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.

14th  to  16th  Century

1 – Two Centuries of Degradation    3 – The Inevitable Reformation
2 – Three Living Popes
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Two Centuries of Degradation

Whatever one may think of the determination of the Popes to hold their tainted Temporal Power, which had cost Italy millions of lives and had lit the Church itself with lurid passion since Charlemagne had established that Power, one can listen to no defence of their nepotism. From the thirteenth century until the middle of the sixteenth an outstanding feature of the history of the city of Rome is the savage conflict of the noble families, and in the end we shall find this leading to an extraordinary corruption of the Papacy itself. The “good Popes” of the thirteenth century inaugurated this conflict. Even Innocent III had enriched and ennobled his family. Nicholas III had given such immense wealth and power to the Orsini family that they kept their position for three centuries. Nicholas IV had favoured the Colonna family, who attained equal power and wealth with the Orsini. A papal election now became a crucial moment in the lives of these noble families, since it was vital to their fortunes to have a favourable Pope, and they added a new fire to the furious clash of ambitions which had so often marked these elections (now called Conclaves) since the days of Pope Damasus. The history of these Conclaves is one of the most amazing volumes in historical literature.

At the death of Nicholas IV the Orsini, the Colonna, and Charles of Naples brought about a passionate conflict of the cardinal-electors which lasted fourteen months. During most of that time Rome had neither Pope nor Senator (civil governor), and it returned to its familiar methods of controversy: fighting, raping, arson, looting palaces and churches, and robbing pilgrims. This was in 1294, the culmination of the Catholic Golden Age, There was at the time in a remote part of Italy a really religious man of ascetic life, a Benedictine monk who had been converted from the customary monastic ways and had, with some companions, established a strict monastery on the top of a mountain. This was so phenomenal in the latter part of the thirteenth century, when even the Franciscan and Dominican friars were already corrupt, that his fame spread all over Italy, and for some obscure reason the weary cardinals agreed to make him Pope: at least, the reason is obscure in history, but we may gather it presently. So a deputation was sent to bring the holy man to Perugia, where the cardinals were. They were disquieted for a moment when the humble monk ordered them to come to Aquila, but they went, and they consecrated him Pope Celestine V (1294). Shortly afterwards he, under the influence of King Charles, took them with him to Naples, and the daily spectacle of his granting favours to Charles and to outsiders moved the cardinals to demand his resignation.

Chief among the cardinals who pressed him to abdicate was Benedetto Gaetani, a robust and handsome prelate of great ambition and, as we shall see, very peculiar character. While the King of Naples got up popular demonstrations imploring the Pope to remain, Gaetani, who was a skilful diplomatist, urged that he was disloyal to his ascetic ideal. It was widely believed that Gaetani had a speaking-tube put through the wall of the Pope’s room, and a “voice from heaven” bade him resign. He did abdicate, and Gaetani became Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303). He was careful to take the ex-Pope with him under monastic guard to Rome, and, when Celestine escaped twice from his guards, he was imprisoned in a grim and solitary castle and so brutally treated that he soon died. Boniface had made his first enemies: all the pietists of Italy, who accused him of usurpation, bribery, and murder.

The article on Boniface in the Catholic Encyclopedia runs to nine pages; and they are nine pages of futility, with many admissions of faults of character and desperate evasions of very foul charges. These charges are said to have been disproved by “grave writers,” but these turn out to be, though the reader is not informed of this, Catholics. Milman devotes 150 pages to this miserable Pope, and is not much more satisfactory. We can understand why Dante (Canto XIX) puts him deep in hell, but there was much more than political enmity in the general execration of his memory when he “died like a dog,” as a popular epigram said. Gregorovius acquits him of vice on the ground that he was more than eighty years old; yet even the Catholic Encyclopedia states that he was only sixty-eight when he died. The truth is that his age is unknown.

A good example of the way in which Catholics now secure “justice” to the Popes will be found in the article on Boniface in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It is written by Professor Rockwell, a distinguished ecclesiastical historian, and until the last edition it explained the hostility to the Pope by saying: “Avarice, lofty claims, and frequent exhibitions of arrogance made him many foes.” In the latest edition of the work this sentence has been cut out, and other sentences have been modified, but Professor Rockwell’s name has been retained. On the other hand, the Cambridge Medieval History, which gives us the general sentiment or judgment of modern historians, says (VII, 5):

The evidence seems conclusive that he was doctrinally a sceptic. . . . It is probable that for him, as later for Alexander VI, the moral code had little meaning.

In enriching his own family, the Gaetani, especially a nephew of very doubtful character, Boniface entered upon a bitter quarrel with the Colonna, and, when one of these seized a cargo of gold and silver belonging to his nephew, he excommunicated the entire family and deposed the two Colonna cardinals. He, when they resisted, declared a Crusade against them; and under the command of one of his cardinals his army destroyed the property of the Colonna and scattered them over Europe. For a time he prospered in his policy, and he attempted to improve the art and culture of Rome, though the Catholic writer, in boasting of this, does not observe that the first Pope to do something for culture was a sceptic. For this and his wars and nepotism he needed large sums, and he invented the Jubilee year, which the Papacy still periodically celebrates. It had been a custom in ancient Rome to hold a superb festival in each centenary year, and Boniface applied the idea to the year 1300. Rich indulgences were awarded to all who visited Rome as pilgrims, and there was a remarkable response. It was estimated that thirty thousand pilgrims entered and left Rome every day, and that on any particular day there were two hundred thousand foreigners living in the city. And, since each had to place a coin or coins on the altar of St. Peter, the harvest was rich. One visitor tells how “day and night two clerics stood at the altar of St. Peter with rakes and drew off the infinite sum of money.”

This year 1300 is usually assigned as the high-water mark of the power of the Popes, but the more critical study of the thirteenth century which we have made suggests that the peak was rather in the closing years of Innocent III (1198-1216), when freedom of discussion was suppressed. However that may be, the prestige of the Papacy now steadily declined. Boniface brought a new war upon Italy by offering Sicily to Charles of Valois, brother of King Philip of France, and making him Governor of Tuscany, the cities of which were aflame with murderous struggles. He then quarrelled with Philip over the contributions of the Church to that monarch’s war-chest, and he sent to France a Bull severely condemning him. It was festively burned at Paris, the royal heralds summoning the people to the spectacle.

The King then, in the summer of 1303, summoned his Parlement at Paris, and his Vice-Chancellor, William of Nogaret, one of the ablest jurists of the time, laid before it an impeachment of the Pope for heresy, simony, and rapacity. In a second Parlement Boniface was specifically accused of disbelief in a future life, wizardry, dealing with the devil, declaring that sins of the flesh were not sins, and causing the murder of Pope Celestine and others. King Philip called for a General Council to try the Pope, and the University of Paris, five archbishops, twenty-two bishops, and almost all the monks and friars supported him. He sent an expedition to seize the Pope, and Sciarra Colonna — many of the embittered Colonna were now at the French court — and William of Nogaret led the troop. They seized the Pope at Anagni, but the people, who had at first joined them, turned against them — after sacking the rich Papal palace — and delivered the Pope. He returned to Rome in so tempestuous a rage that even respectable chroniclers of the time say that he went insane and committed suicide. This is improbable, but he died a month after his return.

The story of Boniface is not yet over. His successor, Benedict XI (1303-1304), lived only eight months — there is the usual cry of poison — and the French or pro-French and Italian cardinals fought for a year over the election of a new Pope, while the Orsini, Colonna, and Gaetani engaged in a savage war all over the Roman province. The Italians at length compromised by voting for a French prelate, the Archbishop of Bordeaux, who was understood to be very independent of Philip. “The fox,” as he came to be called, had duped the Italians. He had a secret understanding with Philip, summoned the cardinals to Lyons, and was there consecrated Pope Clement V (1305-1314). He settled a few years afterwards in Avignon, which then belonged to the King of Naples (as Count of Provence). He had given the Papacy a new master and had begun the long “Babylonian Captivity” of the Popes. (an allusion to the 70-year exile of the Jews to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.) It would be sixty years before Rome would again see the face of a Pope.

