Medieval Europe 814-1450: Religion

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 3. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Early Latin Christianity in Northern Europe

Foundations of Christianity

Although medieval Europe is often associated today with the dominance of Christianity, the beginning of the Middle Ages was a period of competing religions when many of the pre-Roman inhabitants and invading tribes who had helped bring about the end of the Roman Empire continued to practice polytheism. Latin Christianity had been established in parts of Western Europe outside of Italy during the time of the Roman occupation (especially from the second through fifth centuries C.E.), and centers of Christianity continued to exist in such cities as Lyon, Arles, Tours, Poitiers, Marseilles, Reims, and Provence (all in modern France); in Silchester, Dorchester, Water Newton, and St. Albans (in Britain); Trier, Cologne, and Mainz (in modern Germany); and in Toledo, Córdoba, and Elvira (in modern Spain). The increasing presence on the part of bishops, theologians, and monastics fueled growing support for Christian ideas and practices throughout parts of northern Europe. Moreover, during the period of decline and deterioration of the Roman Empire, many members of the invading tribes—including the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, Franks, and Saxons—accepted Christianity in one form or another. However, the key to Christianizing the north seemed to be the conversion of the tribal leaders, as happened when the Merovingian (Frankish) king Clovis—who ruled over what is now Belgium, northern France, and parts of Germany—and some of his followers were baptized in the mid-490s. A century later, with Rome still serving as the center of Western Christianity, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) sent monks from the relatively new Benedictine Order to function as missionaries, priests, bishops, and even ambassadors to parts of northern Europe. The influence of the Irish monk St. Columbanus (d. 615) spread more Eastern (Orthodox) traditions of Christian monasticism into centers like Bangor (in Ireland) and Whitby (in Northumberland), as well as Annegray, Fontaine, and Luxeuil (in France). St. Boniface and St. Willibrord had helped spread Christianity in the Germanic regions, while Patrick (d. circa 460), Augustine of Canterbury (d. before 610), Abbess Hilda of Whitby (d. 680) and Columba (d. circa 597) facilitated such growth in the British Isles. By the ninth century, Christianity began to proliferate in parts of France, Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Spain.

Merovingian and Carolingian Influence

An eighth-century alliance that was formed between the Frankish kings and the bishops of Rome did much to secure the place of Christianity within the circles of the ruling class as they expanded their territory in northern Europe. A forged document known as the Donation of Constantine, which asserted that in the fourth century Constantine himself had given the bishop of Rome authority to govern over all territories in the western empire, may have helped legitimize the series of agreements between the Roman pontiffs and the Franks to provide each other with mutual support. In any case, over the last several decades of the eighth century the Carolingian family—rivals of the Merovingians—used their military power to come to the defense of the papal territories in Italy. In return for such protection and support of the papacy, along with support for certain papal claims of jurisdiction, Rome continued to give its blessing to the Carolingians in their usurpation of the Frankish throne from the previous Merovingian line. This alliance (which some have viewed as morally suspect) went on to create a period of stability that would foster the development of Christian education, ideas, and institutions in the Frankish kingdom. It also set a precedent later on for providing the church with military assistance from Christian kings who were seen as God’s representatives, ruling through “divine right.” In thanksgiving for the continued support, at a Christmas celebration during the year 800, Charlemagne, the king of the Franks (whose Latin name “Carolus” was the source of the term “Carolingian”), was given the title “Emperor of the Romans” by Pope Leo III. The title linked the Franks to the former Roman Empire in an idealization of the place formerly occupied by Constantine the Great and his important relationship with the Christian church. Within the next century this title would be passed to the German kings (later called “Ottonian”) who succeeded the Carolingian line.

Conquest and Conversion

The coronation of Charlemagne as emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day of 800 provides a watershed date for the development of a Christianity in northern Europe that had begun to be linked to the monarchy. This Latin Christianity, which was increasingly being embraced by European kings and lords, also began to be urged by the nobility upon the general populace. While Christianity had been firmly in place in northern Europe for several centuries, a majority of people in the areas of the British Isles, France, and Germany had still not embraced the faith. These cultures still retained a mix of polytheistic remnants from the pre-Roman era. Particularly along the border regions of the empire (north of Thuringia and in the east between the Rhine and Elbe Rivers of present-day Germany), groups like the Saxons were forcibly converted to the Christian faith. Saxons could be put to death for following their own traditions and ritualistic religious practices, such as cremation of the dead and human sacrifice, or even for the refusal to observe the Christian Lenten season. Many who were unwilling to submit to Christian baptism or pay tithes (one tenth of their produce or income) to the church were also killed. One of the leading churchmen in Charlemagne’s court, Alcuin of York, raised objections to the practice of forced conversion. He wrote:

Converts must be drawn to the faith and not forced. A person can be compelled to baptism and still not believe. The adult convert should profess a true belief and if he lies, he will not reach salvation.

During the conquest and conversion of the Avars in the southeastern marches of Bavaria and in lands such as Pannonia beyond the Danube River, Alcuin more carefully directed the prelates of the Carolingian realm:

Be preachers of piety and not exactors of tithes, slowly suckling souls with the sweet milk of apostolic gentleness, lest these new converts to the faith choke upon and vomit the Church’s harsher teachings.

Schools and Laws

In developing a formal link with the papacy (the bishop of Rome who had authority over Western Christianity) and becoming a defender of the papal holdings of land and interests in northern Italy, Charlemagne and his Carolingian Dynasty, which ruled until the tenth century, united with the legacy of the old Roman Empire as well as the traditions and administration of Western Christianity. Taking this role seriously, Charlemagne sought to establish schools that would be located in the cathedral city centers and at monasteries where boys (mostly from the upper class) could be instructed in mathematics, grammar, and music, as well as in reading from church books such as gospels, psalters, and missals (if such manuscripts were available). Scholars such as Alcuin of York were brought into the kingdom from other lands to serve as teachers in the Frankish schools. Charlemagne also attempted to ensure that Sunday be observed as a holy day and kept free from work. Activities like hunting, farming, construction, gathering for legal procedures, weaving, tailoring, and even doing laundry were discouraged. People throughout the new empire were urged to attend Mass on “the Lord’s Day.” During the services priests were encouraged by royal directives to teach the notion of the Trinity—made particularly visual in an image from an English book of hours from York—and introduce doctrines associated with judgment, salvation, hell, faith, hope, and charity, as well as the love of God and neighbor. As the influence of Christianity became more pervasive, it appears that a fusion of church traditions and the laws of the Carolingian realm began to intertwine. However, it is not clear as to the extent to which these laws were actually enforced, since a number of forged collections of laws from the period (among them the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals) dominate those that have survived. While some of the false decretals, particularly those that favored a strong papacy, were promulgated during this period, there was actually no one official and universally accepted body of canon law until the Decretals of Gregory IX in 1234.

A Rule for Monks

Under the Carolingian kings there was an attempt to create a uniform rule for monks throughout the empire. Charlemagne favored the Rule of Benedict, which had been developed in Italy in the sixth century, and encouraged those monastic houses (especially those east of the Rhine River) that were not in compliance to consider seriously adopting this lifestyle of stability and obedience, lived out in a balanced daily spiritual experience of work, study, and prayer. However, it was not until the time of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious (778-840) that a reformed version of the Rule of Benedict was established. These revisions to the Benedictine lifestyle were introduced by a monk named Benedict of Aniane (750-821) and became universally adopted throughout the Frankish empire. Under these ninth-century monastic reforms additional prayers were included alongside the original sixth-century Benedictine Office. This kept the monks much busier in prayer, often too preoccupied with the Daily Offices to comply fully with the directives for manual labor that were an essential component of the earliest Benedictine Rule. The Frankish crown’s endorsement of the Monastic Capitulary of 817, which ensured enforcement of Benedict of Aniane’s revisions, is most likely responsible for the eventual standardization of the Benedictine Rule throughout Western Europe.

The Multiplication of Private Masses

Interestingly, it was also during this time that the number of monks who were also priests (a minority in early monasticism) began steadily to grow. The shift to larger numbers of ordained priests encouraged a more formal liturgical emphasis in the monastic lifestyle, which increasingly attracted members of the nobility. This tendency for some monks to spend most of their time on liturgical duties also left the door open for the appearance of lay brothers (members of a lower class in society whose focus was predominantly on labor), as well as the use of peasants to work on monastic lands and estates. With the increase in monks who were also priests came the development of private masses, where priest-monks would celebrate liturgies ostensibly by themselves, but usually with a lone attendant such as an oblate or lay brother. In cathedrals and larger churches, the presence of multiple altars containing relics of saints requiring veneration on a regular basis also helped create the occasion for private masses. Eventually numerous requests for votive liturgies—those conducted with a particular intention in mind, usually at the behest of wealthy laity—gave rise to the multiplication of private masses in the monasteries. Papal records during the ninth century indicate that certain priests celebrated the liturgy as many as nine times each day.

The Growth of the Secular Clergy

Alongside the growing monastic movements, a separate group of secular clergy (those living out in the world rather than in a cloister) ministered to the laity in local parish churches and in large urban cathedrals. The English called these secular churches “proprietary” while the Germans referred to them as Eigenkirchen (churches under private control or ownership), since often the local lords helped support them and would commonly appoint the parish priests. The cathedrals—large, important churches, usually in urban areas—often had a number of priests who might reside in the household of the bishop, the senior official in charge of the region or diocese. Eventually the term canon was applied to the clerics who lived at the cathedrals because it was said that they were living according to the canons (traditions and laws) of the church. According to the rule developed by Chrodegang of Metz, the canons, unlike monks, could own their own property and were not always required to live under the same roof with their fellow clergy. But like the cloistered monks (those who lived beyond the monastic cloister—that is, enclosed space—and took the Benedictine vow of stability), the canons assembled each day to hear a reading of a chapter of sacred scripture and thus were said to belong to a community or chapter of canons. Houses for canons began to become more popular by the mid-eleventh century. This communal arrangement worked well for urban dwellers but proved to be difficult for rural clerics. Customs seemed to differ from house to house. They would eventually come to prefer the Rule of Augustine by the twelfth century.

The Development of Sacramentaries

The Carolingian era was an important time for Western liturgical development. Books called Sacramentaries which contained prayers and guides for the celebration of Mass and other religious rites began to become common throughout France. However, there seemed to be little uniformity in the way each community used the liturgical prayer books. Alcuin of York, the primary teacher at Charlemagne’s palace school and abbot at several monasteries, began the process of making revisions to the Roman Sacramentary sent to the Franks by Pope Hadrian I (772-795) as usages became refined in the Christian empire over the next two centuries. The Frankish version of the Sacramentary eventually became the standard throughout Europe (preferred even to the Roman text) and continued to be the basis for practice in the Western church right up until the mid-twentieth century.

Religion in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe

Early Vikings

The term “Viking” has been used to refer to inhabitants of Scandinavia and the northern regions (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden). The native religion of these people was polytheistic (that is, involving worship of more than one deity) and revolved around a pantheon (a system of gods and goddesses) that was anthropomorphic—that is, featuring gods with human characteristics. Viking societies were also reputed to be polygamist, allowing multiple spouses within a family. Some scholars have gone so far as to attribute the invasions to the south and east, which began after 800, to a crisis of overpopulation linked to the polygamist practices of certain Scandinavian groups. Little is known about the actual religious practices of the Vikings before the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Most of the information on this era comes from Icelandic sagas that had long been removed from their earlier Scandinavian cultures and were perhaps even further affected by Christian ideas, since they were recorded in Icelandic societies that had long been educated and immersed in Christian tradition. The Saxon chronicler Widukind of Corvey, who wrote in the mid-tenth century, commented that although the Danes converted to Christianity they “continued to venerate idols according to their heathen customs.” From this time period in Denmark and Sweden, casting molds were discovered which simultaneously produced crosses for Christians and hammers for devotees of the thunder god Thor.

Gods and Domains

The Vikings’ religious practice helped orient them to the world around them, assisting them in understanding both the present and the past. They perceived the universe to be comprised of a number of worlds (heavens, hells, earth) numbering anywhere from three to nine, depending upon the cultures and particular historical time frame. The gods resided in a variety of these worlds and affected the daily lives of humans. These divinities had certain domains for which each was responsible. For example, Odin (or Woden) was the god of war, the all-father, a middle-aged kingly figure who in later periods was seen as the god of the sky. He resided in Asgard, the heavenly home of the warrior gods. Odin rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir and was accompanied by two ravens (Hugin and Munin) who informed him on a daily basis of the deeds of the other gods, giants, dwarves, and, of course, humans. He was also attended by the Valkyries, female warriors who were said to be responsible for taking those who died bravely in battle to Valhalla, a great palace in the city of heaven close to where Odin resided. In Valhalla the dead war heroes spent eternity fighting by day and feasting at night. Among the more popular Viking gods was Thor. He was said to be tall, strong, determined, and good-hearted, but he was known to have a temper and was lacking in intelligence. The thunder god wielded a throwing hammer forged by dwarves that could, after its release, magically return to his hand at his bidding. Freyr, a nature deity associated with the sun, rain, and agriculture, was also the god of peace and goodness. His twin sister was Freya, the goddess of love and beauty. It was believed that she could turn herself into a bird by donning the skin of a falcon. Some members of the Viking pantheon, of course, reflected the “darker side.” Loki was the challenger of order and structure—the god of fire and a sort of “trickster” deity, the one deemed necessary to bring about change. His daughter was Hel, the goddess of death and the afterlife.

Rites and Ceremonies

The Vikings believed it was necessary to establish close relationships with the gods as they looked after their families and their honor, as well as their tribes, villages, and kingdom. The gods helped the kings keep peace and looked favorably upon the harvests. The deities were both patrons and companions, to whom the people owed tribute and from whom they received many blessings. Priests functioned as intermediaries and would perform rites to the cults of various gods. However, they were not a professional caste. Chiefs and tribal leaders often functioned as priests, or a father would fulfill that function during family gatherings; however, the priest could often be killed or banished from society for improper or unfavorable mediation. The Scandinavian polytheists most often worshipped in open-air spaces where they could more appropriately connect with nature. There were communal ceremonies in open fields, meadows, and clearings, at gravesites and near massive stones. The dead were often buried with their possessions. At especially solemn feasts there could be blood sacrifice (blot). The eleventh-century chronicler Adam of Bremen described a particular Viking religious ceremony that was supposedly celebrated only every ninth year, explaining that “nine heads were offered from every type of living male creature and the custom was to appease the gods with their blood.” Decapitated bodies were hung in a grove, which was considered sacred, as were the trees upon which the victims hung. In fact, the trees were by virtue of their role in the ceremony considered sacred in and of themselves. The details of the event were startling:

Dogs were hung with horses and men and a Christian told me that he had seen as many as 72 corpses hanging in rows. The blood was collected in a sacred vessel and sprinkled by the priests. The ritual was followed by a feast with offerings to the gods.

The Spread of Christianity

Christian missionaries began to be sent to the Danes and Swedes in the early 800s, though it is unlikely that any of the kings in Scandinavia from that period underwent conversion. What is clear is that Vikings and Christians lived side by side and freely traded goods at stations such as York, Lincoln, Dublin, Fécamp, Rouen, Birka, Kaupang, Novgorod, and Hedeby. Those Vikings who settled in predominantly Christian areas on the European mainland eventually assimilated Christian customs, lifestyle, and faith, and by the mid-1000s Christianity began to become more firmly established in Denmark and Norway, with Sweden following in the middle of the twelfth century. As these conversions took place, some of the pagan sacred sites in Scandinavia were taken over by Christians, and churches were built on or near these places. In Sweden at Gamle Uppsula there are remains of an early Christian church that stands beside a large Viking burial mound. Harold Bluetooth, the king of Denmark from 940 to 986, was quite successful in influencing his people to convert to Christianity. Christian images appear on Danish coinage from his reign and there are records of the establishment of bishoprics in major Danish cities. Christianity became even more pervasive in Denmark once Canute (1018-1035) became ruler of both England and the Danes in 1018. Influenced by the great English bishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023), Canute became a patron of Christian institutions and a model king, rivaling his royal and noble contemporaries. After Canute’s famous pilgrimage to Rome in 1027, other nobles such as Robert of Normandy, Macbeth, Sihtric Silkbeard, Earl Thornfinn, and Earl Tostig all followed his example in undertaking journeys to holy sites. He attached a number of Danish bishops to his court and sent them out to establish churches throughout Scandinavia.

Looting of Monasteries

From around the year 800 on, the Vikings engaged in a period of tremendous expansion, using their naval expertise first to engage in raiding and looting along the coastlines of Europe and later to undertake conquest and settlements in England, Ireland, northern France, and Russia, as well as places as far away as Iceland, Greenland, and Finland. During the age of Viking invasions, it was not uncommon for Christian monasteries in coastal regions of England, France, and Germany to endure a certain amount of looting—not, apparently, as a deliberate attempt by the invaders to destroy the system of Christian organization and faith, but for purely material reasons. Not only were the monasteries repositories of church treasure (including gold and silver vessels, jeweled reliquaries, lavishly decorated manuscripts—such as a French book of hours containing an ornate miniature of the Annunciation to the Virgin—and priestly vestments), but some of them acted as banks and safe depositories for the aristocracy. Monasteries located on rivers were also susceptible; for example in Normandy, along the Seine, there are records of displacements at Saint-Audoen and Saint-Filbert at Jumièges. It was also common to find certain breaks in episcopal succession in areas that were prone to Viking invasion. For example at Avranches in Normandy there was no bishop from 862 to 990. In the British see of Galloway, records of episcopal activity vanish in the ninth century and do not reappear until the office was revived in 1128. Those Christian monasteries and bishoprics that were fairly poor did not seem to be disturbed as much by the Viking invasions.


The period of competing religions in western Europe reached its end by around the beginning of the twelfth century. The story of the conversion of Norse settlers in Iceland, for example, is told in the Landnamabok (Book of Settlements). Bishops from the Isle of Iona (off the coast of Scotland), such as Patrick in the late ninth century (not to be confused with St. Patrick of Ireland) and Fothad (c. 960), sent native Scandinavian missionaries that they had trained to Iceland to build Christian churches. Intermarriages between Christian Scottish aristocrats and Scandinavian ruling families were common, and by the mid-1000s many of the Vikings who had settled in the northern British Isles had converted. (Conversions of the native British and Irish were much earlier, mostly during the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries.) In Ireland more permanent coastal commercial centers of Viking traders were established during the ninth century, and certainly by the tenth and eleventh centuries there are records of conversions of leaders such as King Olaf Cuaran of Dublin and his son Sihtric, who made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1028, issued coins with Christian symbols, and founded Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. Likewise, the conversion of tribes of the Rus’ in eastern Europe (the area near modern Kiev, Russia) was a lengthy process. In the 860s Rus’ ambassadors to the court at Constantinople had embraced Christian monotheism, and in the 870s a bishop was sent to live among them, but it is more likely the primary concern was ministry to those Christian merchants who routinely made journeys into the Russian territories, not ministry to the Rus’ themselves. Indeed, in the early 900s the Muslim traveler Ibn Fadlan still relates tales of offerings made by the polytheistic Rus’ to their gods for success in commercial endeavors. The Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (913-959) wrote in his diplomatic manuals about the practice of sacrificial offerings made by Rus’ merchants for safely navigating the rapids of the Dnieper river during their trade with the west. By 945 there was a Christian church in the city of Kiev, and Olga, the wife of Prince Igor, was baptized in 957 while on a visit to the city of Constantinople. Upon her return she built a church in Kiev dedicated to the Hagia Sophia (holy wisdom) in commemoration of her admiration for the famous cathedral of the same name in Constantinople. Olga’s grandson Vladimir was baptized at Kiev in 988 and was married to Anna, the sister of the Byzantine emperor Basil II. Shortly after this, there were mass baptisms in Russia, followed by the establishment of more churches, bishoprics at Belgorod and Novgorod, and a school to educate clergy. In the eleventh century native Rus’ such as Luke of Novgorod were elevated to episcopacies, the monasteries of St. George and St. Irene were built in Kiev, and Jaroslav the Wise (d. 1045) rebuilt Kiev’s Hagia Sophia on an extraordinary scale. Additional monastic establishments followed.

The Spread of Islam and Its Relationship to Medieval Europe

Growth of Islam

When Islam first emerged in Arabia during the mid-seventh century, there was little indication that within 150 years the movement would come to dominate the entire Middle East, as well as northern Africa and Spain. The early spread of Islam was directly linked to the revelations and work of the Prophet Muhammad who preached religious and moral reform throughout Arabia between 610 and 632 C.E. However, the origins of the movement were fraught with struggle. Acceptance of the faith in the polytheistic city of Mecca along with much of the rest of Arabia was gradually accomplished after a series of military campaigns, treaties, and non-violent pilgrimages undertaken by the newly formed Ummah (the gathered community of believers). The earliest Muslims were scorned in the major trade center of Mecca and began assembling their community under the leadership of Muhammad at the more northerly city of Yathrib in the Arabian peninsula. Several generations of the Prophet’s successors (known as caliphs) during the eighth century spread the faith through both religious and political programs into North Africa, the Middle East, and even as far as Spain. Still, despite its widespread geographic success, until about the year 1000 Islam was more of an administrative presence than an ideology that had won over the majority of the populace. In many areas, the growth of converts was gradual, perhaps because (at least until the twelfth century) the Muslim conquerors seemed quite tolerant of other faiths. It has also been suggested that political, economic, and military control of strategic geographic locations was more important than converting entire populations. Forced conversion to Islam was not practiced in many non-pagan areas, especially where Jews and Christians were living in newly occupied Muslim territories. In fact, they were often referred to as the “People of the Book,” since all three traditions shared common elements in their sacred scriptures and traced their heritage back to the figure of Abraham. While members of other faiths were often tolerated, they usually were not allowed to participate in government and had to pay special but not exorbitant taxes. The cultures and faiths affected by the early growth of Islam were quite diverse: not only the formerly polytheistic people of Arabia, but the Coptic Christians in North Africa, Eastern Orthodox in Palestine and Asia Minor, Roman Christians in Spain, Nestorian and Arian Christians in the Holy Land, polytheistic Berber tribes in North Africa, and Jews of various kinds throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East all became subjects of Muslim caliphates. By the year 1000 it is believed that nearly eighty percent of the population in the Dar-al-Islam (Islamic territory) had converted to faith in Allah as it had been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century and handed down through succeeding generations by way of the holy Koran (Qur’an).

Elements of Islamic Belief

Requirements for participation in the religion of Islam were not extreme compared to some Jewish and Christian practices. The Muslim theological notion that people tended to be “forgetful” of Allah (God) seemed to be reinforced by directives for prayer five times a day (salat) and a month-long season of fasting (sawm) during the season of Ramadan. However, the most important religious act was that of simple belief, reciting the creed or confession of faith (shahadah), that “there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His prophet.” Almsgiving (zakat) was also expected of Muslims, charity both to the poor and in support of religious institutions. Although these were not practices all people readily desired to embrace, the potential for reward seemed not to be fraught with as many of the complex and confusing doctrines or laws as existed in Christianity and Judaism. Those who followed without question the teaching of the Prophet and the will of Allah were assured eternal paradise. As time passed, the Islamic holy book, the Koran, began to be seen as an infallible scripture, the mother of all books, the literal word of Allah, sealed as the final revelation that humans will ever need. Islamic law (or shari’a) seems not to have been divided between separate religious and civil realms. By the ninth century, law began to be viewed as descending not only from the authority of God’s scripture but also from the practices and sayings of the Prophet (sunna), which were handed down orally and eventually written into the Hadith. Added to this law was the ijma or traditions of historic Islamic communities. Later works like the ninth-century Tasfsir became important commentaries on the Koran and formed the basis for Islamic theology.

Dynasties and Religious Divisions

Islamic presence in Spain appeared at a very early juncture during the evolution of the major Muslim dynasties. The presence of the Umayyad Dynasty, which began in Damascus in the middle eighth century and continued in Spain until the eleventh century, put Muslim Spain (known as al-Andalus or Andalusia) into commercial contact with the North African coast, Palestine, and Syria. This led to the development of flourishing trade centers and a period of artistic and intellectual growth. Under the Umayyads, Jewish merchants enjoyed more tolerance than in Christian states, although persecution increased with the arrival of the Almoravids in the eleventh century and the Almohads in the twelfth, each of whom brought their own cultures and customs to the interpretation of Islam. There were also major religious divisions within Islam that began to emerge after 1000. The Sunni and Shi’ite positions, which go back to seventh-century disputes over the requirements for who might succeed the prophet Muhammad as caliph and still divide Islam today, became strongly linked to ideological and political separations dictating the way Islam would be practiced and perceived. The Sunni, who were in the majority, most often preferred to be directed by teachers, scholars, preachers, and government officials. They subscribed to interpretations of an eternal and uncreated Koran, the word of Allah, which was to be obeyed without question, but expressed concepts of an Allah that could not be completely known to humankind. The Shi’ites, making up roughly a fifth of medieval Muslims, had migrated toward stricter and even more literal interpretations of Islamic law and ideology, as well as relying upon religious leadership that was more charismatic. The mystical branch of Islam called Sufism, which began as more of a monastic movement in the eighth and ninth centuries, became popular among individuals who rejected the formalized trappings of Islamic religious life and were looking for more inward and personal expressions concerning their relationship with Allah.

