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§ 63. The Degradation of the Papacy in the Tenth Century.


Migne’s Patrol. Lat. Tom. 131–142. These vols. contain the documents and works from Pope John IX.–Gregory VI.

Liudprandus (Episcopus Cremonensis, d. 972): Antapodoseos, seu Rerum per Europam gestarum libri VI. From a.d. 887–950. Reprinted in Pertz: Monum. Germ. III. 269–272; and in Migne: Patrol. Tom. CXXXVI. 769 sqq. By the same: Historia Ottonis, sive de rebus gestis Ottonis Magni. From a.d. 960–964. In Pertz: Monum. III. 340–346; in Migne CXXXVI. 897 sqq. Comp. Koepke: De Liudprandi vita et scriptis, Berol., 1842; Wattenbach: Deutschlands Geschichtsquellen, and Giesebrecht, l.c. I. p. 779. Liudprand or Liutprand (Liuzo or Liuso), one of the chief authorities on the history of the 10th century, was a Lombard by birth, well educated, travelled in the East and in Germany, accompanied Otho I. to Rome, 962, was appointed by him bishop of Cremona, served as his interpreter at the Roman Council of 964, and was again in Rome 965. He was also sent on an embassy to Constantinople. He describes the wretched condition of the papacy as an eye-witness. His Antapodosis or Retribution (written between 958 and 962) is specially directed against king Berengar and queen Willa, whom he hated. His work on Otho treats of the contemporary events in which he was one of the actors. He was fond of scandal, but is considered reliable in most of his facts.

Flodoardus (Canonicus Remensis, d. 966): Historia Remensis; Annales; Opuscula metrica, in Migne, Tom. CXXXV.

Atto (Episcopus Vercellensis, d. 960): De presauris ecclesiasticis; Epistolae, and other books, in Migne, Tom. CXXXV.

Jaffé: Regesta, pp. 307–325.

Other sources relating more to the political history of the tenth century are indicated by Giesebrecht, I. 817, 820, 836.


Baronius: Annales ad ann. 900–963.

V. E. Löscher.: Historie des röm. Hurenregiments. Leipzig, 1707. (2nd ed. with another title, 1725.)

Constantin Höfler (R.C.): Die deutschen Päpste. Regensburg, 1839, 2 vols.

E. Dummler: Auxilius und Vulgarius. Quellen und Forschungenzur Geschichte des Papstthums im Anfang des zehnten Jahrhunderts. Leipz. 1866. The writings of Auxilius and Vulgarius are in Migne’s Patrol., Tom. CXXIX.

C. Jos. Von Hefele (Bishop of Rottenburg): Die Päpste und Kaiser in den trubsten Zeiten der Kirche, in his “Beiträge zur Kirchengesch,” etc., vol. I. 27–278. Also his Conciliengeschichte, IV. 571–660 (2d ed.).

Milman: Lat. Chr. bk. 5, chs. 11–14. Giesebrecht: Gesch. der deutschen Kaiserzeit., I. 343 sqq. Gfrörer: III. 3, 1133–1275. Baxmann: II. 58–125. Gregorovius, Vol. III. Von Reumont, Vol. II.

The tenth century is the darkest of the dark ages, a century of ignorance and superstition, anarchy and crime in church and state. The first half of the eleventh century was little better. The dissolution of the world seemed to be nigh at hand. Serious men looked forward to the terrible day of judgment at the close of the first millennium of the Christian era, neglected their secular business, and inscribed donations of estates and other gifts to the church with the significant phrase “appropinquante mundi termino.”

The demoralization began in the state, reached the church, and culminated in the papacy. The reorganization of society took the same course. No church or sect in Christendom ever sank so low as the Latin church in the tenth century. The papacy, like the old Roman god Janus, has two faces, one Christian, one antichristian, one friendly and benevolent, one fiendish and malignant. In this period, it shows almost exclusively the antichristian face. It is an unpleasant task for the historian to expose these shocking corruptions; but it is necessary for the understanding of the reformation that followed. The truth must be told, with its wholesome lessons of humiliation and encouragement. No system of doctrine or government can save the church from decline and decay. Human nature is capable of satanic wickedness. Antichrist steals into the very temple of God, and often wears the priestly robes. But God is never absent from history, and His overruling wisdom always at last brings good out of evil. Even in this midnight darkness the stars were shining in the firmament; and even then, as in the days of Elijah the prophet, there were thousands who had not bowed their knees to Baal. Some convents resisted the tide of corruption, and were quiet retreats for nobles and kings disgusted with the vanities of the world, and anxious to prepare themselves for the day of account. Nilus, Romuald, and the monks of Cluny raised their mighty voice against wickedness in high places. Synods likewise deplored the immorality of the clergy and laity, and made efforts to restore discipline. The chaotic confusion of the tenth century, like the migration of nations in the fifth, proved to be only the throe and anguish of a new birth. It was followed first by the restoration of the empire under Otho the Great, and then by the reform of the papacy under Hildebrand.

