Episode 45 – Triple Division

This week we take a little detour to catch up with our friends in Rome, the popes. Do not worry, the popes are no longer all goody two shoes, we are back to the usual shenanigans of murder, backstabbing, betrayal and the Normans.

The church is divided three ways, between the two rival Roman clans of the Frangipani and the Pierleoni, between the old school Gregorian reformers and their more radical successors, led by Bernard of Clairvaux and between mystics and scholastics.

Everyone has to take sides as papal candidates are cut down, get tortured and flee the eternal city. But we are not back to the days before the council of Sutri. No longer can the ruling families put thugs or debauched adolescents on the throne of St. Peter. Popes need to be respected to keep the Roman economy going.

But the real head of the church is an abbot from Burgundy, Bernard of Clairvaux who is longing for an ecstatic union with the heavenly bridegroom – hence the picture (Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa, 1647-1654)


Hello and welcome to the History of the Germans, Episode 45 – Triple Division

This week we take a little detour to catch up with our friends in Rome, the popes. Do not worry, the popes are no longer all goody two shoes, we are back to the usual shenanigans of murder, backstabbing, betrayal and the Normans.

Before we start just a reminder. The History of the Germans Podcast is advertising free thanks to the generous support from patrons. And you can become a patron too and enjoy exclusive bonus episodes and other privileges from the price of a latte per month. All you have to do is sign up at patreon.com/historyofthegermans or on my website historyofthegermans.com. You find all the links in the show notes. And thanks a lot to Trevor, Peter and Michael who have already signed up.

Let us just recap where we are. In 1130 Lothar III managed to get the upper hand against the Hohenstaufen brothers Frederick and Konrad. In Germany the city of Speyer and its Hohenstaufen garrison had been besieged for 6 months and surrendered at Christmas 1129. From then on Frederick was on the defensive and gradually lost ground. Meanwhile his brother Konrad had gone to Italy to find new allies, money and possibly even an imperial crown. That endeavour failed utterly, and he was now back home, defending his ever-shrinking lands against Lothar’s troops.

Apart from the much-diminished Hohenstaufen, all secular and ecclesiastical princes recognised Lothar III as their King and future Emperor. The natural next step was to make a journey to Rome to be crowned emperor.

For a coronation you need a pope. When Lothar started considering his coronation in 1130 there was no shortage of popes. In fact, he had two to choose from. Oh no, a schism – again? Yes, but this time it had nothing to do with any imperial policy screwup. No, we are back to old habits. For the first time since 1046 the Romans manage to mess up the papacy all by themselves.

To explain that I probably need to go back to the last time we talked about the papacy, which was in 1122 when Henry V signed the Concordat of Worms.

The pope who had signed the Concordat was Calixtus II. He, as well as his predecessors Gelasius II and Paschalis II had been struggling to keep control over the city of Rome itself. The underlying issue was that the inhabitants of Rome were wondering how useful the pope was to their city.

Before the Gregorian reform the Pope had a very clearly defined purpose for the locals, in particular the local aristocrats. It was a financial purpose obviously, you met these guys, and you know that most of them served no spiritual purpose whatsoever. In financial terms the papacy had three main sources of income that local aristocrats could latch on to.

The first source of funds were the papal states. These are the territories in the centre of Italy around Rome but also extending north as far as Ravenna and the Emilia Romagna. The papacy claimed ownership based on the most impactful fake document in European history, the so-called donation of Constantine, which by the way people in the 12th century knew to be a fake.

Development of the Papal States

The second money spinner were the pilgrims who came to Rome to see the sights of St.Paul and St. Peter’s martyrdom as well as the many churches and their powerful relics.

The third key income stream were large legal fees and even more extravagant bribes plaintiffs and defendants paid to the papal court, the Curia. The Curia was the court of last instance for all disputes within the church as well as issues of canon law like for instance dissolution of marriages.

If we look at these from the perspective of a Roman noble wondering whether having a pope in Rome is a necessity, the picture looks as follows:

As for the papal lands it does not really matter whether the pope is in Rome or not. The holdings the popes actually controlled were by and large enfeoffed  to some Roman aristocrats or other a long time ago and most of the economic value was going to them already.

As for the pilgrims, yes a pope was useful when conducting mass etc. But it was really about the relics and they weren’t going anywhere – unless some Imperial raider stole some.

