I have come to the conclusion that the relationship of the Fourteenth Century and the Reformation is so multidimensional that it will take several posts to sort it out. When the author Barbara Tuchman described the Fourteenth as “the calamitous century” in A Distant Mirror, she was if anything engaging in understatement. It is not enough to say that secular leaders and popes of this time made remarkably poor decisions; it is not even enough to say that two of Europe’s major entities, England and France, began a military engagement which came to be called “The Hundred Years War.” It is not enough to blame it on the weather, although the “Little Ice Age” is dated today from about 1300 and wet climate led to a European famine from 1315-1317. Perhaps the best metaphor for the fourteenth century is the records of notary publics who faithfully tallied the deaths and burials of about 50% of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1351.
The century began, strangely enough, with a Jubilee Year [or Holy Year] in 1300, the first of its kind, proclaimed by the controversial Pope Boniface VIII. The papacy had fallen quite a distance from the imperial Innocent III a century earlier. In 1292 the cardinals debated two years over the nomination of a successor to the deceased Nicholas IV, and somewhat impulsively elected a famous monk, Celestine V. Celestine’s termination is better remembered than his reign, which lasted all of six months. He retired, to return to a simple life of monastic penance. He sought the advice of a noted Roman lawyer/canonist Benedetto Caetani, who counseled that a papal resignation was legal. Caetani himself was subsequently elected and took the name Boniface VIII.
The very election of Boniface and his legitimacy became a major factor when Boniface exercised his office, to the point that open city-state warfare was waged for a time over the pontiff’s legitimacy. Boniface envisioned himself enjoying the secular power that his predecessors such as Innocent had enjoyed, but historian Kevin Madigan describes him as “among the most unsuitable men to be pope” for his time. (Medieval Christianity, p. 370). Boniface ruled with an ignorance of his precarious position, excommunicating the Kingdom of Sicily and the City of Florence in his political machinations. Neither population took notice of his actions, an indication that the office of the papacy had lost both its swords, so to speak, the secular and the spiritual.
Boniface’s greatest struggle involved the French, and specifically Phillip IV. Phillip’s relationship with the Church is worth considering, for it is a pointed episode in the break of secular power from the authority of the Church. Phillip removed all canon or church lawyers, and eventually all clergy, from civil administration. Phillip began taxation of clergy and church institutions, and ended French fiscal support of Rome, which enraged Boniface, perhaps more so when he realized there was not a great deal he could do about it. What he could do was declare the Jubilee Year of 1300. An expected influx of pilgrims spending money in Rome would offset the lost revenue withheld by Phillip IV, but in addition, he bought good will for the Church and partially offset his earlier missteps.
The Jubilee did not improve Boniface’s problems with France, where bishops were aligning themselves with Phillip and continuing the life of the Church independently. [This was not a uniquely French situation, as national identity was commanding more civilian loyalty as the middle ages progressed.] Given this turn of events, Boniface issued his most famous bull or directive, Unam Sanctam (1302). Madigan writes that Boniface’s teaching can be “interpreted as a loud jeremiad against the destruction of Christendom and its fragmentation into independent and hostile nation-states.” (p. 373) Boniface, borrowing language from Aquinas, writes “It is altogether necessary for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”
Unam Sanctam is generally regarded as the greatest claim of authority ever put forward by a pope. Unfortunately for Boniface, he made the claim with little or nothing of practical help to back his assertion. Sadly for the pope, henchmen of Phillip seized the pontiff who was traveling to his home town. He was held captive and possibly physically assaulted. him. It took several days for the local citizenry to extricate him from his situation, but the trauma led to his death soon after. Boniface’s successor, Clement V (r. 1305-1314) adopted an opposite position to that of Boniface; Madigan uses the term “puppet” to describe Phillip’s control of the papacy under Clement after the newly elected pope decided to rule from his native France, specifically to the town of Avignon, bringing the entire Vatican bureaucracy with him.
I would bet that very few Catholics are aware that the papacy governed for nearly 80 years—most of the fourteenth century—outside of Italy and within the provenance of the French, more specifically the southern, more independent region of the Gallic state. Was there a bitter outcry about the removal of the papacy from Rome? The Curia itself welcomed the freedom from the contentions of warring Roman cardinals, and business was conducted “as usual” to the degree possible. The bigger factor was the explosion of multiple issues of war, religious dispute, natural disasters, and other events that distracted bishops and regional churches; there was no period where the Church could sit down in Council and sort out its papal situation; this would not happen until the Council of Constance in 1415.
