Little seems to be known of the life of this important figure of the eleventh century beyond his written contributions to several important controversies. He was born sometime around the turn of the millennium, and as a young man became a monk in the Bendectine order. Around 1050 he fell in with the anti-investiture reforming movement that was beginning to sweep the Western Church as a result of several factors, most notably the Cluniac Movement. Pope Leo X made him the archbishop of Sicily in that year, but he was prevented from fulfilling that role by the Normans, who kept him from landing on the island. A few years later, Humbert’s reforming zeal and the blazing fire of his pen would play a key role in the progress of the reformers, and ultimately help to bring about the split between the Eastern and Western Churches in 1054.
As is outlined in the entry on the Investiture Contest, the eleventh century saw increasingly sharp disputes over the relationship of the Church and the secular powers. The dispute had been growing in sharpness in the latter part of the tenth century, but at last came to a head during the pontificate of Leo IX (r. 1049-1054). During Leo’s tenure, the positions on investiture that would be taken for the next several generations hardened. the positions on investiture that would be taken for the next several generations hardened. Humbert soon found himself in bitter controversy with a fellow cardinal, Peter Damian, over the best way to reform the relationship between laymen and clergy. Humbert took the extreme hardline position that any ecclesiastical office obtained by the favor of a lay ruler was simony, and that simony was so serious a sin that it rendered the priest so ordained, his sacramental functions, and all others he himself ordained, illegitimate:
. . . According to the decrees of the holy fathers anyone who is consecrated as a bishop is first to be elected by the clergy, then requested by the people and finally consecrated by the bishops of the province with the approval of the metropolitan. A man cannot be held or called a true, undoubted established bishop unless he has a definite body of clergy and people to govern and unless he has been consecrated by the other bishops of the province with the authority of the metropolitan, who has charge of the province on behalf of the apostolic see. Anyone who has been consecrated without conforming to all of these three rules is not to be regarded as a true, undoubted, established bishop nor counted among the bishops canonically created and appointed. Rather he is to be called a pseudo-bishop; for a bishop is called a governor or supervisor, but what clergy or people can a man govern when no clergy or people has chosen him to govern them, and when he lacks the authority of the metropolitan and of the provincial bishops?
. . . Whereas men venerable throughout the world and supreme pontiffs inspired by the Holy Spirit have decreed that the election of the clergy should be confirmed by the judgement of the metropolitan, and the petition of the nobles and people by consent of the prince, now everything is done in such disorder that the first are last and the last first, so that the sacred canons are rejected and the whole Christian religion trampled underfoot. The secular power is first in choosing and confirming; the consent of nobles, people and clergy and then finally the decision of the metropolitan come afterwards whether they are willing or not. Hence, as stated above, men promoted in this fashion are not to be regarded as bishops, for the manner of their appointment is upside down; what ought to be done first is done last and by men who should not be concerned in the matter at all. For how does it pertain to lay persons to distribute ecclesiastical sacraments and episcopal or pastoral grace, that is to say crozier staffs and rings, with which all episcopal consecration is principally effected and by which it functions and is sustained? Surely the crozier staffs, hooked and bent at the top to attract and draw forward, pointed and armoured at the bottom to repel and drive off, symbolize what is conveyed by them, that is, pastoral care. . . . Again, the ring is a symbol of heavenly mysteries, warning preachers that, like the Apostle, they should speak and present the secret wisdom of God among the mature and keep it like a sealed mystery from the immature who are not yet ready for solid food but need only milk; or the ring signifies that, like betrothed lovers, they should unceasingly show forth and praise the pledge of faith of their own bride which is the church.
Anyone, then, who appoints a man with these two symbols undoubtedly claims all rights of pastoral care for himself in so presuming. For, after this institution, what choice concerning such rulers who have already been appointed can be exercised by the clergy, nobles and people or by the metropolitan who is to consecrate them or merely be present, except only to acquiesce? A man so instituted first intrudes on the clergy, nobles and people in order to lord it over them by force instead of being acknowledged, sought after and requested by them. So too he attacks the metropolitan, not submitting to his judgement but rather judging him; he does not require or receive the metropolitan’s approval but demands and exhorts the service of prayer and anointing which is all that is left to him, for how can it pertain to the metropolitan or what purpose would it serve to confer again the staff and ring that he already has? . . .:”(Cited from Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State, 1050-1300 [New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1964], document no 20, translated from Humbert, Libri III Adversus Simoniacos)”:
That this position would have created mass havoc in the Church by calling into question the ordinations of half the priests in Europe did not seem to cause Humbert any conceptual or practical difficulties.:”(Tierney’s judgment of Humbert is that he was “coldly intellectual, a man more concerned with justice than with charity, more swayed by abstract argument than by practical considerations of human need” who could “never resist pressing an argument to its logical conclusion and if the process led to results that were subversive of the whole existing order of society, to ideas whose implementation might throw the whole world into chaos, he would rather risk the chaos than reconsider the argument.” [Brian Tierney, The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300 [University of Toronto Press, 1999], pg. 33. Also see pp. 34-35 for notes on Humbert’s blind spots in terms of how his principles would subvert the existing feudal order. Another Catholic historian, Warren H. Carroll, describes Humbert as “totally committed to the reform, a man of spotless life, but ardent to the point of rashness,” A History of Christendom, Vol. 2: The Building of Christendom [Front Royal, VA: Christendom College Press, 1987], pg. 474.)”: Humbert believed that ecclesiastical power was related to secular power as the soul is related to the body—both need each other, but the soul is “obviously” superior and is to be accorded the greater dignity. For those who would follow this line of reasoning, both popes and their defenders, it was perhaps natural that the paradox of drawing and practicing societally-disruptive conclusions in the name of defending society would go unnoticed.
Peter Damian, on the other hand, took a more pastoral position, insisting that just because a man was a bad bishop (by reason of having obtained the office sinfully) did not mean he was no bishop at all. While as fiercely opposed to clerical simony as Humbert, Damian nevertheless saw no need to disrupt the entire societal order instead of working within it to correct abuses. By the close of the 1050’s, Humbert’s position had prevailed in the reforming party at Rome. Though the cardinal died in 1061 his ideas—most importantly his strict, one-sided ideas regarding the supremacy of the papal office over that of royal offices—lived on and would by Pope Gregory VII be given a defining, norming force that would reverberate stunningly through the next five hundred years of authority controversies in the Church.
Perhaps the most significant event to occur in the lifetime of Humbert, however, and one with which he was intimately involved, was the split with the Eastern Church in 1054. This event, fueled by many complicated cultural and doctrinal factors on both sides, was initiated to no small degree by policies of Leo IX, but was actually carried out after Leo had died and largely because of the actions of his rigidly inflexible representative to Byzantium–Humbert himself. It was in the midst of already tense talks with the Eastern Patriarch Michael Cerularius, that Humbert wrote a work which bombastically presented the claims of the pope to universal jurisdiction in the Church. Ironically, much of the content of Humbert’s work was based on the fraudulent Donation of Constantine, which, in conjunction with the equally fraudulent Pseudo-Isidorean Decretals had been a major “historical” bulwark of the papal claims since the time of Pope Nicholas I.:”(Though, of course, we must remember that no one at this point in history knew that the Donation and the Decretals were fraudulent, and at any rate, no one had the sort of scientific standards of evidence–or the concept of historical truth–that we have today.)”: