The Late Medieval Church

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The Late Medieval Church


Beseeching the Lord. In 1350 a spectacular religious event took place in Rome. As many as one million pilgrims crowded into the city for the celebration of the Holy Year proclaimed by the Pope. The assembling of so many people, from every region west of Russia to distant Iceland, demonstrated the unity of western Christianity under the papacy. While there were a few dissenters and non-Christians, the vast majority of western Christendom accepted the unchallenged authority of the Catholic Church as divinely ordained. Although there was greater variation in Catholic ritual and belief from region to region than there would be in 1600, one could travel from Iceland to Sicily and from Portugal to Latvia and find the same religion. The presence of pilgrims in Rome from across Europe demonstrated Catholic unity, but the purpose behind their pilgrimages was far less positive. They came to beg God to end the catastrophic epidemic that had been sweeping Europe for the previous three years. Lacking any understanding of a natural cause for the Black Death, the common explanation was that God was punishing humanity for its sins. In the Middle Ages making a pilgrimage was regarded as one of the most effective means to seek atonement for sin and lessen God's wrath. Men took to the road as Flagellants, publicly whipping themselves as penance in the hope that this would persuade God to end this time of trial. One consequence of the Black Death was that God came to be seen as more of an avenger of sin and evil than He had in earlier times.

Preoccupation. The plague also led to a preoccupation with death, which was never far from the mind throughout the Middle Ages, but now it was preeminent. Artists and writers depicted scenes of death, rotting corpses and skeletons, dances of the dead, and the final judgment. The doctrine of Purgatory as a place of cleansing the soul from the stain of sin before it went to heaven was not new, but it became more important in Catholic practice. Clerics used vivid descriptions of the plight of the souls in Purgatory to admonish the faithful to live sinless lives. Indulgences, by which one could shorten time in Purgatory by pious acts, prayers, and donations to the Church, became far more common. Counting indulgences became almost a mania for the next 150 years. Charity was extended to the dead, whose time in Purgatory could be reduced by applying indulgences to them. The wealthy prepared for their own deaths and cared for their relatives in Purgatory by leaving money in their wills for hundreds of masses; Henry VII of England was reported to have provided for the saying of ten thousand masses for his soul. Artisan confraternities existed largely to provide for masses for dead members. The poor did the same with votive candles.

Piety. A vast increase in popular piety also occurred in the late Middle Ages. One result of the new piety was a greater emphasis on quantity, such as conducting masses, pilgrimages, and prayers, as well as collecting relics to allay God's wrath. The tendency was toward placing more and more emphasis on the act itself rather than the state of mind or the condition of the soul of the priest and members of the congregation. If the mass was performed correctly or the formula of the sacrament was recited exactly, then it was effective in helping to bring Catholics to salvation, even if the priest had just come from the arms of his

concubine. This mechanical formalism, which emphasized external acts rather than internal feelings, was stifling to the spiritual life of many late medieval Catholics.

Avignon Captivity. One person not present in Rome in 1350 was Pope Clement VI, the Pope responsible for proclaiming it a Holy Year. Since 1307, the popes had resided in Avignon in southeastern France. The papacy had purchased the city, so it was not in the kingdom of France; but the French king's influence over the popes, all French during their residence in Avignon, was extensive. The other Catholic rulers resented this Francophile papacy, and it became a serious problem when the Hundred Years' War broke out in 1337. The English king reduced papal authority in his lands by denying the right of appeal from an English church court to the papal court and by limiting the pope's ability to raise revenues from England. Papal finances became a burden during “the Avignon Captivity of the papacy.” The loss of revenues from the Papal States in Italy, resulting from the pope's absence from Rome, and the creation of a luxurious papal court at Avignon created a severe financial crisis. The popes responded to their need for more income by creating a large bureaucracy and devising new ways to collect more from the Catholic lands. Papal exactions, which technically were placed only on the clergy but in effect had an impact on an entire realm, continued to increase through the remainder of the Middle Ages and led to ever more resentment toward the papacy.

