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The Mortgage of the Past: Reshaping the Ancient Political Inheritance (1050-1300)

The Mortgage of the Past: Reshaping the Ancient Political Inheritance (1050-1300)

by Francis Oakley

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Francis Oakley continues his magisterial three-part history of the emergence of Western political thought during the Middle Ages with this second volume in the series. Here, Oakley explores kingship from the tenth century to the beginning of the fourteenth, showing how, under the stresses of religious and cultural development, kingship became an inceasingly


Francis Oakley continues his magisterial three-part history of the emergence of Western political thought during the Middle Ages with this second volume in the series. Here, Oakley explores kingship from the tenth century to the beginning of the fourteenth, showing how, under the stresses of religious and cultural development, kingship became an inceasingly secular institution.

“A masterpiece and the central part of a trilogy that will be a true masterwork.”—Jeffrey Burton Russell, University of California, Santa Barbara

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Medieval Academy of America - Haskins Medal
Won the 2016 Haskins Medal from the Medieval Academy of America.

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Yale University Press
Publication date:
The Emergence of Western Political Thoug , #2
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

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The Mortgage of the Past

Reshaping the Ancient Political Inheritance (1050–1300)


Copyright © 2012 Francis Oakley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18350-4

Chapter One

Historical Orientation

The Flowering of Medieval Europe

AT FEW MOMENTS IN the unfolding of European history does the traditional, humanist-inspired periodization into ancient, medieval, and modern present more of a hindrance to understanding than it does as we edge into the period addressed in this volume. Having become accustomed to the rhythms of life and thought characteristic of the early medieval centuries (which constitute in so many ways an epilogue or coda to the world of late antiquity), we now encounter the great transposition that took place in almost every area of life during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, precipitating the crystallization of forms of economic, social, legal, political, religious, and intellectual life differing markedly, the shared designation of "medieval" notwithstanding, from those characteristic of the centuries preceding. Testimony to the sweeping nature of the changes involved is the frequency with which historians seeking to interpret the significance of those centuries are moved in their descriptive and interpretative efforts to turn to the terms "revolution" and "revolutionary." They do so in relation to demography, agriculture, commerce, religion, law, and politics. They do so also, and more generally, in relation to the transition to a "citied civilization" that took place at this time, as also to the overall changes that reshaped so dramatically the society and imaginary of the period. Thus R. W. Southern can speak of "the secret revolution of these centuries" and insist that it "did not pass unnoticed by contemporaries." And even more boldly, R. I. Moore can seek to comprehend the dynamic and wide-ranging developments of the whole era stretching from the late tenth to the early thirteenth centuries under the rubric of "The First European Revolution."

For some, so promiscuous a deployment of such terms may doubtless smack of hyperbole or risk the debasement of an otherwise useful piece of interpretative coinage. But the stubborn fact remains that from the basic demography of Europe all the way to the nature of its intellectual life, the changes that took place at this time were truly sweeping in nature and the quickening in the tempo of life overall quite palpable. So far as demographics go, in the absence of direct statistical evidence we are left with quasi-speculative estimates. But the most generally accepted of these indicates an approximate doubling in the size of the European population between 1000 and 1340 (from ca. 38.5 to 73.5 millions), with a tripling of the size of the northern European population accounting for more than two-thirds of that overall increase. The cessation of invasion from the outside was clearly part of the story. But of critical importance, too, was the fact that the increase in the number of mouths to be fed did not outpace (at least until the late thirteenth century) the parallel increase in agricultural productivity. The onset of an era of climatic stability, the ongoing clearing of forest land, the concomitant expansion of tillage and pasturage, improvements in field systems and in patterns of crop rotation along with the improvement in nutrition that went with them, the adoption of a new type of plough that could cope effectively with the rich but heavy soils of the northern valleys, the invention of the horse collar which permitted the substitution in agricultural work and haulage of the more efficient power of horses for that of oxen, other technological advances making possible the labor-saving and transformative exploitation of wind and water power—these and other innovations made possible the production and accumulation of agricultural surpluses. In the absence of those surpluses, commerce and industry could not have thrived as they did, to such an extent, indeed, that after long centuries of dependence on silver as a means of exchange, a gold currency was now reintroduced. In the absence of such surpluses, too, the enormous high medieval expansion in the number and size of towns (especially those north of the Alps) would have been utterly inconceivable, and with it, the concomitant shift in the characteristic locus of intellectual and scholarly life from rural monastery to urban school. Similarly absent would have been the stimulus to heightened intellectual creativity and productivity that went with the concentration of unprecedently large numbers of teachers and students in such favored, well-organized, and often self-governing institutional settings. Such dramatic changes, and others too, form the backdrop against which the political conflicts and developments of the era unfolded, and are the context in which an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the nature, range, and limits of political authority were hammered out.

