History of Church: Medieval

Constance B Bouchard. New Catholic Encyclopedia Supplement 2010. Editor: Robert L Fastiggi. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2010.

The history of the church in the Middle Ages can be divided into three major periods, dating roughly from 600 to 1050, 1050 to 1300, and 1300 to 1500. In the first period the Western church was ruled collectively by its bishops, in somewhat uneasy harmony with secular rulers. Wars and missionary activity converted the remaining pagans in the West to Christianity. Those who wished to adopt a holier way of life increasingly chose Benedictine monasticism. During this time the papacy was only intermittently a factor in church governance in the West outside of ROME. In the second major period, however, the popes rather abruptly began exercising regular control over bishops and monasteries, playing an unprecedented role in the church’s day-to-day business. During this time, many new varieties of religious life proliferated, including friars, canons regular, and hermits. Heresies and disputes over Christian doctrine arose as they had not since late antiquity; the beginning of this period indeed saw the final split between Latin Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. This was also the time of the Crusades. This second period also experienced an enormous intellectual and artistic flourishing, including the creation of European universities and the building of its great cathedrals. During the third major period, papal prestige lessened, and the popes encountered new resistance to their authority. Although novel forms of the religious life continued to proliferate, concern for doctrinal difference diminished during the disasters, war, plague, and economic collapse of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Concern over moral lapses within the church as a whole and calls for renewal were nonetheless a constant throughout this period.

Early Middle Ages (600-1050)

Europe in the year 600 had developed many of the ecclesiastical institutions that marked the entire Middle Ages. Those parts of the continent formerly part of the Roman Empire were divided into dioceses, headed by bishops expected to practice chastity. Western Christianity was completely Latin, and both politically and religiously the West drew further and further from Byzantium. The patriarch of Rome, the pope, was recognized in a general way as the successor to Peter, with at least an abstract moral authority even if only limited practical authority. Many men and some women sought a spiritual life in monasteries dedicated to local saints. The cities that had once been Roman provincial capitals and had become European cathedral cities persisted in shrunken form, but the human landscape was overwhelmingly rural.

Merovingian Kings and Anglo-Saxon Conversion. The two regions of the year 600 with the greatest influence on later medieval history were the Merovingian king-doms—roughly corresponding to modern France, the Benelux countries, and the western parts of Germany— and Anglo-Saxon England. The Merovingian kings of the Franks had been Christian since the time of Clovis (d. 511). Although many Germanic tribes had adopted the Arian version of Christianity, Clovis converted from paganism to Roman Catholicism, in part due to his Christian wife, Clotildis. He thus had the full support of his bishops, and the Germanic Franks and the local Christianized Gallo-Roman peoples quickly intermarried. Clovis and his successors declared it their religious duty as well as politically expedient to conquer anyone (such as the visigoth) considered heretical. By the late sixth century these kings and their wives routinely supported and helped found monasteries for both monks and nuns.

Anglo-Saxon England, in contrast, had during the late fifth and sixth centuries lost most of the Christian culture established under Roman rule. The Germanic invaders had pushed Christianity to Britain’s margins, especially into Scotland and Ireland. But in the late sixth century, missionaries from these margins began the serious work of converting the Anglo-Saxons, beginning with their kings—a task made easier because many had Christian queens. At the same time, missionaries from Rome, headed by Augustine of Canterbury, also came to Britain, leading to tensions when it was discovered that during the previous century, while Celtic Christianity was isolated from the continent, important differences had developed in such areas as the calculation of Easter. The synod of Whitby (664) resolved these differences in favor of the Roman model, and England became a staunch center of Latin Christianity.

The Roman missionaries to England had been sent by Pope Gregory I (590-604), called the Great, the most influential of the early medieval popes. Not long before, the Liber pontificalis had first been composed in Rome, tracing the history of its bishops back to Peter, and thus bolstering papal authority. Gregory, in the absence of secular leadership, also organized the defense of the city of Rome against the Lombards, wrote biblical commentary, and helped popularize the Benedictine Rule.

The Rule that Benedict of Nursia originally composed around 530 for his monastery of Montecassino in Italy thus became well known in the West. Providing a model of a self-sufficient rural house where monks both practiced manual labor and copied Christian and classical texts, it was well suited for a society rapidly losing urban culture; its mixture of rigor and recognition of human weakness also made it attractive. Other forms of monasticism, however, also flourished, especially the version that the missionary Columbanus (d. 615) brought from Ireland and established first at Luxeuil. As monasteries multiplied in the seventh century, many obtained grants of immunity from kings or bishops, in which these authorities promised not to enter the cloister without permission or to appropriate monastic property.

Cult of the Saints. The monasteries of the seventh century were typically dedicated to saints, in most cases a local holy bishop or someone supposedly martyred in the region back in the second or third centuries. Such monasteries might be built on the site of an old cemetery at the edge of town. Cathedrals, in contrast, were most commonly dedicated to a universal saint, such as Mary or Stephen. In either case, by the seventh century it was considered normal to put saints’ relics into an altar. Reverence for the saints was part of the general sense that the Christian dead were still part of the living community. Unlike the pagan Romans, who had not wanted the dead anywhere near, early Christians met in catacombs and cemeteries and, once they started to build churches, built them quite literally on the bones of their predecessors. Merovingian-era sarcophagi may still be found in many crypts.

Saints, as a living presence, acted as defenders of their monasteries. With few practical means of defense at their disposal, monks turned to saints for protection. Saints’ lives and miracle stories are full of accounts in which wrathful saints blasted malefactors. Those without relics of appropriately powerful saints might steal them from another church, claiming a vision that the saint wished to be relocated. The body of Saint Benedict moved from Montecassino to France in this way. Alternately, churches could buy relics from Jerusalem or Rome, the two principal sources.

