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The Power of the Church 529 – 1409

IN THE YEAR 1134, in the town of Chartres in France, the church burned down. The church was a cathedral — that is, it was the church of a bishop. The bishop at that time was Theodoric and he immediately began the construction of another cathedral. He knew that the task would not be an easy one; it meant raising large sums of money and finding many workmen and the actual work of building would take years.

Bishop Theodoric allowed nothing to stop him, he won the support of the people, of commoners and nobles alike. An eye-witness, who visited Chartres in 1144, wrote that “kings, princes, mighty men of the world, puffed up with honours and riches, men and women of noble birth,” helped in the work, pulling wagons loaded with “wine, corn, oil, lime, stones, beams and other things necessary to sustain life or build churches. . . .” Although a thousand men and women were drawing wagons, “yet they go forward in such silence that no voice, no murmur, is heard. . . When they pause on the way no words are heard but confessions of guilt, with supplications and pure prayer. . . . The priests preach peace, hatred is soothed, discord is driven away, debts are forgiven, unity is restored.”


The cathedral was complete in 1180, but fourteen years later a fire broke out again, destroying most of the building. It also destroyed the towns people’s houses. They would have given up both the church and the town if it had not been for a representative of the pope. The fire was God’s punishment for their sins, he warned, and now they must restore the cathedral and put up new houses. The towns people did as he said. Money for the rebuilding of the church came from the clergy of the area and from cathedrals throughout Europe; hundreds of men and women joined in the work, as they had before; and in 1224 every stone was in place. The great cathedral stood with its spires reaching toward the sky — a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and a monument to the faith of the Middle Ages.

In the years since the cathedral was first begun, sculptors had worked to adorn it with statues. There were thousands of them — figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary, of the disciples, of prophets, of angels and devils, kings and queens. On the south porch of the cathedral was Christ seated on the judgment seat, surrounded by 783 figures. Besides the sculptors, many other craftsmen had contributed to the beauty and splendor of the cathedral. Workers in stained glass had made the windows that blazed and glowed with colour. Workers in iron, brass, gold and silver had fashioned candlesticks, screens, gates, altar rails and hinges for the doors. Jewelers had set precious stones in the vessels used for celebrating the mass. Weavers had made velvets and brocades for the altar cloths. Lace makers had made lace to cover the communion table. Wood carvers had carved figures and decorations on the choir stalls, the lecterns, the pulpits and the screens.

Chartres was only one of the many cathedrals built during the Middle Ages. From 1140 to 1250, building was also begun on the cathedrals of Paris, Bourges, Rheims and Bayoux. A cathedral was always built on a public square surrounded by the houses of the towns people, for it was the religious center of the community.


If the cathedral was the center of religion, religion was the center of life in the Middle Ages. The word “catholic” means universal and the Catholic Church was indeed the universal church of western Europe. No man, whether he was serf or peasant, craftsman or merchant, knight or duke or king, could go to heaven unless he followed the beliefs and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Church taught that because Adam had sinned and was cast out from the Garden of Eden, all mankind was tainted with original sin from birth. To remove this sin, God sent his son, Jesus Christ, to earth, and through Christ’s death, man could be saved. Man was helpless to save himself; salvation could come only through God’s grace. Grace and salvation could be attained only through the Church itself, Grace was given to men through the practice of certain ceremonies, called sacraments. The seven sacraments were baptism, confirmation, penance, the eucharist, or Lord’s supper, extreme unction, and holy orders. The sacrament of holy orders was administered only to men who entered the clergy. For those who defied the will of the Church, there were two terrible methods of punishment — excommunication and interdict. Excommunication, as pronounced by Pope Gregory on Emperor Henry IV, deprived a person of the rights of membership in the Church, including the sacraments and thus condemned his soul to hell. Interdict was the punishment for groups of people, areas and individual churches. It forbade all public functions of the Church, which included Christian marriage and burial.


The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was truly international. Although its members lived in many different states under many different rulers, the Church had its own lands, its own financial system, its own laws and courts of justice. At the head of the Church was the bishop of Rome, who was called the pope. His authority was based on the words of Jesus, who said to his disciple Simon Peter: “And I say unto thee that thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. . . ‚” Since St. Peter had become the first bishop of Rome, this city was accepted as the capital of the Catholic faith and the bishop of Rome as the leader of the Church. Next in importance to the pope were the cardinals, the “princes” of the Church, who elected as pope one of their own number.


Ranking just below the cardinals were the archbishops. An archbishop was the head of a large ecclesiastical province, just as a duke was the head of a large feudal fief. An archbishop served as bishop to one cathedral in his province, usually the largest and most important. He celebrated mass there on special occasions and certain saints’ days. His province was subdivided into areas called dioceses and he spent a good part of his time in travel, seeing to the affairs of his dioceses and attending various councils in Rome.

Each diocese was headed by a bishop, who was frequently a power in his community. Bishops controlled cathedral lands, monasteries and other property and played an important part in the structure of feudalism. Because of their rank, wealth and training, they were often advisers to nobles or kings, and sometimes provided them with military aid. Throughout the Middle Ages, popes and kings struggled for the right to appoint bishops.

