Post-classical history

Chapter Sixty-Nine


Naming the Renaissance

Between 1322 and 1341, Louis of Bavaria tries to get back the old title of Holy Roman Emperor, the old certainties of the Church are questioned, and a new story of the past emerges in Rome

FOR EIGHT YEARS, Louis of Bavaria and Frederick of Hapsburg had been quarreling over the German crown. Both had been named king, in 1314, by two separate groups of electors; both had the support of a handful of powerful German dukes.

And both were more or less broke. Neither man could afford to launch an actual campaign, and the only real battle of the mostly cold war came in 1322, when Louis’s men met Frederick and his supporters in person at Mühldorf, in Bavaria. Several hours of fighting ended when Frederick was taken prisoner. Afterwards, Louis ordered eggs served to the poverty-stricken Bavarian army for dinner; it was the most lavish celebration he could afford. (He decreed that two eggs should go to the knight who had fought hardest in the battle, one Siegfried Schweppermann, who later put an egg on his family crest to mark the honor.)1

Louis and Frederick were cousins, and in fact had spent part of their adolescence living in the same house; Louis treated his rival well, confining him in relative comfort at the Castle of Trausnitz.

He now began to maneuver towards his ultimate goal: the title of Holy Roman Emperor.

This required him to get control of the prickly and independent-minded north Italians, which he hoped to do by presenting himself as a friend and ally. So, in 1323, Louis appointed an “imperial vicar,” the Count of Märstetten, and sent him into Italy to woo the Lombard cities of Milan and Ferrara. From his papal palace at Avignon, John XXII objected. In the absence of a crowned emperor, he insisted, the pope was the protector of the empire and alone had the right to appoint a “vicar” over Italy. Louis refused to retreat from Italy; and on July 17, 1324, John XXII excommunicated the German king.2

Perhaps Louis had not expected the pope-in-exile to defend his rights in Italy with such vigor; in any case, the excommunication alarmed him. He still did not have unanimous support within Germany. Some of the electors were actively hoping to replace him, and even those who were on his side were now threatened with excommunication themselves, should they remain allies of a king who was outside the boundaries of the Christian church.

In an effort to shore up his support within Germany without yielding to the demands of John XXII, Louis went to see Frederick the Handsome, still jailed at Trausnitz, and offered to recognize him as joint king (Mitkönig). His proposal was carefully detailed: on odd days, his name would appear on state documents, on even days, Frederick’s; they would both receive homage of vassals to the German crown; if one set out for Italy, the other would remain in Germany; Frederick’s name would appear on Louis’s seal, Louis’s become part of Frederick’s.3

Frederick agreed to this elaborate and impractical division of powers (after all, his alternative was an indefinite stay in the Trausnitz dungeon). But now the German electors dug in their heels. They had the right to choose the king of Germany, and none of them had voted for both men. The compromise would savagely undercut their authority.4

John XXII also refused to recognize any claim of Frederick’s to the throne, condemning him for his willingness to cooperate with the excommunicated Louis. But John XXII was in serious danger of losing his moral high ground. It was increasingly obvious, even to Louis’s enemies, that the pope’s decrees were aimed at the eventual declaration of his patron, the king of France, as Holy Roman Emperor. The Avignon papacy had become no more than the tool of the French crown; and John’s decrees drove the last nail into the coffin of the papal monarchy, that theory placing all popes above any law.

“To comply with these teachings [of John XXII] . . . is none other than to allow the root of all governments to be cut up,” wrote the Italian scholar Marsilius of Padua, in his 1324 treatise Defensor Pacis. “He . . . harbors no other design than to acquire for himself the ability to overthrow, at his own pleasure, the power of all governments, and hence to cast them into slavery to himself.” But Defensor Pacis went far, far beyond a simple condemnation of John XXII. Just a few years earlier, the exiled poet Dante Alighieri had published a sharp rejection of the pope’s right to confer the title of Holy Roman Emperor; arguing from scripture, from history, and from reason, Dante insisted that the Church had never been given authority over any earthly kingdom, and so could not bestow on any man a power that it did not own.

Before Pilate, Christ disclaimed any ruling power of a temporal kind, saying, “My kingdom is not of this world.” . . . This must not be understood to imply that Christ, who is God, is not Lord of the temporal kingdom . . . but rather to mean that, as exemplar of the Church, He had not charge of this kingdom.5

Marsilius, who had been serving as Louis of Bavaria’s personal physician, agreed with Dante; Christ “did not come into the world to reign with temporal government or dominion,” and the bishops of Rome had claimed this power through a “perverted inclination” for power. But then he went even further. The pope was not the head of the empire; neither was he the head of the Church itself. “He is no more the vicar of God than is any other bishop, as we have often said and shown before,” Marsilius concluded.6

His argument was detailed and complex, but hinged on one all-important assertion: The “true church” is not centered at Rome, made up of those whom the pope recognizes as Christians; the true church is made up of all who worship Christ, all over the world, in any place or community. This community—the ecclesia, the “invisible church”—is spiritual, not earthly. It is not bound by time or place, and so it cannot have an earthly, time-bound ruler. Christ, not Peter, is the Rock upon whom the church is built; it has no human master.7

Within a decade of each other, Dante and Marsilius had given written shape and an intellectual foundation to the impulse that had pushed the Waldensians and Cathars and Pastoureaux to reject both priests and pope. It was a paradigm-shattering, society-altering argument.

