13.  The Late Medieval Christian
Intellectual and Spiritual Awakening

Who were the Cathars or Albigensians?
  • As Europe finally shook off the economic hardship of the Dark Ages (500 - 1100 AD) and began to step out into a much larger, and very fascinating world, Europeans began to break out of the mental and spiritual straitjacket that had held their minds for centuries.  Many Europeans became fascinated not just with the wealth of the Muslim East--but also the way Muslims thought, especially about spiritual matters.
  • By the late 1100s Crusaders had brought back from the East a strange brand of Muslim mysticism called by its Greek name, Catharism (the "Pure People").  Europeans were sick of the power games and the moral corruption infecting the traditional church.  Large numbers of people in Italy, southern Germany and southern France hungered for a lifestyle that would bring them back into a sense of a closer relationship with God.  Thus Cathar mysticism--along with its very strict moral code--began to spread quickly and extensively in Europe.
  • The Catholic church grew very alarmed at this heresy--for it was stirring an enthusiasm among the people that the church couldn't match.  The church thus decided to strike back and in 1184 the Roman Pope called for a crusade against the Cathars (they were known as "Albigensians" in Southern France).  "Crusaders" were turned loose on the Cathars:  they were authorized by the Church to kill the Cathars and were awarded whatever lands they were able to take from their helpless victims.
  • The Crusade proved to be so devastating among the Albigensians in Southern France that it completely destroyed a beautiful Southern French cultural "awakening" and left the land and people devastated for centuries to come.

Why were Peter Waldo and the Waldensians persecuted by the church?
  • At about the same time, in around 1175, a devout Frenchman named Peter Waldo began to call Christians to the task of teaching and spreading the gospel.  The heart of their teaching was scripture--rather than the traditional teachings of the Catholic church.  Very soon Waldo and the "Waldensians" were having a strong appeal among a European people hungry for spiritual teaching.
  • The church reacted to Waldensianism the same way that it did to Catharism.  Thus in 1184 Waldensianism was condemned by the Church right along with Catharism, despite the fact that Waldo's teachings were very traditional in their Christian theology.
  • The Church did not want to be challenged in its authority by "upstarts" from outside the hierarchy of professional priests--no matter how truly Christian the teachings of these upstarts might be.  Thus Waldo and the Waldensians were chased out of Germany, France, and most of Italy.  But Waldensianism survived in the mountainous hideaways in the Swiss and Italian Alps--where over 300 years later it was eventually incorporated into the Protestant movement that began to sweep Europe in the 1500s.

How did St. Francis avoid the same fate?
  • It was not much later that an Italian named Giovanni Bernardone, nicknamed "Francis" because he loved to travel so much with his merchant father to France, started a spiritual movement of his own, "rebuilding" the Church as a voice of God instructed him to do.  He and his followers, called "Franciscans," gave up all their personal wealth to serve the poor, the sick  and the unschooled people in the name of Jesus Christ.
  • He too came close to being condemned by the Roman Church.  But he had strong supporters in Rome.  In 1215, by finally and reluctantly agreeing to bring his movement under Church discipline (although he feared that by doing so his movement would end up being drawn back into the politics of the wealthy and powerful Church) Francis avoided being declared a "heretic."
  • Indeed so popular was Francis and his work that the Church had to  recognize him soon after his death as a true "saint."  His movement, the Franciscans, continued their work of teaching and charity long after him.  In fact the Franciscan Order is still in existence today.

