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The Middle Ages

5th - 15th century


The upheaval that accompanied the migration of European peoples of late antiquity shattered the power of the Roman Empire and consequently the entire political order of Europe. Although Germanic kingdoms replaced Rome, the culture of late antiquity, especially Christianity, continued to have an effect and defined the early Middle Ages. Concurrent to the developments in the Christian West, in Arabia the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century founded Islam, a new religion with immense political and military effectiveness. Within a very short time, great Islamic empires developed from the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb to India and Central Asia, with centers such as Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, and Samarkand.

The Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims, built in the 1 3th—14th century in the Gothic style; the cathedral served for many centuries as the location for the ceremonial coronation of the French king.

The Cathedral of Reims, by Domenico Quaglio



Italy in the Middle Ages



The Papacy in the Middle Ages

The papacy reached the pinnacle of its power in the High Middle Ages, strengthened by the Cluniac and Gregorian reforms. Division in the Church over doctrinal and theological issues as well as secularization led to the gradual decline of the papacy.


The popes—bishops of 1 Rome and successors to the 2 Apostle Peter—claimed a position of supremacy within the Catholic Church.

Furthermore, once the Roman emperors no longer resided in Rome and the state structure in the Western Empire disintegrated, the popes increasingly assumed secular functions. The extent of their authority is demonstrated, for example, by Leo I, who was able to convince the leader of the Huns, Attila, to halt his march on Rome.

1 Plan of the city of Rome, book illustration,
early 15th century


2 Jesus gives Peter the keys to Rome,
as a sign of his supremacy over the other apostles and the
Church's right to territory in Rome, painting, 15th century


Fresco in the Sistine Chapel Pietro Perugino
Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter


Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter


The popes based their claims, among other things, on a falsified document known as the 7 "Donation of Constantine" by which Emperor Constantine the Great supposedly left most of the Western Roman Empire to the papacy.

7 Constantine the Great gives Pope Silvester I the symbols
of imperial power, fresco, 13th century

In the East, the patriarch of Constan-inople and head of the Byzantine imperial church rejected the primacy of the Roman popes. The final break came in 1054 in the Eastern Schism, when Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius excommunicated one other.

At the turn of the seventh century, 3 Pope Gregory introduced the central administration of papal lands.

From this developed what became known as the Papal States (Patrimonium Petri); of the former Papal States, only the Vatican remains under the pope's control today.
In 753 the new Frankish king, Pepin III, extended the Papal States by a bequest of lands known as the "Donation of Pepin." In return for this, he was recognized by Pope Stephen II as the successor to the Merovingians. The Franks became the protectors of the Church and defended the popes against Italian princes and Roman patricians.

The alliance was cemented in 800 when Pope Leo III 4 crowned Charlemagne as emperor.

3 Pope Gregory I (the Great) studying
at his desk in his residence,
ivory carving, tenth century

4 Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne as
emperor, copper engraving,
19th ñ

The Saxon Ottonians, who became kings of Italy in 951, continued the traditional close ties between the imperial crown and the papacy. Concurrently, the Cluniac reforms sought a spiritual renewal of the Church and the elimination of abuses such as the marriages of priests, simony and lay investitures.
The Salians, who succeeded the Saxons, helped put a reformminded pope in office. Now politically and spiritually renewed, the papacy turned against the instrumentalization of the Church by secular rulers by taking on the investiture controversy. Pope Gregory VII formulated the clergy's position of supremacy over the secular rulers in his "Dictatus Papae." The renewal movement gained further political weight through the Gregorian reforms. The symbolic submission of Emperor Henry IV to Gregory VII in his "journey to Canossa" in 1077 attested to the power of the papacy. The investiture controversy was officially settled in 1122, although the conflict between the pope and secular rulers continued.

Between 1198 and 1216, the papacy under Pope Innocent III was able to take advantage of the power struggle between the Hohenstaufens and the Welfs in the Holy Roman Empire and reach the height of its political power.

Innocent called for crusades against the Albigenses in France and the Muslims in the Holy Land and for the 6 founding of the Franciscan and Dominican orders.

