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The Xenophile Historian

A History of Christianity


1000 to 1500

This chapter covers the following topics:
The High Water Mark of the Papacy
The Crusades
The Real Achievements of the Medieval Church
Clouds on the Horizon
The Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy, A Long Night Begins for the East
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The High Water Mark of the Papacy

The story of Charlemagne showed that whatever a barbarian sets up will die with him if the conqueror does not become an administrator; this lesson was not lost on the German emperors. One way in which they tried to prevent having the same thing happen to them was by encouraging reform within the German Church, for the usefulness of such a movement had been demonstrated by the Cluniacs. Soon the German emperor and his bishops were cooperating in raising the nation from savagery, rekindling the piety of the brutalized clerics, and deploring the frequent breaking of their vows. Respect for peace grew with the success of this repair, and the bishops became pillars of the new order.

The Papacy took longer to recover than the rest of the Church did. It hit bottom in 1033, when the Tuscans, a family of Italian nobles, elected a twelve-year-old to serve as pope. This pope, Benedict IX, behaved so bad that in 1045 the Crescenzio family, rivals of the Tuscans, drove him out and set up their own pope, Sylvester III. However, just a few months later Benedict returned to Rome and took back his office. Shortly thereafter he grew tired of being pope and sold his title for a thousand pounds of silver, to a man who now became Pope Gregory VI. This shameful transaction caused such an outcry that Benedict changed his mind and refused to surrender the job he had just sold. But Sylvester and Gregory would not step down, either, so now there were three popes.

It was the current German emperor, Henry III, who rescued the Papacy from this mess. In 1046, at the urging of the Cluniacs, he called for a synod which declared both Sylvester III and Gregory VI removed from office; a second synod deposed Benedict IX. Henry went on to appoint the next three popes, making sure they were both competent and pious men. The third of these popes, Leo IX (1049-54), reorganized the College of Cardinals. All the cardinals at this point were Romans, representing the corrupt ruling families of central Italy, so Leo replaced them with Cluniacs from anywhere in western Europe, thereby surrounding himself with advisors who were more trustworthy and favored reform. Then he worked to cleanse the Church of evils like simony and clerical marriage.

Previously, Papal leadership had tended to be passive, acting as the ultimate court of appeal for Church matters, but had made no move unless appealed to; Gregory the Great (590-604) was the classic exception to this rule. Now came a series of aggressive popes, the first one being Hildebrand, also known as Gregory VII (1073-85). Under them Rome actively interfered in provincial affairs, no longer passing up any opportunity to increase the power/authority of the Church. The first phase of this incredibly rapid rejuvenation was the exclusion of all laymen from Papal elections. By limiting the right to vote to the cardinals, this move not only put the Papacy out of reach of the turbulent local nobility, but also denied the Holy Roman Emperor any part in the election and effectively proclaimed the independence of the pope from the state. This revolt went unchallenged--Emperor Henry IV was a minor and his regency was weak. Lack of opposition encouraged the papacy to re-publicize The Donation of Constantine and revive its extreme doctrine of Pope above State, thus claiming the Empire itself and making conflict inevitable. The Papacy had one advantage to offset its obvious military weakness: the dependence of the Empire on the German Church, which provided much of the machinery of government. If the emperor was deprived of any say in the appointment of bishops and if their allegiance was to the Papacy alone, the secular power would wither and become merely the ornament of a theocracy, with clergymen immune from taxes, laws, and all other secular obligation.

