The disintegration of the Carolingian Empire had serious consequences for the church. When the three surviving sons of Louis the Pious (d. 840) divided the so-called empire – it never did have a unified imperial structure – into three parts, it presaged further divisions. The holdings of one of these sons were soon divided into three parts, and so it went on. Internecine rivalries, outright civil war, Frankish inheritance customs – all contributed to the centrifugal force that destroyed the Carolingian political structure. Whatever there was of central government died with Louis the Pious. The title ‘emperor’ continued to be used by men with less and less power until it was held by such deservedly obscure petty Italian kings as Wido (891–94) and Berengar (915–24). With the death of the latter, the title ceased to be used, and almost no one noticed. The Carolingian dynasty that had produced great leaders such as Pepin, Charlemagne and even Louis the Pious was reduced to small men with embarrassing sobriquets: the Bald, the Stammerer, the Fat, the Simple and the Child, to which one is tempted to add ‘the Irrelevant’. In what was to become Germany real power rested in the duchies. In what was to become France real power was in the hands of local strongmen.

This atomization of political power was true not only in the Carolingian orbit but even beyond. England was little more than a geographical expression to describe where the Anglo-Saxons lived, themselves organized into many kingdoms, and the man called Alfred the Great (d. 899) was great only in the kingdom of Wessex, although it is true that by the 950s England appears as a fledgling political unit. Ireland, Scotland and the British parts of Britain continued to have tribal structures of government. Personal safety and security were not to be had from far-away men with titles but, rather, from local lords with local interest and, above all, with effective power. Europe was in pieces.

Local, too, was the governance of the Christian church. The overarching jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome as pope was not consciously challenged by local bishops. Yet, in the environment which saw the weakening of the power of the kings, the stressing of local connections and, indeed, the difficulties encountered in communications, the papacy, particularly after the death of Nicholas (867), can be described as passive, rarely taking the initiative to involve itself in remote churches, even in Italy. Although it may be going too far to speak of a ‘federal church’, it is eminently clear that local churches looked to their own affairs, and tensions frequently became evident between local bishops and their metropolitans. In Rome the weakened papacy became the plaything of local Roman political factions. If Europe had fallen apart, so too had the church.

Map 7 Carolingian lands after division (843)

No attempt will be made here to tell in narrative form a connected story of the church in these dark centuries. The surviving documentation is so exceedingly thin and fragmented that an adequate narrative is close to impossible and could give the impression that there was order, when in reality there was considerable disorder. While other approaches could be profitably taken, here we shall take as examples of the general disarray of the church four popes, who ruled at various times in this darkest of periods for the church. It will not be a continuous story of the popes. Instead, there will be recounted the pontificates of popes who ruled at various points in this period: through them we can see some of the issues facing the church in general, and, further, they can show dramatically the descent of the papacy in power and influence from the height of Nicholas I to successors who were frequently little more than the puppets of local Roman strong men and women. Those historians who would plot the history of the papacy on a chart would almost all agree that, whatever other low points there were in the history of that institution, the absolute nadir would be the period from the late ninth century to the middle of the eleventh century. The papacy was not the church, but we may let these four popes serve for us as prisms through which we can get a partial and admittedly inadequate view of the church in its sorriest days since the early Roman persecutions.

Pope Nicholas I (858–67)

An argument could be made that Nicholas I was the greatest pope between Gregory the Great (590–604) and Gregory VII (1073–85). Nicholas was to live out his pontificate on a large stage, the last of the popes to do so for well over a century and a half. He is better seen as the last in a series of strong popes beginning with Gregory the Great rather than as the harbinger of the powerful popes of a later period. Like Gregory the Great, he was the son of a senior Roman official. Associated with the three previous popes, Nicholas, still a deacon, was elected pope at the age of about 38. At that time (858) Louis II bore the title ‘emperor’, but his real power was limited to only one part – Italy – of the central kingdom carved out for his father in 843. Yet Louis exercised influence in Rome and had hastened to Rome when he learned of the death of the late pope. The extent of his influence on Nicholas’s election is difficult to measure, but it is safe to say that Nicholas would not have been elected by the clergy and nobility of Rome had Louis opposed it. Quickly ordained a priest, Nicholas was consecrated bishop of Rome and, thus, pope, on 24 April 858. Two days later at a solemn banquet he and the emperor embraced.

