THE HISTORY OF THE ROMAN CHURCH
THE PAPACY IN THE DARK AGES
THE Pope to whom I have referred, Hadrian (or Adrian) I, was one of the most respected and religious prelates in Rome at the time of the horrors I have described, and he succeeded to the Papacy a few years later (772). Under his comparatively clean rule corruption of the more violent kind was suppressed.
But corruption of a different kind was extraordinarily active under Hadrian. Religious as he was, he determined to regain the temporal power, and for that purpose he appealed to Charlemagne. The Lombards were crushed, and Charlemagne came to Rome and confirmed the "donation." Once more the important document which was signed in St. Peter’s has been "lost," and we have nothing but Papal forgeries to tell us the extent of the territory ceded to the Papacy. It was in Hadrian’s time that "The Donation of Constantine" (a new and finished version of the old forgery) and "The Fantuzzian Fragment" (or "Donation of Pippin") were fabricated in the Papal chancellory, and it is presumably on the basis of these frauds that Charlemagne ceded the territory. Neither the Lombards nor the Italians submitted to the change; and Hadrian’s long pontificate, which is almost barren of spiritual work, was one protracted and peevish quarrel about territory. For years Charlemagne seems to have been too disgusted to answer his letters; and the Italian cities, seeing the dishonest way in which the Papal officials continued to annex, sternly resented the whole temporal power.
Such was the best and most religious Pope in five centuries. Under his successor, Leo III, the brutality began again. The Papacy was now rich; and a rich principality in that lawless age was a focus of crime.
A second defect in the character of Hadrian was that he inaugurated at Rome the disgraceful and profoundly mischievous practice of nepotism: the promotion of relatives. He promoted his nephews, Paschal and Campulus, to high office, though their brutal character cannot have been unknown to him. In the fourth year of Leo’s pontificate they conspired to replace him either by one of themselves or by some creature of theirs. On April 25, 799, as Leo rode in state through the streets of Rome in a religious procession, a number of armed men sprang upon him, dragged him from his horse, and proceeded there and then to cut out his eyes and tongue; which would unfit him for the Papal office. The Romans fled. Leo seems to have been a rough man, of low birth, and unpopular. But the men did their work badly, and Paschal and Campulus dragged the Pope into the chapel of a neighbouring monastery, threw him down "in front of the altar," "again" cut out his eyes and tongue (or attempted to complete the work with their knives), beat him, and left him in a pool of blood. Such is the cold and amazing language of the semiofficial Papal biographer. Paschal and Campulus were two of the leading clerics.
He recovered and took his complaints to the court of Charlemagne. At the same time the Romans, who seem to have been mainly against the Pope, sent men to charge Leo with certain crimes (apparently, adultery and simony), and the Frank monarch came to Rome and solemnly held a trial of "the Vicar of Christ" and his enemies. Leo was allowed to clear himself by an oath; and as oaths were as cheap in those days as they were sonorous, and witnesses were not examined, we shall not be very captious if we presume that he was guilty. The traitors were punished in the amiable fashion of Papal Rome. Two days later Leo crowned Charlemagne, creating for him the" Holy Roman Empire" (which was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire); and the grateful monarch confirmed the temporal power and showered gold and jewels upon the Church.
Paschal I, a few years later (823), was reported to Charlemagne as having blinded and beheaded two of the leading Papal officials in his palace. Paschal heatedly asserted his innocence, but as he prevented the Emperor’s representatives from holding an inquiry, saying that the men were "rightly put to death," and that the men who killed the accused were clerics and not subject to lay jurisdiction, and as the murders certainly occurred in the Lateran Palace, we easily draw our own conclusions. When Paschal died the Romans angrily refused to grant him the usual Papal funeral, and there was a mighty struggle at the election.
Vice and violence continued to rule Italy, in fact the whole of Christian Europe, while the Arabs set up a brilliant civilization in Spain. No less than forty-two Popes in the Dark Ages (600-1050) did not reign two years. At last another "great Pope" comes on the scene. But just as the "spiritual" Pope Hadrian had avoided vice and crime and encouraged forgery, so did the spiritual Nicholas. In his day (about 850) was perpetrated one of the greatest forgeries of the Middle Ages, the Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals (commonly called "the False Decretals"). This is a collection of early decisions of Popes and Councils, an enormous proportion of which are forged, garbled, or put centuries before their proper date. It was fabricated in France, not in Rome, and its direct purpose was to justify appeals of distressed clerics to Rome against unjust prelates or lay authorities. It was written in the interest of these clerics. But it greatly increased the Papal power, and it also gave local prelates a basis for evading the commands of their secular rulers. It was an appalling ecclesiastical fabrication.