Clement soon found, as such Popes always did, that Philip demanded a grim return for the money he had spent. He wanted the Order of the Temple of Jerusalem, or of the Knights Templar, suppressed for vice, so that he could appropriate its vast wealth, and the body of Pope Boniface dug up and burned as a heretic. The French clergy persuaded the King to be content with a trial of Boniface by Church Council, and the Pope then uncomfortably yielded on both points. With his condemnation of the Templars we have no concern; though it is material to tell that the Pope consented to the use of appalling and very extensive torture to exact confessions, and that this most powerful and richest monastic body of the pious thirteenth century was proved to be sodden with the practice of unnatural vice. When the unreliability of evidence exacted by torture was pointed out to the Pope, he replied that “if the Order cannot be destroyed by way of justice, let it be destroyed as a matter of expediency lest our dear son the King of France be scandalized.” The Pope got a large slice of the loot.

It was when Philip pressed for revenge on Boniface that the Pope retired to Avignon, across the frontier of France, but he had to comply. In 1312 a Council met at Vienne, but it dare not hold a trial of the Pope. Catholic historians who say that it acquitted Boniface cannot produce any evidence that it expressed any opinion on the matter. It certainly did not examine the large number of Roman witnesses — mainly priests, monks, and lawyers — whose evidence had been collected, and without torture or coercion, Boniface had, they said, jeered habitually at religion and morals. There was, he had said, no future life and the Eucharist was “just flour and water.” Mary was no more a virgin than his own mother, and there was “no more harm in adultery than in rubbing your hands together.” This evidence was never examined in court, so we read it with a certain reserve, but there is little room for doubt that the Pope whose reign crowned the beautiful century was, as the Cambridge Medieval History says, a sceptic both as regards faith and morals.

Pope Clement himself is accused in some of the chronicles of intimacy with a French countess. We cannot control this statement, but against the Catholic report of his learning and piety we put the undisputed fact that his nepotism and simony were scandalous. Such was his traffic in sacred offices that, although he lived luxuriously and enriched his whole family, and although Italy, England, and Germany sent him little money, he left behind him more than half a million pounds, most of which went to his relatives. It happens that his successor was a sharp accountant, and his accounts have been published. We thus learn that, after a vigorous struggle with Clement’s nephew, a loose-living noble, he got for the Papacy only 150,000 florins of the 1,078,800 florins which Clement had left.

Clement had, instead, left the Church a poisonous legacy. He, a native of Gascony, had made cardinals of three of his nephews and six other Gascons, and they demanded a Gascon Pope. The bitter struggle in the Conclave, while murderous fights filled the streets, was interrupted by an inroad of Gascon troops, and the cardinals fled over the back wall and scattered. For two years they refused to meet, but in 1316 they were enticed to Lyons, shut in a monastery, and told that they could not leave until they elected a Pope. They chose John XXII (1316-1334), an elderly lawyer, though in origin the son of a cobbler. It seems clear that he duped the Italian cardinals. One anecdote of the time says that he swore to the Italians that he would never mount a horse again until he was in Rome. They voted for him, and he went to Avignon by boat. The Italians left him, and he thereupon made nine French cardinals, of whom one was his nephew and three others were from his native town. He enriched them all and lived well. He built the Papal Palace at Avignons and its service cost 25,000 a year — he spent 3000 a year on food and wine — yet he left 400,000 (several millions in modern values) at his death. Contemporaries exaggerated his wealth, so in this case the Vatican has published the accounts he kept.

We are more interested in the source of his wealth. It came chiefly from a sordid expansion of the existing system of exacting heavy fees for every ecclesiastical appointment. The Church had taught for ages that for a higher prelate to accept a sum of money for appointing a man to a benefice or a bishopric was the sin of simony; and this sin was denounced as so heinous that Dante puts simoniacs in a deeper circle of hell than men who were guilty of sodomy. Yet before the end of the thirteenth century the Popes had begun systematically to raise money by clerical appointments, and John XXII, who is counted one of the good Popes, extended this system until the Papacy exacted three years’ income from every priest who was appointed to a benefice and a large sum of money from every man promoted to a bishopric or made an abbot. Clement V had ordered that a priest who was appointed to a benefice (living) must pay his first year’s salary (“first fruits”) to the Pope. John changed the tax to three years’ salary, and said that this was obligatory in the whole of Christendom. Many priests, he found, held more than one benefice. This was shocking; so he distributed them and got a three years’ revenue from each. Many of the bishoprics and archbishoprics were too large for the prelate to do his work properly, so he divided them, and he was entitled to a large sum from each new bishop. One prelate was so infuriated by his loss of revenue that he and several of the cardinals entered into a plot, which was fully proved in court, to murder the Pope by the magical method of melting a wax image of him or, if that failed, by poison.

Many other admirable devices came of the good Pope’s brooding over money in the famous “little chamber” in which he counted his ducats and florins. If an archbishop or an abbot of a rich monastery died, the Pope made a whole series of promotions, like a game of musical chairs, and got “first fruits” on each. Bishops or abbots were entitled to hospitality, which was costly, when they visited their priests or priories. They might, the Pope ruled, stop at home and take the cost of a visit instead — and send half of it to Avignon. By old custom the people had the right to loot the house of a dead bishop, and the bishop had a right to the property of a dead priest. “The Holy See,” Mollat says, “substituted itself” for them, or declared all such property forfeit to itself. All bishops had to visit Avignon occasionally. A fee was fixed for this, besides a number of other fees; and they paid, under the head of clerical expenses, for every grant or document they required from the Papal Court. The Papacy had in the most immoral age in history put such a fence about the sanctity of indissoluble marriage that couples could not marry if they were related within four degrees (back to the great-great-grandfather and laterally to the third cousin). Large sums were made by dispensations from such “impediments” and by discovering the relationship after marriage and declaring it void. Then there were legacies, fines, dispensations of all sorts, “voluntary” gifts, the feudal dues of ten countries, Peter’s Pence, and many other sources of wealth. The Church had thundered against simony for six or seven centuries. It was now a fine art; and, as we shall see presently, the art was only in its infancy.

Such was the second-best Pope in a hundred years: though the stricter Franciscan monks, with whom he quarrelled, called him a heretic, Anti-Christ, and the Dragon with Seven Heads. The “best Pope” of the period, on Catholic standards, was John’s successor, Benedict XII (1334-1342), a Cistercian monk. There were, however, contemporaries who called him, when he died, “a Nero, death to the laity, a viper to the clergy, a liar, and a drunkard.” Mollat, the Catholic historian of the Popes of Avignon, admits that he drank heavily — some writers say that it was this monk-Pope who gave rise to the popular saying, “Drunk as a Pope” — and that his harshness and arrogance narrowly restricted what influence for good he had. We need not study this influence. Like that of all “good Popes” it was superficial and ephemeral. Within a few years of his death we find the Pope and his court and city more depraved than at any period since the Dark Age.

“My predecessors did not know how to be Popes,” said Clement VI (1342-1352), who succeeded Benedict and made Avignon the Corinth of medieval Europe. He got possession of the city and the province for the Papacy, which now became responsible for the whole of its civic life, by a cynical act. It belonged to Naples, and Queen Giovanna at this time wanted absolution for murdering her husband and marrying her lover. She received absolution, and the Pope got Avignon — a city with a population of at least 100,000 and a rich country with several towns — for the paltry sum of 40,000. Clement then completed and lavishly decorated the great palace, and he settled down, with the Countess de Turenne and a large number of other ladies, who were permitted to dip their dainty fingers into the simoniac pie, to a life of gaiety. The Catholic Encyclopedia admits that Clement was “a lover of good cheer, of well-appointed banquets and brilliant receptions, to which ladies were freely admitted.” But the best contemporary authority, Matteo Villani, a strict Catholic, is not content to say that the ladies were admitted to the hunts — Clement had one of the finest studs of horses in Europe — and the banquet-room. While Catholic writers profess to regard the charge of intimacy with the Countess as frivolous gossip, what the Florentine historian says is:

While he was an archbishop he did not keep away from women but lived in the manner of young nobles, nor did he as Pope try to control himself. Noble ladies had the same access to his chamber as prelates, and among others the Countess de Turenne was so intimate with him that in large part he distributed his favours through her.
This is mild in comparison with the terrible indictment which the famous Petrarch brings against the Pope and his cardinals and higher clergy in his Latin Letters Without a Title: one of the most amazing pictures of vice, natural and unnatural, that is to be found in any literature. He says that Avignon surpassed in vice any city of antiquity; and no one knew ancient life and literature better than Petrarch. It was “swept along in a flood of the most obscene pleasure, an incredible storm of debauch, the most horrible and unprecedented shipwreck of chastity” (Letter VIII). Clement was “an ecclesiastical Dionysos with his obscene and infamous artifices.” In the eighteenth Letter he gives details of the life of the cardinals and the higher clergy which I must refrain from quoting.

