Ancient History & Civilisation


The old Roman Empire of Julius Caesar, Augustus and their successors was a common or garden superpower of an entirely recognizable type. Its creators used a mixture of economic, military and demographic resources to project overwhelming force over a large body of surrounding territory, whose populations were then constrained – at javelin point if necessary – to become part of a new imperial order. At the centre of this new imperial construction was the city of Rome itself, and if, over time, the incorporated populations bought into the Roman imperial project by learning Latin and starting to wear togas, as pretty much everywhere they did, this does not for a moment hide the fact that the first Roman Empire was a conquest state run out of Rome for the benefit – initially – of Roman elites.

The medieval Roman Empire of the popes was a different kind of beast altogether. The power of the papacy is in fact an almost perfect example – the ideal-type to use some jargon – of the sociological category of ideological authority. Bishops of Rome were able to exercise power exactly and only because a sufficient body of influential opinion across the broader European landscape bought into a set of ideas which said that Popes should exercise such power. The idea set started from Jesus’ words to St Peter in Matthew, but filled in all the gaps: that Peter had been the first Bishop of Rome; that his powers to bind and loose could be inherited by his successors; and that this pre-eminent religious authority could be turned into concrete rights to define doctrine, make law, and control top Church appointments. Because of these ideas, Bishops of Rome acquired wealth, legal rights, even soldiers, and could use them as additional means of projecting power. But in the papal case, these more usual constituents of imperial power were merely its secondary trappings. They extended but did not create papal power: that was the direct result of accepting the original set of ideological propositions.

The other overwhelming difference between the two Roman empires is the quite staggering degree to which the second was created outside of Rome itself. That’s not to say that the history of the papacy doesn’t throw up moments of quasi-imperial ambition as you chart the – extremely – slow process by which popes became Latin Christianity’s CEOs. The late Roman popes who aped imperial rescripts to create the papal decretal were no shy retiring wallflowers, any more than was Pope Gelasius when he banged on about the two swords of authority at the height of the Acacian schism, or Nicholas I when he waded into the divorce case of Lothar II. But, a few moments of superlative forgery aside – particularly the Clementine Recognitions which filled in some crucial gaps in the Peter-to-papacy story – most of the key action actually happened outside of Rome itself, and beyond the direct control of the city’s bishop and his key administrators.

Financially, it was Charlemagne who made the key move. His decision to endow the papal see so royally after his conquest of the Lombard kingdom marked a total watershed in the economic resources available to it. Poisoned chalice as this may have been in the shorter term, its longer-term benefit is incalculable. On the legal front, likewise, non-Roman Christians played a critical role at two different moments. It was Carolingian churchmen, first of all, who picked up some old ideas about Pope Sylvester and the emperor Constantine, and, via Pseudo-Isidore (which included the Donation of Constantine itself), turned them into a vision of a set of concrete rights enjoyed by the papacy of old over the Western Church. They produced this forgery entirely for their own purposes, but its long-term effects were enormous. Not least, and this is the crucial second stage of legal development, it was accepting this vision of the workings of ancient Christian organization which encouraged a flood of new requests into Rome from the middle of the twelfth century onwards. In response, the curia then generated the surge tide of new papal decretals, by which the papal domination of Westerm canon law became a concrete, irrevocable reality.

Politically too, even the ambition to turn the papacy into Western Christianity’s proactive CEO was primarily located in Church circles outside of Rome itself. As late as the year 1000, the evidence suggests that Bishops of Rome were broadly content to enjoy pre-eminent prestige rather to exercise any kind of overarching control. Particular popes enjoyed being invited to the occasional reform summit meeting by emperors, and all were happy to sponsor missionary work and issue grand-looking charters which meant precious little in practice. But the main focus of the papal job description remained – religiously – to ensure that the city’s shrines remained in excellent working order so that the pilgrims might keep flooding in, and – politically – to utilize the see’s wealth effectively in orchestrating the play of ambitions among the landed aristocracy of central Italy. The whole idea that the papacy might be mobilized to function as the head of Latin Christianity was first conceived of in theoretical terms in the old barbarian north in the ninth century, although the forgers of Pseudo-Isidore had it far more in mind to emasculate emperors than empower popes. It was then turned into practical reality by the barbarian popes of the eleventh century, who first used an alliance with the empire’s military dominance to take power in Rome, then reformed the papacy and shifted its operations in entirely new directions. The odd expression of properly Roman ambition notwithstanding, all the key ambitions which between them generated the second Roman Empire had their origins outside of the city.