What was Christian "mysticism"?
  • The monasteries had long been places of refuge (even since the last days of the Roman Empire) where common people could remove themselves from a corrupt and cruel world in order to devote themselves to worshiping and serving God. These centers of learning and faith had kept the small light of Western culture alive during the long run of the "Dark Ages" from the late 400s to the mid 1000s AD.
  • Now that the West was coming out from under the long period of invasion from Germans, Arabs, Vikings, Hungarians, Bulgars, etc., and now that wealth and power were returning to the West, the European Church found itself in a struggle with European princes and kings to grab as much of this new wealth and power as possible.
  • Many of the Europeans were discontent, even disgusted, with this new focus on the offerings of material culture.  Certainly Waldo and Francis were part of this spirit.
  • The monasteries, as places of retreat from the world, began to attract such people in large numbers.  Many of the monks (men) and nuns (women) in these monasteries not only devoted themselves to a life of prayer but also to the writing of hymns and the painting of religious art, focused on the bliss of life in relationship with God and the heavenly saints.  A rich culture of a Christian "inner spirit" began to grow up in some of the monasteries in competition with the new secular culture of wealth and power of the larger Church.  Christians who took up this life of the inner spirit were eventually called "mystics."
  • The Church tolerated, even encouraged, Christian mysticism--as long as it stayed roughly within the bounds of traditional Church teachings and as long as it continued to discipline itself under Roman or Catholic authority.

What was Christian scholasticism?
  • The Church felt that it had to bring under its own religious discipline the waking mind of the West.  In the 1100s and 1200s, new schools were being built in connection with the cathedrals of the many newly wealthy European bishops.  These schools began to offer instruction to talented young minds who were willing to offer their intellectual service to the bishops.
  • Scholars and "doctors" of the church were attracted to these schools to offer this instruction in an ever-widening field of study that included not only theology but also astronomy, medicine, mathematics and physics.  So broad was the scope of instruction and learning that these schools were eventually called "universities."
  • In the early 1200s a Spanish monk of the Augustinian Order, Dominic de Guzman, proposed to the Pope the creation of a new teaching order, the Order of Preaching Brothers (later simply called the "Dominicans").  When the Dominicans proved their zeal in hunting down heretic Cathars and Waldensians, the Popes extended to them ever greater authority to "teach" the European hearts.  Not only did the Dominicans open schools around Europe, they became leading scholars in the new universities.  (They also later became the directors of the Inquisition, whose job was to hunt down and eradicate "heretics" within the Christian world.)
  • By the late 1200s the University of Paris was attracting key scholars to its work--the most famous of whom was the Dominican scholar Thomas Aquinas.
  • What Aquinas and other scholars or "scholastics" were attempting to do was to bring all learning under a single system of knowledge, one presumably that the Church could then control.  They considered every known fact and debated and debated where and how such facts could fit into the larger system.  They studied the ancient Greek philosophy of Plato and Aristotle (300 years before Christ)--but particularly Aristotle because he too had tried to organize all knowledge under a single system of learning.
  • For about a century such scholasticism swept the universities of Paris, Oxford, Padua, etc. as university scholars tried to bring all knowledge, all the "facts" of the universe under human control (and thus the control of the Church).
  • But by the early 1300s scholasticism was being challenged by independent thinkers such as the Franciscans, Duns Scotus and William of Occam.  They showed that "fact" was indeed only how the human mind organized the details of life--and that fact had no permanent existence but changed from human observer to human observer, depending on a person's feelings or perspective on things.  They also reminded everyone that our knowledge of the greatest thing of all, God, came to us not as a fact of the mind but as the reward of simple faith.
  • This anti-scholasticism of the Franciscans was to have two effects:
    • 1) to get the European mind (briefly) off the idea of organizing all knowledge as "fact" and
    • 2) to separate the faith of the heart from the study of the "facts" of the world around us.
  • This gave Western science a bit of an opportunity to grow up without having having constantly to answer to theology--although it would still take some time (a couple of more centuries) before the Church would let up enough on scientists to allow them to do their research without the fear of being branded as "heretics."

