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They moved this world at pleasure." * Several of the popes were men of political and far-seeing minds, and laid their plans in the spirit of profound statesmanship; but it is a mistake to suppose that they were all political calculators-some of them unintentionally contributed to rear the fabric of Roman despotism, and a number of circumstances, which were quite independent of pontifical control, concurred in producing the ultimate result. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the papacy reached the zenith of its pride and power, and presented a spectacle of despotic authority unparalleled in the history of the world.
The spiritual aspect of this despotism was the strangest of all. “We can, to a certain extent, imagine that, although evil may result from it, mankind may abandon to a visible authority the direction of their material interests and temporal destiny. We can understand the philosopher who, on being informed that his house was on fire, answered, 'Go and tell my wife. I have nothing to do with the affairs of the household. But when the matter at issue is conscience, thought, the inward moral existence, for men to abdicate the government of themselves, and to give themselves up to a foreign sway, is an actual moral
* Rogers' Italy.
suicide, a servitude a hundred times more abject than can befall the body, or than that endured by the tethered serf.”* One is terrified at the sight of the moral prostration of Europe for so long a period, and shrinks from the thought of the eternal state of millions thus enslaved, while an instinctive shudder agitates the soul at the bare conception of the acts of presumptuous insolence towards the King of Zion, committed by those who usurped his authority over the consciences of men.
But it is the social condition of Europe during the dark ages which forms our present subject, and therefore we must confine ourselves to the influence of the papacy as it bore in that direction. That influence was fearfully malign. Reducing, as it did, the souls of men to a state of spiritual slavery, robbing them of the birthright of moral inquiry, and interdicting the performance of the bounden duty of proving all things, and holding fast that which is good, it could not fail to cripple and weaken the human mind.
By gradually extending the jurisdiction of spiritual courts, and especially by the promulgation of the canon law in the twelfth century, the papacy encroached far and wide upon the civil rights of society, and placed at its mercy the lives and fortunes of mankind. The powerful body of lawyers who studied this code and practised in these courts, most of whom were ecclesiastics, would not fail with characteristic
*Guizot, Hist. of Civ. Lect. 6.
bigotry to defend every pretension or abuse to which the received standard of authority gave sanction.* The wars which the popes fomented with a view to their own aggrandizement; the family feuds which they stirred up, as in the case of the sons of Henry the Fourth of Germany, whom they excited to an almost parricidal revolt: and the shameless extortion which they practised, drawing from England alone, in a few rears, by means of their agents, the enormoussum of fifteen millions sterling, are also serious items in the list of charges against Rome, and clearly show the baneful influence which it exerted in a social point of view. But, perhaps, the most striking example of the general fact before us, is to be found in thosé strange spectacles exhibited in Europe, towards the close of the dark ages, when nations were laid under an interdict. At sueh a time, all the people were excommunicated. The churches were closed, the eucharist was denied, the marriage service was refused, the sick man in vain applied for the ordinances of the church, and the dead remained unburied according to the rites of Christian sepulture. An invisible arm seemed to smite the land, and to pour on the population a bitter curse.fi
Such were some of the social evils of the system: but it seems to be a law of Divine Providence that nothing in this world can be so bad but that it yields some advantage. The history of the papacy, perhaps, presents as few instances of beneficial effects as can be found * Hallam, Middle Ages, chap. vii.
in connexion with any system of government that ever existed; yet a gleam or two of light may be seen shining among the clouds of social evil with which it darkened the world. Nicholas the First, in the ninth century, employed his influence, on one occasion, as the defender of an injured queen: and Gregory the Seventh, in pushing his ambitious schemes, probably effected some moral reforms in society. Nor would we deny that the balance of papal favour happened sometimes to be on the side of popular rights and interests. A circumstance of permanent advantage to the interests of civilisation, may also be recognised in that system of intercommunication between the clergy of different parts of Europe, which arose out of the supremacy of the papal power, and which was one great means of circulating whatever knowledge of literature, or taste for the fine arts, might exist in the dark ages.
SUPERSTITIONS. The course which was pursued by the church in reference to the superstitions prevalent among the barbaric tribes whom it converted, or sought to convert, at least to a nominal Christianity, was the very opposite of that which the Scriptures prescribe. The Jews were forbidden to compromise the character of their religion by accommodating themselves to heathen practices; and an inspired apostle, indignant at the thought
of amalgamating Christianity with paganism, exclaims, “What communion hath light with darkness? what concord hath Christ with Belial ? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?”
The church of the middle ages proceeded on a different principle. “Idol temples," said Gregory the Great, in his epistle to the abbot Melitus on his mission to Britain, “ Idol temples are not to be destroyed, but only the idols which are in them. Let the fanes be sprinkled with holy water, and the altars consecrated by relics. If these edificęs be well built, it is desirable that they should be converted from the worship of demons to the use of the true God; for the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, will more easily overcome their prejudices, and acknowledge and adore the Almighty in the places where they have been wont to worship. And since they are accustomed to slay oxen in sacrifice to their gods, let this be turned into a Christian solemnity, so that on the day of dedicating a church, or on the festivals of the holy martyrs whose relics may be there preserved, booths of green boughs may be erected round these same churches and Christian rites be celebrated. Animals are no more to be offered in sacrifice to devils, but they are to be eaten by the people in gratitude and to the glory of God. By retaining these outward forms of rejoicing you will more easily bring them to participate in spiritual joys."*
* Bede, Ecc. Hist. lib. i. 30.