History of the Church: Early Middle Ages - Notre Dame

The Papacy and the Empire

[Illustration] from Church - Early Middle Ages by Notre Dame

I. Temporal Power of the Popes

Any sketch of the history of the Church in the centuries succeeding the fall of the Roman Empire would not be complete without a review of the position occupied by the Sovereign Pontiff during these eventful times.

During the days of persecution the spiritual authority of the Holy See had been universally recognized, but from the moment that Christianity triumphed, a new lustre was given to the position of the Head of the Church. Constantine the Great left Rome to the Popes, and built himself a new capital in the East. Missioners were sent forth to all lands. Newly converted nations sent their deputations to Rome. Sovereigns came there to be crowned, or to lay down their sceptres and embrace a monastic life. Valentian III., in A.D. 445, recognized the Papacy as the final court of appeal. Popes saved Rome from invading barbarians when Emperors were powerless. In a word, the power of the Popes waxed as that of the Emperors waned.

Under Justinian I., A.D. 554–565, Italy again formed part of the Roman Empire, and was for a few years administered as such by an Exarch settled at Ravenna. But this shadow of Empire passed away with the Lombard invasion late in the sixth century. This people, after settling in the great Northern plain, threatened even Rome itself. Pope Stephen, feeling it useless to repeat appeals for help to Emperors, who did nothing, and could do nothing, called on Pepin the Short, King of the Franks, to come to his aid against the invaders.

A short retrospect will be necessary to show who Pepin was, and how he alone at that time had the power to free Italy from the barbarian hordes.

The Merovingian line, descended from Clovis, had occupied the throne of Francia for about two hundred and fifty years, and had disgraced the name of Sovereign by their vicious deeds. But the last Princes were weak as well as wicked, and their power was taken from them by the Karlings, a powerful Germanic family. The Prince who ruled in the name of the King was called Mayor of the Palace and Duke of France. The most famous of these Mayors had been:

  1. Pepin of Heristal, who had added many German provinces to the Frank kingdom;
  2. Charles Martel, whom we have seen conquering the Saracens at Poictiers, and the Allemans, Bavarians, and Frisians in Germany, and first opposing, then helping St. Boniface in his attempts to settle the Church in Francia; and
  3. Pepin the Short, the Prince who some years previous to the appeal of Pope Stephen for assistance had been chosen King of Francia by the nobles, instead of the weak Childeric, the last of the Merovingians.

Pepin had sent to ask the Pope if he should accept the throne, and the Pope who was then reigning, Zachary by name, had said that it was better for him to be King who had the power of King, and Pepin had been anointed by St. Boniface in A.D. 752. He was master of Western Europe when, at the end of A.D. 753, Pope Stephen III. came to him to beg assistance for Rome against the Lombards. The Pontiff crowned Pepin and his Queen, giving to the former the title of King of the Franks and Patrician of the Romans. Thus began the famous Carlovingian line, the second of the royal dynasties of France.

Pepin assented to the Pope's wishes, and led his armies against the barbarians. He reconquered the Exarchate, with twenty-two towns taken by Luitprand, and compelled the invading Sovereign to content himself with Lombardy. The victorious Karling then offered the regained province and towns to the Holy See. This donation of Pepin, or "Patrimony of St. Peter," as it was called, was the commencement of the temporal sovereignty of the Popes, who, as independent monarchs, were no longer subject to the control of any ruler whatever. The Popes thus acquired that liberty of action which is so essential to the full exercise of their spiritual powers. This donation was confirmed by Pepin's son, the Great Karl (Charlemagne), and by succeeding Emperors. Our own days have seen this time-honoured gift torn from the Holy See, and our Holy Father, Pope Pius X., is even yet a prisoner in his Palace of the Vatican in consequence of this iniquitous spoliation.


  1. Popes claimed the right of supremacy—e.g.,
    1. Pope St. Clement settled a dispute in the Church at Corinth during the lifetime of St. John the Evangelist.
    2. Pope Victor settled disputed question of Easter; Pope Stephen that about Baptism given by heretics.
  2. The Early Fathers of the Church all testify to the primacy of St. Peter's See:
    1. Appeals to the judgment of Rome occur' from earliest times for election of Bishops, both Eastern and western; on disputed questions, decrees of Synods were sent to Rome for confirmation.
    2. Popes or their Legates presided over all General Councils.
    3. Popes sent the Pallium to eminent Bishops. Now all Metropolitans have to ask it from the Pope.

II. A Catholic Monarch

Every branch of the history of Europe which we have been studying meets and blends into one in the story of the Sovereign known as the Great Karl, Charles the Great, or more familiarly Charlemagne. This German Prince, one of the greatest rulers the world has ever known, was the son of Pepin the Short. In A.D. 771 he reunited the dominion of his father, which had for a short time been divided between himself and his brother Carloman, who afterwards became a monk at Monte Cassino.

