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Corruption of the papacy in the Middle Ages.

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Religion and faith dominated virtually every aspect of life during the middle Ages. However, the Church’s influence suffered greatly during the later part of this age of faith. Many historians hold that the Medieval Church was a landmark of corruption. This view is often used to explain the decline and fall of the Church and the success of Martin Luther’s reformation. It depicts the Church as being ruled by power hungry popes who abuse their positions of authority. At this time “the increasing hostility of the laity to ecclesiastical wealth and decadence undermined papal prestige”.

“Omne malum a clero”–every evil comes from the clergy. The clergy are church officials who are divided into two classes. The first class, monks and nuns, lived in accordance to a recognized religious rule, and remained secluded from the outside world. The second class of the spiritual clergy include the priests, bishops, and arch bishops, who have taken the Sacrament of Holy Orders which allows them to administer sacraments and perform religious services. It is not clear which of the two classes engrossed themselves in the most corruption, there is documentation condemning them both. In the year 1245 at the Council of Lyons, Pope Innocent IV had called the sins of the higher and lower clergy “one of the five wounds in the Body of the Church,” and at the second Council of Lyons in 1274 Gregory X declared that “the wickedness of many prelates was the cause of the ruin of the whole world!”

Perhaps this can be traced back to the increase of the importance of the clergy after the establishment of the Canon Law and their exemption from any sort of secular jurisdiction. The clergy lived above the law, which was a breeding ground for clerical corruption. The importance of community life and prayer, as well as the oath of poverty, became obsolete as many monks retained inherited estates and acquired wealth. This directly violates all that a clergyman embodies.

The corruption associated with the medieval church is further demonstrated by its support of the Order of the Temple. The Order of the Temple was a type of religious order that had been founded in the early twelfth century during the crusades in order to protect crusaders against bandits while they traveled to the Holy Land.

The brothers of this order, referred to as Templars, protected Christian Territory, living as monks, claiming poverty and following strict guidelines of dress. However in the early 14th century the brothers of the order of the temple “were outlawed by both the Pope and France for such crimes as idol worship, homosexuality, and fraud”.

Templars were said to be corrupt in that they acquired their wealth by stealing it, they encouraged homosexual acts between brothers, and they did not make charitable donations or give hospitably, as religious orders were required to do.

These crooks that appeared to be “brave knights of Christ” received payments from Clergymen and received legal privileges from the papal see. The medieval church directly supported this corrupt organization, furthermore damaging its integrity.

The Great Schism provided an even greater threat to the prestige of the papacy. The Great Schism lasted from 1378 to 1417. During this time, candidates from Avignon, Clement VII, and Rome, Urban VI, both claimed to be the rightful pope. These excommunications were used as a spiritual weapon, and too often, for debased political reasons during the Schism. Both Popes concerned themselves with gaining wealth at the expense of the other. The rivalry that developed left the two divided churches without any real leadership. This was a breeding ground for corruption as the two popes issued little concern for well being of the Church, while attempting to out do one another. In 1409, the Council of Pisa tried to resolve the dispute but instead created a third claim to the office, Alexander V, who soon died and was followed by John XXIII.

The council was tasked with other issues, such as reforming the Church, but they concerned themselves mostly with attempting to suppress heresy. The fathers who convened at Pisa are credited with burning “an upright and God fearing teacher” and alienating a large part of the nation. Although the Council at Pisa made the Schism significantly worse, the Council of Constance was able to resolve the conflict in 1417. One man resigned and the two other candidates were deposed. This brought an end to the schism and its triumvirate papacy, which one historian referred to as “an impious mockery of the trinity.” A new pope, Martin V (1417-1431), was elected in their place as the single legitimate pontiff and the church began to heal although “Trust in the Father of Christendom was gone.”

During the middle Ages religion quickly became materialized. Pious interests focused on material items, mainly indulgences. Indulgences are “the remission of the temporal penalty due to forgiven sin, in virtue of the merits of Christ and the saints”. These indulgences started after the first crusade and were a lucrative source of income for the Church. Trafficking them became a practice that was exploited by professional pardoners who sold indulgences at large scale. In order to raise funds for his campaign against Ladislas of Naples in 1410 Pope John XXIII “offered indulgences to all that could support his war chest.” We have assurance from the Council of Constance the John XXIII “sold absolution from both punishment and guilt.” Basically, John XXIII forgave Christians of their sins in exchange for a monetary payment. He then planned to use that money to wage civil war and cause bloodshed in Italy. The thirst of the clergy for cash was undoubtedly a driving force for corruption in the middle ages. It was stated by one scholar that preachers of indulgence adopted as their favorite tag “Your cash no sooner clinks the bowl than out of that purgatory jumps the soul!”

