Monday, March 31, 2014

The Papacy in the Middle Ages

To summarize the history of the Papacy in a sentence reminds me of Gibbon who, reference his great opus on the Decline and Fall, said: “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” To match that sentence with one about the Papacy, I would have to say: “I describe a spiritual institution that took 1,500 years to shake off the hold of the very princes who had elevated it to worldly power.” A good portion of that struggle took place in the Middle Ages. Herewith a compressed summary:

If we date the Papacy from 32 AD, as the Catholic Encyclopedia does, it is an institution 1982 years old as of 2013. It has valiantly attempted to be the single authoritative guide of the Christian faith throughout its history. It could not prevent the evolution of competing faiths. It also fell under the influence of Emperors, barbarian kings (Gothic and Frankish), Italian families, and Holy Roman Emperors. These powers endeavored to control the Papacy precisely because it represented a significant if not a strictly worldly power.

Under some inspired leaders it almost won the freedom to govern itself (the Investiture Controversy); it achieved autonomy only, roughly, in the last 500 years. Some of its popes, succumbed to a kind of hubris; they also aspired to exercise power directly over the secular realm, not least approving its rulers. Fortunately this ambition failed to achieve its aim; had it succeeded, the Papacy would have ended a long time ago rather than being, today, the longest continuous institution in human history. The Papacy also failed to unite all forms of Christianity that arose early: Monophysite, Nestorian, Eastern Orthodoxy, and others. Its reach never enfolded the first two and, in the Middle Ages, it also parted from Eastern Orthodoxy. The very power of the Papacy to offer and to maintain more or less tangible unity over the regions where it prevailed, however, also involved it with the world of power, not least when it became the actual administrator over a de facto state religion under Constantine.

The growing divide between the Eastern and Western Roman empire made the Papacy an asset for each side. Its own power to appoint popes and bishops—and the value of bishops in shaping political opinion (as we would say now)—involved the Papacy in conflict with rulers below the rank of emperor. The Papacy’s own aristocracy of cardinals and bishops was in fact a second and often a competing rule—unless dukes, kings, and emperors could appoint such figures and control them through family or party affiliations. The Papacy at least indirectly also controlled a great deal of land in a time when land was wealth, which stimulated attempts by others to control it.

In the nearly 2000 year history of this institution, 266† popes held spiritual power. Of these 79 were canonized and 11 reached the lower level of having the title Blessed. Ninety is just a shade over a third but may be taken as a sign that a large number of the popes were principally engaged in the religious mission; but they were interspersed with popes who were ordinary functionaries who, in turn, had at times to compete with some 39 antipopes. Antipopes were individuals who, supported by a minority of followers, a prince, or both, laid claim to the papal throne in opposition to a pope elected in a traditional way. Despite such problems, the Nicene creed, dating from 325, is still held by all Catholic and virtually all other Christian faiths as well. The Papacy is alive and well today. But the Papacy, paradoxically (or perhaps not), grew in virtue roughly as Christian faith gradually weakened and these days no longer serves as the single unifying ideology across any realm, never mind the world.

Now here I must note that, with an extraordinarily long history, and an inner conflict in which spiritual and worldly interests were always in tension, it is possible both to describe the Papacy by concentrating on its most notable spiritual leaders—or on the majority of those who concerned themselves with largely secular power. A middle way, and the one chosen here, is to look principally on the forces that impinged upon, and often overwhelmed, the Papacy’s spiritual mission. That it was, and still remains, a difficult hybrid is just a way of saying that it is a social institution in the world if not, at the best of times, of it.

