During the four centuries from Gregory the Great to Sylvester II, the papacy underwent astonishing vicissitudes. It was subject, at times, to the Greek Emperor, at other times to the Western Emperor, and at yet other times to the local Roman aristocracy; nevertheless, vigorous popes in the eighth and ninth centuries, seizing propitious moments, built up the tradition of papal power. The period from A.D. 600 to 1000 is of vital importance for the understanding of the medieval Church and its relation to the State.
The popes achieved independence of the Greek emperors, not so much by their own efforts, as by the arms of the Lombards, to whom, however, they felt no gratitude whatever. The Greek Church remained always, in a great measure, subservient to the Emperor, who considered himself competent to decide on matters of faith, as well as to appoint and depose bishops, even patriarchs. The monks strove for independence of the Emperor, and for that reason sided, at times, with the Pope. But the patriarchs of Constantinople, though willing to submit to the Emperor, refused to regard themselves as in any degree subject to papal authority. At times, when the Emperor needed the Pope's help against barbarians in Italy, he was more friendly to the Pope than the patriarch of Constantinople was. The main cause of the ultimate separation of the Eastern and the Western Churches was the refusal of the former to submit to papal jurisdiction.
After the defeat of the Byzantines by the Lombards, the popes had reason to fear that they also would be conquered by these vigorous barbarians. They saved themselves by an alliance with the Franks, who, under Charlemagne, conquered Italy and Germany. This alliance produced the Holy Roman Empire, which had a constitution that assumed harmony between Pope and Emperor. The power of the Carolingian dynasty, however, decayed rapidly. At first, the Pope reaped the advantage of this decay, and in the latter half of the ninth century Nicholas I raised the papal power to hitherto unexampled heights. The general anarchy, however, led to the practical independence of the Roman aristocracy, which, in the tenth century, controlled the papacy, with disastrous results. The way in which, by a great movement of reform, the papacy, and the Church generally, was saved from subordination to the feudal aristocracy, will be the subject of a later chapter.
In the seventh century, Rome was still subject to the military power of the emperors, and popes had to obey or suffer. Some, e.g. Honorius, obeyed, even to the point of heresy; others, e.g. Martin I, resisted, and were imprisoned by the Emperor. From 685 to 752, most of the popes were Syrians or Greeks. Gradually, however, as the Lombards acquired more and more of Italy, Byzantine power declined. The Emperor Leo the Isaurian in 726, issued his iconoclast decree, which was regarded as heretical, not only throughout the West, but by a large party in the East. This the popes resisted vigorously and successfully; at last, in 787 under the Empress Irene (at first as regent), the East abandoned the iconoclast heresy. Meanwhile, however, events in the West had put an end forever to the control of Byzantium over the papacy.
In about the year 751, the Lombards captured Ravenna, the capital of Byzantine Italy. This event, while it exposed the popes to great danger from the Lombards, freed them from all dependence on the Greek emperors. The popes had preferred the Greeks to the Lombards for several reasons. First, the authority of the emperors was legitimate, whereas barbarian kings, unless recognized by the emperors, were regarded as usurpers. Second, the Greeks were civilized. Third, the Lombards were nationalists, whereas the Church retained Roman internationalism. Fourth, the Lombards had been Arians, and some odium still clung to them after their conversion.
The Lombards, under King Liutprand, attempted to conquer Rome in 739, and were hotly opposed by Pope Gregory III, who turned to the Franks for aid. The Merovingian kings, the descendants of Clovis, had lost all real power in the Frankish kingdom, which was governed by the 'Mayors of the Palace'. At this time the Mayor of the Palace was an exceptionally vigorous and able man, Charles Martel, like William the Conqueror a bastard. In 732 he had won the decisive battle of Tours against the Moors thereby saving France for Christendom. This should have won him the gratitude of the Church, but financial necessity led him to seize some Church lands, which much diminished ecclesiastical appreciation of his merits. However, he and Gregory III both died in 741, and his successor Pepin was wholly satisfactory to the Church. Pope Stephen III, in 754, to escape the Lombards crossed the Alps and visited Pepin, when a bargain was struck which proved highly advantageous to both parties. The Pope needed military protection, but Pepin needed vsomething that only the Pope could bestow: the legitimization of his title as king in place of the last of the Merovingians. In return for this, Pepin bestowed on the Pope Ravenna and all the territory of the former Exarchate in Italy. Since it could not be expected that Constantinople would recognize such a gift, this involved a political severance from the Eastern Empire.
