Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


Bayle himself, while admitting that Gregory was the firebrand of Europe, concedes to him the denomination of a great man. “That old Rome,” says he, “which plumed itself upon conquests and military virtue, should have brought so many other nations under its dominion, redounds, according to the general maxims of mankind, to her credit and glory; but, upon the slightest reflection, can excite little surprise. On the other hand, it is a subject of great surprise to see new Rome, which pretended to value itself only on an apostolic ministry, possessed of an authority under which the greatest monarchs have been constrained to bend. Caron may observe, with truth, that there is scarcely a single emperor who has opposed the popes without feeling bitter cause to regret his resistance. Even at the present day the conflicts of powerful princes with the court of Rome almost always terminate in their confusion.”

I am of a totally different opinion from Bayle. There will probably be many of a different one from mine. I deliver it however with freedom, and let him who is willing and able refute it.

1. The differences of the princes of Orange and the seven provinces with Rome did not terminate in their confusion; and Bayle, who, while at Amsterdam, could set Rome at defiance, was a happy illustration of the contrary.

The triumphs of Queen Elizabeth, of Gustavus Vasa in Sweden, of the kings of Denmark, of all the princes of the north of Germany, of the finest part of Helvetia, of the single and small city of Geneva — the triumphs, I say, of all these over the policy of the Roman court are perfectly satisfactory testimonies that it may be easily and successfully resisted, both in affairs of religion and government.

2. The sacking of Rome by the troops of Charles the Fifth; the pope (Clement VII.) a prisoner in the castle of St. Angelo; Louis XIV. compelling Pope Alexander VII. to ask his pardon, and erecting even in Rome itself a monument of the pope’s submission; and, within our own times, the easy subversion of that steady, and apparently most formidable support of the papal power, the society of Jesuits in Spain, in France, in Naples, in Goa, and in Paraguay — all this furnishes decisive evidence, that, when potent princes are in hostility with Rome, the quarrel is not terminated in their confusion; they may occasionally bend before the storm, but they will not eventually be overthrown.

When the popes walked on the heads of kings, when they conferred crowns by a parchment bull, it appears to me, that at this extreme height of their power and grandeur they did no more than the caliphs, who were the successors of Mahomet, did in the very period of their decline. Both of them, in the character of priests, conferred the investiture of empires, in solemn ceremony, on the most powerful of contending parties.

3. Maimbourg says: “What no pope ever did before, Gregory VIII. did, depriving Henry IV. of his dignity of emperor, and of his kingdoms of Germany and Italy.”

Maimbourg is mistaken. Pope Zachary had, long before that, placed a crown on the head of the Austrasian Pepin, who usurped the kingdom of the Franks; and Pope Leo III. had declared the son of that Pepin emperor of the West, and thereby deprived the empress Irene of the whole of that empire; and from that time, it must be admitted, there has not been a single priest of the Romish church who has not imagined that his bishop enjoyed the disposal of all crowns.

This maxim was always turned to account when it was possible to be so. It was considered as a consecrated weapon, deposited in the sacristy of St. John of Lateran, which might be drawn forth in solemn and impressive ceremony on every occasion that required it. This prerogative is so commanding; it raises to such a height the dignity of an exorcist born at Velletri or Cività Vecchia, that if Luther, Œcolampadius, John Calvin, and all the prophets of the Cévennes, had been natives of any miserable village near Rome, and undergone the tonsure there, they would have supported that church with the same rage which they actually manifested for its destruction.

4. Everything, then, depends on the time and place of a man’s birth, and the circumstances by which he is surrounded. Gregory VII. was born in an age of barbarism, ignorance, and superstition; and he had to deal with a young, debauched, inexperienced emperor, deficient in money, and whose power was contested by all the powerful lords of Germany.

We cannot believe, that, from the time of the Austrasian Charlemagne, the Roman people ever paid very willing obedience to Franks or Teutonians: they hated them as much as the genuine old Romans would have hated the Cimbri, if the Cimbri had obtained dominion in Italy. The Othos had left behind them in Rome a memory that was execrated, because they had enjoyed great power there; and, after the time of the Othos, Europe it is well known became involved in frightful anarchy.

