went to Canossa

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Heinrich asks Mathilde and his godfather, Abbot Hugo von Cluny, to mediate (Vita Mathildis des Donizio, c. 1115. Vatican City, Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Ms. Vat. lat. 4922, fol. 49v)

The walk to Canossa refers to the supplication and penance of the Roman-German King Henry IV from December 1076 to January 1077 to Pope Gregory VII at Canossa Castle , where he stayed as a guest of the Margravine Mathilde von Tuszien . This had become necessary after Henry IV had been excommunicated in the course of his dispute with the Pope. He is said to have knelt for three days begging for admission. The Pope then granted him admission and gave him absolution.

In today's parlance, a request that is perceived as humiliating is referred to in a figurative sense as "Gang nach Canossa" (or "Canossagang").


The Gospel of St. Emmeram (Regensburg) expresses the idea of ​​dynastic continuity: Despite their rebellions, both of Henry IV's sons stand side by side with their father. Kraków, Cathedral Chapter Library 208, fol. 2v

The trip to Canossa was a high point in the Investiture Controversy . In the 11th and 12th centuries , emperor and pope argued about the relationship between secular and spiritual power and the role of the imperial church . Superficially, it was about the right of investiture , the appointment of bishops and abbots to their church offices. The holders of these offices also exercised the highest functions in the state apparatus of the empire.

Ban of Henry IV by Gregory VII.

Pope Gregory VII had come into office in 1073 by popular acclamation, that is, in disregard of the papal election decree of 1059, which provided for an election by the cardinals. Two years later the Investiture Controversy came to a head, the opposition to Gregory VII even attempted an attempt on the Pope on Christmas Day 1075, which failed. Shortly before, on December 8, 1075, Gregory had sent Heinrich a sharply drafted warning letter about the "Milan affair" (the dispute over the appointment of a new Archbishop of Milan ). This responded in a very favorable political situation for him on January 24, 1076 at the imperial synod in Worms with a resignation of obedience from the German bishops. At the same time he demanded that the Pope, whom he deliberately addressed by his baptismal name Hildebrand, abdicate.

At the Roman Lenten Synod, this letter from the German king was read out to the indignation of those present, and Gregory VII reacted by excommunicating Henry. This meant a spiritual and political incapacitation for the king. From a spiritual point of view, Heinrich was denied all church sacraments such as marriage , confession or receiving communion . However, the high clergymen, bishops and abbots in Henry's environment did not recognize this, since they mostly rejected the pope as the supreme bishop. At the same time, Gregory VII also canceled all oaths of allegiance that bound Henry's subjects to the king, so that Henry was deposed as king. The ban did not deprive Henry of power immediately, but gradually and as a result of domestic unrest.

Princely Assembly of Trebur

Due to the particularism in the German part of the empire, the secular nobility had built up positions of power over Henry IV that went far beyond his feudal rights . From their point of view, any weakening of Henry IV would have represented a further weakening of the central authority and would have promoted its particularistic interests. In this sense, the Investiture Controversy is also a milestone in the centuries-long struggle between the central government and the "centrifugal forces", i.e. the nobility, which worked persistently to establish themselves permanently in the principalities given to them by the king as a fief ( flag fief ). thus shaking off the feudal rule of the king.

Over the course of time, the nobility built up the areas with which they were actually only enfeoffed for a limited time as the financial basis of their offices, by installing their own administration and bureaucracy with ministerials to dynastic territories (see also territorialisation by Norbert Elias ) and withdrew them Official areas and the offices associated with them to the actual feudal lord, the king. For the king, this meant the loss of power over the free assignment of the highest state offices as well as the loss of financial resources and the loss of secure military allegiance from these areas.

The investiture dispute between the king and the pope over the so-called imperial church system that prevailed in Germany offered them the opportunity to advance their interests very far in one fell swoop. The imperial church system meant the regular installation of educated and celibate, i.e. non-dynastic nobles, in high state and church offices as well as in scepter fiefdoms , from which these financed themselves.

Nevertheless, at the Trebur Imperial Assembly in October 1076, the princes granted King Henry the then-customary period of one year and one day to free himself from the Pope's anathema. By February 2, 1077 (according to another source as early as January 6), Henry was to free himself from the ban and submit to the Pope's judgment in Augsburg.