The Political Disorder.

In the semi-barbarous state of society during the middle ages, a strong central power was needed in church and state to keep order. Charlemagne was in advance of his times, and his structure rested on no solid foundation. His successors had neither his talents nor his energy, and sank almost as low as the Merovingians in incapacity and debauchery. The popular contempt in which they were held was expressed in such epithets as “the Bald,” “the Fat,” “the Stammerer,” “the Simple,” “the Lazy,” “the Child.” Under their misrule the foundations of law and discipline gave way. Europe was threatened with a new flood of heathen barbarism. The Norman pirates from Denmark and Norway infested the coasts of Germany and France, burned cities and villages, carried off captives, followed in their light boats which they could carry on their shoulders, the course of the great rivers into the interior; they sacked Hamburg, Cologne, Treves, Rouen, and stabled their horses in Charlemagne’s cathedral at Aix; they invaded England, and were the terror of all Europe until they accepted Christianity, settled down in Normandy, and infused fresh blood into the French and English people. In the South, the Saracens, crossing from Africa, took possession of Sicily and Southern Italy; they are described by pope John VIII. as Hagarenes, as children of fornication and wrath, as an army of locusts, turning the land into a wilderness. From the East, the pagan Hungarians or Magyars invaded Germany and Italy like hordes of wild beasts, but they were defeated at last by Henry the Fowler and Otho the Great, and after their conversion to Christianity under their saintly monarch Stephen (997–1068), they became a wall of defence against the progress of the Turks.

Within the limits of nominal Christendom, the kings and nobles quarreled among themselves, oppressed the people, and distributed bishoprics and abbeys among their favorites, or pocketed the income. The metropolitans oppressed the bishops, the bishops the priests, and the priests the laity. Bands of robbers roamed over the country and defied punishment. Might was right. Charles the Fat was deposed by his vassals, and died in misery, begging his bread (888). His successor, Arnulf of Carinthia, the last of the Carolingian line of emperors (though of illegitimate birth), wielded a victorious sword over the Normans (891) and the new kingdom of Moravia (894), but fell into trouble, died of Italian poison, and left the crown of Germany to his only legitimate son, Louis the Child (899–911), who was ruled by Hatto, archbishop of Mayence. This prelate figures in the popular legend of the “Mouse-Tower” (on an island in the Rhine, opposite Bingen), where a swarm of mice picked his bones and “gnawed the flesh from every limb,” because he had shut up and starved to death a number of hungry beggars. But documentary history shows him in a more favorable light. Louis died before attaining to manhood, and with him the German line of the Carolingians (911). The last shadow of an emperor in Italy, Berengar, who had been crowned in St. Peter’s, died by the dagger of an assassin (924). The empire remained vacant for nearly forty years, until Otho, a descendant of the Saxon duke Widukind, whom Charlemagne had conquered, raised it to a new life.

In France, the Carolingian dynasty lingered nearly a century longer, till it found an inglorious end in a fifth Louis called the Lazy (“le Fainéant”), and Count Hugh Capet became the founder of the Capetian dynasty, based on the principle of hereditary succession (987). He and his son Robert received the crown of France not from the pope, but from the archbishop of Rheims.

Italy was invaded by Hungarians and Saracens, and distracted by war between rival kings and petty princes struggling for aggrandizement. The bishops and nobles were alike corrupt, and the whole country was a moral wilderness.274274    Höfler (I. 16) asserts that every princely family of Italy in the tenth century was tainted with incestuous blood, and that it was difficult to distinguish wives and sisters mothers and daughters. See his genealogical tables appended to the first volume.

The Demoralization of the Papacy.

