After his death in 814, Charlemagne’s crown and title of Holy Roman Emperor were passed to his son Louis in a ceremony conducted by Pope Stephen IV. (This Louis is recorded in the official rolls as the first of the eighteen French kings to bear that name, even though the nation of France as we know it today did not quite exist yet during this time.) Louis I of Francia was, to state the obvious, no Charlemagne, and the deck was rather stacked against him.
For Europe was still an undeveloped continent in many ways, a region where even the most basic forms of transport and communication were perilous and uncertain. It was very difficult in such a milieu to maintain any semblance of strong central authority; political power tended inevitably to devolve to the local level. Simply put, Louis’s empire was far too large and diffuse to be managed using the tools he had to hand. His own sons soon staked personal claims to various chunks of its territory, plunging the realm into protracted internal conflict. Meanwhile the popes in Rome utterly failed to take the high ground, jockeying for advantage instead with one temporal political faction and then another, using the title of Holy Roman Emperor which it was within their authority to bestow as a trump card.
Indeed, the sheer venality of the popes of this period has caused Richard P. McBrien to declare the last two centuries of the first millennium after Christ “undoubtedly [the] lowest” point in the entire history of the papacy. It was a time when playing politics was among the least of the crimes of which these supposed holy representatives of God on earth could be credibly accused. Others included gluttony, fornication, financial skulduggery of every description, and even murder; five or possibly six popes were assassinated by their rivals in the course of just two centuries. Just a couple of snapshots from this era’s rogue’s gallery of pontiffs should suffice to capture the spirit of the age.
Pope Formosus I (891-896) was so hated during his life by his eventual successor Stephen VI (896-897) that Stephen ordered him put on trial after his death. His corpse was dug up, propped up in a courtroom Weekend at Bernie’s-style, and duly convicted of a multitude of crimes, whereupon the fingers of the hand that he had used for oaths and blessings were cut off and the body was thrown into the Tiber River. By way of completing the farce, Pope Theodore II, whose pontificate lasted all of two months in 897 before he died under suspicious circumstances, found time to order Formosus’s long-suffering body to be dredged up and given a proper burial once again.
Pope John XII, who held the office from 955 until 964, was another typically depraved product of the age. He openly auctioned off bishoprics to the highest bidder; one “man of God” whom he elevated at the behest of his wealthy family was just ten years old. He also committed adultery with his father’s concubine, committed incest with his father’s widow and the latter’s niece, and held orgies in the papal palace. If you are wondering how he found the time to lead religious services, rest assured that he seldom bothered; he preferred to spend his Sundays hunting.
While the popes thus sinned and intrigued, another sort of dissipation was putting paid to any remaining semblance of Charlemagne’s unified empire. Already by the middle of the ninth century, it had fractured into three separate kingdoms, only one of them able to call itself the Holy Roman Empire at any given time — an honor the popes sold dearly. Yet, for all that his empire proved short-lived, that doesn’t diminish Charlemagne’s importance in the grand sweep of history. For Western Europe after him was a very different place than it had been before him — more settled, less febrile, more recognizable to modern eyes. Two of the three kingdoms into which Charlemagne’s empire had split would go on to become the nucleus of France and Germany, those two largest nations of Europe today. (The third, so-called “middle” kingdom, which lay in an unenviable position sandwiched between the other two, would be gradually absorbed by its larger, stronger neighbors.) The continent as we now know it was taking shape.
This emerging Christendom was still forced to contend with warlike peoples to its north and east who had yet to embrace the one true faith. The Vikings of Scandinavia were the terror of the age on both land and sea, what with their martial mythology of Thor, Odin, and Valhalla that stood in stark contrast to Christianity’s rhetoric of peace and love. “The number of ships grows, the endless stream of Vikings never ceases to increase,” wrote one despairing Christian chronicler. “The Vikings conquer everything in their path and nothing resists them.” At their peak, they occupied fully half of the island of Britain and much of the space that is filled today by the Low Countries; they even made it far enough south to lay siege to Paris on occasion. Often the only way to halt their depredations was to pay them off in the gold and jewels they coveted.
