The Medieval Christian Church


Figure 1.--

The Christian Church developed in the Roman Empire. The supression of Christians was a constant theme during the reigns of many emperors. The early Church fathers (Peter, Paul, and many others) operated in this hostile environmnt. Finally with Constantine, the Church became the official religion of the Empire. Early Chiurch theologiand like Augustine lived at a time that the Church was not only tolerated, but the official religion of the Empire and a rligion that acted to supress other rival creeds. The Church was thus significantly influenced by the Empire. Much of the Church's organization (pope, cardinal, bishop, ect) was a relection of how the Roman Empire was organized, although the modern organization of the Church and the primacy of the Pope only developed over time. The political structure of the Empire was reflected in how Christian diosceses were set up. Even before conversion, important local officials (Roman, Celtic, and Germanic) might protect or even endow monastaries and convents seeing it beneficial to have "a powehouse of prayer" in their territory. [Brown] One remarkable aspect of the triumph of Christianity in Europe was the fact that Christianity was the religion of the defeated Empire, yet it was gradually adoped by the victorious barbarians. The story of medieval conversions is a fascinating one. Actual conversion took many forms. Very few European people were Christianized by conquest. Rather conversion occurred by coverting leaders, primarily by persuasion. This process took many forms (missionary zeal, princly fiat, election, and shamanistic vision). Many features of the modern Church were not aspects of the early Church. One of the most important is the cult of the saints. Another is the confessional, intitially only practiced by the most deeply pious. One aspects of the confessional was tariffed penances based on penitentials. Surviving medieval penitentials provide a wealth of information to sociologists concerning the intimate details of everyday life. [Brown]

Roman Empire

The Christian Church developed in the Roman Empire. The supression of Christians was a constant theme during the reigns of many emperors. The early Church fathers (Peter, Paul, and many others) operated in this hostile environmnt. Finally with Constantine, the Church became the official religion of the Empire. Early Chiurch theologiand like Augustine lived at a time that the Church was not only tolerated, but the official religion of the Empire and a rligion that acted to supress other rival creeds. The Church was thus significantly influenced by the Empire. Much of the Church's organization (pope, cardinal, bishop, ect) was a relection of how the Roman Empire was organized, although the modern organization of the Church and the primacy of the Pope only developed over time. The political structure of the Empire was reflected in how Christian diosceses were set up. The Church enthused Rome with new ethical concepts ehich provided individuals moral responsibilities previously lacking. The Church's ascetisism, however rejected the woirldliness of pagan culture. As a result, the Church while to some degree preserving some of the classic literature of Greece and Rome, to a large degree witheld the rich classical tradition, contributing to the Dark Ages which followed Rome.

Conversion

Even before conversion, important local officials (Roman, Celtic, and Germanic) might protect or even endow monastaries and convents seeing it beneficial to have "a powehouse of prayer" in their territory. [Brown] One remarkable aspect of the triumph of Christianity in Europe was the fact that Christianity was the religion of the defeated Empire, yet it was gradually adoped by the victorious barbarians. The story of medieval conversions is a fascinating one. Actual conversion took many forms. Very few European people were Christianized by conquest. Rather conversion occurred by coverting leaders, primarily by persuasion. This process took many forms (missionary zeal, princly fiat, election, and shamanistic vision). The process was finally completed with the conversion Scadanavia and Iceland about 1000.