Impact of Islam. The history of Latin Christendom was sharply influenced by the rise of Islam. This religion, third of the great Religions of the Book, was given form by Mohammed, who claimed to be the last in the line of prophets that included Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. From Arabia in the early seventh century, Islam quickly spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa in the decades after Mohammed’s death. The unity of the so-called Roman Lake, the Mediterranean, was broken. The Christian patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem lost most of their influence as Islam became the principal religion in their regions, leaving the patriarchs in Rome and Constantinople as the only two not under Muslim dominion. These latter two were increasingly separated from each other, as North Africa, the one-time home of Augustine of Hippo, became Muslim and Arabic speaking, and Saracen pirates disrupted long-time trade routes. The last of the great Christological debates of late antiquity disappeared along with the disputants. The European center of attention shifted northward, away from the Mediterranean.

From Africa, Muslim armies swept across Spain in the early eighth century. Some crossed the Pyrenees and reached western France before being stopped in 732 at the Battle of Tours, where they were defeated by the forces of Charles Martel, mayor of the palace (viceroy) for the Merovingian kings. The Pyrenees became the Christian-Muslim border; about a century later Christians in Spain (with Frankish support) began the long, slow process of the reconquista, which eventually drove the last Muslims from Spain in 1492. In the meantime, Islam became for western Christians the primary symbol of the evil Other, often equated mistakenly with paganism.

Carolingian Era. During the early eighth century, the Merovingian dynasty nearly died out in the male line, making it hard for Charles Martel (d. 741) to find a king to serve. Members of his family, now called the Carolingians, became de facto Frankish rulers. They sponsored the missionaries Willibrord and Boniface— the latter an Englishman—as they sought to spread Christianity in what is now Germany. But the Carolingians also seized church property as their own, as the Merovingians had not, and often appointed their favorites to bishoprics—including laymen.

In 751 Charles Martel’s son, Pippin the Short, with the permission of the pope, deposed the last Merovingian king, ending a dynasty that had ruled the Franks for three centuries. A few years later, Pope Stephen II traveled to Francia to bless Pippin and his family. Perhaps in gratitude, Pippin issued the Donation of Pippin, giving the territory he had conquered around Rome to the papacy. This donation served as the model for the forged Donation of Constantine, which purported that, when Constantine left for Byzantium in the fourth century, he gave all he had in Italy to the pope— this forgery was assumed authentic until the Renaissance.

Pippin’s son, Charlemagne (king 768-814), took firm control of his kingdom’s bishops and abbots, many of whom also served as administrators in his court. Western monasteries suffered in the eighth and early ninth centuries from secular appropriation of their property, often with royal connivance. But Charlemagne, although he founded no monasteries himself, did support some of those located in the recently Christianized lands to the east, and in his councils he sought to regularize monasticism under the Benedictine Rule. He sponsored scholars at his court, notably the Englishman Alcuin, who worked to create a clean, correct copy of the bible to serve as a model for all copies throughout the kingdom.

Charlemagne, like his father before him, went to Italy to help defend the pope from his enemies when the distant Byzantine emperor proved of no assistance. Popes had been writing the Carolingians intermittently for two generations on doctrinal issues; Charlemagne had all their letters copied into a book in 791, indicating his respect for the papacy. Roman and Greek Christianity continued to draw away from each other in the late eighth century, especially over the issues of papal authority, the Byzantine position on images (misunder-stood in the West), and the Western addition (rejected in the East) of the phrase filioque, “and the son,” to the statement that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father. In gratitude to Charlemagne and with the sense that the emperor in the distant East did not deserve the title, on Christmas Day 800 Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor.

Two sets of Roman emperors now existed: those in Byzantium, successors to the emperors of antiquity, who indeed continued until 1453, and those in the West, Charlemagne and his successors. From the twelfth century onward, the emperors in the West were titled Holy Roman Emperors, both to distinguish them from the Byzantines and to assert their spiritual authority. But the real issue raised by the events of 800 was the intimacy of the tie between pope and emperor: A king could not become emperor until a pope crowned him.

During the ninth century, churchmen began exercising more control over marriage, which went from being in general practice a secular arrangement to recognition as a Sacrament. Theologians, especially Hincmar of Reims, insisted on monogamy as the only possible form of marriage, to be entered into by mutual consent. Highly contested divorce cases in the royal family reinforced the indissolubility of marriage. Also during this period, the False decretals were created to argue (not entirely successfully) that bishops were to be judged only by the distant pope—meaning in practice that they answered to no one.

Charlemagne and his son Louis the Pious (814-840) ruled a kingdom that included not just the old Merovingian territories but also much of modern Germany and Italy. But starting with Charlemagne’s grandsons, this kingdom was divided and redivided among heirs. France and England were attacked by Vikings, Germany by Magyars, and the Mediterranean coast by Saracens; monasteries, with their wealth, were especially tempting prizes. Counts and dukes who mounted an effective defense against these invaders gained both prestige and followers, eventually replacing the last Carolingians as kings. In both France and England, the Vikings settled down during the tenth century—in Normandy in France, in Yorkshire in England—married local women, and adopted Christianity. Scandinavia itself, however, remained pagan until after the year 1000.

Monastic Reform and Renewal. In the tenth and early eleventh centuries, the West experienced a surge of monastic reform. Few monasteries had been founded west of the Rhine between the early eighth century and the mid ninth, and monasteries new and old had suffered from barbarian attacks and appropriation of their property by laymen. But during the late ninth and tenth centuries, new monastic communities began slowly to appear, most notably in rural areas. As in the Merovingian period, male monasteries far outnumbered nunneries. Most monks entered the religious life as children, as offerings (oblates) from their parents.

