The fifth period of general Church history, or the second period of mediaeval Church history, begins with the rise of Hildebrand, 1049, and ends with the elevation of Boniface VIII. to the papal dignity, 1294.
In this period the Church and the papacy ascend from the lowest state of weakness and corruption to the highest power and influence over the nations of Europe. It is the classical age of Latin Christianity: the age of the papal theocracy, aiming to control the German Empire and the kingdoms of France, Spain, and England. It witnessed the rise of the great Mendicant orders and the religious revival which followed. It beheld the full flower of chivalry and the progress of the crusades, with the heroic conquest and loss of the Holy Land. It saw the foundations laid of the great universities of Bologna, Paris, Oxford. It was the age of scholastic philosophy and theology, and their gigantic efforts to solve all conceivable problems and by dialectical skill to prove every article of faith. During its progress Norman and Gothic architecture began to rear the cathedrals. All the arts were made the handmaids of religion; and legendary poetry and romance flourished. Then the Inquisition was established, involving the theory of the persecution of Jews and heretics as a divine right, and carrying it into execution in awful scenes of torture and blood. It was an age of bright light and deep shadows, of strong faith and stronger superstition, of sublime heroism and wild passions, of ascetic self-denial and sensual indulgence, of Christian devotion and barbarous cruelty.1 Dante, in his Divina Commedia, which "heaven and earth" combined to produce, gives a poetic mirror of Christianity and civilization in the thirteenth and the opening years of the fourteenth century, when the Roman Church was at the summit of its power, and yet, by the abuse—of that power and its worldliness, was calling forth loud protests, and demands for a thorough reformation from all parts of Western Christendom.
A striking feature of the Middle Ages is the contrast and co-operation of the forces of extreme self-abnegation as represented in monasticism and extreme ambition for worldly dominion as represented in the papacy.2 The former gave moral support to the latter, and the latter utilized the former. The monks were the standing army of the pope, and fought his battles against the secular rulers of Western Europe.
The papal theocracy in conflict with the secular powers and at the height of its power is the leading topic. The weak and degenerate popes who ruled from 900–1046 are now succeeded by a line of vigorous minds, men of moral as well as intellectual strength. The world has had few rulers equal to Gregory VII. 1073–1085, Alexander III. 1159–1181, and Innocent III. 1198–1216, not to speak of other pontiffs scarcely second to these masters in the art of government and aspiring aims. The papacy was a necessity and a blessing in a barbarous age, as a check upon brute force, and as a school of moral discipline. The popes stood on a much higher plane than the princes of their time. The spirit has a right to rule over the body; the intellectual and moral interests are superior to the material and political. But the papal theocracy carried in it the temptation to secularization. By the abuse of opportunity it became a hindrance to pure religion and morals. Christ gave to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, but he also said, "My kingdom is not of this world." The pope coveted both kingdoms, and he got what he coveted. But he was not able to hold the power he claimed over the State, and aspiring after temporal authority lost spiritual power. Boniface VIII. marks the beginning of the decline and fall of the papal rule; and the seeds of this decline and fall were sown in the period when the hierarchy was in the pride of its worldly might and glory.
In this period also, and chiefly as the result of the crusades, the schism between the churches of the East and the West was completed. All attempts made at reconciliation by pope and council only ended in wider alienation.
The ruling nations during the Middle Ages were the Latin, who descended from the old Roman stock, but showed the mixture of barbaric blood and vigor, and the Teutonic. The Italians and French had the most learning and culture. Politically, the German nation, owing to its possession of the imperial crown and its connection with the papacy, was the most powerful, especially under the Hohenstaufen dynasty. England, favored by her insular isolation, developed the power of self-government and independent nationality, and begins to come into prominence in the papal administration. Western Europe is the scene of intellectual, ecclesiastical, and political activities of vast import, but its arms and devotion find their most conspicuous arena in Palestine and the East.
Finally this period of two centuries and a half is a period of imposing personalities. The names of the greatest of the popes have been mentioned, Gregory VII., Alexander III., and Innocent III. Its more notable sovereigns were William the Conqueror, Frederick Barbarossa, Frederick II., and St. Louis of France. Dante the poet illumines its last years. St. Bernard, Francis d’Assisi, and Dominic, the Spaniard, rise above a long array of famous monks. In the front rank of its Schoolmen were Anselm, Abelard, Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventura, and Duns Scotus. Thomas à Becket and Grosseteste are prominent representatives of the body of episcopal statesmen. This combination of great figures and of great movements gives to this period a variety of interest such as belongs to few periods of Church history or the history of mankind.
Chapter 1. The Hildebrandian Popes. A.D. 1049–1073.
§ 3. Sources and Literature on Chapters I. and II.
§ 4. Hildebrand and his Training.
The history of the period begins with a survey of the papacy as the controlling power of Western Christendom. It embraces six stages: 1. The Hildebrandian popes, 1049–1073. 2. Gregory VII., 1073–1085, or the assertion of the supreme authority of the papacy in human affairs. 3. From Gregory’s death to the Concordat of Worms, 1122, or the settlement of the controversy over investiture. 4. From the Concordat of Worms to Innocent III., 1198. 5. The Pontificate of Innocent III., 1198–1216, or the papacy at its height. 6. From Innocent III. to Boniface VIII., 1216–1294, or the struggle of the papacy with Frederick II. and the restoration of peace between the papacy and the empire.
