A History of the Popes
by Joseph McCabe
Excerpts from: A History of the Popes by Joseph McCabe,
formerly a Romish priest and author of more than fifty historical works.

11th  Century

1 – The Age of Power (1050-1550)    3 – The Popes and the Artistic Revival
2 – The Mythical Age of Chivalry
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The Age of Power (A.D. 1050-1550)

The first German Pope, Clement II (1046-1047), had called a synod of bishops to pass sentence of degradation upon any prelate who encouraged simony, and it had broken up in disorder. Did he, the bishops asked, want to empty all the episcopal sees? He lasted a few futile and bitter months, and the wicked ex-Pope Benedict, who was widely believed to have poisoned him, returned to Rome and resumed his “sacred office” for eight months. Damasus II (1048), who then came, under German guard, lasted twenty-three days. Whether malarial mosquitoes or Benedict’s poisoners removed him remains open; but Rome did not go into mourning.

In the spring of the year 1049 the strangest of all the picturesque processions that had ever approached Rome halted at the Leonine Gate and humbly asked to be admitted. At the head was a tall and stern young German, barefooted and dressed as a pilgrim, and behind him walked, on bare feet, a body of other German pilgrims and Benedictine monks: notably a pale, fierce-eyed monk — he dressed, at least, as a monk, though he had never taken vows — of twenty-five, one Hildebrand, who would soon be better known in Europe than any King; (he became Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085). But no bandit had dared molest these pilgrims as they rode soberly from the Alps to the Tiber; and the Romans, though they for the most part hated and dreaded them, threw open the gates and raised their festive banners. For the whole might of Germany watched and waited beyond the horizon. When the blond, barefooted pilgrim quietly explained that the Emperor had sent him to be their Pope but he would not accept consecration unless the nobles, clergy, and people of Rome united in inviting him, no one dissented; though nine-tenths of them would more willingly have assassinated him. He was the Emperor’s cousin; a strong, austere, haughty churchman, a fighting bishop. Two German bishops in the preceding two years had died, not without suspicion of poison, in the Papal chair. All Europe was on tip-toe, asking: What will those Romans do now?

Let us, on the threshold of that singularly complex age, with all its vices and its virtues, its moral ugliness and its glorious art, consider what these reformers proposed to do and were likely to do. To art, science, and philosophy they were as indifferent as to economic improvement. Of the injustice of the social order, the squalor and ignorance of nine-tenths of the people, the brutal stupidity of the legal and penal system, they were completely insensible. Their programme consisted of four clauses. They would suppress simony or the traffic in sacred offices; they would enforce celibacy and chastity upon the bishops, priests, and monks; they would recover the Temporal Power of the Papacy; and they would strengthen its spiritual authority until no king or noble would dare raise a finger, in any cause whatever, when the Pope forbade it. To adapt a phrase which Emerson applies to Luther, had they foreseen the rich sensual and intellectual efflorescence of the coming Middle Ages, in which we see the glory of that period, they would have cut off their right hands rather than nail their programme to the gate of the Lateran Palace. They were prepared to wade through rivers of blood to attain their ecclesiastical objects. They did wade through rivers of blood, and they in the end imposed celibacy upon the clergy, and made them more immoral than ever; their war upon simony ended in the Papacy itself organizing a colossal traffic in sacred things, from benefices (livings) to indulgences; and the final effect of their war for power was that half the world cast off their rule and exposed the fraud of their credentials. Rome itself they embittered and impoverished, so that when all the world at last moved on, it was left ragged and despised.

Leo IX (1049-1054), the new Pope, was better protected, and he was young and vigorous. His task was appalling. The people had emptied the treasury, and Leo talked of selling his rich German wardrobe until pious folk relieved him. He then wore himself out travelling all over Christendom in his war upon simony and clerical vice, meeting sullen opposition or cynical evasion in most places. Had he and Hildebrand encouraged, instead of trying to suppress, the marriage of bishops, priests, and monks, they might have reduced the worst evils. Cardinal Peter Damiani, a monk-peasant and ferocious puritan like Hildebrand, wrote and dedicated to him a book on the morals of the clergy and monks. The title, The Book of Gommorrah, is enough. Leo read it and thanked him — a later devout Pope suppressed the book in disgust — and he ordered that henceforward every bishop must be asked before consecration whether he had been guilty of sodomy, fornication, bestiality, or adultery. I am putting it more delicately than the question is put in the contemporary Latin document which Gregorovius quotes from the Vatican Archives. In the end he alienated his puritan supporters, except Hildebrand, at Rome by taking the field in person — he had earlier been a captain of the episcopal militia and had a high conceit of his military ability — against the Normans, who had conquered most of the south. They defeated and captured him; but they released him, and he went back to Rome to die of mortification. So ended the first crusade of the reformers.

Hildebrand went to Germany for another Pope, though most of the German prelates now shuddered at the prospect, and Victor II (1055-1057), whom he brought, lasted two years, most of which time he spent on holiday in Germany. There is a legend that the Romans put poison even in his chalice.

Stephen IX (1057), the next Pope, lasted six months. To fill the empty treasury and, it is admitted, to make his relatives more comfortable, he ordered that the rich treasure which lay in the vaults of the great monastery of Monte Cassino, of which he was abbot, should be conveyed to Rome, Stephen was a brother of the Duke of Lorraine, and Hildebrand and he now proposed to win independence of Germany and turn to Lorraine. With the Monte Cassino treasure they would raise an army, sweep the Normans out of Italy, and restore the Papal sovereignty. But remorse, or the anger of the monks, checked the Pope’s plan, and he went the way of German Popes. Five had died in twelve years.

Here we must again sketch in the political background. So much is said about the German reform of the Papacy that the reader imagines a series of austere Christian Emperors humbly submitting to the dictation of reformed abbots and devout bishops. Most of the Emperors were, on the contrary, not interested in the war of the reformers upon simony and unchastity; and, says the Cambridge Medieval History, “among the German clergy of every degree worldliness and neglect of duty, avarice and loose-living, were widely prevalent.” But Henry III, the Emperor whose reign (1039-1056) covers the period we have just considered, was a religious man, and had in some ways worked for the reform of the Church and, within limits, for the advance of art and culture. We should on general principles expect Western and Southern Germany — Prussia was still pagan and uncivilized — to be in advance of the rest of Europe, for England was ravaged by the Danes and France and Italy by the Normans, while the Rhine country was sheltered and prosperous. The advance was, however, retarded by the savage wars which the constituent provinces of the Empire waged with each other and against the Emperor. Henry III had checked these, but he had followed the custom of promoting nobles to most of the rich bishoprics and archbishoprics, and the Church was very widely corrupt.

At his death in 1056 his son, the future Henry IV, was only five years old, and his widow, a lady of weak character, feebly gave away estates, secular and religious, to the nobles, bishops, and abbots who clamoured for them. Seeing this, the Archbishop of Cologne kidnapped the prince, in a particularly disgraceful manner, and won control; and after a time the Archbishop of Bremen got the boy away from him. “Both,” says Professor J.W. Thompson, “were fierce and ambitious bishops who hesitated at nothing to attain their end, whether by fraud or violence.” These were the two leading prelates of Germany; and I may add, since Henry IV enters our story presently, that at the opulent court of the Archbishop of Bremen he learned more about vice, violence, and luxury than about religion.

For a time the fortunes of the Papacy reflect these German revolutions, in spite of Hildebrand’s wish to make Rome independent of the Empire. At the death of Henry III the Roman nobles and provincial barons, knowing that Germany was now controlled by a weak woman, decided to have a Roman Pope and restore Roman customs. They elected Benedict X (1058); and they then looted the palaces and churches, even carrying off the gold and silver vessels of St.Peter’s. Damiani and the strict cardinals fled to the north, and they were there joined by Hildebrand, who had been in Germany. He was now mature in years, and he at once gave evidence of his characteristic and piously unscrupulous ways. He detached a number of Benedict’s Roman supporters by bribery, and with a Tusculan-German army drove the Pope and his remaining adherents from Rome. He then, although Benedict was a legitimate Pope, consecrated the Archbishop of Florence under the name of Nicholas II (1058-1061), and through him he issued a decree that henceforward the election of a Pope was restricted to the cardinals, who would merely notify the Emperor of their choice. A string of particularly blood-curdling anathemas was attached to this document, yet Hildebrand imperially ignored it when he was himself elected a few years later.

