Post-classical history



Sociologist Émile Durkheim once wrote: “When a society is going through circumstances which sadden, perplex, or irritate it, it exercises a pressure over its members, to make them bear witness, by significant acts, to their sorrow, perplexity, or anger. It imposes upon them the duty of weeping, groaning or inflicting wounds upon themselves or others … restor[ing] to the group the energy which circumstances threaten to take away from it.”1

After Peter’s passion, the disciplinati came back stronger than ever before. Throughout the opening years of the new century, during the pontificate of Boniface the usurper, these penitents grew in number all over Italy and Europe. Within half a generation, led by another enigmatic monk, Venturino of Bergamo, a group of more than 10,000 men and women with whips made its way to the steps of St. Peter’s in Rome during Lent 1335. They marched for peace and repentance. They desperately wanted to make an appeal to the thrones of power but also to people everywhere. But they would be frustrated. By then the pope was in Avignon, France.

Within three days of his election, Boniface VIII had rescinded every favor of leniency that Celestine had granted. Many of the Franciscan Spirituals fled to faraway places such as Greece and Sicily to “withdraw from the brothers’ wrath and … that they should retreat to … freely serve the Lord,” according to Angelo Clareno, who took over their leadership in 1305 and wrote the history of the period.2 Jacopone of Todi, the Spirituals’ poet, wrote searing verses about churches weeping, souls floundering, and true virtue wasting away. “No Earthly stuff / Deserves your heart’s desire,” he laments to his brothers.

    You are not nourished by created things

    Your body’s wings [the soul]

    To other realms must fly.3

Their hope had vanished. There didn’t even seem to be reasons left for living on this earth; they should, the poet counseled, live only in “heaven.”

The Spirituals, who were by then one with the order of Celestine hermits, had rejected Boniface VIII as their holy father and were promptly (and understandably) excommunicated by him. One might imagine that the order slid into oblivion after these events, but it didn’t. In fact, 250 years later they had some ninety monasteries, including ones near Paris, as well as in Barcelona and Bohemia.4 They lasted until the Napoleonic era.

In the Kingdom of Naples and beyond it seemed that darkness had settled over everything. The people slowly heard the stories of what had happened, that Celestine was dead, and their loss of hope was reflected, they believed, in floods, searing heat waves, and winter storms.

Mystical experience became more pronounced and prominent in religious life. What started as a single experience of stigmata by Francis of Assisi eighty years earlier became a near-commonplace claim of women and men throughout Western Europe in the early decades after Celestine’s death. Meanwhile, acts of personal asceticism became more popular than ever, as people’s apocalyptic fears rose to extraordinary levels.

Epidemics flared, and again people saw God’s hand in the dangers and in their losses. There were various outbreaks of bubonic plague leading up to the Black Death pandemic that took place from 1348 to 1350, during which half the population of Europe died, more than thirty million people. The feeling of impending death was in every café, village square, and church. Boccaccio cynically wrote that men were having lunch with their friends at home and then dinner with their ancestors in the afterlife. The most popular hymn of the fourteenth century was penned by Thomas of Celano, Saint Francis’s first biographer. It was called Dies irae or “Day of Wrath,” and the opening lines read like this:

    Day of wrath, O day of mourning!

    See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,

    Heaven and earth in ashes burning.

    Oh, what fear man’s bosom rendeth

    When from Heav’n the Judge descendeth

    On whose sentence all dependeth!5

Jacopone of Todi wrote verses about such things as well, contemplating the meaning of impending physical death in one his most famous works, Laude. The poem imagines the world as an awful place where human desire is always foiled ultimately by God. There are images of bare skulls shorn of their flowing hair, once bright eyes gone from their sockets, “the worms have gnawed them, and have quenched their light,” and a tongue that may have been cut out, or perhaps “your teeth have gnawed it off corrosively!” The concluding quatrain goes like this:

    Now look on me, O man of worldly mind;

    No longer in this world will you pleasures find;

    For step by step, I think you are foolish and blind!

    You’ll be bound and shackled most cruelly!6

These were more than omens; they were presages of a new age, a time when the end of one era was being marked and an ominous vision was being expressed about the era to come. Angelo Clareno claimed that this was all God’s will and judgment. As he eerily put it, the people of the early fourteenth century were living in the midst of a tribulation period that was the consequence of Pope Celestine’s abdication, and had been foretold before he was elected: “A certain person is said to have received from an angel of the Lord before the election of Lord Celestine, namely that for twenty-eight years after his renunciation a great tribulation would take place.”7 It would be a century before the Renaissance would flood any real illumination into these darkest of times.

The French cardinal and theologian Pierre d’Ailly wrote a Life of Celestine V in 1407. He echoed Angelo Clareno’s interpretation of events and lay responsibility for the divisions in the Church at the feet of Boniface VIII: “[Celestine V’s] example of honorable humility should have been imitated by those who, in these times of misery and suffering, have done all they could to attain this supreme honor. Then the Church would not have been riven for thirty years by their horrible discord and disastrous schism.”8

In many respects the Middle Ages came to an end right about the time when the hermit pope died in a castle prison.