Papal imperialism was denounced by Henry IV when he assumed power. The first round of the contest saw Henry declare Gregory VII deposed, and the pope responded by excommunicating the emperor. This in itself was a powerful punishment, for the princes and dukes of the Empire were only inclined to support the emperor when it suited their own interests, and the pope's declaration of the emperor as an enemy of the Church was a call to give the crown to somebody else. The result was a resounding Papal victory, with the emperor doing public penance, standing in the snow for a week at the doorstep of the fortress of Canossa, waiting for the pope to come out and forgive him (1077). He did this because the nobles of Germany had already elected an emperor of their own, Rudolf of Swabia, the first of the famous Hapsburg monarchs. Once the pope revoked the excommunication, Henry went home to crush the revolt; then he took back his concessions to the Papacy, declared the pope deposed, and carried his own candidate to Rome by force of arms. The pope fled to the Norman kingdom of Sicily, a notable enemy of the Empire, and crowned another emperor from among the discontented German barons. The struggle went on for half a century, for the imperial army was too often needed elsewhere to keep a permanent garrison in Rome, and once it left, the real pope returned. Most Europeans chose to acknowledge the emperor but not his puppet pope, and the pope but not his puppet emperor. The struggle went on until 1122, when they reached a compromise; frightened by the growing lawlessness their civil war was causing, both pope and emperor agreed to abandon their puppets and to allow the emperor to approve the pope's appointment of the bishops before they took office. It was an uneasy peace, though, and in the long struggle of the northern Italian towns for independence, the pope found willing allies against the emperor. They probably knew that allowing the disintegration of the Empire would expose the Papacy to harsher winds (it had happened when they broke with Constantinople a few centuries earlier), but few popes could resist rocking its creaking structure.

Under Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) papal power reached its peak. Innocent was uncommonly vigorous for a pope, because he was only 37 years old when he got the job. Under him both the Fourth Crusade took place, and the war against the Albigensians began. The German Empire, supposedly the strongest state in Christendom, had been forced to yield to many--if not all--papal demands. Innocent's brilliant diplomatic skills, and his use of the weapon of excommunication, brought similar victories abroad. The most significant of these was in England, where in 1205 King John refused to accept the pope's choice for the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Innocent put the Church of England under interdiction, meaning that the Church would not baptize, marry or bury anyone. John seized the Church lands and forced most of the bishops out of England, and Innocent excommunicated the king, declared the throne of England vacant, and invited the French to invade and take it. That forced John to give into the pope's demands (1212), but the pope could not save the king from his own rebellious barons when they forced him to sign the Magna Carta three years later.

The Fourth Lateran Council, called by Innocent III in 1215, was a fitting climax to his career. The council confirmed his actions, showing the Catholic Church to be a strong, disciplined international organization. Now the Papacy was seen as master over all of Western Christendom, and supposedly under Eastern Christendom as well, since the Fourth Crusade had captured Constantinople and established a Latin Empire in place of the Byzantine one. Now the idea was widely established that every Christian was answerable to the pope first and to any king second. The council also shamefully approved the isolation of Jews from mainstream Christian society, forcing them to wear yellow badges shaped like the Star of David and making them live much of their lives in ghettoes.

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The Crusades

From a Christian point of view, all the news coming from the Middle East in the eleventh century was bad. In 1009 a mad ruler of Egypt, the Fatimid al-Hakim, tore down the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and declared himself God incarnate (Edward Gibbon thought this would have been a better excuse for the Crusades than the one actually used, but Europe was not ready for an overseas war just yet). In 1071 the Turks migrated out of Central Asia to their present location in Asia Minor. Since they had only become Moslems recently, the Turks brought back to Islam the zeal and vitality that the Arabs had lost long ago. The nearest Turkish sultan ruled from Nicaea, only sixty miles east of Constantinople, so the Moslem threat was closer than ever. The transformation of Byzantine Asia Minor into Moslem Turkey meant that it was no longer safe to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land except by sea. And even those who made it to Jerusalem were likely to be turned back at the gates, as the Turks' conversion to Islam was too recent for them to allow the toleration Christians had enjoyed under the Arabs.