Almost at once Nicholas faced a serious problem in one of the Frankish kingdoms. The emperor’s brother, King Lothar II of Lotharingia (or Lorraine), the Middle Kingdom between the East and West Franks, renounced his queen, Theutberga, claiming that she had committed incest with her own brother and then aborted the foetus conceived of their coitus. She was banished to a nunnery, and the king married his lover, Waldrada, who had borne him a son. The exiled queen escaped from the nunnery and appealed to the pope. Nicholas sent legates to Metz in Lotharingia to resolve the matter. Possibly under the influence of bribery, they found for the king. When the two great archbishops of the kingdom (Cologne and Trier) brought this decision to Rome, Nicholas deposed and excommunicated them. Lothar’s brother, the ‘emperor’ Louis, supporting Lothar, marched on Rome in 864, and his troops violently assaulted the clergy entering St Peter’s in procession and threw to the ground the great relic of the holy cross. The attack failed to sway the pope, and Lothar, in 865, bowing to circumstances, reconciled with Theutberga, although she later pleaded with Nicholas unsuccessfully to annul the marriage. Nicholas’s successor had to deal with both Theutberga and Waldrada, but the death of Lothar, followed by the entrance of both women into convents, ended this sorry affair. Lothar had been opposed in this matter by two of his uncles, kings of the lands to his east and west, who may have desired to carve out large chunks of Lothar’s Middle Kingdom, and, in this reading, the pope was a player, himself calculating the place of the papacy in a new political order and, in turn, getting a lesson in late Carolingian politics.

Two great archbishops of the Western Church challenged the authority of Nicholas I and with no more success than the Frankish rulers. Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, the most powerful churchman in the kingdom of the West Franks – then ruled by Charles the Bald – and a man of considerable learning, particularly in the law, had supported Lothar in his marital concerns. Hincmar came into more direct conflict with the pope over his treatment of Rothad, his suffragan bishop of Soissons. In 861, the archbishop restored an adulterous priest of Soissons, whom Rothad had deposed, and imprisoned his replacement. Rothad strongly objected to what he considered the metropolitan’s interference and appealed to the pope. At Hincmar’s instigation a synod at Soissons summoned Rothad, who, citing his appeal, rightly refused to appear; he was summarily dismissed as bishop, imprisoned and replaced by another bishop. The matter was joined. Nicholas became indignant, firing off letters to Hincmar, Charles the Bald and others. Hincmar must either reinstate Rothad or appear at Rome either personally or by a representative; failure to do so would result in the archbishop being suspended from saying Mass. The archbishop released Rothad but delayed in restoring him. New papal letters went to Hincmar, who finally capitulated and restored the aged Rothad to the bishopric of Soissons. In Hincmar’s words, ‘What Nicholas has decided I have not contradicted, but, as he commands, I have diligently obeyed.’ Nicholas prevailed over Hincmar, Rome over Rheims.

Nicholas was also much preoccupied with another archbishop, and whether he won a moral victory or merely a political victory the reader may judge. The dispute concerned the archbishop of Ravenna. Ravenna had been made the capital of the empire in the West in 402 and, after its recapture from the Lombards by the forces of the Byzantine emperor, its power became restricted mainly to the area of the exarchate (around Ravenna) and to parts of Sicily and southern Italy. By the time of Nicholas I Ravenna had long since fallen to the Franks, and the archbishop’s pretension of a special place supposed a political order no longer existing. Such pretensions collided with the claims of power of the bishop of Rome. At least, that was the spin put on events by contemporary papal historians. Archbishop John VIII of Ravenna, like his predecessors, enjoyed more than the usual archiepiscopal independence of Rome, to which must be added that he also enjoyed a close relationship with Emperor Louis II. Papal agents at Ravenna were allegedly mistreated by the archbishop and papal property there seized. Whether theological issues really mattered or whether the matter really concerned papal muscle-flexing we cannot tell, but charges of heresy were made against the archbishop, who was said to believe that, when Jesus suffered on the cross, he suffered as God and that baptism did not have the same effects on all who received it. Archbishop John was summoned to Rome in 861 to answer these and other charges. He refused to go and was excommunicated. Pope Nicholas, in an extraordinary move, journeyed to Ravenna to remonstrate with the archbishop face to face, but, wisely, John fled to the comfort of the imperial court at Pavia. Yet, now excommunicate, John found his position perilous even there. Virtually abandoned by Louis II, he went later that year to Rome for a humiliating submission. More significant than alleged theological aberrations – after all, the soaring rhetoric of a preacher might not always pass doctrinal scrutiny – was the matter of John of Ravenna’s relations with his suffragan bishops. Four further charges surfaced at Rome: (i) that he had interfered in episcopal elections, (ii) that, when on visitations, he would come with 500 men on horseback, demanding provisions for their needs, and would not leave until bribed to do so, (iii) that he claimed jurisdiction over monasteries in their dioceses and (iv) that he prevented his suffragan bishops from visiting Rome. The council that reconciled the archbishop formally forbade him from indulging in such practices. There the matter seemed to end.

