Western Church from the Seventh to Eleventh Centuries

Key Points during this time

  • In the clash between Celtic and Roman styles of Christian expression, a hybrid form emerged, loyal to Rome and Roman forms yet retaining many elements of the Celtic spirit.
  • Missionary-monks from Ireland and England helped restore, reform, and expand the church on the European continent.
  • The reign of Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty marked a season of relative peace and stability for much of Western Europe, with significant developments in Christian expansion, church-state relations, Benedictine monasticism, scholarship, theology, and church organization.
  • By the ninth century, Christian ritual and belief was coming to pervade the daily lives of many in medieval Europe, though various non-Christian elements persisted.
  • The Carolingian period saw a number of theological controversies, including debates about predestination, the Eucharist, the filioque, and religious art.
  • In the seventh–ninth centuries, the papacy moved decisively towards a papal monarchy, and the groundwork was laid for the medieval synthesis of church and state.
  • After a period of marked decline in the ninth and tenth centuries, revival in the institutions of monasticism, the imperial office, and the papacy set the stage in the eleventh century for the medieval synthesis.
  • The Norse and Viking invasions disequilibrated medieval culture, though the invaders were converted and Christianized in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
  • Church structures, especially the papacy, descended more deeply into feudalism during the ninth and tenth centuries.
  • Largely as a result of its autonomy from feudal structures, the monastery of Cluny was able to promote a sweeping reform of monasticism, thereby transforming the church’s impact on the society of the late tenth and eleventh centuries.
  • Imperial power passed from the Franks to the German Ottonian dynasty, key representatives of which supported church reform.
  • Reform-minded monarchs supported the installation of reforming popes such as Leo III, who transformed the papacy and helped lift it out of its feudal entanglements.
  • During an era when reforms in the Western church supported an independent papacy, tensions with the Eastern church came to a head in the controversy between Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius, resulting in the Great Schism of 1054.

Summary of events during this time

Though Christianity came to Britain prior to the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the withdrawal of Roman troops and subsequent invasions did not allow for its continued flourishing there. A Celtic form of Christianity came from Ireland to impact Scotland and northern England in the sixth century. Its clash with the Roman mission in England, brought by Augustine of Canterbury in 596, resulted in a sort of hybrid form of Christianity, combining Roman loyalties, structures, and liturgy with Celtic elements of passion, mission-mindedness, and a concern for purity. Anglo-Saxon missionary-monks like Winfrid (Boniface) ventured to the European continent, gaining the patronage of kings and popes in order to accomplish the work of restoring and reforming the church in some areas, while converting pagans in others. In many respects, they and their monastic foundations acquired the task of Christianizing the many converts from paganism, who struggled to distinguish the requirements of their Christian identity from the practices and attitudes of their pre-Christian society.

In the eighth century, Frankish power shifted from the kings of the Merovingian dynasty to the descendants of the Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel, i.e. the Carolingians. An alliance between the pope and Martel’s son Pippin III, confirmed by papal anointing in 754, culminated in the Pope Leo III’s crowning of Pippin’s son Charlemagne as emperor in Rome on Christmas day, 800. Charlemagne was an ambitious and capable ruler, inspired by Augustine’s City of God, who saw his temporal role as integral to the purposes of God’s kingdom in the world. As a result of Carolingian rule, a period of peace and stability enabled wide-ranging developments in church organization, art, architecture, literature, and theology. The Carolingian renaissance saw the creation of schools, especially the court school at Aachen under the scholar Alcuin, as well as numerous other intellectual developments. These included several theological controversies, including debates about predestination, the true nature of the elements in the Eucharist, the filioque, and the place of religious art in worship. Charlemagne required the baptism of Saxon infants, assisted the church in such tasks as the collection of tithes, and took an active role in appointing church leaders, defining organizational boundaries, and settling theological disputes.

While the Carolingians consolidated power and influence, the papacy also moved towards a papal monarchy, assisted by the extensive claims of the mostly forgedPseudo-Isidorean Decretals. The partnership between the pope and Carolingian rulers was occasionally tense, yet it served to synthesize further the aims of church and state, blending the character of political and religious offices. By the end of the ninth century, the foundations for medieval Christian Europe had been laid.

Largely due to the invasions of Norseman and Vikings, Western Europe was greatly destabilized in the ninth and tenth centuries. The church became deeply entangled in the feudalism that developed in response to the instability. Imperial weakness and clerical corruption was paralleled by a significant decline in the character of the papacy. The migrating Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Czechs, Poles, and Magyars were converted and Christianized.

The establishment of the Benedictine monastery of Cluny in 909/10 was a watershed for renewal. Granted autonomy from lay interference, the monks of Cluny developed a program of reform that focused on clerical celibacy, the church’s independence from lay interference, and the need to Christianize society more fully, through such practices as the restriction of bloodshed and feuding.

The Saxon kings of the Ottonian dynasty instigated an imperial revival, adopting the imperial title and becoming involved in church affairs. Otto I (the Great) in particular was an advocate of Cluniac reform in the church, strengthening abbots and bishops partly for the sake of controlling the dukes and counts. The Saxons were succeeded by the Salian dynasty, of which Henry III provides a link between the imperial and papal revivals. Henry III worked to lift it out of its entanglements in local Italian politics, though he did so by means of controlling appointments to the papacy himself.

Leo IX represents the culmination of the cycles of revival as they impacted the papacy. Designated by the emperor, he insisted on receiving the election of the Roman people before assuming office. He brought Cluniac ideals to the papacy, along with a number of like-minded, strong associates. Internationalizing the college of cardinals and filling it with reformers, he consolidated a dynamic new vision for the church at Rome and its role in Christendom. A strong advocate of papal primacy, Leo sent his associate Humbert to Constantinople to treat with Patriarch Michael Cerularius, ostensibly for the purpose of achieving unity between the increasingly estranged Western and Eastern churches. However, the socio-political contexts of the two churches were so different and the issues so intractable that the result of the mission was an exchange of excommunications, marked by the Great Schism of 1054.