The fall of Rome meant the rise of the Vatican as Europe broke up into small feudal states. But when France emerged as a major nation its kings were done taking orders from the Papacy. What followed was centuries of on-and-off conflict to decide whether God's Chosen Ruler or Christ's Vicar on Earth ruled Europe.
Hello, I’m your guest host Quentin Adams. Today we are going to journey back into the middle ages, a fascinating time period of knights, chivalry, plague and people who were way too serious about religion. This series about the rise and decline of the medieval papacy. I envision this as the first installment of a two or possibly three part series that will culminate in a discussion of France during the Reformation.
Let’s begin by reviewing the situation of the Church in the late 10th and early 11th centuries, a time period usually associated with the tail end of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. Much of Europe, and especially France, was slowly recovering from the absolute thrashing delivered to them by a series of invaders over the previous two centuries. The French were particularly hammered by the vikings as is well known, and under this intense pressure, power had become massively decentralized, the new Capetian Kings of France being as of yet far from the likes of Philip Augustus or Louis IX. One important result of this decentralization of power was that churches in these areas became closely tied to local secular rulers, those rulers often being the literal possessors of their churches or monasteries. This meant that these rulers also controlled appointments to Church livings, and therefore that in many cases appointments were given to friends and family, as would continue to be the case throughout the Middle Ages–at least for many of the Popes, as we will see!
Now the papacy in Rome was also heavily controlled by secular forces in the early 11th century, whether it be the local Roman aristocratic families or the periodic heavy handedness of the German Emperors. The German Kingdom had managed to fare better coming out of the invasions of the 10th century, and its Kings thus still wielded much power and prestige, and continued to see themselves as the main caretakers of the empire’s spiritual well-being. This was clearly evident in the actions of the young Emperor Henry III who in 1046 marched into Rome and deposed a series of simonaical popes, simony being when a priest buys their position, placing in their stead a series of three German popes. One of these popes, Leo IX, who happened to be a cousin of Henry, is typically seen as the Pope who launched the so-called period of Papal reform. Leo began his pontificate by condemning lay investiture, simony, clerical marriage and concubinage in the strongest terms through a series of regional synods. This also began the process whereby the Papacy extended its practical influence beyond Rome into the wider European arena.
At least two other critical developments took place under Leo. One was the bringing of a curious monastic to Rome, a small fiery man named Hildebrand, the future Gregory VII; and the other was the arrival of the Normans as a significant presence in southern Italy and Sicily. As the Normans began to encroach on the Patrimony, Leo attempted a disastrous attack and was taken captive. Somewhat ironically, the Normans still supported the setting up of Latin church structures in their territories, and this led the deeply offended Byzantines, who had hitherto been rulers of southern Italy, to suspend all Latin services in Constantinople. This tragiocomedy ended with the Pope and Patriarch each excommunicating the other in 1054.
Another step of taken by the Reforming popes came in 1059 when a synod under Nicholas II promulgated a decree declaring that future popes would be elected by seven cardinal bishops. This was intended to dispense with the power of the crowd or other lay influences which had up till this time played major roles in choosing successive Popes.
Another sign of the increasing independence of the papacy came in the years after the death of Henry III in 1056. The Emperor’s death left a minority in Germany, which greatly hampered German ability to play their traditional role as defenders of the Papacy. Concerned for their practical needs, the papacy turned fatefully to the Normans. This move set off a process of alienation from the German court as well as the volatile factions in Rome, both resenting their loss of control. In fact, the German bishops would eventually excommunicate the pope for this shift, and a conspiracy of Roman nobles and the German regent sought to place an antipope, Honorius II, in charge of the Holy See. At least on this occasion, the wily Normans came in handy, and they drove Honorius out of the city. In exchange, the Normans gained papal support for their other European-wide ventures, including their crusades in Spain and William’s invasion of England in 1066. The Popes of course justified these moves by arguing that these ventures would ultimately bring much needed reform to the Churches in these areas’
In 1073 the monk Hildebrand, who had already played key roles under several previous reforming popes, was chosen to succeed Alexander II as Gregory VII. At least in theory if not in practical result, the apex of the papal reform ideal were embodied by Gregory. It was much owing to Gregory’s hard line against King Philip I of France that the latter was excommunicated and would remain so at the time of the First Crusade, accused of both bigamous and incestuous marriages, preying on merchants, and trading illicitly in sacred objects in his appointment of bishops. Gregory was also able to bring much of southern France closely in line with Papal policy. Ironically, though, despite the northern French bishops by and large sticking by Philip I, the Capetian contribution to the First Crusade was much greater than the papacy had anticipated. The investiture controversy that had erupted between Gregory VII and emperor Henry IV resulted ultimately in the sacking of Rome, the death of Gregory in exile with the Normans, and continuing bitterness between Popes and Emperors. But this of course inevitably worked to the benefit of the Capetians, as succesive popes now looked to Northern France in their ongoing struggle with the empire.
But Gregory’s papacy was certainly not a failure in at least one major sense. The next several popes appear to have learned from Gregory’s struggles that the attempt to rule rulers was simply too risky and too costly; they began instead to strengthen the papacy’s hold over the Church itself. Moreover, Gregory’s legacy lived on insofar as medieval popes down to Boniface VIII at least continued to resist secular designs on the papacy’s spiritual authority, an authority the power of which was brilliantly manifested and also consolidated in the outpouring of support for the First Crusade’.
So the main trend we will see developing over the next two centuries is the growth and eventually the over-growth of what medievalists call the ‘Papal Monarchy’. It is for one thing telling that the term ‘Papal curia’, which is to say Papal court, comes from this period. And indeed, perhaps the principal way that the papacy centralized power unto itself was through the growth and consolidation of canon law and the Rise of the papal courts in Rome as key centers for the resolving of any and every ecclesiastical dispute. As Professor Eamon Duffy says in his book on the Popes, humorously titled ‘Saints and Sinners’, the papal monarchy kept growing because ‘Western Christendom found the papacy invaluable.’ In addition to settling legal disputes, the papacy also helped provide a check on local vested interests and played a leading role in arbitrating treaties between warring nations. Regional synods that had once wielded much local power during this period increasingly functioned as rubber stamps for policies delivered by papal officials. The bureaucracy continued to grow, and to oversee it more efficiently, the college of Cardinals also developed into a highly significant executive body.
The shift of the papacy to being more of a royal court heavily involved in legal disputes is further illustrated by the string of ‘Lawyer Popes’ that held the See in the latter 12th and 13th centuries. Pope Alexander III (1159-1181) is held to have issued 700 legal decisions alone! But as the court grew in this way, criticisms inevitably rose too. Popular slogans emerged, it being said for instance ‘that the only saints venerated at Rome..were saints Albinus and Rufus, silver and gold’; another was a satirical ploy on the beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the wealthy, for theirs is the court of Rome’. But to be fair to the popes, notwithstanding their growing power, the difficulties they faced were still many: encroachment on the Patrimony by the Normans, invasions by the Emperor, and continued hostility from the Roman population — indeed a number of 12th century popes would be forced to spend long periods outside of Rome.
Yet one of the main results of these difficulties was the recourse by successive popes to various and often ill-conceived methods of raising the needed resources. Huge fees for this issuing of the pallium to newly appointed Archbishops, taxes on monasteries and churches for ‘papal protection’, feudal dues taken from regions like Spain and Sicily that were considered papal fiefs, and the ‘Peter’s Pence’ tax widely resented in England and Poland’. But to re-emphasize Duffy’s point about the papacy becoming invaluable, we can see that a good number were willing to abide all of the above, in exchange, for example, of gaining autonomy from local episcopal control: some 270 monasteries had paid for the privilege in the 11th c; some 2000 would do so in the 12th.
By the end of the 12th c we see the election of Innocent III, usually seen as the most powerful of medieval popes. Innocent was indeed powerful enough to early in the 12th century to force King John of England to make England a papal fief and pay 1,000 marks a year for the privilege as well as accept his candidate for the archbishopric; on the other hand, he was also powerful enough in 1215 to declare the Magna Carta null and void and help John against his rebellious barons. Papal power was also evidenced by the ruthless Crusade against the Albigensians in southern France, and by the simple fact that a popular charismatic movement like that begun by Francis of Assisi needed and sought papal backing.
Moreover, under Innocent’s successors, we see the official institution of the inquisition in 1231 and in the same year the incorporation of the imperial law directing that heretics be burned. While papal inquisition courts were sent out in theory to aid the overworked diocesan courts, in practice they often ended up overriding and supplanting them. Innocent IV inherited from his earlier namesake the task of dealing with Frederick II, who had up to that time had spent his years after Innocent III’s death defying successive popes and seeking to encircle the papacy. He is the emperor who is infamous for keeping an Islamic style harem, complete with eunuch guards, and for going on crusade while excommunicate and actually succeeding! Thus was the papacy engaged in the destruction of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, an involvement that inevitably earned scorn from the more spiritually attuned wings of the Church.
This struggle also saw the papacy of the latter 13th century turn toward the Angevin dynasty of France for protection and defense of its interests especially in Italy and Sicily. Yet, the same Charles of Anjou who was papally supported was very quickly, in the words of one well-known historian, papally regretted. Much like the Hohenstaufen before him, Charles was interested in creating a wider empire, one that included Sicily, italy and also the Byzantine empire. Closer ties with France also led to the infiltration of the College of Cardinals by many Frenchmen in the latter 13th c which in turn caused the development of factions based on nationality–some French Cardinals became essentially lobbyists for French kings. Factionalism would lead to divisive Conclaves and sometimes rather long vacancies, such as that between 1268 and 1271.
Yet perhaps the most significant result of all this involvement in secular politics and fighting was the need for ever more money. Thus the Popes of the latter 13th c began to claim the right to all bishoprics (because each of these nominees would have to pay a sizable fee to the Holy See), and eventually claimed the right to nominate to all benefices whose incumbents died while they were in Rome or, a bit later, who died within 2 days journey of Rome. Monarchs made the most of this trend by seeking to have their state servants appointed by the Pope in order to have such officials paid by Church rather than secular funds. Conversely, someone like John Wycliff could appeal for a benefice and be denied, and this at least in part played into Wycliff’s subsequent hostility toward the papacy.
The best and worst of the Papal monarchy by the late 13th came together in the person of Pope Boniface VIII, who presided from 1294 to 1303. On one hand he is remembered for highlighting the power and spiritual might of the Papacy through the Jubilee he called for 1300. He was also known as a very capable administrator and hard worker. Yet, on the other hand, he has been condemned to the wrong side of History for centuries of readers in Dante’s Inferno. Herein Dante humorously compares the traffic arrangements for the crowds in Hell to the one-way system Boniface had set up for the pilgrims to Rome in 1300. It is true of course that Boniface was not the most upstanding Pope. Upon his election, he ruthlessly hunted down his predecessor Celestine V–who had returned to the monastic life–and threw him into a miserable imprisonment until his death at age 90. He also used papal resources to enrich his family, to wage war on his families rivals the Colonna, to secure French support against Florence and to try to make Scotland a papal fief.
More pertinent for our story is Boniface’s ill-conceived confrontation with King Philip the Fair of France. Philip was engaged as many of his predecessors had been in ongong conflicts with the King of England. Aiming to raise funds for the reconquest of Gascony, Philip decided to tax his clergy. In response, and in an action that would reveal both the inflated sense of papal prestige and strength and the much advanced powers of secular rulers, Boniface issued the Bull ‘Clericis Laicos’ which forbade the laity to take or the clergy to give away the property of the Church. A propaganda war thus went back and forth, culminating in one of the most famous papal bulls ever issued, ‘Unam Sanctam’ which declared it ‘altogether necessary for salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.’
Not only did this not change Philip’s mind, it resulted in something far more humiliating for the Pope. French agents in coordination with two deposed Colonna cardinals and other relatives mobbed the pope at his palace in Anagni. Although the locals eventually forced the attackers out, Boniface never recovered from this degradation: he died within a month.