The presence of strong regional archbishops at Rheims and Ravenna did not eclipse the authority of Pope Nicholas, nor should the power and influence of these metropolitans inflate, for us, their roles in contemporary events. They were major players but only in a secondary way: centre stage had only room for Nicholas. Hincmar and John were regional figures in a fragmented world. Some may say that Hincmar and John were but big fish in small ponds, which would be unfair particularly to Hincmar, who would almost certainly be considered a great churchman in any age. Yet Nicholas’s world was much, much larger.

It is for his relations with the Eastern Church, if for nothing else, that Pope Nicholas will be remembered. The ancient patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem were by now in Muslim hands. Only the patriarchate of Constantinople remained powerful, its patriarch closely allied with the Byzantine emperor. The patriarch’s attitude to Rome was characterized by theoretical deference but practical independence. Under Nicholas I a crisis occurred, for which the pope bears much of the responsibility. In the shorthand way in which we deal with historical events, historians have traditionally called this crisis the ‘Photian Schism’. We shall soon see how inappropriate this label is.

Events in the East drew the pope into this dispute, not inevitably, for Nicholas could have remained in dignified aloofness to these events, but he chose not to. When Michael III became Byzantine emperor in 842, he was but three years old, and his mother, Theodora, ruled as regent. In 847 she appointed a new patriarch without observing the formalities of an electoral synod. The new patriarch was Ignatius, son of a former emperor, who, at his father’s death, had been castrated and sent to a monastery. His fate was tied to that of Theodora. When Michael III asserted himself in 857, he banished his mother to a nunnery and his patriarch into exile. Forced to resign, Ignatius was to remain not far off stage while events were played out. A synod met and elected as patriarch the layman Photius, who, in Henry Chadwick’s view, was ‘the most learned man not only of his generation but of Byzantine history generally’. Breaking with recent custom, Photius wrote to Pope Nicholas, informing him of his election. A more diplomatic pope might have answered with gracious words to the new patriarch, but, for reasons not fully clear to us, Nicholas’s response was hostile and provocative. Why was he not consulted about the deposition of Patriarch Ignatius? And why was a layman selected as patriarch? Two papal legates were sent east to protest at these matters. Without waiting for further instructions from the pope, once in Constantinople in 861, they agreed to act as mediators between Photius and Ignatius. Although they were later charged with having acted beyond their briefs, they found that Ignatius was validly deposed and that Photius was the true patriarch. Pope Nicholas, furious at the legates’ action, held a synod at Rome in 863, at which Photius was deposed and deprived of all his ecclesiastical dignities. Two years later, in response to a letter from the emperor, Pope Nicholas wrote a letter, which, in Professor Dvornik’s words, ‘was destined to be one of the most important documents in the evolution of the papacy’. A forceful, exuberant, even belligerent letter, it began ominously by addressing the emperor as ‘our son’. There followed an assertion of the divinely given universal powers of the Roman church.

The privileges of the Roman church came from the mouth of Christ, who conferred them on Blessed Peter. They can in no way be diminished, infringed upon or changed, because what God has established man cannot change … These privileges existed before you became emperor and will remain after you … They were given to the holy church by Christ and not by synods … We are constituted princes over every land, that is to say, over the church universal.

It concluded by telling the emperor not to meddle in ecclesiastical affairs. Echoing statements of earlier popes such as Leo I (440–61) and Gelasius (492–96), the words of Nicholas I were to have a long life as they were to be adopted by later canonists to describe papal power. As an attempt to heal the growing division, the papal letter not surprisingly failed. And other events added to the brewing discord.

