Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

The Two Swords—Papacy and Empire

In the fourth century after Christ began that decay of the Roman Empire which had been the pride of the then civilized world. Warriors of Teutonic race invaded its splendid cities, destroyed without remorse the costliest and most beautiful of its antique treasures. Temples and images of the gods fell before barbarians whose only fear was lest they should die "upon the straw," while marble fountains and luxurious bath-houses were despoiled as signs of a most inglorious state of civilization. Theatres perished and, with them, the plays of Greek dramatists, who have found no true successors. Pictures and statues and buildings were defaced where they were not utterly destroyed. The Latin race survived, forlornly conscious of its vanished culture.

The Teutons had hardly begun to impose upon the Empire the rude customs of their own race when Saracens, bent upon spreading the religion of Mahomet, bore down upon Italy, where resistance from watchtowers and castles was powerless to check their cruel depredations. Norman pirates plundered the shores of the Mediterranean and sailed up the River Seine, always winning easy victories. Magyars, a strange, wandering race, came from the East and wrought much evil among the newly-settled Germans.

From the third to the tenth century there were incredible changes among the European nations. Gone were the gleaming cities of the South and the worship of art and science and the exquisite refinements of the life of scholarly leisure. Gone were the flourishing manufactures since the warrior had no time to devote to trading. Gone was the love of letters and the philosopher's prestige now that men looked to the battle-field alone to give them the awards of glory.

Outwardly, Europe of the Middle Ages presented a sad contrast to the magnificence of an Empire which was fading to remoteness year by year. The ugly towns did not attempt to hide their squalor, when dirt was such a natural condition of life that a knight would dwell boastfully upon his contempt for cleanliness, and a beauty display hands innocent of all proper tending. The dress of the people was ill-made and scanty, lacking the severe grace of the Roman toga. Furniture was rudely hewn from wood and placed on floors which were generally uneven and covered with straw instead of being paved with tessellated marble.

Yet the inward life of Europe was purer since it sought to follow the teaching of Christ, and preached universal love and a toleration that placed on the same level a mighty ruler and the lowest in his realm. Fierce spirits, unfortunately, sometimes forgot the truth and gave themselves up to a cruel lust for persecution which was at variance with their creed, but the holiest now condemned warfare and praised the virtues of obedience and self-sacrifice.

Whereas pagan Greek and Rome had searched for beauty upon earth, it was the dreary belief of the Middle Ages that the world was a place where only misery could be the portion of mankind, who were bidden to look to another life for happiness and pleasure. Sinners hurried from temptation into monasteries, which were founded for the purpose of enabling men to prepare for eternity. Family life was broken up and all the pleasant intercourse of social habits. Marriage was a snare, and even the love of parents might prove dangerous to the devoted monk. Strange was the isolation of the hermit who refused to cleanse himself or change his clothes, desiring above all other things to attain to that blessed state when his soul should be oblivious of his body.

Women also despised the claims of kindred and retired to convents where the elect were granted visions after long prayer and fasting. The nun knelt on the bare stone floor of her cell, awaiting the ecstasy that would descend on her. When it had gone again she was nigh to death, faint and weary, yet compelled to struggle onward till her earthly life came to an end.

The Crusades, or Wars of the Cross, had roused Europe from a state of most distressful bondage. Ignorance and barbarism were shot with gleams of spiritual light even after the vast armies were sent forth to wrest the possession of Jerusalem from the infidels. Shameful stories of the treatment of pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre had moved the hearts of kings and princes to a passionate indignation. Valour became the highest, and all men were eager to be ranked with Crusaders—those soldiers of heroic courage whose cause was Christianity and its defence. At the close of the tenth century there were innumerable pilgrims travelling toward the Holy Land, for it had been prophesied that in the year A.D. 1000 the end of the world would come, when it would be well for those within Jerusalem, the City of the Saviour. The inhuman conduct of the Turk was resented violently, because it would keep many a sinner from salvation; and the dangerous journey to the East was held to atone for the gravest crimes.