Apologists fancy that they discredit the testimony of Petrarch, the greatest writer and scholar of his age, by reminding us that he was hostile to the Popes because they would not return to Rome. Since Petrarch lived for years in Avignon and was living not far from it in the time of Pope Clement, they in effect ask us to believe that one of the greatest Europeans of the time fabricated a mass of detail about a life which fell under his own observation! Moreover, besides the witness of other contemporary writers, we now have a description of life in Avignon which shows, from the archives of the Papal city, that there really was a more amazing disregard of the virtue of chastity than in ancient Athens or Rome. The official documents show that before the Popes settled in Avignon there was at least some regard for decency. Loose women were relatively few and were isolated from other women. In the Papal period they had astounding liberty and encouragement. The Pope’s marshal levied a tax on them and protected them, even by proceedings in court, from puritan assailants. Monks, nuns, priests, and Papal officials owned brothels or drew revenue from them. We find a public announcement of the opening of “a fine respectable new brothel,” and a legal deed, ending “In the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” in which the Papal officials buy a brothel from a doctor’s widow. This system was, the documents show, extended to all the towns under Papal control.

At Clement’s death the cardinals wrangled during three months for the glittering prize, and the city was astonished when it fell to a cardinal of strict life, who became Innocent VI (1352-1362). It was usual when the voting disclosed a hopeless deadlock to fall back upon an aged cardinal whom the stronger men could hope to control and who would soon leave the position vacant once more. Innocent was both aged and an invalid, but, to the anger of the cardinals, he lived for ten years, and made a spirited attempt to reform the court and the clergy. But he proceeded in so harsh and improper a way that a religious monk, quoted by Mollat, described him as “more abominable than the Jewish usurers, more treacherous than Judas, more cruel than Pilate.” The archives quoted by Dr. Le Pileur show, however, that neither he nor his pious successor, Urban V (1362-1370), succeeded in reforming Avignon, and Urban decided to abandon it.

Urban had been a Benedictine abbot of ascetic life and zealous devotion to ecclesiastical learning. He supported hundreds of students at various universities. We should be inclined to think that there was a better atmosphere in the Papal Court when such a man could be elected, but Petrarch’s claim that the cardinal-electors were, literally, overruled by a miracle evidently means that the court was still so corrupt that in the ordinary course of nature a good man had no chance of election. Urban, seems to confirm this when, a few years later, he decided to move to Rome. The cardinals pleaded that Italy was a barbaric and pestilential country, and only five of them — this gives us the measure of the reform — set out with him in the spring of 1367. He had to be escorted by an army across Italy, which wanted no more wars over Papal claims of territory, and, although the Romans at first welcomed the return of the golden rain, they drove him out within two years, and he returned to France to die.

Gregory XI (1370-1378), who succeeded him, was a nephew of the sybaritic (lover of luxury) Clement VI, and doubtless this fact influenced the election. His piety, however, of which apologists boast, chiefly took the form of zeal against heresy. Mollat concludes that “in the end his efforts remain sterile,” and “anger against the Church continues to grow.” The public authorities refused to assist the Inquisition for him, the historian says: another proof of the meanness of the apologists who plead that it was the princes and peoples who demanded the execution of heretics. He was a shocking nepotist, and he deserted Avignon only because Rome and Italy were rapidly moving toward complete independence. He hired an army of half-savage Breton mercenaries to cut a path for him, under the command of the Cardinal of Geneva, across Italy; and even the truculent British mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood, who helped them, was disgusted when, after taking Cesena, the cardinal ordered the massacre of every man, woman, and child in it. The Catholic Dr. Pastor, whose History of the Popes opens at this stage, found confirmation of this in a horrified letter of the Archbishop of Prague which is preserved in the Vatican Archives. Rome soon lost its enthusiasm, and Urban retired to the provinces before its anger and died a few months later. The last of the Avignon Popes had been as futile as the first.

I have dealt summarily with what are called the better Popes of the Avignon series because, as we shall now see, they had effected no reform of the Papacy, the Church, or the Christian world. The fifteenth century, which we now approach, is regarded by Catholic writers themselves as decadent, but few of them give their readers even a faint idea of the flagrancy of vice, natural and unnatural, the deliberate defence of this licence by many Catholic writers of the century, the corruption of the monasteries, the vast spread and public encouragement of prostitution, the indecency of the numerous communal baths, the fiendish cruelty which persisted in spite of the efflorescence of art, and the cynical growth of treachery and lying in international relations. Dr. L. Pastor almost alone among Catholic historians is candid. He says (I,97) that “the prevailing immorality exceeded anything that had been witnessed since the tenth century” and “cruelty and vindictiveness went hand in hand with immorality.” This viciousness we shall find steadily infecting the Papacy itself and hastening the inevitable revolt of Christendom. At the time when Gregory XI returned to Rome, John Wycliffe was rousing England to a revolt which in a few years spread to one-third of the nation, and from England the revolt spread to Bohemia and inflamed hundreds of thousands of evangelical Christians.

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Three Living Popes

Yet just at this juncture the Papacy entered upon what we must in some respects consider a worse degradation than that of Avignon. The Conclave which followed the death of Gregory was as vicious as ever. Eleven of the sixteen cardinals who were locked in a room of the Vatican Palace were French, yet a menacing crowd outside clamoured for an Italian Pope. They broke through the sealed doors and made sure that the French cardinals had no way of escape. Another day they looted the Papal wine-cellar. Urban VI (1378-1389), whom the cardinals at last elected, is, as usual, recommended as pious and virtuous, but he was in fact a gouty and bad-tempered old man who soon quarrelled with the cardinals. One of them called him a liar and threatened to beat him. The French cardinals escaped and settled at Anagni. Their troops met those of the Pope and were defeated, and they moved on to Fondi, where all but four of the Italian cardinals joined them. They made a Pope, Clement VII (1378-1394 anti-pope), of the fighting cardinal who had horrified Europe with the Cesena massacre, and they thus inaugurated the great Schism, which was even more scandalous than the gaiety of Avignon.

The “pious” but very vigorous Urban seized and sold the sacred vessels of the Roman churches, hired a troop of the fierce mercenary soldiers who were then common, and drove his rival to Avignon. Then he set out to recover the Papal possessions in the south. Queen Giovanna had, we saw, been absolved for murdering her Hungarian husband, but Urban summoned a Hungarian prince to Rome, crowned him King of Naples, and sent him to recover the kingdom and get his revenge. When he had done so, Urban went south to secure the rich rewards for his nephews and nieces for which he had stipulated. His favourite nephew broke into a convent and raped a nun, but the Pope compelled the king to overlook this on the ground that “he was young,” and reaped a rich harvest by confiscating property and creating new bishoprics. The Hungarian prince was disgusted and sent an army to attack him while he was staying with his nephew.

When the cardinals begged him to check his indecent displays of temper and discussed among themselves a plan of deposing him, he put six of them in the dungeons and had them horribly tortured. Dietrich was there, and he describes how the Pope read his breviary in a loud voice to drown the moans, while his nephew jeered at the victims. After a time the Pope escaped with his prisoners and fled by sea to Genoa. Only one of the cardinals was ever heard of again, and few doubt that he had them killed. Urban, who flitted from town to town, the vices of his nephew causing him to be repeatedly expelled, tried to raise money for a Crusade against Naples by a new Jubilee. Christ had lived thirty-three years, he said, so that there ought to be a Jubilee year every thirty-three years. He died, under suspicion of poison, in 1389: a chaste, and thoroughly disreputable, Pope.

His successor, Boniface IX (1389-1404), reaped the profit of the Jubilee and whipped up the trade in sacred offices until the Papal bureaux looked like an Exchange. The Pope’s agents now sold, not simply a vacant benefice, but the “expectation” of one, so that a staff watched the age and health of incumbents; and if, when an expectation was sold, another priest offered a larger sum for it, the Pope declared that the first priest had cheated him, and sold it to the second. Dietrich says that he saw the same benefice sold several times in a week, and that the Pope talked business with his secretaries during Mass. The city cursed him and was in wild disorder. He announced another Jubilee in 1400, and the raping, murdering, and robbing of pilgrims were revolting. The French had meantime elected Benedict XIII (1394-1423) as successor to Pope Clement VII of Avignon, but with the condition, which he promised on oath to fulfil, that he would make every effort to end the schism. (there had been 2 Popes since 1378, one in Avignon and one for Rome) When he became Pope, he refused to take a single step toward this end. All France demanded his abdication, and he had to defend the Avignon Palace against a French army, yet the greedy and vindictive Spaniard clung to his Papal rags, while all Europe derided him, for twenty years.