History like life can have its complications, and here, in this dispute, the complication was Bulgaria. The Bulgars, a people of Turkic, Asian origin, had migrated from north of the Black Sea to the lands south of the lower Danube and had by the late ninth century become largely Slavic in language and culture through the twin forces of subjugation and intermarriage. In the 860s their king, Boris (852–89), felt the attractions of Christianity. His motives may have been exclusively political, although a story relates that he was deeply moved by a painting of hell on his wall, the work of a Byzantine monk, and, in fact, he did retire to a monastery three years before his death. Peace with the great Christian powers was also a strong motive. Whatever the reasons, in 864 Boris was baptized by the Byzantine patriarch, Photius, with the emperor as his godfather. (It is ironic that only half a century earlier one of Boris’s predecessors had slain an emperor and made a drinking-cup of his skull). When the Byzantines refused to appoint a patriarch for the Bulgars, Boris, already fearful of his Byzantine neighbours, turned to Rome and to Pope Nicholas I. The bishop of Porto, Formosus, was quickly dispatched to Bulgaria, bearing with him 106 papal answers to questions of a pastoral nature proposed by King Boris. Had the Roman mission been successful, these answers might have become as famous historically as Gregory the Great’s responses to Augustine of Canterbury and the papal responses to Boniface in Germany. As it is, they are but footnotes, known principally by the inclusion of some parts in later canon-law collections. This mission from Rome to Bulgaria greatly exercised emperor and patriarch in the East: the Eastern Church had received Boris as a Christian, and the Bulgars were immediate neighbours. The Roman mission was viewed from Constantinople as a mischievous intervention. As a result, relations between Rome and Constantinople, already bad, were made worse. Pope Nicholas refused Boris’s request that Formosus be made archbishop of the Bulgars. For this reason and for other reasons the Roman mission to Bulgaria failed, and Bulgaria entered the world of the Eastern Church, where it has remained ever since. This short-lived crisis over Bulgaria served to intensify the growing tensions, suspicions and animosity between Rome and Constantinople, between Pope Nicholas and Patriarch Photius.

In this atmosphere, Photius presided over a synod in Constantinople during the summer of 867, the business of papal involvement in Bulgaria now added to the boiling cauldron of Byzantine discontent with Nicholas. The synod condemned, excommunicated and deposed Pope Nicholas. We have now all the ingredients for a major break (or schism) between the Christian churches of the East and West – the pope and patriarch each excommunicating and deposing the other – yet a schism did not occur. Two deaths prevented it. Emperor Michael III was assassinated on 24 September 867. The new emperor deposed Photius and, on 3 November, rein-stalled Ignatius. Pope Nicholas I died on 13 November without learning of his condemnation by the synod of Constantinople or of the death of the emperor and reinstatement of Ignatius. Thus, by the time of Nicholas’s death the synod’s actions had been reversed by a coup d’état. Yet, even after Nicholas’s death, events in the East continued to percolate, and these underline the historical inappropriateness of the expression ‘Photian Schism’. When Ignatius died in 877, he was succeeded as patriarch by none other than Photius, whose election was blessed by the pope of the day. There then followed a return to the status quo which had existed before Nicholas I, a relationship with its almost inevitable rivalries and disagreements. The real break was not to occur until the middle of the eleventh century.

Paradoxically, while Nicholas was disputing with Photius about Bulgaria and other matters, he took an interest in the work of two Byzantine missionaries to the Slavic peoples. The brothers Cyril (originally Constantine) and Methodius had been sent by Emperor Michael III and Patriarch Photius to preach to the Slavs in central Europe. In fact, Methodius was a protégé of Photius. Nicholas I, in 867, invited them to Rome. They arrived only after Nicholas’s death, and his successor consecrated Methodius as an archbishop and Cyril died in Rome. They had already translated the Bible and liturgical books into Slavonic (i.e., Old Church Slavonic) and disputed with clerics, East and West, about the appropriateness of a vernacular liturgy. Cyril said, ‘If I pray in a language that I do not understand, I am prayerful only in spirit and not in understanding.’ (The Latin church sanctioned a vernacular liturgy only in 1963.) Their mission, in a sense, failed, but they succeeded in being the principal architects of Slavic as a written language with its own alphabet. The conversion of the Slavs was to come through the conversion of the Slavs in Bohemia and through their missionary efforts, led by their nobles, most notably Duke (and Saint) Wenceslaus, but it was not until 973 that a bishopric was established at Prague. Owing to a marital arrangement with a Bohemian princess, the king of Poland was baptized in 966 and his nation became the easternmost part of a Western, Latin church.

The death of Pope Nicholas I in 867 saw the departure from the scene of the strongest pope of the ninth century, whose interests went far beyond Italy and the remnants of the Carolingian Empire. He had a grander view of his role. He spoke with kings and wrote to emperors and patriarchs and dealt with strong archbishops. Bulgars, Slavs and Greeks were part of his vision of his office. His place in history is diminished because of what happened to the papacy in the next century and a half, glimpses of which we shall see presently, and they provide a stark contrast.

