Ben Ten and the “Reformers”

Evaluating the Tusculan popes and the reformers who succeeded them.

Almost no one has even heard of Pope Benedict X. Pope Stephen IX had died in Florence on March 29, 1058. On April 4 a group of bishops met in Rome and elected John, the Cardinal-Bishop of Velletri, as the new pontiff. At the time there were no set rules for the selection of a new pope. The designation of the College of Cardinals as the body charged with papal elections did not come until later (although not much later). Benedict’s election was pretty much in line with established procedure at the time. The elections that were quite different from it were generally far less canonical. For example, Stephen’s three predecessors were all hand-picked by Emperor Henry III and rubber-stamped by councils sometimes held as far away from Rome as the German city of Worms. Furthermore, John was a rising star in the curia and was widely considered as being on the short list of papabili.

Benedict’s pontificate, however, had a few fatal flaws. In the first place he was a relative of the counts of Tusculum who had controlled the papacy for most of the eleventh century. The second was that the most influential figure in the so-called reform party, a young monk named Hildebrand, was in Germany at the time negotiating with Henry III’s widow, Agnes, who was the regent for her seven-year-old son. Allegedly Pope Stephen IX had asked that the election of his successor be postponed until Cardinal-Deacon Hildebrand could return.

Hildebrand did return, but he did not exactly rush back. Pope Benedict ruled until January of the following year. Not much is known about his pontificate, which is a pretty clear indication that it was a period of peace and relative tranquility. The same, by the way can be said of the pontificates of the other three Tusculan popes of the eleventh century. All told, these four men ruled Rome, the papal territories, and the Christian Church for about thirty-five years.

The cardinals met in Florence and on January 23, 1059, elected a man named Gerard from the Provence area of France. Hildebrand had arranged for Godfrey, the Duke of Lorraine, who was by far the most powerful man in Italy because of his marriage to Beatrice, the widow of the Margrave of Tuscany, to accompany them to Rome. Since Godfrey brought most of his army with him, Benedict was forced to flee, and Gerard was installed as Nicholas II. His first six months were largely devoted to employing Godfrey’s troops and some Normans who had been commissioned by Pope Stephen to hunt down Pope Benedict and his Tusculan supporters. A series of bloody battles ensued. Benedict fled first to a castle near Tivoli and then to the castle of the Count of Galeria, which was north of Rome. Eventually he was apparently captured, but accounts differ greatly as to what became of him after that.

Hildebrand also eventually was elected pontiff. He was known as Pope Gregory VII from 1073-1085.

There is no question that the reformers won a total victory over the influential noble families that had controlled the papacy in the early eleventh century. Reading the official records one can easily to picture them as a group of progressives who loved the Church so much that they felt obligated to do whatever was required to eliminate the corruption that had infested the papacy. In fact, Hildebrand and one other reform pope, Leo IX, are both canonized saints. Since only seven popes in the second millennium achieved that distinction (and two of those were named in the last year), this is quite unusual. For all that I know the two of them are sitting at God’s right and left hands (assuming that He has hands and that there are only two of them). I do know, however, that it is hard to think of any popes who were less successful than these two.

Leo, like the other German popes, spent almost no time in Rome. A cousin of Emperor Henry III, he almost immediately turned his attention to the Normans who controlled large swaths of southern Italy. The pontiff went to Germany and tried without successful to persuade the emperor to provide him with an army. He then hired a band of Swabian freebooters and led them back to Italy. After he combined this force with part of Godfrey’s contingent, he marched into Apulia, where he confronted the Normans and provoked them into the Battle of Civitate. When the dust settled, the papal forces had been routed, and the pope himself was in Norman hands. Although he was treated with respect and allowed to communicate freely with his subordinates, Pope Leo was held in Benevento almost until his death.

During his captivity Pope Leo dispatched some envoys to Constantinople to confront the patriarch. They came armed with forged documents that claimed that six centuries earlier the Emperor Constantine had bequeathed all of western Europe to St. Peter, whose vicar on earth was the Bishop of Rome. The westerners may have considered the documents to be genuine, but the story they told contradicted many events that were well documented in the east. When the patriarch refused to meet with them, the pope’s legates left a decree of excommunication on the high altar of the Hagia Sophia. This reckless act began the Great Schism between the Roman Church and the Greek Orthodox Church and its affiliates, which has lasted until this day.

So, Leo had two great legacies. He spent most of his time gathering together a Christian army that he used to attack a different Christian army. This one resulted in a lot of deaths and his own capture. The other was a committee armed with bogus documents that split the Christian Church in two irreparable (at least so far) pieces.

