THE MEDIEVAL CHURCH
FROM THE FALL OF ROME, 476 A.D., TO THE FALL OF CONSTANTINOPLE, 1453 A.D., PROGRESS OF THE PAPAL POWER.
In this period of nearly a thousand years, our interest will be directed upon the Western or Latin Church, having the seat of its authority in Rome, still the imperial city, although its political power had passed away. Little attention will be given to the Greek Church, ruled from Constantinople, expect as its affairs relate to the history or European Christianity. We do not recite events in their chronological order, but survey great movements, often parallel with each other.
The development of papal power is the great outstanding fact in the ten centuries of the Middle Ages. We have already seen how the pope of Rome claimed to be “Universal Bishop,” and head of the church; we shall now see him claiming to be ruler over the nations, above kings and emperors. This development had three stages-Growth, Culmination, and Decline.
The stage of growth in the papal power began with the pontificate of Gregory I, “the Great,” and came to its height under Gregory VII, better known as Hildebrand. It is to be noted that from early times each pope on assuming his office changed his name; and Gregory VII is the only pope whose family name stands out in history after his elevation. Gregory I was the ecclesiastic of whom the well-known story is told, that seeing some fair-haired, blue-eyed capptives in Rome, and asking who they were, was answered “Angli” (English); he said “Non Angli, sed angeli; not Angles, but angels.” Afterward, when he becami pope, he sent mssionaries to England for the Christianization of its people. He extended the realm of the church by an active interest in the conversion of the nations in Europe, still remaining heathen, and in bringing over to the orthodox faith the Arian Visigoths in Spain. Gregory withstood successfully the claim of the Patriarch of Constantinole to the title of Universal Bishop. He made the church virtual ruler in the province around Rome, thus paving the way for temporal power. He also developed certain doctrines of the Roman Church, especially the adoration of images, purgatory and transubstantiation, or the belief that in the mass or communication the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the veritable body and blood of Christ. He was a strong advocate of the monastic life, having himself been a monk. Gregor I was one of the ablest administrators in the history of the Roman Church, and well deserved his title of “the Great.” Under a series of popes through hundreds of years the authority of the Roman pontificate was advanced and generally recognized. Certain causes may be named for this growing power of the popedom
One reason why the rule of the Roman See was so widely accepted was that in the earlier ages of this period, the influence of the popes was mainly a power for righteousness. The church stood between princes and their subjects, to curb tyranny and injustice, to protect the weak, and to demand the rights of the people. In the palaces more than one ruler was compelled to take back an unjustly discarded wife, and to observe at least the outward forms of decency. There were many exceptions, popes who fattered wicked princes, but the general spirit of the papacy in the earlier Middle Ages, was in favor of good government.
The rivalries and uncertainties of secular rule were in marked contrast with the steadiness and uniformity of the churchly government. During most of these ages Europe was in a solvent condition, with rulers rising and falling, castle at war with castle, and no extensive enduring authority. The old empire fell in the fifth century and Europe was almost in chaos until the ninth century, when the empire of Charlemagne was established. Most of hid immediate successors were weak men, many of them sought the aid of Rome, and were ready to give concessions of power to obtain it. When once power had been gained by the church at the expense of the state, it was firmly held.
While the rule of the states was changing, against it was the constant empire of the church. During all those centuries of flux, and varying conditions, the church stood firm, the one settled, steady institution. The claims of Rome to domination were almost invariably supported by the clergy, from the archbishop down to the humblest priest. During the Middle Ages, as we shall see later, there was an enormous growth of monasticism, and the monks and their abbots sided with priests and bishops in every contest for power. The church had its strong allies everywhere, and they never failed to advance its interests.
Strange as the fact may seem to us, in the Middle Ages a number of “pious frauds” were put forth to support the authority of Rome. In an intelligent, scientific time, these would have been investigated, disproved, and discredited. But the scholarship of the medieval centuries was not critical; no one questioned the truth of the documents; they were widely circulated, everywhere accepted, and through them the claims of Rome were strongly buttressed. Centuries passed away before even the suggestion was made that these foundations rested upon falsehood and not upon truth.
One of these forged documents was the “Donation of Constantine.” Long after the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe a document was circulated purporting to show that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, had given to the bishop of Rome, Sylvester I (314-335 A.D.), supreme authority over all the European provinces of the emperors. The document gave as the reason for removing the capital from Rome to Constantinople, that the emperor would allow no potentate to remain in Rome as a rival to the pope.
Of far greater influence was another forgery or series of forgeries, the False Decretals of Isidore, published about 850 A.D. These professed to be decisions given out by early bishops of Rome, from the apostles downward, setting forth the highest claims, such as the absolute supremacy of the pope of Rome over the universal church; the independence of the church from the state; the inviolability of the clergy of every rank from any accountability to the state; to the extent that no secular could judge in matters pertaining to the clergy or the church.
In uncritical ignorant ages these documents were accepted without question, and for hundreds of years formed a bulwark to Roman claims. No one doubted the authenticity of these writings until the twelfth century, when the church was already anchored in power; and only with the dawn of the Reformation in the sixteenth century were their claims examined and shown to be unfounded. Some of the evidences against them were the following.