But where swords and spears failed the Christians, the intrinsic appeal of their religion came through for them in the end, as even these fierce northern warriors proved unable to resist the promise of eternal life carried to them by the brave Christian missionaries who dared to proselytize in Scandinavia itself. Sometimes the evangelizers were martyred for their efforts, but the seed they planted slowly grew. Legend has it that, in about 960, a captured missionary was brought before King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark, who demanded that his prisoner prove the existence of this God of his by picking up a red-hot poker with his bare hands. The missionary did so, and was not burned. And so King Harald converted. The old beliefs would live on in parts of Scandinavia for a couple of centuries to come, but the trend was inexorable. Christianity had conquered yet another piece of Europe.
In fact, by the year 1000, the religion was overwhelmingly dominant all across Europe, having driven away or converted the vast majority of its enemies. At this time, the title of Holy Roman Emperor belonged to a Saxon dynasty that ruled over the territory of modern Germany. Meanwhile France was now in the hands of one Hugh Capet, whose descendants would remain that nation’s monarchs until the very idea of a French monarchy was banished once and for all in the nineteenth century. England too was united under a Catholic king, as was Denmark, while the religion was also making major inroads among the Swedes, the Poles, the Hungarians, and the Croats. Meanwhile the Byzantine Christians were making major inroads in Bulgaria and the state of Kievan Rus (the forerunner to modern Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus). On the Iberian Peninsula, the Muslim caliphate that had once threatened the entire continent was tottering, with Christian kingdoms encroaching further and further into its territory from the north. It was only a matter of time until the few remaining non-Christian enclaves of Europe fell before the indomitable will of Christ.
And yet all was not peace and mutual good wishes inside Christendom. The Latin and Greek incarnations of the faith, which had been pulling against one another for centuries, finally split apart completely barely 50 years into the new millennium. It would be nice to be able to write that the proximate cause of Christianity’s first great schism was some sort of urgent moral dispute. But alas, it was not. Christianity split in two forever over a recipe for bread.
The ceremony of the Eucharist — a Latin word whose literal meaning is “Thanksgiving” — stems from something Jesus says in the Gospel of John.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, he that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life.
I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
It might seem more than reasonable to argue that, when Jesus speaks of giving his flesh “for the life of the world,” he is speaking strictly metaphorically, foreshadowing the sacrifice on the cross that he knows is coming. But within a few hundreds years of that event, Church fathers had begun to take his words more literally. At the ceremony of the Eucharist, worshipers ingested specially blessed bread and wine, which according to a doctrine now known as transubstantiation had become the actual flesh and blood of Christ at the moment of their blessing.
Latin and Greek Christianity agreed on all of the above. The dispute arose over what type of bread should be used in the Eucharist. The God of the Old Testament insists to his followers that they must eat only unleavened bread — i.e., bread made without yeast — on holy days. The Latin Christians assumed for consistency’s sake that he still felt the same, and so used unleavened bread in the Eucharist. But the Greek Christians argued, by no means unreasonably, that the New Covenant initiated by Jesus should be taken to have superseded all that had come before; Christians had, after all, ceased abiding by all sorts of other strictures of Judaism, from the requirement that they not eat pork to the requirement that all males of the faith be circumcised. Why, then, should this stipulation still apply and not any of those others? They raised something of an epistemological argument as well: was unleavened bread really bread at all? Wasn’t the presence of yeast bread’s defining attribute? With all this in mind, they explicitly required their priests to use leavened bread during the Eucharist. This point of contention had been festering for centuries.
Now, our first reaction to all this might be to marvel one more time at the human capacity for disputing over trifles; it does often seems that, the more trivial the disagreement, the more heated the argument. (One can’t help but be reminded of the Blefuscudians and the Lilliputians in Gulliver’s Travels, who go to war over whether the faithful should crack their eggs at the big end or the small end.) It surely stands to reason that a good and just God, who is already willing to transubstantiate bread and wine into his own son’s flesh and blood in the cause of salvation, wouldn’t get too chuffed over the exact recipe of the bread he was being served, so long as the right intention was there. It seems a rather esoteric dispute for a religion to split itself into two over.