As we have seen, the three great Teutonic nations of Northern Europe—Austrasia, Neustria, and Burgundy—had been gradually brought under the power of the Frankish Merovingians, but the Karlings or Carlovingians had added large territories. The last of the great tribes to hold out against Carlovingian arms was that of the Saxons, and Charlemagne had many a struggle with them during the first eleven years of his reign. At last they yielded and became faithful subjects of the empire, whose eastern frontier they protected against other invaders.



At the accession of Charlemagne all these tribes were separate nations, often at war with one another, and always unfriendly. Charlemagne made them one people. Though he permitted each country to keep its own laws, its hereditary Sovereigns, and free assemblies, he controlled their action by sending round officers to inspect, report, and reform.

Conquests were undertaken by Charlemagne mainly with a view to spreading the blessings of Christianity and of civilization. The conversion of a nation, therefore, speedily followed its conquest. This was notably the case with the Saxons, whom St. Boniface had so yearned to convert. The work of conversion was completed and crowned by the magnificent organization which, under this monarch's administration, was given to the Church. The whole of this vast territory, including North-West Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, North and Central Germany, Austria, and North Italy, was mapped out into dioceses. Churches were built everywhere, the magnificent Cathedral at Aix-la-Chapelle, Charlemagne's capital, being one of the most splendid. Assemblies of clergy, monks, and learned men, were held twice a year, to regulate all matters of law and order, both spiritual and temporal. The decrees which were formulated were drawn up in chapters, known as the "Capitularies of Charlemagne." The greater part related to the Church and ecclesiastics.

Charlemagne had not only to administer his widespread dominions, but he had to keep the enemies who still threatened his long frontier-line. On the east, he kept some Teutonic and Hungarian tribes at bay. On the south, he marched against and brought into subjection the Lombards, who had again attacked the States of the Church. After this, Charlemagne was crowned King of Lombardy with the famous Iron Crown. This crown, still in existence, was given by Pope Gregory the Great to Queen Theodolinda. It consists of a golden circlet, inside which is an iron band, said to have been made of one of the nails with which our Lord was crucified.

[Illustration] from Church - Early Middle Ages by Notre Dame

Some years later Charlemagne marched against the Saracens, and took from them the North of Spain, and added the territory as far as the Ebro to his empire. In spite of a great defeat in the Valley of Roncesvalles, Charlemagne's ascendancy was such that never again did the Moors attempt to cross the Pyrenees.

At the end of A.D. 800 Charlemagne went to Rome. While praying after midnight Mass in St. Peter's, he was crowned by Pope Leo III., who placed on his head the imperial diadem, and saluted him as Charles I., Caesar Augustus, Emperor of the West. It seemed to men as if the old Roman Empire had revived, Christianized and in full vigour. And had not a revolution dethroned the Eastern Empress Irene, it might have been that Charlemagne would have married her, and that thus the Roman Empire would have been once more united under one Sovereign.

Charlemagne had also confirmed anew Pepin's donation to St. Peter, and had pledged himself to assist the Church in fulfilling her Divine mission. This union of Church and State was most beneficial to both as long as it continued on these terms; but in after-years Emperors sought at first to become masters of the Holy See, and, later on, to shake off its yoke altogether. Charlemagne, however, throughout the whole of his reign was remarkable for the affection, esteem, and submission with which he always treated the Sovereign Pontiff. Four times he went to Rome to consult or aid the Pope, and twice he received the Holy Father in Germany. One of the chief glories of Charlemagne is his devotion to the Catholic Church and its Supreme Pastor.

But in spite of his incessant wars, the welfare of his people was ever present to Charlemagne; nothing seemed to escape his vigilance, and every need was met and supplied with an intelligent care that is most remarkable.

He had most at heart the education of both clergy and people. From all countries he gathered round him learned men, to whom he entrusted the work of training the young. One of the most famous was Alcuin, an English monk from York, by whose advice Charlemagne guided himself in all important matters. Numerous libraries of valuable books were formed, and copies were multiplied. Schools were founded in many places. The most renowned was the Palatine College, to which promising youths of good family were admitted. So great was Charlemagne's interest in these scholars that he would assist at their lessons, and when he travelled the whole staff of masters and all the boys followed him wherever he went.

Agriculture and commerce were not forgotten, and all the arts of peace began to flourish.

The grand character of Charlemagne was not without blemish. His early years were marked by some very disgraceful acts, but his sincere penitence in later life amply atoned for them. He died in A.D. 814, after a reign of forty-eight years, during which peace, prosperity, law, order, and religion prevailed, leaving a memory which could not be without effect on the history of after-ages.

Though the Carlovingian Empire fell to pieces after his death, these things were not forgotten. Though renewed barbarian invasions and continued civil wars undid a great deal of what he had done, the principles of law and order had been sown, the love of letters had been fostered, the freedom of the Popes had been recognized, and, when happier days came, there was an attempt to return to what had made Charlemagne's reign so glorious.

[Illustration] from Church - Early Middle Ages by Notre Dame