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Episode 32 - Hildebrand, not Pope but false Monk
Episode 3230th September 2021 • History of the Germans • Dirk Hoffmann-Becking
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The rise of the papacy since 1046 is almost linear. The popes throw off the chokehold of the roman aristocracy, they take over leadership of the church reform movement from the emperors, and by the end of the pontificate of Alexander II the Holy See has become universal with kings hailing the pope and not the emperor as their overlord.

In 1073 Hildebrand, the eminence grise of the last 20 years ascends the throne of St. Peter. His view of the role of the papacy goes even further than his predecessors. We know this because he laid it out in one of the most remarkable documents of the middle ages, the Dictatus Papae.

This ever expanding role of the papacy had to collide at some point with the other universal power, the emperor Henry IV. Letters are exchanged and words are spoken that set events in motion that will destroy them both.

The music for the show is Flute Sonata in E-flat major, H.545 by Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (or some claim it as BWV 1031 Johann Sebastian Bach) performed and arranged by Michel Rondeau under Common Creative Licence 3.0.

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Episode 32 – not pope but false monk

Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans – Episode 32: Hildebrand, Not Pope but False Monk.

tations. Right now, more than:

When I started, I said I would take the narrative all the way up to the year 1990. As you can imagine, that was one of those promises that were under the premise that it would ultimately make sense to do that. With that much interest amongst you, it makes a lot of sense and so the Podcast will become a permanent feature in my life, and hopefully in yours.

Podcasting as it happens is a lot of work. I spend roughly 2 to 2.5 full working days on each episode, spread across the week. Most of that is spent on research. For instance I draw on 6 books on the Salians, 3 books on the papacy and 4 books on medieval ages in general plus two contemporary chroniclers and the letters of Pope Gregory VII for this episode. Wriiting, recording and editing takes another 8-10 hours in total per week. I am not complaining – this is what I call fun. The only thing I do complain about is the endless building work outside my window that you may hear from time to time in the background.


But in any event, it will be a long run. And I need to make this economically viable, if not for the sake of my sanity and my marriage. Since I hate advertising breaks in podcasts I and I am terrible at pretending a mattrass of online course has changed my life, the only way to finance this endeavour is by relying on your generosity.

I have set up a Patreon page where you can become a supporter of the podcast by making a monthly contribution. As a patron you get, first and foremost, my heartfelt gratitude, plus access to occasional bonus episodes on German Art, architecture or whatever else comes to my head. You can become a Patron for £2/$3 a month, the cost of a cappuccino. Those of you who feel the History of the Germans Podcast is worth supporting and have the funds please go to my website and you can find the link under support the show, or go directly to

Special thanks go to Kraig, Donald and Margreatha who have already signed up.

Now let us get back to our story.

al power and the magnates. In:

You may remember that the papacy’s fortune had begun improving with pope Leo IX (1049-1054). Over the following 20 years the papacy had grown even more in stature and when pope Alexander II died in 1073 the Holy See had reached a position that it never occupied before.

the throne of Saint Peter in:

Godfrey was called upon again in 1062/63 to help pope Alexander II gain access to the holy city that the local aristocrats held on behalf of Cadalus, the antipope installed by empress Agnes.

Godfrey the bearded died in:

Having more or less unlimited recourse on the power of Tuscany was not the only military capability of the Holy See. During the fighting between the supporters of Alexander II and the antipope Cadalus the papacy created its own military capability. Pope Leo IX may well have been the first pope to lead an army into battle, but his army consisted entirely of troops of his supporters, not papal troops. The units Hildebrand created in 1062/63 were papal armies. His detractors would later claim that he had led these troops into war, sword in hand, which was in contravention of canon law.

board were the Normans. As of:

With the Normans not quite as reliable as the rulers of Tuscany, the Popes would not have minded an occasional imperial journey to Rome as a counterweight. In particular Alexander II offered an imperial coronation several times, but it never happened.

The popes, who a hundred years earlier served literally as the footstools of the Crescenti rulers of Rome have found a degree of political and military independence, never seen before.

After the five popes between:

Bottom line 1: The papacy has become an independent political, not just spiritual entity with its own military capability.

What gave the papacy the next push up the ladder was that it assumed the leadership in the church reform movement.

