Hildebrand : The Papal Empire – Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages

Mohammed : Saracenic Conquests
Charlemagne : Revival of Western Empire
Hildebrand : The Papal Empire
Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions
Saint Anselm : Mediaeval Theology
Thomas Aquinas : The Scholastic Philosophy
Thomas Becket : Prelatical Power
The Feudal System
The Crusades
William of Wykeham : Gothic Architecture
John Wyclif : Dawn of the Reformation

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages
John Lord

Topics Covered
Wonderful government of the Papacy
Its vitality
Its contradictions
Its fascinations
The crimes of which it is accused
General character of the popes
Gregory VII. the most famous
His personal history
His autocratic ideas
His reign at the right time
Society in Europe in the eleventh century
Character of the clergy
The monks, and the need of reform
Character of the popes before Gregory VII.
Celibacy of the clergy
Alliance of the Papacy and Monasticism
Opposition to the reforms of Hildebrand
Terrible power of excommunication
Simony and its evils
Secularization of the clergy
Separation of spiritual from temporal power
Henry IV. of Germany
Approaching strife between Henry and Hildebrand
Their respective weapons
Henry summoned to Rome
Excommunication of Henry
Henry deserted and disarmed
Compelled to yield to Hildebrand
His great mistake
Renewed contest
Humiliation of the Pope
Moral effects of the contest
Speculations about the Papal power

Hildebrand : The Papal Empire

A.D. 1020-1085.

We associate with Hildebrand the great contest of the Middle Ages between spiritual and temporal authority, the triumph of the former, and its supremacy in Europe until the Reformation. What great ideas and events are interwoven with that majestic domination,–not in one age, but for fifteen centuries; not religious merely, but political, embracing as it were the whole progress of European society, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Protestant Reformation; yea, intimately connected with the condition of Europe to the present day, and not of Europe only, but America itself! What an august power is this Catholic empire, equally great as an institution and as a religion! What lessons of human experience, what great truths of government, what subtile influences, reaching alike the palaces of kings and the hovels of peasants, are indissolubly linked with its marvellous domination, so that whether in its growth or decay it is more suggestive than the rise and fall of any temporal empire. It has produced, probably, more illustrious men than any political State in Europe. It has aimed to accomplish far grander ends. It is invested with more poetic interest. Its policy, its heroes, its saints, its doctors, its dignitaries, its missions, its persecutions, all rise up before us with varied but never-ending interest, when seriously contemplated. It has proved to be the most wonderful fabric of what we call worldly wisdom that our world has seen,–controlling kings, dictating laws to ancient monarchies, and binding the souls of millions with a more perfect despotism than Oriental emperors ever sought or dreamed. And what a marvellous vitality it seems to have! It has survived the attacks of its countless enemies; it has recovered from the shock of the Reformation; it still remains majestic and powerful, extending its arms of paternal love or Briarean terror over half of Christendom. As a temporal government, rivalling kings in the pomps of war and the pride of armies, it may be passing away; but as an organization to diffuse and conserve religious truths,–yea, even to bring a moral pressure on the minds of princes and governors, and reinforce its ranks with the mighty and the noble,–it seems to be as potent as ever. It is still sending its missionaries, its prelates, and its cardinals into the heart of Protestant countries, who anticipate and boast of new victories. It derides the dissensions and the rationalistic speculations of the Protestants, and predicts that they will either become open Pagans or re-enter the fold of Saint Peter. No longer do angry partisans call it the “Beast” or the “Scarlet Mother” or the “predicted Antichrist,” since its religious creeds in their vital points are more in harmony with the theology of venerated Fathers than those of some of the progressive and proudest parties which call themselves Protestant. In Germany, in France,–shall I add, in England and America?–it is more in earnest, and more laborious and self-denying than many sects among the Protestants. In Germany–in those very seats of learning and power and fashion which once were kindled into lofty enthusiasm by the voice of Luther–who is it that desert the churches and disregard the sacraments, the Catholics or the Protestants?

Surely such a power, whether we view it as an institution or as a religion, cannot be despised, even by the narrowest and most fanatical Protestant. It is too grand and venerable for sarcasm, ridicule, or mockery. It is too potent and respectable to be sneered at or lied about. No cause can be advanced permanently except by adherence to the truth, whether it be agreeable or not. If the Papacy were a mere despotism, having nothing else in view than the inthralment of mankind,–of which it has been accused,–then mankind long ago, in lofty indignation, would have hurled it from its venerable throne. But despotic as its yoke is in the eyes of Protestants, and always has been and always may be, it is something more than that, having at heart the welfare of the very millions whom it rules by working on their fears. In spite of dogmas which are deductions from questionable premises, or which are at war with reason, and ritualism borrowed from other religions, and “pious frauds,” and Jesuitical means to compass desirable ends,–which Protestants indignantly discard, and which they maintain are antagonistic to the spirit of primitive Christianity,–still it is also the defender and advocate of vital Christian truths, to which we trace the hopes and consolations of mankind. As the conservator of doctrines common to all Christian sects it cannot be swept away by the hand of man; nor as a government, confining its officers and rules to the spiritual necessities of its members. Its empire is spiritual rather than temporal. Temporal monarchs are hurled from their thrones. The long line of the Bourbons vanishes before the tempests of revolution, and they who were borne into power by these tempests are in turn hurled into ignominious banishment; but the Pope–he still sits secure on the throne of the Gregories and the Clements, ready to pronounce benedictions or hurl anathemas, to which half of Europe bows in fear or love.

