The Middle Ages


May you live in interesting times.


-Ancient Chinese curse


Though many historians discount the Middle Ages as a time period when nothing much important happened, may interesting and important things did in fact occur then. This is especially true of the late Middle Ages. Over time the Roman Catholic Church was working to increase its prestige and power until Europe was dominated by it. However, as everyone knows what goes up must come down. History is filled with patterns. People swing from one extreme to the other. A very significant and interesting part of the Church’s history is the period when Philip IV was king of France. He was able to greatly affect the course of history through his dealings with the popes; especially Boniface VIII and Clement V. Boniface and Clement dealt with Philip in different ways however they somehow worked to the same end.


Philip IV, also known as Philip the Fair reigned as king of France in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries (1285-1314). Supposedly he was a hard man to know and modern historians still believe this to be true.[1] His contemporaries seemed to believe that he was “dominated by evil counsellors [sic] who ruled in his name.”[2] Modern historians tend to doubt that he was completely ruled by his counselors. Although they do indicate that he would let them make decisions for him, it seems as though he always knew and approved of their decisions. [3] Without a doubt, Philip believed in his own sovereignty in France. It was this belief and his desire to have everyone under is own control that led to his many conflicts with the church.[4]


Pope Boniface VIII, born Benedict Caetani, was the Bishop of Rome from 1294 to 1303. He was elected pope after the resignation of Celestine V, which will be discussed later. As a French historian put it, “Il est tout à fait improbable qu’il ait été le matérialiste, le blashphémateur, le contenpteur des croyances et de vertus communes que ses ennemis l’ont accusé d’être. Mais il n’avait ni modeste, ni moderation, ni sang-froid.”[5] Also “he was overbearing, blunt, implacable, egotistic to an offensive degree, and possessed of a blind, insatiable thirst for power.”[6] He was energetic, proud, stubborn, and ambitious.[7] Given these strong qualities, he should have been able to accomplish a great deal during his time as pope, however this was not the case. There was nothing new in his doctrine; it was simply traditional elements.[8] “Boniface, unhappily for himself, lived in a time which needed a pope as great as himself but wiser, more temperate, more far-seeing.”[9] At the beginning of his reign, the Papacy was most powerful and yet when he died he left it weak.[10]


Philip the Fair originally had no problems with the election of Boniface VIII. It was later, after they had come into conflict that he objected to the means by which Boniface became pope.[11] Growing national powers and Boniface’s continued instance on medieval papal claims caused the clash between Philip and Boniface.[12] Boniface and Philip’s difference “concerned well-worn questions: the right of the king to tax clergy and royal jurisdiction over clerics.”[13] Philip and Boniface were at odds so frequently because they were both men who felt that they deserved to have absolute rule over their domain. At one point, Boniface urges everyone in the Holy Roman Empire to not have any allegiance to France.[14] The battle of wills between the two men ends poorly for Boniface but is only a slight victory for Philip.


The first quarrel between Pope Boniface VIII and Philip IV was about the papal bull Clericis laicos. The French had become accustomed to having clerical tax money to support military activities and wanted to continue this in order to aid in the war against England.[15] Boniface, however, believed that clergy should not pay royal taxes. In 1296, Boniface issued the bull that basically stated that the clergy were not to pay local taxes. Those who demanded payment from the clergy and those clergy who paid were to be excommunicated. Philip responded by stopping export of all money and other valuables. Because the Holy See depended heavily on the money being exported from France, Boniface eventually had to give