The Dark Millennium

Middle Ages

From 395 AD to 1377

395. Western Empire created under Honorius, perhaps the feeblest of all the Emperors who for 80 years presided over the empire’s dismemberment while hiding out in Ravenna. He was one of the two sons of the great Theodosius I, last to rule (378-395) over a single, united Roman Empire. He had made war as far away as Britain and the Balkans, attempted retirement for a period of debauchery and gluttony, only to be roused by a great war against Eugenius, a usurper in Rome. He had been to Rome what Franz Joseph was to the Austro-Hungarian Empire: the end.

409. Britain declared itself independent, and Honorius agreed.

410. Alaric sacks Rome.

439. Vandals seize Roman Africa

452. Attila stopped. Pope Leo the Great dissuaded Attila the Hun, face-to-face at the gates of Mantua, from invading Central Italy.

455. Pope Leo then dissuaded Genseric the Vandal, face-to-face at the gates of Rome, from burning Rome and torturing its population, but the city was looted.

476. Fall of the Roman Empire. Odoacer the Barbarian became King of Italy and forced Romulus Augustulus to abdicate as the last Emperor of the Western Roman Empire. This left Constantinople as the sole capital of the Roman Empire - thereafter called Byzantium. The position of the Popes, the bishops of Rome, is strengthened.

535-53. Rome shrinks to its lowest ebb. Gothic invasions under Theodoric inflicted repeated sieges and massacres. Starvation and rampant plague reduced Rome to a ghost town for a few months. The whole civic structure collapsed, leaving only the Church.

568. Lombards Invade. After few years of peace the Lombards, a German tribe, conquered and settled in Northern Italy. They got to the gates of Rome. Then the countryside was decimated as malaria took its toll and since the ignorant people didn’t maintain the Roman waterways clean, the swamps returned.

590. England becomes Catholic. Pope Gregory the Great brought England into the Catholic fold. Lombards laid siege to Rome but the Pope dissuaded them. Papal power began to grow.

7C. Malaria forced the Romans onto their seven hills and the great city degenerated into clusters of dwellings, the largest cluster being on the Lateran Hill. Roman edifices lay forlornly in the swampy mire. Popes then became the real temporal heads of the city. Popes vs. Antipopes, Church vs. Aristocracy, Emperors vs. the Papacy, all jostling for power in a context of anarchy, with the Normans, Lombards, French and Hungarians trying to gain territories. In Rome successive Popes strove to protect the independence of everything to do with the Church: elections, dogma and possessions. The Venerable Bede, (672-735 AD) English sage historian and Saint, is meant to have visited Rome and uttered the famous saying: “If the Colosseum falls, then Rome falls, and if Rome falls, the world comes to an end!

8C. Byzantine Iconoclasm. The Emperor ordered the destruction of all sacred images of Christ and Saints - iconoclasm. The Papacy in Rome refused. The Lombards sided with the Byzantine Emperor, threatening to invade Rome.

752-774. Charlemagne’s father saves Pope. Pope Stephen II asked the Franks (a rival German tribe) to save him. Their King Pepin, father of Charlemagne, defeated the Lombards, creating the Papal States independent of the Byzantine Empire. These States eventually encompassed two thirds of Italy.

800. Charlemagne first Holy Roman Emperor. In Rome, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne the First Holy Roman Emperor, which was supposed to consolidate the unity of the Catholic Church. But the 1000-year history of the Holy Roman Empire was dominated by conflict between Popes and Emperors.

849. Arabs repelled. Pope Leo IV defended Rome from the invasion of Muslim Saracens who had already conquered Sicily and were moving rapidly North.

855. The infamous and probably mythical “Pope Joan” (Papessa Giovanna) was supposed to have been elected unanimously as John VIII. English, she studied in North Germany, dressing as a man in order to gain entrance to the monastic university. She traveled with her professor lover, settling in Rome where she taught so brilliantly that she had no rivals for the Papal throne when Leo IV died.
While riding in a procession between San Giovanni in Laterano and St. Peter’s she gave birth to a child! Upon discovering she was a woman, the prelates fell on her and the people stoned her to death. Or so the legend goes.

875. Louis II, Charlemagne’s great-grandson, died and with him all hopes for uniting Italy were buried for another 1000 years.

End of 9C to end of 10C. Anarchy. Fabulous misdeeds, very little holiness: Roman nobles gave the Papal throne to sons and lovers.

