Thirteen (Medieval) Ways of Looking at the Curia

“Entrenched Troubles at the Vatican Await a New Pope,” reads the headline in today’s New York Times–though when have they not? As any historian of the papacy will tell you, the curia has always been characterized by a certain degree of bureaucratic infighting, financial chicanery, and moral compromise hardly limited to the papacy of Benedict.

During the Middle Ages, the curia (whether in Rome or, during the Great Schism, in Avignon) provided readily available and highly nutritious fodder for polemic, satire, and condemnation at the hands of poets and theologians, moralists and sermonizers. To mark the ascendancy of Pope Francis, I thought I’d compile a number of medieval perspectives (both positive and negative) on the nature and justification of the papal curia. Some of these passages (such as the words of St. Peter from Dante’s Paradiso) are justly famous, while others are more obscure (see Robert Grosseteste’s intriguing complaint to the papal legate back in England about being backstabbed by his own dean and chapter). Sex, violence, bribery, cheating: it’s all here.

You might also enjoy the contrast between Bernard of Clairvaux’s kissing up to his fellow Cistercian, Pope Eugenius III, and the equally fervent condemnation of Bernard’s Frenchy influence in the curia by his unnamed opponents. Again, not all the passages are negative, though even defenders like Lapo da Castiglionchio, author of De Curiae Commodis, are uncomfortably aware of the potential for hypocrisy and moral compromise inherent to the institution. I’ve also included a number of more directly theological justifications of the papacy and its ancillary offices–passages that contrast nicely with the more jaundiced views. Few bureaucracies have been invested with so much idealism yet tainted by so much corruption as the papal curia. The new pontiff will have his work cut out for him, as all of his apostolic predecessors have as well. Post some additional passages in the Comments and I’ll update.

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“The Bride of Christ was never nurtured by
my blood, and blood of Linus and of Cletus,
to be employed in gaining greater riches;
but to acquire this life of joyousness,
Sixtus and Pius, Urban and Calixtus,
after much lamentation, shed their blood.
We did not want one portion of Christ’s people
to sit at the right side of our successors,
while, on the left, the other portion sat,
nor did we want the keys that were consigned
to me, to serve as an escutcheon on
a banner that waged war against the baptized;
nor did we want my form upon a seal
for trafficking in lying privileges–
for which I often blush and flash with anger.
From here on high one sees rapacious wolves
clothed in the cloaks of shepherds. You, the vengeance
of God, oh, why do you still lie concealed?
The Gascons and the Cahorsines–they both
prepare to drink our blood: o good beginning,
to what a miserable end you fall!
But that high Providence which once preserved,
with Scipio, the glory of the world
for Rome, will soon bring help, as I conceive…”

-St. Peter to Dante, Paradiso 27


Come, let us investigate even more diligently who you are; that is, what part you play in the Church of God at this time. Who are you? The high priest, the Supreme Pontiff. You are the prince of the bishops, you are the heir of the Apostles; in primacy you are Abel, in governing you are Noah, in patriarchate you are Abraham, in orders you are Melchisedech, in dignity you are Aaron, in authority you are Moses, in judgment you are Samuel, in power you are Peter, by anointing you are Christ. You are the one to whom the keys have been given, to whom the sheep have been entrusted.

-Bernard of Clairvaux, De consideratione (ca. 1149)


[I]t is necessary from now on that you belong not just to yourself but to us [the cardinals]; that you do not rank particular and recent friendships before those which are general and of ancient standing. You must look to the welfare of all and care for and watch over the dignity of the Roman court, as an obligation of your office. But what has this abbot of yours done, and the French church with him? With what insolence, what daring, has he raised his head against the primacy and the supremacy of the Roman see? For it is this alone that shuts and no man opens, opens and no man shuts. These Frenchmen, despising us to our very faces, have presumed to write down their profession of faith relative to the articles which we have been discussing these past few days as though they were putting the last touch to a final definition without consulting us… How then do these men dare in our presence to usurp what in our absence is not permitted to those more distant and more distinguished? We want you therefore to stand up against this rash novelty, and punish their insolence without delay.

-Otto of Freising (d. 1158), Deeds of Frederick Barbarossa, reporting on the Synod of Rheims (1148) and the corrupting influence of Bernard of Clairvaux


What about it, then? Let us satisfy our stomachs, let us indulge our appetites! For it is written: “If ye be willing and obedient to Urban, ye shall eat the good fo the land.” Therefore, my cardinals, devour salmon, eat carp, fill yourselves on perch, gorge on dolphin, swallow down sturgeon, break open mussels, fillet congers, wrap yourselves around the lampreys. What more can I say? Bring everything that inhabits air, sea, land, rivers, springs, swamps, lakes streams; consume them, swallow them down, devour them; drink, drink, my blessed cardinals, truly blessed, for you understand the use of Silver and Gold. Drink, I say, perfumed wine, Massican, Falernian, flavoured, unmixed, hyssop, Aluntin. What more? Fill yourselves with every honeyed drink and nectarean liquor.

-Anonymous satire, Garcineida (circa 1100)


O nummi privilegium!
Vix invocatur alius
Deus in adiutorium.
O nummo tributoriam
Non hec in nostra curia
Nam confidenter ambulant,
Qui Curious non simulant
Nec vivunt Bachanalia.

[O the privilege of money! Scarcely more propitious is the cry, "Make haste, O God, to deliver me!" O to money we assign a tribute Church! In our curia these are not contagions: For they walk confidently who do not ape the Curii, nor live like Baccanals.]