In the tenth century those who controlled ancient religious houses, either in ruins or populated by monks leading a less than regular life, sought to reform them. Powerful laymen and bishops gave such a monastery to the abbot of a flourishing house to renew or reform to the observance of the Benedictine Rule. The monastery of Cluny in Burgundy, founded in 909 or 910, was often asked to reform older houses in this way. Most commonly the abbot of the reforming house acted as abbot of the newly reformed house as well. When the abbot died, each monastery elected an independent abbot of its own. During the eleventh century, however, Cluny and some other highly respected monasteries, such as Gorze and St.-Bénigne of Dijon, began to acquire groups of dependent houses. Bishops and great laymen from as far away as Spain and Italy asked Cluny’s abbot to reform monasteries in their regions. As laymen became increasingly concerned over the state of their souls, many made generous gifts to houses following a rigorous Rule. At the same time the peace of God became established, a series of councils held by bishops in which knights were persuaded to swear not to attack the defenseless, both peasants and the clergy.

German Kings and the Papacy. By the tenth century the western empire was no longer all that Charlemagne had once ruled but specifically Germany and Italy. Under the Ottonian and Salian kings of Germany, the normal pattern was for a king to be elected by the German princes and then travel to Rome to be crowned emperor. Extensive fighting with the emerging Italian city-states and, in some cases, deposition of a pope whom the Germans did not find suitable usually accompanied these expeditions.

The German kings ruled through their bishops. Their great counts and dukes proved too independent minded, so the kings preferred to use bishops, who, not having sons, would not be tempted to appropriate land and authority to enrich their descendants. The royal court had a school to train future bishops. Cathedral priests were supposed to give their consent to episcopal appointments, but in practice the king decided. The German bishops still were, as a group, moral and conscientious rulers of their dioceses.

The emperors assumed that they had the same sort of authority over the Italian bishops—including the popes—as they had over the German bishops, but this was much harder to enforce, as they rarely visited Italy other than for their imperial coronations. In 1046 King Henry III went to Rome and was shocked to find three men claiming to be pope. He deposed all three and had one of the German bishops who accompanied him consecrated as pope. Although this pope quickly died, as did his successor, the next pope, Leo IX (1049-1054), originally from Alsace, asserted rather abruptly that the papacy was true head of the ecclesiastical hierarchy—a principle that would, a generation later, lead to a major conflict with the imperial dynasty that had reformed the papacy.

High Middle Ages (1050-1300)

The emergence of a strong and consistent papal role in church governance was one of the most significant developments of the High Middle Ages. But the period from the middle of the eleventh century to the end of the thirteenth was also marked by a multiplication of forms of the religious life, including new varieties of Benedictine monasticism and the radically different way of life of the friars. This period of great intellectual ferment witnessed both the birth of the universities and development of Catholic theology. Also during this period the relationship between church and state was contested and redefined.

Popes and the Investiture Controversy. The new position of the papacy was made clear at the Council of Reims (1049). Here Pope Leo IX ordered all attending bishops to attest, under oath, that they had been canonically elected “by clergy and people.” In fact a number had been put into office by their secular relatives or had even bought the bishopric. Feeling the terrifying eye of Saint Remigius upon them, many confessed the irregularity of their accession and resigned. If the bishop had a vile reputation, Pope Leo accepted his resignation, but in other cases he reinstated the repentant bishop, establishing the principle that the pope was the ultimate authority as to who should or should not hold office.

This council also marked the beginning of what is often called the Gregorian Reform, a conscious effort to improve the morals of the clergy, end simony, and to draw a sharper distinction between the clerical and secular realms. The newly active papacy—not entirely intentionally—also drew a sharper distinction between Eastern and Western Christianity; in 1054 a mission to Constantinople ended when both sides excommunicated each other in an essentially permanent breach. In Western Europe, priests’ concubines, much less wives, were now strictly forbidden. Churches in secular hands were to be given to bishops or monasteries. The election of bishops and abbots came under close scrutiny; with the role of the laity reduced to acclamation. From the 1050s onward, the newly organized college of cardinals, made up of the heads of Rome’s principal churches, had the exclusive right to choose new popes, thus excluding the Roman laity and the emperors.

The lay-clerical tension came to a head in the 1070s in what has become known as the Investiture Controversy, because the specific issue was whether kings could invest newly elected bishops with their rings and staffs. In practice, the real issue was who was the ultimate authority in a Christian empire, the pope or the emperor. Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) took a much sharper line than had any of his predecessors. The emperors, long used to controlling their bishops, were unwilling to back down. Gregory and Emperor Henry IV sought to rally both the German princes and the German bishops to their side, going so far as to support an anti-pope and an anti-emperor.

Henry and Gregory intermittently reconciled, but neither they nor their successors were able to reach a permanent solution until the Concordat of Worms in 1122. This compromise, which pleased no one, made it clear that the emperor would not invest new bishops, but he was still allowed to observe episcopal elections. The conflict calmed down for a generation after Worms but then broke out again in the 1150s when Frederick Barbarossa was emperor and Alexander III, pope. The fundamental relationship between the two greatest Western powers remained fraught. The French and English kings, meanwhile, had continued to exercise a good deal of control over the choice of bishops in their kingdoms, which was generally overlooked by the popes, who could fight only one battle at a time. Only when these kings did something as outrageous as HENRY II of England encouraging the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170 did the popes turn on them.