He then turned to the Norman leader, Robert Guiscard. The famous sea-rovers from Norway had by this time thickly populated the western provinces of France, and many of them were attracted to Italy — the Arabs effectively kept them out of Spain — by the prospect of loot and military employment. Nominally Christians, thoroughly unscrupulous — the noble Viking and his virtuous daughter of our literature are sheer fiction — and the most deadly fighters in Europe, they hired their swords to Moslem and Christian impartially until such leaders as Guiscard secured control of large regions in South Italy and from their castles savagely raided the entire country. In his eagerness for results, however questionable the means, Hildebrand consecrated their possession of South Italy by making Guiscard a vassal of the Papacy: just as a few years later he would consecrate William of Normandy’s unscrupulous invasion of England by accepting him as a Papal vassal and England as a fief of the Roman See.

With Norman troops Hildebrand now fell upon the Italian barons who supported Pope Benedict. They appeared at length before the strong castle in which Benedict sheltered, and he was induced to yield on a solemn promise of immunity. Thirty of the Roman nobles, indeed, pledged their lives for the fulfilment of the promise, and Benedict, abandoning Papal dress, settled quietly at his mother’s house in Rome. A month later, Hildebrand sent soldiers to arrest him. They dressed him in the pontifical robes which he had discarded and brought him before the Pope; and, to ensure punishment, Hildebrand had a fraudulent list of crimes put into his hand and ordered him to sign it. In spite of his tearful protests and the sobs of his mother, who was present, he was compelled to sign it, and was committed to a monastery, in which he was cruelly treated until he died. The German prelates thereupon excommunicated Nicholas, but he was dying when the sentence arrived.

The Italians saw with dismay the new Papal policy of relying upon the barely civilized Normans instead of the Germans, and the northern prelates found their own cities plunged into the gravest disorder by the methods by which the puritans conducted their campaign against clerical marriage. Bishops of the monastic school might insist upon celibacy, but even many bishops of regular life, to say nothing of the sensual majority, felt that the prohibition of marriage would lead, as it did, to almost universal libertinage. There was therefore no hope at that time of inducing representatives of the whole Church to agree upon such a law. Hence the fight against clerical marriage or concubinage had to be conducted in each region with the usual complete indifference to considerations of honour and humanity.

Early in the campaign Hildebrand directed one of his lieutenants, Anselm of Lucca, whom he later made Pope, to compile a manual of Church law which should prove, among other things, that the Pope had the power he claimed over the universal Church. It was based, of course, upon the Forged Decretals and other fabrications. Several other priests of the group joined in the work of forging, but we will return later to Hildebrand’s indifference to truth. Prelates who scorned these fabrications then found their dioceses invaded by ranters who stirred alike pious folk and the dregs of the people to shame, intimidate, and even use physical force upon the married clergy and their wives. To the sensitive reader who resents the word “ranters” let me offer this comparatively respectable passage from one of Cardinal Damiani’s invectives against the validly married wives as well as the mistresses of the Milanese priests:

I address myself to you, you darlings of the priests, you tit-bits of the devil, poison of minds, daggers of souls, aconite of drinkers, bane of eaters, stuff of sin, occasion of destruction. To you I turn, I say, you gynecaea of the ancient enemy, you hoopoes, vampires, bats, leeches, wolves. Come and hear me, you whores, you wallowing beds for fat swine, you bedrooms of unclean spirits, you nymphs, you sirens, you harpies, you Dianas, you wicked tigresses, you furious vipers. . . .
But this was the mildest weapon. Cudgels and even swords were used. Married priests were castrated and lost their noses and ears; and the armed mobs were encouraged by awarding them the property of married priests, so that feminine garments were placed and then discovered in the houses of innocent priests. Appalling bloodshed and suffering went on for decades in the cities of Italy, where most of the bishops defied Hildebrand. In more distant provinces of the Church, priests, and even the monks in some districts, clung to marriage for more than a hundred years.

The full and authentic story of what historians now call the “spiritual triumph” of Hildebrand and “the great reform of the Church” would read like the Yellow Book of the Jews on the outrages which followed the triumph of Hitler. I give a summary of it because the suppression of these truths in most of the new manuals of medieval history completely falsifies the author’s valuation of such institutions as the Church, and because this is an essential part of the background of Papal history at this stage. That the reformers had made no impression in twenty years upon the general character was speedily disclosed after the death, from weariness and mortification, of Pope Nicholas.

Disgusted with Hildebrand’s auxiliaries, the fierce Norman bandits and the lawless mobs, the Italian barons and prelates now allied themselves with the German Imperialists. They sent the golden crown and the green mantle and mitre of the Roman Patricius to the young German king, and they met at Basle, with representatives of the Roman people, and elected the Bishop of Parma, Cadalus, to be Pope Honorius II. But Hildebrand and his colleagues had, ignoring their own decree about a Papal election, already consecrated Anselm of Lucca, the hated puritan, as Pope Alexander II (1061-1073). There was still so large a majority of the Romans opposed to them that they had to take Alexander stealthily by night to the Lateran Palace. He made Hildebrand his Chancellor and left the fight to him. Hildebrand bribed on all sides, and Damiani spluttered Italian slang; and the chief supporter of Cadalus, Benzo, the wealthy Bishop of Albi, outdid Hildebrand in bribery and equalled Damiani in vituperation. How there had been a reform of the Papal Circle yet so little change in Rome is easily understood. In confining the election of a Pope to the cardinals the monkish party had reduced the Papal Circle to a group of thirty or forty clerics who were all appointed by their chosen Pope.

Here is another vignette of life in the days of the spiritual triumph of the Papacy. One day in the year 1062 Benzo, whom they dared not touch because he was the representative of the Empire at Rome, summoned a meeting of citizens in the ruin of the old Great Circus. Probably thirty or forty thousand Romans found places on the crumbling benches — doubtless at one end of the vast arena — as Benzo prepared to state his case for Cadalus. Pope Alexander, who had been challenged to appear, and his cardinals rode on horses into the arena, and Benzo exhausted his ample vocabulary upon this Pope who had, he said, won his election by bribery and the swords of Norman bandits. Alexander made a feeble reply and turned tail, followed by the hoots and jeers of the people, who hated “the monks.”

This encouraged Cadalus, the anti-Pope, who came to Rome with a small army and, after a battle in which hundreds were slain, occupied St.Peter’s and the Vatican. But just at that time the news came that Archbishop Hanno of Cologne had stolen the boy-king from his mother. Hildebrand stormily congratulated the noble kidnapper and sent Damiani to Germany to ask a solution of the Papal crisis. He was of course to represent both Alexander and Honorius; and, equally of course, Alexander was declared Pope and the supporters of Honorius began to disperse, so that he retired. But next year came the news that Archbishop Adalbert of Bremen had secured the golden boy, and Honorius (Cadalus) returned with a large army, cut his way through the Normans, littered the streets with corpses, and laid siege to the Lateran Palace. He held part of Rome for two years, while both sides bribed lavishly and their supporters fought. Then Archbishop Hanno recovered the royal pawn, and Cadalus retired to his bishopric of Parma, to discharge his sacred functions in peace. A few years later the Normans themselves took the field against the Papal troops and their allies. They were defeated, and Pope Alexander settled down to the bitter and not very edifying struggle for clerical chastity. He died in 1073; and Hildebrand, who had a few years before secured by terrible anathemas that the election of a Pope should be reserved to the cardinals, gave ear to a popular (mainly clerical) clamour and became Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085).

It was now a quarter of a century since Hildebrand and his princely candidate for the Papacy had knocked, with barefooted humility and the entire might of the Empire behind them, at the Leonine Gate. As regards the Papacy there was a very definite breach with the Dark Age. Cynical nobles could no longer make Holy Fathers of their vicious sons or greedy relatives.

Gregory VII (1073-1085) was of peasant stock, but an uncle of his who was an abbot at Rome had given him an elementary education and passed him on to the Lateran School. He was densely ignorant outside of elementary religious matters, and he was not even trained for the priesthood. His outstanding characteristic was energy, and he enlisted this in the service of two passions: a shuddering contempt of sexual life — not merely of sexual irregularities — so that no priest must be allowed it in any form, and a determination to make the Pope Lord of the World. I have given in the eighth chapter of my Crises in the History of the Papacy a full analysis of his letters and his career, and need say here merely that, in asserting the power of the Pope, he recognized the distinction between secular and spiritual matters only to conclude that if he had supreme authority in the latter and greater, it was absurd to question his interference in such trivialities as politics or transferring kingdoms from one man to another. He had an insane dream of making all the Christian countries of Europe fiefs of the Papacy and all their monarchs its vassals. He did not pay the least notice to the justice or injustice of a man’s claim to a kingdom if that man would accept a banner blessed by the Pope and pay vassalage, in gold and armed service, to the Papacy; he was entirely callous to the horrors of warfare and whipped princes on to engage in it whenever this was to the interest of the Papacy; and he lied, falsified the documents he quoted, and encouraged his lieutenants to add to the growing mound of Lateran forgeries. He was “the Blessed Peter on earth,” he said.