Why were John Wycliff and Jan Huss persecuted?
  • There was always a very narrow limit, of course, as to how much the Church was willing to tolerate concerning the criticism by some people of its obvious hunger for wealth and power.
  • At Oxford university, John Wycliff by 1370 stirred up controversy in teaching the personal freedom of  the individual believer, who stood in matters of faith accountable only to God--and to no one else.  Wycliff also pointed out that many of the practices of the church not only had no support from scripture but indeed went against what scripture clearly taught about the Christian life.  To demonstrate his point he translated the Latin Bible into English so that the common Englishman could read for himself what it was that God and Christ had once taught the world.
  • Soon his teachings not only had stirred up Oxford University but were spreading to the universities on the continent.
  • The Church was furious about his challenge to its unquestioned authority--but seemed unable to do anything about them until after his death in 1384, when he was finally branded as a heretic and attempts were made to have his English Bibles destroyed.  The Church also made it illegal to translate the Bible from the Latin into the language of the people, claiming that only the clergy were sufficiently well trained to be able to interpret "correctly" what scripture taught (meaning, whatever was convenient for the power and authority of the Church).
  • In the early 1400s, in Bohemia, John or Jan Huss picked up on Wycliff's teachings and began presenting pretty much the same ideas at the University of Prague.  He too translated the Latin Bible into the language of his people, Czech--knowing full well of the danger he was running by doing so.
  • This was very bad timing because the Church was already in a state of major turmoil--the politics of the time having produced three different people claiming to be the true Pope.  A number of Church councils were called in order to try to straighten out the miserable mess the Church was in.  One of these Councils, the Council of Constance also decided to call Huss to present himself in order to explain why he had been disobeying the Church.
  • Although he was promised that he could come and go at Constance without harm, Huss was soon arrested after his arrival in 1415 and burned at the stake as a heretic.  Bohemia immediately exploded in anger.  The Church tried to put down the riots with force--and then with a promise of compromise, offering the people more opportunity to learn the faith on their own.
  • But the Church soon put their promises aside, using as an excuse the need for total unity behind the Church in its response to the military threat of the Muslim Turks on the Eastern borderlands of Christian Europe.

Who was Savonarola?
  • Italy in the 1400s was becoming very, very wealthy.  Trade between Northern Europe and the Muslim East, which passed through Italy, had made many Italian individuals and even cities very wealthy.  Venice, Milan, Pisa, Siena, Florence and Rome had come to take on the wealthy look that had once belonged only to the cities of Islam.  It looked as if a "rebirth" or "Renaissance" of the wealth and power of ancient Rome had taken place.
  • This look of wealth had also come to the Church, which had also grown fantastically rich in land, servants, churches, monasteries and schools.  The Church even owned whole cities in Europe.
  • In Florence, perhaps the wealthiest of all Italian Renaissance cities, a Dominican monk named Girolamo Savonarola had during the late 1400s turned the city upside down with his preaching which denounced the wealth of the Florentine commercial aristocracy (which included many bishops in the Church) and the poverty of the common people.  As Savonarola's popularity with the common people grew greater so did the hatred of the rich and powerful of the city.  But when Savonarola proved to be just as forceful in insisting on the cleaning up of the morals of the common people, he lost their support.  He was finally hanged in 1498.

What was the mood like in the Church as the 1500s loomed into view?
  • The Church was under attack for its corruption in wealth and power.  But it seemed unable to do anything to clean up its own act.
  • The Church always proved to be outraged when any criticism was directed its way.  It insisted that it alone had the right to determine what was right and what was wrong--since it alone was the the Bride of Christ and the Popes alone were the vicars (caretakers) of God on earth.
  • Not only was the Church insensitive to moral questioning, its own behavior at times was shocking.  Some of the popes were cruel, morally sick, and ambitious for wealth and power without limit.  They used the wealth of the church to play their political games with the newly wealthy and newly rising princes and kings of Europe--dragging the church into the most sordid experience of power politics.
  • In short, by the early 1500s, the Church was ripe for a sweeping movement of reform, from top to bottom, from coast to coast.

Continue on to the next section:  14. The Protestant Reformation (Early to Mid-1500s)
Return to the home page: The Spiritual Pilgrim

  Miles H. Hodges