Great Schism. The long absence of the popes from Rome created a major scandal because a pope's claims to authority over the Church arose from his position as bishop of Rome. As the decades passed, the pressure on the popes to return increased, and by 1370 two strong-willed female mystics, St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Catherine of Siena, added their formidable voices. In 1377 Gregory XI moved back to Rome, but the city was in terrible condition. Papal absence had devastated its economy and allowed it to sink into lawlessness. A year later Gregory was planning to return to Avignon when he died. As the cardinals met to elect a successor, a Roman mob surrounded their palace and demanded a Roman pope. The cardinals chose an Italian, Urban VI, who quickly alienated them by reducing their privileges. The mostly French cardinals, once they had gotten away from Rome, denounced the election as void because of coercion and proceeded to elect a French cardinal as Pope Clement VII. He returned to Avignon, and the result was the Great, or Western, Schism, in which both Popes had claims to legitimacy.

Choosing Sides. Obedience to either the Pope at Rome or the one at Avignon largely was determined by the political alliances of the time: England, Portugal, Aragon, Italy, and Germany supported Urban at Rome; France, Castile, and Scotland accepted Clement at Avignon. Both pontiffs created their own colleges of cardinals, and when they died, successors were chosen who continued the schism. Previous situations of this sort in the papacy had been resolved quickly, but the Great Schism lasted for more than forty years, largely because of the Hundred Years' War (1337—1453). The scandal of having two popes led to deep spiritual anxiety, as ordinary Catholics worried that they would be doomed if their ruler made the wrong choice about which pontiff to support. Both popes continued to maintain large courts and bureaucracies on reduced revenues, which led to increased efforts to raise money from the lands under their obedience. One result was that the national churches looked to their rulers for protection from rapacious demands of the papal fiscal officers. It was an important boost to the idea that the national churches were quasi-independent with governance over them shared between king and pope.

Council of Pisa. Of the ways proposed to solve the Great Schism, the one that had the most support was a general council of the Church. A major issue was whether only the pope could call a council and preside over it. Theologians from the University of Paris made a convincing case that one could be convened independently of the pope. Accordingly, prelates and representatives from Catholic rulers assembled in 1409 at Pisa in Italy. The council found both popes guilty of destroying the unity of the Church and liable to being deposed. When neither resigned, the council declared them antipopes and elected a new, third, pontiff. This attempted solution simply expanded the Great Schism. While the Pisan Pope had the most support, the other two kept a following. The situation was intolerable, and in 1413 a new council met at Constance in Germany. The council prevailed on the Pisan and Roman popes to resign and deposed the one at Avignon when he refused. It then elected Pope Martin V and put an end to the schism. The Great Schism damaged the prestige of the papacy and increased the power of the rulers over the national churches, to the detriment of papal authority. It led to a period of more than a century in which the popes, now back in Rome, were nearly all Italians who concentrated largely on Italian affairs. It ended the more international focus of the papacy of the previous three centuries, and still remains the longest period of time in which popes were non-Italians.

Counciliarism. The Council of Constance affirmed counciliarism (the belief that the general council of the Church was superior to the pontiff) by ending the Great Schism. Theologians at the University of Paris were its strongest advocates. They proclaimed that the general council, which the Council of Constance decreed was to meet every five years, was the supreme authority in the Church, including the right to reform the Church. In 1430 another council met at Basel in Switzerland. It had an activist agenda for reforming the papacy, which led to serious confrontations with Martin V and his successors. The council lasted until 1449 because a small group of die-hard councilarists insisted on remaining in session. Counciliarism received a deadly blow when Pope Pius II decreed in 1460 that it was heresy to hold that the council was superior to the pope.