-“Qui seminant in loculis,” anonymous twelfth-century conductus from the Magnus liber organi


It is fitting that the pope receive from his brethren, the cardinals of the holy Roman church, who assist him as coadjutors in the execution of his priestly office, counsel freely given. It is fitting that he not vacillate in his judgment in any way, so that the fear of no secular power frighten them, no momentary passion absorb them, no alarm threaten them, nothing restrain them from giving real, solid advice.

-Pope Nicholas III (1277-80)


Ad loculos oculos dirigunt
Et manus porrigunt
Manipulos parvulos negligunt
Qui gestant anulos.

[To pockets they direct their eyes, and as they stretch forth their hands, they neglect the little bundles, they who wear rings.]

-“Non habes auditum,” polyphonic conductus from the Magnus liber organ


Let the city of Rome, then, rejoice and exult all the more, which has been worthy to serve the law of his kingdom. So many men with sweat and blood obtained the common name for the ancient city [Urbs], but for this alone did it acquire the rule of the whole world, that within its breast it retains the first of the apostles and was made the head of all churches. Romulus the founder raised her, but Peter established her more excellently and raised her up. The former built with stones, but the latter consecrated with martyrdom. This one painstakingly crowned the circle of walls, but taht one established the foundation of morals. The one built palaces which would perish, the other the merits of piety which will remain. The former made the city blush through its origins in fratricide, the latter spread Christianity from the outset through fraternity. Romulus burnt in pursuit of his singular dignity, but Peter freely surrounded himself in order to have sweet companionship…So Peter decorated the city more magnificently with his morals than Romulus girded it with his walls. The ornament of the merits of these two is as different as their monuments are dissimilar. For all  the power of Romulus has passed and decayed, but the piety of Peter has endured and lives.

-Lucian of St. Werburgh, Liber luciani de laude Cestrie (ca. 1195)


Sole head of the world, O Rome,
you who’ve caused us to stray far from home
and plunged all your pastors
in stormy disasters,
greet Walter, who comes here on loan,
of women a wretched despiser.
Let the Curia now be the wiser:
to speak truth unriddled,
his fair lord he diddled
not once, as the young lad’s adviser,
while still Homer’s verses brought tears
to his eyes, but long since, in those years
when a beard full and rough
made him far tougher stuff,
and the long march of days stilled his fears.

-thirteenth-century manuscript gloss to Walter of Chatillon’s Alexandreis


In your discretion and love you should also know that, in accord with your warning, I would gladly have restrained myself, until your arrival in these parts, from any involvement in the affairs that I know are a source of annoyance, justly or not, to my chapter, did I not firmly believe that any delay in performing the duties of my office would be prejudicial to me. For after your departure from these parts I was told as a certainty that my dean and chapter had, since the feast of Pentecost just past, a proctor at the curia, whose duty was to obtain against me, for the use of judges of whom I am with good reason suspicious, a letter whose purpose was to prevent me from performing the duties of my office. There is reason to believe that this action is intended by some, not to say all, members of the chapter to obstruct me from ever doing my duty be preoccupying me with unending lawsuits.

-Robert Grosseteste, letter 79, to Otto of Tonengo, cardinal deacon and papal legate in England (1239)


The sun in its travels sees nothing more hideous than this place on the shores of the wild Rhone, which suggests the hellish streams of Cocytus and Acheron. Here reign the successors of the poor fishermen of Galilee; they have strangely forgotten their origin. I am astounded, as I recall their predecessors, to see these men loaded with gold and clad in purple, boasting of the spoils of princes and nations; to see luxurious palaces and heights crowned with fortifications, intsead of a boat turned downwards for shelter…One is stupefied nowadays to hear the lying tongues, and to see worthless parchments turned by a leaden seal into nets which are used, in Christ’s name, but by the arts of Belial, to catch hordes of unwary Christians.

Petrarch, Epistolae Sine Titulo V


I am deeply concerned indeed by an attack that I have often heard made by many: that in the Roman curia influence, bribery, and corruption provide easier access in attaining office and rank than do learning, uprightness, and purity. Really, you have to look not at what is done there but rather at what was intended. After all, our honored elders wanted these things to be not incitement to vice but rather ornaments of virtue. If sometimes fortunes are handed over to the unworthy or to those who are not so worthy as they might be, the whole business has to be ascribed to the age and the men, not to the vice of the curia.

Lapo da Castiglionchio, De Curiae Commodis (1438)


The supreme pontiffs, as I know, are elected through avarice and simony, and likewise the other bishops are ordained for gold. These, in turn, will not ordain those below them, the priests, deacons, subdeacons, and acolytes, except a strict agreement be first drawn up. Of this mammon of unrighteousness the bishops, the real rulers, and the chapters, each has his part. The once accepted proverb, “Freely given for freely ye have received,” is now most vilely perverted: “Freely I have not received, nor will I freely give, for I have bought my bishopric for a great price, and must indemnify myself impiously for my untoward outlay. I will not ordain you as priest except for money. I purchased the sacrament of ordination when I became a bishop and I propose to sell you teh same sacred sign and seal of ordination. By beseeching and by gold, I have gained my office, for beseeing and for gold do I sell you your place. Refuse the amount I demand and you shall not become a priest.”

Dietrich Vrie, History of the Council of Constance (ca. 1420) 

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