The Crusades. The period of the initial conflict between church and state was also the period in which the Crusades began, the effort by western Christendom to conquer the Holy Land. The Byzantine emperor asked Pope Urban II for help against the Turks, and the pope was pleased to comply as a reestablishment of friendly relations between East and West. But when he called for volunteers in 1095 at the Council of Clermont, he inspired his audience in ways he had not anticipated. Urging knights to save their souls in fighting Muslims rather than lose their souls in fighting each other, he launched a movement in which the goal quickly changed from assisting the Byzantines to capturing Jerusalem.

With shouts of “God wills it,” knights headed toward the Holy Land, spearheaded by a disorganized group that started their trip by massacring Jews in the Rhineland. The somewhat more organized wave, whose knights despised the Byzantines (a sentiment that was returned), actually managed, to everyone’s surprise, to capture the city of Jerusalem and establish a Christian kingdom centered there in 1100. The First Crusade, as it is now known, was, however, the only successful one, although no one knew it at the time.

Knights continued to travel to the Holy Land to fight the Muslims in the following years. Because it was immediately evident that crusading was both extremely expensive and extremely dangerous—even if one were not killed by the infidel, drowning and disease were constant threats—those who went were primarily concerned for their souls. The Orders of the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, both founded within some two decades of the capture of Jerusalem, sought to combine the best of knighthood, the warrior skills and discipline, with the best of the monastic life, in protecting pilgrims and fighting Muslims.

When the county of Edessa, on the outskirts of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, fell in 1144, it was considered a judgment on the crusaders, who, after all, believed that GOD had willed their capture of the Holy Land.

The Second Crusade, led by Kings Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, failed to recapture Edessa in spite of its royal leadership—no kings had accompanied the First Crusade. When Saladin, leader of the Turks, captured Jerusalem itself in 1187, Kings Richard I (Lionheart) of England, Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, and Philip II of France led an even more ambitious Third Crusade, which also failed.

The Fourth Crusade, launched in 1204, never even reached the Holy Land; instead it ended up sacking Constantinople and establishing a Latin empire there. The Byzantines eventually retook their capital, but in the meantime the eastern Roman Empire had been irrevocably weakened against the steady encroachment of the Turks, who finally captured Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 1453. After 1204 the heart went out of the crusading movement, and although new Crusades were announced intermittently for centuries—most notably by Louis IX of France, who never got closer to the Holy Land than Egypt—the movement was essentially over.

Monasticism in the High Middle Ages. The eleventh and twelfth centuries were marked by the rapid spread of monasticism as knights either made gifts to monasteries or converted to the monastic life themselves with the same religious enthusiasm that inspired many to go on Crusade. In the eleventh century many old monasteries, long abandoned or fallen into disrepute, were refounded with strict observance of the Benedictine Rule. Others, especially in urban settings, became houses of canons regular in the twelfth century, following the so-called Augustinian rule.

Beginning in the late eleventh century, many new monasteries were founded, adopting a determinedly ascetic lifestyle, preferentially far from the cities where most Merovingian-era monasteries had been located. Most significant was Cîteaux, founded in 1098, which quickly attracted enough converts that it established daughter houses and, within a generation or two, created an organized structure linking mother and daughter houses, the first true monastic order in the West.

The Cistercians took only adult converts to the monastic life, not child oblates. They deliberately kept their churches unadorned, their diet extremely simple, and their clothing and bedding minimalist; they did not even dye the wool for their habits, and were thus called White Monks. Their adherence to collective as well as individual poverty was considered a mark of especial holiness, and (perhaps ironically) inspired a number of aristocrats to make them extensive gifts if not indeed to convert themselves. By the second half of the twelfth century, Cistercian houses had spread from their original center in Burgundy and were found in much of Europe.

The best-known member of the Cistercian order was Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux (d. 1153). As a knight himself before his conversion, he appreciated the sinfulness of a knightly lifestyle as well as its appeal and was instrumental in writing the Rule for the Knights Templar. He did not hesitate to criticize either popes or kings if he thought it appropriate: He railed against Louis VII’s “incestuous” marriage and sent the king on the Second Crusade, and chided Pope Eugenius III (1145-1153), formerly his pupil, on letting the business of the papal curia detract from spiritual matters.

Although the Cistercians were the most famous of the twelfth-century forms of monasticism, they were by no means alone. Other Benedictine houses were founded and attracted converts, and the Cluniacs, who had seemed in the eleventh century to embody the best of monasticism, continued to flourish and became an organized order in the thirteenth century, in imitation of the Cistercians, establishing permanent lines of communication between houses and enforcing uniformity of practice. The carthusians, who began about the same time as the Cistercian order, created a quite different version of the monastic life, in which the “monastery” was composed of a series of hermit cells. The premonstratensians, founded by Norbert, adopted a version of the Augustinian rule but practiced austerity and sought wilderness locations.

Although male religious always outnumbered female religious, nunneries also multiplied during this period as houses provided an organized religious life both for widows and for consecrated virgins—as well as for women whose husbands became monks. The order of Fontevraud, founded at the beginning of the twelfth century, was the most successful of those devoted especially to women. Hildegard, abbess of Bingen, became well known in her own time for her mystical writings and musical compositions, and did not hesitate to instruct kings and popes.

Art and Architecture. Most art in the High Middle Ages was religious art, and churches were built in the latest styles, their building supervised by creative and highly skilled architects. Early medieval churches had been small and simple by both the standards of the Roman Empire and of the twelfth and later centuries, but their interiors were lavishly decorated. These churches were for the most part replaced during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, so that few Merovingian- or Carolingian-era churches now exist, except for their crypts.

