What Caused the Growth of Papal Power in the Medieval Period?

By Joseph Oxlade

Noticeable growth in papal power occurred in the period from 1049, the start of Leo IX’s papacy and the origin of the papal reform movement, to 1312, the year of the Council of Vienne, the last papally-led general council for over 100 years and the end of the more politically able and active papacy.[1] Papal growth can be defined primarily as the increase in land, finance and usable political power over European lay rulers, but also a more universal acceptance from the Catholic Church of the pope being the ‘vicar of Christ’ (suggesting undisputed papal primacy over ecclesiastical figures and decision-making). [2] This occurred for a number of factors; Leo IX and Gregory VII’s new reform ideology challenged the accepted norm that the pope was simply a spiritual figure, but it was also through canny political negotiation, particularly with the Holy Roman Empire, that the papacy was able to compromise lay power in issues such as investiture and clergy benefit and even achieve land and political allies, in order to forcefully impose their policies.

One of the main advancements of papal power in the period was the acceptance of the pope as the ‘vicar of Christ’, the universal and undisputed head of the Christian Church. This change occurred primarily due to the ideological developments of the papal reform movement, started by Leo IX and championed by Gregory VII, even though they only became universally accepted a long time afterwards. In order to become the spiritual head of Europe, the pope needed to find new ways to justify his power, to become more active in the ecclesiastical affairs of bishops. Leo IX demonstrated this new energy of the papacy by holding papal councils across Europe and not just in Rome, such as his 1049 Council of Rheims, which fundamentally denounced simonists and demonstrated that the papacy was not afraid to publically implement reformist ecclesiastical policy.[3][4] The acceptance amongst European bishops of the pope as the ‘vicar of Christ’, a term used by the time of Innocent III in his late twelfth century decretals, was a gradual process that started with factors such as the production of the Dictatus Papae in 1075. [5][6] This revolutionary papal document from the time of Gregory VII was a powerful expression of the pope’s new universal episcopacy and enforced developments such as papal legates being placed above bishops in terms of ecclesiastical authority.[7] Gregory VII also demonstrated the new iron fist approach of the papacy in enforcing these documents with his deposal of Bishop Liemar of Bremen in 1074 for his refusal to hold a synod.[8] Once papal doctrine of this nature increased in volume, it became more widely accepted across the European ecclesiastical sphere partly because of a genuine willingness to reform the Church and to limit lay control, but also a fear of a more imposing papacy and the lowered position of the bishop.

This reduced position had vast implications amongst the broader development of papal administration and bureaucracy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which was mostly due to the increase in papal court cases and the necessary rise of relevant documentation and papal curia staff. Papal judges delegate were new positions created as a direct result of the previously stated clause of the Dictatus Papae, and limited local bishopric, as well as lay, control across Europe for ecclesiastical cases; agents were sent by the pope at his whim and were given his authority to enact canon law in the localities. For example, Roger of Worcester (1164-79) acted as papal judge delegate in over 100 cases, demonstrating the widespread effect of papal judicial authority.[9] Other related papal administrative advances included the vast rise in the usage of papal letters to send direct instructions to lay rulers and European courts; Benedict IX (1033-1046) averaged one letter a year, whereas Innocent IV (1243-56) averaged 730, which is clear evidence of an increased sense of legal power.[10] In order to enforce the eleventh century papal reform movement’s determined goals, the need for greater numbers of Church meetings and a more advanced curia was created, to enforce its policies and ensure ordered actions were taking place. The pope also required organisation and financial aid, and one way he achieved this was through creating the position of papal chamberlain, by 1088, to ensure payments such as ‘Peter’s Pence’ were paid (a customary fee offered by lay rulers to Rome).[11] Gregory VII’s ambitious legacy led to greater action by later popes; between 869 and 1122, no councils took place, whereas between 1123 and 1312 there were seven general councils for European bishops, all chaired by the pope himself, ideal opportunities to reinforce papal objectives.[12] The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 was arguably the peak of papal power, even enforcing radical laws such as any uncanonical Church appointments by lay rulers being declared void; through these meetings the pope was even able to aid his control over important political matters. [13]