If the popes had remained subject to the Greek emperors, the development of the Catholic Church would have been very different. In the Eastern Church, the patriarch of Constantinople never acquired either that independence of secular authority or that superiority to other ecclesiastics that was achieved by the Pope. Originally all bishops were considered equal, and to a considerable extent this view persisted in the East. Moreover, there were other Eastern patriarchs, at Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, whereas the Pope was the only patriarch in the West. (This fact, however, lost its importance after the Mohammedan conquest.) In the West, but not in the East, the laity were mostly illiterate for many centuries, and this gave the Church an advantage in the West which it did not possess in the East. The prestige of Rome surpassed that of any Eastern city, for it combined the imperial tradition with legends of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, and of Peter as first Pope. The Emperor's prestige might have sufficed to cope with that of the Pope, but no Western monarch's could. The Holy Roman emperors were often destitute of real power; moreover they only became emperors when the Pope crowned them. For all these reasons, the emancipation of the Pope from Byzantine domination was essential both to the independence of the Church in relation to secular monarchs, and to the ultimate establishment of the papal monarchy in the government of the Western Church.
Certain documents of great importance, the 'Donation of Constantine' and the False Decretals, belong to this period. The False Decretals need not concern us, but something must be said of the Donation of Constantine. In order to give an air of antique legality to Pepin's gift, churchmen forged a document, purporting to be a decree issued by the Emperor Constantine, by which, when he founded the New Rome, he bestowed upon the Pope the old Rome and all its Western territories. This bequest, which was the basis of the Pope's temporal power, was accepted as genuine by the whole of the subsequent Middle Ages. It was first rejected as a forgery, in the time of the Renaissance, by Lorenzo Valla in 1439. He had written a book 'on the elegancies of the Latin language', which, naturally, were absent in a production of the eighth century. Oddly enough, after he had published his book against the Donation of Constantine, as well as a treatise in praise of Epicurus, he was made apostolic secretary by Pope Nicholas V who cared more for latinity than for the Church. Nicholas V did not, however, propose to give up the States of the Church, though the Pope's title to them had been based upon the supposed Donation.
The contents of this remarkable document are summarized by C. Delisle Burns as follows:1
After a summary of the Nicene creed, the fall of Adam, and the birth of Christ, Constantine says he was suffering from leprosy, that doctors were useless, and that he therefore approached 'the priests of the Capitol'. They proposed that he should slaughter several infants and be washed in their blood, but owing to their mothers' tears he restored them. That night Peter and Paul appeared to him and said that Pope Sylvester was hiding in a cave on Soracte and would cure him. He went to Soracte, where the 'universal Pope' told him Peter and Paul were apostles, not gods, showed him portraits which he recognized from his vision, and admitted it before all his 'satraps'. Pope Sylvester thereupon assigned him a period of penance in a hair shirt; then he baptized him, when he saw a hand from heaven touching him. He was cured of leprosy, and gave up worshipping idols. Then 'with all his satraps, the Senate, his nobles and the whole Roman people he thought it good to grant supreme power to the See of Peter', and superiority over Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople. He then built a church in his palace of the Lateran. On the Pope he conferred his crown, tiara, and imperial garments. He placed a tiara on the Pope's head and held the reins of his horse. He left to 'Sylvester and his successors Rome and all the provinces, districts and cities of Italy and the West to be subject to the Roman Church forever'; he then moved East 'because, where the princedom of bishops and the head of the Christian religion has been established by the heavenly Emperor it is not just that an earthly Emperor should have power.'