A few examples of his procedure will show why he failed. In the first year of his pontificate he told the Spanish kings, who were at heavy cost recovering bits of Spain from the Arabs, that they were conquering the country for him because — this is the wildest fiction — it was a fief of the Papacy (I, 7). He wrote Philip of France that, if he did not amend his ways, he would release the French people from obedience to him (I, 35). He scolded Lanfranc, head of the Church in England, for his “effrontery” in refusing to obey a Papal order (I, 31) to come to Rome. He, at the appeal of the Greeks, summoned all Christian princes to send him armies which he and his dear friend the Countess of Tuscany — Europe humorously suggested that that very pious lady was his mistress, which infuriated him — would lead against the Turks; and he admitted to William of Burgundy (II, 51) that he intended to use these armies to crush the Normans, and they might afterwards go to the East. He threatened to lead an army in person to punish the King of Leon for marrying a relative (VIII, 2). He blessed a usurper of the throne of Hungary, who promised to be a good vassal, and callously told the deposed king that he deserved his fate by accepting the kingdom from the Emperor instead of the Pope, whose feudal possession — this again is wholly false — it was (VIII, 2). When the usurper went on to seize Dalmatia and promised to pay vassalage to the Pope for it, the Dalmatians were told by Gregory, when they tried to recover their country, that they were “rebels against God” (VIII, 4). He shocked his staunchest supporters Cardinal Damiani and Abbot Didier (of Monte Cassino). On one occasion Didier proposed to punish an abbot who had had the eyes of some of his monks cut out for their sins. Gregory promoted the pious savage to a bishopric.

The grand example in our literature of this supposed triumph of spirit over flesh, which was so good for Europe, is a picture of the Emperor Henry IV kneeling penitently in his shirt on the icy platform of the castle of Canossa until the Pope pardoned him. This story, which we know only from Gregory and the chronicle of a German monk, is generally rejected by modern historians. One of the leading writers on the affair goes so far as to claim that, on the contrary, Henry besieged Canossa with his army and compelled the Pope to yield. It seems to me more probable that Henry went through some form of penitence and asked absolution, but it was certainly an act of policy and insincerity; and it was the Emperor who triumphed over the Pope.

Henry IV had grown up, we saw, at the court of very unspiritual prelates who fought for the possession of him as women now fight for the custody of a child-millionaire. He is a good, and not rare, example of what the Church really did at this period of reform. He became cynical and fond of gay ladies and companions. He was deaf to the Pope’s remonstrances until, in 1074, his Saxon subjects rebelled. He made a pretence of submission as long as the revolt lasted, for Gregory would, on his own principles, help the rebels, but at its close he threw off the mask. He was encouraged by the fact that at the same time the puritans were severely checked and the Imperialists encouraged in North Italy, and a strange outrage was committed in Rome itself. While Gregory was saying the Midnight Mass at Christmas (1075), one of the bandit-barons of the surrounding country strode in at the head of his men and wounded and captured the Pope. He carried Gregory to his castle, demanding the key of the Papal treasury as a ransom, but he seems to have miscalculated the feeling at Rome, and Gregory was allowed to return.

The Pope had for a time temporized with the Emperor. Now he sent a message full of threats, and the German bishops retorted by excommunicating the Pope. We can imagine how his fiery temper reacted when he heard — for the bishops of North Italy sent a priest to read the sentence to him in the Lateran Palace — that one count in the indictment was “scandalous association with women”! Neither Pope nor Emperor knew the meaning of the word restraint. Gregory excommunicated Henry and announced to the world that his subjects were released from their allegiance. The Empire included so many embittered and reluctant provinces that revolt spread at once, and the prelates and nobles seemed to be preparing to depose Henry. Hence the voyage to Canossa, the historical significance of which is entirely distorted in popular history.

By his pretence of submission Henry not only averted the risk of a serious civil war in Germany, but also prevented the Pope from going there, as he proposed to do. As soon as he had left Canossa he returned to his defiant ways and refused to give Gregory an escort to Germany. Gregory set up a rival King of Germany, and during the three years of struggle that followed he stooped to evasions and equivocations which incur the censure of all his biographers. It ended in the defeat and death of Gregory’s candidate, and Henry transferred the war to Italy and created an anti-Pope, Clement III. The Romans at length opened their gates to him, and from the Castle of Sant’Angelo the Pope sourly watched the triumph of the anti-Pope. But he had summoned the Normans. They came and drove out the Germans; and then, being taunted by the Romans, they fell upon the city with all the fury of its worst invaders. They looted and burned down a large part of Rome, sold thousands into slavery, and, as usual, violated all the nuns and young women. When they had gone, the Romans turned with burning anger upon their Pope and drove him out. He retired, deserted by all, laden with curses for the violence and folly of his policy, to the Abbey of Monte Cassino, where he died soon afterwards. “I have loved justice and hated iniquity, therefore I die in exile,” he said. Even Abbot Didier, his friend, disagreed.

I will not attempt to appraise the character of Gregory VII. Catholics, and many historians, count him the greatest Pope who had yet appeared, but most of us will say that his dream of a United States of Europe with a Pope as President, launching armies whenever he would, subordinating truth and justice to the establishment of the Papal power, completely indifferent to the welfare of the people, was just a fanatical outcome of the brooding of a neurotic monk of limited intelligence. Monarchs who hypocritically accepted his banner in order to get his influence turned round, as soon as they were established, and said, as William the Conqueror did, that they paid homage to no man. For the inauguration of a reign of justice in Christendom he did nothing; indeed, he blessed many an injustice and military outrage. On the universal simony he made little impression; and, if he went far in the enforcement of clerical celibacy, he made clerical immorality worse than ever. Since, in fine, he was so disdainful of the contemporary movements in art, culture, and social and economic life, which were really lifting Europe out of its semi-barbarism, that he never even noticed their existence, we must conclude that this strongest and most religious of the Popes did nothing for civilization.

What the eulogistic historians have in mind is the fact that he added to the power of the Papacy; but to ignore the facts of the ensuing period and assume that this must have been good for Europe is unworthy of an historian. For the Papacy now had every opportunity to prove its beneficence. No barons with “swinish lusts” dominated the Papal circle during the next two centuries. Even most of the corrupt clerics of Rome were weeded out, and a long series of Popes of religious character occupied the Roman See. What Papal Europe was like during that period we shall see presently, but it is advisable to tell here, summarily, the story of the next four or five Popes and see the complete and disastrous moral failure of the Papacy in Rome itself.

These next few Popes were strict monks of the reformed school, and they were not without ability. The first of them, Victor III (1086-1087), Gregory’s successor, was the abbot of Monte Cassino, Didier, who had disapproved of Gregory’s truculence. We have, in fact, two letters in which the Archbishop of Lyons assures the Countess Mathilda of Tuscany that Didier had told him that he proposed to lift the ban on Henry and make peace. Archbishop Hugh, was, however, in spite of his piety, sourly disappointed at not attaining the Papacy, and we may be sceptical.

Didier had, it is true, made no effort to win the prize. There was a long delay after the death of Gregory, and then the puritans bullied the abbot into consenting. But the Imperialists and supporters of the anti-Pope, who had meantime ruled Rome, drove Didier out with such fury that some even pursued him to the coast, and he had to risk sailing in a storm. He remained at his abbey, deaf to all entreaties, for another year. Rome, he knew, was a collection of armed camps, and the partisans of Pope and anti-Pope fought like savages. Robert Guiscard, who had been Gregory’s hired protector, was dead, but the Normans gave him a troop, and they conducted him to St.Peter’s over a new scattering of corpses. The Romans drove him back to his abbey, and Countess Mathilda, a neurotic virgin of the type that priests love, brought him back and, with renewed carnage, lodged him in St.Peter’s. He was evicted after another battle. In short, the shambles, month after months so sickened him that he retired to his abbey to die.

