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Catholicism and the Medieval Church

By: Lori M. Netahlo-Barrett

You Are to Conquer in this Sign

It is the year 312 CE, and a battle is to be waged between Constantine I from the East against Maxentius of the West for control of both factions of the Roman Empire. As Constantine assembles his armies at the Milvain Bridge, he looks to the sky and sees a "sign" which he depicts as a cross (or Chi-Rho) and a voice pronounced to him, "You are to conquer in this sign." Constantine takes this sign as an omen and has the symbol of the cross emblazed on his armies' shields prior to the commencement of battle.

Constantine is successful in conflict at the Milvain Bridge and henceforth gives religious toleration to Christians by proclaiming the Edict of Milan in 313. There is much speculation on what Constantine saw in the sky. Nevertheless, it is with this victory that the Edict allows Christianity to spread, and it is with these words that the fate of a small sect called Christianity changes the course of history forever.

The End of Rome and the Rise of Byzantium

As this new religion grasps the empire, Constantine shifts the command of the Roman Empire to the East — to Byzantium and names the capital Constantinople. The western faction of the empire begins to decline, losing its ability to hold on to its provinces, and it is looted by the Vandals for fourteen days.

"In 410 Rome declines and becomes vulnerable to Barbarian invasion by Germanic tribes. Ancient Rome was abandoned as the Goths, Vandals, and Franks sack the city. However, the Eastern faction flourishes under the rule of Constantine and Christianity. This new religion and new head of the papal church heralds in a new era of history — the middle ages" (Holmes, 1988, p. 50).

As the new religion began to spread across Europe, many countries, especially those of the British Isles, maintain their pagan practices and are ruled by warrior chiefs. It is not until after the arrival of a boy named Patrick, who is kidnapped and finds himself a slave in Ireland, that their pagan ways will cease. When Patrick eventually escapes his life of bondage, he returns home. However, he is somehow changed. Patrick envisions the Irish people and how to bring them the word of God. He returns to Ireland, and it is here that Patrick begins his conversion of the pagans to the new faith.

Ecclesiastical Formation and Monasticism

The triumph of Christianity was due to possession of an effective organization of bishops, or overseers of the faith. Those that found the new religion most attractive were those intellectuals who were impressed by clear-cut monotheism. In return for the state's financial and political backing, bishops came to be treated as imperial officials, and church councils often had to follow imperial instructions. Nevertheless, the church's newfound wealth and power aggravated internal tensions among its members. Objections were drawn regarding the Trinity, and between the fourth and ninth century a series of ecumenical councils codified the doctrine and discipline of the church.

The monastic life began in Egypt with a range of monastic communities sprouting across Europe. The life of a monk was a man's fulfillment of Christ's poverty and self-denial by removing him from temptations of the secular life. Villages in Western Europe relied heavily on the monks after the collapse of the Roman urban society.

The simplicity and popularity of Byzantine monasticism enabled it to survive Arab invasions. Christianity played a major role in the most fundamental changes in the early Middle Ages — the replacement of the ideal of rationalist self-sufficiency and self-confidence by a conceptual world, which emphasized an individual's helplessness in the face of supernatural forces outside his control. Humankind was an instrument of divine providence. A great emphasis was placed on family solidarity.

As icons depicting the new faith were produced and erected in houses of worship, there were those that were hostile of iconoclasts and their depictions of the Christ and saints. Iconoclast persecution was felt more in the eastern provinces than the west. After the final defeat of iconoclasm in 843, production resumed on a grand scale of religious art. During the second half of the ninth century, lavish redecorating of churches (such as St. Sophia) took place, followed by an upsurge in manuscript production.

The movements of many peoples marked the end of the Western Roman Empire. In the year 400, most north Europeans worshipped one or more non-Christian Gods. By 960 Christianity had reached most of the north-west and had been spreading into Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. "The slow process of Christianization, which began with the conversion of Kings and aristocrats, is clearly one of the most momentous developments of the period" (Holmes, 1988, p. 140).

The barbarians who had settled in southern Europe were mostly Christianized by the time of their settlement. Clovis, King of the Franks, owed most of his political success to the Catholicism that led his people and made the Franks acceptable to those he wished to rule. The church in Gaul, latter-day France, was grateful and offered it support to Clovis's dynasty. Work continued on conversion of the peasants in Northern Gaul. Catholicism had no real establishment in the Roman Empire for pagan barbarians to the north. God had brought the Roman Empire into being as a receptacle for Christianity, and those outside remained outside by their own will and the will of God.

"Bishops sent beyond the Empire were not primarily sent to convert the "heathens" but to act as ecclesiastical guidance to those living outside the Empire. Patrick was the first to see this conversion as his moral duty to venture outside the Empire" (Holmes, 1988, p. 143). St. Patrick's conversion of the Irish was an experiment, as no one before had tried to introduce a religion organized around towns and villages by depending upon just the word of God.

The monasteries of the Roman Empire became places of retreat and the secular clergy, entirely separate from the monastery, ran the church. Monastic life was the center for Latin education, book production, and the training of clergy.

