VIII. THE FINANCES OF THE CHURCH

A Church that was actually a European superstate, dealing with the worship, morals, education, marriages, wars, crusades, deaths, and wills of the population of half a continent, sharing actively in the administration of secular affairs, and raising the most expensive structures in medieval history, could sustain its functions only through exploiting a hundred sources of revenue.

The widest stream of income was the tithe: after Charlemagne all secular lands in Latin Christendom were required by state law to pay a tenth of their gross produce or income, in kind or money, to the local church. After the tenth century every parish had to remit a part of its tithes to the bishop of the diocese. Under the influence of feudal ideas the tithes of a parish could be enfeoffed, mortgaged, bequeathed, or sold like any other property or revenue, so that by the twelfth century a financial web had been woven in which the local church and its priest were rather the collectors than the consumers of its tithes. The priest was expected to “curse for his tithes,” as the English put it—to excommunicate those who shirked or falsified their returns; for men were as reluctant then to pay tithes to the Church, whose functions they considered vital to their salvation, as men are now to pay taxes to the state. We hear of occasional revolts of the tithepayers: in Reggio Emilia in 1280, says Fra Salimbene, the citizens, defying excommunication and interdict, promised one another “that none should pledge the clergy any tithe… nor sit at meat with them … nor give them eat or drink”—an excommunication in reverse; and the bishop was compelled to compromise.137

The basic revenue of the Church was from her own lands. These she had received through gift or bequest, through purchase or defaulted mortgage, or through reclamation of waste lands by monastic or other ecclesiastic groups. In the feudal system each owner or tenant was expected to leave something to the Church at death; those who did not were suspected of heresy, and might be refused burial in consecrated ground.138 Since only a few of the laity could write, a priest was usually called in to draft the wills; Pope Alexander III decreed in 1170 that no one could make a valid will except in presence of a priest; any secular notary who drew up a will except under these conditions was to be excommunicated;139 and the Church had exclusive jurisdiction over the probate of wills. Gifts or legacies to the Church were held to be the most dependable means of telescoping the pains of purgatory. Many bequests to the Church, especially before the year 1000, began with the words adventante mundi vespero—“since the evening of the world is near.”140 Some owners, as we have seen, gave their property to the Church in precarium as disability insurance: the Church provided an annuity, and care in sickness and old age, to the donor, and received the property free of lien at his death.141 Some monasteries, by “confraternities,” gave their benefactors a share in the merits or purgatorial deductions earned by the prayers and good works of the monks.142 Crusaders not only sold lands to the Church at low prices to raise cash, but they received loans from church bodies on the security of pledged property, which was in many cases forfeited by default. Some persons, dying without natural heirs, left their whole estate to the Church; the Countess Matilda of Tuscany tried to bequeath to the Church almost a fourth of Italy.

As the property of the Church was inalienable, and, before 1200, was normally free from secular taxation,143 it grew from century to century. It was not unusual for a cathedral, a monastery, or a nunnery to own several thousand manors, including a dozen towns or even a great city or two.144 The bishop of Langres owned the whole county; the abbey of St. Martin of Tours ruled over 20,000 serfs; the bishop of Bologna held 2000 manors; so did the abbey of Lorsch; the abbey of Las Huelgas, in Spain, held sixty-four townships.145 In Castile, about 1200, the Church owned a quarter of the soil; in England a fifth; in Germany a third; in Livonia one half;146 these, however, are loose and uncertain estimates. Such accumulations became the envy and target of the state. Charles Martel confiscated church property to finance his wars; Louis the Pious legislated against bequests that disinherited the children of the testator in favor of the Church;147 Henry II of Germany stripped many monasteries of their lands, saying that monks were vowed to poverty; and several English statutes of mortmain put restrictions on the deeding of property to “corporations”—meaning ecclesiastical bodies. Edward I levied from the English Church in 1291 a tenth of its property, and in 1294 a half of its annual revenue. Philip II began, St. Louis continued, Philip IV established, the taxation of ecclesiastical property in France. As industry and commerce developed, and money multiplied and prices rose, the income of abbeys and bishoprics, derived largely from feudal dues once fixed at a low-price level and now hard to raise, proved inadequate not only for luxury but even for maintenance.148 By 1270 the majority of French cathedrals and abbeys were heavily in debt; they had borrowed from the bankers at high interest rates to meet the exactions of the kings; hence, in part, the decline of architectural activity in France at the end of the thirteenth century.