The pressure of all these dangers compelled the Byzantine emperor to appeal to the pope for assistance. Pope Urban II answered the call, but for his own reasons. He did not care too much about Byzantium's plight, but he had heard stories about the suffering of Christians in the Holy Land, and was concerned about the dangers pilgrims now faced. And with Byzantium dependent on Western arms, there might be an opportunity to reunite the Greek and Latin halves of Christendom, which had been formally divided since pope and patriarch had excommunicated each other in 1054. Finally, the pope knew all too well that knights make trouble when they have too much time on their hands. It seemed to him that if the knights could be sent away to fight the enemies of Christianity rather than other knights, then there would be peace at home.

The pope went to his native France, and summoned a council of bishops, abbots and knights at Clermont. There, on November 27, 1095, he addressed them. We don't know exactly what he said--accounts disagree considerably on that--but judging from the results it must have been one of the greatest speeches of all time. He talked of the sufferings of the faithful in the East, and called upon the knights to end their vile private wars so that their swords could be turned on the infidels instead. Those Christians who fought to redeem the Holy Land would have all their sins forgiven if they returned alive, and would have a place in Heaven if they didn't. The assembly answered Urban with a great shout of "Deus vult!"--God wills it. With that Christendom had found an answer to the jihads of Islam.

Only the first Crusade (1096-99), which recovered the entire Holy Land for Christendom, can be called a complete success. Four Christian-run kingdoms were established in what is now Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. When one of them was conquered by the Moslems in 1144, a second Crusade was launched, but it failed to win any ground at all. In 1187 Jerusalem was recaptured by Saladin, the vigorous new sultan of Egypt, and the Third Crusade was a fine show of chivalry by both sides, but it ended in a compromise: all of the Holy Land except the Mediterranean coast went back to Islamic rule, but Christians were allowed to safely visit Jerusalem. Another ominous note was that the Crusaders and Byzantines had suffered some misunderstandings that caused them to stop getting along before the First Crusade was over. By the time of the Third Crusade Constantinople was rooting for the Moslems to win, and for the last centuries of Byzantium's existence Islam was often seen as a lesser evil than Catholicism. "Better the sultan's turban than the cardinal's hat" became one of the watchwords of Byzantine foreign policy.

One of the reasons for the disappointment of the latter Crusades was the assumption of Crusading leadership by the kings of Europe, who could not stay permanently in the East and were no substitute for the land-hungry, nothing-to-lose barons of the First Crusade. Another was the fact that the never very great spirituality of the Crusades was diluted by their too frequent and trivial use. Whenever the pope had a personal quarrel, or when there was a war between Catholics and somebody else, he called for a Crusade, until the word ceased to do anything but dignify an otherwise disgusting war. There were Crusades against the Moors in Spain; there were Crusades in the Baltic against pagan Lithuanians and Orthodox Russians. There was a Crusade in southern France against the Albigensian heretics, one against King John of England, and one against Germany's Frederick II. Many Christians started thinking that there must be a better way to have one's sins forgiven. They also noticed that kings, nobles and commoners went on Crusades, but only kings and nobles came back again. The ordinary European of the 13th century did not answer the papal call with "Deus vult!"; more likely he exclaimed, "What! Another Crusade!"

The Fourth Crusade must have jolted the whole concept of waging war in the name of God. Like the first three, the ultimate target was Moslem-held territory, but the city-state of Venice, which provided the ships to transport the knights, had other ideas. First the Venetians made the Crusaders sack Zara, a seaport in Croatia full of faithful Catholics, whose only sin was declaring their independence from Venice a few years earlier. Then the Venetians took the Crusaders to Constantinople, instead of the Middle East. Since the Crusaders had to pay their traveling expenses somehow, they were forced to capture Constantinople, thus cutting the heart out of Venice's main trading rival in the east. The pope tried to make the most of this misdirected enterprise by declaring the eastern and western Churches reunited, but the Latin Empire set up by the Crusaders only lasted a few years before a descendant of the Byzantine Emperors took Constantinople back (1204-61); moreover, the reestablished Byzantine Empire was damaged beyond repair. Eight hundred years later the Fourth Crusade still stands out as the greatest commercial coup of all time.