Law and Philosophy

There were no priests with sacramental powers in Islam, as individuals were considered accountable directly to Allah and needed no spiritual intermediaries. Any devout Muslim could lead prayer, so that all were regarded as equal in the eyes of Allah. However, certain dynasties subscribed to the notion of a mahdi (that is, a divinely guided savior or messiah) who might bring justice and righteousness to the earth, restoring the true and proper message of Allah, if one would only follow his lead. The observance of religious law became most important, particularly as a variety of dynasties began to compete with each other for political control of Arabia, Persia, North Africa, Spain, and Asia Minor. As early as the eighth century, Muslim schools sprang up which were devoted to examining the roots of Muslim law. This process was called ijtihad, meaning a strenuous examination. Sunni schools of religious law called madhhabs began to emerge which would establish norms for Muslim practice. Four distinct schools came into being at the major centers of Damascus, Medina, Baghdad, and al-Andalus. The growth of learning centers and formalized education as well as interest in mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy began to create divisions in Islam and give rise to a host of theological debates. Unlike the Christian scholars, the organization of knowledge for medieval Muslims took in separate religious and non-religious categories. However, like Christian scholastics, there were prominent Muslim philosophers, such as Al-Ghazali (b. 1058) in Baghdad, Averroës (1126-1198) in Spain, and Avicenna (980-1037) in Persia, who struggled to reconcile the notions of faith and human reason. The numerous advances of Muslim thinkers had important influence on philosophers in the Christian West. Based upon the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, Islamic examination of natural and metaphysical truths attempted to link everything in the universe to Allah.

Conflicts with Christianity

During the first several centuries of Muslim control over the Holy Land, Christian pilgrims were able to visit the sacred sites with relative freedom. Their overland route usually took them across southeastern Europe, through Hungarian territory, Greece, Anatolia (Turkey), and Syria. Those who traveled by sea landed in Egypt or directly in Palestine. The growing threat of the Muslim presence on the border of the Byzantine (Eastern Christian) Empire and the loss of Byzantine control over the Holy Land served as a pretext for the Christians initiating the Crusades, which were in part due to religious ideological differences (Pope Urban II characterized the First Crusade as the will of God), but not completely driven by a desire to eradicate Islam. The factor most likely responsible for the early successes of the Christian invasions of the Holy Land was the internal disorder among the various Muslim dynasties, several of which were on the brink of controlling the area. Since the concept of the “Crusades” is something that developed from a European mindset, Muslims did not write their history about the wars for the Holy Land in the same way as Christians. These conflicts are more or less seen as any other wars with an invading enemy (most particularly in this case the French or “Franks”). The idea of jihad, struggling or fighting to maintain excellence (or striving for an ideal society in which Islam might flourish), is present almost from the beginning of Muslim thought, but not in terms of physical battle as much as a spiritual and a collective duty expected of all Muslims. Emphasis was upon the “greater jihad,” that is the struggle within oneself. The “lesser jihad” was connected to the idea of the physical struggles on the path to God. Endeavors connected to the “lesser jihad,” such as mission effort, good works, building mosques, even ideas such as physically overcoming the enemies of the faith, would not become significant to Muslim theology and ideology until the twelfth century. Those who lived in the part of the Islamic world that was spreading the faith were, for example, linked to the ongoing missionary activity in the Dar al-harb (the abode of conquest or expansion). Throughout its early history, Islam did carry out large-scale military conquest, but the term jihad as specifically connected to holy war only began to appear much later, at the time of the Second Crusade (1146-1148), in response to the Christian military threats.

Medieval Judaism

Diaspora And Reestablishment

Judaism came to Europe as a result of a process known as diaspora (from the Greek “scattering”), which can refer to any number of migrations of Jewish communities when they were forced to leave their homes and live among Gentiles outside the Holy Land. Major diaspora occurred after the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E., after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the first century C.E., in the early medieval period following Muslim conquest of the Holy Land, and in the late medieval period linked to Christian inquisitions and persecutions. Medieval Jewish religious communities were quite diverse as the various diaspora movements resulted in pockets of settlement all over the Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and European world. Those settling in Spain, known as the Sephardim, created a golden age of Jewish culture in Muslim Andalusia. Those who settled in Germany and eastern Europe following the diaspora of late antiquity and the early medieval period were known as Ashkenazim (from a word meaning “Germany”). These two groups came to be distinctive in their liturgy, religious customs, and pronunciation of Hebrew, but both revered the Torah, the scriptures which constitute the Jewish “Law,” identified by Christians as the first five books of the Old Testament: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Both were also guided by rabbis, the teachers of classical Jewish tradition who, after the second diaspora in the first century C.E., came to serve as legal and spiritual leaders for the Jewish communities.

Torah and Talmud

Among the various groups of Jews who settled in Europe, some chose to hold on to the traditions of the Talmud (from the Hebrew word for “study”), a collection of commentaries on the Hebrew scriptures that had begun as an “oral Torah” in the first century B.C.E. and was eventually codified by rabbis. Those inclined toward liberal education embraced more philosophical understandings of their traditions, while others adopted more decidedly mystical approaches to God. Centers of higher learning known as the yeshivah (yeshivot) began to arise in cities with significant Jewish populations. Among the more famous were Córdoba in Spain, al-Qayrawan in Tunisia, and Mainz in Germany. These schools began to produce scholars, rabbis, and poets who made rich contributions to medieval Jewish tradition. As early as the ninth century, a Jewish movement developed that saw the Talmud as a departure from the divinely revealed truth of the Torah, which was the supreme authority in matters of faith. This group, which drew ideological inspiration from the eighth-century scholar Anan ben David of Baghdad, soon became known as the “Children of the Text” or the Karaites(Qaraites, literally, “readers”). The Karaites abstained from eating meat, seeking treatment from physicians, and using lights on the Sabbath. They practiced personal interpretation of the scriptures and challenged Orthodox Judaism’s juristic interpretations of God’s Law. In the midst of this awakening, a Babylonian scholar, Saadiah ben Joseph (882-942), rejected the more radical Karaite notion of completely eliminating Talmudic interpretation, but he did endorse the return to the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. In order to provide a fuller appreciation for the language and voice of the scriptures, he had the Hebrew texts translated into Arabic for Jews in Muslim-controlled areas. He also introduced the idea that the Creator may have had some purpose for giving humans a rational side, one that might lead them to a greater understanding of God’s purposes. Reflecting the Aristotelian naturalism and logic that were beginning to be introduced into Jewish thought through intellectual interaction with the Arabic culture, Saadiah’s most famous work,The Book of Beliefs and Opinions (Sefer Emunot ve-De’ot), carved the way for the tradition of rationalism in the rabbinic authority of Judaism. After this period, rabbis moved in two directions, either embracing or rejecting the role of philosophical reason in Jewish theology and practice, a pattern that would be repeated among Christian philosophers and theologians several centuries later when these same Aristotelian ideas began to form part of the European university curricula.

The Jewish Intellectual Movement in Muslim Spain

As Arabic translations of the Greek philosophers were introduced to Jewish schools, reason and revelation began to be seen as working hand in hand to bring about a more balanced and enlightened system of Jewish thought. Many of the Babylonian scholars (in modern-day Iraq) who held such notions migrated to the Muslim-controlled portion of Spain (al-Andalus), where they founded universities such as the tenth-century Jewish Academy at Córdoba and encouraged new interpretations of Jewish tradition infused with the light of philosophical reason. One such scholar, Judah Halevi (1075-1141), argued that while philosophy might be compatible with the Torah’s depiction of the Almighty, the revelations in the Torah gave a much more complete rendering of the human relationship with God. Halevi’s view warned against too rigorous an incorporation of philosophy and supported the interpretive role of the rabbi in Jewish religious life. Other eleventh- and twelfth-century Spanish scholars, rabbis, and poets, such as Solomon ibn Gabirol, Bahya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda, and Abraham ben David Halevi ibn Daud, were quite supportive of Neo-Platonic and Aristotelian philosophies. Out of this growing and diverse intellectual Jewish environment came Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the most famous and influential Hebrew scholar and philosopher of the medieval period. When Maimonides and his family had to flee Córdoba and relocate in North Africa to escape Muslim persecution, Moses continued his education within a liberal Jewish philosophical and theological environment. His writings—based upon the scriptural traditions, the Mishnah (the authoritative legal tradition), Aristotelian principles, and some ideas of his own—emphasized a practical, ethical, rational, and balanced Jewish life. His greatest work, the Guide for the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim), sought to articulate Jewish belief in light of Torah revelation, faith, reason, science, and philosophy. Maimonides felt that faith must supplement human reason, which can only go so far. He also taught that miracles might be explained rationally, and scriptural accounts that defy reason might better be interpreted in a more allegorical fashion. Some of his realizations concerning God, the soul, and the place of humanity were written into the Thirteen Articles of Jewish Faith, which formed a creed that was used in later medieval Jewish worship.

Christian Opposition

As the general knowledge of the Hebrew language declined in northern Europe, European Jews began increasingly to rely upon interpretations of their tradition in the form of the Talmudic texts instead of a direct reading on their own of the collected Hebrew scriptures. Although medieval Christians accepted the entirety of the Hebrew canon as what they called the “Old Testament,” they harbored much suspicion concerning the Talmudic traditions. Certain writers such as Peter the Venerable (1092-1156), the abbot of Cluny, went so far as to suggest that these texts contained material that was blasphemous to Christian belief. (Scholars are not in complete agreement as to whether or not Peter actually read the Talmud.) In 1240 at the request of Pope Gregory IX, Jewish books were seized from synagogues throughout England, France, and Spain, and a trial at the city of Paris was conducted accusing Jews of being discontent with the “Old Law” of Moses and affirming another law, the Talmud. In France, rabbis were imprisoned and forced to defend their position in disputations with Christian scholars. In May of 1248 the Talmud was condemned at Paris by the Christian commission. Cartloads of the document had been burned, and the practice continued throughout Europe over the next few decades. However, Innocent IV had made certain provisions for some tolerance of the Talmudic traditions inasmuch as they were not harmful to Christian teaching and assisted Jews in coming to the light of conversion, against their old ways. In the early fifteenth century, repeated condemnations of the Talmud under (the extremely anti-Jewish) Pope Benedict XIII continued, but many of these statutes were reversed by Pope Martin V in 1419 at the behest of a Jewish delegation to Rome.

Mysticism in the Kabbalah and Zohar

The Jewish word qabbalah (tradition) is often equated with a movement toward medieval Jewish mysticism which has its roots in scriptural accounts of visions, such as the “visions of the chariot” in the text of the prophet Ezekiel or apocalyptic notions from the book of Daniel. Works of the philosopher Philo, ideas from the Talmud, and lost books like the Sefer Adam (Book of Adam) also contributed to these mystical ideas. The major texts of the Kabbalah (or Qabbalah) were composed or edited sometime in the late twelfth century, likely in Provence or Spain. Many scholars suggest that the development of the Kabbalah came as a reaction against the Jewish philosophical schools in Spain that emphasized a more rational approach to one’s faith. The Kabbalah was written in various chapters over many decades and is comprised of several strands of mystical thought from gnostic (“secret knowledge”) to theosophical (concerning intuition and perception of the spiritual or divine) and visionary. At the heart of the work was the notion of uncovering hidden symbolic meanings and secret wisdom by interpreting the arrangement of words and numbers in the Hebrew scriptures. The interplay of letters, numbers, and their ciphering was believed to yield speculative insights into the nature of Godhead, on the principal that one who searches to find God in the “beyond” comes to discover that what one is seeking actually lies within. The Kabbalah addresses such issues as how a perfect God might create an imperfect world. Did God compromise Himself by bringing forth the finite from His infinite splendor? Interpreters went so far as to think they might be able to use Kabbalic ciphering to predict or identify the Messiah. Certain movements connected to Kabbalic spirituality would go on to produce a series of false messiahs in central Europe, which proved to be of tremendous disappointment to the medieval adherents of this mystical path. The Zohar, a part of the body of the Kabbalic literature touted to be the mystical work of an earlier Talmudic sage but later discovered to have been composed in the late thirteenth century by Moses de Leone, attacks those who would neglect the commandments or seek solace in the rationality of things philosophical, and seeks a deeper penetration into the mysteries of the Torah. The human body is seen as a composite soul, as a perfect balance of male-female, reflecting spiritual elements, those “holy forms” of God that can be unified in humanity with the supernatural soul of God.

The Medieval Hasidic Movement

Ashkenazi Jews in Germany developed a form of hasidic (pious) practice between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Their focus seems to have been on the love of God, not the more prevalent legalistic notions of fear or punishment. They were strict and demanding of themselves, feeling they should provide an example to the world, but lenient toward those outside their immediate communities. The Hasidei Ashkenazim were concerned with educating people toward an ethical life. Their Sefer Hasidim provided a guide toward a moral conversion of the heart. It was their fear that the world of humanity was besieged by demons and spirits of evil. Some became attentive to the power contained in the names of God and were attracted to the Kabbalist literature. Others were interested in living lives of a more ascetic nature. These German Ashkenaz communities were often caught up in sporadic persecutions by Christians. It was said that the greatest expression of one’s love for God could be shown by enduring a martyr’s death. Stories of pious Ashkenazim, exhibiting acts of charity, love, and moral rectitude, continued to provide inspiration for European Jews for centuries beyond the Middle Ages. The medieval movement is distinct, however, from the Hasidic movement of the eighteenth and subsequent centuries, whose members, distinguished by conservative clothing and hairstyles, can still be found today in communities in Israel, Canada, New York City, and elsewhere.

The Developing Spiritual and Legal Roles of Rabbis

In the period before there was widespread Jewish migration to Europe, the title rav (rabbi) had been given to one who had received a type of ordination based upon his ability to teach and judge the law or his mastery of the Talmud. It was not quite like sacramental Christian clerical ordination, but it was conferred by the Sanhedrin or leading teachers of the community. During the diaspora in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple, the title “rabbi” became one of respect but most generally was applied specifically to those who were experts regarding Jewish law, particularly those formally trained by other Talmudic scholars. By the Middle Ages, then, rabbis were scholars, teachers, judges (particularly in Muslim Spain), and preachers, but not necessarily clergymen. Among their responsibilities, medieval rabbis were charged with composing commentaries on the scriptures, Talmud, and Halakah (legal texts), as well as works on ethics. One of the most famous contributors to this body of commentary known as the Midrash was Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi) who emphasized the notion of uncovering the “plain meaning” of texts, both scriptural and Talmudic. Also produced by the rabbis were the responsa, which were legal opinions, arguments, or precedents, some of which even became codified into medieval Jewish law. Examples of the responsa might include a discussion of the ethical questions faced by Jewish tailors employed to sew crosses on the clothing of crusaders, the issue of allowing candles to burn on the eve of the Sabbath in a Jewish home, or whether it was permissible for the windows on one’s house to be constructed so that one could look out into the house of a neighbor. Medieval ethical treaties were composed by rabbis such as the Spaniard Jonah Gerundi and the German Judah Samuel, responsible for Sefer Hasiydiyum. Because of the variety of roles they performed, rabbis sometimes faced ethical problems themselves, since they were not, at least in theory, to receive payment or salaries for their rabbinical functions, even though many, for example, were expected to serve as judges for their people. Thought and practice regarding compensation of rabbis began to change during the fourteenth century, and, similar to the medieval Christian controversy over lay investiture, the issue of governmental interference in rabbinical appointment became a problem. Some Spanish rabbis were even required to pay the royal treasury certain fees for their appointment.

The Synagogue

While it seems logical that synagogues might be the natural and most essential center of medieval Jewish religious life, this was not necessarily the case. Sites for other activities, such as the miqveh (a ritual bath for women) and schools for both younger and older children, far outweighed the importance of a formal house of prayer and worship. In medieval Judaism, individuals could pray wherever they liked, as long as the area was clean, and there was no obligation to attend services regularly at the synagogue. However, group prayer, by a minyan of ten or more adults, was encouraged under Jewish law and required for certain prayers or for the reading of the Torah. Because of this practice, and also because Jewish worship was so often officially proscribed in the medieval era, private homes were often used for these gatherings. In fact, in many Muslim cities, construction of a large synagogue was prohibited. In European Christian cities, according to canon law, Jewish congregations could maintain small synagogues, but new and enlarged buildings were not allowed. Although very few synagogues from the medieval period have survived (those that have were often converted into churches), descriptions have been pieced together from limited archaeological evidence and extant historical accounts. At the center of the worship space was usually located a large table on which the Torah scrolls could be rolled out and read. In Spain the scrolls remained upright in containers from which the scripture text was then moved to the proper place and recited. To store the Torah scrolls, many worship spaces had arks, which ranged from chests large enough to hold several scrolls to decorative niches constructed in the walls. The more elaborately decorated synagogues had desks or stands where prayer leaders could be located and even elevated pulpits (minbar) for preaching. In some worship spaces there were seats, but in many medieval synagogues, as in most medieval churches, the congregations would stand. Participants would often face the minbar or ark, which was oriented in the direction of Jerusalem. One of the oldest surviving synagogues from the medieval period is at Worms in Germany, dating to the late twelfth century. Its floor plan may have been borrowed from monastic chapter houses with two large intersecting halls. Wings of the structure possibly served as galleries for women who remained separate from men in some synagogues. The Worms synagogue had two exterior arched entrances with adjacent arched windows, and a ceiling that was vaulted in the style of Christian churches and supported by columns with decorative floral patterns. Building styles of this type endured and became a common architectural plan for synagogues throughout eastern and central Europe.

Early Medieval Christianity in the East

The Problem Of Iconoclasm

Although Rome had remained the center of Western Christianity after the disintegration of the empire in the fifth century, the center of Eastern Christianity—that is, Christianity as it was practiced in Asia Minor, the Balkan peninsula, Greece, and certain other Mediterranean regions—was in Constantinople, the city that Constantine the Great had chosen in 330 to serve as the capital of the Roman Empire of the East. Known as Byzantium, this area maintained a high level of social organization at a time when conditions in Western Europe had seriously deteriorated, and thus the Byzantine church was highly influential in the development of not only Western (or Latin) Christianity, but Western art and architecture as well. One of the more pressing issues facing the early ninth-century medieval Eastern Christian church was the revival of iconoclastic practices—that is, the smashing of statues and icons—under the emperor Leo V (813-820). A number of opponents of the use of statues and images in the churches had returned to old eighth-century prohibitions against idol worship, which, at that time, had culminated in the practice of Christian icons being defaced and destroyed. It had been perceived by some—particularly those tied to the imperial court—that the extensive use of icons in Eastern Christian churches was one of the major obstacles to the conversion of Muslims and Jews throughout the Byzantine Empire. In 815, a council at Constantinople reiterated that the practice of venerating religious images was idolatrous. Probably the hardest hit by the iconoclastic movements were the monasteries where, in the previous centuries, Byzantine monks had ardently opposed the iconoclastic movement. Many monasteries had become great repositories of religious artwork. Images in countless Eastern Christian monasteries and churches were once again destroyed by the iconoclasts.

Power Struggles

Because they were such strong supporters of the use of religious images and were not under the direct control of the bishops, monks became caught up in the emperor’s struggle to become the highest authority in the Byzantine church. Byzantine emperors began to see the independence of the monasteries as a threat to their control over the church. What began as an eighth-century theological controversy developed into a power struggle between church leaders, who felt best equipped to direct religious practice, and a secular power that wished to exert control over the church through imperial policy. During the late eighth century, Theodore the Abbot of Studius at Constantinople led a resurgence of Greek monastic life. He was also on hand at Constantinople in 815 to protest the iconoclastic revival. Soon after, Theodore was sent into exile. Emperors Michael II and Theophilus continued to support the iconoclastic position. It would not be until the regency of the Empress Theodora (wife of Theophilus) in 843 and the elevation of Methodius as patriarch (a bishop in Eastern Orthodox sees) of Constantinople that icons would once again be allowed in the worship life of Byzantine Christians, a change that is celebrated in an excerpt from a homily at Hagia Sophia given by the patriarch of Constantinople two decades after the restoration of the icons. After 843, the monks were again viewed with greater respect as they regained their former influence. Some monks were even allowed to go on to serve the church as bishops. In 862 the emperor Michael sent Bishop Methodius and his brother Cyril to Moravia where they taught Christianity in the vernacular language. Cyril is credited with assembling a Slavic alphabet and producing a Slavonic translation of the scriptures. Missionary work continued on the eastern borders of the Byzantine Empire. Cyril and Methodius also went to Bulgaria where they converted and baptized the khan (ruler), Boris, in 865. As the Latin church also began to send missionaries to Bulgaria, the eastern borderlands became contested territories of potential conversion between East and West.

The Photian Schism

The Moravian and Bulgarian churches continued to grow throughout the late ninth century but became the focus of a controversy when the lay bishop Photius of Constantinople attempted to exert his authority over these sees. The Latin church had protested the legitimacy of his election as patriarch of Constantinople, which allowed him to claim jurisdiction over the eastern border areas. Photius, an extremely learned scholar and theologian (but not a priest), was elected by the imperial administration to replace the rather conservative Bishop Ignatius in 858. Pope Nicholas I attempted to have Photius deposed in a bid to exert primacy—the idea that the bishop of Rome had a primary place over all other bishops—over Constantinople and Eastern Christianity. In 863 Photius was excommunicated by Rome. In a similar move, Photius attempted to excommunicate Nicholas for supporting what he believed was a heretical position on the doctrine of filioque, an argument as to whether or not the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father or emanates from both the Father and the Son, which had been previously debated at the Council of Nicea (325). This medieval disagreement, sometimes called the Photian Schism, would signal continuing unrest between Eastern and Western Christianity over issues of doctrine and the primacy of bishops—controversies that have separated the churches up to the present day. As a compromise, Photius, for a time, was forced by the new Byzantine emperor to relinquish his see at Constantinople, thus creating easier relations with the Latin church. The Photian Schism was finally healed by certain changes in imperial and papal administration and compromises at the Council of Constantinople in 870. Photius returned to power from 877 to 895. His Treatise on the Holy Ghost, which outlines the major Eastern objections to Latin filioque theology, remained an important work used by theologians throughout the Middle Ages to support the Eastern viewpoint on the relationship between the Holy Spirit and God the Father.

Extensions of Eastern Influence

Byzantine missionary efforts continued in the East as Bulgarian, Serbian, and Russian converts to Christianity continued to follow Greek practice. In 927 the Bulgarian church was even given its own patriarch. Vladimir, the prince of Russia, converted to Christianity in 998 when he married the princess of Byzantium, and bishops were sent to Russia from Constantinople to guide the development of Christianity in the region. By the eleventh century, Mount Athos in the northern part of Greece was becoming a major center of monastic spirituality. Orthodox Christians from the Greek mainland, Serbia, Bulgaria, Russia, and Georgia established communities in this secluded area, located on a peninsula that juts into the Aegean Sea and ends on an imposing mountain. Access to the mountain was quite limited—indeed, visitors were raised up in baskets attached to a rope and windlass, and women were never allowed entry at all. Thus, the solitude of the monastic groups was ensured

in a system somewhat different from the Benedictine way of life as it developed in the West. Many Western monastic houses, although controlled by vows of stability and the rule of enclosure, began to develop limited ties with various secular entities that surrounded their communities, and so had connections to outside society that were more integral to their existence than those in the East.