6 Dream of Innocent III,
fresco by
Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1300

see also collections

Duccio di Buonisegna (1255-1319)

Giotto (1266—1337)

Fra Angelico (1395–1455)

Jacopo Bellini (1400-1471)

Uccello Paolo (1396—1475)

Piero della Francesca (1415-1492)

Botticelli (1445-1510)

Pinturicchio (1454-1513)

Pietro Perugino (c. 1445—1523)

Donatello (c. 1386-1466)

In 1231 the latter was entrusted with the Inquisition, which served to combat heresy and monitor the implementation of Church doctrines.
The popes lacked temporal instruments of power such as armies, however, while their ultimate spiritual weapon—the threat of excommunication—had lost much of its impact through its frequent usage.

In response to the overreaching claims of absolute world power that Pope 13 Boniface VIII formulated in 1302 in the bull "Unam Sanctam," King Philip IV of France demonstrated the autonomy of the state by forcing the papacy to move to 8 Avignon in France in 1309.

Here it remained until 1377, constantly under the influence of the French kings. Similarly, excommunication by John XXII in 1324 no longer held the power to intimidate the Bavarian emperor Louis IV. He continued to support the Franciscans against the papacy in the poverty controversy—the Franciscans saw the poverty of Christ as a model for the Church, a view the papacy did not share.

Because the papal properties in Italy were threatened, Gregory XI returned to 9 Rome from Avignon in 1377.

After Gregory's death, however, conflict erupted between the French and Italian cardinals; both parties wanted to elevate a fellow countryman to the papacy—and both did.

13 Pope Boniface VIII

8 The Pope's palace in Avignon, France,
built in the 14th century, papal residence 1309-1377

9 The Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome on the banks of the Tiber,
tomb of Emperor Hadrian, refuge of the popes

In 1378, two popes were elected: Urban VI in Rome and 11 Clement VII, who continued to reside in Avignon.

The Great Schism (or Western Schism)—after 1409, there were even three competing popes—was finally ended in 1417 at the Council of Constance with the election of 5 Martin V as the sole pope.

During the schism, the spiritual authority of the papacy naturally suffered. Councils such as that of Basel, which met from 1431 to 1449, claimed to supersede the decisions of popes. The popes, however, succeeded in splitting the council movement, and in 1459 it was declared heretical by Pius II. Thus a possible instrument of Church reform was also eliminated.
In the 16th century, the inability to make spiritual reforms finally resulted in the rupture of the Catholic Church's authority on spiritual matters by the Reformation.

11 Crowning of Pope Clement VII,
book illustration, 14th century

5 Pope Martin V is elected at the Council
of Constance, book illustration, 15th century

The Reformation gained additional impetus from the secularization of the papacy, which was ushered in by 12 Pius II and his predecessor Nicholas V, under a series of 10 Renaissance popes.

12 Pope Pius II, fresco by Bernardino Pinturicchio,
early 16th century

10 The old St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, in the background the new cupola,
built in Renaissance style

see also collection:




Pope Pius II

(Enea Silvio de' Piccolomini).

Born at Corsignano, near Siena, 18 Oct., 1405; elected 19 Aug., 1458; died at Ancona, 14 Aug., 1464. He was the eldest of eighteen children of Silvio de' Piccolomini and Vittoria Forteguerra. Although of noble birth, straitened circumstances forced him to help his father in the cultivation of the estate which the family owned at Corsignano. This village he later ranked as a town and made an episcopal residence with the name of Pienza (Pius). Having received some elementary instruction from a priest, he entered, at the age of eighteen, the University of Siena. Here he gave himself up to diligent study and the free enjoyment of sensual pleasures. In 1425 the preaching of St. Bernardine of Siena kindled in him the desire of embracing a monastic life, but he was dissuaded from his purpose by his friends. Attracted by the fame of the celebrated Filelfo, he shortly after spent two years in the study of the classics and poetry at Florence. He returned to Siena at the urgent request of his relatives, to devoted his time to the study of jurisprudence. Passing through Siena on his way to the Council of Basle, Capranica, Bishop of Fermo, invited Enea to accompany him as his secretary. Bishop and secretary arrived there in 1432, and joined the opposition to Pope Eugene IV.

Piccolomini, however, soon left the service of the impecunious Capranica for more remunerative employment with Nicodemo della Scala, Bishop of Freising, with Bartolomeo, Bishop of Novara, and with Cardinal Albergati. He accompanied the latter on several journeys, particularly to the Congress of Arras, which in 1435 discussed peace between Burgundy and France. In the same year his master sent him on a secret mission to Scotland. The voyage was very tempestuous and Piccolomini vowed to walk, if spared, barefoot from the port of arrival to the nearest shrine of Our Lady. He landed at Dunbar and, from the pilgrimage of ten miles through ice and snow to the sanctuary of Whitekirk, he contracted the gout from which he suffered for the rest of his life. Although on his return from Scotland Cardinal Albergati was no longer at Basle, he determined to remain in the city, and to his humanistic culture and oratorical talent owed his appointment to different important functions by the council. He continued to side with the opposition to Eugene IV, and associated particularly with a small circle of friends who worshipped classical antiquity and led dissolute lives. That he freely indulged his passions is evidenced not only by the birth of two illegitimate children to him (the one in Scotland, the other at Strasburg), but by the frivolous manner in which he glories in his own disorders. The low moral standard of the epoch may partly explain, but cannot excuse his dissolute conduct. He had not yet received Holy orders, however, and shrank from the ecclesiastical state because of the obligation of continence which it imposed. Even the inducement to become one of the electors of a successor to Eugene IV, unlawfully deposed, could not overcome this reluctance; rather than receive the diaconate he refused the proffered honour.

He was then appointed master of ceremonies to the conclave which elected Amadeus of Savoy to the papacy. He likewise belonged to the delegation which was to escort to Basle in 1439 the newly- elected antipope, who assumed the name of Felix V and chose Piccolomini as his secretary. The latter's clearsightedness, however, soon enabled him to realize that the position of the schismatic party could not fail to become untenable, and he profited by his presence as envoy of the council at the Diet of Frankfort in 1442 again to change masters. His literary attainments were brought to the attention of Frederick III, who crowned him imperial poet, and offered him a position in his service which was gladly accepted. On 11 Nov., 1442, Enea left Basle for Vienna, where he assumed in January of the following year the duties of secretary in the imperial chancery. Receding gradually from his attitude of supporter of Felix V, he ultimately became, with the imperial chancellor Schlick, whose favour he enjoyed, a partisan of Eugene IV. The formal reconciliation between him and this pope took place in 1445, when he came on an official mission to Rome. He was first absolved of the censures which he had incurred as partisan of the Council of Basle and official of the antipope. Hand in hand with this change in personal allegiance went a transformation in his moral character and in March, 1446, he was ordained subdeacon at Vienna. The same year he succeeded in breaking up the Electors' League, equally dangerous to Eugene IV and Frederick III, and shortly afterwards a delegation, of which he was a member, laid before the pope the conditional submission of almost all Germany. In 1447 he was appointed Bishop of Trieste; the following year he played a prominent part in the conclusion of the Concordat of Vienna; and in 1450 he received the Bishopric of Siena. He continued, however, until 1455 in the service of Frederick III, who had frequent recourse to his diplomatic ability. In 1451 he appeared in Bohemia at the head of a royal embassy, and in 1452 accompanied Frederick to Rome for the imperial coronation. He was created cardinal 18 Dec., 1456, by Calixtus III, whose successor he became.

The central idea of his pontificate was the liberation of Europe from Turkish domination. To this end he summoned at the beginning of his reign all the Christian princes to meet in congress on 1 June, 1459. Shortly before his departure for Mantua, where he was personally to direct the deliberations of this assembly, he issued a Bull instituting a new religious order of knights. They were to bear the name of Our Lady of Bethlehem and to have their headquarters in the Island of Lemnos. History is silent concerning the actual existence of this foundation, and the order was probably never organized. At Mantua scant attendance necessitated a delay in the opening of the sessions until 26 Sept., 1459. Even then but few delegates were present, and the deliberations soon revealed the fact that the Christian states could not be relied on for mutual co-operation against the Turks. Venice pursued dilatory and insincere tactics; France would promise nothing, because the pope had preferred Ferrante of Aragon for the throne of Naples to the pretender of the House of Anjou. Among the German delegates, Gregory of Heimburg assumed an ostentatiously disrespectful attitude toward Pius II; the country, however, ultimately agreed to raise 32,000 footmen and 10,000 cavalry. But the promise was never redeemed, and although a three years' war was decreed against the Turks, the congress failed of its object, as no practical results of any importance were attained. It was apparent that the papacy no longer commanded the assent and respect of any of the Powers. This was further demonstrated by the fact that Pius, on the eve of his departure from Mantua, issued the Bull "Execrabilis", in which he condemned all appeals from the decisions of the pope to an oecumenical council (18 Jan., 1460).