Such was Rome after the great triumph of spirit over flesh, and we shall now see it sinking deeper and deeper. Rome was in the power of the anti-Pope, and after a delay of several months a group of the dispirited bishops and abbots met at Monte Cassino and elected Urban II (1088-1099), a French monk-noble, as imperious in his ecclesiastical ideal as Hildebrand, but more cultivated and diplomatic. He was, say the biographers, a man of deep piety and lofty character; and he stooped to performances which astonish and disgust every impartial historian.

The sons of Robert Guiscard were absorbed in a savage fight for the inheritance, so Urban remained in South Italy for a year. Then the victor conducted the Pope to Rome; but Clement still ruled the city, and Urban had to live with one of his supporters on the island in the Tiber, from which he spun his web of intrigue. Papal historians explain that the Normans were now “enervated” and less useful to the Popes. The truth is that they were taking over the advanced civilization of the Sicilian Moslem and were developing a marked degree of scepticism as they realized the contrast between the splendid culture and prosperity of Sicily — which no Catholic writer ever mentions — and the barbaric state of Rome. The Papacy therefore needed new allies, and Pope Urban set out to acquire them.

First he ordered the pious Mathilda, who was now forty-three years old, to marry a German prince, eighteen years old, brother of the Duke of Bavaria, a bitter opponent of Henry. The Pope would see that young Guelf would not expect her to make a sacrifice of the arid virginity of which she was so proud; and he did not explain to Guelf that the marriage would not alter the terms of her will by which she left her vast possessions to the Papacy. It had been rumoured that Mathilda, weary of the fighting, meditated peace with Henry. She now recovered her hostility to the Emperor, and he led his army to Italy. The land groaned again for two years under a war provoked by the Popes and waged with all the old savagery, and it ended in the defeat of Henry by a revolting manoeuvre.

Conrad, son of Henry by his first wife, held a command under his father in Italy. He is generally described as a refined and idealistic youth who shuddered at his father’s violence, though some German historians hold that he entered into suspicious relations with Henry’s second wife, the fascinating Russian Princess Praxedis. What is known is that he rebelled against his father, alleging that Henry had tried to compel him to commit incest with his step-mother. He fled to the court of Mathilda of Tuscany; and Mathilda then sent a troop to rescue Praxedis from the confinement in which Henry had, on suspicion of loose conduct, placed her in North Italy, and bring her to Tuscany. Henry, who was ageing, retired from the field in deep dejection, and his Papal, Tusculan, and German enemies got together. Urban, who had left Rome at the approach of Henry, returned to it, and the anti-Pope fled; but there was no triumph. Gregorovius, the highest authority on the city, thus depicts his return:

Urban II, aged, oppressed, owing the possession of the Papal residence to the gold of a foreign abbot, seated in the deserted Lateran surrounded by rude partisans and no less rude bishops, gazing on the ruins of churches and streets — memories of Gregory VII — and on a city silent as death, squalid, and inhabited by a tattered, murderous, and miserable population, presents a gloomy picture of the decadence of the Papacy.
But Urban still had the spiritual weapon which Hildebrand had forged, and he went on to make an appalling use of it.

He summoned a Council of Italian, German, and French prelates and abbots at Piacenza in the spring of 1095. Three thousand prelates, abbots, and priests, and thirty thousand laymen gathered for it, so that it had to be held in the meadows outside the city. Here Praxedis repeated her statement that Henry had ordered her to commit incest with Conrad and had compelled her to prostitute herself repeatedly in his court and camp. These charges were in themselves ludicrous, for Henry loved his son and was at the time trying to make a kingdom for him in Italy; while he was so jealous in regard to his wife that he had confined her at Verona on suspicion of infidelity. The Cambridge Medieval History (V, 146) thus sums up modern historical scholarship about the affair:

The Papal party was rapidly gaining strength and, unscrupulous in its methods, worked amongst his family to effect his ruin. The revolt of Conrad in 1093 under Mathilda’s influence. . . . His wife Praxedis, suspected of infidelity by her husband, escaped to take refuge with Mathilda and to spread gross charges against Henry. False though they doubtless were. . . .

It is enough that the Pope and the reformed prelates who were now understood to be the standard-bearers of justice eagerly accepted, without any trial or inquiry, these wild statements of “a woman scorned” and an ambitious son, and they declared Henry excommunicated and deposed. To Urban’s further plea that they should initiate a great Crusade to recover Jerusalem from the Moslem, they paid no attention; and he later went to France and inaugurated the Crusade at Clermont. But whether that movement was a blaze of chivalry and idealism which proved the reform of Europe we will consider a little later on.

Urban was recalled to Italy by sad news. Guelf, the young husband of Mathilda, was in revolt, and his brother, the Duke of Bavaria, had joined Henry and was marching to Italy. We may ignore rumours that Mathilda was angry because Guelf had revealed that she was not as other wives, or that he really desired the middle-aged virago. It is clear that he discovered that she had bequeathed her province to the Papacy, and that he had hitherto been duped on that point. The Normans, however, presently helped by the Crusaders from Normandy and Western France who passed through Rome, drove back the Germans and recovered almost the entire city for the Pope. He found even the Lateran Palace in ruins, and he had to live in the fortified tower of one of the nobles; and when he died there in 1099, worn out and hated, they had to take his body stealthily, by a circuitous route, to bury it in St.Peter’s.

Paschal II (1099-1118), another monk, renewed the excommunication of Henry and easily crushed three anti-Popes whom the Roman Imperialists set up. But the clergy and people of Germany as a body ignored the excommunication, and Henry was spending his last years in quiet enjoyment of the throne when the Papal party resorted to another revolting outrage. Henry’s younger son, Henry V, was induced to rebel on the pretext that he could not obey an excommunicated father. Professor Thompson, the leading authority on this period of German history, says that this was “a mere pretext,” and that his ambition was spurred by “the Papal partisans and the discontented feudality.” The (monkish) Annals of Hildesheim say, in fact, that “as soon as the Pope heard of the conflict between father and son he, feeling that God had inspired it, promised absolution.” After an appalling civil war the consecrated parricide, as he virtually was, captured his father by a piece of flagrant perjury and seized his throne. Henry IV died soon afterwards.

But the Pope reaped a bitter harvest. Henry V had promised the Pope, in return for his support in the sordid revolt, that he would surrender the right of investiture — the right of a monarch to invest a new bishop with his crozier and ring and thus in effect to appoint bishops — which it was one of the chief aims of the Papacy to secure, but he at once repudiated the promise, and in 1110 he set out for Rome, to compel Paschal to crown him, at the head of thirty thousand knights. Paschal suggested a compromise to which Henry agreed. The King would renounce the right of investiture, and his prelates would surrender their feudal possessions to the crown. Henry would certainly know that his bishop-nobles would never entertain this idea, and when the treaty was read in St.Peter’s, as a preliminary to the coronation, on February 12, 1111, there was a scandalous scene.

Pope and King sat together in the sanctuary. The glittering crowd of nobles, knights, and prelates stood before them, and the people filled the body of the church. The German prelates raised an angry clamour, and the swords of the knights flashed in the light. The Pope was seized and imprisoned, and the city was again raped and ravaged. Early next morning — so early that Henry had to fight half-naked — the Romans boldly attacked the German army, and the carnage was such that Henry retired with the Pope and his cardinals as prisoners. He swore that he would slay them all unless the Pope agreed to crown him. So two months later forty years after Canossa the Pope yielded to the monarch and made him Roman Emperor. The zealots seethed with anger, and in a Council they repudiated Paschal’s promise. The tumult died, and for a few years Paschal attended quietly to the formal affairs of his office. But in 1116 the struggle of the Papalists and Imperialists flamed out more fiercely than ever. From the savage combats and the desecrated churches and nunneries Paschal fled to the hills, and for months he sheltered there from the fury of his “flock.” He returned to Rome, to die, in the first months of 1118.

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The Mythical Age of Chivalry

It was now seventy years since the reformed monks had induced the Germans to “purify the Papacy.” and in one sense it was worse than ever. Sordid as the previous century and a half had been, there was during these seventy years more, and more savage, fighting in the streets and churches of Rome, far more slaughter and rapine, than there had been during that darkest hundred and fifty years of the Dark Age; and this was entirely due to the policy of the new Popes and their “triumph of spirit over matter.” This reform, which so many historians regard as the date when the Popes really began to “curb the passions of men,” let loose uglier passions than ever.

