The Medieval Church

Article objectives

  • To learn about the Protestant Reformation which began in Europe during the 16th Century. This module will cover the importance of Religion prior to the Reformation, and the changes in European society that lead Europeans to question religious authority.
  • Unrest and Reform

    The Early Modern Period in Europe was marked by a number of social and political revolutions, but none was quite so all-encompassing as the Reformation. The Reformation, or Protestant Reformation, was the schism which occurred during the 16th Century when Christian reformers opposed the practices of the Catholic Church. However, in order to understand how the Reformation came about and its importance one must first understand the importance of the Catholic Church in European Society before the Reformation. To that end, this module will discuss the place of the Medieval Catholic Church in society and politics. Additionally, it will discuss the changes in thinking that began to weaken the Church’s authority and would eventually inspire reformers like Martin Luther to challenge Church authority and break off from the Catholic Church entirely.

    The Role of the Catholic Church

    Throughout the Middle Ages the Catholic Church had reigned as one of the most powerful institutions. The Church was a constant force in the lives of Europeans during the Middle Ages and it was their shared beliefs that brought people together in the divisive times of Feudalism. While many other institutions seemed in continual flx, the Church provided Christians an ever present community and sense of security. Additionally, religious belief gave something for Medieval Christians to hope for. Life for Medieval Europeans was very difficult and often unpleasant, but faith taught them that there was always salvation which they could work towards. The administration of the sacraments became an integral part of their daily life, as did religious ceremonies and services. In addition the reforms established a number of taxes or tithes which had to be paid to the Church. These tithes constituted one tenth of every Catholic family’s income each year.

    For many, the Catholic Church seemed to provide an answer to their suffering. Priests were central figures in Medieval towns and churches were often the most prominent buildings. So central were churches to Medieval towns that they were often social centers as well as religious ones. Churches became hubs of activity and social interaction. Religious holidays like Christmas and Easter became community wide events and excuses for social gatherings.

    In addition to being a social force in Medieval society, the Church was also a great political force. Along with its spiritual guidance, the Church provided a firm set system of justice called cannon law. Cannon law specifically dealt with issues regarding marriage and religious practices and the Church established formal courts to deal with those accused of violating it. Punishments for violating cannon law varied, but the two harshest punishments were excommunication and interdict. Excommunication meant banishment from the church. An individual who was excommunicated was seen as a reject and was effectively barred from achieving salvation. The pope commonly wielded the threat of excommunication over various political leaders across Europe, and used this threat to maintain political control. Typically the political leaders of the time were Kings, and it was believed that a King’s authority was ordained upon them by God. Therefore, a threat of excommunication from the Pope meant that the King’s power would be nullified. The threat of the interdict was even more powerful, as under an interdict no sacraments or religious services could be performed. So, if an excommunicated King did not obey the Pope, his people would be made to suffer for they believed they could not achieve salvation without the sacraments. With these threats, the rule of the Catholic Church was far stronger and further-reaching than the rule of many Kings.

    Early Church Reform

    Unfortunately, the Catholic Church for all its power was neither a unified nor incorruptible force. The Church structure reflected the structure of Feudal society with the Pope acting as the head of the Church in Rome, with the Clergy underneath him. Authority in the church depended on ranking with Cardinals at the top overseeing Bishops, who in turn managed a number of Priests. For most Europeans however, it was the Priests who served as their main contact with the Church and though Bishops were technically in charge of interpreting the Bible and settling disputes over meaning it fell to the Priest to actually interact with the people. Priests, as it turned out, were not always the best suited for the job, as many were illiterate. Likewise, many bishops and abbots were more concerned with their personal social standing than their spiritual obligations. Even many of the men-elected Popes had questionable morals. Still, the three biggest problems, as Church reformers saw them, were the fact that many priests were violating Church law and getting married, that bishops had been selling positions in the Church – a process called simony – and that local Kings had too much authority over the appointment of bishops.

    In the early 1000s spiritual revival and reform spread across Europe with many reformers calling for the church to return to its roots. This period of reform brought about a period known as the Age of Faith, when the power of the Church was especially strong. The reforms increased the power of the Pope and eliminated the marriage of priests and practice of simony. At the same time it expanded the Church’s control over marriage, divorce and inheritance. For a time, these reforms did prove to be successful, and the social good of the Church increased along with its power and influence. By the 1300’s however the Church faced renewed struggles as Kings – especially King Philip IV of France – began to push back.

