The Apogee of the Empire and the Renovation of Catholicism
The deposition in the year 887 of Charles III the Fat, severely invalid, represents the conclusion of the Carolingian dynasty. The Empire, thus, entered a stalemate due to the imperial vacancy. Historians in general, accustomed to joyfully welcoming “revolutions” on every occasion, consider this event a historical turning point from which the Empire underwent a radically change. Nothing could be falser. During those seven decades, the feudal system was consolidated according to the principles established since the time of Charlemagne. Most of the fiefs became hereditary, establishing their bonds of fidelity and benefice with the vassals, Kings and the dukes who, in the absence of the Emperor, were his representatives. The same system of government was adopted between the fiefs of the vavasours and the vavasour’s vassals. What we need to understand clearly is that sworn loyalty was mutual. If the superior feudal lord did not respect the contract of benefice conferred on his vassal, the latter had every right to protest before the Diet of Aachen. At best, he could, quite rightly, take up arms against his liege lord to assert his reasons. Due to their inability to understand the sense of honor, fidelity and loyalty of the medieval man, contemporary historians have unequivocally confused such right with rebellion.
Different fiefdoms were granted to bishops and abbots. In this case, of course, inheritance was excluded. Such concessions came from the Grandees of the Empire, which made the diocese coincide with the fiefdom. In general, the ecclesiastical fiefdom was used to separate the possessions of noble dynasties in historical competition with each other, with the result of maintaining the Pax Imperii. As illustrated in the previous chapter, this system held strong and did not lend itself well to the schemes of the few daredevils who tried to overthrow the Carolingian order to unduly extend their possessions or to unworthily seize royal titles or even the imperial one. In this period, however, the kingdom of West Francia, despite being reduced to a small area around Paris, crushed between the duchies of Normandy, Burgundy, Aquitaine and the counties of Flanders and of Anjou. Despite being governed by a Carolingian branch, this territory undertook then its policy of detachment from the Empire.
This was the only case of an embryonic rebellion that gained some success over the following centuries. As will be seen hereinafter in our overview, the kingdom of France always played a dissolving role in the medieval Christian ecumene. East Francia consisted instead of four great duchies. In this period of imperial vacancy, the four dukes were elected, by rotation, Kings of Germany.
In 955, Otto of Saxony, a member of a dynasty related to the Carolingians, obtained a definitive victory against the Magyars. Once defeated, this people settled in the present-day Hungary and became vassals of the Holy Roman Empire. The end of the long-lasting threat from the eastern front was a great success for Otto of Saxony, who in 962 was acclaimed and anointed Holy Roman Emperor. With the dynasty of Saxony, the Empire reached the maximum of political and economic stability. However, the greatest feat of Emperor Otto I was to continue the consolidation of the Empire in its spiritual principles. The Ottonian Holy Roman Empire succeeded in encapsulating a universal and sacral conception of the Regnum, assuming the symbols, the doctrines and the rituals of the ancient Roman Empire and of the coexisting Byzantine Empire. Furthermore, Otto descended into Italy to remove the bellicose feudal lords, especially those of Lombard origin, who had devastated northern and central Italy during the previous decades. In southern Italy he reduced to reason the remaining Longobard duchies but showed consideration for the Byzantine enclaves. In France he succeeded in regaining the loyalty of the Kingdom of Burgundy but failed to bring the Kingdom of France back into the imperial ecumene. Furthermore, the duchy of Normandy continued to elude its bonds of vassalage with the Empire.
However, the imperial interventions in Italy could not disregard the relations with the papacy. Taking advantage of the internal struggles among the great feudal Lords who had troubled the Italian landscape in the period of imperial vacancy, a family of obscure origins, the counts of Tusculum, lorded undisturbed in Rome, illegally appointing five popes of their liking. Otto the Great descended into Rome, put order in the city, deposed the illegitimate pope and finally, in 974, he supervised the regular election of Benedict VII. Together with this new pope, Otto undertook with great energy the work of purification of Catholicism initiated by St. Boniface and Charlemagne.
