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§ 61. Nicolas I., April, 858-Nov. 13, 867.


I. The Epistles of Nicolas I. in Mansi’s Conc. XV., and in Migne’s Patrol. Tom. CXIX. Comp. also Jaffé, Regesta, pp. 237–254.

Hincmari (Rhemensis Archiepiscopi) Oper. Omnia. In Migne’s Patrol. Tom. 125 and 126. An older ed. by J. Sirmond, Par. 1645, 2 vols. fol.

Hugo Laemmer: Nikolaus I. und die Byzantinische Staatskirche seiner Zeit. Berlin, 1857.

A. Thiel: De Nicolao Papa. Comment. duae Hist. canonicae. Brunzberg, 1859.

Van Noorden: Hincmar, Erzbischof von Rheims. Bonn, 1863.

Hergenröther (R.C. Prof at Wurzburg, now Cardinal): Photius. Regensburg, 1867–1869, 3 vols.

Comp. Baxmann II. 1–29; Milman, Book V. ch.4 (vol. III. 24–46); Hefele, Conciliengesch. vol. IV., (2nd ed.), 228 sqq; and other works quoted § 48.


By a remarkable coincidence the publication of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals synchronized with the appearance of a pope who had the ability and opportunity to carry the principles of the Decretals into practical effect, and the good fortune to do it in the service of justice and virtue. So long as the usurpation of divine power was used against oppression and vice, it commanded veneration and obedience, and did more good than harm. It was only the pope who in those days could claim a superior authority in dealing with haughty and oppressive metropolitans, synods, kings and emperors.

Nicolas I. is the greatest pope, we may say the only great pope between Gregory I. and Gregory VII. He stands between them as one of three peaks of a lofty mountain, separated from the lower peak by a plane, and from the higher peak by a deep valley. He appeared to his younger contemporaries as a “new Elijah,” who ruled the world like a sovereign of divine appointment, terrible to the evil-doer whether prince or priest, yet mild to the good and obedient. He was elected less by the influence of the clergy than of the emperor Louis II., and consecrated in his presence; he lived with him on terms of friendship, and was treated in turn with great deference to his papal dignity. He anticipated Hildebrand in the lofty conception of his office; and his energy and boldness of character corresponded with it. The pope was in his view the divinely appointed superintendent of the whole church for the maintenance of order, discipline and righteousness, and the punishment of wrong and vice, with the aid of the bishops as his executive organs. He assumed an imperious tone towards the Carolingians. He regarded the imperial crown a grant of the vicar of St. Peter for the protection of Christians against infidels. The empire descended to Louis by hereditary right, but was confirmed by the authority of the apostolic see.

The pontificate of Nicolas was marked by three important events: the controversy with Photius, the prohibition of the divorce of King Lothair, and the humiliation of archbishop Hincmar. In the first he failed, in the second and third he achieved a moral triumph.


Nicolas and Photius.


Ignatius, patriarch of Constantinople, of imperial descent and of austere ascetic virtue, was unjustly deposed and banished by the emperor Michael III. for rebuking the immorality of Caesar Bardas, but he refused to resign. Photius, the greatest scholar of his age, at home in almost every branch of knowledge and letters, was elected his successor, though merely a layman, and in six days passed through the inferior orders to the patriarchal dignity (858). The two parties engaged in an unrelenting warfare, and excommunicated each other. Photius was the first to appeal to the Roman pontiff. Nicolas, instead of acting as mediator, assumed the air of judge, and sent delegates to Constantinople to investigate the case on the spot. They were imprisoned and bribed to declare for Photius; but the pope annulled their action at a synod in Rome, and decided in favor of Ignatius (863). Photius in turn pronounced sentence of condemnation on the pope and, in his Encyclical Letter, gave classical expression to the objections of the Greek church against the Latin (867). The controversy resulted in the permanent alienation of the two churches. It was the last instance of an official interference of a pope in the affairs of the Eastern church.


Nicolas and Lothair.


Lothair II., king of Lorraine and the second son of the emperor Lothair, maltreated and at last divorced his wife, Teutberga of Burgundy, and married his mistress, Walrada, who appeared publicly in all the array and splendor of a queen. Nicolas, being appealed to by the injured lady, defended fearlessly the sacredness of matrimony; he annulled the decisions of synods, and deposed the archbishops of Cologne and Treves for conniving at the immorality of their sovereign. He threatened the king with immediate excommunication if he did not dismiss the concubine and receive the lawful wife. He even refused to yield when Teutberga, probably under compulsion, asked him to grant a divorce. Lothair, after many equivocations, yielded at last (865). It is unnecessary to enter into the complications and disgusting details of this controversy.


Nicolas and Hincmar.


In his controversy with Hincmar, Nicolas was a protector of the bishops and lower clergy against the tyranny of metropolitans. Hincmar, archbishop of Rheims, was the most powerful prelate of France, and a representative of the principle of Gallican independence. He was energetic, but ambitious and overbearing. He came three times in conflict with the pope on the question of jurisdiction. The principal case is that of Rothad, bishop of Soissons, one of his oldest suffragans, whom he deposed without sufficient reason and put into prison, with the aid of Charles the Bald (862). The pope sent his legate “from the side,” Arsenius, to Charles, and demanded the restoration of the bishop. He argued from the canons of the Council of Sardica that the case must be decided by Rome even if Rothad had not appealed to him. He enlisted the sympathies of the bishops by reminding them that they might suffer similar injustice from their metropolitan, and that their only refuge was in the common protection of the Roman see. Charles desired to cancel the process, but Nicolas would not listen to it. He called Rothad to Rome, reinstated him solemnly in the church of St. Maria Maggiore, and sent him back in triumph to France (864)271271    Jaffé, 246 and 247, and Mansi, XV. 687 sqq. Hincmar murmured, but yielded to superior power.272272    Rotha dum canonice ... dejectum et a Nicolao papa non regulariter, sed potentialiter restitutum.“ See Baxmann, II. 26.

In this controversy Nicolas made use of the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, a copy of which came into his hands probably through Rotbad. He thus gave them the papal sanction; yet he must have known that a large portion of this forged collection, though claiming to proceed from early popes, did not exist in the papal archives. Hincmar protested against the validity of the new decretals and their application to France, and the protest lingered for centuries in the Gallican liberties till they were finally buried in the papal absolutism of the Vatican Council of 1870.



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