Saints and Heroes to the End of the Middle Ages - George Hodges



A new pope was on his way to Rome. He had been duly appointed by the emperor, according to the custom; and in his robes of office, with a splendid retinue about him, he was taking his great journey. But on the road he was met by a young monk. The monk said, "Father, you are not the pope of Rome. You have been appointed by the emperor, but the pope must be elected by the Church."

Thereupon the new pope put off his robes of office, dismissed his retinue of attendant knights and bishops, and entered Rome dressed in the gown of a pilgrim, with bare feet. There he was greeted with enthusiasm by the clergy and the people and they elected him to be their pope, according to the ancient manner.

The monk who gave the pope this good advice was Hildebrand.

Hildebrand's father was a carpenter, but he had an uncle who was a Roman abbot. With his uncle he studied, and when one of his teachers in the abby was made pope, Hildebrand because his chaplain. But the popes of that period were short-lived. Some of them died of sickness, some of them died of poison, some of them displeased the emperor and were removed by him. Hildebrand's teacher was removed by the emperor. Then the chaplain retired to the great monastery at Cluny. And there he was when he advised the new pope to wait till he was elected by the Church.

It is plain that Hildebrand, though he was living in a cloister, was attentive to the affairs of the great world. Many good men at that time, finding the world bad, turned their backs upon it, and tried to forget it, except when they said their prayers. Hildebrand determined to change it. Great bishops came to Cluny as they passed that way, and great nobles with them. And they all looked pretty much alike. The bishops were rich and powerful, with vast estates, fond of hunting, fond of eating and drinking, and neglectful of their duties. They were appointed to their places by kings and princes, and spent much of their time in courts and palaces, and the clergy under them, having such examples set for them to follow, and nobody to keep them in order, fell into temptation. They cared for money and the comforts of life, rather than for religion.

Hildebrand saw that the situation needed a strong hand.

When the new pope went to Rome in pilgrim's dress, Hildebrand went with him. He became his chief adviser. He advised him to assert himself. He urged him to gather conferences of bishops for the reformation of abuses, and to do it without asking the permission of princes. The pope died, and the Roman people desired that Hildebrand should succeed him. He preferred to be the power behind the pope. He secured the appointment of Victor; and after Victor, of Stephen; and after Stephen, of Nicholas; and after Nicolas, of Alexander. Thus for twenty-five years, he was the real pope.

Finally, after the death of Alexander, the whole city insisted that he should be pope, not only in power, but in name. They demanded Hildebrand, as the people in the old days had demanded Cyprian, and Ambrose, and Gregory. It was the custom for one who was elected pope to take a new name in honor of his new office. Hildebrand remembered his old schoolmaster, Gregory VI., whom he had served as chaplain, and became Gregory VII.

Now, after long preparation, he was ready to meet the evils of the world with his own strong hand.

His plan was to make the Church the ruler of the world. He took up that great fight against the court which Chrysostom, in his time, had lost, and Ambrose had won.

First, he made the clergy into soldiers of a spiritual army. He separated them from the world. This he did by forbidding them to marry. They were living comfortably with their wives and children, having their interests partly in the work of the Church, and partly in their domestic cares and pleasures. They were not only priests, but husbands and fathers and citizens. Hildebrand determined that they should be interested in nothing but the Church. He broke up their families, and placed them, like soldiers, under the command of their superiors. This he was able to do partly because so many of the careless clergy were unpopular among their people, and partly because the monks had taught by word and by example that the unmarried life is most pleasing to God. The pope encouraged parishes to drive the married ministers out of the churches.

Then, having made the priests into a church army, he separated their offices from the influences of the world by forbidding the investiture of bishops. Investiture was the act by which a prince permitted a bishop to take possession of the lands and property which belonged to his diocese. The theory was that the prince owned all the land, and that when the holder of an estate died it came back into the prince's treasury until he was pleased to give it away again. Thus the new bishop came humbly to the prince or the king and received certain symbols of his right to own the church's property under his permission. Indeed, the symbols,—being the ring which denoted the bishop's marriage to the Church, and the pastoral staff which denoted his rule as a shepherd over his people,—appeared to carry with them, not only the right to hold the property of the Church, but the right to exercise the sacred office itself. That, in fact, was the effect of it. It made it possible for kings and princes to appoint bishops, and for rich laymen to appoint ministers of parishes, as they pleased. Hildebrand forbade investiture. He called a council in Rome which decreed that any clergyman who accepted an investiture should be put out of his office, and that any layman who gave an investiture should be put out of the Church.