The church reform had started as a grass roots movement. Pious monks, disgusted by the worldly mores of the rich and powerful abbeys had formed communities in remote places like Cluny, Gorze or Moyenmoutier. They wanted to live according to the rule of St. Benedict, focused on praying and doing good works for a reward in heaven. Their efforts were recognised by noble lords, the duke of Aquitaine amongst them, who wanted these holy monks to pray for their souls in the afterlife. So they gave donations to the monks or asked them to set up a new priory or monastery on their lands. In the next step, the emperors, namely Henry II and Henry III embraced the movement and began to roll out reform in the mighty imperial abbeys of Reichenau, Corvey, Fulda etc.

At the same time the urban and rural population who had little interaction with the monks on their remote abbeys, demanded that the priest who administered their sacraments to live up to his billing. That meant initially that the priest should have been chosen for merit, rather than for the amount of kickback he offered the local bishop. But more and more the laity was upset by the fact that most priests, canons and deacons were married or had congress with women. Celibacy had been an ideal and monks and bishops were expected to live celibate since the early times of the church. But ordinary priests were not. I understand that there is no watertight theological reason for celibacy in the clergy, and it is not required for priests in other Christian denominations. But in the first half of the 11th century the demand for a higher standard in pastoral care in Western Europe became associated with celibacy. My non-theogical view is that if monks, the most effective communicators with divine, lived in celibacy, than being celibate clearly improved efficacy of the sacraments. And hence the city dwellers and peasants wanted access to the same quality of religious rites as the aristocrats who had their monks.

The education and moral standards of the priests was the responsibility of the bishops. Henry II and Henry III enthusiastically encouraged their bishops to improve the standards of their clergy.


Leo IX and Victor II got the papacy involved in the work of church reform for the first time. They saw themselves as partners of the emperor in this great endeavour and focused on the parts of the world the emperor had difficulty to reach. In particular the French bishops came in for a drubbing. Simony was rife in France, since investiture of bishops was one of the few sources of income for the king.

The popes travelled endlessly; a level of touristic activity not seen again until Pope John Paul II’s popemobile tours. Leo IX for instance crossed the alps 6 times in the 5 years of his pontificate, holding synods in France, Germany and Italy. The same goes for his successor Victor II. Almost as important as the papal presence North of the Alps was the activity of papal legates, usually prominent cardinals like Pietro Damiano, the later popes Stephen IX, Nicolas II. Alexander IiI and Hreggoryg Vi. The legates would call and preside over Synods, where again bishops were investigated and condemned for simony or other forms of corruption or misdemeanour. Legates would be sent even to adjudicate in major political issues, like the attempt of Henry IV. to get a divorce.

Within a span of maybe 20 years, the papacy goes from being almost invisible in the debate over the most important issue of its day to being everywhere.

Even the intellectual epicentre of the church reform shifts. Was the theological underpinning of the reform movement initially devised by the abbots of Cluny, Gorze etc., it is now the college of cardinal and the annual synods in Rome that set the tone. St. Peter Damian, Humbert of Silva candida and others who came to Rome from all over Europe form a new centre that sets the dogma.

At the same time, the imperial leadership role diminishes under the regency of empress Agnes. Rapacious bishops like Anno of Cologne and Adalbert of Hamburg-Bremen do not add much to the imperial reputation. That reputation completely crumbles when Agnes sides with the conservative forces, the Northern Italian bishops and the Roman Aristocracy, appointing the bishop Cadalus as antipope Honorius III. Even though Anno of Cologne reverses the policy, it is too late to keep the imperial power in the lead.

or help, an emperor who until:

Bottom line 2: the papacy now leads the church reform movement

Not only has the papacy become a self-determining political organisation, and the leader of the largest popular movement of its time, it has also become universal.


After 1046, the papacy got busy collecting oaths of fealty from kings and rulers all over Western Europe.

hurch had become permanent in:

In 1068 the king of Aragon in Spain came on pilgrimage to Rome and gave his kingdom in the hands of the pope to receive it back as a fief. As usual, he did this only in part out of piety. What he got in exchange was papal support that turned the kings’ wars with the Muslim Emirs into a sort of pre-crusade type endeavour.

