The Emperor stood barefoot in the snow outside the fortress of Canossa, waiting for the Pope to forgive him. It was the high point in the Church’s influence over world affairs: the Pope forgave him after three day’s wait. It was also the last time a Pope clearly won a conflict with secular authority; after this, Papal power outside the Papal States over Kings and Princes diminished steadily beyond the time the Reformation.
Henry IV had political as well as spiritual reasons for approaching Pope Gregory VII as a penitent. He faced rebellion at home, and his status as an excommunicated Catholic meant his vassals could abandon their oaths of obedience to him without moral repercussions. The Emperor had too many enemies and needed to cut the number down. So in January 1077 he stood barefoot in the snow waiting for the Pope to let him into the castle where he could plead for mercy and the lifting of his ban.
The reform imposed by the Holy Roman Emperors in the mid 11th Century repaired a huge embarrassment for the Church, ending a series of Popes installed to serve local political factions who had no real interest in spirituality, faith, or the issues facing the larger Church. It gave the Church informed, inspired and dynamic leadership for a time, however the taste of real power meant the Popes became major league power players in Europe. A Papal Legate (personal representative) could cause the rise and fall of Kings, settle disputes conclusively, and enforce the discipline of wayward nobles and clergy alike. King Harold of England would see the Papal banner raised against him at Hastings and doubt the rightness of his cause; Cardinal Guala Bicchieri was instrumental in resolving the civil war in England at the time of King John’s death in 1216 and leading the English Church through a chaotic time. The murder of a Papal Legate to southern France was a flash point that sparked the Albigensian Crusade in (1208). The Church became more centralized than it had ever been before, at the cost of unity with Orthodox Christianity in the East. Almost everyone in Europe except areas of Eastern Europe belonged to one church, and that unity became a standard for Catholicism that’s lasted until today.
It’s almost the only time in history Church culture was the core of secular culture in this period of 1054-1520. Everyday activities such as cooking were timed by how long it took to say an Our Father or other prayer. Almost every musician (except the wandering musicians such as troubadours) used Gregorian Chant, the music of the Church ritual, as the basis of their work. It’s almost impossible to separate a people’s faith from the culture in any time of history, however in this time, popular history is almost synonymous with faith history. We have no contemporary personal experience to compare to the culture of this time, although some Church historians use this standard of Church being at the normative center of society long beyond this period in history.
That’s not to say they were puritanical. They were capable of laughing at themselves, as the celebrations of the Feast of Fools and the forerunners of Carnival showed. The Feast of Fools would be called high sacrilege and blasphemy if it were celebrated today as it was then. Prostitution was legal and tolerated by the Church because it was thought young men required physical sexual expression to maintain good health, and prostitutes kept young men away from homosexuality. Marriage was articulated as a sacrament and regulated, but marital status only mattered for the nobility in practical terms. Morality was organized around the practice of Virtues, which were always pursued even though imperfectly. Sacraments were important, especially Baptism, Confession and Last Rites, however the vast majority of people never received the Eucharist or heard competent preaching with any regularity.
There was a great divide between the ideal of Church and State and the practice. This era of strict class separation was reflected even in the monasteries and convents, where all members were theoretically equal. The children of the landed and nobles became Choir monks and nuns, complete with servants, whose chief duty was the pray the Office and do the writing and intellectual work; the children of the poor usually ended up as lay brothers and sisters, who tended the fields and households, doing the ordinary tasks their brother and sisters did for villages and towns and great households. In spite of this, the Church was the one institution where bright individuals could rise above their birth. Bishops and heads of monasteries were chosen for their noble birth, usually the second sons of great families, chosen by God for leadership (in theory) and exercising their authority, at times for strictly personal reasons, as their ruling siblings did.
It was the common legend princes and clergy, ruling by Divine Right, deserved obedience as God’s representatives and controlled society for the common good. In reality, rulers acted generally in their own best interests and acted as owners of the lower classes, seeing them as resources to be used rather than people to be led.
The life of the Church was on two strata: the practice of the faith of the people in the pews bore little resemblance to the practice of the choir. The altar rail became an impenetrable wall, rarely crossed by Christ himself for the few that came forward to receive the Eucharist. Ordinary people did almost anything in the nave, preferably praying and listening to the music, frightened enough to approach the rail that the Easter Duty had to be decreed to get them to take Communion at all. Devotional practice became the foundation of their prayer life, which at times bordered on superstition and quasi magic beliefs in the power of special prayers and practices.