The Lombards did not tamely submit to Pepin and the Pope, but in repeated wars with the Franks they were worsted. At last, in 774, Pepin's son Charlemagne marched into Italy, completely defeated the Lombards, had himself recognized as their king, and then occupied Rome, where he confirmed Pepin's donation. The Popes of his day, Hadrian and Leo III, found it to their advantage to further his schemes in every way. He conquered most of Germany, converted the Saxons by vigorous persecution, and finally, in his own person, revived the Western Empire, being crowned Emperor by the Pope in Rome on Christmas Day, A.D. 800.
The foundation of the Holy Roman Empire marks an epoch in medieval theory, though much less in medieval practice. The Middle Ages were peculiarly addicted to legal fictions, and until this time the fiction had persisted that the Western provinces of the former Roman Empire were still subject, de jure, to the Emperor in Constantinople, who was regarded as the sole source
of legal authority. Charlemagne, an adept in legal fictions, maintained that the throne of the Empire was vacant, because the reigning Eastern sovereign Irene (who called herself emperor, not empress) was a usurper, since no woman could be emperor. Charles derived his claim to legitimacy from the Pope. There was thus, from the first, a curious interdependence of pope and emperor. No one could be emperor unless crowned by the Pope in Rome; on the other hand, for some centuries, every strong emperor claimed the right to appoint or depose popes. The medieval theory of legitimate power depended upon both emperor and pope; their mutual dependence was galling to both, but for centuries inescapable. There was constant friction, with advantage now to one side, now to the other. At last, in the thirteenth century, the conflict became irreconcilable. The Pope was victorious, but lost moral authority shortly afterwards. The Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor both survived, the Pope to the present day, the Emperor to the time of Napoleon. But the elaborate medieval theory that had been built up concerning their respective powers ceased to be effective during the fifteenth century. The unity of Christendom, which it maintained, was destroyed by the power of the French, Spanish, and English monarchies in the secular sphere, and by the Reformation in the sphere of religion.
The character of Charles the Great and his entourage is thus summed up by Dr Gerhard Seeliger:2
Vigorous life was developed at Charles's court. We see there magnificence and genius, but immorality also. For Charles was not particular about the people he drew round him. He himself was no model, and he suffered the greatest licence in those whom he liked and found useful. As 'Holy Emperor' he was addressed, though his life exhibited little holiness. He is so addressed by Alcuin, who also praises the Emperor's beautiful daughter Rotrud as distinguished for her virtues in spite of her having borne a son to Count Roderic of Maine, though not his wife. Charles would not be separated from his daughters, he would not allow their marriage, and he was therefore obliged to accept the consequences. The other daughter, Bertha, also had two sons by the pious Abbot Angilbert of St Riquier. In fact the court of Charles was a centre of very loose life.
Charlemagne was a vigorous barbarian, politically in alliance with the Church, but not unduly burdened with personal piety. He could not read or write, but he inaugurated a literary renaissance. He was dissolute in his life, and unduly fond of his daughters, but he did all in his power to promote holy living among his subjects. He, like his father Pepin, made skilful use of the
zeal of missionaries to promote his influence in Germany, but he saw to it that Popes obeyed his orders. They did this the more willingly, because Rome had become a barbarous city, in which the person of the Pope was not safe without external protection, and papal elections had degenerated into disorderly faction fights. In 799, local enemies seized the Pope, imprisoned him, and threatened to blind him. During Charles's lifetime, it seemed as if a new order would be inaugurated; but after his death little survived except a theory.
The gains of the Church, and more particularly of the papacy, were more solid than those of the Western Empire. England had been converted by a monastic mission under the orders of Gregory the Great, and remained much more subject to Rome than were the countries with bishops accustomed to local autonomy. The conversion of Germany was largely the work of St Boniface (680–754), an English missionary, who was a friend of Charles Martel and Pepin, and completely faithful to the Pope. Boniface founded many monasteries in Germany; his friend St Gall founded the Swiss monastery which bears his name. According to some authorities, Boniface appointed Pepin as king with a ritual taken from the First Book of Kings.