The economic development of Europe had by this time led to the appearance of a middle class, and the lay lawyers especially began to take a very critical interest in the scandalous condition of the Church. They joined with the universities and the less frivolous of the prelates in seeking a remedy, and gave rise to what was called the Conciliar Movement, or a theory that General Councils had the power to depose unworthy Popes and reform the Church.

The impulse was not one of pure virtue. Both Popes exacted large sums of money, often by the most disgraceful means. Boniface at Rome employed as his Chamberlain a cardinal whom we shall find later, as Pope, condemned by the Church for every vice in the calendar. This man carried to its utmost licence the traffic in religious appointments which John XXII had initiated, and he may be regarded as the author of the system of selling indulgences which grew to such cynical proportions that it shook the Papacy. The road to Rome and the streets of Rome itself were infested with more bandits than ever, and the reports which pilgrims brought back to Germany and Scandinavia were gravely intimidating. So the Papacy, declaring, in the usual unctuous language, that it could not suffer its children in the north to be deprived of the indulgences which one earned by a visit to the Roman churches, decreed that the same indulgences could be gained by paying to the Pope’s local representatives the money which a pilgrimage to Rome would cost. A new gold-mine was thus opened to the Papacy.

Boniface died, and the “gentle and virtuous” Innocent VII (1405-1406) who succeeded him maintained the schism and enriched his relatives; and these were so insufferable that Rome expelled them and the Pope, with the customary bloodshed. Gregory XII (1406-1415) soon took his place, solemnly swearing that he would even go on foot to meet the rival Pope and end the scandal. Then, after following with disgust for three years the tergiversations of the two miserable Popes, a Council of cardinals, prelates, and royal representatives met at Pisa (1409), declared both Popes deposed, and elected Alexander V (1409-1410), a Franciscan friar. He died without reaching Rome, and, although the two existing Popes took no notice of the sentence of the Council, the Italian cardinals created a third Pope, John XXIII (1410-1415), the most corrupt man who had yet worn the tiara.

The vices of Cardinal Cossa, who had bribed the electors, were well known to them and to all Italy, and nothing could show more plainly than this election the depth to which the Papacy had sunk. Whether he was, as Dietrich says, the son of an Italian pirate, we need not stop to consider. He had been for fifteen years the head of the corrupt financial system of the Pope, and had led the Papal troops and mercenaries with all the ferocity and looseness of commanders of that age. It was widely believed in Italy that, as Dietrich says, he had as Papal Legate at Bologna corrupted more than two hundred women and girls and had exacted a commission from the gamblers and prostitutes. On these matters it is enough to say that the cardinals, like all other Romans, were aware of his reputation, and we will be content with the official ecclesiastical description of his character.

After contemplating the disgusting spectacle of the three greedy Popes for four years, the prelates and leading laymen of the Church persuaded the Emperor Sigismund to convoke and preside at a General Council at Constance in 1414. Twenty-nine cardinals, thirty-three archbishops, nearly three hundred bishops and abbots, and a hundred doctors of law and divinity (including John Hus) met in the city, with representatives of most of the princes of Europe. Christendom was at last united and determined. John XXIII, ill with apprehension, sent an offer that he would abdicate if they would appoint him Perpetual Legate for the whole of Italy with a salary of 15,000 a year. They ignored him and, after hearing witnesses, drew up a long indictment of him which is a complete catalogue of vice and crime. It ran to fifty-four articles, and may be read in any collection of Councils. John is described as “wicked, irreverent, unchaste, a liar . . . inhuman, unjust, cruel . . . the dregs of vice, the mirror of infamy . . . guilty of poisoning . . . sacrilege, adultery, murder, spoliation, rape, and theft.” So this moral monstrosity was condemned to a very comfortable detention for a few years — his rank of cardinal was later restored and the Bolognese raised a beautiful monument to his memory — and John Hus was burned at the stake. And after two years’ further wrangling a new Pope, Martin V (1417-1431), was elected; and he and each of his successors made solemn oath to reform the Papacy and the Church. They, in fact, sank deeper than ever into the mire.

In further illustration of what I said about the moral condition of Europe I may add that, according to contemporary writers who were present, more than a thousand loose women gathered at Constance for the duration of the Council, Catholic writers who call this a gross exaggeration have not the least idea of the amazing extent and flagrancy of prostitution in the Middle Ages. Sigismund himself had the morals of his age, and he publicly thanked the authorities for making the brothels free to his men when he visited cities. He once danced half-naked in the street with the women. This was the man who burned John Hus.

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The Inevitable Reformation

We have covered a period of general degradation, with short intervals of zealous but futile Popes, from the accession of Boniface VIII in 1294 to the accession of Martin V in 1417. That debasement of the Papacy lasts, again with short intervals of sobriety, until the accession of Paul IV in 1555, when the loss of half their revenue enforces a reform upon the shuddering Popes, cardinals, and prelates.

Catholic writers reflect sombrely upon the wickedness of the Roman Empire and tell their readers how the “Holy See” purified the city of Rome and thrust into a dark past the “nameless vices” of the Greeks and Romans. Few of their readers ever take the trouble to calculate, from accepted historical manuals, that Emperors of debased character occupied the throne only during about thirty out of the 350 years of the Pagan Empire — until the accession of Constantine — and still less know, for this they are forbidden to read, that in the later Middle Ages, long after the last barbaric invasions, the Papal throne was occupied during seventy-five out of 250 years by men of notoriously vicious character, and during more than two-thirds of the remainder of the period by men whose character, considered in relation to their professions, no historians respect. Indeed, if simony and nepotism are vices in Popes, there were only four or five “good Popes” in these two and a half centuries, the culminating period of Papal power, the great age of medieval art. That less of them were unchaste during their pontificates than had been the case from 900 to 1050 we fully acknowledge. Their average age at election was fifty-six.

The difficulty of classifying Popes as good or bad is seen in the case of Martin V, who was appointed to reform the Church and to convoke every few years a Council which should verify the reform. Bishop Creighton, a Protestant of the more lenient school, feebly condemns Martin in his History of the Papacy and admits his “entire failure to accomplish any permanent results.” Pastor weakly defends him, but admits that, against his oath, he never held a Council during the fourteen years of his pontificate; that he was a most flagrant nepotist; and that he effected no reform. The Catholic historian says:

A thorough reform of ecclesiastical affairs might in this interval have been undertaken, but Martin allowed the precious time to pass almost in vain as far as this important work is concerned.
The truth is that neither Martin himself nor the great majority of his cardinals and the higher prelates of Europe wanted reform. Their life was too comfortable. Martin was a Colonna, and he devoted most of his reign to securing wealth and the Papal territories, in large part so that he could enrich his family. Neither he nor any other Roman had a mind to check the traffic in ecclesiastical offices, dispensations, etc., which had reached such scandalous proportions. He was thus flagrantly guilty of perjury, simony, and nepotism, yet he is counted one of the good and virtuous Popes.

But there is another way, which Creighton and Pastor avoid, of approaching his character. A good deal of the Italian literature of this century is more obscene than any Greek or Latin works, and one of the writers, Poggio Bracciolini, was the Pope’s chief secretary and wrote much of his work in the Vatican. He had been employed at the Council of Constance, and from here he had gone to Baden. To a friend he wrote a letter of enthusiastic praise of the amorous licence that was practised by the two hundred thousand people — “there are nuns, abbots, friars, and priests, and they often behave less decently than the others,” he says — who visited the baths. Poggio wrote a collection of indecent stories which was so popular that, when printing was invented, twenty-six editions of it were issued in a quarter of a century. He says in a letter to a friend that the Pope was “greatly amused” when an abbot told him that he had five sons who would fight for him. In any case, we can hardly regard as deeply religious a Pope who kept as his principal secretary for years one of the most notoriously indecent writers in Rome. Other writers in Poggio’s circle publicly glorified unnatural vice, which then, as Voigt, one of the chief authorities on the period, says, “raged like a moral pestilence in the larger towns of Italy.” It was far worse than it had been in ancient Athens or Rome.

