Ancient History & Civilisation



ON 11 NOVEMBER 1215, there opened the largest council of Christian leaders the world had yet seen. Some 400 bishops and 800 abbots participated in person. Representatives were also there from all the cathedral clergy of the West, where the bishop himself was unavailable, along with another set of observers sent by the Eastern patriarchs. The assembled fathers of the Church then proceeded to lay down the most ambitious programme of total Christian reform ever seen: in the spirit of Carolingian correctio, but redefined now on an industrial scale.

One set of the council’s canons hammered clerical corruption. Many practices were outlawed, including the appointing of underage relatives to Church positions, the selling of clerical offices, and open unchastity. The council also did its best to give these strictures teeth, with Canon 8 laying down that any formally registered complaint against a cleric had to be fully investigated, not just swept under the carpet. Monks too came in for their fair share of consideration, with Canon 12 requiring each archiepiscopal province to establish a supervisory body (called a chapter) to ensure that monastic discipline was being properly maintained within its boundaries (this idea generalized from precedents set in Denmark in 1205, and Rome in 1210).

Still greater emphasis, however, was laid on the mass of the lay population: both the responsibility of the clergy to provide parishioners with the best possible service, and the pious responsibilities of the laity in return. Amongst many highlights, Canon 21 decreed that all lay men and women should make their confession at least once a year, duly perform any penance that they were set, and take Holy Communion at Easter. Canon 10 concerned itself with preaching, the crucial mechanism by which the largely illiterate laity had always been taught about its religion, the council being particularly worried about arrangements in large dioceses where the bishop (responsible for preaching within Christianity since antiquity) might struggle to ensure suitable overall provision. Canon 11 demanded that each metropolitan archbishop teach the Holy Scriptures to priests and all other members of clerical orders who had any responsibility for lay congregations. Canons 19 and 20 turned their attention to Church buildings, requiring that consecrated bread and wine be kept in sanctified conditions within the church, and that churches themselves be treated as sacred places reserved only for religious services (this is the moment when villages started to need halls that were separate from their churches). Canons 50–2 even got around to marriage, demanding that it be solemnized in church as a fully paid up Christian sacrament, and redefining the incest prohibition from the almost-impossible-to-police seven degrees of kinship (under which rule, frankly, nearly everyone was too closely related to marry) to four.

Even this (which meant having less than one great-great-grandparent in common) was a bit tricky both for the highly interconnected and relatively small upper class of Western Europe, and its relatively immobile village-dwelling peasantry. In nineteenth-century Lorraine, it has been estimated, nearly 50 per cent of peasant marriages contravened the limit, which was substantially wider than anything required to keep the gene pool healthy. Nor, more generally, was there a sudden outbreak of mass, intense Christian piety across Western Christendom in the immediate aftermath of the council. But that is not the point.

This extraordinary and ambitious council was being held in the Great Hall of the Lateran Palace in Rome, papal HQ since the fourth century. It was called and presided over by the reigning Pope, Innocent III, who not only dictated its agenda, but preached the opening sermon. Basing it on Luke 22:13, Innocent declared, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat the Passover with you before I suffer, that is before I die.’ His words were oddly premonitory since mortality would catch up with him the next summer on 16 July in Perugia, but his own death is not what the Pope had in mind. He used the Passover, commemorating the Israelites’ flight out of Egypt, to introduce three other types of journey which were central to his conciliar agenda: the bodily journey to recover Jerusalem (since we are now in a world where crusades were a fact of life and Innocent was about to proclaim number five), the spiritual journey of the Church from corruption to reform, and the individual journey of each soul from earth to the glory of heaven.

But if Pope Innocent was contemplating several new journeys, one older one at least was complete. In the Fourth Lateran Council, we finally encounter a papacy which was recognizably functioning as the head of Western Christendom: calling councils of massed clergy, dictating the agenda, setting standards of belief and practice for clergy and laity alike, and attempting to have those standards enforced. And here the contrast with Carolingian correctio, some 400 years before, could not be more stark. Then, following well-established practice, the emperor and his court had functioned as the mainspring of religious reform. Innocent’s pretensions to power ran further still. In 1201, in a decretal discussing a current plethora of candidates for the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, he had declared that it was the Pope’s business to look after the interests of the empire, because the empire derived its origin and its final authority from the papacy. Nor was this claimed authority limited just to the empire. In an equally famous letter of 1198, he used an astronomical analogy to claim his authority was actually superior to that of any of Europe’s rulers:

Now just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and in power, so too the royal power derives the splendour of its dignity from the pontifical authority.1

Not only did Innocent III claim total authority over the Western Church, and demonstrate the reality of that claim in the extraordinary gathering of churchmen who turned up in Rome for Lateran IV, but he based that claim on the assertion that his authority was of a higher order than any of the worldly rulers of Christendom. How had half a millennium of imperial leadership of Christianity, based on its own coherent ideologies, been overturned in the period between Charlemagne and Innocent III?


As matters stood in the aftermath of Charlemagne’s coronation, there were two different kinds of obstacle standing between the papacy and the level of Christian leadership that would be exercised by Innocent III. First, there was an ideological deficit. Since the time of Gelasius, the claim had been coming out of Rome that authority in religious matters was of such a different order that it could not legitimately be exercised by an emperor or king, and that the ecclesiastical sword should be wielded by the Pope as St Peter’s successor. But this claim had not been recognized. The counterclaim of late Roman emperors, successor-state kings, and Carolingian rulers – that they had been appointed by God and hence should rule over matters both of Church and State in His name – had been accepted both in theory and practice by the vast majority of churchmen since Constantine’s conversion.

Second, even if anyone wanted to recognize the papal alternative, the massive advantages in both wealth and practical influence enjoyed by emperors and kings presented a different kind of problem altogether. Throughout late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, emperors and kings were an overwhelming presence in the lives of the vast majority of especially senior Western churchmen, appointing bishops and the more important abbots, turning up from time to time in their localities, and calling them to assemblies, at which all the key ecclesiastical issues were discussed and new regulations passed. Thanks to Charlemagne in particular, the Church of Rome was now much wealthier, but even its new wealth paled into insignificance next to the revenues of the Carolingian monarchy; and there was, besides, that old problem which had made the city of Rome impractical as a centre of imperial authority in the late Roman period: now that the centre of West European gravity had moved north of the Alps, Rome was physically on the periphery in what was, given pre-modern speeds of movement, a highly inconvenient position. Rome remained, as one fourth-century commentator put it, a ‘sacred precinct far from the highway’; i.e. a bit like Justiniana Prima, it was miles from bloody anywhere that mattered to most people, and making it the focal point every time a ruling was required, or a problem needed solving, was not a very practical prospect.2

In the middle decades of the ninth century, however a crucial step was taken towards solving at least the first of these problems. Everyone had long recognized that the see of Rome and its bishop, the Pope, could reasonably claim a very special kind of status within the Christian firmament, but faced with the potent combination of ideological justification and practical power that could be mobilized by kings and emperors, this had never amounted to much in the way of actual power and influence, as opposed to mere prestige. A bit like being a US vice president, you got to live somewhere nice and a lot of ceremonial fuss was made of you from time to time, but – the odd individual aside (Dick Cheney as Pope Gregory the Great comes to mind) you were largely irrelevant to the key operations of the Western Church. This was true in the Carolingian era, and it had been true back in the fourth century and earlier. If a documentary track record of leadership did not exist, however, it was always possible to invent one, and, in the mid-ninth century there started to circulate through Western Christendom a series of legal forgeries destined for a massive future.

The entire collection of four texts is known as Pseudo- (= false) Isidore, after the name which appears in the preface to the most important of them. It looks as though the intention was originally to attribute this part of the collection to Isidore of Seville, the great Spanish bishop, scholar and canon lawyer, but then someone with a greater sense of chronology noticed that some of the material dated from after his death, so the author morphed into an unidentifiable individual called Isidore Mercator. The texts comprise a collection of canons from Spanish and Gallic Church councils (the Collectio Hispana Gallica Augustodunensis if you’d like to be precise), a long letter from Pope Hadrian I (772–95) to Archbishop Angilram of Metz (the Capitula Angilramni), a continuation of the abbot Ansegius’ collection of Carolingian capitularies which we encountered in Chapter 6 (Benedictus Levita) and finally Pseudo-Isidore proper: a mixed collection of rulings from a broader range of Church councils than the first of the texts (including all the old ecumenical councils) and a large collection of papal decretals. Encompassing ancient Church councils, their Gallic and Hispanic counterparts of the successor-state era, Carolingian materials and a mass of papal decretals, it added up to a more or less complete collection of Church law in all its various sources, as matters stood in the mid-ninth century.

The collection was throughout, however, a complex mixture of the genuine and the bogus, the one exception being the Capitula Angilramni which was a total fake. Many of the individual rulings in the Collectio Hispana Gallica Augustodunensis were genuine enough, but their Latin was systematically improved to come more into line with classicizing Carolingian norms, and this provided the necessary opportunity to ‘adjust’ some of the contents in accord with the purposes of the forger(s). About a quarter of the Carolingian material collected in Benedictus Levita, similarly, was genuine, but the remainder again consisted of forgeries.

The pièce de résistance, however, was Pseudo-Isidore itself which, like Gaul in the time of Julius Caesar, came in three parts. Two of the three were composed of largely genuine texts that were well known to a Latin ecclesiastical audience: a collection of Church council rulings from Nicaea down to the seventh century, and of papal decretals from the fourth century to the time of Gregory II (715–31). Much of this covered the same ground as the Dionysio-Hadriana collection which Pope Hadrian I had sent north to Charlemagne (page 332), and which had provided the starting point for subsequent Carolingian ecclesiastical legislation, but, again, there were some significant emendations. And to these familiar materials was then added a collection of earlier papal decretals running from the time of Pope Clement I at the end of the first century to Pope Miltiades (d.314). In the early sixth century, Dionysius Exiguus had been unable to find any fully formed decretals for his collection dating before the late fourth century, as we saw in the last chapter, and for a very good reason: there weren’t any. Every one of these supposedly earlier decretals in Pseudo-Isidore was a complete fake. All told, the collection was a clever, high-grade fraud of the finest kind, combining its forgeries with a wide-ranging knowledge of real texts, an impressive control of different Latin styles, and a far from negligible understanding of the different eras of Christian history. Throughout, the genuine and familiar was carefully mobilized to make the unwary reader ready to accept the specious and forged.

As forgeries go, it was brilliantly successful, rapidly going viral across the monastic and cathedral scriptoria of Latin Christendom. Doubting voices were occasionally raised about particular texts, but over one hundred partial or complete manuscripts of Pseudo-Isidore survive from before the year 950, that is in the first hundred years of the collection’s existence (this is a huge number of copies for this era), with thirty complete ones older even than the year 900.3

This success reflects, of course, the very cleverness of the forgery, but that is only part of the story. More fundamentally, the collection appeared at exactly the right moment to make such an impact. By the mid-ninth century, Carolingian correctio was in full swing, and Western churchmen were clear both that their practices ought to be governed by established Church law, and on what the main sources of that law actually were. From Charlemagne’s Admonitio Generalis of 789 onwards, it had been hammered into them that correct Christian practice was defined by a combination of past rulings from ecumenical councils, major regional councils and papal decretals, as then updated, where appropriate, by the new rulings of the Carolingian capitularies. Getting hold of all the relevant texts, however, was far from straightforward. Even the most recent of them, the Carolingian capitularies, were being only haphazardly collected before the 840s, and access to the other texts remained partial. The manuscript evidence does not suggest that even every major ecclesiastical library would have had its own copy of all the main texts. Hence, at the time of its creation, there existed no other collection of Church law with anything like the same coverage of the necessary sources that Pseudo-Isidoreappeared to offer. Everything you had ever heard of was included in one convenient collection, in excellent classicizing Carolingian Latin to boot. And any differences in detail between its readings and any other versions of duplicate texts you might happen to have, were easy to dismiss as copyists’ errors, given the messy and patchy state of the available alternative manuscripts which still boasted more than one Latin translation of the ecumenical councils, for instance, and many partial collections of both papal letters and conciliar rulings. Pseudo-Isidore, in other words, appeared at a moment when Carolingian churchmen knew enough to know what materials they ought to drawing upon, but not yet enough to be able to see through its plausible forgeries.

But if an accident of timing played a crucial role in the collection’s acceptance, you won’t need me to tell you that much else about Pseudo-Isidore’s brilliant combination of genuine and fake was utterly deliberate. Such a learned, sophisticated, labour-intensive work of forgery would never have been undertaken without a very specific purpose in mind. What was it?

A first clue lies in its overall vision of the authority structures of late antique Christianity. Carolingian correctio, as we saw in the last chapter, placed much emphasis on the authority of archbishops over their bishops, making them, operating directly under the auspices of imperial authority, into the arm-twisters-in-chief of the reform process, responsible for levering the remainder of the clergy, including their suffragan bishops, into line. Pseudo-Isidore presented a significantly different view of what a legitimate Christian religious authority structure should look like. For one thing, its forgeries greatly boosted the vision of historical papal authority. As we saw in Chapter 5, some idea that the emperor Constantine had made a major concession of authority to Pope Sylvester was clearly already there in the eighth century, and was used by Hadrian I to ‘encourage’ Charlemagne to the utmost peaks of generosity after his conquest of the Lombard kingdom (page 235). But in Pseudo-Isidore, these ideas reached full maturity in the form of the Donation of Constantine, a fully worked-up forgery of what purported to be the emperor’s original grant of the fourth century. This declared unambiguously that, on departing for Constantinople, the emperor granted full authority over the Western Church to Pope Sylvester.4This basic statement of principle was then reinforced by many practical examples of this supposed papal authority in action in the forged decretals. Equally important, beneath this papal umbrella, the power of archbishops was downplayed from two directions. Top down, the collection portrayed a late antique Church where papal grants of patriarchal status trumped the authority of metropolitan archbishops. Bottom up, the collection also championed the status of run-of-the-mill suffragan bishops against their metropolitan superiors, reducing an archbishop’s rights to interfere in a bishop’s running of his own diocese virtually to zero. Significantly, the collection also laid down strict rules which made it much more difficult to remove bishops from their sees than current, ninth-century practice would remotely have recognized.