As, of course, they pretty much had to have done, given the overall shape of Christianity’s inherited authority structures. Because the religion first came to maturity as a mass world religion in the late Roman imperial context, the original overarching religious authority enjoyed by fourth- and fifth-century Roman emperors, and inherited in turn by the successor-state kings, was more or less unavoidable. Not only were emperors staggeringly rich and intimidatingly powerful, but the ancient ideological roots of monarchical authority in the classical world made them God’s directly chosen representatives, and not mere secular rulers. In these circumstances, and especially as the new world religion was busy reinventing its administrative structures, rules and religious doctrines on the back of the emperor’s authority, it was completely impossible that any alternative figure could emerge in this context as a serious rival to the emperor’s rapidly developing role as the new mass religion’s CEO. And, once this pattern had become firmly established, it proved extremely difficult to dislodge. Nearly 500 years after Constantine, Charlemagne saw himself as fulfilling God’s will in launching correctio, and the vast majority of his churchmen were happy enough to agree. 200 years further on, reform-minded churchmen still had to win over pious political rulers, such as the Holy Roman Emperors Henry III and Henry IV, to have any chance of putting their policies into action.

For the first 700 years of Christianity as a mass religion, the levers of religious power in the Latin West were located outside of Rome, and absolutely not in the hands of the papacy to pull. This could only change when the situation beyond Rome itself evolved – in two crucial ways. First, the long-term effect of Charlemagne’s religious reforms generated a Latin Church with strong enough institutional roots in cathedrals and larger monasteries to form and maintain a continuous (though not unchanging) religious identity and reform programme, whatever the surrounding political situation. In contrast to what happened after the fall of the old Roman West, therefore, the collapse of Charlemagne’s empire did not cause Western Christendom to fragment into its constituent parts. Second, as the Carolingian Empire broke apart and Latin Christendom itself expanded – thanks to reconquista in the Iberian peninsula and successful missionary work in the north and east – it became increasingly clear that no single ruler (even if they were called emperor) would ever again achieve a sufficient level of domination to act as the effective head of the Christian community which Charlemagne’s institutions had brought into being. Latin churchmen therefore needed an alternative authority structure, insulated from the rise and fall of states, and it was this new requirement which fundamentally brought the second, Papal, Roman Empire into being: despite, rather than because of, anything that was happening within Rome itself.

Because of its particular nature, and the history which brought it into being, this new Roman Empire was in some ways much more limited than its predecessor. Lacking truly imperial levels of military and political force, it had always essentially to work in tandem with the prevailing political powers within its areas of religious jurisdiction. If the papacy pushed its luck too far, threatening the non-negotiable interests of these rulers, then the result was always messy, and, even if a face-saving form of words could eventually be found, popes did generally have to back off in practical terms. The investiture contest is a prime case in point, of course, and popes learned from it that they could not overplay their hands on top Church appointments, but the history of the medieval West throws up a number of analogies. During the Hundred Years War, for instance, John of Gaunt, then regent, effectively blackmailed the bishops of England into increasing their ‘voluntary’ contribution to his war effort by inviting more radical churchmen such as Wyclif to start contrasting current Church wealth with the poverty of Christ and His disciples. Likewise, if papal policy started to drift too closely into line with that of one of the two great powers of the high Middle Ages – the kings of France on the one hand, and the Holy Roman Emperors on the other – then the irritated party could fall back on the old strategy of electing their own Pope, and schism was no isolated occurrence in the centuries after Gregory VII.1

But, for the most part, head-on confrontations were avoided, and, such was the level of ideological force that the papacy could deploy, that the list of effected papal initiatives from the Middle Ages is quite extraordinary. Stalin once famously asked, when told that he should take account of the then Pope’s views on a matter of policy, ‘How many armoured divisions does the Pope possess?’ But that was to miss the point of just how powerful a force ideology can be, although this was a fact of which he otherwise showed himself thoroughly well aware. And, on the whole, the really impressive point is just how much the medieval papacy could and did achieve, despite the particular constraints under which it was operating. The whole crusading movement, even if the precise course of many individual expeditions lay outside its direct control, owed its existence to the papacy, and the papal contribution to the shaping of medieval politics – not least by licensing or denying marriages among related royals in order to create particular alliances – was enormous. And that’s not taking account of the role it played in dictating religious life in medieval Europe, on every level from the everyday world of lay piety, to the new standards of clerical sexual behaviour, to the great and truly nasty moments of internal persecution for heresy, such as the many and violent assaults launched on the so-called Cathars of south-western France.2