The Avignon Papacy ended in 1377 when Gregory XI moved the papacy back to Rome. However, within a year Gregory died and Cardinals divided their votes between a Roman and an Avignon candidate. Neither would back off, resulting in The Great Schism, a period of four decades in which two and three men claimed rightful possession of the papacy. The fourteenth century was thus a trying one for the papacy, and any hopes of retaining secular power died, despite the claims of Unam Sanctam.
By the time of the Protestant Reformation in 1517, dissenters from Roman Catholicism had taken several different lessons from Boniface VIII. John Calvin saw the enforcement of doctrine and morals as a duty of the state. Other faith traditions endorsed separation of church and state. Catholics coped with the question in several ways: it embraced the power of a Church Council as the final authority in the restoration of the papacy in the 15th century. In the face of Protestant revolt the power of the pope was restored in reforming the Church. In the 1700’s and 1800’s, given the chaos of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and growing independence movements, the papacy was strengthened to the point of declaration of infallibility in 1870.
That said, discussion of church power was generally institutional and spiritual. No official document in use today endorses Unam Sanctam’s claim of universal authority over the secular and the spiritual. While Catholics are encouraged in the direction of responsible citizenship and state duty, Vatican II explicitly refused to extend the power of coercion over individual conscience.
It is still possible today to easily obtain a copy of The Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries, a 1907 treatment by James J. Walsh (1865-1942); the text is free on Kindle. Walsh was an American physician and man of letters; he was a regular contributor to Catholic journals of the time on matters medical and moral, including the use of discarded street cars for open-air treatment of tuberculosis. I have not read his 1907 treatment of the thirteenth century, nor was it assigned to me during my sojourn as a medieval student at Catholic University. By 1970 the body of scholarship amassed on the medieval era had far outstripped Walsh’s sources and conclusions.
I can see where Walsh’s work must have been helpful to Catholic students and readers in its day and beyond. He catalogues the achievements of the thirteenth century as unique in their creativity and inventiveness. Among the accomplishments of the 1200’s he cites the famous philosophers and the growth of universities, the development of vernacular literature and scientific experimentation, the geographic growth of economy, the education of women, the development of what we would term today “Catholic Charities” [which he credits to the vision of Innocent III], advances in law and representative government [e.g., the Magna Carta], the friars, exploration [Marco Polo], and the magnificence of the great cathedrals and attendant liturgical art and music.
Walsh has done me a favor in providing a platform to look at the 1200’s with a view to the Reformation three centuries down the road. In fact, Walsh was not a professional historian, and his primary purpose in writing—along with satisfying his insatiable curiosity—was to refute Protestant charges about the Catholic Church that were quite common through the twentieth century. Walsh puts forth a fair argument that Catholic Christendom had left a significant heritage to all of history in its thirteenth century achievements. He specifically refutes charges that the Church suppressed scientific knowledge and deliberately contributed to the subservience of women.
Walsh’s book today falls under the heading of apologetics or defense, the reason I was not required to read it in 1970. His apologetic argument is quite understandable because the United States was a predominantly Protestant country awash in anti-Catholicism in 1907 when the author finished this work. The American bishops had only recently mandated that Catholic children—most of whom of strong ethnic identity-- attend parochial schools for their physical and religious safety; the public-school agenda was routinely anti-Catholic, questioning the loyalty of Catholics to the country or the Vatican. In our context here, Protestant opposition to Catholic thought and practices focused upon developments of the medieval era; the Church Luther opposed was in fact the medieval church, not the Church of Paul or Augustine.
However, in the present day The Thirteenth enjoys something of a mild resurgence in conservative Catholic blogsites. I came across this 2009 favorable review of the work, a defense of the author’s thesis against life in our present day. The review is a canonization of the thirteenth century in a way that suggests we would all be better off back then.
The reviewer, and the author, for that matter, both make the amateur’s mistake of skimming across the top of an era and missing the many complications beneath the surface. Just about every topic listed in the author’s table of contents is a two-edged sword where the Church is concerned. The circumstances surrounding the Magna Carta  were profoundly influenced by Pope Innocent III, the age’s most powerful pontiff. The last pope of the thirteenth century, Boniface VIII, was physically overtaken by King Phillip IV of France and died from his ordeal. What Walsh missed in his priorities was a steady decline in the power and regard for the papacy to the degree that the entire machinery of the papacy would be hijacked to France barely into the next century.
