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Joseph Mccabe Popes And Church Pandc 5





WE have reached the thirteenth century, which Catholic writers seem to propose as a shining model for the twentieth century. What art! What splendid trade unions (or guilds)! What beautiful saints, like Francis and Dominic! What – Mr. Chesterton would say – what jollity of life! Well, the thirteenth century was just as sordid, as murderous, as immoral, as filthy and vicious to live in, as the modern mind can possibly conceive. Its intellectual life was confined to a few thousand clerics, sterile in its subjects, cramped by the ecclesiastical authorities, and indebted to the Mohammedans for its existence. Its Francis and Dominic are just a proof that the older monastic orders were, as Cardinal de Vitry says, unfit for a decent man or woman to live in; and the new monastic bodies were corrupted within twenty years. Its jollity of life was accompanied by as free a use of the knife as you will find in the Malay Archipelago today, as free a use of alcohol as you will find among "civilized" savages, and as free an indulgence of sex impulses as you will find among monkeys; and it was overcast by such plagues, famines, diseases, wars, robberies, persecutions, and oppressions as you will now find nowhere else.

As to the art of the Middle Ages, the man who looks for its inspiration in Catholicism is as foolish as the man who fancies that men and women were then as refined, as free, or as virtuous as they are to-day. Such an artistic phase occurs in the adolescence of nearly every strong nation. One might as well attribute Periclean art in Athens to the religion of the time, or Japanese art to Shintoism. One might as well claim that the great painters of the later Middle Ages, who lived in an atmosphere of utter irreligion and licence, were inspired by Catholicism. The art of the Middle Ages is just the bright side of its turbulent and primitive strength, its flesh of hot blood in the spring-time of modern Europe. It was employed by the Church, and took on a religious aspect, simply because the wealth to employ it, and the objects to work upon, were mainly ecclesiastical. In a short time men built town halls as finely as cathedrals, and painted merchants or Venuses as superbly as Madonnas. The laity were getting rich.

One thing at least the Papacy ought, on its own principles, to have secured; that is to say, the observance of the virtue of chastity, which it regarded as supreme. But chastity had so long been rare in Europe, especially at Rome, that men had begun to call it an " angelic virtue," so a medieval writer says. The Papacy and clergy often denounced vice. We know its extraordinary prevalence among the clergy mainly from Papal letters, meetings of prelates, notes compiled by bishops about the state of their dioceses, and so on. It was just such as Boccaccio later describes it. The clergy owned brothels. The cities – even the Papal authorities at Rome – taxed the earnings of prostitutes. The morals and manners of the common folk were indescribable. [1]

Rome had other things to think of. The long war with the Emperors opened afresh. Frederic would not go to the Crusade when he was ordered to say nothing of his other misdeeds – and Gregory IX erupted anathemas. But Frederic had his partisans, and, while Gregory poured out his sonorous curses from the pulpit in St. Peter’s, the congregation burst into furious counter-curses and drove the Pope from Rome. The Pope had violated one of the most sacred laws and invited princes to invade Frederic’s territory while he was on Crusade. They did not want a new war. Gregory made peace with them and returned; and he celebrated his return by the new kind of Papal firework – the burning of a multitude of Roman heretics.

I have spoken of Saints Francis and Dominic. Of Francis, to whose fraternity, in its degenerate and ridiculous modern form, I once belonged, I speak nothing but respect and sympathy. Under the illusion of asceticism, which Popes fostered, he wore out his gentle soul; and he died of a broken heart, because his fraternity quickly went the way of all monastic flesh. But Dominic! The Dominican friars would do well, in modern times, to change their name. The fanaticism of their founder was more dangerous to others than to himself. He specialized on hatred of heretics, and his white-robed sons grimly stoked the fires of the Inquisition until the black-robed sons of St. Ignatius came to dispute the honour. How many tens of thousands – if we include Jews and Albigensians and other large sects, how many millions – were punished with horrible death or torture in the "glorious thirteenth century" and its two successors, no man knows, and in large part they were men and women like the noble Arnold of Brescia, too honourable to say that they believed in the divinity of the system under which they lived.