Whence this strange vitality? What are the elements of a power so enduring and so irresistible? What has given to it its greatness and its dignity? I confess I gaze upon it as a peasant surveys a king, as a boy contemplates a queen of beauty,–as something which may be talked about, yet removed beyond our influence, and no more affected by our praise or censure than is a procession of cardinals by the gaze of admiring spectators in Saint Peter’s Church. Who can measure it, or analyze it, or comprehend it? The weapons of reason appear to fall impotent before its haughty dogmatism. Genius cannot reconcile its inconsistencies. Serenely it sits, unmoved amid all the aggressions of human thought and all the triumphs of modern science. It is both lofty and degraded; simple, yet worldly wise; humble, yet scornful and proud; washing beggars’ feet, yet imposing commands on the potentates of earth; benignant, yet severe on all who rebel; here clothed in rags, and there revelling in palaces; supported by charities, yet feasting the princes of the earth; assuming the title of “servant of the servants of God,” yet arrogating the highest seat among worldly dignitaries. Was there ever such a contradiction?–“glory in debasement, and debasement in glory,”–type of the misery and greatness of man? Was there ever such a mystery, so occult are its arts, so subtile its policy, so plausible its pretensions, so certain its shafts? How imposing the words of paternal benediction! How grand the liturgy brought down from ages of faith! How absorbed with beatific devotion appears to be the worshipper at its consecrated altars! How ravishing the music and the chants of grand ceremonials! How typical the churches and consecrated monuments of the passion of Christ! Everywhere you see the great emblem of our redemption,–on the loftiest pinnacle of the Mediaeval cathedral, on the dresses of the priests, over the gorgeous altars, in the ceremony of the Mass, in the baptismal rite, in the paintings of the side chapels; everywhere are rites and emblems betokening maceration, grief, sacrifice, penitence, the humiliation of humanity before the awful power of divine Omnipotence, whose personality and moral government no Catholic dares openly to deny.

And yet, of what crimes and abominations has not this government been, accused? If we go back to darker ages, and accept what history records, what wars has not this Church encouraged, what discords has she not incited, what superstitions has she not indorsed, what pride has she not arrogated, what cruelties has she not inflicted, what countries has she not robbed, what hardships has she not imposed, what deceptions has she not used, what avenues of thought has she not guarded with a flaming sword, what truth has she not perverted, what goodness has she not mocked and persecuted? Ah, interrogate the Albigenses, the Waldenses, the shades of Jerome of Prague, of Huss, of Savonarola, of Cranmer, of Coligny, of Galileo; interrogate the martyrs of the Thirty Years’ War, and those who were slain by the dragonnades of Louis XIV., those who fell by the hand of Alva and Charles IX.; go to Smithfield, and Paris on Saint Bartholomew; think of gunpowder plots and inquisitions, and Jesuit intrigues and Dominican tortures, of which history accuses the Papal Church,–barbarities worse than those of savages, inflicted at the command of the ministers of a gospel of love!

I am compelled to allude to these things; I do not dwell on them, since they were the result of the intolerance of human nature as much as the bigotry of the Church,–faults of an age, more than of a religion; although, whether exaggerated or not, more disgraceful than the persecutions of Christians by Roman emperors.

As for the supreme rulers of this contradictory Church, so benevolent and yet so cruel, so enlightened and yet so fanatical, so humble and yet so proud,–this institution of blended piety and fraud, equally renowned for saints, theologians, statesmen, drivellers, and fanatics; the joy and the reproach, the glory and the shame of earth,–there never were greater geniuses or greater fools: saints of almost preternatural sanctity, like the first Leo and Gregory, or hounds like Boniface VIII. or Alexander VI.; an array of scholars and dunces, ascetics and gluttons, men who adorned and men who scandalized their lofty position; and yet, on the whole, we are forced to admit, the most remarkable body of rulers any empire has known, since they were elevated by their peers, and generally for talents or services, at a period of life when character is formed and experience is matured. They were not greater than their Church or their age, like the Charlemagnes and Peters of secular history, but they were the picked men, the best representatives of their Church; ambitious, doubtless, and worldly, as great potentates generally are, but made so by the circumstances which controlled them. Who can wield irresponsible power and not become arrogant, and perhaps self-indulgent? It requires the almost superhuman virtue of a Marcus Aurelius or a Saint Louis to crucify the pride of rank and power. If the president of a college or of a railroad or of a bank becomes a different man to the eye of an early friend, what can be expected of those who are raised above public opinion, and have no fetters on their wills,–men who are regarded as infallible and feel themselves supreme!

But of all these three hundred or four hundred men who have swayed the destinies of Europe,–an uninterrupted line of pontiffs for fifteen hundred years or more,–no one is so famous as Gregory VII. for the grandeur of his character, the heroism of his struggles, and the posthumous influence of his deeds. He was too great a man to be called by his papal title. He is best known by his baptismal name, Hildebrand, the greatest hero of the Roman Church. There are some men whose titles add nothing to their august names,–David, Julius, Constantine, Augustine. When a man has become very eminent we drop titles altogether, except in military life. We say Daniel Webster, Edward Everett, Jonathan Edwards, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, William Pitt. Hildebrand is a greater name than Gregory VII., and with him is identified the greatest struggle of the Papacy against the temporal powers. I do not aim to dissect his character so much as to present his services to the Church. I wish to show why and how he is identified with movements of supreme historical importance. It would be easy to make him out a saint and martyr, and equally so to paint him as a tyrant and usurper. It is of little consequence to us whether he was ascetic or ambitious or unscrupulous; but it is of consequence to show the majestic power of those ideas by which he ruled the Middle Ages, and which will never pass away as sublime agencies so long as men are ignorant and superstitious. As a man he no longer lives, but his thunderbolts are perpetual powers, since they still alarm the fears of men.

