Rorate Caeli

Guest Article: Guelphs and Gibellines Revisited


Charles A. Coulombe

"There is no Christian prince left. These other countries are even as Britain, or else sunk deeper still in the disease."
"Then we must go higher. We must go to him whose office it is to put down tyrants and give life to dying kingdoms. We must call on the Emperor."
"There is no Emperor."
---C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

     When I was young, “Guelphs and Ghibellines” was such a phrase as “Hatfields and McCoys,” “Cops and Robbers,” “Montagues and Capulets,” and “Cowboys and Indians” – a stock line indicating two irreconcilable groups. To-day I do not know if most college age people would recognise any of these folk. Nevertheless, the first-named are key to understanding a great deal of Medieval European history; on the other hand, the recent rift between the Orthodox Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow and the scandals in the Catholic Church bring the issues over which their long-ago battles were fought back into focus. 

     From the time that Constantine the Great legalised Catholicism and Theodosius the Great made citizenship in the Roman Empire coeval with membership in the Church via baptism, the relationship between the religious and temporal heads of the res publica Christianahas been tense. After 800 there were two rival Empires, and after 1054 two rival Churches; but the issues in their relationships and – as it were, their sociologies are interchangeable with each other AND the pattern prior to 800. Before the crowning of Charlemagne, there was no argument but that the Pope of Rome was the supreme spiritual head of the Christian people, nor that the Emperor at Constantinople (certainly since 476) was their supreme temporal leader. Justinian in his famous Codequotes a letter of Pope John to himself: 
    This See is indeed the head of all churches, as the rules of the Fathers and the decrees of the Emperors assert, and the words of your most reverend piety testify. It is therefore claimed that what the Scriptures state, namely, "By Me Kings reign, and the Powers dispense justice;" will be accomplished in you. For there is nothing which shines with a more brilliant lustre than genuine faith when displayed by a prince, since there is nothing which prevents destruction as true religion does, for as both of them have reference to the Author of Life and Light, they disperse darkness and prevent apostasy. Wherefore, Most Glorious of Princes, the Divine Power is implored by the prayers of all to preserve your piety in this ardor for the Faith, in this devotion of your mind, and in this zeal for true religion, without failure, during your entire existence. For we believe that this is for the benefit of the Holy Churches, as it was written, "The king rules with his lips," and again, "The heart of the King is in the hand of God, and it will incline to whatever side God wishes"; that is to say, that He may confirm your empire, and maintain your kingdoms for the peace of the Church and the unity of religion; guard their authority, and preserve him in that sublime tranquillity which is so grateful to him; and no small change is granted by the Divine Power through whose agency a divided church is not afflicted by any griefs or subject to any reproaches. For it is written, "A just king, who is upon his throne, has no reason to apprehend any misfortune."
Also included in the Code is Justinian’s response:
     We have exerted Ourselves to unite all the priests of the East and subject them to the See of Your Holiness, and hence the questions which have at present arisen, although they are manifest and free from doubt, and according to the doctrines of your Apostolic See, are constantly firmly observed and preached by all priests, We have still considered it necessary that they should be brought to the attention of Your Holiness. For we do not suffer anything which has reference to the state of the Church, even though what causes difficulty may be clear and free from doubt, to be discussed without being brought to the notice of Your Holiness, because you are the head of all the Holy Churches, for We shall exert Ourselves in every way (as has already been stated), to increase the honor and authority of your See.
     This seems relatively clear. In the manualde Ceremoniisof Constantine VII, 400 years later, the same amity and understanding of their complementary roles seems to dominate the ritualized dialogue between Papal envoy and the Emperor:
The foremost of the Holy Apostles protect you: Peter the keyholder of heaven, and Paul teacher of the Gentiles(ethne). Our spiritual father(pneumatikos pater), [Name*], the most holy and ecumenical patriarch, together with the holiest bishops, priests and deacons, and the whole clerical order of the holy Church of the Romans(Romaioi), send you, Emperor, faithful prayers through our humble persons. The most honoured prince(prinkips) of the elder Rome with the leading men(archontes) and the whole people subject to them convey to your imperial person the most faithful obeisance(doulosis).
[* The formula is ho deina, or 'a certain', for which should be substituted the name of the individual in question.]
The Logothete's inquiries to them:
    How is the most holy bishop of Rome, the spiritual father of our holy Emperor? How are all the bishops and priests and deacons and the other clergy of the holy church of the Romans? How is the most honoured [name] prince of the elder Rome?
     But despite this apparent unanimity there were in reality strains and stresses of all sorts. Justinian may well have been committed to Papal Supremacy – and certainly Papal support was needed for his reconquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths. Bur he believed that as his predecessors had the right to convoke Ecumenical Councils, he had the right to interfere in disputed Papal elections, for example choosing St. Vigilius as Pope over St. Sylverius. Nevertheless, as had his uncle, Justin I, when Pope St. John I came to Constantinople. So too did Justinian take advantage of Pope St. Agapetus’ visit to get a second Coronation. It was perhaps with this memory in mind that Pope St. Leo III chose to crown Bl. Charlemagne on Christmas Day, 800, and so revive the Empire in the West. The power to Crown the Emperor – as a matter of course in the West, by deputation in the East (save for rare Eastern visits) – underlined the Spiritual power’s authority over the Temporal. 
     Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that – theoretically anyway – Constantine and Theodosius, Justinian and Bl. Charlemagne, Basil II and Otto III and their various successors were all inheritors of the Imperial mantle; that mantle would see Emperor Sigismund, for example, play the biggest role in convoking the Council of Constance to end the Great Schism, when no other power on Earth could do so – even as Otto III definitively ended the Pornocracy. The Spiritual power, all agreed, was in general, superior to the Temporal; but if the Church went off the tracks and its usual leadership were incapable of righting things, it was also generally accepted that the Emperor must set things to rights.
