Episode 87 – The Beast out of the Sea

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“Out of the sea rises up the Beast, full of the names of blasphemy who, raging with the claws of the bear and the mouth of the lion and the limbs and likeness of the leopard, opens its mouth to blaspheme the Holy Name and ceases not to hurl its spears against the tabernacle of God and against the saints who dwell in heaven. With fangs and claws of iron it seeks to destroy everything and to trample the world to fragments beneath its feet. It has already prepared its rams to batter down the walls of the catholic faith. . . . Cease ye therefore to marvel that it aims at us the darts of calumny, since the Lord himself it doth not spare. Cease ye to marvel that it draws the dagger of contumely against us, since it lifts itself to wipe from the earth the name of the Lord. Rather, that ye may with open truth withstand his lying and may refute his deceits with the proofs of purity: behold the head and tail and body of the Beast, of this Frederick, this so-called Emperor. . . .”

Such wrote Pope Gregory IX in 1239. How did we get there? Is there a way back from this? Let’s see…


Hello and Welcome to the History of the Germans: Episode 87 – The Beast out of the Sea

“Out of the sea rises up the Beast, full of the names of blasphemy who, raging with the claws of the bear and the mouth of the lion and the limbs and likeness of the leopard, opens its mouth to blaspheme the Holy Name and ceases not to hurl its spears against the tabernacle of God and against the saints who dwell in heaven. With fangs and claws of iron it seeks to destroy everything and to trample the world to fragments beneath its feet. It has already prepared its rams to batter down the walls of the catholic faith. . . . Cease ye therefore to marvel that it aims at us the darts of calumny, since the Lord himself it doth not spare. Cease ye to marvel that it draws the dagger of contumely against us, since it lifts itself to wipe from the earth the name of the Lord. Rather, that ye may with open truth withstand his lying and may refute his deceits with the proofs of purity: behold the head and tail and body of the Beast, of this Frederick, this so-called Emperor. . . .”

Such wrote Pope Gregory IX in 1239. How did we get there? Is there a way back from this? Let’s see…

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Last week we ended with Pope Gregory IX excommunicating emperor Frederick II, “in the spirit of glowing anger” as Matthew Paris described it. Excommunication was neither unexpected nor exceptional in the 13th century. This is Frederick’s second time. Of his 7 predecessors as emperor, four of them had been excommunicated, Otto IV, Frederick Barbarossa, Henry V and Henry IV. The other three had been threatened with excommunication. Of his predecessors in Sicily, Robert Guiscard, Roger II, and William I had been excommunicated, as were a score of French kings, mainly due to sexual misdemeanour and two English kings, normally because they did not get on with their archbishop of Canterbury. In other words it happened in certain regularity. But we are not yet at the stage where the library of Salamanca declared anyone who stole a book to be automatically excommunicated and damned to hell.

So excommunication was a severe sanction but given the list above, not an existential threat to the ruler’s authority. However, it was a stain that needed to be removed within a reasonable period of time. Extended terms of excommunication undermined the ruler’s authority, brought about rebellions and general instability.

Excommunication was also not the ultimate spiritual weapon. There is the Interdict, which ordered the clergy in a particular area to stop performing the Holy Sacraments, namely not to say mass, not to baptise, not to hear confession and not to perform the last rites. That was a lot rarer and more powerful since it impacted the population immediately. Dying without confession meant you go to purgatory, or worse. Frederick II had experienced the effect of an interdict when it was placed on the city of Jerusalem after his coronation there in 1228. Frederick, himself the actual king of Jerusalem, a city he had just regained for Christendom, had to leave immediately. Otherwise his men and the population would have torn him apart.

And then there is deposition. Formally, excommunication releases all vassals from their oaths to the excommunicated ruler, so it is a sort of deposition. However, there had to that day only been one excommunication where the pope had explicitly ousted a ruler. And that was Gregory VII when he excommunicated Henry IV. Given the impact that had had on the fate of Henry IV, the imperial chancery was very concerned that Gregory IX would go down that route.

It is that fear of a deposition by the pope that forced the imperial policy to change priorities, away from subduing Northern Italy to getting rid of the excommunication.