And of course, all empires do have their limits, so the basic fact that the medieval Papal Empire faced important constraints does not in itself deny its properly imperial status. Conventional empires, such as the first Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the current American Empire, typically come into existence when the imperial centre develops such a surplus of demographic and/or economic and/or technological resources that it is in a position to bring large tracts of territory into line either by conquest (‘formal empire’) or by intimidatory regimes of stick and carrot (‘informal empire’). These kinds of empire will generally last only as long as the advantage in resources is maintained, plus maybe a couple of extra generations thanks to force of habit, before its disappearance is recognized, and they are overturned. It was precisely because a new equality in levels of development across the European landscape had made an old Roman-type empire impossible by the end of the first millennium, that the new Papal Roman Empire came into existence, and the kinds of advantage that create more normal empires usually are time-limited, not least because the act of imperial projection tends anyway to erode them. This was certainly the case with Europe in the first millennium, and is arguably the case now, where America and the West have encouraged massive economic expansion in Asia for their own purposes, but created in the process what is likely to become the next world economic superpower.

Seen against this background, the fact that the Papal Empire had to operate within strictly defined political limits looks much less of an issue, and there is another sense in which the ideological basis of its power made it significantly more powerful than its earlier Roman predecessor. Not, of course, that there isn’t an ideological component to all empires. The old Roman Empire sold ideas of urban-based rational civilization so effectively, for instance, that conquered elites right across its territories, from Hadrian’s Wall to the Euphrates, bought into these ideas, made themselves Romans, and acquired at least some political rights as a result, not least the right to be judged under Roman law. This whole process transformed the original Roman conquest state into something more of a community of communities, as well, of course, as generating the legal systems which would in due course allow the second Papal Roman Empire to come into being. But in ideological terms, the first Roman Empire never even tried to encompass the mass of the population, outside of the elite. The job of the peasantry, 90-plus per cent of the population, was merely to provide the tax revenues which funded all the serious work of empire and civilization.

Here the contrast with the Papal Roman Empire could not be more stark. The reform programme laid out by Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council in principle affected absolutely everyone. Some had more to do than others; the priesthood received a much more detailed to-do list than the laity, but the laity were not remotely ignored. Looking in broad terms at what happened subsequently, what’s really fascinating to my eyes is both the outcome – the fact that the laity did largely come into line with Innocent’s agenda in the years that followed – and the whole process which made it happen. In some ways, you could use the study of this process to stress, once again, the limits of papal power. Two generations after Innocent’s death in the 1260s, for instance, it was still necessary to hold a meeting of all the clergy in the Worcester diocese in western England, in order to rehearse the Lateran agenda, and make clear for the clergy what it was that they should be doing. Fifty years after 1215, in other words, the Lateran agenda was far from second nature, even for the clergy. And from two further generations down the track, there survives a wonderfully vivid document which shows still how limited conformity could be amongst the English laity. Between 1292 and 1294, papally appointed inspectors worked their way round the local parishes of the Romney Marsh region of Kent in south-eastern England (then a poor and rather obscure area, though part of the Canterbury archdiocese), and made a list of all the abuses they found. It runs to many pages and is a wonderful teaching tool. Aside from recording a multiplicity of villages churches in which the proper service books were still not being provided, the Eucharist not being cared for, and priests either not doing their jobs or married, it also gives the lie to any idea that the medieval period was in any way more ‘holy’ – depending on how you might want to define holiness – than the present day. Because the Lateran agenda included making marriage a full-blown sacrament, sexual impropriety fell within the inspectors’ remit, and there was a lot of it about, especially in the village of Woodbridge:

Robert le Ster is noted for adultery committed with a certain Carter. He doth not appear. Wherefore we suspend him from entering the church.

Juliana de Hornyngbroke is noted for adultery with Ralph de Pysinghe. The woman cited, does not appear, therefore suspended.

John the Chaplain who was at Woodchurch in a former year is noted in connection with Joan the wife of William le Hert. The woman cited, does not appear, therefore suspended, subsequently cited again does not appear, therefore excommunicated.

The same John [obviously a busy chap] is accused concerning the widow of le Spyle.

