The 9th and early 10th centuries were a bad time for western Europe, which was under attack from three different directions. From Scandinavia came the Vikings in their longships, first as raiders, and then as settlers, not just in the uninhabited lands of Iceland and Greenland, but also in England (the “Danelaw”) and northern France (Normandy, the “land of the north-men”). Meanwhile a non-Indo-European speaking people, the Magyars, migrated from Russia into the Danube basin, where, as a result of confusion with ancestral memories of Attila’s Huns, they became known as the Hungarians. At the same time Saracen pirates terrorized the shores of France and Italy, and even attacked Rome itself. Nowhere appeared safe: even such an inland territory as Burgundy was raided from all three directions. Long-distance trade almost disappeared.
Organized resistance seemed impossible. Charlemagne’s great empire had been divided into three after the death of his son, Louis the Pious, in 840. The divisions were, effectively, France and western Germany, with between them a band of territory taken by Louis’s eldest son, Lothar. It was thus known as Lotharingia, from which we have the name Lorraine. It included northern Italy. Lotharingia was going to be contested between France and Germany right through to the twentieth century.
With ever-present danger and the lack of effective central government, feudalism spread. People banded together under a local lord, promising to serve and pay him (mostly with food) in return for protection. This period saw the appearance of armoured knights and privately-owned castles, making strong central government even more difficult.
Feudalism never really caught on in Italy, but the papacy was now in a very low condition. Popes were at the mercy of the Roman mob, and of armed intervention by Italian and German nobles. One Pope, Formosus, who died 896, was succeeded by his enemy Stephen VI, who had Formusus’s body dug up, put on trial, condemned and thrown into the Tiber. Stephen himself was deposed and strangled later that year. Then the papacy fell into the hands of a powerful family; the Theophylacts. A lady of the family, Theodora, was the mistress of one pope, John X, and her daughter Marozia the mistress of another, Sergius III; and these last two were parents of yet another pope: John XI. In 932 Marozia’s son Alberic made himself master of Rome, imprisoned both his mother and John XI, and appointed some better popes, Leo VII and Agapetus II; but then on his deathbed he arranged for his own son to be appointed pope as John XII, at age of only 19! Despite these deplorable events Rome was a major centre of pilgrimage; not least for visitors from Britain. King Offa of Mercia came in 794, to atone for the murder of Ethelbert; and the future King Alfred came in 854, aged 6, together with his father King Ethelwulf. Canute came in 1027, and Macbeth in 1050 (Contrary with the impression we obtain from Shakespeare, he ruled Scotland for seventeen years!)
But in Germany things were changing. When the Carolingian line ended, the German nobles chose the Duke of Saxony, Henry the Fowler, as their king in 918. He imposed some order, defeating invasions by the Danes and Magyars. He died in 936. His title was elective, not hereditary, but his son Otto chosen to succeed him. He was to be known as Otto the Great; the most important European ruler since Charlemagne. He won a decisive victory over the Magyars at Lechfeld in 955, and began the conquest and forcible conversion of the pagan Slavs east of the river Elbe. He also initiated a cultural revival, called by historians the “Ottonian renaissance” But to secure domination over the German princes, control of the Church and the support of the Pope was essential, since bishops and abbots had huge local power. Otto’s brother Bruno was Archbishop of Cologne, Duke of Lorraine and royal chancellor! Conversely, anti-royal bishops could use their local and spiritual power to encourage nobles to revolt.
In 961, Pope John XII, in conflict with the Roman nobility, asked Otto to help. Otto led his forces into Italy, defeated the Pope’s enemies, and in return John crowned him Emperor. Otto recognized the independence of papal territory, with himself as its “protector”. But John then turned against Otto, who quickly occupied Rome and called a synod presided over by himself. John was convicted of, amongst other crimes, ordaining a deacon in a stable, turning the papal palace into a brothel, castrating a cardinal, being addicted to hunting, and calling upon pagan gods when playing dice! John was deposed and replaced by a new Pope, Leo VIII, who had to swear an oath that no Pope would be consecrated without the Emperor’s agreement. But as soon as Otto left the city in 964, the Romans rose in revolt and drove out Leo. John being dead, they chose a better man as Pope: Benedict V. But Otto refused to accept this, and reimposed his own man. His victory over the church was complete: even the Byzantines had to recognize him; sending a royal princess, Theophano, to marry his son!
