The title of this episode of is Of Popes and 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, a new event on the Church calendar. The Pope’s decree announced a blanket pardon of all sins for all who visited the churches of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s in Rome over the next 10 months. Huge crowds poured into the city.
Boniface VIII was interesting. He had a flair for the pomp and 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, and 66 large pearls. He could afford to be generous with pardons. At the Church of St. Paul, pilgrims to Rome kept priests busy night and day collecting and counting the unending offerings.
For Boniface, looking ahead the years seemed bright. The Vatican had held unrivaled religious and political power for 2 centuries and there was nothing on the horizon that portended change. The Pope had before him the sparkling example of Innocent III, who a hundred years before dominated emperors and 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 the Jubilee celebrants rejoiced, 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 people 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 and forces were altering the Faith. The idea of Christendom, a Christian Empire unifying Europe from the 6th thru 14th C’s, was rapidly deteriorating.
So-called Christendom had been useful in creating 7th and 8th C Europe . But its importance faded in the 12th and 13th Cs. Pope Innocent III had indeed demonstrated that papal sovereignty was effective in rallying princes for a crusade or for defending the Church against heretics. But the 14th and 15th C’s saw a marked decline in papal power and prestige.
Because we are used to thinking of the World politically, 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 village. For centuries, Gauls and Goths defined themselves by their tribe. It never occurred to them to call themselves French or German. Such national labels don’t come into play until late, as Europe emerged from the Middle Ages into what we call the Modern World. A world, BTW, 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 and Philip the Fair of France were, as was typical for centuries – at odds with each other. To finance their increasingly expensive campaigns of territorial expansion, they decided to tax the clergy. But popes had long maintained the Church was exempt from such taxation, 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 and any clergy who paid w/o the Pope’s consent. But Edward and Philip were of the new kind of monarch 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 taxes. Phillip’s answer was to block the export of gold, silver, and jewels from France, depriving Rome of a major source of revenue from its collections.
Pope Boniface backed down, protesting he’d been misunderstood. He certain had not meant to cut off contributions for defense of the realm in times of need. It was a clear victory for both kings.
Their victory over papal power had a way yet to go, though. Reinforced by the success of the Jubilee, 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 and rescinded his earlier concession on taxation of Church lands. The next year Philip summoned the French nobility, clergy, and other leaders and formed a kind of French parliament. He then gained their unanimous support in his quarrel with 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; the papal bull known as the Unam Sanctum = The One Holy, most famous of all bulls of the Middle Ages, asserting the Pope’s authority over all other authorities. 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 William of Nogaret, the lawyer helping him 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 near 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, and gross immorality. Given authority by a French assembly of clergy and 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, violently manhandling him. 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 and rescued the Pope. He died a few weeks later, weak and 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 and 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, author of 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 without the Pope and the 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 and religious authority and 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 a 72 year long period called “The Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy” named after the Jewish exile some 2000 years before. Following Clement, six popes, all French, ruled from the French town of Avignon rather than in Rome.
This relocation of the Popes to France 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 one 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 entire 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 we often say, is the subject for another podcast.
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