The style in which churches were built in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, now called Romanesque (or Norman in England), continued the general style of Roman architecture: columns, rounded arches, and solid stonework. Rounded stone vaults, however, were used instead of the flat ceilings of classical Roman basilicas. Romanesque churches were decorated with carvings, especially on the capitals at the tops of columns, often depicting biblical scenes or lives of the saints. A semicircular tympanum over the main doors typically showed Christ in majesty, surrounded either by the apostles or by the symbols of the four evangelists. These carvings, quite crude in the early eleventh century, became increasingly sophisticated as the technique of stone carving, nearly lost in the early Middle Ages, rapidly improved.

By the beginning of the twelfth century, Romanesque style was highly developed and widely adopted for monasteries. Its greatest achievement was the church known as Cluny III, the biggest church in the West—to hold the large numbers of monks and pilgrims—until Saint Peter’s Basilica half a millennium later. Cluny III was marked by decorative carvings and high, octagonal towers. It was deplorably dismantled by Napoleon, but Burgundy still has a number of Romanesque churches influenced by Cluny, including Vézelay and Paray-le-Monial. Cistercian churches were much simpler than other Romanesque churches, with no carvings; they did not even have towers. Bernard of Clairvaux railed against decorations on churches as both distracting and needlessly expensive.

In the middle of the twelfth century, there emerged a New Style for churches, as it was then called—now called Gothic—characterized by pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and greater height. Although Romanesque churches were built to last, with heavy pillars and thick walls—some were bombed in World War II and came through surprisingly intact—Gothic churches were built with taller and thinner walls that allowed for more windows. The first Gothic church is now considered to be the abbey church of St.-Denis, built by Suger, and the first Gothic cathedral that of Sens.

This light and airy style quickly attracted attention, and cathedrals began to be rebuilt in the New Style. Notre-Dame of Paris, originally built without its now distinctive flying buttresses, found that its thinner walls were starting to bow outward within a generation of its construction, and the buttresses were retrofitted. In the thirteenth century such buttresses were built into Gothic churches from the beginning. The cathedral of Bourges was built with a higher vaulted nave than any stone structure before or since, some fifty meters high, but its collapse showed that height had reached its limits. The stone carvings on these buildings had a finesse and realism not seen since classical antiquity. Most European cathedrals had not been rebuilt since the Carolingian era, and, in the general rebuilding of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, these cathedrals outshone the Romanesque churches of the nearby monasteries.

The larger windows encouraged the development of stained glass. The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, built to house the Crown of Thorns brought back from the Holy Land, is the epitome of thirteenth-century stained glass, its walls almost entirely windows. Such windows typically told stories from the lives of the saints in a series of small images. At the same time Bibles and prayer books were illustrated with exquisite, colorful images, called illuminations, often creating an entire scene within the loop of a capital letter.

Rise of the Universities. The religious enthusiasm of the High Middle Ages also led to a great expansion of interest in learning, especially theology but also the philosophy of classical antiquity, whose approaches were used to address questions on the nature of the Christian religion. In the late eleventh century wandering teachers, schoolmasters at cathedrals, and monastic schools predominated—the latter indeed had been the major contributors to education for half a millennium—but in the early twelfth century, certain schools began attracting both the best teachers and students who wanted an advanced education without necessarily becoming clerics. By the late twelfth century, some of these developed into the first European universities.

Two figures epitomize the early twelfth-century thirst for learning, Anselm and Abelard. Anselm (d. 1109), abbot of Bec in Normandy and then archbishop of Canterbury, was perhaps the first to attempt a logical proof for the existence of God that did not require revelation. Although his “ontological” proof was not found altogether convincing (Thomas Aquinas, for example, later dismissed it), it demonstrates a strong desire to integrate the tools of pagan philosophy into religious issues. Anselm thus marks the beginning of a period in which faith and reason, far from being opposed, worked together.

This certainly did not mean that any version of religious speculation was accepted. Peter Abelard (d. 1142), who began his career dealing with the thorny issue of universals, derived ultimately from Plato—he argued that universals were real, but only as a mental construct—was suspected of heresy when he attempted to apply these principles to the Trinity, itself a universal. Accused by Bernard of Clairvaux of writing “stupidology” rather than “theology,” he was forced to recant.

Yet Abelard received no opposition to his most significant work, “Sic et Non,” a series of questions on faith and doctrine which he answered both Yes and No, backing up all his answers on both sides with citations from the Bible, the Church Fathers, and pronouncements of popes and councils. The contradictions inherent in a thousand years of Christian doctrine were undeniable. Abelard did not resolve them, leaving that as an exercise for the reader, but it was clear that reasoning, not just appeal to authority, would be necessary to find ultimate answers. This approach, centered on the contradictions in received tradition, became known as the scholastic method, adopted as the normal form of teaching advanced topics. During the 1140s, Peter Lombard in Paris and Gratian (d. c. 1155) in Bologna adopted this approach in what became the standard textbooks in, respectively, theology and canon law.

Gratian taught at the University of Bologna, the first European university, whose foundation is traditionally dated to 1100. Bologna had a copy of Justinian’s lawcode from the sixth century, and it quickly became the university for the study of both laws, Roman and canon. From the middle of the twelfth century on, most members of the papal curia and indeed most popes were trained at Bologna. Paris meanwhile became the center for the study of theology, with a charter from King Philip II in 1200. Paris, like most universities, developed out of both the cathedral school and schools attached to nearby churches; its officers (chancellor, dean, provost) carried the same titles as officers in the cathedral chapter. Other universities were founded during the thirteenth century, including Oxford and Cambridge in England for students who did not want to cross the Channel, and Salerno and Montpellier, both of which concentrated on medicine.