Penitentiary at Canossa Castle

In order to regain his full ability to act, the then 26-year-old Heinrich went to Italy to meet the Pope. However, the southern dukes blocked the simple Alpine crossings that they controlled, so that Henry had to take the long and dangerous detour via Burgundy and the Col du Mont Cenis . The arduous crossing of the Alps was described by the historian Lampert von Hersfeld , a supporter of the pope, in his annals (dating to the year 1077) as follows:

“They crept forward now on hands and knees, now leaning on the shoulders of their leaders; sometimes too, when their foot slipped on the slippery ground, they fell and slid down quite a distance; finally they arrived on the plain at great risk to their lives. The queen and the other women of her entourage set them on cattle hides and […] pulled them down on them.”

Ruins of Canossa Castle , Emilia-Romagna

Henry and Gregor finally met at the Canossa Castle of Mathilde von Canossa . Lampert von Hersfeld described the king's act of penance as follows:

"[H]here he stood, having taken off the royal robes, without any insignia of royal dignity, without showing the least splendor, barefoot and sober, from morning to night [...]. So he behaved on the second, so on the third day. Finally, on the fourth day, he was admitted to him [Gregor], and after much argument and counter-argument, he was finally […] released from the ban.”

The very drastic and pictorial representation in the only detailed source by Lampert von Hersfeld is, however, assessed by recent research as tendentious and propagandistic, since Lampert was a partisan of the pope and the aristocratic opposition. The second important source for the trip to Canossa comes from Pope Gregory VII himself. He spread his version of events in a letter to all archbishops, bishops and other spiritual officials in the empire.

By waiting for several days in a penitent 's shirt in front of the castle (January 25-28, 1077), Henry forced the pope to lift the ban on the church, because as a penitent he had a right to be admitted back to the church. The penance is generally viewed by scholars as a tactical move by the king to avoid imminent deposition by the princes. Henry IV regained a large part of his freedom of action by lifting the ban, so he had finally achieved his goal.

Subsequent Events

Despite the lifting of the excommunication and the regaining of freedom of action, Henry's situation in the empire eased only slightly at first. In the spring of 1077, the German princes elected Heinrich's brother-in-law, Rudolf von Rheinfelden , as anti-king. Henry IV vigorously demanded that the pope excommunicate Rudolph and threatened to appoint a partisan anti -pope if he did not. Gregor waited a long time, but then in March 1080 openly went over to the side of the rebels. He again declared the king excommunicated and deposed and released the subjects from their duty of obedience to the Salian. This marked a final break.

The rebels initially had some military successes against Heinrich, but the death of Rudolf in the wake of the Battle of Hohenmölsen in 1080 dealt the opposition a severe blow and caused them to collapse to a large extent. Although Hermann von Salm was proclaimed the new anti-king in 1081, his sphere of influence only extended to Saxony. The following year, Henry IV moved to Italy again. Archbishop Wibert von Ravenna, who was nominated for imperial anti-pope at the Brixen Synod in 1080, climbed in 1084 under the name Clemens III. the papal throne and crowned Henry emperor after he had conquered Rome. This began a schism that would last until shortly after Wibert's death in 1100. Gregor had to flee under the mockery of the people into exile in Salerno , where he died in 1085.


The history painting Heinrich vor Canossa by Eduard Schwoiser from 1862 shows an unbowed, defiant Heinrich in front of Gregory looking down on him
Plaque on the Canossa Column in Bad Harzburg

During the 16th-century Reformation, Henry was considered by many German Lutherans to be the "first Protestant," and as such was elevated to a symbolic figure in their struggle against what they saw as a tyrannical and unjust institution. As Pope Benedict XIII. introduced the feast of Gregory VII in 1728 as binding for the entire Church and reminded the Office (Breviary text) of the freedom of the Church strengthened by this Pope and of the overthrow of the “godless” Emperor Henry IV by the Pope in Canossa, this caused a stir biggest push in France, the Netherlands , Austria and Italy. The Paris Court of Parliament and Emperor Charles VI. , after him Maria Theresia , banned the publication of the Office text in the Habsburg monarchy and in the Austrian Netherlands with drastic punishments against the clergy. Gallicanism and the Austrian state church did not allow for the memory of the subordination of the empire to the papacy, which Rome was consciously seeking and which should also apply in the present. These bans remained until the 1830s.

