The Papal Reform Movement, The Rise of Scholasticism, Monastic, Literary, Political, and Cultural Activities

Key Points during this time 

  • The papal revival of the eleventh century climaxed in the papacy of Gregory VII.
  • Conflict over lay investiture became the defining issue, expressing competing views of kingship and the proper relationship between church and state.
  • Numerous factors help explain the significance of the conflict between King Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII over lay investiture, including the imperial and papal revivals, the church’s entanglement in feudalism, and politics in Germany and Italy.
  • Through a display of penance, Henry IV gained a tactical victory over Gregory VII, but the papacy won the moral victory in securing the symbol of imperial humility before the pope.
  • Multiple factors played into the development of the First Crusade, including the evolution of penance, changing views about the church’s role in warfare, the influence of Islam, the practice of pilgrimage, and a desire to reunite the church.
  • Pope Urban II responded to the Byzantine emperor’s pleas for help by preaching the First Crusade, offering papal indulgences to crusaders and helping mobilize French nobles to lead the armies.
  • Although the First Crusade contributed to the deterioration of many relationships, the capture of select targets brought western military rule to the Holy Land for a period. Knightly monastic orders arose to protect the conquered lands and safeguard pilgrims.
  • The twelfth century saw an intellectual revival in medieval culture and the Western church, based on the kind of teaching and learning that occurred in cathedral schools.
  • Scholasticism was based on confidence in human reason and used a dialectical method of disputation to engage authorities and arguments in order to resolve problems, particularly those connected to the philosophical question of universals.
  • Scholastic methods and changing positions on the question of universals transformed the ways scholars engaged and debated such doctrines as the Eucharist, the incarnation, the church, and the atonement.
  • Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard are the most significant representatives of early Scholasticism, whose work and teaching shaped the assumptions, aims, and methods of intellectual inquiry in western culture for centuries.
  • Church reform and renewal in the twelfth century was triggered largely by increased monastic vitality and new expressions of monasticism, the most influential of which was the Cistercian reform of Benedictine monasticism.
  • The Cistercian leader Bernard of Clairvaux was the guiding spiritual influence of the age.
  • A lasting synthesis between the monastic spirituality of Bernard and the dialectic methods of Abelard was achieved through the work of such luminaries as Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard.
  • Romanesque style combined Roman and Byzantine features with local elements, to shape the Christian art and architecture of the tenth through twelfth centuries.
  • A growing preoccupation with saints, their sites, and their relics—and especially Mary—shaped the popular piety of western Christianity, along with developments in music and poetry.
  • Rhythms of competition, antagonism, and cooperation continued to characterize church-state relations in the twelfth century, most evident in the relations between the papacy and emerging national monarchies. The Third Crusade was a failed expression of the impulse to cooperate.
  • Key developments occurred in the national Eastern churches in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. 

Summary of events during this time

Pope Nicholas II (1058–61) was apparently the first pope to be crowned like a king or emperor, signaling strong development of the papal monarchy in the eleventh century. The eleventh-century papal reform reached its climax in Gregory VII, a staunch opponent of simony and advocate for church independence from lay control. Gregory VII’s ambitions to fortify a strong papacy were best expressed in his fight against lay investiture. Lay investiture was the bestowing of the symbols of spiritual office in the church by lay rulers. Due to the church’s continued entanglement in feudal society, lay investiture had become a normal practice, but Gregory VII rejected the view of church/state relations it implied; Gregory affirmed a view of kingship that kept it subservient to spiritual authority, and to the pope in particular.