Catholic writers pretend that the Roman Inquisition at least did little of this slaughter. They know well that the figures have never been published. Until the time of Leo XIII a large proportion of the documents treasured at the Vatican were kept in the "Secret Archives." As a good many of the skeletons in this cupboard (such as the legal proof of the immorality of Alexander VI) had got into the light of day, Leo XIII made a show of liberality and threw open the doors of the "Secret Archives" to the scholars of the world. But when even Catholic historians like Dr. Pastor [2] searched for the records of the Roman Inquisition, which had been kept there, they were not to be found. Behind the "Secret" (and now open) Archives is a collection of "Strictly Secret" documents of which Leo XIII said nothing to the scholars he invited!

A curious incident arose in 1292, and makes one smile again at the theory of "the light of the Holy Ghost." The rivals fought for a year, but not a cardinal could get the legal majority of votes. Some foolish cardinal then proposed, in despair, that they should elect a holy hermit who had a reputation among the country folk at the time, and the wearied voters agreed. The astonished and half-witted hermit thus found himself dragged from his cell and clothed with the jewelled garments of a Pope. But Celestine V was at once found to be utterly incapable, and he was compelled to abdicate. Chroniclers of the time tell a delightful story, which we cannot control, of the way it was done. One of the cardinals fitted a speaking-tube to the Pope’s chamber, and poor Celestine found himself ordered by "a voice from heaven" during the night to abdicate. [3]

However that may be, the cardinal of this story took Celestine’s place, became Boniface VIII, and confined the abortive Vicar in a place which ambitious courtiers could not reach. It is said, on very fair authority, that Boniface had the unhappy hermit murdered, when his own character became clear and men wanted to displace him. Boniface was certainly quite capable of the speaking-tube. He was utterly unscrupulous. After fierce quarrels with the Roman nobles he was himself deposed by the Romans and the French (in 1303), and the indictment of him is, as we shall see, appalling. He had fled to Anagni, and it is said that the fury into which he burst when he heard the news killed him.

The Papacy was now worth a sterner fight than ever. In 1300 the Pope had announced a "Jubilee" – a special year of indulgences and pardons for all who came to Rome – and the streams of ignorant men and women from all parts of Europe poured, even when the bandits and the courtesans had taxed them, such wealth into St. Peter’s that the officials gathered up the coin with rakes and shovels. Further immense sums were made by selling relics (generally fraudulent) and other valuable objects to the pilgrims.

Every church and every cleric in Rome had his share, for the priceless relics of Rome were scattered among the churches. There was the pillar to which Christ had been tied, the nails and wood of his cross (all the material of which had been sold, in grains, a dozen times over), drops of his blood, the napkin, in short, everything down to his milk-teeth and his navel-cord. There was all the linen of Mary, and her wedding ring, and so on. There were locks of her hair, and little phials of her milk. Peter was. gorgeously represented – down to the stone in which his tears of repentance had worn a groove – and his mother and sister contributed bones and articles of linen. Then there was the innumerable army of the saints and martyrs, spurious and otherwise. The Jews and Greeks had done a prodigious trade in relics which they had "discovered" in Palestine. The Italians had not even needed to go to Palestine. The angels did the transporting for so pious a generation. And it is fairly clear from the evidence brought against Boniface VIII that (as we shall see presently) he was a thorough blackguard, and despised those whom he duped and fleeced! He crowns the "glorious" century.

Rome, which "never changes," has been unfortunate in losing all these interesting relics. Some even of the most curious, such as phials of the Virgin’s milk and locks of her hair, lingered in obscure parts of Spain until the nineteenth century. It is tantalizing how they fly before the chemist and the osteologist. Perhaps the way in which one of the latter discovered the bones of a famous Neapolitan saint, which had worked countless miracles, to be the bones of a goat is not appreciated at the Vatican.