In 1212 a dreadful thing happened, the so-called Children's Crusade. The crusading fever that no longer infected most adults spread to the children of Europe. A French peasant boy, Stephen of Vendome, recruited thousands of boys and girls, many of them under the age of 12, and led them to Marseilles. There they secured passage for the Holy Land, hoping to succeed where their elders had failed so dismally. Once on the ships, however, they were taken to Egypt and sold into slavery by unscrupulous skippers. Another group of thousands of German children, led by a boy preacher named Nicholas, went to Italy; many of them died of hunger or disease, or simply got lost.

Pope Innocent III had a lot to say about this strange business. "The very children put us to shame," he said, and began whipping up enthusiasm for a Fifth Crusade. This time the Crusaders sailed to Egypt, not to conquer it permanently but to swap it for Jerusalem; like most of the other Crusades, it failed miserably.

The Sixth Crusade was the strangest Crusade of all, in view of what caused it and how it got results. The cause was European politics: the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, had vowed to go on a Crusade, but when the Fifth Crusade came along, he sat it out instead. He was probably bored with the idea of crusading, since he was personally an agnostic, who got along well with Moslems and had some very modern ideas concerning the relationship between church and state. For over a decade he spent his time reorganizing the government of Sicily, his favorite province, though he had hinted before he became emperor that he would give up this territory. Frederick finally packed his bags when he married Isabella, heiress to the kingdom of Jerusalem. In September 1227 he sailed from Italy to claim his prize, only to fall ill and return just three days after he departed. The new pope, Gregory IX, was less forgiving than his predecessors. He excommunicated Frederick, proclaimed a crusade against him, and sent troops into his Italian territories. That persuaded the emperor to sail to the Holy Land. He went as a Crusader under the ban of the Church, protected by Moslem bodyguards, leading a Christian army on a mission of holy war.

Frederick and arrived at Acre, the main Crusader port in the Holy Land, in September 1228. But word of his excommunication had gotten there first, and most of the Crusaders refused to support him. That left Frederick with only the 1,000 German knights he had brought with him. Consequently he chose to negotiate with his opponent, al-Kamil of Egypt. The emperor and the sultan both preferred talking to fighting, and it turned out they had much in common. They compared literature, discussed the pope, and debated what to do about Genghis Khan, whose Mongol horde threatened everybody. Finally they signed a ten-year treaty, which gave the Crusaders Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and a road to the coast. An exception was made for the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque, which remained under Moslem control. Both agreed this would prevent any more pin-pricking Crusades for the time being.

Fundamentalists on both sides denounced the treaty. There was something unnatural about a Crusade without bloodshed or loot, and Westerners wondered about a supposedly Christian emperor sharing sherbet and chatting in Arabic with an enemy of Christianity. A ludicrous scene followed when Frederick, still under excommunication, crowned himself king of Jerusalem. Jerusalem's Catholic patriarch locked up the holy places and ordered all clergy out of the city when Frederick arrived. Frederick had to settle for a purely secular coronation, taking the crown from the altar with his own hand while one of his knights read the ceremony. Then he hastily returned to Europe and persuaded the pope to revoke the excommunication.

Two more official crusades went east, in 1249 and 1270, both led by the pious King Louis IX of France, who would be canonized as St. Louis for this. The seventh one had the same result as the fifth, ending in defeat in Egypt; the eighth only got as far as Tunisia before the death of Louis forced it to turn back. Then the Moslems went back on the offensive, taking the Crusader castles and ports one by one. The last outpost, Acre, fell after a bloody six-week siege in 1291.

What lasting impression did the Crusaders leave on the Middle East, aside from a collection of imposing castles? The answer is little that was positive.

