Medieval Myths #4 – The Popes were All Powerful

One of the most persistent and pernicious of the myths about the Middle Ages is that the “Church”, generally meaning the popes, controlled the minds of all Christians. This is another of the beliefs that were created by early Protestants and Humanists. They were mainly against real abuses that existed in the sixteenth century. Their own cause was bolstered by painting the enemy as evil and immensely powerful.

There are problems with this belief, both historical and logical. History first. Consider the following to be a very quick and very generalized summary.

The papacy didn’t really exist for the first several hundred years of Christianity. The bishops of Rome tried to claim superiority, but so did the bishops of Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem and several other places with more credibility. The bishops of Rome won in the West by default when most of the Eastern cities fell to the Islamic invasions in the seventh and eighth centuries.

But that didn’t mean that the popes had much real power outside of Rome, political or religious. Doctrine and dogma were decided by councils, not a single pontiff. And doctrine changed with each one – rather like laws decided in parliamentary sessions. Most legislators agree on important basic beliefs, but the nuances change considerably with each group. So for instance, for a long time priests could be married but there was never a time that I know of where it was considered OK to buy a parish or any other office. That doesn’t mean people didn’t do it of course.

For most of the Middle Ages the popes would have loved to have the kind of power that later critics claimed they did. But it didn’t happen. The pope who came the closest was Innocent III, (1198-1216). He organized the Fourth Lateran Council, which established a number of reforms, including proper education of priests. It was also the first to demand that Jews wear identifying badges. My personal opinion is that society started going downhill than and hasn’t come back yet.

For the most part, religion was an essential part of medieval life. But the bishops were noblemen, often the brothers of kings, and politics generally overruled religion or, more often, religion was used as a tool of the rulers. Popes were ignored, deposed, even driven to their deaths by various factions. At most, the papacy was used as a sort of High Court to resolve disputes. And if powerful rulers didn’t like the papal ruling, they often declared the pope a heretic and elected a more pliable one. See Philip IV in my book on the Templars.

Most attempts by popes to institute a Peace or Truce of God had little success. Rules against the appointment of relatives were ignored. The papal lands were invaded a number of times with no apparent fear of divine retribution.

This leads to the simple logic against the notion that the church was all powerful. Who holds the reins when there are four “popes” at once? If they had such control over minds, where did the Protestants (starting well before Calvin and Luther) come from? Anti-papal satire was much more common and safer than that which made fun of the king. Much is made of Pope Urban’s call for the First Crusade in 1097, but only medievalists are aware that there were many more calls that were ignored.

I hope that this short sketch gives readers some food for thought. There are many fine histories of the medieval and early papacy but I don’t know of any that address, point by point, the popular misconceptions. It may seem minor, of interest only to staunch Catholics. However, as with many myths, this one distorts not the past, but the present. By assuming that religious fanaticism was a natural state of medieval society that modern people have happily escaped, we tend to view deeply religious groups as throwbacks to a dark time rather than part of the fabric of contemporary society. So, instead of trying to understand groups and individuals operating according to their ideas of religion, we dismiss them as “medieval”, and toss them into an historical waste bin as aberration that have nothing to do with us now.

I believe this attitude keeps us from facing and solving our own problems. As I try to explain the facts about these myths, that remains my underlying theme. We are different in many respects from people of the past, but not as many as we would like.

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