By the year 1100, when the superb Arab cities of Spain and Sicily were at the height of their splendour, when the Normans had embraced alike the culture and the scepticism of the Arabs, Rome had sunk back into semi-barbarism. The nobles of the Dark Age had been replaced by nobles who were really nearer to savagery. “The founders of the patrician houses of the Middle Ages,” says Gregorovius (IV, 321), “acquired fame and power neither in battle nor on the judicial tribunal, but, living in towers like falcons, like falcons they robbed and killed.” So fierce were the feuds between them that for a century they dared not walk the streets except in armed bands. They seized the ancient ruins and out of them built tower-fortresses, one to three hundred feet high, from the narrow windows of which they poured burning pitch or boiling water upon assailants. There were at one time nine hundred of these fortified towers in Rome, and the desolate spaces between them were constantly reddened with blood. This was after Hildebrand’s “great reform” had been in operation more than a hundred years.

We shall find only occasional and temporary improvements at Rome until the sixteenth century. Bryce, who will not be suspected of prejudice, says:

During the three centuries that lie between Arnold of Brescia [about 1150] and Porcaro the disorders of Rome were hardly less violent than they had been in the Dark Ages, and they were to all appearance worse than those of any other European city.

The Italians, we saw, turned a deaf ear to Pope Urban when he preached the First Crusade, and few of them joined any of the Crusades, for we cannot count certain Normans of South Italy whose motive is recognized to have been purely secular. By what mysterious process of social psychology did the voice of the Popes provoke only derision in Italy, especially in Rome, and kindle this “flame of idealism” in the rest of Europe ?

The only real mystery is why responsible historians do not resent the repetition on all sides of what in their expert works they recognize to be an untruth. Not only was there never an Age of Chivalry, but no authoritative historian — no professor of the last fifty years who is counted an expert on this period (broadly, 1100-1400) of English, French, German, Italian, or Spanish history — has ever said that there was. I shall show presently that they, on the contrary, describe it, each in his own sphere, as so full of treachery, cruelty, dishonour, robbery, callousness, and vice and violence of every description, precisely in the noble and knightly class, that we must pronounce it one of the most immoral periods of history. The expert on a particular period must not make this comparison. As I have in American publications three times covered the ground of universal history, particularly from the social or moral point of view, I may venture to do so. The so-called Age of Chivalry, including the thirteenth century, which Mr. Hilaire Belloc finds the most glorious in history, was farther from chivalry, in the idealist sense, than any other equally lengthy period of civilized history.

The Crusades cannot be discussed here. Experts now recognize that most of the leaders sought only adventure and loot, and what we shall see about the quite general character of the nobles and knights will show the utter nonsense of the romantic accounts of the Crusades which are still used in our schools and our films. It may be useful to give one illustration, since it is based upon research which I have not yet published. It is the story of the part which William of Aquitaine, grandfather of our Queen Eleanor, took in the First Crusade.

William, the First Troubadour and one of the greatest nobles of the age, was famous throughout Europe for his wit, his poetry, and his complete licence of life. He entertained the austere Pope Urban II, but, as he promised to found a large abbey of good monks, the Pope said nothing about his vices and did not insist upon his taking the Cross. This was after the great meeting at Clermont. A few years later he broke up with the flat of his sword a synod of bishops and abbots who sat to censure the vices of the French King, and his men chased them through the streets. After this he thought it prudent, especially as stories of rich loot were coming from Palestine, to follow the Crusaders to Syria. He substituted the Cross for the nude painting of his mistress on his shield, and, with a large army and “swarms of girls” (the monk-chronicler says), joined with the Duke of Bavaria and the vivacious Marchioness Ida and their armies for the march to the East. Of this brilliant combined force, more than 100,000 strong, only William and a few dozen others survived to reach Syria. And he came home, after spending a gay holiday at Antioch with the Norman Tancred, who had settled there as a voluptuous oriental prince, and drafted the plans of a nunnery in which the nuns and the abbess were to be the choicest prostitutes of his duchy and the ritual to be as blasphemous and obscene as he knew how to make it.

This is a typical story from the early part of the Age of Chivalry. How that myth arose scholars know quite well. It was created by two French genealogists, sycophants of the nobility, of the seventeenth century. If you look in any authoritative work of reference for an account of it, you find that either it is ignored or the editor departs from his usual policy of employing experts and — as in the Cambridge Medieval History or the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics — gives a few pages by writers who are better known for their nice sentiments than for accuracy or scholarship. They generally do not go farther back for their authorities than the French historian of a century ago, Guizot; and they do not seem even to have read Guizot carefully. Their sympathetic readers will be surprised to hear that Guizot passes upon the period exactly the same heavy verdict as I have just passed. After a pretty description of the ideal of the knight-errant rescuing damsels in distress, and so on, he goes on to say, in the work in which he expressly sets himself the task of comparing different periods of civilization, and writing with strictly Christian sentiment:

Many have said that this is pure poetry, a beautiful chimaera, having no relation with reality. And, in fact, when we look at the state of manners in these three centuries, at the daily incidents which filled the life of men, the contrast between the duties and the life of knights is repulsive. The epoch which occupies us is, without doubt, one of the most brutal, one of the rudest, in our history, one of those in which we meet with the greatest amount of crime and violence.
The myth is, in fact, so incongruous when it is applied to English knights and nobles of the period that the insistence on an Age of Chivalry in our school-manuals and popular literature is particularly disgraceful. All our medieval chroniclers, from the monk Gildas, who mentions an Arthur as a local leader of savage troops and so provided the basis of the famous legend of King Arthur, to the Reformation tell the same story. What Gildas really says, in an extant letter to his compatriots, about the Saxon Kings of his time (the eighth century) is that they were

. . . criminals and robbers, men who have several wives yet are given to fornication, often taking oaths but in perjury making vows but just as often lying . . . despising the innocent and humble, bloodthirsty, proud, parricides, adulterers . . .

After the Norman Conquest, which fairly marks the beginning of the mythical Age of Chivalry, the chronicles are darker than ever. In the Norman monk-historian Ordericus Vitalis we have the same picture of comprehensive vice (especially unnatural vice, which the Normans spread over England and France), revolting cruelty, treachery, and greed as in William of Malmesbury, the English Chronicle, and all other contemporary documents. William gives an extraordinary account both of the general sexual perversity at the royal court and the savagery with which the nobles tortured the English to extract money from them. They smeared men and women with honey and laid them, naked, in the summer sun for insects to madden them; hung them up by the feet with a fire of dung below them; put them into dungeons with snakes and adders; crushed them in trunks, applied red-hot iron to their feet, and devised scores of original and exquisite tortures to make men yield their hidden money. Several of the Norman kings were in this as bad as their nobles.

From Freeman’s Norman Conquest and Green’s Conquest of England to the Cambridge Medieval History and Traill’s Social England none of our authoritative historians ever questioned that this was the general character of the knights, nobles, and, as a rule, kings. Professor Halphen writes in the Cambridge Medieval History:

Everywhere the barons perpetrated the same excesses, and these usually consisted, not only in robbing merchants and pilgrims, but also in fleecing the peasants, in seizing their wine, corn, and cattle, and in pillaging the property of the churches and abbeys.
If you mean by chivalry the sheen of silk, satin, and gold, the colourful processions of knights, and certain superficial forms of courtesy which were learned from the Arabs, there was plenty. But, as Professor Medley says:

The gallantry which we are accustomed to associate with the feudal age was only skin-deep, and the brutality of husbands to wives and of men to women quite disabuses us of our notions of medieval chivalry.
The knight-errant of popular literature, who goes forth after prayer to rescue maidens and kill caitiffs, is pure fiction. In real life, as Professor Medley says, if a knight ever met an insufficiently protected maid on the roads, he raped her. The light literature of the time often describes and approves this. But we shall see that matrons and maids were, for the overwhelmingly greater part, as loose as the men.

Another admirer of chivalry, Mr. J.Batty (The Spirit and Influence of Chivalry, 1890), says that

“history tells us that from the end of the eleventh to the commencement of the fifteenth century . . . crime of all sorts was never so rife, honour was never so disregarded, nor war conducted so brutally” (p. 135).

