Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Medieval Papacy - Now, THERE was a Quality Religious Institution

Libraries are evil. This is my conclusion after a traumatizing trip which began with me needing to sign out a book my students had written reviews of, and ended with me signing out two dozen books on religious history, alphabetically everything from Ellul's Subversion of Christianity to Weber's Protestant Work Ethic. It's going to take me weeks to get through this material - weeks I should be spending writing my damned thesis. Normally I'd say goddamned thesis but on this particular project, I think I could actually use his help, which would conflict with the whole damnation thing.

Anyways, I've been reading about the medieval Catholic church, and between the odd reference in high school history and the more frequent doses of anti-Catholicism from my evangelical days, I've realized I basically know almost nothing about the medieval papacy, at least relative to most other aspects of European history. (So much for my degree in history.) I thought reading about popes would be more boring than reading about other European dynasties, but actually it's way more exciting, what with popes selling the papacy for gold, dying from STDs, getting murdered, and even murdering other, rival popes. Among other things, this has led me to discover the most awesome trial in the history of everything ever: the Cadaver Synod.

If you thought the Catholic Church was corrupt and fractured by the late Middle Ages and then the Protestant Reformation, wait till you start reading up on the 9th century. In 882, when John VIII died, the church lost a fairly decent pope - a reformist who'd defended holding services in Slavonic languages, re-recognized the Eastern churches, and (a little more questionably, I admit) fought with Muslim forces in Italy. For these deeds, John was rewarded by being the first pope ever assassinated, and one of very few human beings ever to be assassinated by two enemies simultaneously: one with poison, and then another with a hammer to the skull while he lay dying. John was replaced by Marinus I (for two years), Adrian III (one year), Stephen V (six years), and finally Formosus (five years, 1891-1896).

This is where things get interesting. Formosus had been exiled by John but invited back by John's successors. When Formosus died, Boniface VI won power in the midst of massive riots in Rome, but lasted only two weeks before dying under suspicious circumstances (Wikipedia charitably suggests that Boniface was "forcibly ejected" from life). Even under the circumstances, this was a bizarre choice, and Boniface is now known as the only man to become pope after having been stripped of holy orders on two previous occasions for immoral behaviour. For his many sins, Boniface VI was retroactively deleted from the papacy afterwards when a successor determined the election was inappropriate. Next up was Stephen VI, who was backed by powerful Roman noble families.

In January 897, Stephen determined that Formosus had been guilty of some indiscretions while in office. Today, when we find out former prime minister Brian Mulroney accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribe money from German crooks, we hold a "public inquiry." Well, that's what they did in the 9th century too.

The similarities don't end there, mind you. Today, Mulroney argues that the discovery of his fraud occurred post-statute of limitations for tax fraud, so he's home free. Back then, Formosus opted (we may presume) for a very similar argument: his charges were laid post-being alive. Normally this would probably have worked, but Formosus had been a particularly bad boy (among other things, he'd backed the wrong side in a royal succession dispute), and besides, never let it be said that mere death could stand in the way of the justice of the eternal church.

Stephen organized a trial court consisting of himself, a panel of judges drawn from the clergy, and the defendant Formosus, whose corpse was removed from its tomb, dressed in formal clothing, and carried to a chair in the courtroom. Next, Stephen formally read out the charges: perjury, envy, and violation of church laws. Stephen conducts most of the prosecution's case himself, giving numerous extensive speeches directed towards Formosus. Dead bodies can't answer charges, of course, so a junior deacon is ordered to stand behind the dead man's chair and give "answers" on the dead pope's behalf.

Unsurprisingly, Formosus is found guilty of all charges. He can't be executed, obviously, so instead Stephen orders the body stripped of its religious clothing and cuts off three fingers from the right hand (the ones used for performing blessings), after which Formosus is re-buried in a less honourable plot in a foreigners' graveyard. Even this is too good for Formosus, of course, so Stephen later has him exhumed again and dumped into the Tiber river. The remains were subsequently pulled out by a solitary monastic who presumably gave him another, more private burial.