The court fees are different. For that you need the pope present in Rome. Before the Gregorian reform cases were not particularly frequent, but the judges were predominantly Romans, i.e., a chunk of the fees and bribes went straight into their pockets. The expansion of the role of the pope under Gregory VII and his successors meant the papal curia was now much more involved in church affairs across Europe resulting in a lot more cases coming to be judged in Rome. That sounds like good news for your Roman baron, right. No, not really. The problem is most of the Roman aristocrats were thugs who could extract a bribe at knifepoint but struggled to correctly pronounce the fifth book of Moses. The Gregorian reform was all about improving the standards of the church, so this had to change. Since Leo IX the popes stacked the college of cardinals with well trained and knowledgeable foreigners, i.e., non-Romans. The Papal Curia now reflected the width and breadth of Christendom rather than the city of Rome. And that meant all those bribes bypassed the Roman aristocracy and went to worthier hands. The aristocrats were still attending the papal court, managed the city defences and occasionally tilted elections. But the good times were no more.

If you then take into account the downside of a papal presence in Rome, i.e., regular sieges and sacking by either emperors or Normans, for many of the older families the balance began to tip heavily against being the seat of a reform oriented servant of the servants of the apostles. The only was this could make sense was if they could place their own puppet on the throne of St. Peter.

The most prominent representatives of this group were the members of the Frangipani clan. They had risen within the land-owning elite, replacing the Crescenti and Theophylacts. They held a number of castles in the Campagna. Inside Rome they held the area around the colosseum which they had turned into a heavily fortified town within the town.

Whilst the old aristocracy was in decline and needed to reorient itself, another group had benefitted from the Gregorian reform. A much more powerful, international papacy needed bankers. These bankers were the Pierleoni. The Pierleoni were a Jewish family from Trastevere. Their ancestor Leo de Benedicto had allegedly been baptised by Pope Leo IX himself. They had continuously supported the Gregorian reform papacy and had become the by far richest people in Rome during the process. Their home was inside the city. They owned the Tiber Island and two major fortifications on both shores, one of which was the ancient Theatre of Marcellus hence they controlled one of the two remaining Tiber bridges

Slightly younger map but hopefully still helpful

Everybody else in Rome who was anybody also lived either in a fortified Roman ruin or a more recent tower house within the walls of the city. The city was basically just an agglomeration of fortifications, not too dissimilar to other Italian cities of the time.

The tensions between Roman aristocrats and papacy had been growing since 1046 when the Gregorian reform began. Until 1111 the local aristocrats had to grin and bear it as impressive popes like Gregory VII and Urban II ruled to roost. But in 1111 Pope Paschalis II made that fateful offer to Henry V to hand back all the church fiefs, which turned out badly for the emperor, but even worse for Paschalis II. In the aftermath of the announcement of the deal Paschalis had been captured by imperial soldiers and tortured until he had given up all the papal rights to the emperor. When Paschalis returned from the ordeal  his reputation was tarnished and he had no authority in Rome which he had to flee regularly. His only support in The city were the Pierleoni, whilst the Frangipani were set dead against him.

Paschalis II (1111-1118)

When Paschalis died in 1118 the Frangipani made their frustration felt. The cardinals had elected the former pope’s chancellor as pope Gelasius II. On the day of his election, the Frangipani captured him, put him into a windowless cell and tortured him mercilessly. Censius Frangipani allegedly hissed at him like a giant snake, grabbed the pope by the throat, struck him with his fists, kicked him, drew blood with his spurs and dragged him away by his hair. Had he not been rescued by a mob paid for by the Pierleoni, Pope Gelasius would hold the record for the shortest Pontificate. This way he lasted a year and a half. In his last months he could not hold the Vatican and hence celebrated mass at the church of St. Prassende, an amazing and truly ancient but size wise very modest building. If you are in Rome, go there it is a wonderful refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Santa Prassende

Anyway, whilst saying mass he was attacked by Censius Frangipani again and only escaped on a swift horse. His attendants found him hours later sitting in a field, muttering incoherently – still wearing his papal vestments. Gelasius had enough. He left Rome to travel to France and died in the safety of the abbey of Cluny.

His successor Calixtus II was much stronger personality and achieved election by unanimous vote of all cardinals. That put him into a position to negotiate and agree the Concordat that formally ended the Investiture Controversy. Calixtus seemed to have even been able to put a temporary seal on the assaults on the papacy, seemingly by making friends with that old snake,  Censius Frangipani.

Things blow up again on the day Calixtus II died in 1124. Both the Pierleoni and the Frangipani elected their respective candidates in two different churches in Rome. Another Frangipani, Roberto,  entered the church where the Pierleoni candidate was about to be consecrated and cut down what would have become Pope Celestine II. Luckily the almost pope survived heavily injured and resigned the papacy immediately afterwards.

