The papacy during this period can be seen as either the spiritual guardian of the western Christendom or as a temporal power claiming supreme jurisdiction over all other churches and indeed states. It is difficult to deny the increasing claims of papal jurisdiction over secular rulers however this was balanced by a spirit of reform and founding of new orders. Such is the enduring strength and continuity of the papacy that it is easy to forget that it has evolved and adapted across the centuries.
From an insignificant community in the imperial capital in the days of the Roman Empire, the Church of Rome developed into the most influential and important governmental institution in the medieval period. Papal primacy had been only slowly established after its theoretical formulation in the time of Leo (440-461). Rome’s claim to leadership was strengthened by generations of popes claiming to be St. Peter’s heir. After Gregory VII the papal emphasis on St. Peter diminished. The title, Vicar of St. Peter fell out of use and was replaced by another that suggested a higher authority and more extensive field of activity, Vicar of Christ.
Popes ceased to be concerned exclusively with the narrow affairs of the diocese of Rome and began to exercise that universal jurisdiction throughout Christendom claimed by the tradition of the Roman Church. The whole of medieval Europe was in receipt of the decrees, mandates and verdicts issuing forth in prolific quantities from the Church of Rome. Previously the papacy had long been the tool of political faction; the period 801-1049 is regarded as the era of caesaropapism as the position became the instrument of local Italian factions. During this period the affairs of the church received little direction from Rome.
Monasteries and bishoprics were founded, bishops and abbots were appointed by lay rulers without hindrance or objection. The majority of papal letters during this period simply confirmed and approved what others had done. The pope was confined to being “pastor of souls. ” The rise of the papacy can be seen in its evolving relationship with the Holy Roman Empire. In 879 John VIII had ordered the Lombard bishops not to recognise anyone as king of Italy without his consent “for he whom we are to ordain ought first to be called and elected by us” the first instance of the papal claim to approve the election of the emperor.
In 1048 the emperor Henry III appointed Leo IX to succeed, who accepted only on condition that his election be confirmed by the people and clergy of Rome. This changed the fundamental balance of power between the papacy and emperor since future popes owed their position to electors rather than the emperor When the monk Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII in 1073 he included in the new collection of canon law the central passages of the Donation of Constantine. Gregory’s beliefs outlined in his Dictatus papae of 27 statements implied nothing less than a total papal sovereignty in all the affairs of the Christian community..
The death of Henry VI in 1197 gave Innocent III opportunities to exercise the temporal claims of the papacy in the power vacuum that followed. According to Ranke the real heir to Henry VI was not the future Frederick II but Innocent III. A contemporary writer Gervase of Tilbury called Innocent “the true emperor. ” The rise of the papacy built up unstoppable momentum as each pope cited the precedents of previous popes to justify their actions but often effectively changed the meaning of previous papal writing.
Thus Gregory VII cited Gelasius’s writing on the two swords theory but omitted Gelasius’s description of the emperor as ruling over the human race and the statement that the emperor is subject to the priesthood only in matters concerning the sacraments. The encroachment of the papacy on the prerogative of the emperor led to papal schisms in the 1080’s and again in the 1130’s. The polarity between the papacy’s political occupations and its political duties created tension. The very success of the papacy in building up its authority and its legal and administrative machinery militated against its claim to spiritual leadership.
Popes aspired less and less to provide pastoral leadership and increasingly devoted their energies to keeping the wheels of government turning. The measures they took to build up, defend and rule the Papal States were indistinguishable from those of other secular rulers. The notion that the papacy should be above politics would have no sense to the people of the medieval world. It has been argued that the spiritual prestige of the papacy was tarnished by its use of temporal strength to achieve its ends, but that is in many ways a modern concept.
The main criticism is that the papacy should not be concerned with temporal matters at all. It denies the purpose of the Church in this world. A papacy which saw itself as called to lead Christendom was compelled to take account of temporal matters which were only indirectly of consequence, either positively or negatively, for the road to salvation. According to Walter von der Vogelweide, a contemporary poet, the angels in heaven cried out ‘Alas’ three times when the donation of Constantine was made.
Such an attitude explains the attractions of the Friars and other contemporary groups who embraced poverty in their search for salvation and a return to what was seen as the values of the early church. The two personalities of Pope Innocent III and St Francis of Assisi may be seen as in marked contrast, Innocent III representing an authoritative papacy, Francis searching for the roots of the simple apostolic life of the early church. Arnaldists of Lombardy (followers of Arnold of Brescis) who died in 1155 argued against the Holy See having property.
The Waldensians (followers of Peer Waldo of Lyons) believed that the authority of the church was annulled when Pope Sylvester had accepted temporal possessions from the Emperor Constantine. The extraordinary growth of twelfth century heresies was caused not by doctrinal differences but protest against a secularised church. By the time of Innocent IV the papacy stood accused of prostituting the power of the papacy for political ends and of using up the capital accumulated by his predecessors in the interests of his political conflict with Frederick II.
The papacy by the end of the eleventh century aspired to lordship of this world as well as the next. Although the papacy claimed lordship of this world it could not fully exercise this power. The aim of every pope was to control the city of Rome. But many twelfth century popes spent years in exile and between 1162 and 1188 Rome was only possessed by the papacy at intervals. It has been estimated that the pope was compulsorily absent for more than half the century between 1099 and 1198 and for a total of 67 years between 1198 and 1304.
Before Innocent III popes were little more than nominal overlords of the papal states, disparate and scattered lands which they found difficult to control without imperial help. King Philip the Fairs minister Flotte commented to Pope Boniface VIII “Your power is made of words but our power is real. ” The only weapons under the pope’s direct control were interdict and excommunication. In major disputes they either did not work at all or they unleashed a flood of self-interested violence which destroyed everything within reach.
The papal claims in temporal affairs could never succeed because the popes lacked the appropriate weapons. The popes could root out and destroy but they could not build and plant. Hence Henry V was more dangerous than Henry IV whom the pope had refused to crown and the papacy could not find and acceptable successor to Henry VI However the papacy did not abandon its ecclesiastical and spiritual roles during this period. Indeed the papal extension of power and jurisdiction was accompanied by and strengthened by two successive reform movements.
The Gregorian reforms concentrated on the eradication of simony, clerical marriage and ending the secular control of ecclesiastical appointment. Innocent’s council of Clermont in 1130 focused on the discipline of the clergy and inculcating of Christian standards among the laity. Innocent tidied up the marriage law, prohibited ordeals, and outlined the church’s position on the sacraments and particularly confession. Above all he had attempted to revivify the aims of the priesthood Eugenius III wrote that Christ “gave to St Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the power of both the earthly and the heavenly empire.
Popes during this period who viewed themselves as direct heirs of St. Peter clearly believed in their right to rule the earthly empire. If further justification was needed the Donation of Constantine confirmed the papal view. However despite the realpolitik the papacy encouraged if not initiated reforming tendencies within the church especially the new orders of monks and friars. The papacy attempted to be both pastor of souls and lord of this world but perhaps laid greater emphasis on the earthly rather than the heavenly empire inherited from St Peter.