The title of this episode of is Of Popes & Princes.
As far as the Church in the West was concerned, the 14th C opened on what seemed a strong note. Early in 1300 Pope Boniface VIII proclaimed a Year of Jubilee, something new on the Church calendar. The Pope’s decree announced a blanket pardon of all sins for all who visited the churches of St. Peter & St. Paul in Rome over the next 10 months. Huge crowds poured into the city.
Boniface VIII was an interesting man. He had a definite flair for the pomp & circumstance of what some might call pretentious ceremony. He regularly appeared in public dressed in royal, or even better, imperial robes, announcing, “I am Caesar. I am Emperor.” His papal crown had 48 rubies, 72 sapphires, 45 emeralds, & 66 large pearls. He could afford to be generous w/pardons. At the Church of St. Paul, pilgrims to Rome kept priests busy night & day collecting & counting the unending offerings.
Looking ahead, to Boniface the years seemed bright. The Vatican had held unrivaled religious & political power for 2 centuries and there was nothing on the horizon that portended any change. The Pope had before him the sparkling example of Innocent III, who a hundred years before dominated emperors & kings. Boniface assumed he’d carry on in the same vein.
But just 3 years later, Boniface died of a shock of the greatest personal insult ever inflicted on a Pope. Even as Jubilee celebrants rejoiced in 1300, forces were at work to end the hegemony of medieval papal sovereignty.
You don’t have to study history long before you realize there are often major changes brewing beneath the surface, long before the people of the time are aware of them. The 14th C was such a time. The Roman popes continued on in a business as usual mode while radical new ideas & forces were altering the Faith. The idea of Christendom, the Christian Empire which had unified Europe from the 6th thru 14th C’s was rapidly deteriorating.
The so-called Christian Empire of Christendom had been useful in creating a unified Europe in the 7th & 8th C’s. But its importance faded in the 12th & 13th. Pope Innocent III had demonstrated that papal sovereignty was effective in rallying princes for a crusade or for defending the Church against heretics. But the 14th & 15th C’s saw a marked decline in papal power & prestige.
Because we are so used to thinking of the World politically à that is, as a collection of nation-states, it’s difficult to get our heads around the idea they’re a rather recent phenomenon. For most of history, people lived regionally, their lives and thoughts circumscribed by the borders of their county or even, their village. For centuries, the Gauls & Goths defined themselves by their tribe. It never occurred to them to call themselves French or German. These national labels don’t come into play until late, as Europe emerged from the Middle Ages into what we conveniently call the Modern World. A world, BTW, that’s marked as modern precisely because of this new way of identifying ourselves.
By the 14th C people were just beginning to get used to the idea they were English or French. This was possible because for the first time, they began to think of the political state in terms independent of their religious affiliation.
Europe was moving, ever so slowly, away from its feudal past. Land was less important as hard cash became the new emphasis. Those at the political top came to realize they needed ever-larger sources of revenue, which meant taxes.
Edward I of England & Philip the Fair of France were, as was typical for centuries – at odds w/each other. To finance their increasingly expensive campaigns of war, they decided to tax the clergy. The Popes maintained the Church was exempt from such tax, most especially if the money raised was going to be used to let some other guys’ blood out of his body at high speed.
In 1296 Pope Boniface VIII issued a decree threatening excommunication for any ruler who taxed the clergy & any clergy who paid w/o the Pope’s consent. But Edward & Philip were of the new kind of monarchs advancing to Europe’s many thrones. They were unimpressed by Rome’s threats. Edward warned if the Church didn’t pay, the Crown’s protection of the Church would be removed, their properties seized in lieu of the taxes. Phillip’s answer was to block the export of gold, silver, & jewels from France, depriving Rome of a major source of revenue from its collections.
Pope Boniface backed down, protesting that he’d been misunderstood. He’d certain not meant to cut off contributions for defense of the realm in times of great need. It was a clear victory for both kings.
Their victory over papal power had a ways yet to go. Reinforced by the success of the Jubilee year, Pope Boniface assumed the reverence shown him in every corner of Europe extended to the civil sphere as well. He had another gold ornament added to his crown signifying his temporal power. Then, he went after France’s King Philip, trying to undermine his right to rule. Philip responded by challenging the Pope to show where Jesus gave the Church temporal authority.
