The Medieval Review 13.01.02

Stroll, Mary. Popes and Antipopes: The Politics of Eleventh Century Church Reform. Studies in the History of Christian Traditions, 159. Leiden: Brill, 2012. Pp. xviii, 266. $136. ISBN: 978-90-04-21701-0. . .

Reviewed by:

John Howe
Texas Tech University

Mary Stroll seeks to present a "far more complex" view of papally- led ecclesiastical reform up to the reign of Gregory VII (1073- 1085), emphasizing its "contradictions and dissonance" (xiii). Substantively she destabilizes the traditional narrative of popes vs. emperors by focusing on other players, particularly the Roman nobility whose factions could even goad the Roman reformers into seeking the emperor's help against them. Also featured are antipopes and southern Italian Normans. And, Stroll suggests, behind apparently straightforward pro-papal legal collections may lurk monasteries attempting to check potentially abusive local bishops by championing the powers of the pope (89-93). Against the stereotypical image of emperors attempting by coup to turn an independent papacy into just one more imperial bishopric, she invokes the office of the patricius Romanorum, the "Roman patrician," originally a Byzantine official responsible for protecting the papacy and overseeing papal elections: the career of this office is difficult to trace (it was even held by young prince Charles well before he became Charlemagne), but it certainly resurfaced among great Roman families in the early eleventh century and was conveyed to Henry III (1039-56) and Henry IV (1056-1106). Undercutting the traditional dichotomy between Roman ecclesiastical reformers and imperial supporters of the status quo, Stroll identifies reformers in all camps who were attempting to establish harmonia between Church and state as well as some who were seeking a more theocratic libertas ecclesiae. The attempt to complicate the narrative can occasionally result in digressions, such as the inconclusive discussion of the problem of the exact form of the 1059 papal election decree (95-107). All Stroll's complexities have been signaled before, especially by German and Italian scholars, but here they are brought together and analyzed in a single brief accessible to an English-speaking audience.

Making a story more complicated does not necessarily make it more consistent. Underlying Stroll's narrative is her professed admiration for the spirituality that reformers "exemplified and engendered" (xiii) and her disillusionment at "how fluid the situation was, and how weak the dedication to ecclesiastical principle" (219). This tension animates the book, but perhaps Stroll relishes the scandalous side a little too much. She attributes objective reality to reports linking the numerous premature deaths of popes to poisoning (29, 30-31, 61, 63, 64-65, 116. 239)--historians might do better to use the same skepticism and Occamist razors against horror stories too bad to be true that they apply to miracle stories too good to be true. She accords evidentiary value to even the most extreme claims, such as the story relayed by the pro-imperial cardinal Beno of SS Martino e Silvestro (d. ca. 1100) describing how Archdeacon Hildebrand, the future Gregory VII, commissioned the beating of Pope Alexander II (1061-73) and then seized all papal income for his own use except for five Luccan solidi, a story she admits must be caricature but still invokes as part of a "pattern of reports by Hildebrand's critics" (130)--we expect hostile sources to present negative patterns but we find them credible based upon the strength of the charges and the supporting evidence. Nevertheless, it is hard to fault Stroll greatly here, since a bi-polar narrative is already present in the conflicting black and white primary sources of the Libelli de Lite. Even we today who are "blessed" with well documented dueling elites are still unable to sort out, for example, whether a political candidate's economic policy is a logical, idealistic attempt to correct present disorder or a scheme to enrich himself and his millionaire friends.

One too consistent theme is the omnipotence of Archdeacon Hildebrand. Stroll claims that "the sources...agree that he was clearly in charge" (130). Her Hildebrand is "almost surely" the "architect" of papal coronation (86-89); he can unilaterally choose popes (124), he sets up the alliance with the Normans of Southern Italy (117 and 170), and his aspiration "to create a theocracy" was what destabilized "both the papacy and the Empire" (149 and 231). All medieval and modern historians agree that Hildebrand was a powerful figure in the papal curia. But it is difficult to envision him as the puppet master pulling all the strings because even in purely ecclesiastical circles he was, as Stroll indicates in various places, on the losing side of issues such as his initial tolerance of Berengar of Tours, his defense of the seditious Vallombrosan monks against their bishop, and his opposition to Peter Damian's request in 1064 for an imperially supported council to examine the previous papal election. He had even less control when dealing with powerful allied lay magnates and rulers. When Stroll assumes that Hildebrand was responsible for whatever transpired, she undercuts the attempt to present a "far more complex" view of ecclesiastical reform.

Stroll is well read in the international literature on the Gregorian Reform, but there are a few infelicities in detail or presentation. She presumes that the international personnel of Leo IX's reforming circle all arrived in Rome with him (2 and 34), instead of gradually trickling in as the sources suggest. Her claim that in 1054 the pope and the patriarch of Constantinople "reached an impasse, [and] their solution was to excommunicate one another" (46) fails to convey accurately either Leo IX's policy or his role. Given the carefully crafted restrictions on papal power over the southern Italian Norman churches, it seems disingenuous to claim that "Robert Guiscard facilitated the expansion of papal influence in both the political and religious spheres by extinguishing Byzantine and Muslim political power" (110, cf. 26). She is not consistent about the poorly documented obit of Cadalus of Parma, the anti-pope Honorius II (7, 232, 240).

Institutional history in general is no longer fashionable. And studies of the Gregorian Reform as institutional rationalization have fallen so far out of favor that this past year when Professor Walter Goffart of Yale had looked over the 256 page Program of the Forty-Seventh International Congress on Medieval Studies he was heard to exclaim, "But where is the Gregorian Reform?!" Here it is, or at least its early developments, right here in Stroll's book. And here also is a hint about how research might move forward. Popes and Antipopes is less about an office than about people. Its institutional history morphs into social history. Its story really concerns reformers--not just the traditional heroes but also some who were anti-popes and imperialists and some who were morally compromised--all struggling with limited success as they tragically attempt to reshape an unjust and inharmonious world.