Continuing Tensions

In 1053 a dispute between the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, and Pope Leo IX of Rome caused a schism which resulted in the East and West once again attempting to excommunicate one another. Cerularius wanted Constantinople to have equal status with Rome and to be able to operate independently in the Eastern sphere. To show his opposition to Rome’s position, Michael closed all of the Latin rite churches in Constantinople. He also solicited other bishops to write letters in support of the traditional theological objections that had long divided the two rites. This time one of the major objections was the use of unleavened bread by the Armenian and Latin church. Churches in Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria, and even the Melkites in Egypt, sided with the Greek church and initiated a break with Rome. Tensions were further exacerbated during the Crusades as Latin armies en route to the Holy Land pillaged the countryside in order to feed the troops. In 1204 Western crusaders even succeeded in taking military control of the city of Constantinople, which was followed by three days of looting. An attempt at reconciliation and reunification between the Greek and Latin churches was made at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274 by Pope Gregory X (1272-1276) and efforts continued throughout the following centuries. A rather unexpected concord came at an ecumenical council in 1439, with Greek acceptance of the Roman pontiff’s primal place as successor to the apostle Peter as head of the Roman church. The most significant outcome of this agreement was the notion of the unity of faith and diversity of rite (ritualistic practice), a principle that is still respected between Eastern and Western Christians today.

Medieval Liturgy

Blended Forms

The development of the Christian liturgy in Europe—that is, the forms and arrangements of public worship—reflects shifts in political and cultural dominance throughout the medieval period. Roman liturgy (that form of Christian worship practiced in the city of Rome) began to find its way into northern Europe during the eighth century with encouragement from Charlemagne’s father, Pepin the Short. As its use became more widespread, the Roman liturgy also assimilated many older uses that were native to Frankish Gaul. In circulation at this time were two major sacramentaries (books of prayers for sacramental services): the Gregorian (dating from the late sixth and early seventh centuries at Rome) and the Frankish-Gelasian (which had Gallic and Benedictine influences, parts of which dated from the early seventh through mid-eighth centuries). The earliest surviving medieval liturgical manuscripts, in fact, blend these Gallic and Roman types. During the reign of Charlemagne, the Hadrianum, a sacramentary sent by Pope Hadrian, further assisted in the promotion of Roman elements in the Frankish liturgy. This hybrid or “mixed” liturgy spread into Germany with renewed support from Rome during the tenth century. The Gallo-Roman liturgy actually found its way back to Rome during the tenth century and further added to the rich blend of medieval liturgical practices.

Missals and Ordines

Since the old-style sacramentary did not include all the information necessary for conducting a service, it eventually gave way to the missal (Missalis Plenarius), a type of book that included not only the aspects of former sacramentaries, but also epistles (letters of St. Paul in the New Testament), antiphons (chants used during the canonical hours), and directives for preaching. This change did not happen all at once, but the missal virtually replaced the sacramentary by the eleventh century. Not only did celebrants find it easier to use because all the components of the liturgical prayers, songs, and readings were in one volume, but the missal also included more specialized liturgical formulas for use in commemorative services like the private mass. To understand exactly what went on during the medieval liturgies, however, one must look not only at prayers, readings, and songs in the missals, sacramentaries, lectionaries, and antiphonaries, but more importantly to a book called the ordo, which gave directives for liturgical action or served as a guide for liturgical procedure. One problem, however, is that these books (called ordines in the plural) were constantly changing, and there did not seem to be much of a need to save those that had become outdated. Some of the directives existed as individual manuscripts and actually had to be gathered in collections. Like the sacramentaries, antiphonaries, and lectionaries, the disparate directives of the ordo were eventually replaced by a more comprehensive single-volume work which later became known as the pontifical. Again, it took some time for the full transition of such usages to occur, depending upon local customs, between the tenth and twelfth centuries.

The Setting of the Early Medieval Mass

By looking at some of the early medieval ordines, scholars have been able to reconstruct aspects of the medieval mass. Particularly in the urban areas and especially in the cathedrals, there seems to have been a great deal of pomp and ceremony connected to these services. Indeed, medieval masses were quite extravagant affairs. The papal and episcopal liturgical directives from the eighth century still followed old Roman and Byzantine courtly rituals for the robing of participants in the sacristy (a room for keeping vessels, candles, and other ceremonial objects, near the front of the basilica). The vestments worn were very similar to those used today by Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran clergy. Deacons, sub-deacons, and acolytes acted as ministers for the celebrant. In the cathedrals and at papal services, the bishops and presbyters (priests) sat near a throne in the apse (an addition at the eastern end of the church, usually near or connected to the altar area) awaiting the arrival of the main celebrant and his attendants. Lesser clergy and those in training sat in the choir near the front altar. Lay men and women of the congregation were seated in separated rows throughout the nave of the church, with members of the aristocracy always seated in the front.

The Procession, Prayers, and Readings

The service proceeded with Gospels being carried in by an acolyte, then placed reverently upon the altar by the sub-deacon, a minor order of cleric. Candles were lit (there were often seven candle bearers), incense was employed, and an Introit (opening) antiphon was begun as the celebrant and his entourage processed to the altar of the church. Bread that had been consecrated (blessed) at the most recent mass was handed to the celebrant by the deacons. Once members of the procession reached the altar, they would bow, then make the sign of the cross, as the celebrant proceeded to give the attendants a kiss of peace. This was followed by the prayers Gloria Patri (“Glory to God the Father”), the kissing of the Gospels by the celebrant, and then his return to the throne. While facing east, the choir sang the litany Kyrie Eleison (“Lord Have Mercy”). This was followed by the hymn Gloria in Excelsis Deo (“Glory to God in the Highest”) sung by the congregation. Afterward, the celebrant turned and greeted the people with pax vobiscum (peace be with you) and began to pray the Collect. The celebrant then sat back on the throne, the congregation sat, and the sub-deacon proceeded to a raised platform (the ambo) to read scriptures from the lectionary. A response to the readings (gradual) was sung by a cantor, and then the deacon who was appointed to read the Gospel proceeded to the throne to receive a blessing from the celebrant. If the pope was present, the reader was to first kiss his feet, a practice from an old Byzantine court ritual. The deacon then removed the Gospel book from the altar, first kissing it, then processed with two sub-deacons carrying candles and incense to the ambo to read the Gospel. After the reading, the book was carried by the sub-deacons to the places in the sanctuary where clergy were seated so that all might venerate the book of Gospels by kissing it. The book was then returned in its cover or capsa (which was usually decorated with ornate precious stones) to the main altar. During the eleventh century the creed or Credo (literally “I believe”) was added after the reading of the scriptures.

Preparation for the Eucharist

Following the service of the Word of God, there was an offertory procession, during which those lay participants at the liturgy would present the gifts that they had brought by coming forth toward the altar. The bishops and priests would receive the gifts, including the offerings of bread and wine for the eucharist (commemoration of the Last Supper of Christ). In large congregations this was quite a time-consuming process. The flasks of wine were poured into a large vessel (the scyphus) and the loaves of bread were placed in linens (called sindones). The celebrants and attendants would then wash their hands. Additional wine, brought by the celebrants, was then poured into the large common chalice (sometimes so big it had to have handles), and the celebrant also poured in a bit of water. While all of this was going on, the various hymns, antiphons, and psalms prescribed for the day would be sung. The next action involved the clergy taking positions around the altar in the sanctuary. They would be arranged according to rank, with priests and deacons closest to the altar, and sub-deacons and acolytes closer to the nave. The celebrant would then sing a prayer of thanksgiving (later called the Preface) followed by the Tersanctus sung by the sub-deacons. The lay community did not always take part in the singing.

The Eucharist

Once all the elements were in place, the celebrant recited the Eucharistic prayers while those in the sanctuary bowed their heads. The chalice was lifted by one of the bishops or assistant celebrants for all to see, while the celebrant held the offering of bread on the edge of the chalice. Following this action, the celebrant recited or sang the Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), deposited particles of consecrated bread both from that celebration and the previous day, and then returned to his throne to sit. The consecrated loaves of bread were next broken for distribution while the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) was sung. The celebrant then broke his own bread and dropped a piece into his chalice of wine, to symbolize that both elements of bread and wine represented one true Lord. Bread and wine were then consumed by the celebrant. Once the bread was consecrated, fragments were carried by sub-deacons to local parish churches in order to connect them to the episcopal or papal service. Consecrated wine from the celebrant’s chalice was poured into the larger common cup, and the clergy then received bread from the hands of the seated celebrant. Clergy went to the altar to drink wine from the smaller cups. The celebrant with bishops, priests, and deacons then brought the consecrated bread to the laity (which they handed to them) and filled smaller cups from the large scyphus, which were also presented to the congregation for consumption. It is likely that the bread and wine were brought whenever possible directly to the people instead of there being a procession to the altar area by the laity who elected to receive communion. It is quite clear that by the medieval period the sanctuary was off limits to the laity. By the eleventh century, a screen (made of wood or metal, sometimes called the rood screen) was erected in certain churches to separate the clergy and altar from the laity. These became more common in the abbey churches and larger cathedrals. During the reception of the bread and wine by the laity, songs and antiphons were sung, often by a choir. After the communion, the celebrant returned to the altar, faced east (toward the altar itself), and said a post-communion prayer; then the congregation was dismissed by the deacon. In the closing activity, the celebrant processed out of the church toward the sacristy with the acolytes, sub-deacons, and other attendants, blessing the congregation along the way.

A Decline in Lay Participation

While simpler liturgical forms likely took place in the smaller and rural churches, the directives of the ordines clearly stated that celebrants were to try to stay as close to the urban and Roman rituals as possible. Some of the Frankish changes to the old Roman rite found their way back to Rome as early as the eleventh century. But the old Roman liturgy imported to France by Charlemagne underwent only minor changes in northern Europe during the following three centuries. One important trend that increasingly became more evident during the late eleventh century was that the members of the laity were losing their participatory voice in medieval liturgy. Prayers of the celebrant, once said aloud so that all in the congregation could hear, began to be whispered. The prayers of the laity began to be limited to short acclamations and then to fall into total disuse. Burchard of Worms (d. 1025) in his list of penitentials wrote that the growing failure of people to respond in church constituted “unbecoming” behavior. However, it might be said that the environment for participation was not especially inviting, since in most parts of medieval Europe the laity usually stood for the entire mass. There were no seats or pews, though there were stalls for the monks or canons of the choir. By the thirteenth century, the laity began to be instructed to kneel during the consecration. It was not until the fifteenth century in Germany that preachers began to direct the laity to sit for their sermons. Thus, the strong ties that once existed in early Christianity between the celebrant and people were being gradually loosened throughout the medieval period.

Cluny and the Monastic Reforms of the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries

The Flowering of Cluny

As the pervasive presence and influence of Benedictine monasticism emerged from Carolingian reforms of the ninth century, a particularly powerful house at Cluny (in the Burgundy region of eastern France) became the embodiment of church leadership, independence, and success in Western Christianity. Through cooperation with its benefactor, Duke William the Pious of Aquitaine, the monastery (founded in 909) adopted an original charter that allowed the monks to choose their own succession of abbots without interference or intervention from outside secular or church authorities. The abbot and community were also to have complete control over all of the monastery’s properties, being answerable only to the Apostolic See in Rome. A string of influential and creative abbots—Odo (926-944), Mayeul (965-994), Odilo (994-1048), and Hugh (1049-1109)—caused the house to become a major center of spirituality that quickly spread its influence over much of Europe. The notion that the present evil age was signaling the end of the world and that monastic life was the most perfect embodiment of the Christian vocation became cornerstones of Cluniac spirituality. The monks believed that if they renounced the world and undertook a life of silence and interior transformation they would experience God in the unceasing prayer of their community and the paradise of the cloister. Due to their high standards of observance, European houses as far away as Italy and Spain asked the Cluniacs for assistance with their own reforms. Although the community was poor at first, it did not take long for admirers of their lifestyle to become supporters and benefactors, creating a wealth of endowments. Secular estates and even entire monasteries were given over for Cluny to manage.

Architectural and Political Expansions

During the abbacy of Odilo, further exemptions from outside secular or episcopal influences were obtained, placing Cluny and all its daughter houses and dependencies under direct control of the pope. This was highly unusual for the time since local bishops and lords commonly exercised certain jurisdictions and rights of taxation over the monasteries. As the number of filiations grew, however, their care and management continued to be shouldered by the abbot of Cluny, the spiritual father of all Cluniacs throughout Europe and the one to whom postulants, novices, and newly professed monks from all the dependent houses took their vows. Portions of the incomes from these dependent houses also flowed into Cluny itself, financing a period of architectural expansion replete with elements of religious grandeur. Under Abbot Hugh, a 530-foot basilica with four transepts, fifteen towers, and five radiating chapels was constructed. After subsequent additions, Cluny boasted the largest Christian church that had ever been built in Europe up to this time. By the early twelfth century, Cluny had become one of the wealthiest and most influential establishments in all of Christendom. Within the next fifty years, Cluniac dependencies numbered over one thousand. Many leaders of the Cluny organization were from the most significant noble families of Europe. Not only was there a close relationship between Cluny and Rome, but the abbey also forged strong links with the Holy Roman emperors. Abbot Hugh was the godfather of Emperor Henry IV, and he arranged for a marriage between his niece and King Alphonso VI of León and Castile. Pope Urban II was a former grand prior of Cluny, and a long list of monks to follow (from both Cluny and its filiations) went on to serve in the episcopal ranks.

Liturgy and Lay Connections

The liturgical practices at Cluny were rooted in the notion that the monastic life was the only sure way to salvation, and this idea applied not only to the monks themselves, but to members of the surrounding lay communities as well. The monks believed that the monastery should be a place where continuous prayer was lifted up to God. According to the order’s customals (books containing instructions for monastic daily life), the monks extended the time for prayer well beyond the earlier Benedictine directives to the point where as many as eight hours of their day were dedicated to activity in the choir, the special seating area near the altar. In addition to the extra offices, two daily community masses were often celebrated. Extra psalms recited for benefactors, longer night offices on saints’ days, and the chanting of the entire books of Genesis and Exodus prior to the Lenten season also served to lengthen the time of prayer. During Lent so many prayers were added that the offices became almost continuous. Those laity who could not make such an extreme commitment to the monastic lifestyle might share in the merits of the monks’ work by associating themselves with the monasteries. This could be accomplished through donations, sending family members (sometimes child oblates) to the monasteries, being buried on the monastic property, or requesting the prayers of the monks during their various offices. One could even apply for confraternity, an arrangement by which the community chapter would vote to accept a person as an associate member of the house, sharing in the same spiritual benefits as the monks and even being remembered in the Office for the Dead like a regular member of the community. Lay members’ names could also be written in the Liber Vitae (Book of Life), which occupied a place on the high altar during Mass. Much of the theology behind lay association with the monasteries was linked to the belief in petitionary prayer, which allowed individuals to direct specific requests to God.

German Reform Movements

Cluny was not the only major reform group from the tenth and eleventh centuries, nor did it offer the only new model for monastic organization and liturgy. In 933 the Abbey of Gorze (near Metz, Germany) began a revival of the community once formed by Chrodegang in the eighth century. During the ninth century it had been run by a series of lay abbots. With the help of German nobility and bishops, the new Gorze reform extended to Trier, Verdun, and Lorraine (now in France), as well as Hesse, Swabia, and Bavaria. The customal of Gorze soon began to be used by over fifty monasteries. Houses of women also took up the customs in Bavaria during the 900s. While Gorze followed the Benedictine traditions as introduced during the Carolingian era by Benedict of Aniane, there were a number of differences from the Cluniac foundations. Some of the early reform abbots (Arnold, John, and Immo) had placed themselves in positions of obligation to lay patrons, nobles, and bishops who had invited the Gorze reformers into their territories. Control of the Gorzer monasteries resided with the bishops. Also those German abbeys and daughter houses that embraced the Gorze reform were not dependent upon the motherhouse but operated in an autonomous fashion. There were a number of core monasteries connected to the reform that became the nucleus of a group of confraternal houses. The Gorze lectionary and liturgical ceremonies were also different from Cluny’s. What turned out to be most significant were the liturgical enactments and performances that were linked to the seasonal celebrations such as Easter. These are said to have been the origins of the mystery plays that evolved into medieval drama.

English Reform

The English monasteries of the tenth and eleventh centuries were affected in various ways by both Gorzer and Cluniac reforms. As was the case at Cluny, carrying out the liturgy of the daily offices became the primary focus of the monastic life. However, more in keeping with the Gorzer model, connections between English monasteries and English monarchs were quite strong. In 970 abbots and abbesses from all over the realm attended a royal assembly at Winchester where an agreement of customs known as the Regularis Concordia was drawn up. The result of this convention was that the king became the overseer of a uniform set of monastic observances. Prayers for the king and queen were included in most of the daily offices. Monasteries were even given by the crown certain jurisdictions over secular matters, such as land management and the courts. Thus, a unique type of unity developed between the monasteries and the monarchy, one that was also linked with the English people themselves.

Relics, Pilgrimages, and the Peace of God

Interest in Relics

Much of the activity related to pilgrimages and holy sites in the Middle Ages can be connected to a renewed interest in relics that began in the ninth century in northern European Christendom. Any physical objects tied to famous saints or holy personages, such as body parts, bones, hair, fingernails, or even clothing worn during their lifetime, qualified as relics. In 801 and again in 813 the emperor Charlemagne revived a statute from the Council of Carthage (401) that required all altars to contain relics. The Carolingians went so far as to import relics from Italy and Spain. Pilgrimages to the tombs of saints were also encouraged. Charlemagne even suggested that important oaths were to be sworn upon relics. Not all relics were kept in churches, however. Charlemagne himself kept relics in his throne room for the occasion of oaths. There were even special decorative containers called reliquaries where these holy objects were kept for veneration on ceremonial occasions. In the tenth and eleventh centuries, nobles would swear peacekeeping oaths upon relics. Cults to the physical remains of saints did not take long to develop, an attraction that may have gone back to the practice of pre-Christian hero cults in Europe, and pictures of them were common in churches and religious manuscripts of all sorts, as illustrated in an English book of hours now in Oxford. For many ordinary Christians, sacred objects connected to the saints and particularly their remains were often thought to be conduits to the holy. Churches and monasteries that had such important relics in their possession would be considered prestigious. Places such as Dijon, Fulda, Vézelay, Verdun, Cologne, Bruges, Verona, Milan, Loreto, Trier, Conques, and Compostela attracted visitors due in part to their famous relics. This did much for the income and morale of congregations and communities. In theory, the objects were not to be worshipped in and of themselves. Theologically it was argued that the relic allowed humans to come close to the spirit of the prescribed saint who then became an intercessor for humanity assisting in the transmission of God’s grace. The relics would, of course, have only as much significance as a group of worshipers gave them. But they did provide a point of contact between their perception of the divine and their everyday mortal lives.


The Christian practice of making pilgrimages to holy sites dates back to the fourth century. The theology behind this was the notion of establishing a connection to places significant to the incarnate Christ. As early as the seventh century, Christians in northern Europe were making pilgrimages to Rome, where they wished to visit the supposed tombs of saints Peter and Paul, and by the eighth century such visitors could follow a written guide with an established itinerary. Around this time, the notion of remitting the public penance (assigned by a priest in confession) for one’s sins through some sort of pilgrimage had become common. Thus, pilgrimages often became associated with the notion of penitence. By the tenth century pilgrimages began to be organized on a grander scale. Noble-women, dukes, bishops, abbots, and even those from lesser walks of life, from as far away as England, Normandy, Bavaria, and Swabia, sought to visit the Holy Land. With the conversion of the Hungarians in the late 900s, overland routes to the Levant (the area comprising modern-day Lebanon, Israel, and parts of Syria and Turkey) began to be developed through southeastern Europe. The monks of Cluny also assisted with the organization of the pilgrimages, particularly from France. Even when sites of Christian shrines were located in Muslim-controlled areas such as the Holy Land and Spain, Christians were traditionally allowed access since a deep respect for the notion of pilgrimage was a vital part of the Islamic faith. However, when these holy places became inaccessible, Christians believed that they were justified in attempts to secure these areas by force.

Popular Journeys

Depending upon the balance of power in the Levant and the route of travel one chose, journeys to the Holy Land could be quite dangerous. Pilgrimages to sites in western Christendom such as Conques (southeastern France), Rome, and Santiago de Compostela (northwestern Spain), which were more associated with the relics of saints, could be much safer. By the twelfth century, sites such as the shrine of St. James at Compostela became tourist attractions and local economies flourished along their travel routes. Sites like Canterbury commemorated both relics and events, such as the twelfth-century murder of Thomas Becket (chancellor of England and archbishop of Canterbury). Becket’s grave as well as the spot upon which he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral became a popular destination for both the pious and the curious. Miracles were recorded at Becket’s tomb, and eventually his remains were moved to the choir of Trinity Chapel in 1220 where they stayed until the shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538. In effect, Becket became one of the first saints elevated by popular acclaim and enthusiastic devotion in medieval European tradition. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1390s) remind us of the Becket tradition and testify to the fact that these pilgrimages were not always somber affairs. Certainly, such expeditions contained elements of adventure and entertainment as well as spiritual satisfaction.

Truce of God and Peace of God

The experience of pilgrimage was made possible, in part, by attention to the issue of safety both for travelers and for the broader European society. Effective peacekeeping in the early part of the Middle Ages was a major problem not only for secular rulers, but also for the church, as uncontrolled violence posed threats to both church property and those in religious life. Also caught up in these dangers were innocent lay people who would often find themselves at the mercy of armed local warriors. Without physically fighting back, the church found it necessary to create ways to disarm a society where violence seemed to have become an all too commonplace occurrence. Legislation at tenth- and eleventh-century assemblies known as synods began to reflect principles such as the Peace of God (Pax Ecclesiae) and the Truce of God (Treuga Dei). Between 990 and 1096 at least thirty church councils addressed the problem of unchecked martial activity in European society. At these synods the church promoted the cessation of unnecessary violence through the Truce of God and imposed penalties, under threat of excommunication, for carrying on warfare during certain holy seasons, on Sundays, and in certain holy places. In an attempt to save the weak and innocent from the horrors of unjust physical abuse, the knightly order was obliged through the ideals of the Peace of God to protect unarmed poor, children, women, clerics, merchants, and pilgrims. This also extended to their property, merchandise, and even farm products, animals, and equipment.

The Concept of Just War

The idea of war which could be justified in the service of the church—a principal that was applied to the Crusades both in connection with protecting pilgrims and with maintaining access to holy places—may have been indirectly tied to notions of curbing the outright martial character of medieval society as a whole, although it certainly was rooted in the drive for the church to gain more control over secular affairs. During the eleventh century, the notion of “Christian” knighthood had begun to moralize the activities of a knight, turning him from full-time warrior to part peacekeeper, as would be encouraged by the Peace of God and Truce of God movements. Bishops even went so far as to impose spiritual sanctions on offenders who refused to put down their weapons. Soldiers fighting for the church on the advice of their bishops or in a war against heretics, on the other hand, could be forgiven without penance for their violent acts. In 1085 Anselm of Lucca published the Collectio Canonum, which assembled just war texts from St. Augustine to Gregory I (fifth through seventh centuries). This literature supported the ecclesiastical right actively to direct the ius gladii (literally: by right of the sword) in the service of the church. Actions like blessing the weapons of a knight for the service of justice and God came from a century earlier. The idea of the militia Christi (army of Christ) certainly precedes the Crusades, but it had been used more in a metaphorical sense by the Gregorian reform movement (beginning in 1059) to address the spiritual battles fought by the monks. As it began to be applied to the military during the time of the Crusades, it probably reflected the growing need of the church to justify protecting itself from secular powers or taking up a noble cause.

Growing Church Power and Secular Tensions

A Period of Papal Weakness

In the tenth century, as the Carolingian Empire started to break apart and the Germanic Empire rise, increasing tension developed between bishops, the pope, and secular rulers. Strong local nobility had begun to emerge during the age of the Viking invasions in Italy, France, Germany, and England, while the Roman bishops themselves were hardly in a position to wield significant political power at all. The last of the noteworthy early medieval popes was Nicholas I (858-867), after whom there would not be meaningful individual ecclesiastical authority directed from Rome until the eleventh century. In fact, the majority of the popes in the early Middle Ages functioned primarily as liturgical leaders and guardians of tradition (not political figures). While holy and accomplished Roman bishops such as Hadrian I, Nicholas I and John VIII did much to direct the positive course of early medieval Christianity, near the early part of the tenth century, a series of degenerate popes (John VIII, Formosus, Lambert, Stephen VI, Leo V, Christopher, and Sergius II) succeeded one another by each deposing his predecessor. These changes in leadership included a chain of nine successive pontiffs within the span of an eight-year period. Probably the most bizarre story connected to this era was that of Formosus (891-896), whose dead body was exhumed and put on trial by his rivals for a variety of offenses that he had committed while in office. After being found guilty, his corpse was defrocked of its vestments and his consecrated fingers (those used in blessing and holding the host, or consecrated bread, during Mass) were severed from his body. There was even a teenage pope (John XII) elevated in 955 whose father was the half-brother of a former pope (John XI). While abstinence from sexual activity among Western Christian clerics had begun to be legislated in the late 300s and several edicts in the 400s had imposed oaths of celibacy upon the clergy, there were still many who refused to comply. By the sixth century, only a small percentage of priests and bishops openly continued to have wives, but much larger numbers had focariae or mistresses. Violations of clerical celibacy defiantly continued through the eleventh century, particularly in the more rural areas. Pope John XII was himself openly sexually active (he is accused of turning the papal residence into a brothel) and was said to have died of a stroke while in bed with a married woman. However, historians remember John XII for breathing new life into the power of the western Christian Roman Empire. His coronation of the German emperor, Otto I, on Candlemas Day in 962 saw (through military means) the return of former Italian papal territories to the church. This also rekindled the strong ecclesiastical and secular relationship that had once existed between the Roman bishops and the powerful institutional western European kingdoms.

