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Papacy (Saeculum Obscurum 904-963 AD), Great Decline of the


The Selection of the Pope in the Medieval Period

The Apostle Peter was considered as the first pope of the Catholic Church, but there was no formal process of selection for his successor after his death in the first century. According to tradition, Peter himself appointed his successors. This continued until the third century when Fabian was “elected” as pope after the people witnessed a dove settle on his head. They took this event as a sign that the Holy Spirit favored him, so he was chosen as the pope to succeed the deceased Anterus. This eventually led to the Great Decline of Papacy in 963 AD as recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History.

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Senior priests continued to elect popes thereafter, but the path to succession became complicated during the Medieval Period as some papal candidates, and secular rulers used the election and the position to grab power for themselves. The line between the state and the church was blurred when Pope Gregory the Great became the sole ruler of Rome. This was after the city was abandoned by the Eastern Roman rulers during the invasion of the Lombards. Since then, the pope became the ruler of the city. The papacy then became a much-coveted position when its prominence and power increased.

The Saeculum Obscurum

A new kind of power emerged during the last years of the ninth century up until the middle of the tenth century when the family of Theophylact, the Count of Tusculum, rose to prominence. This period (904 to 963 AD) would be known as Saeculum Obscurum (Latin for ‘the dark age’)—a time when corruption, murder, and lust dominated the papacy. It was also the time of the papacy’s great decline. This followed the domination of the powerful and notorious Roman women of the same family. Namely the Count of Tusculum’s wife Theodora, and her daughters, Marozia and Theodora, which led to the period’s nickname: pornocracy.

“The family tree of Theophylact.”

This started with the rise of Theophylact I, Count of Tusculum, who first appeared in the deposition of Antipope Christopher in 904 (it was also rumored that Theophylact was involved in the murder of Christopher while he was imprisoned). Together with Alberic I, and the Duke of Spoleto, Theophylact supported the election of Sergius III to succeed Christopher. With Sergius III under their thumbs, Theophylact and Theodora began to appoint themselves the rulers of Rome.

Sergius III was a staunch supporter of his predecessor, Pope Stephen VI. He was one of the bishops who took part in the infamous Cadaver Synod that Stephen assembled in 897 AD against his enemy, Pope Formosus. Stephen was later killed by the angry supporters of Formosus. Sergius reinforced the decrees of the said synod when he acceded as pope in 904 AD. Sergius’ notoriety did not stop there as according to Bishop Liutprand of Cremona, he took Theodora’s daughter Marozia as his mistress and fathered Pope John XI. The Frankish chronicler Flodoard contradicted this with a claim that Marozia’s husband Alberic I of Spoleto fathered John.

All of the eleven popes who succeeded Sergius were either supported by or were members of Marozia’s family. The Popes John XI and John XII were direct descendants of the powerful family. Although their direct domination ended in 963 AD, they would continue to produce five more popes who became powerful until the eleventh century (namely Popes Benedict VII, John XIII, Benedict VIII, John XIX, and Benedict IX). The reign of the eleven popes who succeeded Sergius were brief and unremarkable because of the domination of Marozia’s corrupt son, Alberic II, who proclaimed himself the Prince of the Romans.

The last pope of the Saeculum Obscurum, John XII, was the son of Alberic II. This pope rose at the same time as the German king, Otto I. It seemed that the apple did fall far from the tree, as papal historians consider him as a corrupt and an inept ruler who reportedly kept women at the Lateran Palace. Rumors of his immorality and his disloyalty to Otto I led to his deposition, as well as death in 963 AD under mysterious circumstances.

Mann, Horace K. The Lives of the Popes in the Early Middle Ages: The Popes in the Days of Feudal Anarchy. Vol. IV. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, &, 1910.
Partner, Peter. The Lands of St. Peter; The Papal State in the Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.
Ullmann, Walter. A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages. London: Methuen, 1972.
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