Celestine V was the latest, and for many, the last, hope of those who believed that a man could wield both political and spiritual power and rule the one apostolic Church and the world with the wisdom of King Solomon and the compassion of Christ. To those who saw the calamities of the 1300s as God’s judgment, Peter Morrone’s papacy represented a failed attempt to raise a profoundly spiritual, unworldly man to the throne in the expectation that the world would follow him. Just as some of Christ’s disciples were disappointed that he didn’t come to earth to be a temporal ruler, those in power crushed Celestine when they saw his glaring political and social incapacities.

The Middle Ages have been called many things, including “when Europe was ‘Christendom’ ” by Paul Johnson.9 The period that saw the burgeoning of monasticism, mystical and subtle thinkers such as Pseudo-Dionysius and Thomas Aquinas, and the building of soaring Gothic cathedrals was a period when most people believed that religion would sort and solve life’s problems and give life meaning. Christendom, for good and for bad, flourished, dominating every aspect of life. With the episode of Celestine V, the dissolution of the Church’s influence over the State took one step closer to becoming reality. For centuries people had believed that a pope was chosen by the guiding hand of God, and his success, despite any possible corruption or problems, was entirely in God’s will. Similarly, every king and queen and prince was believed to rule by divine authority. There were no truly secular rulers; princes and lords functioned almost like clergy in their responsibilities for the welfare of the people under their power. No longer. Since the turn of the fourteenth century, we have lived in the era of cynicism toward both religious and civil authority. There is no acceptance that their interests are our interests.

The papa angelico experiment was a clear failure. The effects were felt everywhere.

Consolidation of Power

As much as Boniface VIII is remembered for his relations with his predecessor, he is just as notable for his bull on papal supremacy. This was the papacy’s greatest temporal power grab yet. On November 18, 1302, Boniface issued Unam Sanctam (Latin for “The One Holy”), which charted a decisive course for how the Church relates to the world. For the first time it was made doctrine that salvation was impossible outside of the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Boniface employed a variety of metaphors and references to Scripture in order to make this point. Perhaps most powerfully, he compared the singularity of the Church to the ark of Noah: “It was finished in one cubit and had one helmsman and captain, namely Noah, and we read that all things on Earth outside of it were destroyed.”10 Perhaps the most famous papal bull ever written by any pope in history, Unam Sanctam states:

Therefore, if the Earthly power errs, it shall be judged by the spiritual power, if a lesser spiritual power errs it shall be judged by its superior, but if the supreme spiritual power errs it can be judged only by God not by man, as the apostle witnesses, “The spiritual man judgeth all things and he himself is judged of no man” [1 Cor. 2:15]. Although this authority was given to a man and is exercised by a man it is not human but rather divine, being given to Peter at God’s mouth, and confirmed to him and to his successors in him, the rock whom the Lord acknowledged when he said to Peter himself “Whatsoever thou shalt bind” etc. [Mt. 16:19]. Whoever therefore resists this power so ordained by God resists the ordinance of God.11

This successor to the saintly pope was attempting to solidify the temporal power of the papacy, over and above all other earthly rulers. The angelic course of action had failed miserably; now it would be demonstrated that the only spiritual qualification necessary for world rule was an election to the chair of Peter.

Boniface’s position was made easier by the works of a theologian written 150 years earlier. In 1150 the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a famous letter to his friend and former pupil Pope Eugenius III. The Second Crusade had recently and disastrously failed, and the occasion of Bernard’s letter was to urge Eugenius to wield the full power of the Church, which had been diminished by weakness and corruption, to call another crusade to the Holy Land. In the process, Bernard articulated what quickly came to be known as the “two swords theory” of how secular power derives entirely from Church and pope. The argument goes like this: Both swords are held by the Church, and the princes who rule the temporal world use their sword only at her request or for her benefit.

There are “spiritual and temporal swords,” Bernard wrote, “and the second one is to be drawn for the Church, while the first one is drawn by the Church.”

Bernard compared these swords to the one that Saint Peter carried on the night of Christ’s arrest outside the Garden of Gethsemane. Remember: Peter famously lashed out to protect Jesus, cutting off the right ear of the high priest’s servant. When Jesus told Peter to stop acting so rashly, it was essentially the Lord and Savior commanding the first pope to put his sword back into its sheath (see Jn. 18:11)—even if just for a time. In 1150 Bernard was urging his friend, saying that it was now time for the Church to take both swords out.12 Pope Eugenius III appreciated such an argument. Why wouldn’t he? It would be rare for a person in power to argue that he should not exercise the power that is granted to him.

Another predecessor of Boniface VIII, Pope Innocent III, then built on Bernard of Clairvaux’s theory and consolidated papal power by extending it to cover every human being on the planet. It didn’t matter that not every human being was Christian or resided within Christendom; the pope was the vicar of Christ for the entire earth. Each duly elected man sat in Christ’s stead. This is how Innocent III put it, when he not so graciously accepted the submission of King John of England (sealer of the Magna Carta and the king of Robin Hood legends) to papal authority in 1214:

Jesus Christ … has so established in the Church His kingdom and His priesthood that the one is a kingdom of priests and the other a royal priesthood, as is testified by Moses in the Law and by Peter in his Epistle; and over all He has set one whom He has appointed as His Vicar on Earth, so that, as every knee is bowed to Jesus, of things in heaven, and things in Earth, and things under the Earth, so all men should obey His Vicar and strive that there may be one fold and one shepherd. All secular kings for the sake of God so venerate this Vicar, that unless they seek to serve him devotedly they doubt if they are reigning properly.13

All created life was subject to the pope. And the pope was in turn subject to no one but Christ.