Under Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, bishops were on the whole pretty expendable. Some kind of legal process had to be followed, but if you lost imperial favour, then your days in the job were soon numbered. Pseudo-Isidore, by contrast, asserted that without an episcopal confession of wrongdoing, it was necessary to assemble no less than seventy-two independent witnesses who were all willing to sign up to the charges being brought, before any proceedings could begin. And once a trial began, things got no easier for the prosecution. A bishop was allowed to reject the judge placed in charge of his case, even if that judge were his metropolitan archbishop, and lodge an appeal at any point in proceedings (before, during, or after the trial) to the higher authority of the Roman see. It was complete nonsense. None of this had ever been practised. But Pseudo-Isidore used outrageous forgery to conjure up a late antiquity where papal authority had dominated a coherent structure within which the other key players were not emperors and archbishops, but patriarchs appointed by papal dispensation and diocesan bishops.5 For the first time, the collection translated the generally accepted but entirely vague concept that the Roman see was somehow special into a coherent vision of what that ‘specialness’ ought to mean in practice. A fake view of the past bridged the ideological deficit which had long relegated popes to a profoundly secondary position in the imperial wake. Finally, it is tempting to think, we are seeing the papacy on the move, seizing practical control of the authority structures of Western Christendom.

But while one strand of scholarship has long supposed the text of the Donation of Constantine to have been forged somewhere in the papal chancery, a second set of clues suggests otherwise. By the middle decades of the ninth century, the so-called Carolingian Renaissance meant that northern Frankish scholars were writing a much more classicizing form of Latin than their peers in the papal chancery, where the new standards had not yet taken root. Pseudo-Isidore is composed in impeccable Carolingian Latin, and this, together with some of the particular anachronisms it incorporates in individual forgeries such as the Donation of Constantine itself, strongly points the finger to northern Francia. The manuscript trail, likewise, is unmistakeable: the collection originated in the north and then disseminated outwards. So too, the first clear traces of its use. Sometime in 852/3, Archbishop Thietgaud of Trier claimed patriarchal primacy over his neighbour, the Archbishop of Rheims, on the grounds that he was archbishop of the old Roman province of Belgica I, where Rheims had been the capital of Belgica II. This was the first time that a vision of the late Roman past had been used to make a claim about the ninth century, and a clear sign of Pseudo-Isidore in action, even if the collection was not directly cited. The first direct citation of the text comes anyway from more or less the same time and place: synodal decrees published by Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims on 1 November 852. And from then on evidence for its implicit and explicit use, and even for its direct quotation, grows thick and fast, always starting in northern Francia and spreading outwards. The evidence is incontrovertible: Pseudo-Isidore’s fake vision of ancient papal authority was generated not in Rome but in northern Francia.6Why?

The smart money is now on the collection having grown up in stages, with some of it, at least, putting in a first appearance at the time of the quarrel between Louis the Pious and his sons in the early 830s. At a key moment, Abbot Wala of Corbie and ArchbishopAgobard of Lyons are recorded as presenting Pope Gregory IV with texts on the subject of papal authority, of which the Pope himself had no previous knowledge. The overwhelming likelihood is that the mystery documents were some part of thePseudo-Isidorecollection. Wala and Agobard were both close supporters of the rights of Louis’ eldest son Lothar, and both were concerned that a rewriting of the projected succession settlement of 817 to include Charles the Bald might imperil the success of ecclesiastical reform by diminishing the prospects for continued, co-ordinated action. Gregory had come north in the summer of 833 to try to broker a peace settlement, at which point Lothar’s party sought to employ him for their own purposes, serving up a heightened vision of papal authority to stiffen his sinews. Whether it was this which emboldened the Pope to go to Louis’ camp to negotiate peace at the sons’ explicit request, while they – successfully and secretly – attracted away all of the emperor’s support, so that they could actually depose him, is unclear. But this overall pattern does accurately capture the general context in which we must place the creation of the text. Pseudo-Isidore was forged by a small group of well-connected Frankish churchmen for their own purposes, which included increasing the profile of papal authority not for its own sake, but only in so far as it suited themselves. And while they may have begun with the particular crisis of 833 in mind, their scope was or quickly became much wider. In particular, the collection’s strong focus on making it much more difficult to get rid of bishops had its origins in a recent spate of depositions. Here again, though, the employment of papal authority was incidental rather than central to the design, and one of the attractions to the forgers of using a heightened vision of Roman authority in this way lay precisely in the fact of distance. Given that Rome was so far away and that the papacy was completely lacking in any effective levers of power in the Frankish context (at this point there were no papal courts, and no papal judges for instance), then it was extremely safe to use a vision of ancient papal authority to disturb the exercise of the combined and very present authority of the emperor and his archbishops. Bringing Rome into the picture did not so much increase practical papal power, as advance episcopal independence.7

But if such was the original purpose of the collection, its convenient scope and skilful forgery meant that it was seized upon by a series of other parties for their own purposes. In the 850s, as we have seen, the Archbishop of Trier took a fancy to reviving a supposedly ancient patriarchate (the point for himself being both higher status and increased revenues, since a successful assertion of superiority would have given him certain rights over Rheims’ domains). In the 860s, likewise, the aggressively independent Bishop Hincmar of Laon, nephew and suffragan of Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims, used Pseudo-Isidore to try to insulate himself from his uncle’s authority. In the end, neither of these gambits was successful, and the younger Hincmar’s ended particularly nastily, costing him both his bishopric and his eyes.8 But it was not the outcome of particular cases that mattered in the long term. What was really important was the fact that the employment of the conveniently full Pseudo-Isidore by a wide variety of Frankish churchmen, even if it was for their own purposes (and Hincmar the uncle was prone to using it too), both legitimated the collection as a Church law, and, bit by bit, started to integrate its vision of Christian authority – with the Pope at its head – into the consciousness of Western churchmen. It also eventually sowed the seeds of change within Rome itself.

Again, the individual agendas of a Frankish churchman provided the catalyst. In the early 860s, Hincmar of Rheims again found himself at loggerheads with another of his suffragans, this time Bishop Rothad of Soissons. The issue was whether the suffragan had the right (as asserted by Pseudo-Isidore: once more at the heart of the dispute) to deprive some clergy within his diocese of their livings. Hincmar said not, in accordance with what had been standard practice in the Carolingian Church, and eventually felt moved to depose Rothad from his see. At this point, invoking Pseudo-Isidore, Rothad appealed to Rome in the person of Pope Nicholas I (858–67). Nicholas’ initial response was to refer the matter back to a provincial synod, as was again standard contemporary practice, and where the outcome, with Hincmar in the chair, was only too predictable. Rothad, however, was a resourceful individual who took to the road, which led, as of course they all do, direct to Rome, carrying with him a copy of Pseudo-Isidore. Nicholas’ attitude then changed suddenly and drastically. On being confronted with its ‘evidence’ of ancient Christian practice, the Pope issued a new ruling on 24 December 862. Following the rules laid down in Pseudo-Isidore, he now required that Rothad’s appeal should be heard in Rome, with himself in the chair.9

A weapon crafted in the north for other purposes entirely had found its way to Rome, into the hands of a Pope who was not afraid to use it. The results were explosive. Nicholas was no shy, retiring individual, and had not been afraid to involve himself widely in the affairs of the Western Church in any case, asserting his own authority ruthlessly in 860–1, prior to Rothad’s arrival, over Archbishop John of Ravenna’s attempts to remain independent. But the new ideological justifications and recommended procedures provided by Pseudo-Isidore elevated the scope of his ambitions to an entirely new level. As a result, the last five years of his reign were marked by a series of dramatic papal interventions in matters where his predecessors would never have dared to tread. The most significant was the attempted divorce of the emperor Lothar II from his childless wife Teutberga (page 266). Nicholas became involved, because, after much wrangling, Lothar persuaded a synod of his own churchmen at Aachen to sanction his remarriage to the fruitful concubine Waldrada in 862. Nicholas asserted his authority, however, by holding his own synod in the Lateran palace in October 863, which declared the rulings of the provincial synod invalid and even went so far as to excommunicate the two archbishops who had presided over it.

The route may have been convoluted, but it is the destination which counts. In the person of Pope Nicholas I armed with Pseudo-Isidore, we encounter a papacy that is finally beginning to correspond to its expected job description as the functioning head of the Western Church. Never mind that Nicholas did not win all his battles, he was at least trying to fight them, where his predecessors had mostly been willing to sit happily in Rome and receive periodic compliments. Pseudo-Isidore provided a model of how acknowledged papal prestige might translate into practical authority, and, in Nicholas’ hands, the model was put into practice. The scent of revolution is there in his actions, and also in the responses of some of his contemporaries. Famously, the chronicler Regino of Prum caustically remarked that the Pope was trying ‘to make himself the master of the whole world’. Certain elements even within Rome found Nicholas’ newfangled pretensions a little hard to take: no cult was established in his memory. But there was no stepping back from the basic vigour of Nicholas’ example. Pope Hadrian II (867–72) was every bit as assertive of papal rights to intervene in northern ecclesiastical affairs: in the later stages of the quarrel between the two Hincmars, for instance, or in lecturing the rulers of Brittany on how to run their Church’s affairs.10

If you were taking stock of Western Christendom in the year 870, therefore, it would have been hard not to conclude that long-established patterns were on the move, that imperial authority over the Church was in the process of being replaced by that of the Bishop of Rome, or at least of being challenged properly for the first time. The journey was far from complete. But Charlemagne’s behaviour in using the papacy for his own purposes had been mirrored in the next two political generations by a whole slew of Frankish churchmen, especially those wanting to escape – even if only for a particular moment – from the imperial/archiepiscopal authority structure that had underpinned correctio. Finding an outside authority to appeal to, when you don’t like the ruling you’re probably going to get closer to home, is a common human phenomenon. Years ago, I heard a wonderful paper which explored how the colonial courts of British Rhodesia found themselves swamped with divorce cases brought by women, because they tended to give judgements that were less automatically in favour of men than local village tribunals. When such appeals are made often enough, individual actions can relatively quickly change long-established patterns of authority. Pope Nicholas I is the last Bishop of Rome to have gone down in history with the formal epithet ‘great’ attached to his name, and this, you might think, is a reflection of his aggressive elevation of papal authority on to an entirely new level. He may or may not deserve his epithet; I don’t feel remotely qualified to judge. What is entirely clear, however, is that, the ideological advances encoded into Pseudo-Isidore notwithstanding, Nicholas’ apparent elevation of papal authority was almost entirely illusory.


In January 897, Pope Stephen VII formally opened a synod in St John Lateran, archbasilica of the Roman Church. Little now remains of the actual building, the original begun in the time of Constantine himself, but the current structure stands on the same site. Stephen convened the synod to try the case of his predecessor, Pope Formosus (891–6), who was there in person – in a way. Formosus had died in April of the previous year, and Stephen had his putrescent corpse disinterred after eight months in the ground, clad in papal vestments, and put in the dock. The charges were that Formosus had broken canon law in being translated from his original see of Portus to become Bishop of Rome in 891 (the fifteenth canon of Nicaea banned such moves), perjury (at one point Formosus had been deposed as Bishop of Portus and sworn an oath that he would never operate as a bishop again), and exercising the functions of a bishop while a layman (since he had subsequently acted again as Bishop of Portus after taking the oath). Above all, Stephen accused Formosus of the cardinal sin of actively seeking the papal office, instead of letting the will of God work itself out: precisely the kind of charge that Charlemagne had been so desperate to avoid back in the 790s. According to one account, Stephen spent much of the trial, ranting back and forth at his predecessor’s corpse on precisely this theme: ‘When you were Bishop of Portus, why did you usurp the universal Roman See in such a spirit of ambition?’11

Formosus’ defence, such as it was, was mounted by a junior and reportedly none too happy deacon, stood behind the corpse, who periodically muttered rather unenthusiastic denials. Subsequent revulsion means that the trial records – which probably were originally made – have not come down to us, but we do know (surprise, surprise) that Formosus was found guilty. His occupation of the papal throne was declared illegal, his name struck from the records, and all his formal acts as Pope were annulled. The corpse was accordingly stripped of its papal vestments, the three fingers of its right hand – those which Formosus had used when giving blessings – were cut off, and, after a brief sojourn in a cemetery reserved for strangers, the body was weighted down and chucked in the Tiber. None of this was remotely in keeping with the behaviour expected of an occupant of the papal throne, even at the end of the tenth century (nor would the Borgias pull off anything quite so scandalous), so it is perhaps not surprising that Stephen himself did not last very long. In August of the same year, he was removed from office and was dead by the end of the month, silenced by strangulation. A final comment on the proceedings was perhaps then passed by the Almighty, since, in the same year, a major earthquake devastated the scene of the trial, as one contemporary put it, ‘from the altar to the doors’.