The Papacy

The primacy of the papacy in the Roman Catholic or Western Church is based on authority conveyed to the apostle Peter by Jesus who told him that hecwould be the rock upon which the Church would be built. Peter was the first bishop of Rome. Subsequent popes were primarily bishops of Rome in a Curch that was not centralized in any real way. This of course made in difficult for the Roman Empire to effectivdely supress the early Church. The Roman Empire itself was, however, highly centralized. Even with limited reak authority, the Bishop of Rome had enormous influence in an empire centered on Rome. The first pope who attempted to aggresively exert his authority as pope was Victor I (189-198). Withoutvthe authority of the state, such authority was limited. Victor attempted to secure uniformity in Church practice and took issue with thediffereingb practices in the East such as the date for Easter. The first clearly defined powerful pope was Leo I (440-61). Leo attempted to establish a system of papal vicariates through which Roman church oractice could be inforced. While information on may early popes is sparse, by the time of Gregory I the Great (590-604) we know much more about the papacy. The papacy at this time had extensive land holdings in North Africa, Sicily, and Gaul. Gergory not onlt managed to preserve these land holdings throgh the tumultous period of babarain invasioins, but laid the ground work for the conversion of the pagan tribes and the authority of the papacy as new Feudal states and principalities arose in the West.

Monasticism

Western Monasticism becamne a major force after 900. Some of the principal orders were Benedictines, Cluny, Cistercians, Carthusians, and others. Both men and women were involved. Womwn's monestaries were convents.

Mendicant Orders

The two principal medicant orders were the Franciscans and Dominicans. These were orders whose broithers or members begged to support themselves.

Secular Clergy

The secular clergy also played a role in the mnedieval church. here there were both the Cathedral chapters and the parish pastoral clergy.

Religious Observation

Many aspects of Christian worship in the modern Church were not aspects of the early Church. One of the most important is the cult of the saints. Another is the confessional, intitially only practiced by the most deeply pious. One aspects of the confessional was tariffed penances based on penitentials. Surviving medieval penitentials provide a wealth of information to sociologists concerning the intimate details of everyday life. [Brown] The most important Catholic cult is the cult of the Virgin Mary. The veneration of saints and relics became a major aspect of medieval Church life. The sacramental system included the Eucharist, penance, and confirmation.

Crusades

Christian pilgrims after the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries had to travel through Islamic lands to venerate the great shrines in Jeruselum and other Biblical sites in the Holy Land. In addition the Ottoman Turks were increasingly encroaching on the Eastern or Byzantine Empire. The Turks apparently preyed upon Christian pilgrims. Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus, perhaps concerned about the plight of the pilgrims, more likely seeking allies against the Turks, wrote to a friend Robert, the Count of Flanders, in 1093. He recounted the alegeded atrocities inflicted on the pilgrims by the Turks. Count Robert forwarded Comnenus' letter to Pope Urban II. Pope Urban like Emperor Comnenus perhaps concerbed about Christian pilgrims, more likely seeing a political opportunity, decided to promote a military crusade to seize the Holy Land from the infidel Turks. European Christians at the time were locked in intractable dynastic wars in England, France, Italy, and other domains, destabilizing large areas of Europe. The Pope sought to redirect the fighting to an infidel adversary. Pope Urban's crusade, the First Crusade, was launched in 1095.

Heresies

The Church faced many doctrinal heresies. The early Church in particular were beset by heresy. One of the most important was Monophysite Christianity which had been widely adopted in the east, throughout Syria and Persia. Another major issue was the veneration of icons. This was not an issue of artistic expression, but rather a debate over the nature of God's pesence on earth. Some of the major medieval heresies were: Waldensianism, Catharism, Lollardy, and Hussites.

Councils

Doctrinal disputes were addressed by Church Councils, beginning with the Council of Nicea called by Constantine (325 AD). With the new centralized structure and backed by the authority of the state, the Church now had the means to demand and enforce adherence to established doctrine. The early Church had faced the Arian and Manichean heresies. The Medieval Church faced the Cathari and Waldenses.

Conflicting Papal Roles (10th Century)

The Papacy fased a crisis in the 10th century. The modern papacy had not yet emergred. Popes experienced increasing difficulties with their conflicting roles. The pope was responsible for the religious duties of the Rome bishopric, but the pope was also a aprince of Italy, the political leader of the Roman state, a sizeable part of central Italy. Even more the pope was the head of the Roman Catholic Church. There were considerable conflicts between these roles and the pope found himself in political conflict with important European rulers rather than the recognized head of the Church. This badly damaged the reputation and spiritual authority of the papacy.