But then, proximate causes like this one are not always or even usually the real sources of ruptures like the one that was about to split Christianity. The divide between West and East was a cultural and political one as much as a theological one. The religious trivialities justified a very worldly struggle for political supremacy.
In 1054, Pope Leo IX, who had taken on the mantle of a reformer of a Catholic Church that stood in desperate need of it, decided enough was enough. After years of fruitless wrangling over bread recipes, he sent a representative to Constantinople bearing a writ of excommunication for the patriarch there, the nearest Eastern equivalent to the Western pope. In what must have been a very dramatic scene, his messenger strode into the Great Church of Hagia Sophia, where the patriarch was personally conducting a service. Then he slammed the document down on the altar and marched out again, contemptuously shaking the dust of the place from his shoes, while the worshipers in the pews jeered. In theological terminology, the Christians of the West and East had gone “out of communion” with one another, meaning they no longer considered each other to be adherents of the same religion at all. There were now two Christianities in the world.
Seen from one perspective, the schism was a dismaying development for a religion that had been born with a call for ending petty sectarian strife such as this and remaking the world on Jesus’s principles of universal peace and social justice. But seen from the perspective of realpolitik, it strengthened the hand of the Roman popes enormously. No longer did they have to moderate their statements to maintain the strained relationship with their fellow Christians of the East. From now on, the pope could claim to be the holy father, full stop — God’s one and only anointed representative on earth, at the head of his one and only Church, the only path to salvation for all of the souls on earth. To claim anything else would now be heresy according to Catholic doctrine.
And soon there came a pope who was ready to press this advantage to the full. Thanks to the split with Constantinople, Pope Gregory VII was, writes Diarmaid MacCulloch,
free to pursue the programme of Church reform which now had all Europe as its canvas, and which, in a series of formal statements entered into his administrative register, was centred on the definition of the pope as universal monarch in a world where the Church would reign over all the rulers of the earth. This one man’s vision can be compared in its consequences over centuries with the vision of Karl Marx 800 years later; indeed, all the signs are that it will prove far longer-lasting in its effects.
Gregory VII held his office for an even shorter span of time than his august namesake Gregory the Great: from June of 1073 to May of 1085. Yet it was long enough to leave a mark on Catholicism that has remained indelible to this day.
Gregory was born in Rome around 1020 under the name of Hildebrand. The story goes that, when he was a baby, his swaddling clothes gave off sparks of fire and a flaming halo could be seen around his head. Slightly more credibly, he is said to have had a vision as a young man, of Saint Paul shoveling manure out of a monastery. The metaphor was plain: Paul was cleaning the Church of filthy sin, just as God expected the future Pope Gregory to do. When he became pope as the capstone to a long ecclesiastical career, he operated from two basic principles: the Church must become more holy, and it must become more dominant in the day-to-day affairs of the world. He saw no tension between these two things.