But if the trial of Formosus must stand as the most bizarre incident in the entirety of papal history, it was no isolated moment of violently vituperative rivalry. In the later ninth and tenth centuries, the grand ecclesiastical statesmanship of Pope Nicholas was replaced by a sequence of violent struggles for control of his see, which became the leitmotif of papal history for more than a hundred years. The antics of Pope Stephen belong to the absolute nadir: a period which saw no less than nine different individuals occupy the papal throne between 896 and 904. But the century and a half after the death of Nicholas’ immediate successor, Hadrian II, was marked by so many, frequently violent, changes of papal regime, that it becomes downright impossible to catalogue a meaningful list of popes. There were often multiple contenders claiming the position simultaneously. It would all subsequently be restored to order by distinguishing between true popes and illegitimate antipopes, but this sometimes arbitrary process cannot hide the basic fact that periodic violent turbulence was utterly characteristic of the era. As many as one third of all the occupants of the papal throne between 872 and 1012 died in suspicious circumstances. And even if not all their fates are documented, we have a strong sense of what was going on. To the strangling of Formosus’ accuser, we can add such highlights as the suffocation of John X (914–28), and the mutilation of the Greek antipope John XVI (997–8), who managed to survive the removal of his eyes, nose, lips, tongue, and hands. All the grandeur of the third quarter of the ninth century disappeared in a seemingly endless dogfight for control of the Roman see, the earlier part of which attracted the degrading label ‘pornocracy’ – rule of whores – from Liutprand of Cremona, the same commentator who reports the trial of Formosus with such horrified fascination. Liutprand was particularly exercised by the amount of influence being wielded over papal succession by female members of a dynasty of the local Roman nobility in the first half of the tenth century. These were the particular whores he had in mind. But closer analysis of this broader phenomenon of papal collapse suggests that pornocracy in a broader, less gender-specific sense, works extremely well as a label for the entire period.12

To understand what was going on, it is important to stop yourself from looking for a series of dots which, with hindsight, can be joined up to lead to the papacy as we know it, and consider the totality of the historical information available. If you do this for the Carolingian era, it quickly becomes clear that, even during the grander moments of the ninth century, papal politics had always been fiercely contentious, with a marked undercurrent of violence lurking not far from the surface. It was a violent rebellion threatening the eyes and tongue of Leo III, as we saw, which gave Charlemagne the leverage he needed to complete his imperial coronation, and Leo faced a second, much less famous episode of revolt towards the end of his reign besides. And Charlemagne’s saving role in the 790s had to be reprised on several subsequent occasions, so that, in structural terms Carolingian emperors acted as a practical limit on violent internal divisions which were always threatening to blow the lid off political life in the Republic of St Peter. Pope Paschal I (817–24) was so unpopular among certain sections of the Roman populace, for instance, that they did not want him to be buried in St Peter’s. To hold on to power, he had also to blind and decapitate, respectively, two of his most senior officials: the primiceriusTheodore and the nomenclator Leo. A subsequent investigation at his father’s instigation by Lothar, Louis the Pious’ eldest son and emperor-designate, saw no need for any major Carolingian intervention on the matter, but did generate the Constitutio Romana. This laid down an agreed set of procedures for electing a Pope – including a cooling-off period while the emperor’s approval was sought for the local candidate of choice – which were precisely designed to minimize the chances of future violence at election time.13

But the type of bitter internal division evident in the pontificate of Paschal never completely disappeared. His successor, Eugenius II (824–7), was a local Roman aristocrat, but he was a compromise candidate imposed by Lothar in the face of multiple contenders for the throne. Sergius II (844–7) likewise only achieved power by crushing a large group of opponents who had supported the candidacy of the archdeacon John. This struggle left many dead on the streets of Rome, but Sergius did at least refuse to sanction the execution of his defeated rival. And still the list goes on. Ragibert, envoy of Pope Leo IV (847–5), was killed en route to Francia. The Pope blamed and tried to have killed three of his fellow leading Romans: George, Hadrian and Peter. Even the great Nicholas failed to command universal support. His memory generated no cult, as we have seen, and his successor, Hadrian II, felt it necessary to order clerics assembled for a council at Troyes on 8 May 868, the year after Nicholas’ death, to include his predecessor in their prayers at Mass. The implication is that, left to their own devices, they would not. Not that Hadrian himself fared any better. His reign is famous for the incident when his daughter was possibly raped and certainly kidnapped, along with her mother, by a certain Eleutherius, who then went on to have both of the women killed. It may all just have been personal – the sources don’t tell us – but since Eleutherius was the brother of one Anastasius, who had been an imperially supported potential candidate for the papal throne since around the year 850, the smart money must surely be on there having been at least some element of business around the violence. Indeed, the whole sequence of violent papal mortalities gets under way with Hadrian himself, who was bludgeoned to death by his own retinue, when they got impatient at how long the poison they had given him was taking to work.14

The message from the ninth-century evidence as a whole is straightforward. The politics of the Papal Republic were always vicious and prone to division, but, while the Carolingian Empire remained strong enough to intervene, a degree of order was maintained, since rebellion against a duly elected (and hence imperially approved) Pope was likely to be punished at the point of a sword, while any overly scandalous gerrymandering at election time would prompt an intervention, and, likely enough, the imposition of a compromise candidate such as Eugenius II. It is no accident at all, therefore, that papal politics became dysfunctional at the precise moment they did. It was from the later 870s, with the deaths of Charles the Bald, Louis the German, Louis II and the great cull of their immediate successors, that political coherence was definitively lost to the Carolingian world (Chapter 6). As a direct result, the gloves could come off in Rome, and we quickly arrive in St John Lateran in January 897. But this only prompts a further question. Why was political life in the Republic of St Peter subject to such systemic division?

The treatment handed out to the putrefying carcass of Pope Formosus points us in the right direction. Stephen, you will remember, both annulled all of his predecessor’s acts, and cut off those fingers with which he had performed the blessings which were an essential part of the ceremony by which any written papal ruling was formally enacted. One of these acts was decidedly personal. Stephen had been made a bishop by Formosus as Pope, so that annulling his acts freed Stephen from any imputation of having been translated from another see to the papal throne, in violation of the same fifteenth canon of Nicaea which was central to the charges against Formosus. Otherwise, however, we have no record of Formosus having engaged in anything very serious on the religious front, in terms either of making Church law or encouraging reform during his period in office, even though he had been a perfectly serious churchman in his time. His service on the papal mission to Bulgaria in the time of Nicholas seems to have been outstanding since the khan of the Bulgars is on record as wanting Formosus, and no one else, as his new archbishop.15 Stephen’s particular problem aside, the annulled acts in question were not primarily religious, but all the letters of appointment, grants of new gifts and confirmations of old gifts which Formosus had made during his six years in office. Just like a Carolingian emperor, a ninth-century Pope was the head of a state, the Republic of St Peter, and, aside from any religious functions, had decidedly secular roles to fill. Control of the papal throne also gave you final control over the direction of all the financial assets which fell within the republic’s purview, and a considerable part of any reign had to be spent distributing patronage to repay favours and build the necessary body of support.

Thanks to Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, the stock of financial assets available to ninth-century popes really was huge. Between them, father and son endowed the Papal Republic with an enormous portfolio of landed estates, and a whole series of valuable rights in other parts of the Italian landscape: endless percentages of taxation, court and market toll revenues, not to mention countless other customary payments besides. It was this bonanza which allowed its first recipients – Hadrian I and Leo III – to refurbish the urban fabric of their city. In the longer term, however, all this wealth which kept on coming (Hadrian and Leo were spending the interest, not blowing the capital) proved to be a poisoned chalice, at least in terms of the papacy’s capacity to provide religious leadership for the broader Western Church. Put simply, popes had a dual job description: enjoying a particular prestige within Latin Christianity while at the same time running the Republic of St Peter. Thanks to Charlemagne, the scale of papal wealth meant that so much local political calculation would be focused on the office that controlled the purse strings, that little time and energy was going to be left over for broader religious functions.

Even while the Carolingian Empire remained powerful, the struggle for control of the wealth periodically threatened to overwhelm the religious dimension of the office. The regime of Sergius III in the mid-840s, for instance, has gone down in history with a particularly bad reputation. The list of more or less contemporary papal biographies – the Liber Pontificalis – records that, in Sergius’ time, his brother Benedict made a fortune by selling off estates and the right to hold particular offices. Before jumping to conclusions, however, it is important to note that Sergius’ biography was written in the reign of his successor, and it was always an effective strategy to establish your own reputation at the expense of a now dead and hence silent predecessor. It was adopted by Pope Stephen V (885–91), who (according to the final surviving fragment we have from the Liber Pontificalis) ordered a public inventory to be undertaken to show that the looting of sacred vessels from Rome’s churches had taken place before he entered office, and so too the reinstitution of an old custom whereby the clergy of St Peter’s used to charge for their services.16 Sergius III’s regime may have been a bit more blatant than some in its moneymaking operations, but I strongly doubt that these were far outside the norm. The intense and entirely non-religious competition for control of the papal throne is otherwise inexplicable. Succession in particular was the focus of the action, since this was the moment when groups not benefiting from the current distribution of assets had their chance to support a candidate who would take more care of their interests in the future, any more than the sitting tenants would give up their benefits without a fight, so that it was only natural for competition to be fierce.

Behind the facade of asserted papal religious authority over Western Christendom, even in the glory days of Nicholas I, there was thus an underlying fragility. The fundamental issue inherent to the local politics of the Papal Republic – who was going to benefit from the asset flow – was always bubbling away. The divisions this generated were only remotely kept in check by at least the threat of imperial intervention, and as soon as the empire ceased to be a real force in central Italy, local politics won out, relegating the broader religious profile of the papal office to second place. Indeed, when you analyse the ninth-century evidence just a little more closely, a more general point emerges from all the detail.

In one sense, we have already encountered it in the particular guise of Pseudo-Isidore. It was the machinations of one group of imperial Frankish churchmen which created this text, and of a whole series of others which saw it cited, mobilized and copied as its imaginary vision of the Christian past was brought into play in a range of subsequent contexts that were unimaginable to its original creators. In all of this, individual popes, at least prior to Nicholas I, had never played, or even conceived of playing, the kind of role that the fraudulent texts accorded them. Ninth-century popes were the largely passive beneficiaries (if this be the right word) of the more active roles that imperial Frankish churchmen wanted to ascribe to them – for the latter’s own purposes. Left to its own devices, the papacy’s religious job description, even in the ninth century, revolved around such traditional concerns as sponsoring missionary work, and agreeing (or not) to the creation of new bishoprics and archbishoprics (again largely in the context of mission). Papal synods generally echoed the contemporary Carolingian concerns with correctio, and, even where they had something grander in mind, popes were careful not to tread on established imperial rights. Faced with a quarrel between two would-be Patriarchs of Aquileia – Bishop Andrew of Frejus and Venerius of Grado – Pope Sergius thought that the best response would be to call a general council of the Church. But calling such councils was a long-established right of emperors and Sergius duly approached Lothar for permission.17 There is not the remotest sign in the first half of the ninth century, in other words, that popes had yet started to think that the particular status of the see of St Peter should translate into any general interference in high Church appointments, or the practical interrelationships of emperors, kings, archbishops and bishops living far beyond its own Italian domains.

And even when particular popes became more active in the third quarter of the century, this too was only possible within the evolving structures of the Carolingian imperium. Some of the moments that have gone down in history as great papal victories were entirely dependent on imperial support. In 860–1, Nicholas finally curtailed the independence of the Archbishop of Ravenna, forcing his would-be equal to come to Rome and bow in submission before him. At this point the Pope magnanimously forgave him, restoring John to full favour in return for a percentage of the Ravennate income. But, as even the Liber Pontificalis records, the key moment in this exchange came when the emperor (for his own reasons) refused any longer to support the archbishop’s independence.18 More generally, Nicholas was able to exercise such a greater degree of influence than his predecessors because he was operating in a brief window of opportunity provided by the division of the still functioning empire between different powerbrokers. In reality, the self-interested desires of Charles the Bald and Louis the German, their eyes firmly on inheriting his lands, did more to prevent the divorce of Lothar II than Nicholas’ busy interference. And if there had only been one Carolingian ruler on the scene who wanted a divorce, it is unlikely that the Pope would have had any leverage in the matter at all. So too in the cases of Bishops Rothad of Soissons or Wulflad of Bourges: here again Nicholas was able in part to face down Archbishop Hincmar of Rheims. But he only managed to do so with the active consent of Charles the Bald, and it was a (temporary) difference of interest between the king and his archbishop which gave Nicholas this opportunity. The Pope was being used by the king to help browbeat the archbishop, and this was just a passing alliance.

Even in this era, moreover, if a Carolingian monarch truly set his heart on a particular religious outcome, the papacy lacked any truly substantive levers of power to shift his position. A classic case in point here is the Christian mission to Moravia, where Nicholas and several of his successors put their weight behind the famous Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius. Many East Frankish churchmen were consistently hostile to them, but an alliance of papal support and imperial acquiescence kept the brothers and their successors in business for over twenty years between 862 and 885. When the (now royal) will changed after Methodius’ death, however, Pope Stephen V (he of the ‘it wasn’t me who flogged off the vessels’ fame) agreed, and the now deceased brothers’ disciples were immediately expelled.19 Papal success in the ninth century thus either directly depended on Carolingian imperial support, or came when it was possible to operate within some of the interstices which opened up as the previously monolithic imperial structure began to fragment. In neither case, however, was the papacy operating independently of the empire, and, once the empire really fell apart from the late 880s, it was impossible for it to maintain even the existing pattern of partial and occasional religious leadership. Not only was the empire no longer there to prompt papal interventions and give papal rulings any bite, but the whole papal office fell prey to the demands of local Roman political processes.