Excommunication could normally be remedied by a combination of resolving the alleged papal grievances and public display of repentance. Frederick tried that first.

The excommunication of Gregory IX cited in my counting 12 different very specific acts justifying the sanction. Most of those related to the treatment of bishops and abbots in the kingdom of Sicily and the expropriation of the Knights Templars and Hospitallers. The last paragraph is a bit wider, accusing Frederick of impeding the crusade and restoration of the Roman empire.

Frederick responded immediately, saying that he had been away from Sicily for a long time and hence not always in control of developments but that he would reverse all disputed acts and offer compensation. He promises everlasting obedience to the church and repentance for his sins.

That should have been it, but Gregory rejects all these offers of remedy and compensation and refuses to recognise the emperor’s repentance as insincere. More worries were in the offing. There was an ominous end paragraph of the excommunication that could not easily be remedied (quote): “because said Frederick is seriously defamed by these deeds of his, many crying out, as it were, through the whole world, that he does not entertain right opinions respecting the Catholic faith, we, with God’s assistance, will proceed in this matter at its proper time and place, according to the rules of the law”. (unquote)

What that amounts to is nothing less than an inquisition into the emperor faith, a process to determine whether he is a heretic. If that were to take place, Frederick knew he would be on the high seas without a rudder. It was also increasingly clear that Gregory was not to be reconciled through rational argument. Either Gregory acted upon personal animosity to Frederick, or he acted out of a deep political conviction that an emperor in control of Italy would spark the end of the imperial papacy. Or it was a combination of both.

Given that Gregory was unlikely to be reasoned with, Frederick implemented a new three-pronged strategy.

Part one was the public relations battle where he painted the accusations against him as false and part of a a private vendetta of Gregory against him. Part two was to bring the cardinals and other senior churchman over to his side to rein in the pope, and finally the third element was brute military force.

The PR war is the one that kicked off immediately. Key to Frederick’s approach was not to blame the church – which would have painted him as a disobedient excommunicate – but to make the pope out as being driven by a personal hatred, abusing the church’s powers. For that he relied heavily on the literary abilities of his chancellor, Pietro da Vinea who wrote most of his letters and sometimes acted as the voice of his master. As an example in an assembly at Padua in 1239, Frederick sat on an elevated platform, on his throne, wearing his crown, sceptre and orb an almost motionless picture of imperial majesty, whilst Pietro, standing up at a dais but still lower than the emperor would hold an oration, addressing each and every point raised by Gregory and hurling accusations back.

Pietro’s letters are still seen as prime examples of medieval chancellery Latin, the principal means of communication between monarchs. In these months after the excommunication, Pietro would write and send dozens maybe hundreds of letters to all the courts and bishops of Europe in the emperor’s name.

Take the one to Richard of Cornwall, brother of king Henry III of England and his brother-in-law. In the latter he goes through all the injustices that Gregory IX had inflicted on him, his first excommunication when he had to turn back from his attempted crusade due to ill health, his efforts to undermine his policies that ultimately led to the return of Jerusalem, his invasion of Sicily in his absence, him spreading lies that he had died or been imprisoned in Syria, and after their reconciliation in 1230 had lured him without armed escort into northern Italy putting his life at risk. And in return he, Frederick had always supported the pope, conquered the city of Viterbo on his behalf, resolved differences with the Romans and sought papal arbitration in the affairs of Italy. He said: (quote) “We know that, from our acknowledgment of the Catholic faith, we have found a true mother in the church; but our father we have always found false” (end quote).

And then he turned the fire on the more general failings of the pope. Gregory, he said supported the city of Milan, which was mostly inhabited by heretics, had offered marriage dispensations in exchange for cash, has been raising unjust taxes on his vassals and squandered the wealth of the church. All this in his unjust persecution of the emperor.

He ends the letter to the king’s brother: (quote) “we would have you fear that similar proceedings are impending over you in your affairs. For the humiliation of all other kings and princes is believed to be an easy matter, if the power of the Caesar of the Romans is first overthrown.” (end quote).