Gregory VII’s claim to fame was his attempt to wrest from Emperor Henry IV (a young man by this time) the power to invest bishops in imperial holdings. When the emperor refused, Gregory excommunicated him. The emperor, who was facing opposition in Germany, eventually repented and came to Gregory to ask for the lifting of the excommunication. For three long winter days he stood outside in the cold waiting for the pontiff to make up his mind. Eventually Gregory reinstated him.

Henry had to return to deal with a civil war in which the pope supported his opponent, Rudolph. When it appeared that Rudolph was winning, the pontiff again excommunicated Henry. The tide turned, however, and Henry not only solidified his hold in Germany. He also marched back into Italy and called a council that elected a new pope named Guibert. For a time there was a stalemate between Gregory’s forces and those of Henry/Guibert. Finally, in a desperate move Pope Gregory asked Robert Guiscard, the leader of the Normans to liberate him. He did, but the Normans also sacked Rome, inflicting much more damage than either the Goths or the Vandals had inflicted.

Gregory became a persona non grata in Rome. He spent the rest of his pontificate wandering as a beggar in southern Italy. His two hand-picked successors also had great difficulty even entering the city.

Here are a couple of questions that Church historians seldom ask. 1. Who were these “reformers”? 2. What did they want.

The answer to #1 is that almost all of them were Benedictine monks. The answer to #2 is a little trickier. Their platform included the elimination of simony (puchasing of religious offices) and the enforcement of celibacy among the clergy in the Church. By Hildebrand’s time they also championed the elimination of investiture by civil rulers like Henry IV. They have been almost uniformly portrayed as righteous people who took a corrupt papacy and returned it to the principles of the gospels. The word “portrayed” here is key. Almost everything known about these people was written by them and their supporters.

There is a different way to look at it. Before the reformers took over, the papacy was a local affair. The popes were generally elected by groups of local bishops. It is probably true that sometimes one noble family or another would spread enough cash around to influence the election. Outsiders would, however, only be called upon to help in dire circumstances when the very life of the papal states and the pope were in jeopardy. Seldom did any pope attempt to exert much influence outside of the papal states. Other regions chose their own bishops. There were no general rules for doing so. The popes seldom left their own territories.

The sex lives of clergymen was not high on the priority list of any of the Tusculan pontiffs. Pope Benedict IX, the third of the Tusculan pontiffs, was charged with many outrageous acts of sexual misconduct. His primary accuser was Peter Damian, the chief propagandist of the reformers, a man who never set foot anywhere near Rome during the time when Benedict IX was supposedly misbehaving.

Ethics aside, the reformers transformed the papacy in two ways. Their primary focus was the attempt to make the pope, once they controlled who wore the tiara, a prominent player on the European and, eventually, the world stage. Pope Urban II, who called the First Crusade, was a disciple of Hildebrand’s. In this they had mixed results. The First Crusade, although it caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of Christian lives, did result in the capture of Jerusalem. The other crusades – and there were many – were, by just about any measure, disasters.

They were much more successful in the other aspect, which was to change the rules so that they had access to power. In fact, the monks exerted dominance over papal elections long after the original purposes of the reformers were dim memories.

The question no one seems to ask is this: What did the Christians in Rome think? If I were a Roman, I would certainly have preferred the relative calm of the Tusculan pontiffs to the chaos and catastrophes of the reformers.

Two men, Boniface VII and Benedict X, were elected as pope and served as the unquestioned leader of the Church for a considerable period of time. Everyone considered them the pope. Both fled when threatened. In both cases the next pontiff who took the name (centuries later) assigned himself a number that was one more than the neglected pope.

Neither Boniface nor Benedict is on the official list of popes, and, take my word for it, there are dozens of popes with flimsier claims. All that it proves is that history is written by the winners.

A New Record for Tusculum

I’ve been to its namesake.

Imagine my surprise to read this item on today: “Tusculum (College)’s (Bo) Cordell set a Div. II record for career total offense in his final college game while throwing for 569 yards in a 49-42 victory over Mars Hill.” I was quite well acquainted with Tusculum, but not Tusculum College. I had to look it up. It is in Greeneville, TN, and boasts three distinctive features:

  1. It was founded in 1794, which makes it the oldest college in Tennessee. In fact it is older than the state of Tennessee.
  2. It is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church.
  3. There are no semesters. Students take one class at a time for eighteen days. This would not have worked too well for me. I once missed more than eighteen days of school in a row.

