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VALOIS observes that the Popes scrupulously followed, in the early ages of the church, the custom of placing their names after that of the person whom they addressed in their letters. This mark of their humility he proves by letters written by various Popes. Thus when the great projects of politics were yet unknown to them, did they adhere to Christian meekness. There came at length the day when one of the Popes, whose name does not occur to me, said that “it was safer to quarrel with a prince than with a friar.” Henry VI. being at the feet of Pope Celestine, his holiness thought proper to kick the crown off his head; which ludicrous and disgraceful action Baronius has highly praised. Jortin observes on this great cardinal, and advocate of the Roman see, that he breathes nothing but fire and brimstone; and accounts kings and emperors to be mere catch-poles and constables, bound to execute with implicit faith all the commands of insolent ecclesiastics. Bellarmin was made a cardinal for his efforts and devotion to the papal cause, and maintaining this monstrous paradox,—that if the pope forbid the exercise of virtue, and command that of vice, the Roman church, under pain of a sin, was obliged to abandon virtue for vice, if it would not sin against conscience!

It was Nicholas I., a bold and enterprising Pope, who, in 858, forgetting the pious modesty of his predecessors, took advantage of the divisions in the royal families of France, and did not hesitate to place his name before that of the kings and emperors of the house of France, to whom he wrote. Since that time he has been imitated by all his successors, and this encroachment on the honours of monarchy has passed into a custom from having been tolerated in its commencement.

Concerning the acknowledged infallibility of the Popes, it appears that Gregory VII., in council, decreed that the church of Rome neither had erred, and never should err. It was thus this prerogative of his holiness became received, till 1313, when John XXII. abrogated decrees made by three popes his predecessors, and declared that what was done amiss by one pope or council might be corrected by another; and Gregory XI., 1370, in his will deprecates, si quid in catholica fide errasset. The university of Vienna protested against it, calling it a contempt of God, and an idolatry, if any one in matters of faith should appeal, from a council to the Pope; that is, from God who presides in councils, to man. But the infallibility was at length established bv Leo X., especially after Luther’s opposition, because they despaired of defending their indulgences, bulls, &c. by any other method.

Imagination cannot form a scene more terrific than when these men were in the height of power, and to serve their political purposes hurled the thunders of their excommunications over a kingdom. It was a national distress not inferior to a plague or famine.

Philip Augustus, desirous of divorcing Ingelburg, to unite himself to Agnes de Meranie, the Pope put his kingdom under an interdict. The churches were shut during the space of eight months; they said neither mass nor vespers; they did not marry; and even the offspring of the married, born at this unhappy period, were considered as illicit: and because the king would not sleep with his wife, it was not permitted to any of his subjects to sleep with theirs! In that year France was threatened with an extinction of the ordinary generation. A man under this curse of puhlic penance was divested of all his functions, civil, military, and matrimonial; he was not allowed to dress his hair, to shave, to bathe, nor even change his linen; so that, says Saint Foix, upon the whole this made a filthy penitent. The good King Robert incurred the censures of the church for having married his cousin. He was immediately abandoned. Two faithful domestics alone remaincd with him, and these always passed through the fire whatever he touched. In a word, the horror which an excommunication occasioned was such that a courtesan, with whom one Peletier had passed some moments, having learnt soon afterwards that he had been above six months an excommunicated person, fell into a panic, and with great difficulty recovered from her convulsions.

Editor’s Notes

 ¶ This article is revised from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities, in which the penultimate paragraph above is continued:

…and an excellent lesson for those who seem not to know how far the human mind can be debased with superstition. De Saint Foix, in his Historical Essays, has sketched an animated description of one, with which I shall close this article.

The younger D’Israeli then belabours us some more with an additional closing paragraph:

Such is the picture historians present to our meditation of the possible debasement of the human mind. Voltaire inclines to think, that the circumstances relative to King Robert are exaggerated. But if we reflect on the profound ignorance and genuine superstition of the times, we shall have no reason to be surprised at this pious stupidity of the Court of France.