The Investiture Controversy

The Latin Church’s dependence upon lay powers for support (both economic and military) had allowed for the development of a practice during the ninth and tenth centuries where kings and princes reserved for themselves the power of investiture over bishops and abbots. That is, these secular powers, operating according to the patterns established in the broader society, literally would invest high-ranking clergy with the symbols of their office. In the case of bishops and abbots, this was the presentation of the ring and staff (crozier) that served as visible signs of ecclesiastical authority. In return, the bishop or abbot would pay homage to the king and swear an oath of fealty or loyalty, just as a vassal or land-tenant might. The kings and nobility who owned much land might grant benefices or tenure on the land for a particular number of years. Powerful secular leaders granted such lands to local churches or even would give over church-owned lands to laity as they saw fit. By the mid-eleventh century, church leaders began to condemn the practice, which resulted in a contest between church and state. The Investiture Controversy was sparked by church legislation initiated in 1059, 1075, 1076, 1078, and 1080 under Popes Nicholas II and Gregory VII. Humbert of Silva Candida published a work entitled Three Books Against the Simoniacs which not only was a polemic against simony (the sale or purchase of a church office), but supported the notions of clerical celibacy and papal primacy. Humbert’s treatise was also an attack upon lay authority as it related to the power of the priesthood. According to Humbert, church authority came from God and was to be carried out through the electoral will of his people and priests, not the kings and nobility, whose power extended only to secular matters. These reforms attempted to purify the ordination process from selfish secular interests, first by placing the election of the pope in the hands of the cardinals, and later by ruling against lay influence in ecclesiastical elections and, eventually, lay investiture of any kind under any circumstance.

An Authority Struggle

Royal and noble compliance with these church directives was difficult to obtain, however. The distinctions between the spiritual office of the bishop and the material possessions or physical powers linked to the post were not clearly defined during the early years of the investiture contest. The issue came to a head with the authority struggle between Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) and the German emperor Henry IV. Gregory was credited with issuing the famous decreeDictatus Papae which stated that the pope, not the emperor, was to be seen as the vicar of Christ. (It was the pope who was the successor of Constantine.) The pontiff alone could both depose and install princes, emperors, and bishops. The pope could be judged by no mortal man. He might also absolve individuals of their fealty to evil persons of power. While the struggles between the bishop of Rome and the German emperor were real, scholars now suggest that Dictatus Papaewas later submitted into the register of documents for 1075 in order to bolster claims for papal power. It is likely that the term “paptus” was not even used until decades later, around the beginning of the twelfth century. In any case, Henry IV refused to recognize Gregory’s authority, and the bitter struggle continued for some ten years. The crown attempted to depose the pope in 1076 and shortly thereafter the papacy declared the emperor excommunicated. Bishops and princes from all parts of Christendom intervened and took sides. The northern Italian and German bishops even went so far as to side with Henry and ratify the emperor’s decision to depose the pontiff. Lay nobility who were plotting Henry’s demise forced the emperor into reconciliation, and there appeared to be some change in the balance of power during the early part of 1077 when the penitent Henry appeared before Pope Gregory barefoot in the middle of winter at Canossa begging forgiveness for his immortal soul.

The Reassertion of the Christian Roman Empire

Henry’s apparent sincerity demonstrated in the Canossa incident was short-lived. In fact, some historians have suggested that this entire act of penitence may have been a ploy on the part of Henry to buy the cooperation of German nobles. Several years after he had been forgiven, in 1080, the emperor managed to invade Italy and forcibly have Pope Gregory exiled and deposed. Henry elevated a new pope, Clement III, who officially restored Henry IV’s place as emperor of the Romans. Henry IV renewed his quarrel with the papacy after the elevation of Urban II (1088-1099), whose organization of the First Crusade helped solidify the public view of the papacy as the visible head of the Roman Church in administrative, judicial, and military capacities. Urban eventually succeeded in rallying the bishops of Germany against lay investiture, but after Urban’s death Henry IV again came into conflict with Pope Paschal, and the emperor was again excommunicated by Rome in 1102. The controversy between the German emperors and popes continued for another generation as each side gained and lost ground. Some of the difficulties between spiritual and temporal powers during these decades may have been tied up in disagreements over valid canonical election. Between 1059 and 1179 a series of some fourteen anti-popes served sporadically alongside or in conflict with the pontiffs now recognized by historians. With rival claimants to support, emperors, princes, and kings were not always in agreement over who represented the church’s position and which religious leader the secular powers should choose to recognize. A compromise between German kings and bishops of Rome finally came at the Concordat of Worms in 1122 with an agreement executed by Pope Calixtus II and Henry V of Germany. A similar compromise had been struck in England during the early 1100s between Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, and King Henry I, who had agreed that secular leaders would still invest bishops but with the understanding that they were only granting the bishop earthly temporal authority. The church would also have its representative (usually a higher ranking bishop, pope, or cardinal) invest the bishop with symbols of priestly authority, namely the ring and staff. In some areas the king conferred power through the touch of his scepter. While the presence of the king or secular noble leaders was permitted at a bishop’s elevation, it was by the authority of the leading local bishops that a candidate was placed in office. However, it is more likely that leaders in significant church positions (such as bishops, abbots, and even popes) had the blessing of both clergy and secular leaders.

The Crusades


The Crusades were a series of military campaigns waged by Christian armies against Muslim-controlled areas in the Holy Land beginning in 1095 and continuing on an intermittent basis even as late as the sixteenth century. While the Crusading momentum seems to have begun with the justification of rescuing holy places from Muslim control, it is likely that the motivation for the First Crusade was a complex mixture of religious emotion, individual ambition, and political programs. Pope Urban II’s call to crusade was in response to the March 1095 request from the court of Byzantine emperor Alexius for military assistance against the Turks threatening to take control of much of Asia Minor. It is clear that Urban was concerned about the pressure Islam was exerting on the eastern frontiers of Christendom. He was also anxious to improve relations between the Greek and Latin Churches. At the Council of Clermont in November of 1095, Urban’s call for pilgrims to respond to a war (that was God’s will) to liberate the land of Jesus’s birth from the Infidel (one who is “unfaithful to the true teaching,” a terminology used by both Christians and Muslims to refer to each another) had decidedly religious overtones. It is no surprise that the first group to whom he presented this idea were predominantly clergy. Many of these clerics were sons of knights, hardly any were pacifists, and it appears there were few objections to this justification for war. Clearly, at the heart of his agenda was the desire to free the Greeks from Muslim oppression. However, the idea of the liberation of Jerusalem and its pilgrim routes seemed to be what was most ideologically appealing to Western Christians. The response to Urban’s 1095 tour of preaching, beginning at Clermont, moving through various parts of France (Limoges, Toulouse, Angers, Le Mans, Nîmes, Tours) and ending in Italy, was impressive. The fact that the pope had made a personal and individual appeal to local people may have had a tremendous impact. An army of 70,000 to possibly 130,000 Christians (many of them French, probably fewer than ten percent from the nobility) followed bishops like Adhémar of Le Puy, preachers such as Peter the Hermit and Walter Sans-Avoir, and veteran knights like Raymond of Toulouse and Godfrey of Bouillon through strange territories they had never before seen, under the religious pretext of rescuing the Holy Places. Not all departed together or took the same routes. Many of them never reached the Holy Land and, clearly, fewer than a third returned. The successful response to the First Crusade may have been due to several factors: it was completely voluntary, it was proposed as an act of devotion, and it carried with it a means to ensure remission of sin. Indeed, while the initial indulgence proposed by Urban granted a remission from temporal penance, during later Crusades it would be modified to include punishments both in this life and the next.

Related Persecutions

Several of the armies from Germany began their crusade against infidels by unleashing violence upon Jews living in Europe. In 1096 at Worms, Mainz, Ratisbon, Neuss, Wevelinghofen, Xanten, and Prague, Jewish residents were massacred in the name of the Christian holy war, partially justified by the popular notion that it was the Jews who had killed Jesus. Such persecutions of non-Christians outside the Holy Land would not be limited to the First Crusade, but were tied to subsequent holy wars as well. They included not only Jews, but other ethnic and religious groups living throughout Europe. Muslims in Spain, Wends (Slavic people) on the German borderlands, multiple pagan groups in the Baltic, and the Cathars (a heretical Christian sect who believed that Satan ruled the earth) in France also suffered during the various Crusades.

Outcomes of the First Crusade

The First Crusade was relatively successful despite the loss of large numbers of troops along the way, as well as some questionable pillaging by Latin crusaders in Hungarian and Byzantine cities. While only one-third of the initial contingent reached Jerusalem, they were able not only to free major Byzantine centers such as Nicea from Muslim control, but also to secure Christian settlements along the way, particularly on the western coast of the Mediterranean in the future Latin kingdoms of Edessa, Antioch, and Jerusalem. At the outset, a Latin principality at Edessa was established under Baldwin, the brother of Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, in 1198. This was followed by the siege of Antioch, which took over a year but resulted in Latin control of that fortress as well as the surrounding area. In the summer of 1099 Jerusalem was finally toppled. However, with the death of Bishop Adhémar of Le Puy at Antioch, there was no strong, rational voice of the church to stop the bloodbath in the city of Jerusalem following the siege. Soldiers, women, children, Muslims, Jews—indeed, most of the inhabitants of the city—were slaughtered by the crusading army. Shortly thereafter, the remnants of the army returned to Europe in triumph.

The Crusading Kingdoms

Subsequent establishment of the Latin Crusading Kingdoms would take place within the next few decades under a second generation of French campaigners, all with papal support. The Knights Templar set up headquarters in Jerusalem under Hugh de Payens to ensure that the Holy Places and Christian pilgrims remained protected. A continued military presence was required for the western Christians to maintain control of the region. An additional kingdom was established at Tripoli between Jerusalem and Antioch. Each Latin kingdom had its own rulers or princes, most of which were drawn from the French nobility who decided to settle and manage the area. Vassal territories and Latin castles were established throughout the Levant. A small number of Westerners (possibly 2,000) acted as administrators and lords over numerous Muslim and Jewish subjects. Part of the task of the settlers, especially in Jerusalem, was to rebuild the shrines associated with the holy sites. During the twelfth century, once the territory was secure, large numbers of European pilgrims came to visit and venerate the sacred places. Schools, hostels, monasteries, and churches began to proliferate throughout Jerusalem. One of the great accomplishments of the early crusader period was the rebuilding of the Holy Sepulchre (the supposed location of the tomb of Christ) into one of the greatest Romanesque churches in Christendom. What the First Crusade actually accomplished was to establish Latin dominance in the Holy Land, creating wealth for many French noble families, and to set into motion the religious and political mechanisms for future defense and campaigns.

The Failure of the Second Crusade

After the successes of the First Crusade, the concept of Holy War and the religious obligation of Christians to control the Holy Land and purge society of non-believers was firmly entrenched. The Second Crusade was spurred by the fall of Edessa (then part of Syria, now Urfa in Turkey) on Christmas of 1144 to the Muslim leader Zengi. At stake for Western Christians was the impending threat to Jerusalem itself. There seemed to have been somewhat less enthusiasm for this second campaign, but Pope Eugenius III’s papal bull Quantum Praedecessores spelled out for the first time specific spiritual privileges available to participating crusaders. The crusade proclamation was delivered by Eugenius at Vetralle and later recorded in Bishop Otto of Freising’s Gesta. Assisted by the charismatic preaching of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and other Cistercians, the Second Crusade organization gained some momentum. Secular bishops like Henry of Olmütz were directed to preach the Bohemian Crusade, while there were simultaneous crusades launched against the Wends in northern Europe and the Moors in Spain. When the effort to recapture Edessa ultimately proved unsuccessful, the crusaders decided instead to journey on to Jerusalem (which was still secure) to do homage to the holy sites. At that point, the crusaders attempted a joint attack upon the city of Damascus. This military effort proved to be a disaster, and the crusaders returned home shortly after. The failure of the Second Crusade was attributed to the sinfulness, pride, and bickering of the contestants who traveled to the Holy Land under the pretense of being pilgrims. Instead, they insulted God with their unworthiness. According to St. Bernard, it was God who allowed the bungled Christian attempt to fail, not merely due to the sins of the crusaders themselves, but the collective sinfulness of all of Christianity.

Successes and Disasters

It took some time after the failure of the Second Crusade for Christians to be able to legitimize another campaign. Christian presence in the Holy Land did not altogether disappear as Templar and Hospitaller strongholds dotted the landscape along the Mediterranean, where Latin Christians maintained control of the kingdoms at Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem, sustaining a presence in an area some 100 miles long and 30 miles wide. However, the southern part of that territory around the city of Jerusalem was conquered in 1187 by the Muslim leader Saladin, resulting in a massive response of combined European forces descending upon the port city of Acre over the next four years. By 1192 the Third Crusade succeeded in recovering some of the coastal territory along the Mediterranean, particularly around the cities of Tripoli, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The following Crusade, however, went seriously off course. While originally intended to fight Muslims in Egypt, the Fourth Crusade instead engaged itself with interventionary efforts in Christian cities. Departing from Venice in Italy during 1202, the crusaders first rescued the Croatian city of Zara, which had previously been lost to the Hungarians in 1186. Behind schedule and short on cash, they were convinced—by arguments ranging from Christian charity and a promise of permanent papal jurisdiction to a substantial monetary reward—to go to Constantinople in 1204 to assist in resolving a dispute between rival Byzantine factions. Having little to show for their previous efforts, the crusaders ended up engaging in a three-day sacking of the city that left all of the Byzantine Christian holy places, including Hagia Sophia, defiled and stripped of everything of value. While most crusaders simply went home with their loot, some stayed to support the new Latin Kingdom that would last for fifty years.

Continuing Campaigns

Perhaps because the Crusades blended religious motivation with opportunities for political domination and enrichment, new campaigns continued throughout the Middle Ages. The Fifth Crusade of the early thirteenth century was intent upon rescuing Jerusalem, which was still under Muslim dominion. But it also targeted the power base of the Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt in an effort to stabilize Christian control of the Holy Land. After four years of effort, the Fifth Crusade inevitably failed. Crusades against the heretical Cathars and pagans in the Baltic during the early thirteenth century, as well as crusades to restore papal power in the late thirteenth century, were more successful. They were all attempted under the guise of similar crusade ideals—ridding the Western Christian world of threats to the orthodoxy of its belief system. The Crusades of St. Louis in the thirteenth century and the Popular Crusades (Children’s in 1212, Shepherds’ in 1251 and 1320, as well as the People’s in 1309), all of noble intent, were highly influenced by the crusading propaganda of the time. Crusaders were convinced that righteous participants were the key to success in defeating the Infidel. St. Louis’s initial crusade effort in 1248 is sometimes known as the Sixth Crusade, but, after this, historians seem to stop counting. There were a variety of smaller crusades that continued through the next several centuries linked to both religious and political agendas. At this point, all sorts of arguments were presented concerning the pros and cons of crusading, as illustrated in a report given to the Second Council of Lyon during 1274 by Humbert of Romans. Despite objections and the fall of Acre to the Islamic Mamluk dynasty in 1291, the idea of the crusade remained alive in Latin Christendom through the sixteenth century.

The Military Orders

Religious Congregations of Knights

One of the most distinctive developments of the period following the First Crusade (begun in 1095) was the creation of “military orders,” religious congregations of knights whose initial purpose was to protect pilgrims and maintain control of the “Crusader Kingdoms” established by the French in the Holy Land. Clearly the military religious orders began with the justification of Christian warfare during the First Crusade. The act of killing the enemies of Christ was not seen as a sin but rather as necessary and meritorious. Thus, if a Christian soldier died in such a war, it brought him the status of martyrdom. Also, the Crusades themselves had taken on the character of a special pilgrimage, and, like pilgrims, a participant in a Crusade could be granted an indulgence, or remission from temporal penances associated with his sins. As the size of pilgrim groups to the Holy Land increased, the church felt somewhat obliged to provide for their protection. While the First Crusade had temporarily eliminated the threat of Muslim control of the Holy Land, the area itself remained relatively unprotected since most knights returned home once the military campaigns ended. The population of Christian settlers in the Crusader Kingdoms around the city of Jerusalem and along the Palestinian coast of the Mediterranean was rather small and unable to provide pilgrims with adequate protection. A group of knights led by Hugh de Payens decided to make a vocation out of protecting pilgrims who were on their way to visit the holy places. They formed a religious group that resided in the city of Jerusalem and became known as the “Templars.”


Hugh envisioned the Templars as an army of soldier-monks whose martial duties contained a decidedly spiritual element. In a sense, they embodied the highest ideals of Christian knighthood. These Templars took vows of obedience and chastity, and they followed the spiritual lives of the canons that resided at the church of the Holy Sepulchre. They were called “Templars” or “Knights of the Temple” because they lived in an area of Jerusalem believed to be near the old Temple of Solomon. Their movement seems to have evolved out of the spirituality connected to Crusade ideology. The journey of a crusader to Jerusalem was justified as a penitential process, an ascetical exercise of self-denial, prayer, mortification, and fasting. All of these idealized crusader elements were incorporated into the Templar spirituality. When the plan for the group was first approved in 1128, they were not considered monks but fell into the category of “lay religious.” For a time this seems to have appeased critics who were in staunch support of church directives against monks bearing arms. Templars wore their hair short, donned white robes, and avoided women. Sometime after 1132, the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux was asked to write a treatise supporting the Templars. It may not have been so much a direct approval of their movement as an exposition on monastic life as the highest form of knighthood, or possibly an attempt to help reform the knighthood of Bernard’s time. He wrote:

Thus in a wondrous and unique manner they appear gentler than lambs, yet fiercer than lions. I do not know if it would be more appropriate to refer to them as monks or as soldiers, unless it would perhaps be better to recognize them as being both. … What can we say of this except that this had been done by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes. These are the picked troops of God, whom he has recruited from all ends of the earth …

The Templar Rule

A rule was eventually composed for the Templar lifestyle which contained elements of the Benedictine Rule along with particular aspects of Cistercian spirituality and practice. The rule and the order were approved in 1139 by Pope Innocent II in his bull Omne Datum Optimum. The Templars were not under the control of local bishops but answered directly to the pope. About the time of the Second Crusade (1146), the Templars came to be seen as religious knights whose commitment to protecting the holy places was permanent. There were several levels to the order, which consisted of knights of noble birth, sergeants who were not nobles, chaplains who were clerics and not allowed to take up arms, and, in addition to all these, their servants. Only the knights took permanent vows. They continued to operate in the Holy Land until the fall of Acre (the main port of entry to Palestine) in 1291, but were eventually suppressed by Pope Clement V in 1312. The Templars also participated in campaigns in Spain and the Baltic area of Europe. While they became famous for their almsgiving, along the way the knights began to lose sight of some of their founding principles. After a century in the Holy Land, they had succeeded in amassing great wealth and had significant involvement with banking. Their massive fortifications functioned as depositories as they transported wealth to and from the East and brokered loans. Indeed, their wealth may have been their undoing. Despite the Templars’ attempt to merge with the Hospitallers after the end of the Crusades, their assets were seized by the French king Philip the Fair and their leaders executed as heretics.

The Hospitallers

The Hospitallers (also known as the Knights of St. John) originated as a brotherhood that served poor or sick pilgrims in the city of Jerusalem. About 25 years before the First Crusade, they began their work in a Benedictine monastery, St. Mary of the Latins, near the Holy Sepulchre. The hospice was staffed both by the Hospitaller brothers and by monks. All those who worked there followed the Benedictine lifestyle. Following the First Crusade, the Hospitallers were given additional lands in the Levant (an area on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, located between western Greece and western Egypt) along the pilgrim routes on which to establish daughter houses. They also had establishments in the port cities of Italy and southern France, from which pilgrims would normally depart. In 1113 the Hospitallers were given a charter from Pope Paschal II establishing them as a unique order to be supervised by their own master and (like the Templars) answerable only to the pope. Initially they were a charitable order, not a military group, dedicated to the care of pilgrims and almsgiving, but in 1123 they added a military element due to the shortage of Christian knights in the Holy Land. They continued to protect and serve pilgrims as well as to provide military assistance to the local nobility against the Muslims. By the 1130s they had begun to construct and defend fortified castles throughout the Holy Land. Soon their order began to resemble the Templars with divisions of service for clerics, knights, sergeants, and laborers in the houses. And like the Templars they were considered lay religious and took vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty following whenever possible the daily monastic routine. The order also admitted women, who had separate accommodations. In 1141 they moved their headquarters to a castle called Krak des Chevaliers, situated on a high plateau in what is now Syria, and after 1187 they were forced to withdraw from Jerusalem. With the fall of Acre and the final destruction of the Latin Kingdoms in the Holy Land, they established themselves on Cyprus, and in 1309, after taking Rhodes from the Greeks, made a new headquarters there. The order still functions today as a charitable organization.

Other Chivalric Orders

By the middle of the twelfth century other chivalric orders had begun to appear in Spain with the intention of assisting with the Reconquista, the reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors. Orders like Calatrava and Alcantara took their lead from the Templars. The Calatrava group began in 1158 when local monks allied themselves with knights to fight the Almohads, a Muslim dynasty that replaced the short-lived Almoravids. Eventually the knights of Calatrava went on to form their own order, but in 1164 they were attached to the Cistercians (a reform monastic movement that had begun in 1098) by Pope Alexander III. By the fourteenth century the order was responsible for protecting some 350 towns in the area of Castile. Following the reconquest, the order became more of a political entity. Alcantara began functioning in 1156 to defend the towns of León. They received papal approval in 1177 and began to follow the Rule of Benedict. Eventually they became allied with the Calatrava knights in driving out the Muslims. The Knights of the Teutonic Order and the Order of Santiago functioned more on military and hospitality levels, although they strove to maintain the highest standards of Christian knighthood. Their groups were also composed of warriors, clerics, and brothers. The Teutonic Knights began in 1198 during the time of the Third Crusade and eventually returned to Germany in the thirteenth century to function in the campaigns against the pagans on the borderlands of Prussia, while the Order of Santiago was formed in the late twelfth century to protect pilgrims traveling to the shrine of St. James at Compostela. The Santiago knights ruled almost as lords protecting territories throughout reconquered parts of Spain. The order survived through the end of the Reconquista.

Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Monastic Movements

Anchorites and Hermits

From the end of the eleventh and throughout the twelfth centuries, groups of religious began to react against the extravagant growth and development of monastic orders like that at Cluny. The desire for a return to primitive Christian experience was now reflected in monastic practices. New religious orders seeking quiet, solitude, poverty and simplicity began to appear, likely in reaction against the highly liturgized and richly endowed Benedictine monasteries. While some twelfth-century secular communities supported the hermit-like activity of anchorites who chose to live a spiritual existence in a cell that was often located outside the village or even attached to the structure of a church, some individual monks began leaving their communities to take up the solitary lives of hermits completely removed from the rest of society. In northern Italy during the early eleventh century, eremitic (solitary) monks like the Greek-speaking St. Nilus chose their own paths. St. Romuland organized huts for hermits in the hills of Camaldoli that attracted only the most serious monks, the contemplative elite. At Vallombrosa, John Gaulberto also founded a cenobitic (communal) group who chose to persevere in the strictest observance of the Benedictine Rule. They lived in complete isolation, buffered from the world by professed lay brothers who were administrators of the monastery’s secular affairs. The lay brothers were dedicated to keeping outsiders away.