The fight continued under Nicholas’s successor, Hadrian II, and the great bishops more successfully resisted his attempts to handle kings and prelates as if they were lackeys. Charlemagne had treated the Pope in very cavalier fashion. In a work published in his own name (The Caroline Books) he had spoken quite contemptuously of the Pope’s opinion and the Roman practice in regard to image-worship. No Pope had dared to rebuke his notorious morals. But the successors of Charlemagne were generally weak and foolish men, and the power of the Papacy spread over them. Another forgery was added to its fraudulent foundations, and the age was too grossly ignorant to detect the imposture. Clerics, who monopolized what culture there was, did not expose each other to the laity.
This short period of comparative respectability soon came to a close, and a darker night than ever settled upon the Papacy. At the death of Nicholas Rome had witnessed a revival of the stormy passions of the partisans: a clear proof that there had been no moral reform. Blood had reddened its streets. Nuns had been raped in their convents. Under Hadrian II a Roman had lost his eyes; the wife of another had been whipped, half-naked, through the streets. Hadrian’s wife and daughter (he had married in earlier life) were murdered by the son of a bishop who had abducted the daughter. Under John VIII, a violent scatterer of anathemas, there was a conspiracy to kill the Pope, and there was a tradition (not well authenticated) that John was eventually murdered. Then there began a quarrel which makes the Papal record hideous, and inaugurates nearly a century and a half of degradation.
John VIII had excommunicated Bishop Formosus, of Porto, and on this ground, and because he was already a bishop, he was ineligible for the Papacy. But with the aid of the German faction he attacked the deacon Sergius, who had been elected (at the death of Stephen V), drove him and his party out of Rome, and secured the Papacy. Sergius headed the Italian faction, or those who would bestow the imperial crown upon an Italian prince. They fled to the provinces for aid, and, after another battle, they imprisoned and would depose Formosus. The Pope, however, got help from Germany, drove them from Rome, and ended his brief reign in peace. His successor, Boniface VI, a gouty and disreputable man, died in a fortnight, and the Italian party now obtained power and elected Stephen VI. Their vengeance upon Formosus is a revolting and familiar page of Papal history. The putrid body of the Pope was dragged from its grave, put on the pontifical throne, and judged. The sacred vestments were torn from it, three mouldering fingers were cut from the right hand, and the corpse was thrown contemptuously into the Tiber. No one questions these statements of the Bishop of Cremona, Liutprand, in his Antapodosis (i, 50).
In a very short time Pope Stephen quarrelled with Deacon Sergius and his other supporters. He was, as his own epitaph and a contemporary writer of high character (Flodoard) tell, thrown into a dungeon by them and strangled. Two Popes then occupy the throne for a few obscure weeks, and obscurely disappear. After them comes John IX, of the Formosan faction, and Sergius and his friends are again expelled and excommunicated. John dies in the year 900, and is for three years followed by the obscure Benedict IV. At his death in 903 – no one can tell how many of these Popes were murdered – Leo V comes out victor in the truculent fight for the highest spiritual office in Christendom, but after two months Leo is deposed by the priest Christopher, who flings him into prison and occupies his place. Christopher enjoys his ill-gotten honours only a few months, when the truculent Sergius fights his way into Rome at the head of Italian troops, deposes and imprisons the usurper, and attains the object of his long and criminal ambition.
Such is the bare chronicle of those stirring and repulsive years which the biographer of the Popes bequeaths us. Behind those few lines we can easily perceive a city and a Papacy in a state of utter degradation, and a few references in other trustworthy writers confirm our estimate. Sergius was a man utterly devoid of moral scruple. For nearly ten years he had fought for the Papacy; he was the leading spirit in the revolting trial of the corpse of Formosus; he snatched the Papal crown at the point of the sword. We can, therefore, well accept – and even Catholic writers like Duchesne accept-the assurance of the contemporary Bishop Liutprand that he had notorious immoral relations with one of the fastest women of the new Roman nobility – "the shameless whore" Marozia, as Cardinal Baronius calls her – and was the father of the later Pope John XI. We can have no just ground to hesitate to accept the statement of another contemporary writer, Vulgarius, that Sergius murdered, or caused the murder of, his two predecessors.  Yet Sergius is merely the first of many such men who will now enter the gallery of the Popes.
