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The Middle Ages
The Church In The High Middle Ages
The Church In The High Middle Ages
When the German king Otto the Great revived the Roman Empire in the West
in 962, his act reemphasized the concept of the dual leadership of pope and
emperor. Otto claimed to be the successor of Augustus, Constantine, and
Charlemagne, although his actual power was confined to Germany and Italy. At
first the papacy looked to the German king for protection against the unruly
Italian nobles who for a century had been making a political prize of the
papacy. From the church's viewpoint, however, this arrangement had its
drawbacks, for the German kings continued to interfere in ecclesiastical
affairs and even in the election of popes.
During the eleventh century controversy arose between church and state
over the problem of lay investiture. Theoretically, on assuming office a
bishop or abbot was subject to two investitures; his spiritual authority was
bestowed by a church official, and his feudal or civil authority by a layman -
a feudal lord or a king. In actual fact, however, feudal lords and kings came
to control both the appointment and the installation of church officials. As
noted earlier, this practice was most pronounced in Germany, where control of
the church was the foundation of the king's power. The German church was in
essence a state church.
Gregory VII And The Investiture Struggle
The most ambitious advocate of church reform was Pope Gregory VII
(1073-1085), who claimed unprecedented power for the papacy. Gregory held as
his ideal the creation of a Christian commonwealth under papal control. In the
Dictatus Papae ("Dictate of the Pope") Gregory claimed:
That the Roman pontiff alone is rightly called universal.
That he alone has the power to depose and reinstate bishops.
That he alone may use the imperial insignia.
That all princes shall kiss the foot of the pope alone.
That he has the power to depose emperors.
That he can be judged by no one.
That no one can be regarded as catholic who does not agree with
the Roman church.
That he has the power to absolve subjects from their oath of
fealty to wicked rulers. ^2
[Footnote 2: Pope Gregory VII Dictatus papae, quoted in M. W. Baldwin,
Christianity Through the Thirteenth Century (New York: Harper & Row, 1970),
In 1075 Gregory VII formally prohibited lay investiture and threatened to
excommunicate any layman who performed it and any ecclesiastic who submitted
to it. This drastic act virtually declared war against Europe's rulers, since
lay investiture had been employed since the emperor Constantine's time. The
climax to the struggle occurred in Gregory's clash with the German emperor
Henry IV. Henry was accused of simony and lay investiture in appointing his
own choice to the archbishopric of Milan and was summoned to Rome to explain
his conduct. Henry's answer was to convene in 1076 a synod of German bishops,
which declared Gregory a "false monk" and unfit to occupy the office of pope.
In retaliation, Gregory excommunicated Henry and deposed him, absolving his
subjects from their oaths of allegiance.
At last, driven by a revolt among the German nobles to make peace with
the pope, Henry appeared before Gregory in January 1077 at Canossa, a castle
in the Apennines. Dressed as a penitent, the emperor is said to have stood
barefoot in the snow for three days and begged forgiveness until, in Gregory's
words: "We loosed the chain of the anathema and at length received him into
the favor of communion and into the lap of the Holy Mother Church." ^3
[Footnote 3: Quoted in J. H. Robinson, Readings in European History, vol. 1
(Boston: Ginn and Co., 1904), p. 283]
This dramatic humiliation of the emperor did not resolve the quarrel, nor
do contemporary accounts attach much significance to the incidentpublic
penance was not uncommon in those days, even for kings. After the episode at
Canossa, Henry returned to Germany and crushed his opponents; in the short
term the whole incident cost Gregory the support of the German nobility. Yet
the pope had made progress toward freeing the church from lay interference and
increasing the power and prestige of the papacy.
The problem of lay investiture was settled in 1122 by the compromise
known as the Concordat of Worms. By the terms of this agreement, the church
maintained the right to elect the holder of an ecclesiastical office, but only
in the presence of the king or his representative. The candidate, such as a
bishop, was invested by the king with the scepter, the symbol of his
administrative jurisdiction, after which he performed the act of homage and
swore allegiance as the king's vassal. Only after this ceremony had taken
place was the candidate consecrated by the archbishop, who invested him with
his spiritual functions, as symbolized by the ring and pastoral staff. Since
the kings of England and France had earlier accepted this compromise, the
problem of lay investiture ended.