This forbidding of investiture affected every bishop, as the forbidding of marriage had affected every priest. The next step was to increase the power of the pope. The priests having been made soldiers, and the bishops generals, the pope must be commander-in-chief. The pope, said Hildebrand, is the universal bishop. He may depose other bishops, if he will. He alone may make laws for the Church. He is to crown all kings and emperors, and, if they misbehave, depose them. He may absolve subjects from their allegiance. He is the supreme head of all government, the king of kings and lord of lords, the ruler of the world.

Some of these claims had been made before. Gradually, through the confused centuries when the old empire was being broken down and the new empire was being builded on its ruins, the position of the bishop of the greatest city of the world had become more and more important. Hildebrand took these theories and put them into action. The one man, by the might of his strong will and the power of his blameless life, confronted the whole amazed and angry society about him, declared with a definiteness which could not be mistaken that he was the master of all kingdoms and all churches, and proceeded to act upon the declaration.

Thus Hildebrand came into collision with the emperor.

Henry IV., as emperor of Germany, was the greatest sovereign in Europe. He was the successor, under the new conditions, of the old emperors of Rome. He was now twenty-five years of age, a careless prince, following his own pleasures and misgoverning the empire. Already, some of his subjects had appealed to the pope to make him amend his ways. The forbidding of investiture was met by him as the cutting off of patronage is met by professional politicians. It was an advantage to him to give away the great places of the Church, and he proposed to continue to do it. He attacked the pope. He got his bishops together and they declared Hildebrand deposed. The emperor called him a false monk. He threatened to put another bishop in his place.

Thus they cursed each other, the emperor and the pope; but the pope's curses were the more effective. The unpopularity of the emperor weakened his position. When the pope declared him excommunicated and deposed, and thus made rebellion against him a religious duty, the princes of the empire found the opportunity which they desired. They gladly accepted the services of this new ally in their contention against the emperor whose follies had thrown the empire into disorder. Finding, accordingly, that both the princes and the clergy, and with them the people, were against him, Henry submitted to the pope's demands.

"You must come to me," the pope said, "and ask pardon for your offenses, and promise to do better. Otherwise, you shall be emperor no longer." And the emperor came.

It was in the midst of winter, and the pope was at Canossa, a castle in the heights of the Apennines. There the emperor came, with his wife and child and a few attendants, bringing his crown in his hand. For three days, Hildebrand kept him waiting outside his door, in the cold court of the castle, barefooted and in the woolen shirt of a penitent. Then he admitted him; and the great king, the ruler of the empire, the successor of Charlemagne, bareheaded and barefooted, prostrated himself with tears before the pope.

This was the second act in the long tragedy of the Middle Ages. The pope was now supreme over the emperor.

Even thus, Henry gained only a half pardon. He was told that he must be put on trial, with Hildebrand for judge; and if he was acquitted he must promise to be faithfully obedient to the pope.

The effect of all this on Henry was most unexpected. The second act of the tragedy seemed ended, when suddenly the situation was reversed. Henry went away from that humiliation a new man. As he descended the long mountain in the bitter cold, his heart was hot within him. He put the follies of his youth behind him. For the first time, he was a king in earnest. He gathered troops about him. He defied the nobles who were in rebellion. He invaded Italy. He besieged Rome. He took the city. Hildebrand held only the Castle of St. Angelo against him, waiting for the promised assistance of the Normans. But when the Normans came, and Henry retreated, the pope was like the man who prayed for rain and was answered with a flood. The victors, the pope's allies, sacked the city; and, when the citizens resisted, tried to burn it to the ground.

In bitter grief, and amidst the indignation of the Romans, the liberated pope retired from the sight of his ruined city to Salerno. And there, in the midst of a mighty tempest, the thunder rolling and the winds howling about him, he died. The great mastery, whereby the pope had hoped to rule the world, punishing the sins of princes, was lost almost before it was won. "I have loved righteousness," he said, "and hated iniquity; therefore I die in exile."