Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Decline of the Papal Power

Everybody in the Middle Ages agreed that there must be one head to rule over the Church, and one head, above all kings and princes, to rule over the states of Europe; but they could not settle the relations which these two should bear to each other.

Some said that the power of the Pope in the world was like the soul of a man, and power of the Emperor was like his body; and since the sould was greater than the body, so the Pope must be above the Emperor.

Another argument was founded on the passage in the Bible in which the apostles said to Christ: "Behold, here are two swords;" and Christ answered, "It is enough." By the two swords, it was claimed, was meant the power of the Pope, and the power of the Emperor. Those in favor of the Papacy tried to explain that both the swords were in Peter's hands, and that as Peter was the founder of the Papacy, Christ meant both powers to be under the Pope.

Still another argument was based on the "two great lights" (the sun and the moon) which the Bible tells us God set, teh one to rule the day, and the other the night. The sun, it was said, represented the Pope, and the moon the Emperor, and since the moon shines only by light received from the sun, so, it was argued, the Emperor's power must be drawn entirely from the Pope. It is not surprising that those who favored the Emperor would not accept arguments like these.

When Frederick Barbarossa was Emperor there was another long quarrel; and one of the Pope's officers tried to show that Frederick held the Empire as a "benefice" from the Pope, just as a vassal held his land as a benefice from his lord. This claim raised such an outburst of anger from the Germans, that the Pope was obliged to explain it away.

The last great struggle between the Papacy and Empire came when Frederick II., the grandson of Frederick Barbarossa, was Emperor. Frederick II. ruled not only over Germany and Northern Italy, but over Southern Italy as well. His mother was the heiress of the last of the Norman kings in Italy; and from her Frederick inherited the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The pope was afraid that the Emperor might try to get Rome also, so a quarrel soon broke out.

Frederick had taken the cross and promised to go on a crusade. When he delayed doing this, the Pope excommunicated him for not going. Frederick at last was ready, and went to the Holy Land. Then the Pope excommunicated him a second time for going without getting the excommunication removed. In the Holy Land Frederick had great trouble with the Pope's friends because he was excommunicated. At last he made a treaty by which he recovered Jerusalem from the Mohammedans, and returned home Then he was excommunicated a third time. It seemed as if there was nothing that he could do that would please the Pope.

For a while peace was made between the Pope and Emperor; but it did not last long. The Papacy could never be content so long as the Emperor ruled over Southern Italy. A new quarrel broke out; and this time it lasted until Frederick's death in the year 1250. After that, the struggle continued until the Papacy was completely victorious, and Frederick's sons and grandson were slain, and Southern Italy was ruled by a king who was not, also, the ruler of Germany.

Thus the Papacy was left completely victorious over the Empire. For nearly a quarter of a century there was then no real Emperor in Germany; and when at last one was chosen he was careful to leave Italy alone. "Italy," said he, "is the den of the lion. I see many tracks leading into it, but there are none coming out." From this time on the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire comes more and more to be merely the ruler over Germany.

At about the same time the Popes began to make greater claims than ever. One Pope, Boniface VIII., clothed himself in the imperial cloak, and with the scepter in his hand and a crown upon his head, cried: "I am Pope; I am Emperor!" This could not last long. The Empire was gone, but there were now new national governments arising in France, England, and elsewhere, which were conscious of their strength.

Seizure of Pope Boniface


If we go back to the beginning of the Middle Ages, we find that the peoples who were overthrowing the old Roman Empire were bound together in tribes, the members of which were united by ties of kinship, that is, they were all of the same blood. But as time went on, and the different peoples settled down to orderly life, the old tribes were broken up. Then men entered into feudal relationships by becoming the vassals of their lords, and thenceforth the ties which bound them together were those of loyalty and feudal service. As yet there was no feeling of patriotism among them, or of loyalty to a country. After the Crusades the kings gained more power, and began to take from the nobles their feudal rights of raising armies, making war when they pleased, holding courts, and the like. In this way strong national government arose in France, in England, and elsewhere; and it was not long before these also came into conflict with the Papacy.

The most powerful of these new governments was the monarchy of France. Pope Boniface VIII., who had made such great claims for the Papacy, soon got into a quarrel with Philip IV., of that country, about some money matters; and the way he was treated by the servants of the King showed that the old power of the popes was gone, equally with the power of the emperors. Boniface was seized at the little town in Italy where he was staying, was struck in the face with the glove of one of his own nobles, and was kept prisoner for several days. Although he was soon released, the old Pope died in a few weeks,—of shame and anger, it was said.

Nor was this the end of the matter. Within a few months the seat of the Papacy was changed from Rome to Avignon, on the river Rhone. There, for nearly seventy years, the popes remained under the influence of the kings of France. This period is known as the "Babylonian captivity" of the Papacy, in memory of the seventy years' captivity of the Jews at Babylon, which is described in the Old Testament.

Papal palace a Avignon


And even when, at last, a Pope removed the Papacy back to Rome, new troubles arose. A great division or "schism" followed, during which there were two popes instead of one; and all the nations of Europe were divided as to whether they should obey the Pope at Rome, or the one at Avignon.

"All our West land," wrote an Englishman named Wiclif, "is with that one Pope or that other; and he that is with that one, hateth the other, with all his. Some men say that here is the Pope at Avignon, for he was well chosen; and some men say that he is yonder at Rome, for he was first chosen."

A council of the Church tried to end the schism; but it only made matters worse by adding a third Pope to the two that already existed. At last, another and greater council was held; and there, after the schism had lasted for nearly forty years, all three popes were set aside, and a new one chosen whom all the nations accepted.

So, at last, the Papacy was re-united and restored to Rome. But it never recovered entirely from its stay at Avignon, and from the Great Schism. The power of the popes was never again as great as it had been before the quarrel between Boniface VIII. and the King of France. The Papacy had triumphed over the Empire, but it could not triumph over the national kingdoms.

"We look on Pope and Emperor alike," said a writer in the fifteenth century, who soon became Pope himself, "as names in a story, or heads in a picture."

Thenceforth there was no ruler whom all Christendom would obey. The end of the Middle Ages, indeed, was fast approaching. The modern times, when each nation obeys its own kings, and follows only its own interests, were close at hand.