In 1304, after a furious and protracted quarrel of the French and Italian cardinals, the Archbishop of Bordeaux got the tiara, and became Clement V. Whether or not the French king had bribed the cardinals is disputed (by Catholics), and in point of fact the cardinals were unable to agree until the "voice of the people" broke upon the chamber in very angry tones. But that Clement V had an understanding with the French king cannot be seriously disputed. He refused to leave France; he was crowned at Lyons; he summoned the Papal court to him; and he at once began to oblige the king. He created ten new French cardinals, and he absolved King Philip (who was under a cloud), and granted him a tithe on the clergy for five years. Philip then pressed for the trial of the enormously wealthy Knights Templars. There is no doubt that this semi-monastic body was as corrupt as it was rich. Scott’s Templar in Ivanhoe is a true picture. But the trial (which Milman describes at length in his History of Latin Christianity, Bk. XII, ch. i) was a travesty of justice, and Clement winced. Philip pressed the weakling, and he put his signature to the condemnation.

But Philip had an even graver aim than the spoiling of the Templars, and Clement fled nervously to Avignon, which was then just outside France. Philip grimly pursued him, and demanded the trial of Pope Boniface VIII, his deadly enemy, the Pope of the Jubilee.

Clement was forced to hold a Consistory, and for days the most astounding evidence about Boniface was put before him. Boniface had been addicted to natural and unnatural vice, blasphemy, scepticism, simony, and all species of corruption. Now we cannot check this evidence. No torture was used (as it was freely used in the trial of the Templars), though one suspects the use of French gold. Yet the witnesses are of such a character (Roman canons, abbots, etc.) that we cannot admit more than exaggeration. The man at whose feet Christendom had grovelled in 1300 was stained with every vice, from paederasty to murder! Clement shuddered at the prospect; and Philip, who happened to want another favour, released his pressure. He was satisfied with the exposure; and he gave Clement a hundred thousand gold florins. Later the Council of Vienne lamely, without trial or examination of witnesses, acquitted the shade of Pope Boniface.

Clement, a cowardly and worthless pontiff, died in 1314, leaving 300,000 gold florins to his nephew. His successor, John XXII, the most astute financier on the Papal throne until Leo XIII, maintained that Clement had given his nephew 1,774,800 gold florins (nearly a million sterling) of Papal money. And Clement had spent plenty. He lived in luxury, and in such freedom that it was commonly believed that the very charming Countess de Talleyrand-Périgord, who was constantly with him, was his mistress. [4] It is useless to seek to determine whether she was or not. He was a man of few scruples, and the rarest scruple of those days was chastity. And all over Christendom heretics, mystics, and other protesters against this precious system blazed at the stake throughout Clement’s reign.

Then came John XXII (1314-34), an aged lawyer who had helped to procure and arrange the evidence against the Templars. John was a dry little man, a keen accountant whose ledgers are preserved in the Vatican to this day

Being over seventy years of age, John’s conduct is beyond reproach; though how the parsimonious little man contrived to spend £200,000 a year – £25,000 a year on his own household – is not clear. But John’s ways of getting money were, for an "inspired" man, peculiar. The enterprising Boniface had already confiscated to the Papacy the revenue of any ecclesiastical office when the clerk who held it died in or near Rome. John extended this profitable law to all dying clerics, and claimed three years’ revenue from the successor.

At one moment this led to trouble which nearly cost him his life, and it prettily illustrates the times and the Papal court. John summoned a wicked bishop, Hugues Gérard, to account for his misdeeds, though the man had honestly paid his four hundred pounds for his office. In the middle of the trial servants of the bishop were caught smuggling into Avignon (in loaves of bread – John had good police) packets of poison and little wax images of the Pope and his nephew. In the Middle Ages, when you wanted to kill a man and leave no trace, you set up a wax image of him, and, uttering certain charms, prodded it with a bodkin. Then he was supposed to die; and, curiously enough, the Pope’s nephew did die (possibly of fright). Out came the instruments of torture, and it was discovered that the images had been made for the bishop by a Jew and blessed by an archbishop on whose revenue John had designs! The poison was to supplement the charms, and even cardinals were implicated in the plot to use this. There was a bloody vengeance, and John issued fierce decrees against magic. [5]

