The Western Medieval Church and Portents of Decline

Key Points during this time

  • The papacy of Innocent III marked the peak of papal power in the Middle Ages.
  • The mendicant orders represented the latest wave of ascetic renewal in the thirteenth century, expressed in the careers of Dominic and Francis of Assisi, and in the priorities and impact of the movements they started.
  • The intellectual revival of the eleventh and twelfth centuries culminated in the development in the thirteenth of the universities, a third force in Christendom alongside the empire and the priesthood.
  • The career and legacy of the Dominican Thomas Aquinas constitute the crowning achievement of medieval Scholasticism; his project to synthesize Christian theology and Aristotelian thought was singularly influential in western Christian intellectual history.
  • The Franciscan order produced scholars who preserved Augustinian emphases on divine illumination, mysticism, and love, providing a counterpoint to Aquinas: Bonaventure, Roger Bacon, and Duns Scotus.
  • The Gothic art and architecture of the period emphasized harmony, verticality, space, and luminosity.
  • In the face of diminishing popular confidence in the structures of the church, numerous lay religious movements arose in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, prompting the Roman Catholic Church to attempt various measures of control, including the Inquisition.
  • The church and medieval structures of power struggled to cope with diverse religious elements in society, including Jews, the Cathari, expressions of vernacular theology such as the women’s Beguine movement, and expressions of female mysticism.
  • In the face of the Mongol conquests, the missions and vitality of the church in central Asia and China was sharply reduced.
  • The Second Council of Lyons met in 1274, ostensibly to further a project of reunion between West and East, but without lasting results.
  • Effective pastoral care and worship were in serious decline in the thirteenth century, as eschatological speculation and fanaticism increased.
  • In terms of its claims, the papacy of Boniface VIII marks the pinnacle of the development of medieval papal theory; in terms of actual effectiveness in the face of emerging national monarchies, it marks a period of grave decline.

Chapter Summary during this time

In several key areas, developments of the eleventh and twelfth centuries came to full fruition in the Western church of the thirteenth century. The papacy enjoyed the greatest measure of power and influence, best expressed in the accomplishments of pope Innocent III. He exercised a great deal of influence over major lay leaders, organized the Fourth Crusade, presided over the Fourth Lateran Council, and accommodated the emerging mendicant orders. These expressions of power matched the lofty claims he made concerning the role and authority of the papacy in society.

 In the thirteenth century, mendicant orders represented the latest wave of ascetic reform in the church. Emphasizing apostolic simplicity and resisting communal property, the mendicants exploited an increasingly urban society and monetary economy in order to establish highly influential orders. Dominic was a Spaniard whose followers (Dominicans) focused on preaching, the care of souls, combating heresy, and training in theology. Francis was the son of cloth merchant in Assisi. An early conversion experience led him to marry “Lady Poverty” and pursue a life of simplicity, and humility, preaching good news to the masses. Francis’ movement became very popular, also attracting women into a second order, the “Poor Clares,” and laypersons into a Third Order of people who sought to live by Francis’ ideals in secular life.

The intellectual revival of the Middle Ages culminated in the development of the universities in the thirteenth century. By organizing teachers and students into guild-like entities in such academic centers as Bologna, Paris, and Oxford, the universities became a third force in Christendom, alongside the empire and the priesthood. The presence of the mendicant orders and the availability of the entire corpus of Aristotle reinforced these developments. The greatest expression of Scholasticism in the universities was the person and work of Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican whose project to reconcile Aristotle with Christian theology made a deep impact on learning and Christian theology for centuries. By contrast, Franciscan scholars in the Augustinian tradition, like Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, and especially Bonaventureemphasized divine illumination, mysticism, and love, providing a counterpoint to Aquinas’ Aristotelianism.

Lay piety in the thirteenth century was nurtured by devotion to the saints’ lives and Books of Hours. The contexts for Christian worship also changed, as Gothic art and architecture overtook the past Romanesque style. Gothic architecture emphasized harmony, verticality, space, and luminosity. The abbey church of St. Denis, the cathedrals of Chartres, Rheims, and Salisbury, and the striking design of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris exemplify the Gothic style. Stained glass was used to declare faith-forming narratives, and art that favored the suffering savior became more common. Mary was increasingly depicted as the queen of heaven, and the last judgment was depicted as an event offering salvation, not just condemnation.

In the wake of the dynamic developments of the twelfth-century, the thirteenth-century church saw numerous indicators of decline and difficulty. Among the most significant was the emergence of lay religious movements and vernacular theology, largely in response to the malaise of the institutional church. Groups such as the Humiliati and Flagellants appealed to those who sought more extreme expressions of piety. The Waldenses opposed the worldliness of the clergy, emphasizing poverty, vernacular scriptures, and public preaching. The emergence of women’s movements such as the Beguines, with distinctive female patterns of mysticism and religious experience, strained the church’s ability to acknowledge sincere piety on the one hand and cope with unusual forms of authority on the other. The presence of such diverse religious elements as the dualist Cathari (Albigensians) and influential Jews complicated the church’s struggle to find ways of dealing with the growing dissent without exacerbating the problems. The Inquisition was instituted to detect and punish heresy, and came under papal control in the thirteenth century.

The Byzantine emperor Michael Paleologus joined forces with pope Gregory X to attempt a reunion of East and West. Their aspirations culminated in the Second Council of Lyons (1274), though the council produced few tangible results. In central Asia and China, Mongol conquests sharply diminished the presence and impact ofChristian mission in those regions, and a brief period of renewal in the Syrian Orthodox church was followed by significant decline in vitality. The establishment of the “Solomonic dynasty” in Ethiopia (1270) ushered in a golden age of art and literature for the church in that realm.

Pastoral care and worship seemed particularly ineffective in the thirteenth century. The use of drama in worship and non-liturgical drama (e.g. Miracle Plays) were efforts to engage and instruct the laity in Christian belief and practice. Eschatological speculation and fanaticism flourished in the thirteenth century, inspired partly byJoachim of Fiore’s elaborate periodization of history and partly by the enthusiasm of “spiritual Franciscans,” who looked for the dawning of a new age and judgment against a corrupt church establishment. The Florentine magistrate Dante Alighieri made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1300; his disgust for the corruption of the papacy led him to write Divine Comedy, a poetic synthesis of the thirteenth century.

Although many looked to Celestine V as a potential savior, he was an ineffective pope. His ambitious successor Boniface VIII sought to counter the rising power of national monarchies by issuing a bull to limit the ability of lay leaders to exercise authority over clergy, and another, to state the unparalleled authority of the papacy. The latter bull, Unam sanctam, well summarizes the developed papal theory of the Middle Ages and even insists that salvation is contingent on submission to the pope. Yet Boniface’s efforts were largely ineffective, and shortly after his death the papacy was moved to Avignon, where it resided for nearly seventy years, under the influence of French monarchs.


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