Among those tangled conflicts and complex developments two stand out to such a degree that they must command our attention here. The first was the great clash between the spiritual and temporal authorities, both of them charged in overlapping ways with the rulership of Christian society. Affiliated with that conflict was the ascent of a monarchical papacy to a position of great prominence on the European political scene. The second was the subsequent growth in the comparative ambition, strength, and importance of the national monarchies of Europe, notably those of France and England, both of them, by the end of our period, forging ahead on a course destined to bring them into almost inevitable collision with papal aspirations.

Enjoying as he did the enthusiastic support of the emperor Henry III (1037–56) who had appointed him, Leo IX (1049–54), the pope who in definitive fashion succeeded in bringing the movement of ecclesiastical reform to Rome itself, did not contest the degree of control that the emperor, even more than the kings of France and England, continued to exercise over the higher churches within his empire. There is nothing noteworthy about that. As we saw in the previous volume, the religious character of kingship and the long-established custom of royal control over the higher church offices, bishoprics, and abbacies alike were by then deeply rooted in social custom and ecclesiastical tradition. What is noteworthy however, and historic too, is the fact that in the 1050s and 1060s some of those surrounding the pope, discouraged by the degree to which their reforming efforts to eliminate clerical corruption and ecclesiastical disorder were persistently being impeded by the deleterious effects of lay control, finally committed themselves to questioning that custom and attacking that tradition. Some, indeed, were beginning to proclaim, and with truly revolutionary audacity, that the days of "priest-kings and emperor-pontiffs" were past; still more were gradually edging toward the conclusion that the clergy had to be freed from all lay domination if the church was ever truly to be reformed.

It was only, however, in the troubled years after Henry's death in 1056 that the popes themselves were moved to embrace a less gradualist and more radical approach to the urgent question of reform. The troubled royal minority had left the church at Rome bereft of effective imperial protection, thereby giving the turbulent Roman nobility the opportunity to regain control over the making of popes and forcing the papacy, as a result, to seek a measure of security by concluding an alliance with the new Norman rulers of southern Italy and Sicily. The sequel to this shift in the plight and posture of the papacy was the disastrous clash between papacy and empire which broke out at the start of 1076. At that critical moment a young German king, Henry IV (1056–1106), who had reclaimed much of the power once wielded by his father but had openly revived the practice of simony (or sale of ecclesiastical offices) which his father had eschewed, was confronted by an experienced, committed, and unbending reformer-pope, Gregory VII (1073–85), who, with great single-mindedness and intensity of purpose, had brushed aside the pleas of the moderates and gradualists among church reformers with the fateful (if scripturally inspired) words "The Lord hath not said 'I am Tradition' but 'I am the Truth.'"

The bitter struggle that ensued marked no more than the dramatic beginning of several centuries of intermittent struggle between papacy and empire, struggle that came in time to be paralleled by analogous moments of tension and strife between popes and the rising national monarchs of Europe. The struggle with the empire reached its peak in the mid-thirteenth century but was still able to generate a pallid harmonic as late as the early fourteenth century when popes and emperors alike had lost much of their former luster. After the initial great clash and over the course of the centuries, shifts periodically occurred in the precise points at issue, as also in the particular arguments the two sides were moved to deploy and in the strategy and tactics they were led to pursue. But at the heart of the conflict as it ultimately developed lay the enduring and fundamental fact that the emperors and popes both saw themselves as the rightful custodians of the ideal of universal leadership in the unitary Christian society that was the legacy of late antique Rome to the medieval world and which, from the twelfth century onward, a renewed acquaintance with Roman law both fostered and intensified. Close to its heart lay also the related claim, advanced by both, to control the ancient capital of Rome itself and, beyond it, the territories of various provenance stretching across central Italy to the old Byzantine capital of Ravenna on the Adriatic that were destined eventually to be consolidated more or less effectively into what we know as the Papal States. The papacy could hardly abandon claim to those territories without losing its independence of action. But it was also a claim that across time became increasingly important to the emperors as the bases of their power in Germany were progressively eroded by the rise of a feudalized nobility increasingly impatient of any sort of effective monarchical control.

After two hundred years and more of intermittent conflict and by the closing years of the thirteenth century, the papacy appeared finally to have won the battle and triumphed over its imperial adversaries. At the end of a bitter and compromising struggle Pope Innocent IV (1243–54) had well-nigh succeeded in destroying in Italy an imperial authority that had already been marginalized in Germany. Though the empire survived, it did so as a loose confederation of increasingly autonomous principalities, fiefdoms, and towns in which the effective power of the emperor depended less upon his possession of the imperial office than upon the dynastic territories belonging to him personally as yet another (and not necessarily the most powerful) of the German magnates. The fate of Germany as also of Italy was thenceforth and until the nineteenth century to be one of political fragmentation, and it was the popes who emerged as the heirs to the legacy of Roman universalism. By now fully-fledged sacral monarchs, having long since adopted the ancient Roman imperial title of pontifex maximus (supreme pontiff) and having already begun to monopolize that of Vicar of Christ (borne earlier by bishops, kings, and emperors alike), they also adopted many of the appurtenances of imperial splendor and not a few of the prerogatives of imperial office. Equating, moreover, the pope with the Roman emperor and the cardinals—his chief advisers since their appointment in 1059 as the papal electors—with the members of the Roman Senate, ecclesiastical lawyers were quick to place the revived Roman law at the service of the papal power of jurisdiction (or government), extending its reach and refining the modalities of its exercise, but doing so, it should be realized, at the expense of transforming its nature. What ensued was a thoroughgoing politicization of ecclesiastical affairs and a substitution for papal leadership within the church of a species of papal kingship over the church—a form of monarchy, that is, not only over the church conceived in its narrow sense as the international and hierarchically ordered body of clergy, but also in the broader sense denoting the whole of Christian society, few segments of which were left altogether untouched by the increasingly vigorous assertion of papal authority.

