Arnold of Brescia: The Man So Important You’ve Never Heard of Him
Sometimes, it’s good to be the pope. The twelfth century, however, was not one of those times.
Antipopes, uppity monarchs, and failed Crusades all took their toll on a papacy ever more at a loss to explain just how its marked addiction to opulence helped Jesus’s plan for humanity. The greatest indignity, however, came at the hands of the Roman people who, tired of the pope’s exercise of governmental and judicial power, threw him out of Rome in 1144 to establish a democratic commune. A holy bindlestiff trudging about Italy for a decade trying to justify his existence to whatever monarch might lend him a hand in retaking his city, the pope was a slinking specter desperately seeking relevance.
And the man who contributed most to making him that way was Arnold of Brescia. Executed in 1155 at the hands of an indifferent Emperor, a vengeful pope, and a treacherous senate, the Roman Curia was so worried about his body becoming a focal point for further revolution that it ordered him cremated and his ashes flung into the Tiber River. The church hoped to cast his memory along with his remains to the waters, to be dissipated and ultimately forgotten, and they succeeded. For most people today, Arnold of Brescia is a footnote to a footnote, in spite of the fact that he came within an imperial nod of establishing the Reformation four hundred years ahead of its time.
He was born sometime between 1090 and 1105 in the Lombard town of Brescia. The city was, at the time, second only to Milan in terms of economic importance and political consciousness. Thriving merchant and artisan classes crackled with new ideas for self-governance and, in the jumble following the dissolution of the Carolingian Empire, saw their chance to grab power. The only thing that stood in their way were the bishops—holders of immense wealth and temporal authority who had astutely been filling the power vacuum.
The contest between the burgeoning middle class and the bishops came to a head in 1138 when bishop Manfred fled Brescia for Rome in a desperate attempt to plea for papal help in re-establishing his authority. For three years prior to that, the townsmen had been slowly chipping away at the bishop’s power base, and at first Arnold wasn’t sure whose side to join. He had spent a decade studying with Peter Abelard, whose intellectual, analytic approach towards religion couldn’t have been more different from Arnold’s unlikely mixture of asceticism and demagoguery. And yet, the two men became fast friends: when it was Abelard’s time to go on trial for heresy in 1141, Arnold of Brescia stood by his side.
Because Arnold left no writings, it’s hard to entirely pin down what he learned from Abelard beyond a general principle of the necessity to confront authority whenever it errs. While Abelard criticized the intellectual failings of mystical theology, Arnold attacked the Church’s political power. In a time when the Church owned sprawling tracts of land, controlled vast hoards of wealth, launched armies to achieve its political goals, and claimed for itself an increasing share of judicial authority, Arnold argued for a complete return to a purely spiritual role. Simony and land ownership had corrupted the heart of Christianity’s purpose, and distracted it from its role in alleviating the suffering of the common folk. Nothing would be right until the Church returned its holdings to the people and renounced its role in mediating terrestrial affairs.
These were the ideas he possessed when returning to Brescia on the eve of its revolution against the bishops. Like everything in medieval history, the situation was a complicated brew of regional, religious, economic, and social factors that have become polarized and cartoonishly simplified in the retelling. The fact was that the bishops were trying to reform some of the very evils that Arnold complained of while the revolutionaries were a mixture of honest democrats and self-serving low-level priests trying to foil the bishops’ plans. Who Arnold should ally with was therefore not an easy matter. Ultimately, the pull of popular justice couldn’t be denied, and Arnold fell in with the nascent commune and thereby sealed his fate.
His ability as a speaker soon brought him to the head of the movement and, in 1139, when the pope finally spoke out against Brescia’s rebellion, Arnold was singled out for exile. The bishop returned bearing the pope’s command, and the Brescia commune, a grand experiment in self-government that was to be repeated many times over the Lombard landscape, crumbled.
Arnold wandered a while after that, returning to the historical record at Abelard’s final trial for heresy. Their joint appearance did neither any good, unfortunately. The acid-tongued Bernard of Clairvaux (later Saint Bernard, since nothing so betokens a saint as persistent and consuming vindictiveness wed to power) used Arnold’s bad political reputation to undermine Abelard’s position by association, ultimately securing Abelard’s final censure. For Arnold, being seen in public on Abelard’s side made him an object of sustained interest to Bernard, who kept tabs ever afterwards on the wandering exile’s movements. The most influential clergyman of his day, Bernard made sure to write to anybody offering Arnold protection, warning them against endangering their own position in the Church by harboring such a viper.
While Arnold was in exile, Rome was taking its first, somewhat inglorious, steps to self-governance. To understand what happened, you have to know that the neighborhood cities of Rome and Tivoli did not particularly like each other. Tivoli supported the anti-Pope Anacletus while the Romans, at least until they kicked him out, supported Innocent II. Taking the whole rebellion-against-authority thing a step further, the Tivolese rejected Rome’s political authority over them and, when Rome tried to subdue the upstart city by force in 1142, the town’s staunch defense thoroughly defeated and humiliated the Roman forces.
