The testimony against Boniface, true or false, reveals the undercurrent of skepticism that was preparing to end the Age of Faith. Likewise the blow-physical or political—given Boniface VIII at Anagni marks in one sense the beginning of “modern times”: it was the victory of nationalism against supernationalism, of the state against the Church, of the power of the sword over the magic of the word. The papacy had been weakened by its struggle against the Hohenstaufens, and by the failure of the Crusades. France and England had been strengthened by the collapse of the Empire, and France had been enriched by acquiring Languedoc with the help of the Church. Perhaps the popular support given to Philip IV against Boniface VIII reflected public resentment of the excesses of the Inquisition and the Albigensian Crusade. Some of Nogaret’s ancestors, it was said, had been burned by the inquisitors.108 Boniface had not realized, in undertaking so many conflicts, that the weapons of the papacy had been blunted by overuse. Industry and commerce had generated a class less pious than the peasantry; life and thought were becoming secularized; the laity was coming into its own. For seventy years now the state would absorb the Church.
Looking back over the panorama of Latin Christianity, we are impressed, above all, by the relative unanimity of religious faith among diverse peoples, and the overspreading hierarchy and power of the Roman Church, giving to Western Europe—non-Slavic, non-Byzantine Europe—a unity of mind and morals such as it has never known again. Nowhere else in history has an organization wielded so profound an influence over so many men for so long a time. The authority of the Roman Republic and Empire over its immense realm endured from Pompey to Alaric, 480 years; that of the Mongol Empire or the British Empire, some 200 years; but the Roman Catholic Church was the dominant force in Europe from the death of Charlemagne (814) to the death of Boniface VIII (1303) —489 years. Her organization and administration do not appear to have been as competent as that of the Roman Empire, nor was her personnel as capable or cultured as the men who governed the provinces and cities for the Caesars; but the Church inherited a barbarous bedlam, and had to find a laborious way back to order and education. Even so her clergy were the best instructed men of the age, and it was they who provided the only education available in Western Europe during the five centuries of her supremacy. Her courts offered the justest justice of their time. Her papal Curia, sometimes venal, sometimes incorruptible, constituted in some degree a world court for the arbitration of international disputes and the limitation of war; and though that court was always too Italian, the Italians were the best trained minds of those centuries, and any man could rise to membership in that court from any rank and nation in Latin Christendom.
Despite the chicanery usually accompanying collective human power, it was good that above the states and kings of Europe there should be an authority that could call them to account and moderate their strife. If any world state was to be, what could seem fitter than that its seat should be the throne of Peter, whence men, however limited, could see with a continental eye and from the background of centuries? What decisions would be more peaceably accepted, or could be more easily enforced, than those of a pontiff revered as the Vicar of God by nearly all the population of Western Europe? When Louis IX left on crusade in 1248, Henry III of England made extreme demands upon France, and prepared to invade; Pope Innocent IV threatened England with interdict should Henry persist; and Henry refrained. The power of the Church, said the skeptical Hume, was a rampart of refuge against the tyranny and injustice of kings.109 The Church might have realized the high conception of Gregory VII—might have made her moral power supreme over the physical forces of the states—had she used her influence only for spiritual and moral purposes, and never for material ends. When Urban II united Christendom against the Turks the dream of Gregory was almost realized; but when Innocent III, Gregory IX, Alexander IV, and Boniface VIII gave the holy name of crusade to their wars against the Albigensians, Frederick II, and the Colonnas, the great ideal broke to pieces in papal hands stained with Christian blood.
Where the Church was not threatened she responded with considerable tolerance for diverse, even heretical, views. We shall find an unexpected freedom of thought among the philosophers of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, even among professors at universities chartered and supervised by the Church. All that she asked was that such discussions should be confined and intelligible only to the educated, and should not take the form of revolutionary appeals to the people to abandon their creed or the Church.110“The Church,” says her most industrious recent critic, “as it embraced the whole population, embraced also every type of mind, from the most superstitious to the most agnostic; and many of these unorthodox elements worked far more freely, under the cloak of outward conformity, than is generally supposed.”111
All in all, the picture that we form of the medieval Latin Church is that of a complex organization doing its best, despite the human frailties of its adherents and its leaders, to establish moral and social order, and to spread an uplifting and consoling faith, amid the wreckage of an old civilization and the passions of an adolescent society. The sixth-century Church found Europe a flotsam of migratory barbarians, a babel of tongues and creeds, a chaos of unwritten and incalculable laws. She gave it a moral code buttressed with supernatural sanctions strong enough to check the unsocial impulses of violent men; she offered it monastic retreats for men, women, and classic manuscripts; she governed it with episcopal courts, educated it with schools and universities, and tamed the kings of the earth to moral responsibility and the tasks of peace. She brightened the lives of her children with poetry, drama, and song, and inspired them to raise the noblest works of art in history. Unable to establish a utopia of equality among unequally able men, she organized charity and hospitality, and in some measure protected the weak from the strong. She was, beyond question, the greatest civilizing force in medieval European history.