The more piquant fact is that John’s conduct led equally to the degradation of the Papacy – let us say, deeper degradation of the Papacy – and the growth of the protest against it. The usual futile struggle occurred at his death, and so many cardinals threw away their votes upon a monk whom everybody thought impossible that the surprised monk got the tiara. Clement did not live to solve the dilemma; and Benedict XII, who hated monks (but liked a glass of good wine and a good story), made a feeble and futile effort at reform. Benedict XII was the only really religious Pope of the century, but one of the epitaphs published at his death described him as "a Nero, death to the laity, a viper to the clergy, a liar, and a drunkard." To him succeeded the gay Clement VI (1342-52), whose taste had been cultivated in a Benedictine monastery. Avignon now rivalled any court in Europe for licence and gaiety.

The great palace which John XXII had begun was now complete, and round it, and along the beautiful banks of the river, were the palaces of the cardinals. In fact, Clement now, by a singular bargain, got Avignon as Papal property. It belonged to the kingdom of Naples, and Queen Joanna had lately murdered her husband and married her lover; and as her husband’s kinsman, the King of Hungary, sought her life, she penitently submitted her fault to the Pope. She got absolution; and the Pope got Avignon for a beggarly 80,000 florins. "Catholic Truth," of course, admits no connection between the two transactions, though the sale immediately preceded the absolution! Joanna repented her bargain and protested; but the Popes kept Avignon until Napoleon came upon the scene.

Whether the Countess of Turenne was really Clement’s mistress, as Villani says, and what precise proportion of the cardinals lived loosely, it would be futile to seek to determine. It is enough that Petrarch, who lived near Avignon, repeatedly describes it in his letters as "a sink of iniquity"; and Petrarch was not a Puritan. He was very hostile to Clement for refusing to leave his comfortable palace for Rome, as Rome demanded; but the constant and detailed statements in his letters leave no room for doubt. The licence of life among the clerics at Avignon was as great as (later) at the court of Louis XIV, with the addition of unnatural vice, which was prevalent everywhere. Ordinary vice was so little regarded that the Popes taxed and protected prostitutes, and convents and monasteries owned brothels. Bishops and cardinals had hundreds of pages and servants each. They kept their dogs and falcons; and hundreds of charming ladies joined their superb banquets and hunts and their heavy gambling. The "Holy Father" mingled with, and smiled upon, all this gaiety; such gaiety that Petrarch, who knew well the story of Rome and Greece, has to go back to Babylon for a parallel. And the sons of St. Dominic plied their unspeakable tortures, and induced civic authorities to light the flames (lest they should stain their own white hands) for critics all over Europe.

Clement’s successor drove away crowds of the idle and vicious inferior clergy who fattened at Avignon; but the great plague, the corruption of the cardinals who controlled the Papacy, continued. The next Pope also was a good, but weak, man; and he transferred the Papal Court, in 1367, from its atmosphere of vice and luxury to Rome. Catholic writers offer us a pretty picture of a saintly maid of Siena inducing him to return. The truth is that the Papacy had reports that it was in danger of losing Italy if it remained in France. Rome had become a dreary, grass-grown waste: the mouldering corpse of the greatest city the world had ever known. The diversion of Papal gold for sixty years had ruined it. But its people had still such independence of spirit that Urban V returned to Avignon. His successor went to Rome, though the horrible conduct of his legates and troops in Italy raised such a storm that he also prepared to fly. He died in 1376, and a new and extraordinary phase of Papal history opened.


[1] In two large works, A History of the Popes (1939) and A History of Human Morals (1930), I give the full evidence and authorities for all summary statements about morals made in this book.

[2] See his History of the Popes.

[3] See the full and extraordinary story of Celestine in Milman, Bk. XI, cc. vi and vii.

[4] Villani. Historia, ix, 58.

[5] See a full and critical account of this matter in E. Abbe’s Hugues Gérard (1904).

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