St Boniface was a native of Devonshire, educated at Exeter and Winchester. He went to Frisia in 716, but soon had to return. In 717 he went to Rome, and in 719 Pope Gregory II sent him to Germany to convert the Germans and to combat the influence of the Irish missionaries (who, it will be remembered, erred as to the date of Easter and the shape of the tonsure). After considerable successes, he returned to Rome in 722, where he was made bishop by Gregory II, to whom he took an oath of obedience. The Pope gave him a letter to Charles Martel, and charged him to suppress heresy in addition to converting the heathen. In 732 he became archbishop; in 738 he visited Rome a third time. In 741 Pope Zacharias made him legate, and charged him to reform the Frankish Church. He founded the abbey of Fulda, to which he gave a rule stricter than the Benedictine. Then he had a controversy with an Irish bishop of Salzburg, named Virgil, who maintained that there are other worlds than ours, but was, nevertheless, canonized. In 754, after returning to Frisia, Boniface and his companions were massacred by the heathen. It was owing to him that German Christianity was papal, not Irish.
English monasteries, particularly those of Yorkshire, were of great importance at this time. Such civilization as had existed in Roman Britain had disappeared, and the new civilization introduced by Christian missionaries centred entirely round the Benedictine abbeys, which owed everything directly to Rome. The Venerable Bede was a monk at Jarrow. His pupil Ecgbert, first archbishop of York, founded a cathedral school, where Alcuin was educated.
Alcuin is an important figure in the culture of the time. He went to Rome in 780, and in the course of his journey met Charlemagne at Parma. The Emperor employed him to teach Latin to the Franks and to educate the royal family. He spent a considerable part of his life at the court of Charlemagne, engaged in teaching and in founding schools. At the end of his life he was abbot of St Martin's at Tours. He wrote a number of books, including a verse history of the church at York. The emperor, though uneducated, had a considerable belief in the value of culture, and for a brief period diminished the darkness of the dark ages. But his work in this direction was ephemeral. The culture of Yorkshire was for a time destroyed by the Danes, that of France was damaged by the Normans. The Saracens raided Southern Italy, conquered Sicily, and in 846 even attacked Rome. On the whole, the tenth century was, in Western Christendom, about the darkest epoch; for the ninth is redeemed by the English ecclesiastics and by the astonishing figure of Johannes Scotus, as to whom I shall have more to say presently.
The decay of Carolingian power after the death of Charlemagne and the division of his empire redounded, at first, to the advantage of the papacy. Pope Nicholas I (858–67) raised papal power to a far greater height than it had ever attained before. He quarrelled with the Emperors of the East and West, with King Charles the Bald of France and King Lothar II of Lorraine, and with the episcopate of nearly every Christian country; but in almost all his quarrels he was successful. The clergy in many regions had become dependent on the local princes, and he set to work to remedy this state of affairs. His two greatest controversies concerned the divorce of Lothar II and the uncanonical deposition of Ignatius, patriarch of Constantinople. The power of the Church throughout the Middle Ages, had a great deal to do with royal divorces. Kings were men of headstrong passions, who felt that the indissolubility of marriage was a doctrine for subjects only. The Church, however, could alone solemnize a marriage, and if the Church declared a marriage invalid, a disputed succession and a dynastic war were very likely to result. The Church, therefore, was in a very strong position in opposing royal divorces and irregular marriages. In England, it lost this position under Henry VIII, but recovered it under Edward VIII.
When Lothar II demanded a divorce, the clergy of his kingdom agreed. Pope Nicholas, however, deposed the bishops who had acquiesced, and totally refused to admit the King's plea for divorce. Lothar's brother, the Emperor Louis II, thereupon marched on Rome with the intention of overawing the Pope; but superstitious terrors prevailed, and he retired. In the end, the Pope's will prevailed.
