The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250

By Colin Morris | Go to book overview

16
PROPERTY, PRIVILEGE, AND LAW

Since the time of the late Roman Empire the clergy had enjoyed extensive legal privileges. One of the striking features of the period from 1050 to 1200 was a determined attempt to extend their rights and revenues, an enterprise undertaken not only by the self-seeking, but by reformers and spiritually minded men. In part this policy rested on a misunderstanding. Their expectations were shaped by the canons composed in the ninth century by pseudo-Isidore, which we know to be an imaginative statement of ecclesiastical claims but which they believed to be the law of the early church. Behind this lay the belief that Christ's work in the world was essentially the business of the clergy, and if they were to direct the ambitious programme for Christendom which we have been studying in the last few chapters, the need for resources was enormous. There had to be revenue to provide and maintain magnificent great churches and numerous local ones, and there had to be legal safeguards if the clergy were to do justice and maintain equity in a world of powerful lords. Ecclesiastical privilege was insufficient to prevent the arrest of the pope by the emperor in IIII or the murder of the archbishop of Canterbury by the king's knights in 1170, and the combined cost of the building programme, poor relief, and the maintenance of the community exhausted the impressive revenues of Cluny in the 1120s. Even the radically minded Gerhoh of Reichersberg admitted that he was worried about a policy of unilateral disarmament; as he put it, if the church too readily took off its purple robe (of imperial majesty) it might also lose its white robe (of priestly dignity).1 It was only a short distance to a further idea, namely that Christ was honoured when honour was shown to his ministers; triumphalism, which valued the worldly glory of the churches, was never far from the medieval mind. The abundant revenues, the legal protection, and the authority of canon law all appeared to popes and bishops as a divine gift and not as the arrogant claim of a privileged corporation.

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1
Gerhoh, De Novitatibus huius Temporis (MGH LdL iii.297).

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