This letter was sent with slight alterations to all the crowned heads of Europe, telling them that this vengeful, unreasonable pope would go after them, unless they took his side. And it did have an effect. Both king Henry III of England and the increasingly influential King Louis IX of France, later Saint Louis were intervening diplomatically on behalf of the emperor.

These circulars were not only read by the great territorial rulers. They also addressed the princes of the church, the cardinals and archbishops. He is scrupulously distinguishing between the papal office and its current incumbent. He does not deny the apostolic dignity of the pope, but he accuses the current incumbent of being unworthy of so illustrious a throne. He essentially tries to put a wedge between the pope and his cardinals and bishops. He points out that the excommunication was issued without the proper consultation of the college of cardinals. He asserted that many cardinals were uncomfortable with the decision, which is why the pope did not involve them. Now the holy Mother church, which Frederick as he said always defended and supported might lose the imperial protection for the acts of just one man, blinded by greed and hatred.

And he did offer to submit himself to the judgement of an oecumenical council of the bishops and secular lords of Europe provided Gregory IX does the same. That was a risky move since church councils are by now entirely under the control of the popes. The days of Otto III where an emperor would preside over councils and synods are long gone. What he proposed was something utterly new. Ever since Gregory VII the popes had declared themselves above the judgement of mere mortals. They were the representative of Christ on earth, so their words and deeds were that of the Lord. Likewise the emperors had refused to accept any form of authority above them in line with Roman law, though regular kneeling before the papal throne made that claim a little less robust. It was by all means a very long shot.

As for Gregory’s response, he went to full escalation. He declared Frederick to be the Beast that rises from the Sea, the antichrist of the book of Revelations. It is the segment you heard at the very beginning of the episode. Making Frederick out as the antichrist caught on due to the writings of Joachim of Fiore, a Cistercian abbot who had re-interpreted the apocalypse 40 years earlier. In his telling the world history breaks down into three phases. The age of the father, which is from creation to the birth of Christ. The following second period where we are now in, is the age of the Son. That will be followed by the age of the Holy Spirit. This third age will be a time of eternal peace and bliss before the gates of paradise open up. This idea of the age of bliss we encountered before when it was assumed it starts with the emperor hanging up his crown on the dead tree by the church of the Holy Sepulchre. But under Joachim of Fiore there is a twist. Between the Age of the Son and the Age of the Holy Spirit is the rise of the antichrist. Once Antichrist is defeated, the age of the Holy Spirit can begin. And to make things very uncomfortable for our Frederick, Joachim of Fiore had given an exact date when the Age of the Holy Spirit was to begin, the year 1260. We are now in the year 1239 and assuming the defeat of Antichrist is not happening over a fortnight, adherents of Fiore’s theories, and there were many, were on the lookout who could be the antichrist. A branch of the Franciscans were the most ardent believers in Joachim of Fiore, in particular as he had also invented the order of the Just who would take over the government in the Age of the Spirit, which they modestly believed were them, the Franciscans. So these mendicant brothers were travelling up and down the land denouncing the emperor as Antichrist in the hope of hastening the arrival of the Age of bliss.

To prove his point Gregory added accusation over accusation of crimes, some credible, others pure inventions. Frederick, he said had intentionally doomed to death the crusaders in the pilgrim camp of Brindisi, had poisoned the Landgrave of Thuringia, had made peace with the Sultan in the Holy Land to the detriment of the Christians, had in his own absence directed the war against the peace- loving Pope, while for greed he allowed his own kingdom to be wasted by fire and sword.

In response to the accusations against him personally, Gregory says that indeed he is unworthy of such a high office and as a human can only bear such a burden with divine assistance. This goes back to one of the fundamental constitutions of the church, that the validity of sacraments is independent of the worthiness of the individual priest. E.g., a baptism is valid even if the priest performing it is a drunk, ignorant simoniac. Hence an excommunication is valid even if the pope was a drunk, ignorant simoniac, which Gregory IX was most decidedly not. As I said before, he was either driven by personal animosity, or the fear of encirclement of the papacy by an overbearing emperor or both.

