The Papacy: The Great Schism (964-1054)

Following the death of the philanderer, Pope John XII, a schism began to emerge between the military empire of Germany and Constantinople’s imperial whims on the Italian peninsula while the Rome remained at the center. Which side would the pontiffs choose –Germany or Byzantium? With John out of the way, German ruler Otto assumed Rome would simply re-appoint his own preferred pope, Leo VIII, however the bishops of Rome would have none of this bullying. They preferred a reformer who maintained a morally unimpeachable character and thus they elected Benedict V as the next pope. However, a furious Otto besieged Rome until Benedict was dethroned and exiled to Hamburg (where he died two years later). Benedict had only been pope for about a month. In his stead, Otto placed Leo back on the throne and when he also died two years later, Otto forced John XIII into the papacy, though John was widely despised in Rome. He was quickly overthrown in a palace revolution and imprisoned in Campania. However he soon escaped and again Otto marched on Rome, torturing the revolutionaries who again cast aside his chosen, blinding the rebels, and hanging the city prefect by his hair before parading him naked on a donkey through the streets.

Otto spent the remainder of his life mostly living in Italy in order to protect his control over the papacy. Shortly before his death in 973, he orchestrated for his son Otto II to be crowned co-emperor and his last chosen pope, Benedict VI, was set to inherit the papacy but after Otto’s death yet another coup occurred which imprisoned Benedict VI in favor of an obscure deacon named Franco Ferrucci who took the name of Boniface VII. Boniface then proved his own humility and piety by ordering his predecessor pope strangled to death in prison. Naturally, this act spawned a counterrevolution which unseated Boniface and sent him into Byzantine exile, clutching as much of the papal treasure as he could possibly escape with. Boniface was succeeded by Benedict VII who promptly excommunicated his predecessor and even fought back Boniface’s forces alongside Otto II, this time officially banning Boniface from the Italian peninsula.

Not long thereafter, Otto II narrowly escaped a naval battle against an alliance of the Byzantines and the Saracens in Southern Italy when he swam to shore. He escaped and was able to name the next pope –his Italian Chancellor Peter Campanora who went by the papal name John XIV. However, once Otto II died, the new pope was not long for this life. In fact, the old gadfly Boniface returned from Constantinople entering Rome for the third time, under a well-financed scheme led by Byzantine Emperor Basil II “The Bulgar Slayer.” John was seized and imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo where he was starved and poisoned to death. However, having the unique record of killing two popes, the Roman people could not forgive Boniface for his transgressions. He survived on the throne of St. Peter for eleven months, living just long enough to torment his enemies, particularly a cardinal whom he suspected of conspiring against him whom Boniface ordered blinded. When Boniface died shortly thereafter, his naked corpse was dragged through the streets by a mob of Romans and left to rot beneath the statue of Marcus Aurelius.

Now, another puppet pope was installed: John XV, who ruled under the whims of an aristocratic Roman family. He was largely the subordinate of the Curia and especially held prisoner by John Crescentius and his family until he managed to escape Rome and solicit military help from Otto III of Germany who promptly began a new march on Rome. The Romans feared another war and thus quickly made peace with Pope John XV, but the pope died of a violent fever before the Germans even arrived in Italy.

Nevertheless Otto III continued onward toward Rome and he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Ascension Day 996 by his cousin Gregory V, the first German pope. But Otto left Rome three months later in search of a cooler climate, and Gregory was immediately deposed. The Crescentius family then installed a new Greek pope –John Philagathos who went by the name John XVI. His one claim to fame was being the first pope to canonize a saint. Like many others, his reign was short-lived and John was soon overthrown and excommunicated, as well. He was captured, blinded, and hideously mutilated but he survived and was imprisoned in a remote monastery where he lingered for another three years. Meanwhile, Otto III returned to Rome with his chosen pope, Gregory V.

After reigning for over two years Gregory died in 999, just as a new millennia was set to unfold. The 9th and 10th centuries had been dark times indeed for the papacy, aptly dubbed the “Dark Ages.” However, there was still more to come. Following Gregory’s death in 999, Otto III appointed his former mentor, Gerbert of Aurillac Archbishop of Ravenna as the new pope who dubbed himself Sylvester II. He was a well-cultured individual who brought badly needed reforms to the church –from simony and nepotism, to swift clerical leadership changes in France, Poland, and Hungary. However, despite a string of impressive reforms, wayward Romans led an uprising that forced Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II to flee in the night where Otto soon died of malaria. The pope was later allowed to return to Rome but he died almost immediately, as well.

