Vol. 4, Chapter IV (Cont’d) – Founding of the Holy Roman Empire, a.d. 800. Charlemagne and Leo III


G. Sugenheim: Geschichte der Entstehung und Ausbildung des Kirchenstaates. Leipz. 1854.

F. Scharpff: Die Entstehung des kirchenstaats. Freib. i. B. 1860.

TH. D. Mock: De Donatione a Carolo Mag. sedi apostolicae anno 774 oblata. Munich 1861.

James Bryce: The Holy Roman Empire. Lond. & N. York (Macmillan & Co.) 6th ed. 1876, 8th ed. 1880. German translation by Arthur Winckler.

Heinrich von Sybel: Die Schenkungen der Karolinger an die Päpste. In Sybel’s “Hist. Zeitschrift,” München & Leipz. 1880, pp. 46-85.

Comp. Baxmann: I. 307 sqq.; Vétault: Ch. III. pp. 113 sqq. (Charlemagne, patrice des Romains-Formation des états de l’église).

Charlemagne inherited the protectorate of the temporal dominions of the pope which had been wrested from the Lombards by Pepin, as the Lombards had wrested them from the Eastern emperor. When the Lombards again rebelled and the pope (Hadrian) again appealed to the transalpine monarch for help, Charles in the third year of his sole reign (774) came to the rescue, crossed the Alps with an army — a formidable undertaking in those days — subdued Italy with the exception of a small part of the South still belonging to the Greek empire, held a triumphal entry in Rome, and renewed and probably enlarged his father’s gift to the pope. The original documents have perished, and no contemporary authority vouches for the details; but the fact is undoubted. The gift rested only on the right of conquest. Henceforward he always styled himself “Rex Francorum et Longobardorum, et Patricius Romanorum.” His authority over the immediate territory of the Lombards in Northern Italy was as complete as that in France, but the precise nature of his authority over the pope’s dominion as Patrician of the Romans became after his death an apple of discord for centuries. Hadrian, to judge from his letters, considered himself as much an absolute sovereign in his dominion as Charles in his.

In 781 at Easter Charles revisited Rome with his son Pepin, who on that occasion was anointed by the pope “King for Italy” (“Rex in Italiam”). On a third visit., in 787, he spent a few days with his friend, Hadrian, in the interest of the patrimony of St. Peter. When Leo III. followed Hadrian (796) he immediately dispatched to Charles, as tokens of submission, the keys and standards of the city, and the keys of the sepulchre of Peter.

A few years afterwards a terrible riot broke out in Rome in which the pope was assaulted and almost killed (799). He fled for help to Charles, then at Paderborn in Westphalia, and was promised assistance. The next year Charles again crossed the Alps and declared his intention to investigate the charges of certain unknown crimes against Leo, but no witness appeared to prove them. Leo publicly read a declaration of his own innocence, probably at the request of Charles, but with a protest that this declaration should not be taken for a precedent. Soon afterwards occurred the great event which marks an era in the ecclesiastical and political history of Europe.


The Coronation of Charles as Emperor

While Charles was celebrating Christmas in St. Peter’s, in the year of our Lord 800, and kneeling in prayer before the altar, the pope, as under a sudden inspiration (but no doubt in consequence of a premeditated scheme), placed a golden crown upon his head, and the Roman people shouted three times: “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, the great and pacific emperor of the Romans, life and victory!” Forthwith, after ancient custom, he was adored by the pope, and was styled henceforth (instead of Patrician) Emperor and Augustus.

The new emperor presented to the pope a round table of silver with the picture of Constantinople, and many gifts of gold, and remained in Rome till Easter. The moment or manner of the coronation may have been unexpected by Charles (if we are to believe his word), but it is hardly conceivable that it was not the result of a previous arrangement between him and Leo. Alcuin seems to have aided the scheme. In his view the pope occupied the first, the emperor the second, the king the third degree in the scale of earthly dignities. He sent to Charles from Tours before his coronation a splendid Bible with the inscription: Ad splendorem imperialis potentiae.

On his return to France Charles compelled all his subjects to take a new oath to him as “Caesar.” He assumed the full title “Serenssimus Augustus a Deo coronatus, magnus et pacificus imperator, Romanum gubernans imperium, qui et per misericordiam Dei rex Francorum et Longobardorum.”


Significance of the Act

The act of coronation was on the part of the pope a final declaration of independence and self-emancipation against the Greek emperor, as the legal ruler of Rome. Charles seems to have felt this, and hence he proposed to unite the two empires by marrying Irene, who had put her son to death and usurped the Greek crown (797). But the same rebellion had been virtually committed before by the pope in sending the keys of the city to Pepin, and by the French king in accepting this token of temporal sovereignty. Public opinion justified the act on the principle that might makes right. The Greek emperor, being unable to maintain his power in Italy and to defend his own subjects, first against the Lombards and then against the Franks, had virtually forfeited his claim.

For the West the event was the re-establishment, on a Teutonic basis, of the old Roman empire, which henceforth, together with the papacy, controlled the history of the middle ages. The pope and the emperor represented the highest dignity and power in church and state. But the pope was the greater and more enduring power of the two. He continued, down to the Reformation, the spiritual ruler of all Europe, and is to this day the ruler of an empire much vaster than that of ancient Rome. He is, in the striking language of Hobbes, “the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof.”