Triggered by Gregory VII’s excommunication of certain advisors of Henry IV of Germany as “simoniacs” due to their lay investiture, pope and emperor exchanged condemnations, resulting in the pope’s excommunication of the emperor and the pronounced deposition of the pope by Henry’s clerics. The conflict culminated in an episode at Canossa in 1077, where Henry walked barefoot through the snow in an apparent effort to gain Gregory’s forgiveness. Grudgingly, Gregory declared Henry forgiven, after which Henry continued to behave as authoritatively as before. Gregory fled in exile, but through his efforts the papacy gained the potent symbol of an emperor humbled before the pope. A final settlement of the issue of lay investiture was reached by Henry V and Callistus II at the Concordat of Worms in 1122, a decision later ratified at the First Lateran Council of 1123.

Numerous factors helped form the background to the First Crusade, including developments in the sacrament of penance, the acceptance of a Christian’s participation in warfare, the expansion of the role of knights, the influence of Islam’s concept of holy war, the papalization of warfare, the practice of pilgrimage, and the desire to reunite the church. Prompted by the Byzantine emperor’s plea for help and a host of background factors, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095. A number of French nobles combined forces and set out in 1096, fighting to conquer Nicaea, Dorylaeum, Antioch, Edessa, and Jerusalem, which fell in 1099. They established Latin states and Latin patriarchs, securing key cities and routes for transit and pilgrimage. 

In many respects, the Crusades hindered relations between Christians and Muslims and even between the Eastern and Western churches, though they did promote a greater sense of unity in Western Europe, strengthened the papacy, and helped trigger an intellectual revival in Western Europe. Knightly monastic orders, such as the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers, combined the crusader warrior culture and the ideals of monasticism. They functioned to protect crusader interests in the Holy Land, to care for the sick and injured and to provide safe corridors of passage for pilgrims.

As learning moved from monastic environments to cathedral schools, an intellectual revival occurred in western culture, marked by the rise of Scholasticism. Focused at first on the interpretation of authoritative biblical and patristic texts, Scholasticism presumed a high confidence in the ability of human reason to acquire knowledge. Using the method of dialectical reasoning and collecting authorities and arguments on a question, Scholasticism sought to establish knowledge on the basis of reason alone. The scholars were particularly concerned with the question of universals and their relationship to particular things. Extreme realists (e.g. Anselm) held to the Platonic notion that universals have a real existence apart from and prior to individuals; nominalists (e.g. William Ockham) held that universals are merely inferences drawn from observation and have no real existence; moderate realists (e.g. Thomas Aquinas) held to the Aristotelian notion that universals are real but always exist in actual individuations.

Within the framework of Scholasticism, discussions about universals shaped the formulation of such basic Christian doctrines as those of the church, Trinity, incarnation, atonement, and Eucharist. In the second eucharistic controversy, Berengar taught against the popular belief of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, on the basis of Aristotle’s understanding that the accidents of the bread cannot exist apart from the bread’s substance. Building on the counter arguments of Lanfranc, Cardinal Humbert, and others, Guitmund defended the popular view using the new scholastic methods, explaining that the substance of the bread was changed into the body and blood of Christ. This understanding of the transformation (transubstantiation) became official dogma of the Western church, confirmed in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

 Anselm of Canterbury is considered the “Father of Scholasticism” due to his attempts to demonstrate the doctrines of Christianity on the basis of reason. Although routinely at odds with the English royalty in his desire to assert the church’s independence, Anselm found opportunity to write major texts that influenced the shape of scholasticism and the adoption of its methods. Characterized as “faith seeking understanding,” Anselm’s approach brought him to argue the case for God’s existence in the Monologion and Proslogion, and to present a theory of the atonement in Cur deus homo: the satisfaction/sacrificial theory. Couched in contractual terms and using the categories of feudalism, the satisfaction theory became more popular than either Abelard’s moral-exemplary theory or the ransom theory of the church fathers, helping to secure the place of the Eucharist and penance as the main sacraments by which people understood and participated in the meaning of their Christian belief.