From an economic point of view, Christianity was affected more than Islam. Europeans discovered that there was a big world beyond their little corner of it, and commerce thrived when they brought home the tastes they acquired for spices, Oriental textiles, and other exotic fare. The Italian merchants got so rich off this trade that their banks became indispensable to popes and kings. Moslem leaders believed this was to their advantage, at first. Saladin said as much in an 1183 letter to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad: "The Venetians, the Genoese and the Pisans bring into Egypt choice products of the West, especially arms and war materials. This constitutes an advantage for Islam and an injury to Christianity." The Church agreed and threatened to excommunicate Christian merchants who did business with Moslems. This had no effect at all. Later on, when the balance of trade swung decisively in favor of Christendom, Moslem authorities came to regard commerce with the West as a threat to their culture. But by then they lacked the power to suppress it.

In one major way Islamic society was adversely affected by the Crusades. Previously the Moslems had been fairly tolerant of Jews and Christians, and left them alone so long as they paid their taxes. But the brutal treatment Sunni Moslems had suffered at the hands of the Crusaders and Mongols made them suspicious of any non-Sunni, on the grounds that he might be an enemy agent. The post-Crusader era saw regular persecutions of Jews, Christians, and breakaway sects like the Shiites for this reason. When the Crusaders first came to the Holy Land, Islam was superior to Christianity in its tolerance and intellectual pursuits. By the time the last Crusaders had been thrown into the sea this was no longer so.

The Crusades are still vividly remembered by Arabs today. They like to compare the Zionist founders of modern Israel with the Crusaders, and point out that even though the Crusaders stayed in the middle of the Islamic world for nearly two centuries they were eventually ejected as an alien body.

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The Real Achievements of the Medieval Church

The Middle Ages is often referred to as the Age of Faith, and insofar as this means that most of the people in Western Europe were Christian and had faith, the phrase is correct enough. Before 1000 A.D. this faith was truly unquestioning, and there was little conflict between what the Church taught and what seemed natural in the isolated, rural communities that most lived in. At the same time education all but disappeared, thanks to wars and the general urban decay that came with the fall of Rome.

Charlemagne began to reverse this trend, by setting up seminarlike classes to learn what would become the basic medieval curriculum: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, and Latin literature. To us it would have seemed like a meager amount of learning, but Europe had been intellectually starved for so long that this must have seemed like a feast for the students. The next period would see considerable improvement, as a tiny but dedicated group of scholars stopped simply copying the writings of Greek and Roman authors and began to comment on them and look for ways to apply them to everyday life. Classical literature was not commonplace at this point (the result was the Renaissance when it did become common), but various tidbits were available. Some came from Moslem Spain, where scholars like Averroes and Maimonides had translated them into more modern languages like Arabic; others had been carefully preserved in monastic libraries since the sixth century.

The first of the new intellectuals was St. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109. Anselm believed that faith is the necessary ingredient in order to reason properly; his view of life can be summed up in the phrase "I believe in order that I may understand." In a work entitled Cur Deus Homo? ("Why did God become Man?"), he put forth rational arguments for God's existence and for the crucifixion of His son.

The foremost of the medieval scholars was Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who wrote eighteen volumes of commentaries and sermons. His favorite subject was the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and most of his work was devoted to finding a middle ground between Christian faith and Aristotelian logic. In the process he developed one of the most internally-consistent patterns of thought ever devised, and the popes later canonized him for this; Thomas' writings have been prominent in the Catholic Church ever since. However, even in his own time rivals like William of Occam criticized him for not pointing out that reason and revelation do not always work together.

At the same time many new monastic orders were founded, either to improve on what the Benedictines had started or to put new ideas into practice. The first of these, the Carthusian order, was founded at La Grand Chartreuse in France in 1084; this was a hermit colony with rules so strict that its members claimed that, unlike the Benedictines, they were never reformed because their original ideals had never been lost! More important were the Cistercians, who got started at Citeaux in 1097, and preached the need to make a complete break with the materialism of the rest of the Church; their abbeys and worship services were the simplest, least adorned of all. The Cistercians attracted a genius into their ranks, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), who was a great hymn-writer, mystic, and evangelist. During his lifetime the order established 348 houses throughout Europe; by 1300 it had twice as many.