John XXII, occupied with his political aspirations, did not immediately take notice. But Louis of Bavaria did. Armed with Marsilius’s arguments, depending on the goodwill of the Italians who had benefited from the visit of his imperial vicar, he marched into Italy to be crowned emperor. On Whitsunday of 1327, he had himself crowned king of Italy at Milan, with the Iron Crown of the Lombards; and on January 17, 1328, he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by two bishops, aided by the Italian nobleman Sciarra Colonna (a fast enemy of John XXII).

Before he became aware of the usurpation of his role, John XXII had been preaching a crusade against Louis. When he heard of the coronation, he declared it void on March 31; a month later, Louis in his turn declared the pope deposed. In his place, Louis installed the Franciscan priest Pietro Rainalducci in St. Peter’s Basilica, under the papal name of Nicholas V.8

But before long, Louis found himself growing unpopular. His underpaid German army was looting and stealing in order to support itself; he forced Milan and the surrounding cities to hand over a total of 200,000 florins (nearly three-quarters of a ton of gold, all told) to help pay for his proposed reunification of the empire; and he unwisely threatened priests who remained loyal to John XXII with execution. Before long, he decided that it would be wiser to leave Rome.9


69.1 Lands Claimed by Louis of Bavaria

Nicholas V fled the city, aware that in his patron’s absence, the goodwill of the people of Rome would not give him claim over the Christian church in Italy, let alone the world. Instead, he made his way to Avignon and asked John XXII for absolution. John XXII granted it, and Nicholas V faded gratefully into obscurity.

So far, honors in the struggle between pope and emperor were about even. But John XXII now made a theological misstep. In Avignon, on November 1, 1331, he preached a sermon giving a new interpretation of the Beatific Vision, the direct vision of God given to the righteous dead, who were traditionally thought of as being in the presence of God. Instead, the pope taught, they were in an intermediate state; protected by Christ, free from human woes, but still not in the direct presence of God. Not until the Last Judgment, the setting of all things right, would the faithful actually seeGod.10

The sermon was preached on All Saints’ Day, when the church celebrated those who had finished the race of life and now lived on the other shore. To suggest that those faithful dead were still waiting, blocked from the presence of God, was more than a theological nicety. For fourteenth-century Christians, whose dead were numerous and close, who lived in the constant knowledge that they too faced the possibility of death from every accidental splinter, every sore throat, every minor burn, it was a fraught and painful message.

It took some time for the controversy over this sermon to spread, but by 1333 John XXII was defending himself against accusations of heresy from his cardinals. Louis IV seized on this theological problem and announced that he intended to call a council of his own, to make a formal accusation of heresy against the pope.

John XXII, by now nearly eighty-five, crumbled. He was ill and tired of fighting. On December 3, 1334, he retracted his teaching about the Beatific Vision, acknowledging that he had made a mistake. And on the next day, December 4, he died in Avignon.

His successor, Benedict XII, was elected with remarkable speed, thanks to the intervention of Philip VI of France. Louis offered to meet with the new pope in order to try to work out a compromise; but Philip VI demanded that a peace treaty with France be part of any German agreement with the Church, and this Louis refused to do. He remained an excommunicate Holy Roman Emperor; and the pope remained in Avignon, a servant of the French king.11

ROME, POPE-LESS AND EMPEROR-LESS, was in its usual chaotic and simmering state when the Italian poet Petrarch was crowned in Rome as Poet Laureate: the first time this honor had been carried out since ancient times.

Petrarch had been lobbying for the title, in a genteel and polished way, for some time. His father had been driven from Florence at about the same time as Dante; Petrarch, born afterwards, had been working in Avignon for years, writing a massive epic about the Roman general Scipio Africanus, traveling as the impulse struck him, and occasionally carrying out discreet diplomatic missions for the Avignon popes.

The Roman Senate, correctly interpreting Petrarch’s various oblique remarks as a request for the crown, invited the poet to Rome for his coronation. He chose Easter Sunday, April 18, 1341, as the day for the ceremony, and treated the assembled Romans and senators to an oration promising that the revival of the Poet Laureate position would help to bring about a new age in Rome. “I am moved also by the hope that, if God wills,” he told them, “I may renew in the now aged Republic a beauteous custom of its flourishing youth. . . . Boldly, therefore, perhaps but—to the best of my belief—with no unworthy intention, since others are holding back, I am venturing to offer myself as guide for this toilsome and dangerous path; and I trust that there may be many followers.” The path was the path of learning; the rediscovery of the truths of the past, the history and literature of Rome’s glory days. Poets and scholars, Petrarch explained, would save Italy; poets and scholars would lead the Italian cities back into peace and prosperity.12

The choice of Easter Sunday was not random. Petrarch had in mind a resurrection for his beloved Rome, a return to the days when the Roman Empire had been whole and powerful, not split between squabbling rulers and priests. Italy could recover her greatness by returning to the world of Rome before Christianity, Rome in the golden age of Cicero and Virgil, Rome between the coronation of Romulus and the rule of the emperor Titus. This, he later wrote, was “a more fortunate age,” and it was time to return to its ideals. Between that golden time and the present lay “the middle,” an era of “wretches and ignominy,” centuries of tenebrae: of darkness.13

A classical age of light and learning, followed by a Dark Age, culminating in a rebirth: a renaissance. Three epochs in history: antiquity, a Middle Age, and the present. Petrarch had laid out, for the first time, a scheme that would shape the next six hundred years of historical inquiry. And in doing so, he had inadvertently revealed that his hoped-for renaissance was already well underway. The twelfth-century rediscovery of Aristotle had begun it; the Christian church had fought it; by Easter Sunday of 1341, it had spread so far into the minds of the fourteenth-century multitude that Petrarch could talk of the Latin past with the assurance that the Roman crowd would understand exactly what he meant.


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