The Relation of the Pope and the Emperor

What was the legal and actual relation between these two sovereignties, and the limits of jurisdiction of each? This was the struggle of centuries. It involved many problems which could only be settled in the course of events. It was easy enough to distinguish the two in theory by, confining the pope to spiritual, and the emperor to temporal affairs. But on the theocratic theory of the union of church and state the two will and must come into frequent conflict.

The pope, by voluntarily conferring the imperial crown upon Charles, might claim that the empire was his gift, and that the right of crowning implied the right of discrowning. And this right was exercised by popes at a later period, who wielded the secular as well as the spiritual sword and absolved nations of their oath of allegiance. A mosaic picture in the triclinium of Leo III. in the Lateran (from the ninth century) represents St. Peter in glory, bestowing upon Leo kneeling at his right hand the priestly stole, and upon Charles kneeling at his left, the standard of Rome. This is the medieval hierarchical theory, which derives all power from God through Peter as the head of the church. Gregory VII. compared the church to the sun, the state to the moon who derives her light from the sun. The popes will always maintain the principle of the absolute supremacy of the church over the state, and support or oppose a government — whether it be an empire or a kingdom or a republic — according to the degree of its subserviency to the interests of the hierarchy. The papal Syllabus of 1864 expresses the genuine spirit of the system in irreconcilable conflict with the spirit of modern history and civilization. The Vatican Palace is the richest museum of classical and medieval curiosities, and the pope himself, the infallible oracle of two hundred millions of souls, is by far the greatest curiosity in it.

On the other hand Charles, although devotedly attached to the church and the pope, was too absolute a monarch to recognize a sovereignty within his sovereignty. He derived his idea of the theocracy from the Old Testament, and the relation between Moses and Aaron. He understood and exercised his imperial dignity pretty much in the same way as Constantine the Great and Theodosius the Great had done in the Byzantine empire, which was caesaro-papal in principle and practice, and so is its successor, the Russian empire. Charles believed that he was the divinely appointed protector of the church and the regulator of all her external and to some extent also the internal affairs. He called the synods of his empire without asking the pope. He presided at the Council of Frankfort (794), which legislated on matters of doctrine and discipline, condemned the Adoption heresy, agreeably to the pope, and rejected the image worship against the decision of the second ecumenical Council of Nicaea (787) and the declared views of several popes. He appointed bishops and abbots as well as counts, and if a vacancy in the papacy, had occurred during the remainder of his life, he would probably have filled it as well as the ordinary bishoprics. The first act after his coronation was to summon and condemn to death for treason those who had attempted to depose the pope. He thus acted as judge in the case. A Council at Mayence in 813 called him in an official document “the pious ruler of the holy church.”

Charles regarded the royal and imperial dignity as the hereditary possession of his house and people, and crowned his son, Louis the Pious, at Aix-la-Chapelle in 813, without consulting the pope or the Romans. He himself as a Teuton represented both France and Germany. But with the political separation of the two countries under his successors, the imperial dignity was attached to the German crown. Hence also the designation: the holy German Roman empire.


58. Survey of the History of the Holy Roman Empire

The readiness with which the Romans responded to the crowning act of Leo proves that the re-establishment of the Western empire was timely. The Holy Roman Empire seemed to be the necessary counterpart of the Holy Roman Church. For many, centuries the nations of Europe had been used to the concentration of all secular power in one head. It is true, several Roman emperors from Nero to Diocletian had persecuted Christianity by fire and sword, but Constantine and his successors had raised the church to dignity and power, and bestowed upon it all the privileges of a state religion. The transfer of the seat of empire from Rome to Constantinople withdrew from the Western church the protection of the secular arm, and exposed Europe to the horrors of barbarian invasion and the chaos of civil wars. The popes were among the chief sufferers, their territory, being again and again overrun and laid waste by the savage Lombards. Hence the instinctive desire for the protecting arm of a new empire, and this could only be expected from the fresh and vigorous Teutonic power which had risen beyond the Alps and Christianized by Roman missionaries. Into this empire “all the life of the ancient world was gathered; out of it all the life of the modern world arose.”


The Empire and the Papacy, the Two Ruling Powers of the Middle Ages

Henceforward the medieval history of Europe is chiefly a history of the papacy and the empire. They were regarded as the two arms of God in governing the church and the world. This twofold government was upon the whole the best training-school of the barbarian for Christian civilization and freedom. The papacy acted as a wholesome check upon military despotism, the empire as a check upon the abuses of priestcraft. Both secured order and unity against the disintegrating tendencies of society; both nourished the great idea of a commonwealth of nations, of a brotherhood of mankind, of a communion of saints. By its connection with Rome, the empire infused new blood into the old nationalities of the South, and transferred the remaining treasures of classical culture and the Roman law to the new nations of the North. The tendency of both was ultimately self-destructive; they fostered, while seeming to oppose, the spirit of ecclesiastical and national independence. The discipline of authority always produces freedom as its legitimate result. The law is a schoolmaster to lead men to the gospel.


Otho the Great

In the opening chapter of the history of the empire we find it under the control of a master-mind and in friendly alliance with the papacy. Under the weak successors of Charlemagne it dwindled down to a merely nominal existence. But it revived again in Otho I. or the Great (936-973), of the Saxon dynasty. He was master of the pope and defender of the Roman church, and left everywhere the impress of an heroic character, inferior only to that of Charles. Under Henry III. (1039-1056), when the papacy sank lowest, the empire again proved a reforming power. He deposed three rival popes, and elected a worthy successor. But as the papacy rose from its degradation, it overawed the empire.