The business of the Patriarch Ignatius was interesting, as showing that the Pope could still assert himself in the East. Ignatius, who was obnoxious to the Regent Bardas, was deposed, and Photius, hitherto a layman, was elevated to his place. The Byzantine government asked the Pope to sanction this proceeding. He sent two legates to inquire into the matter; when they arrived in Constantinople, they were terrorized, and gave their assent. For some time, the facts were concealed from the Pope, but when he came to know them, he took a high line. He summoned a council in Rome to consider the question; he deposed one of the legates from his bishopric, and also the archbishop of Syracuse, who had consecrated Photius; he anathematized Photius, deposed all whom he had ordained, and restored all who had been deposed for opposing him. The Emperor Michael III was furious, and wrote the Pope an angry letter, but the Pope replied: 'The day of king-priests and emperor-pontiffs is past, Christianity has separated the two functions, and Christian emperors have need of the Pope in view of the life eternal, whereas popes have no need of emperors except as regards temporal things.' Photius and the Emperor retorted by summoning a council, which excommunicated the Pope and declared the Roman Church heretical. Soon after this, however, Michael III was murdered, and his successor Basil restored Ignatius, explicitly recognizing papal jurisdiction in the matter. This triumph happened just after the death of Nicholas, and was attributable almost entirely to the accidents of palace revolutions. After the death of Ignatius, Photius again became patriarch, and the split between the Eastern and the Western Churches was widened. Thus it cannot be said that Nicholas's policy in this matter was victorious in the long run.
Nicholas had almost more difficulty in imposing his will upon the episcopate than upon kings. Archbishops had come to consider themselves very great men, and they were reluctant to submit tamely to an ecclesiastical monarch. He maintained, however, that bishops owe their existence to the Pope, and while he lived he succeeded, on the whole, in making this view prevail. There was, throughout these centuries, great doubt as to how bishops should be appointed. Originally they were elected by the acclamation of the faithful in their cathedral city; then, frequently, by a synod of neighbouring bishops; then, sometimes by the King, and sometimes by the Pope. Bishops could be deposed for grave causes, but it was not clear whether they should be tried by the Pope or by a provincial synod. All these uncertainties made the powers of an office dependent upon the energy and astuteness of its holders. Nicholas stretched papal power to the utmost limits of which it was then capable; under his successors, it sank again to a very low ebb.
During the tenth century, the papacy was completely under the control of the local Roman aristocracy. There was, as yet, no fixed rule as to the election of Popes; sometimes they owed their elevation to popular acclaim, sometimes to emperors or kings, and sometimes, as in the tenth century, to the holders of local urban power in Rome. Rome was, at this time, not a civilized city, as it had still been in the time of Gregory the Great. At times there were faction fights; at other times some rich family acquired control by a combination of violence and corruption. The disorder and weakness of Western Europe was so great at this period that Christendom might have seemed in danger of complete destruction. The Emperor and the King of France were powerless to curb the anarchy produced in their realms by feudal potentates who were nominally their vassals. The Hungarians made raids on Northern Italy. The Normans raided the French coast, until, in 911, they were given Normandy and in return became Christians. But the greatest danger in Italy and Southern France came from the Saracens, who could not be converted, and had no reverence for the Church. They completed the conquest of Sicily about the end of the ninth century; they were established on the River Garigliano, near Naples; they destroyed Monte Cassino and other great monasteries; they had a settlement on the coast of Provence, whence they raided Italy and the Alpine valleys, interrupting traffic between Rome and the North.
The conquest of Italy by the Saracens was prevented by the Eastern Empire, which overcame the Saracens of the Garigliano in 915. But it was not strong enough to govern Rome, as it had done after Justinian's conquest, and the papacy became, for about a hundred years, a perquisite of the Roman aristocracy or of the counts of Tusculum. The most powerful Romans, at the beginning of the tenth century, were the 'Senator' Theophylact and his daughter Marozia, in whose family the papacy nearly became hereditary. Marozia had several husbands in succession, and an unknown number of lovers. One of the latter she elevated to the papacy, under the title of Sergius II (904–11). His and her son was Pope John XI (931–36); her grandson was John XII (955–64), who became Pope at the age of sixteen and 'completed the debasement of the papacy by his debauched life and the orgies of which the Lateran palace soon became the scene'.3 Marozia is presumably the basis for the legend of a female 'Pope Joan'.