Of course, not everything in Rome collapsed into total chaos on the religious front. The trial of Formosus belongs to an initial period of shock, when the defining structures of the Carolingian period had disappeared, but before anything of even moderate stability had emerged to replace them. And although papal reigns in the later ninth, tenth and early eleventh centuries had a tendency to be quite short, nine popes in nine years is far out in left field even for this period. This degree of anarchy reflects the fact that all the interested parties were busy flexing their biceps to establish a new pecking order in a new world where all the old bets were off. But, from the middle of the first decade of the tenth century, the basic pattern of a new post-Carolingian order began to emerge. In the absence of any Carolingian check, the papacy became incorporated into the power structures of the local landed nobility of central Italy, and a dominant influence over it was generally exercised by whichever familial grouping had established its local political pre-eminence. Two such clans in particular largely swapped control over the papacy between them over much of the next 150 years.

First on the scene was the house of Theophylact. Its founder – called Theophylact, you will not be surprised to learn – was the Count of Tusculum, with large estates in the vicinity of Rome, and originally a loyal servant of the last of the spin-off Carolingian monarchs to show an interest in Roman affairs around the year 900: Louis the Blind, so-called because his Italian expedition cost him his eyesight. But, on the back of Louis’ coat-tails, Theophylact extended his influence into the city of Rome itself, where he first emerges as commander of the republic’s armies in 905. By 915, the rest of the Roman nobility had accepted his leadership, proclaiming him ‘consul’, and his first direct papal appointment – John X (914–28) – had been made in the previous year. Like the Carolingians themselves, there were many intrigues within this family as each new generation came to the fore, and many opportunities for other parties to assert themselves at the margins, but, broadly speaking, the clan held on to power over the next two generations in the persons first of all of his two daughters – Theodora the younger and the infamous Marozia – and then via Marozia’s son Alberic II who held the honorific title of ‘Duke and Senator of the Romans’ between 933 and 954. Different members of the family (sometimes in competition with one another, and always in alliance with other members of the Roman nobility) were thus responsible for the vast majority of papal appointments between c.910 and 950. In the second half of the tenth century, the Crescentii, whose landed holdings were located in the Sabine hills to the south and east of the city, exercised a similar level of control, before, in the early eleventh century, pre-eminence returned to that branch of Theophylact’s descendants who still controlled their original power base as Counts of Tusculum.20

In their domination of the papal office, these noble clans were certainly motivated by a desire to control the economic resources which, thanks to Charlemagne, were at the beck and call of the Roman Church. This did not mean, however, that all their appointments were made without regard for the religious dimensions of the job. Alberic II, for instance, was responsible for promoting Pope Leo VII (931–9), who had a long-established friendship with the great monastic reformer Odo of Cluny (on whom more in a moment), and even brought him to Rome to help reform the city’s three ancient monasteries of St Paolo, St Lorenzo and St Agnese. The eleventh-century Counts of Tusculum, likewise, produced – literally – Benedict VIII (1012–24). Born ‘Theophylact’ he was not just an appointee of the dynasty, but actually a member of it. He was the son of Count Gregory, leader of the Tusculan clan from the later tenth century, and dominant within Rome from the early eleventh after leading the revolt which expelled the Crescentii. But despite being such an echt Roman noble, Benedict took the religious dimensions of his position extremely seriously, cooperating closely with the emperor Henry II (who would himself be canonized, so they made an excellent double act).

But, for every ‘good’ Pope in this period – i.e. one who took his broader religious duties seriously – it is easy to find another who showed relatively little interest. In addition to Leo VII, Alberic II was also responsible for appointing his own son as John XII (955–64). John took up the office at the uncanonical age of eighteen (bishops were meant to be at least thirty) and enjoyed the wealth and other perquisites of his position to the utmost, before dying of a stroke only nine years later, reputedly in bed with a married woman. In 1032, likewise, Gregory’s son and successor at the head of the Tusculani, Alberic III, duly appointed one of his sons – also christened Theophylact like his uncle Benedict VIII – and the latest papal Tusculan further echoed his uncle by styling himself Benedict IX (1032–48/56). There, all resemblance ceased. The new Benedict showed not the slightest interest in anything religious and occupied himself with sex (reputedly in all possible forms), acquiring wealth, and plotting against the opposition whom his outrageous behaviour quickly generated within the city, to the extent – again reputedly – of organizing assassinations. The uncertainty over his dates reflects the consequent turbulence of his reign. His first term in office came to an end when he was driven out of the city in 1044. He then forced his way back in the following year, before deciding to sell the job on to his godfather so that he could get married (the only Pope known to have sold his own position), but then reoccupied it again briefly before finally being deposed.21

All of this effectively illustrates the narrow limits of the position in which the papacy found itself once it was bereft of the structures of the Carolingian Empire. Even in the hands of higher-profile popes in the later ninth century, it had remained a reactive institution, dependent on emperors and imperial churchmen bringing matters to its attention and being willing to use their own authority structures – sometimes – to put its rulings into practice. When the empire disappeared, so too did the vast majority of the infrastructure which had allowed certain popes to stride forth on a wider stage. As a direct result, the Republic of St Peter collapsed into a series of always unedifying, and occasionally scandalous, struggles for control of the assets with which Charlemagne had endowed it.

The noble clans who came to the fore were certainly Christians, and not immune to the broader religious currents flowing around them. They or their appointees (often one and the same, given the Tusculani’s tendency to keep the papal throne in the family) might sometimes be genuinely interested in the current preoccupations of Western Christendom as a whole. But, first and foremost, the papal office was a key element in the portfolio of assets by which these clans maintained their power in central Italy. As such, broader religious leadership was always going to come a poor second to local political function in the papal job description. The illusion that might be conjured up by an injudicious juxtaposition of the vision of the papal office in Pseudo-Isidore and its practical operation in the time of Pope Nicholas is completely dispelled by what happened afterwards. It was the Carolingian Empire in all its manifestations, and Frankish rulers and churchmen in all their different ways, which had made it possible for the papacy to exercise any kind of broader influence over the Western Church in the ninth century. Completely lacking its own independent levers of power, it relied utterly on Carolingian imperial structures for any broader role, and, when these disappeared, the office was reduced to the level of pawn in a very local political auction indeed. Sometimes literally sold off to the highest bidder, from the 890s the papal office became the whore – or maybe the milchcow if you’re feeling charitable – of the nobility of central Italy: pornocracy indeed.


But if the nobility of Rome had sufficient hold on the papacy to make it content – left to its own devices – to bumble along in the ceremonial role of Latin Christianity’s vice president, with the bulk of its active job description centred on mediating a central Italian bunfight of major proportions, other constituencies within Western Christendom were far from satisified with this situation. The most obvious group with an interest in change was a sequence of imperial wannabes. Thanks to Charlemagne, there was a marked tendency for those who would be emperor to want to be crowned in Rome: the alternative Carolingian, do-it-yourself route pioneered for Louis the Pious, never managed to replace the symbolic power of Christmas Day 800. Thanks likewise to Carolingian example, it was also now a well-established principle that these emperors had a duty of care for the quality of religious life in Rome: the most important religious centre of the Latin West. In post-Carolingian Western Europe these two traditions periodically coincided to bring to Rome a north European ruler with his eyes on the imperial title, both to have himself crowned and to win extra brownie points by doing something about papal corruption.

It was these moments of imperial intervention, in fact, which underlay the rotating influence of the Tusculani and Crescentii. Otto I broke the first period of Tusculan domination, albeit as something of an afterthought. The excesses of John XII (937–64), son of the Tusculan count Alberic II, were already stirring up glimmers of internal Roman revolt by the early 960s. This made John willing to crown Otto emperor on 2 February 962, in search of some heavyweight political support, even though he knew that the imperial title would give Otto licence to intervene in Roman affairs. Once Otto had left again, John tried to minimize the damage by stirring up an alliance of Byzantines and Magyars against him, so Otto returned and replaced him with a new man, Leo VIII, a move which also eventually allowed – when the emperor’s interest was dragged back north and Leo quickly died – the influence of the Crescentii to be asserted at the expense of the ousted Tusculani. The first Pope from that camp was John XIII (965–72), brother of the first Crescentius. In due course, the power of the Crescentii was broken partly by Otto III in the 990s and definitively by his cousin and successor Henry II in the second decade of the eleventh century. This eventually allowed the Tusculani to return, first in the person of Benedict VIII, brother of the then count.22

But Otto III and Henry II, at least, were not merely interested in having themselves crowned. They were also deeply committed to the cause of ecclesiastical reform. By the year 1000, the two really hot issues within the Western Church were simony and clerical marriage. Simony was the label given to the purchase of ecclesiastical office, named after Simon Magus recorded at Acts 8:9–24 as offering money to the Apostles Peter and John if they would pass on to him the power to confer the Holy Spirit by laying on of hands. Because many Church institutions (bishoprics, monasteries, and especially parish churches) were private property at this point, and since their founders (and the founders’ heirs) retained rights over them, it was entirely normal in some places for a new occupant to pay financial compensation in return for taking up the post. Outright purchases were attracting general condemnation by the time of Otto III, but the issue posed more tricky questions of definition at the margins. If an appointee presented an owner with a gift upon appointment, was this simony? By extension, more radical reformers were also arguing that no layman – whether gifts were involved or not – should have any say over ecclesiastical appointments at all. But, then again, who was a layman? Kings and emperors did not think that they fell into that category. This broader agenda had its origins in the monastic reform movements of the ninth and tenth centuries, many reformers having come to the conclusion that lay interests, particularly in monastic wealth, were the main hindrance preventing many monasteries from signing up to the new standards of behaviour, learning and liturgy which had first come to the fore under Charlemagne and Louis the Pious (page 342). In the course of the tenth century, however, it had spread out from the monastic context to embrace the Church as a whole. The fulmination against clerical marriage had similar origins, reflecting, again, originally a monastic emphasis on the link between chastity and piety. It expanded first into demands and then expectations that the clergy attached to cathedrals ought to live communal, sex-free lives, and also give up private property, and then, with a bit of sacramental theory added, into the argument that no cleric could properly administer the sacraments if they were married or kept a concubine. As Peter Damian, one leading eleventh-century voice in favour of reform, put it, ‘If you commit incest with your spiritual daughter, with what conscience do you dare to handle the mystery of the Lord’s body?’23

Otto III and Henry II were ready and willing to tackle both of these issues, and saw a remodelled papacy as a vehicle which could assist them in their task. They held broadly the same view as Charlemagne, that it was their God-appointed duty to bring the Church to a more perfect form of Christian religiosity, but differed from him in according the papacy a more active role in the process. The partnership was nonetheless still to be formulated on the emperors’ terms. Otto III in particular was uncompromising in his stance. He publicly repudiated the Donation of Constantine as a forgery, making it clear that he was and should be viewed as the senior partner in the alliance. Unimpressed by the standard of potential appointees he found in Rome (having originally been called in by Pope John XV as a counterweight to Crescentius the younger, son of the original), he also installed two northerners as his own papal appointees: first his cousin Bruno as Gregory V, and then, on Gregory’s early (and mysterious) death in 999, Gerbert of Aurillac who became Sylvester II (999–1003). Bruno was a grandson of Otto I, of straightforwardly Saxon origins therefore, although his father had eventually been made Duke of Carinthia further to the south. Gerbert was from south-central France. Both were highly educated products of the post-Carolingian Church of northern Europe: Gregory, as Otto’s chaplain, was a product of the cathedral schools of East Francia, while Gerbert, one of the greatest scholars of his day (famous for reintroducing the abacus and the armillary sphere to the West from his knowledge of Greek mathematics and science as preserved by the Arabs), was a monk trained in one of the most famous monasteries of the tenth century: Aurillac in the Haute Auvergne. Both were also committed to the same reform agenda, and Gerbert lasted long enough to make an impact. Henry II, for his part, was content to work with the Tusculan Benedict VIII, but Benedict was himself devoted to reform. Emperor and Pope jointly presided over a reforming synod at Pavia in 1022, which beat the drum once again against the twin abuses at the heart of the current reform agenda.24

This new model of Christian leadership – with dominant emperor acting alongside a much more active Pope – was necessary by the year 1000, where it had not been 200 years earlier, for one simple reason. After his astonishing career of conquest, Charlemagne had brought more or less the entirety of Western Christendom under his direct control. Although they claimed the same title, however, the same was no longer true of Charlemagne’s Ottonian and Salian successors. In Carolingian terms, the latter controlled East Francia, northern Italy and a few additional bits and pieces. West Francia was outside of their control, as were the very extensive, newly Christian lands in the Iberian peninsula and east-central Europe, where, by the year 1000, Bohemia, Poland and the Magyar kingdoms had all already converted to Latin Christianity. Much of this expanded Western Christendom was administered by churchmen who owed their allegiance to other kings and princes, who would not take kindly to direct, purely imperial interference in their lands. In these circumstances, the papacy made a more neutral ally whose participation in the reform process helped guard against suspicions that it might be a cover for interference of a more political kind. With the papacy on board, reform could be presented as an issue for the entirety of Western Christendom, heading off any potential repeat of the situation between 500 and 700, where Western Christendom in practice functioned in separate Church communities on a kingdom-by-kingdom basis (Chapter 7).

