Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Lesson 11 - The Disintegration of the Carolingian Empire and the Church at the brink of the Saeculum Obscurum

Louis I (778-840), or Louis the Pious, was king of the Franks and emperor of the West from 814 to 840. The son and successor of Charlemagne, he was the last ruler to maintain the unity of the Carolingian Empire. Most of the troubles that beset Louis' well-intentioned reign stemmed from conflicts between the Emperor and his sons and the problems of inheritance and imperial succession.

Louis had three sons by his first wife, Irmengard. They were Lothair I (795-855), Pippin/Pepin (797-838), and Louis (called Louis the German) (ca.805-875).

In 817, following the tradition of his father and ancient Frankish practice, Louis the Pious divided his empire among his sons. At the same time, however, he sought to preserve the unity of the empire. Louis designated his eldest son, Lothair I, as his successor and as superior to the other two. This solution, however, proved unworkable and initiated a series of conflicts among his sons and other relatives.

Lothar I was awarded the emperorship and ruled the central part of the empire. Pepin ruled the  West Frankish Kingdom (Aquitaine) while Louis the German ruled East Frankish Kingdom (Bavaria).

The problems caused by the division of 817 were further complicated by Louis' second marriage, to Judith, a noblewoman of Bavaria, and by the birth of a fourth son, Charles (later known as Charles the Bald).  At the request of Judith, Louis was persuaded to re-divide his empire in order to provide for his infant son.


In 829, the reapportionment took place, and Charles the Bald, often favored by Louis, received a kingdom that comprised much of Germany. The other sons, particularly Lothair, angered by this decision, rose in revolt. Captured by his sons at Compiègne, Louis was forced to surrender the empire to Lothair.

Because of disunity among his sons, Louis the Pious soon regained his crown, but a second revolt occurred in 832. The Pope (Gregory IV) joined forces with Lothair, and Louis the Pious was again obliged to submit to his eldest son.

At a Council at Soissons, made up primarily of bishops who supported Lothair and the principle of imperial unity, Louis was thoroughly humiliated. His other sons, however, came to his defense, and Louis was once again reinstated as emperor.


Despite Louis the Pious’ efforts to appease his sons and to reapportion his realm again in 838 after the death of Pepin, internal strife and shifting allegiances continued throughout his reign and into subsequent generations.

In 838, Louis made a new partition much to the favor of Charles the Bald and at the expense of Louis the German, the latter receiving only Bavaria as his inheritance. The remainder of the empire was divided equally between Charles, who received the western lands of France, and Lothair, who received Italy and the lands immediately east of the Rhone-Saône valley.

In the following summer Louis settled Charles's claim to the kingdom of Aquitaine and attempted to counteract a rebellion of Louis the German. During his campaign against Louis the German, with whom he was never reconciled, the Emperor was overtaken by illness and died in Germany at Ingelheim on June 20, 840.

The sibling rivalries that led to political conflict were known in history as The Carolingian Civil War. It ended in 843 with the Treaty of Verdun which partitioned the Carolingian Empire between the three surviving brothers and is traditionally considered the beginning of dissolution of the Carolingian Empire.


Louis the German had a son named Charles the Fat (839-888). He was able to unite the whole empire only for a short time. He was deposed following the Norman/Viking invasion. He tried to bribe the Normans with gold and silver and permitted them to ravage Burgundy. He was incapable of defending the empire against the Normans.

He was the youngest son of Louis the German whose eldest son named Carloman, King of Bavaria (830-880) had a son named Arnulf of Carinthia (850-899). He defeated the Normans and they moved away to England. During his time the Carolingian dynasty died out completely.

The decline of the central imperial authority exposed the once powerful empire to the neighboring threats. The political collapse brought with it the total deterioration of the western culture and the church.

The emperorship fell into the hands of Italian magnates such as Wido (891-894) and Berengar I (ca.845-924). Following the death of Berengar the title emperor ceased to be used. With the disintegration of the carolingian empire and also the formation of little kingdoms in the regions outside the Carolingian empire, Europe was in pieces.


Since there was no great power that united Europe at this time, what happened to the church? Local, too, was the governance of the Christian church. The overarching jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome as pope was not consciously challenged by local bishops. The church became passive, rarely taking the initiative to involve itself in remote churches. Local churches looked to their own affairs, and there were frequent tension between local bishops and their metropolitans. The papacy became weak. Europe had fallen apart, so too had the church, the Saeculum Obscurum.

In the year 855, Lothar I who held the title as emperor died. He had three legitimate sons: Louis II, Lothar II and Charles of Provence. Following this event, the already divided Carolingian empire was further subdivided into three in its central part, divided among the sons of Lothar I.

The eldest, Louis II, received Italy and the emperorship; Lothair II received Lotharingia (modern Lorraine and the Low Countries); and the youngest, Charles, received Upper Burgundy and Lower Burgundy (Arles and Provence). The empire became more decentralized and the center weakened. [see map]

In the year 858, the Pope Benedict III (855-858) died, a learned and pious man who intervened in the conflict of the three sons of Lothar I. Since Rome was within the jurisdiction of Louis II [pink area in the map], Louis II went to Rome when he learned about the death of the pope. The papal election followed which elected Pope Nicholas I. We can say, at the least, that Nicholas I’s election to the papacy would not have pushed through, had Louis II opposed it. Therefore, he had considerable power extending even to the papal elections.

