The Eleventh Century: The Gregorian Reforms

During the tenth and early eleventh centuries, the papacy was widely ridiculed as morally and politically bankrupt (2.1.9). Later medieval church historians termed this a “dark age” (Latin: saeculum obscurum) in the history of the church. Yet it proved to be a temporary setback. After a period of instability and weakness, a series of reforming popes regained the initiative, and set in place reforms to eliminate the scandals and problems that had plagued the church in the previous century.

The most important of these measures are generally referred to as the “Gregorian Reforms,” set in place by Gregory VII, pope from 1073 to 1085. Yet Gregory must not be seen in isolation. His reforms are to be seen as solidifying and extending the attempts of earlier eleventh-century popes to reform the church.

A turning point was reached with the election of the German bishop Bruno of Eguisheim- Dagsburg as pope, who took the name Leo IX. Leo, who was pope from 1049 to 1054, was known to favor reform. He consulted with his clergy, and reaffirmed the traditional view that simony (the practice of deriving spiritual or financial benefits from making church appointments) and clerical marriage were unacceptable. These reforms, which chimed in with the monastic reforming program introduced by the abbey of Cluny (2.1.9), were widely welcomed within the church. Leo’s period as pope was complicated by growing theological and political tensions between east and west, which led to the “Great Schism” of 1054. As we noted earlier, although this formal break dates from 1054, the tensions lying behind it had been building up for years.

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