The arrival of the church into a tribal or rural society was not without its problems. Those who donated lands to monasteries were unwilling, believing that those barbarian societies had certain rights controlled by the head of the family or tribe. During the early medieval period, the church depended heavily on gifts of property to survive and expand Catholicism around the provinces.

Columba, a noble man from Ireland, wanting to be a monk in Ulster, went on a "minor pilgrimage" as a penance. When he returned, he deemed his pilgrimage as insufficient, which caused him to leave Ireland in 590 to become a perpetual pilgrim. Saint Columba was one of the many Irish clerics that left Ireland and pursued the founding of monasteries throughout Gaul.

Conversion of the Anglo-Saxons

The involvement of Iona, off the coast of Scotland, was direct in the history of English Christianity. The first two Anglo-Saxons we know of were monks at Iona during Columba's lifetime. The Anglican St. Oswald stayed at Iona during his exile. When he became King of Northumbria in 653, he asked Iona to send him clerics to convert his kingdom. Iona sent St. Aidan, who founded the island monastery of Lisdisfarne as the center for his bishops. It became the leading center for training and education of missionaries, making Northumbria the most powerful kingdom in England. With that power clerics were able to spread the faith of Christ to Sussex.

The conversion of the Anglo-Saxons began in the south of England. Pope Gregory the Great sent St. Augustine to Britain to reestablish the church. Although upon his arrival in Kent, St. Augustine found things different than Pope Gregory had anticipated. Iona and Lindisfarne had taken from Rome and Canterbury the driving forces behind the conversion of the English. Although it caused minor problems in church customs, such as the calculation of Easter, the dilemma was settled in Whitby in 554. It did not, however, end the church influence as English clerics brought back books from the Irish monastery. New connections with Rome made it possible for the church to have the best of both worlds. The monastery at Jarrow had one of the world's best-stocked libraries in northern Europe and not surprisingly, produced the country's greatest teacher and scholar — the Venerable Bede.

By the late 680s, all of the English kingdoms had been nominally converted and the Anglo-Saxon kings were beginning to enforce the religion by law. The most successful missionary in Anglo-Saxon history was that of Boniface who hailed from Wessex. Saint Boniface spread the knowledge and faith throughout Germany.

Frankish Rule: The Holy Roman Empire

"Rulers of the Franks, Charles Martel and his son Pippin III supported the unification of the church in Germany. With this reformation under leadership of the Catholic Church, was an essential foundation to the rise of the Carolingian dynasty" (Holmes, 1988, p. 150).

The conversion of Germany in the early eighth century went hand in hand with the re-positioning of Frankish power. The advantage of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries, apart from the closeness of their language to the Saxons, was that they could distance themselves from Frankish politics. The Franks said that Saxony was not part of the wars of conquest. Charlemagne decreed that if any conquered Saxons refused to be baptized or insulted Christianity, they would suffer the death penalty. A church structure was established in Saxony and Christianity was enforced with the help of the Frankish army.

The conversion of the Saxons marked the last great conquest of Christianity in the period before 900. The process of Christianization, the training of priests to sermonize the people in the countryside, and the elimination of pagan customs were part of a process that lasted for centuries. In 799, Charlemagne rescued the Christian faith from the rise of Islam.

Charlemagne added Saxony to his realm after years of campaigning and towards the end of his reign subdued the Bretons, Bavarians, and various Slavic peoples. In the south, he began the reconquest of Spain from the Arab control. In 799 a rival party who tried to "gouge out his eyes and cut off his tongue" ambushed Pope Leo III (p. 100). After ordering Leo III to be restored to papal power, in 800 Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne Holy Roman Emperor. It is unsure if Charlemagne's coronation had been planned all along or whether it was a plot by Leo to retain the Frankish kingdom closer to the Roman cause.

Charlemagne, early in his reign, was concerned to order Frankish lands according to God's will. Anglo-Saxon and Irish clergy that surrounded Charlemagne developed textbooks for teaching Latin and for the education of the clergy.

For the first time in the West since Christianity's arrival, church and state united to bring Christianity under its control. This produced a number of scholars, poets, historians, and theologians, whose achievements rivaled those of antiquity. This "classical revival…what has earned the term Carolingian Renaissance began at court itself" (Holmes, 1988, p. 180).

Viking Invasion

Upon the death of Charlemagne in 814, his kingdom was heired to his son Louis the Pious. Unfortunately, Louis was in continuous battle with his sons. On the horizon, a new ingredient was added to the mix — the Vikings.

In the late 790s the first recorded Viking attacks were at the most famous monasteries of Jarrow and Lindisfarne. In the course of the 9th century, monasticism became virtually extinct and monastic libraries were destroyed. The raiding Vikings moved throughout Northern Europe, which offered the most treasure. Although Louis the Pious constructed coastal forts and reorganized his fleet in the late 830s, the Vikings attacked the Southern English coast before finally settling in France. Although there is much speculation as to whether the Viking invasion was the cause of the destruction of the Carolingian Empire, this has not been documented and one can only speculate.

