Medieval parlance divided all persons into two classes: those who lived under a religious rule, and those who lived “in the world.” A monk was “a religious”; so was a nun. Some monks were also priests, and constituted the “regular clergy”—i.e., clergy following a monastic rule (regula). All other clergy were called “secular,” as living in the “world” (saeculum). All ranks of clergy were distinguished by the tonsure—a shaven crown of the head—and wore a long robe, of any single color but red or green, buttoned from head to foot. The term clergy included not only those in “minor orders”—i.e., church doorkeepers, readers, exorcists, and acolytes—but all university students, all teachers, and all who, having taken the tonsure as students, later became physicians, lawyers, artists, authors, or served as accountants or literary aides; hence the later narrowing of the terms clerical and clerk. Clerics who had not taken major orders were allowed to marry, and to take up any respectable profession, and they were under no obligation to continue the tonsure.
The three “major” or “holy orders”—subdeacon, deacon, priest—were irrevocable, and generally closed the door to marriage after the eleventh century. Instances of marriage or concubinage in the Latin priesthood after Gregory VII are recorded,110 but they become more and more exceptional.* The parish priest had to content himself with spiritual joys. As the parish was normally coterminous with a manor or a village, he was usually appointed by the lord of the manor111 in collusion with the bishop. He was seldom a man of much schooling, for a university education was costly and books were rare; it was enough if he could read the breviary and the missal, administer the sacraments, and organize the parish for worship and charity. In many cases he was only a vicarius, a vicar or substitute, hired by a rector to do the religious work of the parish for a fourth of the revenues of the “benefice”; in this way one rector might hold four or five benefices while the parish priest lived in humble poverty,112 eking out his income with “altar fees” for baptisms, marriages, burials, and Masses for the dead. Sometimes, in the class war, he sided with the poor, like John Ball.113 His morals could not compare with those of the modern priest, who has been put on his best behavior by religious competition; but by and large he did his work with patience, conscience, and kindliness. He visited the sick, comforted the bereaved, taught the young, mumbled his breviary, and brought some moral and civilizing leaven to a rough and lusty population. Many parish priests, said their cruelest critic, “were the salt of the earth.”114 “No other body of men,” said the freethinking Lecky, “have ever exhibited a more single-minded and unworldly zeal, refracted by no personal interests, sacrificing to duty the dearest of earthly objects, and confronting with dauntless heroism every form of hardship, of suffering, and of death.”115
Priesthood and episcopate constituted the sacerdotium, or sacerdotal order. The bishop was a priest selected to co-ordinate several parishes and priests into one diocese. Originally and theoretically he was chosen by priests and people; usually, before Gregory VII, he was named by the baron or king; after 1215 he was elected by the cathedral chapter in co-operation with the pope. To his care were committed many secular as well as ecclesiastical affairs, and his episcopal court tried some civil cases as well as all those involving clergy of any rank. He had the power to appoint and depose priests; but his authority over the abbots and monasteries in his diocese diminished in this period, as the popes, fearing the power of the bishops, brought the monastic orders under direct papal control. His revenues came partly from his parishes, mostly from the estates attached to his see; sometimes he gave more to a parish than he received from it. Candidates for a bishopric usually agreed to pay—at first to the king, later to the pope—a fee for their nomination; and as secular rulers they sometimes yielded to the amiable weakness of appointing relatives to lucrative posts; Pope Alexander III complained that “when God deprived bishops of sons the Devil gave them nephews.”116 Many bishops lived in luxury, as became feudal lords; but many were consumed in devotion to their spiritual and administrative tasks. After the reform of the episcopate by Leo IX the bishops of Europe were, in mind and morals, the finest body of men in medieval history.
Above the bishops of a province stood the archbishop or metropolitan. He alone could call, or preside over, a provincial council of the Church. Some archbishops, by their character or their wealth, ruled nearly all the life of their provinces. In Germany the archbishops of Hamburg, Bremen, Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Magdeburg, and Salzburg were powerful feudal lords, who were in several instances chosen by the emperors to administer the Empire, or to serve as ambassadors or royal councilors; the archbishops of Reims, Rouen, and Canterbury played a similar role in France, Normandy, and England. Certain archbishops—of Toledo, Lyons, Narbonne, Reims, Cologne, Canterbury—were made “primates,” and exercised a debated authority over all the ecclesiastics of their region.
The bishops gathered in council constituted, periodically, a representative government for the Church. In later centuries these councils would lay claim to powers superior to those of the pope; but in this, the age of the greatest pontiffs, no one in Western Europe questioned the supreme ecclesiastical and spiritual authority of the bishop of Rome. The scandals of the tenth century had been atoned for by the virtues of Leo IX and Hildebrand; amid the oscillations and struggles of the twelfth century the power of the papacy had grown until, in Innocent III, it claimed to overspread the earth. Kings and emperors held the stirrup and kissed the feet of the white-robed Servant of the Servants of God. The papacy was now the highest reach of human ambition; the finest minds of the time prepared themselves in rigorous schools of theology and law for a place in the hierarchy of the Church; and those who rose to the top were men of intelligence and courage, who were not appalled by the task of governing a continent. Their individual deaths hardly disturbed the pursuit of the policies formed by them and their councils; what Gregory VII left unfinished Innocent III completed; and Innocent IV and Alexander IV carried to a victorious end the struggle that Innocent III and Gregory IX had fought against Imperial encirclement of the papacy.
In theory the authority of the pope was derived from his succession to the power conferred upon the apostles by Christ; in this sense the government of the Church was a theocracy—a government of the people, through religion, by the earthly vicars of God. In another sense the Church was a democracy: every man in Christendom except the mentally or physically defective, the convicted criminal, the excommunicate and the slave was eligible to the priesthood and the papacy. As in every system, the rich had superior opportunities to prepare themselves for the long hierarchical climb; but career was open to all, and talent, not ancestry, chiefly determined success. Hundreds of bishops, and several popes, came from the ranks of the poor.117 This flow of fresh blood into the hierarchy from every rank continually nourished the intelligence of the clergy, and “was for ages the only practical recognition of the equality of man.”*
In 1059, as we have seen, the right to select the pope was confined to “cardinal bishops” stationed near Rome. These seven cardinals were gradually increased, by papal appointment from various nations, to a Sacred College of seventy members, who were marked off by their red caps and purple robes, and constituted a new rank in the hierarchy, second only to the pope himself.
Aided by such men, and by a large staff of ecclesiastics and other officials constituting the papal Curia or executive and judicial court, the pope governed a spiritual empire which in the thirteenth century was at the height of its curve. He alone could summon a general council of the bishops, and their legislation had no force except when confirmed by his decree. He was free to interpret, revise, and extend the canon law of the Church, and to grant dispensations from its rules. He was the final court of appeals from the decisions of episcopal courts. He alone could absolve from certain grave sins, or issue major indulgences, or canonize a saint. After 1059 all bishops had to swear obedience to him, and submit to supervision of their affairs by legates of the pope. Islands like Sardinia and Sicily, nations like England, Hungary, and Spain, acknowledged him as their feudal lord, and sent him tribute. Through bishops, priests, and monks his eyes and hands could be on every part of his realm; these men constituted a service of intelligence and administration with which no state could compete. Gradually, subtly, the rule of Rome was restored over Europe by the astonishing power of the word.