One of the great political tools the papacy used were papal banners. These were to be carried into battle as signs that the apostles Peter and Paul were fighting on the side of the flagbearer. That was most valuable to those whose claims to their conquests were weakest. One of these pretenders was William the Conqueror, whose claim to the English throne was, how can I say that most politely, a stretch. Pope Alexander II, upon insistence of Hildebrand gave William the banner and his endorsement. William enjoyed a reputation as a supporter of Church reform, whilst the old regime in England was seen as simonistic and insufficiently focused on enforcing celibacy amongst the clergy.

The reach of the papacy did not stop at England’s shore. In a few years pope Gregory will write letters of advice and admonishment to the great King of Ireland, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa and even the ruler of what is now Morocco.

In just 30 years the papacy’s ambition has grown from being the bishop of Rome to being the universal ruler of all Christendom. In doing so the papacy had simply stepped into a void that the emperors since Otto the great have left wide open.

In 972 when Otto the great died, he was the universal ruler of Christian Western Europe. Though technically he was not King of France or King of Burgundy, the rulers of these lands recognised him as the arbiter of their disputes and came to his assemblies. The same goes for the dukes of Poland and Bohemia. Hungary and Denmark were still mostly pagan, and England was a slaughterhouse of Viking invasions. In other words, there was a universal authority, and that was the emperor. His immediate successors, Otto II and Otto III tried to maintain that universal ambition. Otto III’s policy of a Renovatio Imperii was the most stringent expression of that idea.

since Henry II’s reign from:

A few years later, pope Gregory VII will write to the king of Hungary that if he took his kingdom as fief from the emperor, he would only be a regulus, a little king. The emperor is -said Gregory- no different from any other king who owes his rule to God and god’s representative on earth, the pope. The only way to true sovereignty was to receive the kingdom from the hand of the pope and swear fealty to him as the sole universal power in Christendom.

st of April:

A few minor hitches in that process. First, Hildebrand despite 35 years of service to the papal court had not yet been ordained a priest, something that had to be done at double speed.. And second, the Papacy had just established that the pope should be elected by the college of Cardinals not raised by public acclaim. That was conveniently forgotten in the melee outside SAN Pietro in Vincoli.

When Hildebrand is coming to, he finds himself on the papal throne. That cannot have been much of a surprise for the now roughly 55-year old. His position inside the church had grown and grown these last 20 years and his modest title belied his actual position. Peter Damian used to joke that some people came to Rome to meet the Lord Pope, but most went to see the pope’s lord, Hildebrand.

Hildebrand takes the papal name of Gregory VII, which must be the wickedest joke of the 11th century. The previous bearer of this papal name had been Gregory VI, the only pope ever proven to have actually paid cold hard cash to get the job, and Hildebrand’s first boss who he accompanied into exile. When Gregory VI had been the symbol of the corruption of the church, his pupil, Gregory VII will become synonymous with the fight against the buying and selling of holy offices.

I have complained many times before that we hardly ever find anything resembling a political manifesto from any of the emperors or popes that have so far featured on the podcast. Historians are forced to deduce their intentions from their actions, rather than measuring their actions against their intentions. Gregory VII is in this, as in so many other things, the great exception.

Gregory filed a register of letters and other documents he deemed important to the library of the Vatican. This register contains a very unusual note, known today as the Dictatus Papae. What its purpose was is unclear. It is not dated and was definitely not a letter. It was not made public during his lifetime. It may have been a note to structure a collection of canon law, Gregory wanted compiled. Or it was what it sounds and looks like, a political manifesto, outlining the fundamental concepts underpinning Gregory’s papacy.

ation by Ernest F. Henderson,:

1. That the Roman church was founded by God alone.

2. That the Roman pontiff alone can with right be called universal.

3. That he alone can depose or reinstate bishops.

4. That, in a council his legate, even if a lower grade, is above all bishops, and can pass sentence of deposition against them.

5. That the pope may depose the absent.

6. That, among other things, we ought not to remain in the same house with those excommunicated by him.

7. That for him alone is it lawful, according to the needs of the time, to make new laws, to assemble together new congregations, to make an abbey of a canonry; and, on the other hand, to divide a rich bishopric and unite the poor ones.