The popes added to the impoverishment of bishoprics by taxing their property and revenues first to finance the Crusades, later to pay the mountting expenses of the papal see. New sources of central income became necessary as the papacy widened the area and complexity of its functions. Innocent III (1199) directed all bishops to send to the See of Peter yearly a fortieth of their revenue. A cens or tax was levied upon all monasteries, convents, and churches that came directly under papal protection. “An annate” —theoretically the whole, actually half, the first year’s revenue of a newly elected bishop—was required by the popes as a fee for confirming his appointment; and large sums were expected from recipients of the archiepiscopal pallium. All Christian households were asked to send an annual penny (some 90 cents) to the Roman See as “Peter’s Pence.” Normally fees were charged for litigation brought to the papal court. The popes claimed the power to dispense in certain cases from canon law, as in permitting consanguineous marriage where some good political end seemed to justify the deviation; and fees were charged for legal processes involved in such dispensations. Considerable sums came to the popes from the recipients of papal indulgences, and from pilgrims to Rome. It has been calculated that the total income of the papal see about 1250 was greater than the combined revenues of all the secular sovereigns of Europe.149 From England in 1252 the papacy received a sum thrice the revenue of the crown.150

The wealth of the Church, however proportionate to the extent of its functions, was the chief source of heresy in this age. Arnold of Brescia proclaimed that any priest or monk who died possessing property would surely go to hell.151 The Bogomiles, the Waldenses, the Paterines, the Cathari made headway by denouncing the wealth of the followers of Christ. A favorite satire in the thirteenth century was the “Gospel According to Marks of Silver,” which began: “In those days the Pope said to the Romans: ‘When the Son of Man shall come to the seat of our majesty say first of all, “Friend, wherefore art Thou come hither?” And if He give you naught, cast Him forth into outer darkness.’”152 Throughout the literature of the time—in the fabliaux, the chansons de geste, theRoman de la Rose, the poems of the wandering scholars, the troubadours, Dante, even in the monastic chroniclers, we find complaints of ecclesiastical avarice or wealth.153 Matthew Paris, an English monk, denounced the venality of English and Roman prelates “living daintily on the patrimony of Christ”;154 Hubert de Romans, head of the Dominican order, wrote of “pardoners corrupting with bribes the prelates of the ecclesiastical courts”;155 Petrus Cantor, a priest, told of priests who sold Masses or Vespers;156 Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, declaimed against the papal chancery as bought and sold, and quoted Henry II as boasting that he had the whole college of cardinals in his pay.157 Charges of corruption have been made against every government in history; they are nearly always partly true, and partly exaggerated from startling instances; but at times they rise to a revolutionary resentment. The same parishioners who built cathedrals to Mary with their pennies could protest angrily against the collective propensities of the Church, and occasionally they murdered a pertinacious priest.158

The Church herself joined in this criticism of clerical money-grubbing, and made many efforts to control the acquisitiveness and luxury of her personnel. Hundreds of clergymen, from St. Peter Damian, St. Bernard, St. Francis, and Cardinal de Vitry down to simple monks, labored to mitigate these natural abuses;159 it is chiefly from the writings of such ecclesiastical reformers that our knowledge of the abuses is derived. A dozen monastic orders devoted themselves to preaching reform by their good example. Pope Alexander III and the Lateran Council of 1179 condemned the exaction of fees for administering baptism or extreme unction, or performing a marriage; and Gregory X called the Ecumenical Council of Lyons in 1274 specifically to take measures for the reform of the Church. The popes themselves, in this age, showed no taste for luxury, and earned their keep by arduous devotion to their exhausting tasks. It is the tragedy of things spiritual that they languish if unorganized, and are contaminated by the material needs of their organization.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!