Post-classical history

Peter of Morrone … beware of the cheats,

Who’d have you think, that

Black is white and white is black as ink.

If in their snares you unguardedly sink,

You will sing your song most evilly.

“Epistle to Pope Celestine V”



The people of the Middle Ages were obsessed with salvation, with the fate of their souls and bodies after life on earth was over. Perhaps this has been true of every people in every era everywhere, but it was especially true of thirteenth-century men and women.

Wandering preachers would expound on a verse like Ecclesiastes 12:7: “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it,” while holding up skulls for their crowd’s inspection. Look on this! For it will very soon be you! they would shout. The prospect of biological death was terrifying—is terrifying, still—but imagine the grip that it had on people who knew nothing of modern science. People of the Middle Ages relied on religion alone to explain life and death. They had not yet entered the period of Enlightenment when the traditions, texts, and worldviews of religion could be either challenged or counterbalanced with scientific understandings of germs, viruses, and sanitation. Death was even more certain then than it is now. After death, how could a person be sure that her eternity would be heavenly? In those days, the answer was simple: only through the graces of the Church.

Then, as now, Christians confessed their sins to their priest and after confession, sought absolution and forgiveness. Usually a penance was imposed by the priest, often small deeds to be done or prayers to be said. Sometimes the priest would ask the penitent to make a pilgrimage, usually to a local shrine because most people at the time had little money and means for making longer journeys—although there were instances when a journey to Jerusalem would be recommended. A journey of that magnitude would heal a soul of nearly any sin that had been committed, simply because of the connection it would establish between the sinner and the earthly presence of Christ. Such a connection was more powerful to the medieval imagination than that of Christ in the Eucharist—because the average man or woman was rarely if ever permitted to receive Holy Communion. Concern for salvation and belief in the afterlife, including the trials of purgatory—where souls go to be made ready for heaven—were so intense that seeking indulgences (remission of punishment for sins) measured in days became common. At this time, indulgences were granted to Christians who paid money to the Church. For instance, one could earn a reprieve of one hundred days in purgatory for contributing a day’s wages to the construction of a new church. Or two hundred days’ escape from purgatory if you walked the Road to Santiago.

At the time of the First Crusade (1095), when Pope Urban II was whipping up audiences with fervor to join the cause, he was known to say: “Each man who joins in God’s work to free the Holy Land will have his entire penance remitted!” This was one of the first instances of what came to be called an indulgence. The word carries a connotation today of a parent extending special grace and forgiveness to a child. So it was to the medieval sinner. But the indulgence granted by Urban II to the would-be crusader was atypical; it was a plenary indulgence—one that carried forgiveness for a lifetime’s worth of venial (forgivable) sin. Join the Crusade and if you die during the holy cause your salvation is guaranteed, no stop in purgatory necessary, no matter what sins you may have previously committed. That was the promise. Such was the obsession with salvation that men would leave home and family and travel across the world to fight and likely die from wounds or starvation—because of the promise of eternal rest for their souls. Obviously, after this time the practice of granting indulgences for money went too far, and the Church, in time, came to acknowledge its own sin, admitting, “No institution, however holy, has entirely escaped abuse through the malice or unworthiness of man.”1

But indulgences were popular while Peter was growing up. They were to be had at many of the great churches of Rome and elsewhere. The practice became so widespread by 1215 that the Church began putting limits on them. The Fourth Lateran Council limited the length of time to forty days maximum that could be offered by any bishop to one who observed the feast day of a patron saint. This decree doesn’t seem to have been followed, however, as it was reissued time and again in the decades that followed.2

There was too much power in the hands of the Church in general and the pope in particular. Movements and reforms were at work—including vernacular translations of Scripture, the reformation of monastic orders, and the growth of lay movements such as the flagellants—that would slowly and naturally ease some of this power away from the hierarchy, putting greater spiritual responsibility into the hands of individual believers.

Salvation, broadly speaking, began to be offered in other aspects of life. During this century universities of higher learning were founded, opening up a new avenue for study and advancement that wasn’t completely overseen by the Church. Young men had new career options, including studying to become physicians and surgeons and lawyers working in civil courts, just as earlier becoming a knight or a soldier was a choice for young men who wanted to serve the Church. As an example of the latter, Guibert of Nogent wrote: “God has instituted in our time holy wars, so that the order of knights and the crowd running in their wake … might find a new way of gaining salvation. And so they are not forced to abandon secular affairs completely by choosing the monastic life or any religious profession … but can attain in some measure God’s grace while pursuing their own careers.”3 There were many ways to find freedom in this world and the next.