Otto died in 973, but his empire survived, despite the unsuccessful reign of his son, Otto II, who was defeated by both the Moslems of Sicily and the Slavs of eastern Germany before dying young in 983; leaving only a 3-year-old son, Otto III, with a Byzantine mother. But the boy proved to be the most amazing character of his time. He took personal control at age of 14, and appointed the most learned man of the day as Pope Sylvester II. Otto III held a very exulted view of his own position (probably instilled by his Byzantine mother), seeing himself as the successor of the Roman emperors and of Charlemagne: styling himself “Caesar”. He was capable of great brutality: when the Romans revolted against his rule, led by Crescentius, a nobleman who drove out Pope Sylvester and appointed his own pope; Otto invaded, executed Crescentius and mutilated the anti-pope: blinding him, cutting off his nose and tongue and banishing him to monastery. Would history have been very different if Otto had lived? But in 1002 he died childless, aged only 21.
After this there was always an Emperor, ruling what was generally known as the Holy Roman Empire. But it had no pretensions to universal rule: its territories were limited to Germany and northern Italy, and it had claims to sovereignty over the new kingdoms which had emerged, such as France and England.
When both Pope and Emperor were weak and ineffective there was a lull. Both had limited power: the Emperors ruled Germany and northern Italy (France being now a completely separate kingdom under a new dynasty, the Capetians) but the Imperial title never became hereditary, and the nobles were always jealous of their power and ready to revolt. Many towns in Italy were already becoming effectively self-governing. South of Italy was under no overall control, with still some Byzantine bases, Arabs ruling Sicily, and independent Lombard nobles in constant strife with each other. Normans to appear in southern Italy as bands of mercenary soldiers from about 1017; notably the numerous sons of an obscure knight called Tancred of Hauteville after 1034, who eventually became powerful monarchs.
Emperor and Pope lived in a symbiotic relationship: until the Emperor had been crowned by the Pope he was technically only king of Germany. The method of choosing Popes was uncertain and anarchic: being acclaimed by the clergy and the people of Rome. The Popes could not control Rome, which was the scene of constant feuds between rival families, and when there was no strong Emperor enforced obedience, the result was often chaos. Many ancient buildings were converted into fortified towers, or demolished to get the building stone. A later writer said of Rome in his own day:-
“The Savelli owned the theatre of Marcellus and the temple of Libertas on the Aventine. The Frangipani had a large central fortress on the Palatine, with outlying forts on the Coliseum, the arches of Constantine and Titus, & the Janus in the Forum Boarium. The Colonna had possession of the mausoleum of Augustus, the Crescenti had the baths of Severus, and the Orsini the theatre of Pompey”.
This was applicable to the early middle ages as well. Each family wanted its own man as Pope, and might seek to overthrow a Pope allied to a rival family. Thus in 1046 the Emperor Henry III found no less than three rival Popes! He called a synod, deposed them all, and installed a German as Clement II; but both Clement and his successor were dead within a year, supposedly poisoned by rivals. The next Pope, Leo IX, was a reformer who tried to recover lost ground, only to be captured by Normans 1053.
In 1054 there occurred an event which still resonates today: a doctrinal breach between the churches of Rome and Byzantium. It was only partly doctrinal; rather more a clash of personalities between the Patriach in Constantinople and Humbert, the Pope’s tactless and aggressive delegate. Many troubles would stem from this, notably the deep mutual suspicion between Byzantines and crusaders which played no small part in the failure of the crusading movement.
In 1024 a new imperial dynasty began when a Salian Frankish nobleman was elected by the German princes as Conrad II. He was crowned in Milan with the Iron Crown of Lombardy, and later was also crowned King of Burgundy. His coronation by the Pope was attended by King Canute of England, and he awarded himself a new title, “King of the Romans”, which would be held by all his successors. Conrad’s son, Henry III (reigned 1039-56) raised imperial power to new heights. He presided over a synod which deposed two rival Popes, and imposed a series of German Popes, two of whom were his relatives. But his reign saw the beginning of moves to free the church from lay control, which were to dominate the long reign of his son, the next Emperor, Henry IV (1056-1106).
The first of the reforming Popes was Leo IX (1049-54) who, however, was captured by the rampaging Norman mercenaries who were now dominating southern Italy, and died soon afterwards. His successors were obliged to legitimize the rule of the Normans, who now formed a counterweight to imperial ambitions in Italy
In 1073 a monk by the name of Hildebrand was elected Pope, taking the name of Gregory VII. Most previous Popes has come from the aristocracy, but Hildebrand was apparently the son of a Lombard peasant, with a strong regional accent and unprepossessing appearance and manners – though these might be slanders put around by his many enemies. He was not a scholar, but had been brought to Rome by Leo IX, and had risen rapidly in the papal service. His drive was immense, and his ambitions for the papacy limitless. Not only did he continue his predecessors’ campaigns to enforce clerical celibacy and outlaw simony (the sale of clerical office), but he made extremely ambitious claims in his document, “Dictatus Papae”. The Roman church, he said, was founded by God and answerable to God alone; it was incapable of error; the Pope could be judged by no man, but could depose bishops and even Emperors. Crucially, he claimed the sole right of investiture: appointing bishops and abbots, which could not be done by any lay ruler. This at once brought him into conflict with several monarchs, who saw investiture as an important aspect of their political power. In 1073 a dispute over a bishopric led Gregory to describe King Philip I of France as an oppressor of the church, and to threaten him with excommunication and deposition, though in the end the problem was sorted out. Gregory approved of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England, though William ignored his suggestion that England should be held as a fief of the Holy See.