Universities were places of fairly wide-open intellectual inquiry during the thirteenth century, where the pagan philosophers of classical antiquity, Hebrew and Arabic philosophers, and the Church Fathers were all studied. Both classical authors and commentary on them often reached Latin Europe via Toledo in Spain, where they were translated from Arabic. The writings of Aristotle, who had been little known in the early Middle Ages, became widely available, and he came to be considered the philosopher, replacing Plato. In all of this it was taken for granted that one could not simply refer to earlier teachings for answers to complex questions; rather, the whole purpose of intellectual inquiry was to find out what those answers were.

The most important theologians at Paris in the thirteenth century were Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure (both d. 1274), respectively holders of the Dominican and Franciscan chairs of theology. Aquinas incorporated Aristotelian thought and approaches extensively into his Summa theologica, which used the scholastic method to tie together pagan and Christian thought and the Old and New Testaments in what immediately became a standard work of Catholic theology. Bonaventure put greater stress on divine illumination than human reasoning, but he too was steeped in Greek philosophy.

Although Aristotle and Plato were completely accepted at Paris, others were treated with more suspicion, such as Averroes and what was labeled his double truth. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, some of the masters of the university worried that material actually antithetical to Christianity was being broadly disseminated. In 1277 a series of books were condemned, and the undergraduates were no longer supposed to read them, although they were still available to the faculty. The West during this period also began taking a harder line toward local Jews and Muslims.

Heresy in the High Middle Ages. The spiritual questing of the twelfth century, which marked both the monasteries and the nascent universities, also gave rise to serious heresies for the first time since late antiquity. Most heretics believed themselves devout Christians, although the bishops disagreed. The masters at the universities were rarely accused of heresy, and neither were ordinary peasants or townspeople.

Many of those accused of heresy had tried to preach repentance to the broader population, believing that they followed the example of the Apostles. Such preachers usually had not been properly trained, and thus could not be trusted to preach correct doctrine, especially if they suggested that the Sacraments were unnecessary. Generally bishops tried unsuccessfully to persuade such preachers to settle down in a monastery. Robert of Arbrissel, founder of Fontevraud, for example, ignored repeated attempts to restrict him to the cloister, and the wandering preachers known as the Waldensians spent the final decades of the twelfth century skating along the edge of heresy.

Occasionally a charismatic preacher was also a social revolutionary, one who encouraged his followers to believe that the hierarchical structure of society, far from reflecting the hierarchy of heaven (the normal theological explanation), was inherently evil. For example, the movement of the Cappuciati, or white capes, in the 1180s began as an effort, supposedly inspired by the Virgin, to eliminate local brigands but quickly developed into an attack on all aristocrats. Such movements remained small and local and were routinely and swiftly put down.

The most serious heresy to threaten western Christianity in the High Middle Ages was that of the Cathars of southern France. This was more than a variant of Christianity (although again its adherents claimed to be good Christians); it was a different religion, based on dualism, the idea of an eternal struggle between good and evil. Although accused by their enemies of orgies and cannibalism, the Cathars seem to have sought to purify themselves of the taint of the physical. Their religion was widely adopted throughout the Mediterranean region both by ordinary people and by some of the most powerful.

Unsuccessful efforts were made to persuade the Cathars of their error; Cistercian preachers traveled regularly to southern France to try to convert the heretics. Finally in 1209, in response to the murder of a papal legate, the pope turned from persuasion to force, fearing that the heresy had become a “cancer” that would eat away the “body” of the church. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 formally denounced Cathar beliefs. The Albigensian Crusade was a long and bloody war that ended with the thorough defeat of the heretics—and, for that matter, the deaths of a number of perfectly orthodox Catholics. Because many heretics went underground, the West launched its first inquisition to search out those in hiding. Although, as in the twelfth century, efforts were made to reintegrate repentant heretics into the Christian community, the recalcitrant were burned, and many heretics, believing that they were right, refused to recant what they considered the true religion.

The Friars. The inquisition against the Cathars was spearheaded by the Dominicans, one of the two recently established orders of friars. In essence, the friars, both the Friars Minor and the Friars Preacher—or the Franciscans and the Dominicans as they came to be known, in honor of their founders, Francis of Assisi and Dominic—were an orthodox version of the wandering preaching that had seemed disturbingly heretical (at least potentially) in the twelfth century.

Both orders of friars were based on the same principles as inspired monasticism: personal poverty, a life of chastity and charity, obedience to superiors. But while monks had followed this life withdrawn from the world behind cloister walls, friars lived out in the world, preaching to the populace rather than praying for them from a distance. They also adopted a much more radical version of poverty than had the monks, especially the Franciscans, who initially refused to own property collectively, and whom Francis himself had urged not to save an apple or crust of bread from one day to the next or even to touch coins.

Unlike other wandering preachers, the friars sought approval from the papacy. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 officially recognized them, even while ordaining that no further religious orders should be established. Two chairs of theology were established at the University of Paris for the friars. The friars’ stress on poverty reflected a society in which the overall economic flourishing made destitution less an inevitable disaster and more of a choice, and thus (at least potentially) more holy.

The emphasis of the Friars Minor on absolute poverty, however, soon caused a split within the order. Within a generation of Francis’s death, his followers were dividing into the Spirituals, who claimed to be following his original teachings and imitating the life of Christ, and the Conventuals, who were more willing to relax some of the severest restrictions on property. It did not help that the Spirituals associated themselves with the “dusty footed preachers” who, it was prophesied, would come into their own in 1260—the year when the so-called Joachite heresy predicted the beginning of a Third Age, after a First Age that had supposedly begun with the world’s creation in 1260 BC and a Second Age that had begun with the birth of Christ. The failure of the world to be transformed in 1260 did not lessen the Spirituals’ growing alienation from the church hierarchy, culminating in 1323 when Pope John XXII declared it heretical to assert that Christ had not owned property.

