VII. THE REFORM OF THE CHURCH: 1049–54

Three internal problems agitated the Church at this time: simony in the papacy and the episcopacy, marriage or concubinage in the secular clergy, and sporadic incontinence among the monks.

Simony—the sale of church offices or services—was the ecclesiastical correlate of contemporary corruption in politics. Good people were one source of simony; so the mother of Guibert of Nogent, anxious to devote him to the Church, paid ecclesiastical authorities to make him a cathedral canon at eleven; a church council at Rome in 1099 mourned the frequency of such cases. As bishops in England, Germany, France, and Italy administered profane as well as ecclesiastical affairs, and were feudally endowed with lands or villages or even cities to supply their necessary revenues, ambitious men paid secular powers great sums for such appointments, and greedy potentates overrode all decencies to earn these bribes. In Narbonne a boy of ten was made archbishop on paying 100,000 solidi (1016).61 Philip I of France consoled an unsuccessful applicant for an episcopal see with blithe counsel: “Let me make my profit out of your rival; then you can try to get him degraded for simony; and afterward we can see about satisfying you.”62 The French kings, following a tradition established by Charlemagne, regularly appointed the bishops of Sens, Reims, Lyons, Tours, and Bourges; elsewhere in France the bishops were appointed by dukes or counts.63 Many bishoprics became in the eleventh century the hereditary patrimony of noble families, and were used as provision for bastards or younger sons; in Germany one baron possessed and transmitted eight bishoprics.64 A German cardinal alleged (c. 1048) that the simoniacal buyers of sees and benefices had sold the marble facings of churches, even the tiles from their roofs, to reimburse themselves for the cost of their appointments.65 Such appointees were men of the world; many lived in luxury, engaged in war, allowed bribery in episcopal courts,66named relatives to ecclesiastical posts, and worshiped Mammon with undivided loyalty; Pope Innocent III would say of an archbishop of Narbonne that he had a purse where his heart should have been.67 The purchase of sees became so usual that practical men accepted it as normal; but reformers cried out that Simon Magus had captured the Church.68

Among the general clergy the moral problem hovered between marriage and concubinage. In the ninth and tenth centuries the marriage of priests was customary in England, Gaul, and north Italy. Pope Hadrian II (867-72) himself had been a married man;69 and Bishop Ratherius of Verona (tenth century) reported that practically all priests in his diocese were married. By the beginning of the eleventh century celibacy in the secular clergy was exceptional.70 It would be a mistake to consider clerical marriage immoral; though often contrary to the canons and ideals of the Church, it was quite in accord with the customs and moral judgments of the times. At Milan a married priest stood higher in public repute than one unmarried;71 the latter was suspected of concubinage. Even concubinage—the regular cohabitation of an unmarried man with an unmarried woman—was condoned by public opinion. The great majority of the European clergy led apparently decent moral lives; and all through the Middle Ages we hear of priests and bishops living in saintly devotion to their flocks. Here and there, however, there were scandalous exceptions. In 742 Bishop Boniface complained to Pope Zachary that bishoprics were being given to “greedy laymen and adulterous clerics,”72 and that some deacons “kept four or five concubines”;73 and the Venerable Bede, in the same century, condemned “some bishops” of England for “laughter, jesting, tales, revelings, drunkenness, and … dissolute living.”74 Towards the end of the first millennium such charges became more numerous. Ralph Glaber described the clergy of that period as sharing in the general immorality of the age. An Italian monk, Peter Damian (1007-72), presented to the Pope a book ominously entitled Liber Gomorrhianus, in which he described, with the exaggerations to be expected from his sanctity, the vices of the clergy; one chapter was “On the Diversity of Sins Against Nature.” Damian strongly urged the prohibition of clerical marriage.