For the rest of Europe I must be content here to quote the leading authorities; and I shall quote them only when they give general verdicts. For every man or woman of this period of the noble class who can be named as of high or even fairly respectable character I could quote fifty who stand out in the chronicles for their utter depravity and savage cruelty. The citation of particular instances instead of general estimates in historical Catholic literature is as dishonest as it is familiar. For Normandy and France from the eleventh to the fourteenth century I could fill many chapters of this book with sketches of the lives of men and women — just as many women as men — of the noble and knightly orders which would make a modern reader shudder. But it will suffice to quote the general conclusions of Professor A. Luchaire, whose Social France at the Time of Philip Augustus (1912) is the highest authority for the period (1180-1223); and I may remind the reader that this is just the time of the greatest of the Popes, Innocent III, and the beginning of Mr. Belloc’s ideal age. The historian says :

Feudalism seemed to take a ferocious delight in seeing flames consume burghers’ houses and the villeins who resided in them (p. 5).
Concerning feudalism as a whole, with the exception of an elite class, the habits and customs of the nobles had not changed since the eleventh century. Almost everywhere the castellan [provincial baron] remained a brutal and pillaging soldier (p, 249).
Professor Luchaire had already dealt with the eleventh century in Lavisse’s Histoire de France (II, 20), the standard history of that country, and had said that it was “a world of superstitious and brutal soldiers” and that “the chatelaine [wife of the noble or knight] whom history and poetry describe in the eleventh century is almost always a virago of violent character.”

In regard to sex-morals they were just as loose as the others. He includes Queen Eleanor, the lady who introduced into England the Courts of Love, a primary principle of which was that no lady should allow marriage to restrain her from indulging a passion for another man than her husband. The chief English writer on these Courts and their period, Mr. J.F. Rowbotham, says:

Immorality was fostered as it has rarely been before or since by this exceeding freedom of intercourse, which at any time might bring a fascinating and brilliant stranger into the midst of a family circle and give him the privilege of access and intimate communion with every member of it.
But let us complete the quotations from Luchaire about the general character:
The great barons and the feudal sovereigns stole like the ordinary castellans (p. 251).
The ideal of the noble who fought was to make a desert of the land of the enemy; and the noble was always fighting (p. 261).
The noble had an untameable antipathy to and profound contempt for the villein: that is, for the serf, peasant, labourer, citizen, or burgher (p. 271).
In the majority of cases the lady of the manor in the time of Philip Augustus was still what she had been in the centuries preceding feudalism: a virago of violent temperament, of strong passions, trained from infancy in all physical exercises, sharing the dangers and pleasures of the knights of their circle (p. 351).
For Germany it is almost enough to quote that temperate and distinguished authority, the Rt. Hon. H.A.L. Fisher, whose general verdict is:

The German nobility possessed, in fact, a perfect genius for disobedience and treachery. They would ally themselves with Bohemians and Slavs, with Danes and Italians, as it might serve their turn. Restrained by no consideration of patriotism, softened by no tincture of culture, swayed by rudimentary passions, simple, violent, and gross, they would neglect all the highest calls of citizenship to serve their greedy ends. . . . The thickest strand of their existence was woven of cruelty, perfidy, and vice; and, when the mailed heroes of Germany rode off to the Crusade, the monk and the peasant breathed a sigh of relief and tranquillity returned to the land.
Professor Thompson (Feudal Germany) agrees. He says of the country in the days of Pope Urban and Henry IV that “the nobles like a pack of wolves fed upon the carcases of Church and State” (p. 233). Giesebrecht and all the greater German historians tell the same story. The ecclesiastical historian Professor A. Hauck (Kirchengcschichte Deutschlands, 5 vols., 1912) not only describes the general banditry and brutality, but has a long and scorching chapter on the state of morals in the ideal thirteenth century; and in this he describes the priests as generally and flagrantly corrupt:

No female is safe from the lechery of the clerics: the nun is not protected by her condition, the Jewish maid by her race, the step-daughter from her father. Maids and matrons, whores and noble ladies, are alike threatened. Every place and hour is good for lust. One practises it in a field where he goes about his service: another in a church where he hears confessions: one in a convent, another in a Jewish house. That one is regarded as respectable who is content with a concubine.

Of the standard of character in Italy we have seen so much, and shall see more later, that I need say here only that cruelty, treachery, and licence became worse in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: the Age of Chivalry and of great art, of cathedrals and friars.

And this applies also to Spain. It was not until the Age of Chivalry was over that the knights borrowed from the conquered Arabs the superficial politeness which came to be regarded as typically Spanish. For cruelty, treachery, and looseness of life they were almost the equals of the Italians. The famous Cid hired his sword to Moslem and Christian in turn, betrayed both, and perpetrated horrible cruelties. Jaime the Conqueror is described by his modern biographer, Dr. H.E. Watts, as “perfidious, dissolute and cruel,” and his conquests were due “as much to his craft as his valour.” Jaime, I may add, had been initiated to knighthood with the full church ceremony, and was very religious. The chronicles tell us that he built two thousand churches and had two thousand mistresses.

These are the verdicts, the unanimous verdicts, of the historical experts, the men who derive their information from the chronicles of the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries. They describe a Europe which is almost totally devoid of the qualities of what we today call chivalry. The period of chivalry (chevalerie, or, in Germany, Ritterthum) meant to them only that the higher soldiers, the knights and nobles, now rode on horse (cheval). But they had no more sense of honour or decency than the foot-soldiers. In war they were treacherous and savage; in peace they generally lived by banditry, and they devised the most horrible tortures for merchants, burghers, monks, and nuns who, they believed, had hidden money. Their tournaments, of which we read expurgated accounts, were far more revolting than bull-fights; and “my lady’s favour,” which our lady teacher romantically describes to her class as a glove or ribbon tied to the lance, was often enough the lady’s shift or part of it Large numbers of knights earned their living by travelling from one tournament to another and killing or disabling an opponent to get his armour and horse, or by cozening money from the richer ladies in return for intimacy.

But what of those famous poems and stories which reflect an age of romance? What of the minstrel, often a knight or noble, singing tender love-songs to refined ladies on the terrace? These things are almost as mythical as the knight-errant. I say “almost” because toward the end of the troubadour movement a few poets did appear who sang of love in the finer sense of the word, and, of course, it is these that are translated for us. The overwhelming majority of the epics, romances, tales, songs, and poems of every description which we have — and we have many large volumes of them — reflect just such a type of character as I have described. They swim in blood, and they praise cunning, treachery, rape, and infidelity. Every writer on them — Gautier, Meray, Nyrop, Schultz, etc. — describes the whole literature as a most extraordinary parade of sexual freedom. In the later period much of it is refined. In the earlier period the epics, songs, and stories are often revolting. A man (noble) makes his wife cook and eat the heart (in other poems a different organ) of her lover; a lady (noble and married) promises her favour to a knight if he will fight a mortal combat in her chemise and then wear it, blood-soaked, at supper; Queen Philippa — this is an English specimen — tells Edward III she will slit her pregnant body with a knife if he will not make war on her country as she wants.

Much of this stuff was written by aristocratic ladies of the time; for the myth of the coy damsel and the refined chatelaine of the Age of Chivalry is as flagrant as the myth of the knight-errant. “Modesty and delicacy,” says Luchaire of the ladies of France, “were as yet unknown,” and “each had at least three or four husbands.” But the experts on the troubadour literature — all of them — use stronger language. They point out that in the entire literature, French, German, or Italian, the women, young or middle-aged, married or single, are not only unrestrained, but very aggressive. When the knight, if he has any repute in fighting, spends a night at a castle, the daughters and mother quarrel as to who shall share his bed. They shriek like viragoes at the tournament-shambles and fight each other for the victor. But here the reader is likely to be so astonished that I must confine myself to quotation from the masters of the epic and troubadour literature; though Dr. R. Briffault has opened up the subject very ably to English readers in his fine work The Mothers (1927, Vol. III). The leading expert on the French literature is Leon Gautier, a Catholic admirer of the Middle Ages, but the women of the poems are too much for him:

It is their blood, the blood that boils in their veins, that rules them. At first sight of a young man they throw themselves at his feet without hesitation, modesty, or struggle, and beg him to satisfy the brutality of their desires. . . . If one resists their pursuing attentions, they take advantage of the night and place themselves in the bed of the man they desire. . . . Married women do almost the same, though there are, it seems, brilliant and admirable exceptions.
It is always the woman who attacks: always the man who defends himself. These shameless creatures are all alike.
On the German women of the Middle Ages and the Minnesinger movement the chief authority is Professor K. Weinhold, who draws upon both the light literature and the chronicles. He is just as severe as the French writer:

