The decline of the Roman Empire occurred over centuries. Increasingly inefficient and corrupt administration, along with a burgeoning tax burden upon the populace, guaranteed the empire’s collapse.
The city of Rome had a million inhabitants in the 1st century ce. By the time barbarians crossed the Rubicon river on their way to plunder Rome, the city had lost over half its population. By the end of the 14th century, Rome had less than 20,000 people.
Europe’s Dark Ages spelt the disintegration of urban civilization on that continent. With the decline of towns and trade, land increasingly defined wealth and political power, as authority was in the hands of those who possessed land.
With its large landholdings, the church was sitting pretty in the feudal system. In some countries the church was the single-largest landlord.
Culturally, the destruction of urban civilization by barbarian incursions further enhanced the church’s prestige, as the church and its monasteries were the only centers of intellectual activity, preserving for posterity tradition and culture that martial conquerors trod on.
Moreover, the general ignorance and illiteracy of laymen compelled secular rulers to employ clerics at all levels of government. Literacy and other refined accomplishments were for centuries confined to ecclesiastics.
Into the Dark Ages, the church had its own divisions; but the larger political concern was over the uneasy alliance between church and state.
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Pope Gelasius I was a prolific writer who pushed for papal authority at a time of increasing tension between the Catholic churches in the west and east.
Gelasius’s election in 492 was a gesture of continuity with his predecessor, from whom Gelasius inherited a struggle with Byzantine Emperor Anastasius and the church patriarch of Constantinople; a problem which Gelasius exacerbated with his strict orthodoxy, which was somewhat ironic given his doctrine of cooperative authorities.
Gelasius defined the relation between the 2 authorities: ecclesiastical and political (the “swords,” as they came to be called). According to Gelasius’ mythology, Christ himself was king and priest, but knowing the nature of man as sinful and weak, he bifurcated authority. This facile independence necessarily involves interdependence, as the state and church are supreme only in their respective spheres, and so must rely upon one another to some degree in exercising their authority. Gelasius never addressed what issues were predominantly religious or political.
Had Gelasius pursed his doctrine to its logical ends, he would have discovered this dualism to be deficient: whoever has the power to decide whether a matter is ecclesiastical or temporal is, in effect, the sovereign authority. In his dualistic conception, Gelasius naïvely assumed cooperation, not jurisdictional disputes. After all, both must recognize that the source of all power is singular: from God.
Nevertheless, Gelasius skewed his doctrine to favor the church in mentioning that its burden is heavier than the state, as the church is answerable for all souls, including the king. To Gelasius, this merely meant that the church had an especial responsibility, as the most difficult task of all – spiritual salvation – was assigned to it. Gelasius’ ostensibly innocuous intent became tarnished with time. From the 9th century on, the doctrine was interpreted as a claim to greater authority compared to mundane government.
As the tension between church and empire grew in the 10th–12th centuries, papalists were first to set aside the Gelasian doctrine of twin authorities posed in equilibrium. They claimed supreme authority, as holding title directly from God, where the state received its power indirectly, through the church.
In the age of feudalism, institutions and social rights were less well-defined than in earlier or later times.
Landed property was not attached to a single owner who held absolute dominion over it. Property was instead compartmentalized, where the legal owner shared its employment. A lord may retain certain privileges while granting particular uses to his vassals.
The papalist doctrine followed this line, claiming that secular authority was only held like a fief: in tenure, while true title rested with the church. This was a ratcheting up of the legal doctrine of eminent domain, under which a king retains ultimate title to all property within his purview.
In other eras, the argument of medieval papalists might have logically led to theocracy, as evidenced in some Islamic nations. In the feudal context, papalists were entirely content to leave the exercise of secular authority to the state. They merely wanted to ensure their ultimate power to protect against heresy at any level.
Proponents of the imperialist position made more moderate claims, essentially restating Gelasian doctrine. As the conflict between church and state sharpened in the 11th century, the more extreme antipapists argued that secular power was supreme in both worldly and spiritual matters.
The struggle between papalists and antipapists was not a theological disagreement, but one of power and control; and the contest was not nearly as universal as the phrase “church and empire” implies.
The Holy Roman Empire of the Middle Ages began with the coronation of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, in Rome in 800, and crashed with the abdication of the Hapsburg Emperor Francis II in 1806. The Holy Roman Empire was little more than a German empire that included much of Italy. Outside the realm were the politically key areas of England, France, and Spain.
Similarly, the church could not claim all of Christendom, but only those who were under the jurisdiction of Rome. The Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches irrevocably parted ways in 1054.
Contestants in any dispute attempt to inflate their stature by aligning their interest with a general, ideally universal, one. The Catholic Church represented itself as the guardian of all Christians. Likewise, to gain respectability and universality, German kings coveted the cloak of the Holy Roman Empire.
The original Roman Empire had been defeated militarily in the 5th century by Germanic invaders. Roman popes continued the struggle during the Middle Ages against expanding German power. The papacy also collided with English and French monarchs, but its principle opponent was Germanic, which threatened Italy, and thereby the Roman church most directly.
Another tension between church and state was intimately bound to the feudal system. Bishops were charged with administering the local church while simultaneously being land holders, and as such vassals of the king.
Unlike the institutionalized modern state, feudal ties were personal. The loyalty of a vassal to his lord was more profound than the modern notion of obeying an impersonal law.
Another rub was in secular administration. During the early Middle Ages, the clergy enjoyed a monopoly on literacy and scholarship; hence, they were entrusted with important positions in the courts and chancelleries of Europe.
Perhaps a bishop could be both faithful to the church in spiritual matters and a loyal vassal to the king in economic and political affairs, but this happy circumstance only held when both aligned on policy. Given a disagreement, a priest or bishop had to pick a side, and so a first loyalty.
In 1076, Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV deposed Pope Gregory VII. This was the culmination of a long-standing power struggle between the church and the emperor, termed the Investiture Controversy. The main wedge issue was who selected bishops.
Henry got his comeuppance when Gregory replied by excommunicating Henry and all the bishops named by him. A year later, Henry stood in the snow outside the castle where Gregory was for 3 days, begging the pope to rescind his sentence. Gregory relented.
This did not end the strife. In 1080 Henry again deposed Gregory, whom by this time he had dubbed “The False Monk,” because of continued intrigues that led to civil wars from upstarts whom Gregory supported.
In the final tally, Henry deposed Gregory twice, while Gregory excommunicated Henry thrice.
Gregory died in 1085, still the pope, albeit in exile, as a result of choosing an unpopular ally to fight for him against Henry. In his last campaign, Gregory had cajoled the Normans, whom the Romans resented for their excesses.
Henry IV reigned as Holy Roman Emperor until his forced abdication in 1105. He died the next year, shortly after defeating his son’s army, who nonetheless, as Henry V, went on to become Holy Roman Emperor.
Until the end of the 13th century, conflict between secular and ecclesiastical power dominated both the theory and practice of politics in Europe.