At one point during the Tübingen conference, Charles West described the eleventh-century reform movement as (to paraphrase slightly) ‘Carolingian ecclesiology with added pope’. The role played by the popes in the eleventh century – particularly Pope Gregory VII – has been and still is subject to major historical scrutiny, as is probably to be expected when an emperor stands barefoot outside your door in the snow asking you to forgive him; at the least, it indicates a good publicity machine. Talking to us about popes was Kriston Rennie of the University of Queensland, and what stood out for me was one comment in particular he made, about how the mixed reputation of the tenth-century papacy does not seem to have had any particular impact on its appeal.
The tenth-century ‘not-called-the-pornocracy-anymore’ papacy is notorious for its bad behaviour. Of course, a large part of the reason for that is that Ottonian historians, particularly but not exclusively Liutprand of Cremona, had a lot of fun in the latter tenth century trashing the reputations of Italian politicians in the name of justifying the Saxon kings’ interventions in the peninsula, so quite how badly-behaved the popes really were is a matter of some debate. Nonetheless, tenth-century Rome was home to popes deeply entrenched in often-vicious local politics and possible sexual scandal. Pope Sergius III (904-911), for instance, is supposed to have strangled his rivals for the papal throne and engaged in a number of sexual liasons.
And, of course, none of this seems to effect the papacy’s moral authority. The question this provoked for me was ‘how far can one remove the actual popes from the history of the papacy during this period?’ This is something of an intellectual game, because I certainly wouldn’t want to argue that individual popes had no agency. Nevertheless, if we imagine, say, that after the Cadaver Synod Pope Stephen had dropped dead and they’d just decided to keep Pope Formosus’ body as pope for the rest of the century, how much would have changed?
In several cases, not much. Take, for instance, the foundation of the abbey of Cluny in 910. One of the things which eventually turns out to be important about Cluny is that it is, from the start, made subject to papal authority. To quote the foundation charter:
Let the said monks pay 10 solidi every five years to the threshold of the apostles at Rome, to provide them with their lighting, and let them have the protection of the same apostles and the defence of the Roman pontiff… And I appeal and entreat through God and in God, and by all His saints and the tremendous day of Judgement that no secular prince, no count, nor any bishop, nor the pontiff of the aforesaid seat of Rome should invade the things of those servants of God… And I beseech you, O holy apostles and glorious princes of the Earth, Peter and Paul, and you, pontiff of pontiffs of the apostolic seat, that through the canonical and apostolic authority which you accepted from God, you should remove from the company of the holy Church of God and eternal life the robbers and invaders and abductors of these goods… and that you might be tutors and defenders of the said place of Cluny, and the servants of God living there… (translation here mine; link goes to the Internet Medieval Sourcebook)
And so, put under the pope’s protection, Cluniac monks eventually come to be of paramount importance to wider trends in monastic reform, and then Church reform more generally, and next thing you know it’s emperor-in-the-snow time.
None of this would have been tremendously apparent at the time, so the question becomes, why invoke the pope? The pope at the time was the aforementioned Sergius III, whose personal moral authority may or may not have been questionable, but who in any case wasn’t going to lead an army into the Mâconnais (the region of France where Cluny is) to defend it.
An important contextual element here is that the Mâconnais, in 910, was a frontier region between two massive personal hegemonies: the Aquitaine of William the Pious, who founded Cluny; and the Burgundy of Richard the Justiciar. (This map is about as good as it gets…) Mâcon was under William’s control, but on the fringe of his sphere of influence, which was centred further to the west. Richard, who must win the prize for ‘tenth-century Gaul’s biggest opportunist’, probably saw an opportunity for territorial expansion at William’s expense (as he certainly did later in Bourges, which was similarly placed). An important method of gaining control of a region was to take control of its most important monasteries, through an institution known an lay abbacy, which is exactly what it sounds like: laymen ruling an abbey as abbot. This gave them access to the abbey’s resources, which could be substantial. Richard’s rise to power in Burgundy had been facilitated not least by takeovers of lay abbacies in this manner, including Sainte-Colombe in Sens and Saint-Germain in Auxerre.
So when William founded an important abbey in this region, it could potentially be a support of his rule there – or it could be a target for a regional takeover. By placing the abbey under papal protection, William effectively removed the possibility of Richard (or anyone else) taking over Cluny’s lay abbacy, whilst retaining a personal hegemony in the form of an informal alliance. As several generations of West Frankish nobles were to discover, being ‘close friends’ with an abbey was as effective a means of influence over monasteries as being the official ruler. To accomplish this, though, it was enough to invoke papal authority – the pope didn’t actually need to get involved in any way, because the main point was to de-legitimize other modes of interaction with the abbey than the one William was already monopolising, i.e., informal alliance.
This kind of ‘demand-driven’ expansion of papal authority appears to have been cumulatively significant over the course of the tenth century; the influence of Rome expanded organically, without the popes necessarily getting involved at all. However, it carried with it the potential to turn influence into power – to take the Cluny example, once the pope’s authority was invoked, the abbey was inextricably linked with the papacy, at the very minimum because someone actually had to go to Rome to give them the 10 solidi, and friendships, correspondence, and political and personal ties would naturally follow on. This kind of connection then provides a pope who does want to get actively involved something on which to pull to get his way; it doesn’t explain why a pope might want to start interfering in the Church at large, but it is an important part of the picture as to why they can.
(As a final note, I should mention here that Barbara Rosenwein has a different explanation of the political context here, one where the specific pope does in fact matter…)