That leaves us with the pope the Frangipani had elected just before the attack. He took the name Honorius II.

This sounds as if we are going back to the time before the council of Sutri in 1046. In that time the leading Roman families would put whoever they wanted on the papal throne including debauched adolescents or military thugs unless the Emperor happened to be in the vicinity.

But that is no longer the case. The church as an organisation had become far too big, too complex and too powerful to be managed by a sexually incontinent layman. The Roman aristocrats recognised that if they have a puppet pope, they needed someone who would nevertheless be respected across Christendom, who would bring in the lucrative court cases, rich pilgrims and generous donations. We are entering this very odd period of papal history where on the one hand the crowned heads of Europe are shaking in the boots at the slightest indication of papal displeasure, whilst the pope himself can barely leave his fortified palace in Rome, assuming he is even admitted to the city.

Honorius II was exactly such a man. He was a rags to riches story rising from probably peasant stock to the highest position in Christendom on the back of great learning and exceptional political acumen. He had been a close associate of Calixtus II and had been entrusted with the all-important negotiations for the Concordat of Worms. He was well respected and asked to decide on such crucial matters like the relative position of the archbishop of York versus Canterbury, the formation of the Order of the Knights Templar and the deposition of the abbot of Cluny.

Pope Honorius II presents the Premonstartensian order with its rule

Mentioning the abbot of Cluny brings us to the other key development that changed the church landscape in the decades leading up to 1130, the rise of the reform movement 2.0.

A few episodes ago we looked at whether the Gregorian reform was a revolution, or a world revolution. One thing revolutions have in common is that as time goes by, last year’s radicals become the conservatives and the extremists become the respected left. In the Middle Ages this process was much slower but was still discernible.

The church reform started out with the monastic reform in the 10th and 11th century centred around the Abbey of Cluny in Burgundy as well as some other monasteries, mainly in Lothringia and Germany. The reformers’ objective was to bring back adherence to the rule of St. Benedict. They saw many monks and canons were slacking, which put everyone’s chance to be admitted to heaven in jeopardy. 

Living under the rule of Saint Benedict is hard, I mean really hard. Monks are denied the three most basic human needs, to sleep, to eat and to procreate.  The monk’s day begins with prayers at midnight, and then prayers again at 3 a.m., at 6 a.m., at 9 am, at midday, at 3 p.m. at 6 pm and at 9pm, that is every 3 hours 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And it wasn’t just a quick prayer, it was a full liturgy involving chanting and perform mass. The monks slept in their habits so they could quickly get up to attend mass. Between prayers they were expected to work. They had to accept the meanest of tasks as directed by the abbot. Food was restricted to two meals a day with beef and lamb only available to the sick. And then you have to take the three vows of poverty, obedience and celibacy.

The system was designed to eradicate any form of individual opinion, desires or even sense of self. The monk was to do as he was told by the abbot. Any form of disobedience or even a sign of disapproval was ruthlessly punished. If your parents or friends sent you a care packet of food having seen how meagre you have become on the relentless cycle of prayer, work and fasting, the abbot could distribute the goodies amongst the monks or even hand the whole box to another monk. Any reaction other than enthusiastic approval was considered disobedience.

This lifestyle is by definition not sustainable unless it is performed by an ever-replenished pool of religious zealots. But not all new monks were religious zealots. Some monks were the second sons of great patrons of the monastery sent there as children to pray for the family. Some of them bought into the monastic ideal, but not all. Another group of monks were retired aristocrats, too old to sit in the saddle and too worried about all the sins they had committed. They would join the monastery at the end of their  lives, but found it difficult to adapt to the unrelenting lifestyle, austerity and hard work.

As Cluny and its daughter monasteries grew, the list of patrons grew and so did the number of less enthusiastic monks. Furthermore, all these patrons wanted to leave the monastery valuable donations. Individual monks were not allowed to have any personal property, but the monastery itself was able to accept these.

Standards began to slip, some monks were relieved from getting up in the middle of the night, food became plentiful, daily labour was passed on to the serfs.  Within a few generations after the death of the initial great abbots, many a monastery had again become sort of a massively rich frat house. 

As regards Cluny, the focus of its founders had been the elaborate liturgy which in turn required splendid churches. The only church in Western Europe that could rival the Abbey Church of Cluny in size and splendour was great the imperial Cathedral in Speyer. Building the abbey church nearly bankrupted this, probably the richest monastery in the world.

As Cluny and its associate monasteries began to slack, those who still hankered for the true monastic ideal were looking elsewhere. This is monastic reform 2.0. One of the founders of these new communities we have already met, Norbert of Xanten, the founder of the order of the Premonstratensians whose first three disciples did not survive and who was now archbishop of Magdeburg.