And things didn't even end there. Formosus had been a popular leader in Rome, and rumours spread of him returning from the dead to perform miracles. Stephen VI was deposed by a popular revolution, and strangled to death in 897. Stephen was replaced by Romanus, a monk who by all accounts was quite a fair leader. Fair leaders tend not to do well in politics, though, and Romanus lasted only a few months before the Roman nobility managed to oust him.

At this point, the Eastern Christians decided they'd had enough of this nonsense, and Theodore II, the son of the Patriarch of Constantinople, was sent over to restore order in Rome. Theodore cancelled some purges of the clergy performed by Stephen VI, officially pardoned Formosus, and ordered a new funeral held for the dead Pope so that his remains - or a reasonable facsimile, anyways - could be returned to the papal tomb. Unfortunately, Theodore lasted for less than a month in office, but his own successor, John IX, agreed to keep Formosus buried with honour.

I'm still not finished, though. Medieval Rome was kind of like today's Canadian politics - a continuing succession of minority governments. A few years later, in 904, the anti-Formosus group was back in office, led by Sergius III. Sergius had been angling for power ever since Formosus died the previous decade. He'd even won a contested election for the Papacy in 897, but been exiled from Rome before he could take office. Afterwards, he'd been excommunicated by the new winner, John IX.

This double hit from the banhammer didn't work, though. John died in 900, and was replaced by Benedict IV. He also only survived a couple of years, and was replaced by Leo V in 903. Leo V lived thirty days before ousted by an otherwise unknown priest, Christopher. Christopher threw Leo into prison and tried to rule as pope for about thirty days. At this point, the anti-Formosan nobles invited Sergius back to Rome to straighten things out. Sergius did just that, winning the papacy and ordering both Christopher and Leo strangled in prison (probably, anyways; there's some dispute). Sergius had actually been one of the judges at the original Cadaver Synod so, for good measure, he cancelled the pardon on Formosus and re-established the guilty verdict. He even had poor Formosus exhumed again and, by some accounts, beheaded.

So ends the story of the Cadaver Synod, though not the troubles of the medieval papacy. Sergius set several records as pope, some of which have stood the test of time: for example, he's the only pope to order the murder of another pope, and the only pope to father an illegitimate son who also became a pope. You may have begun to suspect that the Chair of St. Peter seems to be moving around a lot more quickly than it does nowadays, and you'd be right: between 896 and 904, there was a new pope, on average, about once per year. Between 872 and 965, there were 24 popes, and somewhere between five and seven of them were murdered. The fifty years after Sergius became known to papal historians as the "pornocracy", which I guess is what you get when you combine rigidly patriarchal church historians with a period of Roman politics controlled by leading noblewomen.

After Sergius came Anastasius III, one of Sergius's rumoured bastard sons. Next came Lando, a six-month wonder who was the last pope to use his birthname in more than a thousand years. Then John X, who came to power through his connections to a wealthy noblewoman named Theodora, and lost power through the connections of Theodora's daughter Marozia, who had John deposed, imprisoned, and eventually smothered with a pillow. Marozia also seized power in Rome through a coup d'etat, which allowed her to handpick the next two popes, Leo VI (seven months) and Stephen VII (three years). By this time (931 AD, for those keeping count), her own son John XI had turned 21, so next she had him "elected" as Pope. (Incidentally, Marozia had been sleeping with Sergius III as a teenager, and John was the illegitimate son of that relationship.) Marozia herself was ousted from power in the 930s and her successor, Alberic II, oversaw a similar succession of popes.