The day-to-day work of the Church fell to the priests. They were divided into two classes — the secular clergy and the regular clergy. The term “secular” came from the Latin word saeculum, which means “world”; the secular clergy lived in the world and ministered to ordinary worshipers. The term “regular” came from the Latin word regula, which meant “rule”; the regular clergy were the monks who lived apart from the world in monasteries and governed every moment of their lives by definite rules.

A secular priest was assigned to a parish, a district in which lived all the people who worshiped in his church. In the rural areas, a parish was usually a manorial village. A town might have several parishes, depending on the size of the population. Parish priests almost always came from the common people, but serfs were not permitted to take holy orders.

The parish priest of the Middle Ages had many duties. He was responsible for the regular-services of the Church and special services on feast days. He supervised the morals of his parishioners. He conducted services at weddings, baptisms, funerals and visited the sick. His income came partly from parish land, partly from fees for marriages, baptisms and funerals, and partly from the tithe. The tithe was the contribution made by the parishioners to the Church; each was supposed to give a tenth of his income. A fourth of the tithe went to the parish priest, a fourth for the maintenance of church property, a fourth to the poor and the remaining fourth to the bishop.

The chief concern of the parish priest was the salvation and welfare of his parishioners; the chief concern of the monk was the salvation of his own soul. Living apart from the world in monasteries, the monks spent long hours in prayer. The rest of their time they spent in meditation, reading religious works and doing manual labour. At most monasteries, the monks grew the food they ate and made the clothing they wore. Besides the ordinary crops, they often grew medicinal herbs and made such things as wine and cloth.

Monks ate and drank sparingly and observed a number of fasts. Some monks lived under a vow of silence. Others believed that to endure suffering was a mark of religious devotion; they “mortified the flesh” by wearing a hairshirt next to the skin or A heavy chain fastened around the waist. Sometimes they flogged themselves until the blood flowed and they collapsed with pain.

The practices followed by the monks during the Middle Ages had their beginning in 529. In that year St. Benedict founded the patent monastery of the Benedictine order of monks at Monte Casino in Italy. There had been monks before, but they lived according to no real plan and many went to extremes of fasting and mortifying the flesh. In his community of monks, St. Benedict established a daily routine of worship and manual labor. For the next few centuries, because of their hard work and devotion to religion, the Benedictines flourished.

As the power of the monks increased, however, they became less disciplined and in 910 a reform movement began at the monastery in Cluny. The Cluniacs insisted that their abbots, the heads of their monasteries, be elected by the monks themselves, rather than appointed by kings or nobles. They also called for a reform of the secular clergy. All priests and church officials, they said, should be appointed by the Church and not by feudal lords. The popes welcomed the Cluniac reforms as a way to rid the Church of any control by the lords.

In the twelfth century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux believed it was time for new reforms. A French nobleman, he took holy orders in 1112 and became the most famous churchman of his age. He founded the Cistercian order of monks, preached the second crusade and never stopped urging the clergy to keep their vows.

It was the practice of the nobles and kings to give the monasteries vast tracts of land, usually wild and wooded. By hard labor, the monks cleared the land and brought it under cultivation. In this way, many monasteries acquired great and rich estates that rivalled those of even the wealthiest of feudal lords.


By the thirteenth century, monks of a new kind had appeared. The called themselves “friars,” from frater, the Latin word for brother. They wanted to bring religion directly to the people and instead of shutting themselves off from the world they went to live in the cities. Without monasteries to support them, they depended on the charity of the people. For this reason the orders of friars were called mendicant, or begging, orders.



Two of the mendicant orders became widely known. One was the Franciscans, which was founded by the gentle St. Francis of Assisi. The son of a successful merchant, Francis was born in 1182 in the little bill town of Assisi in Italy. His father tried to make a soldier of him, but Francis was a cheerful, amiable young man who was more interested in music, poetry and the company of his friends, than he was in war. He was captured during a battle, imprisoned for several years, and then became ill with a fever. When he had recovered from his illness, he decided to change his life. He would dedicate himself to God, helping the poor and the sick. Wishing to be like Jesus Christ, he gave up all his property and possessions and dressed in a beggar’s rags. Gentle and humble, he loved all living things and it was said that he preached to the birds. The followers who gathered about him in great numbers were recognized by the pope as the Franciscans.

The other mendicant order that became widely known was the Dominicans. It was founded by St. Dominic, a Spanish-born monk and it grew out of his experience in fighting heresy in southern France. Heresy was the belief in doctrines that differed from the accepted doctrines of the Catholic Church. The Church allowed certain criticisms, but beliefs that went too far and seemed dangerous to the Church were condemned as heresy. St. Dominic insisted that the Church needed learned and well-educated preachers and teachers to explain its beliefs to the people and prevent them from becoming heretics.


Heresy was a problem to the Church in the Middle Ages, particularly during the thirteenth century. Its very existence was threatened by two great heresies–those of the Waldensians and the Albigensians.