In the service of his first agenda, Gregory broadened and deepened the reforms within the Church that Pope Leo IX had begun to implement before him. Many Catholics of today are surprised to learn that there was no ironclad requirement prior to Gregory VII that clergymen be unmarried and celibate. On the contrary, all signs are that many or most of even the pre-millennial popes were married, while some of them had, as we have seen, energetic sex lives outside the bounds of the matrimonial bed as well. It was Gregory who declared that wives and families, not to mention the pleasures of sex, constituted an untenable conflict of interest for priests whose first and only loyalty ought to be to their God and the Church that served him. The declaration was awkward not least in that many priests were already married, and were thus forced to choose between giving up their holy calling or giving up their families. Some simply ignored the new rules, leading the uncompromising Gregory to excommunicate them if and when he learned of their defiance. Even such harsh measures as these weren’t able to end the practice of priestly marriage immediately in all of the remote nooks and crannies of Catholic Christendom, but Gregory certainly set the process in motion. By the thirteenth century, a married priest would be unheard of. (Which doesn’t mean that all of the clergy were truly celibate at this or any other date, of course…)
Gregory came down similarly hard on corruption and venality in the Church everywhere else he found it, wielding the hammer of excommunication freely against those priests and bishops who extorted money and goods from the poorest of their flocks, as well as those who sold absolution to the richest sinners for coinage in lieu of more uncomfortable forms of penance. The latter practice, known as the selling of indulgences, made a sort of à la carte menu out of sins — so much for a bit of adultery, so much for a spot of gambling, etc., up to and including the ultimate sin of murder — that could be purchased from and enjoyed over and over again, as long as the customer had the money. By threatening the priestly waiters in this restaurant of sin with excommunication, Gregory was largely able to put a stop to the practice, if not for all time, at least for the time being. For it is difficult to adequately convey today just what a terrifying weapon excommunication was to an individual of the Medieval mindset. To be excluded from the Holy Mother Church was to be excluded from any hope of salvation, to be condemned to an eternity of torment in the fires of Hell. And make no mistake: Hell may not have have been described in any explicit way in the Bible, but it was the farthest thing from a speculative abstraction during the Middle Ages. It was a real prospect, in some ways more so than the promise of an infinite life of peace and ease in Heaven.
In compensation for the strict ascetic code by which he expected his clergymen to live, Gregory demanded that laypeople treat the officers of the Church with enormous worldly deference. This demand applied most of all to himself, the man at the head of the Church. Not long after becoming pope, he issued an extraordinary pronouncement of the honors and powers that naturally went with his office. “[The pope] alone can use imperial insignia”; “The pope’s feet are to be kissed by all princes”; “It is licit for him to depose emperors”; “No synod [an assembly for discussing and making determinations about theological questions] ought to be called ‘general’ without his command”; “He ought to be judged by no one.” The pope, that is to say, should be considered at least as far above the kings of the world as said kings were above the peasants who toiled in their fields. For, just as peasants must obey the dictates of kings, so must kings obey the dictates of the pope. After all, said Gregory,
Who does not know that kings and rulers are sprung from men who were ignorant of God, who by pride, robbery, perfidy, murders, in a word, by almost every crime at the prompting of the devil, who is the prince of this world, have striven with blood cupidity and intolerable presumption to dominate over their equals, that is, over mankind. Who can doubt that the priests of Christ are to be considered the fathers and the masters of kings and princes and all the faithful?
Small wonder that the kings of Europe weren’t overly fond of Gregory. Nor, for that matter, were many powerful Catholic bishops and priests, whose cushy lives of ease and luxury were being overturned by his new rules about celibacy, indulgences, and all the rest. These clergymen were more inclined to cast their lots with the kings of this world than with their own holy father. At bottom, it was a case of two competing visions of the Church. Was it to be a highly centralized, supremely authoritative institution, as Gregory desired, or was it to continue to be a decentralized body that was deferential to royal authority and local customs, as it had more or less been since the time of Charlemagne?
The nub of the issue was the question of “investiture.” Again, many modern Catholics would doubtless be surprised to learn that the Church before Gregory VII’s time had little to no authority to invest — i.e., to appoint — bishops beyond the immediate confines of Rome. This was typically done instead by the kings of the lands in question or their lieutenants, who were of course motivated to choose men who were amicable to their wishes. Gregory, however, wished to replace this system too with one driven exclusively from Rome.
One of the monarchs who especially disliked Gregory’s would-be new continental order was Henry IV of Saxony, who as the current Holy Roman Emperor ought to have been the king who was most simpatico with the pope in Rome. That fact notwithstanding, in early 1076 he independently called an assembly of disgruntled bishops — some of whom had already been excommunicated — to the Rhineland city of Worms, in direct defiance of one of Gregory’s recently declared sole prerogatives. (“No synod ought to be called ‘general’ without his command.”) The message they sent back to Rome was blunt: “Let another sit upon Saint Peter’s throne.” The address written on the envelope that contained the message was even more insolent: “From Henry, king by God’s ordinance, to Hildebrand, not pope, but false monk.”
