12.  The Medieval Church
(400 - 1400)

What do we mean by "medieval" times?  Were these indeed "Dark Ages"?
  • Actually "medieval" is just a form of the Latin which means "middle age."  It was never a term that anyone living during those times (roughly 400 to 1400 AD) ever would have applied to themselves--for they would not have known what they were in the "middle" of.  They could look back and see the lost Roman civilization--which they were trying to hold onto and even recapture, to whatever extent possible.  But of course they could not look forward to see what new thing history was taking them to.  So indeed, "middle age" was a term that modern people would later assign to those 1000 years of very tough times after the fall of Roman civilization.
  • We also know this as a "Dark Age"--and even people living in those times would have agreed with this as a label to the times they were living in.
  • They were very tough times.  As the Roman empire lost its power in the West it was overrun by barbaric German tribal groups coming from the northeast--in wave after wave lasting a couple of centuries (400s-500s).  Then from the south through Spain came the Arab Muslims (700s).  Then beginning in the 800s came, from the north the Vikings and from the East the Hungarians, Bulgars and Slavs.  The attacks on the West--the plunder, burning, rape, murder, etc--seemed like they would never let up.

The Invasion Routes of the German Tribes:  Late 300s to late 400s

What happened to the church during these tough times?

  • First of all it is important to note that almost everything else Roman except the church simply ceased to exist.  The Roman armies disintegrated before the invading German tribes; Roman government at the local and regional level just simply disappeared.  Whatever law and order anyone could ever hope for was entirely dependent upon German "strongmen" or tribal leaders who took over the land from the Romans.  Survival depended entirely on the abilities and the desires of one or another German chieftan to extend protection to defenseless peasant farmers and their families.
  • Surprisingly the church was about the only thing to survive from Roman times.  This was because for several centuries, even before the onslaught of the Germans, much of the best and brightest of Roman youth headed for the Christian priesthood.  The church still possessed much personal talent and energy even as the rest of Roman civilization was beginning to collapse.
  • Also it is important to note that the Germans had no real desire to destroy Roman civilization.  Indeed they simply wanted to capture it, and were terribly disappointed when Roman civilization simply disintegrated in their hands.
  • When the church proved to be more resilient before the German onslaught, the Germans turned out to be fairly ready to accommodate the church in the new German order.  As long as the church honored the political role of the German chieftans as overlords of the land, the church was not only tolerated, it was supported as the one remaining element of the once cherished Roman civilization.
  • Indeed many German chieftans, such as Clovis, King of the Franks (French), not only converted to Catholic Christianity but brought their whole tribes with them into the new "faith."

Why was Celtic Christianity so important to the Christian West?
  • Interestingly just as the Germans were overrunning the European continent and Britain, Ireland (which, as an island further to the West of Britain, remained isolated and protected from the German onslaught) was being converted to Christianity by Patrick (early-mid 400s) and other Christian missionaries.  Indeed the conversion was so successful, so deep, that Ireland became the one Roman Christian land that escaped the German fate of the rest of Western Europe.
  • Irish monasteries, though isolated from the Roman curia (the formal organization of the Catholic church still centered on Rome), became major centers of Christian learning and scholarship.
  • They also became points from which Christian missionaries were sent out to convert to Christianity the Germans to the East in Saxon Britain and on the European continent among the German Franks, Allemani, Burgundians and Lombards.
  • Thus in 563 the Irish monk Columba and a number of fellow Irish monks moved (actually they were banished from Ireland for political reasons) to Scotland to establish a new monastery at Iona--which in turn sent out missionaries to the rest of Britain.
  • In the late 500s another Irish monk, Columban, and a dozen fellow Irish monks traveled to the European continent to set up monasteries, first among the Celtic Gauls and then the Germanic Burgundians in southeastern France.  Eventually forced out of the area for political reasons (the Burgundians were not happy with the moral strictness of the monks' Christianity) they moved on to Switzerland and then to northern Italy, setting up along the way a number of monasteries dedicated to to teaching Christianity to the German "heathen."  Despite their poor political fortunes, Columban and his fellow monks left a deep Christian imprint on the areas they touched.

But the Roman Bishop (Pope) and curia were by no means inactive during this same period.
  • While the Irish were bringing Christianity from the West, Rome was sending from the South in Italy its own missionaries--ones such as Augustine (early 600s; not the same person as St. Augustine of the early 400s!), commissioned to bring the Anglo-Saxon Germans in Britain to Christianity.
  • Indeed by the mid 600s the issue arose as to whom the Christians should owe their religious fealty:  to Ireland or Rome.  In 664 the English made the fateful decision to follow the more politically organized Roman form, leaving the more informal, even spiritual, Irish form of Christianity behind.