A little digging produced the origin of the name. The school was named after John Witherspoon’s farm in New Jersey. Both of the founders of the antecedents of Tusculum College were students and admirers of Witherspoon when he was the president of Princeton. Witherspoon named his farm after Tusculum because he was a devotee of Cicero, who had a villa in Tusculum, a city located in the Alban Hills south of Rome.

Tusculum has a long and proud history. Well, nobody actually lives there any more, but if they did, they probably would be quite proud of their history. The legend is that it was founded by Telegonus, a son of Ulysses. During the imperial era the wealthy and powerful Romans constructed villas in Tusculum and the surrounding countryside. During the tenth and eleventh centuries the counts of Tusculum were the dominant force in Roman politics, occasionally challenged by the Crescentius family that was based in the Sabine Hills to the north. Three Tusculans in a row, Benedict VIII, his brother John XIX, and their nephew Benedict IX (who was officially the pontiff on three different occasions) sat in St. Peter’s Throne and ruled all of Christendom (in a spiritual way) as well as the Papal States of central Italy (in every way).

Alas, Tusculum was completely destroyed by the Romans in 1191. There are no remnants of the city of the twelfth century. No stone was left upon a stone.

I went to visit Tusculum in 2011. Our driver told us that we were the only people who had ever asked him to take them to Tusculum. It is now a park and an archeological site. I was interested in seeing what remained of the medieval Tusculum with which I was familiar. The answer was nothing. The archeological digs were unearthing remains of the imperial city that was buried beneath the medieval city. The latter had been completely obliterated by the Romans.

You can read about my trip to Tusculum here.

Grottaferrata and Santo Lucà (Part 3)

A reply from Santo Lucà!

I finally received a reply to the e-mail that I sent to Professor Lucà on May 31. In it I posed two questions: 1) Did he think that the young Theophylact, the future Pope Benedict IX, might have been educated by the Basilian monks? This would have meant that he would have been one of the very few Romans who could speak and read Greek. 2) Did he believe the legend that Benedict and his brothers retired as monks in Grottaferrata?

His answer to the first question was this:

credo proprio di no; sono i monaci ‘basiliani’ che parlano il latino!

He says that he does not believe so. There are Basilian monks who speak Latin.

I have to wonder if he understood what I was getting at. Theophylact’s family was the most prominent in central Italy. Not only was the monastery near to the family’s home in Tusculum; Theophylact’s grandfather had actually donated the land on which it was constructed. If Theophylact was not educated by the Basilians, then he must have been instructed elsewhere. Surely his family must have tried to provide him what he needed for the career that they planned for him.

I have read that he was a student of Lawrence, but Lawrence was in Montecassino for much of Theophylact’s youth, and Montecassino is much further away. In addition he became Archbishop of Amalfi in 1029, three years before Theophylact assumed the throne. So, it does not seem unreasonable to speculate whether Theophylact’s family might have taken advantage of its relationship with the monks to help groom Theophylact for his imminent career as pontiff. And if the monks did perform this service, I find it hard to believe that they did not teach him the Greek language, which they used for all of their services.

There are a few other facts that support this hypothesis. The three Tusculan popes (Benedict IX and his two uncles) had much better relations with the Greek church than either their predecessors or their successors. In fact, the Great Schism occurred in 1054 in the very first stable pontificate after Benedict’s! Furthermore, it is fairly well documented that Benedict IX and St. Bartholomew, the hegumen of the abbey, had a pretty good relationship throughout his pontificates.

The answer to the second question was:

assolutamente no!

You do not need to be a native-born Italian to figure out what that one means. I think that the legend that Benedict repented, retired, and became a Basilian monk was perpetrated by Luke, the Basilian monk who wrote the biography of St. Bartholomew. Here is what Capitani wrote about the subject in his his entry in Enciclopedia dei Papi (2000):

Le ultime considerazioni fatte circa i documenti del 1055 e del 1056, nei quali il nome di Benedetto appare ancora – e non quello di Teofilatto, come ci si sarebbe dovuti attendere, in caso di pentimento del Tuscolano – escludono ogni verosimiglianza delle notizie contenute nelle agiografie di Bartolomeo di Grottaferrata, che avrebbe operato una sorta di conversione sul “terribile” pontefice, ritiratosi in penitenza nel monastero.

Basically this says that the erstwhile pope was still using the name Benedict in official documents in 1055 and 1056, the year of his death. So, it seems very unlikely that he would have repented as stated in the hagiografies of Bartholomew of Grottaferrata. If he did not abandon his claim to the papacy, he almost certainly did not become a monk either.