The Waldensians took their name from Peter Walde, a merchant of Lyons in France. Walde gave his riches to the poor and founded a lay order of monks — that is, monks who were not ordained as priests. They traveled about, preaching to the people and their beliefs spread to a number of countries. They based their ideas directly on the New Testament of the Bible. They criticised the morals of the clergy and some Waldensians went even further. They said that there was no need for the clergy or the mass or the sacraments; all that a good Christian needed was the Bible. It was a challenge to the authority of the Church, and in 1118 they were condemned as heretics. Driven underground by persecution, they continued to spread their beliefs, which in years to come would influence the Protestants of France and Hussites of Bohemia. The Waldensians could well be called the first Protestants of Europe.

Unlike the Waldensians, the Albigensians, who were most active in southern France, kept little of the orthodox Christian faith. They believed that Satan, an Evil God, was in conflict with the Good God. Some day the Good God would be victorious, but until that day the world was ruled by Satan — and the Catholic clergy were in league with him. Albigensians who sought perfection could not many and could not eat meat, cheese, milk or eggs; they refused to swear oaths of any kind and were opposed to taking part in any war. They were a danger to the state as well as to the Church and the king of France joined the pope in a crusade to wipe them out completely,

Heresy, however, could never be wiped out completely and there was no telling when it would rise again. The Church was determined to put down heresy and in 1229 the Council of Toulouse established the Ecclesiastical Inquisition. Four years later Pope Gregory IX set up the Court of Inquisition. The inquisitors would give the people of an area a month to come forward and confess heresy. Those who did confess were given a light punishment. When the month was over, persons suspected of heresy were brought to trial. The accusation of two witnesses was enough to bring anyone before the inquisitors and there was little the accused person could do to defend himself. The object of the trial was to win a confession from the accused person, so that he could be punished and brought back into the Church. Those who refused to confess were often tortured and a small number were turned over to the state to be burned at the stake.


It was the battle against heresy that helped give rise to the institution of learning known as the university. Before, there had been schools connected with monasteries and cathedrals. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when various heresies were springing up, the Church needed to train men to defend the belief of Catholicism. There were additional reasons, just as important, for the rise of the universities. One was the interest of the Dominican friars in education. Another was the learning that was teaching Europe from the Arabic countries, particularly Islamic Spain. Many books were translated from Arabic into Latin, or were first translated into Hebrew by Jewish scholars living in Spain and then into Latin. Still another reason was that, with the increase in population and the growth of towns, both the Church and the nobility needed men trained in the law and still more men to handle the work of administration.


In their early days, the universities of the Middle Ages were run by the students themselves, who chose their subjects, their professors and even their hours of study. At first the universities had no buildings of their own, and classes met in any place that was available. Books were scarce and expensive and the students had none, but the master, or professor, lectured from his own books and manuscripts. The students tried to memorize as much of the lecture as they could; many took notes on parchment or on wax tablets, which were cheaper. Later they would meet in taverns to compare notes and discuss the lecture.

The principal subject was theology, the study of religion. The theories of such great churchmen as Thomas Aquinas were taught, as well as the theories of Aristotle, the Greek thinker. Other subjects were arithmetic, astronomy, Latin, grammar, music, law and medicine. As the universities began to win financial support from noblemen and rich merchants, they grew in size and importance. Some specialized in certain branches of learning. The University of Paris was famous for theological studies, the University of Bologna, in Italy, for law, the University of Salamanca, in Spain, for medicine. Other noted universities founded during this period were those at Oxford, Cambridge, Prague, Leipzig and Heidelberg.



The influence of the Church went far beyond the universities; it was largely the Church that kept learning alive in the Middle Ages. The monks copied and illuminated manuscripts and the bishops built great cathedrals. Painting, sculpture, music — all showed the influence of the Church. Townspeople performed in mystery and miracle plays, based on tales from the Bible; these were the forerunner of modern drama. Latin, the official language of the Church, was the international language of all educated men during the Middle Ages.


Most of Europe was unified in faith and culture and this gave the Church, and its head, the pope, vast political power. Many churchmen dreamed of a universal state under the pope and this led to conflicts between the Church and the rulers of Europe. The popes of the Middle Ages played an important part in shaping political events; they stopped and started wars, launched crusades and made and unmade kings. No pope of this period wielded as much power and influence as Pope Innocent III, who reigned from 1198 to 1216. The popes who followed steadily lost power as they supported the kings of France against the English kings and the Holy Roman emperors. Finally Clement VII, a pope who had been born in France, had to flee Rome and take refuge in Avignon, in the south of France, where he could be protected by the French king.

The people and the government of Rome demanded an Italian pope. Supported by the Holy Roman emperor, they elected a second pope. For more than forty years there were two popes, and at a time there were even three men who each claimed to be the true pope. The Great Schism, as this split in the Church was called, lessened the authority of the Roman Catholic Church throughout Europe.

In 1409, a general council of Church leaders and scholars was called in Pisa, Italy, to take over the direction of the Church and decide on the true pope. This was part of the Counciliar Movement, whose aim was to make the pope subject to a council of bishops and archbishops. The movement failed in its attempts to reorganize and reform the Church and the papacy never regained the power it had held. For centuries during the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church had an enormous influence on the thought and action of men, an influence that left its mark on Western civilization.

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