After the first disasters in which so many Crusaders fell before they reached their destination, Italy especially began to benefit by these wars. It was considered safer to reach Jerusalem by sea, boarding the vessels in Italian ports, which were owned and equipped by Italian merchants. Venice, Pisa, and Genoa gradually assumed the trade of ancient Constantinople, once without rival on the southern sea. Constantinople was a city of wonder to the ignorant fighting men from other lands, who had never dreamed of a civilization so complete as that which she possessed. Awed by elegance and luxury, they returned to their homes with a sense of inferiority. They had met and fought side by side with warriors of such polished manners that they felt ashamed of their own brutal ways. They had seen strange costumes and listened to strange tongues. Henceforth no nation of Europe could be entirely indifferent to the fact that there was a world without.

The widowed and desolate were not comforted by the knowledge which the returned Crusader delighted to impart. They had been sacrificed to the pride which led husbands and fathers to sell their estates and squander vast sums of money, that they might equip a band of followers to lead in triumph to the Holy Wars. The complaints of starving women led to the collection of much gold and silver by Lambert Le Begue, "the stammering priest." He built a number of small houses to be inhabited by the Order of Beguines, a new sisterhood who did not sever themselves entirely from the world, but lived in peaceful retirement, occupied by spinning and weaving all day long.

The Beghards, or Weaving Brothers, took pattern by this busy guild of workers and followed the same rules of simple piety. They were fond of religious discussion, and were mystics. They enjoyed the approval of Rome until the new orders were established of Saint Francis and Saint Dominic.

In the twelfth century religion was drawing nearer to humanity and the needs of earth. The new orders, therefore, tried to bridge the gulf between the erring and the saintly, forbidding their brethren to seclude themselves from other men. A healthy reaction was taking place from the old idea that the religious life meant a withdrawal from the temptations of the world.

St Dominic, born in Spain in 1170, was the founder of "the Order of Preaching Monks for the conversion of heretics." The first aim of the "Domini canes" (Dominicans), or Hounds of the Lord, was to attack anyone who denied their faith. Cruelty could be practised under the rule of Dominic, who bade his followers lead men by any path to their ultimate salvation. Tolerance of free thought and progress was discouraged, and rigid discipline corrected any disciple of compassion. The dress of the order was severely plain, consisting of a long black mantle over a white robe. The brethren practised poverty, and fared humbly on bread and water.

The brown-frocked Franciscans, rivals in later times of the monks of Dominic, were always taught to love mankind and be merciful to transgressors. It was the duty of the Preaching Brothers to warn and threaten; it was the joy of the Frati Minori, or Lesser Brothers, to tend the sick and protect the helpless, taking thought for the very birds and fishes.

St Francis was born at Assisi in 1182, the son of a prosperous householder and cloth merchant. He drank and was merry, like any other youth of the period, till a serious illness purged him of follies. After dedicating his life to God, he put down in the market-place of Assisi all he possessed save the shirt on his body. The bitter reproaches of kinsfolk pursued him vainly as he set out in beggarly state to give service to the poor and despised. He loved Nature and her creatures, speaking of the birds as "noble" and holding close communion with them. The saintly Italian was opposed to the warlike doctrines of St Dominic; he made peace very frequently between the two parties known as Guelfs and Ghibellines.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


Welf was a common name among the dukes of Bavaria, and the Guelfs were, in general, supporters of the Papacy and this ducal house, whereas the Waiblingen (Ghibellines) received their name from a castle in Swabia, a fief of the Hohenstaufen enemies of the Pope. It was under a famous emperor of the House of Swabia that the struggle between Papacy and Empire, "the two swords," gained attention from the rest of Europe.

In the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII had won many notable victories in support of his claims to temporal power. He had brought Henry IV, the proud Emperor, before whose name men trembled, to sue for his pardon at Canossa, and had kept the suppliant in the snow, with bare head and bare feet, that he might endure the last humiliations. Then the fortune of war changed, and the Pope was seized in the Church of St Peter at Rome by Cencio, a fiery noble, who held him in close confinement. It was easier to lord it over princes who were hated by many of their own subjects than to quell the animosity which was roused by attempted domination in the Eternal City.

The Pope was able sometimes to elect a partisan of the Guelf party as emperor. On the other hand, an emperor had been heard to lament the election of a staunch friend to the Papacy because he believed that no pope could ever be a true Ghibelline.

Certain princes of the House of Hohenstaufen were too proud to acknowledge an authority that threatened to crush their power in Italy. Henry VI was a ruler dreaded by contemporaries as merciless to the last degree. He burned men alive if they offended him, and had no compunction in ordering the guilty to be tarred and blinded. He was of such a temper that the Pope had not the courage to demand from him the homage of a vassal. It was Frederick II, Henry's son, who came into conflict with the Papacy so violently that all his neighbours watched in terror.