Gregory VII, from a rare old print

Still, his personal history is not uninteresting. Born of humble parents in Italy in the year 1020, the son of a carpenter, he rose by genius and virtue to the highest offices and dignities. But his greatness was in force of character rather than original ideas,–like that of Washington, or William III., or the Duke of Wellington. He had not the comprehensive intellect of Charlemagne, nor the creative genius of Peter of Russia, but he had the sagacity of Richelieu and the iron will of Napoleon. He was statesman as well as priest,–marvellous for his activity, insight into human nature, vast executive abilities, and dauntless heroism. He comprehended the only way whereby Christendom could be governed, and unscrupulously used the means of success. He was not a great scholar, or theologian, or philosopher, but a man of action, embracing opportunities and striking decisive blows. From first to last he was devoted to his cause, which was greater than himself,–even the spiritual supremacy of the Papacy. I do not read of great intellectual precocity, like that of Cicero and William Pitt, nor of great attainments, like those of Abélard and Thomas Aquinas, nor even an insight, like that of Bacon, into what constitutes the dignity of man and the true glory of civilization; but, like Ambrose and the first Leo, he was early selected for important missions and responsible trusts, all of which he discharged with great fidelity and ability. His education was directed by the monks of Cluny,–that princely abbey in Burgundy where “monks were sovereigns and sovereigns were monks.” Like all earnest monks, he was ascetic, devotional, and self-sacrificing. Like all men ambitious to rule, “he learned how to obey.” He pondered on the Holy Scriptures as well as on the canons of the Church. So marked a man was he that he was early chosen as prior of his convent; and so great were his personal magnetism, eloquence, and influence that “he induced Bruno, the Bishop of Toul, when elected pope by the Emperor of Germany, to lay aside the badges and vestments of the pontifical office, and refuse his title, until he should be elected by the clergy and people of Rome,”–thus showing that at the age of twenty-nine he comprehended the issues of the day, and meditated on the gigantic changes it was necessary to make before the pope could be the supreme ruler of Christendom.

The autocratic idea of Leo I., and the great Gregory who sent his missionaries to England, was that to which Hildebrand’s ardent soul clung with preternatural earnestness, as the only government fit for turbulent and superstitious ages. He did not originate this idea, but he defended and enforced it as had never been done before, so that to many minds he was the great architect of the papal structure. It was a rare spectacle to see a sovereign pontiff lay aside the insignia of his grandeur at the bidding of this monk of Cluny; it was grander to see this monk laying the foundation of an irresistible despotism, which was to last beyond the time of Luther. Not merely was Leo IX. his tool, but three successive popes were chosen at his dictation. And when he became cardinal and archdeacon he seems to have been the inspiring genius of the papal government, undertaking the most important missions, curbing the turbulent spirit of the Roman princes, and assisting in all ecclesiastical councils. It was by his suggestion that abbots were deposed, and bishops punished, and monarchs reprimanded. He was the prime minister of four popes before he accepted that high office to which he doubtless had aspired while meditating as a monk amid the sunny slopes of Cluny, since he knew that the exigences of the Church required a bold and able ruler,–and who in Christendom was bolder and more far-reaching than he? He might have been elevated to the chair of Saint Peter at an earlier period, but he was contented with power rather than glory, knowing that his day would come, and at a time when his extraordinary abilities would be most needed. He could afford to wait; and no man is truly great who cannot bide his time.

At last Hildebrand received the reward of his great services,–“a reward,” says Stephen, “which he had long contemplated, but which, with self-controlling policy, he had so long declined.” In the year 1073 Hildebrand became Gregory VII., and his memorable pontificate began as a reformer of the abuses of his age, and the intrepid defender of that unlimited and absolute despotism which inthralled not merely the princes of Europe, but the mind of Christendom itself. It was he who not only proclaimed the liberties of the people against nobles, and made the Church an asylum for misery and oppression, but who realized the idea that the Church was the mother of spiritual principles, and that the spiritual authority should be raised over all temporal power.

In the great crises of States and Empires deliverers seem to be raised up by Divine Providence to restore peace and order, and maintain the first condition of society, or extricate nations from overwhelming calamities. Thus Charlemagne appeared at the right time to prevent the overthrow of Europe by new waves of barbaric invasion. Thus William the Silent preserved the nationality of Holland, and Gustavus Adolphus gave religious liberty to Germany when persecution was apparently successful. Thus Richelieu undermined feudalism in France, and established absolutism as one of the needed forces of his turbulent age, even as Napoleon gave law and order to France when distracted by the anarchism of a revolution which did not comprehend the liberty which was invoked. So Hildebrand was raised up to establish the only government which could rescue Europe from the rapacities of feudal nobles, and establish law and order in the hands of the most enlightened class; so that, like Peter the Great, he looms up as a reformer as well as a despot. He appears in a double light.

Now you ask: “What were his reforms, and what were his schemes of aggrandizement, for which we honor him while we denounce him?” We cannot see the reforms he attempted without glancing at the enormous evils which stared him in the face.

