The Middle Ages: The Church Years

“The Middle Ages” is a term used to describe the post-Roman, pre-Industrial centuries on the European continent. The scope of this period is so broad that it should not be so flippantly lumped together. Still, temporal divisions are not easily discerned. I will attempt to partition by centuries, but events rarely fit so neatly into time blocks. It is also possible to divide by emperors, kings or popes, but this would create fairly short periods with a narrow view. It is important to know how the narrow views fit into the big picture. The Middle Ages have only a few over-arching concepts that remained continuous, the church being the enduring characteristic addressed in this essay. The presence of the Christian Church was constant throughout the Middle Ages, but practice, policy, location and leadership within the church were not in stone. Monasticism, popular religion and education were all dynamic attributes in the church. Imperial and monarchal dynasties shifted, even papacies were subject to change, but the institution of the church persisted.
Christianity found its way to the European continent when Saint Peter traveled to Rome and became the first bishop there. It was not an instant success, to say the least, and for the next three centuries, Christians would sustain persecution throughout the Roman territories. In 313, Roman Emperor Constantine declared toleration of Christianity with the Edict of Milan, and he made himself head of the church, even though he was a secular leader and only baptized on his deathbed. As early as 325, doctrinal discord was forming in the Roman church. The followers of Arius believed that the Son was not omnipotent like the Father. Constantine condemned this theory at the Council of Nicea and solidified the interpretation of the Trinity. Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion, and the Christians switched positions with the pagans, who became the persecuted party. Throughout the fourth century, the secular authority of Rome waned; Constantine had moved his government to Constantinople, and Roman imperial authority shifted to the east. Nevertheless, Rome continued to present itself as caput mundi, maintaining an image of strength and unity. Rome shifted its traditional imperial symbols to Christian imagery; Peter and Paul replaced Romulus and Remus as the fathers of Rome.
In the eastern Byzantine Empire, the emperor remained head of the church. But the barbarian threats in the western empire weakened the centralized government. In 410, Alaric and Sixty-six years later, Odoacer deposed and replaced the last emperor in Rome, Romulus Augustus. Roman influence was still embedded in its territories, though, as supported in the Gallic Chronicles of 452. Even though the chronicles are written by a Gaul, the point of view is very pro-Roman and pro-Catholic, and the content emphasizes both the weakening of imperial bonds as well as the widespread influence of the church:
At this time the pitiable condition of the state was quite evident, for there was no province without a barbarian settler, and the unspeakable heresy of the Arians, which had permeated the barbarian nations, spread over the whole world and laid claim to the name Catholic.1
Missionary efforts and conversion claimed the faith of many and inspired the destruction of pagan altars and temples. Barbarians and Roman citizens alike converted to orthodox Catholic Christianity from pagan religions as well as heretical Christian derivatives:
Augustine, while at first teaching rhetoric at Milan, gave up the classroom and converted to the true faith, for previously he was a Manichee.2
Thus far, the fourth and fifth centuries had been characterized by the decline of the authority of secular Rome and the increasing influence of the Catholic Church. The sixth and seventh centuries, on the other hand, saw the rise of monasticism and gradual conversion of barbarian kings. Earlier adherents to eremitic monasticism, such as St. Anthony, often fled to the dessert to escape persecution. By the sixth century, the idea of a religious life grew in appeal, but not a life as a solitary hermit. Monastic communities were formed, the most significant of which was Monte Cassino, the first monastery established by Benedict of Norcia. St. Benedict wrote a series of guidelines for basically every aspect of ascetic monastic life, from the recitation of prayer to manual labor:
Let each one sleep in a separate bed… If possible let all sleep in one place; but if the number does not allow this, let them take their rest by tens or twenties with the seniors who have charge of them. A candle shall be kept burning in the room until morning… and thus be always ready to rise without delay when the signal is given and hasten to be before one another at the Work of God, yet with all gravity and decorum.3
Monasteries and convents became home to both devout Christians as well as oblates, children offered into monastic life by their parents.
Christianity was slowly permeating the barbarian nobility. Oftentimes, conquering barbarian kings took for their wives Christian princesses. These new queens became “peace weavers”, and began lineages of Christian kings. And when a king converted, it was common for his subjects to convert as well. Gregory of Tours, historian and bishop of Tours, chronicled biblical texts, the life of his ancestor St. Martin and the lives of several Frankish kings. The following excerpt illustrates the conversion of the Merovingian king, Clovis:
[King Clovis] was delighted when he saw Clotild and made her his wife. The first child Clotild bore for Clovis was a son. She wanted to have her baby baptized… Queen Clotild continued to pray that her husband might recognize the true God… Finally war broke out… [Clovis] raised his eyes to heaven… and was moved to tears. ‘If you will give me victory over my enemies… then I will believe in you and I will be baptized in your name’… [A]ll those present shouted in unison: ‘We will give up worshipping our mortals gods, pious King’… [King Clovis] was baptized… more than three thousand of his army were baptized at the same time.4
The decline of the Merovingian dynasty brought the rise of the Carolingians. The Carolingian kings of the eighth and ninth centuries were successful expansionists. In addition, they also formed formal relationships with the church. King Pepin (the Short) was sanctioned by the pope as King of the Franks, the first example of ecclesiastical endorsement of royal legitimacy.
