Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages/Book III


Introduction.[1] Edit

NO. I., the Rule of Benedict, is given here almost in its entirety, as being historically the most important of all monastic constitutions. Benedict of Nursia was born near Rome at the end of the fifth century. When a boy of fourteen he renounced the world, and, after many changes of abode, finally settled at Monte Cassino, and became the founder of that famous monastery, destroying the temple of Apollo that stood on its site. Benedict died in 543 A.D. Pope Grregory the Great (594-604), the first real organizer among the popes, pressed the monks into the service of the church. It was the Rule of Benedict that he chose for his guidance, imposing it on a monastery that he himself had founded in Rome. By the time of Charlemagne (768-814) Benedict's Rule seems to have superseded all others. It afterwards became the basis of new orders, chief among which were Cluny and Citeaux. In the thirteenth century the Benedicts were superseded in great part by the mendicant orders, the Franciscans and Dominicans. From the fourteenth century on they were famous more for their learning than for their piety. The famous congregation of St. Maur, founded in 1618, was a congregation of Benedictines, and to them we owe the editing of many most valuable historical sources.

The French Revolution almost killed the order of Benedict, and it is now kept alive only in Austria and Italy. The monks are still famous for their classical learning.

No. II., the formulas for holding ordeals,[2] are prayers, exhortations, exorcisms, etc., used by the priests in carrying out the so-called "judgments of God." Although these formulas, as here given, are first found in manuscripts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, they belong undoubtedly to Carolingian times.

Ordeals were already known to the Greeks, as may be seen from v. 264 of the "Antigone." The early Germans had various forms of obtaining judgments by the use of fire. One was for the accused to hold his hand in the flame for a certain time; another, for him to walk through a, fire clad in a single garment. Again, one might walk nine steps with a red-hot iron in the hand, or go barefoot over nine heated ploughshares. Richardis, the wife of Charles the Fat; Kunigunde, the wife of emperor Henry II.; not to speak of Emma, the mother of Edward the Confessor, underwent this last form of the ordeal.

In the hot water ordeal the accused was compelled to put his hand in a boiling cauldron of water and extract a stone or a ring. Another, and very common form of trying by water, was to throw the accused into a pool or tank of cold water, and see whether he sank or floated. The technical expression for this tank was "fossa"; Ducange's translation of which—a place to drown women in—does great injustice to the chivalry of our ancestors. Almost every abbot had a "furca et fossa," and the number of women drowned would have had to be considerable had each "fossa" been used even but once.

According to another form of the ordeal, the accuser and the accused stood opposite to each other with outstretched arms—the trial of the cross it was called—until one of them could endure no longer. All the nuns of Bischofsheim were once submitted to this test, the body of a new-born babe having been found in a pond near by.

The emperor Charlemagne was a firm believer in ordeals, and ordered his subjects to respect them. Frederick II. (1215-1250), on the contrary, the most enlightened monarch of the Middle Ages, thought a person who believed in them " non tarn corrigendum quam ridendum." The fire and water trials were forbidden by the Lateran Council of 1215, and fours years later Henry III. declared them unlawful in England. But as late as the year 1686 a certain Jacob Rieck wrote a book in favour of the water ordeal as actually practised in his time upon witches in Cologne; and the so-called witch-bath is heard of in Prussia even in the middle of the eighteenth century.

No. III., the Constautine Donation, or Constitutum Constantini, purports to be a deed of gift made to pope Sylvester by Constantine the Great. It is found in the manuscript containing the " Pseudo Isidorian Decretals," but is older than that collection. Constantine grants to the pope imperial honours, the primacy over Antioch, Constantinople and Alexandria, makes him chief judge of the clergy, and offers him the imperial diadem. This the pope refuses, preferring a simpler croAvn. The clergy are to have the rank of senators and the privilege of riding upon white saddle-cloths. Last, but not least, the pope was to have dominion over all Italy, including Rome. The wording is Italiae seu occidentalium regionium, and later popes, translating "sen" as "et," claimed nothing less than all of Western Europe. The Donation document is first quoted in the middle of the ninth century; the legend upon which it is founded is older. That Constantine really did give a great deal to the church is undoubted. There are three lists of his gifts in the "Liber Pontificalis," the earliest history of the popes. The Constantine Donation was at times doubted even in the Middle Ages. Otto III. called it a lie, as did also Arnold of Brescia. On the other hand, Urban II. claimed Corsica by virtue of it; Anselm, Gratiau, and Ivo of Chartres, all received it into their collections of canon law; and, according to John of Salisbury, Adrian TV. relied on it in claiming the right to dispose of Ireland in 1155. (See above, Book I., No. II.)

In the fifteenth century the Donation began to be seriously attacked by such men as Pecock and Cusa, but it was reserved for Laurentius Valla to really prove its falseness. It has no defenders to-day even among the adherents of the papacy.

There have been many conjectures as to the date of its fabrication. Brunner tries to place it between the years 813 and 816. His argument is ingenious to say the least. It is well known that the emperor Charlemagne, in 813, himself crowned his son, Louis the Pious. The popes did not like this proceeding, and in 816 Stephen IV. comes travelling over the Alps bearing with him a crown. Brunner thinks that if Stephen increased his luggage by a bulky crown it must have been a very special one, probably the one which Sylvester had refused when it was offered by Constantine. To prove the genuineness of this crown the Constantine Donation may have been forged.

