I T is very difficult to understand the people of by-gone ages. Your own grandfather, whom you see every day, is a mysterious being who lives in a different world of ideas and clothes and manners. I am now telling you the story of some of your grandfathers who are twenty-five generations removed, and I do not expect you to catch the meaning of what I write without re-reading this chapter a number of times.
The average man of the Middle Ages lived a very simple and uneventful life. Even if he was a free citizen, able to come and go at will, he rarely left his own neighbourhood. There were no printed books and only a few manuscripts. Here and there, a small band of industrious monks taught reading and writing and some arithmetic. But science and history and geography lay buried beneath the ruins of Greece and Rome.
Whatever people knew about the past they had learned by listening to stories and legends. Such information, which goes from father to son, is often slightly incorrect in details, but it will preserve the main facts of history with astonishing accuracy. After more than two thousand years, the mothers of India still frighten their naughty children by telling them that "Iskander will get them," and Iskander is none other than Alexander the Great, who visited India in the year 330 before the birth of Christ, but whose story has lived through all these ages.
The people of the early Middle Ages never saw a textbook
of Roman history. They were ignorant of many things
which every school-boy
But the fact that there were two different heirs to the Roman tradition placed the faithful burghers of the Middle Ages in a difficult position. The theory behind the mediaeval political system was both sound and simple. While the worldly master (the emperor) looked after the physical well-being of his subjects, the spiritual master (the Pope) guarded their souls.
In practice, however, the system worked very badly. The Emperor invariably tried to interfere with the affairs of the church and the Pope retaliated and told the Emperor how he should rule his domains. Then they told each other to mind their own business in very unceremonious language and the inevitable end was war.
Under those circumstances, what were the people to do? A good Christian obeyed both the Pope and his King. But the Pope and the Emperor were enemies. Which side should a dutiful subject and an equally dutiful Christian take?
It was never easy to give the correct answer. When the Emperor happened to be a man of energy and was sufficiently well provided with money to organise an army, he was very apt to cross the Alps and march on Rome, besiege the Pope in his own palace if need be, and force His Holiness to obey the imperial instructions or suffer the consequences.
But more frequently the Pope was the stronger. Then the Emperor or the King together with all his subjects was excommunicated. This meant that all churches were closed, that no one could be baptised, that no dying man could be given absolution—in short, that half of the functions of mediaeval government came to an end.
More than that, the people were absolved from their oath of loyalty to their sovereign and were urged to rebel against their master. But if they followed this advice of the distant Pope and were caught, they were hanged by their near-by Liege Lord and that too was very unpleasant.
Indeed, the poor fellows were in a difficult position and none fared worse than those who lived during the latter half of the eleventh century, when the Emperor Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII fought a two-round battle which decided nothing and upset the peace of Europe for almost fifty years.
In the middle of the eleventh century there had been a strong movement for reform in the church. The election of the Popes, thus far, had been a most irregular affair. It was to the advantage of the Holy Roman Emperors to have a well-disposed priest elected to the Holy See. They frequently came to Rome at the time of election and used their influence for the benefit of one of their friends.
In the year 1059 this had been changed. By a decree of Pope Nicholas II the principal priests and deacons of the churches in and around Rome were organised into the so-called College of Cardinals, and this gathering of prominent churchmen (the word "Cardinal" meant principal) was given the exclusive power of electing the future Popes.
In the year 1073 the College of Cardinals elected a priest by the name of Hildebrand, the son of very simple parents in Tuscany, as Pope, and he took the name of Gregory VII. His energy was unbounded. His belief in the supreme powers of his Holy Office was built upon a granite rock of conviction and courage. In the mind of Gregory, the Pope was not only the absolute head of the Christian church, but also the highest Court of Appeal in all worldly matters. The Pope who had elevated simple German princes to the dignity of Emperor could depose them at will. He could veto any law passed by duke or king or emperor, but whosoever should question a papal decree, let him beware, for the punishment would be swift and merciless.