The Papacy's Zenith: Innocent III
Under Innocent III (1198-1216), a new type of administrator-pope, papal
power reached its zenith. Unlike Gregory VII and other earlier reform popes,
who were monks, Innocent and other great popes of the late twelfth and
thirteenth centuries were lawyers, trained in the newly revived and enlarged
church, or canon law. Innocent was like Gregory VII, however, in holding an
exalted view of his office:
The Lord Jesus Christ has set up one ruler over all
things as His universal vicar, and as all things in
heaven, earth and hell bow the knee to Christ, so should
all obey Christ's vicar, that there be one flock and one
[Footnote 4: Quoted in Margaret Deanesly, A History of the Medieval Church,
590-1000 (London: Metheun Co. Ltd., reprinted with corrections, 1972), p.
So successful was Innocent III in asserting his temporal and spiritual
supremacy that many states formally acknowledged vassalage to the pope. In the
case of King John of England, a struggle developed over the election of the
archbishop of Canterbury, and Innocent placed England under interdict for five
years and excommunicated John. Under attack from his barons, John capitulated
to Innocent by becoming his vassal, receiving England back as a fief, and
paying him an annual monetary tribute. Innocent forced Philip Augustus of
France to comply with the church's moral code by taking back as his queen the
woman he had divorced with the consent of the French bishops. As for the Holy
Roman Empire, Innocent intervened in a civil war between rival candidates for
the throne, supporting first one, then the other. In the end Innocent secured
the election of his ward, the young Hohenstaufen heir Frederick II, who
promised to respect papal rights and to go on a crusade.
The universality and power of the church rested not only upon a
systematized, uniform creed but also upon the most highly organized
administrative system in the West. At the head was the pope, or bishop of Rome
(see ch. 5). He was assisted by the Curia, the papal council or court, which
in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries developed an intricate adminstrative
system. Judicial and secretarial problems were handled by the papal Chancery,
financial matters by the Camera, and disciplinary questions by the
Penitentiary. Special emissaries called legates, whose powers were superior to
those of the local churchmen, carried the pope's orders throughout Europe.
The church was ahead of secular states in developing a system of courts
and a body of law. Church or canon law was based on the Scriptures, the
writings of the church Fathers, and the decrees of church councils and popes.
In the twelfth century the church issued its official body of canon law, which
guided the church courts in judging perjury, blasphemy, sorcery, usury (the
medieval church denounced the taking of interest), and heresy. Heresey was the
most horrible of all crimes in medieval eyes. A murder was a crime against
society, but the heretic's disbelief in the teaching of Christ or His church
was considered a crime against God.
The papacy's chief weapons in support of its authority were spiritual
penalties. The most powerful of these was excommunication, by which people
became anathema, "set apart" from the church and all the faithful. A person
who was excommunicant could not act as judge, juror, notary, witness, or
attorney. That person could not be a guardian, an executor, or a party to any
contracts. When one died as an excommunicant, one received no Christian
burial; and if by chance he or she was buried in consecrated ground, the body
was dug up and thrown away. An excommunicant who entered a church during Mass
was to be expelled, or the Mass discontinued. After the reading of a sentence
of excommunication, a bell was rung as for a funeral, a book closed, and a
candle extinguished, to symbolize the spiritual death of the guilty person.
Interdict, which has been termed "an ecclesiastical lockout," was also a
powerful instrument. Whereas excommunication was directed against individuals,
interdict suspended all public worship and withheld all sacraments other than
Baptism and Extreme Unction in the realm of a disobedient ruler. Pope Innocent
III successfully applied or threatened the interdict eighty-five times against
disobedient kings and princes.
From the reign of Innocent III until the end of the thirteenth century,
the church radiated power and splendor. It possessed perhaps a third of the
land in Europe, and all secular rulers and church prelates acknowledged the
power of Christ's vicar, the pope. Innocent III and his successors could and
did "judge all and be judged by no one."
Yet while the church's wealth enabled it to perform educational and
charitable functions that the states were too poor and weak to provide, this
wealth also encouraged abuses and worldliness among the clergy. Cracks were
appearing in the foundation even while the medieval religious structure
received its final embellishments. Weaknesses were evident in the lessening of
religious zeal in the later crusades, in the need for renewed internal reform,
and in the growth of heresy.
A religious revival, often called the medieval reformation, began in the
tenth century and reached full force in the twelfth and thirteenth. The first
far-reaching manifestation of the revival was the reformed Benedictine order
of monks at Cluny, founded in 910. From the original monastery in Burgundy
radiated a powerful impulse for the reform of the feudalized church. The
Cluniac program began as a movement for monastic reform, but in time it
influenced the enforcement of clerical celibacy and the abolition of simony,
the purchase and sale of church offices. The ultimate goal of the Cluniac
reformers was to free the entire church from secular control and subject it to
papal authority. Some three hundred Cluniac houses were freed from lay
control, and in 1059 an attempt was made to rid the papacy itself of secular
interference by the creation of the College of Cardinals, which henceforth
elected the pope.
The medieval reformation gained momentum late in the eleventh century
with a second wave of monastic reform brought on by the failure of the Cluniac
reform to end all the abuses associated with the monastic life. Among the new
orders were the severely ascetic Carthusians and the very popular Cistercians.
The Cistercian movement received its greatest impetus from the zealous
efforts of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153). The order's abbeys were
situated in solitary places, and their strict discipline emphasized fasts and
vigils, manual labor, and a vegetarian diet. Their churches contained neither
stained glass nor statues, and the puritanical Bernard denounced the
beautification of churches in general.
The Cistercian order had founded 343 abbeys in western Europe by the time
of Bernard's death in 1153 and more than double that number by the end of the
century. Yet in one important sense these austere new monastic orders were
failures. Being exclusively agricultural and dwelling apart from society,
these orders were unsuited to cope with religious discontent in the towns and
the consequent increase of heresy.
Heresy, the deliberate belief in doctrines officially condemned by the
church, flourished particularly in the towns, where an increasing
consciousness of sin and a demand for greater piety went largely unheeded by
old-style churchmen. This fertile ground produced many heresies, among which
the Albigensian and Waldensian were major ones.
Harking back to an early Christian heresy, the Cathari ("Pure") or
Albigensians - so called because Albi in southern France was an important
center - went to extremes in regarding the world as the battleground for the
opposing forces of good and evil. The Albigensians denounced many activities
of the state and the individual, even condemning marriage for perpetuating the
human species in this sinful world. The Albigensians went on to denounce even
the church as an institution, since it too was a part of the earth and thereby
The Waldensians derived their name from Peter Waldo, a merchant of Lyons
who gave his wealth to charity and founded a lay order, the Poor Men of Lyons,
to serve the needs of the people. He had parts of the New Testament translated
into French, held that laymen could preach the Gospel, and denied the
effectiveness of the sacraments unless administered by worthy priests.
For ten years, Innocent III tried to reconvert these heretical groups.
Failing, in 1208 he instigated a crusade against the prosperous and cultured
French region of Toulouse, where the Albigensian heresy was widespread. The
crusade began with horrible slaughter to the cry of "Kill them all, God will
know his own." Soon the original religious motive was lost in a selfish rush
to seize the wealth of the accused. In time the Albigensian heresy was
destroyed, along with the flourishing culture of southern France, and the
Waldensians were scattered. Until the rise of Protestantism, the church was
generally successful in its efforts to crush heresy.
In 1233 a special papal court called the Inquisition was established to
cope with the rising tide of heresy and to bring about religious conformity.
Those accused were tried in secret without the aid of legal counsel. Those who
confessed and renounced heresy were "reconciled" with the church on
performance of penance. Those who did not voluntarily confess could be
tortured. If this failed, the prisoners could be declared heretics and turned
over to the secular authorities, usually to be burned at the stake.
A rationalization for torture was that the soul was considered
incomparably more important than the body, so therefore it was believed that
torturing a suspected heretic was justifiable if confession could save the
soul from the greater torments of hell. The use of torture, secret testimony,
and the denial of legal counsel prevailed in all courts that followed Roman
legal procedure. But some of the church's courts of inquisition, and in
particular the Spanish courts, abused their authority and became almost
fanatical in their prosecution of suspected heretics.
The Franciscans And Dominicans
As a more positive response to the spread of heresy and the conditions
that caused it, Innocent III approved the founding of the Franciscan and
Dominican orders of friars ("brothers"). Instead of living an isolated
existence in a remote monastery, the friars moved among the people,
ministering to their needs, preaching the Gospel, and teaching in the schools.
The Franciscans were founded by St. Francis of Assisi (1182?-1226), who
rejected riches and spread the gospel of poverty and Christian simplicity.
Love of one's fellow human beings and all God's creatures, even "brother
worm," were basic in the Rule of St. Francis, which was inspired by Jesus'
The second order of friars was founded by St. Dominic (1170-1221), a
well-educated Spaniard who had fought the Albigensians in southern France.
There he decided that to combat the strength and zeal of it opponents, the
church should have champions who could preach the Gospel with the dedication
of the Apostles. Dominic's order of friar-preachers dedicated themselves to
preaching as a means of maintaining the doctrines of the church and of
The enthusiasm and sincerity of the friars in their early years made a
profound impact on an age that had grown increasingly critical of the
worldliness of the church. But after they took charge of the Inquisition,
became professors in the universities, and served the papacy in other ways,
the friars lost much of their original simplicity and freshness. Yet their
message and zeal had done much to provide the church with moral and
intellectual leadership at a time when such leadership was badly needed.