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John VIII

(872—882)


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(14 Dec. 872–16 Dec. 882)

A Roman, son of Gundo, for twenty years archdeacon, the close collaborator of Nicholas I, he was elected at an uncertain interval after Hadrian II's death. Although elderly, he was energetic, resourceful, and highly experienced; in a crowded reign he struggled to uphold the papal leadership with Gregory the Great and Nicholas I as his inspiration.

Externally the urgent need was to defend Italy and the papal state against the destructive raids of the Saracens, based in south Italy. Not content with appeals to others for help, John personally took charge of military operations, building a defensive wall around St Paul's basilica and commanding a small papal fleet which he founded: happily he had inherited an ample treasury. He worked tirelessly to unite the states of southern Italy against the Muslim menace, but when his efforts came to nothing through their collusion with the invaders, he too was reduced to buying them off with tribute. So close to Rome did the invaders approach that people for several years could not venture outside its walls to gather the harvest, and the city's economy, and that of its clerical institutions, began to collapse. For a time he had an ally in Emperor Louis II (855–75), but on his death (12 Aug. 875) he got the clergy and senate of Rome to acclaim Louis's uncle Charles the Bald (823–77) as emperor, reckoning he would be more helpful to Rome than his half-brother Louis the German (c. 806–76). He crowned him emperor at Christmas 875; Charles in return not only extended the boundaries of the papal state, but renounced the emperor's right to have resident envoys in the city and a guiding hand in papal elections. Soon after (Apr. 876), to secure his position in Rome against the intrigues and plots of power-hungry nobles, John excommunicated the most dangerous of them in their absence. They included Formosus, bishop of Porto, successful missionary to Bulgaria and future pope, whom he also suspected of aspiring to the papacy and (although he had earlier trusted him) in 878 degraded and exiled. A number of Formosus' supporters fled the city with him, seeking refuge with Lambert of Spoleto, and taking some of the papal treasure with them.

Before long the failure of John's policies became evident. Not only did Charles's help prove inadequate, but when Carloman (828–80), Louis the German's son, marched into Italy to assert his dynastic claims, Charles retreated and died while crossing the Alps (6 Oct. 877). Carloman, now master of Italy, demanded the imperial crown, and John played for time. When Carloman fell ill and had to withdraw, his supporters, Duke Lambert of Spoleto and his brother-in-law Duke Adalbert of Tuscia, accompanied by John's excommunicated enemies, occupied Rome, imprisoned him, and forced the citizens to vow allegiance to Carloman. John refused all concessions, however, and when he had secured his liberty made by ship for Provence and manoeuvred to find a suitable heir for the imperial crown, holding a council at Troyes in August 878. Disappointed first in Louis the Stammerer (846–79), whom he crowned on 7 Sept. 878 but who died on 10 Apr. 879, then in Louis II's brother-in-law Boso (d. 887), he finally settled, in spite of his repugnance for the German Franks, for Louis the German's second son Charles the Fat (839–88), recognizing him as king of Italy in 879 and crowning him as emperor in Feb. 881. As a result of these moves the pope emerged as effective arbiter of the imperial office.

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Subjects: Christianity — Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).


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