How to give an overview of this ancient, but still coherent, institution is a challenge. The usual approach is simply to use time divisions without further labeling but selecting the periods themselves to reflect major changes within the Papacy; this is the approach adopted by my1956 Encyclopedia Britannica. In the following table, I present two other approaches that use some meaningful labeling: that by Wikipedia (link) and that used in an 1881 book, Epochs of the Papacy, written by Rev. Arthur Robert Pennington:

Note here, first, that the Rev. Pennington uses headings to support his thematic. It is “that the Papacy is, as it was in former times, the great corruption of Christianity.” And thus might things look from a certain, but by no means representative, Anglican perspective. Pennington views the function of the Papacy as worldly dominion; hence, in the period when the Papacy was least under the control of secular rulers he labels as the “Noonday”; thereafter all is down hill. The Wikipedia divisions are more realistically based on external influences on the Papacy by secular forces, some benign, some not so. Some notes here—in place of a genuine history:

Early Days Through Gothic Times. During the period of early Christianity, the popes were selected by other bishops and the faithful, the congregations, in roughly democratic ways. With Constantine’s “adoption” of Christianity, and for some time later, the civil authority, Constantine first, was moved by benign impulses to create greater order, cohesion, and coherence. Constantine called the first council, of Nicea, in 325; each of the next seven were also convoked by emperors; the ninth (Lateran I) was the first convoked by Pope Callistus II in 1123, thus falling into Pennington’s “Noonday” of the Papacy. Theodoric, the Ostrogoth king, himself an Arian, acted to resolve conflicts, thus more in the role of a judge, although this intervention sometimes became more active; as the Papacy grew in influence over the faithful, the competition for the Chair of St. Peter intensified.

Byzantine Domination. Following the Gothic war (535-554), Byzantium reconquered Italy and, with his Western capital in Ravenna, the Emperor became very influential. In the mildest sense the Emperor had at least to approve the pope-Elect before the pope could be crowned; in other cases he named his own choice. At the time of Frankish influence shown above (756-858), the influence of the Byzantine Empire faded; Byzantium came under severe pressure from Persia and later Arab Caliphates while, in Europe, the Franks were engaged in a process that, as it reached its conclusion, produced the Holy Roman Empire.

Frankish Influence and Rule by Italian Families. Early in that period, as related in the last post, Pepin the Short granted the Papacy a significant wedge of land in Italy, extending from Ravenna to Rome. That grant in turn this laid the foundations for the next stage when the Papacy came under the dominion of successive counts of Tusculum, near Rome, who supplied several popes as well as antipopes. The Byzantine focus was on its Muslim attackers; in the West, the Carolingian dynasty was in process of falling apart. This gave the counts of Tusculum the chance to produce what has been described as the Nadir of the Papacy.

Great Schism and Its Consequences. During the period Pennington calls “Noonday” comes what I’ve here labeled “Eastern Schism and Conflict with the Holy Roman Emperors.” Wikipedia’s actual label is “Conflict with the Emperor and East”; I’ve revised that to highlight what is also called the Great Schism, thus the split between Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism; I’ve also wanted to label the “Emperor” as belonging to the Holy Roman Empire (roughly France, Germany, and bits of other modern realms, including parts of Italy).

For clarity here, some dates. Charlemagne was the chief figure during the period of Frankish Influence. He lived 742-814. After his death came what might be called a sundering of his realm as his successors carved up the Carolingian empire. This process ended in 962 when Otto I (who was the great great great great grandson of Charlemagne) reclaimed the title. The Holy Roman Empire (HRE) is associated with him and lasted well beyond our time span here until 1806. Thus “conflicts with the emperor” refer to the emperor of the HRE.

The Great Schism in our context, suggests the fading power of the Byzantine Empire, besieged as it was by Islam, estrangement between East and West, and the resurgence of the HRE. The split took place formally in 1054 with the excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople (who, in turn, excommunicated the Pope). At first this exchange was seen as a diplomatic scuffle (plenty like it in those times). The decisive implementation of that decision had to await the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204). In that war Catholic troops actually sacked Constantinople; Christians were fighting Christians. That Noonday now seems rather dark—particularly if we see that the Papacy was the genuine agency behind the crusades.

Early in this period Pope Nicholas II wrote the encyclical, In Nomine Domini, in which, for the first time, cardinals are named as the electors of the pope (1059). This attempt to separate church and state did not take hold at once. Conflicts continued. The later Investiture Controversy (1075-1122) was an aspect of this. That controversy involved papal claims to approve of bishops (that is to say to “invest” them). This action reached deep into the secular realm; rulers at all levels saw it as their right to invest bishops with power; bishops were often in control of significant properties and therefore potential troops; it was best if they looked to princes as their benefactors. Pope Gregory VII asserted his right of investiture in a collection of authoritative teachings titled Dictatus Papae. That document also asserted that only the Pope had the right to depose an emperor—suggesting the secular reach the Papacy had achieved. Gregory’s effort also failed or, better put, was amicably compromised at the 1122 Concordat of Worms (a city in Germany); in that document it was agreed that rulers could invest bishops but only with worldly power (the lance); the pope retained the right to grant them sacred authority (the ring and staff).