The Church had long since opposed clerical marriage on the ground that a married priest, consciously or not, would put his loyalty to wife and children above his devotion to the Church; that for their sake he would be tempted to accumulate money or property; that he would try to transmit his see or benefice to one of his offspring; that an hereditary ecclesiastical caste might in this way develop in Europe as in India; and that the combined economic power of such a propertied priesthood would be too great for the papacy to control. The priest should be totally devoted to God, the Church, and his fellow men; his moral standard must be higher than that of the people, and must confer upon him the prestige necessary to public confidence and reverence. Several councils had demanded celibacy of the clergy; one—at Pavia in 1018—had decreed a status of perpetual slavery, and disbarment from inheritance, for all children of priests.75 But clerical marriage continued.

Leo IX found the see of Peter impoverished by clerical bequests of Church benefices to clerical offspring, by baronial seizures of Church estates, and by the highway robbery of pilgrims bringing prayers, petitions, and offerings to Rome. He organized protection for the pilgrims, recaptured alienated ecclesiastical property, and set himself to the heavy task of ending simony and clerical marriage. Turning over the domestic and administrative cares of the papacy to the shrewd and devoted monk who was to become Gregory VII, Leo left Rome in 1049, resolved to examine at first hand the morals of the clergy, and the functioning of the Church, in the major cities of Europe. The dignity of his bearing, the unaffected austerity of his life, at once revived the respect that men had held for the highest official of the Church; vice hid its head as he approached; and Godfrey of Lorraine, who had plundered churches and defied kings, trembled under papal excommunication, submitted to be publicly scourged before the altar of the church that he had ruined in Verdun, undertook to repair the church, and labored in the work with his own hands. At Cologne Leo held papal court, and received every honor from a German clergy proud of a German pope. Passing into France, he presided over a tribunal at Reims, and conducted an inquiry into lay and clerical morals, the sale of ecclesiastical offices, the spoliation of church property, the relaxation of monastic rules, and the rise of heresy. Every bishop present was ordered to confess his sins. One after another, including archbishops, accused himself. Leo sternly reproved them, deposed some, forgave some, excommunicated four, summoned others to Rome and public penance. He commanded the clergy to dismiss their wives and concubines, and to forgo the use of arms. The Council of Reims further decreed that bishops and abbots were to be elected by the clergy and the people, prohibited the sale of ecclesiastical offices, and forbade the clergy to receive fees for administering the eucharist, attending the sick, or burying the dead. A council in Mainz (1049), under Leo’s urging, enacted similar reforms for Germany. In 1050 he returned to Italy, presided at the Council of Vercelli, and condemned the heresy of Berengar of Tours.

With his long and arduous visitation of the North Leo had restored the prestige of the papacy, replaced the German emperor as the head of the German Church, brought the French and Spanish episcopates to acknowledge the authority of the pope, and made some progress toward cleansing the clergy of venality and venery. In 1051 and 1052 he made further campaigns in Germany and France; presided over a great ecclesiastical assembly at Worms, and another at Mantua. Returning at last to Rome, he took on the uncongenial task of defending the Papal States by military means. The Emperor Henry III had given him the duchy of Benevento; Duke Pandulf of Capua refused to recognize the grant, and, with the help of Robert Guiscard’s Normans, took and held the duchy. Leo asked for a German army to help him oust Pandulf; he received only 700 men; to these he added some untrained Italians; and at their head he marched against the Normans, whose cavalry alone numbered 3000 buccaneers skilled in war. The Normans overwhelmed Leo’s forces, captured him, and then knelt to ask his pardon for having killed 500 of his men. They took him to Benevento, and there, with all courtesy, kept him prisoner for nine months. Heartbroken, and penitent for having taken the sword, Leo wore nothing but sackcloth, slept on a carpet and a stone, and passed nearly all the day in prayer. The Normans saw that he was dying, and released him. He entered Rome amid universal rejoicing, absolved all whom he had excommunicated, ordered a coffin placed in St. Peter’s, sat beside it for a day, and died at the altar. The lame, the dumb, and the lepers came from all parts of Italy to touch his corpse.

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