East-West Division (1054)

Even before the fall of Rome, differences had begun to develop between the Eastern and Western churches. After Rome fell these differences gradually grew in significance and the Pope in Rome increasingly lost authority over the eastern churches to Patriarch of Constantinople. When the final break came in the 11th century, there were already in practice two separate churches. The formal schism came in 1054 when Pope Leo IX took the extrodinary actioin of excommunucating Michael Caerularuius who was the patriarch of Constantinople (1043-59) and by extension the entire Eastern Church. After the division of the Eastern and Western Empires it was perhaps inevilatable that the Church would also divide. It is perhaps surrising that the division took so long to become formalized.

Catharists (12-14th Century)

Historians use the term Catahrists or Cathari to described a large number of widely defused sects and were related to Gnostic Christianity. The Novatians in the 3rd century who had heretical beliefs about baptism. Some include the 10th century Paulicians in Thrace. The sect by the 12th centiry was of considerable importance in thecBalkans (Albania, Bulgaria, and Slavonia) before the Turkish conquest. In the West the sect began to gain importance in Turin about 1035 and were called Patarini from a street in Milan where rag gatheres were common. The Catahrists gained their greatest influence in southern France, especially around Montaillou, where they were called Albigenses or Poblicants (a coruption of Paulicians). They are also assiciated with the Waldenses of France, Germany, and Italy. The Catharists held Manichaean view and held to an asectic life style. Their religious ritual was simple. The Church was apauled at the growing strength of this hersey by the 13th century. The Catharists refused to pay tithes or give obedience to the Roman Church. Religious leaders were called "perfects" or "Good Men". The Church's reaction was to organize the only Crusade ever carried out in Europe. [Weis] The Cathar books and scrolls were destroyed to an extent that there are virtually no surviving documents. All we have are the records of the Dominican inquisators who persecuted them. Slowly the Catharists fell into the hands of the Inquisition. Many Catharists themselves were also condemned to the flames. The Catharists were doomed by the 14th century Crusade supported by the French monarchy which coveted the lands of unruly nobels who supported them. One writer describes the Crusade that suppresed the Catharuists as the largest land grab in French history. The province of Languedoc where people spoke Occitan was seized by the French. [O'Shea]

Babylonian (Avignon) Captivity of the Papacy and the Great Schism (1303-1417)

King Philip IV of France was known of as Philip the Fair because of his ability to avoid acne in an age unused to washing more than once a year. Philip faced many problems and he needed money to address them. An immediate problem was the English who persisted in ivading France. He also faced a continuing problem with the French nobility as well as the peasantry. In addition the papacy was objection to some of his actions including seizing some church land and taxing the clergy. Philip responded by invading Italy and seizing Pope Boniface VIII who he ordered tortured to bring him into line. Boniface was freed and continued to denounce Philip. When Boniface then died, Philip was blamed for it. King Philip decided on a new policy to deal with the troublesome papacy. When the new Pope Clement V was elected by the College of Cardinals, Philip decided against sending another army into Italy to torture him. Instead, Philip decided to present a more charming side to the Papacy, and made a point of giving a splendid palace in the southern French City of Avignon. This lead to what has come to be called as the Babylonian or Avigon Captivity of the Papacy. Associated with this was the subsequent Great Schism (1378-1409)