931. Women rule Rome. A young ne’er do well became Pope John XI. He was son of Pope Sergius III and Dame Marozia.
One of the famous women of Rome, she was so powerful she ruled from Castel Sant’Angelo. Countess Matilda of Tuscany also rules from her fortified towers near Florence.
All over northern Italy women asserted themselves.

955. Hungarians invade. Saxon King Otto ventured South to take the Holy Roman Emperor title for himself, dispatching the Hungarians on the way.
Another unsavory youth, Pope John XII, who his enemies said, “made the Lateran into a brothel”, was the son of the last Prince of Rome and illegally became Pope and Prince. Pope John crowned Otto Holy Roman Emperor.
Although subsequently deposed, Otto reconsolidated the Holy Roman Empire. Saracens continued their incursions.

1015. Norman Invasion of South. The Norman conquest of Southern Italy and Sicily chased the Saracens back to North Africa. (Norsemen, from Scandinavia, the Normans first settled in the Seine Valley in France). These pirates acted as mercenaries among the squabbling Greeks, Saracens and Lombards, but soon asked for land in payment.
Within a short while they conquered Sicily and Calabria for themselves (hence, today many Southern Italians are blond and blue-eyed). Pope Leo IX took arms against them, lost and was taken prisoner. As they were devout Catholics, the Pope used their strength in pursuit of Church reform.

1027. King Canute of England and Denmark, famous for not being able to stop the sea’s tide when he ordered it back, comes to Rome to show fealty to the Catholic church and the Holy Roman Emperor.

1059. Nobles excluded from Church business. At the Council of the Lateran the Normans insisted that Papal elections be in the hands of the cardinals; Roman nobles would no longer have any say. The much needed reforms had begun, against such prevalent abuses as married clergy and the sale of valuable bishoprics.

1075. Laymen forbidden priesthood. Pope Gregory VII forbade lay people being invested into the church, and excommunicated Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV for opposing this. The Pope had to call in the Normans again to save him from the Emperor and his Lombards. While “helping” the Pope, the Normans sacked Rome and a furious populace would have killed His Holiness had he not escaped South to Salerno.

1096. The first Crusade. A monk from Cluny, France, became Pope Urban II. He started the Crusades - Holy Wars against Islam to make it safe for pilgrims to go to the Holy Land. Jerusalem was their Mecca. Over the next 200 years, these Crusades intermittently succeeded in wresting the Holy Lands from the Muslims.
Even today Crusader castles are dotted around the Middle East, sentinels of former grandeur and belligerence. The Crusaders usually traveled by boat, so Italians along the Adriatic coast cleverly profited from these wars: boat building became the biggest money maker with fleets hammered out every day.
Successive Popes and Emperors squabbled over whether the Church had sole right to make ecclesiastical promotions.

1154. Holy Roman Emperor marches on Italy. Barbarossa (AKA Red Beard), newly elected Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I of Hohenstaufen, conquered large areas of non-Papal Italy. In Rome, the first and last English Pope, Hadrian IV, with Barbarossa’s help squashed the movement headed by Arnaldo da Brescia to make Rome a Republic.

1200. Papal States largest ever. Under Pope Innocent III (1198 - 1216) the Papal States grew ever larger, as far north as the Po and as far south as Ceprano, threatening the Emperor’s Sicilian state.
Three successive Popes wrestled for power with Barbarossa’s grandson, Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen (1194-1250), and at one point excommunicated him on the flimsy excuse of not having started a Crusade on time. He retaliated by signing a treaty with the Sultan of the Holy Land allowing Christian pilgrims entry to the holy sites; then for good measure crowned himself King of Jerusalem.
Guelphs (the Papal faction) and Ghibellines (the Emperor’s faction) fought on and off for 30 years, before the waning of Imperial power with the death of Frederick, a cultured man in whose court Arabs, Jews and Europeans co-existed in harmony. Excommunicated on one side, called Stupor Mundi (Wonder of the World) on the other, he was larger than life.

1250. After Frederick’s death, his illegitimate son Manfred, almost as brilliant, took the throne. The Papacy opposed Manfred, viewing him as too powerful.
The next Pope, a Frenchman Urban IV, encouraged Prince Charles d’Anjou of France to become King of Sicily.

