The Dark Ages of Europe were called such for several reasons. One of the more notorious reasons was the state of the Catholic Church. In the years before the Reformation, members of the Catholic clergy had reached an all time low in terms of their morality. The abuses of clerical power and privileges by the medieval clergy spanned all parts of their daily lives. Members of the Catholic clergy were financially, politically and socially corrupt. Each of these corruptions made up the enormous religious corruption that was the logical result of such debauchery.
Of the several grievances against the Church, "[t]he first and sorest was that she loved money, and had too much of it for her own good" (Durant 17). Documents on the exact wealth of the Church in the Middle Ages simply do not exist. Historians, however, speculate that the Church's share of the wealth made up anywhere from a fifth to three-quarters in each of England, France and Germany. "In Italy, of course, one third of the peninsula belonged to the Church as the Papal States, and she owned rich properties in the rest" (Durant 17).
The clergy was notorious for sucking money out of the people any way they could. They were known to have sold false relics to unsuspecting believers, passing animal bones and bits of torn cloak as those of Christ. Often times "priests"¦charged a mite too much for burial services" (Mee 151) or raised the amount of taxes due by a few ducats. Charging extra for taxes was not difficult because clergy often served as local officials, including those in charge of collecting taxes (Clifford 7).
Had he Church been using the skimmed/scammed money for legitimate Church purposes, it may not have been so insulting. However, it was blatantly obvious that the cash was going to the clergy, who were becoming worldlier by the day. Even the papacy, the highest representative of God's church on Earth, had become almost mortally corrupted. Pope Clement VI's "luxurious court and gorgeous retinue were those of a secular prince, not a prince of the church" (Kelly 220). Even literature of the period portrays the clergy as being over-wealthy. There are several examples in Chaucer's famed Canterbury Tales. Chaucer first describes a Prioress bedecked with beads, brooches and other trinkets who makes sure her little dogs are fed with "roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread' (151). Such refined things were not meant for nuns, let alone their pets. Next described is the Monk. The tale says his favorite pastime is hunting, whereas a monk should spend his days in prayer and labor. His clothes are trimmed "With fine gray fur, the finest in the land, / And on his hood"¦/He had a wrought-gold cunningly fashioned pin" (Chaucer 198-200). The dress of the clergy was rarely allotted a soft fabric. To be using beads, gold and furs should have been unheard of.
Another grievance that eventually became a driving force behind the Reformation, was the sale of indulgences. Priests are authorized to absolve a confessor from the guilt and punishment of sins in hell, but not from earthly penance. If all penances are not performed, the balance would have to be paid in purgatory, a kind of
temporary hell. The indulgence began to replace prayer, pilgrimage and alms as penance to escape a short piece of their term in purgatory.
Thomas Gascoigne"¦complained that "sinners say nowadays: "˜I care not how many evils I do in God's sight, for I can easily get plenary remission of all guilt and penalty by an absolution and indulgence granted me by the pope, whose written grant I have bought for four or six pence, or have won as a stake for a game of tennis [with the pardoner]' (Durant 23)
The political issues of the clergy were seated in their lust for power and money and their variety of privileges. Th sale of church offices had a lot to do with the political corruption. Important, as well as insignificant offices were offered up to the highest bidders. "Careerists accumulated numbers of benefices [church offices] that made it impossible to serve them all personally. Ill-paid substitutes were who were often uneducated and negligent provided for the needs of the people" (McBrien 1091). Such pluralism led to a lot of nothing. Nothing was accomplished for the people and nothing was accomplished for the church.
Once the jobs had been filled, the appointees created more new offices to sell for profit. The practice of creating new offices as a fund-raiser is most documented with the popes. Alexander VI created eighty previously non-existent offices, each going for a price of about 19,000 dollars apiece (Durant 19). Julius II and Leo X created similar numbers of offices, which would run at about the same prices. Alexander also had a soft
spot for his friend's children. For them he arranged magnificent marriages and named one a cardinal.
The church was also benefited with special privileges. The political privileges of the church were intended to "Protect them from attacks on the dignity of their function, to exempt them from public duties incompatible with their position, to shield them from civil justice, and to assure them a fair means of subsistence in all circumstances" (Strayer Vol 3 445). The four resulting privileges are as follows: of the canon, of the forum, of exemption and of competency.
The privilege of the canon provides that any person who strikes a member of the clergy can be excommunicated (Strayer Vol 3 445). An abuse of this was that if a cleric had a personal agenda with someone, the person could easily be accused of such an act. The privilege of the forum states that a cleric cannot be summoned before a lay court to be tried before a lay judge (Strayer Vol 3 445). Often times a cleric tried before ecclesiastical courts would get special treatment because of relationships with those trying the case. Those ruling in lay courts did not appreciate the leniency sometimes practiced in ecclesiastical courts. The privilege of exemption or personal immunity stated that clerics were exempt from offices incompatible with their station (Strayer Vol 3 445). This included obligatory labor, billeting troops on the march and certain fiscal exemptions. Since many of these exemptions were not expressly stated, exemptions were sometimes authorized though questionable in appropriateness. The privilege of competency allows for indebted clerics to keep the money necessary for their honest keep (Strayer Vol 3 445). Originally meant to keep the clergy off the streets but not quite
comfortable, the amount considered "honest keep" rose considerably among some religious circles.
Perhaps the most interesting of the clerical corruptions are the social ones. It has already been addressed that the vow of poverty had been broken in half, smashed and ground into the dirt. The status of their vow of chastity was in even worse condition. "[T]he nuns of Godstow spread syphilis in England"”and, what was worse, they spread it to their neighbors' husbands. The corruption was remarked at all levels, and there was no form of sin the clergy left untried" (Mee 152). Alexander VI fathered several illegitimate children, four of which were those children of his friend, whom he provided with benefices and spectacular marriages. In comments on medieval men's and women's convents, they are described as differing little from public brothels (Durant 20).
The clergy's social corruption was that it was too social. Clerics focused more on their public status that on their congregations. They openly drank, owned private property, slept in, slept around and pretty much ignored their religious obligations."Some confessors solicited sexual favors from female penitents. Thousands of priests had concubines: in Germany nearly all. In Rome it was assumed that priests kept concubines"¦Bishop Hardouin of Angers reported (1428) that the clergy of his diocese did not count concubinage a sin, and made no attempt to disguise their use of it" (Durant 21).
The daily lives of the Catholic clergy were filled with intemperance. Their financial, political and social corruptions made it practically impossible to serve their positions truly. In essence, the clergy almost wasn't even really clergy at all. They were just ordinary people in religious clothing.
Clifford, Alan. The Middle Ages. St. Paul: Greenhaven Press, 1980. 5-9.
Durant, Will. The Reformation.New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. 17-25.
Kelly, JND. Oxford Dictionary of Popes. New York: Oxford University Press. 1986.
220-1, 248-9, 252-5.
McBrien, Richard P. Encyclopedia of Catholicism.San Francisco: Harper Collins. 1989. 1091-4, 1027-8.
Mee, Charles L. White Robe,Black Robe. New York: GP Putnam Sons, 1972.64-5,
Strayer, Joseph R. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983. Vol 3. 440-5, Vol 6. 446-50.