The Teachings of Peter Damian

One of the most influential monastic figures of this period was Peter Damian (1007-1072), who received an education in the city schools of Italy. He abandoned formal learning for a time and joined a group of ascetics at Fonte Avellana in the Apennine hills. Peter denounced the pleasures of the flesh, producing marvelously mystical poetry. He also wrote a treatise for hermits entitled Institutes for the Order of Hermits. In this work he spelled out guidelines for brothers who wished to live under the strictest regimen. The monks were to occupy cells in pairs, living in a perpetual state of fasting, remaining barefoot in both summer and winter. While most of the Italian men who were attracted to these severely contemplative groups were drawn from among the wealthiest of the nobility, Peter was himself of humble origin. Peter Damian was particularly drawn to the practice of the mortification of his flesh through flagellation, that is, the practice of whipping oneself as punishment for sins or in commiseration with the suffering of Christ. When a community member died, the entire group would undergo a seven-day period of fasting, recite the entire psalter thirty times over on behalf of the deceased, and experience the whip seven times. Peter was also active in a campaign against simony (the buying and selling of clerical offices) and clerical marriage. In 1051 he wrote the Book of Gomorrah (Liber Gratissimus), which was a polemic against sexual activity among the Italian clergy, including prohibitions against masturbation and homosexual conduct.


In 1080 Bruno of Cologne, a former master and chancellor of the cathedral school at Reims, left teaching to become a hermit in the forest of Colan. He was credited with founding the Carthusians, an order that mixed both eremitical and cenobitic elements. The monks lived in a group hermitage where each member spent most of his time in the solitude of a private cell, except for communal prayer twice a day. Mass and chapter were held once a week. Monks took most of their meals alone and had a private garden, toilet, and area for study. At first they lived lives centered around deliberate simplicity. Their churches were unadorned, their clothing and bedding of the coarsest materials. The original Carthusian settlements were comprised of a series of huts, but by the twelfth century more elaborate stone structures took their place. Because of their strict rules, the Carthusians needed conversi (lay monks) to deal with the outside world, tend to the labor of the monastery, and function as go-betweens for the hermit monks. The conversi were usually illiterate. They had their own dormitory, which was slightly removed from the community, and would sit silently while their procurator chanted the daily offices for them in an oratory quite separate from the hermits. Growth within the Carthusian Order was rather slow, but the establishments were deliberately small. Gradually, between 1178 and 1400 they added some nine houses in England. As Bruno of Cologne once wrote, “The sons of contemplation are slower than the sons of action.”

The Founding of the Cistercians

One of the most explosive movements of the twelfth century was the Cistercian Order. It had been founded in 1098 by a group of former French Benedictines from Molesme who were dissatisfied with their observances. The Molesme community had originally lived as hermits in the forests of Burgundy. Eventually they came back to following the Benedictine Rule. The abbot, Robert of Molesme, set out one day in 1098 with 21 of his monks for a more remote site at Cîteaux (the Latin word for Cîteaux is Cistercium, meaning “a marshy place”). The Cistercian movement that began from the vision of Robert blossomed into one of the largest and fastest growing religious movements of the Middle Ages. The Cistercian Order was directed toward a reform of the perceived growing laxities within the French Benedictine system, especially among the Cluniacs. In the mode of the other reform orders, they were focused upon moving away from the “worldliness” that had crept into medieval monasticism. Like the hermits, they attempted to separate from secular society in a quest for solitude, a simpler life, and a renewed focus on connecting the scriptures to one’s spiritual and human nature. This reform community wished to continue the cenobitic existence in fidelity to the Rule of Benedict, along with greater independence from secular entanglements and obligations of vassalage, and a vision of poverty and self-sufficiency. The monastery began as a series of wooden huts that were built by the monks themselves. Their first decade at Cîteaux saw little growth, but in 1112 the charismatic St. Bernard of Clairvaux appeared at the gate of the monastery with thirty companions. From that point on, the order began to flourish. Cîteaux started sending out small groups to found daughter houses throughout France and eventually all of Europe. Bernard was made abbot of Clairvaux in 1115, and within the next twenty years engendered some twenty daughter houses of his own. During the order’s first fifty years, 339 houses were established, and by the middle of the thirteenth century the number had grown to 640. At its height in the fifteenth century, the order boasted close to 700 abbeys of men and 900 houses of women. The development of the order was strongly influenced by charismatic leaders and spiritual writers, including William of St. Thierry (1085-1148) and Aelred of Rievaulx (1109-1167) among the men, and Mechtild of Hackenborn (1241-1299) and Gertrude of Hackenborn (1251-1292) among the women. Mechtild’s allegory of how Anima or the Soul comes to the side wound of Christ and sees it as a cavern of burning flames and vapor is one of the great pieces of mystical writing of the period. The side wound with wounded heart within is vividly seen in a miniature from a devotional manuscript in Oxford. Often, such miniatures give evidence of being kissed and stroked by pious owners of the books over a long period of time.

The Cistercian Concept of Reform

The original charter for the Cistercian Order was presented to Pope Calixtus II for approval in 1119. These documents provided for nurturing filial relationships (that is, relationships to daughter houses), annual chapters (assemblies) for all the order’s abbots, uniformity in practice among the houses, fair treatment of the monks, elections of the abbots by their peers, checks on corruption in leadership, fair but limited dealings with outside secular interests, and, most importantly, the ability to change its own constitution. What is essential to an understanding of the Cistercian tradition is the concept of “reform.” The reform that seems to be constantly ongoing within the Cistercian and other Benedictine-related traditions might be more simply understood as a “re-reading” of the Benedictine Rule. This re-reading is what happens each time a new generation picks up the Rule and begins to read it in light of their own time, in a way which seems to allow the greatest progress toward spiritual transformation and a vision of communal charity. The twelfth-century charter documents most clearly reflect the way the early Cistercians had devised a plan in which their vision of the Rule could be continually re-examined. The yearly meetings of the General Chapter of all Cistercian abbots allowed for an ongoing interpretation of the monastic tradition. These traditions were passed down to the monks on a daily basis through their reading, activities, and communal prayer, as well as through the abbot’s chapter sessions. The Cistercians in general never really made much effort to focus upon the intellectual and philosophical dimensions of the faith, a fact that eventually made them less attractive to the nobility in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, when scholasticism and the work of the friars (who served as missionaries and teachers) began to take hold. Instead, they were known for their great spiritual reforms and return to the ideals of the early Benedictine experience. The simplicity of their cloistered monastic life is what the Cistercians believed best led them to God.

Cistercians and Medieval Industry

The proliferation of Cistercian houses led to a great increase in their holdings of land. Granges (monastic farms) and large farm estates began to be managed or rented, and significant incomes began flowing into the Cistercian enterprises. Many houses even owned or controlled property in other countries. Unlike the Cluniacs, the Cistercians allowed each house and daughter to control its own finances directly. The drive toward self-sufficiency led the Cistercians to create independent industries at each monastery. Many chose sites near running water. They actually became known for their use of hydraulics. As a result there were numerous mills and waterwheels employed by the Cistercians. They sold items produced at the mills, and often would rent their grain mills to neighboring laity in order to facilitate the production of local food stuffs. As industrious as they were, and as prosperous as many of their houses became, one thing that can be said of the Cistercians is that they were adamant about charging fair prices for their products.

Cistercians and the Liturgy

Cîteaux’s second abbot, Alberic (1099-1108), sought to introduce a profound simplicity into the Cistercian liturgy. Benedictine choral chants of the daily offices were deemed too melodic. The second abbot, Stephen Harding (1108-1134), reformed the hymnal and antiphonaries by going back to the basics of the old Ambrosian hymns (of the fourth century) because they had been recommended by St. Benedict in the Rule. St. Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux from 1115 to 1153, sought to simplify melodies and eliminate repetitions in the chants, though some new texts and melodies were added to express devotion to the Blessed Virgin. The Cistercians chanted the entirety of their office (with the exception of the scriptural readings) in low, unembellished plainchant. Their offices contained only the very few psalms prescribed by the Rule of Benedict, so they spent much less time in the choir than many of their medieval counterparts. A twelfth-century Benedictine monk writing to Cistercians on behalf of Cluny once remarked that their prime alone (the office celebrating sunrise) was lengthier than the entire set of daily offices of the Cistercians. Fewer feast days were celebrated, and reception of communion by the monks was limited. Processions of any kind were prohibited. Cistercian liturgical directives of the General Chapter from the early twelfth to the thirteenth centuries echoed the sentiments of their foundational documents. The altar was to be completely unadorned, relics were not permitted in altars until 1185, and the use of candles was extremely limited. The celebrant’s vestments were not to be made of silk (except the stole and maniple) and all liturgical ornaments and vessels were to be made without silver, gold, or precious stones, except for the chalices for the wine and the fistula (a straw used to sip the wine), which could be gold or silver plated. There were no pictures or sculptures in the early worship spaces with the exception of painted wooden crosses. Window glass was to be plain, not stained or decorated. Genuflections (bending down on one knee) were discouraged and monks could not lie prostrate in prayer. In 1261 communion under both species (bread and wine) was suppressed for members of the community.

Women Religious

Monastic Women in the Early Middle Ages

It is interesting to note that a substantial amount of information from the early Middle Ages about women’s religious houses was written by male clerics from the period. Throughout much of the Middle Ages many of the women dwelling in monastic communities lived lives not that much different from individuals in the male houses. In fact, there is not even a specific medieval Latin term for a female monastic house. The term “nunnery” only comes into use in the late medieval period and the term “convent” (conventus) could actually have applied to houses for both men and women. As early as the sixth and seventh centuries, a large number of noble female saints emerged from monastic houses in Merovingian territories, such as Gandersheim and Quedlinburg. They espoused a form of spirituality that put less emphasis on virginity and asceticism than on compassionate leadership, performance of miracles, and service (both charity and peacemaking) to the surrounding community. From the ninth through tenth centuries it appears there were very few women’s monastic houses (likely fewer than forty in all of Europe) compared to the much larger numbers two centuries earlier. This is due in part to their destruction during the age of invasions and the reluctance to rebuild amid the insecurities of civil governments. Some of the early medieval convents and double houses (for both males and females) served as viable opportunities for women to devote themselves to spirituality during this period. Mixed houses in Germany, northern parts of Gaul, and Anglo-Saxon England were even run by abbesses instead of abbots.

Retreats and Renewed Opportunities

During the tenth through mid-eleventh centuries, women in Europe lost some of their independence as the male-dominated church, which was putting more emphasis on celibacy, began to stress the moral and intellectual weakness of women. At this time, some of the nunneries began to function more or less as secure places for the retirement of widows and daughters of the nobility, who often had little vocation for the spiritual lifestyle. Such houses tended to be well endowed and frequently rather exclusive. The Canonesses at Farmontiers (France) and Essen (Germany) provided such comfortable living for eleventh-century women. While the number of nunneries declined throughout the tenth and early eleventh centuries, there were a few significant communities operating in Germany such as Herford, Gandersheim, and Quedlinburg. All of these houses received patronage from Matilda, the mother of Emperor Otto I. Women’s houses in France and England began to rebound after 1000 with new or transplanted communities being established in Picardy, Arles, Nîmes, and Marseille. Between 1000 and 1080 some 36 convents were founded or restored in France and England. They were present in the French cities of Beauvais, Angers, Evreux, Angoulême, Rennes, LeMans, Rouen, Tours, and Verdun, as well as English centers such as Canterbury, Chatteris, Elstow or those attached to men’s houses at Bury St. Edmunds, Ely, St. Albans, and Evesham. When double monasteries began to reappear in the eleventh-century reform movements, it was rather uncommon for abbesses to have any control over the male elements of the community. The female houses associated with the Cluny movement, while they did have claustral prioresses, were answerable to the priors of affiliated males houses who were under the authority of the abbot of Cluny. But, by the end of the eleventh century, there appears to have been a rapid proliferation of women’s houses.

Female Achievement

Early medieval Germanic communities often allowed females to occupy a higher position than their counterparts in other cultures or countries, which may be the reason why there were more independent houses for women in the Anglo-Saxon territories. That the middle twelfth century offered good examples of the heights to which women’s religious life extended can be seen in the case of Hildegarde, the leader of the women’s community at Bingen, just northwest of Mainz (1098-1179). Not only was she thought to be the spiritual equal to men of her day, but she left behind an immensely vivid body of literature that recounts the lives and thought of women within the cloister, along with their spiritual activities and the labors of their hands. Some of the twelfth-century mendicant orders of hermits had mixed houses associated with movements from places like Fontevrault (founded in 1101) and Prémontré (1115) in France. They attracted large numbers of women, and the fifteen Fontevrault communities all seemed to be female-centered, although they were clearly mixed houses; both the great patroness of courtly literature, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her daughter, who ended her days as a nun, are buried there. At Prémontré the women occupied a less prominent place in the community, remaining strictly cloistered and tending to do much of the manual labor of the community. Double monasteries were also common in the Low Countries. Some of these double houses that felt it necessary to practice strict segregation gave way to allowing the nuns to run their own affairs and resulted in the eventual separation of these double communities when the women took up their own residences.

The Béguines

The appearance of the Béguines in the early 1200s had much to do with the growing sense of lay piety that had developed throughout the preceding century. In the beginning the movement was not very organized, but it seems that groups of urban lay women began to assemble together in parts of Germany and the Lowlands to attempt to live holy lives in a similar fashion. Many were inspired by the story of Marie d’Oignies, a Flemish noble and mystic who renounced her family’s wealth and gained stature as a spiritual healer. Eventually some of these women sought to live together in community. The Béguines came from all walks of life and all social classes although the wealthier members tended to congregate together. Attitudes toward poverty varied. While many members rejected the wealth of their families and chose to live in deliberate austerity, the decision to embrace radical poverty or to retain possessions was individual. A few groups even formed their own little villages in areas that were near large cities. They supported themselves with the labor of their own hands: many undertook weaving, sewing, and embroidery, although some groups resorted to begging. The Béguines took no formal vows but were committed to living in chastity. Some eventually left the communities and went on to marry, and many of the non-communal members continued their connection with the order though married. Their male counterparts were the Beghards, who commonly worked as weavers, fullers, or dyers. The Beghards did not own property and spent much of their time engaged in charity work or spiritual contemplation.

Patronage and Persecution

The Beghards’ and Béguines’ lifestyles were ascetical, but they rejected the formalism of some of the other orders of their time. The Béguines often attended Mass and the daily offices at their local churches. Gradually these movements gained widespread acceptance from both church and secular authorities. Hundreds of houses sprang up throughout northern European towns. By the end of the thirteenth century, there were 54 houses in the city of Cologne alone. While noble families’ or members’ fortunes tended to support these groups, chapels like those of la Vigne were given over to Béguine communities for their use. Eventually church legislation of the thirteenth century forced the Béguines to confine themselves strictly to communal activities similar to those being practiced by contemporary convents. This did not stop outspoken Béguines like Marguerite Porete, who reproached the weakness of a male-dominated church and its outward signs, which served as a crutch to aid religion. Her book The Mirror of Simple Souls received much criticism, but remained immensely popular, even without the attribution of her authorship. She was eventually accused of heresy and burned at the stake in 1310. As hostility towards the Béguines grew in the church hierarchy, the movement suffered persecution in Germany, but it fared better in France, where it had the protection of powerful patrons.

Cistercians, Franciscans, and Dominicans

In the years that followed the ground-swell of lay initiatives, there are numerous accounts of women connected to the Cistercian, Franciscan, and Dominican movements, thus contributing significantly to the European monastic presence. Although the male Dominican movement that arose after 1217 was defined as an order of preachers (called friars), St. Dominic’s first religious house, founded in 1207 at Prouille, was a convent established for former Cathar women (members of a heretical sect chiefly in southern France). Likewise, although St. Francis of Assisi’s male order, based on the ideal of complete poverty, sent friars on preaching missions throughout the world, his conversion of a wealthy young woman named Clare led to the founding of a female order (later known as the Poor Clares) that required a strictly enclosed life of asceticism, fasting, and perpetual silence. By 1223 there was already significant opposition throughout the Dominican Order in regard to the admission of more nuns. Maintaining convents would require ordained resident Dominican men who would say Mass and serve as confessors. Some felt such duties compromised the early mission and ideal of the friar ministry. The Dominican General Chapter of 1228 discouraged the admission of additional convents. The Cistercians also came to a similar conclusion at their General Chapter the very same year. But after 1245, papal legislation allowed for the multiplication of Dominican convents, particularly in Germany. The Dominican nuns, quite unlike the friars, could not leave their convents to beg or minister. Instead, they remained strictly cloistered, encouraged to develop interior lives of humility, poverty, and simple spirituality. Male Dominicans had no idea how popular this movement would become for medieval women, as some 150 Dominican convents were organized by 1300. The Cistercians experienced much greater growth with some 900 houses claiming to be Cistercian or Cistercian affiliates founded by 1325. Within less than a hundred years, however, the number of registered Cistercian convents dropped to somewhere around 211.

Medieval Education and the Role of the Church

The Rise of Education

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the many social and economic changes which came about in European society helped create an increased interest in education. Burgeoning bureaucratization within both civil and church administration created the need for educated men with abilities in the area of law (both canon and civil). The universities also began to teach medicine. In cities like Bologna, the study of rhetoric and Roman law was useful for both canonists and those who drafted legal documents in secular society. Such a school or studium during the twelfth century drew such people as the great medieval canon lawyer Gratian, Thomas Becket, and Pope Innocent III. It was at this time, also, that the universities slowly began to separate themselves from the firm control of the church. However, as late as 1200, the majority of students were still ecclesiastics. For example, at Bologna, no one could be made a medical doctor without permission of the archdeacon.

Monastic and Cathedral Schools

Prior to the age of the studium or of university scholars (through the mid-eleventh century), monastic schools had been the most stable force in education. Although the boys who were sent there were children of the nobility who may or may not have had an interest in clerical life, much of the schools’ curriculum focused on teaching them to read and write Latin, and preparing them to join the ranks of the church. Monastic lives of prayer, silence, labor, and meditation were not, of course, always conducive to the free exchange of thought. However, these monasteries did become great repositories of knowledge, in that many of the books of the day (particularly religious texts) were copied by hand in monastic scriptoria and stored in their libraries, as shown in an illustration of monks using a monastic library from a French manuscript of the fourteenth century. On the secular side, some women, as well as young men of privilege, were instructed at court, learning to read and write Latin; but their education was rarely broad or extensive. Between 1050 and 1200 the cathedral schools (or bishop’s schools) assumed the leading role in education. Bishops had traditionally been entrusted with providing for the education of the secular clergy. Cathedral schools were often staffed by clerics who lived as canons, residing on the grounds of the bishop’s estate or in the town nearby. These schools were rather flexible in their structure and invited learned men or “masters” to come and lecture to their students. The effectiveness of the system, however, was somewhat variable since the school’s reputation depended on a single master and often, when he was gone, did not survive him. Thus, both masters and students traveled from cathedral town to cathedral town looking for the best environments in which to teach and learn. Eventually the cathedral schools insisted that the masters possess formal licenses to teach, which were issued by the chancellors (licentia docendi). These are actually the pre-cursors of modern academic degrees. Anyone attending a cathedral school at this time took minor church orders and held status as a cleric. This status gave them immunity from civil courts—that is, they were under the jurisdiction of canon (church) law and ecclesiastical courts, which usually gave milder sentences for serious crimes. This distinction in legal status applied also to the new universities and was at times a source of conflict between “town and gown.”

The Birth of Universities

As the number of traveling students increased, some schools tried a new plan of keeping students in one place by engaging multiple masters, who then separated from the cathedral schools and took up residence in other parts of major cities. These new teachers were paid directly by the students, so, in effect, the least popular instructors often found themselves out of work. This competitive climate of intellectual revival brought about the appearance of the great universities in the 1200s and 1300s. To protect their interests, the students and scholars began to form guilds, from which the university structure eventually grew (universitas was a Latin word for corporation). The universities literally became independent legal entities. Masters in Paris received a royal charter around 1200 for their university. Some of the finest churchmen and independent clerical scholars came to Paris to teach. Originally they rented out halls for their classes on the left bank of the Seine River, which soon became known as the Latin Quarter because Latin was the language of learning. The guild received approval from Rome in 1231 and soon became a model for other European universities, although some cities, such as Oxford and Cambridge in England as well as Salerno and Reggio in Italy, had begun university-style systems of education even earlier, during the twelfth century. While these universities were growing in secular influence, they also became the place where religious orders like the friars sent their most talented brethren to teach and study. The curriculum was comprised of the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and Quadrivium(arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music). There was master’s level work offered at these universities in law, medicine, and theology, which took five to seven years to complete. Theology students had to be thirty years of age before they could undertake the degree. However, education which was once geared exclusively toward the clergy (although this is not completely true of the Italian schools) had now become much more liberal and was certainly not just for clerics. Most students were from the upper and lower nobility, some sons of knights, although offspring of the merchant class soon began to break into their ranks. The founding of hundreds of European universities continued through the thirteenth, fourteenth, and early fifteenth centuries. Over time, fewer than half of the students in these institutions were seeking education related to the service of the church. The advent of humanism saw a greater variety of other disciplines added to the curriculum.

Scholastic Inquiry in the Medieval University

While, strictly speaking, scholasticism was the intellectual tradition of logical inquiry practiced in medieval schools, it has come to be understood as the attempt to use techniques of Aristotelian logical inquiry to link Christian revelation, church doctrine, and the mysteries of the natural universe in a deeper and more reasonable understanding of the Christian life. While the theoretical basis for scholasticism was introduced in the late Roman period by early philosopher-theologians like St. Augustine and Boethius, in the medieval period it appears in the ninth century in the work of John Scotus Eriugena who made the important distinction between reason and the revelation of sacred scripture. The scholastics drew upon the logical analysis of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, establishing a common method of inquiry by posing a question, following lines of thought presented by earlier authoritative scholars, and attempting to reason their way to a logical conclusion. Early scholastic problems dealt with attempts to explain the notion of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. A debate between the theologian Berengar of Tours (998-1088) and the Benedictine Lanfranc of Bec (1010-1089) during the mid-eleventh century resulted in the development of the doctrine of transubstantiation (conversion of the substance of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, with appearances of bread and wine remaining). Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), a pupil of Lanfranc, employed a dialectical method (a form of debate marked by the dynamic of inner tension, conflict, and interconnectedness), and began to examine necessary truths of the Divine mysteries, attempting to postulate them in a logical argument. Anselm’s famous proofs for the existence of God, while subsequently refuted, formed the departure point for problems of scholastic theological inquiry that preoccupied scholars for the rest of the Middle Ages.

The Height of Scholasticism

Around the middle of the thirteenth century, the scholastic tradition reached its peak with the work of Albertus Magnus (1200-1280), St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and St. Bonaventure (1215-1274). The establishment of the universities with their faculties of theology contributed greatly to the development of this scholarship, as did the promulgation of Aristotle’s concept that all human thought originates with the senses. Western interest in Aristotle and other classical texts was revived in part due to contact with Eastern Christian and Muslim ideas during the time of the Crusades. European scholars eagerly began to translate Greek and Arabic works into Latin. Patristics (works of the early church fathers), classical philosophy (some of which included commentary by Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroës), and Jewish thought (such as that represented by Moses Maimonides) became sources of new learning in Western Europe. Most scholastic argumentation was driven by the Aristotelian questions (sometimes described as the Four Causes) regarding the nature of things in the universe: What are these things made of? What shape do they take? How do they come to be? What were their purposes? The use of categories and the notion of causality led to attempts to place the existence of God and the mysteries of creation philosophically within the limits of human understanding.

Secular Clergy: Reform and Reaction

Simplicity and Celibacy

The eleventh-century clerical reforms directed by the papacy called for a new discipline among secular priests. Proponents of reform stressed simplicity of lifestyle and singular dedication (including celibacy), as well as the need to break ties with secular interests and worldliness. The two most troublesome issues involving corruptions of the priesthood at this time were those related to simony (the buying or selling of church office) and clerical marriage. The momentum of reform also ushered in a rise in the number of individuals seeking the monastic life at places like Cluny. The character of priesthood was also an issue, but more importantly the social distinctions between the powers of the church and the laity were being clarified during this time. Pope Nicholas II’s legislation of 1059 reflects Rome’s awareness of the acute need for clerical reform at the most basic level. It is also a reminder of the growing power of organized religion and its competition with the laity for control of society.