After the very short rule of Boniface’s immediate successor in Perugia, the Conclave arrived there to select the new Pope; but they were divided into two bitterly opposed camps, one leaning toward France, the other opposed to France and set on taking revenge for the mistreatment of Pope Boniface at Anagni. After an 11 month deadlock, a split in the anti-French party led to the choice of the Archbishop of Bordeaux as Pope Clement V (1305-14), a canon lawyer with good ties with Philip the Fair. His settling in Avignon in 1309, not a French territory at the time by the way, was NOT intended to be permanent. It made sense at that time to remain in Avignon at least temporarily owing to the chaos in central Italy and to the prospect of arbitrating a peace between England and France.
But inevitably the Papacy fell under the thumbs of successive French Kings. Philip the Fair was able to make Clement V (1305-14) strike all of Boniface’s anti-French legislation from papal records and to make Celestine V, former pope and prisoner of Boniface, a saint. Most famously, Clement was pressured into dissolving the Knights Templar and was unable to soften the blow on the Knights that the French government subsequently unleashed.
While it is still true that the papacy became increasingly ‘French’ over its 14th c stay in Avignon, some historians have made the case that it was in fact at Avignon that the the papacy gained ‘hitherto unknown peace and stability’, to use the words of French historian Yves Renouard. The curia became more organized and bureaucratized, allowing centralization to progress even further. This was reflected in increasingly regularized taxation schemes and even more control by popes over major appointments.
Yet, while the bureaucracy became more efficient and centralization progressed, the papacy somewhat counter-intuitively became weaker in each kingdom. The lawyer-popes who sat at Avingon did not pay much attention to the spiritual and mystical trends taking shape in this century and failed to undertake serious reforms in this regard. One major consequence of this, and one quite damaging to the papacy’s reputation, was the conflict with the Spiritual Franciscans. Pope John XXII (1316-1334) went as far as officially condemning the teaching that scripture proved that Christ and his Apostles were paupers; he also abandoned the traditional papal stance as the true ‘owners’ of Franciscan property, the latter being merely the ‘users’ of it.
The Avignon popes also suffered from the perception that much of their income was taken from England and Germany, this perception no doubt relating to the reality of the 100 Years’ War raging during this period. In fact, it has been shown that more than 50% of papal income came from France alone! Yet it was still the case that many of the Avignon Popes spent money unwisely. John XXII is said to have spent some 65% of his income on warfare, and according to Eamon Duffy ‘two thirds of all the revenues raised by the Avignon papacy was spent on retaining mercenary armies and on the sweetening of allies in the snakepit of Italian politics.’
What about the impact of the Black Death on the Church? As French Historian Georges Duby reminds us, the Black Death beginning in 1348 was undoubtedly the most important event of the 14th century. A well known historian of the Plague, Dr. Ziegler, concludes of the church that ‘there can be little doubt that it had changed, and changed almost exclusively for the worse’. There was a widespread sense that the Church had let people down. Moreover, it tended to be true that the best of the clergy died while the worst survived. The loss of so many clerics also necessitated the importation of more men: Ziegler notes that many of the new recruits displayed a ‘noticeable new acquisitiveness’. On the other hand, so many deaths led to openings in non-spiritual endeavors as well, and this led many talented men to pursue their ambitions in non-ecclesiastical careers. All of the intensified emotions brought by the plague, and the lack of sufficient response from the Church, also meant that the trend of the most significant spiritual and devotional developments taking place outside of and even in opposition to the institutional church accelerated. One historian, Prof Coulton, looking forward to the 16th century, concedes that the Plague did not itself cause the Reformation but maintains that it nevertheless sustained a state of mind in which doctrines were more easily doubted. Thus we should remember that the church that proto-Reformers like Wycliff were attacking in the latter 14th century was one which had been victimized by the Plague and had therefore already lost much in terms of leadership and social esteem.