Henry IV. and Gregory VII.

Under Henry IV. (1056-1106) and Gregory VII. (1073-1085) the two power; came into the sharpest conflict concerning the right of investiture, or the supreme control in the election of bishops and abbots. The papacy achieved a moral triumph over the empire at Canossa, when the mightiest prince kneeled as a penitent at the feet of the proud successor of Peter (1077); but Henry recovered his manhood and his power, set up an antipope, and Gregory died in exile at Salerno, yet without yielding an inch of his principles and pretensions. The conflict lasted fifty years, and ended with the Concordat of Worms (Sept. 23, 1122), which was a compromise, but with a limitation of the imperial prerogative: the pope secured the right to invest the bishops with the ring and crozier, but the new bishop before his consecration was to receive his temporal estates as a fief of the crown by the touch of the emperor’s sceptre.


The House of Hohenstaufen

Under the Swabian emperors of the house of Hohenstaufen (1138-1254) the Roman empire reached its highest power in connection with the Crusades, in the palmy days of medieval chivalry, poetry and song. They excelled in personal greatness and renown the Saxon and the Salic emperors, but were too much concerned with Italian affairs for the good of Germany. Frederick Barbarossa (Redbeard), during his long reign (1152-1190), was a worthy successor of Charlemagne and Otho the Great. He subdued Northern Italy, quarrelled with pope Alexander III., enthroned two rival popes (Paschal III., and after his death Calixtus III.), but ultimately submitted to Alexander, fell at his feet at Venice, and was embraced by the pope with tears of joy and the kiss of peace (1177). He died at the head of an army of crusaders, while attempting to cross the Cydnus in Cilicia (June 10, 1190), and entered upon his long enchanted sleep in Kyffhaeuser till his spirit reappeared to establish a new German empire in 1871.

Under Innocent III. (1198-1216) the papacy reached the acme of its power, and maintained it till the time of Boniface VIII. (1294-1303). Emperor Frederick II. (1215-1250), Barbarossa’s grandson, was equal to the best of his predecessors in genius and energy, superior to them in culture, but more an Italian than a German, and a skeptic on the subject of religion. He reconquered Jerusalem in the fifth crusade, but cared little for the church, and was put under the ban by pope Gregory IX., who denounced him as a heretic and blasphemer, and compared him to the Apocalyptic beast from the abyss. The news of his sudden death was hailed by pope Innocent IV. with the exclamation: “Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad.” His death was the collapse of the house of Hohenstaufen, and for a time also of the Roman empire. His son and successor Conrad IV. ruled but a few years, and his grandson Conradin, a bright and innocent youth of sixteen, was opposed by the pope, and beheaded at Naples in sight of his hereditary kingdom (October 29, 1268).

Italy was at once the paradise and the grave of German ambition.


The German Empire

After “the great interregnum” when might was right, the Swiss count Rudolf of Hapsburg (a castle in the Swiss canton of Aargau) was elected emperor by the seven electors, and crowned at Aachen (1273-1291). He restored peace and order, never visited Italy, escaped the ruinous quarrels with the pope, built up a German kingdom, and laid the foundation of the conservative, orthodox, tenacious, and selfish house of Austria.

The empire continued to live for more than five centuries with varying fortunes, in nominal connection with Rome and at the head of the secular powers in Christendom, but without controlling influence over the fortunes of the papacy and the course of Europe. Occasionally it sent forth a gleam of its universal aim, as under Henry VII., who was crowned in Rome and hailed by Dante as the saviour of Italy, but died of fever (if not of poison administered by a Dominican monk in the sacramental cup) in Tuscany (1313); under Sigismund, the convener and protector of the ecumenical Council at Constance which deposed popes and burned Hus (1414), a much better man than either the emperor or the contemporary popes; under Charles V. (1519-1558), who wore the crown of Spain and Austria as well as of Germany, and on whose dominions the sun never set; and under Joseph II. (1765-1790), who renounced the intolerant policy of his ancestors, unmindful of the pope’s protest, and narrowly escaped greatness. But the emperors after Rudolf, with a few exceptions, were no more crowned in Rome, and withdrew from Italy. They were chosen at Frankfort by the Seven Electors, three spiritual, and four temporal: the archbishops of Mentz, Treves, and Cologne, the king of Bohemia, and the Electors of the Palatinate, Saxony, and Brandenburg (afterwards enlarged to nine). The competition, however, was confined to a few powerful houses, until in the 15th century the Hapsburgs grasped the crown and held it tenaciously, with one exception, till the dissolution. The Hapsburg emperors always cared more for their hereditary dominions, which they steadily increased by fortunate marriages, than for Germany and the papacy.


The Decline and Fall of the Empire

Many causes contributed to the gradual downfall of the German empire: the successful revolt of the Swiss mountaineers, the growth of the independent kingdoms of Spain, France, and England, the jealousies of the electors and the minor German princes, the discovery of a new Continent in the West, the invasion of the Turks from the East, the Reformation which divided the German people into two hostile religions, the fearful devastations of the thirty years’ war, the rise of the house of Hohenzollern and the kingdom of Prussia on German soil with the brilliant genius of Frederick II., and the wars growing out of the French Revolution. In its last stages it became a mere shadow, and justified the satirical description (traced to Voltaire), that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. The last of the emperors, Francis II., in August 6th, 1806, abdicated the elective crown of Germany and substituted for it the hereditary crown of Austria as Francis I. (d. 1835).