In the late 19th century, Canossa became a symbol of papal-curial arrogance and German disgrace. Painting discovered the drama of the situation as material that could be designed in the spirit of national-liberal progress and the founding of the empire , also in the spirit of historicism , which wanted to interpret and understand the present in the mirror of the past. But not only in history painting, but also in one of the great historical dramas of Austrian late realism, in Ferdinand of Saar's Emperor Henry IV , "Canossa" in the central third act of the first part became a mirror of the relationship between the papacy and the modern world.

The background for this was provided by the Austrian Kulturkampf, in which the German liberals who came into power, against the Concordat of 1855, enforced civil marriage , among other things . Count Anton Auersperg (popularly known under the poet name Anastasius Grün ) achieved the greatest publicity in the debate in the manor house on March 20, 1868, when he explained to great applause that the Concordat of 1855 seemed to him “like a printed Canossa, in which Austria nineteenth-century Josephinism of the eighteenth century in sackcloth and ashes”. The Viennese and North German press reported extensively on the debate and Auersperg's appearance. Otto von Bismarck received reports from the Vienna Embassy.

On May 14, 1872, Bismarck took up penitence in a speech to the Reichstag : "Don't worry, we're not going to Kanossa, neither physically nor mentally." This was related to the introduction of the pulpit paragraph and the Jesuit law within the framework of the Kulturkampf, the dispute between the national liberals in Prussia and the Roman Curia about the relationship between state and church after the founding of the empire, after Pope Pius IX. had rejected the appointment of Cardinal Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst as German envoy to the Holy See . Hohenlohe had previously been in conflict with Pius IX as a cardinal of the Curia. left the Vatican Council on the infallibility dogma . In this respect, Bismarck's nomination proposal was a transparent provocation by the Pope and the Curia.

Bismarck's phrase "going to Canossa" became a household word and has since stood for a humiliating penance - and for the rejection of subordination to papal primacy. The Canossa Column in Bad Harzburg, erected in 1877, is dedicated to the event. However, this view corresponds to the historical picture of the time, as developed by Wilhelm Giesebrecht in the third volume of his history of the German imperial period (1868) in a peculiar mixture of source criticism and suggestion . Historical research since the 1930s has diverged significantly from this interpretation of what happened in 1076/77. The 19th century liked to project problems of the present into the past. The phrase "to go in sackcloth and ashes" for a repentant person is also traced back to the historical event of "Canossa", since Henry is said to have underlined his requests for forgiveness and for the lifting of the eight by his outwardly humble appearance.

The exhibition “Canossa 1077. Shaking the World . History, art and culture at the dawn of Romanesque” banned the history of the impact of the Canossa event in a separate building, away from the valuables that attracted the public's interest. The catalogue, too, did not address the dispute that had preceded Bismarck's famous dictum since the early 18th century about the controversial view of "Canossa" between the papacy and the Catholic monarchs of Europe.

The journey to Canossa was radically reinterpreted in the early 2000s by the respected historian of the Middle Ages, Johannes Fried . By considering neglected sources, Fried came to the thesis that the long-held chronology of events was wrong. According to this, Henry had been seeking contact with the Pope since the late summer of 1076 (i.e. before Trebur) in order to reach an agreement and thus defuse his tense domestic political situation. The Pope also went into this in order to achieve a peaceful, consensual solution. However, since Henry did not want to travel to Augsburg as a banished person and the pope took his time with the journey north, he traveled directly to Italy, where the pope welcomed the banished king and, after a purely formal act of penance, released him from the ban on January 25, 1077 solved.

According to Fried, there was never a penance that might have been humiliating for the king, but rather a meeting between king and pope that had been prepared for a long time. Accordingly, Heinrich and Gregor also concluded a contract on January 28, 1077, the exact content of which has not been handed down, but which was probably intended to restore peace and consensus. However, the pact had no effect, as the opponents of the pope and the king thwarted the agreement. According to Fried's interpretation, Henry's journey to Canossa shows the willingness of king and pope to act not in conflict but in consensus and with consideration for reason. The medievalists Gerd Althoff , Stefan Weinfurter and Steffen Patzold have firmly contradicted this position. The scientific discourse is not over at the moment.