Murmurs against the Papacy now filled Europe once more, and Martin was compelled to announce that a Council would meet at Basle in 1431. He died before the date, and an Augustinian monk became Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447). He had taken an oath to support the Councils yet he at once sent orders to the prelates who had assembled at Basle to disperse. His own Legate at Basle, Cardinal Cesarini, warned him that this would bring upon him a charge of “the grossest hypocrisy,” but, because a Council in Germany would be beyond Papal control, he persisted for two years, until the Emperor insisted upon the continuance of the Council, and a new democratic revolt of the Romans drove the Pope into a nine-year exile. He was still jealous of the Council, though he made no effort himself to destroy the corruption which it exposed. One of its secretaries, — Enaeas Sylvius later a Pope, but at that time very anti-Papal and immoral — reports that the Emperor ordered an elderly German bishop to submit to it that the only way to correct the general immorality of the clergy was to abolish the law of celibacy. This bishop, he tells us, said in his address:

Scarcely one priest in every thousand would be found to be chaste: all lived in adultery or concubinage or something worse.
Yet Eugenius seized the first pretext to dissolve the Council. The Greeks, who were hard pressed by the Turks, wanted help on almost any terms. Eugenius ordered the transfer of the Council to Italy and, when it refused, his Legate stole its seal and stamped it upon a forged document which made the Council accept the Pope’s authority. Eugenius rewarded him with the cardinalate. The Greeks disappointed him, and the Basle Council went on to depose him; but the Council destroyed its own prestige by electing an anti-Pope and taking a heavy bribe from him to meet its expenses.

The apologists find it difficult to show that Eugenius accomplished much during the sixteen years of his pontificate. He was certainly a religious man of sober, even ascetic, habits. He was no nepotist, and he made a modest beginning in Rome of the art and culture which had for two centuries flourished in every other part of Italy. But he neither corrected the flagrant practice of simony nor improved the appalling moral tone of Europe. Pastor admits that in trying to force the Colonna to surrender the wealth which Martin V had showered upon them he resorted to “hasty and over-violent methods.” It is a mild way of expressing the fact that he spread fire and blood over Italy, put two hundred of the Colonna and their supporters to death, had some of them tortured, and looted and destroyed their castles and palaces, including the palace of Martin V. For Rome he had done so little that when, at the close of his long exile, he returned to it, he found cows grazing in its streets, while in the winter wolves prowled from the hills as far as the Tiber.

Nicholas V (1447-1455) began the lifting of Italy, in respect of art and culture, above the barbarous level at which it had persisted during the two centuries when the Renaissance had clothed the cities of the north with beauty. He had been educated at Florence, and when he at length succeeded in filling the empty treasury by means of a Jubilee year, he set about the embellishment of Rome, It is said that when Pope Urban returned to Rome from Avignon in 1367 sheep and cattle nibbled grass, not merely in the streets, but in the churches of St. Peter and the Lateran. Very little had been done beyond the repair of the churches until the pontificate of Nicholas, who imported artists and scholars and began to redeem Rome from the profound disdain of men who came from the cathedral cities of France and England and the Italian cities which had long been famous for painting, sculpture, and classical studies. Rome was the last of the Italian cities to be reached by the glow of the Renaissance.

It concerns us more here that Nicholas did almost nothing for the reform of the Church. He secured the dissolution of the reform-council of Basle and at once, as Pastor says, “the reforming zeal of his early days cooled down.” He sent a cardinal to reform the morals of the German monks and clergy, because the threat of revolt was there becoming serious, but the corruption of Italy, which was to pass into Rome itself with the imported art and culture, he left unaltered. Pastor quotes a letter of a zealous Carthusian monk severely blaming his indifference to the moral state of Italy. Although he had been forty-eight years old at his accession, he lasted only seven years; and the latter of these were embittered by the fall of Constantinople (1453), the last Christian city in the East, to the Turks, and by another democratic revolt, which he bloodily suppressed, of the Romans. He died, soured and disillusioned, in 1455.

Calixtus III (1455-1458), who succeeded him, was an old man of seventy-seven, a Spanish cardinal of regular life and some repute for ecclesiastical learning. It again enforces my point, that it is immeasurably more important to study the effect of the policy of a Pope than to ask if he was good or bad, when we learn that in a pontificate which lasted only three years this virtuous Pope did more harm than any three vicious Popes. All the world knows the name Borgia and associates with it a vague impression of monstrous corruption. Calixtus was of the Spanish Borgia (or Borja) family, and he brought that poisonous brood into the Papal Court and helped to corrupt it. The Orsini and Colonna cardinals had reached the usual deadlock in the Conclave, in spite of heavy bribery, and they had decided to put the aged and gouty Spaniard in the chair, each side hoping to gain a little more strength before he died. To their great anger, he gave them a new rival in wealth and power by transplanting his own family to Italy. He assigned the most profitable office in the Papal Court, the Vice-Chancellorship, to his nephew Rodrigo, who was to become the infamous Alexander VI and was already notorious for his vices. The purblind pontiff despised the art and culture which Nicholas had introduced and spent all available funds in a fruitless attempt to launch a Crusade against the Turks and in enriching his nephews and their friends. As soon as his illness reached a mortal stage, the Romans rose against “the Catalans” and scattered them.

But the handsome and frivolous Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia returned to his Vice-Chancellorship. He had, while his uncle lived, handed to Cardinal Piccolomini many of the profitable ecclesiastical appointments which it was his function to distribute, and this cardinal now became Pope Pius II (1458-1464). I have previously in this chapter referred to him under the name of Enaeas Sylvius, secretary of the anti-Papal Basle Congress and one of the Humanist writers who defiantly defended — especially in letters which one may read in Voigt’s life of him — his adulteries. He was now fifty-three years old and virtuous, and he had made his peace with Rome after the fall of the Basle Council. During the six years of his rule he disappointed everybody and drove the Romans into a revolt which he cruelly suppressed. He did nothing for art and culture; in fact, a foolish letter which he wrote to the Sultan, in an effort to convert him when the Christian monarchs refused the Crusade, makes us wonder how Milman can call him a man of “consummate ability.” Rome almost sank back into barbarism. At one time a band of three hundred youths terrorized it, sacking houses and raping women on the street in the old fashion.

At his death in 1464 several cardinals of the new type, rich and sensual, tried to bribe their way to the “Holy See,” but these were still in a minority, and a Venetian cardinal was elected and took the name of Paul II (1464-1471). He was comparatively young, exceedingly handsome — he actually proposed to take the name Formosus (“Beautiful”), but his friends checked him — and full of promise to be a good Pope and to see that the Crusade was launched. And he at once repudiated his oath and settled down, quarrelling violently with the Court, to a life of luxury. A very wealthy cardinal died and left millions, in money and jewels, to his nephews. Paul declared the will void and appropriated the treasure. He added to the immense hoard of pearls and spent hours gloating over them. Rome, which Catholics are taught to regard as the “Mother of Art,” was still the least artistic of the leading cities of Italy, yet Paul II left at his death a private treasure worth, in modern money, several millions. He burned classical literature. . . . However, as Pastor sums up his reform work in a modest claim that “he cannot be charged with absolute inaction” and Gregorovius describes him as “wholly given over to sensual pleasure,” we pass on.

The cardinals sealed his treasure-chamber, with its unique collection of pearls, and swore that whoever was elected Pope should use it for the Crusade; and a few years later the Cardinal-nephew of the new Pope, Sixtus IV (1471-1484), smothered his favourite mistress, Teresia, with pearls, even her slippers being covered with them. Sixtus was a virtuous monk. General of the Franciscan Order; and he surpassed all other Popes in the enrichment of relatives whose luxurious vices were as well known in Italy as were the sayings of Mussolini in his own day.

Three months after his consecration he summoned his two nephews, who belonged to the peasant class and were friars, to Rome, made them cardinals, and poured wealth upon them. The elder, whom we shall meet later as Pope Julius II, drank and swore heavily as he led the Pope’s troops. He is acknowledged to have had three daughters while he was a cardinal, and he was confidently accused by leading nobles of unnatural vice. The younger wore himself out in two years of hectic life “amongst prostitutes and boys,” as a contemporary says. His banquets and other extravagances were the talk of Europe, and the whole of the 260,000 ducats — in our values at least a million sterling — which he spent in two years came from ecclesiastical appointments which the Pope conferred upon him. A third nephew, a layman and most unscrupulous soldier, was the chief author of a plot to murder the Medici princes at Florence during Mass in the cathedral, when Giuliano de’ Medici was killed; and the Pope was aware of the conspiracy, though Pastor does not admit that, as many say, he knew that it included murder. In a deed which we still have he legitimized a “son of a cardinal-priest and a married woman”: the son of his own Vice-Chancellor, Cardinal Borgia, who kept his office. So we will not linger to admire his praying and fasting.