By this time, the popes were getting a little bit too independent, and a few of them, like Agapetus II and John XII, actually asked other countries to intervene in Rome and get rid of some of the troublesome noble families. Eventually the Germans did this, and in return their king (Otto I) was awarded the title "Holy Roman Emperor," something the German noble family would keep for most of the next thousand years. John didn't much like the Germans either, though, and fled the city. Otto, who wanted to get back to Germany, simply "elected" a new Pope, Leo VIII. Furious, John re-invaded Rome, prompting Leo to head for the hills. A furious Otto resolved to return to Rome and set things aright, but by this time John XII had already been murdered, allegedly by the jealous husband of one of his mistresses. John was replaced by Benedict V, but Leo and Otto would have none of this, so Benedict was stripped in council, demoted to deacon of Hamburg, and carted off to live out his days in Germany.

Leo also lasted less than a year, by which time the Theophactyl noble family was truly out of favour and the Crescenzi family was able to put one of their own favourites, John XIII, onto the chair. The Crescenzis had made peace with Otto, but not with the other Romans, who banished the pope from Rome just two months into his reign. John XIII, too, is rumoured to have been murdered. Otto came back to install a new pope, Benedict VI, who turned out to be another six-month wonder. This time, though, it was through no fault of his own: just after he'd seized power, Rome learned that king Otto had died. Without Otto's support, Benedict was imprisoned and eventually strangled by one of the sons of Theodora (mentioned earlier). One of the conspirators, Boniface VII, tried to seize the papacy but was forced to flee to the relative safety of Constantinople, though not before pilfering the treasury.

The new Holy Roman Emperor, Otto II, appointed a reformist, Benedict VII, who lasted a surprising nine years. Then Otto II died, too, leaving the German throne in the hands of his three-year-old son. Boniface hurried back from Constantinople and led a popular uprising against John XIV, who he had killed (either by starvation or poison). Boniface became pope himself, but was assassinated the following year.

Next came John XV, who lasted ten years and might have re-established some stability if he hadn't been so ludicrously corrupt. He died of a fever in 996, and the Germans tried to install Gregory V as the new pope. (Speaking of corruption, Gregory V was the cousin of the German then-king, Otto III.) Unfortunately, Gregory V was unpopular with the Roman nobles, so he was violently ousted and replaced by John XVI. In response, Otto III ordered the church to excommunicate the pope. He actually got his way at a council of bishops, but when John showed no signs of budging, Otto re-invaded Rome, captured John, and had him tortured - in the process of which John lost his nose, ears, tongue, and apparently some of his fingers. He was then imprisoned until his death a few years later.

Mercifully, Gregory V died a peaceful death in 999. He was replaced by Sylvester II, who introduced the study of Arabic mathematics and astronomy, which at the time made its European counterparts look childish by comparison. He'd been Otto III's tutor, once upon a time. Not surprisingly, the Romans didn't like him either, and revolted in 1001 A.D. Sylvester was chased from the city and made four separate attempts to return before his death. The Romans chose one of their own, John XVII, as the next pope, but he died after just five months in office. Next up was another Roman, John XVIII, who not only survived for years but retired from office to return to the less exciting life of his monastic order.

Then the papacy falls off the wagon again. The Crescentis, who control Rome at this point, appoint one of very few working-class popes in history, Sergius IV, the son of a shoe-maker. Sergius seems to do well but dies, probably of foul play, just days after the death of his leading Crescenti patron. The Theophylae family promptly "elect" their own pope, Gregory VI, but he's banished from the city and ends up as a refugee in Germany. Benedict VIII takes the chair, assisted by German king Henry II, and eventually passes the papacy to his brother, John XIX.

Normally, passing your titles to your kin was acceptable practice in Europe, but normally that's not the way the papacy works. At the time, John XIX wasn't even a priest. So he was hastily ordained as a bishop, after which he could legally become pope. Amongst other things, John went on to accept an enormous bribe in exchange for new titles for the Patriarch of Constantinople. (Which was fitting, because, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, John had also handed around a few bribes on his way to becoming pope.) The deal turned out to be quite unpopular, so John backtracked, though it's unclear whether or not he refunded the money.