Charlemagne took his relationship with the church one step further. On Christmas Day, 800, in Rome, Pope Leo III crowned him emperor. Charlemagne supported administrative and religious reform, and he issued his Capitularies as a definite set of laws and obligations pertaining to both church and state:
1.14. If, indeed, for these mortal crimes secretly committed anyone shall have fled of his own accord to a priest, and after confession shall have wished to do penance, let him be freed by the testimony of the priest from death.
1.19. Likewise, it has been pleasing to insert in these decrees that all infants shall be baptized within a year…
1.1 It was pleasing to all that the churches of Christ, which are now being built in Saxony and consecrated by God, should not have less, but greater and more illustrious honor, than the temples of the idols had had.5
The endowments and patronage of the Carolingian dynasty bestowed more land on the church than any other time. But the second half of the ninth century was riddled with Viking attacks that shook up people all over the continent. During the tenth century, the Ottonian dynasty in Germany continued Charlemagne’s endeavor for a Holy Roman Empire6, and Otto I was crowned emperor by the pope in 962.
Charters for land and property were popular bargaining chips for gaining and maintaining loyalty amongst the nobility, but in 910, Duke William of Aquitaine raised the bar of piety when he endowed the prosperous town of Cluny to its abbey. Cluny became the epitome of a successful monastery, and it became so popular that it had to establish other monasteries under its name.
But generosity towards the church and clergy was not universal. In order to curb the flagrant abuses by the lords on the clergy and laity, a council of bishops imposed limitations of violence called the “Peace and Truce of God.”
In the eleventh century, the papacy, as well as the church itself, experienced significant reform. Until this time, the papacy wielded little political power, and emperors often held sway over papal elections. Pope Leo IX established the College of Cardinals as an elective body for selecting popes, wrangling some power from the secular sector. Pope Gregory VII’s efforts to reform the clergy and remove the church from secular control brought about many changes. Gregorian Reform stressed papal primacy, the notion that the pope was of the highest authority under God. This claim derives from the Petrine Principle of the pope being a titular descendent of Saint Peter. Gregory also established canon law and issued dictates that declared all clergy under the jurisdiction of only the church, as well as claimed jurisdiction over all baptized in relation to marriage, inheritance and more. Innocent II also wielded papal authority with his letters, policies and interdicts:
[W]e grant your petition, and give all monasteries, churches, and clergy of your diocese permission to refuse to pay any tithes which may be demanded of them be layment…7
Let all churches be closed; let no one be admitted to them, except to baptize infants…let them not permit the dead to be interred…Let them forbid their parishioners to enter churches…Extreme unction, which is a holy sacrament, may not be given.8
The power and privilege of the clergy did not discourage religiosity of the laity, but it did, however, inspire a movement of popular religion and anti-clerical sentiment.
Pilgrimages were an opportunity for a layperson to demonstrate their devotion to God. The popularity of the lives of saints inspired many to travel to visit relics. The Crusades, in essence, were an armed pilgrimage, a way for those whose life it is to fight to contribute to the kingdom of God. They provided the violent aristocracy with an outlet so that the peasants were not as threatened as they were pre-“Truce of God”. Crusaders fought to reclaim cities, such as Antioch and Jerusalem, in the name of Christendom.
Popular religious movements also increased in the twelfth century. This evangelical awakening was characterized by criticism of the clergy and devotion to poverty:
From his personal property he made restitution to those whom he had treated unjustly; a great part of it he gave to his little daughters, who, without their mother’s knowledge he placed in the convent of Font Evrard; but the greatest of his money he spent on the poor.9
Certain groups, such as the Waldensians and Albigensians, were deemed heretical for their blatant declaration of corruption within the church. The Dominicans and Franciscans, however, adhered to accepted doctrine and did not criticize the institutional church.
The fourteenth century was wracked with turmoil, though the church maintained its presence. People all over Europe were more concerned with surviving famine, plague, popular revolt and war. Simultaneously, the church was suffering from a papal schism that divided the continent. Living in such chaos motivated commoners toward personal reflection, piety and mysticism. Popular preachers, such as John Wycliff and Jean Hus, advocated reform.
It is easy, but misguided, to identify the Middle Ages as a Christian era. While this is true to an extent, without further inspection, one may ignore the dynamic nature of the Catholic Church from its inception to the Protestant Reformation. The Middle Ages can also be identified by other characteristics, such as urbanization, commercialization and education, development of nations, or barbarian and Roman integration. There were too many developments during the Middle Ages to effectively group these centuries together, even when examining through the context of a constant like the church.

1 Chronica Gallica A. CCCCLII
2 Chronica Gallica A. CCCCLII
The Manichees had a dualist philosophy derived from Zoroastrianism and later resurrected by the Cathars.
3 The Rule of St. Benedict. Translated from the Latin by Leonard J. Doyle, secular oblate of Saint John’s Abbey, (c) Copyright 1948, 2001 by the Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota.
4 Gregory of Tours. History of the Franks. II.28 – 11.31
5 Charlmagne. Capitularies.
6 Neither holy nor Roman
7 Pope Innocent III. On Church Independence/Tithes: Letter to a bishop, 1198
8 Pope Innocent III. Interdict of France, 1200
9 Conversion of Peter Waldo. C. 1218

Leave a Reply