Society in Europe, in the eleventh century, was nearly as dark and degraded as it was on the fall of the Merovingian dynasty. In some respects it had reached the lowest depth of wretchedness which the Middle Ages ever saw. Never had the clergy been more ignorant, more sensual, and more worldly. They had not the piety of the fourth century, nor the intelligence of the sixteenth century; they were powerful and wealthy, but exceedingly corrupt. Monastic institutions covered the face of Europe, but the monks had sadly departed from the virtues which partially redeemed the miseries that succeeded the fall of the Roman Empire. The lives of the clergy, regular and secular, still compared favorably with the lives of the feudal nobility, who had, in addition to priestly vices, the vices of robbers and bandits. But still the clergy were notoriously ignorant, superstitious, and sensual. Monasteries sought to be independent of all foreign control and of episcopal jurisdiction. They had been enormously enriched by princes and barons, and they owned, with the other clergy, half the lands of Europe, and more than half its silver and gold. The monks fattened on all the luxuries which then were known; they neglected the rules of their order and lived in idleness,–spending their time in the chase, or in taverns and brothels. Hardly a great scholar or theologian had arisen among them since the Patristic age, with the exception of a few schoolmen like Anselm and Peter Lombard. Saint Bernard had not yet appeared to reform the Benedictines, nor Dominic and Saint Francis to found new orders. Gluttony and idleness were perhaps the characteristic vices of the great body of the monks, who numbered over one hundred thousand. Hunting and hawking were the most innocent of their amusements. They have been accused of drinking toasts in honor of the Devil, and celebrating Mass in a state of intoxication. “Not one in a thousand,” says Hallam, “could address to one another a common letter of salutation.” They were a walking libel on everything sacred. Read the account of their banquets in the annals which have come down to us of the tenth and eleventh centuries, when convents were so numerous and rich. If Dugdale is to be credited, their gluttony exceeded that of any previous or succeeding age. Their cupidity, their drunken revels, their infamous haunts, their disgusting coarseness, their hypocrisy, ignorance, selfishness, and superstition were notorious. Yet the monks were not worse than the secular clergy, high and low. Bishoprics and all benefices were bought and sold; “canons were trodden under foot; ancient traditions were turned out of doors; old customs were laid aside;” boys were made archbishops; ludicrous stories were recited in the churches; the most disgraceful crimes were pardoned for money. Desolation, according to Cardinal Baronius, was seen in the temples of the Lord. As Petrarch said of Avignon in a better age, “There is no pity, no charity, no faith, no fear of God. The air, the streets, the houses, the markets, the beds, the hotels, the churches, even the altars consecrated to God, are all peopled with knaves and liars;” or, to use the still stronger language of a great reviewer, “The gates of hell appeared to roll back on their infernal hinges, that there might go forth malignant spirits to empty the vials of wrath on the patrimony even of the great chief of the apostles.”

These vices, it is true, were not confined to the clergy. All classes were alike forlorn, miserable, and corrupt. It was a gloomy period. The Church, whenever religious, was sad and despairing. The contemplative hid themselves in noisome and sepulchral crypts. The inspiring chants of Ambrose gave place to gloomy and monotonous antiphonal singing,–that is, when the monks confined themselves to their dismal vocation. What was especially needed was a reform among the clergy themselves. They indeed owned their allegiance to the Pope, as the supreme head of the Church, but their fealty was becoming a mockery. They could not support the throne of absolutism if they were not respected by the laity. Baronial and feudal power was rapidly gaining over spiritual, and this was a poor exchange for the power of the clergy, if it led to violence and rapine. It is to maintain law and order, justice and safety, that all governments are established.

Hildebrand saw and lamented the countless evils of the day, especially those which were loosening the bands of clerical obedience, and undermining the absolutism which had become the great necessity of his age. He made up his mind to reform these evils. No pope before him had seriously undertaken this gigantic task. The popes who for two hundred years had preceded him were a scandal and a reproach to their exalted position. These heirs of Saint Peter wasted their patrimony in pleasures and pomps. At no period of the papal history was the papal chair filled with such bad or incompetent men. Of these popes two were murdered, five were driven into exile, and four were deposed. Some were raised to prominence by arms, and others by money. John X. commanded an army in person; John XI. died in a fit of debauchery; and John XII. was murdered by one of the infamous women whom he patronized. Benedict IX. was driven from the throne by robbery and murder, while Gregory VI. purchased the papal dignity. For two hundred years no commanding character had worn the tiara.

Hildebrand, however, set a new example, and became a watchful shepherd of his fold. His private life was without reproach; he was absorbed in his duties; he sympathized with learning and learned men. He was the friend of Lanfranc, and it was by his influence that this great prelate was appointed to the See of Canterbury, and a closer union was formed with England. He infused by his example a quiet but noble courage into the soul of Anselm. He had great faults, of course,–faults of his own and faults of his age. I wonder why so strong a man has escaped the admiring eulogium of Carlyle. Guizot compares him with the Russian Peter. In some respects he reminds me of Oliver Cromwell; since both equally deplored the evils of the day, and both invoked the aid of God Almighty. Both were ambitious, and unscrupulous in the use of tools. Neither of them was stained by vulgar vices, nor seduced from his course by love of ease or pleasure. Both are to be contemplated in the double light of reformer and usurper. Both were honest, and both were unscrupulous; honest in seeking to promote public morality and the welfare of society, and unscrupulous in the arts by which their power was gained.