Education and Restraints on Personal Behavior

The need for more systematic clerical reform was the agenda of twelfth-century bishops. They were charged with personally controlling the quality of candidates for the priesthood as well as their instruction. Education of the clergy was a major issue since many clerics in the more rural areas often had not received a thorough theological or scriptural orientation. The Third Lateran Council of 1179 decreed that each cathedral should have a master for the instruction of grammar and each major city a master of theology. They assisted the priests in their understanding of the scriptures and the nature of the sacraments. These teachers also ensured that the clergy not only had training in the implementation of ritual, but also knew something about the proper care of souls. An educated clergy also needed to combat the erroneous teachings of self-styled wandering preachers and zealots, who themselves quite often lacked formal religious education. At this time, control over localized preaching was a problem not only for local priests but bishops as well. Parochial jurisdictions seemed to be an important but often criticized aspect of clerical life. With the advent of the Crusades, the issue of whether or not clerics could bear arms or participate in an excursion of holy war came to public attention as well. Other behavioral issues, including excessive immoral public displays, such as drinking or concubinage, were also addressed by the councils. The more extreme monastic reform movements like Cistercians and Carthusians served as a gentle reminder that the secular clergy were certainly not living the most ideal or perfect Christian lives.

Awareness of Institutional Problems

The thirteenth-century reforms of the secular clergy were spurred by the realization that the church in its domination of European culture had become more institutional than spiritual. The 1215 Magna Carta, an English document laying out the rights of free men, even included provisions for relief of the institutional church by the crown. Despite the power amassed by the church, however, it was the increasingly frequent development of lay spiritual movements and the establishment of four new mendicant orders that finally delivered the wake-up call to the hierarchy, who were inundated with requests for confirmation of new religious lifestyles. Canon 16, decreed by the Fourth Lateran Council, sheds some light on the problems of the day:

Clerics shall not hold secular office nor indulge in commerce, especially unseemly commerce. They shall not attend performances of mimes, jesters or plays and shall avoid taverns except only out of necessity while traveling. Nor shall they play with dice; they should not even be present at such games. They should wear the clerical tonsure and be zealous in the performance of their divine offices and in other responsibilities. Moreover, they shall wear their garments clasped and neither too short nor too long. And they shall eschew bright colors such as red and green as well as ornamentation on their gloves and shoes. [Canon 16]

Another passage (Canon 17) suggests that even within the cloister, behavior was often inappropriate:

We regret that not only some clerics in minor orders but also some of the prelates of churches spend half of the night eating and talking, not to mention other things that they are doing, and get to sleep so late that they are scarcely wakened by the birds singing and they mumble their way hurriedly through morning prayers. There are some clerics who celebrate Mass only four times a year, what is worse, they disdain even attending Mass. And, if they happen to be present at Mass, they flee the silence of the choir to go outside to talk with laymen, preferring things frivolous to things divine. These and similar practices we totally forbid under penalty of suspension.

After the Fourth Lateran Council, the clergy were prohibited from having anything to do with the spilling of blood, including service as a soldier or a physician. Priests were not allowed to hunt or participate in fowling. The giving of a benefice (an ecclesiastical office to which an endowment is attached) to any unworthy cleric was also deemed an offense. In the late thirteenth century, the English bishop Robert Grosseteste wrote the Templum Dei (the Temple of God), a simple and clear guide for the performance of clerical duties including the distinctions among particular vices and virtues. Around the same time in France, Bishop William Durandus put together a work outlining priestly functions and the teaching mission of clergy.

Uncloistered Religious Life

An important outgrowth of the lay religious movements of the twelfth century was the notion of living an apostolic life outside the cloister. The practices of preaching, teaching, ministry, and living in simplicity or poverty, as well as performing charitable work, became focal points for some of the more socially oriented religious movements of the 1100s. One of the reasons behind such reform was the feeling that these were the very apostolic activities that were somehow being neglected by the secular clergy. However, some of the lay spiritual movements that developed over the next several centuries, such as the Waldensians, Humiliati, Béguines, and Beghards, came under criticism from Rome or were even accused of heresy. Regardless, the laity throughout medieval Europe began to listen to these reforming voices for inspiration in their own spiritual lives. It was believed by many members of the church establishment that such loosely organized movements lacked the order, direction, and type of training or education necessary to carry out the orthodox mission of the church in a responsible way.

The Origins of the Friars

As interest in religious reform increased, the growing urban cultures were giving rise to greater commerce, more mobile populations, an increase in education, and a broader distribution of wealth. With this rising prosperity came sophistication, greed, skepticism, and a growing distrust of wealthy and powerful religious institutions. An outgrowth of this skepticism was the development within the church itself of a new form of religious life emphasizing a combination of poverty and preaching. The friars, as they came to be known, proved to be an answer to some of the tensions being experienced both within institutional Christianity and outside it. On the one hand, the friars belonged to organized and papally sanctioned orders, yet on the other, they were not obligated to the Benedictine vow of cloistered stability. The two major movements of friars, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, were substantially different, both in their origin and character. The Dominicans evolved from canons regular (clergymen belonging to a cathedral or collegiate church) while the Franciscans were more akin to the simple lay spiritual movements. Once established and accepted by Rome, these friars were free to minister to the poor as well as preach, teach, and counter the spread of heretical ideas, all within the authority of the institutional church. With the benefit of theological education, the sanctioned orthodox preaching of the Dominicans was quite befitting of their name, Order of Preachers (O.P.).


The friars targeted urban areas in their ministry, supporting themselves by begging in communities along the major European trade routes. In these cities, where medieval commerce was thriving, there were large numbers of people with a certain amount of disposable income. Members of this rising merchant class needed direct and practical spiritual guidance, and they were open to hearing the messages of educated preachers. The preaching of homilies by secular clergy at Mass in both local churches and cathedrals had all but disappeared by this time. Among the Dominicans and Franciscans, however, the sermon became an art form. Manuals for preaching such as The Instruction of Preachers by the Dominican Humbert of Romans or The Art of Preaching by Thomas Waleys became important tools for evangelization. Exempla (moralizing anecdotes drawn from the lives of saints, animal fables, or wise sayings about everyday life) were used as effective aids in the delivery of clever sermons, while biblical concordances (books where all the key words in the Bible are arranged so that they might be referenced or cross-referenced) helped bolster the preacher’s arsenal of effective speech. The message the friars brought to the laity incorporated a theology that was reasonable, optimistic, human, accommodating, and directed toward living a fruitful life in this world. These qualities made the laity more willing to confess their sins to the friars. In fact, Dominican convents gave their brothers regular instruction in the theology of penance.

Medieval Heresy

Defining Limits

While the twelfth century was a great period of religious reform and revitalization, there were also harsh caveats that came from Rome regarding unworthy priests, schismatic groups, and, in their opinion, wrong-thinking leaders of movements. The same climate that fostered reform was also a breeding ground for ideas not in keeping with the basic doctrines of Christianity. It was actually Rome who decided which groups had gone too far. But they almost always allowed opportunities of forgiveness for the wayward to come back to the fold. This made the heresies more a matter of disobedience, failure to accept correction, and open rejection of the church’s official position than the adherence to a belief which brought with it permanent condemnation. The early heretics in Western Europe were not always theologians; rather, they were sometimes merely simple people who condemned worldliness and hierarchical church institutions in favor of evangelical simplicity. Rejection of institutional marriage, emphasis on chastity, disputing the authority of the Old Testament, questioning some of the sacraments, and, above all, denial of the Trinity were elements of the twelfth-century movements that were soon branded heretical in the West. Preachers like Tanchelm in the Low Countries, Henry of Lausanne in the south of France, Peter of Bruys in the Rhône Valley, Eudo in Brittany, and Arnold of Brescia in Rome were all accused of initiating popular heretical movements.


While the most actively persecuted group in the Western Christendom was the Cathars, a number of historians have attempted to trace their roots to a much earlier medieval heresy practiced by the Bogomils in the east. Bogomil was a tenth-century preacher in Macedonia who taught a life of prayer, penitence, wandering, and simplicity of worship. He rejected sacraments, church feasts, icons, liturgy, vestments, and veneration of the cross. His basic message was quasi-dualist in nature: he claimed the world was evil because it had been created by the Devil, the eldest son of God. Christ was seen as the youngest son of God who came to earth to redeem, but never fully became human. Bogomil and his followers saw the Devil as inferior to God (which actually makes for a sort of “uneven” dualism). The Bogomils espoused complete renunciation of the world. Consumption of meat and wine was forbidden, marriage was discouraged, and obedience to church hierarchy was seen as having no validity. Their scriptural focus was on the New Testament. For a time the group seemed to gain favor at the court of Constantinople. In this cosmopolitan Byzantine environment, Bogomilism was transformed into a more philosophical movement, even an academic religion. It appealed to the upper classes in the Byzantine Empire, and evolved from its former roots as a religion of the peasantry, deeply connected to New Testament ethics. After Bulgaria’s conquest of parts of the Byzantine Empire in 1018, the Bogomils retreated into a more monastic existence, while persecutions in 1110 and 1143 at Constantinople forced them to move to Dalmatia and Bosnia. In later years, their worship became more ritualized. They baptized by laying hands on converts and holding the Gospel of John over their heads. In Bosnia and the Bulgarian Empire, Bogomilism became the state religion after 1218. The Bogomils sent missionaries to Western Europe, and it is likely that by the middle of the twelfth century they were active in Germany and the Rhineland. Such dualist ideas—that is, beliefs emphasizing opposing elements, such as good and evil—were also carried by merchants and pilgrims who had come into contact with the Bogomils and other forms of dualism in the east.


It was out of the religious fervor of the mid-twelfth century that the Cathar movement came to light. It was reported to be present at Cologne as early as 1143 when Everwin of Steinfeld wrote to Bernard of Clairvaux about the practice. Soon after, it had quickly spread into Flanders. Cathar disdain for the corruption of the medieval clergy bred in them a desire to purify the church (thus the term katharos, meaning “pure”). They believed that the material world was impure and that the soul must strive to free itself from the evils of this existence. The Cathars were vegetarians; they fasted regularly, avoided sexual activity, and rejected material possessions. Like the Bogomils, they regarded Jesus not as God, but as more of a super-angelic being who came to lead people on the right path. They rejected the notion of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and suggested that true redemption comes from the teaching of Christ, not his redemptive act. Affirming a philosophy similar to that of the Docetists in early Christianity, Cathars questioned the actual physical sufferings of Christ, seeing them as apparent rather than real. The more serious adherents and leaders of the movement were known as Perfects. Their lives were basically ascetical in nature. In 1167, during a Cathar council at St. Felix de Caraman, a missionary named Nicetas pushed for a more absolute dualist position concerning the nature of the world. Most dualists in the Languedoc (southern) region of France began to follow his directive. Similar to the Bogomils, they believed that the earth was created and controlled by Satan. Human spirits, which are heavenly and connected to God, have been trapped in bodies created by Satan. The greatest of sins, the original sin, was that of procreation, which Adam and Eve began and which has generationally continued to entrap the good spirits that have fallen from heaven. Salvation can only come from consolamentum, which is the path of moral standards that all Perfects have begun, creating a dialogue of forgiveness from sin and restoration to relationship with God the Father. Baptism seems to have been a major step on one’s way to perfection. It was at baptism that the Cathari entered into the state of consolamentum. Like the Bogomils, they employed the Gospel of John and laying on of hands in the ceremony. This was a baptism of Spirit, not of water. As such, John the Baptist was not seen as a saint.

Cathar Beliefs and Influence

Both men and women were equally able to embrace the level of Perfect and thus engage in communal leadership. This notion seems to have been particularly appealing to many spiritually inclined women from the noble families of Languedoc, though they were not allowed to become bishops. The Cathars had a significant following of credentes (or believers) who supported the work of the Perfects and hoped that they too might be committed enough to accept baptism. The credentes were allowed to remain married, own property, eat meat, and even participate in the Roman church in the hopes that their conversion might someday be full. Cathars believed that the souls of those who died in an unconsoled state would be reincarnated and allowed to make further progress along the road to freedom from their sinful flesh. Someday, once purified, they could finally return to the heaven from which they had originally come. Cathars made their way into northern Italy between 1150 and 1160 as their numbers grew rapidly. They were given many names in Europe. One such group was called the Albigenses after the town of Albi in the southern part of France where the first Cathar bishopric was established. Often welcomed into the courts of the nobility, Cathar preachers on the streets attracted listeners and even had public debates with Catholic bishops as well as with the Waldensians. They organized their own church with its own clergy, liturgy, and doctrine. By 1190 Italian Cathars had split into six churches. In Languedoc some of the nobility embraced the Cathar heresy in order to overthrow powerful local Catholic bishops. At its height there were eleven Cathar bishoprics, six of which were in France, with the remainder in Italy. All of the bishops were seen as equals.


Another popular movement of the time were the Waldensians or Poor of Lyon. They insisted upon living lives of poverty, reading the Gospels in the vernacular (language of the people), and encouraging lay people to preach. The group was founded in 1170 by Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant who, after a powerful conversion experience, began giving away his possessions to the poor. Interest in the movement was fueled by a famine that struck the city of Lyon in 1176, creating a tremendous inequity in the distribution of resources. After expending a good deal of his personal assets on good works during the famine, Waldo adopted a mendicant lifestyle and went about the countryside preaching. The Waldensians had little tolerance for the kind of clerical corruption Waldo had witnessed at the church of Lyon, which was very powerful and strongly tied to the aristocracy. Waldo had reluctantly been granted approval from Pope Alexander III to form a community based upon a lifestyle of poverty, but he was not given permission to preach. This may have had something to do with the fact that Waldo was not formally educated and had learned the Bible by committing parts of it to memory as it was translated to him in the vernacular. In 1184 the teachings of Peter and the Waldensians were condemned as heresy, and members were forced to stop preaching and leave the city of Lyon. Many of the group’s members chose to capitulate. After a series of condemnations and reprimands, Waldo and his followers moved into Italy and the southern part of France. There they began attracting attention by preaching anti-clericalism, stirring up reaction against secular authority, and performing the sacraments without authorization. The movement later split between French and Italian groups, perhaps because they did not have a clearly defined theology. The Italian movement went so far as to condemn the sacraments that were dispensed by unworthy priests. Subgroups of the Waldensian movement, such as the Poor Lombards, eventually merged with the late twelfth-century Humiliati. A number of thirteenth-century Waldensians, including leaders like Durand of Huesca and Bernard Prim, were brought back into the church. Underground contingents continued to survive through the seventeenth century, when they eventually joined groups of Protestant reformers.

Politics and Inquisition

In 1184 Pope Lucius III issued the bull Ad Abolendam which prescribed penalties for heretical activity and condemned such groups as the Cathars, Patarines, Humiliati, Poor of Lyon, Arnoldents, and Josepheni. A system of inquisition led by the bishops was soon developed. In order to combat the spread of Cathar teaching, a number of religious orders were employed. At first, in the early part of the thirteenth century, the Cistercians attempted to convince the Cathars of their error. The Dominicans (Order of Preachers) were in part born out of a second wave of the missionary work to the Cathars. In 1209 the Albigensian Crusade, which lasted for some twenty years, began to be carried out with tremendous cruelty. It may have been spurred by the murder of a papal legate, Peter of Castelnau, in 1208. As a result, the papacy increasingly pressured the counts of southern France to help put an end to local heresies. Uncooperative nobles (such as Raymond, the count of Toulouse) found themselves at odds with Rome. Caught up in the military campaigns to root out the Cathars during this period was Peter, the king of Aragon. Not a Cathar himself, he chose to fight against the Albigensian crusade forces and to use the conflict in southern France to gain greater control of the region. Peter was soundly defeated and killed at the battle of Muret in 1213 by outnumbered crusader forces under Captain Simon de Montfort. The crusade continued for a couple of decades as military force seemed more effective than counter-preaching at keeping the movement from growing. In 1233 Gregory IX launched an inquisition that was responsible for torturing, imprisoning, and burning at the stake thousands of unrepentant Cathars. The extermination of the Cathars came to an end after 1243 with the capture of the fortress at Montsegur.


Preaching Among Heretics

The Dominican Order of Friars was founded by an Augustinian canon named Domingo (Dominic) de Guzman from the cathedral at Osma in Spain. Dominic left his duties at the cathedral when he developed an interest in doing missionary preaching among the heretical Cathars in Languedoc. During 1203, while traveling through Toulouse in the southeastern part of France with his companion Diego Acevedo, the bishop of Osma, Dominic first encountered the Cathars. Upon their return, the two clerics petitioned Rome for a commission to preach. It was Diego’s idea that conversion might be accomplished by competing with the Cathar Perfects, living an austere apostolic life of self-denial with no concern for material goods. Depending upon others for their daily bread, they were able to move about the countryside freely, preaching and interacting with the Cathars. This plan met with some success. In 1207, Dominic and Diego established a nunnery for converted Cathar women at Prouille. During that year, Diego died and it was left up to Dominic to carry on the mission. With the help of Peter Seila, a wealthy benefactor from Toulouse, houses were donated for the work, and Dominic was given charge of a group of diocesan preachers to address the Cathar heresy. Dominic and his ministers went on foot to preach the word of God in evangelical poverty, living according to the Augustinian Rule and the usages of Prémontré. The preachers recited divine offices, had a daily chapter of faults (a community meeting to confess their failings or have their imperfections pointed out), and followed the penitential directives of the Premonstratensians. In 1217 Pope Honorius gave official confirmation to the Order of Friars Preachers (fratres praedicatores), a name suggested by Honorius himself, but around the time of Dominic’s death, the order began to be referred to more affectionately as the Dominicans. Later that year, preaching associates were sent to Paris, Bologna, Rome, and Madrid to study, preach, and found houses. They adopted a mendicant lifestyle (that is, they lived by begging) and did not own material possessions; they began to work among the urban poor. General Chapters (an assembly of all the heads of houses) were called during 1220 and 1221 in order to give some direction to the new movement. A Master General of the order was chosen for life to oversee the geographic provinces, which were each supervised by a provincial prior; individual houses also had their own local priors. Since Dominic had hoped that new recruits would receive solid theological education, headquarters were established in the great university towns of Bologna and Paris. When Dominic died in 1221, his successor Jordan of Saxony, began to target these university areas, seeking young educated recruits. By 1230 there were over fifty Dominican houses and twelve provinces, some as far away as Poland, Denmark, England, Hungary, and the Holy Land.

Dominican Expansion and New Directions

After this, the order began to expand exponentially. In 1256 there were estimated to be some 13,000 Dominican friars, many located near university towns such as Paris, Bologna, Valencia, Cologne, and Montpellier. By the early 1300s, there were over 600 Dominican houses; about 150 of them were for women. While preaching remained the Dominican focus, teaching, writing, and combating heresy became their strengths. No friar was allowed to preach without at least three years of study with a trained theologian. The thirteenth century produced such great Dominican philosopher/theologians as Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. The fourteenth century was famous for the Dominican mystics Meister Eckhart and Johannes Tauler; the latter devoted himself completely to the spiritual care of the sick during the Black Death. Dominican struggle against heresy waned somewhat after the demise of the Cathars, but it did not completely end. The order continued to be involved in aspects of inquisition (juridical persecution of heresy by special church courts) during the fourteenth century. Figures like Bernard Gui made sure orthodox practice and teaching were preserved throughout institutional Christendom. Participation in rooting out heresy more vehemently resurfaced at the time of the Spanish Inquisition when Jewish and Muslim converts to Christianity were suspected of having relapsed and were either directed back to the faith or to their death by infamous fifteenth-century Dominicans such as Tomas de Torquemada.

The Early Career of St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was clearly the most important figure in the early development of the friars. A special place has been given to him in church tradition, some going so far as to call him the quintessential medieval model of Jesus, an example of love and humility to which all Christians should aspire. He was born Giovanni Bernardone in 1181, the son of a merchant family living in Assisi, above Italy’s Spoleto Valley. His French-speaking father gave him the nickname Francesco, reminiscent of their heritage. Francis was probably not very well educated as a child. He lived the type of comfortable, carefree, enjoyable existence that his father’s success as a cloth merchant afforded him. While he was drawn to luxury, he was also known to be extremely generous. Francis joined a military campaign in his early twenties, fighting a war in Perugia in Italy and spending almost a year in a military prison. Upon his return to Assisi he lived an unsettled existence. While on a pilgrimage to Rome, it is said he encountered two beggars. Francis exchanged clothes with one of them and went about experiencing what it was to live in poverty. In 1205 he again joined a military expedition to fight against the enemies of the pope. At that point, a dream influenced him to abandon his secular life, and he retreated to a hermitage. For the next several years he lived in relative seclusion, befriending lepers and the unfortunate, living in the ruins of the abandoned church of San Damiano outside of Assisi. When he attempted to use some of his father’s wealth to rebuild an old church and assist the poor, his father had him dragged before the local magistrate. Shortly after this he completely renounced his heritage, removed his clothing and shoes, and took up living in a coarse garment with a rope for a belt, traveling about the countryside in absolute poverty, begging for his necessities, attempting to live an apostolic life.

The Founding of the Franciscans

Soon other sons of the merchant class joined him, selling all they owned, becoming mendicants and preachers. In 1210 it is said that Francis walked barefoot to Rome to meet with the pope and petition for official approval of a group, though Pope Innocent III had reservations about such notions of radical poverty and itinerancy. Medieval monasticism had long been troubled by gyrovagi, wandering monks who moved from monastery to monastery in search of the best possible circumstances. Itinerant preachers like Peter Waldo and members of the late twelfth-century lay spiritual movement called the Humiliati had been condemned less than thirty years earlier. Nonetheless, the group was given limited papal approval, and Francis returned to Assisi to begin his ministry. Their lives were extremely simple, not attached to property of any kind, and their daily routines were largely unregulated, save for a few offices they could pray when appropriate or convenient in the midst of ministry. Later popes (Honorius III and Gregory IX) gave formal approval to Franciscan rules, which became more detailed over time. The group called themselves fratres minores (brothers minor). They were given an old Benedictine church, the Portiuncula, outside of Assisi, which they restored and around which they began to build huts. In 1212, this growing brotherhood of mendicants grew to include sisters. The Poor Clares (or second order), who based their community at the restored church of San Damiano, were not allowed to beg or preach, but they did live out the ideal of poverty within their community. Soon Francis and his followers began to travel about southern France and Spain. By 1217 they had organized into provinces with superiors appointed over each area, and in 1221 Francis founded the Tertiaries (or third order), a lay movement that adapted Franciscan ideals to daily life. Francis’ order of friars grew so rapidly that they were able to extend their ministry into Eastern Europe and North Africa, though their preaching in Muslim areas did not meet with great success. Francis himself accompanied the Fifth Crusade and even attempted to convert the Sultan al-Kamil. Of great benefit to the order was Francis’s friendship with Cardinal Ugolino, who later became Pope Gregory IX. It is said that in 1224 Francis received the stigmata (gift of the wounds of Christ). He died two years later and was canonized (declared a saint) by Pope Gregory in 1228. Legends of Francis’ life abound and have been used by Franciscans, as well as Christians in general, as a source of inspiration for their lives.

The Problems of Property and Education

After Francis’ death, the order was forced to deal with two growing problems: how to educate the brothers and whether or not the Franciscans would own their own houses, books, and trappings. The earliest Franciscans had gotten around the issue of ownership by entrusting all their possessions to Rome. While there were some friars who wished to share in the more radical vision of Francis, living in caves or huts and shunning formalized university education, many of the recruits to the Franciscan Order were from the literate and elite classes of society. This tension continued to be present in the order for the next several centuries. By the 1230s the universities of Paris, Padua, Bologna, and Oxford had become a breeding ground for Franciscan ideas. Franciscan scholars like Alexander of Hales, Robert Grosseteste, and Anthony of Padua were among the leading theologians of the day. After 1239, it was decided that all the leaders within the order needed to be priests. When the great theologian and philosopher St. Bonaventure became minister general of the order (1257-1274), admission was limited to clerics who were educated or to lay persons of distinction (something of a contradiction, since Francis himself had taken only the order of a deacon and had at best a working knowledge of Latin). During this period the order began to grow tremendously. While in 1250 there were fifty Franciscan houses in England and some several hundred in Italy, by the early fourteenth century the order had grown to 1,400 houses. With this growth, debates over the issue of radical poverty and the order’s ownership of property intensified. Notions of a new age of religious orders who would come to reshape the world and usher in the final phase of a spiritual church had been predicted by the mystic Joachim of Fiore (1132-1202) in his apocalyptic writings. Members of the Spiritual Franciscans led by Gerard of Borgo San Donnino and various other Fraticelli (general and fringe mendicant groups) took these ideas to heart in the mid-thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, attempting to bring Joachim’s prophecies to fulfillment. Following the Black Death and a dwindling of numbers in the order, however, there was an increased laxity of practice and tolerance for material possessions. The issue of property and observance continued to agitate the Franciscan Order, and finally in 1415 and again in 1443 the Conventual (the more lax) and Observant (the more traditional) branches were granted separate provinces and eventually their own Vicar Generals. Not until 1517 would there be a formal division between the Conventualists (who felt that they were the real order) and the Observants.