But there was one even more impactful than Norbert. The towering ecclesiastical figure of this period was Bernhard of Clairvaux, leader -not founder- of the Cistercian order of the Strict Observance.

Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernhard had joined the reformist monastery of Citeaux near Dijon at the age of 22. When his friends and family tried to dissuade him from his decision, he not only made them agree with him, but convinced 4 of his brothers and another 25 followers to join him.

Bernhard was famous for his eloquence and rhetoric. I have been reliably informed that he was one the greatest Latin stylists since antiquity. He quickly became the most charismatic preachers in the whole of Christendom during the 12th century. His sermons moved common people as well as church councils and even kings to do his bidding. These sermons were also quite odd.

Bernhard was a mystic he looked for divinity in the experience of love. His most famous sermon was on the Song of Salomon, the by far most explicitly sexual part of the bible. For him the Song is about the marriage between the heavenly Bridegroom, himself God, the father, the son and the holy spirit and is human bride. He yearns for “Let him kiss me with the kiss of the mouth”. And he says that what the bride, herself all of humanity including himself, really desires and asks for is “to be filled with the grace of this threefold knowledge [of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit], filled to the utmost capacity of mortal flesh …

This physical mysticism remained a component of the Christian faith. If you want to see what St. Bernhard may have had in mind, check out Bernini’s Ecstasy of Santa Teresa in the church of Santa Maria Vittoria in Rome. Not 12th century but it captures the spirit.

Bernini, The Ectsasy of Santa teresa

Right, if you think medieval spirituality is a bit difficult to penetrate here is the other thing Bernhard of Clairvaux was famous for, his ascetic lifestyle. His fasting habits were so austere that he ruined his digestive and intestinal system to the point that no food he consumed stayed with him for long. The  monks of his abbey at Clairvaux dug a hole in the floor near where he would be seated during mass since he rarely made it to the bathroom in time. That may sound disgusting, but people admired him for that. The fact that he had broken his body to the point of inflicting constant humiliation was a sign of his sainthood.

You see, as with every revolution, the oddballs everyone laughed at last year are now mainstream.

His order, the Cistercians, benefitted from such a saintly leader and the communities expanded rapidly. Between the papal approval of the Cistercian order in 1119 and the death of St. Bernard in 1153, the number of Cistercian abbeys grew from 9 to 338. Cistercian abbeys were typically built-in remote areas, in forests or difficult to reach valleys where the monks would begin to cultivate the land with their own bare hands. Their churches were very austere and devoid of decoration, deriving their aesthetic appeal from the beauty of their proportions. If you want to get a feel for what they were like, check out the three Monasteries of Senanque, Silvacane and Le Thoronet in Provence. It does not get more Cistercian than that.  

Abbey of Senanque

Why am I telling you all these weird stories? It is because St. Bernhard is really, really important. He does influence events in the first half of the 12th century to the point that some historians see him as the true leader of Europe above both the pope and the emperor. It may help if you have an idea what kind of guy we are dealing with.

To complete the picture, Bernhard’s mysticism was not the only brand of Christianity gaining ground in the 12th century.

Its diametrical opposite was the emerging scholastic method. Where mysticism is all about an emotional link to the divinity, scholastics use logic to derive and define their faith.  

If I wanted to, or more accurately, if I could explain Scholasticism the episode would go on for an unbearably long time. There is hardly a topic in medieval history so heavily disputed and complex as scholasticism. It seems many historians prefer to jump the subject entirely to avoid getting into hot water. No such cowardice here at the History of the Germans. But if I get it wrong, which I inevitably will, be gentle. After all scholasticism is all about disputing two sides of an argument and agreeing on a harmonious solution.

In my opinion there are three features that define scholasticism:

The first thing is that scholasticism is a method of resolving problems, not a theological concept. The scholastic method was applied to all bathe medieval sciences,  rhetoric, grammar, and logic as well as theology and law.

Secondly, scholasticism consists of two steps, the definition and the disputation. Definition is the process of determining exactly what specific problem you want to solve. That could range from does god exist to how many angels could dance on the pin of a needle. The definition will usually contain a hypothesis of how the problem is to be resolved.

Once the problem is defined the analysis of the problem, the disputation can begin. For that Analysis, arguments are gathered sic et non, I.e., for and against. In the disputation that follows the scholars weigh the different arguments. The objective is not so much to win the debate but to resolve the differences.

The third feature of the scholastic method was the reliance on what was called authorities. These were texts, like the bible as the ultimate authority for theology, Cicero for rhetoric, Aristotle for logic, the Justinian code for law, etc.