Their language was not the early Latin of the first and second centuries, but the corrupt and mixed tongue of the eighth and ninth centuries. The titles and historical conditions referred to were not those of the empire, but those of the Middle Ages, far different. The frequent quotations from Scripture were from the Vulgate(Latin) . Bible, which was not translated until 400 A.D. A letter was given in full purporting to have been written by Victor, bishop of Rome 200 A.D., to Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, who lived 400 A.D. What would be thought in our time as to the genuineness of a letter purporting to be from Queen Elizabeth II to George Washington?
The growth of papal power while upward was not constant. There were strong princes who resisted it, as well as weak princes who submitted to it. Some of the popes were weak, and others were wicked, especially between 950 and 1050 A.D., and these brought their office into discredit, even very near the time of its highest pitch of supremacy.
The stage of culmination was between 1073 and 1216 A.D., about one hundred and fifty years, when the papacy stood in well-nigh absolute power, not only over the church but over the nations of Europe.
This height was attained during the rule of Hildebrand, the only pope better known by his family name than by that assumed as pope, Gregory VII. Hildebrand really ruled the church as the power behind the throne for more than twenty years before he wrote the triple crown, and afterward during his popedom, until his death in 1085. Some of his achievements may be named.
Hildebrand reformed the clergy, which had become demoralized; broke up-but only for a time-simony, or the purchase of offices in the church; lifted the standard of moral throughout the clergy; and compelled the celibacy of the priesthood, which had been urged but until his day not enforced.
He freed the church from the domination of the state, by putting an end to the nomination of popes and bishops by kings and emperors; and by requiting all accusations against priest or involving the church to be tried in ecclesiastical courts. It had been the custom for the bishop at his consecration to receive a staff and ring from his sovereign, and to pledge feudal allegiance to him as his lord secular. This practically made the bishops appointees of the ruler. Hildebrand forbade the presentation and the pledge.
He made the church supreme over the state. The emperor. Henry IV, having taken offense at Pope Gregory, summoned a synod of German bishops, and induced (or compelled) them to vote the deposition of the pope. Gregory retaliated with and excommunication, absolving all the subjects of Henry IV from their allegiance. Henry found himself absolutely powerless under the papal ban. In January, 1077, the emperor “having laid aside all belongings of royalty, with bare feet and clad in wool, continued for three days to stand before the gate of the castle,” at Canossa in northern Italy, where the pope was staying, in order to make his submission and receive absolution. It must be added, however, that no sooner did Henry regain power, than he made war on the pope, and drove him out of Rome. Hilderbrand died soon after, leaving this testimony, “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity, and therefore I die in exile.” But the record of the pope’s triumph was more influential than that of this later defeat.
Gregory VII did not aim to abolish the rule of the state, but to subordinate it to the rule of the church, and of the pope as the church’s head. He desired the secular power to govern the people, but under the higher jurisdiction of the spiritual kingdom, as he
Another pope whose reign showed the high-water mark of power, was Innocent III(1198-1216). He declared in his inaugural discourse, “The successor of St. Peter stands midway between God and man; below God, above man; Judge of all, judged of none.” In one of his official letters he wrote that to the pope “has been committed not only the whole church but the whole world,” with “the right of finally disposing the imperial and all other crown.” Chosen to his office at the age of thirty-seven years, throughout his reign he maintained successfully these high assumptions.
He chose for Emperor Otto of Brunswick, who acknowledged publicly that he wore the crown “by the grace of God and the apostolic see.” On account of Otto’s insubordination he afterward deposed him, and caused another emperor to be chosen in his place. He assumed the government of the city of Rome, making rules for its officers, with himself as their supreme lord; thus in effect establishing a state under direct papal government, the forcement, the forerunner of the “States of the Church.” He compelled the licentious Philip Augustus, king of France, to receive back his wife, whom he had unrighteously divorced. He excommunicated King John of England, compelled him to surrender his crown to the papal legate, and to receive it again as the pope’s subject. Innocent III may be regarded as greatest of all the popes in autocratic power, but he would not have possessed in authority if Hildebrand had not
been great before him.
But as Europe was emerging from the twilight of the Middle Ages, and national loyalty arose to compete with ecclesiastical, the decline of papal power began with Boniface VIII in 1303. He made claims as lofty as any of his predecessors, but found them ignored. Boniface forbade Edward I of England to tax church property and priestly revenues, but was compelled to yield to the king, though with a form of compromise, by which the priest and bishops gave a part of their incomes for the needs of the kingdom. He quarreled with Philip the Fair of France, who made war, seized the pope, and thrust him in prison. Though released, he soon after died of grief. From 1305, for more than seventy years, all the popes were chosen under the orders of the kings of France, and
were subservient to their will.
The period from 1305 to 1377 is known as the Babylonish Captivity. At the behest of the French king the seat of the papacy was transferred from Rome to Avignon, in the south of France. The popes became figure-heads under French rule. Other aspirants to the popedom arose in Rome and elsewhere, popes and anti-popes in different lands. Papal orders were disobeyed freely; excommunications were ignored; for example Edward III of England ordered the papal legate out of his kingdom.
In 1377 the reigning pope, Gregory XI, returned to Rome and in 1414 the Council of Constance was held to decide between the claims of four popes. All were deposed, and a new one was chosen. The popes from 1378 have continued dwelling at Rome, making claims as high
as ever, but unable to enhance them.
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