In the 11th century, a new form of conflict with the church took hold and that was heresy. Those whom the church dubbed heretics always believed that they practiced what Christ had taught even though this conflicted with what the church representatives had taught and preached.

The Crusader Period

"The breakdown of the Carolingian empire in previous centuries, combined with the relative stability of European borders gave rise to an entire class of warriors who had very little to do but fight amongst themselves and terrorizing the peasant population" (Holmes, 1988, p. 200).

Outlets for this violence took the form of campaigns against non-Christians. The Reconquista in Spain was one such outlet, which occupied Spanish knights and some mercenaries from elsewhere in Europe in the fight against the Islamic Moors. Elsewhere, the Normans were fighting for control of Sicily, while Genoa and Aragon were all actively fighting Islamic strongholds in Majorca and Sardinia, freeing the coasts of Italy and Spain from Muslim raids.

Because of these ongoing wars, the idea of a war against the Muslims was not implausible to the European nations. Muslims occupied the center of the Christian world. Jerusalem, which, along with the surrounding land, was considered one giant relic, the place where Christ had lived and died. In 1074, Pope Gregory VII called for the "knights of Christ" to go to the aid of the Byzantine Empire in the east. "The Byzantines had suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the Turks three years previously. This call, while largely ignored, combined with large numbers of pilgrimages to the Holy Land in the 11th century, focused a great deal of attention on the east. It was Pope Urban II who first disseminated to the general public the idea of a Crusade to capture the Holy Land with the famous words: "Deus le volt!" ("God wills it!")" (Holmes, 1988, p. 260).

Within four years of the preaching of the First Crusade of Clermont in 1095, the city of Jerusalem Fell. The army besieged the city from October 1097 until June of 1098. Jerusalem, now in Christian hands, brought their own religious institutions with them. Latin clergy were installed in the cities as they fell to the crusading armies.

Defending the Holy Land was the utmost preoccupation of its rulers and many practices of the west were imported into the Holy Land. The fall of the first kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187, most likely due to the Christian effect at the battle of Hattin, was inevitable from the moments the Franks took the city in 1099.

The sacking of Constantinople by forces of the fourth Crusade was more than an outrage. It gave crusaders extensive territory in southeastern Europe and Asian Minor. As crusading to the Holy Land ran out of steam, Muslim forces closed in on Christian territories.

The 14th century has rightly been called the "calamitous century" (Holmes, 1988, p. 263), with the Mediterranean seeing its share of problems as northern Europe. The Black Death, the culprit for its introduction to Europe of the most devastating disease since late Roman times was the west's success in developing trading relations with the Far East. Transmitted by fleas that lived on rats, making their way on the ships of Italian merchants, first brought the plague to Europe. By autumn of 1347, it reached Byzantium, Rhodes, Cyprus, and central Italy.

"As the European continent tried to pick up the pieces from the Plague's devastation, economically and governmentally, there were five major powers in Italy and that fifth power was the papacy. During the late Middle Ages, secularization was especially significant. The papacy's attempt to control and consecrate the secular state had failed. By 1500, the secular power exerted a greater degree of control over the church" (Holmes, 1988, p. 290).

Even though in England, a "national" church had already emerged in which papal influence was severely restricted, rulers were still obliged to protect and support the Church within their lands and in return; the higher clergy confirmed and sanctified their authority. The temporal ruler was no longer perceived as an instrument, even less as a servant of the Church's will, since the Church had to large extent been absorbed by the state. The eclipse of ecclesiastical power accompanied an expansive elaboration of secular rule.

Papal Power in the Late Middle Ages

The later medieval papacy was often seen as the shadow of a formerly vigorous institution. Papal claims to "universal authority" (Holmes, 1988, p. 329) came under the attack of popes and cardinals, and we may speak of a decline in the medieval church. It was not, however, the Church's personnel which had changed for the worse, but the nature of the institutional church itself.

The devoted distributed their time between administrative and judicial tasks, and sovereignty was not expressed in doctrinal statements but in the administration of justice.

"As the church became temporal an institution, the quest for a purer more apostolic expression of Christian life became more intense. The papacy of Innocent III (1198-1216) represented authoritarianism and the fourth Lutheran council of 1215 laid down rules for the church's conduct of its affairs and its relations with secular powers, which were to determine much of the affairs, and relations in medieval development" (Holmes, 1988, p. 301).

Popes came and went, councils met and disbanded, but the spheres of most inhabitants of northern Europe bonded to their parish or cathedral church, in which all participated. Baptism was universal and obligatory, binding both man and woman together as the body of the faithful. People were not yet provoked by the schism of the Reformation. "However, there were disturbing signs at the waning of the Middle Ages that the traditional forms and institutions of the Roman church were, unless reformed or adapted, insufficient to contain and satisfy the demands and aspirations of a more literate and educated laity" (Holmes, 1988, p. 338).

Sources Cited