Carmelite Friars

Both the Carmelite and Augustinian (Austin) friars began as hermits who gradually adopted the practices of the mendicants. The real strength of these movements is that they were able to blend the ministerial ideals of the life of the apostles with the contemplative calling of the earliest Christian desert fathers. The Order of Our Lady of Mount Carmel originated in mid-twelfth century Palestine where hermits gathered in a community under a common rule at Mount Carmel near Haifa. The group had been founded by a pious crusader named Berthold of Cambria. Tracing their origins to the biblical Elijah, by the early 1200s they undertook a strict rule of asceticism, which was condoned by the Latin patriarch (bishop) of Jerusalem. The Carmelite hermits fasted regularly, avoided meat, and observed lengthy periods of quiet. With the fall of the Holy Land and the demise of the Latin Christian Kingdoms in the early part of the thirteenth century, the Mount Carmel community slowly began to break up into several groups that moved into Italy, Spain, Cyprus, Sicily, southern France, and England. Some Carmelites were said to have come back with troops returning from the Third and Fourth Crusades. At first the European Carmelites continued to live a cloistered existence, but soon they became engaged in a more active life of preaching, poverty, and active study in the world, modeling their new way of life on the Dominicans. Corporate poverty, teaching, preaching, and mendicancy were the cornerstones of their movement. By 1300 there were at least a thousand Carmelites in England alone.

Austin Friars

The origin of the Austin friars is much more documented than that of the Carmelites. They began with a group of hermits that were spread throughout Italy, particularly in the regions of Tuscany and Lombardy. St. John Buoni of Mantua had begun to organize the group in the mid-thirteenth century. In 1243 Pope Innocent IV prescribed the Rule of St. Augustine for these hermits and in 1255, under Pope Alexander, all hermits living in Italy were brought into one group called the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine. The following year they adopted a constitution similar to that of the Dominicans. Their lifestyle became more mendicant in nature, and they were given exemptions from the control of local bishops. Based upon the influences of the other friar orders, the Austins moved from their hermitages and took up residence in the cities where they began to minister and preach. They also became interested in university education, taking up the formalized study of theology, the scriptures, and the philosophy of St. Augustine. Toward the end of the thirteenth century, they began founding priories throughout Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and England. Gregory of Rimini, who taught at the University of Paris, was possibly their finest scholar. He later became general of the Austin Order in 1357. The most famous of the Augustinians is the sixteenth-century reformer Martin Luther, who first entered as a hermit in 1505.

The Secular-Mendicant Controversy

Conflicts between secular clergy and the new mendicant orders began to occur once the friars (who were not under permanent obligation to local bishops) came to urban areas to preach and hear confessions. As the friars moved in, they began to establish schools and build churches. Members of the laity were attracted to these educated friars who were living in poverty, and local secular clerics noticed that the flow of offerings and bequests to their churches was dwindling. The resources of lay nobility that once had gone to the benefices and holdings of the secular clergy were being diverted to build and decorate such magnificent centers of the preachers as Santa Croce in Florence. Around 1250, the Burgundian schoolmaster William of Saint-Amour, who taught in Paris, began to crusade against the rights of the friars to compete with secular clergy for pastoral ministry and even their right to monopolize the chairs at prestigious universities. These arguments spun into an ideological battle over ecclesiology, that is, whether secular priests or religious should hold authority over the teaching and preaching of the church. The friars were seen by some as extensions of lay orders—mendicant, and thus not completely devoted to either institution or rule. Notions of hierarchy, diocesan boundaries, and the rights of local churches were defended by the secularists. Friars such as St. Bonaventure wrote apologia for their orders, defending themselves by appeals to their papal commissions and authentic apostolic lifestyles. The old medieval power of clerics in isolated communities was giving way and being challenged by a European society that was open to mobility, education, competition, and diversity of opinions, all of which the friars brought to the church by way of emerging societal changes and conventions. The erosion of secular church authority continued when the Franciscan pope Martin IV (1281-1285) issued his Ad Fructus Uberes which allowed the friars to perform any pastoral duties they deemed necessary in any diocese where they were present without first seeking a license from the local bishop. A compromise was later struck by Boniface VIII in 1300 which limited the jurisdictions of the friars and returned to the bishops certain controls over them in their diocese. However, remnants of this dispute lingered on to the 1400s. Examples of this are the manuals of instruction for parish priests in England, which questioned whether or not absolution of a penitent by a friar was sufficient or whether it might be helpful and even necessary for the parish priest to re-hear the confession of their parishioner. Another good example is seen in the negative image of the friar described by the character of the Summoner in The Canterbury Tales, a description that illustrates Chaucer’s dislike of the friars and support of the secular party in this ongoing conflict.

The Laity and Popular Beliefs

Separations Between Clerics and Laity

Even though people today view the Middle Ages as a time of great religious faith, it is clear that the role of the laity within official medieval Christianity was relatively limited. By the thirteenth century, the majority of people who lived in Western Europe were nominally Christian. Most had received Christian baptism and professed to practice the faith, the exceptions being the minority of Jewish people scattered throughout various European cities and the Muslims who were still living in Spain. For those who were not part of the clerical world, however, it seems there was not much access to the richness of the Christian tradition. Nobles and royalty who had clerics living among them at court clearly had the advantage of daily contact. But since many others did not know how to read, and understood Latin (the language of most prayers) in only a limited way, contact for the laboring and commercial classes did not extend much beyond attending worship and interacting with local clergy. Lay experience of the holy was mostly visual and auditory, including encounters with religious art and the stories portrayed in these artworks, as well as the homilies of their priests (during the time periods that medieval liturgies incorporated preaching). Such religious art often showed biblical typology or foreshad-owing of New Testament events in Old Testament stories; for example, David struggling with a bear foreshadows Christ’s conquering of Satan in a miniature from the Winchester Bible of 1160-1175. During Christian feast days, they may have heard or seen enacted stories connected to the saints and the important events from the life of Christ. Members of the laity were not, however, encouraged to receive communion during the earlier medieval centuries. In fact, it was not until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that they were required to go to confession and receive the eucharist at least once a year.

Lay Observance at Mass

In the absence of receiving communion, the only contact with the sacrament was visual, when the priest elevated the host and chalice. However, in churches with rood screens (wooden or metal par-view gates separating the altar area from the rest of the church), visual contact was often impaired. Mothers did teach their children statements of faith and prayers, particularly the Credo, Pater Noster, and Ave Maria. In urban areas where there were schools, clerics taught children to read Latin from the Bible or a psalter (a book containing the psalms). These city-dwellers received formal religious education from the clerics who taught them, and, in imitation of their teachers, might set aside certain times of the day to pray. If they were literate and wealthy enough to own psalters, they might recite the written prayers. Daily attendance at Mass for the laity was limited to those who had both the piety and leisure to comply. In most cases, these masses were held in small chapels and provided opportunity for greater contact with the clergy, although the priest’s back was turned to the congregants for most of the liturgy. Again, it was not until the thirteenth-century Lateran Council that serious directives were issued in regard to weekly attendance at Mass. Some evidence of contemporary expectations for participation is offered by a twelfth-century book of instructions and devotion for laity called the Lay Folk’s Mass Book, written by an archdeacon of York named Jeremiah. The instructions were originally written in French for Norman aristocrats, but only the late thirteenth-century English translation survives. A collection of directives that indicate the role of the worshipers and how they should be positioned, such as kneeling at the elevation of the consecrated elements, are contained in the work.

The Sacrament of Marriage

The notion of marriage as a sacrament began to be connected in the Middle Ages to certain rituals and exchanges of consent that took place at the front door or on the porch of churches. Marriage did not become an official sacrament of the church until the Fourth Lateran Council (1215). Emphasis on assent and mutual giving, including consent of both partners along with the physical act of consummation, mark the canonical parameters of the essence of the union. While local customs and laws varied widely throughout Europe, the role of the church in witnessing and binding the union seems to have only been prevalent from the twelfth century onward. However, once it became a sacrament, the church also played an important role in the dissolution or annulment of marriage and the integrity of family life. All marriages from the early thirteenth century on were to be public. Banns (formal public announcements) were to be published, and private or clandestine unions were forbidden (although, if secretly performed, these marriages were not invalid). Marriage of blood relatives (consanguinity) within the fourth degree of relationship and marriage within a spouse’s family (affinity) within the third degree was forbidden. Later, the statute concerning affinity was revised to forbid only the first degree (marrying a dead spouse’s parent or sibling). In many cases, marriage was certainly not even seen as an idealized or spiritualized form of love, but a contractual arrangement. The attitude towards marriage and love held by most celibate theologians was far removed from the ideal of courtly love espoused by Eleanor of Aquitaine, Christine de Pizan, Chrétien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg, and Dante Alighieri in the literature that developed during this period.

The Afterlife

In medieval Christianity everyone believed in an afterlife where the good were rewarded and the evil were punished. But the idea of going directly to heaven or hell upon one’s death was not firmly entrenched in the popular lay mentality. Sometimes souls were visualized being raised to God in a napkin as in a miniature from a book of hours from York, England. It was believed that souls lingered among the living (almost as ghosts), possibly to keep promises, solicit prayers, or even settle old accounts. Dances for the dead in cemeteries, some attempting to drive the deceased back to the spirit world, were banned by synods in the twelfth century. It was necessary for the church to affirm the doctrine of purgatory, a place where the distressed souls would be allowed to linger. It was not that people during this era had a greater fear of death than in other historical periods, but they did fear dying in a state of sin, without the comfort of the sacraments or forgiveness. People began leaving property to the church or to the poor so that their souls would be prayed for after their death. Even the most corrupt of princes and knights on their deathbeds sought to make reparations for their evil deeds. This may be the reason why many people in the final years of their lives would retire to monasteries and convents to be connected to God and the prayers of a community in death and be remembered in the community’s masses for the deceased.


The laity also believed in miracles and divine interventions, with saints often playing a major role. Indeed, at times it seems people were more interested in miracles and relics than in the accumulation of countless good deeds that might earn them a way into heaven. Pious lay persons could distinguish themselves through generosity, hospitality, and almsgiving. However, taken more seriously was the idea of penitence and making reparations for one’s sins, even after absolution through a priest was given in confession. Piety found its expression most clearly in outward signs and rituals. Sacramentals (such as blessings, benedictions, exorcisms, stations of the cross, dubbing of a knight, coronations, ceremonies, receiving palms and ashes, and litanies) were often as important to the medieval laity as the Sacraments(Baptism, Eucharist, Confession, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders, Anointing of the Sick). The church of the thirteenth century did a number of things to eliminate the power of popular piety by creating more rigid standards for the canonization of saints, rather than allowing the cults of these figures to develop from popular acclaim. The condemnation of practices such as trial by combat (in which the accused and the accuser of a crime engaged in physical combat with the belief that right would triumph over wrong) or trials by fire and water (in which a guilty person thrown into a body of water would float and one whose hand was burned would become infected) were included in the Fourth Lateran Council in order to allow church courts rather than miraculous intervention to rule the day. Priests were forbidden to be present at the ordeals, thus discouraging the notion that these affairs might be orthodoxy.

Lay Spiritual Movements

Since the laity were in many ways excluded from active participation in the official life of the church, it is not surprising that lay spiritual movements began to flourish. One late twelfth-century movement developed into a group called the Humiliati, which actually evolved into an officially sanctioned lay order during the early thirteenth century. The Humiliati began in Lombardy and Milan around the time of the Waldensian controversy, which arose in the late 1170s when a rich merchant named Peter Waldo in Lyon, France, underwent a religious conversion and started a lay spiritual movement—unsanctioned by the church hierarchy—based on voluntary poverty, vernacular translation of the Scriptures, and public preaching. Some Humiliati were married and lived with their families. Others lived in community, almost like a religious order. They held meetings in common houses owned by the local groups. Most Humiliati were nobility or, at the least, educated people of some means. Their first obligation was to embrace apostolic simplicity. They wore simple clothing, lived simple lives and sought to stand at odds with enemies of the true Christian faith. Unlike the Waldensians, they found it distasteful to preach in public. Each group had a minister or lay leader but in general they did not abide by a rule.

The Life of the Humiliati

While several popes like Lucuis III and Alexander III tried to legislate against the Humiliati, other pontiffs wrote them letters calling on them to live lives of penitence, to be peaceful and forgiving, to act against usury (charging interest for loans), to keep their married state if already wed, and to prepare to enter the narrow gate of heaven. Some members recited the seven canonical hours, others fasted twice a week. They gave charity to all those in need and showed special concern for lepers. One of the things the group became famous for was the making of cotton cloth and inexpensive wools. During this period, producers of fine cloth often belonged to guilds that controlled prices, so there was a great need, especially among the lower classes, for inexpensive cloth. In a sense, the production of such cloth became part of their “ministry,” to the point where it even began to be asked for by the trademark of Humiliati. The lamb of God became their symbol. By 1216 there were 150 communities of Humiliati in the Diocese of Milan alone. In 1201 Pope Innocent III gave permission for the Humiliati to continue their work under two conditions: that they not own land that they themselves did not work with their own hands, and that their preaching be limited to the sharing of faith and exhorting of one another. Eventually the Humiliati fell into three orders: canons and canonesses, monks, and lay people. Like other European religious, Humiliati monks followed the Rule of Benedict, and their canons followed the Augustinian Rule. In 1246 they had grown large enough that Pope Innocent IV decreed that all the Humiliati orders take direction from one Master General for their group. By 1298 there were 389 houses of Humiliati of the second order in Italy. The third order of laity was, of course, immense and beyond calculation. The group began to decline in number after the fourteenth century but continued through the 1500s.

Devotional Images

Another effect of the increasing lay desire for direct participation in spiritual experience was the development, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, of devotional art, with a distinctive emphasis on images of the Passion of Christ. While earlier lay Christians, particularly women in the upper class, had relied on beautifully illustrated texts called Books of Hours to guide and inspire their devotions, later worshippers focused specifically on the pictures themselves as they appeared in wall paintings, stained glass, and scrolls, as well as amulets, charms, and individual parchment or paper broadsheets that could be owned even by people of modest means. Among the most popular images were the Holy Face—an image of Christ’s countenance supposedly imprinted on a cloth (sudarium) held by Saint Veronica when Christ used it to wipe his face—and the Sacred Heart bearing the evidence of the side wound Christ suffered at the crucifixion and showed to Doubting Thomas (John 20:27). Various meditational techniques were employed to make the Passion vivid, among which was a strong interest in the damage wrought to Christ’s body both before and after his crucifixion and the physiological changes it underwent on the cross. For example, Christ’s torment was often expressed in metaphors comparing the body to a book, or a scroll, or even a shield bearing a coat of arms whose “armorial bearings” were made of the tools and weapons—called the arma Christi—used in his torment. Thus, the words of Christ’s “book” are his deeds, suffering, and passion, and the letters are the five wounds of his hands, feet, and body. Often all of the wounds can be placed on a heart-shaped shield such as the one revered in a late medieval English devotional work called The Desert of Religion.

Children and Medieval Christianity

The Innocence of Children

The notion of the innocence and purity of children was a concept which became connected to a host of medieval religious images. Beginning in the ninth century, children were depicted nude in art to signify their purity. They were often depicted as cherub-like or cupid-like angelic figures. Quite commonly, children were also connected to the notion of the infant Son of God. Many medieval monks claimed to have seen an infant in the consecrated bread during the liturgy at the moment of its ritual elevation by the priest. Familiar scripture quotations that supported the sacred role of children are still often cited: from Psalms 8:2-3 and Matthew 21:16, “out of the mouths of babes;” Psalms 85:12, “truth will spring from the ground;” and Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17, “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child.” These scriptural ideas supported the special place children occupied in the medieval religious consciousness. Very young children were often asked to open the Bible at any spot they would choose, and adults would interpret the verse that appeared as some sort of prophecy in a divinatory process called the sortes biblicae.

Infant Baptism

In spite of the apparent purity of intention and deed in small children, the medieval church held that they were inherently tainted by the doctrine of Original Sin, a state of separation from God that all people were born into as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. By the early Middle Ages, infant baptism was standard practice. In fact, during that period it was generally believed that children who died unbaptized went to hell. In 830 Jonas of Orléans wrote, regarding the children of Christian parents, that it was “necessary that they be presented without delay to receive the gift of baptism, even if they do not yet speak. We are right to do this as children are guilty of the sins of others (original sin).” Failure to baptize a child was a serious matter. Most unbaptized children were not even allowed Christian burials in the early medieval period. Parents who neglected to have infant children baptized before death could be required to do penance up to seven years. Cemetery records throughout France after the Carolingian baptismal legislation was enacted strongly support claims of adherence to the practice of early baptism. Hincmar of Reims expressed similar sentiments around 850 in a letter to Loup de Ferrières: “If they die after having receiving the gift of baptism, they are saved by the will of God; on the other hand, deprived by God’s judgment of this very gift of baptism, they are damned by the fault of hereditary sin.”

Changing Regulations

Rules regarding baptism and confirmation of children changed gradually throughout the Middle Ages. The liturgist Amalarius of Metz commented in the ninth century that baptism should take place at the ninth hour of a child’s life, as it was during the ninth hour that Christ breathed his last on the cross. During the ninth century in England, both civil and religious regulations required baptism for Christian infants before they reached one month of age. Following such guidelines would, however, be almost impossible in France after the ninth century, since most baptisms there were performed only at Easter and Pentecost. In the High Middle Ages (after 1200) there were more widespread canons that required children to be baptized before the age of three. Formal creedal confessions more appropriate to adult initiates gave way to rites of exorcism, signing of the cross, and prayers for the infant, to be followed by confirmation of the child’s baptism (which consisted of the laying on of hands and the bishop’s anointing of the child using blessed oils) once the child reached the age of reason (normally seven or older). This practice became more common between the tenth century and the twelfth, when the doctrine of limbo puerorum was promulgated, stating that children who died unbaptized went to a state in the afterlife that was slightly removed from the sight of God, but where they were outside the torments of hell. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century went so far as to suggest that those in limbo actually enjoyed a type of natural happiness. The notion of limbo remained a matter of evolving theological opinion throughout much of the medieval period. In contrast to the debate over baptism, however, many medieval Christians were not particularly concerned with the sacrament of confirmation. In the early Middle Ages, the reception of communion and penance usually did not occur until adulthood or adolescence, and, in fact, the Council of Tours in 813 had discouraged communion for children unless there were special circumstances warranting it. It was not until the thirteenth century that the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that all children past the age of seven should confess their sins and receive communion at least once a year.

Papacy and Politics in the Late Thirteenth and Early Fourteenthcenturies

A Pious Monarch

Many of the developments within Christianity during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries were tied to the might of monarchies and the shifting of papal powers. When the goals of monarchs were consistent with the ideals of a Christian life, both ecclesiastical and political functions ran smoothly. In France, King Louis IX (1214-1270), for example, did much to advance the ideals of piety and the prominent place of the church within the European consciousness. He was noted for personal religious devotion, prayer, liturgical attendance, and even wearing the humble attire of Franciscan friars. Some 27 years after his death, he was canonized as Saint Louis. Not only did he personally lead two crusade campaigns (on one of which he was taken prisoner, and on the other of which he died of illness), but Louis was responsible for bringing peace among contentious nobles in Flanders, Aragon, and England. He endowed many religious foundations throughout his reign and supported the initiation of the Sorbonne theological college in 1257. His devotion extended to the building of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (between 1245 and 1248) where he placed relics from what he believed to be the crown of thorns worn by Jesus (obtained from Baldwin II, the Latin emperor at Constantinople) and a piece of the true cross on which Christ was crucified. His biographer Jean de Joinville told stories of him washing the feet of the poor and going to the countryside in the summer to talk with the more lowly subjects of his kingdom.

Political Domination

Many of the rulers and members of the religious hierarchy of the period did not, however, follow Louis’ example. In the southern part of Italy and in Sicily, there was continual conflict between powerful noble families and the church. Charles of Anjou (the brother of Saint Louis) had been placed in control of the region by the church, after authority was wrested from the German Hohenstauffen monarchs. Charles’ role became self-serving, however. He began allying himself with Italian political elements (powerful nobles and clergy) and even gained control of a number of cardinals—councilors to the pope who ranked second in power only to the pontiff himself. The result was years of political wrangling, stalled papal elections, and vacancies in the office of bishop of Rome. Indeed, as a result of the political conflicts in this region, there were nine popes from 1276 to 1295, with a total of 42 months in which there was no pope at all. A brief period of sanity came with Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303), who proclaimed 1300 a “jubilee year” and also promulgated a very responsible body of canon law (Liber Sextus) in 1298, which supplemented previous codes, particularly those of Gregory IX. Nonetheless, Boniface’s tenure was tarnished by acrimonious disputes with the French king Philip the Fair (1268-1314), who was taxing church properties to finance a war against England. The result of this was the papal bull of 1296, Clericis Laicos, condemning the unnamed laity (the kings of England and France) for unjust taxation supporting a war between Christians (prohibited without papal consent). It took several months and much political maneuvering before the taxations ceased. Boniface continued to have difficulties with Italian cardinals and nobles who allied themselves with Philip until, finally, the French plotted to have the pope’s elevation nullified. In 1302, Boniface issued his famous Unam Sanctam, calling for the unity of the church under one pope, whose authority extended to the secular subjects because his spiritual power took precedence over secular powers. The bull sparked flaming invectives from both sides, including physical attacks upon the pope by agents of the French king. With Boniface’s death in 1303, the vestiges of medieval papal power began to slip away. Philip soon succeeded in expelling most of the merchant Jews from the growing French realm and divesting the Knights Templar of their wealth and resources.

The Avignon Papacy (1309-1377)

After the death of Pope Boniface VIII, Philip the Fair continued attempting to weaken the church in order to further his political aims. Popes Benedict XI (r. 1303-1304) and Clement V (r. 1305-1314), a Frenchman, proved ineffective at limiting royal authority. Following the deaths of Boniface and Benedict, bitter factions formed in Rome over the direction the papacy would take. Clement, who had been crowned in Lyon, was unable to occupy the papal residence in the city of Rome due to a variety of political complications. In 1309, during a prolonged illness, he finally decided to remain at Avignon, which was located in what is now southern France on the lower Rhône River. The location had for some time been under papal control connected to its vassals, the Angevin kings of Naples. Since Avignon bordered France, Philip the Fair was quite pleased to have the French pope much closer at hand. It was not unprecedented for a pope to reside outside Rome or spend extended periods of time outside the city, but in this case his decision had dire consequences.

The Growth of Secular Power

Under Pope Clement, and Pope John XXII who followed him, the papacy was characterized by a mixture of valuable reforms and increasing assertions of secular power. Clement appointed nine French cardinals, four of whom were his nephews, and he was forced by the French king into some serious compromises of papal integrity. Some of his reforms proved productive, however. At the suggestion of the Catalan theologian and missionary Raymond Lull, Clement began to encourage the development of chairs at the various leading universities (Bologna, Oxford, Paris, and Salamanca) for the study of Arabic, Hebrew, and Chaldaic, believing that knowledge of both scriptural and local languages would lead to success in the conversion of Muslims and Jews. Likewise, his successor, John XXII, might be admired for his personal simplicity, as well as a program of almsgiving (distribution of food, clothing, and medication to the poor). However, as the papacy continued to reside in Avignon, the desire for power and opulence became ever more apparent. The city of Avignon was virtually a military fortress with some three miles of walls surrounding the papal palace. Pope John XXII allowed for the securing of additional resources to decorate the palace and brought artists, artisans, and scholars to the city. During a dispute over control of the Holy Roman Empire (1316-1326), Pope John refused to recognize all three claimants to the position of emperor and asserted his right to administer the empire himself during the void in leadership, a move that elicited protest in many parts of European society. Treatises by writers like John of Paris, Marsilius of Padua (Defensor Pacis, 1324) and Dante Alighieri (De Monarchia, c. 1310) stressed the parallel and autonomous natures of papal and imperial powers. While such power came from God, one authority did not have the right to interfere in the other’s domain. Marsilius, a philosopher and canonist, went so far as to suggest that it was the people who held the basis of power. He felt that all clergy were equal in status and that no human had the right to define Christian truth, or dispense interdicts and excommunications that would be deemed universal. Infallibility, according to Marsilius, could only come from the consensus of the faithful. The Italian poet Petrarch, in his Book Without A Name, railed against the abuses and scandal at Avignon, calling it a medieval Babylon.