That which filled the soul of Hildebrand with especial grief was the alienation of the clergy from their highest duties, their worldly lives, and their frail support in his efforts to elevate the spiritual power. Therefore he determined to make a reform of the clergy themselves, having in view all the time their assistance in establishing the papal supremacy. He attacked the clergy where they were weakest. They–the secular ones, the parish priests–were getting married, especially in Germany and France. They were setting at defiance the laws of celibacy; they not only sought wives, but they lived in concubinage.

Now celibacy had been regarded as the supernal virtue from the time of Saint Jerome. It was supposed to be a state most favorable to Christian perfection; it animated the existence of the most noted saints. Says Jerome, “Take axe in hand and hew down the sterile tree of marriage.” This notion of the superior virtue of virginity was one of the fruits of those Eastern theogonies which were engrafted on the early Church, growing out of the Oriental idea of the inalienable evil of matter. It was one of the fundamental principles of monasticism; and monasticism, wherever born–whether in India or the Syrian deserts–was one of the established institutions of the Church. It was indorsed by Benedict as well as by Basil; it had taken possession of the minds of the Gothic nations more firmly even than of the Eastern. The East never saw such monasteries as those which covered Italy, France, Germany, and England; they were more needed among the feudal robbers of Europe than in the effeminate monarchies of Asia. Moreover it was in monasteries that the popes had ever found their strongest adherents, their most zealous supporters. Without the aid of convents the papal empire might have crumbled. Monasticism and the papacy were strongly allied; one supported the other. So efficient were monastic institutions in advocating the idea of a theocracy, as upheld by the popes, that they were exempted from episcopal authority. An abbot was as powerful and independent as a bishop. But to make the Papacy supreme it was necessary to call in the aid of the secular priests likewise. Unmarried priests, being more like monks, were more efficient supporters of the papal throne. To maintain celibacy, therefore, was always in accordance with papal policy.

But Nature had gradually asserted its claims over tradition and authority. The clergy, especially in France and Germany, were setting at defiance the edicts of popes and councils. The glory of celibacy was in an eclipse.

No one comprehended the necessity of celibacy, among the clergy, more clearly than Hildebrand,–himself a monk by education and sympathy. He looked upon married life, with all its hallowed beauty, as a profanation for a priest. In his eyes the clergy were married only to the Church. “Domestic affections suited ill with the duties of a theocratic ministry.” Anything which diverted the labors of the clergy from the Church seemed to him an outrage and a degeneracy. How could they reach the state of beatific existence if they were to listen to the prattle of children, or be engrossed with the joys of conjugal or parental love? So he assembled a council, and caused it to pass canons to the effect that married priests should not perform any clerical office; that the people should not even be present at Mass celebrated by them; that all who had wives–or concubines, as he called them–should put them away; and that no one should be ordained who did not promise to remain unmarried during his whole life.

Of course there was a violent opposition. A great outcry was raised, especially in Germany. The whole body of the secular priests exclaimed against the proceeding. At Mentz they threatened the life of the archbishop, who attempted to enforce the decree. At Paris a numerous synod was assembled, in which it was voted that Gregory ought not here to be obeyed. But Gregory was stronger than his rebellious clergy,–stronger than the instincts of human nature, stronger than the united voice of reason and Scripture. He fell back on the majestic power of prevailing ideas, on the ascetic element of the early Church, on the traditions of monastic life. He was supported by more than a hundred thousand monks, by the superstitions of primitive ages, by the example of saints and martyrs, by his own elevated rank, by the allegiance due to him as head of the Church. Excommunications were hurled, like thunderbolts, into remotest hamlets, and the murmurs of indignant Christendom were silenced by the awful denunciations of God’s supposed vicegerent. The clergy succumbed before such a terrible spiritual force, The fear of hell–the great idea by which the priests themselves controlled their flocks–was more potent than any temporal good. What priest in that age would dare resist his spiritual monarch on almost any point, and especially when disobedience was supposed to entail the burnings of a physical hell forever and ever? So celibacy was re-established as a law of the Christian Church at the bidding of that far-seeing genius who had devised the means of spiritual despotism. That law–so gloomy, so unnatural, so fraught with evil–has never been repealed; it still rules the Catholic priesthood of Europe and America. Nor will it be repealed so long as the ideas of the Middle Ages have more force than enlightened reason. It is an abominable law, but who can doubt its efficacy in cementing the power of the popes?

But simony, or the sale of ecclesiastical benefices, was a still more alarming evil to the mind of Gregory. It was the great scandal of the Church and age. Here we honor the Pope for striving to remove it. And yet its abolition was no easy thing. He came in contact with the selfishness of barons and kings. He found it an easier matter to take away the wives of priests than the purses of princes. Priests who had vowed obedience might consent to the repudiation of their wives, but would great temporal robbers part with their spoils? The sale of benefices was one great source of royal and baronial revenues. Bishoprics, once conferred for wisdom and piety, had become prizes for the rapacious and ambitious. Bishops and abbots were most frequently chosen from the ranks of the great. Powerful Sees were the gifts of kings to their favorites or families, or were bought by the wealthy; so that worldly or incapable men were made overseers of the Church of Christ. The clergy were in danger of being hopelessly secularized. And the evil spread to the extremities of the clerical body. The princes and barons were getting control of the Church itself. Bishops often possessed a plurality of Sees. Children were elevated to episcopal thrones. Sycophants, courtiers, jesters, imbecile sons of princes, became great ecclesiastical dignitaries. Who can wonder at the degeneracy of the clergy when they held their cures at the hands of lay patrons, to whom they swore allegiance for the temporalities of their benefices? Even the ring and the crozier, the emblems of spiritual authority,–once received at the hand of metropolitan archbishops alone, were now bestowed by temporal sovereigns, who claimed thereby fealty and allegiance; so that princes had gradually usurped the old rights of the Church, and Gregory resolved to recover them. So long as emperors and kings could fill the rich bishoprics and abbacies with their creatures, the papal dominion was weakened in its most vital point, and might become a dream. This evil was rapidly undermining the whole ecclesiastical edifice, and it required a hero of prodigious genius, energy, and influence to reform it.

