Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Reform and Schism


If the Bishop of Rome could poke his nose into the affairs of Burgundy, then why not those of everywhere else?

-          Millennium, Tom Holland

The time was the mid-eleventh century.  At issue was the Cluny Abbey, a Benedictine Monastery with its founding and funding based on a significant gift in 910 from Duke William I of Aquitaine.  He gifted the monastery with no remaining interest to be held other than that the monastery prays for his family.  Having as its protector St. Peter, the monastery was left to rely on Peter’s vicar, the Pope.  And it turned out, usually, when the Pope spoke on such matters, the local nobles would listen.

But this also moved the position of pope from a local plaything of Roman dynasts to a position of importance to a wider Christendom.  Yet, could the papacy come under sufficient reform to make the extension of its authority acceptable to this wider audience?

Onto the stage stepped Henry III, son of Conrad, in 1039 at his father’s death.  Described by Holland as “a king of rare piety and conscientiousness,” Henry was well suited to the task of bringing king and Church together in the task of reforming a very corrupted Church.

[Henry’s] displays of humility, heartfelt though they were, did nothing to diminish his firm conviction that the sway of the Christian people had been granted him directly by God.

A scary notion, depending on the character of the one who holds it.

In 1043, he would hold a peace conference – not called by the bishops, but by Henry himself – at which he announced his forgiveness of his enemies.  A few years later, after feeling properly secure in his authority over the Reich, he led an expedition to Italy.  There, he would find not one pope, but three.

A truly monstrous state of affairs – and one that provided a fitting climax to the scandal-stained career of Benedict IX.

Apparently even the Romans had enough of Benedict, driving him temporarily from Rome and replacing him with Sylvester III, “an anonymous patsy quite unworthy of his title….”  Two years later, Benedict would return and was installed on his throne.  Reformers, tired of waiting, would install a third pope, Gregory VI, who would declare himself the patron of reform.

Henry, meanwhile, desiring to be emperor, would require one pope who would do him this honor.  He convened a meeting of the three, and deposed them all.  Then he would name one of his own: Clement II.  A few days later, and on Christmas Day, Henry would be anointed as the heir to Charlemagne. 

Clement would soon die, as would others popes in quick succession.  Finally, Bruno of Toul took the seat as Leo IX.  Laws against simony were enforced, many bishops deposed.  Those who would not attend hearings were excommunicated.  The full force of popular opinion was behind these moves.

Into this excitement steps one Humbert of Moyenmoutier.  He was able to demonstrate a most momentous conclusion: the papacy – the bishop of Rome – had an ancient entitlement to rule the entire Christian world.  But this was not all:

‘For such is the reverence among Christians for the holder of the apostolic office of Rome,’ Humbert coolly insisted, ‘that they prefer to receive the holy commandments and the traditions of their faith from the mouth of the head of the Church rather than from the Holy Scriptures or the writings of the Fathers.’

An avenue to destroy tradition and bring on permanent revolution!  Again, a scary notion, depending on the character of the one who wields such authority.  Humbert would be promoted to the position of cardinal bishop.  Until this time, the title of cardinal was little more than ceremonial.  Under Leo, the college of cardinals would become a powerhouse of administrative talent, manned by powerful reformers.

As positive as some of the changes brought on by Leo were, he lacked what all popes lacked – an iron fist.  Rome stood on the frontline of Islam; Constantinople and the Byzantines held many of the major ports.  And in this condition, he was presented a new foe in the south – the Normans, blackened vineyards, half-burned churches, and twisted corpses left in their wake.

Leo’s calls for an army went almost unheeded; beyond a few hundred Swabian swordsmen, no help came.  In 1053. he took an unprecedented step: for the first time, the pope formally blessed a standard of battle.  Princes from southern Italy were called; absolution from the stain of bloodshed was offered.  No longer mere levies: the pope himself would lead the army against the Normans.

The Normans sought a truce; Leo, having now gathered forces, refused.  The Normans crushed Leo’s army, “with all the ferocity of starving wolves assailing a flock of sheep.”  Leo would be handed over to the Normans; the Normans would beg for forgiveness from the pope – yet kept the pope as prisoner, until he accepted the right of the Norman conquest.

Yet there was still work to be done, and Leo could not call on Henry for help – as Henry had unrest in Bavaria pressing on his empire.  So Leo would turn to Constantinople, sending an embassy in 1054 to call on the other Caesar of the Christian world.  It would be Cardinal Humbert – the same Humbert who “proved” that the bishop of Rome held all authority in Christendom, and who declared that this bishop’s words held more authority than the Scriptures and than the Fathers of the Church.

Humbert would find, not a run-down city like Rome, but a city worthy of the title of the capital of the Roman Empire.  He would find armies manning walls twelve-miles long; in the forum, proclamations from Caesar would be read out; most impressively, he would find the largest cathedral in the world – Hagia Sophia.

Did this bring any humility to Humbert?  No. 

Not even through gritted teeth could Humbert bring himself to agree with his hosts that their Patriarch might rank as the peer of the Pope.

If only Humbert could have limited his concerns to the task of diplomacy, none of this would have mattered.  But he could not.  This would override the desire of both sides: to form a military alliance against their common enemy.  Even before arriving in Constantinople, Humbert and the Patriarch, Michael Cerularius, were firing off abusive letters to each other.  They were dredging up every detail of every disagreement that ever existed between their churches.

And then the event that would bring on the Great Schism: on 16 July, Humbert, dressed in the full regalia of a prince of the Roman Church, marched into the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, accompanied by his fellow legates.  He ignored the clergy there, gathered to celebrate Mass, and went up to the gilded alter:

There, paying no attention to the rising hubbub of indignation from behind him, he slapped down a bull of excommunication against the Patriarch, before turning briskly on his heels.  Two days later, as the streets of Constantinople seethed with fury, he departed from Rome.

Cerularius, meanwhile, would anathematize Humbert in turn, and consigned the papal bull to the bonfire.

There was still hope in some quarters for a reconciliation, and another mission was dispatched three years later, but aborted almost immediately due to the death of the then-current Pope, Stephen IX.


I have no conclusion beyond noting that, coincidently, I am reading this passage from Holland’s book while having just started reading and writing about the history of Christendom from the point of view of an Orthodox priest and scholar.  It is a fortunate coincidence, and it seemed appropriate to insert this history at the beginning of the other study.


  1. And we thought our troubles were unique! Truly, as the sage of Ecclesiastes said so many thousands of years ago, "There is nothing new under the sun."

    1. Yes, nothing new - and they had it much worse then.