The next three popes were all appointed by John Crescentius –John XVII, John XVIII, and Sergius IV– and they were all plagued by global tensions surrounding a renewed partnership with the new king of Germany Henry II. However, by May 1012 the Tusculum overthrew the Crescentii family in Italy and the last puppet pope, Sergius IV, was mysteriously found dead while a new Tusculum-friendly pope was installed: Benedict VIII. He was a soldier who reformed the relationship with Germany but exacerbated the break with Constantinople. Benedict died in 1024 and he was followed by his corrupt brother John XIX and then his equally corrupt nephew Benedict IX. The latter was overthrown by the Cresciant Bishop of Sabina dubbed Pope Sylvester III, however this new papacy lasted a mere two months at which point Benedict regained his throne and excommunicated Sylvester even though Benedict’s political clout was by now drained. Benedict resigned his papal rights in favor of his godfather, the archpriest John Gratian –however Benedict controversially did not renounce his claim to the Papal See. In a word, he wanted the best of both worlds, the power of the papacy without any of the responsibility. The result was pure chaos. Immediately, three pretenders emerged each claiming to be the legitimate pope. As per usual the institution of the church was only saved by the competence and structure afforded by a strong military power. Henry III of Germany settled the matter by deposing all three claimants to the throne and by taking the papacy into his own hands. He appointed a string of four popes –Clement II (who lasted a mere ten months before apparently being poisoned by the former pope Benedict), Damasus II (who ruled for a mere 23 days before passing away), and then following a great Council held at Worms in 1084, the German Emperor’s cousin Bruno Bishop of Toul was selected and dubbed Leo IX (ruling for another six years). He was a most capable and cosmopolitan man. He traveled widely and was the first pope to officially acknowledge the papacy as a universalist, global enterprise. He reformed some of the long-standing corrupt practices in French churches with regard to simony. He cleared house and issued pardons for many clerics who accepted bribes in exchange for political and religious favors. At the end of his reign, however, the Normans were already becoming a growing presence in Italy. They were fulfilling their feudal goals in acquiring vast tracts of land and forcing unpaid peasant labor while still pledging fealty to Christendom. Under a false promise from the Byzantines of a joint military operation to banish the Normans, the pope was sorely embarrassed when he was defeated and captured by the Normans on the field of Civivate on the River Fortore. The Byzantines never turned up. Pope Leo IX was returned to Rome with greatest respect but he died about a month later.

The Great Schism

In this climate of pure anarchy, the Great Schism between East and West truly unfolded. According to John Julius Norwich: “The two had been growing apart for centuries. Their slow but steady estrangement was in essence a reflection of the old rivalry between Latin and Greek, Rome and Byzantium. The Roman pontificate was rapidly extending its effective authority across Europe, and as its power grew, so too did its ambition and arrogance -tendencies which were viewed in Constantinople with resentment and not a little anxiety. There was also a fundamental difference in the approach of the two churches to Christianity itself. The Byzantines, for whom their emperor was the equal of the Apostles, believes that matters of doctrine could be settled only by the Holy Ghost speaking through an Ecumenical Council. They were accordingly scandalized by the presumption of the pope –who was, in their view, merely primus inter pares among the patriarchs– in formulating dogma and claiming both spiritual and temporal supremacy, while to the legalistic and disciplined minds of Rome the old Greek love of discussion and theological speculation was always repugnant and occasionally shocking” (97). Two centuries prior under Pope Photius, the issue of the filioque (or the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) caused significant disagreement between East and West and by now it was ready to burst forth again.

The distinctions between the two sides led to belligerence, name-calling, and general disgust. The pig-headed Michael Celarius Patriarch of Constantinople was pitted against the elderly frail Pope Leo. A delegation of clerics led by Cardinal Humbert arrived in Constantinople hoping to repair the already existing wounds (the Italian peninsula forced all of its churches to use Western Latin rather than Eastern Greek). Almost immediately they received word that Pope Leo had died and shortly thereafter more nastiness ensued. Without waiting for a new pope to be appointed, the clerics strode into the Hagia Sophia on July 16, 1054 and placed a bull of excommunication on the altar (defying all legal precedent). Celarius responded in kind with his own issue of excommunication. It was a momentous turn of events in the history of Western politics and religion. East and West had finally had enough. Only twice in the succeeding centuries would Constantinople be compelled to admit the supremacy of Rome, until eventually a reconciliation was made at the Second Vatican Council in 1965. What began as a personal conflict slowly evolved into a complete theological and political fissure whose long shadow is still visible in the present-day.


For this reading I used John Julius Norwich’s 2011 single volume history of the papacy Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy and Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2009 work of popular history, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.

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