Hildebrand saw and comprehended the whole extent and bearing of the evil, and resolved to remove it or die in the attempt. It was not only undermining his throne, but was secularizing the Church and destroying the real power of the clergy. He made up his mind to face the difficulty in its most dreaded quarters. He knew that the attempt to remove this scandal would entail a desperate conflict with the princes of the earth. Before this, popes and princes were generally leagued together; they played into each other’s hands: but now a battle was to be fought between the temporal and spiritual powers. He knew that princes would never relinquish so lucrative a source of profit as the sale of powerful Sees, unless the right to sell them were taken away by some tremendous conflict. He therefore prepared for the fight, and forged his weapons and gathered together his forces. Nor would he waste time by idle negotiations; it was necessary to act with promptness and vigor. No matter how great the danger; no matter how powerful his enemies. The Church was in peril; and he resolved to come to the rescue, cost what it might. What was his life compared with the sale of God’s heritage? For what was he placed in the most exalted post of the Church, if not to defend her in an alarming crisis?’

In resolving to separate forever the spiritual from the temporal power, Hildebrand followed in the footsteps of Ambrose. But he had also deeper designs. He resolved to raise, if possible, the spiritual above the temporal power. Kings should be subject to the Church, not the Church to the kings of the earth. He believed that he was the appointed vicar of the Almighty to rule the world in peace, on the principles of eternal love; that Christ had established a new theocracy, and had delegated his power to the Apostle Peter, which had descended to the Pope as the Apostle’s legitimate successor.

I say nothing here of this monstrous claim, of this ingenious falsehood, on which the monarchical power of the Papacy rests. It is the great fraud of the Middle Ages. And yet, but for this theocratic idea, it is difficult to see how the external unity of the Church could have been preserved among the semi-barbarians of Europe. And what a necessary thing it was–in ages of superstition, ignorance, and anarchy–to preserve the unity of the Church, to establish a spiritual power which should awe and control barbaric princes! There are two sides to the supremacy of the popes as head of the Church, when we consider the aspect and state of society in those iron and lawless times. Would Providence have permitted such a power to rule for a thousand years had it not been a necessity? At any rate, this is too complicated a question for me to discuss. It is enough for me to describe the conflict for principles, not to attempt to settle them. In this matter I am not a partisan, but a painter. I seek to describe a battle, not to defend either this cause or that. I have my opinions, but this is no place to present them. I seek to describe simply the great battle of the Middle Ages, and you can draw your own conclusions as to the merits of the respective causes. I present the battle of heroes,–a battle worthy of the muse of Homer.

Hildebrand in this battle disdained to fight with any but great and noble antagonists. As the friend of the poor man, crushed and mocked by a cold and unfeeling nobility; as the protector of the Church, in danger of being subverted by the unhallowed tyranny and greed of princes; as the consecrated monarch of a great spiritual fraternity,–he resolved to face the mightiest monarchs, and suffer, and if need be die, for a cause which he regarded as the hope and salvation of Europe. Therefore he convened another council, and prohibited, under the terrible penalty of excommunication,–for that was his mighty weapon,–the investiture of bishoprics and abbacies at the hands of laymen: only he himself should give to ecclesiastics the ring and the crozier,–the badges of spiritual authority. And he equally threatened with eternal fire any bishop or abbot who should receive his dignity from the hand of a prince.

This decree was especially aimed against the Emperor of Germany, to whom, as liege lord, the Pope himself owed fealty and obedience. Henry IV. was one of the mightiest monarchs of the Franconian dynasty,–a great warrior and a great man, beloved by his subjects and feared by the princes of Europe. But he, as well as Gregory, was resolved to maintain the rights of his predecessors. He also perceived the importance of the approaching contest. And what a contest! The spiritual and temporal powers were now to be arrayed against each other in a fierce antagonism. The apparent object of contention changed. It was not merely simony; it was as to who should be the supreme master of Germany and Italy, the emperor or the pope. To whom, in the eyes of contemporaries, would victory incline,–to the son of a carpenter, speaking in the name of the Church, and holding in his hands the consecrated weapon of excommunication; or the most powerful monarch of his age, armed with the secular sword, and seeking to restore the dignity of Roman emperors? The Pope is supported by the monks, the inferior clergy, and the vast spiritual powers universally supposed to be delegated to him by Christ, as the successor of Saint Peter; the Emperor is supported by large feudal armies, and all the prestige of the successors of Charlemagne. If the Pope appeals to an ancient custom of the Church, the Emperor appeals to a general feudal custom which required bishops and abbots to pay their homage to him for the temporalities of their Sees. The Pope has the canons of the Church on his side; the Emperor the laws of feudalism,–and both the canons of the Church and feudal principles are binding obligations. Hitherto they have not clashed. But now feudalism, very generally established, and papal absolutism, rapidly culminating, are to meet in angry collision. Shall the kings of the earth prevail, assisted by feudal armies and outward grandeur, and sustained by such powerful sentiments as loyalty and chivalry; or shall a priest, speaking in the name of God Almighty, and appealing to the future fears of men?