This sort of blatant kingly interference in the Church’s affairs had been by no means uncommon during recent centuries. Gregory’s reaction, however, left no doubt that he considered a new era to have dawned: rather than step down as he had been so peremptorily ordered to do, he excommunicated Henry IV, the very heir to Charlemagne, along with everyone who had attended the assembly in Worms that hadn’t been excommunicated already. Then he formally released all of Henry’s subjects from their oath of obedience to the Holy Roman Emperor. In fact, he declared, it was not just their right but their duty to God to rebel against the “antichrist” who falsely claimed that God blessed his rule.
It was a bold move to say the least, backed only by the conviction of a true believer; Henry, by contrast, had the strongest military in Europe at his beck and call. But, in another astonishing testimony to the Medieval mindset, Gregory’s gambit worked. Henry’s temporal authority proved no match for Gregory’s spiritual authority; Henry’s empire evaporated around him under the threat of eternal damnation. A scribe in the service of the pope records how, less than one year after he had called his high-handed assembly to show Gregory who was boss, Henry
came in person [to the pope], bringing with him only a small retinue. He presented himself at the gate, barefoot and clad only in wretched woolen garments, beseeching us with tears to grant him absolution and forgiveness. This he continued to do for three days, while all those about us were moved to compassion at his plight, and interceded for him with tears and prayers. At length, we removed the excommunication from him and received him again into the bosom of the Holy Mother Church.
The sight of this once and future emperor groveling in the snow for an audience with the pope defined the spirit of the new age of papal authority which Gregory was earnestly striving to bring about. He had defeated the most rarefied temporal monarch in his world without firing a shot, then driven him to publicly humiliate himself in the basest imaginable fashion in order to restore the papal favor. Gregory’s message was clear: from now on, he said, European kings would reign only at the sufferance of the pope.
Unfortunately for Gregory, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV was the most cunning European monarch since Charlemagne, being a man always prepared to do the needful in the moment without neglecting the longer term. He proved this as soon as he got through kneeling before the pope. With that distasteful act having restored him to the Church’s good graces and alongside them to his throne, Henry set about devising a more methodical method of working his political will.
In 1080, three years after his humiliation in the snow, Henry called another council of bishops and priests who were unhappy with Gregory’s reforms. Despite having no formal authority to do so, this group voted to depose and excommunicate Gregory on the spot, electing in his place a new pope named Clement III from amongst their number. (This was not the first nor the last time in the history of Catholicism that such an “antipope” has existed.) Predictably enough, Gregory excommunicated Henry and the entirety of his council yet again as soon as he heard the news, and called on Henry’s people to revolt. But his royal rival had anticipated this and shored up his support among them beforehand. He could now point to Clement as the real pope, Gregory as the antipope.
The Holy Roman Empire was plunged into a civil war between Henry and a proxy for Gregory, Rudolf, who was either sincerely loyal to Gregory’s vision of the Church or personally ambitious, or both. Rudolf was killed, but Gregory soon found another champion in an adventurous Norman duke named Robert Guiscard. Nevertheless, Gregory was eventually forced to flee Rome in the face of Henry’s invading army. In 1084, Clement came to Rome and took over. Gregory and Robert both died the following year. “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity,” sniffed Gregory from his deathbed. “Therefore I die in exile.”
It appeared that Henry’s vision of the relationship between Church and monarch had won out, that he had restored the comfortable accommodation his royal kin had been enjoying with a rather morally lackadaisical Church for the past few centuries. But, as we will see, it was the spirit of Gregory VII who would get the last laugh. His vision of a Holy Mother Church that reigned supreme over all the kings and emperors of Europe had been delayed but not abolished.
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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)