Dominic de Guzman (1170-1221) was one of the monks sent by the pope to persuade the Albigensians to come back to the official Church. He saw the need to train educated priests so they could win over the hearts and minds of the lay people, so he founded the Dominican order for this purpose. They would have great influence in the universities that were founded in the late Middle Ages. Unfortunately, since the Dominicans were totally loyal to the pope, they were also used to direct the activities of the Inquisition a few years later.

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the son of a wealthy merchant, came to see that the words of Jesus in Matthew 10: 7-10 meant that possessions should be freely given to the poor. He devoted himself to a life of holy poverty, and soon gathered together a group of like-minded followers, who wandered the countryside, begging for food and doing charitable deeds whenever possible. This had a special appeal to the poor folk, and it was said that even the animals and birds enjoyed his sermons. Like Mahatma Gandhi seven hundred years later, St. Francis came to be admired by enemies as well as friends because of his example; during the Fifth Crusade he was even allowed to cross battle lines and meet with the sultan of Egypt. Some members of the Franciscan order went too far and were condemned as heretics by the Inquisition, but eventually the popes decided that the Franciscans were an acceptable alternative to the more rabid anti-clerical groups that were floating around by this time.

Finally it should be mentioned that the period from 1000 to 1500 is often called the High Middle Ages because medieval chivalry and pageantry were at their peak. This was also the golden age of cathedrals; architects began erecting the first major structures seen since classical times, first in the sturdy, rounded Romanesque style, and later in the spectacular Gothic style when they perfected the techniques for building more than a few stories in the air with a minimum of support.

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Clouds on the Horizon

The Crusades were just one act that worked to discredit the Papacy. A more obvious one was the growth of papal government and its increasing need for money, which made the clergy seem worldly and corrupt.

An early attempt to purify the Church came from Peter Waldo, who gave away everything he had to the poor, lived a life of humble poverty, and translated the Bible from Latin to everyday languages of the day. At first the pope approved of Waldo's methods (1179), since they encouraged the poor and illiterate to live more righteous lives, but by living in poverty, the Waldensians showed how wealthy and materialistic the rest of the clergy had become. Less than a decade after they got started, the Waldensians were being branded as a heresy, with every instrument of the Church, including the Inquisition, being turned against them. It took until the fifteenth century to stamp them out, but by this time the Waldensians were all over Europe, encouraging ordinary people to question the authority of Rome. Thus in many places--England, Bohemia and northern Germany in particular--they plowed the ground for the seeds of the Reformation that would come later on.

A more radical movement, drawing many of its ideas from the Paulicians and Manicheans (see our previous lessons), emphasized the universal struggle between light and darkness, and viewed Jesus as the enemy of the God who created an evil world, not as God's son. This movement also called for poverty, chastity and a complete elimination of the Church organization; in its place they called for a two-class society made up of those who lived strict lives of poverty, vegetarianism, and renounced all marriage and oaths (called "the Perfect"), and those who did not (called "the Believers"). Its followers in north Italy and southern France called themselves Cathars; we know them as Albigensians because they were most numerous around the French town of Albi. In Italy persecution was sufficient to extinguish the heresy; in France a holy war was needed. This Albigensian Crusade (1209-29) saw wandering scoundrels enlisted to plunder, kill and rape the most peaceful and righteous subjects of France. The result was what we might call a "good cop, bad cop" routine; those Albigensians St. Dominic could not reconvert, the pope's freebooters slew. In one way the cruelties and abominations of this era are more terrible to read than the persecutions pagan Rome carried out against the early Christians--we know beyond a doubt that the stories are true.