And so it goes on, for the best part of forty pages in the printed edition, cataloguing the many if not so varied failings of the would-be Christians of Romney Marsh.3

But rather than focusing on these very human failings, however amusing they might be (or not, depending on your point of view), there’s a much more important point to make. Yes, the Lateran agenda was moving incredibly slowly (against modern expectations) across thirteenth-century Europe, but the more important point is that it was moving at all. And in fact, it continued to move. Certainly, people – including many clergy – continued to enjoy what was from the Church’s official standpoint illicit sexual relations throughout the medieval period and beyond, but many of the other Lateran demands did eventually become absolutely standard practice. Clerical celibacy, regular attendance at Mass and confession, the separation of church buildings, the provision of proper service books and many other items: by the fifteenth century all of these were entirely accepted and uncontroversial items of standard Western European piety. Indeed, one of the fascinating historiographical trends of the last scholarly generation or so has been the gradual exposition of two facts. First, a handful of radicals aside, the reformation even in England was not powered by a groundswell of disgust at corrupt Church practices: the established patterns of Lateran piety were overwhelmingly accepted, and, by the fifteenth century, a comfortingly familiar part of everyday existence. Second, by the same era, these standards were actually being enforced by the congregations themselves, among whom a new class of lay wardens had emerged so as to police the expected standards. It may have taken more than a century, but the papacy did eventually get the population of Latin Europe to buy into its ideologies of what being a good Christian actually meant.4

This, I think, is an extraordinary achievement in premodern conditions, where communication technologies were so limited, and it ought to make us pause for a moment to think about how it was done. The next entry from Woodbridge gives one clue:

William son of William Lucas got Juliana Bructyn with child. The man appears and confesses and renounces his sin and is whipped three times round the church. It is afterwards granted that he should receive one discipline humbly in the procession because he appeared humbly, and the woman is excused because she lies in childbed.

It does mean what it says here: they would hit you or worse, if you didn’t buy into the new standards of behaviour, as, on a much larger scale, the many Cathar, Jewish and other religious martyrs of the European Middle Ages directly testify. And, in fact, that combination of discipline plus forgiveness is a particularly powerful one. Yes, you will be hit, but – so long as you weren’t too awful – you can also be forgiven and readmitted. This is a highly satisfying resolution for most feelings of guilt.

Still more interesting to my mind, however, is one further question. The visitation of Romney Marsh was carried out by quite important churchmen who did not know the region. Any failings in the state of the church buildings or service books would have been easy enough to recognize, but how the hell did they know who’d been shagging whom, except in particular cases like that of William son of William Lucas who actually confessed? The answer, I think, must lie in one of the nastier sides of human nature, which there is no point in not recognizing, however much one might wish it were otherwise. If you introduce an intimidating outside authority into a small community, what often tends to follow is very well documented in any number of contexts. Existing local feuds and tensions tend to be played out on an entirely new level via a very nasty process of informing. A famous study of the medieval French village of Montaillou, accused of Cathar tendencies, showed that the inquisitors’ capacity to operate was powered by exactly this mechanism, and this is surely what was also happening in the Romney Marsh. The information on the many and varied sexual peccadilloes of its village populations must have been provided by other members of the same villages. This is also precisely the same mechanism, of course, which allowed the security apparatuses of the old Eastern Bloc countries to work so effectively before the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Only afterwards did it become so awfully apparent how much of the population – in the hope of gaining immediate favour for themselves or those they loved – had been willing to inform on their fellows.5

I’m not, I hasten to add, giving myself any airs and graces here. Thank God, I have never been put to this kind of test and don’t know how I would react. What I do feel able to say, however, is that the post-Lateran Papal Empire, slowly but surely, was able to erect a kind of religious one-party state, which brought much of Latin Europe’s population into line with the agenda that Innocent III had so triumphantly asserted. If you look at just fifteenth century sources, after the process had long been under way, compliance all looks very consensual, in the same way that the indoctrinated young of the new Soviet Union on the whole were willing to fight the great patriotic war against Nazi Germany without thought for the appalling sacrifices required of them.6 But the element of constraint, even if located in the past, is absolutely real in both cases nonetheless. The Papal Empire may have been created outside of Rome, and in a kind of way by consumer demand among a critical mass of Christian leaders and intellectuals in post-Carolingian Europe. And these men, like most of the old Bolsheviks, were certainly idealists with a real belief in the values they were attempting to uphold. But once the papacy had been reinvented to serve their wishes, it operated like a one-party state in demanding compliance with its vision of proper Christian piety. Limited as it certainly was in political and military terms, therefore, the papacy certainly created an empire nonetheless, and in some important ways a much more powerful and oppressive one than the first Romans had ever managed. The projection of their imperial values never got past the landowning elites, where their papal successors targeted the entirety of the population. And where the spread of Roman law in the first empire allowed consent to overturn constraint among the provinces of the empire, in the new Rome, consent to its legal authority was in fact the path to constraint, a constraint that was being exercised over the entirety of the constituent population. That, of course, may be one reason why the new Roman Empire has so far lasted approximately twice as long as its predecessor.

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