8. That he alone may use the imperial insignia.

9. That of the pope alone all princes shall kiss the feet.

10. That his name alone shall be spoken in the churches.

11. That this is the only name in the world.

12. That it may be permitted to him to depose emperors.

13. That he may be permitted to transfer bishops if need be.

14. That he has power to ordain a clerk of any church he may wish.

15. That he who is ordained by him may preside over another church, but may not hold a subordinate position; and that such a one may not receive a higher grade from any bishop.

16. That no synod shall be called a general one without his order.

17. That no chapter and no book shall be considered canonical without his authority.

18. That a sentence passed by him may be retracted by no one; and that he himself, alone of all, may retract it.

19. That he himself may be judged by no one.

20. That no one shall dare to condemn one who appeals to the apostolic chair.

21. That to the latter should be referred the more important cases of every church.

22. That the Roman church has never erred; nor will it err to all eternity, the Scripture bearing witness.

23. That the Roman pontiff, if he has been canonically ordained, is undoubtedly made a saint by the merits of St. Peter; St. Ennodius, bishop of Pavia, bearing witness, and many holy fathers agreeing with him. As is contained in the decrees of St. Symmachus the pope.

24. That, by his command and consent, it may be lawful for subordinates to bring accusations.

25. That he may depose and reinstate bishops without assembling a synod.

26. That he who is not at peace with the Roman church shall not be considered catholic.

27. That he may absolve subjects from their fealty to wicked men.

I will not get into the debate about what of these statements has already been canonical law before Gregory has put them on paper here or whether he had made them up entirely. Nor can I really give you a steer, which parts are derived from known fakes like the Constantine donation and the papal decretals and imperial laws made up by the so-called Pseudo Isidore in the 9th century.

What is certain is that a number of these statements have not been in use for a long time, should they have ever been church law, and they go directly against the way the world had been run for the last 100 years or so. Let us go through a few:

The pope may depose and reinstate bishops? Without a synod and even when the bishop is absent? So far deposing a bishop was a very rare occurrence and happened if at all at a synod convened by the emperor.

The pope can transfer bishops? Didn’t we hear that transferring a bishop was impossible because the bishop was married to his diocese and when Otto II wanted his advisor to be elevated to be archbishop of Magdeburg he had to suppress the bishopric of Merseburg with the well known consequence of a lost battle in Italy and a pagan uprising in the east?

That the kings have to kiss the feet of the pope and that he can depose emperors (note the plural), and that he can absolve his subjects from their oath of fealty. More on that story later.

And then, my favourite: that the Roman Church has never erred; nor will it err to eternity; that a canonically ordained pope is undoubtably made a saint. Check out your books on rhetoric, you may find that an orator using the word “undoubtedly” is usually riddled with doubt.

In the end it does not matter whether these statements are canonical or not, what matters is that Gregory believed these maxims to be true and that it was his job to enforce them across the whole of Christendom. Whatever the cost.

And so, he got to work.

out his stall in the synod of:

1. Those who are guilty of the crime of fornication may not celebrate masses or minister at the altar in lesser orders.

2. Those who have been promoted by the simoniac heresy, that is, with the intervention of money, to any rank or office of holy orders may no longer exercise any ministry in holy church.

3. No one of the clergy shall receive the investiture with a bishopric or abbey or church from the hand of an emperor or king or of any lay person, male or female.

One of his main tools to implement these new rules were open letters to his bishops. These he would send either say to “all the bishops of France” or an individual bishop, however in copies so that his whole clergy would see them. In the letters he would name and shame an individual bishop for refusing or being slack in the implementation of these rules.

It tended to be a four-step process. First, he would outline the new rules. In the next letter he would admonish the bishop for lack of progress. Then in the third he would become threatening, ordering the bishop to come to Rome and account for himself. Like this letter to bishop Otto of Constance quote:

“O the impudence! O the unparalleled insolence! that a bishop should despise the decrees of the apostolic see, should set at naught the precepts of the holy fathers, and in truth should impose upon his subjects from his lofty place and from his episcopal chair things contrary to these precepts and opposed to the Christian faith! We accordingly command you by apostolic authority to present yourself at our next council in the first week of Lent, to answer canonically respecting both this disobedience and contempt of the apostolic see, and all the charges that have been laid against you.”