How did the Muslim Arabs further complicate life for the Christians in the 600s and 700s?
  • From the Arabian peninsula (between Africa and Asia) in the mid 600s a zealous new religious movement called "Islam" spewed forth at the hands of Arab tribesmen--quickly overrunning much of what was left of the Roman Empire in the East (the Byzantine Empire).  Christianity survived in the East--but now only under Muslim tolerance.
  • Unlike the Germans, the Muslims were in no mood to convert to Christianity.  To the contrary, they began to press the conquered Christian population to convert to their new religion, Islam.  Many did.  Within 100 years Christianity was only a minority religion in what had been the cradle of the faith:  Palestine, Syria and Egypt.
  • But the Muslims didn't stop there.  Their instinct for conquering and converting spread across North Africa and in the early 700s into Spain, where Muslims quickly overran the Christian Visigoths.  From there Muslim armies then crossed the Pyrenees mountains northward into France, challenging the Christian Franks.  But in 732 the Muslim tide was turned in a crucial battle with the Franks and the Muslims were forced from France back into Spain.  There the Muslims dug in and took control (until they were finally forced out of Spain at the end of the 1400s).  But at least the rest of Western Europe was spared from further trouble from the Muslims.

Why was Charlemagne so important?
  • The grandson of the Frankish general who defeated the Muslims came by his own rights to be a ruler of great stature.  Charles the Great (Charlemagne) not only forceably united the German tribes across Europe north of the Alps and even down into Italy into a strong, unified Christian empire, the Roman pope conferred upon Charlemagne the title of "Emperor" in the hopes that what was happening was a revival of the lost Roman Empire.
  • Unfortunately the hope did not long outlast Charlemagne, for his grandsons divided his empire among themselves in three parts, creating the basis for modern France, Germany and Italy.

What role did the Vikings play in the shaping of Medieval Europe?
  • At first the Viking adventurer from the North were simply horrible "spoilers."  During the 800s and 900s they escaped the cold winters of the Scandinavian North to indulge in the pleasures of rape, arson and pillage of coastal Europe--of farmlands, monasteries and anything else they could get their hands on.
  • But eventually they came to settle the lands they ravaged--and entered into various political arrangements with Europe's German Christian kings, even converting to Christianity themselves in the process.
  • The most notable of these Norse or Northmen or Normans were the ones who settled along the French north Atlantic coast (Normandy), became Christians, learned French and became active participants in the political affairs of Europe.  Even after they settled in they still remained a powerful fighting force--even taking Britain away from the Saxon kings (1066) and establishing a Norman aristocracy in England that still exists to this day.

Why did the Crusades (1100s / 1200s) begin to reverse the picture of a weakened Europe?
  • By the 1100s this Norman (and German) fighting spirit was redirected by the Roman popes into a fighting force directed against the Muslims in the East.
  • In 1095 the Roman pope called for a new Christian "order," one directed to a fighting man, a "Crusader," who would take a life-time vow (like a priest or a monk) to be a defender of the faith against the "infidel" Arabs holding the Holy Land under Muslim captivity.
  • Thus the Crusades were organized in the 1100s and 1200s to liberate by military force Jerusalem and other ancient Christian sites in the Eastern Mediterranean under Muslim control since the 600s.
  • This was an enterprise destined to failure.  It succeeded at first only because of the burst of enthusiasm of the very adventuresome Norman and German military elite--the dukes, princes and kings of feudal Europe--and because it caught the Muslims by surprise at a time of confusion in their own political circles.
  • Ultimately to make this a permanent success the crusaders would need a continuing supply of adventurers, lots and lots of them, to counter the natural reaction of the Muslims to pull together and throw their vastly greater numbers up against the relatively small number of Crusaders who had established themselves at Jerusalem and Antioch and coastal points in between.  There simply were not enough Crusaders to counter the huge number of Muslims in whose land they had inserted themselves.
  • Their military successes were thus brief and their impact rather limited in "liberating" the sites of Holy Pilgrimage from the Muslims.  Within two centuries the last of the Crusader positions was overrun by Muslim armies.

