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As promised, I’ve finally gotten to the post on the medieval Church. I hope that this will be a good starting point for many, nothing can substitute for reading a complete Church history. To understand medieval history, one must understand Church history because the two had such a great impact on each other. Scholars who tackle social history but know nothing of Church history frustrate me because they tend to rely of the stereotypes they see in movies. Reading a complete history is also necessary to recognize the differences between the medieval Church and the modern Catholic Church, while an understanding of the medieval intellectual climate is vital to making meaningful use of a history.
The medieval Church is a complicated topic. The Church saw many problems, many reform movements, and many new problems. Political instability, the Avignon papacy, and the massive problems that reformers faced made problem-solving an immense obstacle. Unfortunately, books of general history tend to read as a catalog of the worst figures while many primary sources from the Middle Ages give the opposite picture. As a result, it can be difficult to understand how the Church functioned in the lives of ordinary people.
The Church and Medieval Man
Many imagine a medieval populace oppressed by an evil church that dominated and repressed every aspect of their lives. Régine Pernoud says that “those who imagine a monolithic Church wielding an absolute power in the person of the pope are radically contradicted by the facts: let us recall that, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries (out of two hundred years, then), the popes had to reside 122 years outside of Rome, living as outlaws and exiles, chased by factions and revolts that continuously fed the history of Rome.” 
The Church was central to life and thought for medieval man—life was “dominated by and imbued with religion to its innermost fiber….”  The ways of understanding man’s relationship with God shifted throughout the period, but the church was quite literally the center of every town. The church building was the communal gathering place, the “collective memory of the community” whose bells divided the day by the canonical hours.  Even the least-educated peasants “understood well not only the consolation of the sacraments but the historical example of the primitive church” and its leaders.  Veneration of saints was common, not just to honor long-dead men and women, but because saints gave living examples of ordinary people whose love for God showed the promise of salvation. 
Since every aspect of medieval life focused on God, identity as a Christian was vital. Society was based largely on verbal contracts for which God was inherently the witness. Medieval man did not emphasize the importance of a personal, individual relationship with God—that concept had, for purposes of simple explanation, not yet been invented. Religion and faith were community activities. When contracts were broken, the offense was religious as well as societal, which is why heresy was a societal problem, not just a religious one.  In reading Arthurian literature, characters who take oaths always do so with such specific detail that it seems comic to modern readers because such oaths must be carefully framed for the swearer to uphold his duties—he must not accidentally swear to something he cannot fulfill.
Frederick B. Artz bids his readers to remember that in the early Middle Ages, as tribes unified into nations, “All regarded the clergy as the great civilizing force in their several states, and all took pains to try and get worthy men into the positions of abbots and bishops.”  The modern Church has a pastoral view of its hierarchy, but for many reasons, the medieval Church saw its hierarchy as authoritarian, which meant ecclesiastical roles had different purposes than they do today. The fall of the Roman Empire left great areas of Europe without leadership or structure, and in many areas, Church officials were forced to intercede to maintain peace and order in their communities. In the 1000 years that span the Middle Ages, naturally the best of men and the worst of men will find their way into these roles. However, “it must always be remembered that the church had to work through the personnel it could recruit in a turbulent and backward time.”  We’ve already established that the stereotype of a “dark ages” is incorrect, but medieval history is still fraught with disorder and conflict.
Christianity has many of its foundations in Roman culture that, like many cultures of its time, did not understand a separation of church and state: “From our point of view it may seem strange that these authorities were unable to make a clear distinction between loyalty to the state and religious allegiance, but in their day no one had ever dreamt of the distinction between church and state, between religion and civic duty. In fact, the notion that one’s belief in God is independent of one’s willingness to assume the duties and obligations of a citizen is distinctly modern and would probably have surprised most of the founding fathers of the American republic.” 
Artz gives a summary of the benefits Europe had living under a unified Church: it “rebuked kings for mismanagement…sought to regulate industry and commerce by preaching the idea of a just price, by prohibiting usury, by teaching that property is a trust from God held for the general benefit, and by its inculcation of charity….”  However, since duties of the Church and duties of the state were never clearly outlined, the ownership of such duties was debated through the entire period.  Because the Church had a great influence, it could never escape political leaders trying to use its influence (and vice versa), and monarchs would often make sure Church positions were given to those who favored them politically. Because high church positions in large, densely populated areas could have a great deal of money attached to them, they often attracted men with little interest in the religious duties of their roles. 
The Church Sold Indulgences
A common figure for medieval satire is the priest who sold indulgences. Most students are exposed to Chaucer’s Summoner and Pardoner, both of whom deeply abuse their clerical power. Textbook introductions explain their abuses in passages that are so brief that they are often (unintentionally) misleading, and students often forget that they are satires.
An indulgence is defined as “remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with the authority of the treasury of the satisfaction of Christ and the saints.”  The practice of selling indulgences was always illegal. Textbooks rarely mention that church authorities were constantly in the process of tracking down and punishing people selling indulgences, whether they were priests misusing their authority or laymen disguised as priests. As a result, many students assume that the clergy ignored or even encouraged the abuse.
