|The Empire of Otto I|
included modern Germany, Switzerland,
the Netherlands, Belgiumjparts of Austria,
France, and Italy as far south as Naples
We had been talking about the problem of Reform of the Church—and who can reform it when the need for reform begins right at the top. This has happened in the past with corrupt popes and papal administrations that forgot the gospel and became over invested in their own ambition for power, wealth, and pomp. We saw how in his day Charlemagne had stepped in and set things right with Leo III (blog entry June 4, 2011). Well after Leo things only got worse—and we saw what happened with Marozia, Theodora and the pornacracy (entries June 9, June 6, and January 15). You may remember the Cadaver synod (entry, January 24, 2011). These are all great stories. Amazingly, as corrupt as the Borgias were—and as Showtime showed them, they were pretty corrupt—the tenth century papacies were even more wicked. Who would set the Church back in order?
Charlemagne’s empire with its Renaissance and Reformation did not last. The Emperor was succeeded by his son, Louis, who in turn was succeeded by his son Lothair. But Lothair’s claims of Imperial supremacy were disputed by his half-brothers Louis the German and Charles the Bald The two brothers were too strong for Lothair and after much warfare among the three, Lothair was left with the imperial title but with much of the realm taken by his brothers. Lothair himself, when dying, left the imperial title to his son Louis, but divided his remaining lands among Louis and his two brothers—Lothair II and Charles of Provence. This was not an easy time for Europe—the Magyars were sweeping in from the east, the Vikings were ravaging the Atlantic and channel coasts and the Saracens were ravaging the Italian possessions of the Empire. There was a need for strong leadership to meet the challenges and there were plenty of strong leaders—but they kept fighting one another rather than the external enemies. On his deathbed, Louis named his cousin Carloman, the son of his uncle Louis the German, to succeed him, but his other uncle, Charles the Bald—in connivance with Pope John VIII—seized the throne. John, by the way, is a curious personage himself and was quite effeminate. Patrick Madrid, an amateur historian (and the operative word here is amateur), suggests his effeminacy may have given rise to the Pope Joan legends. That is a very complex topic and we will have fun someday soon looking at those stories. However “light in his buskins” he may have been, John was a good pope; indeed a great pope. Of course the competition at the time was not much. John had a problem and that was the Saracen (Muslim) pirates who were raiding papal Italy and so the pope turned to the Carolingians for help just as Leo III had turned to Charlemagne and Pope Zachary had turned to Pepin in their respective political woes in the previous century. They let him down—they were too divided among themselves for any sort of effective response—and, in the end, the popes had to pay tribute to the Saracens.
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 and title themselves were 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. His intention is to refound Charlemagne’s “Roman Empire.”
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 II 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 (not the popes) 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.