     But as we know, the Devil is in the details. The distinction between Papal and Imperial power might well be clear enough in the abstract. In the concrete, however, issues frequently arose in an age when bishops were at once feudal and spiritual lords, to which of the two master they served did the prelates owe their first loyalty? Moreover, experience had shown the Popes the necessity of two things to avoid becoming a sort of domestic chaplain to the Emperor as the Patriarch of Constantinople appeared to be for the Eastern Emperor: these were temporal independence – as in the Papal States – and temporal allies other than the Emperor. The Investiture Controversy (1075-1122) – although featuring such exciting episodes as the Walk at Canossa – exhausted both sides without solving the question of dominance.
     When Emperor Frederick Barbarossa attempted in the 1140s to subject Italy, many of the Italian city States bonded together to oppose him in the Lombard League, with the tacit alliance of the Pope. Thus were formed the two great parties whose strife would ensure anarchy in Italy – the pro-Papal Guelphs and the Pro-Imperial Ghibellines. Some Italian cities came to favour one side “traditionally,” others the other – and often enough existing factions within a town would file in on one side or the other, often enough because of pre-existent feuds. Ultimately, the conflict between Papacy and Empire would greatly facilitate the ruin of the Hohenstaufens and the ushering in of the interregnum, which only ended in 1273 with election of Rudolf von Habsburg. In the meantime the modern national state began to emerge amid civil wars and chaos – the 1214 battle of Bouvines, after which France considered itself independent, conflicts between Spanish factions, and, of course, Latins and Byzantines playing each false, from their Slaughter of the Latins to our Fourth Crusade. The result of all of this was the failure of the Crusades and eventually the fall of Constantinople. But in the east, the dying flame bequeathed by the murdered Bl. Constantine XI was claimed by Moscow, thanks to the wedding of a Muscovite Prince to a Byzantine Princess.
     In any case, the two factions continued to exist as names in Italy until Emperor Charles V asserted his control of Italy in 1529. Charles V probably was the last legitimate “Roman Emperor” thus far to achieve the traditional goal of a united Christendom – and the first upon whose Empire “the sun never set.” But this dream was broken by four tacitly connected “Guelph” partners – the nascent protestant heresy, the Turks, the French, and the Papacy. His successors, Emperors Ferdinand II and III, would relive the same agony with the same cast of opponents. The result was the Peace of Westphalia; Louis XIV of France would attempt to take up the work of him whom he considered his forebear, Charlemagne – only to find a similar coalition raised successfully against him.  In 1755 the reconciliation between the two major Catholic powers – and claimants to Charlemagne’s throne - finally took place, with the wedding of Louis the Dauphin (later Louis XVI) and Marie Antoinette. Perhaps had such a wedding been brokered by the Popes a century or two earlier, things would have been better.
     The chaos of the French Revolution led to the rise of Napoleon, who – despite the disadvantage of having no blood claim to any such throne – attempted to construct a new Empire of Charlemagne from whole cloth, while snuffing out what was left of the real thing. It came and went; at the Congress of Vienna there was an attempt to rebuild something of Christendom, and Tsar Alexander I attempted to play the role of Emperor with his Holy Alliance.  A whole host of writers, from de Maistre to von Haller and von Baader talked about the need to revive the organic Catholic State – with the Monarchy at its apex ad some sort of Imperium over that – and such would continue to write into the 20thcentury. The two Imperial claimants, Russia and Austria, clung to their double eagles, whilst liberal regimes came and went in Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal, while new liberal Monarchies were erected in Germany and Italy. The course of the latter’s creation was particularly rich in historical irony. After the Peace of Westphalia, the Dukes of Savoy remained loyal to the idea of the Empire, and so were given the title of “Perpetual Vicar of the Empire in Italy.” Two hundred years later, King of Sardinia – still bearing the title -put himself at the head of the Unification Movement. His adherents were called “Neo-Ghibellines,” because of their desire to seize the Papal States. Those who wanted a federation of the Italian princes under the presidency of the Pope were called “Neo-Guelphs.” In the end, of course, both sides came together, and Bl. Pius IX was dispossessed.
     By the dawn of the 20thcentury, the Double Eagle and the kind of rule it represented was confined to Austria and Russia. In 1903’s Papal Conclave, Franz Josef exercised the Jus Exclusivaeagainst Cardinal Rampolla; this last gasp of Ghibillinery gave us Pope St. Pius X. Then the horrors of World War I descended upon Europe, and when the smoke was cleared, there were no more Double Eagles. It might be thought that the Guelph dream had come true at last. There was no Emperor.
     But at what cost? It might well be thought that the subservient position of the Orthodox Churches in their lands of origin were in their way an illustration of what would happen were the Ghibelline idea to prevail. And, indeed, long after 1453 and 1917, disputes between the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople often revolve around their respective relationships with the “former Imperial power.” It is perhaps not too surprising to see the point made by Vladimir Soloviev, in his 1900 book arguing for the Russian Tsar’s reconciliation with the Holy See:
For lack of an Imperial power genuinely Christian and Catholic, the Church has not succeeded in establishing social and political justice in Europe. The nations and states of modern times, freed since the Reformation from ecclesiastical surveillance, have attempted to improve upon the work of the Church. The results of the experiment are plain to see.
The idea of Christendom as a real though admittedly inadequate unity embracing all the nations of Europe has vanished; the philosophy of the revolutionaries has made praiseworthy attempts to substitute for this unity the unity of the human race — with what success is well known.
A universal militarism transforming whole nations into hostile armies and itself inspired by a national hatred such as the Middle Ages never knew; a deep and irreconcilable social conflict; a class struggle which threatens to whelm everything in fire and blood; and a continuous lessening of moral power in individuals, witnessed to by the constant increase in mental collapse, suicide, and crime—such is the sum total of the progress which secularised Europe has made in the last three or four centuries.
The two great historic experiments, that of the Middle Ages and that of modern times, seem to demonstrate conclusively that neither the Church lacking the assistance of a secular power which is distinct from but responsible to her, nor the secular State relying upon its own resources, can succeed in establishing Christian justice and peace on the earth.
The close alliance and organic union of the two powers without confusion and without division is the indispensable condition of true social progress.