The Emperor recognized the pontifical fiefdoms (even those seized fraudulently by previous popes), reaffirming, however, their vassalage to the Empire. He renewed also the validity of his right of confirmation of the elected pope, as it was sanctioned by the Constitutio Romana of Louis the Pious. Finally, he promulgated the Privilegium Othonis, which ratified that the Emperor was the guarantor of the doctrinal, liturgical and pastoral correctness of Catholicism, with the sacred authority to punish the transgressors. He was succeeded by his son Otto II, who died prematurely, and by his grandson Otto III. In the five years of his reign (996-1001), Otto III made the ideal of the Universal Empire ever more charismatic and venerated throughout Christendom, keeping the papacy tightly under control and committing itself to the reform of the Church. The Ottonian dynasty then opened a period of splendor that continued with the following dynasty, though bringing along the invisible germs of its ruin. It was precisely the providential renewal of Catholicism that raised the discontent of the popes and their claims of revenge.
The consolidation of the order in the Empire undertaken by the Ottonians highlighted the inadequacy of the secular clergy and of the papacy itself. Above all, in the period of imperial interregnum, priests and popes fell in the same ignorance and behavioral abjection that had already been affirmed in the Latin Church before the intervention of the Culdean monks. Under the dynasty of Saxony, the Italian, Burgundian and German high clergy, enjoying the feudal benefices, was now an expression of the aristocracy, possessing therefore a higher level of religious education. Those abbots, bishops and the Emperor became aware of the tragic situation of Rome and, in their project of universalization of the Empire, they included also the purification of the Church.
The strategy chosen was to instruct monasticism to restore the Latin Church. By monasticism we mean the Benedictine order, which had monopolized the style of Catholic anachoristic life. To be able to operate this ecclesiastical correction, the monks began to become priests, thus acquiring their functions. This facilitated their task, diverting, however, their attention from the contemplative goals set forth for by their original Rule.
This happened mainly in the monastery of Cluny, which was founded by the duke William I of Aquitaine. The duke bore all the expenses of construction and installed Berno as abbot, provided that he and his monks made an act of submission to the pope. It was the first time that a monastery gave up its autocephaly, accepting direct dependence from Rome. The monks, now almost all priests, became defenders of the most rigorous liturgy, teaching with patience and method the precise way of performing sacramental rites. Their purity of behavior made them appear like angels among the clergy, becoming models to be imitated. They gave a new meaning to chastity, convincing the exterior clergy to become mediators between the faithful and God and to act accordingly. The result of this rectification appeared almost as a monacation of the clergy. This was certainly a success. However, this entailed a clericalization of the Cluniac monks and subsequent decline in spiritual commitment and initiatic transmission.
Not all Benedictine monks, still under the influence of the Culdean wisdom, followed the example of Cluny. In fact, especially in Italy, they responded by renewing the ascetic and eremitical ideals of the ancient monasticism of the desert, of the Thebaid and of Mount Athos. Saint Romuald (born Duke Romuald degli Onesti), disciple of Marinus, a Venetian monk of Byzantine rite, founded the hermitage of Pereo, near Ravenna, which had been the capital of Byzantine dominions in Italy. Later, he founded several small cœnobia and hermitages in central Italy. Among these the most famous remains that of Camaldoli, founded in the early years of 1000.
This experience, very close to the hesychast esoterism, originated, in the 11th century, the monasteries of Cîteaux in Burgundy, and, among others, the Calabrian hermitage of Santa Maria, all founded by Saint Bruno of Calabria. He spent years in the same cave where, in his time, Cassiodorus had withdrawn and built the Vivarium hermitage. Almost intentionally marking a continuity of transmission from Pythagoras, through Cassiodorus, Bruno assumed the initiatic hesychast method, probably learned from some Byzantine anchorite who was still present in the “vertical desert” of Copanello, in Calabria.
The Camaldolese and the Cistercian monks distanced themselves from the Cluniacs, concluding that the moralizing work the Church had undermined the ascetic aspect of their rule. In fact, the Cluniacs dealt as peers with feudal Lords, Kings, Emperors, bishops and popes. Cluny soon became the richest monastery in Europe thanks to the donations and the feudal benefices received. On the contrary, all the other Benedictine orders emphasized the importance of the renunciation of worldly goods in order to heal the Church. The joint influence of the two Benedictine tendencies, under the guidance of the Emperors of the Saxon and of the following Franconian dynasties, had an outcome beyond any expectation. Thus, while the Emperors were strengthening the bases of the imperial ideal, keeping the election of the popes under control, they managed to restore the Church without realizing that it would have turned against them the moment its authority was once again restored. Storm clouds thickened on the horizon of the 11th century.
Petrus Simonet de Maisonneuve