The political disorder of Europe affected the church and paralyzed its efforts for good. The papacy itself lost all independence and dignity, and became the prey of avarice, violence, and intrigue, a veritable synagogue of Satan. It was dragged through the quagmire of the darkest crimes, and would have perished in utter disgrace had not Providence saved it for better times. Pope followed pope in rapid succession, and most of them ended their career in deposition, prison, and murder. The rich and powerful marquises of Tuscany and the Counts of Tusculum acquired control over the city of Rome and the papacy for more than half a century. And what is worse (incredibile, attamen verum), three bold and energetic women of the highest rank and lowest character, Theodora the elder (the wife or widow of a Roman senator), and her two daughters, Marozia and Theodora, filled the chair of St. Peter with their paramours and bastards. These Roman Amazons combined with the fatal charms of personal beauty and wealth, a rare capacity for intrigue, and a burning lust for power and pleasure. They had the diabolical ambition to surpass their sex as much in boldness and badness as St. Paula and St. Eustachium in the days of Jerome had excelled in virtue and saintliness. They turned the church of St. Peter into a den of robbers, and the residence of his successors into a harem. And they gloried in their shame. Hence this infamous period is called the papal Pornocracy or Hetaerocracy.275275    Liutprandi Antapodosis, II. 48 (Pertz, V. 297; Migne, CXXXVI. 827): Theodora, scortum impudens ... (quod dictu etiam foedissimum est), Romanae civitatis non inviriliter monarchiam obtinebat. Quae duas habuit natas, Marotiam atque Theodoram, sibi non solum coaequales, verum etiam Veneris exercitio promptiores. Harum Marotia ex Papa Sergio-Joannem, qui post Joannis Ravennatis obitum Romanae Ecclesiae obtinuit dignitatem, nefario genuit adulterio, “etc. In the same ch. he calls the elder Theodora ”meretrix satis impudentissima, Veneris calore succensa.”
   This Theodora was the wife of Theophylactus, Roman Consul and Senator, probably of Byzantine origin, who appears in 901 among the Roman judges of Louis III. She called herself ” Senatrix.” She was the mistress of Adalbert of Tuscany, called the Rich (d. 926), and of pope John X. (d. 928). And yet she is addressed by Eugenius Vulgarius as ”sanctissima et venerabilis matrona!” (See Dümmler, l.c. p. 146, and Hefele, IV. 575.) Her daughter Marozia (or Maruccia, the diminutive of Maria, Mariechen) was the boldest and most successful of the three. She was the mistress of pope Sergius III. and of Alberic I., Count of Tusculum (d. 926), and married several times. Comp. Liutprand, III. 43 and 44. She perpetuated her rule through her son, Alberic II., and her grandson, pope John XII. With all their talents and influence, these strong-minded women were very, ignorant; the daughters of the younger Theodora could neither read nor write, and signed their name in 945 with a +. (Gregorovius, III. 282 sq.) The Tusculan popes and the Crescentii, who controlled and disgraced the papacy in the eleventh century, were descendants of the same stock.

   The main facts of this shameful reign rest on good contemporary Catholic authorities (as Liutprand, Flodoard, Ratherius of Verona, Benedict of Soracte, Gerbert, the transactions of the Councils in Rome, Rheims, etc.), and are frankly admitted with devout indignation by Baronius and other Roman Catholic historians, but turned by them into an argument for the divine origin of the papacy, whose restoration to power appears all the more wonderful from the depth of its degradation. Möhler (Kirchgesch. ed. by Gama, II. 183) calls Sergius III., John X., John XI., and John XII.” horrible popes,” and says that ” crimes alone secured the papal dignity!” Others acquit the papacy of guilt, since it was not independent. The best lesson which Romanists might derive from this period of prostitution is humility and charity. It is a terrible rebuke to pretensions of superior sanctity.

Some popes of this period were almost as bad as the worst emperors of heathen Rome, and far less excusable.

Sergius III., the lover of Marozia (904–911), opened the shameful succession. Under the protection of a force of Tuscan soldiers he appeared in Rome, deposed Christopher who had just deposed Leo V., took possession of the papal throne, and soiled it with every vice; but he deserves credit for restoring the venerable church of the Lateran, which had been destroyed by an earthquake in 896 and robbed of invaluable treasures.276276    Baronius, following Liutprand, calls Sergius ”homo vitiorum omnium servus.” But Flodoard and the inscriptions give him a somewhat better character. See Hefele IV. 576, Gregorovius III. 269, and von Reumont II. 273.