It is true that the realities of papal power in no way matched the theoretical claims to supreme authority over temporal rulers and in temporal affairs that some of the popes and their propagandists did not hesitate to advance during the High Middle Ages. Nor, for that matter, were even the most unambiguously and aggressively political of their actions necessarily based on anything so abstract or general as those theocratic claims. During this period, nonetheless, and in the absence of any rival political authority that could effectively claim to be truly universal, the popes did succeed to an impressive degree in exercising a form of universal leadership in Christian Europe. In the late eleventh century, having first encouraged the Christian princes of Spain in the early days of their struggle to liberate the peninsula from Muslim rule, the popes had gone on to place themselves in the vanguard of the forces of European expansionism. They had inspired and sponsored a crusading movement that succeeded first in establishing a Christian foothold in Palestine and Syria and then, later on, a Latin empire pivoting on Constantinople. The crusading states and that Latin empire both proved to be more ephemeral than the embittered schism between the worlds of Latin Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy that the brutal establishment of that Latin empire helped perpetuate. But papal sponsorship of the further crusading effort directed against the pagan Prussians had more lasting effect in that it succeeded in drawing much of northeastern Europe into the orbit of Latin Christendom. Of similarly lasting import, so far as the containment of internal heresy was concerned, was the papal establishment of inquisitorial machinery.

Something similar may be said of several developments, Europe-wide in their scope, that others had initiated but that the papacy had moved to encourage and support. Notable among them was the emergence in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries of the novel corporate institutions of higher education that came to be called "universities." Granting degrees testifying to the successful completion of a formal course of studies and recognized as valid throughout the world of Latin Christendom, these institutions became the site of a great intellectual flowering. Notable, too, were the activities of the new orders of mendicant "friars," which pursued a new form of monastic life that came rapidly to be very closely associated with the papacy. Of these, the Dominicans (or Order of Preachers) came to staff the inquisitorial machinery that the papacy had set up to combat the rise of religious heterodoxy and, in a more benign vein, evolved into a very learned order destined to produce a truly impressive array of distinguished philosophers and theologians. The Franciscans (or Order of Friars Minor), on the other hand, while they, too, rose to prominence in intellectual circles and university life, did a great deal also to bring the message of Christian hope to the new unchurched poor, the growing population of town dwellers for whom the existing parish structure had failed to provide.

When the needs of the early church had demanded it, it had been the emperor Constantine who in 325 convoked the ecumenical Council of Nicaea, presided over its deliberations, and approved and promulgated its decrees. It is of more than symbolic importance that when the needs of the medieval Latin church demanded it, it was Innocent III (1198–1216), by general consent the most distinguished of medieval popes, who in 1215 summoned and played the dominant role at the Fourth Lateran Council, the first of the two most important general councils of the medieval Latin church. More than any recognizably "political" entity (in the narrow sense of that term), it was the papacy, then, that in the centuries subsequent to the Gregorian movement inherited and embodied the old Roman ideal of universal empire, exploited its legacy, and perpetuated its memory. So far as papal hegemony goes, however, the Fourth Lateran Council also represented something of a "peak moment." As early as 1245, during the course of its immediate successor, the First Council of Lyons, disturbing signs of trouble to come made their appearance. That council, it is true, and in this like its great predecessor of 1215, bore eloquent witness to the pope's supreme legislative authority, and it did so in striking fashion. Despite some misgivings, it also witnessed the solemn judgment and deposition of the emperor Frederick II (1212–50), whose combination of the imperial title with the kingship of Sicily and whose assertion of authority in Lombardy successive popes had seen as an intolerable threat to their own territorial independence at Rome. No bishop rose at the council to the emperor's defense. The disposition of the kingdom of Sicily was left to the pope and that of the imperial title was left to the German electors. His formal deposition notwithstanding, Frederick continued to rule until 1250. But with his death in that year, followed in 1254 by that of his son Conrad, an unprecedented interregnum of almost a quarter of a century ensued in the empire.


Excerpted from The Mortgage of the Past by FRANCIS OAKLEY Copyright © 2012 by Francis Oakley. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Francis Oakley is President Emeritus and Edward Dorr Griffin Professor of the History of Ideas at Williams College.

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