Thus the holy Roman empire died in peace at the venerable age of one thousand and six years.


The Empire of Napoleon

Napoleon, hurled into sudden power by the whirlwind of revolution on the wings of his military genius, aimed at the double glory of a second Caesar and a second Charlemagne, and constructed, by arbitrary force, a huge military empire on the basis of France, with the pope as an obedient paid servant at Paris, but it collapsed on the battle fields of Leipzig and Waterloo, without the hope of a resurrection. “I have not succeeded Louis Quatorze,” he said, “but Charlemagne.” He dismissed his wife and married a daughter of the last German and first Austrian emperor; he assumed the Lombard crown at Milan; he made his ill-fated son “King of Rome” in imitation of the German “King of the Romans.” He revoked “the donations which my predecessors, the French emperors have made,” and appropriated them to France. “Your holiness,” he wrote to Pius VII., who had once addressed him as his “very dear Son in Christ,” “is sovereign of Rome, but I am the emperor thereof.” “You are right,” he wrote to Cardinal Fesch, his uncle, “that I am Charlemagne, and I ought to be treated as the emperor of the papal court. I shall inform the pope of my intentions in a few words, and if he declines to acquiesce, I shall reduce him to the same condition in which he was before Charlemagne.” It is reported that he proposed to the pope to reside in Paris with a large salary, and rule the conscience of Europe under the military, supremacy of the emperor, that the pope listened first to his persuasion with the single remark: “Comedian,” and then to his threats with the reply: “Tragedian,” and turned him his back. The papacy utilized the empire of the uncle and the nephew, as well as it could, and survived them. But the first Napoleon swept away the effete institutions of feudalism, and by his ruthless and scornful treatment of conquered nationalities provoked a powerful revival of these very nationalities which overthrew and buried his own artificial empire. The deepest humiliation of the German nation, and especially of Prussia, was the beginning of its uprising in the war of liberation.


The German Confederation

The Congress of Vienna erected a temporary substitute for the old empire in the German “Bund” at Frankfort. It was no federal state, but a loose confederacy of 38 sovereign states, or princes rather, without any popular representation; it was a rope of sand, a sham unity, under the leadership of Austria; and Austria shrewdly and selfishly used the petty rivalries and jealousies of the smaller principalities as a means to check the progress of Prussia and to suppress all liberal movements.


The New German Empire

In the meantime the popular desire for national union, awakened by the war of liberation and a great national literature, made steady progress, and found at last its embodiment in a new German empire with a liberal constitution and a national parliament. But this great result was brought about by great events and achievements under the leadership of Prussia against foreign aggression. The first step was the brilliant victory of Prussia over Austria at Königgrätz, which resulted in the formation of the North German Confederation (1866). The second step was the still more remarkable triumph of united Germany in a war of self-defence against the empire of Napoleon III., which ended in the proclamation of William I. as German emperor by the united wishes of the German princes and peoples in the palace of Louis XIV. at Versailles (1870).

Thus the long dream of the German nation was fulfilled through a series of the most brilliant military and diplomatic victories recorded in modern history, by the combined genius of Bismarck, Moltke, and William, and the valor, discipline, and intelligence of the German army.

Simultaneously with this German movement, Italy under the lead of Cavour and Victor Emmanuel, achieved her national unity, with Rome as the political capital.

But the new German empire is not a continuation or revival of the old. It differs from it in several essential particulars. It is the result of popular national aspiration and of a war of self-defence, not of conquest; it is based on the predominance of Prussia and North Germany, not of Austria and South Germany; it is hereditary, not elective; it is controlled by modern ideas of liberty and progress, not by medieval notions and institutions; it is essentially Protestant, and not Roman Catholic; it is a German, not a Roman empire. Its rise is indirectly connected with the simultaneous downfall of the temporal power of the pope, who is the hereditary and unchangeable enemy both of German and Italian unity and freedom. The new empire is independent of the church, and has officially no connection with religion, resembling in this respect the government of the United States; but its Protestant animus appears not only in the hereditary religion of the first emperor, but also in the expulsion of the Jesuits (1872), and the “Culturkampf” against the politico-hierarchical aspirations of the ultramontane papacy. When Pius IX., in a letter to William I. (1873), claimed a sort of jurisdiction over all baptized Christians, the emperor courteously informed the infallible pope that he, with all Protestants, recognized no other mediator between God and man but our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The new German empire will and ought to do full justice to the Catholic church, but “will never go to Canossa.”

We pause at the close of a long and weighty chapter in history; we wonder what the next chapter will be.


59. The Papacy and the Empire from the Death of Charlemagne to Nicolas I (a.d. 814-858). Note on the Myth of the Papess Joan

The power of Charlemagne was personal. Under his weak successors the empire fell to pieces, and the creation of his genius was buried in chaotic confusion; but the idea survived. His son and successor, Louis the Pious, as the Germans and Italians called him, or Louis the Gentle (le débonnaire) in French history (814-840), inherited the piety, and some of the valor and legislative wisdom, but not the genius and energy, of his father. He was a devoted and superstitious servant of the clergy. He began with reforms, he dismissed his father’s concubines and daughters with their paramours from the court, turned the palace into a monastery, and promoted the Scandinavian mission of St. Ansgar. In the progress of his reign, especially after his second marriage to the ambitious Judith, he showed deplorable weakness and allowed his empire to decay, while he wasted his time between monkish exercises and field-sports in the forest of the Ardennes. He unwisely shared his rule with his three sons who soon rebelled against their father and engaged in fraternal wars.