Formosus (891–96)

The first and, for reasons that will soon become clear, the last of that name, Formosus is more remembered today for his posthumous life than his real life. He has been met already as the bishop of Porto dispatched by Pope Nicholas I to Bulgaria. After his return to Italy, as bishop of Porto, Formosus served several popes as an adviser until a moment in the pontificate of the hapless Pope John VIII (872–82), when he was excommunicated and stripped of his office by the pope himself. The intrigues that produced this state of affairs are unknown to us, but Formosus, the now ex-bishop of Porto, fled to France. When John VIII went north and convened a synod at Troyes, Formosus was brought before him and made to swear that he would never attempt to regain his office nor would he ever return to Rome. In 882, one of Pope John’s relatives apparently failed in an attempt to poison the pope and then proceeded to bludgeon him to death with a hammer. His successor (Marinus I, 882–84) absolved Formosus of the oaths taken at Troyes and restored him to his bishopric at Porto. When the papal see fell vacant in 891, Formosus was chosen, apparently by the clergy and people of Rome without any outside influence. That he was already a bishop was later to prove a source of controversy. The custom of both East and West held a bishop to be ‘married’ to his bishopric, from which there could be no divorce. The transfer (or translation to use the legal word) of bishops from one diocese to another was virtually unknown. Before the accession of Formosus in 891 only one pope is known to have been previously bishop of another see and translated to Rome: Pope Marinus I, when elected in 882, was bishop of Caere (modern Cerveteri) in Etruria, but his was a short reign – of perhaps less than a year and a half – and was without incident. The matter of the translation of Formosus from Porto to Rome was to pursue Formosus beyond the grave.

Once elected and installed on the papal throne, Pope Formosus found himself involved in the petty political squabbles in Italy. The dukes of Spoleto had desired the imperial title, and the previous pope had crowned Duke Wido as emperor. The ruling family of Spoleto prevailed on Formosus within months of his election not only to recrown Wido but also to crown Wido’s son Lambert as co-emperor. To relieve this pressure from Spoleto, Formosus, in 893, invited Arnulf, the Carolingian king of the East Franks (which we can now call Germany), to come to Italy to deliver it from ‘bad Christians’ (the Spoletans). In early 894 Arnulf’s invasion fell victim to fever. Shortly thereafter Wido died and Lambert became sole emperor, but the real power lay with his mother, Agiltrude. It was she who, in October 896, took control of the defence of Rome against another invasion by Arnulf. He marched on Rome only to find that Agiltrude had imprisoned the pope and closed the gates to the city. The German army battered their way through the gates, scaled the city walls and soon liberated Rome and freed Pope Formosus. The pope led the German king into St Peter’s Basilica and there placed the imperial crown on his head, calling him ‘Caesar Augustus’. On his way home the newly crowned emperor died, and, before news of his death reached Rome, Formosus himself had died.

There the story might end, another mediocre pope, ruling the church in troubled times, a pope little different from his immediate predecessors and successors. But the story does not end there. In the next eight years there were nine popes. Formosus’s immediate successor, Boniface VI, a man already twice degraded for immoral behaviour, lived only two weeks. It is to Boniface’s successor, Stephen VI, that we must look for the sequel of the story of Formosus. With Arnulf and Formosus both dead, Lambert and his mother, Agiltrude, retook Rome. It is difficult to view the new pope as anything but their puppet, and he would exact for them their revenge against Formosus. Pope Stephen ordered the grave of Formosus to be opened and the body exhumed. By then, nine months or so after his death, the body, although intact, exhibited to the senses all the indications of a corrupting cadaver. The pope ordered the body to be clad in the full vesture of a pope and set on a chair in the basilica of St John Lateran, where a Roman synod in January 897 sat in judgement. Two charges were made against ‘him’: first, he had broken the oath taken at Troyes, and, second, he had illegally moved as bishop from one diocese to another. Unable to speak in response, Formosus was represented by a callow deacon, whose arguments lacked persuasion. Formosus – or, rather, the body of Formosus – was condemned, and he was literally defrocked as the vestments of his office were one by one torn from his decaying body. The fingers of his right hand used in blessing were hacked off and his body thrown into a common grave. Contemporary sources bear unanimous testimony to these macabre events. But the body of Formosus had not yet found rest. It was disturbed apparently by grave robbers, who, seeing this fresh grave, dug it open in the hope of finding treasures. Instead they found a mutilated, unadorned body. In disgust, they cast it into the Tiber River. One contemporary relates that torrential rains that very night caused a flooding of the Tiber and that the body of Formosus was carried downstream, coming ashore at Porto. It was said that a monk, following the instructions given him in a vision, found the body and secretly buried it at Porto. Meanwhile, back at Rome, Stephen VI had been seized by his enemies, put in chains, placed in prison and strangled to death. At about this time an earthquake caused the roof of St John Lateran, scene of the trial, to fall in. The new pope, Romanus, lived only two months, dying in November 897. The next reign was even shorter – the 20 day reign of Theodore II – but it was long enough to effect the rehabilitation of Formosus. Pope Theodore learned what had happened at Porto and ordered the body to be again exhumed. With reverence and, finally, dignity the body was solemnly returned from Porto to Rome. There it was reclad in papal vestments and, with solemn obsequies, replaced in its original tomb in St Peter’s, where it still rests.

