Speaking of the Carolingians, Charles the Bald was succeeded in the Imperial title by his nephew, Charles the Fat. Meanwhile in each of these successions various grandchildren and great grandchildren of Charlemagne kept dividing lands and squabbling with one another, each trying to expand his own power. Most were not interested in the imperial title because it had become nothing more than that—a title. Power was local and the central administration of Charlemagne had completely broken down. In fact, with the death of Berengar of Friuli in 924 the throne was empty and remained so for thirty-eight years. All this at a time when Europe needed strong leadership—and when the Church needed a protector not only against Vikings and Saracens, but against some of the most unworthy men every to sit on the throne of Peter. This was a time when popes obtained their office by cash, by murder and by adultery.
In 962 the great-great-great-great-grandson of Charlemagne, through a predominately feminine line, took the throne and revived the empire. His name was Otto. He had become King of East Francia in 936, that part of Charlemagne’s empire that went to Louis the German and is what we call today Germany (West Francia, or West Frankreich being France, also known at this period as Neustria). Otto arranged for his coronation at Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen and in Charlemagne’s cathedral where Charlemagne’s bones lie. Now, just in case you’re missing this—he is trying from the beginning to establish a claim to Charlemagne’s title and realm.
In the early 960’s, the papal possessions in Italy—the Papal States—were overrun and conquered by Berengar II, the grandson of Berengar of Friuli who had been the last emperor, dying in 924. Berengar was a thug. The Pope—John XII—was worse. Nevertheless, when John asked the help of Otto in regaining his temporal possessions, Otto came down into Italy, defeated Berengar, restored the Pope to power. The Pope, for his part, then crowned Otto as Emperor, restoring the lapsed imperium. Pope and Emperor then established the Diploma Ottonianum, a treaty in which Otto and his successors would protect the papacy.
This brings us back to the thorny issue of papal versus imperial power. Charlemagne saw himself having supreme authority over the Church in the model that the Byzantine Emperors had exercised from the time of Justinian, and in fact from Constantine’s control over the Church. Certainly Constantine met nothing but gratitude from Popes Miltiades and Sylvester. Justinian, for his part, kept papal authority dependent on the Imperial exarch in Italy. This was and would be a problem for Eastern (later specifically Orthodox) Christianity where the Emperors—first the Greek Emperor at Constantinople and later the Russian Emperors at Moscow and Saint Petersburg—firmly kept the Church under the imperial thumb and the Church thanked them for that. So deeply ingrained was the Caesropapism in Orthodoxy that centuries later, even under the worst years of Communist oppression and persecution, the Russian Church was totally compliant with the Soviet government. But, to be fair, that was its strategy for survival and in so far as it was a survival strategy, it worked.
The Western Emperors saw their authority in the same way and for several centuries most popes agreed. We saw (see blog entry of May 12, 2011) that Charlemagne altered the Creed of Nicea and, in direct contradiction to Leo III, insisted that this revised Creed be used in the liturgy) In 824, Louis the Pious, his son and co-emperor, Lothair, and Pope Eugene II promulgated the Constitutio Romana, a protocol by which the Popes recognized, among other things, that the authority of the Emperor was supreme. The Popes, for their part, were in a bind. They needed the military protection from a series of foes—Lombards, Magyars, Saracens, and a host of Italian warrior-counts—to protect Rome and the papal territories. Secondly they, like everyone else in Europe, were used to thinking of the Emperor as being supreme, indeed as being the Vicar of Christ which was a title the emperors had appropriated to themselves. Finally, the popes had very little real power. Bishops were elected locally, admittedly often under some royal or noble pressure. Local Bishops, not popes, made decisions regarding liturgy and cult as well as Church discipline. Papal authority was exercised more by encouragement and exhortation than by decree. There was not much point into getting into Turf warfare with the Emperor. That would change, but for the time being, the popes were willing to let the issue slide. And it was just as well—the Church needed the emperors to clean up a papacy that had become hopelessly corrupt. I did a blog entry on what historians call The Pornacracy (cf. January 15 2011) which means the Rule (of the Church) by whores and refers to a period. While you’re looking at that check out the January 24 2011 entry which is about the Cadaver Synod. This might give you a picture of just how mad things were in the Church in the tenth century. I think tomorrow we will talk about John XII—the pope who asks Otto for help. It will show you why we need some outside authority to clean up the mess in Rome. Just remember the old Italian axiom—il pesce puzza dalla testa—the fish rots from the head: it was coined about the papacy.