No. IV. is the foundation charter of the famous Burgundian monastery of Cluny, which became the parent of so many subordinate institutions. Cluny was founded in 910 by William the Pious, duke of Aquitaine. Berno, abbot of the Benedictine monastery of Beaume, was its first abbot. His successor, Odo, was the reformer not only of the Benedictine monasteries in general, but of the whole monastic system.

Already, in 937, there were seventeen associate monasteries under Cluny's charge, and its influence spread not only over France, but also over other countries. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries three popes, Gregory VII., Urban II., and Paschal II., went forth from its fold.

The glory of the monastery falls in the first three centuries of its existence. At the beginning of the twelfth century there were 460 monks in Cluny itself, and 314 monasteries subordinate to it. The order later fell a victim to misrule and demoralization, but lingered on until the French Revolution gave it its coup de grâce. Its chief building was afterwards turned into a musuem.

No. V., the summons of pope Eugene III. to a crusade, is particularly interesting, as showing the extent of papal interference in the private money affairs of Christians and in the relationships of lords and vassals. Eugene declares that debtors may put off the payment of their obligations until their return, paying no interest whatever for the time of their absence. Moreover, vassals whose lords would not advance money for their journey, might, of their own accord, pledge their estates to the church or to pious laymen.

The crusades, although the direct object for which all this blood and money was expended, was never realized, helped immeasurably to raise the prestige of the papacy. During two centuries the eyes of Europe were fixed upon the pope as the champion of the faith. The people wanted a leader, and the popes wanted to lead. And the church became richer and richer, as one crusader after another died without redeeming the lands that he had pledged.

No. VI. is a decree of the Lateran Council of 1179, declaring a two-thirds majority in the college of cardinals as necessary for the election of a pope. The measure was passed in view of the long struggle that had just been ended by the peace of Venice, and that had begun with the double election of 1160. (See Book IV., No. IV.)

No VII., the general summons of Innocent III. to a crusade in 1215, is the most exhaustive and complete appeal of the kind that was issued. For the next seventyfive years the summonses were to be simple verbal reissues of it—small changes being made, however, as the condition of affairs became more and more despairing. Thus, for instance, it became necessary in course of time to reward by remissions of so and so many days those who would consent even to be present at the preaching of the papal legate who came to announce a crusade; and finally, just before the fall of Acre, full remission was granted to those who would contribute anything at all to the lost cause.[3]

No. VIII. is the Rule of St. Francis, which, although Innocent III. had verbally consented to the foundation of the order, was not formally approved by the papacy until 1223. The rise of the mendicant orders is undoubtedly the most important feature in the church history of the early thirteenth century. St. Dominicus founded for himself no new rule, simply accepting the old rule of the Augustine monks and adding to it a few new regulations. St. Francis, on the contrary, drew up the rule which is given here, and which has been called the "Magna Carta pauperitatis." It was to enforce humility and devotion in the work of nursing the side that the name "fratres minores" was chosen for the brotherhood, and "minister generalis" for its head.

Besides the original order of St. Francis, a second and a third order soon came into being under his name. The Second Order was for women, the pious Clara of Assisi being at the head of it. The Third Order contained as members both men and women, who, while not required to renounce their family or social life, took vows to practise in the world those virtues which the brothers sought in renouncing it.

At an early period the order began to be torn by internal dissensions, and in 1517 the division into Observantists and Conventualists was formally established by a bull of Pope Leo X. Some idea of the numbers and influence of the order may be formed from the fact that, at the end of the sixteenth century, the Observantists alone had 1,400 cloisters, united in 45 provinces.

No. IX. is the bull of pope Boniface VIII. declaring the year 1300, and every hundredth year thereafter, a year of jubilee, and recommending pilgrims to visit the churches of the apostles in Rome. Boniface's festival was phenomenally successful, and probably marks the crowning moment of papal glory. One million strangers are said to have visited Rome, and so much money was thrown around the altars that priests armed with rakes could scarcely gather it in. But within three years Boniface was suffering the last indignities at the hands of the Colonna and of the emissaries of Philip the Fair, and within four more the popes were at Avignon in the service of the French kings.

The jubilee suffered the same fate as did all the other lucrative institutions of the Roman church,—they were exploited and misused until the last shadow of a significance was taken from them. Already, in 1343, Clement VI. declared one for 1350, Urban VI., in 1389, reduced the intervals to 33, and Paul II., in 1470, to 25 years. We hear of one in 1489, and another in 1500! Before long no price was small enough for men to pay even for not only full and free, but the very fullest pardon of all their sins."

  1. For fuller information on the different documents in this Book on the Church, see the articles in Herzog and Plitt's "Real encyclopaedic derprotestantischenTheologie," 17 vols., and W. Möller's "Lehrbuch der Kirchengeschichte," 2 vols., Freiburg, 1889-90. Both of these works give manifold references for further study.
  2. An excellent article on ordeals is that written by Wilda in Ersch and Gruber's " Allgemeine Encyclopsedie der Wissenschaften und Kiinste," under "Ordalien."
  3. It is well known that the misuse of the papal power of granting: indulgence for sins—a power that owes its whole development to the crusades—was one of the chief causes that brought ahout the Reformation. It is not generally known, however, that almost all the prominent features of the later so notorious traffic existed in their completeness nearly three hundred years earlier. I have found in an ancient chronicle (see Muratori, viii. p. 1092) an account of a papal legate who, in 1219, offered, as an inducement to all those who would prolong their stay and defend the holy land, to absolve the souls of their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, wives and children!