In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gregory VII

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Biographies
  • The Register of Pope Gregory VII and the Epistolae Vagantes
  • The Dictatus Papae
  • Contemporary Sources
  • Family and Education
  • The Struggle for Reform
  • The Minority of Henry IV
  • Milan and the Patarenes
  • Election
  • The Attack on Lay Investiture and the Investiture Contest
  • Canossa
  • The Election of Wibert of Ravenna
  • Rome
  • Exile and Death
  • “Gregorian” Reform
  • “Gregorian” Reformers
  • The Origins of Crusading

Medieval Studies Gregory VII
John Doran
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0131


Pope Gregory VII (1073–1085) was one of the most important and controversial popes of the Middle Ages. His elevation to the papacy came after a long and influential career in the papal court, and he may well have become pope earlier had he wished. So convinced have historians been of his importance that the term “Gregorian Reform” served for a century to describe the period in which Gregory lived. More recently, Gregory’s impact has been reassessed and most historians now refer to the “Reform Papacy,” but there is no doubt that he was a major figure both before and after his election to the papacy. As Archdeacon Hildebrand, he directed the affairs of the Roman Church at a crucial period of realignment, as a small group of international reformers removed the papacy from the grip of local aristocratic families, first in collaboration with the Emperor Henry III and later under the protection of the Norman princes who were carving out a territory for themselves in southern Italy. In pursuit of a purified Church, the reformers supported a group of radical protestors, the Patarenes, who sought to impose clerical celibacy on the clergy of Milan. The struggle for influence in Milan led to conflict between the newly elected Gregory and the young emperor Henry IV. The point at issue was investiture, that is, whether the emperor had the right to invest the archbishop of Milan (or any other bishop) with his office, or whether the election of a bishop by the local clergy should be confirmed by the pope. This iconic struggle saw Gregory excommunicate Henry IV and release his subjects from their oaths to him in 1076 only to absolve him at Canossa in 1077 and, after the outbreak of a civil war in Germany, to depose him again in 1080. In the meantime, Henry IV had convened a synod of German bishops that denounced Gregory as “Hildebrand, false monk” and called on him to abdicate and another that deposed him and elected a new pope. By 1084, Gregory had to be rescued from Rome by his Norman allies, leaving the city in the hands of the emperor and his antipope, to whom many of the cardinals defected. Gregory died in exile in 1085, apparently having failed in his mission to promote reform. However, Gregory’s successors managed to achieve much of his program, and his pontificate has been seen as the crucial preparation for the successful establishment of papal primacy over the Western Church. Note: Two resources are particularly useful for students of the papacy in general and Gregory VII in particular. The first is the series of bibliographies, arranged by theme and by pope, published annually in the Archivum Historiae Pontificiae. The second is the International Medieval Bibliography, published by Brepols and available electronically by institutional and individual subscription.

Introductory Works

The importance of Gregory VII has long been recognized. The quarrel between empire and papacy was the first such dispute since antiquity, and it resulted in a completely unprecedented war of words between the protagonists and their supporters. Its effects are still felt, not least in the idea that the separation of Church and State is desirable. Gregory VII continues to provoke lively debate, partly from a confessional standpoint, with Catholics tending to admire him and Protestants to denigrate him, or from a nationalistic perspective, with Germans seeing him as the destroyer of their nation and Italians regarding him as a hero of Italian autonomy. Even here, however, some Germans have not been able to restrain their admiration for Gregory, even while they deplore the effects of his policies; like Peter Damian, they see the pope as a “holy Satan.” A good starting point is the assessment of Capitani 2000, in which the main themes of the pontificate are conveniently set out and analyzed and readers are directed to an extensive bibliography. Pacaut 2002 provides an overview of Gregory’s age rather than a minute description of his pontificate. A succinct and very useful introduction to the pontificate is given in Cowdrey 1991, which stresses how unusual Gregory was in his approach and methods. Tellenbach 1991 is a fine volume that fundamentally altered the way the reform movement was viewed; it shows that rather than popes and bishops imposing reform from above, they were in fact responding, often hesitantly, to powerful forces in support of reform from the wider society in which they lived. Ullmann 2003 provides an overview of Gregory’s pontificate from what could be termed the “traditional” viewpoint, which saw Gregory as the pioneer of the vigorous assertion of papal primacy over the Church, sometimes rather incongruously referred to as “the papal monarchy.” Morris 1989 gives a well-judged assessment of Gregory, carefully explaining the wider reform movement and then presenting the pontificate largely in terms of the deterioration of relations with the Empire. Blumenthal 2004 gives a recent and up-to-date overview of the pontificate. The controversy over Gregory VII is concerned primarily with his relations with Germany, and Weinfurter 1999 provides a valuable survey of the Romano-German Empire.