Holy Office of the Inquisition

The Holy Office of the Inquisition was a system of tribunals which became a permanent institution charged by the Catholic Church to eradicate heresies and preserve the Faith. The Catholic Church, reflecting its Roman origins had a hierarchical structure with a strong central bureaucracy. When Constantine made Christianity the state religion, heresy became a crime under civil and not just cannon law. Heretics could now be punished by secular authorities, just as the Christians had once been persecuted. For centuries the Church addressed heresy in an ad hoc manner. But in the Middle Ages a permanent structure came into being to deal with the problem. Beginning in the 12th century, the Church decided to create a permanent institution to fight heresy. The Papacy decided that strong action was needed to disuade non-conformistrs like the Catahri. Pope Gregory IX in 1231 published a decree detailing severe punishment for heretics and created the Inquisition to enfirce hisb decree. Pope Gregory gave the Dominican Order responsible for organizing the search and investigation of heretics, although individual inquisators did not have to be Dominicans. The Holy Office of the Inquisuituion by the end of the 13th century had been established througout Europe in all principalities loyal to the Catholic Church. Inquisitors had the authority to bring suit against any individual. A variety of absues soon occurred in local inquisitions. The confiscation of property was a powerful inducement to coruption. Also accusations to the Inquisition became a an all too frequrent way of settling persoinal disputes and vendettas. The papacy, as a result of local abuses, acted to limit the Inquisition. The papacy both issued reforms and regulated the Inquisition. Paul III became pope in 1241. He quickly established a more organized system for administering the Inquisition. Secular authorities in many areas began to intervene by the 14th century. Ferdinand and Isabel, after finally defeating the Moors in 1492 embarked on an effort to purify Spain. They gave the Spanish Inquisition independent from Rome. The Spanish Inquisition with its massive public autos-da-fé became notorious throughout Europe, but especially Elizabethan England which was targeted by the Spanish Armada and would have faced the Inquisition if Phulip II's forces had succeeded.

Economic Impact


Renaissance

Although generally classified by most scholars as the last century of the medieval era, the 14th century is generally seen as the beginning of the Renaissance and the beginning of a modern state of mind. "Renaissance" means "rebirth" in French and describes the cultural and economic changes that occurred in Europe beginning in the 14th century. The precise time is difficlt to set and of course varied accross Europe. The Renaissance began at Firenze around 1300 and gradually spread north. Even so, the indicators that constitute the Renaissance did not reach other areas of Europe 1-2 centuries. It was during the Renaissance that Europe emerged from the Feudal System of the Middle Ages. The stagnant Medieval economy began to expand. The Renaissance was not just a period of economic growth. It was an age of intense cultural ferment. Enormous changes began in artistic, social, scientific, and political endevours. Perhaps of greatest importance was that Europeans began to develop a radically different self image as they moved from a God-centered to a more humanistic outlook.

Reformation

The Protestan Revolution was the religious struggle during the 16th and 17th century which began as an effort to reform the Catholic Church and ended with the splintering of the Western Christendom into the Catholic and Protestant churches. Combined with the Renaissance which preceeded it, the reformatuin marked the end of the Medieval world and the beginning of a modern world view. The French Revolution which followed the Reformation in the 18th century marked the beginning of our modern age. Conditions developing in Medieval Europe laid the groundwork for the Reformation. The Reformation began when a German monk, Martin Luthur nailed his 95 Thesis on the church door in ??? (1517). Luthur was offended by the papal sale of indulgences by which the Renaissance popes were fiancing the splendid new church of St. Peters in Rome. Luthur's concern with indulgences were soon mixed with a complex mix of doctrinal, political, economic, and cultural issues that would take Ruropean Church anfd temporal leaders nearly two centuries to partially resolve and several devestating wars, especially the 30 Years War in Germany. Western Christendom would be left permanently split and even the Cathloic Church profoundly changed. Changes in man's view og himself and the Church were to also affect his view relative to the state and many in Europe began to question royal absolutism and divinr right monarchy, a process keading to the French Revolution.

Counter Reformation

The Church by the beginning of the 17th century had reconstituted itself as a resesult of its efforts to combat the Reformation.

Sources

Brown, Peter. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 2nd editioin (Blackwell paperback: 2003), 625p.







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Created: July 14 2003
Last updated: May 25, 2004