What made this imperial–papal alliance far more effective, and also prevented any real possibility of a repeat of post-Roman fragmentation in the post-Carolingian era, was that there was a second important constituency pre-prepared for a more active papal involvement in the running of the Western Church. Thanks to the structural transformations set in motion by Charlemagne and his successors, political fragmentation had not been accompanied by religious-cum-cultural disintegration, with the result that, even by the year 1000, many Western senior Christian churchmen continued to speak with more or less a single voice. Many of them were the products of the cathedrals and their attached schools, whose basic pattern had been set in place by Charlemagne and his advisers. Their libraries were now larger, and new cathedrals had been established besides, as Christianity spread east of the Rhine and the Elbe. Texts had continued to circulate among them, across political frontiers, and they continued to share essentially the same liturgical, homiletic, disciplinary and theological traditions. And because they shared broadly the same moral and intellectual formation, the products of these redoubtable institutions – which were also a prime recruiting ground for bishops and archbishops – tended to hold similar world views. Henry II got all his bishops, for instance, from the main cathedral schools of his realm, and other kings and rulers of the time usually did likewise.

A very similar world view was also to be found among the products of the other main source of Latin Christendom’s leadership at the turn of the second millennium: the greater monasteries. The basic pattern of life in these institutions had been set in Carolingian times as well, at least in the imperial monasteries which had responded with enthusiasm to the monastic reform agendas of Benedict of Aniane and Louis the Pious. As a result, these communities, too, shared liturgical and intellectual traditions, and library holdings, which were very similar to their cathedral counterparts. Again, the post-Carolingian century had seen plenty of change, with Benedict of Aniane’s model of reform spreading across a wide variety of houses in very different geographical and political contexts, and by an equally wide range of mechanisms. The most famous monastery of the age was Cluny in Burgundy, where the monks had essentially reformed themselves, but they did so after the established Carolingian, Benedictine pattern. Elsewhere, sometimes (as in Rome) with active Cluniac assistance, lay lords or bishops (or the Archbishop of Metz in the case of the famous monastery of Gorze in the Rhineland) had to buy into the principle first, but everywhere the same model of religious life, with a considerable overlap in intellectual terms to the culture of the cathedral schools, was spreading fast across the older and newer landscapes of Western Christendom. And even if there were differences in detail – such as at what point in the hierarchy was it necessary to draw the line against married clerics, and where did gift-giving become simony – the products of both leading monasteries and cathedrals were equally committed to the great reforming agenda of the year 1000.25

Not only was post-Carolingian political fragmentation not matched by a similar disintegration in the religious culture of Western Christendom, but one dimension of their shared culture pre-programmed both the monastic and cathedral-based components of this second constituency to accept, indeed expect, that the papacy should play a greater role in its religious leadership. Throughout the later ninth and tenth centuries, Pseudo-Isidore was busy being copied and read in the cathedrals and monasteries. The vast majority of all those early surviving manuscripts of the text belonged to the libraries in which Latin Christianity’s leaders were being trained, so that Pseudo-Isidore’s vision of a papally run, more perfect Late Antique Christianity continued to spread down the generations. Indeed, when new handbooks of Church law were found to be necessary in the tenth century, such as those produced by Regino of Prum and Burchard of Worms, the new works naturally included many of the forged texts of Pseudo-Isidore. Even when the original collection was past its shelf life, therefore, it continued to work a powerful influence in favour of the idea that papal authority ought to be central to the running of Western Christendom.26

One reflection of the power of this idea is the fact that, even through the pornocratic era, Western ecclesiastical consumer demand required the papacy to fulfil at least some new functions. This process was not just a product of Pseudo-Isidore, but was also prompted by the higher profile adopted by some particular popes in the third quarter of the ninth century; albeit that this had been dependent on Carolingian imperial structures, and was itself more than partly a reflection of the collection’s impact. Most famously, various reformed monastic houses started to put themselves under formal papal protection, asking for written charters to this effect. Cluny started the trend in 909 when the reforming monks obtained their original protective document, even though post-Carolingian Rome was then at its most chaotic worst. They then went on to obtain further confirmations of the fact of papal protection throughout the subsequent century, which included getting Pope Gregory V’s name attached to a full and important inventory of the monastery’s holdings put together in 998. As a highly influential study of Cluny’s landowning has pointed out, these documents of papal protection had little practical value – the papacy had no effective leverage in tenth-century Burgundy, and for real protection the monastery relied on other mechanisms – but such documents advertised Cluny’s status in a wider Christian world, and, as such, they had sufficient use for many other monasteries to follow suit. Between 896 and 1049, religious institutions, the vast majority of them monasteries (including most of the great reformed houses of the period), drew up 630 papal charters confirming rights of different kinds, with an overwhelming number referring to landed holdings. About one quarter are forgeries. Presumably, the institution didn’t want to go to the bother and expense of obtaining a real document from Rome, and just fabricated their own.

Real or forged, however, the desire to obtain papal privileges, which were extremely rare before this period, is a clear sign of at least the greater symbolic role which now attached to the papacy in the minds of Western churchmen. They also eventually involved the papacy in the act of making saints. In Roman and early medieval Christianity, making a saint was entirely a matter for the local community in which she or he had operated. An interested party composed a Life as part of instituting a cult centre, and then the proposed saint either did or did not attract a following. In the last decade of the tenth century, for the first time ever, a local Christian community turned to Rome for extra validation in the proposed beatification of Bishop Ulrich of Augsburg. He had been a great voice in favour of reform in the Ottonian Church and Pope John XV was happy enough to confirm his sanctity at a Roman synod held in the Lateran on 31 January 993, the results being announced to the rest of the world in a formal bull. This innovation was followed up by the canonization of five missionary martyrs from the Baltic region within the next decade, and the whole new process quickly took off.27

In mobilizing the papacy as a more active ally in the cause of reform, Otto III and Henry II were sowing their seed on highly fertile ground. But as a solution to the problem of providing overarching religious authority for the unified cultural block that was Western Christendom, the papal–imperial alliance model was far from perfect. Because much of Western Christendom was under the control of other rulers, there would always be some suspicion in their minds that a papacy in alliance with the empire could not be trusted to act with proper impartiality. Equally important, although this was not visible at the great moments of imperial coronation, the tenth- and eleventh-century Holy Roman Empire was a somewhat ramshackle institution, whose rulers faced systemic instability particularly when they first came to power (just like their Carolingian counterparts: page 257). As a result, they were likely to have their attention diverted from Rome on a regular basis by a host of pressing concerns on their many frontiers. In practice, therefore, the empire could not be relied upon (any more than its Carolingian predecessor) to have the necessary capacity consistently to ensure that the nobility of central Italy did not divert the papacy back to the Romano-centric bunfight which was at the heart of all the great papal scandals of the post-Carolingian period. Immediately after the joint synod conducted by Henry II and Benedict VIII, for instance, Henry’s successor just stood by and watched as Benedict IX, the previous Benedict’s sexually voracious nephew who we met a few pages ago, used papal wealth as a vehicle for pleasure-seeking of an intensity which matched the worst excesses of the pornocracy. What the functional religious unity of Western Christendom really required, therefore, was a leadership structure which was actually independent of imperial rule; but, if this was to be the papacy, then some replacement mechanism had also to be found to keep it independent of the predatory pecuniary ambitions of the Italian nobility. The story of how this problem was resolved brings us face to face with the greatest barbarian Pope of them all: Bruno of Eguisheim-Dagsburg, who, upon accession, thankfully took the shorter name of Leo IX.

When this particular story began, it was not clear that anything out of the ordinary was unfolding. It opened with the tried and tested pattern of north European potentate taking an interest in Rome because he wanted the imperial title. This time it was Henry III, not a direct descendant of Henry II of Pavia fame, because that Henry and his wife had taken a vow of celibracy. Power had therefore passed from the direct Ottonian line to their Salian cousins, descended from a daughter of Otto I. Henry inherited power in the north on the death of his father in 1039, and having spent the customary period consolidating it, was ready by the mid-1040s to move in on the imperial title. At this point, he found himself confronted with three popes, all problematic in their different ways. The worst offender was Benedict IX, and while his godfather John Gratian (to whom he sold the office for 1,000 pounds of silver), renamed Gregory VI, was a well-regarded reformer, the current emphasis on simony meant that the manner of Gregory’s election was enough to exclude him as a suitable master of ceremonies for Henry’s projected coronation. The third Pope was Sylvester III, previously Bishop John of Sabina, who was clearly inserted into the chaos engendered by the antics of Benedict IX by party or parties unknown, but who is otherwise mysterious. Henry had no truck with any of them, promoting in their place one of his own churchmen, Suidger Bishop of Bamberg, who became Clement II, and who, on Christmas Day 1046, duly crowned Henry emperor. Henry III, like his earlier collaterally related namesake, was a convinced reformer, and it looked like Western Christendom was in for a repeat of the imperial–papal alliance motif. That matters turned out differently is thanks to a combination of the Italian climate, which had killed off both Clement and his immediate successor Damasus II (previously Bishop Poppo of Brixen, another of Henry’s bishops) by the summer of 1048 (poor Poppo lasted only from 17 July to 9 August 1048: still only the seventh shortest papacy ever), and the astonishing energy of Henry’s next appointee.

This was Bruno of Eguisheim-Dagsburg, aka Leo IX (1049–54). Nobly born, being a cousin of the Salian emperors themselves, he had been educated in the cathedral school of Toul, and, according to the contemporary Life, showed all the expected signs of burgeoning holiness there from an early age. This included a devotion to the shrines of the Holy See, which made him visit Rome on an almost annual basis. In a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of a major tenth-century ecclesiastical institution, however, this did not make Bruno any pacific ascetic pushover. The Life equally celebrates, without the slightest blush, the care and skill shown by the young Bruno when he had to lead his bishop’s contingent of knights off on campaign. In due course, he was elevated to the Bishopric of Toul in turn in 1026, and proved an ardent supporter both of the reforming causes against simony and clerical marriage, and of the reforming drive of the Cluniac monastic movement. None of this made him anything other than a standard aristocratic German bishop of his age. What picks him out is the clarity of his vision of the higher role that the papacy might play in the Western Church, and the energy and imagination he showed, during what was a relatively brief reign, in setting in motion a complete revolution in its workings to fit it for that position.

His clarity of purpose was there from the off. He was selected for the post by his imperial cousin, but refused to accept it (having shown, as the Life tells us, the requisite amount of hesitation) unless the clergy and people of Rome were fully willing to endorse him. He clearly had it in mind to be much more than another of those outside, imperial appointees who had consistently failed to alter the fundamentally local focus of the papal office since the collapse of the Carolingian Empire. A crucial and immediate strategy for effecting this change was to recruit the assistance of a series of like-minded churchmen from across Western Europe. Humbert was imported from the monastery of Moyenmoutier in Leo’s own former diocese, and the list includes cathedral clergy (such as Frederic, brother of Godfrey Duke of Lorraine, from the cathedral chapter of Liège), as well as Italian clerics, most famously a certain Hildebrand (whom we will return to shortly) who had originally risen through the ranks in the entourage of John Gratian, and subsequently followed him out of Italy and into exile at Cluny. Leo was also in close touch with the prominent hermit leader and intellectual, originally from Ravenna and trained in northern Italy, Peter Damian. Leo thus flooded Rome with a coterie of reformers from across the rest of Western Christendom, some from inside the empire’s borders, others from outside, representing all the main strands of contemporary Christianity: the cathedrals, the monasteries, and even the more radical wing, like Peter Damian, who found the monasteries too luxurious. These he promoted to senior positions within the Roman clergy, with the overall effect of breaking the close ties between the leadership of that body and the nobility of central Italy, and, in the process, refocusing the energies of the entire institution on to the project of reform.

Having filled the Lateran with international reformers, the greater part of Leo’s energy for the remainder of his reign was devoted to advancing the reform agenda. Some of what he did was more or less normal. In 1049, he held a Lateran synod which once more, as at Pavia in 1022, condemned simony and clerical marriage. But this time the energy was so much greater. Leo declared that all clergy at the level of subdeacon and above should be celibate, drawing the line further down the clerical ladder than ever before. He also so intimidated the Bishop of Sutri with a direct, personal accusation that he had paid for his office, that the bishop dropped dead on the spot. Even more striking to contemporaries was the fact that Leo did not confine his activities merely to Rome and its environs, but swept outside the city, and outside even of Italy, to hold reforming synods in France and Germany as well: eleven or twelve of them in fact (it’s not quite certain) in his five-year reign. While on tour, he summoned leading members of the regional clergy to synods where the reform agenda was put firmly on the table, and the Pope in person confronted any offenders among the churchmen present. Most famously, the translation (that is, the ceremonial re-burial in a new, customarily grander tomb) of the remains of St Remigius in 1049 was turned into a great reform council at Rheims where Leo asked the twenty assembled French bishops – point-blank – whether they had paid for their jobs and were thus guilty of simony. The Bishop of Langres refused to answer, at which point Leo excommunicated him, and, in a moment of high drama, the Archbishop of Besançon was suddenly struck dumb when trying to defend him (Langres was one of his suffragans). At this point, not surprisingly, five of the remainder confessed and were duly forgiven and reappointed to their posts. Only the Bishop of Nantes was actually deposed; he had succeeded his father, which was considered utterly beyond the pale.