This increased political control of the papacy was vital in order for its power to extend; kings and emperors held the greatest power during the period, so negotiation and politics became key as popes from the mid-eleventh century onwards started to actively fight against lay control of Europe. The papacy needed to evolve new methods to attain political control due to the failure of the enforcement of the Donation of Constantine in the ninth century, which supposedly gave Rome political control of Italy.[14] One such method was the Church attempting to assert overlying authority over the ‘material’ world, as well as the spiritual, through the reinterpretation of the story of Christ being granted these two swords (an analogy for lay and ecclesiastical power) by his disciples in the Bible.[15] This revolutionary new assertion championed by Gregory VII was clearly caused by a need to justify papal dominance. As it became gradually more accepted among powerful bishops and rulers, the papacy was able to press its own claim to authority over key issues such as ending lay investiture; King Henry I lost his right to ordain bishops in 1107, a decisive end to his long-established ‘sacral’ kingship.[16] Another related cause of papal power throughout the period was opportunistic exploitation of political circumstance. Very little progress could be made with powerful emperors such as Frederick Barbarossa in their peak, however when Alexander III achieved political support from the kingdom of France and England, even Barbarossa rejected his anti-pope Calixtus III in 1177 after 18 years of opposition.[17] When rebels had seized control of London in 1215, King John turned to the pope to be his feudal overlord, another example of the pope achieving power through capitalising on secular weakness.[18] Thus, through canny political negotiation and asserting himself as the rightful head of lay Europe, the pope was able to greatly strengthen his political position and even achieve lands of his own.

Another area of papal authority over Europe originated from crusade and the use of spiritual punishment. Urban II’s call for crusade in 1095 involved the pope, for the first time, being the overall head of a major military operation.[19] Urban even chose a papal legate, Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy, to directly lead the holy army, and the successful occupation of the Crusader States in the east lasted until 1291 with the fall of Acre.[20] This gave the pope a key recognition as an active military power and he was politically rewarded for his efforts; for one, Louis VII granted the pope control over the kingdom of France during the Second Crusade.[21] Papal influence was also unexpectedly spread to Greece after the ‘Great Schism’ through this preaching; Michael VIII Palaiologos of Greece pledged full support to the Ninth Crusade in 1274.[22] Considering that in the ninth century, the Pope possessed the political power of a ‘medium-ranking prince’, this far flung appeal for papal command in the thirteenth century clearly demonstrates the vast increase in power the papacy had obtained.[23] The pope also used excommunication more frequently to punish wrongdoers and enforce his will as a result of this increased political confidence; even Frederick II, a powerful Holy Roman emperor, was excommunicated in 1227 for refusing to go on crusade.[24] Pope Alexander III utilised both these aspects of growing papal power in the Third Lateran Council of 1179; simoniacs were threatened with immediate excommunication and those who opposed simony were to be rewarded as if they were crusaders.[25] Overall we can see that because of the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem and the pope’s following enforcement of crusading, he achieved major development of his political position and was able to focus European warfare outward, rather than inward and thus protect his position in Rome.[26]

Overall, the main factors that contributed to this growth of papal political power, as well as his ecclesiastical primacy, between 1049 and 1312, were extraneous political circumstance both in Europe and Outremer and the ideology of the papal reform movement becoming more greatly accepted due to a more energetic and tenacious papacy from the eleventh century onwards. Typical of this new movement was Gregory VII’s gritted determination that helped enforce papal authority. Directly taking responsibility for many major crusading operations and taking advantage of times of political weakness in Europe to implement his policies, the pope was eventually able to become a powerful secular and ecclesiastical figure by the early thirteenth century.

[1] R.W.Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Middlesex, 1970), pp.107-8

[2] Ibid., pp.104-5

[3] H.E.J.Cowdrey, ‘The Structure of the Church 1024-1073’ in J.Riley-Smith and D.Luscombe (eds.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume 4: c.1024 – c.1098 (Cambridge, 2004), pp.229-230

[4] K.G.Cushing, Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century (Manchester, 2005), p.95

[5] J.A.Watt, ‘The Papacy’ in D.Abulafia (ed.), The New Cambridge Medieval History Volume 5: c.1198 – c.1300 (Cambridge, 1999), p.118

[6] G.Tellenbach, The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century (Cambridge, 1993), p.310

[7] E.F.Henderson, Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London, 1910), p.366

[8] Cushing, Reform and the Papacy, p.100

[9] C.Morris, The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050-1250 (Oxford, 1989), pp.211-212

[10] Southern, Western Society and the Church, p.109

[11] I.S.Robinson, The Papacy 1073-1198: Continuity and Innovation (Cambridge, 1990), p.250

[12] Southern, Western Society and the Church, pp.107-108

[13] Watt, ‘The Papacy’, pp.127-128

[14] Tellenbach, The Church in Western Europe, p.58

[15] Robinson, The Papacy 1073-1198, pp.296-299

[16] I.W.Frank, A Concise History of the Mediaeval Church (New York, 1996), p.68

[17] Ibid., pp.77-78

[18] Morris, The Papal Monarchy, p.429

[19] Robinson, The Papacy 1073-1198, p.322

[20] Ibid., p.349

[21] Ibid., p.305

[22] Watt, ‘The Papacy’, pp.146-147

[23] Tellenbach, The Church in Western Europe, pp.304-305

[24] Watt, ‘The Papacy’, p.134

[25] Robinson, The Papacy 1073-1198, p.319

[26] M.C.Miller, Power and the Holy in the Age of the Investiture Conflict: A Brief History with Documents (New York, 1995), p.24


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