    The Church Loses Control

    The Church’s struggles with Kings began when Kings began trying to increase the size of their nation-states and encroached on the Church’s power. Kings began to ignore Church leaders and discount them in their decision-making. Try as he might to control them, the pope of the time, Pope Boniface VIII, found that Kings were no longer receptive to the threats of excommunication and interdict. The greatest blow came when King Phillip IV of France expelled all the clergy from governmental affairs. Under his rule the Church no longer had a say in the administration of law, and furthermore, he decreed that members of the Church in France would have to pay taxes. Affronted, Boniface took the institution of taxes for the clergy as an assault on traditional clerical rights and issued a papal bull. The bull entitled Clericis lacios insisted that no ruler could tax the clergy without the permission of the Pope, and that violation of this rule would result in excommunication. Phillip retaliated by refusing to give any of France’s money to the Papal States, insisting instead that the money raised by the Catholic Church in France should go to the French economy. The feud intensified in the following years with Boniface contending that “God has set popes over kings and kingdoms” and Phillip cutting off all exportation of French money and goods to the Papal States. Finally, Pope Boniface issued a conciliatory bull Ineffabilis amor in September 1296, which allowed for voluntary contributions to the state as the king deemed necessary. In response, Phillip was willing to rescind his ban on exportation.

    This peace between Boniface and Phillip would be short lived however, as their feud reached a renewed peak in the early 1300’s. Phillip’s anti-papal campaign was renewed when an argument between one of Phillip’s aides and a papal legate (a personal representative of the Pope) caused the legate to be imprisoned and tried on October 24, 1301 by the French court. Boniface strongly objected to the imprisonment of the legate and ordered that he be released – which Phillip refused to do. In December of that year Boniface issued the sternly worded bull Ausculta Fili (which roughly translates to ‘listen child’) denouncing King Phillip IV and pointing out many alleged evils he had brought to France. The King in response had the bull publicly burned. In a yet another attempt to reclaim power, Boniface called a council of French Bishops to Rome set to occur in November 1302 in order to discuss reforming the Catholic Church in France. Phillip not only forbade them from attending, but called his own council – the First Estates General in April 1302 – where members of all the social classes of France met and each estate separately wrote to the Pope defending the King’s authority. Nonetheless, Boniface saw fit to issue a final papal bull Unam sanctam which declared that “subjection to the Roman Pontiff is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature.” In short, salvation was not possible unless the Pope was given supreme authority.

    Rather than kowtow to Boniface’s wishes, Phillip and his council declared the Pope as a heretical criminal. When the Pope excommunicated the King, he responded by taking the Pope prisoner. Though Pope Boniface quickly escaped his resolve was shaken and he died soon after. No Pope since has been able to bend a king to their will.

    The Avignon Papacy and the Great Schism

    Following the death of Pope Boniface VIII, Pope Benedict XI was appointed as his successor. Benedict however only served for nine months before dying suddenly. It took eleven months for the Conclave to pick the next Pope. In November 1305, a French archbishop was chosen as Pope to appease King Phillip IV. In March 1309 the newly elected Pope Clement V moved from Rome to the city of Avignon near France in – where the papacy would remain for the next 67 years.

    The papacy’s move to Avignon greatly weakened the Church and so, in 1378 when the time came to replace Pope Gregory XI, mobs of Italians could be heard from the deliberation chambers screaming that they wanted a “Roman for pope, or at least an Italian”. The Cardinals acquiesced and announced that an Italian, Urban VI, had been chosen. Pope Urban VI however quickly proved to be unpopular. Because of Urban’s fierce dedication to reform and arrogance French Cardinals saw fit to have him replaced with a newly elected French speaking pope who served from Avignon. Both popes served at the same time with each declaring the other to be a false pope or antipope, and each excommunicating the other.

    The appointment of the second pope in Avignon began what is known as the Great Schism in the Catholic Church. The schism lasted until 1414 when the Council of Constance was convened to solve the problem. By the council convened there were actually three Popes in power: the Avignon Pope, the Roman Pope, and a third Pope appointed by an earlier council but whose appointment had only exacerbated the problem. In 1417, and with the help of the Holy Roman Emperor, all three Popes were forced to resign, and one new pope – Pope Martin V – was elected and accepted by all.

    Though the schism had finally been closed, the debacle proved a great embarrassment for the Catholic Church and had cost them a great deal of power and influence. Many scholars at the time began formally discussing the problems facing the church and criticizing its leaders. The Florentine Poet Dante was very openly opposed to the bulls issued by Pope Boniface VIII and famously placed the pope in the eight circle of hell. The increase in printed bibles also allowed for common people to read and interpret the bible for themselves and rely less on the Church itself.

    Indeed, one English scholar, John Wycliffe, taught that Jesus Christ, not the Pope, was the true leader of the Catholic Church and that the bible alone was the final authority on matters of faith – not the Pope. Wycliffe was instrumental in creating the first English translation of the bible. Building Wycliffe’s teachings, a professor in Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic) named Jan Hus taught that the bible was a higher authority than the Pope. He was excommunicated in 1412 and burned at the stake in 1415 for defying the church's principles.

    Still, these thinkers were the first wave of reformers who noted that there was something wrong about how the Catholic Church was being run, and their work paved the way for others to further challenge religious authority.