How did the Crusades produce a quite different effect than the one originally intended?
  • Contact with the fabulous wealth of the Muslim East by the Crusaders stirred in the hearts of the Western Europeans a hunger for the East's wealth.  At first they tried to steal or plunder the East's wealth--though that did not long last as a possibility once the Muslims got their act together.
  • But what the Crusaders were surprised to find was that some of the Muslims were interested in trading with Europe:  the East's wealth in gold, jewels, exotic spices, silks, and fine crafts--in exchange for the West's wealth in timber, fish, wool and other basic raw materials scarce in the harsh semi-desert environment of the East.
  • Thus by the late 1200s trade replaced military conflict as the basis for relations between the Muslim East and the Christian West.  Trade had a wonderous effect on the culture of the West.
  • The Italians were the first to benefit.  At first such Italian port cities as Venice and Genoa began to gather wealth in the shipping of Crusaders to and from the East.  Then by the 1300s they began to grow even more prosperous from simply the trade of Western raw materials to the East and Eastern luxury goods to the West.  At the same time Italian banking centers such as Florence and Rome began to grow wealthy simply through the ability to transfer wealth in currency and credit between the East and the West.
  • In Northwestern Europe port cities such as Ghent and Brughes in the Netherlands, London in England and Hamburg and Bremen in Germany also got in on the act of purchasing and shipping the wealth of Europe in woolens, salted fish and timber to the East in exchange for the East's luxury goods craved by Europe's new rising political leaders.
  • This in turn stirred to life Europe's cities--long asleep or even non-existant since the end of the days of Rome in the 400s.  During the 1300s Europe's urban population began to increase rapidly in number and in political influence--challenging the feudal or rural aristocracy which had long dominated European life.
  • In the mid-1300s the European cities were so over-built, so overcrowded, so ill-equipped to deal satisfactorily with the huge numbers of people that crowded into their precincts that it was inevitable that a grand health crisis should explode in their midst.  Fleas brought in on the rats who lived in the bottoms of the ships coming from the East, even as far away as from China, brought the Bubonic Plague.  Within the short period from 1348 to 1350 over 25 million Europeans died of the plague--including half the population of England.
  • Yet this did not cripple, or even slow up the growth of urban life in Europe.  The Europeans bounced back amazingly from this great tragedy--and continued on their determined way to the rebuilding of a new urban, industrial Europe committed to the exploiting of its own natural wealth in its seas and forests for the luxuries of the East, many of which the Europeans themselves soon began to manufacture in their own cities.

How did this economic revival in the West challenge its medieval Christian culture in the 1300s and 1400s?
  • Augustine's theology, which had dominated the church since the end of the days of Rome in the 400s, which stressed the fact that the eternal heavenly life awaiting us all was vastly more important than the brief and troubled earthly life we go through, began to lose its power as the material wealth of the world began to fascinate and energize the European mind.
  • Contact with the Muslim East had awakened not only a love for the material pleasures of this life--but also a fascination with the poetry, philosophy and science of the pre-Christian Greek and Roman world, one which the Christian West had lost sight of during the Middle Ages.  Fortunately the Arab Muslims had proven to be more fascinated by the works of the "pagan" ancients of Greece and Rome than had been the Fathers of the Church, who had either ignored or even tried to eliminate such "pagan" influences during the last days of the Roman era.
  • Thus curious European minds made their way to Spain or to Egypt to study in the Muslim libraries and universities the lost writings of Plato and Aristotle, of Sophocles and Euripides, of Zeno and Epicurus and other pagan scholars of pre-Christian Greece and Rome.
  • By the year 1400 we may truly speak of a period of rebirth or "renaissance" of lost classic or pagan Greek and Roman civilization--one which many cultural leaders of the day considered as being vastly superior to the long Christian era they saw themselves emerging from.
  • This can be seen in the switch in the focus of European art from religious art to humanist art, from emphasis placed on building great cathedrals or houses for God to the building of great palaces or houses for the wealthy urbanites of Europe.
  • This can be seen in the transfer of the center of European affairs from the business of the church directed by popes and bishops to the business of the world led by the newly rising secular rulers of England, France, Germany and Italy.
  • The church, once the virtual dictator to the consciences of European Christians, now began to lose its influence, its moral power, its stature in European affairs--and grew worldly and political like the princes, corrupt in its love for wealth and worldly power, and no longer in touch with the deeper, spiritual heart of European culture.
  • Who or what would now lead Europe forward as the great moral visionary that all societies need in order to step up to their grand destinies?   As the 1400s rolled forward, many Westerners were asking themselves that very question.

On to the next section:  13. The Later Medieval Christian Intellectual and Spiritual Awakening
Return to the home page: The Spiritual Pilgrim

  Miles H. Hodges