The Great Schism

The abuses of the Avignon papacy were so great that they eventually led the church to split into two, and even three, separate entities. One of the most abusive aspects of the Avignon regime was its policy of taxation. Due to the loss of revenues from the papal states, additional revenues had to be extracted. Church benefices began to be bought, sold, and traded, and such sales were supplemented by the annates, a tax amounting to approximately one year’s income on all new appointments. Out of the seven Avignon popes, six were French. All continued to function as the bishop of Rome, although residing outside the city. (A vicar was appointed to attend to the necessary ministry there.) Many of the cardinals that had been appointed were French, and internal secular political strife that had besieged Italy continued. There was a brief return to Rome between 1367 and 1370 under Pope Urban V, but he reconvened his court at Avignon the following year. A general plea for returning the papacy to Rome came from many parts of Europe. Following the pontificate of Gregory XI in 1378, an Italian, Urban VI, was named pope, quite possibly under the pressure of demands from the Roman people. In less than a year, however, the curia was dissatisfied with Urban’s leadership and asked the pope to step down. When Urban refused, Clement VII, a cardinal from Geneva who was a cousin of the French king, was elected to replace him. Clement was forced to withdraw from Rome and move the papal court back to Avignon. There were now two popes. This is the event that likely started the Great Schism (1378-1417). While it was certainly not historically unusual for there to be two rival claimants to the papacy (pope and anti-pope), this Rome-Avignon split caused a rift that lasted some forty years. The two courts existed side by side, with the Avignon popes being recognized in France, Spain, Scotland, Naples, Sicily, and parts of Germany while the Roman popes were acknowledged throughout northern and central Italy, much of Germany, Bohemia, England, Poland, Hungary, and Scandinavia. Abuses of power continued and church-related taxation became overwhelming. There were now two sets of cardinals, each connected to a pope.

From Schism To Reform

Reforming Councils

The need to resolve the Schism brought about new kinds of efforts to unify and reform the church. Dietrich von Neiheim, a bishop from Verden in Germany, who had spent much of his life in the service of the papacy, proposed a reforming union that might be brought forth by an authoritative council superseding the voice of the popes, with the power to determine the general direction the church should take. In 1409, the first council, the Council of Pisa, met and began a series of general reforms. The council tried to deal with the problem of the schism by deposing the two rival popes and electing a new one, hoping this action would cause a merger of the two Cardinal Colleges. Unfortunately, the plan did not work, and now all three continued in power. A second council was then called at Constance in the southern part of Germany in 1414 by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund to continue the reforms started at the Council of Pisa. Of the three schismatic popes, John the XXIII (supported by the Pisan group) presided as the dominant papal figure. The council took three and a half years to finish its work, holding some 45 sessions. Representatives from all of Christendom were present: bishops, university representatives, leaders of religious communities, and secular rulers (observers even came from the Eastern churches). Among the matters addressed were the ideas of reform through regularly scheduled councils, the superiority of a council over the pope, and certain heresies that were gaining ground among the common people.

The End of the Schism

The theologian Pierre d’Ailly played a significant role in the direction of the council. He suggested that in addition to completing the reforming work of Pisa, they might attempt again to heal the schism. He asked John XXIII, by far the strongest of the three schismatic popes, to step down and allow for the election of one pope. The voting blocks were divided into regions since it was feared that the Italian cardinals and bishops would easily dominate the election. John stepped down after considerable posturing on the part of his opponents and proponents. John’s absence gave the council the opportunity to broach the issue of conciliarism, a supreme church authority which rested with the general council, not the pope. The decree Haec Sancta supported the authority of the council and all future general councils, demanding that all Christians (even the pope) adhere to its decisions. The council, in the name of the church, representing the interests of the church, would draw its authority from Christ. The council went on to depose the other two papal claimants, Gregory XII (almost ninety, who resigned) and Benedict XIII (who refused and died in exile). In November of 1417 the electorate, represented by 23 cardinals and delegates from the European nations, elected Martin V, to whom all would claim obedience. He presided over the remaining concordats and reform. Significant among the actions of the Council of Constance were the reforms on papal taxation, the ability as a body to call future councils with their own authority, and the resolution of the issue of transfer of bishops by Rome. There was also a condemnation of the heresies that had been propagated by the Englishman John Wyclif (who had died in 1384) and the Czech reformer Jan Hus.

John Wyclif

Although the Council of Constance resolved issues having to do with political power and the papacy, the concern over the preaching of John Wyclif was an indication that the public perception of church corruption ran much deeper. Wyclif had been a teacher at Oxford whose controversial theological views were condemned by the Blackfriars Council of 1382. Despite the fact that he himself held several absentee benefices (positions from which he received income by delegating the work to a curate), he had railed vehemently against clerical abuse. He felt that unrighteous church leaders had no religious authority whatsoever. In his work On the Truth of the Holy Scriptures, he wrote that scripture was the church’s highest and truest authority. Wyclif had rejected the church’s teaching on transubstantiation, calling it unscriptural, illogical, and unfaithful to the teaching of the early church. In 1380 he wrote his treatise On the Eucharist, which advanced a literal interpretation of the substances of bread and wine after consecration. He intimated that Christ was not corporeally present after the blessing, that the bread and wine remained physically unchanged. Wyclif also insisted that preaching was more important than the encounter of the sacraments. On the Power of the Pope claimed that the office of the papacy was completely of human origin. Wyclif also did not believe in the existence of purgatory. Toward the end of his life he began producing a vernacular translation of the Bible so that individuals who did not have an opportunity to learn Latin could read the Bible in English, without the need for a clerical intermediary.


After Wyclif’s death in 1384, his followers, often called the Lollards (literally the mumblers), continued his attempts to reform the church. Most of the early Lollards were Wyclif’s students from Oxford, but soon the movement began attracting individuals from the lower and middle classes. The term Lollard also was applied to the Béguines and Beghards in the Netherlands. In England, Lollard preachers, based upon their reading of the Bible, went about the countryside protesting the corruption, abuse, and excesses of the clergy. During the reign of Richard II (1377-1399) a number of Lollard preachers were imprisoned, but the movement continued to grow. Not only did they have disdain for clerical wealth and power, but their indictments extended to members of the lay nobility as well. They also opposed clerical celibacy and use of the Latin Bible, and some even espoused free love and pacifism. In 1401, under Henry IV, a statute was passed making heresy a crime punishable by death. Lollards were quickly branded as heretical and many were executed, some being burned at the stake. While the movement was eventually driven underground, it took root in northern England, where it was embraced in certain circles through the sixteenth century. Wyclif’s ideas proved to provide a fertile base for the eventual success of Protestant reformers. So powerful was the fear of Wyclif’s reforms that in 1428 the bishop of Lincoln had his body exhumed and burned, and his ashes thrown into the river.

Jan Hus

In 1382 Wyclif’s teachings had found their way from England to Bohemia by way of a member of the household of the English queen Anne, who was the sister of the Bohemian king Wenceslas IV. It was at the University of Prague that Wyclif’s ideas gained popularity among Czechs, and it was there that Jan Hus came under its influence. In 1407, some 23 years after Wyclif’s death, his theology was being discussed at Prague’s university. Soon after, the teaching was condemned by the archbishop of that city. Hus, who was rector of the University of Prague, embraced many of Wyclif’s ideas, however. He especially appreciated Wyclif’s arguments concerning church authority and the fact that it should be limited only to those who were righteous enough to treat it responsibly. Hus began to preach aggressively against simony (the buying and selling of clerical offices) and the greed of the clergy. He also openly criticized the sale of indulgences and believed that the church should always accommodate itself to be at the disposal of the faithful. In 1410, while the works of Wyclif were being burned, Hus’s theological viewpoints were being scrutinized by the church. Although attempts were made to silence him, Hus continued to preach and even succeeded in rousing an angry mob to storm the archbishop’s residence, which led to the burning of Hus’s theological writings and his eventual excommunication in 1411. Throughout the next year, Hus continued to stir up revolt and was forced to leave Prague. Further condemnation of Wyclif’s teachings was launched by the Council of Pisa in 1413; but this did not stop Hus, who all along wished for a reform of the church, never a break with it. To make his point, he even appeared at the Council of Constance in 1414, arguing that the church was founded on Christ and that the church hierarchy was a creation of mankind. While the conciliarists were in agreement with some of Hus’s ideas, they found the majority of his teachings far too radical. Some thirty errors were pointed out in Hus’s De Ecclesia (“Concerning the Church”). Hus denied teaching these heretical ideas but never formally denounced them. He was condemned and burned by a group of secular officials. It was said that a paper hat with the word “heretic” was placed upon his head during the fiery execution.

The Hussite Wars

Upon news of Hus’s death, riots broke out in Prague, and his followers, who became known as the Hussites, continued to preach throughout Germany and the Czech territories with both a religious agenda and one that supported Czech nationalism. A persecution of the Hussites, sometimes referred to as the Hussite Wars, took place between 1419 and 1436. According to the provisions created at the Council of Constance, Pope Martin was obliged to call subsequent councils to steer the direction of the late medieval church, and at the one in Basel, in 1433, a group of 300 Hussites came to debate the issue of the church’s condemnation of their beliefs. The council at Basel turned into more of an academic debate, but like the previous council at Siena, suffered poor attendance. It was not until 1437 that a compromise was reached which brought an end to the religious revolts in the Czech region.

Famine, the Black Death, and the Afterlife


Despite the divisive fourteenth-century power struggles that shook the papacy and church hierarchy, there were other events which even more gravely affected the religious outlook of all Christians. A devastating famine that ravaged Europe between 1315 and 1317 delivered its most violent shocks throughout much of northern Europe. Weather patterns during those years that produced extremely cold winters and rainy summers resulted in crop failures that left many urban dwellers without food. Significant failure of wheat crops in France caused prices to double. In England it was much worse, and livestock were forced to go with little food. Fish and meat became scarce, as the fishing industry in Holland was affected by the imbalance of trade, and diseases began to kill the cattle in England that had survived the famine. Germany may have fared the worst. The toll on human lives may have reached twenty percent of the northern European population, affecting the wealthy as well as the poor. The monasteries and convents were particularly devastated. In addition to large numbers of religious succumbing to starvation and related disease, properties had to be sold off at greatly reduced rates. There are harrowing stories of religious going without food in order to save the lives of their tenant farmers and families. Such devastation was thought, in part, to be linked to God’s wrath upon sinful humanity. Thus, both in popular consciousness and in church doctrine, notions relating to death, heaven, hell, and purgatory became the subject of speculation. The famine, as such, never became a subject of religious and popular literature, but it created conditions of psychic unease that planted the seeds for the proliferation of literature concerning sin, human destruction, and death that would burst on to the scene during the period of the bubonic plague (1347-1350).

The Black Death

As northern Europe barely began to recover from the famine, the bubonic plague known as the “Black Death” plunged much of Europe into a state of widespread contagion. Some estimate that as many as one-half of Europe’s population perished (possibly thirty million lives). As with the famine, no social class, station, faith, or age group escaped the ravages, save those in a few isolated cities who had the luck or foresight to quarantine themselves (a practice invented in Venice around 1360). The clergy were particularly concerned with ministering to the dying and, of course, burial. Sacramental anointing of the dying, extreme unction, had been reduced in the thirteenth century to a much simpler formula of forgiveness that could be administered by one priest, usually at the time near death. Given the necessity of such contact with the infected, it is surprising that any priests survived. Due to the resulting shortage of priests in England, the bishop of Bath gave permission to the people to confess their sins to laity, men or women, if no priest was available. Canons were appointed to the parishes of dead secular priests. There are also French accounts of cowardly parish priests fleeing their stations, leaving members of the religious orders with the task of ministering to the dying. It has been suggested that the friars were the division of religious with the largest number of afflicted. The cloistered groups were particularly susceptible to the plague once it entered their community. Hundreds of monasteries and convents were completely wiped out.


In the midst of this devastation, attempts were made to determine its causes. Aside from the scientific theories of physicians, irrational blame began to be directed toward certain social groups: Muslims in Spain, strangers in small villages, pilgrims, ethnic minorities, those who spoke foreign languages, lepers, and, most virulently, Jews. Sporadic and spontaneous attacks upon Jewish people were common throughout the time of the plague. They were most often accused of poisoning the wells and drinking water of Christians. Punishments ranged from imprisonment to burning. Accounts of mass incineration are documented in the German cities of Worms, Dresden, Stuttgart, Erfurt, Memmingen, Freiburg, and Lindau. Other murders took place in Speyer, Cologne, and Mainz. Clement VI called for the excommunication of Christians who persisted in persecuting the Jews. Pedro IV of Aragon attempted to give protection to the Jews of his kingdom and prosecuted Christian assailants. Efforts at stemming the violence were also made at Cologne and in Austria. Despite such attempts, the attacks upon European Jews did not substantially subside until after the plague ended.

The Flagellant Movement

The religious fervor accompanying the Black Death could be seen in a most extreme form in the practice of flagellation, self-administered whippings that were intended to punish the body as penance, both for personal sins and for the sins of mankind which were thought to have caused the plague. The flagellant movement had been going on for some time in the Middle Ages (dating to the twelfth century), when individuals punished their sinful flesh or brought it under control through the sting of the beatings. These inflictions were often done in public by groups connected to the movement, accompanied by procession and the singing of psalms. The earlier practices were condemned by church authorities, but during the bubonic plague they seem to have made a strong reappearance. Some believed the plague was signaling the end of the world, and groups of flagellants began to organize and march about Europe calling for general repentance. Processions of hundreds of flagellants are recorded, marching in twos, with crosses and purple banners (purple was seen as the color of penitence). The groups would often move into village squares, or to local churches, announced by the ringing of bells, strip off their outer hooded garments, lie upon the ground with outstretched arms (cruciform) and begin to take turns scourging one another, chanting as they proceeded. Their whips were made of leather thongs, and many brandished instruments with barbed metal tips. Spectators frequently were so moved by the emotional and disturbing scene that they themselves joined in the penance.

The Cult of the Afterlife

One outcome of the plague for most Europeans was a preoccupation with the afterlife. It was not an issue of whether or not there was an afterlife, since the need for hope amid daily experiences of loss assured the continuation of that expectation. But there were a number of different approaches to the question of how to maintain a spirit of hope and how to avoid dying without proper preparation of the soul. One development that occurred was the rise of treatises called Ars moriendi (literally “art of dying”), intended to prepare Christians for the act of death. These treatises taught contemptus mundi, the hatred of the goods of the world and an awareness of the transience of the flesh, illustrated in a form of popular poetry that asked the question ubi sunt (“Where are they?”) of long lists of kings, queens, beautiful women, and heroes who are, inevitably, dead. Doctrines and popular notions of the world beyond included the notion of purgatory. Even in earliest medieval Christianity, prayers were regularly said on behalf of those who had died but whose souls were still awaiting eternal reward. Only a few heretical theologies dismissed the notion of purgatory: the Waldensian, the Cathar, and the Wycliffite. With so many people involved in some form of religious life, it was easy to see by contrast that spiritual perfection, which must be the key to heaven, was not easy to attain. Hell was for the worst of sinners; purgatory was for the rest. The period of one’s stay in purgatory depended upon the number of unrepentant venial sins that a person died with. If so many would be in the state of purgation from life’s sins before entering heaven, there was need for prayers, devotions, and even strategies for making the stay less punishing. The theologian Peter Lombard in the twelfth century had addressed many of these issues, which were further considered by thirteenth-century philosophers and theologians such as William of Auvergne, Alexander of Hales, Bonaventure, Albertus Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas. A culminating statement came from the Council of Lyon in 1274, the year of Aquinas’ death, and by the early fourteenth century, the beliefs were so widespread that they served as the basis for Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy of heaven, hell, and purgatory. Thus, in the wake of the plague, prayers were said, masses were offered, and indulgences were earned or purchased to assist both self and loved ones with the arduous task of navigating the afterlife. Fraternal and guild organizations starting in the thirteenth century compiled lists of members needing prayer. Thousands of these confraternities existed throughout the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries all over Europe. Protestant theologians during the sixteenth century would reject these beliefs.

Mysticism and Modern Devotion

An Age af Personal Piety

The late Middle Ages witnessed a period of popular piety and mysticism that is quite unparalleled in Christian history. Ideas of service to others in the world combined with spirituality, which came on the heels of twelfth- and thirteenth-century monastic and religious reforms and found itself deeply imbedded in the fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century religious mindset. The search for a direct and personal communication with God, whether it was through mystical experience or a life of quiet inner contemplation of images (such as the arma Christi or the implements used to torment Christ, as in a miniature from a book of hours now in Oxford, England), seemed to replace the notion of conformity to institutional rituals. Like the religious reformers in the centuries before them, however, the proponents of this new kind of spirituality were often seen as bordering on the edge of heterodoxy—holding opinions at variance with established belief. Their desire for personal religious experience also prepared the way for the pre-reformation idea that the mediation of priests and sacraments was not the only way, and maybe not even the best way, for people to live meaningful Christian lives centered on a quest for spiritual perfection. Exactly what the mystics experienced is hard to grasp objectively. Their own writings report their personal ecstatic experiences which, whether real, imagined, or induced, have helped shape a broad tradition of spiritual understanding in the Latin Christian tradition.

Meister Eckhart

Germany seems to have been a center for mystical and spiritual activity in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Among those mystics whose ideas proved influential was Johannes “Meister” Eckhart (1260-1327). Eckhart was a leader in the Dominican Order whose studies of Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus led him to reflect upon some of the more Neoplatonic elements of theology (relating back to the Greek philosopher Plato and his theories of the soul). Eckhart, during his later career, became absorbed in the notion of the soul’s relationship to God. This led him to adopt ideas of the indwelling “spark” or spirit of God that not only allowed people a glimpse of the divine but was what truly made them “one” with the divine. He felt the soul could literally experience the Word of God dwelling within, and become that Word, just as Jesus became the Incarnate Word. This transformational mystical experience, quite unlike what the great twelfth-century mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about, appeared to eliminate the distance between God and people. Bernard’s “affective” mysticism (focused on emotions rather than intellect) was grounded in humility and love, which is seen as the experience of God, since God is love itself. Bernard had believed that one came to know and love the self for the sake of God. But in Bernard’s opinion, the self did not become a realization of the divine, as Eckhart seems to imply. This is what brought Eckhart into conflict with church doctrine, resulting in the condemnation of some 28 of his propositions by Pope John XXII in 1329.

Mystics in Germany

One of Eckhart’s disciples, another Dominican named Johannes Tauler (1300-1361), studied with Eckhart at Cologne and later became a preacher and spiritual advisor at Strasbourg and Basel. Like Eckhart, Tauler was also convinced that a “grounding” of God’s image existed in the soul, but he felt that it was something that came from God and was not intrinsic to humans. He believed the return of the soul to its source in God was an operation of grace where Christians absorb something of God into themselves. Another of the great German Dominican mystics was Henry Suso (1295-1366). Henry was also part of the Cologne school and defended Eckhart during his condemnation. Suso lived as an ascetic and later launched his career in preaching and ministry. His approach to the mystical experience was expressed in the idea of the uncreated and created wills of God and humans. He wrote treatises called the Little Book of Truth and the Little Book of Eternal Wisdom, meditations on Christ’s passion and guides to mystical questions which gained wide popularity. Some of his treatises were translated into other languages and were beautifully illustrated. All three of the preceding German Dominican mystics were spiritual advisors to groups of Dominican nuns and Béguines. The particular brand of German mysticism that emerged from these groups was grounded in personal piety, vernacular preaching, and the care of souls. Eckhart and his disciples also wielded much influence over the religious and lay mystics of the Rhineland who called themselves “The Friends of God.” This group produced the late fourteenth-century work Theologica Deuch which had profound effects upon sixteenth-century reformers like Martin Luther, the Anabaptists, and the Spiritualists, including Caspar Schwenkfeld and, much later, the Quakers, who espoused a mystical form of Christianity which emphasized “following an inner light.”

English Contemplative Mystics

England also produced its own brand of fourteenth-century mystics who were more inclined to the eremitical and contemplative lives, unconnected to religious orders, away from the world (quite different than the German Dominicans). Richard Rolle (1300-1349) became a hermit at the age of eighteen and began to write about his mystical experiences. His most distinctive writings, in a work called Incendium amoris (The Fire of Love), concern his physical sensations of spiritual union with God, what he refers to as heat (actual warmth in his body), sweetness, and song. He also wrote De amore dei contra amatores mundi, which compares the love of God with the transient pleasures of this world. One of Rolle’s followers, Walter Hilton, who died in 1396, wrote The Scale of Perfection, which was not published until 1494. Hilton’s work describes the restoration of the defaced image of God on our souls through faith and feelings, hindered by a mystical darkness and attachment to earthly things, aided by the spirit. Both Rolle and Hilton worked with religious communities at the very end of their lives—Rolle directing Cistercian nuns at Hampole, and Hilton living with Augustinian canons. Most likely one of the greatest women mystics of the Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), also lived in England during this period. She took up the life of an anchoress outside the walls of St. Julian’s Church in Norwich. On 8 May 1373, after taking ill and being near death, she reported receiving a series of fifteen revelations lasting almost five hours. Many of these were visions of the crucified Christ. She made a complete recovery in a little over a week. It was not until some twenty years later, reflecting upon these experiences, that she completed Revelations of Divine Love, also called The Showings. Much of her spirituality is intertwined with her visions of Christ’s Passion and the Trinity. In God’s love lay the answers to all of the world’s difficulties, including the solution to the problem of evil. She felt that evil was linked to the human will and was the clear absence of the divine reality. Human ability to desire to glimpse the divine love was an indication of God’s true mercy.

An Italian Mystic

St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), a Dominican tertiary, lived a different type of spiritual and mystical life. At an early age it is reported that she began mortifying her flesh, and at sixteen she entered a Third Order group of Dominicans. She spent most of her time in secluded contemplation at her family’s home. A vision persuaded her to begin doing apostolic work in the world. Catherine assembled about her a devoted group of religious and began employing her gifts of infused prayer (emotional prayer over an extended period) to bring about a devotion to the Precious Blood and a greater understanding of the reconciliation of sinners. Her reputation as a mystic grew to the point that she was forced to defend her activities in front of a Dominican General Chapter in 1374, at which time she was cleared of suspicion of heresy. In 1376 Catherine made a journey to Avignon to plead for a return of the papacy to Rome. She is most famous for her series of letters and spiritual instructions, which were dictated to her scribes.

Devotio Moderna

One of the most expansive ideological developments in late medieval spirituality was initiated in the Netherlands by Gerard Groote (1340-1384) and one of his followers, Florentius Radewijns (1350-1400). This movement, later known as the Devotio Moderna (modern devotion), was based upon the philosophy of Groote, a university master, who renounced his wealth, which had been derived from church benefices, to become a religious reformer living a life of piety and simplicity. Radewijns’ and Groote’s work strongly influenced three early reform communities: the Deventer groups of both Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life, and the community of Augustinian canons at Windesheim. The idea was for groups of Christians to live in common, not separating themselves from the secular world, carrying on shared religious observances, with no vows, hopefully preventing them from falling into the institutional traps that had snared the monastic reform movements. Many laypersons were attracted to this lifestyle, and branch communities began to spring up throughout western Germany. Some who desired an existence with more structure and monastic influences, yet grounded in Groote’s philosophy, joined a tertiary Franciscan group that had formed a chapter at Utrecht. After Groote’s death the groups were recognized by Pope Gregory XI and continued to spread their ideology throughout Germany and the Low Countries. Radewijns’ Brothers of the Common Life were organized in his vicarage in Deventer where he was a parish priest. They spent time copying books, distributing pamphlets, and founding schools throughout the Netherlands, providing individuals with a general education that was free and of surprisingly good quality. Thomas à Kempis, Pope Hadrian VI, Erasmus, and Nicholas of Cusa were all famous products of this educational system. In 1387 a congregation adhering to the lifestyle of Augustinian canons was founded at Windesheim. Their constitution was approved by Pope Boniface IX in 1395, and three other Dutch monasteries soon joined them. The Windesheim canons soon became a full monastic order and developed into the most ardent proponents of the Devotio Moderna. They encouraged the laity toward frequent reception of the Eucharist as well as the devotion and veneration of the Blessed Sacrament. Thomas à Kempis, a member of one of the Windesheim daughter houses at Agnietenberg, is credited with writing the great spiritual work Imitation of Christ. In this work he suggests that all Christians are pilgrims in this life and are but on a journey to the next. Imitation of Christ appealed to people living simple lives in the world. It was soon translated into the vernacular (Dutch in 1420 and German in 1434). There were few other books from the fifteenth century that had such an impact upon lay spirituality.