I sure would like to know what did happen to him in the decade or more after he lost the papacy.

My Favorite Century

The eleventh century deserves more attention.

Every century has produced astounding popes. If I were forced to pick one century on which to concentrate, however, it would definitely be the eleventh.

Gerbert Statue

The statue of Gerbert in Aurillac

The first pope in the eleventh century was Gerbert of Aurillac. Widely known as one of the smartest men in all of Europe, he was hand-picked by the nineteen-year-old Holy Roman Emperor Otto III to become Supreme Pontiff in 999. He took the name Sylvester II because he hoped to emulate the very close relationship that was reportedly enjoyed by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, and the pope at the time, Sylvester I.

Pope Sylvester II was not particularly popular among the Romans. Three factors were working against him:

  1. He was a foreigner. He lived in France and studied in Spain with the Saracens.
  2. He was chosen by the emperor, not the Romans.
  3. He was so clever that he was widely suspected of employing witchcraft.

Otto died under mysterious circumstances in Italy in 2002. The pope only outlasted him by a year. Some people attribute their untimely demises to the work of the Crescentius family, which installed the next three popes: John XVII, John XVIII, and Sergius IV, also known as Peter Pig-snout. All told, they held the papacy for about nine years.

What transpired next is unclear, but somehow Count Gregory of Tusculum, which sat atop the northernmost of the Alban Hills, about fifteen miles south of Rome, supplanted the Crescentius family, to which he was related, as the chief power-broker in Rome. Count Gregory arranged for his son to become Pope Benedict VIII, and Benedict was succeeded by his brother, Pope John XIX. Although both of these pontificates were relatively tranquil and successful, the fact that the two popes received their appointments from their father has been held against them. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Pope Benedict was instrumental in the expulsion of the Saracens from Italy and that conditions on the peninsula improved markedly during the twenty-year span of the fraternal pontificates.

Pope Benedict IX

The mosaic of Pope Benedict IX in St. Paul's Outside the Walls

The next pope, who also hailed from Tusculum, was my all-time favorite, Benedict IX. His father was the brother of the two previous pontiffs, and he made sure that his young son got to sit on the Throne of Peter. How young? Well, one chronicler claimed that he was only ten years old, but this is probably a mistake. The best guess is that he was about twice that.

If you look on any list of the popes, you may be surprised to see Pope Benedict IX on it three times. Once he sold the papacy to his godfather, John Gratian, so that he could get married and once he was removed from the papacy by the Holy Roman Emperor. Both times he came back and resumed his pontificate, and the Church has always considered both Benedict and the men who served in his absence as legitimate popes. The last pontificate did not last long. He was expelled in 1048 for the last time by Emperor Henry III.

What happened to Pope Benedict after he was overthrown the last time is disputed. He was still a young man, certainly less than forty years of age. For centuries the monastery at Grottaferrata, which was donated by Benedict’s grandfather, had a plaque that indicated that the former pontiff had died there decades later. Unfortunately the plaque was destroyed in World War II.

Pope Gregory VII

The mosaic of Pope Gregory VII

The emperor controlled the papacy for the next twenty-five years. However, during this time a Tuscan monk named Hildebrand was slowly but surely consolidating his power, and in 1073 he became Pope Gregory VII. His dispute with Emperor Henry IV, who went so far as to install an anti-pope, is extremely famous. The pope excommunicated the emperor, then forgave him, and then waged political and actual war with him for years. The pope invited the Norman count, Robert Guiscard, to help him ward off the emperor. The assistance was granted, but after the battle the Norman troops sacked Rome. The Romans blamed the pope for this debacle, and he spent the last years of his pontificate in exile, but not before designating monks as his two successors.


Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade at Clermont

Pope Urban II closed out the century by somehow persuading a good portion of the fighting men of Europe to make the arduous trip to the Middle East to wrest control of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Many thousands died in the effort, but Jerusalem was indeed captured by the soldiers of the First Crusade in July of 1099, just before the death of the pontiff.

Many other interesting events transpired in the eleventh century — the spread of the monasteries, the cults of the saints, the widespread theft of relics, the Great Schism, the Norman conquests, and the reform movement to name a few. Each might make a suitable subject for a post.

The problem is that the contemporaneous accounts that have survived from the period are notoriously unreliable. Many have been shown to be replete with exaggerations and outright lies. Furthermore, most of the population in the eleventh century was illiterate. The only people who were both capable of writing and had access to parchment (paper was not yet in production in Europe) and writing materials were monks and high-level nobles and clergy. Their writings generally reflected their biases.