To combat the Albigensians, Innocent III's successor, Pope Gregory IX, made two fateful decisions: he prohibited the reading of the Bible among lay people, out of fear that they would get more wrong ideas, and he established the Inquisition, to combat by torture and the threat of death all real and perceived enemies of the Church.

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The Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy

The late Middle Ages saw steady advances in economics, science, and technology, which opened a breach between everyday life and the practices laid down by the Church. This breach widened further because instead of adapting to these changes, the Papacy tried to outlaw or restrict every one of them, from charging interest ("usury") to the crossbow. At the same time the clergy's special exemptions from taxation and temporal responsibility was condemned by kings seeking to establish real nation-states in their dominions. The political blunders of the Papacy were numerous and its crimes of corruption and nepotism were perhaps greater and certainly better publicized, but the repeated failures of the popes and the steady downward trend of their prestige after 1300 came largely from their inability to adapt to a changing society.

The Papal State in Italy, recognized as independent by the Holy Roman emperor in 1278, was an unhappy attempt to set up a personal domain which the pope could rule like a real king. But the popes did not stop there; they still would not pass up any opportunity to meddle in secular matters. Their argument was that, since mankind was sinful, everything man did came under their jurisdiction. Thus the Papacy got involved in matters which should not have been any of its business, like claiming as Church doctrine the false idea that the sun and the planets all revolve around the earth. At the end of the century Pope Boniface VIII put this down in writing with a series of bulletins or decrees, commonly known as Papal bulls. In 1302 he issued the Unum Sanctum, which went farther than the others by declaring that the entire human race was under his authority. To the French king Philip IV, this was going too far; he sent a squad of armed men to the Pope's hometown of Anagni with order to bring Boniface back to France. Apparently they beat up the eighty-six year-old pope, but he escaped to Rome and died humiliated a month later.

It is worthy of note that only the people of the pope's native town cried out against this outrage. The king of France had acted with the full approval of his people; before he sent the expedition he called the Estates-General (the medieval French Parliament) and got its consent for his rough handling of the head of Christendom. Nor was there any protest in England, Germany, or even the rest of Italy. The ideas of Christendom and Papal supremacy had lost their power over the minds of men.

After that Rome slid into lawlessness. Because of that disintegration, a Frenchman was elected Pope Clement V (1305-14), and he refused to go to Rome, so in 1309 the king of France set up a new headquarters for the Papacy in Avignon, in southeastern France. For a lifetime the popes stayed there; later Martin Luther would appropriately call this period "The Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy." Finally in 1377 Pope Gregory X returned to Rome, but in the absence of the popes their palace, the Lateran, had fallen into ruin, so he chose another one, the Vatican, as the new Papal residence. Other conditions had not improved much, and he was on the point of going back to Avignon when he died. The Roman mob seized its chance and forced the College of Cardinals to elect a pope (Urban VI) that favored a permanent re-establishment of the Papacy in Rome. The cardinals escaped as soon as they could, repudiated the pope they had been forced to vote for, and elected one of their own choosing (Clement VII). After a scuffle, Clement and the cardinals fled back to Avignon, while Urban reigned at Rome, supported by a pro-Roman College of Cardinals entirely of his own making.

Thus began the Great Schism which divided the allegiance of Catholicism and brought the Papacy to its lowest point yet. During this time the kings let politics decide which pope they would support. The Kingdom of Naples in southern Italy, France, Christian Spain (but not Portugal) and Scotland backed the pope of Avignon, while most others lined up behind the pope of Rome; the Holy Roman Empire was so divided that its princes went both ways. Thirty years later, a general conference of the Church met at Pisa, but it only succeeded in adding a third pope to the scene. The next council (held at Constance, Switzerland, 1414-18) deposed all three popes, managed to keep them from gaining enough support to make a comeback, and reestablished the unity and dignity of the Church under Pope Martin V at Rome. It stalled, however, on the crucial question of reform and turned savagely on those who attempted to take matters into their own hands.