Suddenly, Western Christendom was confronted with a whole new papacy, literally ready to put the fear of God into offenders. Instead of sitting within Rome to receive ceremonial visits and write out grand charters of confirmation which meant absolutely nothing in practice, here was a Pope seizing the initiative in Church affairs. Leo exploded over the Alps and used his councils to place himself and the papacy at the epicentre of the current reforming agenda, and the shockwaves are visible in a whole slew of contemporary commentaries. One witness of the synod-cum-trial of Rheims still felt moved, many years later, to record the fear generated in him by the whole event. The senior vice president for prayer had become the self-appointed leader of Western Christendom in the hands of a visionary leader who could see the potential authority that might be constructed on the back of papal prestige.28

It is hardly coincidental, therefore, that the first direct citation of the Donation of Constantine in a papal letter was also made in Leo’s reign. Its target was the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the issue was jurisdiction over parts of southern Italy. On the founding of the Papal Republic, Constantinople had withdrawn the sees of Sicily and southern Italy from Rome’s purview. Leo wanted them back, and used the Donation to substantiate his claim to primacy over every other see of Christendom: East and West. When the Byzantines wouldn’t play ball, Leo’s mission, led by Humbert, now Cardinal Bishop of Silva Candida, had not the slightest hesitation issuing the bull of excommunication against the Patriarch of Constantinople which initiated the great schism between the Orthodox and Catholic communions. And it was Humbert who precisely formulated the new spirit which Leo had brought to the papacy in his disquisition to the Byzantines:

All men have such reverence for the holder of the apostolic office of Rome that they prefer to receive the holy commandments and the traditions from the mouth of the head of the Church than from the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings. [Thus the Pope] makes almost the whole world run after God with delight and enthusiasm.

A long-standing claim to special prestige was now transformed into an active doctrine of papal primacy, and this was used to justify Leo’s and his colleagues’ seizure of the reins of Christian leadership.29

There had of course been moments of papal grandeur before – not least in the eras of Leo I and Nicholas the Great – and it was not immediately obvious that the revolution set in motion by Leo IX was destined permanently to change the nature of the papacy. After such magnificent beginnings, his reign petered out in a confrontation with intrusive Normans who were busy taking over much of Sicily and southern Italy (the reason why Leo had reopened the issue of jurisdictions with Constantinople). They first defeated the forces that the Pope could scrape together (true to form Henry was unavoidably detained in the north), and then captured the Pope himself. Although they treated Leo with due deference, they held him prisoner for the best part of a year and he died soon after his release. He was succeeded by two further northerners, Victor II (1055–7, the former Bishop of Eichstatt) and Stephen IX (1057–8, the Frederic of Lorraine imported to Rome by Leo IX). But, since Henry III had also died in the meantime, the Tusculani saw Stephen’s death as the opportunity to return to business as usual. In 1058, they put forward their own man as Benedict X, to be followed after his death in 1061 by Honorius II.

This time, however, the clock could not be turned back. Leo’s reign had created a coherent and self-confident leadership at the heart of the papacy which was not about to give up on the project that it had initiated. All the new blood that he had imported into the senior ranks of the Roman clergy was still there, and not to be sucked back so easily into the old norms of central Italian political manoeuvring. As a body, Leo’s appointees were ready to carry forward the revolution into the next generation. A direct line from Leo continued after Stephen’s death therefore in the pontificates of Nicholas II (1059–61, another imported northerner, born Gerard of Bourgogne near Arles) and Alexander II (1061–73, previously the reforming Bishop Anselm of Lucca). In these two pontificates, crucial further steps were taken which entrenched and even extended the revolution. Most important, at Easter 1059, Nicholas brought 113 bishops from right across Christendom into Rome to a council which legitimated a crucial reform in papal election procedure. Henceforth, elections were to be conducted by the cardinal clergy alone, consisting of the seven cardinal bishops (of the seven old suburbicarian sees), the twenty-eight cardinal priests in charge of the city’s major churches, and the eighteen cardinal deacons who ran what had originally been the centres from which charity was distributed. The emperor, should there be one, was to have no say. The papacy had made a unilateral declaration of independence: another crucial step forward. For all its fire and fury, Leo’s great synod at Rheims had been attended by only twenty French bishops, while well over a hundred more stayed away. This is because the King of France, viewing Leo – not unfairly – as a creature of the empire, refused to allow the remainder to attend. To function as the true of head of Western Christendom, therefore, it was necessary, in the end, for the papacy to become independent of the empire.

As you might expect, the response to this in the north was hostile and the German-imperial party started to make its own anti-papal appointments. But the regime of the new ruler, Henry IV, who had become king in 1056 at the tender age of six, was in no position actually to intervene in Rome, and Nicholas made one further policy change which helped cement papal independence both in the face of the Holy Roman Empire, and of the Tusculani. In 1059, in a major volte-face, he concluded a crucial peace deal with the intrusive Normans. This recognized their conquests as fully legitimate in return for their military and political support. In the short term, this was exactly what the nascent papacy required: sufficient military clout to keep itself independent, while the broader dimensions of Leo’s revolution took hold, both inside Rome and without.

Within Rome, the pontificate of Alexander II saw important steps in the reorganization of the papal bureaucracy to fit its operating systems for the job description the reformers had imposed upon the position. In particular, the formal registration of papal letters was readopted as an administrative practice. Alexander’s registers don’t survive, but those of his successor, Gregory VII, do. Registration involved making a second copy of every significant letter sent by a Pope to be kept in the papal archives, as a formal check on any decisions that had been given and to minimize opportunities for fraud (if it had been done consistently in the ancient past, ironically, the forged decretals of Pseudo-Isidore would have been impossible, at least without papal connivance). The practice mimicked the old late Roman imperial chancery, and had been followed in the deeper past at least for particular papal reigns, certainly that of Gregory I (some of whose registers still existed in crumbling papyrus in the ninth century) and again for some ninth-century popes (notably John VIII, 872–82). It may even have been completely standard late antique and early medieval papal practice, but it had certainly fallen into abeyance during the chaos of the pornocracy. Its readoption is a clear sign that the reformers understood that they were creating a new papacy, whose every word, thanks to the doctrine of papal primacy, might be of significance in the future, particularly in the matter of legal rulings, and therefore needed to be carefully recorded. Alexander’s pontificate also saw the start of significant reorganizations of the financial bureaux (destined to be a running theme throughout the twelfth century) as the reformers sought to impose order on all the Roman revenue flows that survived both from ancient times and from the huge re-endowments of the Carolingian era. In the meantime, many papal estates had been leased out on exceedingly generous terms to different members of the central Italian nobility, and getting these back under papal control would be a major struggle.

Outside of Rome, both Nicholas and Alexander managed to maintain the traditions of Leo’s proactive papacy, particularly in sending out papally appointed judges, so-called legates, to assert an active Roman voice, wherever possible. In the time of Nicholas, Peter Damian and the future Alexander II (then still Bishop of Lucca) successfully forced the Church of Milan to bend its appointment practices (which customarily involved substantial payments) to come more into line with reforming agendas. This involved the archbishop formally accepting papal authority, and he was one of the more unwilling attendees at Nicholas’ great synod of 1059. Under Alexander, likewise, Peter Damian was again sent to judge a dispute between the monks of Cluny and the Bishop of Mâcon, in whose diocese the monastery was situated. Cluny, as we’ve seen, had long extracted charters of notional protection from Rome, but this time, the Roman axis had real meaning. Peter convened a council at Chalon-sur-Saône which ruled that the monastery should be completely independent of its bishop, to whom it would no longer owe any dues or duties whatsoever. Alexander sent out further legates besides, not least to England in 1070 at the invitation of William the Conqueror (whose expedition he had blessed in 1066) to help sort out the mess which was the Anglo-Saxon Church, and north into the empire to judge in a quarrel between the bishops of Bamberg and Constanz, and eventually to persuade Henry IV not to divorce his wife Bertha.30

Alexander was not himself a northerner, but his agenda and outlook had been forged by the sequence of northern popes which Henry III had initiated, and which ran the papacy through a twenty-year period of sustained revolution. By the end of it, the nature and practices of the papal office had changed out of all recognition. In the third quarter of the eleventh century, taken over by reformers from the north, the papacy was reinvented to become an active source of ecclesiastical authority, which energetically championed the reform agenda for Latin Christendom as a whole. It had also freed itself from dependence upon the imperial alliance which had been the rather unsatisfactory route by which some past popes had managed temporarily to achieve a higher profile, and asserted papal primacy explicitly on the back of the Donation of Constantine, if at this point only in the context of a quarrel with Constantinople. One of the least celebrated of the group, because he died so soon, Clement II also seems to have coined the specific termpapatus – papacy – to describe the new institution they were creating. It was modelled on the term episcopatus, but designed to signal that the Pope occupied a hierarchical position that was straightforwardly above that of any bishop. By the time of Alexander’s death, we are dealing with a papacy which was now at least attempting to act as the head of Western Christendom.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the story of papal development in the Carolingian era and afterwards, however, is that this newly transformed papacy was not at all the product of ambitions internal to the Roman Church itself. Rather, it was created by consumer demand, by reforming churchmen whose origins lay in lands that the ancient Romans would have regarded as utterly barbarian. In the mid-eleventh century, the northern barbarians swept into Rome and began to construct a new, ecclesiastical Roman Empire. They acted deliberately, and were entirely conscious of what they were doing. As Peter Damian put it:

Now the Roman Church, the see of the apostles, should imitate the ancient court of the Romans. Just as of old the earthly Senate strove to subdue the whole multitude of the peoples to the Roman Empire, so now the ministers of the apostolic see, the spiritual senators of the Church Universal, should make it their sole business by their laws to subdue the human race to God, the true emperor.31

But in 1173, this new Roman Empire was far from complete. The reformed papacy had at its disposal only extremely limited levers of power as it sought to extend the remit of its religious authority. Its practical ability to intervene in ecclesiastical matters was still largely limited to moments where its participation was invited, or areas which lacked strong central government. Where kings or emperors were powerful, its reach remained severely limited, and these men still held to the old teaching that they too were directly appointed by God. Establishing some real levers of power on the ground, which could be used actively to pursue its own agendas rather than having merely to respond, where possible, to the requirements of others, was the final obstacle in the path of the new Roman Empire of the papacy. It was to be solved by borrowing one of the key mechanisms by which the old Roman emperors had governed the largest and longest-lived state western Eurasia has ever known.


A quick glance at the period after the death of Alexander II might lead you to think that the traditional Roman method employed to complete the papal empire was straightforward intimidation. This of course had been a trusty weapon in the hands of the founders of the first Roman Empire, even if, later on, the willingness of conquered provincial elites to buy into Roman values transformed the imperial structure, from particularly the second century AD onwards, into a much more consensual enterprise altogether. Alexander’s successor was Gregory VII (1073–85), that Hildebrand who had originally served in the entourage of John Gratian. Gregory is famous for setting the reformed papacy on a new path of direct confrontation with the empire of Henry IV over the issue of simony, a policy which had all the subtlety of the charge of the Light Brigade at the battle of Balaclava.

In one sense, I do Gregory a disservice. He perceived the same problem in most of the other West European states of his age, and was savvy enough to realize that it was impossible to take them all on at once, so the kings of England and France he left well alone. He also tried persuasion for the first eighteen months of his reign. But when that got nowhere, he announced a shift of tack with a huge fanfare in January 1075 in the form of a papal letter which was widely distributed across the courts and major ecclesiastical institutions of Western Europe:

I find hardly any bishops who conform to the law either in their appointment or in their way of life and who rule the Christian people in the love of Christ and not for worldly ambition. Among all the secular princes I know of none who place the honour of God before their own and righteousness before gain … Since there is no prince who troubles about such things, we must protect the lives of religious men.

The dig in the last line was aimed particularly against Henry IV, whose reform-minded father had kick-started the transformation of the papacy in the 1040s, and it was in imperial territory that Gregory chose to fight. His particular target was the see of Milan, the great imperial city in the north of Italy where simony – of a kind – was rife. Gregory’s chosen weapon was to call on the wider population of the city to boycott all Church services offered by simoniac and married clergy. From there, the quarrel quickly spiralled out of control. By January 1076, Henry had decided that Gregory was impossible to live with and started manoeuvring to force his abdication. Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry at his Lenten synod of the same year. The Pope was being deliberately provocative, and knew that the internal troubles of the empire, where an alliance of German princes was in open revolt, were on his side. As a result, Henry decided to come to terms and publicly abased himself in January 1077, standing outside in the snow at the Tuscan castle of Countess Matilda of Canossa in which Gregory had taken refuge. He was readmitted to communion, but the issues between them had not been resolved. Gregory had now set his sights on preventing laymen, in which category he included kings and emperors, having any say at all in the appointment of bishops and other clergy, and what has come to be known as the Investiture Controversy (since much of the intellectual energy came to be focused on the ceremony by which bishops were invested with their office) got into full swing. By the spring of 1080, they were at loggerheads again, and Gregory both excommunicated Henry a second time, and recognized the leader of the German princely coalition, Rudolf of Swabia, as king in his place. On the basis of theDonation of Constantine, Gregory clearly understood himself to dispose of a higher order of authority than the emperor – since Constantine had passed imperial power on to Pope Sylvester upon departing for Constantinople – and hence felt free to depose any particular occupant of that post who failed to come up to scratch. At this point, the dimension of political authority was finally added to religious authority that had been attributed to Rome on the basis of the Donation in the ninth century. The papal claim to imperial power had finally found full articulation.32

But, in fact, in one key dimension Gregory’s policies stood no chance whatsoever of success. When push came to shove, it was impossible for Henry (or indeed any of his peers in charge of France or England) to surrender all control over leading ecclesiastical appointments within their realms to Rome, for one straightforward reason: the bishoprics and major monasteries of medieval Europe were all funded from the revenues of large portfolios of landed estates. There was no other way to fund any major institution in this overwhelmingly agricultural world (the same had been true in the ancient world too). After centuries of endowment, encouraged by the tax breaks which often applied to Church donations, the different religious institutions of the later eleventh century controlled, under a variety of terms (i.e. the percentage of total revenues they received varied), vast tracts of the productive landscape of Western Europe: usually something between a quarter and a third of all the landed wealth of the realms in which they were situated. Naturally enough, since no state could afford to allow so much of its potential tax base to fall outside the system, these institutions were assessed on all this wealth for various payments and services by their local rulers. Many were economic dues of one sort or another – whether taken in cash or kind – but there were other duties besides. Abbots and bishops were sometimes entrusted with administrative and/or legal responsibilities for large sub-units of kingdoms, for instance, but not the least important of the duties, by any means, was the provision of knight service. This required bishoprics and monasteries to maintain a designated number of knights on a portion of their lands, whom the king could then draw upon when he needed to mobilize an army. Leo IX’s Life, you’ll remember, celebrates his leadership of precisely one of these contingents on campaign prior to ascending his episcopal throne. In England, where eleventh-century records are complete, the bishoprics and monasteries provided about a third of the entire military force that a king could mobilize, and there is no reason to think that the proportion would have been much different elsewhere. Because bishops and – to a considerable extent – major abbots were appointed by kings, moreover, there are strong hints in our sources that the military contingents from religious institutions were politically more reliable than the average. When a king was in trouble, therefore, he tended to turn to these knights rather than those of his secular magnates who might be too busy calculating to show up. Were the king’s current troubles so serious that it was time to redirect their loyalties towards another leadership contender? Because the Church-controlled component was so large, and so politically important a part of the overall resources of a medieval kingdom, no king could ever afford to give up all his rights over leading ecclesiastical appointments.33

At the same time, lay piety was slowly but surely coming much more into line with at least some of the demands of the reform agenda, in particular over the issue of lay ownership of churches. Between 1028 and 1126, the monastery of Monte Cassino was gifted the ownership of no less than 193 churches, of which 186 were gifts from lay owners. Nor was this an isolated example. At Angers in the Loire valley, forty-four transfers of churches from lay ownership are recorded for the period 1050–1100, and another 102 in the subsequent half century.34 At the same time as Gregory was trying to win an impossible battle, therefore, with a bit more thought he could have been claiming considerable success with a more sensible approach to the broader problem of lay involvement in the running of the Church, and not backed the reformed papacy into such a corner.

Overall, Gregory disastrously overplayed his hand, despite some eye-catching triumphs in the short term. The rebellion of the German princes did not in the end prove strong enough either to win outright, or to force major concessions on the religious front from Henry IV. Henry also started appointing his own popes again, his choice being Clement III, while Gregory himself was eventually even driven out of Rome. He died in the castle of Salerno by the sea in 1085 under the protection of the Norman forces who had rescued him from Rome the previous year. At that point, he had been trapped by imperial forces in the Castel Sant’Angelo, and further damaged the Pope’s reputation by taking the opportunity to sack the city at the same time. And all this in a truly hopeless cause after the empire had previously shown itself willing to accept the existence of an independent papacy.

The mess that Gregory had generated took the best part of forty years to sort out, the course of events marked by multiple blind alleys, half-victories, and changes of allegiance which show some resemblance to the convoluted struggles between Charlemagne’s grandsons, not least in 1105 when Henry IV’s son – yes, you’ve guessed it: Henry V – deposed his father, excommunicated once more at the hands this time of Pope Paschal II, on the grounds that a king who had been expelled from the Christian community could command no allegiance. Not only did Henry IV eventually bounce back, however, just before his death, but even Henry V was not about to surrender practical control over so such a large proportion of his kingdom’s resources. But so much mutual condemnation and bitterly recriminatory rhetoric had been aired that it was not until 23 September 1122 (870 years to the day before the birth of one of my sons) that the Concordat of Worms finally generated the compromise which really should have been found much sooner. Henry V and Pope Callistus II finally agreed that kings and emperors could still take part in the ceremonial installation of bishops, but were only to invest them with a lance as the symbol of the secular duties which were part and parcel of such appointments, and not any more with the ring and staff which were symbols of their religious authority. But these regulations, of course, covered the public ceremonies which followed the much more private business of selecting the individual to be invested, and here kings and emperors continued by and large to get their way, even though they did from now on often refer that choice to Rome for rubber-stamping. The agreement was publicized at the first of a new type of Lateran Council, now recast as a general council of the whole Church (rather than – as before – a provincial council of the Roman Church), in March 1123, where 300 bishops and 600 abbots signed up to the deal.

Blushes saved all round, but the message was clear. The headlong charge led by Gregory VII had ended up in a dead end, costing the papacy far more than it gained. Not that everyone learned the lesson. Pseudo-Isidorean texts such as the Donation of Constantine encouraged papal overambition, and some Christians were always ready to support it. Bernard of Clairvaux, the great Cistercian intellectual, famously reinterpreted the old Gelasian doctrine of the two swords by arguing that both belonged to the Pope thanks to Constantine’s donation. These kinds of arguments came to the fore when popes were faced with troublesome emperors, as they continued to be from time to time in the twelfth century. But emperors too had their own ideological self-justifications and could never afford, as we have seen, to give up a final say over key appointments. Direct confrontation tended, therefore, to generate only symbolic rather than fundamental change, as it did in the Investiture Controversy, or, again, in the quarrel between Henry II and Thomas Becket. After Becket’s murder on 29 December 1170, Henry was forced to eat humble pie and accept many of the new papal rules for running the Church, but he retained, in fact, a final say over the key personnel in his episcopate.35

In reality, the final entrenchment of papal authority over Western Christendom came not through the series of high-profile confrontations which punctuated ecclesiastical life from Gregory VII onwards, but by other, much quieter means altogether. Some of these were more or less predictable given the patterns we have already observed. The Investiture Controversy did not prevent, for instance, continued institutional development within the papacy itself. Urban II (1088–99) was responsible for an overhaul of financial management. He imported the institution and practices of the so-called ‘camera’ from the great monastery of Cluny, which had developed effective techniques for keeping track of revenue flows and expenditures, which, thanks to the extensive network of daughter houses that it had built up, were comparable in diversity and complexity to those of the papacy itself. Under his successor, the former Cluniac monk Paschal II (1099–1118), the curia effectively came into being, even though the term was not yet in general use. He was responsible for creating a papal household which combined writing office, chapel and chancellery, and which became effectively the Pope’s right arm: the bureaucratic organ that both controlled the flow of business into the papal in tray and was responsible for producing the appropriate responses for his out tray. More generally, as the reformed papacy generated further and different types of business, new letter forms were developed in response, and this period saw the final abandonment of the old formula book of prescribed letter types: the famous Liber Diurnus which had started life back in the fifth century. Slowly but surely the papal HQ was being turned into an administrative centre with real governmental capacity. A bureaucracy which had previously just written the odd charter for reforming monasteries, and kept vague track of assets passing into the hands of Italian nobles, was taking on new forms which would allow it to handle much larger amounts of more complex types of business, both legal and financial.

Outside of Rome, too, the period of dispute saw some broadening in the exercise of papal influence over Western Christendom as a whole. Many of its other rulers were happy enough to see Gregory causing so much trouble for the empire, and, as a result, accepted the presence of his legates – judges delegate – in their territories on a more permanent basis. Such legates had operated on an ad hoc basis in previous reigns but Gregory’s pontificate is marked by much more systematic appointments: such as bishops Hugh of Die (later Archbishop of Lyons) in France, Amatus of Oleron in southern Gaul and Spain, and Anselm the Younger of Lucca in Lombardy. These permanent representatives increased the weight of papal presence outside Rome, and increased the amount of Church business over which the papacy could exercise some kind of influence. The legates’ potential effectiveness still rested fundamentally, however, on the willingness of kings to accept their presence, and of higher clergy to bring cases to them, and, as such, the whole enterprise remained ad hoc.36 Otherwise, Urban II at least continued Leo IX’s tradition of taking the papacy himself outside Rome, most famously to the synod of Clermont in 1095 where he made the call to arms which generated the First Crusade. This was another example of the papacy putting itself at the head of current trends in Christianity, but cannot really be said to have extended papal control, since, famously, Urban’s call was taken up in many different ways by many different people, and ended up generating something quite unlike what the Pope had in mind. He wanted a small number of well-equipped military professionals to take to the road; he did get this, but a whole lot else besides and the phenomenon as a whole was not his to control.37Although papal influence over the religious life of western Christendom certainly increased in the two generations after that of the barbarian Popes, therefore, this period saw not the slightest sign of the emergence of any regular governmental mechanisms by which the papacy might systematically intrude itself regularly into the detailed daily religious lives of the inhabitants of Western Christendom, in the kind of way that Innocent III could contemplate at the Fourth Lateran Council. Nor do we see the papacy engaging in more than single-issue politics in religious affairs, rather than taking a more comprehensive approach to the definition of best ecclesiastical practice. The solution to this broader problem and the key developments which made possible Innocent’s more comprehensive approach to religious reform were to come about by an entirely unexpected route.

To find it, we need to return to the subject of canon law. Here, the post-Carolingian tenth century saw no sustained challenge to the dominance of Pseudo-Isidore; its forgeries being liberally incorporated into the two major additional collections produced in that era (page 378). The Investiture Controversy stimulated a renewed interest in the subject, however, as both sides sought to justify their positions in what quickly became conflict of authority. Gregory VII and his successors, in particular, encouraged the leading scholars among their supporters to produce new collections of canons which would provide chapter and verse in justification of the position on imperial sovereignty that they were claiming; not surprisingly, Pseudo-Isidorean texts again provided most of the ammunition. Apart from functioning as one of Gregory’s legates, Anselm the Younger of Lucca produced the first of these reforming collections in 1083, and others soon followed: that of Cardinal Deusdedit in 1087, and the Anonymous Collection in Seventy-Four Titles from the same decade. Thanks to Pseudo-Isidore and the Donation of Constantine in particular, it was easy enough to bolster the reformers’ claims to papal superiority over the empire. What proved even more significant in the long term, however, was the more general realization that the existing texts of canon law were in fact almost completely unmanageable. There were so many diverse sources – everything from scripture to papal pronouncements with nearly a millennium’s worth of councils now in between – saying so many different things in so many manuscript traditions, even without the purposeful distortions of Pseudo-Isidore, that it was often impossible to make any sense of it, and to know what one should, in practice, be doing. The greatest canonist of this era was Ivo of Chartres, who had two attempts at the problem. His first version was the Decretum which came out at an enormous seventeen books. More popular was his shorter second effort, the Panormia, at a slightly more manageable eight. Ivo was perfectly well aware of the overall problem of inconsistency and had some thoughts on how it might be resolved which we will return to in a moment. But he didn’t attempt any resolution himself, so, even with his helpful contributions, the user was still left with a mass of contradictory materials.38

Canon law was looking particularly messy in the later eleventh century, moreover, because, at exactly the same time as the papal reformers were scurrying back to it for ammunition, the great Justinianic texts of Roman Law were being rediscovered. This is an extraordinary story in its own right. All medieval (and hence modern) texts of Justinian’s Digest descend from just the one sixth-century manuscript which was preserved at Pisa until 1406 when the victorious Florentines carried it home as booty. At Pisa, there is no sign that anyone had read it for 500 years although, somehow, it managed not to be thrown out. Then, in the second half of the eleventh century, a first copy was made from it (now lost), on which all medieval knowledge of the text depended. This first copying was done in three separate stages, and, throughout the Middle Ages, the resulting three chunks of text circulated as separate books in a five-volume set. The other two volumes were the first nine books of Justinian’s Code and a catch-all final book containing theInstitutes, the final three books of the Code (which had circulated separately from the first nine) and the imperial novels. Compared to the pared-down systematized version of old Roman law produced in the Digest by Tribonian and his fellow commissioners, the contradictory mass of texts which was canon law looked like a bad joke, and was generally disdained by the new Roman legal profession which grew up at Bologna from the last quarter of the eleventh century. As the study of Roman law developed at the hands of these professionals, however, its strategies and practices were quickly borrowed by the canon lawyers to turn their mass of disparate source material into a functioning system of written law.

The starting point for this extraordinary process, amazingly, was Justinian’s claim in Constitutio Tanta:

As for any contradiction occurring in this book, none such has any claim to a place in it, nor will any be found, if we consider fully the grounds of diversity; some special differential feature will be discovered, however obscure, which does away with the imputation of inconsistency, puts a different complexion on the matter and keeps it safe from the imputation of discrepancy.39

As we saw in Chapter 3, this was originally a piece of imperial bluster designed to compensate for the fact that the Digest project had taken huge short cuts. The Bologna law school, however, starting with Irnerius its famous founder, took the statement at face value, and dedicated themselves – generation after generation – to demonstrating that there were in fact no contradictions within the Justinianic legal corpus. To do this, they worked their way through the texts one passage at a time, and, whenever they hit an apparent contradiction, grabbed hold of every argument they could find – discovering as Justinian would have put in each case the ‘special differential feature … which does away with the imputation of inconsistency’ – in an attempt to find some way round it. The nature of the arguments they employed varied. The lawyers always looked closely at the precise wording of the passage under consideration, and sometimes solved problems by detailed grammatical or rhetorical analysis. What they also did, however, was compare each individual passage to every potentially analogous ruling within the corpus, an approach which offered them another set of potential explanations when grammar and rhetoric proved insufficient. Some cases of seemingly contradictory rulings they resolved by deciding one or more of the contradictory texts should be categorized as exceptions allowed only in precisely defined circumstances. They did not, therefore, contradict the general rule which they identified in a different law, and, very generally, the distinction between ‘general’ and ‘particular’ laws proved a highly fruitful avenue of approach. The whole enterprise is a monument to the power of human ingenuity in the face of a piece of wishful thinking.