The launching of the first seven—of a total of nine “numbered”—crusades in this period (1048-1257) also testifies to the worldly power of the Papacy in this period; the popes had the effective power to galvanize society to send armies marching, indeed to induce reluctant rulers to comply.

Wandering Popes. In the period shown in the timeline, of fourteen popes who reigned, only two were elected in Rome—five in Viterbo, four in Perugia, and one at Arezzo. Why? Well, the thirteenth century in Italy witnessed the creation of warring city states and a realm in which the Ghibellines favored the Holy Roman Empire and the Guelphs the Papacy. It was a contentious and unstable period; peaceful governance of Church affairs in Rome was not in the cards. Most of the reigning popes were engaged in multifarious diplomatic activities to arrange or to maintain peace within and beyond the HRE. The map inset (clicking on it will enlarge it) shows the locations used by the so-called wandering popes. They are all within fairly easy reach of Rome itself. But this detachment, we might call it, between the City of Rome and the Papacy established a precedent for the next stage in the evolution of this great institution, the Avignon Papacy or, as it has been called, the Babylonian Captivity.

Avignon. After spending some 53 years outside of Rome (and the concept of “Bishop of Rome” having been effectively fuzzed up), in 1305 the Papacy fell under French control, initially under a man called Raymond Bertrand de Got (or de Goth); he reigned as Clement V. In 1309 he moved the Papacy to Avignon; it remained there for the next 70 years, hence the “Avignon Papacy.” All the Avignon popes were French.

I find it easiest to understand this move as the continuation of a process—never forgetting that in this age the Papacy was predominantly what we might now call a political institution first, a spiritual institution second. The process began when the counts of Tusculum came to dominate the Papacy. It continued with the wandering popes who were still trying to shield themselves from the interventions of powerful Italian families; the names of these families, meanwhile, had changed; in later days the Colonna and Orsini families vied for this control. The move to France, particularly Avignon, a city that happened already to be inside a county-sized Papal fief in France, further removed the Papacy from interference more easily brought to bear in Italy. And, in this process, the French cardinals, who wished to bring the Papacy under French influence, were also very persuasive.

The Avignon papacy ended in 1378 when Gregory XI, himself a Frenchman, moved the Papacy back to Rome. Why? The corruption of the Avignon Papacy had become at least as great as that of the Italian Papacy that had preceded it.. Italian states, lead by Florence, were raising a major insurrection against the Papacy. The Black Death was in the background too, peaking in 1348-1350; that plague had killed a minimum of 75 million Europeans and was still causing food shortages. The future saint, Catherine of Sienna, intervened with Gregory. It was that sort of time. Gregory’s successor, Urban VI, an Italian rather than a citizen of Rome, was elected hastily, fanned by popular pressure in Rome. Urban immediately began imposing reforms on the papal bureaucracy (the Curia) forbidding, among other things, that cardinals should accept gifts or special income grants from secular princes. A rebellion of Cardinals then elected a competing pope, again in Avignon, and thereby set the stage for our next phase of papal history.

The Western Schism. This split in the Catholic Church lasted 40 years and, as shown by the map, also represents a continuation of the Avignon papacy. Following the Encyclopedia Britannica’s take on things, the fault for the split must be pinned on the college of cardinals, which was then predominantly French, supported in a major way by Charles V, King of France. The map shows how this schism partitioned Europe, particularly the HRE. The French King’s connivance at the beginning of this schism is matched by its ending four decades later by the labors of Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund; he was a German by birth and, I note here with pleasure, also King of Hungary. The vehicle by which the Unity of the Church was reestablished was the Council of Constance. An earlier and much more disastrous council had been held by the college of cardinal—all parties wishing to establish unity again. The Council of Constance deposed the antipope John XXIII (who had, however, previously approved the council). His rival Gregory XII, resigned voluntarily. After a gap of two years, during which the Church was run by the cardinals as a group, Martin V became the first pope of the re-unified church.  A footnote: For most of us John XXIII is a recent and famous pope, he who called the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) to renew the Church. Our pope, if I may put it that way, chose his name deliberately by way of saying that the pope who’d used it during the Western Schism had been illegitimate.