The papacy had reached its lowest stage of weakness and degeneracy when at Sutri in 1046, under the influence of Henry III., two popes were deposed and a third was forced to abdicate.3 But the worthless popes, who prostituted their office and outraged the feelings of Christendom during the tenth and the first half of the eleventh century, could not overthrow the papacy any more than idolatrous kings could overthrow the Jewish monarchy, or wicked emperors the Roman Empire. In the public opinion of Europe, the papacy was still a necessary institution established by Christ in the primacy of Peter for the government and administration of the church. There was nothing to take its place. It needed only a radical reformation in its head, which would be followed by a reformation of the members. Good men all over Europe anxiously desired and hoped that Providence would intervene and rescue the chair of Peter from the hands of thieves and robbers, and turn it once more into a blessing. The idea of abolishing the papacy did not occur to the mind of the Christians of that age as possible or desirable.
At last the providential man for effecting this necessary reformation appeared in the person of Hildebrand, who controlled five successive papal administrations for twenty-four years, 1049–1073, then occupied the papal chair himself for twelve years, 1073–1085, and was followed by like-minded successors. He is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of popes, and one of the most remarkable men in history. He excited in his age the highest admiration and the bitterest hatred. Opinions about his principles and policy are still divided; but it is impossible to deny his ability, energy, earnestness, and achievements.
Hildebrand was of humble and obscure origin, but foreordained to be a prince of the Church. He was of small stature, and hence called "Hildebrandellus" by his enemies, but a giant in intellect and character. His figure was ungainly and his voice feeble; but his eyes were bright and piercing, bespeaking penetration, a fiery spirit, and restless activity. His early life is involved in obscurity. He only incidentally alludes to it in his later Epistles, and loved to connect it with the supernatural protection of St. Peter and the Holy Virgin. With a monkish disregard of earthly relations, he never mentions his family. The year of his birth is unknown. The veneration of friends and the malice of enemies surrounded his youth with legends and lies. He was the son of a peasant or goatherd, Bonizo, living near Soana, a village in the marshes of Tuscany, a few miles from Orbitello. The oft-repeated tradition that he was the son of a carpenter seems to have originated in the desire to draw a parallel between him and Jesus of Nazareth. Of his mother we know nothing. His name points to Lombard or German origin, and was explained by his contemporaries as hell-brand or fire-brand.4 Odilo, the abbot of Cluny, saw sparks of fire issuing from his raiment, and predicted that, like John the Baptist, he would be "great in the sight of the Lord."
He entered the Benedictine order in the convent of St. Mary on the Aventine at Rome, of which his maternal uncle was abbot. Here he had a magnificent view of the eternal city.5 Here he was educated with Romans of the higher families.6 The convent was under the influence of the reformatory spirit of Cluny, and the home of its abbots on their pilgrimages to Rome. He exercised himself in severe self-discipline, and in austerity and rigor he remained a monk all his life. He cherished an enthusiastic veneration for the Virgin Mary. The personal contemplation of the scandalous contentions of the three rival popes and the fearful immorality in the capital of Christendom must have raised in his earnest soul a deep disgust. He associated himself with the party which prepared for a reformation of the hierarchy.
His sympathies were with his teacher and friend, Gregory VI. This pope had himself bought the papal dignity from, the wretched Benedict IX., but he did it for the benefit of the Church, and voluntarily abdicated on the arrival of Henry III. at the Synod of Sutri, 1046. It is strange that Hildebrand, who abhorred simony, should begin his public career in the service of a simonist; but he regarded Gregory as the only legitimate pope among the three rivals, and followed him, as his chaplain, to Germany into exile.
"Victrix causa Deis placuit, sed victa Catoni."7
He visited Worms, Spires, Cologne, Aix-la-Chapelle, the old seats of the empire, and spent much time at the court of Henry III., where he was very kindly treated. After the death of Gregory at Cologne, 1048, Hildebrand went to Cluny, the nursery of a moral reformation of monasticism. According to some reports, he had been there before. He zealously gave himself to ascetic exercises and ecclesiastical studies under the excellent abbot Hugo, and became prior of the convent. He often said afterwards that he wished to spend his life in prayer and contemplation within the walls of this sacred retreat.
But the election of Bishop Bruno of Toul, the cousin of Emperor Henry III., to the papal chair, at the Diet of Worms, brought him on the stage of public action. "Reluctantly," he said, "I crossed the Alps; more reluctantly I returned to Rome." He advised Bruno (either at Cluny or at Besancon) not to accept the triple crown from the hands of the emperor, but to await canonical election by the clergy and people of Rome. He thus clearly asserted, for the first time, his principle of the supremacy of the Church over the State.
Bruno, accompanied by Hildebrand, travelled to Rome as a pilgrim, entered the city barefoot, was received with acclamations, canonically elected, and ascended the papal chair on Feb. 12, 1049, as Leo IX.
From this time on, Hildebrand was the reigning spirit of the papacy. He understood the art of ruling through others, and making them feel that they ruled themselves. He used as his aide-de-camp Peter Damiani, the severe monk and fearless censor of the immoralities of the age, who had conquered the world within and helped him to conquer it without, in the crusade against simony and concubinage, but died, 1072, a year before Hildebrand became pope.8