Article

The Medieval Papacy

Thomas F.X. Noble

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online December 2010 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0067
The Medieval Papacy

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
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  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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The papacy is the world’s oldest continuously functioning institution. A full history of the papacy would have four aspects. First, it would take account of the “Petrine Idea,” the legitimation of papal leadership in both church and world based on the text of Matthew 16:16–18. The essential idea is that because Christ granted leadership to Peter, Peter’s successors inherit that leadership. This central doctrine, which began emerging in the 3rd century, has been both powerful and controversial. Second, the papacy is an institution; papal history must therefore treat the bureaus and offices by means of which the popes have exercised their authority. Third, as a quasi-state, the papacy has entertained complex relations with numerous political entities—empires, kingdoms, principalities, and cities. Fourth, papal history is the serial biography of the 327 men who have held the office (as of 2010), not counting a few dozen “antipopes” and the rival claimants during the Great Schism (1378–1417). These themes are always but somewhat differently evident in the major periods into which papal history can be divided. The papacy emerged as a self-conscious institution in the 3rd century but functioned openly only after 313, when Constantine I granted Christianity toleration in the Roman Empire. In the 4th and 5th centuries the papacy began to elaborate both a theology of leadership and a set of institutions, both of which proved controversial. With the disappearance of the western Roman Empire, the emergence of a Byzantine Empire, and the sudden eruption of the Islamic caliphate, the papacy’s effective zone of authority shrank to western Europe. The popes opened relations with various Germanic kingdoms and in the 8th century allied with the Franks. With the decline of Frankish authority in the 9th century, the popes were entangled in the tumultuous politics of Rome, and the western church was increasingly brought under lay control. In the 11th century, reform-minded popes struggled to improve clerical morality and free the church from lay control. The “Investiture Controversy” presented the papacy with both challenges and opportunities. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the so-called Papal Monarchy emerged. The popes of this era were powerful and confident. They both built and reformed institutions while also newly articulating the ideology of papal leadership. In the late 13th century, a conflict between France and the papacy opened a host of challenges to traditional forms of papal rule. For several decades (1309–1378) the popes were resident in Avignon. The Avignon period was damaging to the papacy’s prestige and authority. Worse was yet to come. When the papacy attempted to return to Rome, factions among the cardinals disagreed, and during the Great Schism there were rival claimants to the papacy in both Rome and Avignon, and occasionally elsewhere too. The Schism further weakened the ideological and practical bases of papal authority. The Council of Constance brought the Schism to an end in 1417, but the subsequent Renaissance papacy proved to be a very different kind of institution than its predecessor.

Article.  7753 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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