received from him such a reply as became a catholic prince. It was to this effect:

There are two things by which our empire ought to be ruled, the holy laws of the emperors and the good customs of our predecessors and fathers. We will not and cannot go beyond the limits placed for the church; whatever is counter to them we do not receive. We willingly exhibit due reverence to our father; we look upon thefree crown of our empire as a divine benefice alone; we acknowledge that the first vote in the election belongs to the archbishop of Mainz, the remaining ones to the other princes in order; that the royal anointing power pertains to the archbishop of Cologne, but the highest, which is the imperial, to the supreme pontiff. Whatever there is besides these is superfluous, is evil. It was not in contempt of our most beloved and most reverent father and consecrator that we compelled the cardinals to depart from the confines of our land. But with those things and on account of those things which they bore in writing, or about to be filled in the disgraces and scandal of our empire, we could not permit them to proceed further. The exits and entrances of Italy we neither closed by edict nor do we wish in any way to close them to pilgrims or to those approaching the Roman see for their reasonable necessities with testimonials from their bishops and prelates. But we do intend to oppose those abuses through which all the churches of our land are oppressed and worn out, and almost all monastic discipline is dead and buried. God, though the emperor, has exalted the church to be at the head of the world; at the head of the world the church, not through God, as we believe, now tries to demolish the empire. It began with a picture*; from a picture it went on to a letter; from a letter it tries to go on to authority. We shall not suffer it, we shall not permit it. We will rather lay aside the crown than consent that the crown than consent that the crown together with ourselves, be so abased. Let the pictures be obliterated, the writinsg retracted, so that they may not remain eternal sources of discord between the kingdom and the priesthood.

[note: The picture referred to is described the Cologne Annals (Mon. Ger. Xvii. 766). Innocent II sits upon a throne, while King Lothar, Frederick's predecessor, bends before him with folded hands to receive the crown of the empire. Underneath was written, as we learn from Ragewin, iii, 10, 'The kings comes before the gates, first swearing to preserve the rights of the city. He is afterwards made the pope's vassal, and takes the crown which he gives'.]

These and other things, concerning the peace with Roger and William in Sicily and the other conventions which have been drawn up in Italy, which we do not dare to give in full, we heard from the lips of out lord emperor. The count Palatine, moreover, being absent, having already been sent ahead to prepare for an expedition into Italy, - we heard nothing from the chancellor, who was still present there, that did not savour of humility and peace except that he stood by those men in danger of their lives that threatened them from the people. And all who were present testify as to this same fact. For the rest we humbly beg and beseech your holiness to spare our weakness, to soothe like a good pastor your high-souled son by writings which shall sweeten your former writings with honeyed suavity; so that both the church of God may rejoice in tranquil devotion, and that the empire may be raised still higher in its lofty position, He him-self mediating and helping-Jesus Christ, who, as mediator between God and men, was made man.

E: Letter of Adrian IV. to the Emperor, Feb., 1158.

From the time when, God disposing as it pleased himself, we received the charge of the universal church, we have so taken care to honour thy Highness that, from day to day, thy mind ought to have been inflamed more and more with love for us and with veneration for the apostolic see. Wherefore we can not hear without great astonishment that when-having heard from the suggestions of certain men that thy anger was somewhat aroused against us-in order to learn thy will we sent to thy presence two of our best and greatest brothers, the chancellor Roland, namely, of the title of St Mark, and Bernard of the title of St Clement, cardinal presbyters, who had always been most concerned for the honour of thy Majesty in the Roman church: they were treated otherwise than was becoming to the imperial magnificence. On account of a certain word, indeed,-" beneficium," namely-thy mind is said to have been moved to anger; which word ought not by any means to have aroused the ire of so great a man, nor even of any lesser man. For although this word-namely, - "beneficium "- is used by some in a sense different from that which it has by derivation, it should, nevertheless, have been accepted in that sense which we ourselves attributed to it and which it is known to retain from its origin. For this word is derived from "bonus" and " factum," and a "beneficium " is called by us not " a fief " but a " bonum factum." It is found in this signification in the whole body of Holy Scripture, where it speaks of the "beneficium " of God not as of a fief but as a benediction and good deed of His by which we are said to be governed and nourished. And thy Magnificence, indeed, clearly recognizes that we did so well and so honourably place the mark of the imperial dignity upon thy bead that it may be considered by all a "bonum factum" Wherefore when some have tried to distort from its own to another signification this word and that other one, namely: "we have conferred (contulimus) upon thee the distinction of the imperial crown," they have done this not upon the merits of the case, but of their own will and at the suggestion of those who by no means cherish the peace of the kingdom and the church. For by this word "contulimus " we mean nothing else than what we said above, "imposuimus." But that thou didst afterwards, as it is said, order ecclesiastics to be restrained from visiting, as they ought, the holy Roman church,-if this is so, thy discretion, as we hope, O dearest Son in Christ, recognizes how wrongly this was done. For if thou didst have against us anything of bitterness, thou should'st have intimated it to us through thy envoys and letters and we would have taken care to provide for thy honour, as for that of our dearest son. Now, indeed, at the instigation of our beloved son, Henry duke of Bavaria and Saxony, we send into thy presence two of our brothers, Henry of the title of Sts. Nereus and Achilles, presbyter, and Jacinctus deacon Of St. Mary in Cosmide - both cardinals, prudent and honest men, indeed. And we urge and exhort thy Highness in the Lord to receive them honestly and kindly. And thy Excellency may know that what shall be intimated by them on our part to thy Magnificence has proceeded from the sincerity of our heart; and, on the ground of this, through the mediation of the aforesaid duke, our son, may thy Highness strive to come to an agreement with them, so that between thee thy mother the holy Roman church no soil for the seeds of discord may henceforth remain.

from Ernest F. Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages, (London: George Bell and Sons, 1910), 410-419

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

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(c)Paul Halsall April 1996


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