Not only the body of a pope but the papacy itself suffered in these unedifying doings, and the papacy was to persist for a dozen decades and more in this unhealthy state. The political context contributed to this condition. The power and even the title of emperor in the West did not exist. Italy, like much of the rest of Europe, was ruled by local factions. And the local faction that ruled Rome ruled the papacy. The Crescenzi, the Theophylact and the Tusculani families were chief among the contesting powers, seeking control of Rome. They made popes even from their own families, the papacy little more than an adjunct to their power base. Tension and its attendant violence were never far away. When, for example, Leo V became pope in 903 he was almost immediately overthrown and cast into prison by a priest, Christopher, who then called himself pope and whom history calls an anti-pope. Very soon a bishop named Sergius descended on Rome with an armed force, cast Christopher into prison, murdered both Leo and Christopher and declared himself Pope Sergius III. So closely connected with the Theophylact family was Sergius that he fathered a son by Marozia, the 15 year old daughter of that family, a son who, in 931, was himself created pope (John XI) by his own mother. The papacy was at its lowest point ever in the century and a half after the cadaver synod that condemned the rotting bones of Pope Formosus.

Pope John XII (955–64)

In 955, a teenager became pope: a certain Octavian, who, among the first to do so, changed his name and became John. His grandmother was the same Marozia whose papally sired son had become Pope John XI. Octavian’s father, half-brother of John XI, was Morozia’s legitimate son, and by the 950s he was ruler of Rome. On his deathbed he coerced the (willing) Romans to promise to elect his son Octavian pope at the next vacancy. In the event, only months elapsed before the papal see became vacant, and ‘the people and clergy of Rome’ did his bidding. No matter that Octavian was only 18 years old. No matter too that he was notorious for his debauched behaviour and for his lack of spiritual feeling. He was a cardinal deacon and promptly became priest and bishop of Rome, all within days. And, in a short time, if we can believe his enemies – and here perhaps we should – he had turned the papal palace into a bordello. That was but one of the many charges against him. In addition, it was said, he celebrated Mass without taking communion, he ordained a deacon in a stable, he consecrated a ten-year-old boy as a bishop, he invoked the pagan gods while playing dice, he hunted publicly, he struck and mutilated men, he was guilty of arson and adultery. Foreign women were said to fear coming to Rome as pilgrims because of the lustful ways of the pope. And he died in 964 when he reputedly suffered a stroke while in bed with a married woman, dead in his late twenties. This list of scandalous behaviour, even if trimmed a bit for exaggeration, must leave a remote modern reader in wonder at the depraved state to which the see of St Peter had fallen. Yet, remarkably, there was another side to this sorry pontificate.

John XII is said to have revived the Holy Roman Empire in the West. Although he himself saw little beyond the needs of the day, the empire which he restored was to last into the nineteenth century. It was a local crisis that prompted the pope to invoke the military aid of a German king. In the early tenth century, Germany, like most of western Europe, knew no central government. In fact, the use of the word ‘Germany’ might be premature for this period: it may be more accurate to speak of the lands of the East Franks and Saxons. There did exist an extremely weak, loose confederation of German-speaking duchies: Saxony, Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria and Lotharingia. Otto I, who was to become emperor in 962, followed his father as duke of Saxony and, nominally, as king. Otto was not satisfied with a nominal kingship: he wanted the imperial title, now defunct, and quickly exerted greater authority over the other duchies with the support of bishops, many of whom were members of his family, placed in such great archbishoprics as Cologne, Mainz and Trier. No overriding principle of emperorship guided the pope in this whole matter. He felt the need of armed help against the so-called king of Italy, who had some control in northern Italy and wished to extend his power further south. King Otto, ambitious for the title of emperor, marched to Rome, where on Candlemas Day (2 February) 962 in St Peter’s Basilica the youthful pope crowned him emperor. The emperor, in turn, confirmed the previous donations of lands to the papacy, to which he added his own donation, leaving the popes with a claim to most of Italy, yet only a claim. Otto then began to bring order to Italy, but, in doing so, he alarmed the pope, who began to intrigue with Otto’s former enemies against the newly crowned emperor. Word of this treachery reached Otto, who returned to Rome to find that John XII had fled to Tivoli. When the pope refused to return to face a Roman synod, he was excommunicated and deposed by it, and another pope was elected. Within six months John was dead in the circumstances already described.