Pragmatic Sanction. Counciliarism did not disappear, however. It lived on largely in France, where it became part of Gallicanism. After a century of having friendly popes who usually accommodated the French king and clergy, the French found that the election of Italian pontiffs drastically reduced the favors they had been receiving. Gallicanists argued that the French Church was free of papal control over its offices and finances while conceding the popes authority over doctrine and discipline. In the fifteenth century, Gallicanists could not agree whether the French king or the clergy, acting as a body, had the power to administer the French Church. In 1438 the clergy gained the upper hand when a national council of clergy issued the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges, which King Charles VIII accepted. The Pragmatic Sanction reestablished in France the ancient practice of the cathedral clergy electing bishops and ended the papacy's right to collect revenues from the French clergy. The popes protested, and the kings found that the system of local bishop election led to bitter factionalism and often two rival bishops. Thus, in 1516 Pope Leo X accepted King Francis Fs invitation to renegotiate the Pragmatic Sanction. The result was the Concordat of Bologna, which gave the king authority to appoint French bishops but also required papal approval of the appointment and restored the pope's right to receive revenues from France. The Concordat of Bologna gave the French ruler a degree of control over the national Church that other rulers, such as England's Henry VIII, would seek during the Reformation. It remained the document by which the French Church was governed until the onset of the French Revolution in 1789.

Reform Movement. In addition to believing that the council had superiority over the pope, most counciliarists also promoted church reform. The meaning of this reform varied considerably in the fifteenth century, but the point on which most could agree was the need for a better clergy. Rarely in the Middle Ages had the Catholic Church faced any challenge to its domination over the spiritual life of the laity. This situation made it difficult for the clergy to pay attention to its spiritual duties. One major source of distraction was the enormous amount of property the Church controlled. Despite making up less than 5 percent of the population, the clergy collected about one-third of the income of the lands in Catholic Europe. In church law, the revenues of the clergy were exempt from secular taxation. The papacy collected mandatory fees from the clergy, but the ordinary lay person resented the idea that the wealthy clergy was exempt from paying taxes to the secular authorities. Many in the clergy, and outside of it, denounced the idea of the Church holding property. They saw property as the principal cause of the ills that affected the Church and demanded that the clergy give it up and live in “apostolic poverty” as Christ and his apostles had done.

Priests. The quality of the priesthood in the late Middle Ages was poor. There were no seminaries for training priests, many of whom had only a rudimentary education and could barely read Latin. Since they usually came from the same class of people they served, they frequented the same taverns and participated in activities such as the carnivals with their parishioners. Drunkenness was a frequent problem, but sexual misbehavior was the most common vice of the clergy. The twelfth-century mandate for clerical celibacy did not create a celibate clergy. Perhaps a majority of priests had concubines, women with whom they had long relationships but whom they legally could not marry. The problem of priests' children vexed the Church. Most parish priests were poverty stricken despite the wealth of the Church, and they were often forced to resort to manual labor or even brigandage. Many ordinary priests revealed their alienation from the Church by participating in movements that challenged it.

Contrast. The poverty of the common clergyman contrasted sharply with the opulent lifestyle of the prelates. Cardinals, bishops, and abbots were elites, with wealth and prestige matching the great nobles. They often came from the great noble families, and their outlooks usually coincided with their relatives. Kings regarded the high clergy as a pool of talented, well-born men who could be put to work for the monarchy without being paid, since they could draw on their church revenues. Royal service was one reason for the rampant absenteeism found among the prelates. In any given year, before the Council of Trent (1545–1563), a majority of bishops had probably never set foot in their dioceses. Another problem that created absenteeism was pluralism—the practice of allowing high churchmen to hold several church offices. It was common for cardinals to be the bishop for several dioceses simultaneously while spending most of their time in Rome. The high clergymen displayed the same vices that appeared among the lower clergy. The popes themselves were too often guilty of those vices, as proven by Alexander VI's three children. The Council of Constance called for the reform of the Church in leaders and members, but those in authority resisted the conciliarists' pleas until the onslaught of the Reformation forced them to reconsider.


Christopher Allmand, The New Cambridge Medieval History, volume 7, c 1415–c. 1500 (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Francis Oakley, The Western Church in the Later Middle Ages (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979).

Steven E. Ozment, The Age of Reform (1250–1550): An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).