POPE NICHOLAS I (c.800-867)

Pope Nicholas I (c. 800–867) or Nicholas the Great was remembered as a consolidator of papal authority and power. He was a son of a senior Roman official. He was still a deacon at age 38 when he was elected pope. He was quickly ordained and consecrated as Bishop of Rome in 858 immediately after his election.

Shortly after Nicholas assumed the pontificate, he faced a serious problem: Lothar II, the brother of the Emperor, renounced his queen, Theutberga. She was accused of incest with her own brother and then aborted their fetus. She was banished to a nunnery, and the king married his lover Waldrada, who had borne him a son. The queen escaped the nunnery and appealed to the pope. In return, Pope Nicholas sent legates to Lotharingia, kingdom of Lothar II, in order to resolve the matter.

The pope refused to grant an annulment to Lothar II from Theutberga so that he could marry his mistress Waldrada; when a Council pronounced in favor of annulment, Nicholas I declared the Council to be deposed, its messengers excommunicated, and its decisions void. Lothar II found an alliance in the persons of the Archbishop of Cologne, the Archbishop of Trier, the Archbishop of Rheims and Louis II (Lothar II’s  brother). Nicholas, then, deposed and excommunicated the two archbishops and Emperor Louis II marched towards Rome in 864. They violently assaulted the clergy who were having a procession to St. Peter’s Basilica and threw to the ground the relic of the Holy Cross. Despite pressure from the Carolingians, who laid siege to Rome, his decision held...and in 865 Lothar II reconciled with Theutberga.

Lothar gained allies but also had been opposed by his uncles: Charles the bald and Louis the German who may have the desire to conquer parts of his kingdom.

The love triangle of Lothar II, Theutberga and Waldrada pushed through with Nicholas II’s successor Pope Adrian II (792-872)[1]. So what was the ending of this love triangle? Lothar II died in 869 while the two women entered the nunnery.

At this point, we can see that the popes were calculating the place of the Papacy in a new political order. Two great archbishops challenged the authority of Nicholas I.

a.     Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims (806-882)
He was the most powerful churchman in the kingdom of Charles the Bald in the western part of the
Carolingian empire. He knew law very well and also supported Lothar II in his marital concerns.

His direct conflict with the pope came over the issue of Rothad/Rothadius of Soissons (+869). This is the story: Rothad was a suffragan bishop under Hincmar who removed an adulterous priest in Soissons. Hincmar restored the adulterous priest and even imprisoned the one who replaced him. Rothad objected and appealed to the pope. Hincmar then convoked a Synod of Soissons (861) but Rothad did not appear. He was deposed by Hincmar at this synod, dismissed as bishop, imprisoned and replaced by another bishop.

Nicholas I ordered Hincmar to either reinstate Rothad or appear in Rome either personally or by representative. If he cannot do that, he would be suspended in celebrating the Eucharist. Hincmar released Rothad but delayed in restoring him. Nicholas I ordered the aged Rothad to the Bishopric of Soissons. The pope prevailed over Hincmar. In Hincmar’s words: “What Nicholas has decided, I have not contradicted, but as he commands, I ave diligently obeyed.” Hincmar is still considered as a great churchman.

b.     John VIII, Archbishop of Ravenna
Ravenna was a part of the Western Roman Empire which was conquered by the Lombards and then, recaptured by the Byzantine Empire. By the time of Nicholas I, Ravenna had been a part of the Frankish kingdom, so the bishop of Ravenna claimed it for the Franks but the Bishop of Rome was claiming it as well.

John VIII exercised autonomy independent of Rome. He was also close to the emperor Louis II. The papal agents were mistreated in Ravenna and the papal properties were seized. Nicholas I charged John VIII of heresy because he was said to believe that when Jesus suffered on the cross, He suffered as God...and that baptism did not have the same effect on all who receive it.He was summoned but he refused so he was excommunicated.

Nicholas I went to Ravenna to meet him face to face but the excommunicated archbishop fled to Pavia. He was abandoned by Louis II and went to Rome for a humiliating submission. His suffragan bishops charged him of the following:
  1. interference in Episcopal elections
  2. On Episcopal visitations – 500 men on horseback and would not leave until bribed.
  3. He claimed jurisdiction over monasteries in their dioceses.
  4. He prevented the suffragan bishops from visiting Rome.
  5. He was ordered to stop such practice and was reconciled with Rome.


There are five ancient patriarchates:
  1. Rome – under the Pope, Patriarch of the West
  2. Constantinople
  3. Antioch- moslem
  4. Alexandria - moslem
  5. Jerusalem – moslem

In 842, the Byzantine Emperor Michael III (840-867) was very young. His mother Empress Theodora (+8th cent) ruled as regent. In 847, she appointed a new patriarch without convoking a synod. He was Ignatius (797-877), Patriarch of Constantinople, son of the former emperor, who after his father’s death had been castrated and sent to a monastery.

