The Historical Causes of Corruption in the Medieval Catholic Church.

Written by Anonymous

In the late 13th century, there was a power struggle between the Papacy and the Monarchies of England and France, to decide whether the Pope or the Monarch held secular supremacy. Pope Boniface VIII took a hard line, refusing to negotiate–a strategy which proved disastrous, and ultimately brought about the end of the Catholic Church’s direct political power. In 1305, a Frenchman who was Archbishop of Bordeaux–and legally a subject of the King of England–was elected Pope in an attempt at political compromise. He became Pope Clement V, a weak man who was subservient to the King of France, Philip IV.

This began a period known as The Babylonian Captivity. A succession of French Popes lived in exile, unable to set foot in Rome. After four years living in various French cities, Clement V chose Avignon on the French border as the site for the new Papal residence, and purchased it from Joanna of Naples. Noble families and even Priests deserted Rome, and its population dwindled to 17,000, leaving it almost a deserted ruin. Meanwhile, within fifty years Avignon became known for its splendor and vices.

Eventually in 1366 Pope Urban V announced his determination to move the papacy back to Rome. He chose the Vatican as the new place of Papal residence. The entire Papal palace had to be completely restored from ruins at enormous expense–roofs, floors, doors, walls and walks were all renewed. Paying for it all meant developing the finances of the Church to a completely new level. Unfortunately the papal states of Italy had refused to recognize the Avignon papacy and refused to pay their taxes, resulting in acute cash flow problems for the church. European countries other than France had also reduced their contributions to the French Popes. So gradually Catholicism was forced to become big business. Soon almost every privilege, power or service the church was allowed to dispense was being exploited for financial gain.

One amusing practice was the granting of “expectations”. When it looked as if a person of some power within the church might soon die, the church would sell an expectation. This notionally granted the purchaser or “expectant” the vacant ecclesiastical position, in advance of it actually becoming vacant. When the incumbent finally died, the documented expectant could smoothly assume the post. Of course, it was always possible that the expectant might die also, so the Church also sold second-degree expectations, at a reduced price. A second-degree expectation said that, in the event that the incumbent and the expectant both met with an untimely end, the second-degree expectant would be given the post.

In fact, what with life expectancy being so short in the middle ages, it soon became customary to sell between four and ten degrees of expectation for each office within the church. The scheme was so successful that the church began franchising the business plan–they sold universities the right to trade in expectations for academic positions, and encouraged princes to sell expectations for court positions.

Naturally, there were many lawsuits resulting from competing claims. The legal cases were generally long, complicated and expensive, and often lasted so long that both litigants died. They were, however, highly lucrative business for the Papal court…

And then there were indulgences.

About the author


Leave a Comment