Another instance that has often been a sited to convey ecclesiastical corruption in the middle ages is the representation of the medieval inquisition. The medieval inquisition marks a period in the Middle Ages where the papacy became obsessed with the conviction of heretics. A heretic is any person who denies or doubts the doctrine of the Catholic Church. This heresy crisis peaked in the 1180’s as cannon law allowed for the inquisitio where bishops “were held to inquire into reputed crimes in their dioceses rather than rely exclusively on charges brought by the informers or accusers” which was a method that was “most conspicuously applied against heretics, thereby gradually institutionalizing the Inquisition”. Behind this excess was the driving power of rampant superstition and obsession with the devil that took possession of the papacy. The devil obsession began to run daily life as charging witches freely of heresy became widely accepted. The witch trials and witch burnings spread and the official church did nothing to shield the victims of these atrocities with the Gospel teachings. Innocent VII in his Bull “Summis Desiderantes” of 1484 “gave the Dominicans in Constance plenary powers in the matter of witch burning, and threatened with the ecclesiastical punishments anyone who opposed the prosecution of witches.” Christ had healed those who were possessed by demons, and now the name of the same Christ, they were being burnt by the masses.

Certainly there were many abuses of the church made during the Middle Ages, but there were also many commendable achievements. New churches were built, new parishes opened, new appointments were made, and new charities were established. It was an age when catechetical and devotional literature flourished. Bible stories, and poor men’s Bibles appeared in the service of religious instruction dispensing Christianity to all walks of life.

Any institution that has survived as long as the Catholic Church has is bound to have skeletons in its closet. We might even go so far as to say that in comparison to today’s churches, the crimes committed by the papacy in the middle ages appear less horrendous. The Episcopal Church and the Catholic Church are currently under great scrutiny for the corruption of their leaders. The overwhelming urge for the powerful to abuse their power becomes too great, as we have seen in many of our politicians, sports figures, celebrities, and religious leaders. Winston Churchill once said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Unfortunately these achievements are out weighed by the fearful decline of true piety, widespread neglect of duty amongst the higher and lower clergy, and petty rivalry that consumed and devastated the Church. To serve the church is to follow in the footsteps of John the Baptist, “who had only camel’s hair to wear, with a leather belt around his waist, and who ate locusts and wild honey, resisting every effort by his supporters to focus the light of glory on himself rather than on the one who was to come.”

1) Karl Adam, The Roots of the Reformation, trans. Cecily Hastings (New York: Canterbury Books, 1951).

2) Adam. It is difficult to estimate the extent to which ecclesiastical corruption prevailed but it is clear that it was abundant and played a significant role in the decline of honor and respect of the medieval papacy.

3) Adam.

4) Adam.

5) Helen Nicholson, “Saints or Sinners? The Knights Templar in Medieval Europe”, History Today (December 1994), 30-37.

6) Nicholson, 30-37.

7) Nicholson, 30-37.

8) Nicholson, 30-37.

9) Adam. The Christian body was split into two camps, and since the two camps excommunicated each other and each other’s followers, “the whole of Christendom was at least nominally excommunicated”.

10) Adam.

11) E. R. Chamberlain, The Bad Popes (New York: The Dial Press, 1969), 100.

12) L. Elliot Binns, The History of the Decline and fall of the Medieval Papacy (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1934).

13)Binns, 188.

14) Adam.

15) Frans van Liere, “Was the Medieval Church Corrupt?”

16) Binns, 188.

17) Joseph McCabe, Crises in the History of the Papacy (New York: The Knickerbocker Press, 1916), 225.

18) Adam.

19) Elisabeth Vodola, Excommunication in the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 34.

20) Adam.

21) Adam.

22) Adam.

23) Adam.

24) Richard McBrian, “Popes must be servants rather than celebrities” The National Catholic Reporter (January 1995), 13.

25) Matthew 20. King James Version (1611). The clergy is even more so designed to mimic Jesus in his understanding and poverty, and it is said in the King James Bible that the “Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”

Many of the leaders of the Medieval Church failed to live and abide by the examples set by Jesus and John the Baptists choosing to bring dishonor and dignity to the Medieval Church. One particular scholar comments: “It was indeed night in a great part of Christendom”.


Adam, Karl. The Roots of the Reformation, translated by Cecily Hastings. New York: Canterbury Books, 1951.

Binns, L. Elliot. The History of the Decline and fall of the Medieval Papacy. London: Methuen and Company Ltd., 1934.

Chamberlain, E. R. The Bad Popes. New York: The Dial Press, 1969.

McBrian, Richard. “Popes Must Be Servants Rather Than Celebrities,” The National Catholic Reporter (January 1995), 13.

Nicholson, Helen. “Saints or Sinners? The Knights Templar in Medieval Europe,” History Today. (December 1994), 30-37.

Van Liere, Frans. “Was the Medieval Church Corrupt?” Misconceptions About the Middle Ages. Eds. Stephen J. Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby. London: Routledge, 2003.

Vodola, Elisabeth. Excommunication in the Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

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