But his biggest gun, the one that will stick is this one: (quote) “This King of the Pestilence has proclaimed that — to use his own words — all the world has been deceived by three deceivers, Jesus Christ, Moses and Muhammad, of whom two died in honour, but Christ upon the Cross, And further, he has proclaimed aloud (or rather he has lyingly declared) that all be fools who believe that God could be born of a Virgin, God who is the creator of Nature and of all beside.

This heresy Frederick has aggravated by the mad assertion that no one can be born save where the intercourse of man and wife have preceded the conception, and Frederick maintains that no man should believe aught but what may be proved by the power and reason of nature.” (endquote)

Nether Gregory IX nor his predecessors will repeat this accusation of the three deceivers at any later point, nor do they provide any evidence of its veracity. They did not need to. Their contemporary’s believed it, hook, line and sinker. Matthew Paris, otherwise often sympathetic to the emperor, repeats it, it shows up in all the other chronicles, later biographies and everywhere else. As all good unfounded accusations, it stuck because it was shocking as well as just credible enough. It was credible because Fredericks interest in science and in the “the things that are, as they are” was well known. He had been an important European ruler for 27 years, had continuously travelled around his realm surrounded by exotic animals and dark skinned attendants, his Saracen bowmen were a legend, his astrologer, Michael Scot had found the location of heaven and hell, sure this man was capable of such profound heresy.

And Frederick never responded directly to this accusation, because what was there to say? If you cannot disprove it, there is only one communication strategy, the one the Queen and Kate Moss were always brilliant at, “never complain, never explain”.

There we are, the PR war stands at a not very stable 1:1. Frederick got the crowned heads of Europe on his side, or at least friendly to his cause, Gregory IX has thrown so much dirt at the emperor, a lot is sticking in the public opinion and the priests and monks keep repeating it from the chancels day in day out. For the next 10 years the papal and imperial chancery will trade insults in the most elaborate medieval Latin calling fire and brimstone on either side. At some stage Frederick compared himself to Christ and called the town of Jesi where he was born the new Bethlehem. I just mention this, but I cannot given opinion on what that means. According to medievalists this was not blasphemy.

Let’s leave that war of the quills and get on to the war of swords. Frederick’s objective was not necessarily to capture the pope but to corner him to a point where he had to give into the pressure. That had worked well in 1230 when Gregory was forced to lift the previous excommunication.

But given that public opinion amongst the princes and powerful prelates was still 50/50, he could not just break into Rome take the pope hostage and torture him until he lifts the ban as Henry V had done. So he went softly, softly. First, he reintegrated the march of Ancona and the duchy of Spoleto back into the empire with little resistance. Then he took over the storied abbey of Montecassino, just south of Rome. The city of Viterbo, north of Rome opened its gates to Frederick in early 1240. Slowly but surely the imperial forces was closing in on the city of Rome and its undefended pope.

Inside Rome large parts of the population had been pro-imperial, in particular after he had given them the Carroccio of Milan as a present. Many of the great Roman families had been given positions of power and importance within the imperial apparatus both in Southern and in Northern Italy.

On February 22, 1240, the Ghibelline party in Rome called for Frederick to come and take possession of his nominal capital.

Gregory IX was caught. Once Frederick had peacefully entered Rome there would be no escape. Frederick could force himself into the papal presence and when he repented and promised remediation, Gregory would have had to absolve him, as his namesake Gregory VII had to at Canossa. Or Frederick could round up the cardinals who would depose Gregory as a heretic and despoiler of the church. So Gregory needed to do something to turn this situation around, to make the emperor unwelcome in Rome. And he did. He organised a great procession through the streets of Rome parading the relics of St. Peter and St. Paul. The procession ended in the basilica of St. Peter. Gregory placed the skulls of the two greatest of the apostles on the high alter. He took off the Tiara, the papal crown and put it on the saints’ heads, then knelt down and begged them for help.

Yes, me neither. But it worked. The mood inside Rome changed as if a switch had been flicked. The majority of the population supported Gregory IX and began preparations for a long siege.

But the days when emperors dared to lay siege to the city of Rome are gone. The memory of the siege of 1167 when god’s wrath wiped out the flower of the German armies and the hopes and dreams of the Hohenstaufen was still strong. Or more prosaically, the PR effect of a prolonged and maybe even unsuccessful siege of Rome would have been devastating.