Under the next three Popes a cynical German priest, Johann Burchard, was Master of Ceremonies at the Vatican Palace and he kept a well-filled diary, which has survived. We are therefore most reliably informed about the events of the next twenty years. At the death of Sixtus, we learn, the conflict of the noble families, to which recent Popes had added their ennobled relatives, the Borgia and the Rovere, was very heated. Each family or cardinal now had a fortified palace, troops of soldiers (even equipped with the new artillery), and immense sums for bribery. But neither Cardinal Borgia nor Cardinal Rovere could get the required two-thirds majority, and there was a danger that a zealous cardinal would get the tiara. Cardinal Borgia therefore selected Cardinal Cibo, whose only virtues were that at the age of fifty-two he had ceased to have mistresses and he would do whatever Cardinal Borgia required. Through him Borgia bribed a sufficient number of the electors, and he became Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492); a cynical title, for his children were well-known visitors at the Vatican.

During the eight years of his pontificate Rome sank back to the moral level of the Iron Age, and it would remain there for the next seventy years: less boorish, but even more vicious and violent. Gregorovius can say only in defence of his beloved city that there was the same “fiendish cruelty” in England, France, and Spain; but presently he admits that crime and vice were “more appalling in the history of the Papacy and the Papal nephews.” In a fierce struggle with Naples, in which Cardinal Rovere (later Julius II) led the Papal army and Cardinal Orsini (who swore to have Rovere’s head on a pike) led the enemy, the Pope sought the aid of the Medici of Florence. He married his own bastard son Franceschetto, in the Vatican, to the daughter of Lorenzo. Next year he, again in the Vatican, married his granddaughter Peretta with princely pomp; and at the banquet he sat at table with her, her sister, and their mother (his own illegitimate daughter). It gives us some measure of the moral standard of the age when we learn that the only criticism of Christendom was that it was improper for a Pope to sit at table with ladies! The Catholic reader may or may not be relieved to read in Pastor, who tells all these things, that Rome was not worse than the rest of Italy, and that “almost all the Italian princes of the Renaissance were steeped in vice.” When Pope Pius II in 1459 visited Ferrara he was received by seven princes, and they were all illegitimate. I may add that the Pope’s second granddaughter was later married with the same splendour to a Neapolitan prince.

It is ingenuous of Pastor to tell us that “unfortunately nothing of any importance was done under Innocent VIII for the reform of the ecclesiastical abuses.” By his own acts the Pope made them worse than ever. At this time a rebellious younger brother of the Sultan took refuge in Europe and was captured by the Knights of Rhodes. The Pope bribed them to send him to Rome, and kept the dissolute youth in the Vatican, supplying him with every luxury and instrument of vice. The Sultan paid the Pope 60,000 a year; and the appeal for a Crusade against the Turks now ceased.

Far worse was his toleration of the conduct of his son Franceschetto, a quite unbridled rake; and his “Holy Father” was fully aware of his vices. One day Franceschetto angrily complained to him that Cardinal Riario had cheated him of 50,000 when they were gambling the night before, and the Pope forced Riario to restore the money. Franceschetto and Borgia in collusion made Rome the vilest city in Europe by their system of graft. Even murderers had merely to pay a heavy fine to them. A man who murdered his daughter got off with a fine of 4000. The Pope’s son roamed the streets at night with a band of youths, broke into homes, and raped any young woman he desired. Murder became an incident of the daily life. Most of the cardinals wore swords and had troops who slew men even for slight offences.

But the darkest sin of Innocent VIII, who did “nothing of importance” in the way of reform, was that with open eyes he admitted more men of this type into what was called “the Sacred College” (the College of Cardinals). He made a cardinal of the fourteen-year-old son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who was to become one of the most disgusting of the Popes, and of a bastard son of his own brother; and he prepared the way to the College for the infamous Cesare Borgia by making him a bishop. He also intensified the practice of simony or ecclesiastical graft and derived immense sums from it. The majority of the cardinals now gambled, hunted, swore, and otherwise behaved like dissolute nobles. They strutted about Rome dressed as soldiers or in the garb of fashionable cavaliers, with plumed hats and gay vests and mantles.

It is necessary to give this very abridged account of the chronic state of Rome and Italy — the full appalling picture of vice, crime, and treachery will be found in the works of Pastor, Gregorovius, Burckhardt, and Von Ranke — because Catholic writers represent that the record of the Papacy contains only a “few bad Popes,” and the general public has a vague idea that it is almost entirely a question of Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope. The corruption of the Sacred College and the Church, which was almost continuous for two and a half centuries and was abandoned only under pressure of Protestantism, is more important than the number of bad Popes. I do not, in fact, propose to dilate at length on the lives of the immoral Popes who fill the Roman See for the next fifty years. No one will seriously ask how many churches they built or saints they canonized; and only a few points in the historic indictment of their character are disputed. We now have, besides several contemporary diaries, a large number of letters and reports to their governments of the foreign ambassadors at the Vatican, and they uniformly report a condition of extraordinary debasement.

At the death of Innocent the cardinals wrangled and intrigued for fourteen days. If the time seems shorter than usual — it was long enough for their followers to commit more than two hundred murders on the streets — this was only because Borgia, who had amassed enormous wealth, had paid out heavy bribes before the Conclave began. Eleven cardinals sold their votes to him, and he himself must have smiled when, after consecration in St. Peter’s, he sat at the door to hear the orators tell him, “Thou art adorned with every virtue, the merit of discipline, the holiness of thy life” — probably four of his children were there — or when, on proceeding to the Lateran Palace, he passed under triumphal arches which bore such mottoes as “Chastity and Charity” and “Caesar was a man, this is a God.” For Alexander VI (1492-1503) has a unique record amongst the Popes for the number of his children, and he is one of the few who continued their amours for years after consecration and in the “Sacred Palace” itself.

In our lenient age a few Catholic writers have even attempted to purify the reputation of Alexander, but Pastor says of these (II,542):

In the face of such a perversion of the truth it is the duty of the historian to show that the evidence against Rodrigo is so strong as to render it impossible to restore his reputation.

He shows that we have legal proof that Alexander had six children, and Thuasne reproduces the documents, which are in the possession of a Spanish descendant of the Borgia. At least four of these were children of a Roman married woman, Vannozza dei Cattanei, whom he lodged in a palace near his own, and who was on the most friendly terms with the cardinals and the ambassadors under the pious Popes Sixtus IV and Innocent VIII. Just before he became Pope he discarded the ageing Vannozza and took as his mistress Giulia Orsini, a fifteen-year-old girl of the Farnese family whom he married to an Orsini; and for four or five years at least after his consecration she was his mistress and a conspicuous figure in the Vatican Palace. The ambassadors often speak of meeting her. She lived with the Pope’s daughter Lucrezia, instead of with her husband, and the ambassadors say that Alexander was the father of her daughter, Laura. The only seriously disputed point is whether a boy born in 1497, when Alexander was sixty-five years old, was the Pope’s son by a married woman, the young daughter of his Chamberlain. The Venetian Senator Sanuto says so: one version — there are two — of the birth-certificate of the child acknowledges this; Cesare about this time stabbed the Chamberlain in his father’s presence; and a head was found on a pole with the inscription, “This is the head of my father-in-law who prostituted his daughter to the Pope.” The evidence is serious.

It is not worth severe inquiry here whether he had six children, as all acknowledge, or eight; but other aspects of his conduct must be noticed. As early as 1460 he had been reported to Pius II for holding obscene dances by young ladies in a garden at Siena — he was already Cardinal and Papal Legate — and he continued to the end of his life to enjoy such spectacles. In his later years the ambassadors speak often of Cesare, who encouraged him, introducing batches of beautiful courtesans into the Vatican, and Burchard gives us astonishing details of one occasion in 1501, when he was nearly seventy. On Sunday, October 11, he says, the Pope did not attend Vespers, but he presided at an orgy in the palace. Fifty choice courtesans were invited, and after the banquet they performed, nude, the chestnut-dance — picking chestnuts, between lighted candles, from the floor — as they danced before the Pope, Cesare, and Lucrezia. The evening ended with an obscene contest of these women, coupled with male servants of the Vatican, for prizes which the Pope presented. It is absurd to suggest that Burchard, one of the chief officials living in the Vatican, would not learn the details correctly from the servants engaged in it; and it is equally absurd to ask us to believe that Burchard, writing for no other eye than his own, falsified them. But we are not surprised that even Pastor’s response to evidence fails here.