The universities would assume much of what we call the “magisterium” or teaching authority of the Church throughout the century and into the next. Thoughtful Catholics looked to Paris and Oxford, and to the teachings of Aquinas and others on matters as diverse as the Immaculate Conception, the morality of war tactics, and particularly the developing body of Church or Canon Law. The burgeoning trade between nations led to the introduction of ancient Greek texts translated and transmitted by Islamic scholars. The expression of doctrinal Catholicism would take the form of Aristotle, for better or worse [except among a body of independent philosophers such as William of Ockham, who was born in the thirteenth century.]
Walsh cites St. Francis of Assisi for his artistic contributions to Church life, notably the introduction of the Christmas creche. But he misses or is ignorant of the century-long struggle for the identity of the Franciscan Order and the deeper question of the role of the Bible in Catholic lay piety. There were numerous groups similar in nature and purpose to Francis’ ideals who carried personal piety beyond the bounds of Church thought and authority, leading to the formalization of the Inquisition under the Dominican Order.
It does make sense to single out the thirteenth century in the sense that a limited number of “terrible” things happened. [In 1978 Barbara Tuchman wrote the best-selling A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century; I always wondered why Barnes and Noble did not combine Tuchman’s and Walsh’s books in a boxed set.] When I say that the thirteenth century was relatively calm, I am overlooking Crusade IV and the horrific destruction of Constantinople by the Crusaders; or Crusade V—famous for the meeting of Francis of Assisi and the Sultan—which led to an inglorious Christian defeat. I have said nothing about the destruction of any lasting hopes of Christian reunion between East and West.
The thirteenth century was a remarkable era and certainly an inventive one; it was not exactly the calm before the storm, but those living at century’s end could scarcely imagine what awaited them in the fourteenth, because Tuchman’s term “calamitous” was an understatement.
How do the Crusades play into the stream of events that led to the massive break in Christianity known as the Protestant Reformation? It is a complex question and one about which there is considerable room for argument. There are several points which are hard to dispute: (1) the span between the First Crusade (1095) and the Fourth (1202) illustrates a shift in popular religious piety in much of Europe; (2) the Crusades demonstrate the strengths and limitations of papal power; (3) the Crusades in many ways sanctioned the concept of “holy war” in the Christian consciousness; and (4) the Crusades eliminated any chance of reunion between Eastern and Western Christendom, specifically the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204).
I posted last week on this stream that Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216) is probably the most powerful pope in history if one combines spiritual and secular power (using Pope Gelasius’ fifth century theory of the “two swords”) and it is not surprising to find him in the crusading venture. Elected at a young age (37) he began his pontificate with enthusiasm, and his preaching advocacy appears to be part of his reform agenda along with the suppression of heresy and discipline of free-floating religious movements. His enthusiasm for Crusade IV is even more surprising given that only one previous effort, Crusade I, had successfully captured Jerusalem, and that with staggering loss of life and effort.
Innocent did not have the perspective of history we enjoy today. Perhaps the most accessible history of Crusade IV, The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople (2004) by Jonathan Phillips, [see my review] makes the case that the “military art of crusading” had advanced considerably over the twelfth century; moreover, the growing regional and national impulses were slowly replacing a sense of “Christendom” as a single geopolitical entity. This latter change would pose new challenges in recruiting and financing. But the revolution in military strategy was the first domino to fall.
By 1198 the idea of marching an army clear around the Mediterranean from France and other European ports to Jerusalem was outdated; the new strategy would involve a streamlined force of expert knights with horses transported by ship to Egypt, below Jerusalem, saving time and energy while positioning the force for an accessible reclamation of Jerusalem. The strategic question became: who could construct a fleet of ships for this venture?
I mentioned earlier that Crusades in general—and particularly the Fourth—demonstrate the limits of papal power. Crusade IV was ruled by committee, though history remembers two members of this council, Baldwin of Flanders, a distinguished knight, and Geoffrey of Villehardouin, the greatest chronicler of this era who sat in on all councils of war, of which there were many. Geoffrey and a council within the council negotiated an intriguing contract with the city-state Venice, the only entity capable of producing enough ships for a crusade. Led by its remarkable 90-year-old blind leader Dandolo, Venice put its economy on hold for one year to produce the ships on the understanding that the crusade would deliver 35,000 knights and a massive cash payment.
