Monday, October 1, 2012

Lesson 13 - The Saeculum Obscurum of the Papacy


The Saeculum Obscurum (the dark age) of the Papacy is a name given to a period in the history of the Papacy during the first half of the 10th century, beginning with the installation of Pope Sergius III in 904 and lasting for sixty years until the death of Pope John XII in 964.

Actually, the Saeculum Obscurum is a more polite term. The more vulgar term for this period is Pornocracy. If democracy is ruled by the people, and theocracy is ruled by religious body, then what about pornocracy? In the 10th century, the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church fell under the influence of harlots in an era termed Pornocracy. It is the Rule of the Prostitutes/ Harlots coinciding with the Saeculum Obscurum. The Pope was completely under the control of Theodora, the beautiful wife of Roman consul Theophylactus, who used sex to wield power. Theodora's 15-year-old daughter Marozia became the concubine of Pope Sergius III. Their son later became Pope John XI - the only illegitimate son of a Pope that later became Pope himself. The era of Pornocracy ended with Pope John XII (the grandson of Marozia) in 963. He was so immoral that the Basilica of Rome was said to be converted into a brothel under his rule.


Most of the 48 popes at this time were bad. It may be shocking to know the events at this time; however, this is part of history. Our pilgrim church is composed of both sinners and saints. The grace and love of God are both given to the good and to the bad.  The history of the papacy is also filled with saints and sinners. A greater number of bad popes incidentally were concentrated in this period called saeculum obscurum. A survey of some of the popes who reigned at this time is given below:

Pope Sergius III (904–911), alleged lover of Marozia
Sergius III was a pope of the Roman Catholic Church from 904 to 911. Because he was possibly the only pope known to have ordered the murder of another pope (Pope Leo V) and his anti-pope (Christopher) and the only pope to father an illegitimate son who later became pope (John XI), his pontificate has been described as "dismal and disgraceful."

Pope Anastasius III (911–913)
A Roman nobleman, Lucian, is sometimes recognized as his father, although other sources assert that he was the illegitimate son of his predecessor Pope Sergius III (904–911). Practically nothing is recorded of Pope Anastasius III, his pontificate falling in the period when Rome and the Papacy were in the power of Theophylactus, Count of Tusculum, and his wife Theodora, who approved Anastasius III's candidacy.

Pope Lando (913–914)
He was elected pope in either July or August 913 and died six months later. He is thought to have had powerful friends who helped him to be elected pope.

Pope John X (914–928), alleged lover of Theodora (the mother), allegedly killed by Marozia
He was deacon at Bologna when he attracted the attention of Theodora, the wife of Theophylactus, Count of Tusculum, the most powerful noble in Rome through whose influence he was elevated first to the see of Bologna and then to the archbishopric of Ravenna.

Pope Leo VI (928–928)
Little is known about him who reigned for only 7 months and 5 days. He was elected pope around June 928, during a period of anarchy. He was chosen by the senatrix Marozia, who had gained control of Rome via the domination of her husband Guy, Margrave of Tuscany, and who had ordered the imprisonment and death of Leo’s predecessor, Pope John X.

Pope Stephen VII (928–931)
He was elected—probably handpicked—by Marozia from the Tusculani family, as a stop-gap measure until her own son John was ready to assume the throne of Peter. He had been before cardinal-priest of St. Anastasia.

During his reign as Pope, he confirmed the privileges of a few religious houses in France and Italy. The validity of his papacy is disputed. Like his predecessor, Pope Leo VI, he was elected while Pope John X was still alive and in prison.

Pope John XI (931–935), son of Marozia, alleged son of Pope Sergius III
The parentage of John XI is still a matter of dispute. According to Liutprand of Cremona (Antapodosis, ii. c. 48) and the "Liber Pontificalis," he was the natural son of Pope Sergius III (904–911), 

His mother was the Roman ruler at the time, resulting in his appointment to the Papacy. Marozia was thus allegedly able to exert complete control over the Pope.
At the overthrow of Marozia around 932, John XI reportedly became subject to the control of Alberic II, his younger brother. The only control left to the Pope was the exercise of his purely spiritual duties. All other jurisdiction was exercised through Alberic II. This was not only the case in secular, but also in ecclesiastical affairs.

Pope Leo VII (936–939)
Leo VII's election to the papacy was secured by Alberic II of Spoleto, the monarch in Rome. Alberic wanted to choose the pope so that the papacy would continue to yield to his authority. Leo was the priest of St. Sixtus in Rome, thought to be a Benedictine monk. He had little ambition towards the papacy, but consented under pressure.

Pope Stephen VIII (939–942)
During his pontificate, he was subject to Alberic II of Spoleto, Prince of the Romans, and did not effectively rule the Papal States.

Pope Marinus II (942–946)
He was elevated to the papacy through intervention of Alberic II (932–954) of Spoleto and concentrated on administrative aspects of the papacy.

Pope Agapetus II (946–955)
He was the Pope at the time when Alberic II(932–954), son of Marozia, was governing the independent republic of Rome under the title of "prince and senator of the Romans." He was born in Rome.
Agapetus, a man of some force of character, attempted to put a stop to the so-called Pornocracy. His appeal to Otto I the Great to intervene in Rome remained without immediate effect, since Alberic II's position was too strong to be attacked, but it bore fruit after his death.

Pope John XII (955–963), grandson of Marozia, by her son Alberic II of Spoleto.
- In 855, a teenager became a pope

An account of the charges leveled against him from Patrologia Latina includes:

Then, rising up, the cardinal priest Peter testified that he himself had seen John XII celebrate Mass without taking communion. John, bishop of Narni, and John, a cardinal deacon, professed that they themselves saw that a deacon had been ordained in a horse stable, but were unsure of the time. Benedict, cardinal deacon, with other co-deacons and priests, said they knew that he had been paid for ordaining bishops, specifically that he had ordained a ten-year-old bishop in the city of Todi. They testified about his adultery, which they did not see with their own eyes, but nonetheless knew with certainty: he had fornicated with the widow of Rainier, with Stephana his father's concubine, with the widow Anna, and with his own niece, and he made the sacred palace into a whorehouse. They said that he had gone hunting publicly; that he had blinded his confessor Benedict, and thereafter Benedict had died; that he had killed John, cardinal subdeacon, after castrating him; and that he had set fires, girded on a sword, and put on a helmet and cuirass. All, clerics as well as laymen, declared that he had toasted to the devil with wine. They said when playing at dice, he invoked Jupiter,Venus and other demons. They even said he did not celebrate Matins and the canonical hours nor did he make the sign of the cross.

Source: The Patrologia Latina is an enormous collection of the writings of the Church Fathers and other ecclesiastical writers published by Jacques-Paul Migne between 1844 and 1855, with indices published between 1862 and 1865.

 These are some of the popes during the saeculum obscurum. Some are honorable like Benedict IV (900-903) but generally there was a decline in the papal universal significance. The papacy was reduced to the level of local bishopric.

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