We know little in detail about the pontificate of Sergius, but the contemporary writers make it clear that under him began what some Catholic historians have called "the rule of the courtesans" – that is to say, the control of the Papacy by women so promiscuously immoral and unscrupulous that the older Catholic historians freely call them "whores" (scorta). These were, principally, the young woman Marozia, to whom I have referred, and her mother Theodora, wife of one of the highest officers of the city. While Marozia was mistress of the reigning Pope, her mother had a liaison with the fascinating Bishop of Ravenna, and, when the brief reigns of Sergius’s two successors were over, she and her husband secured the Papacy for this man (914).
John X was not of the truculent type of Sergius, but in passing from the bishopric of Ravenna to that of Rome he committed the same breach of the regulations as Formosus had done, and his relations with Theodora are described by Bishop Liutprand. In the end he quarrelled with Marozia, and he soon learned that "the rule of the courtesans" was a very real thing. Marozia and her latest lover were angry because John gave so much power and wealth to his brother Peter, and before long their men burst into the Lateran Palace and laid Peter dead at the feet of the Pope. They put John in prison, and he died soon afterwards. We can easily accept the assurance of some of the chroniclers that he was murdered.
In the next two years and a half two insignificant Popes occupied, and promptly vacated, the "Holy See"; and then, in 931, Marozia put her son (and son of Pope Sergius, as the Liber Pontificalis says) upon the Papal throne. He was a weak and negligible youth, and Marozia continued her wild career. When her husband was murdered she offered her hand and the throne of Italy to his brutal step-brother, Hugh of Provence, who had no scruple to accept. But Rome revolted against the unbridled couple, imprisoned the Pope, and put an end to the rule of Marozia. It was her own illegitimate son Alberic who led the revolt, and this worthy son took over his mother’s power and nominated the succeeding Popes.
Alberic left this power, in 953, to a still more disreputable son, Octavian, and this last representative of the remarkable dynasty dragged the Papacy to the lowest depth. In 955 he resolved, as the Roman See fell vacant, to unite the temporal and spiritual powers in his own person, and he ascended the Papal throne under the assumed name of John XII. There was not a crime in the penitentials that John XII did not introduce into the "sacred palace." The palace of Caligula or of Nero in ancient Rome had not witnessed more wanton scenes than the Lateran Palace now exhibited. Liutprand tells us (De Rebus Gestis Othonis, iv) how John, pressed by a rival, appealed to the Emperor Otto, and when Otto came to Rome the Romans brought up against their spiritual father a list of crimes which would, they said, "make a comedian blush for shame"; and a comedian was the lowest thing they knew. The Romans were lenient, as we have seen, but they could not tolerate a Pope who committed murder, perjury, adultery, incest (with his two sisters), rape, and sacrilege. Before the synod convoked by Otto it was proved that John had "turned the Lateran Palace into a brothel," cut out the eyes of or castrated those who criticised him, raped girls and women who came to pray in St. Peter’s, gambled, cursed, drunk to the devil…. There was, in brief, nothing that he had not done.
John had fled to Tivoli, and with cool assurance he wrote to excommunicate the whole synod! The clergy and the Emperor deposed him and elected Leo VIII (963). But the Romans could never long endure the presence of a German ruler, and their surly conduct soon drove out Otto. We are told that John’s agents distributed money freely, and that all the courtesans in Rome – a very large body – were assiduous in his cause (Liutprand, xvii and xviii). The Romans, at all events, flung out Leo, and welcomed their "legitimate" and remarkable pontiff to the chair of Peter once more. After a few weeks spent in cutting off the noses and tongues of his critics, John turned again to his gay ways. But he died three months after his return. Tradition said that he was struck dead by the devil while he was paying his attentions to a married woman in an obscure part of Rome. But we wonder what grudge the devil had against him, and we should not err much, probably, if we attributed the violent death of this "divinely inspired" successor of Nicholas I to the knife of a jealous husband.
Rome still rejected the Emperor’s Pope, Leo VIII, and elected Benedict V; but Otto returned, and under his protection Leo made a truculent end of the usurper and his followers. Under Leo’s successor Rome again rebelled, and set up a democratic and secular government. It is remarkable that all through these centuries Rome, the city of the Popes, was the most anti-Papal and most democratic city in Europe. Once more the revolt was terribly punished. Under Benedict VI, a nominee of the Imperialists, the Emperor Otto died, and again Rome swarmed angrily to the attack. In the confusion Cardinal Bonifazio Francone imprisoned the Pope, had him strangled in his dungeon, and seized the Papacy.