1266. French take Sicily. Charles killed Manfred, becoming King Charles I of Sicily (1266 - 1285). The French became the dominant foreign influence in the South of Italy. Art and architecture then showed a French influence. Giotto and Cavallini worked for the French in Naples on the Church of Santa Chiara.
Giotto, precursing the Renaissance, was striving for perspective in his paintings.
Excesses of the previous centuries when women had wielded enormous powers, now caused a reaction against them. Nuns were forced into “clausura”, “segregatio”.
The female counterparts of St. Francis’ monks, the “Clares,” were named after his friend who was inspired by him to take her vows and help the poor by forming an order of nuns.
However, the Church at that time did not allow women to go out to the people, so, Clare and her followers were forced to stay inside the Convents.
Even during religious services the nuns had to be “secluded”, hidden behind the altar in some churches, or up on a loggia in others. Pope Boniface VIII was the strictest. In those days men were all important, considered “hot and dry”, while women were perfidious, and considered “cold and damp”.

1300. Boniface VIII Caetani (1294-1303) proclaimed this the first Jubilee Year. The custom came from Jerusalem. Bonifacio had acceded to the Papal throne when Celestine V abdicated in his favor. He tried to wield the same sort of temporal powers as his predecessors, meddling in successions in Sicily, and fighting bloody battles both with arms and excommunications, as he did with the over powerful Colonna family, who appear time and again throughout Roman history. The Pope, however, allowed too many statues of himself to be erected and was accused of idolatry. Again the issue of laymen or churchmen having the last word on Ecclesiastical matters became an ugly tug-of-war between the French King Philippe IV and Pope Boniface. Things reached crisis proportions when he excommunicated Philippe.

French troops stormed the Papal hideaway at nearby Anagni and the famous “schiaffo” or slap from the Frenchman de Nogaret followed with the imprisonment of the Pope. Although saved by the people of Anagni from being taken to France for judgment, the Pope, a broken man, died in Rome soon after.

1303. Pope Benedict XI, a weak man, moved to Perugia since Rome was a continuing hotbed of intrigues, with the Colonnas trying to be rehabilitated. He tried to stall at the French insistence on convening a General Council condemning the late Pope Boniface and dithered between sanctioning and pardoning the French. Soon after he died of dysentery in Perugia.

1305. The Cardinals, divided between pro- and anti-French factions, finally elected a Frenchman, Pope Clement V. Though he tried to be impartial, it was often impossible, as the French king interfered in all Church matters.

1309. Papacy goes to Avignon. Although Clement, weak and ill, felt that the papacy should return to Rome, Philippe was insistent it stay in Avignon. The Pope was also corrupt, naming 4 of his nephews Cardinals. He never left Avignon.

1316. Another Frenchman became Pope John XXII, who resolutely elected all his new Cardinals Frenchmen but five. He built a Papal library in Avignon. Theological questions, his turning against the Franciscans, including burning some at the stake, as well as disagreeing with their belief that Christ and his Apostles owned no worldly goods, made him highly unpopular.

1362. Election of the sixth Frenchman: Pope Urban V. With the promised escort of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV’s army, Urban V moved back to Rome halfway through his Papacy. He was convinced that from there he would be able to launch another Crusade to the Holy Lands; and quell mercenary armies roaming Italy. He camped in the Vatican, since both the Palace and the Cathedral of St. John in Lateran had been damaged by fire.
An austere man, he left the church’s administrative arm back in Avignon.

1369. The Byzantine Emperor came looking for help, as the Turks were threatening his borders. He even abjured the Orthodox faith to get help. (Though his clergy did not).

1370. Pope Urban dreamt that the Holy Spirit told him to go back to Avignon and, despite Saint Bridget’s pleas, he did so, though soon died. The same year the last of the Avignon French Popes was elected, Gregory XI. Though he said Rome was the proper place for the Pope, lack of money made the move impossible for years.
Also, the England-vs.-France 100 Years War would have to be finished before the Popes could call another Crusade, so dear to their Papal hearts. But now there was an even more pressing reason to send an army East: stop Turkish incursion into Byzantium. Milan made wars in Italy, and Florence rose up, barring the Pope’s way.

1377. Papacy returns to Rome. Ending the 78-year “Babylonian Exile”, Pope Gregory XI moved into the Vatican Palace.
Antipopes (elected by a rival faction) had abounded in the previous 900 years. With the Popes back in Rome, the French faction continued the fiction, precipitating the “Great Schism” (1380-1417), while they installed successive antipopes at Avignon.

This habit of each side selecting its favorite Pope had been going on for a 1000 years!