 Peter Abelard represents a further development in Scholasticism. A brilliant teacher in Paris, Abelard’s character, personality, and views made him highly controversial. He sought an even higher place for human reason than Anselm allowed, pursuing a program of “doubting in order to know,” and attacking perceived errors and inconsistencies in the thinking of others and in the traditions of the church. Abelard’s love affair with Heloise resulted in scandal that disrupted his academic career; his unconventional teachings, tinged with personal arrogance, brought him into conflict with Bernard of Clairvaux and the pope. Condemned at a council of Sens in 1140, Abelard was eventually reconciled to the church. In Sic et non, he arranged opposing quotations from the Bible and the church fathers on various questions, inciting controversy but also establishing Scholasticism’s favorite method of studying a problem. Abelard proposed a disciplined method by which to treat differences in texts, in Know Yourself he upheld the importance of motives in assessing ethics, and he presented the moral-exemplary theory of the atonement. But his influence was primarily that of a teacher, since many of his students came to be influential scholars and church leaders. Although in many respects the forerunners of modern academics, scholastic theologians did not distinguish sharply between philosophy and theology. Furthermore, they nearly all had an element of mysticism in them.

The twelfth century saw a kind of “renaissance” in many different facets of culture and Christian practice. An increase in conversions to the monastic life and new expressions of monasticism infused the church with fresh vitality. Groups such as the Camaldolese, the Carthusians, and the Premonstratensians emphasized radical expressions of austerity. The Augustinian Canons provided skilled and committed clergy for the cathedrals. Most influential of all were the Cistercians, a dynamic reform that sought to recapture primitive Benedictine monasticism through simplicity, hard work, and seclusion. Bernard of Clairvaux was the most important Cistercian leader. Bernard warned against the excesses of ostentatious art, ornate liturgy, wealth and the dangers of the new dialectic and an exaggerated confidence in human reason. Focusing on traditional theology and personal devotion, Bernard became the guiding spiritual influence of the age. He stressed humility, devotion to Mary, and a loving, mystical relationship with God.

Hugh of St. Victor and the teachers of St. Victor’s in Paris achieved a synthesis of the new dialectic and traditional personal spirituality. He composed the first medieval synthesis of theology, a Christocentric treatment of sacraments that underscored the sacramental nature of all creation. Peter Lombard pursued Hugh’s agenda further, yet in ways that relied even more deeply on Abelard’s dialectic. His Four Books of Sentences constituted a clear and systematic treatment of Christian doctrine. It won official approval and came to serve as the basic medieval textbook in theology. John Gratian’s Decretum became the standard treatment of canon law. Aristotle was more fully disseminated and integrated into Christian thought by Otto of Freising and John of Salisbury. Though female, the abbess Hildegard of Bingen effectively preached her prophetic visions of judgment and composed a number of influential writings. Arabic philosophers and Jewish thinkers made significant contributions to western learning in the twelfth century as well.

Romanesque style combined Roman and Byzantine features with local elements to produce a distinctive art and architecture. The buildings were solid, simple, and permanent. Sculpture and painting were abstract, solemn, and majestic. Sacred music became more complex due to the development of polyphony; vernacular poetry celebrated courtly love, both affirming and subverting social norms of virtue and gender. Canonizing saints became the prerogative of the pope in the twelfth century.Saints were central to popular piety, especially Mary, revered as the Queen of Heaven. The practice of pilgrimage grew alongside devotion to the stories of the saints and the power of their relics. Pious activities and good works were understood to impact positively a person’s experience of purgatory.

 Church-state relationships continued to be tense in the twelfth century, most evident in the ongoing rivalries between the papacy and the emergent national monarchies. Though led by strong, flamboyant rulers, and giving rise to many romantic tales, the Third Crusade was a failure, accomplishing little. A tragic indicator of the strained relationship between the state and the church was the assassination of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, by king Henry II’s agents. As secular governments became better organized, the institutional life of the church did so as well. In the East, the Christian cultures of Georgia and Armenia reached new heights, the Serbians became staunchly Orthodox, Greek Orthodox scholars had significant accomplishment, and Eastern monasticism was revitalized. 


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