After his death the treaty of Verdun was concluded in 843. By this treaty the empire was divided; Lothair received Italy with the title of emperor, France fell to Charles the Bald, Germany to Louis the German. Thus Charlemagne’s conception of a Western empire that should be commensurate with the Latin church was destroyed, or at least greatly contracted, and the three countries have henceforth a separate history. This was better for the development of nationality. The imperial dignity was afterwards united with the German crown, and continued under this modified form till 1806.

During this civil commotion the papacy had no distinguished representative, but upon the whole profited by it. Some of the popes evaded the imperial sanction of their election. The French clergy forced the gentle Louis to make at Soissons a most humiliating confession of guilt for all the slaughter, pillage, and sacrilege committed during the civil wars, and for bringing the empire to the brink of ruin. Thus the hierarchy assumed control even over the civil misconduct of the sovereign and imposed ecclesiastical penance for ft.


Note. The Myth of Johanna Papissa

We must make a passing mention of the curious and mysterious myth of papess Johanna, who is said during this period between Leo IV. (847) and Benedict III. (855) to have worn the triple crown for two years and a half. She was a lady of Mayence (her name is variously called Agnes, Gilberta, Johanna, Jutta), studied in disguise philosophy in Athens (where philosophy had long before died out), taught theology in Rome, under the name of Johannes Anglicus, and was elevated to the papal dignity as John VIII., but died in consequence of the discovery of her sex by a sudden confinement in the open street during a solemn procession from the Vatican to the Lateran. According to another tradition she was tied to the hoof of a horse, dragged outside of the city and stoned to death by the people, and the inscription was put on her grave:

“Parce pater patrum papissae edere partum.”

The strange story originated in Rome, and was first circulated by the Dominicans and Minorites, and acquired general credit in the 13th and 14th centuries. Pope John XX. (1276) called himself John XXI. In the beginning of the 15th century the bust of this woman-pope was placed alongside with the busts of the other popes at Sienna, and nobody took offence at it. Even Chancellor Gerson used the story as an argument that the church could err in matters of fact. At the Council in Constance it was used against the popes. Torrecremata, the upholder of papal despotism, draws from it the lesson that if the church can stand a woman-pope, she might stand the still greater evil of a heretical pope.

Nevertheless the story is undoubtedly a mere fiction, and is so regarded by nearly all modern historians, Protestant as well as Roman Catholic. It is not mentioned till four hundred years later by Stephen, a French Dominican (who died 1261). It was unknown to Photius and the bitter Greek polemics during the ninth and tenth centuries, who would not have missed the opportunity to make use of it as an argument against the papacy. There is no gap in the election of the popes between Leo and Benedict, who, according to contemporary historians, was canonically elected three days after the death of Leo IV. (which occurred July 17th, 855), or at all events in the same month, and consecrated two months after (Sept. 29th). See Jaffé, Regesta, p. 235. The myth was probably an allegory or satire on the monstrous government of women (Theodora and Marozia) over several licentious popes — Sergius III., John X., XI., and XII. — in the tenth century. So Heumann, Schröckh, Gibbon, Neander. The only serious objection to this solution is that the myth would be displaced from the ninth to the tenth century.

Other conjectures are these: The myth of the female pope was a satire on John VIII. for his softness in dealing with Photius (Baronius); the misunderstanding of a fact that some foreign bishop (pontifex) in Rome was really a woman in disguise (Leibnitz); the papess was a widow of Leo IV. (Kist); a misinterpretation of the stella stercoraria (Schmidt); a satirical allegory on the origin and circulation of the false decretals of Isidor (Henke and Gfrörer); an impersonation of the great whore of the Apocalypse, and the popular expression of the belief that the mystery of iniquity was working in the papal court (Baring-Gould).

David Blondel, first destroyed the credit of this medieval fiction, in his learned French dissertation on the subject (Amsterdam, 1649). Spanheim defended it, and Mosheim credited it much to his discredit as an historian. See the elaborate discussion of Döllinger, Papst-Fabeln des Mittelalters, 2d ed. München, 1863 (Engl. transl. N. Y., 1872, pp. 4-58 and pp. 430-437). Comp. also Bianchi-Giovini, Esame critico degli atti e documenti della papessa Giovanna, Mil. 1845, and the long note of Gieseler, II. 30-32 (N. Y. ed.), which sums up the chief data in the case.


60. The Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals

I. Sources

The only older ed. of Pseudo-Isidor is that of Jacob Merlin in the first part of his Collection of General Councils, Paris, 1523, Col., 1530, etc., reprinted in Migne’s Patrol. Tom. CXXX., Paris, 1853.

Far superior is the modern ed. of P. Hinschius: Decretales Pseudo-Isidorianae et Capitula Angilramni. Lips. 1863. The only critical ed, taken from the oldest and best MSS. Comp. his Commentatio de, Collectione Isidori Mercatoris in this ed. pp. xi-ccxxxviii.