Highpoint and Decline of the Papacy. The friars gained approval under Innocent III (1198-1216), whose reign marked the highpoint of the power and prestige of the medieval papacy. He had only weak emperors to contend with, because Frederick Barbarossa’s son Henry VI had died the year before Innocent took office, leaving a very young heir, Frederick II. Frederick promised to be an obedient son of the church, and Innocent died without learning how wrong he had been to believe him. Both King Philip II of France, who tried to put aside his wife, and King John of England, who refused to accept the new archbishop of Canterbury, were forced to yield by the pope.

Both the Fourth Crusade and the Albigensian Crusade were launched during Innocent’s reign. Although neither did anything to restore Christian rule to the Holy Land, they did indicate that popes could expect to be heeded when they called for a holy war. Innocent was also very successful in organizing the affairs of the papal curia. By delegating most cases to local bishops or to legates, he was able to reserve his own decisions for the most important cases. Popes had long been overwhelmed by cases appealed from throughout Europe, but now he dealt with pressing cases in a short period of time—and, while at it, undercut the forgers who had provided genuine-looking papal bulls for those who did not care for lengthy waits. He also kept a record of all his rulings in a series of registers, soon imitated by the secular kings.

Innocent’s greatest achievement was the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, the largest ecumenical council since late antiquity. As well as condemning heresy, approving the establishment of the friars, and calling for a new crusade, the council made a number of significant doctrinal decisions. All Christians were commanded to confess and to receive Communion at least once a year. Priests were forbidden to participate in judicial ordeals. The council reaffirmed papal primacy and spelled out the nature of transubstantiation. It reduced the number of degrees of consanguinity from seven to four, thus making it more difficult for couples to “discover” that their marriages were incestuous, in essence getting divorce on demand.

This council marked the pinnacle of what has been called the papal monarchy. European kings were all what the curia considered properly deferential by 1216. Indeed, John of England declared England a fief of the papacy to escape the strictures of Magna Carta, which, however, his infant son was forced to confirm on John’s death. Yet in the decades after Innocent’s death, his successors faced serious opposition from Emperor Frederick II.

Frederick, in spite of promising to give up Sicily—as king of both Germany and Sicily he effectively had the papacy surrounded—never seems to have intended to do so. He promised to go on Crusade, and, after long delaying, ended up negotiating with the Muslims rather than fighting them. Finally, fed up, Pope Innocent IV held the 1245 Council of Lyon to depose him. Having accused him of perjury and heresy and reiterating the Donation of Constantine’s subjection of imperial to papal rule, the council deposed Frederick, but he refused to step down, and indeed called on other European kings to support him. The papacy now entered into open war against him. When Frederick died in 1250, papal agents hunted down and had killed all of Frederick’s sons and grandsons, legitimate and illegitimate. Sicily and Germany would never again be ruled by the same king; the pope invited the French king’s brother to take the crown of Sicily. But the pope’s political victory severely undercut the spiritual authority of the office.

Late Middle Ages (1300-1500)

Compared to the previous eight centuries, the late Middle Ages made a relatively small impact on the overall history of the church, and these years are too often seen merely as prelude to the reforms of the sixteenth century. The centralized governing authority of the papacy, built up over three centuries, was substantially weakened. Charges of corruption and laxness among the clergy were widespread. Although people of the era often expressed devout religiosity, more and more they did so with only minimal reference to the organized church.

Era of the Popes at Avignon. Having defeated the Holy Roman Emperor, the popes thought that they had become the true heads of western Christendom, both politically and spiritually. Their conflicts with the French monarchy, starting at the end of the thirteenth century, showed how wrong they were.

Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) and King Philip IV the Fair (1285-1314) initially quarreled over the king’s efforts to tax the French clergy, then the royal deposition of a bishop. In response, in 1302 Boniface issued Unam sanctam, giving perhaps the most unequivocal statement ever of papal authority. But Philip defied him, and the newly established French Estates General backed him up. When Boniface threatened Philip with excommunication, the French king sent his agents to capture the pope and bring him to Paris to stand trial for heresy, the murder of his predecessor, and general unfitness for office. The French released the aged and infirm pope just in time so that he did not die on their hands.

After the succeeding pope quickly died, the cardinals thought it prudent to elect a Frenchman. On his way from Bordeaux, his original see, to Rome, Clement V (1305-1314) stopped in Avignon and somehow never left. All subsequent popes for nearly seventy-five years lived there, building a large, comfortable palace. Avignon was a delicate choice, because although culturally French, it was officially in the empire. The popes could thus suggest that they were not really under the thumb of the French king, even though Clement acquiesced in Philip’s suppression of the Templars.

The Avignon popes were, as a group, serious and competent if somewhat uninspiring. Yet they became decreasingly relevant to European religious life and were subject to harsh criticism, even from those who considered themselves excellent Christians. The emperors began assuming the imperial title without papal coronation, with the Golden Bull of 1356. Many, not only the Franciscans, believed true holiness resided in poverty and roundly criticized the wealth of the curia. Marsilius of Padua (d. 1342) saw the Christian community, not the pope, as divinely constituted; for him the pope was little more than an elected executive. William of Ockham (d. 1349) discussed how a heretical pope might be deposed, with special reference to John XXII. John Wyclif in England (d. 1384) argued that the church should own no property; he also had the entire Bible translated into English for the first time, urging people to read it for themselves. By now popes routinely selected bishops and abbots for the next vacant position, with the expectation of an appropriate fee, and this practice of papal provisions was also severely criticized, especially when one man held several important offices simultaneously.