But most important of all were the spiritual groups that developed to satisfy the hungering for heaven that filled ordinary people. As churches focused more on their power and position, these groups focused on asceticism and reforming everyday life in light of spiritual ideals. They were ahead of their time and preceded the greatest mass spiritual movements of the era: those inaugurated by Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. There was an “evangelical awakening” going on at the turn of the thirteenth century as people throughout Western Europe sought more intense experiences of God and spiritual life for themselves.4

One such group was the Humiliati, who originated in Italy in the early twelfth century as an odd association of laypeople who dressed plainly and practiced asceticism (fasting, avoiding any form of comfort), devoting themselves to charity and good works. The name Humiliati refers to their desire to “humiliate” themselves publicly, which they did. They were easily identified in Italian towns because they refused to wear colorful clothing, opting for utter plainness. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux advised them for a time, and in 1134 at his urging many Humiliati men sought the permission of their wives to enter monasteries. It was sometimes disconcerting to local priests and bishops that a spiritual movement initiated by laypeople might be leading people in the ways of Spirit. But the Humiliatis’ efforts were approved by Pope Innocent III in 1201, the same pope who befriended Francis of Assisi a decade later. By the late thirteenth century it was common for people in small villages throughout Italy to adopt Humiliati practices in addition to attending church services and devoting themselves to the usual roles of domestic life. Even today there are loose-knit groups of spiritually minded ascetics in remote parts of Italy who call themselves descendants of the medieval Humiliati.5

There were other movements, as well. Arnold of Brescia (d. 1155), an Italian monk who was active as a reformer of the Church through asceticism, became a vocal critic of papal political power. His superiors ordered Arnold to confine himself to a monastery, but he refused, managing to travel all over Italy preaching repentance and change. He was outspoken on the nobility of poverty as the key to a true, spiritual life. In his sermons, he insisted on what might seem obvious from our perspective today: that the holy father should provide mostly spiritual, rather than political, leadership. Eventually Arnold of Brescia was hanged for heresy by an early embodiment of the Inquisition, after he questioned the value of the sacraments and the necessity for priests.

The Waldensians also arose as a reform movement during this era of spiritual and religious fermentation, although they traced their origins back to the fourth century when Constantine first institutionalized Christianity. They were spurred on by the teachings and example of Peter Waldo (d. 1218), a wealthy French clothier who underwent a dramatic conversion, leaving his property with his wife, giving his money to the poor, and taking to the road as a beggar. Waldo and those who followed him were often called “The Poor of Lyon” since Waldo was raised in that region. The Waldensians traveled all over France, Germany, and Italy urging people to seek a common, simple life, as opposed to a life centered on what we would today call middle-class priorities.

But chief among all of these wandering ascetics were the Cathars, a people who traced their identity back to the Gnostics of the earliest decades of Christianity. Ideologically, they were dualists. They believed that there were two very different aspects of the world: material and spiritual. A Christian’s responsibility was to avoid the material aspects of life and focus instead on recovering the divine light inside themselves, which is obscured by all in human life that is inevitably earthy, beginning with birth from a mother’s womb. The material (bad) always taints the spiritual (good), the Cathars said, so they sought to separate themselves from things of this earth. If they had taken their beliefs only that far, Peter Damian and Peter Morrone would have agreed with this kind of dualism, but the Cathars went further, adding layers onto Christian orthodoxy. In Catharist thought, the earth (and all things material) were the creation of a lesser but nonetheless divine God, known commonly as Satan, and it was Satan’s rule of earthly existence that made it necessary for Christians to remove themselves from contact with everything that was not of the pure mind and spirit.

The Cathars’ dualism was metaphysical, as well. They believed that all human souls originate in heaven and fall to earth, only to be clothed, fatefully and unfortunately, in bodies. Made up of physical matter and thereby naturally corrupt, the human bodies are controlled ultimately by the evil one. Our human lives, the Cathars believed, are characterized by a struggle between God and the evil one, between the spiritual world of purity and the material world of evil and sin. Theologically, they found some justification for these beliefs in the fourth gospel, the one that says nothing of the Son of Man being born of a woman, and instead offers that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory” (Jn. 1:14).