In every Crusade there comes a moment when control of events passes from Rome, and the crusaders’ contract with Dandolo effectively terminated Innocent’s control of events in Crusade IV. For the various wings of the crusade could not deliver on the deal: only 13,000 knights reported to Venice for sail, and less than 30% of the funds had been raised. Dandolo, who effectively contained the crusade with his own troops, offered Crusade IV the opportunity to work off its debt by joining forces to destroy the trading city of Zara, a competitor of Venice, one with loyalties to the Church of Rome. Innocent III, when he learned of this aggression, was incensed, and excommunicated the entire crusade, but the war council hid this fact from the force and sent ambassadors to talk him down, so to speak.
During this hiatus the crusade and the Venetians were approached surreptitiously by a member of the Eastern Roman Empire’s royal family from Constantinople. A second deal was struck whereby the crusade and the Venetians would sail to Constantinople and restore the legitimate emperor. In turn, the restored emperor would join forces in a campaign to free Jerusalem, and would swear allegiance to the Church of Rome. And thus, with a combined force of about 20,000, Crusade IV and its Venetian partners sailed north. Upon arrival the Crusade discovered that inhabitants of Constantinople and its vicinity desired neither union with Rome nor, for that matter, restoration of the emperor, and declared war upon the western visitors.
In one of history’s most remarkable achievements, Crusade IV overcame an impregnable defense of a city of a half-million. Baldwin was crowned emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire and notified Innocent. The victory was marred by an awesome desecration and looting of the city. Wikipedia summarizes it well: “The sack of Constantinople is a major turning point in medieval history. The Crusaders' decision to attack the world's largest Christian city was unprecedented and immediately controversial, even among contemporaries. Reports of Crusader looting and brutality scandalized and horrified the Orthodox world; relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches were catastrophically wounded for many centuries afterwards, and would not be substantially repaired until modern times.”
Crusade IV, sated with the spoils of war, returned home without any southerly movement toward Jerusalem. Innocent expressed joy at the victory and sent congratulations to Baldwin. He may not have been aware of the destruction at the time, and Jonathan Phillips (see above, p. 298-303) believes that Innocent naively assumed that the Crusade was continuing to the Holy Land. [In 1215, Innocent called for a fifth Crusade, shortly before his death.] It was not until 2001 that the Roman Catholic Church, in the person of Pope John Paul II, apologized to Eastern Orthodox Christianity for the atrocities against Constantinople [modern day Istanbul.]
The legacy of Crusade IV is doleful. The military and economic strength of Constantinople was so crippled by this campaign that Constantinople eventually fell to Islamic Turks in 1453. The acquiescence of military action against fellow Christians set an unfortunate precedent; over 50,000,000 would die in the “Religious Wars” of Europe between 1524 and 1648. All hope of a faith reunion between East and West was destroyed in 1204, and Christians on both sides came to accept that religious division was an unpleasant fact. If churches could divide, they could divide again, and the seeds of new arrangements were sown and watered in these troubled days.
Any treatment of the Reformation involves discussion of popes. In the first instance, Protestant reform, a movement built upon freedom of conscience and the sovereignty of the Bible would find it necessary to address and confront an office to which fifteen centuries of Christians had looked as a direct link to Christ and the binding organization of his message. In part this confrontation would be the work of Lutheran and Calvinist theologians who would need to explain Jesus’ words to St. Peter as the rock of his kingdom in a manner quite different from the Roman Catholic understanding of the pope as possessing ultimate spiritual authority.
Refurbishing (or entirely eliminating) the office of the papacy in the textbooks was one matter. Interpreting the impact of actual popes and their decisions through the medieval era was quite another. To use a contemporary example, it is one thing to talk about the office of the American presidency; it is another to assess the acts and motives of individual presidents, particularly the incumbent. Luther’s tipping point came with the authorization of the incumbent Pope Leo X (r. 1513-1521), a member of the Medici family, for the sale of indulgences to build the present-day St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But Leo X did not invent indulgences nor their trafficking; his actions were the fruits of decisions made and precedents set by previous occupants of the Chair of Peter.
The medieval popes had exercised their offices with a variety of ways and claims; as we saw a few weeks ago, Pope Gregory VII had reformed the Church in the late 1000’s with a monastic model of growing independence from secular princes and powers and greater structural integrity, including the observance of clerical celibacy. Along with Gregory VII, I would cite a cluster of popes whose actions set a trajectory that would make 1517 the “perfect storm” of division that it proved to be. Specifically, I would cite Innocent III (r. 1198-1216), probably the most powerful pope to govern the Church in history; Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303), who made the critical error of claiming too much power in his encyclical Unam Sanctam; The Western Schism (1378-1417), a four-decade span in which three separate but concurrent papacies led to considerable scandal and the exercise of conciliar supervision of the Church; and Pope Martin V (r. 1417-1431) who squandered a well-considered plan to reform the Church in collaboration with bishops and cardinals.