     World War I did not help matters in this area, and World War II much less so. When the conflict, with its imitation Reich was over, a great many European thinkers began to look in the same direction Soloviev had. In Germany, in addition to men like Valentin Tomberg and Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, the whole Neues Abendlandschool and Abendländische Bewegungemerged in Germany and Austria. Italy saw such folk as Attilio Mordini, Giulio Attilio Schettini, Giovanni Cantoni, and Il Ghibellino. Thierry Maulnier, Robert Aron, Daniel-Rops, Jean de Fabrègues, Alexandre Marc, Denis de Rougemont, and La Federationnight be named in France. And there were many more – all looking to reconstruct a Christian Europe that would be free, social, and true to the example of such as Charlemagne. Most prominent of them all was the Archduke Otto von Habsburg, heir to Austria-Hungary. This to a large degree was the vision that inspired the original founders of the EU – Schumann, Adenauer, De Gasperi, and the rest. And it was such a more or less unconscious yearning for the old Imperial idea that has led the Postwar Popes to endorse the EU and the UN fervently.
     The problem, of course, is that the Generation of ’68 hijacked the EU, and have turned it into an instrument of secularisation and cultural ruin. What then, is to be done? I think Fr. Aidan Nichols reveals part of the answer in his masterful Christendom Awake!:
     Catholicism, as Orthodoxy, has, historically, regarded the monarchical institution in this light: raised up by Providence to safeguard the natural law in its transmission through history as that norm for human co-existence which, founded as it is on the Creator, and renewed by him as the Redeemer, cannot be made subject to the positive law, or administrative fiat, or the dictates of cultural fashion. Let us dare to exercise a Christian political imagination on an as yet unspecifiable future.
     The articulation of the foundational natural and Judaeo-Christian norms of a really united Europe, for instance, would most appropriately be made by such a crown, whose legal and customary relations with the national peoples would be modelled on the best aspects of historic practice in the (Western) Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine “Commonwealth” — to use the term popularised by Professor Dimtri Obolensky.
     Such a crown, as the integrating factor of an international European Christendom, would leave intact the functioning of parliamentary government in the republican or monarchical polities of its constituent nations and analogues in city and village in other representative and participatory forms. As the Spanish political theorist Alvaro D’Ors defines the concepts, power — that is, government — as raised up by the people can and should be distinguished from authority.
     Power in this sense puts questions to those in authority as to what ought to be done. It asks whether technically possible acts of government, for co-ordinating the goals of individuals and groups in society, chime, or do not chime, with the foundational norms of society, deemed as these are to rest on the will of God as the ultimate power of the shared human goal. Authority, itself bereft of such power, answers out of a wisdom which society can recognise.

     One line in particular jumps out at one: “Let us dare to exercise a Christian political imagination on an as yet unspecifiable future.” The truth is that we live in a world where Guelph and Ghibelline effectively cancelled each other out. But we that groups with fervent imaginations have shaped the reality in which we live – a reality in which, effectively, there is neither God nor gender nor even humanity. So let it be our turn to exercise that imagination: let us re-examine the many writers of this tradition; let us look carefully at the world around us, scooping up and revivifying such remnants of Christendom, of Abendland, of l’Occident, of Sanctum Imperiumas still remain and evangelising as we can. Perhaps one day we shall have a world both sides would approve of.