And as a final move, Gregory would depose the bishop and tell his congregation the following (quote):

“Accordingly, as we have already said, by apostolic authority we charge all of you, both greater and lesser, who stand by God and St. Peter, that if he is determined to continue in his obduracy you should show him neither respect nor obedience. Nor need you think this a danger to your souls. For if, as we have often said already, he is determined to resist apostolic precepts, we so absolve you by St. Peter's authority from every yoke of subjection to him that, even if any of you is bound to him by the obligation of an oath, for so long as he is a rebel against God and the apostolic see you are bound to pay him no fealty.”

Gregory VII writes an enormous amount of letters, 387 of which are held in the papal registry alone. Thanks to a great visualisation by George Litchfield, we can see where they went. Most went to France in these first years. It is there where Gregory sees the biggest issues and the most obstinate bishops.

But Henry IV is also on his mind.

Already in:

Quote “And as to the king: As you have learned from our former letters, it is our intention to send pious men to him, by whose admonitions and the help of God we may be able to bring him back to loyalty to his mother, the Holy Church of Rome, and give him detailed instructions as to the proper form of assuming the empire. But if, contrary to our hopes, he shall refuse to listen to us, we cannot and we ought not to turn aside from our mother, the Roman Church, which has cherished us and has often brought forth other children from the blood of her sons; so God protect us! And surely it is safer for us to resist him even unto death in defence of the truth and for our own welfare than to give way to his will by consenting to iniquity and so rush on to our own ruin.”

As far as linear history goes, this story of the ascent of the papacy is about as linear as it can get. Every step along the way the papacy gains in stature until it is now in the hands of a driven, almost fanatic pope hell bent on establishing his supremacy over the whole of the Roman world.

Whilst the king of France gets out of his way and the kings of Denmark, England, Hungary and Poland are either too weak or too far away to put up any resistance, the clash had to happen with the empire, and its still not crowned emperor in waiting, Henry IV.

From Henry’s perspective Gregory is very much off the reservation. Not being involved in papal elections is something that could irritate an imperial government, but it is certainly not the first time that the empire had let things in Rome slack a bit.

But a pope who runs round in Germany, admonishing and deposing bishops left right and centre. That is not on. And what is certainly not on is #3 of Gregory’s stated political objectives, that no laymen should be allowed to invest a bishop or abbot.

This would be the death nail in the Imperial Church system. The Imperial Church System is built on the idea that the king/emperor can appoint bishops and abbots, usually from his own chancery. In particular the emperor would invest the bishop or abbot into his worldly possessions, i.e., the lands and counties that had been granted to him by the emperors long ago. Thanks to that investiture the bishops in particular were obliged to provide the military and financial resources to support the regime. You may remember that already under emperor Otto II, 100 years earlier, nearly 2/3 of the imperial army in Italy was provided by the Imperial church. By now this number is in all likelihood even larger since church had received even more land and privileges from the intervening emperors.

I did say last episode that Henry IV had lost faith in the reliability of the Imperial Church system, which is not a surprise having watched Anno of Cologne plundering the imperial purse. But that does not mean he could afford to give up on it. His territorial power in Goslar was clearly no match for his enemies as we have seen. And reliance on his magnates was not really an option, since they did effectively what they wanted.

d suggested it as far back as:

Things came to a head over the investiture of the archbishop of Milan. Milan had been internal turmoil since the days of the Valavassores uprising under Konrad II. It was the largest city in europe and the most economically advanced, which meant they were about 50 to 100 years ahead of their time when it came to social and political developments.

Since about:

In one of his last acts, pope Alexander II, under guidance of the future Gregory VII, tried to put pressure on Henry IV by excommunicated some of his advisors. That excommunication lingered without much effect whilst the situation in Milan changed in favour of the imperial side. The Pataria suffered the loss of its leader, Erlembald in the fighting and after the city had burned down, the imperial party took control. They asked Henry IV for a new archbishop, even though Godfrey was still around. Henry IV agreed to this demand and appointed Tedald, one of the members of his chancery to be archbishop of Milan.

Gregory loses it. In December:

We are in step 3 of the Gregorian deposition process. Like with the bishop Otto of Constance the process is, letter 1, information about the new rules, letter 2, call to implement, letter three, do it or else, and letter 4 deposition.