What conflict grander and more sublime than this, in the whole history of society? What conflict proved more momentous in its results?

I need not trace all the steps of that memorable contest, or describe the details, from the time when the Pope sent out his edicts and excommunicated all who dared to disobey him,–including some of the most eminent German prelates and German princes. Henry at this time was engaged in a desperate war with the Saxons, and Gregory seized this opportunity to summon the Emperor–his emperor–to appear before him at Rome and answer for alleged crimes against the Saxon Church. Was there ever such audacity? How could Henry help giving way to passionate indignation; he–the successor of the Roman Caesars, sovereign lord of Germany and Italy–summoned to the bar of a priest, and that priest his own subject, in a temporal sense? He was filled with wrath and defiance, and at once summoned a council of German bishops at Worms, “who denounced the Pope as a usurper, a simonist, a murderer, a worshipper of the Devil, and pronounced upon him the empty sentence of a deposition”

“The aged Hildebrand,” in the words of Stephen, “was holding a council in the second week of Lent, 1076, beneath the sculptured roof of the Vatican, arrayed in the rich and mystic vestments of pontifical dominion, and the papal choir were chanting those immortal anthems which had come down from blessed saints and martyrs, when the messenger of the Emperor presented himself before the assembled hierarchy of Rome, and with insolent demeanor and abrupt speech delivered the sentence of the German council.” He was left unharmed by the indignant pontiff; but the next day ascending his throne, and in presence of the dignitaries of his Church, thus invoked the assistance of the pretended founder of his empire:–

“Saint Peter! lend us your ears, and listen to your servant whom you have cherished from his infancy; and all the saints also bear witness how the Roman Church raised me by force and against my will to this high dignity, although I should have preferred to spend my days in a continual pilgrimage than to ascend thy pulpit for any human motive. And inasmuch as I think it will be grateful to you that those intrusted to my care should obey me; therefore, supported by these hopes, and for the honor and defence of the Church, in the name of the Omnipotent God,–Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,–by my authority and power, I prohibit King Henry, who with unheard-of pride has raised himself against your Church, from governing the kingdoms of Germany and Italy; I absolve all Christians from the oath they have taken to him, and I forbid all men to yield to him that service which is due unto a king. Finally, I bind him with the bonds of anathema, that all people may know that thou art Peter, and that upon thee the Son of God hath built His Church, against which the gates of hell cannot prevail.”

This was an old-fashioned excommunication; and we in these days have but a faint idea what a dreadful thing it was, especially when accompanied with an interdict. The churches were everywhere shut; the dead were unburied in consecrated ground; the rites of religion were suspended; gloom and fear sat on every countenance; desolation overspread the land. The king was regarded as guilty and damned; his ministers looked upon him as a Samson shorn of his locks; his very wife feared contamination from his society; his children, as a man blasted with the malediction of Heaven. When a man was universally supposed to be cursed in the house and in the field; in the wood and in the church; in eating or drinking; in fasting or sleeping; in working or resting; in his arms, in his legs, in his heart, and in his head; living or dying; in this world and in the next,–what could he do?

And what could Henry do, with all his greatness? His victorious armies deserted him; a rival prince laid claim to his throne; his enemies multiplied; his difficulties thickened; new dangers surrounded him on every side. If loyalty–that potent principle–had summoned one hundred thousand warriors to his camp, a principle much more powerful than loyalty–the fear of hell–had dispersed them. Even his friends joined the Pope. The sainted Agnes, his own mother, acquiesced in the sentence. The Countess Matilda, the richest lady in the world, threw all her treasures at the feet of her spiritual monarch. The moral sentiments of his own subjects were turned against him; he was regarded as justly condemned. The great princes of Germany sought his deposition. The world rejected him, the Church abandoned him, and God had forsaken him. He was prostrate, helpless, disarmed, ruined. True, he made superhuman efforts: he traversed his empire with the hope of rallying his subjects; he flew from city to city,–but all in vain. Every convent, every castle, every city of his vast dominions beheld in him the visitation of the Almighty. The diadem was obscured by the tiara, and loyalty itself yielded to the superior potency of religious fear. Only Bertha, his neglected wife, was faithful and trusting in that gloomy day; all else had defrauded and betrayed him. How bitter his humiliation! And yet his haughty foe was not contented with the punishment he had inflicted. He declared that if the sun went down on the 23d of February, 1077, before Henry was restored to the bosom of the Church, his crown should be transferred to another. That inexorable old pontiff laid claim to the right of giving and taking away imperial crowns. Was ever before seen such arrogance and audacity in a priest? And yet he knew that he would be sustained. He knew that his supremacy was based on a universally recognized idea. Who can resist the ideas of his age? Henry might have resisted, if resistance had been possible. Even he must yield to irresistible necessity. He was morally certain that he would lose his crown, and be in danger of losing his soul, unless he made his peace with his dangerous enemy. It was necessary that the awful curse should be removed. He had no remedy; only one course was before him. He must yield; not to man alone, but to an idea which had the force of fate. Wonder not that he made up his mind to submit. He was great, but not greater than his age. How few men are! Mohammed could renounce prevailing idolatries; Luther could burn a papal bull; but the Emperor of Germany could not resist the supposed vicegerent of the Almighty.

