The Latin church is the great fact which dominates the history of modern civilization. All other agencies which moulded the destinies of mediæval Europe were comparatively isolated or sporadic in their manifestations. Thus in one place we may trace the beneficent influence of commerce at work, in another the turbulent energy of the rising Third Estate; the mortal contests of the feudal powers with each other and with progress are waged in detached and convulsive struggles; chivalry casts only occasional and evanescent flashes of light amid the darkness of military barbarism; literature seeks to gain support from any power which will condescend to lend transitory aid to the plaything of the moment. Nowhere do we see combined effort, nowhere can we detect a pervading impulse, irrespective of locality or of circumstance, save in the imposing machinery of the church establishment. This meets us at every point, and in every age, and in every sphere of action. In the dim solitude of the cloister, the monk is training the minds which are to mould the destinies of the period, while his roof is the refuge of the desolate and the home of the stranger. In the tribunal, the priest is wrestling with the baron, and is extending his more humane and equitable code over a jurisdiction subjected to the caprices of feudal or customary law, as applied by a class of ignorant and arbitrary tyrants. In the royal palace, the hand of the ecclesiastic, visible or invisible, is guiding the helm of state, regulating the policy of nations, and converting the brute force of chivalry into the supple instrument of his will. In Central Europe, lordly prelates, with the temporal power and possessions of the highest princes, joined to the exclusive pretensions of the church, make war and peace, and are sovereign in all but name, owing no allegiance save to Emperors
whom they elect and Popes whose cause they share. Far above all, the successor of St. Peter from his pontifical throne claims the whole of Europe as his empire, and dictates terms to kings who crouch under his reproof, or are crushed in the vain effort of rebellion. At the other extremity of society, the humble minister of the altar, with his delegated power over heaven and hell, wields in cottage as in castle an authority hardly less potent, and sways the minds of the faithful with his right to implicit obedience. Even art offers a willing submission to the universal mistress, and seeks the embodiment of its noblest aspirations in the lofty poise of the cathedral spire, the rainbow glories of the painted window, and the stately rhythm of the solemn chant.
This vast fabric of ecclesiastical supremacy presents one of the most curious problems which the world’s history affords. A wide and absolute authority, deriving its force from moral power alone, marshalling no legions of its own in battle array, but permeating everything with its influence, walking unarmed through deadly strife, rising with renewed strength from every prostration, triumphing alike over the savage nature of the barbarian and the enervated apathy of the Roman tributary, blending discordant races and jarring nations into one great brotherhood of subjection—such was the Papal hierarchy, a marvel and a mystery. Well is it personified in Gregory VII., a fugitive from Rome, without a rood of ground to call him master, a rival Pope lording it in the Vatican, a triumphant Emperor vowed to internecine strife, yet issuing his commands as sternly and as proudly to prince and potentate as though he were the unquestioned suzerain of Europe, and listened to as humbly by three-fourths of Christendom. The man wasted away in the struggle; his death was but the accident of time: the church lived on, and marched to inevitable victory.
The investigations of the curious can hardly be deemed misapplied in analyzing the elements of this impalpable but irresistible power, and in examining the causes which have enabled it to preserve such unity of action amid such diversity of environment, presenting everywhere by turns a solid and united front to the opposing influences of barbarism and civilization. In detaching one of these elements from the group, and tracing out its successive vicissitudes, I may therefore be pardoned for thinking the subject of sufficient interest to warrant a minuteness of detail that would otherwise perhaps appear disproportionate.
The Janizaries of the Porte were Christian children, recruited by the most degrading tribute which tyrannical ingenuity has invented. Torn from their homes in infancy, every tie severed that bound them to the world around them; the past a blank, the future dependent solely upon the master above them; existence limited to the circle of their comrades, among whom they could rise, but whom they could never leave; such was the corps which bore down the bravest of the Christian chivalry and carried the standard of the Prophet in triumph to the walls of Vienna. Mastering at length their master, they wrung from him the privilege of marriage; and the class in becoming hereditary, with human hopes and fears disconnected with the one idea of their service, no longer presented the same invincible phalanx, and at last became terrible only to the effeminate denizens of the seraglio. The example is instructive, and it affords grounds for the assumption that the canon which bound all the active ministers of the church to perpetual celibacy, and thus created an impassable barrier between them and the outer world, was one of the efficient instruments in creating and consolidating both the temporal and spiritual power of the Roman hierarchy.