The Papacy as State Monarchy 900-1520

This essay considers the consolidation of the Papal States as land territories held by the Church with the Pope acting as a elected monarch selected by the secretive College of Cardinals.  It ends with the rise of Lutheranism and the invasion of Italy by Francis I and the political outfall between France, Spain, the Papacy and the rise of Lutheranism in Germany and beyond.

Prior to the 11th  century the Papacy as an institution remained an institution for promoting Church power and organization (Blumenthal 2008).  It had relied upon the Carolingian Empire and it successors in the emergent Holy Roman Empire for political protection and as a base for promoting its domains through the spread of monasteries, large churches in towns and its close affiliation and integration into court life and culture through the promotion of clergy form the aristocracy to fill the roles of abbots and bishops.  From the eleventh century onward the Church’s interest in territorial possessions and claims of lands of its own now extended beyond the role and function of the monasteries as holders of large estates throughout Western Europe, but increasing the Papacy centered in Rome began to claim and assert its political domain over lands in Italy.  The Papacy became its own state. What provoked this response by the Papacy was an internal crisis caused by differences and attempts at asserting local autonomy by the local clergy and that by 1046 led to a search for extensive reforms.  This was marked by the first Northern Pope Clement II (1046-7) and eventually the reforms of Pope Gregory.
Since the 9th century the Papacy had relied on support and close ties to the main political and military powerhouse in Western Europe, the Frankish rulers and kingdoms and its successors after the breakup of the Carolingian Empire.  With the breakup of the Carolingian Empire into different states and kingdoms, the Papacy forged alliances with the different kingdoms and had to take sides in the sparring of Roman and Italian factions.  This led to the increased pressures of the Roman and Italian rich families to make sure that members of their own families were appointed to the high clerical ranks:  bishops, cardinals with the potential of gaining the papacy.  Papal politics at the end of the 9thcentury were so bad that pope Stephen VII called a synod or assembly of cardinals and bishops and had the body of his predecessor Pope Formosus (1091-96) exhumed, put on trial for condemnation and tossed into the Tiber River (Blumenthal 2008, 9).  Formosus’ crime was his meddling in selecting the successor to the fledgling Holy Roman Empire when he crowned Arnulf, who controlled the armies in Northern Italy, as Emperor over the child Lambert, the presumed successor to deceased Guy III of Spoleto whose power base was in Southern Italy which was under attack by Muslim armies.

Figure 2 Map of Italy c. 1000 showing the division of duchies, the Papal States and divisions between Byzantine territories and the areas of the Holy Holy Roman Empire in the \north.  Sicily was still under Muslim rule at this time.

In the late 10th century we find the first French Pope, Pope Sylvester II (r. 999-1003) who reputedly studied at Arab universities in Cordoba, Seville and in some legends, he also studied at the Qarawiyin mosque university in Fez, in Morocco.  Sylvester is among those credited with introducing Arabic numerals and the decimal system.  Most of the vitriol late issued about Sylvester as a practitioner of sorcery and as one who made pacts with the Devil, are explainable in the context of the rise of the new Tuscan based popes .  A new wave of popes who were from the Tuscan regions of Italy were appointed beginning with Benedict  VIII (r. 1012-24).  These popes restored the interests of the large landholding families of the Tuscan and central regions of Italy and were appointed from these families.  Reforms of prayers were negotiated at synods with the approval the emperor Henry II who insisted on the introduction of the Nicene Creed into the Mass. But when the Nicene Creed include a phrase that the Holy Spirit was descended from the Father and the Son, this reference to Christ or the Son of God, was seen as an inappropriate insertion not found in the original Nicene Creed of the Synods of the 4th Century under the Emperor Augustus.  This filioque controversy over the insertion of the hierarchy of the trinity was a leading factor in creating the divisions and Great Schism of 1054 that formally broke the Church off into two separate churches, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic (Blumenthal 2008, 11).

A wave of simony, the selling of clerical appointments by the Church to rich families to raise revenue was a practice that was a widespread form of bribery and corruption.  This practice compelled reforms and the increased authority of the Popes who began using Excommunication as a political weapon to keep Emperors in line. Up until the late 10th century some clergy openly married a practice that had to be formally by a Lateran Council in 1049.  Disobedience of Papal authority led to the excommunication of the emperor Henry IV by Gregory VII and later by Henry V by two different popes, Urban II and Paschal in 1102.  (Blumenthal 2008, 15). The most famous of these excommunications was that by Pope Gregory VII of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV in 1077.  Henry IV challenged the Pope’s authority to appoint bishops over those of his own preference in what is known as investiture.  The challenge to investiture from Rome, a challenge to Papal authority led to the emperor’s excommunication. As a sign of the papacy’s importance the emperor was forced to undertake a walk from his palace at Speyer in Germany to the Pope’s palace at Canossa in Italy and to wait for three days outside mostly barefoot and poorly clothed until the Pope let him in to show his obedience to the Church.  This was not the end of the struggle however.  When Henry IV returned to Germany the Pope refused to support him and after a civil war in Germany that contested Henry’s power as emperor he exacted revenge against the Papacy by launching an attack on Rome and forcing the replacement of Gregory as pope with his own choice Clement III, who began a line of emperor affiliated Popes known as the Anti-Popes who would support the Northern European interests against those of Italy.
It was Pope Gregory VII and Pope Urban II who led the ideological push for starting the Crusades that were launched after 1095.

The Political Ascendance of the Papacy in the First Crusades 1095-1298

The motivation for a European invasion of the Middle East to occupy Syria and Palestine and the City of Jeruslaem requires an examination of the material and ideological causes of warfare.  War is an expensive option and in the late 11th century, the success of Seljuk expansion and rule in the Syrian interior and coastal areas, and their domination over the key trade cities of Damascus and their pressure on Constantinople and Cairo placed pressure on European markets.  When the Seljuks took over Jerusalem in the late 11th century they allowed the Christian monasteries and churches to remain.  There is little evidence that the Seljuk Muslims persecuted or desecrated Christian institutions.  Therefor the choice of Pope Urban II in 1095 to proclaim a Crusade or Holy War to be sanctioned by the combined forces and financial support of the Church and the various royal states must be explained on grounds other than the rush to save Christian practice in Jerusalem or the Holy Land.

When Pope Urban II convened a Council of the Church at Clermont, France in 1095 to proclaim a Crusade, he was quickly joined by populist preachers, including Peter the Hermit who preached support among the commoners for the Crusade against the Muslim held city of Jerusalem.  These calls for popular support quickly accelerated and resulted in the pogroms and purges against the Jewish populations in cities along the Rhine River, including Cologne and Mainz.  A first hand account of these purges against the Jewish population comes from a Jewish witness, Soloman Bar Sampson. Sampson revealed how many of these attacks were really used to extort money from the Jewish population.   Most of the participants in the First Crusade were from the north of France, including Pope Urban II.  A great many other Europeans resisted joining this First Crusade, notably the Germans and most Italian seaport cities.  Only Genoa offered support for the campaign, which is itself odd, because its location on the West coast of Italy made preparations by sea that much more difficult.  The Venetians resisted because the Crusades threatened their monopoly trading position as middle merchants between Constantinople and the Levantine cities of the Middle East.

The Crisis of Papal Power and the Rise of Secular Aristocratic Power 1298-1379

The 14th century was indeed a century of crisis on several levels.  In Europe the major political crisis of the century was the struggle between Papal authority and the rise of regional-national kingdoms and empires that resented the centralized authority and domination of the Church in revenue raising and in law.  A second major crisis was the continued spread of the Mongolian Invasions across Central Asia and into the Eastern Europe and Western Asia.  The third crisis was the Black Death or wave of Bubonic Plague that followed the Mongol Invasions from Central Asia and swept across Western Asia, Europe and parts of North Africa, killing about 1/3 of the population.

The call for the legal overthrow of Church based Canon laws written in Latin were of course a famous source of confrontation in the Investiture Crisis between Philip the Fair and Pope Boniface VIII between 1298-1303 (Watt 2008) that led to the Avignon Papacy that featured seven Popes from 1309-76,  supported by the French court and based in Avignon, France (Zutshi 2008) and the Italian elite’s need to retain its own Papacy based in Italy, a crisis known as the Great Schism (Kaminsky 2008).The earlier problems of the church reconciling to increasing pressure to conform to the expanded interests of the laity and the rise of popular mendicant orders that threatened to break away from the centralized authority of Rome, like the Franciscans, is summarized in the New Cambridge Medieval History (Vauchez 2008).

The World System and the Eclipse of Papal State System 1450-1526

During the Papacy of Nicholas V (r. 1449) historians assess that the Papacy enjoyed a period of wider hegemony and support since the disruption of the Great Schism of 1054 (Aubenas 2008, 76).  The costly Crusades had come to a conclusion, with the exception of a final Spanish Christian conquest of the last Muslim principality at Granada.  Pope Nicholas V enjoyed a reputation as a scholar and humanist, in many ways the first Renaissance Pope.  Yet the political position of a Christian based cluster of kingdoms and empires would be unsettled with the spectacular military success of the Ottoman Turks, who already in possession of parts of the Balkans overwhelmed the city of Constantinople in 1453.  With that came the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and complete territorial control over Turkey and increasing territories in the Balkans.  Nicholas V’s successor, the Spanish born Pope Calixtus III (1455-58), the first Borgia pope,  who briefly supported a Papal naval assault against the Turks, an endeavor that soon collapsed in the reality of the real lack of military power against the formidable new Empire of the Ottoman Turks in the East.  Nevertheless the attempt signals the reality of the Papacy as a state of its own and a player in European and Mediterranean power struggles.

