This, along with the equivalent term “The Rule of the Harlots,” is the name often given to one of the darkest times in the history of the papacy–the period in the tenth century when the selection of popes was controlled by three prominent and very corrupt Roman families, the Theophylacts, the Alberics, and the Tusculans. These families used the popes they created as pawns in their political intrigues. Partly this resulted from the feudal system of government which prevailed throughout Europe. Partly also it came about as an effect of the general decline of strong, moral government in the collapse of Charlemagne’s Empire and the chaos caused not only by the civil wars of his successors but also by the Viking invasions which were increasing in frequency and scope.
The period of the Pornocracy is said to have begun with the rise to power of two vile women of the Theophylact family, Theodora and Marozia. The period lasted from the pontificate of Sergius III (r. 904-911) to the death of Pope John XII (r. 955-964). Marozia is thought to have been the “concubine” of Sergius III, and by him she had the man who would eventually become Pope John XI (r. 931-935). She was also involved with the Count of Tusculum, Alberic I, who controlled the election and fortunes of several popes during this period. His son by Marozia, Alberic II (r. in Rome 905-954), would continue in his father’s footsteps.
Sergius III, the initial pope of this period, was an extremely corrupt man who had been involved in earlier papal intrigues, including those leading to the death of Pope Formosus (r. 891-896), who was disinterred by his second successor, Stephen VI (r. 896-897) and made the focus of the gruesome “cadaver synod” of 897. Sergius obtained the papal throne by force, having been first elected by the anti-Formosan faction, then deposed by the pro-Formosan faction, and at last coming to Rome with an army with which he siezed the Chair of Peter. He is said to have had his nemeses, Pope Leo V and (anti)-Pope Christopher strangled in prison. More a corrupt feudal lord than a good successor of the humble fisherman from Galilee, Sergius did little of value save for restoring the Lateran Palace, which had been damaged by an earthquake–ironically during the proceedings of the “cadaver synod.”
The next several popes, Anastasius III (r. 911-913) and Lando (r. 913-914) were largely ineffective, but the third successor of Sergius, John X (r. 914-928), is remembered for staving off the depredations of Muslim soldiers in central Italy. John did much to prepare the way for the recognition, in the aftermath of the eleventh century reformation, of the papacy as the center of Christendom, and he was involved in the ongoing efforts to convert and disciple the warlike Normans who were ravaging France in those days. John’s legates were successful, also, in restoring fairly cordial relations with the Eastern Church, which had been severely strained by the Photian Schism in the previous century, and by the approval by Anastasius III in 912 of Emperor Leo VI’s fourth marriage.
For their parts Marozia, along with her mother and sister (both named Theodora) were, by contemporary accounts written by God-fearing Christian historians and bishops, contemptible creatures full of sexual and political lusts, and murderous ambitions. They exercised an immense amount of influence over the men they controlled. Several of the popes during this period were murdered by Marozia or her agents, and that fate as well was shared by her husband Alberic I (d. 926). Marozia herself was imprisoned by her son Alberic (II) in 932 as a result of her taking Hugh of Provence, the king of Italy, as her third husband–an action which outraged the inhabitants of Rome enough to revolt under Alberic’s leadership. Marozia disappears from the records after this time, but her legacy of political control of the papacy lived on in her son’s activities for another two decades.
Despite the darkness of this period generally considered, some of the popes during this time were more or less pious individuals who were restrained by the more powerful political forces controlling the fortunes of Rome and the Papacy from doing the good that they wished to do. During this period of time reforming movements were beginning to stir throughout Europe. Most notable among these was one which would have an enormous amount of influence in the eleventh century, the Cluniac Movement. John XI, in fact, was one of the earliest popes to confirm the “exemption” of the Cluniac houses from secular control, and its status as a protectorate of the Roman See. His successor, Leo VII had the abbot of Cluny, Odo, come to Rome and begin a process of trying to reform the religious houses there. Popes Stephen VIII and Agapitus II also strongly encouraged the Cluniac reforming ideal.
Nevertheless, as a whole the period is one of dark, despairing decline, and it took the intervention of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I (r. 936-973) to rescue the papacy from it. This interference into the spiritual sphere by the temporal power, though appreciated at the time by most Christians (including reformers in Rome), would later become part of one of the most sobering controversies ever to hit the Western Church, the Investiture Contest. It is difficult for minds steeped in the Modern Age’s apparently self-evident truism of “separation of Church and state,” to come to terms with the immense scandal that political manipulation of spiritual concerns as most brilliantly portrayed by the period of the Pornocracy would provoke in the eleventh century reformers. A measure of the mind of the eleventh century may be seen, however, in the remark of Pope Gregory VII that if lay involvement in spiritual affairs was not eliminated, the very Gospel itself would fall and the Church be subjected to “irreparable ruin and destruction.”:”(The exact phrase used by Gregory is “inreparabiliem ecclesie ruinam destructionemque.” Cited from section 1.65 of Gregory VII’s Registrum, by Gerhart B. Ladner in “Gregory the Great and Gregory VII: A Comparison of Their Concepts of Renewal”, in Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 4 .)”:
One often finds Roman Catholic writers using such instances as the Pornocracy (and the Western Schism five centuries later) as evidences of the divine foundation of the Papacy. For, they reason, how could something not wonderfully protected by God Himself manage to survive such awful catastrophes? A more realistic and not question-begging theological explanation might be, as the nineteenth century Protestant historian Philip Schaff once wrote, that humility and charity are called for because the Pornocracy in particular “is a terrible rebuke to pretensions of superior sanctity.”:”(History of the Christian Church, Vol. 4: Mediaeval Christianity From Gregory I to Gregory VII [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996], pg. 285.)”: One is reminded of St. Paul’s rebuke to Rome in the biblical book addressed to the church of that city: “Do not be conceited, but fear; for if God did not spare the natural branches [broken off for their unbelief], neither will he spare you.” (Romans 11: 20-21). Rome may have survived scandals such as the Pornocracy, but their terrible blight on her record stands as a solemn witness that she had better not be prideful, but rather, repentant.