There were plenty of reformers by this time. At the beginning of the Great Schism lived John Wycliffe (1320-84), a learned doctor of Oxford who organized a number of poor priests, the Lollards, to spread his ideas about cleansing false teaching from the Church. Because he felt that everyone should be able to judge between the Church and himself, he also translated the Bible into English.

Wycliffe died a free man, but the Papacy would not let him rest in peace. The same Council of Constance that ended the Great Schism ordered that his remains be dug up and burnt, and this was finally carried out in 1428. This council also did away with another reformer, Jan Huss of Bohemia. Huss taught the Czech congregations that only God can forgive sin, that no pope or cardinal can establish a doctrine which is contrary to scripture, and that no man-made clergy should be obeyed when their orders are plainly wrong; the sale of indulgences was cited as an example of the latter. In 1415 Huss went to the Council of Constance to defend his activities. He traveled under the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor, but upon arrival was arrested, tried and burned at the stake without being given an opportunity to explain his views.

Huss had found among the Czechs eager support for his attack on papal authority, and his followers after his death not only continued to stigmatize clerical corruption, but succeeded in eliminating it from the Bohemian Church. The pope then ordered the faithful to attack the Hussite heretics, but the Crusade was a fiasco. The Hussites found a blind general named Jan Zizka who turned out to be a tactical genius. Since his forces were fewer in number and had little military training, Zizka converted the tools the local farmers had--scythes, clubs and grain flails--into weapons that could be used in close-quarter combat, and to deal with mounted knights, they became the first Europeans to use large numbers of light cannon. He even invented a portable fort by tying farm wagons in a circle and sticking crossbows and cannon out in any direction, a fifteenth-century forerunner to today's tanks. For twenty years (1419-39) the Bohemians lorded over southern Germany before both sides agreed to a compromise. By then another council had met at Basel (1431) to discuss the postponed reform of the Church, the need for which had been postponed for a century. A brisk quarrel started over who had the ultimate authority, the popes or the councils, and matters soon progressed to open rupture and another schism (1439-49). While such fiddling went on the official reform movement collapsed.

A dress rehearsal for the Reformation began in 1491, when a popular preacher in Florence, a Dominican named Girolamo Savonarola, predicted that a great calamity would fall on the city, followed by a golden age in which Florence would become the capital of a united Italy in a great commonwealth. This seemed to be coming true when the French king Charles VIII invaded Italy, and Florence's rulers, the powerful Medici family, ran away. In their absence Savonarola set up a theocratic government which reformed the courts and the tax code, helped the poor, and changed this pleasure-loving center of the Renaissance into a virtual monastery. Once done at home, he attacked the pope, whom he called "Antichrist," as well as the corrupt papal court. The result was a papal excommunication and threat of interdiction against Florence. Since such decrees were often backed up by armed ruffians, the frightened people of Florence burned Savonarola at the stake. Savonarola thus became a hero to the early Protestants, many of whom (John Calvin, for instance) also attempted to set up godly-ruled realms on earth. Meanwhile more time passed, the Papacy refused to correct its faults and the Reformation became inevitable.

A Long Night Begins for the East

While the Catholic Church was losing its political power, political extinction overtook the Orthodox Church. As the Turks steadily whittled down the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantine emperor saw a chance of survival by accepting the authority of Rome in return for Western support. But the reunion proclaimed in 1439 was insincere, never accepted by the people of Constantinople, and always denounced by the Orthodox clergy. In any case, the days when the Papacy could direct the armies of the West were now over, and the aid that the West sent was too little and too late to make a difference. Constantinople fought and fell in the name of the Orthodox Church. Only the rising star of Muscovy, the dying glow of Georgia, and the long-forgotten outpost of Abyssinia remained as independent Orthodox states when the Ottoman Empire took over the Balkans and the Middle East.

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© Copyright 2016 Charles Kimball

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