After Calixtus III we find a successive dynasty of Borgia family clerics and political figures who influence the Papacy with nepotism.  Machiavelli’s The Prince, may be read in this context. This reflected the ascendance of the powerful Borgia family within Italy and its ability to dominate Papal politics, the College of Cardinals and Central and Northern Italian politics.  Nearly all of the Renaissance period of arts, architecture, and culture as well as military wars, from the Renaissance into the Baroque period of the 17th century were under Borgia dynasty. The Borgia Pope was Alexander VI, the Spanish born prelate, who wrote novels and comedies.  But he was also an absolutist and this centralizing authoritarian tendency provoked resistance.  The successive and self-serving Papacies of Paul II, Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII and Alexander VI (1492-1503) would spur on the famous Republicanism of Florence that included Michelangelo as a famous supporter. The papacy of Paul III (1534-1549) was the most influential for his initiation of reforms that led to the Counter-Reformation, while at the same time his papacy was scandalous for his open marriage and children, and two of his grandsons whom he ordained as Cardinals at the ages of 14 and 16!

The punitive use of Inquisitions by these Popes included the persecution and execution of Girolamo Savonarola, the dissident reforming monk from Ferrara, Italy.  Savonarola gave populist sermons in public that attacked the corruption of the Papacy.  Savonarola’s influence grew and he wielded significant power within Florence where his attacks found great support.  His power and influence moved the Papacy to arrest and execute him by burning at the stake in 1498.

Soon however the affairs of the expanded ocean explorations and conquests famously allowed the Papacy an intermediary role in settling the borders of the Latin American conquests between Spain and Portugal in Treaty of Torridellera.  The rise of a form of nationalism arose in the claims of Maximilian in Germany and Louis XII in France signaled a new system of national division within the European continent that foreshadowed the dramatic results after 1520 of Lutheranism in Germany, of Calivinism, and of the creation of the Church of England. The most powerful Pope of this period was the Warrior-Pope Julilus II, who would personally lead his troops in battle and whose personality created multiple conflicts over the design of his tomb with the Republican sympathizer and Michelangelo, the sculptor-architect of his projects (Aubenas 2008, 81).

With the Age of Discovery and the rise of European Maritime Powers and the new ocean going empires of Portugal and Spain, the Italian dominance of the Church and its role came into confrontation with the needs of its major Catholic kingdoms.  As Spain assumed the role of dominant conqueror of the first half of the 16th century, France undertook a more determined position on the continent and toward the Italian Papal State system (Aubenas 2008).  The warring strategies of Julius II and his unrealized attempt to replace the king of France and attack French forces led to his defeats.  As a desperate resort Julius II resorted to a political ploy in calling the Council of Pisa to condemn the French King Louis XII, who relented.  But this temporary state of a truce between Rome and France would soon unravel in the wars between France, Spain and the Italian Papal States, the so-called Italian wars of 1522-1526.  The power of the Church was openly being called into question.  The Spanish Emperor Charles V could claim that Rome received more tax revenues from Germany than the German Emperor Maximilian.  These were harbingers of the reality of calls for changes in church power that would find its message in the 95 Theses of Martin Luther in 1517 and the full-fledged Lutheran Reformation that would be underway by 1522.

As a sign of an uneasy rapprochement with the reality of the Turkish Empire, Pope Leo X’s call for a crusade in 1518-19 was quickly disregarded as even the Papacy itself and certainly the Venetian merchant fleets found it useful to maintain some diplomatic and commercial relations with the Turks and with the newly named capital of Istanbul (Aubenas 2008, 94).


Aubenas, R. 2008. “The Papacy and the Catholic Church.” In The New Cambridge Modern History: The Renaissance 1493-1520, edited by Denys Hay, 76-94. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Blumenthal, Uta-Renate. 2008. The papacy, 1024-1122. Vol. 4, in The New Cambridge Medieval History: c. 1024-c. 1198, edited by Jonathan Riley-Smith and David Luscombe, 8-37. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Kaminsky, Howard. 2008. The Great Schism. Vol. 6, in The New Cambridge Medieval History, edited by Michael Jones, 674-696. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Vauchez, André. 2008. The Church and the laity. Vol. 5, in The New Cambridge Medieval History c. 1198-1300, edited by David Abulafia, 182-203. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Watt, J. A. 2008. The Papacy. Vol. 5, in The New Cambridge Medieval History c. 1198-1300, edited by David Abulafia, 107-163. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Zutshi, P. N.R. 2008. The Avignon papacy. Vol. 6, in The New Cambridge Medieval history c. 1300-c. 1415, edited by Michael Jones, 653-673. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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