After the short reign of two other popes, John X., archbishop of Ravenna, was elected, contrary to all canons, in obedience to the will of Theodora, for the more convenient gratification of her passion (914–928).277277    Gfrörer makes him the paramour of the younger Theodora, which on chronological grounds is more probable; but Hefele, Gregorovius, von Peumont, and Greenwood link him with the elder Theodora. This seems to be the meaning of Liutprand (II. 47 and 48), who says that she fell in love with John for his great beauty, and actually forced him to sin (secumque hunc scortari non solum voluit, verum etiam atque etiam compulit). She could not stand the separation from her lover, and called him to Rome. Baronius treats John X. as a pseudopapa. Muratori, Duret, and Hefele dissent from Liutprand and give John a somewhat better character, without, however, denying his relation to Theodora. See Hefele, IV. 579 sq. He was a man of military ability and daring, placed himself at the head of an army—the first warrior among the popes—and defeated the Saracens. He then announced the victory in the tone of a general. He then engaged in a fierce contest for power with Marozia and her lover or husband, the Marquis Alberic I. Unwilling to yield any of her secular power over Rome, Marozia seized the Castle of St. Angelo, had John cast into prison and smothered to death, and raised three of her creatures, Leo VI., Stephen VII. (VIII.), and at last John XI, her own (bastard) son of only twenty-one years, successively to the papal chair (928–936).278278    Liutprand, Antapodosis, III. 43 (Migne, l.c., 852): ”Papam [John X.]custodia maniciparunt, in qua non multo post ea defunctus; aiunt enim quod cervical super os eius imponerent, sicque cum pessime su ffocarent. Quo mortuo ipsius Marotiae filium Johannem nomine [John XI.] quem ex Sergio papa meretrix genuerat, papam constituunt.” The parentage of John XI. from pope Sergius is adopted by Gregorovius, Dümmler, Greenwood, and Baxmann, but disputed by Muratori, Hefele, and Gfrörer, who maintain that John XI. was the son of Marozia’s husband, Alberic I., if they ever were married. For, according to Benedict of Soracte, Marozia accepted him ”non quasi uxor, sed in consuetudinem malignam.“ Albericus Marchio was an adventurer before he became Markgrave, about 897, and must not be confounded with Albertus Marchio or Adalbert the Rich of Tuscany. See Gregorovius, III. 275; von Reumont, II. 228, 231, and the genealogical tables in Höfler, Vol. I., Append. V. and VI.

After the murder of Alberic I. (about 926), Marozia, who called herself Senatrix and Patricia, offered her hand and as much of her love as she could spare from her numerous paramours, to Guido, Markgrave of Tuscany, who eagerly accepted the prize; and after his death she married king Hugo of Italy, the step-brother of her late husband (932); he hoped to gain the imperial crown, but he was soon expelled from Rome by a rebellion excited by her own son Alberic II., who took offence at his overbearing conduct for slapping him in the face.279279    See the account in Liutprand III. 44. She now disappears from the stage, and probably died in a convent. Her son, the second Alberic, was raised by the Romans to the dignity of Consul, and ruled Rome and the papacy from the Castle of St. Angelo for twenty-two years with great ability as a despot under the forms of a republic (932–954). After the death of his brother, John XI. (936), he appointed four insignificant pontiffs, and restricted them to the performance of their religious duties.

John XII.

On the death of Alberic in 954, his son Octavian, the grandson of Marozia, inherited the secular government of Rome, and was elected pope when only eighteen years of age. He thus united a double supremacy. He retained his name Octavian as civil ruler, but assumed, as pope, the name John XII., either by compulsion of the clergy and people, or because he wished to secure more license by keeping the two dignities distinct. This is the first example of such a change of name, and it was followed by his successors. He completely sunk his spiritual in his secular character, appeared in military dress, and neglected the duties of the papal office, though he surrendered none of its claims.

John XII. disgraced the tiara for eight years (955–963). He was one of the most immoral and wicked popes, ranking with Benedict IX., John XXIII., and Alexander VI. He was charged by a Roman Synod, no one contradicting, with almost every crime of which depraved human nature is capable, and deposed as a monster of iniquity.280280    Among the charges of the Synod against him were that he appeared constantly armed with sword, lance, helmet, and breastplate, that he neglected matins and vespers, that he never signed himself with the sign of the cross, that he was fond of hunting, that he had made a boy of ten years a bishop, and ordained a bishop or deacon in a stable, that he had mutilated a priest, that he had set houses on fire, like Nero, that he had committed homicide and adultery, had violated virgins and widows high and low, lived with his father’s mistress, converted the pontifical palace into a brothel, drank to the health of the devil, and invoked at the gambling-table the help of Jupiter and Venus and other heathen demons! The emperor Otho would not believe these enormities until they, were proven, but the bishops replied, that they were matters of public notoriety requiring no proof. Before the Synod convened John XII. had made his escape from Rome, carrying with him the portable part of the treasury of St. Peter. But after the departure of the emperor he was readmitted to the city, restored for a short time, and killed in an act of adultery (”dum se cum viri cujusdam uxore oblectaret“) by the enraged husband of his paramour. or by, the devil (”a diabolo est percussus“). Liutprand, De rebus gestis Ottonis (in Migne, Tom. XXXVI. 898-910). Hefele (IV. 619) thinks that he died of apoplexy.

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