Some writers, who remind us how regular the Pope was in his prayers and what a deep devotion he had to the Virgin Mary, ask us to regard him as sharing the widespread sentiment of his age that the insistence upon chastity was an error of the early Church, and that one could be a good Christian yet ignore it. But his character fails also on every other test. We may set aside as negligible gossip the charge of his enemies that he had incestuous relations with his daughter; and the popular belief that he made a liberal use of poison in his later years is in serious history reduced to two disputed deaths. But his support of his son Gesare argues a totally unprincipled character. Lucrezia, though doubtless loose in her early years, as every woman in that circle was, does not deserve the horror which people now associate with her name, but Gesare was a coldly inhuman monster.

As early as 1497 he had his younger brother Juan, Alexander’s favourite son, murdered out of jealousy. It is, at least, now the quite general opinion of historians that he was guilty, and the Pope’s attitude afterwards confirms this. He refused to speak to Cesare for weeks, and he began to talk of reforming the Church: a mood which lasted a few months. A year or two later Cesare had Lucrezia’s husband murdered, because he wanted her to contract an alliance of greater political advantage, yet the Pope continued to support him. Cesare resigned the cardinalate which his father had conferred upon him and set out to win a secular principality by the vile methods which have made his name more malodorous than that of Nero: for Cesare was a man of clear and powerful intellect. The Pope supported him until he died. He thus nourished the moral poison in the veins of Italy, and he ensured the continuance of the rule of corruption in the Papal Court by selling the “dignity” of cardinal to further rich sensualists. He is said to have made 60,000 at one promotion. This was the Pope who had the ascetic preacher Savonarola hanged at Florence.

We will therefore not waste time on the Pope’s foreign policy or on his share in the artistic improvement of Rome. Alexander closed his infamous career — the poison-story is not now admitted — in 1503, and a “good Pope,” Pius III (1503), succeeded him. But Rome soon knew that this was no sign of reform or remorse. The French had now succeeded the Germans in power in Italy, and Giuliano della Rovere found his ambition foiled by a powerful French candidate. He had therefore secured the election of a cardinal whom he knew to be stricken with mortal disease, and the new Pope died ten days after his consecration, leaving the way open for Cardinal Giuliano, nephew of Sixtus IV, who had fought for the Papacy for twenty years. (Remember the pearls?)

Julius II (1503-1513), as he named himself, is one of the great Popes, but even the apologist with the least sense of humour does not venture to call him one of the good Popes. “A soldier in a cassock” is the just description of him by the ablest historian of that age, Guicciardini. Gregorovius, who is never unduly prejudiced against Popes, considers him “one of the most profane and most unecclesiastical figures that ever occupied the chair of St. Peter,” and says that there was “not a trace of Christian piety in him.”

The defence of the Catholic apologists is little more than a feeble reply to the charge of lack of piety and neglect of reform. They say that he regularly attended Mass and other services — to which we may reply that so also did Alexander VI, even on the day on which he presided at an orgy that equals anything described by Athenaeus or Apuleius — and that he had to postpone the reform of the Church and of Rome until the reconquest of the Papal States, which absorbed all his energy, was completed. He, in other words, set the acquisition of territory and the erection of beautiful buildings at Rome above the reform of the Papacy and the Church, which we can hardly consider a proof of piety; and we have no means of judging whether he would have carried out the moderate schemes of reform with which he dallied in his later years. The Lateran Council which he summoned certainly did not effect reform, and he convoked it — to meet after his death — for obvious political reasons. That he was moderate in his nepotism, and that he checked the reign of violence in Rome and adorned it with noble buildings and other works of art, all admit.

There is thus little difference of opinion in regard to his work, and if we consider his personality, which is one of the most clearly defined in the record of that age, we understand. He was of peasant extraction: a tall, robust man of immense energy and fiery temper. His uncle, the friar-Pope Sixtus IV, had brought him to Rome, and there, leaving the morbidly luxurious use of the new wealth to his cousin, he became a cardinal-soldier with a life-long ambition to reach the Papal throne. No one questions that he lived loosely, for as Pope he made open provision for his three natural daughters. That he was also addicted to unnatural vice Catholic writers heatedly deny, but in this they arbitrarily reject the emphatic statement of the Duke of Bracciano, one of the leading Roman nobles of the time. The vice was, we saw, extraordinarily rife in Rome and Italy, and Giuliano had no more restraint than the majority of the cardinals.

On campaign, it is admitted, he drank and swore like any other soldier, and his rages, to the end of his life, were tempestuous. He was quite unscrupulous in his policy and engagements. He had secured election chiefly by bribery, by promising to respect the possessions of Cesare Borgia, and by swearing to convoke a reform council within two years and not make war without the consent of two-thirds of the cardinals. After election he entirely ignored his vows and promises. He crushed Cesare, never held a Council, and made war whenever he would. He was in the field half his life, though he had less military ability than his commanders, and he had not the least sense of honour or chivalry. Bishop Creighton, who is much too lenient to these Renaissance Popes, finds his “cynical consciousness of political wrong-doing . . . as revolting as the frank unscrupulousness of Alexander VI.”

So we will not here expatiate on his campaign to recover the Temporal Power or on the splendid artistic work (the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s, the Vatican, Raphael’s frescoes, etc.) with which he adorned Rome. Any encyclopaedia article will tell of them. These things, splendid as the second achievement was, did nothing to check the rising tide of revolt in Europe. The few cardinals of austere or regular life pleaded in vain, for the small reforms passed by Julius were insignificant, and the massive corruption of the Church remained.

Julius, the man who had used bribery in three Conclaves, had issued a decree against bribery at Papal elections. We have no positive evidence of bribery at the Conclave which followed his death in 1513, but we do know that the cardinals compelled each candidate for the office to sign a promise that he would, if elected, see that they were financially rewarded, and they gave the tiara to a fat, amiable, luxury-loving cardinal whom they could trust. Within five years of the explosive revolt of Luther they — two-thirds of the cardinals — thus elected, almost without discussion, one of the most disgraceful Popes who ever called himself Vicar of Christ.

Giovanni de’ Medici was the young prince whom the virtuous Innocent VIII had made a cardinal at the age of fourteen, though any man could have foretold what an education in the palace of the Medici would entail. It is almost enough to say that the apologists who make a pretence of defending Alexander and Julius abandon Leo X (1513-1521) to the critical wolves. He satisfied only those, says the Catholic Encyclopedia, “who looked upon the Papal Court as a centre of amusement.” “He never gave a thought to reform,” says Pastor (VII,5), and “he disregarded the most serious warnings.” One of the triumphal arches which the Romans raised for his coronation procession had the cynical motto: “Mars has reigned, Pallas has followed, but the reign of Venus goes on for ever.” Is there a parallel to these things in the history of religion? Yet we are thought offensive if we refuse to speak of the “Holy See” and the “Holy Roman Church.”

As a cardinal he seems to have been more discreet than the others, but the belief that he began to indulge in unnatural vice after he became Pope was so seriously held in Rome that the two leading historians of his time record it and seem to share it. Pastor here, and in many other cases where Papal conduct is particularly bad, is untruthful. He says that Bishop Giovio, friend and biographer of the Pope, “passes over the whole truth of the accusations brought against the moral conduct of Leo X” (VIII, 81). On the contrary, Giovio, after speaking of his “excessive luxury” and “regal licence,” continues:

Nor was he free from the infamy that he seemed to have an improper love of some of his chamberlains, who were members of the noblest families of Italy, and to speak tenderly to them and make broad jokes.
He goes on to say that it is proper to believe “that this is gossip,” and that it is wicked to “claim to have penetrated the secrets of the night.” In other words, he plainly tells his readers that the charge is true, but it is better not to say that you believe it. H. M. Vaughan says in his Medici Popes that Giovio alone makes the charge, and may be disregarded. That also is false. The father of Italian history, the contemporary Guicciardini, says that Leo began during his pontifical career to be “excessively devoted to pleasures which cannot be called decent.” These are the highest authorities one can quote on Leo X.