Gerbert, who tells us of the murder, describes Boniface as "a horrid monster surpassing all other mortals in wickedness"; and he must have known the recent Papal record set up by Pope John XII. The Germans returned, however, and Boniface VIII fled to Constantinople with all the Papal treasures that he could conveniently convey. His successor enjoyed nine comparatively tranquil years under the protection of the Emperor, and in 983 gave way to John XIV. In that year the Emperor died, and Boniface swooped like a hawk from the eastern sky. Again he imprisoned and murdered his victim, and removed a few eyes from their sockets. But he was more Greek than Roman, and in a year’s time he also met a sudden death, and his body was dragged through the streets of Rome.
His successor, John XV, a greedy and corrupt man, was driven from Rome in the tenth year of his pontificate. John’s successor, Gregory V, was too virtuous for the Romans, who liked a golden mean, and was expelled; and when the Emperor returned to restore him to the throne, on which the Romans had placed a John XVI, that unhappy intruder lost his eyes, his nose, his ears, and his tongue, and was driven through Rome with his face to his ass’s tail. It remains to add that the restored, and pious, Gregory V died within a year, under the suspicion of poison, which does not surprise us after the savage deeds upon the Romans of his imperial protector.
If I seem to trip murders and revolts lightly from the pen, to compress whole periods of tragedy into a few cold lines, the reader must blame the scanty chronicles of that illiterate age. Vice and crime become so monotonous that contemporaries dilate on them only when they assume the heroic forms adopted by John XII. It was "the Iron Age." Where the "Holy Spirit" was let Catholic Truth discover; and let it cease to tell its clients, with an air of liberality, that there were "a few bad Popes," and then forbid them to read non-Catholic writers.
The German Emperors, semi-civilized rulers who slit noses and tongues as freely as they made love, were nevertheless eager to "purify" the Papacy. In Germany, as in every other country, the bishops and archbishops, the priests and monks and nuns, cultivated a comprehensive immorality. Sermons and letters and synodal discussions of the time offer us a picture of general and appalling licence. Otto III, however, was still minded to have a good Pope, and he put upon the throne that remarkable scholar Gerbert, who for four short years so dazed the Romans that he died, in their opinion, in a strong odour of sulphur.
After his death (1003) a new power, the Counts of Tusculum, gradually overshadowed and appropriated the Papacy, and the long night approached its darkest hour. After vigorous fights with the Romans one of the counts secured the tiara and the title of Benedict VIII. He fiercely suppressed the riots of the Romans, and, strange to say, for he was quite unscrupulous, attempted some reform of the Church. At his death his brother purchased the votes of the electors, and succeeded him. John XIX soberly enjoyed his purchase for nine years. Then a member of the family, by the customary bribery, bought the tiara for his own son, a boy of eleven, and the Papal record is stained with the fifteen years’ pontificate of Benedict IX.
Benedict’s particular vices have not earned immortality. "They were so horrible that I shudder to tell them," says one of his successors, Victor II (Dialogues, Bk. iii). Rudolph Glaber (Historia, v, 5) makes the same remark about "the turpitude of his [the Pope’s] life and conversation." Bishop Bonitho (Liber ad Amicum, v) is content to mention "adulteries and murders." We gather that unnatural vice, which was then very prevalent in the Church, was the most flagrant offence of the young Pope. He was assuredly one of the "few bad Popes."
In the first year of his reign the Romans plotted against the young Pope’s life, and he fled. In 1037 he induced the Emperor Conrad to restore him, and he enlivened the Lateran Palace for seven years. Then the Romans again fell furiously upon his supporters, and, while they spattered Rome with blood in the traditional manner, the young Pope went courting a cousin in the provinces. He was recalled by his relatives, who bloodily crushed the Romans and their anti-Pope; but his thoughts were with his pretty cousin, and in the next year he sold the Papacy to his uncle (for the annual Peter’s Pence which was to come from pious England) and decided to wed his lover.
The uncle, John Gratian, was a highly respectable ecclesiastic, with large ideas of reform, and not a little ambition. He assumed the name of Victor III, and took his seat as Vicar of Christ. In another part of Rome sat the rival Vicar, the anti-Pope made by the Romans, Silvester II. In time, Benedict IX failed to get his bride, and he returned and set up a third "chair of Peter." He held the Lateran Palace; Silvester occupied St. Peter’s and the Vatican Palace (which now begins to find mention); Victor III had to be content with Sta. Maria Maggiore. To finish with the long history of this phase of Papal degradation, the pious new Emperor of Germany, Henry III, came to Rome, cleared out the three of them, and set Pope Clement II, an austere and virtuous prelate, upon the defiled and despised throne of the rulers of Papal Christendom – the "Holy See."
 De Causa Formosiana, c. xiv.