On the other side of the altar rail, attention to a life of prayer and service of the sacraments was inconsistent. Mass intentions and other donations were the lifeblood of the Church, and through this period more and more was for sale, even forgiveness of sins. The role of the clergy became more and more divorced from pastoral care to the point that some priests only said private masses, for hours every day, as their work, using the rest of their time for all kinds of pursuits, useful and frivolous. As the nobility’s lifestyle became more indulgent and self-absorbed, the hierarchy’s lifestyle reflected that, imitating the luxury and decadence their royal peers knew. Attitudes of the clergy were so distant from the theology of the Eucharist and spiritual leadership they helped radicalize a young Martin Luther when he visited Rome in 1510.
This was the period where the Church founded the great universities that endure to this day, centers of learning and research that contributed much to the development of European culture. Almost every great scientific thinker and researcher, such as Roger Bacon, was a cleric, and the Church prosecuted no one for pushing the bounds of scientific knowledge before the Reformation. It also patronized the great artists of the time: sculptors and painters who left their work in churches throughout Europe and musicians that created works of genius that inspired many. In spite of opposition, the rediscovery of Aristotle and other ancient thought arriving through reconquered Spain spurred a revival of intellectual life, culminating in the work of thinkers such as St. Thomas Aquinas.
The Crusades were a movement born of many factors in the Middle East and in Europe. The abusive reign of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1021), the first Muslim to persecute Christians and hinder pilgrims to the Holy Land, helped plant the vision of a Christian Jerusalem in European minds; the decline of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia, the lure of Middle Eastern riches at the end of the Silk Road, the weakness of local rulers of Palestine, the economic boom and overpopulation in Europe and the spiritual enthusiasm of the last part of the 11th Century lead Pope Urban II to proclaim the project. Only the First Crusade succeeded in its objectives, setting standards for slaughter that included Jewish communities in Germany (the first mass killing of Jews in Europe) as they gathered for the long journey. When they captured Jerusalem in 1099, the streets ran with the blood of Muslims, Jews, and non-Western Christians. The cultural exchange brought many new ideas, trade and technology to Europe; it also reinforced a militant view of Christianity and conquest by the sword than endures today. It is also the genesis of Middle Eastern distrust of European cultural domination that continues today.
Persecution of religious dissidents started from the Church’s role as part of the State. There was no religious freedom outside the Church, and since Church and State were inseparable, religious dissent was rebellion against the King. The Inquisition was started in the mid 12th Century to combat the Albigensian heresy (Catharism), and their work was a much a part of national security and political repression as protecting Orthodoxy. Its work was enforced by local officials who longer to seize the property of heretics and who cared almost nothing for who lived or died. The Crusading movement changed its focus from the Holy Land to suppressing heresy at home and conquest of Eastern European pagans.
Dissent in the Church was fueled by the corruption and avarice of the Church. The Henrician centralization of the Church assured that when corruption returned, it would be universal. The Cathars were popular as much by the virtuous lifestyle they led as much as the ideas they taught. The Church’s authority was greatly eroded by the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy in Avignon (1307-1386) and the Great Western Schism (1386-1415): by this time, secular authority had clearly regained the upper hand in its relationship with the Church, and the boundaries of the Great Western Schism reflected the political alliance for and against France.
Papal aspirations for political dominance in central Italy didn’t help matters there much. The drive for power drew the Popes into alliances as a junior partner, isolating them periodically from part of the flock they were meant to serve. A 14th century writer complained the Church had reduced the Ten Commandments to one: “Bring hither the money.” The dichotomy between a poor Prince of Peace and the wealthy Princes of the Church was known an recognized for the hypocrisy it was, paralleled by the disconnected between the mission of Knights and nobles in service of society and the brutal and selfish knights and lords that terrorized their own people as much as they defended them.
As this period drew on, it became assumed that all the great questions had be asked and answered satisfactorily, so by the 15th century most debates were about tangential issues of faith. This overconfidence meant that key doctrines went without reconsideration for centuries, and their connection with daily practice became more distant. In many ways, the Church became so entrenched in some habits it failed to remember why they were there or how they came to be.
It was a time of great faith, even a golden age in spite of the corruption. At times, the Church was a successful mediator between warring parties and a humanizing, balancing force in a stratified society. It had an international language in Latin, a neutral territory that allowed intellectuals from many languages and times to come together as equals. It was a time of great saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Dominic, St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Catherine of Siena, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. The service it provided to the poor, sick and needy were essential to the society of the time, since none existed otherwise.
Almost universally, to be an European at that time was to be a Christian. The force that destroyed the Continental Christianity of the Middle Ages was almost certainly the same force that tries to destroy our culture today: Greed.