Every survey of medieval history devotes considerable space to Innocent III. It is hard not to. Again, returning to previous posts, we saw that the medieval church believed itself heir to dominion and power dating back to Constantine himself through the Donation of Constantine, a declaration later proved fraudulent. Popes were expected to function as savvy statesmen and military leaders in protecting the lands, holdings, and privileges of the Church. Moreover, with the expansion of Canon Law in this era, Rome became the supreme court of all disputes. In Innocent’s time the city was a mecca for lawyers pleading disputes before the papal court. Innocent himself was nicknamed “Solomon III.”
Innocent III carried out these functions better than any other pope before the Reformation; after the Reformation and the “Religious Wars” there would be no possibility for a pope to reign in this fashion again. Kevin Madigan (see home page) reminds us that Innocent’s theological gifts are often overlooked (p. 287). He wrote On the Mysteries of the Mass, which became a standard theological text for centuries, and later defined the term transubstantiation as the official term for the change in the bread and the wine at Mass into the body and blood of Christ, at the Council Lateran IV in 1215.
The pope-as-stateman model, however, profoundly impacted papal elections at this time. Innocent III was elected at the age of 37, and the primary reason his youthfulness was overlooked according to Madigan is the cardinal-electors’ belief that Innocent’s Paris (French) education would dispose him to oppose German power, then seen as an encroachment upon the holdings of the Church. Innocent proceeded to play a skillful and heavy hand in German affairs, and when German princes elected Otto as king, Innocent took upon himself the right to judge this disputed election.
When Otto reneged on his promise to restore contested lands to the Church, Innocent excommunicated Otto and announced that he had stripped him of his imperial title, setting off a chain of events that led to Otto’s defeat and the elevation of Prince Frederick. Madigan observes: “In the eleventh century emperors had chosen popes without consulting any Roman prelate. Now the pope had chosen an emperor.” (p. 290) Innocent exercised similar power in England, France, and Denmark. An extant 1198 letter from Innocent opined that ecclesiastical liberty is best preserved “where the Roman Church has full power in both temporal and spiritual affairs.” Whereas Gregory VII had simply claimed independence from secular monarchs in matters of Church affairs, Innocent III was claiming full authority over secular affairs.
The difficulty with a “two swords” theory (that is, power over the spiritual and the material worlds) is that poor execution in the one sphere will create difficulties in the other. A pope who makes missteps in world affairs will bring discredit to his spiritual authority, or vice-versa in the case of Leo X and Luther. Madigan writes that no European prince accepted Innocent’s theoretical claim literally; politics then, as today, was pragmatic. The degree of obeisance of ruler to pope depended, not surprisingly, on the actual resources each brought to the table.
Innocent III did not get everything he wanted, but his Council IV Lateran in 1215 gives us a good picture of his scope of influence. [Wikipedia has a convenient listing of the Council’s outcomes.] As spiritual leader of Western Christendom, Innocent III’s concerns included the proliferation of mystical fraternities or charismatic groups outside the traditional discipline of religious orders—his approval of one such group, ultimately the Franciscans, is quite surprising. He aggressively addressed the issue of heresy and the prosecution of heretics, and called for discipline and renewal in both the clerical and lay states.
At IV Lateran Innocent called for a new Crusade. A new assault to reclaim the Holy Land was necessary because the previous Crusade, the Fourth, was the most notable misstep of Innocent’s reign; the Fourth Crusade is one of the most bizarre and byzantine (no pun intended) military escapade in history. Innocent wisely opposed it, but he could not stop it, which goes to show that claims to power do have limits. The Fourth Crusade—which has its own impact upon the Reformation to be discussed later—destroyed the crusading spirit of Europe, a fact which escaped Innocent.
Innocent’s model of a two-swords papacy introduced another critical influence upon the medieval Church: the need for money. Innocent III was the first pope to levy a” papal tax” upon his clergy in 1198; the practice grew and expanded to all members of the Western Roman Church, as far away as a now extinct settlement in Greenland. The quest for funds for an expansive church bureaucracy would grow until the day that a Dominican monk named Tetzel arrived in Martin Luther’s town for the solicitation of funds through the sale of indulgences.