Spiritually, they were like the Waldensians and others before them, advocating a mendicant life as the only true way of following Christ. The Catharist Christ was not so much a man as he was a serene and luminous piece of heaven, a triumph over evil and darkness. Since matter itself was the cause of evil, all contact with matter—anything experienced by the five senses—was an obstacle to be overcome. The Cathars denied that God was the Creator of all things, arguing that the origins of evil are separated from the origins of all that comes from God and is good. The Cathars were intellectual people, for the most part, and their ideas spread into ascetic, ethical imperatives: chastity for everyone, no marriage, no ownership of property (for nothing good could ever be owned); even suicide was sometimes seen as a logical choice.

Politically, the Cathars were a thorn in the side of the papacy, preaching that all should repent, including the holy father—and sometimes primarily him! They took the drive for reform further than any of the other groups had done. They generally despised the clergy, seeing them as the epitome of all of the problems in the churches. Pope Innocent III fought this conflagration of beliefs and practices with all of his ability, even declaring a formal crusade against the Cathars in southern France in 1209 (the year of Peter’s birth). As a result many Cathars fled their footholds in the mountains and many made their way to similar locations in Italy and elsewhere. Peter would come into contact with many Cathars during his seven decades in the Abruzzi mountains. In the nearby town of Verona, for example, 174 of them were burned at the stake for their beliefs in 1274.6 That was the year that Peter traveled to Lyon to attend the ecumenical council.

Evil Incarnate

All of these obsessions with salvation were fueled above all by a preoccupation with the possibility that evil might settle in one unique person—a person of evil intent, or what the First and Second Epistles of John call an “antichrist.” Such a one may be among us, many thought. The Pseudepigraphal Ascension of Isaiah, written late in the first century or early in the second, was the first Christian text to identify a specific person as the antichrist—specifically, the emperor Nero. Saint Augustine of Hippo famously wrote in theCity of God: “It is uncertain in what temple the antichrist will sit, whether in the ruin of the temple that was built by Solomon, or in the Church.” By then, it had become common to look for the antichrist, or at least to see signs of his presence. Just as people looked fervently for an ideal leader, they also tried to sniff out those who might tear down the body of Christ.

During Peter’s era religious leaders would accuse each other of being evil incarnate on a regular basis. Even royal leaders occasionally resorted to using the label as an epithet, suggesting that a rival’s actions might indicate some deeper, more sinister, plan. Frederick II Hohenstaufen was often referred to as an antichrist, or as the evil one’s forerunner, in papal encyclicals in the 1240s, a sign, it was said, that the end of the world was approaching. The encroaching Mongols on the eastern edge of the Western Empire, and fiery passages from the apocalyptic predictions of Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1135–1202), added logs to these blazing verbal fires.7 Within the family of faith, the word antichrist was sometimes thrown about as well, as when the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg accused Pope Gregory IX at a church council in 1241 of being the antichrist because of his claims to infallibility. Even the founder of modern empiricism, Roger Bacon, declared that the antichrist might be walking around in the world in the middle of the thirteenth century. But the most popularly believed candidate for the infamous title remained Emperor Frederick II, until he died in 1250. Then the suspicion was cast on others. And then others. “All wise men believe,” Bacon ominously wrote, “that we are not far removed from the time of antichrist.”8

Philosophers and astronomers also got in on the act, predicting when Satan would rise up and the world would enter its tumultuous period before the end, when true believers would finally be known for certain and nonbelievers cast off. Bacon looked forward to the day when Islam would finally be conquered. He didn’t believe that the evil one would be outrageous or conspicuous; on the contrary, he seemed to see an antichrist who would be created in his own image. He wrote: “Antichrist will use the discoveries of science to crush and confound the power of this world.”9 Intriguingly, Bacon calculated when this period would begin by looking to astrology as interpreted by Muslim theologians. According to such principles, Bacon concluded that Islam would fall, leaving a vacuum for a uniquely evil personage in Islam’s 693rd year: 1294 C.E.

So on the one hand people were searching for signs of the ultimate human incarnation of evil; and on the other, they were seeking someone who might be messiah-like and lead all things toward goodness. The reformist energy of the Humiliati, Waldensians, and Cathars was evident in nearly every town and city in Western Europe and was aimed at discovering what was pure about Christian faith, and creating leaders who could lead the Church back into the messianic era promised by Christ. These two missions were coming quickly to a head at the time when Peter was chosen pope.