So, Rome being Rome, they tried attacking again the next year and this time they were successful. The Roman people demanded that Tivoli be burnt to the ground, but the pope instead negotiated a relatively benign treaty restoring the peace. The Romans, denied their bloody vengeance, arose en masse and set up a government of their own.
Innocent was left to sulk impotently in the Lateran and died soon thereafter. His successor reigned for less than a year and didn’t manage much, which brought Lucius II to papal power. Forging an alliance with the king of Sicily, he formed an army to retake Rome, and attacked the city in 1145.
He failed. He also got hit in the head by a rock and died in the attack.
His replacement, Eugene III, was a modest man who lived an honest life, and didn’t like to solve things by violence if it could be avoided. All of which made him startlingly unique among the role-call of medieval popes, and also particularly well suited to dealing with the Roman commune. Arnold appealed to the gentle Eugene for forgiveness and received it. Thereupon, Arnold made his way to Rome just as Eugene was making a deal with the commune to split power between the papal officials and the democratically elected senators.
The era of good feelings was not meant to last, however. By 1146 Eugene was an outcast again, and Arnold was at the head of the movement against him. Inveighing against the corrupting military and economic might of the papacy, he inspired the city to continue its resistance and seek protection from foreign rulers against the pope’s return.
However, the brisk competence in governing that was natural to the savvy citizens of Lombardy was utterly lacking among the Romans. Without a sizeable artisan class, perpetually unsure of what they wanted to accomplish, the movement was ever in danger of coming to tatters, and that it lasted as long as it did was due mainly to the eloquence of Arnold, the hope of Imperial support, and a convenient distraction.
For, it turned out, Bernard of Clairvaux was all hot and bothered after the fall of Edessa to start up a new Crusade, and used his influence to ignite a groundswell of support for the idea. Eugene, then, instead of concentrating on regaining his control of Rome, had to tour through Europe, organizing the grand effort that would ultimately lead to the fantastically underwhelming (at least on the Eastern front) Second Crusade. Thus tied up, the Commune had some years of breathing space to experiment with democratic government.
Finally able to devote his attention to the rather embarrassing matter of not being the ruler of his own spiritual capital, the pope made peace again in 1149, then fled, again, in 1150. Eugene’s way of doing things, charming as it was, clearly was not getting the job done.
That’s when Nicholas Breakspear showed up.
Breakspear was every bit as badass as somebody with the last name of Breakspear ought to be. When he became pope in 1154, he made it known that he was officially done with this Commune nonsense. For the first time in history, he placed the whole city of Rome under interdiction on the eve of Easter, meaning that no religious ceremonies could be performed there. The Roman people, who believed sternly that disaster would befall the city if Easter Mass was skipped that year, begged him to return. Meanwhile, Breakspear had invited Frederick Barbarossa to march into Italy with his armies and restore order. Cutting a path of terror through Lombardy, Frederick and his Germans finally arrived at Rome and proceeded to slaughter its citizenry. The commune was finished, Frederick was made an Emperor, and Breakspear entered history as Pope Adrian IV, protector of the faith.
The city, which had agreed to protect Arnold no matter what might happen, promptly turned on him when Adrian asked for the surrender of their most famous revolutionary. Arnold managed to escape, but not for long. Adrian asked Barbarossa to handle the matter of executing Arnold; it was perfectly seemly for popes to order the murder of a human being, or a city, just not to carry it out themselves.
Arnold was executed by hanging in 1155 at an unknown location outside of Rome, his ashes cast into the Tiber as per orders. Though “Arnoldists” pop up in papal correspondence from time to time, and though the Roman senate continued to exist for another half century on paper, the movement and the ideas that motivated it were done.
Had Emperor Conrad responded to Rome’s pleas for protection, or had his successor Frederick Barbarossa sided with the city instead of the pope, it all might have gone so much differently. The destruction of the pope’s political authority and the ascendance of private spirituality over public spectacle might have brought a proto-Reformation to Europe in the twelfth century, and perhaps (oh, let’s be thoroughly irresponsible as sober academics, shall we?) a quasi-Enlightenment in the fourteenth. Where would we be, as a world society, had Arnold’s wedge in papal power driven home under the weight of the Hohenstaufen’s political support?
It’s tempting, and a little heart-breaking, to speculate. As it stands, he failed, utterly, at forcing the papacy to reevaluate its powers and privileges. But then, so did the papacy fail to use the lesson of the Commune to make itself a less self-contradictory institution and, on a smaller scale, to entirely silence the story of the slightly mad Lombard, who, with a simple but persistent call to humility and charity, nearly upset one thousand years of institutional inertia.
Arnold of Brescia is mainly somebody you read about in passing in books devoted to other people. The main source for anybody interested is still George Greenaway’s 1931 Arnold of Brescia, now out of print. Since then, no major biography has appeared in English. If, however, you speak German, you’re in a bit better luck. Martina Kleinau’s recent Arnold von Brescia: Reformer oder Ketzer? is readily available in print and electronic formats and has a very Greenaway perspective to it. Arnold left behind no writings, but if you get the Greenaway, it includes a chapter on all of the original sources we have available which talk about his ideas and life.