The chosen method for presenting all these arguments was the gloss. First came the Justinianic passage to be discussed, and then, in the attendant gloss, a full explanation of its meaning and the preferred resolution of any apparent contradiction. Over the course of the twelfth century, detailed glosses were produced by many scholars, with latecomers to the tradition commenting on the resolutions offered by their predecessors, until the whole thing was threatening to spiral out of control. Order was finally imposed by a legal hero called Accursius who, between 1220 and 1240, collated over a hundred years’ worth of legal argument into a two-million-word text, the Glossa Ordinaria, which quickly became the standard commentary upon the corpus, and the basic tool of all trainee and practising Roman lawyers. By the end, there were only 122 small contradictions left unresolved. A hundred years of highly inventive scholarship had almost proved Justinian correct.40

What had contemporary canon lawyers jumping up and down with excitement, while all this was unfolding, was the thought that the methods and principles of Roman legal studies offered them a way to resolve the difficulties of their own legal morass. This thought was presumably suggested and justified by the fact that there was considerable overlap between the two bodies of material because late Roman emperors in particular had often legislated on ecclesiastical matters. Already in the last decade of the eleventh century, Ivo of Chatres was aware of the potential. His two collections were composed of selections from the same old mass of material, but in the preface to the Panormia he outlined the principles – many of them based on the methods employed by the Bologna School in relation to Roman law – by which canonical conflict resolution might be attempted. He did not himself attempt – at least in writing – to put those principles into action, although he may have done orally in his teaching.

The great leap forward came two scholarly generations later with the publication in about 1140 of the Concordantia disconcordantium Canonum (Harmony of Discordant Canons, often just called Decretum) of the jurist Gratian, about whom more or less nothing is otherwise known. He was working at Bologna, alongside all those Roman lawyers therefore, but otherwise even the date of his work has to be arrived at by inference: it includes some of the provisions of the Second Lateran council of 1139, but they are not fully digested. What Gratian did, however, was follow Ivo of Chartres’ advice and apply the principles he saw being employed by contemporary Roman lawyers to the problems of Church law. The Roman lawyers could structure their commentaries by working their way through Justinian’s text from the beginning to the end. There was no agreed single text of canon law, however, so that, before he could even start, Gratian had first to generate a sequence of thematic headings under which he could then gather together all the relevant rulings from the vast mass of canonical texts. After that, following the methods of the Roman lawyers, he set about reducing the discordant clamour of his many texts to order with a series of discussions which attempted to employ consistent principles of analysis to come up with a correct answer on the issue being discussed.

It was an extraordinary labour of love, of scholarship, and of skill. Altogether he reduced to some kind of order a total of about 3,800 original rulings, patiently applying the same kind of principles that Ivo had outlined. Faced with a contradiction, you should always, both agreed, follow the best authority and here the input of Pseudo-Isidore is clear. Papal decretals rank highest, then rulings from ecumenical councils, then finally provincial synods. But Gratian invoked other principles deriving directly from Roman legal argumentation too. Invariable versus variable laws, and general versus particular laws were all categories of analysis that he found extremely helpful, and so too all the strictures on the importance of close textual analysis, whether of the actual language being used, or the original context of any decision.

Gratian’s Decretum marked the start, not the end, of a revolution. The work he produced was so massively superior to anything that had previously been seen that, without ever being formally adopted, it immediately became the starting point for all future study, and this rattled along on similar lines to the contemporary school of Roman law. As with Roman law, the gloss was the weapon of choice and, since Gratian himself also worked by gloss, it is often hard to distinguish his original resolutions from those who continued his labours. And, again as with Roman law, a standard and utterly essential über-gloss – another Glossa Ordinaria – was the end result. In the case of Church law, 90 per cent of the work was done in the 1210s by Johannes Teutonicus, with a supplement being produced by Bartolomaius Brixiensis in the 1240s. Both of them studied and did the bulk of their work at Bologna, although Johannes eventually returned home north to become abbot of Halberstadt.41 Gratian’s Decretum and the full standard gloss that it generated did much to make canon law into a usable system, but, despite the fact that the influence of Pseudo-Isidore was entrenched throughout, we have still not yet got to the heart of the role Gratian played in systematizing papal authority across Western Christendom. To understand that, we need to take account of the second stage of development which followed on directly from the ground-breaking work of the Bologna canonists.

Gratian’s Decretum immediately became not only the starting point for further academic study, but also quickly entrenched itself as the most important text yet available for settling practical Church disputes. By the third quarter of the twelfth century, a good knowledge of the text, and the developing tradition of Bolognese scholarship, was absolutely necessary to senior churchmen, and they were making sure either that they had that knowledge themselves (Thomas Becket, amongst many others, is know to have spent at least a year at Bologna), or were employing other clerics who did. As Bishop of London, Gilbert Foliot (1163–87) sent two of his nephews and a third unrelated cleric off to Bologna to acquire the necessary expertise, and the products of the Bologna schools were in high demand everywhere across Western Christendom by the second half of the twelfth century. But practical use in Church dispute combined very directly with continuing academic study first just at Bologna, but then more widely (Paris, in particular, shows up as an early centre of Church legal studies) to demonstrate that, in the case of canon law, a continued process of argument by gloss was not going to be sufficient to turn the original texts into a fully coherent legal system. With the Justinianic corpus it had done the trick, but, in that case, the Bolognese Roman lawyers were the indirect beneficiaries of hundreds of years of ancient Roman legal scholarship, and they had only the single source of law to deal with. The sources of canon law, by contrast, were so diverse, and Gratian’sDecretum so much only a first step in the necessary process of academic legal consolidation, that glossing was never going to be sufficient. In very many places, the ecclesiastical Glossa Ordinaria produces either no answer at all to an observed problem, or only an unsatisfactory one.

What canon law required in addition, therefore, was a set of carefully targeted further rulings which would, on the one hand, fill in the obvious gaps identified by practice and study, and, on the other, make definitive decisions where the glosser’s standard strategies had failed to deliver an answer. Given the reformed papacy’s prominence in the life of Western Christendom by the twelfth century, and the recognition of the legal superiority of papally generated rulings that had been embedded into the developing legal tradition from Pseudo-Isidore onwards, there could only be one answer as to where such rulings might be found: Rome. In one key passage, indeed, Gratian himself had ensured that this was the only possible reflex:

The holy Roman Church imparts right and authority to the sacred canons, but is not bound by them. For it has the right of establishing canons, since it is the head and hinge of all churches, from whose ruling no one may dissent.42

The process gathered sudden momentum in the mid-twelfth century. Pope Eugenius III (1145–53) issued twelve formal rulings – decretals – in the six or so years of his pontificate, Hadrian IV (1154–9) only eight in five years. But Pope Alexander III (1159–81) issued 713 in twenty-two. It took, in other words, about twenty years for the full implications of Gratian’s Decretum to work their way through the ecclesiastical world of Western Christendom, but, once they did, new business came the papacy’s way thick and fast. Many of these rulings were on small, everyday matters, only a relative few dealt with matters of great contention, and many (some contemporaries complained too many) consisted of automatic grants of favour which showed no sign of any real thought having gone into the process. But the overall effect of the flow of requests, and the answering flood of decretals, was to place the papacy practically now – as well as symbolically – at the heart of the operations of Latin Christendom. And once the flow of queries, requests for clarification, and questions began, it never halted. Very quickly, therefore, it became necessary to collect the answers that popes were giving in all their letters, since some of them were decisively changing the law. As was the case with the capitulary legislation of Charlemagne and his successors (page 254), it would seem that the need to collect all the new rulings was not immediately grasped, at least not at the top. The first attempts to collect the new papal decretal legislation seem to have been unauthorized, do-it-yourself initiatives, perhaps again by functioning lawyers (the spiritual descendants of those who had collected the legislation of late Roman emperors prior to the great moments of codification: page 120). Then in 1234 Pope Gregory IX authorized the publication of theLiber Extra. It was ‘extra’ because it contained material not in Gratian’s Decretum. This work consisted of 1,971 decretal rulings organized in five books. A further supplement came in 1298 when Boniface VIII authorized the publication of Sixtus, so called because it was a sixth book of decretal legislation to go with the other five. Now the job was done: Gratian and its gloss, together with the six supplementary decretral volumes, would remain the standard sources of Western canon law all the way down to 1918.43

But our interest is only incidentally in this medieval resolution of the intellectual problems posed by the diversity and complexity of ancient canon law. What this unfolding process also did, in the century after the publication of Gratian’s work (and this is where it becomes absolutely central to our purposes), was complete the transformation of the papacy into the fully functioning executive head of Western Christendom. By the time even of Alexander III, there was clearly only one place to go to resolve any outstanding ecclesiastical issue, and that was Rome. As a result, the decretal process killed two papal birds with one stone. First, any remaining ideological deficit was more than paid off. 500 years and more, where the divine appointment of monarchs – combined with their practical powers – had trumped the special status of the Roman see, were now a thing of the past. Papal authority in matters ecclesiastical was an unchallengeable fact.

Equally, if not actually much more important, since the barbarian popes had already largely won the ideological battle, the process eventually resolved the logistic problems which had always limited Rome’s capacity to dictate detailed religious daily life. By 1200, precise Roman authority was now available in a form which could be easily transported into every area of Western Christendom. Previously, to know what a Pope thought, you had to travel to Rome or send him a letter and wait for a reply. From 1234, with the publication of the Liber Extra in particular, this was no longer the case. On the vast majority of matters, papal opinion was now available in written form which papally licensed judges could now use to settle thousands of cases in every part of the Latin Christian world. The growth of papally dominated canon law made it possible for the papal mountain to come to Muhammad, and religious life across broad tracts of Europe could for the first time march to the beat of a drum that was being thumped resoundingly in Rome.

Like Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council, we are approaching the end of a journey. Thanks to the barbarian popes of the later eleventh century, the papacy had managed to make itself independent of the Holy Roman Empire, and thanks to Gratian and the decretalists, in the twelfth and early thirteenth, it was finally able to construct the practical levers of power which turned theoretical ideological superiority into a functioning ecclesiastical empire which could operate, despite pre-modern communications, over a vast territorial expanse. In all of this, two pre-eminent features of the story stand out. First, unlike its predecessor, this second Roman Empire was created without conscious Roman design, and, in fact, largely outside of Rome itself. Charlemagne’s practical creation of Western Christendom – in the form of institutions of Christian devotion and learning which could guarantee the accurate replication of the essence of the religion across the generations, independent for the first time of the rise and fall of surrounding political structures – was the key first step on the road. All the significant subsequent developments, likewise, took place beyond the city’s walls and on the initiatives of non-Roman parties. The post-Carolingian Church within Rome itself showed not the slightest sign of possessing the ability, or even of the desire, to transform its longstanding apostolic prestige into functioning papal power. Consumer demand in the north, faced with the inability of imperial structures to provide the necessary ecclesiastical unity, lies at the heart of this transformation. It was this demand, first of all, which forced a sequence of popes to take on more active roles, and then churchmen actually from the old barbarian north invaded Rome themselves to take hold of the office and refashion it after the new models that they themselves had created. The contrast with the old Roman Empire could not be stronger. Then, all the power and design had been situated within Rome itself. By 1100, echoing the demographic, economic and cultural changes of the intervening centuries, while Rome was again the vehicle of empire, all the power had shifted to the ex-barbarian north.

Second, in the history of the first Roman Empire, legal structures had played only a secondary role, and one that had had a broadly softening effect on the overall functioning of the empire. The original Roman Empire was created straightforwardly by force of arms, backed up by diplomatic bullying. The use of Roman law had subsequently and initially only slowly spread across its domains with the grants of citizenship which elevated the descendants of some of its conquered subjects into the status of fully enfranchised citizens. Operating alongside processes of Romanization, the wider effect of spreading Roman law, therefore, had been to turn a conquest state run out of Rome into a body of more or less equal communities. In the case of the papacy, however, it was the legal system – deriving its key methods, forms and much of its contents too from earlier Roman imperial models – which itself turned ideological superiority into actual imperial power. By 1200, a system of separate Church courts was coming into existence right across Western Europe, in which papally dominated canon law was applied by papally licensed judges, and any new or unclear situations were required to be referred to Rome for resolution. Where the spread of the old Roman Empire’s civil law softened the impact of imperial power, the spread of the new Roman Empire’s ecclesiastical law actually created it.

And if one journey ended in the time of Innocent III with the emergence of the papacy as fully fledged head of the Western Church, the latent power of the legal structures which had created it was about to initiate another. Between Charlemagne and Innocent III, consumer demand brought the papacy into being to provide the new CEO which the culturally united Church of Latin Europe now required, and which Europe’s political structures could no longer deliver. It was an imperial structure, in other words, that was created if not by accident, then certainly by consensus. At the Fourth Lateran Council, however, Innocent set in motion the processes which would turn the passive into the active, and consensus into constraint. The machinery of an imperial structure that its consumers had initiated was about to be turned round upon them. Western Christendom would never be the same again.

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