Speaking of bribes, up next is Benedict IX, the only man to ever sell the papacy. Benedict was John IX's nephew, and became pope while still a teenager. He was later accused of a grand litany of sins, ranging from rape and murder to bestiality. For his lechery and his general incompetence, Benedict was ejected from the city in 1036, but German emperor Conrad II forced him back into office. He was beaten out again in 1044, at which point Sylvester III won a heavily contested election but was then charged with bribing opponents. Benedict IX retaliated by excommunicating Sylvester III and retaking the papacy. In 1045, Benedict IX left office again, this time after accepting approximately one metric tonne of gold in payments for his title. The purchaser was Gregory VI, allegedly Benedict's godfather, and despite the rather dubious method of ascension, reformists and critics of corruption like Peter Damian praised him for at least getting Benedict out of the way. Together with his advisor, fellow reformist Hildebrand (the future pope Gregory VII), Gregory VI tried to re-establish some semblance of religious order.

The litany continues, however. By this time, the Vatican was almost bankrupt, and both of the previous popes, Sylvester III and Benedict IX, were trying to regain the city. Gregory VI managed to convince German king Henry III to come to Italy, summon a religious council, and arbitrate the case. The price was high: Gregory agreed to resign from the papacy if, in exchange, Benedict's claims were dismissed and Sylvester was demoted and banished to a monastery. In the ensuing hearing, Gregory freely confessed to buying the Papacy but argued that this was justified under the circumstances. The council of bishops disagred and Gregory agreed to resign. Henry also chose the new Pope, Clement II, in a move which pissed off reformists. It turned out to be a mixed blessing, however; Clement II compromised with the reform movements through new restrictions on buying church offices (known in the Middle Ages as "simony"). Clement died the next year of lead poisoning, which means either he was assassinated or died of treatment for a sexually transmitted disease (lead sugar being the medicine of choice for such illnesses during the Middle Ages). I'm not sure which of the two options reflects better upon the church, but after the disasters of the last two centuries, I suppose it hardly matters.

Then, unbelievably, Benedict IX comes back into the picture. Benedict had never formally accepted the verdict from Henry's council of bishops, and seized the pope's palace in 1047. He held the palace - and thus claimed the title of Pope - for an additional eight months, before an incensed Henry III sent Poppo of Brixen to evict him. Benedict refused to appear on charges, so he was formally excommunicated by the church. Poppo became the new pope, changing his name to Damasus II. But he lived only 23 days after kicking out Benedict, before dying - either of poison or of malaria, depending on what source you trust.

Finally, after a period of almost two hundred years, we come to a fucking hero of a pope. (It normally takes a lot for me to say that, being an anarchist, but I've gotten so depressed over the last few paragraphs that even my trusty bottle of Smirnoff's isn't taking the edge off my emotions anymore.) Leo IX is another German nobleman-become-bishop, and he's appointed to the Papacy on those conditions, but then makes a stunning declaration: he won't accept the papacy unless and until he is escorted to Rome and receives the consent of the bishops and populace of the city of Rome. Democracy, in the church, you ask? Perhaps. Leo meets Hildebrand, the reformist advisor of Gregory VI, and together they travel to Rome, dressed as pilgrims. At the Easter Council in 1049, Leo orders all clerical orders of the church to actually obey the conditions of celibacy and officially (if not effectively) bans all purchasing of church titles (i.e. simony). Leo also travels about Europe holding councils with regional clergy. More dubiously, he also excommunicates the Patriarch of Constantinople, thus provoking the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church of Western Europe and the Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe. He also helps start a war with the Normans in 1053, which Rome loses badly. On the bright side, Leo surrenders in person to prevent further death or destruction. He dies the following year.

This has gone on a lot longer than I thought it would. I think the Great Schism is an appropriate place to leave off, though it does have the downside of skipping over Celestine V, my personal favorite, who willingly renounced his office on the grounds that it was interfering with his desire for tranquillity and humility.


A brief history of the Cadaver Synod can be found on Wikipedia here. And you thought history was all about boring dates and stuff. Medieval papal elections are even cooler than the 2000 Bush-Gore debacle, I've discovered.