In 1301, Philip imprisoned a French bishop on charges of treason. Boniface ordered his release & rescinded his earlier concession on taxation of Church lands. The next year Philip summoned the French nobility, clergy, & other leaders & formed a kind of French parliament. He then gained their unanimous support in his quarrel w/the pope. One of the new civil ministers put the choice they had to make this way, “My master’s sword is made of steel; the Pope’s is made of words.”
Several months later Boniface issued the most extreme assertion of papal power in Church history = Unam Sanctum. His meaning was unmistakable. He declared, “It’s altogether necessary for every human being to be subject to the Roman pontiff.”
Philip’s counter to the Unam Sanctum was no less drastic. He moved to have Boniface deposed on the grounds his election had been illegal. To carry out this plan, Philip turned to a lawyer named William of Nogaret who was helping the king set up the political foundations of France.
Nogaret was also a master at producing so-called “evidence.” He’d gained testimony to support his case by such dubious means as stripping a witness, smearing him with honey, and hanging him over a beehive. His case against Boniface went way beyond the charge that his election was illegitimate. Nogaret claimed the Pope was guilty of heresy, simony, & gross immorality. Given authority by a French assembly of clergy & nobles, he rushed to Italy to bring the Pope to France for trial before a Church council.
Boniface was 86 and had left Rome for the Summer. He was staying in his hometown when Nogaret arrived with troops. They broke in to Boniface’s bedroom & manhandled him violently. They waited a few days for him to recover, then prepared to return to France. But the people of the town discovered what was happening & rescued the Pope. He died a few week later, weak & humiliated.
This tragic affair becomes something of a marker for the fact that Europe’s rulers would no longer tolerate papal interference in what they regarded as political matters. The problem was after so many centuries of Christendom, it was difficult sorting out where politics ended & Church affairs began. What was clear was that a king’s power within his own country was now a fact.
At the same time, abuse of a Pope, even an unpopular one, was deeply resented. Despite his declaration of the Jubilee, Boniface was not a beloved leader. He’d been a target of much criticism. To give you an idea of just how low Boniface’s esteem had fallen, Dante, the Italian poet who wrote The Divine Comedy, reserved a place in hell for him! Still—the Pope was the Vicar of Christ. Few people at that time could conceive of Christianity w/o the Pope & Church hierarchy he presided over.
Even when there was no political vocabulary for it, people of the early 14th C began to distinguish between secular & religious authority & recognize the rights of each in its own place.
When Boniface’s successor died after a brief reign, Philip’s daring coup seemed to bear its fruit. In 1305 the College of Cardinals elected a Frenchman, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, as Pope Clement V. Clement never set foot in Rome, preferring to stay closer to home, where he was always accessible to do the royal bidding.
Clement’s election marked the start of the 72 year long period called “The Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy” after the Jews exile some 2000 years before. Following Clement, 6 popes, all French, ruled from the little town of Avignon rather than in Rome.
This relocation of the Popes to a French city was more than a matter of geography. In the thinking of Europeans, the Eternal City of Rome stood not only for the idea of the Apostolic Succession of the Church founded by St. Peter, but also of Roman imperium. Avignon was surrounded by what? The French kingdom. The Church was a mere tool in the hands of 1 nation, the power-hungry French.
This was resented bitterly in Germany. In 1324, Emperor Louis the Bavarian moved against the French Pope John XXII by appealing to a general council. Among the scholars supporting such a move was Marsilius of Padua who’d fled from the University of Paris. In 1326, Marsilius and his colleague John of Jandun presented Louis with a work titled Defender of the Peace. This questioned the whole papal structure of the Church and called for a democratic government. Defender of the Peace asserted that the Church was the community of all believers and that the priesthood was not superior to the laity. Neither popes, bishops, nor priests had any special function; they served only as agents of the community of believers.
In this revolutionary view of the church, the Pope was made over into an executive office of the Church council which were simply spiritual elders. The Pope was subordinated to the authority of the Council. This new church government form was called counciliarism. It would soon move from theory to practice.
But that- as they say, is the subject for another podcast.