Holy Horrors: The medieval Catholic hierarchy

John Wycliffe (1320-1384), famous theologian and vocal critic of the church. (Photo: Ford Madox Brown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Chapter 11: The Reformation

Corruption in the medieval Catholic hierarchy was infamous. Pope John XII openly had love affairs, gave church treasure to a mistress, castrated one opponent, blinded another, and donned armor to lead an army. Benedict IX sold the papacy to a successor for 1,500 pounds of
gold. Urban VI tortured and murdered his cardinals. Innocent VIII proudly acknowledged his illegitimate children and loaded them with church riches. Pope Boniface VII, whose name is omitted from official church listings, murdered two rival popes in the 10th century.

Sergius III likewise killed two rivals for the papal throne. Benedict V dishonored a young girl and fled with the Vatican treasury. Clement VI sported with mistresses on ermine bed-linens. Boniface VIII sent troops to kill every resident of Palestrina and raze the city. Clement VII, while a papal legate, similarly ordered the slaughter of Cesena’s 8,000 people, including the children. A previous Pope John XXIII (not the reformer of the 1950s) was desposed by a council in 1414—and Edward Gibbon drily recorded in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “The most serious charges were suppressed; the Vicar of Christ was accused only of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy, and incest.” Alexander VI bought the papacy by bribing cardinals to elect him—then hosted sex orgies attended by his illegitimate children, Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia.

Regarding Alexander, scholar Barbara Tuchman recounted in The March of Folly:

The pope presided over a banquet given by Cesare in the Vatican, famous in the annals of pornography as the Ballet of the Chestnuts. Soberly recorded by Burchard, 50 courtesans danced after dinner with the guests, ‘at first clothed, then naked.’ Chestnuts were then scattered among candelabra placed on the floor, ‘which the courtesans, crawling on hands and knees among the candelabra, picked up, while the Pope, Cesare, and his sister Lucrezia looked on.’ Coupling of guests and courtesans followed, with prizes in the form of fine silken tunics and cloaks offered ‘for those who could perform the act most often with the courtesans’

Cardinals, archbishops, abbots, bishops, priests, and monks kept concubines, pocketed church wealth, waged armed vendettas, and grew rich through simony, the selling of church offices and acts. Pope Innocent III ranted against his clergy: “All of them, from the highest to the lowest, do as it is said in the prophets: They are enthralled to avarice, love presents, and seek rewards; for the sake of bribes they pronounce the godless righteous. …”

The orgy of greed provoked protests. In the 1100s, priest Arnold of Brescia called for reform. He was defrocked, exiled, and excommunicated, but he persisted, rousing the people of Rome. Finally he was captured in 1155, hanged, and burned.

In England in the 1300s, professor-priest John Wycliffe denounced church corruption, rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, and violated church law by translating the Bible into English for common people to read. After his death, his followers, called Lollards, were
declared heretics. Many were captured, locked in stocks, and forced to renounce their beliefs. Several were burned at the stake.

In Prague, priest John Hus embraced Wycliffe’s teachings and denounced immorality among the clergy. He drew ardent followers. In 1412, three of these Hussites were executed for protesting the church’s sale of indulgences (releases from punishment in Purgatory). Hus was excommunicated and exiled, but he continued. In 1415 he went to the Council of Constance, which had been convened to eradicate church corruption. Although he bore a letter of safe passage from the emperor, he was thrown in a dungeon, then burned. Hus’s execution enraged his followers in Czechoslovakia, who formed an alliance for religious independence. Pope Martin V repeatedly sent crusades against them, but his armies were beaten. Finally, the church offered a compromise on a disputed point of theology—which caused Hussite factions to split, and one group joined the Catholic army in destroying the other.

In Florence, priest Girolamo Savonarola took up the cry for church reform. His fiery attacks caused opponents to obtain his excommunication. He continued preaching until he was jailed, condemned by a papal commission, and hanged and burned with two of his followers in 1498.

After these abortive rebellions, the real rebellion exploded in 1517. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door, triggering the Reformation, which plunged Christendom into a century of Catholic-Protestant slaughter.

Soon after Luther’s fateful revolt, one of his most fanatical adherents in Germany carried the rebellion to a bizarre extreme. Priest Thomas Muntzer preached that the godless must be annihilated. He roused 8,000 peasants into a ragtag army and led the Peasants7 War of
1525. His hymn-singing amateur soldiers were wiped out by trained legions, and Muntzer was tortured and executed.

In Switzerland, a separate revolt was led by Ulrich Zwingli. Swiss cities adopted Zwingli’s modified Christianity, while rural cantons (districts) remained Catholic. City Protestants and country Catholics clashed in two local wars. In the second, in 1531, Zwingli was killed.

In Germany, Lutheran princes met at Schmalkald and formed a defensive alliance against Catholic power. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sent Catholic armies to annihilate the Protestants. He achieved some victories, but in 1555 he was forced to accept the Peace of Augsburg, which allowed 300 German local rulers to decide whether their districts would be Catholic or Protestant.

The Peace of Augsburg recognized the right of Protestant “heretics” to exist in Germany—but other Catholic countries granted no such tolerance. In Spain, the Inquisition began exterminating suspected Protestants. Multitudes were strangled and burned at a great auto-da-fe in 1559 held in honor of King Philip II, son of Emperor Charles V. Archbishop Bartolome de Carranza of Toledo was imprisoned 17 years because he favored the tolerant views of Dutch Catholic thinker Desiderius Erasmus. In Italy, the Inquisition was revived in 1542 to hunt those with Protestant leanings.

In Switzerland, after the death of Zwingli, John Calvin became the driving force of Protestantism. He created a rigid theocracy in Geneva. Morality police inspected household behavior. Harsh punishments were administered for ribaldry, dancing, cardplaying, drinking, and other amusements. Theological nonconformists were put to death. Michael Servetus was burned for doubting the Trinity. Jacques Gruet was beheaded for blasphemy. Calvin urged the burning of witches.

Excerpted from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught died on 23 July 2023. He was editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and was a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He was also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book was Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns were distributed by national syndicates. He was in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789

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