In theory, the political system of the Middle Ages appeared to be very sound and simple. The Emperor was the worldly master, tasked to look after the physical wellbeing of his subjects. The Pope, on the other hand, was the spiritual master whose main responsibility was to guard souls (Van Loon, 163). The Emperor and the Pope were supposed to work together to ensure the lasting happiness of the people both in this world and in the afterlife. But in practice, this system functioned very poorly. The Emperor habitually attempted to meddle with the affairs of the Roman Catholic Church.
In retaliation, the Pope would tell him how he is expected to manage his realm. Using very unceremonious language, both parties would then tell each other to mind their own business. Such clashes between the Emperor and the Pope almost always ended in war (Van Loon, 163). While the Emperor was an extremely wealthy and influential personality, the Pope exceeded him in these aspects. Should the Emperor earn the ire of the Pope, the latter can have him and his subjects excommunicated. During the Middle Ages, the excommunication of the Emperor resulted in half of the functions of the medieval government grinding to a halt.
All churches were closed, no one could be baptized and no dying person could receive absolution. Furthermore, the people were released from their oath of loyalty to their monarch and were even urged to rebel against their ruler (Van Loon, 164). Pepin the Short’s donation of lands to the Pope in 756 is regarded as “(both) the real (and) the symbolic founding of the Papal States” (Infoplease, n. pag. ). Although the papacy has been receiving land contributions since the 4th century, these were not as large as those given to them by Pepin.
With staggeringly vast amounts of land at his disposal, the Pope suddenly became wealthier and more powerful than most lay princes during his time. Thus, he was more emboldened to establish spiritual, as well as secular, supremacy over the monarchs (Infoplease, n. pag. ). One of the earliest manifestations of papal ascendancy over the state during the Middle Ages was the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800. Charlemagne’s coronation resulted in the institution of the Holy Roman Empire.
Ironically, the Holy Roman Empire became the major opponent of the papacy in the Middle Ages (Infoplease, n. pag. . By the 10th century, however, corruption was already very rampant in the papacy. It was in this era that the Holy See was said to have been “cynically bought and sold” (Infoplease, n. pag. ). Although Pope Leo IX initiated reforms, his efforts were overshadowed by the Roman Catholic Church’s breakaway from the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1054. It was not until the papacy of Gregory VII in the late 11th century that reforms were once again staged (Infoplease, n. pag. ). The Popes that succeeded Gregory were constantly embroiled in disputes and power struggles with the rulers of France, England, Spain and Naples.
Pope Alexander III, for instance, quarreled with King Henry II of England and Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. Pope Innocent III, meanwhile, made himself the de facto arbitrator of the West, despite resistance from Emperor Frederick II and Emperor Otto IV. Throughout the Middle Ages, disputes between the Pope and the Emperor became the determinant of a papacy’s power (Infoplease, n. pag. ). Quarrels with European monarchies did not render the Holy See safe from power struggles within its turf. From 1378 to 1417, it was plunged into the Great Schism.
During this division, three Popes – Urban VI, Clement VII and Alexander V – simultaneously claimed to be the legitimate leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. The Great Schism finally ended with the Council of Constance (1414-1418) and the appointment of Martin V (1417-1431) (Infoplease, n. pag. ). After the Great Schism, the Pope exerted very little influence outside Italy. Nonetheless, Popes in the 15th century never attempted to come up with serious reforms – doing otherwise would go against the vested interests of cardinals, princes and bishops.
Rome, therefore, became one of the centers of art in the Renaissance era. The Renaissance Popes and their courts, meanwhile, continued the extravagance and immorality of their predecessors (Infoplease, n. pag. ). Politics in the Middle Ages was characterized with the power struggle between church and state. Increases in acquired material fortunes prompted Popes in this era to seize power from Europe’s monarchs. It was this same thirst for supremacy that nearly destroyed the Roman Catholic Church through the Great Schism. Indeed, if power corrupts, then absolute power corrupts absolutely.
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