Gothic architecture in the fourteenth century continued to seek greater light and airiness, in a style now called Perpendicular. Painting as an art form developed rapidly; canvases, wall paintings, and devotional books such as the Très riches heures du Duc de Berry were executed with a wealth of detail and vivid colors, generally showing religious scenes. A new motif in the period was the Dance of Death, people of all ages and situations in life being led off to judgment by death personified.

The new religious orders that developed during this period tended to be fairly informal groups such as the Beguines, where (mostly) women lived together in urban houses to follow lives of simplicity while also working. The Brethren of the Common Life, founded by Gerard Groote (d. 1389), similarly followed a life of austerity while striving for inward piety. Persecutions for heresy became unusual; between the unprecedented famines of the early fourteenth century, the Hundred Years War that broke out between France and England in 1337, and the Black Death that first ravaged Europe in 1347, little energy remained to worry about someone’s beliefs.

Great Schism. The popes always meant to return to Rome, and finally, in 1377, Pope Gregory XI did so. The popes had been sorely missed; the humanist Petrarch referred to their sojourn in Avignon as a new Babylonian Captivity. When Gregory died shortly after arriving back in Rome, the mob raucously demanded an Italian pope. Intimidated, the cardinals complied. But when the new pope, Urban VI, turned against the French cardinals, they slipped out of the city to return to Avignon. Saying that their election of Pope Urban had been coerced and thus invalid, they proceeded to elect Clement VII instead. In Rome, Urban quickly appointed new cardinals of his own. Now there were two popes.

Certainly papal schisms had occurred before, but generally it had been clear that one of the two had the support of much of Europe, and at most the schism lasted until the schismatic pope died. But Europe was now fairly evenly divided, Italy (for the most part) and France, of course, supporting respectively the Roman and the Avignon pope, England supporting the Roman pope while at war with France, Scotland supporting the Avignon pope, Germany supporting the Roman pope, Spain the Avignon pope. As each pope died, his cardinals elected a new one. (Catholic tradition now takes the Roman line as the valid one.)

Both sides excommunicated the other, further reducing respect for the church hierarchy, because everyone had been excommunicated. Extended schism appeared horrible, for it tore apart the ecclesia, the body of Christ, but attempts at reconciliation proved fruitless. Suggestions that both popes step down were repulsed by both sides—unless of course the other pope would step down first. Eventually, the university masters and the chief bishops from throughout Europe, as well as many of the cardinals from both sides, agreed that the only possible solution was a council, which assembled at Pisa in 1409. Having deposed both popes in absentia, it then elected Alexander V who would, it was hoped, reunify the church. Instead there were now three popes.

Initially it appeared that support might swing from the Avignon and Roman popes to the Pisan pope, but when Alexander was succeeded in 1410 by John XXIII, a former mercenary captain who had been made a cardinal as reward for protecting the area around Rome, potential support fell away. Another council seemed the only alternative.

Council of Constance. After long negotiations, a council was assembled at Constance in 1414, the largest council in the West since the thirteenth century (and the largest until the Council of Trent), its goals to settle the schism, deal with heresy, and promulgate reform. Heresy came first. After condemning John Wyclif, relatively straightforward as he was long dead, the council examined the beliefs of John HUS, who came to the council under an imperial safe-conduct. As well as criticizing the luxury of the church, he and his followers insisted, contrary to current practice, that Communion be given to everyone in “both kinds,” both wine and wafer. Hus was declared a heretic and, when Emperor Sigismund withdrew his protection, burned at the stake. His followers, called Utraquists, rose up against the emperor and were eventually allowed to receive Communion in both kinds.

The Council of Constance next turned to the question of the schism. John XXIII, who had hoped to be reaffirmed as pope, was shocked to discover that instead the council was planning to investigate his fitness for office. He fled, hoping that his absence would bring the council to a halt. But declaring that a properly constituted council received its authority directly from Christ, the members of the council pushed on. They accused John of fornication, adultery, incest, sodomy, and murder and deposed him. The Roman pope offered to step down, perhaps hoping that his gracious concession would lead to his reinstallation, but instead his resignation was accepted. The Avignon pope, who refused to resign, was deposed in absentia. Since by this time even the French king no longer supported him, he was forced into exile. Finally, the council elected a new pope, Martin V. The cardinals of all three parties quickly accepted him. Exhausted, the council decided to postpone the troublesome issue of church reform.

Although Constance ended with assurances that councils would be called regularly, conciliarism soon lost momentum. Several councils were held, most notably that of Basel, which was moved to Ferrara and then to Florence, but plague or political upheavals or inertia kept them from promulgating wide-ranging reforms. Under Pope Eugene IV, Florence condemned conciliarism, reasserted papal primacy, and achieved a short-lived reunion with some of the separated Eastern churches. Subsequent popes, however, showed little enthusiasm for calling councils, and the emperors, the only political force that could have made a difference, were not interested in supporting a group that would act independently. The French king was satisfied by gaining the authority to appoint bishops (Gallicanism) and lost interest in conciliarism. Councils that would address many questions of church reform had to wait.

The popes, back in Rome, settled down to become, in effect, one more series of Renaissance princes. They and the cardinals lived in luxury and played a major role in Italian power struggles. Popes routinely practiced nepotism, promoting their relatives. The popes also founded libraries and became great art patrons, sponsoring Michelangelo’s magnificent paintings in the Sistine Chapel and constructing the present Saint Peter’s Basilica. They stayed out of religious conflicts as much as possible, for example ruling on the heresy trial of Joan of Arc (1431) only a generation later. Even the discovery of the New World was no more than a distant rumor in 1500, as the organized church seemed oblivious to the sweeping changes about to come.