Plate 5 Investiture of Pope John XII (955). Seventeenth-century painting of tenth-century mosaic (since destroyed) at the Basilica of St John Lateran, Rome. Reproduced by permission of the Royal Collection © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

To call the coronation of the German king Otto as emperor the ‘Ottonian Revival’ is to invest what happened in 962 with more significance than it had at the time and runs the risk of reading history backwards. What was ‘revived’ was not the empire but the imperial title, which had been last used in 924 by a minor Italian prince. Yet, a long look beyond 962 sees the development of one of the key institutions in European history. Three points need stressing about the coronation of 962. The first is the most obvious: the German king recognized that it was the pope and only the pope who could confer the imperial title, a papal right to be unchallenged for centuries. Second, the imperial title became associated with the German kings. For nearly a millennium thereafter the man to be crowned emperor by the pope was a German king. And, third, the emperor, in turn, accepted obligations towards the church. Otto himself promised that, after he defeated the pope’s enemies in Italy, he would return to Rome to see to the moral improvement of the pope. This obligation to the church undertaken by papally crowned emperors could be viewed by popes, at times, as unwarranted interference, but, when the papacy rose from the great depths to which it had sunk, it was largely because of the ‘interference’ of the German kings in the years in the middle of the eleventh century. In 962, John XII, the debauched pope, had little idea what he had done.

Pope Benedict IX (1032–45; ?1047–48)

With the close of the pontificate of Benedict IX the worst days in the long history of the papacy came to an end. He was the third member of the Tusculum family who, one after another, became popes in the first half of the eleventh century. Tusculum, an ancient site, stood atop the Alban Hills, above modern Frascati, 15 miles from Rome. How the counts of Tusculum rose to such power we do not know, but it seems certain that they derived from the Theophylacts, whom we have already met. When the millennium dawned, a certain Gregory was head of the Tusculum family, and it was he who controlled the area of Rome and its environs. He had three sons: Alberic, who was to succeed his father as count; Theophylact, who became Pope Benedict VIII (1012–24); and Romanus, who became Pope John XIX (1024–32). The eldest son, Alberic, had two sons: Gregory, who succeeded his father as count, and another Theophylact, who became Pope Benedict IX in 1032, thus succeeding his uncle.

One contemporary, if not wholly reliable, account relates that Benedict IX at the time of his accession was not yet 12 years old. This allegation seems exaggerated, for Benedict was soon charged with behaviour which assumes that he had reached the age of puberty. The sources are exiguous, but they seem to show that, in 1036, political opponents of the Tusculums attempted to kill Benedict in St Peter’s Basilica and that the pope escaped and fled into exile. He was restored by the German emperor, Conrad II. Little has been left to us by which we can judge the next seven years, and surviving contemporary sources speak generally of how he stole, murdered and committed other, unspeakable deeds. Unable to bear his behaviour any longer, the people of Rome (we are told) drove him from the city. The truth was probably that a rival faction seized upon his misconduct as an excuse to rid Rome of the Tusculums. This faction, in January 1045, raised the bishop of Sabina to the papacy as Sylvester III (traditionally listed as an anti-pope). Before the end of March the Tusculums had re-entered Rome and replaced their pope on the seat of St Peter. Sylvester was sent back to Sabina, but he will be heard from again.