The popes of this period naturally lost whatever influence their predecessors had retained in the East. They lost also the power, which Nicholas I had successfully exercised, over bishops north of the Alps. Provincial councils asserted their complete independence of the Pope, but they failed to maintain independence of sovereigns and feudal lords. Bishops, more and more, became assimilated to lay feudal magnates. 'The Church itself thus appears as the victim of the same anarchy in which lay society is weltering; all evil appetites range unchecked, and, more than ever, such of the clergy as still retain some concern for religion and for the salvation of the souls committed to their charge mourn over the universal decadence and direct the eyes of the faithful towards the spectre of the end of the world and of the Last Judgment.'4
It is a mistake, however, to suppose that a special dread of the end of the world in the year 1000 prevailed at this time, as used to be thought.
Christians, from St Paul onward, believed the end of the world to be at hand, but they went on with their ordinary business none the less.
The year 1000 may be conveniently taken as marking the end of the lowest depth to which the civilization of Western Europe sank. From this point the upward movement began which continued till 1914. In the beginning, progress was mainly due to monastic reform. Outside the monastic orders, the clergy had become, for the most part, violent, immoral, and worldly; they were corrupted by the wealth and power that they owed to the benefactions of the pious. The same thing happened, over and over again, even to the monastic orders; but reformers, with new zeal, revived their moral force as often as it had decayed.
Another reason which makes the year 1000 a turning-point is the cessation, at about this time, of conquest by both Mohammedans and northern barbarians, so far at least as Western Europe is concerned. Goths, Lombards, Hungarians, and Normans came in successive waves; each horde in turn was christianized, but each in turn weakened the civilized tradition. The Western Empire broke up into many barbarian kingdoms; the kings lost authority over their vassals; there was universal anarchy, with perpetual violence both on a large and on a small scale. At last all the races of vigorous northern conquerors had been converted to Christianity, and had acquired settled habitations. The Normans, who were the last comers, proved peculiarly capable of civilization. They reconquered Sicily from the Saracens, and made Italy safe from the Mohammedans. They brought England back into the Roman world, from which the Danes had largely excluded it. Once settled in Normandy, they allowed France to revive, and helped materially in the process.
Our use of the phrase 'the Dark Ages' to cover the period from 600 to 1000 marks our undue concentration on Western Europe. In China, this period includes the time of the Tang dynasty, the greatest age of Chinese poetry, and in many other ways a most remarkable epoch. From India to Spain, the brilliant civilization of Islam flourished. What was lost to Christendom at this time was not lost to civilization, but quite the contrary. No one could have guessed that Western Europe would later become dominant both in power and in culture. To us, it seems that West-European civilization is civilization, but this is a narrow view. Most of the cultural content of our civilization comes to us from the Eastern Mediterranean, from Greeks and Jews. As for power: Western Europe was dominant from the Punic Wars to the fall of Rome—say, roughly, during the six centuries from 200 B.C. to A.D. 400. After that time, no State in Western Europe could compare in power with China, Japan, or the Caliphate.
Our superiority since the Renaissance is due partly to science and scientific technique, partly to political institutions slowly built up during the Middle Ages. There is no reason, in the nature of things, why this superiority should vcontinue. In the present war, great military strength has been shown by Russia, China, and Japan. All these combine Western technique with Eastern ideology—Byzantine, Confucian, or Shinto. India, if liberated, will contribute another Oriental element. It seems not unlikely that, during the next few centuries, civilization, if it survives, will have greater diversity than it has had since the Renaissance. There is an imperialism of culture which is harder to overcome than the imperialism of power. Long after the Western Empire fell—indeed until the Reformation—all European culture retained a tincture of Roman imperialism. It now has, for us, a West-European imperialistic flavour. I think that, if we are to feel at home in the world after the present war, we shall have to admit Asia to equality in our thoughts, not only politically, but culturally. What changes this will bring about, I do not know, but I am convinced that they will be profound and of the greatest importance.