The great contribution of the early scholastics was to gather and organise the knowledge of the time by searching for ancient Greek texts in Muslim Spain, Irish monasteries and the libraries set up by Charlemagne and translating them into Latin.

But it wasn’t just the Greeks they were looking for. Islamic philosophers also played a major role. One of the authorities the Scholastics rated most highly was Abu I Walid Muhammad Ibn Rusd (1126-1198), in Latin referred to as Averroes, an Islamic scholar, jurist and polymath from Cordoba. Averroes commentary on Aristotle’s works was so universally acknowledged that he was often times not even referred to by name, but simply as “the commentator”.

The scholastics believed fundamentally that the ancients and the church fathers knew best. Hence arguments were based on their writings and rarely on actual observable facts. It is that latter issue that has brought scholasticism in for a lot of negative publicity. Medical doctors who would prefer to rely on the books of Galen (2nd century AD) rather than noticing that most of their patients died from their treatments.

Even though Scholasticism is not modern science, it is miles away from the purely spiritually driven faith of the cistercians. What Bernhard of Clairvaux was to the mystics was Peter Abelard amongst the early scholastics.

The driving force of Abelard’s philosophy was logic. He believed he could derive eternal truth by consolidating the truths inherent in authoritative texts. That led him for instance conclude that  the human intent is the yardstick of moral virtue, not the action as such.

He published in a book entitled “Yes and no” where he highlighted obvious contradictions in the bible and laid out arguments how to resolve them. The church did not like it one bit. Abelard was accused of heresy on multiple occasions and some of his books were burned.

St. Bernard attacked Abelard directly. “This Man” he said “presumes to be able to comprehend by human reason the entirety of god” I doubt Abelard would have objected to this characterisation.

Where Bernhard was a great demagogue who could whip up a crowd, Abelard won his debates through wit, intelligence and sharpness of thought.

Abelard is best known today for an event during his early years as a teacher. his relationship with his pupil, Heloise, the super smart niece of Fulbert, Canon of Notre Dame and Abelard’s landlord. The two began an affair, very much on equal terms. Fulbert was none too happy about that and Abelard offered to marry Heloise. Heloise objected as it would mean Abelard would no longer be able to work as teacher at the religious school of Notre Dame. A marriage was conducted in secret but somehow things with Fulbert did not calm down. Abelard had her brought to a nunnery in Argenteuil outside Paris. Fulbert saw some foul play and hired some thugs to find Abelard and castrate him, which they did. Abelard subsequently became a monk. In 1130 he and Heloise published their love letters and the poems they had exchanged. Abelard finally wrote his own autobiography, making it the first in Europe since antiquity.

Abaelard & Heloise

One thing I like about Abelard is that he invented to concept of Limbo. Limbo is the place  children go  who die before e they can be baptised. Before Abelard the general view was that unbaptised children end up in hell which must heave caused untold grief for their parents who felt forever guilty for not procuring a priest in time. But he was by no means perfect. He and Heloise had a son and they called him astrolabe. Not much is known about him but I guess the poor child must have been bullied mercilessly.

There you have it, the church is split three ways.

Frangipani versus Pierleoni, Old school Gregorians versus Cistercians, Mystics versus Scholastics. Each party had taken a side. The Pierleoni who support the old-school Gregorian reformers and the scholastics. On the other side you have the Frangipani, pushing for reform 2.0 and the mysticism of Bernhard of Clairvaux.

Pope Honorius II had been able to keep a lid on all these tensions thanks to his personality and competence. By 1130, Pope Honorius II is dying.  

Next episode will kick off with the death of Pope Honorius II which let all these differences blow out into the open. Each side will put their pope on the throne. One pope will hold the holy city, the other flees north. And that leaves our friend Lothar in a dilemma. He is no theologian, but he needs something from the pope, the imperial crown. But which of the two popes should he ask for it. The one who is holding the city of Rome or the one Bernhard of Clairvaux is supporting. Going with the first one makes for an easy journey to Rome, but a return to a homeland where the silver-tongued Bernhard whips up the crowds against him. Going with the second pope means you need to first take the eternal city, or at least enough of it to stage a coronation. And then there is the question what concessions Lothar can get from either candidate. Maybe he there is a chance to gain back what had been lost in the Investiture controversy. A return to the glory days of Henry III?

I hope you are going to join us again next week when we find out.

And in the meantime, should you feel like supporting the show and get hold of these bonus episodes, sign up on Patreon. The links are in the show notes or on my website at historyofthegermans.com.