The feckless Benedict IX, now restored, decided to resign the papacy for reasons that are confusing (to us) and, indeed, they may have been several. In the first place, it was said that Benedict had a tormented conscience and, thus, wanted to be relieved of the papal office, which had been thrust upon him by his family. In addition, he wanted to marry his cousin, whose father was unwilling for his daughter to marry a pope. This sounds rather like his enemies speaking. Yet another factor entered the picture. Benedict agreed with his godfather, archpriest John Gratian, to resign the papacy in favour of John Gratian in exchange for an enormous sum of money, and this he did on 1 May 1045. Truth being stranger than fiction, we are told that Benedict’s cousin now refused to marry him, apparently reluctant to marry an ex-pope, and Benedict also will be heard of again.

John Gratian, who took the name Gregory VI, was soon confronted with two opponents: Sylvester III, still clinging to his claim to the papacy, and the hapless Benedict IX, disappointed in love and now anxious to be pope again. With three claimants to the papacy the moment was ripe for the protector of the church, the emperor, to descend on Rome to sort matters out. Henry III (1039–56), perhaps the greatest of the Ottonian line of German kings who became emperors, called a synod, which was held in 1046 at Sutri, near Rome. Sylvester III was degraded and sent to a monastery; Benedict IX was recognized as a resigned pope; and Gregory VI resigned. The slate was now clean for a new pope to be elected, but, alas, the new pope, Clement II, died within eight months. Seizing the moment (8 November 1047), Benedict left his mountain citadel at Tusculum, entered Rome and claimed the papal throne. He held it for about eight months, only to leave (for the last time) at the advance of troops under imperial orders, and a new pope, Damasus II, was enthroned. His reign ended by poison or malaria in 21 days, and the way was then open in 1049 for real reform (next chapter). Benedict IX quite possibly finished his days as a penitent at the monastery of Grottaferrata in his ancestral Alban Hills (d. 1055), perhaps ill-served by the reformers who wrote his story.

The tenth century was not all gloom and doom, and reforming movements were taking shape, particularly north of the Alps, which would have a profound effect on the life of the church. It is to this reform that we shall now turn.

Further reading

An excellent account of the tenth-century church with an emphasis different from that given here is Rosamond McKitterick’s essay in The New Cambridge Medieval History, vol. 3 (ed. Timothy Reuter; Cambridge, 1999). Heinrich Fichtenau studies social order and disorder at all levels of society in Living in the Tenth Century: Mentalities and Social Orders (tr. Patrick J. Geary; Chicago, 1991). For a contemporary witness to ecclesiastical and other events of the tenth century see The Complete Works of Liudprand of Cremona(tr. Paolo Squatriti; Washington, 2007).

An essential book of reference is The Oxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford, 1986) by J.N.D. Kelly. Old but still of considerable use, particularly for its reference to contemporary sources, is Horace K. Mann, The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages (18 vols; London, 1902–32). Compelling, if not always conventional, is Geoffrey Barraclough, The Medieval Papacy (London and New York, 1968). More recent surveys include Eamon Duffy, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes (London and New Haven, 1997) and Richard P. McBrien, Lives of the Popes: The Pontiffs from St Peter to John Paul II (San Francisco, 1997).

Chief among the contemporary sources available to us in English are the translations of the Liber Pontificalis prepared by Raymond Davis: The Book of Popes (Liber Pontificalis): The Ancient Biographies of the First Ninety Roman Bishops to AD 715(Liverpool, 1989), The Lives of the Eighth-Century Popes (Liverpool, 1992) and The Lives of the Ninth-Century Popes (Liverpool, 1995). Two valuable chronicles are easily accessible: The Annals of St-Bertin (tr. Janet L. Nelson; Manchester, 1991) and The Annals of Fulda (tr. Timothy Reuter; Manchester, 1992).

On the Lotharingian divorce case see Stuart Airlie, ‘Private Bodies and the Body Politic in the Divorce Case of Lothar II’, Past and Present 16 (1998), 3–38, and Karl Heidecker, The Divorce of Lothar II: Christian Marriage and Political Power in the Carolingian World (tr. Tanis M. Guest; Ithaca, NY, 2010), which emphasizes the political dimension to the dispute. On Hincmar see J.M. Wallace-Hadrill, The Frankish Church (Oxford, 1983), and Janet L. Nelson, Charles the Bald (London and New York, 1992). On the Ravenna dispute see R.F. Belletzkie, ‘Pope Nicholas I and John of Ravenna: The Struggle for Ecclesiastical Rights in the Ninth Century’, Church History 49 (1980), 262–72. On the issues between the Eastern and Western churches see Francis Dvornik, The Photian Schism: History and Legend (Cambridge, 1948) and Byzantium and the Roman Primacy (New York, 1966) and Steven Runciman, The Eastern Schism (Oxford, 1955).

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