There was a spectacular contest over investitures between Pope Gregory and the Emperor Henry IV, who saw the control of bishops and abbots essential for his government, both for administrative tasks in an age of widespread illiteracy and to check the power of his nobles. He had already tussled with the previous Pope, Alexander II, over the appointment to the Archbishopric of Milan. Now in 1075 Gregory severely reprimanded Henry for disobedience, and early next year Henry got the German bishops to denounce Gregory (styling him “the false monk Hildebrand“) and demand his abdication. Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry. The German nobles took this as great opportunity to rebel. Henry, realizing he was outmanoeuvred, made a tactical surrender to the Pope at Canossa in the Apennines in January 1077; waiting barefoot in the snow for three days before Gregory agreed to see him. Gregory was not fooled by this dramatic show of penitence, but formally forgave him. Meanwhile the German princes declared Henry deposed, and elected Rudolf of Swabia in his place. In 1080 Gregory, finding Henry prevaricating on promises he had made, declared him deposed and recognized Rudolf as Emperor. Henry retaliated by summoning his own assembly of bishops, which declared Gregory deposed from the papacy. Soon Rudolf was killed in battle, enabling Henry to strike. He invaded Italy, and in 1084 he entered Rome, where Gregory had been deserted by most of his clergy. A specially-convened synod now appointed Archbishop Wibert of Ravenna as Pope Clement III. Gregory had taken refuge in the Castell Sant’ Angelo (formerly Hadrian’s tomb), and appealed to Robert Guiscard’s Normans to rescue him. Henry withdrew at Robert’s approach. For three days, Norman troops (who included Moslem mercenaries from Sicily) thoroughly pillaged Rome. Churches, palaces and ancient temples were destroyed, the area between the Coliseum and the Lateran burnt down, and thousands of Romans killed or taken prisoner and sold as slaves. Greater damage was done than the Goths and Vandals had managed six centuries earlier. Pope Gregory was taken to safety in Salerno, and in 1085 he died. “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, and therefore I die in exile”, he said. One wonders whether the Romans would have agreed.
Gregory might seem to have lost this battle, but reform of the church was now unstoppable. There were no more really scandalous popes after this; and just a decade later, in 1095, Pope Urban II, a Frenchman, preached the Crusade at the Council of Clermont, and the papacy gained new prestige. Because the Emperor Henry IV continued excommunicate, the Germans played no part in the First Crusade: a campaign dominated by the French, Normans, Lorrainers and Bohemond’s soldiers from Norman Italy. Indeed, Henry’s German territories suffered greatly, because the first action of the crusaders was to slaughter Jews in the Rhineland. Over a thousand were killed in Mainz alone, to the disgust of Henry, who took the Jews under his personal protection. Archbishop Ruthard, who had failed to prevent the massacre, had to flee to Flanders to escape the Emperor’s wrath.
Henry’s end was ignominious. He remained excommunicate; his own family revolted against him; his son took him prisoner and forced him to renounce the throne, and he died at Liege in 1106.
A strong central government structure was never created in Germany. All mediaeval kings were originally elected, but in France, England and elsewhere nation-states were gradually formed and elective monarchy changed to a system which was de facto hereditary. But the Holy Roman Emperors were always elected by the nobles, even in the eighteenth century. Only the doomed state of Poland had elective Kings by that time.
In Italy, things were even more shambolic: every prince, city or trouble-making faction could decide whether to support Emperor or Pope, or more likely, play them off against each other whenever seemed advantageous. By the end of the twelfth century names for the two sides had emerged: papal supporters took their name from Welf, the Duke of Bavaria; main opponent of the Emperor in Germany: imperialists took theirs from the town of Waiblingen in Swabia; a stronghold of the Emperor. In Italian, these names became Guelfs and Ghibellines; but were often no more than excuses for local rivalries. Milan would always be opposed by Pavia, and Verona by Padua: Florence and Lucca were usually Guelf, so Siena and Pisa were Ghibelline: within Florence the Buondelmonti family were Guelf, so their rivals the Ubertini were Ghibelline, and so forth. Some historians attribute the failure of nation-states to emerge in Germany and Italy before the nineteenth century to the rivalry of Popes and Emperors in the early Middle Ages.
Pope Gregory VII was proclaimed a saint in 1606.
Pope Gregory VII was proclaimed a saint in 1606.