II. Literature

Dav. Blondel: Pseudo-Isidorus et Turrianus vapulantes. Genev. 1628.

F. Knust: De Fontibus et Consilio Pseudo-Isidorianae collectionis. Gött. 1832.

A. Möhler (R.C.): Fragmente aus und über Isidor, in his “Vermischte Schriften” (ed. by Döllinger, Regensb. 1839), I. 285 sqq.

H. Wasserschleben: Beiträge zur Gesch. der falschen Decret. Breslau, 1844. Comp. also his art. in Herzog.

C. Jos. Hefele (R.C.): Die pseudo-Isidor. Frage, in the “Tübinger Quartalschrift,” 1847.

Gfrörer: Alter, Ursprung, Zweck der Decretalen des falschen Isodorus. Freib. 1848.

Jul. Weizsäcker: Hinkmar und Pseudo-Isidor, in Niedner’s “Zeitschrift für histor. Theol.,” for 1858, and Die pseudo-isid. Frage, in Sybel’s “Hist. Zeitschrift, “1860.

C. von Noorden: Ebo, Hinkmar und Pseudo-Isidor, in Sybel’s “Hist. Zeitschrift,” 1862.

Döllinger in Janus, 1869. It appeared in several editions and languages.

Ferd. Walter (R.C.): Lehrbuch des Kirchenrechts aller christl. Confessionen. Bonn (1822), 13th ed. 1861. The same transl. into French, Italian, and Spanish.

J. W. Bickell: Geschichte des Kirchenrechts. Giessen, 1843, 1849.

G. Phillips (R.C.): Kirchenrecht. Regensburg (1845), 3rd ed. 1857 sqq. 6 vols. (till 1864). His Lehrbuch, 1859, P. II. 1862.

Jo. Fr. von Schulte (R.C., since 1870 Old Cath.): Das Katholische Kirchenrecht. Giessen, P. I. 1860. Lehrbuch, 1873. Die Geschichte der Quellen und Literatur des Canonischen Rechts von Gratian bis auf die Gegenwart. Stuttgart, 1875 sqq.3 vols.

Aem. L. Richter: Lehrbuch des kath. und evang. Kirchenrechts. Leipz., sixth ed. by Dove, 1867 (on Pseudo-Isidor, pp. 102-133).

Henry C. Lea: Studies in Church History. Philad. 1869 (p. 43-102 on the False Decretals).

Friedr. Maassen (R.C.): Geschichte der Quellen und d. Literatur des canonischen Rechts im Abendlande. 1st vol., Gratz, 1870.

Comp. also for the whole history the great work of F. C. von Savigny: Geschichte des Roem. Rechts im Mittelalter. Heidelb. 2nd ed. 1834-’51, 7 vols.

See also the Lit. in vol. II. § 67.


The Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals

During the chaotic confusion under the Carolingians, in the middle of the ninth century, a mysterious book made its appearance, which gave legal expression to the popular opinion of the papacy, raised and strengthened its power more than any other agency, and forms to a large extent the basis of the canon law of the church of Rome. This is a collection of ecclesiastical laws under the false name of bishop Isidor of Seville (died 636), hence called the “Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals.” He was the reputed (though not the real) author of an earlier collection, based upon that of the Roman abbot, Dionysius Exiguus, in the sixth century, and used as the law-book of the church in Spain, hence called the “Hispana.” In these earlier collections the letters and decrees (Epistolae Decretales) of the popes from the time of Siricius (384) occupy a prominent place. A decretal in the canonical sense is an authoritative rescript of a pope in reply to some question, while a decree is a papal ordinance enacted with the advice of the Cardinals, without a previous inquiry. A canon is a law ordained by a general or provincial synod. A dogma is an ecclesiastical law relating to doctrine. The earliest decretals had moral rather than legislative force. But as the questions and appeals to the pope multiplied, the papal answers grew in authority. Fictitious documents, canons, and decretals were nothing new; but the Pseudo-Isidorian collection is the most colossal and effective fraud known in the history of ecclesiastical literature.

1. The contents of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals. The book is divided into three parts. The first part contains fifty Apostolical Canons from the collection of Dionysius, sixty spurious decretals of the Roman bishops from Clement (d. 101) to Melchiades (d. 314). The second part comprehends the forged document of the donation of Constantine, some tracts concerning the Council of Nicaea, and the canons of the Greek, African, Gallic, and Spanish Councils down to 683, from the Spanish collection. The third part, after a preface copied from the Hispana, gives in chronological order the decretals of the popes from Sylvester (d. 335) to Gregory II. (d. 731), among which thirty-five are forged, including all before Damasus; but the genuine letters also, which are taken from the Isidorian collection, contain interpolations. In many editions the Capitula Angilramni are appended.

All these documents make up a manual of orthodox doctrine and clerical discipline. They give dogmatic decisions against heresies, especially Arianism (which lingered long in Spain), and directions on worship, the sacraments, feasts and fasts, sacred rites and costumes, the consecration of churches, church property, and especially on church polity. The work breathes throughout the spirit of churchly and priestly piety and reverence.

