Friday, March 15, 2013

Who's in charge when there is no pope? Part 3

Letter to Sue Quetta continued)

When last I wrote, I had come to the thrilling point in my narrative in which I mentioned Conrad of Wittelsbach, the first foreign bishop to be appointed a cardinal at the same time as he was bishop. As I  mentioned, he was appointed cardinal-priest of S. Marcello in 1165 while retaining his position as Archbishop of Mainz.  The Wittlesbachs were a big deal. They were movers and shakers who soon were to become the royal house of Bavaria which gave them the right to vote for the Holy Roman emperor. Conrad of Wittelsbach was both Archbishop of Mainz and Arch-chancellor of Germany. And what pray tell was the Arch-chancellor of Germany? He was the highest official of the Holy Roman Empire, after the Emperor.   

Now it gets complicated. A family called the Hohenstaufen, whose members had names such as “Henry the Quarrelsome”, had become the most powerful family in the German empire, which was pretty much most of Europe  north of the Alps and east of the Rhine, the other really powerful family was the Welf family. In 1122 along came Frederick  Barbarossa, or as we afficionados of history like to call him, “Red Beard Fred.” His father was a Hohenstaufen and his mother was Welf and that made him pretty much king of everywhere. He was Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany,  King of Burgundy and King of Italy. It was this last title that caused the trouble. He took it seriously and tried to rule the cities of northern Italy. For the popes this was a little too close for comfort.

The papacy had been dominated by the Byzantine emperors, then the leading families of Rome and for a century the Germans had decided to run the papacy. In 1073, not long before the Hohenstaufen-Welf-Wittelsbach mess, a monk named Hildebrand was elected Pope Gregory VII in 1073. He was determined to keep kings and emperors from running the Church. His fight with Emperor Henry IV, whom he forced to do penance standing in the snow at Canossa, established papal authority in the appointment of bishops and strengthened new canon law making the election of the pope the job of the College of Cardinals, not of any secular authority. 

Somewhere in this mess it seemed like a good idea to involve the Wittelsbachs. I imagine as a counterbalance to the Welf and the Hohenstaufen. Perhaps a better historian can fill me in on this. I would appreciate it. But that’s the atmosphere that resulted in making a distant non-Italian serving archbishop an honorary pastor of the city of Rome and an elector of the pope.

It certainly doesn’t end there, with popes deposing emperors and emperors deposing popes for the next couple of centuries. It all looked like such good fun that the French eventually decided to jump into the fight.

In 1285, a lad of seventeen named Philip inherited the French crown, and he didn’t like the fact that Edward III of England also claimed to be the rightful king of France. War seemed like a good idea at the time. It went on for 100 years, give or take, and wars are expensive. Philip, decided to tax the clergy. This was the last straw for Pope Boniface who was already unhappy with Philip’s anti-clerical policies. Philip responded by deciding to get rid of Boniface. His armies invaded papal territory and when they caught up with Boniface in Anagni, a town about 35 miles southeast of Rome, they beat him up and arrested him. After three days, the local towns people  rescued Boniface, but he was pretty shaken up and died a few weeks later. 

The cardinals then elected someone who managed to live for less than a year, and finally, in fear and trepidation, they elected a Frenchman. Half the Cardinals were French at the time, and the others apparently thought it made good sense not to upset King Philip of France. They elected Raymond Bertrand de Got, who though a cardinal was not at the conclave. He was still in France. He was installed as Pope Clement V in a ceremony held at Lyon in France who started to make his way to Rome very slowly. So slowly, in fact that he never got there. He got as far as Avignon, France which was technically part of the papal territory. The popes stayed in that lovely French town for the next 70 years, appointing French cardinals and doing pretty much what the kings of France told them to do. Finally in 1376, through the influence of St. Catherine of Siena, a great mystic, prophetess and not a lady to be toyed with, Pope Gregory XI decided to return to Rome, where he promptly died.

The cardinals, itching to get back to the safety of France, held a conclave which was surrounded by an Italian mob demanding an Italian pope. They elected the kindly and scholarly Archbishop of Bari, who turned out to be nothing of the kind. The cardinals thought he had lost his mind. He insisted that church business be carried on without the usual fees. Still worse he demanded that cardinals not be on the payroll of secular rulers and he criticized the luxury in which the cardinals lived. Worst of all, he was not going back to Avignon! The cardinals were horrified!  The French cardinals met at Anagni, and declared that they had been forced by the Roman mob into electing Urban VI and declared the election invalid. They then elected Robert of Geneva as pope and skedaddled back to Avignon. Robert of Geneva was the commander of the papal army.  In 1377, he had put down a rebellion in Cesena, Italy where he massacred 4,000 civilians earning himself  the nickname “butcher  of Cesena.” He was the French cardinals idea of a good man for the situation.

There were now two popes, one French and one Italian. This was a pickle. The pope guaranteed the political stability and relative peace of Europe by excommunicating people who wouldn’t play by the rules. Who could excommunicate whom? It was a mess. This situation continued for the next 39 years. In 1409, a bunch of bishops got together in Pisa in an unauthorized Council (only a pope can call a council) and elected a pope, Alexander by name. Now there were three popes. In 1415, Pope Gregory XII (the Roman pope) called the Council of Constance, Switzerland to elect a new pope. He excommunicated the French Pope who refused to step down. Pope Gregory then resigned, thus ensuring the legitimacy of the election, and the Council of Constance then elected Pope Martin V. Some of the participants in the unapproved the council of Pisa and some leftovers from the Council of Constance continued to insist that they were superior to an individual bishop. The monarchs of Europe thought this might be a good thing because the delegates tended to vote in national blocks representing their individual kings. The church narrowly dodged becoming the property of the crowned head of Europe. The authority of the papacy was so weakened by all this nonsense that within 100 years, the monarchs of much of Europe figured how to dump the papacy altogether with the help of a German monk: Martin Luther.

An independent papacy was not such a bad thing, in my estimation. In the middle ages, the popes guaranteed that no one could make war during lent, advent, Christmas, holy week, Easter week, or any feast day of which there were many. They could not kill non-combatants, they couldn’t do all the nasty things that soldiers usually do. They were just allowed to kill one another, and then only at certain times of the year. Holy days of Obligation were also non-war days, and better than that, the peasants got a day off on a holy day. They had Sundays, Holy days, Holy Week Easter week, and the twelve days of Christmas off. Sweet. 

The aristocracy of Northern Europe was happy to dump the mean old pope in Rome who would threaten them with excommunication which meant they couldn’t collect taxes, go to war or work the peasants to death. All that changed with the help of Luther. After the reformation, the aristocracy was able to establish national churches which would allow them to do with their peasants what they chose. They were guaranteed heaven’s blessing and the clergy’s permission, because invariably they paid the clergy’s salary. They could afford to, because they had taken all the church property. The Catholic Church cleaned up its act by electing reformist popes and holding the Council of Trent and eventually struggled back to being the majority religion.

And they all lived happily ever after. 

Not quite. 

You guessed it. I’m nowhere near done. Next week I’ll explain the Defenestration of Prague. Oh boy!

PS. That’s pronounced “dee-fen-eh-STRAY-shun” and I’m not making it up.


  1. I may be wrong, but it seems like a post may be missing between this one and the last one.

  2. Now that's Improbable History!