The Renaissance Papacy. With this heading we have arrived at what seems to me the darkest point in the papacy. After that came the Reformation—which, it so happens, also reformed the Papacy. Let me quote a paragraph from Wikipedia here (link) to give its flavor:

According to Eamon Duffy, “the Renaissance papacy invokes images of a Hollywood spectacular, all decadence and drag. Contemporaries viewed Renaissance Rome as we now view Nixon's Washington, a city of expense-account whores and political graft, where everything and everyone had a price, where nothing and nobody could be trusted. The popes themselves seemed to set the tone.”  For example, Leo X was said to have remarked: “Let us enjoy the papacy, since God has given it to us.” Several of these popes took mistresses and fathered children and engaged in intrigue or even murder. Alexander VI had four acknowledged children: Cesare Borgia, Lucrezia Borgia, Gioffre Borgia, and Giovanni Borgia.

Eamon Duffy is an Irish Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Cambridge and self-described as a “cradle Catholic.”

The sale of indulgences is not mentioned in that paragraph but fits the context rather well. And what followed is entirely understandable. Since 1517, and the publication of Martin Luther’s The Ninety-five Theses, thus in the last 497 years, the Papacy has become quite unrecognizable if viewed through a medieval lens. By the time the Reformation began, the Middle Ages had also already passed, officially ending some 65 years before in 1453.

Let me end this now with three graphics I used, initially, to give myself some statistical perspectives on the Papacy.  They show the number of popes and antipopes, antipopes expressed as percent of popes, and the average tenure, in years, of the popes in each period. Again, clicking on the graphics will enlarge them. Concerning the second graphic, the percent is calculated by taking all popes in a period, e.g., 31 in Early Christianity, the number of antipopes in the same period (2), dividing the antipopes by popes, and multiplying by 100. For purposes of these graphics I include all periods, including the post-Renaissance period but excluding the reign of Pope Francis—whose tenure, for instance, is not yet known.

†Pope Benedict VIII was pope three times, twice deposed then elected a third time. If we view his papacy as a single event, the total number becomes 264.

Image credits: Papal coat of arms: Wikipedia (link); the silver key represents earth, the golden key heaven. What the Papacy binds on earth is bound in heaven. Map of the Great Schism: University of Dayton (link); Statistical graphics of the Papacy: Based on the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia titled “The List of Popes” (link).

Middle Ages Posts:


  1. Bl. John XXIII called the SECOND Vatican Council. Slip of the "pen" you had there.


    1. Thank you, Rob. Have corrected the text itself.

  2. I just recently talked about Thomas Aquinas in my intro philosophy class, including some of his background, which we tend to forget. His family was a strongly pro-Imperial family (they were cousins to the Emperor, although a relatively minor branch of the family); his older brothers all fought for the Emperor. Aquinas went a different direction; after his first stint at the University of Paris, there is a period in his life in which he seems to be all over Italy and writes a few works for Pope Urban IV (the most important of which were his liturgy for the new feast of Corpus Christi and the Summa Contra Gentiles), so he seems to have been in connection to the papal court, although perhaps not part of it. It's an interesting snapshot of the complication of the period.

    Those graphics are fascinating.

    1. Such summaries are extraordinarily frustrating to write. Details simply clamor to be told, but must be left out. To be sure they not only really tell the story but also illuminate the actual conditions, which were, as usually with humanity, chaos-on-chaos with small numbers valiantly striving to "do the right thing."

    2. I have this problem every time I teach Intro -- giving the general idea leaves everything looking abstract and simpler than it was, getting into the details makes it easy for them to miss the forest for the trees. And you're certainly right about the chaos-on-chaos. I sometimes thinks that the two constants of history are:

      (1) Nobody ever entirely knows what's happening.

      (2) There's never enough time to do things properly.