This anarchy was not more effectually restrained under the emperors of the house of Franconia. One-half of Germany was in insurrection against Henry IV. The countess Mathilda, grand duchess, his cousin-german, more powerful than himself in Italy, was his mortal enemy. She possessed, either as fiefs of the empire, or as allodial property, the whole duchy of Tuscany, the territory of Cremona, Ferrara, Mantua, and Parma; a part of the Marches of Ancona, Reggio, Modena, Spoleto, and Verona; and she had rights, that is to say pretensions, to the two Burgundies; for the imperial chancery claimed those territories, according to its regular practice of claiming everything.

We admit, that Gregory VII. would have been little less than an idiot had he not exerted his strongest efforts to secure a complete influence over this powerful princess; and to obtain, by her means, a point of support and protection against the Germans. He became her director, and, after being her director, her heir.

I shall not, in this place, examine whether he was really her lover, or whether he only pretended to be so; or whether his enemies merely pretended it; or whether, in his idle moments, the assuming and ardent little director did not occasionally abuse the influence he possessed with his penitent, and prevail over a feeble and capricious woman. In the course of human events nothing can be more natural or common; but as usually no registers are kept of such cases; as those interesting intimacies between the directors and directed do not take place before witnesses, and as Gregory has been reproached with this imputation only by his enemies, we ought not to confound accusation with proof. It is quite enough that Gregory claimed the whole of his penitent’s property.

5. The donation which he procured to be made to himself by the countess Mathilda, in the year 1077, is more than suspected. And one proof that it is not to be relied upon is that not merely was this deed never shown, but that, in a second deed, the first is stated to have been lost. It was pretended that the donation had been made in the fortress of Canossa, and in the second act it is said to have been made at Rome. These circumstances may be considered as confirming the opinion of some antiquaries, a little too scrupulous, who maintain that out of a thousand grants made in those times — and those times were of long duration — there are more than nine hundred evidently counterfeit.

There have been two sorts of usurpers in our quarter of the world, Europe — robbers and forgers.

6. Bayle, although allowing the title of Great to Gregory, acknowledges at the same time that this turbulent man disgraced his heroism by his prophecies. He had the audacity to create an emperor, and in that he did well, as the emperor Henry IV. had made a pope. Henry deposed him, and he deposed Henry. So far there is nothing to which to object — both sides are equal. But Gregory took it into his head to turn prophet; he predicted the death of Henry IV. for the year 1080; but Henry IV. conquered, and the pretended emperor Rudolph was defeated and slain in Thuringia by the famous Godfrey of Bouillon, a man more truly great than all the other three. This proves, in my opinion, that Gregory had more enthusiasm than talent.

I subscribe with all my heart to the remark of Bayle, that “when a man undertakes to predict the future, he is provided against everything by a face of brass, and an inexhaustible magazine of equivocations.” But your enemies deride your equivocations; they also have a face of brass like yourself; and they expose you as a knave, a braggart, and a fool.

7. Our great man ended his public career with witnessing the taking of Rome by assault, in the year 1083. He was besieged in the castle, since called St. Angelo, by the same emperor Henry IV., whom he had dared to dispossess, and died in misery and contempt at Salerno, under the protection of Robert Guiscard the Norman.

I ask pardon of modern Rome, but when I read the history of the Scipios, the Catos, the Pompeys, and the Cæsars, I find a difficulty in ranking with them a factious monk who was made a pope under the name of Gregory VII.

But our Gregory has obtained even a yet finer title; he has been made a saint, at least at Rome. It was the famous cardinal Coscia who effected this canonization under Pope Benedict XIII. Even an office or service of St. Gregory VII. was printed, in which it was said, that that saint “absolved the faithful from the allegiance which they had sworn to their emperor.”

Many parliaments of the kingdom were desirous of having this legend burned by the executioner: but Bentivoglio, the nuncio — who kept one of the actresses at the opera, of the name of Constitution, as his mistress, and had by her a daughter called la Légende; a man otherwise extremely amiable, and a most interesting companion — procured from the ministry a mitigation of the threatened storm; and, after passing sentence of condemnation on the legend of St. Gregory, the hostile party were contented to suppress it and to laugh at it.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01