Gregory sent ambassadors to all the European courts to inform the potentates of Europe of his new laws and asked them to take due notice of their contents. William the Conqueror promised to be good, but Henry IV, who since the age of six had been fighting with his subjects, had no intention of submitting to the Papal will. He called together a college of German bishops, accused Gregory of every crime under the sun and then had him deposed by the council of Worms.
The Pope answered with excommunication and a demand that the German princes rid themselves of their unworthy ruler. The German princes, only too happy to be rid of Henry, asked the Pope to come to Augsburg and help them elect a new Emperor.
Gregory left Rome and travelled northward. Henry, who was no fool, appreciated the danger of his position. At all costs he must make peace with the Pope, and he must do it at once. In the midst of winter he crossed the Alps and hastened to Canossa where the Pope had stopped for a short rest. Three long days, from the 25th to the 28th of January of the year 1077, Henry, dressed as a penitent pilgrim (but with a warm sweater underneath his monkish garb), waited outside the gates of the castle of Canossa. Then he was allowed to enter and was pardoned for his sins. But the repentance did not last long. As soon as Henry had returned to Germany, he behaved exactly as before. Again he was excommunicated. For the second time a council of German bishops deposed Gregory, but this time, when Henry crossed the Alps he was at the head of a large army, besieged Rome and forced Gregory to retire to Salerno, where he died in exile. This first violent outbreak decided nothing. As soon as Henry was back in Germany, the struggle between Pope and Emperor was continued.
Henry IV at Canossa
The Hohenstaufen family which got hold of the Imperial German Throne shortly afterwards, were even more independent than their predecessors. Gregory had claimed that the Popes were superior to all kings because they (the Popes) at the Day of Judgement would be responsible for the behaviour of all the sheep of their flock, and in the eyes of God, a king was one of that faithful herd.
Frederick of Hohenstaufen, commonly known as Barbarossa or Red Beard, set up the counter-claim that the Empire had been bestowed upon his predecessor "by God himself" and as the Empire included Italy and Rome, he began a campaign which was to add these "lost provinces" to the northern country. Barbarossa was accidentally drowned in Asia Minor during the second Crusade, but his son Frederick II, a brilliant young man who in his youth had been exposed to the civilisation of the Mohammedans of Sicily, continued the war. The Popes accused him of heresy. It is true that Frederick seems to have felt a deep and serious contempt for the rough Christian world of the North, for the boorish German Knights and the intriguing Italian priests. But he held his tongue, went on a Crusade and took Jerusalem from the infidel and was duly crowned as King of the Holy City. Even this act did not placate the Popes. They deposed Frederick and gave his Italian possessions to Charles of Anjou, the brother of that King Louis of France who became famous as Saint Louis. This led to more warfare. Conrad V, the son of Conrad IV, and the last of the Hohenstaufens, tried to regain the kingdom, and was defeated and decapitated at Naples. But twenty years later, the French who had made themselves thoroughly unpopular in Sicily were all murdered during the so-called Sicilian Vespers, and so it went.
The quarrel between the Popes and the Emperors was never settled, but after a while the two enemies learned to leave each other alone.
In the year 1273, Rudolph of Hapsburg was elected Emperor. He did not take the trouble to go to Rome to be crowned. The Popes did not object and in turn they kept away from Germany. This meant peace but two entire centuries which might have been used for the purpose of internal organisation had been wasted in useless warfare.
It is an ill wind however that bloweth no good to some one. The little cities of Italy, by a process of careful balancing, had managed to increase their power and their independence at the expense of both Emperors and Popes. When the rush for the Holy Land began, they were able to handle the transportation problem of the thousands of eager pilgrims who were clamoring for passage, and at the end of the Crusades they had built themselves such strong defences of brick and of gold that they could defy Pope and Emperor with equal indifference.
Church and State fought each other and a third party—the mediaeval city—ran away with the spoils.