Henry IV sure had heard about this process. And he should know that Gregory was serious. For one, the letter was delivered by two papal legates who also brought a verbal message from the pope and were supposed to bring an account of the king’s informal response back to Rome.

And Gregory VII had form in excommunicating kings. He had threatened to excommunicate King Henry I of France unless he took action on simony and had actually excommunicated the Norman leader Robert Giuscard, not for any spiritual failures, but for attacking papal land.

anded to him by the Saxons in:

He called a synod of the German bishops in Worms for the 24th of January, a mere month after the receipt of the letter. Despite the winter weather 26 bishops come to the synod, including the cardinal Hugo the White, who had fallen out with Gregory. Hugo who came up from Rome tells the synod that Gregory has gone completely out of control. He says the pope lives in the Lateran in sin with Mathilda of Tuscany a woman in her 20s who had been estranged from her husband and an acclaimed beauty . Moreover, at Christmas the prefect Censius, member of the Roman aristocracy had the pope apprehended, though Gregory managed to escape with the help of the populace.

It was the pope’s alleged hypocrisy that irritated the German bishops. These mighty prelates were tired of being harassed and harangued by the fanatic on the papal throne. No more did they want to be summoned to Rome to atone for things they believed were perfectly acceptable, like letting their canons get married or accepting financial obligations to the king upon investiture. And even more so if the pope himself failed to adhere to his own standards.


Quote: "Henry, king not by force, but by the grace of God, to Hildebrand, at present not pope, but false monk. S

You deserve such greeting for the disorder you created. There is no rank in the Church which you have not made to partake in shame instead of honour, in curse instead of blessing. For, to mention only a few, most important instances out of so many; you have dared to lay hands on the leaders of the holy Church, the Lord's anointed - the archbishops, the bishops and priests; you have trampled them underfoot like slaves who do not know what their master is doing.; by crushing them have you endeared yourself to the commonest of people; you have regarded them all as ignorant, but yourself as omniscient. This knowledge, however, you have used not for edification but for destruction, so that we are justified in believing that St. Gregory, whose name you have arrogated to yourself, prophesied about you when he said, "The pride of him who has power becomes the greater the number of those who are subject to him, and he thinks that he himself can do more than all."

And indeed we have endured all of this, being anxious to preserve the honour of the apostolic see; but you have understood our humility as fear, and therefore have not been afraid to rise up against the royal power given to us by God, daring to threaten to take it from us. As if we had received our kingdom from you! As if the kingdom and the dominion were in your hands and not in God's!

And this, although our Lord Jesus Christ has called us to kingship, but has not called you to the priesthood. For you have ascended by the following steps. For by cunning, which the monastic profession abhors, have you obtained money; by money, favour; by the sword, the throne of peace. And from the throne of peace you have disturbed the peace by arming the subjects against those who rule over them; by teaching, that our bishops, called by God, are to be despised; by taken offices from priests and giving it laymen, by permitting them to depose or condemn those who had been ordained as teachers by the laying on of the bishops' hands.

And you even laid hand on me, who, though unworthy to be among the anointed, yet have been anointed to the kingdom; on me, who, as the tradition of the holy fathers teaches, may not be deposed for any crime unless, God forbid, I have departed from the faith, on me who is subject to the judgment of God alone.

The wisdom of the holy fathers even left Julian, the Apostate, not to be tried by themselves, but left it to God alone, to judge and depose him. For even the true pope, Peter, exclaims, "Fear God, honor the King."

But you, who do not fear God, dishonor Him in me whom He has appointed. Therefore St. Paul, when he spared no angel of heaven if he had preached otherwise, did not exempt even you who teach otherwise on earth. For he says, "If anyone, neither I nor an angel from heaven, preaches any other gospel than that which was preached to you, he will be condemned. You then, condemned by this curse and by the judgment of all our bishops and by our own, descend and renounce the apostolic chair which you have usurped. Let another ascend the throne of St. Peter, who shall not exercise violence under the guise of religion, but shall teach the sound doctrine of St. Peter. I, Henry, king by the grace of God, say to you, together with all our bishops, descend, descend or be damned forever."

end quote

Translation by myself

survival. I guess. In January:

I know I wanted to get all the way to Canossa today, but that was not to be. This episode is already far too long. So, you will have to wait until next week. I hope you are going to join us again.