So Frederick returned to Sicily to lick his wounds. His great war is now ging into its fourth year and his coffers are depleted. Sicily is a rich land, but not rich enough to easily sustain endless campaigns against equally or richer foes in the North. We are in possession of a remarkable document, the register of the letters sent and received by the imperial chancery in 1139/40. This is remarkable because for most of the Middle Ages no such complete register exists. Normally we only have the documents that survived, but that is an often random if not biased selection. Having a register means the year 1139/40 is the one year we have a really good idea about how Frederick’s reign functioned. And at that point it was creaking. The cost of warfare had made it necessary to levy higher and higher taxes on the inhabitants of Sicily. It is this shortage of funds that made him tax the clergy and sometimes raid the church treasures, issues listed in his excommunication. Money will be a constant issue for his remaining reign. Just as costs mount, the constant demands for cash strangle economic activity and the actual tax take shrinks. His shrinking resources makes it harder and harder for him to strike a decisive blow to his enemies whilst at the same time still being sizeable enough to let him go on.  

Back in 1241 the pope celebrated his miraculous rescue by starting a counteroffensive. I mentioned last week that Gregory had orchestrated an unprecedented alliance between Genoa and Venice against Frederick II. I stupidly said last week that Pisa temporarily joined this alliance when Enzio styled himself as king of Sardinia. That I am afraid is simply not true. I know that I read this somewhere but I cannot find where I have read that. And it does not matter where I read it, because it did not happen. I do apologise. So for the record, the Pisans never betrayed their beloved emperor Frederick II.

But that still left the great maritime republics of Venice and Genoa. Not only are they each pretty powerful, they are also on two different sides of the Italian peninsula. Venice on the Adriatic and Genoa on the Tyrhennian sea. Sicily has an enormous coastline, leaving hundreds of places either navy could sack cities or capture vessels.

Frederick had his own fleet, the first and only medieval emperor ever to possess one. And he had a maritime ally, Pisa. Hence in the initial period of the campaign the Pisans were holding back the Genoese on the Western shore whilst the Sicilian fleet defended the eastern shore. Naval warfare at the time had more in common with piracy than seeking decisive sea battles. The objective was to capture enemy trading vessels and sell their cargo back home and occasionally sack a harbour city. The fortunes of war oscillated, sometimes the Sicilians were ahead, at others the Venetians. But what definitely suffered was trade between the East and the kingdom of Sicily, adding to Frederick’s money problems.

That would have gone on for a decade just as background noise to the broader scenario was it not for the second strategic initiative of pope Gregory IX in 1241. You may remember that Frederick had called for a general council of the church to decide on the accusations raised against both pope and emperor. That turned out to be a bad idea. Pope Gregory hijacked the idea and tweaked it. No longer a gathering of all of Europe to amicably resolve the situation, it was meant to be attended only by allies of the pope who would bring about the formal deposition of the excommunicated emperor Frederick II.

Frederick had to prevent this council from happening at any price. Once a formal deposition has been declared, God knows what will happen. He had the Alpine passes blocked, refused safe conduct to anyone crossing his territories and prohibited anyone from his Kingdoms to go to Rome for the Council. And he declared a sea blockade, announcing that he would have any ship boarded that transported delegates to the synod. This must be the only time a naval operation was set up to explicitly prevent a church council.

Despite Fredericks express threats many English, French, Spanish and Burgundian prelates still embarked on the arduous journey to Rome. They had gathered in Nice where a Genoese fleet was waiting for them. They first brought them to Genoa where they were joined by bishops and abbots from Northern Italy. On April 25th, 1241 a fleet of 30 war galleys carrying almost 100 senior prelates leaves the harbour of Genoa with the destination of Rome.

