Aaron Price

September 5, 2001

Papal Temporal Jurisdiction in the Middle Ages

The story of medieval papal temporal jurisdiction is one of a long slow climb to the heights of mediocrity. The papacy tried for a millennium to dominate both spiritual and secular life in Latin Christendom, only to be frustrated time and again by anyone whose goals were in opposition to its own, including both secular leaders and clergy. At the height of the papacy’s power the pope was able to dethrone kings, to establish municipal governments, and to oversee the highest appeal court in Latin Christendom. Of course, this was not the case from the church’s earliest days.

The papacy got its start in secular responsibilities in the early fifth century. At this time the imperial government had eroded to the point that it could no longer meet the needs of the Roman people. The government’s lack of effectiveness during this decline gave the bishops of Rome the opportunity to step in and provide, through charitable activities, the necessities of life to the Roman people. This new role expanded to the inclusion of bishops (Innocent I and Leo I) on political delegations negotiating with the Visigoths.1

Additionally, the church’s wealth and landholdings began to increase beginning in the fourth century due to donations from the wealthy Christian laity. This land, once under church control, was not allowed to be immediately sold, thereby increasing the land area under the control of the church. However, this territorial foothold was challenged by Visigothic raids, hostile takeovers of the estates, and poor agricultural output from the estates. Despite these setbacks, the church’s wealth and sphere of temporal influence grew through the beginning of the fourth century and were extensive enough by the middle of that century to necessitate the establishment of an administration, modeled after the state government, to manage them.2

In the sixth century, Justinian’s laws established that bishops would be key figures in the secular rule of their respective cities by having both the power to carry on the functions of a secular ruler and to take part in the installment of local government officials. By the end of the century, the church had expansive lands under their control in Italy and bishops had the power of secular rule in their cities, at least according to the laws of Justinian. Thus the pope’s secular control was very localized, as he was the head of the administration which controlled the landed estates. And since the pope had yet to establish his supreme authority over the bishops of Europe he lacked secular control over Europe’s major cities.

The pope’s secular jurisdiction swelled and shrank dramatically with the political atmosphere in Italy. In the near absence of eastern imperial presence in the West, the pope maintained secular rule of portions of Italy, providing a governing administration, justice and law, and regional autonomy to the people of Rome and to those on papal lands. In response, the Byzantine emperor strengthened his hold on his western subordinates by employing exarchates to run the provinces of Italy. With the establishment of imperial political control over the only lands in the West controlled by the papacy, the pope’s secular control diminished. The struggle with the exarchates and the Byzantine emperor continued to significantly hamper the papacy’s secular powers through to the Carolingian "adoption" of the papacy.

Just as the pope was regaining some control of central Italy through decades of political maneuvering, the Lombards conquered church lands in central Italy, effectively strangling the pope’s secular authority there. King Pepin of the Franks provided the pope with military assistance and regained the central Italian lands. These he gave to the pope (Stephen II); an act that established the foundation of the Papal States and would later be referred to as the Donation of Pepin.0 After several further intrusions by the Lombards, Charlemagne put an end to Lombard control in Italy and expanded the area under the pope’s control.

From the time of Charlemagne through the middle of the tenth century little is known about the secular activities of the popes other than a building and restoration of churches in Rome.0 By the tenth century, the Donation of Constantine, a document drafted in the eighth century stating that Rome and the western empire was the domain of the pope, was being cited as proof supporting the pope’s secular position.0 After having broken away from Constantinople, and it one-time protector the Carolingians having lost power in the west more than a century earlier, the papacy allied with the Normans. The Normans conquered southern Italy and Sicily, placing these new areas under papal control.0 Additionally, the pope was successful during this century in establishing his theoretical supremacy over many secular rulers and raising the prestige and importance of the ecclesiastical courts.

However, just as the papacy was strengthening its position throughout Europe it was losing its grip on the Holy See. In 1144, the pope lost all effective control of Rome when Roman merchants and nobles resurrected the Senate, although in a highly modified version of its ancient predecessor, and took control of the administration of Rome.0 In fact, during this time period popes where chosen only from members of the Italian nobility, including the esteemed Innocent III. Innocent III was able, as with so many other issues, to rein in the political situation in Rome under his control by making the senator of Rome a papal agent.0

Innocent III is also considered the founder of the Papal States because of his success in establishing papal control over central Italy and southern Tuscany. However, complete papal rule of these regions was never achieved. In reality the pope was ruler in name only and the long-established municipal governments maintained their control. This is even the case in core regions of the Papal States like Viterbo or Orvieto, both papal residences. However, in the thirteenth century the papacy used nepotism to solve this problem.0 By promising rule over areas of the Papal States to friends and family the pope ensure that these lands would remain loyal and subordinate to him.

The political picture described thus far fills out the picture of papal temporal jurisdiction during the middle ages temporal control only over regions of Italy. The next three centuries and beyond would see significant increases and decreases in papal secular influence, particularly during the Avignon Papacy, but the areas of papal temporal interest had been established by this time. In summary, the popes, due to their physical location in central Italy were preoccupied with their control of this area, particularly Rome and the Papal States, in order to ensure their own security. Aiding their claims to secular control were the Donations of Constantine and of Pepin. The physical manifestations of their secular rule included public works projects, maintenance of an effective municipal government loyal to the papacy, and providing access to justice at their courts. This last point was probably the most important power wielded by the papacy. In both its Italian and greater European political relations, the growing eminence of the papal courts and canon law was the most efficient mean by which to realize papal secular goals. Spiritual leadership in the form of excommunication, crusades, and heretical inquisitions could often substitute for military might in its political and secular activities. Yet, these tools were not enough to fully realize secular supremacy over Europe or even over Italy. The popes throughout the middle ages were forced to constantly temper their political ambitions according to the difficult political realities they faced. In the end, the strange balance of power produced from the struggles between the popes and the secular leaders of Europe won out over the ambitions of the Vicars of Christ.