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Those of you who have been paying close attention will recall that in 732 Charles Martel defeated the Islamic forces that were trying to conquer Europe by moving across the continent from west to east. Perhaps you remember too that as Mayors of the Palace, Martel and his descendants were also trying hard to win the favor of the Papacy, so that they could have the Church’s blessing on their plan to overthrow the existing weak Merovingian rulers in France and become rulers themselves.
The Papacy was, at the time, beset by enemies and rivals. In the enemy category stood the Lombards, a tough group descended from a mixed ancestry of Hun and Aryan tribal warriors. Even the Romans had not been able to get rid of them, although they had at least managed to defeat the Lombard forces once in 5 A.D. and hold them in check briefly. By the time Charles Martel was beating up on the Islamic invaders in France, in Italy the Lombards had taken over enough territory to pose a challenge to Papal control.
In the rival category stood the Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the eastern branch of Christianity, who refused to recognize Papal claims of authority over all branches of the Church and who claimed to exercise a fair amount of political sovereignty in the West as well.
The Papacy understood that military help would be needed to overcome both of these obstacles, and that is where the Frankish Mayors of the Palace came in. An “understanding” was reached between the Church and Charles Martel, and by the time Pepin the Short came to power in 747, the arrangement was easily cemented by the arrival in France of Pope Stephen II, who more or less recognized Pepin as the legitimate ruler of the Franks.
Of course, there were strings attached. By designating Pepin as Patricius (a title he could not legally confer, incidentally) the Pope made Pepin protector of Italy as well as of France. This arrangement represented a clever move on the part of the Papacy, since it accomplished two things at one stroke. First, it challenged the supposedly exclusive right of the Eastern authorities to confer such a title. Second, it required that Pepin “protect” Italy from the Lombards.
And so he did. Pepin took on the Lombards in 754, forcing them to hand over territory in Italy to the Papacy. When they failed to comply after he withdrew, he adopted a different tactic. Invading again in 756, he personally conquered and claimed their territory, and then he “donated” it to the Papacy
All of this was technically illegal, since the territory involved, historians agree, belonged to the Eastern Empire in the first place and the Lombards themselves were just sort of, well, squatters. None of that mattered, however, in the face of a military fait accompli. Thus the Donation of Pepin established the Patrimonium Petri, which became the nucleus of the Papal States.
In short, it is probably true that the history of both France and Italy would have been very different if it had not been for the Donation of Pepin. The boost to Papal power given by this arrangement allowed the Popes to assert ever greater control over what we would consider today to be secular matters, ensuring that during the Middle Ages there would be no such thing as separation of Church and State.
And that is an issue that provokes strong feelings even today, on both sides of the Atlantic. France is struggling with the issue of Islamic head coverings in schools, a problem that arises because religious dress is not allowed in public schools. America is trying to walk a line between permissible and non-permissible public displays of religious symbols and statements. From news reports, it appears that both countries are finding these problems to be just as trying as the problems faced by Pepin and the Pope in the eighth century. Can it be that some things never change?
Jean England Freeland is a now-retired professor of history presently living on a real farm raising real fruit and veggies. After struggling to learn French for four years, she has at last reached the point where, whenever she visits Paris and actually speaks the
language, the natives no longer flee screaming. She considers this one of the major accomplishments of her life.