2. The sacerdotal system. Pseudo-Isidor advocates the papal theocracy. The clergy is a divinely instituted, consecrated, and inviolable caste, mediating between God and the people, as in the Jewish dispensation. The priests are the “familiares Dei,” the “spirituales,” the laity the “carnales.” He who sins against them sins against God. They are subject to no earthly tribunal, and responsible to God alone, who appointed them judges of men. The privileges of the priesthood culminate in the episcopal dignity, and the episcopal dignity culminates in the papacy. The cathedra Petri is the fountain of all power. Without the consent of the pope no bishop can be deposed, no council be convened. He is the ultimate umpire of all controversy, and from him there is no appeal. He is often called “episcopus universalis” notwithstanding the protest of Gregory I.

3. The aim of Pseudo-Isidor is, by such a collection of authoritative decisions to protect the clergy against the secular power and against moral degeneracy. The power of the metropolitans is rather lowered in order to secure to the pope the definitive sentence in the trials of bishops. But it is manifestly wrong if older writers have put the chief aim of the work in the elevation of the papacy. The papacy appears rather as a means for the protection of episcopacy in its conflict with the civil government. It is the supreme guarantee of the rights of the bishops.

4. The genuineness of Pseudo-Isidor was not doubted during the middle ages (Hincmar only denied the legal application to the French church), but is now universally given up by Roman Catholic as well as Protestant historians.

The forgery is apparent. It is inconceivable that Dionysius Exiguus, who lived in Rome, should have been ignorant of such a large number of papal letters. The collection moreover is full of anachronisms: Roman bishops of the second and third centuries write in the Frankish Latin of the ninth century on doctrinal topics in the spirit of the post-Nicene orthodoxy and on medieval relations in church and state; they quote the Bible after the version of Jerome as amended under Charlemagne; Victor addresses Theophilus of Alexandria, who lived two hundred years later, on the paschal controversies of the second century.

The Donation of Constantine, which is incorporated in this collection, is an older forgery, and exists also in several Greek texts. It affirms that Constantine, when he was baptized by pope Sylvester, a.d. 324 (he was not baptized till 337, by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia), presented him with the Lateran palace and all imperial insignia, together with the Roman and Italian territory. The object of this forgery was to antedate by five centuries the temporal power of the papacy, which rests on the donations of Pepin and Charlemagne. The only foundation in fact is the donation of the Lateran palace, which was originally the palace of the Lateran family, then of the emperors, and last of the popes. The wife of Constantine, Fausta, resided in it, and on the transfer of the seat of empire to Constantinople, he left it to Sylvester, as the chief of the Roman clergy and nobility. Hence it contains to this day the pontifical throne with the inscription: “Haec est papalis sedes et pontificalis.” There the pope takes possession of the see of Rome. But the whole history of Constantine and his successors shows conclusively that they had no idea of transferring any part of their temporal sovereignty to the Roman pontiff.

5. The authorship must be assigned to some ecclesiastic of the Frankish church, probably of the diocese of Rheims, between 847 and 865 (or 857), but scholars differ as to the writer. Pseudo-Isidor literally quotes passages from a Paris Council of 829, and agrees in part with the collection of Benedictus Levita, completed in 847; on the other hand he is first quoted by a French Synod at Chiersy in 857, and then by Hincmar of Rheims repeatedly since 859. All the manuscripts are of French origin. The complaints of ecclesiastical disorders, depositions of bishops without trial, frivolous divorces, frequent sacrilege, suit best the period of the civil wars among the grandsons of Charlemagne. In Rome the Decretals were first known and quoted in 865 by pope Nicolaus I.

From the same period and of the same spirit are several collections of Capitula or Capitularia, i.e., of royal ecclesiastical ordinances which under the Carolingians took the place of synodical decisions. Among these we mention the collection of Ansegis, abbot of Fontenelles (827), of Benedictus Levita of Mayence (847), and the Capitula Angilramni, falsely ascribed to bishop Angilramnus of Metz (d. 701).

6. Significance of Pseudo-Isidor. It consists not so much in the novelty of the views and claims of the medieval priesthood, but in tracing them back from the ninth to the third and second centuries and stamping them with the authority of antiquity. Some of the leading principles had indeed been already asserted in the letters of Leo I. and other documents of the fifth century, yea the papal animus may be traced to Victor in the second century and to the Judaizing opponents of St. Paul. But in this collection the entire hierarchical and sacerdotal system, which was the growth of several centuries, appears as something complete and unchangeable from the very beginning. We have a parallel phenomenon in the Apostolic Constitutions and Canons which gather into one whole the ecclesiastical decisions of the first three centuries, and trace them directly to the apostles or their disciple, Clement of Rome.

Pseudo-Isidorus was no doubt a sincere believer in the hierarchical system; nevertheless his Collection is to a large extent a conscious high church fraud, and must as such be traced to the father of lies. It belongs to the Satanic element in the history of the Christian hierarchy, which has as little escaped temptation and contamination as the Jewish hierarchy.


61. Nicolas I., April, 858-Nov. 13, 867

I. The Epistles of Nicolas I. in Mansi’s Conc. XV., and in Migne’s Patrol. Tom. CXIX. Comp. also Jaffé, Regesta, pp. 237-254.

Hincmari (Rhemensis Archiepiscopi) Oper. Omnia. In Migne’s Patrol. Tom. 125 and 126. An older ed. by J. Sirmond, Par. 1645, 2 vols. fol.

Hugo Lämmer: Nikolaus I. und die Byzantinische Staatskirche seiner Zeit. Berlin, 1857.

A. Thiel: De Nicolao Papa. Comment. duae Hist. canonicae. Brunzberg, 1859.

Van Noorden: Hincmar, Erzbischof von Rheims. Bonn, 1863.

