Papal supremacy in the middle ages

After the disruption of Charlemagne's empire, the imperial title was revived for the German Otto the Great of Saxony. His imperial supremacy was recognized in Italy, but though Italian unity had gone to pieces, his supremacy offended Italy. Still, from the time of Conrad of Franconia the election of the King of Germany was assumed, at least by him, to convey the sovereignty of Italy.

In the eleventh century Norman adventurers made themselves masters of Sicily and Southern Italy. In Northern Italy, on the other hand, the emperors favoured the development of free cities, owning only the imperial sovereignty and bending to self-government on republican lines.

The appearance on the scene in the twelfth century of the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa introduced a period characterised by a three-fold change--the victorious struggle of the northern cities for independence, the establishment of the temporal sovereignty of the papacy in the middle provinces, and the union of the kingdom of Naples to the dominions of the imperial house. The first quarrels with Milan led to the formation of the Lombard League and a long war, in which the battle of Legnano gave the confederates a decisive victory. The mutual rivalries of the states, however, prevented them from turning this to good account. Barbarossa's grandson, Frederick II, was a child of four when he succeeded to the Swabian inheritance and, through his mother, to that of Sicily.

It was now that the powerful Pope Innocent III so greatly extended the temporal power of the papacy, and that the rival parties of Guelfs and Ghibelins, adherents the one of the papacy, the other of the empire, were established as factions in practically every Italian city. When the young Frederick grew up he was drawn into a long struggle with the papacy, which ended in the overthrow of the imperial authority.

From this time the quarrels of Guelfs and Ghibelins for the most part became mere family feuds resting on no principles. Charles of Anjou was adopted as papal champion; the republics of the north were in effect controlled by despots for a brief moment. Rome revived her republicanism under the leadership of Rienzi. In the general chaos the principal interest attaches to the peculiar but highly complicated form of democracy developed in Florence, where the old patrician families were virtually disfranchised. Wild and disorderly as was the state of Florence, the records certainly point to the conditions having been far worse in the cities ruled by the Visconti and their like.

Of all the northern cities Venice achieved the highest political position; isolated to a great extent from the political problems of the cities of Lombardy and Tuscany, she developed her wealth and her commerce by the sea. In effect her government was a close oligarchy, possessed of complete control over elections, which in theory were originally popular. The oligarchy reached its highest and narrowest development with the institution of the famous Council of Ten.

When the Roman empire was tottering, the Visigoths established their dominion in Spain. In 712 Saracen invaders made themselves masters of the greater part of the peninsula. The Christians were driven into the more northern parts and formed a number of small states out of which were developed the kingdoms of Navarre, Leon and Castile, and Aragon. During the thirteenth century great territories were recovered from the Moors, but the advance ceased as the Moors were reduced to the compact kingdom of Granada. In the fourteenth century the struggle for Castile between Pedro the Cruel and his brother established the house of Trastamare on the throne. The crowns of Castile and Aragon were united by the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand.

THE government of the old Gothic monarchy was through the crown and a council of prelates and nobles. At a comparatively early date, however, the Cortes was attended by deputies from the town, though the number of these was afterwards closely limited.

The principle of taxation through representatives was recognized, and laws could neither be made nor annulled except in the Cortes. This constitutionalism was varied by the claim of the nobles to assume forcible control when matters were conducted in a fashion of which they disapproved.


WHEN the German branch of the Carlovingian dynasty became extinct the five German nations--Franconia, Swabia, Bavaria, Saxony and Lorraine--resolved to make the German kingship elective. For some generations the crown was bestowed on the Saxon Ottos. On the extinction of their house in 1024 it was succeeded by a Franconian dynasty, which came into collision with the papacy under Pope Gregory VII. On the extinction of this line in 1137, Germany became divided between the partisans of the houses of Swabia and Saxony, the Wibelungs and Welfs--the origin of the Ghibelins and Guelfs. The Swabian house, the Hohenstauffen, gained the ascendancy in the person of Frederick Barbarossa.

The rule of the Swabian house is most intimately connected with Italian history. In the thirteenth century the principle that the right of election of the emperor lay with seven electors was apparently becoming established. These were the archbishops of Mentz, Treves and Cologne, the Duke of Saxony, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the King of Bohemia and the Margrave of Brandenburg. In all other respects, however, several other dukes or princes were at least on an equality with the electors.

IN 1272 the election fell on the capable Rudolph of Hapsburg, and for some time after this the emperors were chosen from the houses of Austria, Bavaria, or Luxembourg. A preponderating authority was given to the electors by the Golden Bull of Charles IV in 1355. The power of the emperor as against the princes was increased, as that of the latter was counter-balanced by the development of free cities. Considerable reforms were introduced at the close of our period, mainly by Maximilian.

Throughout the early Middle Ages the Church acquired enormous wealth and Church lands were free from taxation. It was not till a comparatively late period that the payment of tithes was enforced by law. Not infrequently the Church was despoiled by violence, but the balance was more than recovered by fraud. By the time of Charlemagne the clergy were almost exempt from civil jurisdiction and held practically an exclusive authority in matters of religion. The state, however, maintained its temporal supremacy.

It was under Gregory the Great that the papacy acquired its great supremacy over the provincial churches. As the power of the Church grew after the death of Charlemagne, partly from the inclination of weak kings to lean on ecclesiastical support, the papal claims to authority developed, and began to be maintained by the penalties of excommunication and interdict.

A PERIOD of extreme laxity in the tenth century was to be brought to a close in the eleventh, partly by the pressure brought to bear on the papacy by the Saxon emperors, but still more by the ambitious resolution of Gregory VII. This remarkable man was determined to assert the complete supremacy of the Holy See over all secular powers. He refused to recognize the right of secular princes to make ecclesiastical appointments within their own dominions, and he emphasised the distinction between the priesthood, as a caste having divine authority, and the laity by enforcing with the utmost strictness the ecclesiastical law of celibacy.

In the contest between Gregory and the emperor it seemed for a moment as if the secular power had won the victory; but, in fact, throughout the twelfth century, the claims which Gregory had put forward were becoming practically effective. These papal pretensions reached their climax in the great Pope Innocent III, who asserted with practical success the right to pronounce absolutely on all disputes between princes, or between princes and their subjects, and to depose those who rejected his authority. Throughout the thirteenth century Rome was once more mistress of the world.

AT last, however, the papal aggressor met his match in Philip the Fair. When Boniface XIII died, his successors first submitted to the French monarchy and then became its nominees, while they resided at Avignon virtually under French control. The restoration of the Pontificate to Rome, in 1375, was shortly followed by the great schism. For some years there were two rival popes, each of whom was recognized by one or the other half of Western Christendom. This was terminated by the Council of Constance, which incidentally affirmed the supremacy of general councils over the pope. The following council at Basel was distinctly anti-papal; but the papacy had the better of the contest.


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