But there were other perhaps more serious causes for this lack of esteem. Only a short time after Gregory IX (1370-8) had at last taken the papacy back to Rome in 1377, he passed away. As the Conclave met, the rowdy Roman populace put serious pressure on the Cardinals for fear that another Frenchman might be chosen. In the end a non-Roman Italian was elected as Urban VI, but he turned out to be unfavorable to almost everyone. Within 6 months of this election, the Cardinals fled Rome, declared Urban’s election invalid, and elected Clement VII as their new Pope. Clement led the curia back to Avignon, but Urban responded by simply creating a new curia for himself in Rome. Thus began the Great Schism (1378-1417). With European nations subsequently dividing along political lines especially given the ongoing 100 Years’ War conflict, chaos reigned in the church as each Pope appointed rival candidates to the same sees and benefices. Plus each curia now had roughly half the income that it should’ve had.
Under the strain and frustration of the Schism grew up the Conciliar Movement, though at least some of its major ideas were not entirely original. Serious questions were raised about the nature of papal supremacy. Intellectuals began to look for alternatives to the settling of the Schism that did not rely on the two popes, seeing as neither pope seemed to be particularly interested in effecting a solution.
The first Conciliar effort was undertaken at Pisa in 1409, when dissatisfied Cardinals from both curias summoned a Council to depose both current popes and elect a third pope, Alexander V. There was just one major problem: netiehr Gregory XII nor Benedict XIII accepted their depositions, and so now Christendom had not one, not two, but three popes! This humiliating situation persisted until 1417 when the Council of Constance finally left only Martin V in power.
The legacy of the Conciliar movement to the future of the church is of course controversial. But most historians conclude that by the mid 15th century, it had run its course, making Popes once again supreme over the Church. This eventuality is often explained by noting the mistakes made by the Conciliarists. One significant error that can be identified in retrospect is the election of Martin V before reaching an agreement about implementing serious reforms. Since many of these reforms would have entailed seriously limiting the powers of the pope, it is no surprise that neither Martin nor his successors were on board with enforcing them. This conflict with successive popes pressed the Conciliarists into ever more radical positions, even going so far as electing Felix V as an anti-pope. This sort of radicalism was unsavory to majority opinion, and the popes also gained popular favor to their side by throwing together a sham reunion with the Orthodox Church in 1439–an agreement that was almost immediately disowned by the eastern hierarchy and in any case became a dead letter after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
Another tact taking by Popes against the Conciliarists was to reach agreements with the secular rulers of the day, agreements that, while gaining monarchical favor against conciliarism, on the whole drastically reduced papal control over local churches as well as papal income. The most well-known of these agreements was the 1438 Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges. This was certainly a case of the French Crown taking advantage of the sceptre of Conciliarism to further their own interests: the papacy was from this point forward disallowed from bestowing and profiting from benefices, appeals to the Curia from areas beyond 2 days journey from Rome were banned, and interdict could not be utilized unless if was shown that the entire community was responsible.
Historian Eamon Duffy concludes his analysis of the results of the Conciliar movement by noting that by the mid 15th century, the church had in many ways come full circle back to where it had been before the mid 11th century. It was once more trapped in Italian politics, criticized by the most devout churchmen of the day, and seen by many as the chief obstacle to desperately needed reform. And now thanks to their agreements with secular rulers, Popes had to find ways to recoup their financial losses.
How would the Popes of the latter 15th and early 16th centuries manage this situation? Not spectacularly as it turned out. But that is not to say that we should totally write off the so-called Renaissance Popes. It was under such popes that the Western World was gifted with the great works of the Renaissance artists, and that the rebuilding and beautification of Rome began in earnest, especially under Nicholas V. But all of this cost money, and by this time, as noted above, sources of income were shrinking. This placed much more pressure on popes to defend the Papal states as one of the few significant sources of wealth still in papal possession. This makes it more understandable why popes like Sixtus VI (1471-84) were variously allied with the surrounding city states, sending their armies into battle much like their fellow princes the Dukes of Milan and Florence. It also helps explain, without excusing, why Innocent VIII forged an alliance with the Medici by marrying his illegitimate son to a Medici daughter, while the Borgia Alexander VI fathered at least nine illegitimate children and used their marriages to build alliances useful to himself. Julius II was less reproachable in terms of his private life, and he seems to have genuinely sought the welfare of the papacy over his own connections. But it is still hard to reconcile the idea of Christ’s supposed vicar on earth armoring up and leading troops into battle against fellow Christians. He also made 6 of his nephews Cardinals. A bit earlier, Innocent VIII by way of thanks to the Medici made the future Leo X (1513-21) a Cardinal at the age of only 13.