The men gave their wives no example of fidelity, and on both sides marriage was trodden underfoot.
Marriage was regarded as an external arrangement into which one entered for some advantage or other, and there were few cases in which it was respected.
The worm of vice was nourished in the rose of the garden of chivalry and romance … its glamour was a flush on the cheeks of a consumptive. . . . Women no longer distinguish between men of quality and shameless scoundrels: indeed, they give their love by preference to the cunning, the coarse, and the brutal, and many offer their love for money.
Conjugal fidelity becomes a joke; lusty adultery and frivolous vice were praised or smiled upon in countless short poems. Both sexes wore the same dress, and shameless figures were used to decorate the tables.
We have torn away the false veil and shown that the dreamy devotion and love were accompanied by the utmost coarseness and immorality, and that in Germany in particular the Minne-cult was soon corrupted.
All other experts on the literature of the time agree; as will any man who reads it in French, Provencal, German, or Italian. And I may add that in the French chronicles especially there are at this period hundreds of noble women who, by comparison, make Cleopatra a chaste patriot and Messalina a respectable woman. They were as hard as granite and as callous as public executioners. The wife of Bernard de Cahuzac (who cut off the hands or cut out the eyes of a hundred and fifty monks and nuns in one convent) “took pleasure in torturing these poor women herself: she had their breasts slit or their nails torn out” (Luchaire, p. 256).

It is, after this, hardly necessary to speak of the morals of the rapidly growing middle class and the common people. The latter, who were still four-fifths of the population of Europe, remained as gross and ignorant as ever, unchanged by “emancipation” from serfdom, insensible of the risen sun of art which gilded the vices, but did not soften the brutality, of their betters. Probably the best way to estimate the morals of the new middle class of merchants, burghers, teachers, and students is to study the rich development of prostitution in these three centuries. One of my social surveys of history is a manual of the history of prostitution (The Story of the World’s Oldest Profession, 1932), but I will say here only that not even in ancient Rome was the trade as extensive (in proportion to population) or as unblushing as it was in England, France, Germany, and Italy in the days of the great cathedrals.

At London in the fourteenth century the brothels were the property of the pious Lord Mayor, Sir William Walworth. At Rome the Papacy made a large sum every year for several centuries by taxing the women. In France a royal officer took care of the prostitutes of the court; and the prostitutes of the city, who in proportion to population were twenty times as numerous as they are in modern London, had their own chapels and marched under their own banner in the religious processions on saints’ days. In Germany the “cathedral-girls” — they sought customers in the cathedrals — were invited to the dinners of the wealthy and to civic banquets; and the brothels were made free, and the route to them specially illuminated, when a prince came with a large retinue. Bishops, monks, and nuns owned such places all over Europe; and the open-air baths which drew enormous crowds in the south of Germany and France were flagrant centres of open promiscuity.

If the material which I have condensed in this chapter astonishes and shocks the reader, he will, on reflection, perceive that that is precisely the justification for writing it. There are non-Catholics who deprecate the reproduction of these ugly truths; and they then repeat all the myths and legends about the beautiful Middle Ages and the priceless services of the Papacy which Catholics impose upon them, so that their valuation of institutions even in our own time is entirely false. Let it be noted carefully that in this chapter I rely on the published views of the highest authorities, and I quote only expressions of opinion on the general character. There is the further use, in fact urgent need, to tell these things, that they expose the extremely untruthful and fraudulent nature of Catholic literature. The writer who is aware that his readers are sternly forbidden to read his critics is not encouraged to be sensitive about the truth of his statements.

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The Popes and the Artistic Revival

Those non-Catholic historians or essayists who consider that the Papacy was an important factor in the restoration of civilization in Europe would plead that the Popes, who had such power that they could move armies and bring strong monarchs to their knees, insisted upon virtue and justice, and that Europe did in fact rapidly advance after the middle of the eleventh century. We have seen the deadly reply to the first part of this superficial argument. Chastity was the virtue upon which the more powerful Popes insisted most vehemently; and Europe grew in licence of life until at last the Papacy itself shared, for two hundred years, as we shall see, the general derision of chastity. I have quoted a number of authoritative historians who declare that the period during which the Popes exercised supreme power, from the second half of the eleventh century to the fourteenth century — we may add, to the Reformation — was the most immoral period in civilized history. It is, however, enough for us that the insistence of the Popes upon virtue was singularly futile. I leave to moralizing historians, who regard vice as one of the most corrosive enemies of the fabric of civilization, the paradox that Europe advanced in the same proportion as it grew in licence.

But sexual disorder is only one of the vices which, on the testimony of all the highest authorities, we found to be generally prevalent in the period. We saw that injustice was just as characteristic of the period as unchastity. Few chapters of history are so steeped in cruelty and injustice as that which describes the behaviour of the Normans when they settled in England; and the Papacy, which had blessed the enterprise, had no censure for the noble bandits. And this behaviour, we saw, was common in every country and worst in Italy. It is ludicrous to attribute social usefulness to the preaching of justice by the Popes in an age when there was over the whole face of Christendom a net of banditry such as we find nowhere else in the history of what is supposed to be a civilized period; and no barbaric invaders ever inflicted such cold-blooded torture as these knights and nobles inflicted upon the men and women, even the monks and nuns, of their own country.

In social respects the preaching of justice was just as barren. The penal system remained barbaric — we find the sentence of castration carried out in the Pope’s own city as late as the sixteenth century — and, where there was an improvement in the law and the administration of justice, this was effected by monarchs secularizing the courts, largely for their own profit. The emancipation of the serfs in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries is not attributed by any sociologist to Church influence. The serfs were able to buy their freedom because the owners wanted money to go to the Crusades or to purchase the new luxuries, or they were freed in batches by kings or nobles so that they would lend more willing aid in the unending petty wars. The nobles and knights, the highest authorities assure us, had not the least idea of justice to peasants or burghers.

It was customary in war to loot, rape, and kill without restraint, and it became a common practice after taking a town, often after giving a perjured assurance of immunity, to shut the men, women, and children in their wooden houses and fire the town. Froissart describes that hero of chivalry, the Black Prince, so ravaging the city of Limoges that for once this callous priestly chronicler of bloody deeds, who dismisses the Black Death in a few lines, almost blushes, Torture and mutilation were worse than they had been in the Dark Age. Two Italian nobles invented a system of torture which, while inflicting the utmost pain, would keep a man alive for forty days; a playful parody of the Church’s Forty Days of Lent. And it was just in this period that the Jews began to suffer their long martyrdom.

The “soul” of the Middle Ages was ugly. That this stretch of European history was morally a swamp can be questioned only by the man who confines his reading to refined writers who suppress ugly historical truths, and thus lead to a totally false valuation of institutions.

Since art is concrete and sensuous, this is so natural that Europe, when it rose from semi-barbaric poverty and squalor, was, apart from its religion, bound to pass into a phase of artistic creativeness. It happened that the Churches then had most of the wealth for employing artists and had every interest in making that use of their wealth. And if the historian or essayist who indulges in speculation on art and the medieval soul would first take the trouble to learn what experts on art have to say about the matter, he would find that most of them proceed on these lines, and reject his superficial theory of religious inspiration as decisively as the experts on medieval history reject his Age of Chivalry.

Woltmann and Woermann, in their standard History of Painting, are even more emphatic about that great branch of medieval art. Down to the thirteenth century, they say, Europe had only “the painting and sculpture of children,” and art then “emancipated itself from priestly dictation”; and in the most frivolous and licentious period of Italian life “the highest beauty, which the gods themselves had, two thousand years before, revealed to the Greeks, now revisited earth among the Italians.” I need not quote J. Addington Symonds, but his very secular theory of art is more solidly worked out in one of the most important of recent studies, Elie Faure’s four-volume History of Art (English translation, 1921). Medieval art, even church-building, he insists, was the work of the laity, not the Church, and was purely human in its inspiration.

In a word: “Christianity, which until then had dominated life, was dominated by it and carried along in the movement.”