Pope Gregory IX would give no quarter, and excommunicated the Emperor because he had been unable to go on a crusade owing to pestilence in his army. The clergy were bidden to assemble in the Church of St Peter and to fling down their lighted candles as the Pope cursed the Emperor for his broken promise, a sin against religion. The news of this ceremony spread through the world, the two parties appealing to the princes of Europe for aid in fighting out this quarrel. Frederick defied the papal decree, and went to win back Jerusalem from the infidels as soon as his soldiers had recovered. He took the city, but had to crown himself as king since none other would perform the service for a man outside the Church. Frederick bade the pious Mussulmans continue the prayers they would have ceased through deference to a Christian ruler. He had thrown off all the superstitions of the age except the study of astrology, and was a scholar of wide repute, delighting in correspondence with the learned.

The Arabs did not admire Frederick's person, describing him as unlikely to fetch a high price if he had been a slave! He was bald-headed and had weak eyesight, though generally held graceful and attractive. In mental powers he surpassed the greatest at his house, which had always been famous for its intellect. He had been born at Palermo, "the city of three tongues"; therefore Greek, Latin, and Arabic were equally familiar. He was daring in speech, broad in views, and cosmopolitan in habit. He founded the University of Naples and encouraged the study of medicine; he had the Greek of Aristotle translated, and himself set the fashion in verse-making, which was soon to be the pastime of every court in Italy.

The Pope was more successful in a contest waged with tongues than he had proved on battle-fields, which were strewn with bodies of both Guelf and Ghibelline factions. He dined in 1230 at the same table as his foe, but the peace between them did not long continue. In turn they triumphed, bringing against each other two armies of the Cross, the followers of the Pope fighting under the standard of St Peter's Keys as the champion of the true Christian Church against its oppressors.

Pope Innocent IV, who succeeded Gregory, proved himself a very cunning adversary. He might have won an easy victory over Frederick II if the exactions of the Papacy had not angered the countries where he sought refuge after his first failures. It was futile to declare at Lyons that the Emperor was deposed when all France was crying out upon the greed of prelates. The wearisome strife went on till the very peasants had to be guarded at their work by knights, sent out from towns to see that they were not taken captive. It was the day of the robber, and all things lay to his hand if he were bold enough to grasp them. Prisoners of war suffered horrible tortures, being hung up by their feet and hands in the hope that their friends would ransom them the sooner. Villages were burned down, and wolves howled near the haunts of men, seeking food to appease their ravening hunger. It was said that fierce beasts gnawed through the walls of houses and devoured little children in their cradles. Italy was rent by a conflict which divided one province from another, and even placed inhabitants of the same town on opposite sides and caused dissension in the noblest families.

The Flagellants marched in procession through the land, calling for peace but bringing tumult. The Emperor's party made haste to shut them out of the territory they ruled, but they could not rid the people of the terrible fear inspired by the barefooted, black-robed figures, with branches and candles in their hands and the holy Cross flaming red before them.

One defeat after another brought the House of Hohenstaufen under the control of the Church they had defied so boldly. Frederick's own son rebelled against him, and Frederick's camp was destroyed by a Guelf army. The Emperor had lived splendidly, making more impression on world-history than any other prince of that illustrious family, but he died in an hour of failure, feeling bitterly how great a triumph his death would be to the Pope who had conquered.

It was late in the year 1250 when the tidings of Frederick II's death travelled slowly through his Empire. Many refused to believe them, and declared long years afterwards that the Emperor was still living, beneath a mighty mountain. The world seemed to be shaking yet with the vibration of that deadly struggle. Conrad and Conradin were left, and Manfred, the favourite son of Frederick, but their reigns were short and desperate, and when they, too, had passed the Middle Ages were merging into another era. The "two swords" of Papacy and Empire were still to pierce and wound, but the struggle between them would never seem so mighty after the spirit had fled which inspired Conradin, last of the House of Swabia.

This young prince was led to the scaffold, where he asserted stoutly his claim to Naples above the claim of Charles, the Count of Anjou, who held it as fief of the Papacy. Then Conradin dared to throw his glove among the people, bidding them to carry it to Peter, Prince of Aragon, as the symbol by which he conveyed the rights of which death alone had been able to despoil him.