Hergenröther (R.C. Prof at Würzburg, now Cardinal): Photius. Regensburg, 1867-1869, 3 vols.

Comp. Baxmann II. 1-29; Milman, Book V. ch.4 (vol. III. 24-46); Hefele, Conciliengesch. vol. IV., (2nd ed.), 228 sqq; and other works quoted § 48.

By a remarkable coincidence the publication of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals synchronized with the appearance of a pope who had the ability and opportunity to carry the principles of the Decretals into practical effect, and the good fortune to do it in the service of justice and virtue. So long as the usurpation of divine power was used against oppression and vice, it commanded veneration and obedience, and did more good than harm. It was only the pope who in those days could claim a superior authority in dealing with haughty and oppressive metropolitans, synods, kings and emperors.

Nicolas I. is the greatest pope, we may say the only great pope between Gregory I. and Gregory VII. He stands between them as one of three peaks of a lofty mountain, separated from the lower peak by a plane, and from the higher peak by a deep valley. He appeared to his younger contemporaries as a “new Elijah,” who ruled the world like a sovereign of divine appointment, terrible to the evil-doer whether prince or priest, yet mild to the good and obedient. He was elected less by the influence of the clergy than of the emperor Louis II., and consecrated in his presence; he lived with him on terms of friendship, and was treated in turn with great deference to his papal dignity. He anticipated Hildebrand in the lofty conception of his office; and his energy and boldness of character corresponded with it. The pope was in his view the divinely appointed superintendent of the whole church for the maintenance of order, discipline and righteousness, and the punishment of wrong and vice, with the aid of the bishops as his executive organs. He assumed an imperious tone towards the Carolingians. He regarded the imperial crown a grant of the vicar of St. Peter for the protection of Christians against infidels. The empire descended to Louis by hereditary right, but was confirmed by the authority of the apostolic see.

The pontificate of Nicolas was marked by three important events: the controversy with Photius, the prohibition of the divorce of King Lothair, and the humiliation of archbishop Hincmar. In the first he failed, in the second and third he achieved a moral triumph.


Nicolas and Photius

Ignatius, patriarch of Constantinople, of imperial descent and of austere ascetic virtue, was unjustly deposed and banished by the emperor Michael III. for rebuking the immorality of Caesar Bardas, but he refused to resign. Photius, the greatest scholar of his age, at home in almost every branch of knowledge and letters, was elected his successor, though merely a layman, and in six days passed through the inferior orders to the patriarchal dignity (858). The two parties engaged in an unrelenting warfare, and excommunicated each other. Photius was the first to appeal to the Roman pontiff. Nicolas, instead of acting as mediator, assumed the air of judge, and sent delegates to Constantinople to investigate the case on the spot. They were imprisoned and bribed to declare for Photius; but the pope annulled their action at a synod in Rome, and decided in favor of Ignatius (863). Photius in turn pronounced sentence of condemnation on the pope and, in his Encyclical Letter, gave classical expression to the objections of the Greek church against the Latin (867). The controversy resulted in the permanent alienation of the two churches. It was the last instance of an official interference of a pope in the affairs of the Eastern church.


Nicolas and Lothair

Lothair II., king of Lorraine and the second son of the emperor Lothair, maltreated and at last divorced his wife, Teutberga of Burgundy, and married his mistress, Walrada, who appeared publicly in all the array and splendor of a queen. Nicolas, being appealed to by the injured lady, defended fearlessly the sacredness of matrimony; he annulled the decisions of synods, and deposed the archbishops of Cologne and Treves for conniving at the immorality of their sovereign. He threatened the king with immediate excommunication if he did not dismiss the concubine and receive the lawful wife. He even refused to yield when Teutberga, probably under compulsion, asked him to grant a divorce. Lothair, after many equivocations, yielded at last (865). It is unnecessary to enter into the complications and disgusting details of this controversy.


Nicolas and Hincmar

In his controversy with Hincmar, Nicolas was a protector of the bishops and lower clergy against the tyranny of metropolitans. Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, was the most powerful prelate of France, and a representative of the principle of Gallican independence. He was energetic, but ambitious and overbearing. He came three times in conflict with the pope on the question of jurisdiction. The principal case is that of Rothad, bishop of Soissons, one of his oldest suffragans, whom he deposed without sufficient reason and put into prison, with the aid of Charles the Bald (862). The pope sent his legate “from the side,” Arsenius, to Charles, and demanded the restoration of the bishop. He argued from the canons of the Council of Sardica that the case must be decided by Rome even if Rothad had not appealed to him. He enlisted the sympathies of the bishops by reminding them that they might suffer similar injustice from their metropolitan, and that their only refuge was in the common protection of the Roman see. Charles desired to cancel the process, but Nicolas would not listen to it. He called Rothad to Rome, reinstated him solemnly in the church of St. Maria Maggiore, and sent him back in triumph to France (864) Hincmar murmured, but yielded to superior power.

In this controversy Nicolas made use of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, a copy of which came into his hands probably through Rotbad. He thus gave them the papal sanction; yet he must have known that a large portion of this forged collection, though claiming to proceed from early popes, did not exist in the papal archives. Hincmar protested against the validity of the new decretals and their application to France, and the protest lingered for centuries in the Gallican liberties till they were finally buried in the papal absolutism of the Vatican Council of 1870.