By 857, Michael III (now, of age) upheld his position as Byzantine emperor; he exiled Theodora to a nunnery and Patriarch Ignatius was forced to resign and was exiled. He, then, convoked a synod and elected a layman named Photius (ca.810-893) as patriarch. Photius wrote to the pope (Nicholas I) informing his election which for a long time has not been done. He was more diplomatic.

Nicholas response was hostile and provocative. It seemed that he got mad. Why was the pope not consulted about the deposition of Patriarch Ignatius? Why was a layman selected as Patriarch? Two papal legates were sent to protest but without any further instructions, the legates took the initiative to act as mediators between Photius and Ignatius. They acted beyond their roles. They found out that Ignatius was validly deposed and that photius was validly elected as the true patriarch. Pope Nicholas I was angry at the legates’ action. He held a Synod at Rome in 863 which deposed Photius and deprived him of all his ecclesiastical dignities.

Pope Nicholas I responded to a letter of Emperor Michael III”
The privileges of the Roman church came from the mouth of Christ, who conferred them on blessed Peter. They can in no way be diminished, infringed upon or changed, because what God has established man cannot change...these privileges existed before you became emperor and will remain after you...They were given to the holy church by Christ and not by synods...we are constituted princes over every land, that is to say, over the church universal.

In a nutshell, this letter would like to convey that the pope has the authority and he has the power. The letter was concluded by telling the emperor not to meddle in ecclesiastical affairs. There had been a growing animosity and suspicion between the Church in the West and the Church in the East.


Add to the growing discord between the East and the West, the complication of the Bulgars. The bulgars are Turkic people from Asia. They migrated from north of the Black Sea to the lands south of the lower Danube and in the 9th cent becomes Slavic in language and culture because of intermarriages and conquest by the Slavs.

King Boris I of Bulgaria (+907) was baptized by the Byzantine Patriarch Photius with the emperor Michael III as his godfather. The bulgars requested for a patriarch for the Bulgars but was refused by the Byzantines. The Bulgars now turned to Rome to Nicholas I who sent Formosus, Bishop of Porto, to Bulgaria. But this Roman mission was regarded by Constantinople as a mischievous intervention since Boris was received as Christian in the East and the Bulgars were immediate neighbors.

So the relation between Rome and Constantinople became worse. Nicholas I refused to make Formosus as Archbishop of the Bulgars . Eventually, this mission failed and Bulgaria remained in the Eastern Church ever since. So there was a tension between Nicholas I and Photius and it was further increased by this issue on the Bulgars.

In this atmosphere of animosity, Photius presided the 867 Synod of Constantinople which tackled the papal involvement in Bulgaria. It condemned, excommunicated and deposed Pope Nicholas I. The pope and the patriarch excommunicated and deposed each other.

An anti-Photian Synod at Constantinople in 869-870 counted as the 8th ecumenical council only in the West, confirmed the excommunication of Photius.

The Photian Schism, the Bulgar issue and the mutual excommunication were all the ingredients for schism between the Christian churches of the East and the West. Yet a schism did not occur because of the death of the persons involved. Death prevented the schism: Emperor Michael III was assassinated in 867; the new emperor (Basil I, the Macedonian) deposed  Photius  in the same year and reinstalled Ignatius; Pope Nicholas I died on November 13, 867 without even knowing that he was condemned by the Synod of Constantinople or the death of the emperor and the reinstatement of Ignatius.

When Ignatius died in 877, he was succeeded by Photius, whose election was blessed by the pope (Adrian II). So, things became normal again. The real break will happen in the middle of the 11th century .


While Pope Nicholas was disputing with Photius about Bulgaria, he took interest in the work of two Byzantine missionaries to the Slavs. Cyril and Methodius were sent by Michael III and Photius to preach to the Slavs of central Europe. They were invited by Nicholas I but they arrived only after Nicholas’ death.

In Rome, Methodius became archbishop and Cyril died. Here are their major contributions:

1.     They translated the Bible and liturgical books into Slavonic language. They disputed with clerics about appropriateness of the vernacular liturgy.  Accrding to Cyril: “If I pray in a language that I do not understand, I am prayerful only in spirit and not in understanding.”The Latin Church sanctioned a vernacular liturgy only in 1963...that is over a thousand years after Cyril and Methodius.
2.     They were the principal architects of Slavic as written language with its own alphabet.

In a way, the mission of Methodius and Cyril failed but they paved the way for future missionaries like St. Wenceslaus who converted the Slavs in bohemia. In 973, a diocese was established in Prague. The king of Poland was baptized in 966 which became the easternmost part of the western Latin Church.

Pope Nicholas I was regarded as the great because he was the strongest pope of the 9th century. His aim was the preservation of the independence of the church and its freedom against the state in spiritual matters. After his death, the papacy experienced a general decline. Caesar Baronius coined the term saeculum obscurum or the dark age of the Church.

[1] Pope Adrian II (also known as Hadrian II), (792–872), pope from December 14, 867 to December 14, 872, was a member of a noble Roman family, and became pope in 867, at an advanced age.

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