  • Blumenthal, Uta-Renate. “The Papacy, 1024–1122.” In The New Cambridge Medieval History. Vol. 4, Part 2, c. 1024–c. 1198. Edited by David Luscombe and Jonathan Riley-Smith, 8–37. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    An up-to-date summary of the development of the papacy in this crucial period and a very good overview of the reform movement from the point of view both of the protagonists and of the broader body of institutions that made up the Western Church. Available online by subscription.

  • Capitani, Ovidio. “Gregorio VII.” In Enciclopedia dei papi. Vol. 2, Niccolò I, Santo-Sisto IV. Edited by Manlio Simonetti, Girolamo Arnaldi, Mario Caravale, and Giuseppe Martina, 188–212. Rome: Enciclopedia Italiana, 2000.

    A comprehensive summary of the pontificate and its main developments from a leading scholar in the field.

  • Cowdrey, H. E. J. “Pope Gregory VII.” Medieval History 1.1 (1991): 23–38.

    Cowdrey is a leading expert on Gregory VII and demonstrates this expertise with a brief yet deft character sketch of the pope intended as an introduction for students. Cowdrey corrects a number of older misconceptions about Gregory, stressing that he was an appropriate age for the offices he held, and emphasizes the importance of Rome to Gregory and his deep personal identification with St. Peter.

  • Morris, Colin. “Discord of Empire and Papacy.” In The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250. By Colin Morris, 109–133. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    Morris draws on his wide knowledge of the changing attitudes of European scholars to Gregory VII and offers a convincing assessment of the significance of the pontificate. For an excellent introduction to the pontificate, also see “Papal Reform 1046–1073” (pp. 79–108).

  • Pacaut, Marcel. “Gregory VII.” In The Papacy: An Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. Edited by Philippe Levillain, 648–651. London: Routledge, 2002.

    A useful and up-to-date overview of the pontificate, particularly good at explaining the wider context and providing a basic bibliography. While Pacaut sets out a very useful summary of the reform movement, the author’s conclusions now appear rather dated, perhaps because of his insistence on the dichotomy of Church and State.

  • Tellenbach, Gerd. Church, State and Christian Society at the Time of the Investiture Contest. Translated by R. F. Bennett. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

    English translation of Libertas: Kirche und Weltordnung im Zeitalter des Investiturstreites (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1936). The classic introduction to the age of reform, identifying the defining preoccupation of the age as the “freedom of the Church,” which resulted in a revolution as a distinction emerged between clergy and laity, sacred and secular.

  • Ullmann, Walter. “The Gregorian Age.” In A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages. 2d ed. By Walter Ullman, 92–111. London: Routledge, 2003.

    Ullmann’s assessment of Gregory in this very influential work is perhaps a little dated, but it remains important because it sets the pontificate into the context of an ideological battle between priesthood and kingship, traditionally described as “Church” and “State.” Ullmann’s work remains useful and explains the terms in which Gregory’s pontificate was viewed for much of the 20th century.

  • Weinfurter, Stefan. The Salian Century: Main Currents in an Age of Transition. Translated by Barbara Bowlus. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

    An assessment of the Romano-German Empire at a time of key changes. The controversy over Gregory VII and the fascination that he has held for German historians can be appreciated with the help of this volume, which shows that reform affected Germany at a crucial time in its development. A similar introduction is provided by Horst Fuhrmann, Germany in the High Middle Ages, c. 1050–1200, translated by Timothy Reuter (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

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