  • Egon Boshof : The Salians. 5th updated edition. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 2008, ISBN 3-17-020183-2 .
  • Johannes Fried : Canossa: unmasking of a legend. A polemic. Academy, Berlin 2012, ISBN 3-05-005683-5 . ( Reviews at Sehepunkte ).
  • Johannes Fried: The Pact of Canossa. Steps to reality through memory analysis. In: Klaus Herbers , Wilfried Hartmann (ed.): The fascination of papal history. New approaches to the early and high Middle Ages (= research on the imperial and papal history of the Middle Ages. Vol. 28). Böhlau, Cologne et al. 2008, ISBN 978-3-412-20220-0 , pp. 133-197.
  • Wolfgang Hasberg, Hermann-Josef Scheidgen (eds.): Canossa. aspects of a turning point. Pustet, Regensburg 2012, ISBN 978-3-7917-2411-9 .
  • Ernst-Dieter Hehl : Gregory VII and Henry IV in Canossa 1077. Paenitentia - absolutio - honor (= Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Studies and texts. Vol. 66). Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden 2019, ISBN 978-3-447-11246-8
  • Christoph Stiegemann, Matthias Wemhoff (ed.): Canossa 1077 - shock of the world. Hirmer, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-7774-2865-5 (two-volume exhibition catalogue).
  • Stefan Weinfurter: Canossa. The disenchantment of the world. Beck, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-40-653590-9 .
  • Matthias Pape: "Canossa" - an obsession? Myth and Reality . In: Journal of Historical Science 54, 2006, pp. 550-572.

web links

Commons : Walk to Canossa  - Collection of images, videos and audio files


  1. Matthias Pape: "Canossa" - an obsession? Myth and Reality . In: Journal of History 54, 2006, pp. 550-572, chap. 3 (with individual proofs).
  2. Matthias Pape: Psychopathology and history. Ferdinand von Saar's tragedy "Kaiser Heinrich IV." (1865/66) . In: Heinz-Peter Niewerth (ed.): From Goethe to Krolow. Analyzes and interpretations of German literature. In memory of Karl Konrad Polheim . Frankfurt am Main 2008, pp. 72–99.
  3. Matthias Pape: "We're not going to Kanossa". Was Anastasius Grün (Count Anton Auersperg) Bismarck's cue in the Kulturkampf? In: Eloquentia copiosus. Festschrift for Max Kerner on the occasion of his 65th birthday . Aachen 2006, pp. 245–264.
  4. p. 356 top left reichstagprotokolle.de
  5. On the local political background of Paderborn Dietmar Klenke: "Schwarz - Münster - Paderborn". An anti-Catholic stereotype . Münster 2008. The findings stand in peculiar contrast to the title of the book.
  6. First: Johannes Fried: The Pact of Canossa. Steps to Reality through Memory Analysis . In: The fascination of papal history. New Approaches to the Early and High Middle Ages . edited by Wilfried Hartmann , Klaus Herbers . Böhlau, Cologne-Weimar-Vienna 2008, pp. 133-197. Building on this: Johannes Fried : Canossa. Debunking a Legend. A polemic. Akademie Verlag, Berlin 2012. Critical collective review by Claudia Zey , Matthias Becher , Hans-Werner Goetz and Ludger Körntgen , in: seepunkte 13 (2013), No. 1 Link .
  7. Gerd Althoff : No trip to Canossa? In: Back then No. 5, 2009, pp. 59-61; Gerd Althoff : The understanding of Gregory VII's office and the new thesis of the peace pact in Canossa , in: Early Medieval Studies 48 (2015), pp. 261-276. Steffen Patzold , Gregor's Brain. On newer perspectives of research on the Salian period , in: history for today 4 (2011), issue 2, pp. 5-19. Steffen Patzold : Fried's Canossa. Notes on an experiment , in: history for today 6 (2013), pp. 5–39. Stefan Weinfurter : Canossa as a cipher. Of the possibilities of historical interpretation , in: Wolfgang Hasberg / Hermann-Josef Scheidgen (eds.): Canossa. Aspects of a turning point, Regensburg: Pustet 2012, pp. 124-140.