One More Forerunner

Only a century earlier, the aforementioned enigmatic Joachim of Fiore had left his place in the Cistercian hierarchy to found an order of penitents in the mountains, becoming the most significant prophet of the century before Peter Morrone. By Peter’s time, Joachim’s teachings were known all over the Christian world.

A controversial figure, Joachim was revered by many but scorned by the serious thinkers of his day. Both Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure were his contemporaries, and neither gave the man or his ideas the time of day. Despite his medieval prominence, he remains an outsider even today. In a sermon delivered in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI’s preacher to the papal household, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, found it necessary to restate the official position of the Church that Joachim was a heretic. Dante, of course (always the contrarian), loved this man of the people and placed him in Paradiso.

Joachim was highly critical of his Church. He was like “an enigmatic oracle foretelling woes, especially on Rome,”10 preaching and writing of a more democratic religious future in which ecclesiastical hierarchy would one day become unnecessary. As a monk and hermit he traveled from hill town to valley city, simultaneously sparking interest and then seeking to avoid the growing crowds of admirers and emulators who sought him out. It’s probably not an accident that our hermit resembles this prophet who was known to many as the “oracle of Calabria.” Peter knew Joachim’s writings and studied his ideas.

A century before Peter, Joachim left his order in order to found a new, stricter, community. Later in both men’s lives each desired no longer to be abbots. Charismatic and capable men were usually chosen to run things, and running a monastery involves a variety of responsibilities. Abbots were required to consider the most mundane things. Who would cook and clean? Who was in charge of milking the goats? These day-to-day details were little more than annoyances to men like Joachim and Peter, who preferred to focus on preaching, teaching, and prayer.

Joachim was also a fierce critic of one of the most popular theological ideas of his age, posited by Peter Lombard in the Four Books of Sentences, a book that every religious student had to study. The idea was that the Godhead, in the purest and most ideal sense, couldn’t ever possibly be known in this world. God could be contemplated but never truly understood. Joachim disagreed, insisting that God wanted to be known in history, in the workings of the world in each era. He interpreted Scripture allegorically, identifying a variety of passages that speak of a new, idealized era and believed that humankind was standing on its threshold. He claimed special revelation. Joachim believed that he was the recipient of apocalyptic insight—messages from God delivered in the form of words to his mind and pen. A new day was at hand, and God had told him so.

Joachim was granted privileges by the people who were drawn to his teachings and by monks who desired his uncommon wisdom. He did a lot of teaching, employing secretaries to copy down his many theories. The resulting body of work was a philosophy that interpreted all of human history. In 1190 or 1191 he first articulated his abstruse prophecies, dividing Christian history into three distinct epochs.

The first era was characterized by the reign of God the Father, during the period of God’s chosen people as told in the Hebrew Bible, when law was the rule and obedience the response. The second era was typified by the advent of God the Son—the story told in the Gospels—with grace and faith governing. But it’s the third era of Joachim’s apocalyptic vision that most concerns us. It was the era that preoccupied the young Peter Morrone. Peter believed that the Joachimite third era had begun in his own day. According to Joachim, it would be a time when God the Holy Spirit would reign and when fear would be replaced by brotherly love, creating the setting for the life of the world to come. The Age of Spirit was upon the thirteenth century; it was “the great Sabbath to come at the end of the world,” as Joachim taught his followers.11 Any spiritual teacher who counseled others on personal repentance, spiritual asceticism, and reform walked in this well-worn path. Any reformer might be the one to usher in this great and final era.

It was in this context that Christians dreamed of a more heavenly future when a holy father might bring peace and order to a chaotic world, in which good could overcome evil, even though good was not as easy to find. Popular in the imagination was the idea of an ideal spiritual father, a blessed pope who would bring Christ’s kingdom to earth. Perhaps their century might eventually reveal “revolutionary change from corruption and ruin to spiritual revival through the revelation of a savior-ruler.”12 This idealized figure was commonly called papa angelico, angelic father.

So many popes in history had acted with indifference or downright hostility toward the faithful that the concept of papa angelico expressed the expectation that one man would be different. He would save the Holy Catholic Church from its obvious faults and lead the world into a more heavenly future. As Roger Bacon was known to say, the world was in such a state of disarray, with evil intentions holding sway over good, that either the antichrist would come or else one who was good and who had power—like a holy pope—would make himself known. This wasn’t exactly a messianic expectation, but it was the promise of an ideal human ruler who would govern without self-interest. It was thought that such a figure would bring peace to the world in a way that would prepare humankind for the Second Coming of Christ.

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