It’s tough to say when the saeculum obscurum really began, but by the time Pope Stephen VI had been strangled in the jail cell to which his enemies had confined him after he’d dug up the remains of Pope Formosus (Pope Handsome” if you can believe that) and put his predecessor’s dry bones on trial for heresy, historians agree we were in the “Dark Century” of intrigue, misrule, madness, murder, and general mayhem at Rome.
Between the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the full establishment of new orders of political power several centuries later, the papacy took on all the duties of civil government in central Italy, and – predictably – saw all the habits of secular rulership in that age and place accrue to itself and the papal officeholders.
Said simply, the papacy fell into the hands of powerful central Italian crime families. Two in particular, the Theophylacti of Tusculum – an ancient settlement delightfully situated in the Alban Hills of Latium where well-heeled Romans kept villae in the late Republican period, the ruins of which one may visit these days – and the Sabine Crescentii got their claws into the office and tussled with each other over it for seventy years.
The Theophylacti liked to have their guy in office, while the Crescentii were frequently content to control the guy who physically occupied the chair.
It’s not that all the popes who reigned during the Dark Century were personally debauched or equally corrupt. Some of them came to power by fairly or relatively legitimate means. A few of them, like Leo VI, even attempted reform. Leo’s reign lasted less than a year, though.
Pope Agapetus reigned for a decade, and tried to deal with some pretty nasty doings in the Church in France and elsewhere. The short version of the French business is that he used what moral clout he could muster to get the clerics and nobles of Reims (there was some overlap) to end a kerfuffle over which of two rival claimants should have the See, but also took sides pretty strongly in the dispute.
One of the reasons Agapetus was able to devote himself to ecclesiastical matters was that there was a desultory “republic” in Rome and central Italy in those days, effectively ruled by a fellow named Alberic (second of that name). On his deathbed, Alberic made the Roman nobles pinky-swear to elect his bastard son, Octavian, as pope.
The nobles kept their word, and that is how we got John XII, whose reign began when he was very young – a teenager by some accounts – already debauched. Legend has it that John XII died violently, thrown from the window of a bedchamber where a Roman nobleman had caught him in flagrante with his wife.
There’s a two-edged sword of warning in all this history, for anyone who wants it.
On the one side, anyone decrying Francis as “the worst pope in history” is staking out a long and rocky row to hoe. It’s fine to think he’s a bad governor of the Church, but he’s not the worst, not by a long shot. It’s also fine to think Francis is the greatest thing since sliced bread, so long as one is willing to warrant that there are good reasons not to see it that way.
Recent popes have been personally pious, generally upright, and sincerely concerned with the good of the Church. That hasn’t made them good rulers or effective governors. One may therefore doubt whether personal piety and moral uprightness are by themselves sufficient qualifications for office, but it is hard to argue uncynically that they are in themselves detrimental to enlightened rule.
On the other, there’s also – and therefore – no reason to think things couldn’t possibly be worse.
In meteorological terms, it’s tough to say whether we are in late autumn or early spring. Whether we are dealing with a violent storm that must be a precursor to the idylls of the promised vernal flourishing in the Church, or the first hints of a long and brutal winter of destructive cold and ice and snow and frost, things are likely to get worse before they get better.
It was a Churchman, by the way, who coined the term saeculum obscurum. The great ecclesiastical historian, Caesar Baronius, first used it in his sixteenth-century Annales Ecclesiastici. Baronius wrote the twelve volumes of his history with a Roman nobleman and Oratorian priest, Oderic Raynaldus, in part to answer the Lutheran version of Church history – and papal history in particular – that was making the rounds of Europe in those days.
Some historians will say the popes got their groove back, and others will point to the persistent machinations of ecclesiastical types through the renaissance and into the 17th and 18th centuries as leading to the decline of the 19th and the final disintegration of the papacy’s temporal power. Others will look on the same set of facts and say, Porque non los dos?
In any case, here we are.
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