During the congress war had broken out in southern Italy about the possession of the Kingdom of Naples. The pope continued to support Ferrante against the Angevin claimant. This attitude was adverse to ecclesiastical interests in France, where he aimed at the repeal of the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges. At his accession to the throne in 1461, Louis XI suppressed indeed that instrument; but this papal success was more apparent than real. For Louis's expectation of support in southern Italy was not realized; and opposition to the suppression manifesting itself in France, his dealings with the Church underwent a corresponding change, and royal ordinances were even issued aiming at the revival of the former Gallican liberties. In Germany Frederick III showed readiness to comply with the obligations assumed at Mantua, but foreign and domestic difficulties rendered him powerless. Between Pius II and Duke Sigismund of Tyrol, however, an acute conflict developed concerning the Bishopric of Brixen. Likewise the refusal of the Archbishop of Mainz, Diether of Isenburg to abide by the pope's decree of deposition led to civil strife. Diether was ultimately defeated and supplanted by Adolf of Nassau, who had been appointed in his stead. More difficult to adjust were the troubles in Bohemia. Hussitism was rampant in the kingdom, which was governed by the wily George Podiebrad, a king seemingly devoid of religious convictions. He had promised in a secret coronation oath personally to profess the Catholic faith and to restore, in his realm, union with Rome in ritual and worship. This was tantamount to a renunciation of the "Compact of Basle", which, under certain conditions subsequently not observed by the Bohemians, had granted them communion under both kinds and other privileges. The pope, deceived for a time by the protestations of royal fidelity, used his influence to bring back the Catholic city of Breslau to the king's allegiance. But in 1461 Podiebrad, to further his fanciful schemes of political aggrandizement, promised his subjects to maintain the Compact. When in 1462 his long- promised embassy appeared in Rome, its purpose was not only to do homage to the pope, but also to obtain the confirmation of that agreement. Pius II, instead of acceding to the latter request, withdrew the misused concessions made by Basle. He continued negotiations with the king, but died before any settlement was reached.

The prevalence of such discord in Christendom left but little hope for armed opposition to the Turks. As rumours had been circulated that the sultan doubted the faith of Islam, the pope attempted to convert him to the Christian faith. But in vain did he address to him in 1461 a letter, in which were set forth the claims of Christianity on his belief. Possibly the transfer with extraordinary pomp of the head of St. Andrew to Rome was also a fruitless attempt to rekindle zeal for the Crusades. As a last resort, Pius II endeavoured to stir up the enthusiasm of the apathetic Christian princes by placing himself at the head of the crusaders. Although seriously ill he left Rome for the East, but died at Ancona, the mustering-place of the Christian troops.

There have been widely divergent appreciations of the life of Pius II. While his varied talents and superior culture cannot be doubted, the motives of his frequent transfer of allegiance, the causes of the radical transformations which his opinions underwent, the influences exercised over him by the environment in which his lot was cast, are so many factors, the bearing of which can be justly and precisely estimated only with the greatest difficulty. In the early period of his life he was, like many humanists, frivolous and immoral in conduct and writing. More earnest were his conceptions and manner of life after his entrance into the ecclesiastical state. As pope he was indeed not sufficiently free from nepotism, but otherwise served the best interests of the Church. Not only was he constantly solicitous for the peace of Christendom against Islam, but he also instituted a commission for the reform of the Roman court, seriously endeavoured to restore monastic discipline, and defended the doctrine of the Church against the writings of Reginald Peacock, the former Bishop of Chichester. He retracted the errors contained in his earlier writings in a Bull, the gist of which was "Reject Eneas, hold fast to Pius". St. Catherine of Siena was canonized during his pontificate.

Even among the many cares of his pontificate he found time for continued literary activity. Two important works of his were either entirely or partly written during this period: his geographical and ethnographical description of Asia and Europe; and his "Memoirs", which are the only autobiography left us by a pope. They are entitled "Pii II Commentarii rerum memorabilium, quae temporibus suis contigerunt". Earlier in his life he had written, besides "Eurialus and Lucretia" and the recently discovered comedy "Chrysis", the following historical works: "Libellus dialogorum de generalis concilii auctoritate et gestis Basileensium"; "Commentarius de rebus Basileae gestis"; "Historia rerum Frederici III imperatoris"; "Historia Bohemica". Imcomplete collections of his works were published in 1551 and 1571 at Basle. A critical edition of his letters by Wolkan is in course of publication.

Encyclopaedia Britannica


Pope Pius II, fresco by Pinturicchio



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