The Popes’ position as Renaissance princes was also to some extent forced upon them by the French invasion of the peninsula in 1494 and the subsequent Habsburg-Valois wars that centered on Italy. This was the context for the French attempt, in conjunction with some disgruntled Cardinals, to set up a Council at Pisa in 1512, for Pope Julius II had turned out be a serious foe to French interests the wars. Although this attempt failed, it did force Julius to call a council of his own, the Fifth Lateran council, to which we will return shortly.
In addition to taking on the roles of a typical Renaissance aristocrat, the Renaissance popes also sought other ways to shore up their positions. The most well known of these was the expansion of the practice of selling indulgences. Julius II’s indulgence for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s was of course the one that Luther would end up writing against in 1517, although it was also true that in Luther’s part of Germany, the proceeds of the indulgence were also being shared with the pluralist and absentee Archbishop of Magedeburg who needed money to pay off the bribes and loans he had just used to purchase the Archbishopric of Mainz. To the selling of indulgences was added the selling of offices. In an effort to gain more quick capital, Popes created more and often meaningless posts to be sold. This greatly hampered reform because it created a large class of men with an unhealthy interest in preventing any changes to the status quo.
From 1512 to 1517, Lateran V met and achieved essentially nothing of practical value., Leo X, while the conference sat, came to terms with Francis I in the Concordat of Bologna. This restored a semblance of papal authority in France by resurrecting annates and the right of appeal to the Holy See, but in the end it basically increased Francis’ control over the French Church while also gaining at least temporary papal support for his Italian designs. His mistakes in the following year, 1517, however, were more crucial, for he completely failed to grasp the seriousness of the crisis that was then spreading like fire throughout Germany. The Renaissance Popes, and especially Leo X, had become so wrapped up in Italian and Roman politics that they failed to fully comprehend the by now widespread anti-papal sentiments sustained by Germany. The Germans had not forgotten the central role played by past popes in undermining the German Emperors, nor could they forget the current financial and jurisdictional demands the Church levied on them in the present.
While Leo’s successor, Hadrian VI, might seem to have been a solid choice, he was in fact chosen essentially because he was the least bad option. Having been Grand Inquisitor in the Habsburg Netherlands, he took an impractical line on Luther that, while reflecting his genuine zeal for reform, demonstrated his misunderstanding of the potential of Luther’s teachings. In any case, Hadrian only lasted from 1522-23, and his successor left much to be desired. A true Renaissance aristocrat, the Medici Clement VII was both complacent and hopelessly indecisive. Moreover, his ongoing conflict with the Holy Roman Emperor played a critical role in preventing unified action against the spread of Protestantism. This was clearly seen in the aftermath of the imperial sacking of Rome in 1527 after which Clement was effectively Charles’ prisoner. In this position, and faced with the demands for divorce from the hopelessly stubborn and egotistical Henry VIII, Clement had to bow to Charles’ demands and refuse Henry; Charles, after all, was Catherine of Aragon’s nephew. Thus was England lost to the papacy.
Meanwhile on the continent, Charles wanted a council to deal with practical, that is, non-doctrinal reforms; the Lutherans refused to attend any Council in Italy or headed by the Pope, while the Papacy demanded both to be the presiding power and deal with doctrinal issues on their own terms. The French, for their part, were actually quite content to have Charles kept busy with his Protestant problem. Thus, due to one or the other of these conflicting positions, a Council would not be convened until 1545, by which time the divisions of Western Christendom had hardened and set. Moreover, by this time there was growing up what would end up being the more influential and, in the eyes of later 16th c Catholic popes and monarchs, antagonistic brand of Protestantism, Calvinism. This of course is the brand of Reformed Christianity that will concern us most in France, and we will turn our attention to it more squarely in a future episode.
If you have been enjoying the French History Podcast so far, consider sending me, Gary, $4,000 to make some more French History Podcast t-shirts to sell on my fan site. You know what they say: It’s not GoFundMe so it’s not a scam.