The descent of darkness

The last decades of the ninth century and the first half of the tenth century were for Western Europe and the Western wing of the Catholic Church years of deep darkness. The Carolingian realms were hopelessly divided among quarreling, weak scions of that famous line. Charles the Fat, the son of Louis the German and greatgrandson of Charlemagne, bore the imperial title and for a time most of the Carolingian domains were reunited under him, but he was deposed in 887 and died the following year. What had been the Frankish kingdom broke up finally into a number of fragments.

Feudalism rapidly developed. Its roots went back before the lime of Charlemagne but it now began to nourish. It was partly the result of the weakening of the monarchy and the desire for security in an age of disorder. It was also in part the outgrowth of an agricultural economy in which commerce had dwindled, towns were few and small, and money was scarce. The weaker landowners put themselves under the protection of the stronger and in return made contributions to their lord in the form of contingents for his armed forces and in other forms of service. The system was based upon land which was usually cultivated by serfs who were half free and half slave and who could not be sold from the soil which they tilled but who could not leave it. The major occupation of the feudal lords was fighting and war among them was chronic. This warfare made commerce and other peaceful pursuits difficult and produced a sag in morals.

The internal disorder in Western Europe was augmented by foreign invasion. This was from several directions. From the North came the Scandinavians, sea raiders in long boats. They landed on the coasts and swarmed up the rivers, burning, murdering, and pillaging. Pagans, they did not spare churches or monasteries. Indeed, they found them easy and attractive prey. Here and there they effected permanent settlements, especially in the British Isles, Normandy, Iceland, and the western parts of the later Russia. They brought ruin to the monasteries of Ireland, which, hitherto all but immune from invasion on that far western isle, had been a centre of peaceful Christian living and a source of light to Western Europe. They dealt severe blows to that Anglo-Saxon Christianity from which so many missionaries and scholars had issued to convert the pagans and raise the level of Christian living on the Continent. Up the Seine they came and besieged Paris, up the Loire to Orleans, along the Garonne to Toulouse, and by the Rhone as far as Valence. In Italy a number of cities, including Pisa, fell to their arms. In the 890's the Magyars, a pagan people from the East, poured over the Carpathians and established permanent colonies in the later Hungary. Moslem raiders harassed the shores of Italy and in 846 even plundered the famous churches, St. Peter's and St. Paul's, in Rome itself, for both shrines were outside the then city walls. On the East the Slavs were a menace.

In this approach to anarchy the Church and its institutions suffered and the quality of Christian living declined. Feudal lords appropriated monasteries and churches and either named their incumbents or seized their properties. Bishops and abbots became feudal lords and had little to distinguish them from their lay neighbours except their titles and some of their functions. Bishops and clergy perished or were killed outright in the invasions. Thus in 882 Hincmar, the famous Archbishop of Rheims, died while fleeing from Norman raiders. An Archbishop of Canterbury, taken by the Danes and held for ransom, had no way of raising the sum demanded by his captors except by despoiling his people and courageously chose death.

Unprotected and caught in the welter of the chaotic Italian political scene, the Papacy sank to its lowest ebb. Some Popes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries may have been greater sinners, but they were men of force who counted in Europe and the Western Church as a whole. In the latter part of the ninth and the fore part of the tenth century the Popes were either vicious or too weak to cope with the overwhelming odds against them. The tenure of office of many was brief: between 897 and 955 seventeen followed in rapid succession. One, John VIII, who died in 882, is said, on evidence that is not entirely uncontestable, to have been poisoned by his attendants and, when the drug took effect too slowly, to have had his skull crushed by a mallet. In 897 the corpse of the ambitious Pope Formosus, who had died the previous year, was taken from its sarcophagus, tried before a council over which his successor presided, condemned, despoiled of its vestments, and cast into an unconsecrared tomb for strangers and then taken by the populace and thrown into the Tiber. But Formosus had friends and the conflict between them and his enemies continued. Within a few months another Pope salvaged the body of Formosus which, having been rescued and buried by a hermit, he gave honourable sepulchre among the tombs of the ancient Popes and had a synod reverse the condemnatory acts of the anti-Formosus council. In 903 a partisan of Formosus was Pope for about two months and was then thrown into prison by a palace revolution which put another on the Papal throne. This new occupant, in turn, was replaced by a Pope supported by an armed escort, was degraded, and was sent to the prison where his victim was incarcerated.

For more than a generation after 904 the city of Rome and the Papacy were controlled by one local family, whose most prominent members were Theophylact, his daughter Marozia, her husband Alberic, and a younger Alberic, the son of Marozia and Alberic. We have varying estimates of the moral quality of the family. Marozia especially has been given a bad name. They controlled the choice of the Popes. One of these, John XI, who held the post from 931 to 935, was reputed to have been the son of Marozia and Pope Sergius III, who had reigned from 904 to 911. Another Pope, John X, who was on the throne from 914 to 928, fell out of favour with Marozia. It is said that because of his opposition to her proposed marriage with Guy, Marquis of Tuscany (the elder Alberic had died) she had his brother slain before his eyes and then had him imprisoned and killed. In 932 the younger Alberic seized the control from his mother, Marozia, and confined her and John XI in the Castle of St. Angelo. Alberic, called "the glorious prince and senator of all the Romans," was now in power. He seems to have wished to reform the Church and to have put fairly sincere and religious men on the Fisherman's throne. However, they were his creatures and apparently feared to take important action without his consent.

With such conditions in Rome, the Popes could not wield the influence in European affairs or in the Church of the West that had been exerted by some of their great predecessors. Certainly they could not give the moral and religious leadership that would lift the Church and the Christianity of the West from the slough into which they had fallen.

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