But we do not need to be experts to see that the inflated claim of the Catholic collapses like a pricked bladder the moment you reflect upon it. Rome itself, we shall see, had no art for more than a century after the other cities of Italy were full of it — two centuries after other countries had their great cathedrals — and the artists who adorned it when it became rich were rarely Romans, and they lived and worked in an age of gross Papal corruption. Typical of the age is the painting of two beautiful religious frescoes in the Vatican by Pinturicchio. He was one of the least religious and least virtuous of the painters of the Renaissance, and his subject for one of these frescoes was Alexander VI, the most immoral Pope of the age, and for another, Alexander’s mistress, Giulia Farnese, whom he represented as a demure Madonna. Less well known, because the English translator of Vasari’s famous Lives of the Painters has deliberately suppressed the passage, is the story of Giotto, the father of medieval painting. Catholics are enthralled by the frescoes he painted in the memorial church to St. Francis at Assisi. He was certainly an orthodox Catholic, but at the very time when he was “putting his soul” into this glorification of the early friars, he was privately writing poems in which he disdained them. These men were just employed to give a beautiful form to religious ideas. But they painted Venus as beautifully as Mary, and used courtesans as models for the saints.

How little the Popes had to do with this first revelation of a new and sounder vitality in Europe is, as I said, plain from the fact that Rome was the last city in Europe to feel it. At the time when the great Romanesque cathedrals began to rise in Germany, in the eleventh century, Rome was, we saw, not far removed from barbarism. Such churches as it had inherited were shabby and dilapidated. The stone was needed for the thousand fortress-towers of the fighting clans. Its only artist in centuries was Guido d’Arezzo.

The early phases of both the Romanesque architecture in Germany and the Gothic architecture of France, which developed from it, are obscure. Many experts now hold that the architectural skill of the ancient Romans was preserved through the Dark Age by colonies of builders who, between their periods of employment by the Ostrogoths and the Lombards, lingered in obscurity in the north of Italy and were attracted to Germany when it took a modest lead in restoring culture. However that may be, the earliest notable cathedrals were, as the name of the style (Romanesque) implies, inspired by the ancient Roman style, as modified in the north of Italy. Western Germany was, we saw, the most sheltered and most prosperous part of Europe at the time, and it had received an artistic stimulation by the marriage of one of the princes to a Greek princess and the importation of Greek scholars and artists. It was natural that the development should begin here.

But those who poetically imagine the cathedrals reflecting the “soaring religious mind” evidently neither know the age nor seriously reflect what they mean. In the preceding chapter I quoted the best authorities on German medieval history, and we learned that the vast body of knights and nobles were as corrupt as elsewhere and the clergy themselves comprehensively depraved. It was the same in France and England during the building of the Gothic cathedrals and abbeys. The inspiration is in the architect alone; and few points in this field are more obscure than the names of the architects of the cathedrals. I have been able only in one case of these Romanesque cathedrals to find the name and character of the architect; and I came upon this accidentally while reading an eleventh century chronicle. It said that the architect of Speyer cathedral, which has been called “the grandest monument of Romanesque architecture in Europe,” was the Bishop of Osnabruck. The title may suggest piety, but he was, in fact, one of the very worldly fighting bishops of the time, equally ready to design a church, a castle, or a fortification. The bishopric merely provided him with an income.

The new art spread to France and England. It will hardly be claimed that there was in these countries a new wave of religious fervour. What was new was that the ravages of the Danes and the Northmen ceased, and wealth began to accumulate in the cities and the abbeys. This was particularly true of Central France, to which a stream of culture flowed, through Languedoc, from Barcelona and Arab Spain. Indeed, by the opening of the twelfth century the most northern of the great Arab cities of Spain, Toledo, which at that time had a population of quarter of a million people and superb buildings, was in the hands of Spanish Catholics. This Arab culture had already inspired the cultivation of music and poetry, the Troubadour movement, which first began to refine the grossness of Europe. It was fully established in Paris, in the abbeys as well as in the city, early in the twelfth century.

It was in these circumstances of rapidly increasing wealth, travel, and material refinement that the Gothic style was developed from the Romanesque in Central France in the twelfth century. At first it was the work of monks, though it was taken out of their hands long before the great cathedrals were finished. But writers who talk about the pious monk-architects have studied neither the condition of the abbeys nor the research of modern writers on architecture. The principal and richest abbey in the Paris district was that of St. Denis, and, when Peter Abelard, after his mutilation, entered this about the year 1120, he found it so corrupt that he fled. He and his contemporary Cardinal de Vitry tell us that this was the condition of most of the abbeys; and Heloise says the same of the nunneries. The abbey of St. Denis was reformed for a time soon afterwards, and it certainly had a school of pious architects. But the research of modern students of architecture discredits all the earlier rhetoric about the Gothic style expressing a new flame of faith. It was brought to perfection by purely technical labour extending over a century, and the worldly monk was just as capable of doing this as the unworldly. The vulgar, often indecent, gargoyles carved on some of the cathedrals are as significant as the statues of saints; and if artists who were very far from pious could paint beautiful religious pictures, others could just as easily design cathedrals and carve saints.

I am concerned here only to show that the Popes were neither directly nor indirectly, and not in any degree, responsible for the great artistic movement. It is useless to plead that the Popes were prevented by lack of means from creating in Rome the noble churches which the Catholic faith is said to have inspired elsewhere. In the twelfth century the Papacy was certainly as rich as some of the bishoprics of France and England which raised fine cathedrals, yet Rome had to wait nearly three centuries for an artistic development. The cities of North Italy were two hundred years in advance of it, and this was because there was more civic pride, not a deeper religious sentiment, in them. We have the document in which the Florentine authorities commission Arnolfo to design their cathedral. They thus state their motive:

Since the highest mark of prudence in a people of noble origin is to proceed in the management of their affairs so that their magnanimity and wisdom may be evinced in their outward acts. . . .

There were cathedrals which were built, or started, in a temporary religious revival. These are few. Pride built more cathedrals than piety.

Another aspect of the subject must not be overlooked. The modern Catholic, and even the non-Catholic visitor to a cathedral, is apt to imagine that the feeling of awe or reverence which touches him was shared by the medieval crowd. It was not. I mentioned that in Germany prostitutes were called cathedral-girls because they notoriously lingered there to attract customers. They were not forbidden to do this in Strassburg Cathedral until 1521, when Protestant criticism began. The bishop of that city built a brothel, and the Dean of Wurtzburg Cathedral was entitled by law to receive from one village a horse, a dinner, and a girl on November 12th of each year. We learn from a royal decree that prostitutes used the cathedrals and churches of Spain to attract men, and lovers made assignations there. Outside of hours of service the cathedrals everywhere were used for frivolous purposes, and to judge by the extant sermons of Thomas Murner, the friar who was Luther’s chief opponent, the sermons often aimed at causing roars of laughter. He used in the pulpit words which a Catholic, if he used them today, would be expected to tell in confession.

This attitude is especially seen in the extraordinary licence which was permitted in the great French cathedrals and many others on certain days of the year. Near Christmas was held the Feast of Fools, when a young cleric was clad in the bishop’s robes, except that he had a fool’s cap instead of a mitre, and put on the bishop’s throne in the sanctuary; and the deacons and subdeacons ate puddings on the altar, burned foul rags in the censers, and played cards while a parody of the Mass was celebrated. At the close the vast crowd, the attitude of which may be imagined, drove the priests round the city in carts which were daubed with dung, while the priests amused them with indecent gestures and exposure. It all ended in an orgy of drunkenness and sexual indulgence.

Equally gross was the Feast of the Ass, when “hee-haws” were made instead of responses, and an ass was led to the altar to the accompaniment of lewd popular songs. There was also a Feast of the Drunken Deacons. The worst features of these festivals were modified in the thirteenth century, but the coarseness and frivolity survived until the eve of the Reformation. It is inconceivable that a population with sentiments anything like those of modern Catholics should enjoy or permit this use of the cathedrals and churches — it was done also in the chapels of abbeys and nunneries — even for one day. Many of the miracle plays also were very gross. The new intepretation of the soul of the Middle Ages and its religious art disdains to notice such facts as these.

It was, in short, inevitable that medieval art should very largely assume a religious form. A religion that was richer in sensuous forms than in purely religious sentiment was half the life of the people. But, as in ancient Greece and Rome, where also the finest artistic monuments and statues were religious, it was generally civic pride that called for the expenditure. Architects and sculptors did just as fine work on civic halls and palaces. Painters were as inspired in presenting their models in the nude as when they, to meet a religious commission, dressed them in the robes of Mary or the Magdalene. It was the same in every civilization. Chinese art is as inspired as medieval art, but it is rarely religious. Pre-Islamic Persian art was exquisite in a score of forms, but it raised few temples. The secular Velasquez was as great as the pious Murillo; and in Italy Fra Angelico and Raphael and their like were the minority. If Europe had, like China, had an atheist social leader, as Kung-fu-tse was, it would still have had a great art.