Meanwhile a combined Pisan and Imperial fleet gathered south of the island of Elba keeping an eye of the likely route the Genoese would take. The Imperial fleet that was waiting may well have counted as many as 60 galleys, i.e., twice as many as the Genoese. Hiding such a mass of ships was not easy and so the Genoese admiral was soon informed that the enemy was waiting for them. But he made no use of this information. He did not wait for reinforcements to come down from Genoa nor did he alter his route to circumvent the imperial fleet that was patrolling between the islands of Giglio and Montecristo. If the name Giglio rings a bell, it is the island where in 2012 the cruise liner Costa Concordia sank with 3,229 passengers on board after hitting a rock, allegedly because the captain wanted to show his girlfriend where he was from. A bit further west from there is the island of Monecristo, best known from Alexandre Dumas’ novel.

Sorry, I digress. So we have the Genoese fleet heading straight into the imperial trap. Not only are they outnumbered, but their galleys were also slower than the Sicilian ones. That had less to do with the strength of the rowers, who by the way in the Middle Ages were not slaves, but professionals. The difference was hull speed. As a boat goes through the water it generates its own standing wave that slows it down. The resistance of the wave depends on the length and shape of the hull. The longer and the more slender the hull is, the faster the galley. Frederick ordered his galleys to be longer than his enemies’, i.e., up to 40 metres or 120 feet which is seriously long.

Medieval galleys also differ from Roman galleys. Romans did not like or understand naval warfare. So they replicated land-based war on the sea. Their galleys had fighting platforms forward that connected to enemy ships so that the legionnaires could slug it out like on dry land. Medieval galleys were more in the Greek tradition, they had above waterline battering rams designed to strike and sink an enemy ship.

And that gets us to the Battle of Montecristo, May 3, 1241. The prelates on board the Genoese ships are waking up and are told the journey is almost over. By evening they should be in Civitavecchia and safely on their way to Rome. But then in the morning mist the masts of imperial galleys appear on the horizon. Here is how Frederick himself described the battle in a letter to the kings and princes of europe (quote):

“Our said chief then attacked their galleys with our galleys, and the all-powerful God, who sees and fights from on high, and judges between right and wrong, seeing their wicked ways, and the malice of their hearts, as well as their insatiable cupidity, by his divine favour delivered these legates and pre- lates bound into our power, which they could not escape either by land or sea. After three of their galleys had been sunk, together with everything on board of them, and after losing about two thousand men without hope of recovery, twenty-two galleys were, by the will of Divine providence, conquered by our galleys, and, after great slaughter amongst their crews, were triumphantly taken, together with all the property and everyone on board.

In these galleys were the three aforesaid legates, with the archbishops, bishops, abbots, and many other prelates, besides messengers and proxies of prelates to the number of about a hundred, with the embassies from the rebellious cities of Lombardy, who were proceeding to the said council,[  ] ; and all these fell into our hands as prisoners, together with the bishop of Praeneste, who had often excited the chief hatred against us. Let this man, who carries the form of a wolf under the exterior of a sheep, refrain from thinking that he carries God in his heart; for we think that it is God’s especial judgment that has fallen upon him. Let him learn that God is with us sitting on his throne to judge between evil and good.” (end quote)

A resounding success. This was the worst defeat for the maritime republic of Genoa in the entirety of the Middle Ages.

The beast has indeed risen out of the sea and gulped up a whole church council. Amongst the captured were three papal legates, the archbishops of Rouen, Bordeaux, and Auch, the bishops of Carcassonne, Agde, Nimes, Tortona, Asti, and Pavia, the abbots of Citeaux, Clairvaux, Cluny, Fecamp and many more. The archbishop of Besancon had sadly drowned. The council could not take place.

Frederick’s immediate military and political objectives were achieved. He also managed to take the small city of Faenza as one of the brighter aspects of his Lombard campaign in 1241.

Next question, what to do with all these prelates? In the first step, he has them shipped south into his kingdom and then incarcerated separately in various castles. But what now? Keep them on dry bread and artificial honey until Gregory caves in? Send them home on the promise of supporting Frederick from now on? And what would public opinion make of an emperor who locks up a sea of bishops? And then we have the true threat to the European way of life appearing on the horizon, the Mongols. Jerusalem had fallen and the Latin emperors of Constantinople have been overthrown. Is it enough to shift the pope’s gaze away from the emperor he so hates and fears? All that we will talk about next week. I hope you will join us again.

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