These notions endured into the thirteenth century. When Peter was a young leader of hermits on Mount Morrone, Innocent IV (1243–54) also took up Bernard of Clairvaux’s metaphor and instructed the use of the temporal sword in all manner of ways, showing that there was no distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms of his authority. He appointed an administrator of Portugal, granting kingdoms to princes just as emperors might do. He took sides with King Henry III of England, contrary to the wishes of the bishops of that land. He even sent ambassadors to the Muslim Mongols, telling them that as Christ’s vicar it was within his power to punish them if they continued to break the Ten Commandments.

Exercising power often turned into abusing power. In 1282, for example, only a dozen years before Celestine V was elected, Pope Martin IV excommunicated the entire island of Sicily as punishment for their revolt. Today a single papal excommunication can make headlines around the world, and the reasons are examined and debated on all sides. Imagine today: The pope excommunicates the inhabitants of … Scotland! But in the Middle Ages a pope was much more than a spiritual figure. He was more than a man with political influence. He was more than a king. He was, in effect, God on earth. It was a position that Boniface relished.

With Unam Sanctum Boniface argued that both the spiritual and temporal swords were in his power. Expanding on the famous analogy of Bernard of Clairvaux, Boniface wrote: “[T]he one is exercised for the church, the other by the church, the one by the hand of the priest, the other by the hand of kings and soldiers, though at the will and suffrance of the priest. One sword ought to be under the other and the temporal authority subject to the spiritual power.”14

Within a few years of the death of Boniface VIII in 1303, the city of Rome was being lamented as the capital of an empire that once was, and the papacy was in retreat to the South of France. Pope Benedict XI then ruled for less than a year, dying in 1304, most likely murdered. Pope Clement V was elected in 1305 and in 1309 began what is known as the Avignon papacy. After this Frenchman fled Italy for the next sixty-seven years popes were dominated by French politicians and noblemen, ruling entirely from Avignon. Seven consecutive popes ruled from southern France rather than from Rome:

    • Clement V, 1305–14 (Raymond Bertrand of Got)

    • John XXII, 1316–34 (Jacques d’Euse)

    • Benedict XII, 1334–42 (Jacques Fournier)

    • Clement VI, 1342–52 (Pierre Roger)

    • Innocent VI, 1352–62 (Etienne Aubert)

    • Urban V, 1362–70 (Guillaume Grimoard)

    • Gregory XI, 1370–78 (Pierre Roger of Beaufort)

The last French pope in history to be recognized by the Church (there were antipopes after this), was Gregory XI, who died on March 27, 1378.

Following on the heels of the Avignon papacy was the Great Papal Schism of 1378–1415, when at least two men at once claimed to be pope, further undermining the prospects for a consolidated Church with temporal or spiritual authority. Birgitta Gudmarsson, the famous and wealthy widow with eight children who founded a religious order and experienced visions of Christ, known to history as Saint Bridget of Sweden, tells us a lot about what happened during these exile years. She was in Rome doing penance for the failures of Christendom, urging anyone who would listen that the pope must come home. The Church was in ruin and in need of saving. Throughout her Liber Celestis (Book of Heaven) Bridget laments like a Hebrew prophet the lost glory of the city of Rome:

I see with my own eyes that there are many churches where the bodies of blessed saints lie in rest. Some of these buildings have been enlarged, but the hearts of the men who administer them are away from God.

Rome, Rome, your walls are broken and your gates are unguarded! Your sacred vessels have been sold and your wine, sacrifices, and incense have all been wasted. No sweetness remains in your holy places.

Now I can speak to Rome as the prophet once spoke to Jerusalem—where people used to live in righteousness and where princes loved peace. But now Rome has turned the color of rust. Its princes are murderers. Romans, your days are numbered; you should be mourning rather than rejoicing.15

This prophetic and determined woman was right: the century after Celestine V was disastrous for the faithful, and the Church was in shambles. While Boniface VIII was still in power, Jacopone of Todi poignantly wrote:

    Where are the Fathers, once filled with faith?

    Where are the Prophets, full of hope and praise?

    Where are the Apostles, filled with zeal?

    Where are the Martyrs, full of strength?

    Not one comes near.

All of these events—the popes’ claims of power and spiritual authority, the fleeing of successive popes to Avignon, counter-popes and antipopes, the second great schism of Christianity, and eventually, what became the Reformation—fell hard on the heels of what happened in 1294–96. One wonders if Celestine could have reformed the Church and put it on a different course from the one it would follow. He saw the problems clearly enough, but his decision not to act sent the papacy and the Catholic Church in these unfortunate directions.

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