Behold, then, the melancholy, pitiable spectacle of this mighty monarch in the depth of winter–and a winter of unprecedented severity–crossing, in the garb of a pilgrim, the frozen Alps, enduring the greatest privations and fatigues and perils, and approaching on foot the gloomy fortress of Canossa (beyond the Po), in which Hildebrand had intrenched himself. Even then the angry pontiff refused to see him. Henry had to stoop to a still deeper degradation,–to stand bareheaded and barefooted for three days, amid the blasts of winter, in the court-yard of the castle, before the Pope would promise absolution, and then only at the intercession of the Countess Matilda.

What are we to think of such a fall, such a humiliation on the part of a sovereign? What are we to think of such haughtiness on the part of a priest,–his subject? We are filled with blended pity and indignation. We are inclined to say that this was the greatest blunder that any monarch ever made; that Henry–humbled and deserted and threatened as he was–should not have stooped to this; that he should have lost his crown and life rather than handed over his empire to a plebeian priest,–for he was an acknowledged hero; he was monarch of half of Europe. And yet we are bound to consider Henry’s circumstances and the ideas with which he had to contend. His was the error of the Middle Ages; the feeblest of his modern successors would have killed the Pope if he could, rather than have disgraced himself by such an ignominy.

True it is that Henry came to himself; that he repented of his step. But it was too late. Gregory had gained the victory; and it was all the greater because it was a moral one. It was known to all Europe and all the world, and would be known to all posterity, that the Emperor of Germany had bowed in submission to a foreign priest. The temporal power had yielded to the spiritual; the State had conceded the supremacy of the Church. The Pope had triumphed over the mightiest monarch of the age, and his successors would place their feet over future prostrate kings. What a victory! What mighty consequences were the result of it! On what a throne did this moral victory seat the future pontiffs of the Eternal City! How august their dominion, for it was over the minds and souls of men! Truly to the Pope were given the keys of Heaven and Hell; and so long as the ideas of that age were accepted, who could resist a man armed with the thunders of Omnipotence?

It mattered nothing that the Emperor was ashamed of his weakness; that he retracted; that he vowed vengeance; that he marched at the head of new armies. No matter that his adherents were indignant; that all Germany wept; that loyalty rallied to his aid; that he gained victories proportionate with his former defeats; that he chased Gregory from city to city, and castle to castle, and convent to convent, while his generals burned the Pope’s palaces and wasted his territories. No matter that Gregory–broken, defeated, miserable, outwardly ruined–died prematurely in exile; no matter that he did not, in his great reverses, anticipate the fruits of his firmness and heroism. His principles survived him; they have never been lost sight of by his successors; they gained strength through successive generations. Innocent III. reaped what he had sown. Kings dared not resist Innocent III., who realized those three things to which the more able Gregory had aspired,–“independent sovereignty, control over the princes of the earth, and the supremacy of the Church.” Innocent was the greater pope, but Hildebrand was the greater man.

Yet, like so many of the great heroes of the world, he was not destined in his own person to reap the fruits of his heroism. “I have loved righteousness and hated iniquity, and therefore I die in exile,”–these were his last bitter words. He fancied he had failed. But did he fail? What did he leave behind? He left his great example and his still greater ideas. He left a legacy to his successors which makes them still potent on the earth, in spite of reformations and revolutions, and all the triumphs of literature and science. How mighty his deeds! How great his services to his Church! “He found,” says an eloquent and able Edinburgh reviewer, “the papacy dependent on the emperor; he sustained it by alliances almost commensurate with the Italian peninsula. He found the papacy electoral by the Roman people and clergy; he left it electoral by papal nomination. He found the emperor the virtual patron of the Roman See; he wrenched that power from his hands. He found the secular clergy the allies and dependents of the secular power; he converted them into inalienable auxiliaries of his own. He found the patronage of the Church the desecrated spoil and merchandise of princes; he reduced it to his own dominion. He is celebrated as the reformer of the impure and profane abuses of his age; he is more justly entitled to the praise of having left the impress of his gigantic character on all the ages which have succeeded him.”

Such was the great Hildebrand; a conqueror, however, by the force of recognized ideas more than by his own strength. How long, you ask, shall his empire last? We cannot tell who can predict the fortunes of such a power. It is not for me to speculate or preach. In considering his life and career, I have simply attempted to paint one of the most memorable moral contests of the world; to show the power of genius and will in a superstitious age,–and, more, the majestic force of ideas over the minds and souls of men, even though these ideas cannot be sustained by reason or Scripture.


Epistles of Gregory VII.; Baronius’s Annals; Dupin’s Ecclesiastical History; Voigt, in his Hildebrand als Gregory VII.; Guizot’s Lectures on Civilization; Sir James Stephens’s article on Hildebrand, in Edinburgh Review; Dugdale’s Monasticon; Hallam’s Middle Ages; Digby’s Ages of Faith; Jaffe’s Regesta Pontificum Romanorum; Mignet’s series of articles on La Lutte des Papes contre les Empereurs d’Allemagne; M. Villemain’s Histoire de Grégoire VII.; Bowden on the Life and Times of Hildebrand; Milman’s Latin Christianity; Watterich’s Romanorum Pontificum ab Aequalibus Conscriptae; Platina’s Lives of the Popes; Stubbs’s Constitutional History; Lee’s History of Clerical Celibacy; Cardinal Newman’s Essays; Lecky’s History of European Morals; Dr. Döllinger’s Church History; Neander’s Church History; articles in Contemporary Review of July and August, 1882, on the Turning Point of the Middle Ages.

Saint Bernard : Monastic Institutions

Beacon Lights of History, Volume V : The Middle Ages