The Venetian ambassador assures us that after his coronation he said: “Let us enjoy the Papacy now that God has given it to us”; and he far surpassed in luxury even Clement VI of Avignon. He spent about 300,000 a year, chiefly on jewellers, caterers, buffoons, and parasites; and he obtained this money, at the very time when Luther opened his campaign, by pressing the sale of indulgences and by the grossest simony. The year after his election he sold the archbishopric of Mainz and two bishoprics to a loose-living young noble, Albert of Brandenburg, for 12,000, and permitted him to recover this by the sordid traffic in indulgences which a few years later inflamed Luther. For the greater artists and authors of Italy he did little. He gathered about him a company of gross men: flatterers, writers of obscene comedies (which were performed in the Vatican, often with cardinals as actors), and purveyors of indecent jokes and stories. His chief friend was Cardinal Bibbiena, whose comedies were more obscene than any of ancient Athens or Rome, and who was one of the most immoral men of his time. He had to eat temperately, for he was morbidly fat, but his banquets were as costly as they were vulgar, and the coarsest jesters and loosest courtesans sat with him and the cardinals. Since these things are not disputed, it is absurd to deny the plain evidence of his vices. In public affairs he was the most notoriously dishonourable prince in Europe, but it is not necessary or possible here to tell the extraordinary story of his alliances, wars, and cynical treacheries. His nepotism, in fine, was as corrupt as that of any Pope; and, when some of the cardinals conspired to kill him, he had the flesh of their servants ripped off with red-hot pincers to extract information.

It was in the middle of this sordid pontificate (1513-1521) that Luther nailed his famous theses on the noticeboard at Wittenberg (1517), yet the Dance of Death went on, slowing down a little only in so far as less money arrived from the sale of indulgences. But all that Leo did, when his toying with his collection of jewels was interrupted by the news that a German monk was interfering with his income, was to order his Legate to excommunicate the man and trust he would meet the fate of Savonarola. We will later consider the progress of the revolt. Here, in view of the attempt of various recent historical writers to claim that the corruption of the Popes and clergy was the least important cause of the Reformation — they make their point, of course, by concealing the whole or the greater part of the corruption from their readers — we will confine ourselves to the character of the Papacy and the condition of Rome.

The reform of the Church is usually said to have begun in 1534, but there was no real reform until 1555, when a prospect of ruin confronted the ecclesiastical sensualists, and the Popes of the intervening period must be treated briefly. A really religious Pope succeeded Leo X, the apologists inform us; but they do not say why, and do not stress how, Rome covered him with ridicule and broke his heart in little over a year. The Conclave, held at a time when half of Germany was in revolt, is described by the Catholic Professor F. H. Kraus in the Cambridge Modern History as “a spectacle of the most disgraceful party struggles.” The conflict of greeds reached a deadlock, and a Dutch pietist was made Pope Hadrian VI (1522-1523). He could not even speak Italian, and Rome laughed him out of existence. The cardinals were in such a hurry for the next Conclave dog-fight, which took twenty days, that some entered the Sistine Chapel in their plumed hats and silver spurs. Giulio de’ Medici, a bastard of the great Florentine family, made the highest bid, and became Clement VII (1523-1534).

He was as treacherous and dishonourable in his public conduct as Leo X, and this conduct brought upon Rome the most terrible punishment. Stung by his perfidy, the Emperor launched his army, part of which was led by a Roman cardinal, upon Rome. The sack of the city, with a poignant account of which Gregorovius closes his famous work, lasted eight days, and the loot is, in modern values, estimated at something more than 100,000,000. Such was the savagery of the attack that the population of Rome was reduced from ninety-nine thousand to thirty-two thousand. Nuns and maids of noble birth were raped in their homes and dragged to the camp. Palaces, churches, and monasteries were blown up or burned. Soldiers caroused with the whores of Rome in St. Peter’s, drank wine from the chalices, and played dice on the altars. We read so often of the piety of Spain at this period, when Ferdinand and Isabella had conquered the last of the Moors, that I must point out that the Emperor, Charles V, was the grandson of Isabella and the strictly Catholic ruler of Spain as well as of Germany; and that, therefore, Spanish Catholic troops were even more numerous in this barbarous army, which behaved far worse than the Goths and Vandals, than Lutheran Germans were. Again Papal nepotism and the lust of territory had brought ruin upon the Romans: this time, indeed, the worst rape of a great city in history.

Catholic writers put against this the contemporary activity of various Church-reformers in parts of Italy and the brave refusal of Clement to grant Henry VIII his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. In the latter case, Clement, as Lord Acton pointed out long ago, was governed only by his fear of Spain; and the regional reforms were not effected under Papal inspiration. How little Rome was chastened even by the sight of the ruin of two-thirds of the city was seen at the death of Clement (1534). There was the usual bribery in the Conclave, and the prize fell to Cardinal Farnese, or Paul III (1534-1549), who had been disdainfully known in Rome for twenty years as “the petticoat cardinal.” His only distinction was that his sister Giulia had been the mistress of Alexander VI, who had richly rewarded him. Pastor shows that as cardinal he had four known children, but assures us that he was now sober and virtuous. He was sixty-seven years old.

Yet Pastor gives these further facts, which show that Rome had still no serious idea of reform. In the twelfth year of his pontificate, on the eve of the opening of the Council of Trent, Paul conferred two duchies upon his natural son Pier Luigi, a corrupt and worthless man, and had a new gold coin minted on which the greatness of the Farnese family, which was founded entirely upon the sacrilegious adultery of his sister, was symbolized by a naked Ganymede watering a lily (presumably white). He promoted to the cardinalate two of his boy-nephews, aged fourteen and seventeen, who soon adopted the full licence of their elders under his avuncular eye. He married a grandson, thirteen years old, to an unnatural and immoral daughter of the Emperor, giving the Emperor rights, such as the sale of indulgences in Spain, worth millions a year; and he secured the marriage of a granddaughter to a French prince. He was friendly with the most vicious of the cardinals and appointed others of the same type. He liked to have beautiful women at table, had indecent comedies performed in the Vatican, and was a generous patron of buffoons and astrologers. These are undisputed facts.

It is, therefore, easy to take his measure as a reformer. By the middle of the century the revolt had spread all over the north, England was lost, and Calvinism was widely accepted in France and Switzerland. Everywhere the rebels pleaded the corruption of the Papacy and the Church, and the religious cardinals stormed Paul with entreaties to reform the Church. But the moment he proposed to carry a particular reform, which nearly always meant a reduction of revenue, the cardinals and prelates rebelled. The schemes of reform which he instructed the zealots to frame were put aside; and Pastor found that they had been abstracted from the Secret Archives when Leo XIII grandiosely threw these “open to scholars.” A very few partial reforms were carried, but there was no reform of morals. Paul had to announce a great Council, but how he tried to prevent it from operating and what really happened at Trent we shall see soon enough. Paul and the majority of his cardinals still hoped to see the revolt crushed in the old way, and the gaiety of Rome as free as ever.

If further proof is needed, one finds it in the Conclave at the death of Paul in 1549. Pastor takes thirty pages to describe the passionate fifty-days’ struggle. And, with half of Europe in flames, they elected a grosser Leo X. There is no dispute about the character of Julius III (1550-1555). His gluttony, vulgarity, and violent temper were notorious. He hunted, gambled, drank so heavily that he often had to stay the night when he dined out, “spiced his feasts with free and unseemly jests,” had indecent comedies in the Vatican, and had bull-fights in the square before St. Peter’s. He made a favourite of an ugly little gutterboy and promoted him to the cardinalate. One half of Rome thought the youth his natural son: the other half his mignon. These things were “never proved,” says Pastor. For five years (1550-1555) this greasy feeder on pork and onions held the position of Vicar of Christ while the revolt rolled over Europe, even France. At his death one of the cardinals with the worst record of all (natural and unnatural vice, fiendish cruelty, etc.) very nearly got the tiara. He was second favourite in the betting. But the reformers had now a fiery leader, and he secured the election of Marcellus II (April 1555). He lasted twenty-two days, and the leader of the reforming party. Cardinal Caraffa, mounted the throne in 1555.

It was too late. The Reformation was now inevitable. We have today historical writers who talk much about social and political changes as causes of the revolt against the Papacy, or who repeat the stupid Catholic claim that the Popes put their house in order without needing the pressure of the Reformation. These writers, of course, consider it indelicate to recall the story of the Popes of Avignon, of the Great Schism, and of the Renaissance, as I have briefly told it; and they lightly take the word of Catholic writers that the Papacy and the Church were quite reformed after 1555, which is false. We shall examine a few recent works of this type later. Here we close the Age of Power. The mighty spiritual power which the good Popes and great Popes had forged, the power which is said to have been so valuable to civilization, had led to the most licentious, most cruel, and most dishonourable period that is known in the history of civilization — I have quoted one authority after another to that effect, and in my History of Morals I have studied every other period of licence — and to a corruption of the Papacy itself which had no precedent and has no analogy in the history of religion. It is only men who will not study the corruption who can fancy that Europe — a Europe now fully awake and equipped with the printed page — was not stirred by it to a convulsive indignation.