The idea of giving the church money for forgiveness existed, but it existed as penance—not the transaction expressed in satires. Since sin is “before all else an offence against God,” penance is the liturgical expression of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church.  Methods of doing penance include fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.  Almsgiving allows the giver to express kindness and generosity—hence, giving money is an approved way to remit sin. Almsgiving is manifested in many ways, including giving money to the poor and giving money to others who will use it do good. “[F]inancing good works” was an important sign of generosity.  The possibility for confusion and for abuse is obvious. The churchman (or decoy churchman) who abused this power was greatly despised; thus, he was a popular figure for satire and far more entertaining than an ordinary priest.
Emperor Otto I, who lived from 912-973, instituted the practice of bishops being invested with their insignia and symbols of office by the emperor, lay investiture.  This established a political hold over Church officials, and the Church struggled for a long time to free itself from that influence. The practice of simony, selling church positions, came about because churches were often attached to the property of the nobility. Noble families would set aside benefices, property and money, for younger sons who would not inherit the estate and were expected by their families to join the Church.
The younger sons often had no interest in becoming priests, so they would use their money disreputably or hire others to perform their ecclesiastical functions. The higher the position available, the higher the amount of money attached to it. Attaining such a position meant a sizable regular income, so many were willing to pay high prices to attain such positions.  Pope Gregory VII prohibited lay investiture  as well as simony around the year 1060.  This does not mean it never happened—rather, I want readers to realize that the problem was recognized and addressed, though not extinguished.
One may easily find misogynistic texts from individual churchmen, but it is inaccurate to say that the medieval Church hated women because we find their influence in many places. Pernoud gives detailed examples of abbesses holding ecclesiastical power over the monks in their orders, particularly at Fontrevrault. I have already mentioned this in “Part 4: Women.” In addition, André Vauchez names Margaret of Cortona, Clare of Montefalco, and Angela of Foligno as three examples of women whose mystic visions had a great impact on and gave them great authority in their religious communities.  Catherine of Siena, whose writings include 400 letters, was greatly responsible for bringing the pope back to Rome and ending the Avignon papacy.  Bridget of Sweden worked for the same goal.  With these two women, we see women having a huge influence in affairs of both the clergy and politics. The writings of Hildegard von Bingen, Julian of Norwich, and Margery Kempe are still widely read in academia these days, showing the strength, influence, and individuality of these women.
Perhaps the greatest example of a woman’s role in the Church is the role of the Virgin Mary. The High Middle Ages was a high point of Mariology—devotion to the Virgin Mary. The influential Myracles of Oure Lady was a collection of tales that showed Mary’s intercession for the sake of rich and poor alike.  Heroes such as Sir Gawain, King Arthur, and Robin Hood were usually depicted showing strong Marian devotion.
Mary was seen as a powerful intercessor. In the hierarchy of holy power, she was located just below Christ, but “[a]n appeal to Mary was a sign of sincere remorse, for, once the idea of a hierarchy of appeal has been accepted, a direct and immediate invocation of Christ might suggest a presumptuous unawareness of one’s own sinfulness rather than a theologically correct recourse to the one and ultimate source of forgiveness.”  This was frequently compared to the idea that if one has a request for the king, one would do well to gain the queen’s favor before presenting the petition. This says much about women’s influence. Women frequently made pilgrimages to Marian shrines, often with petitions related to motherhood.  Often, these pilgrimages were made alone, for their own sakes, without their husbands.
I have given the briefest of summaries concerning what I have found to be the most often stereotyped aspects of the medieval Church. Some will say that I have been too favorable to the medieval Church—if I have leaned that way, it is because I have met so many who think that the medieval Church was fully aware of its problems, but either ignored them completely or approved of them. Hopefully, new medievalists will question some stereotypes and will have the interest to conduct their own research in this area.
- Pernoud, Régine. Those Terrible Middle Ages. Trans. Anne Englund Nash. (San Francisco, Ignatius Press: 2000), 131-132.
- Le Goff, Jacques. “Introduction: Medieval Man.” Medieval Callings, ed. Jacques Le Goff, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. (1987; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 3.
- Cherubini, Giovanni. “The Peasant and Agriculture.” Medieval Callings, ed. Jacques Le Goff, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. (1987; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 133.
- Ibid., 134.
- Ibid., 334.
- Pernoud, Régine. Those Terrible, 119
- Artz, Frederick B. The Mind of the Middle Ages: An Historical Survey A.D. 200–1500, 3rd ed. (1953; repr., Chicago, University of Chicago Press: 1980), 198.
- Ibid., 199.
- Dwyer, John C. Church History: Twenty Centuries of Catholic Christianity, (New York, Paulist Press: 1985), 67.
- Artz, Frederick B. The Mind, 227.
- Ibid., 269c.
- Ibid., 281.
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1471.
- Ibid., 1440.
- Ibid., 1434.
- Dwyer, John C., Church History, 185–86.
- Ibid., 169.
- Ibid., 158.
- Artz, Frederick B. The Mind, 282.
- Dwyer, John C., Church History, 169.
- Vauchez, André. “The Saint.” Medieval Callings, ed. Jacques Le Goff, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane. (1987; repr., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 328.
- Artz, Frederick B. The Mind 427.
- Vauchez, André. “The Saint,” 329.
- Whiteford, Peter, ed. Introduction. The Myracles of Oure Lady. From Wynkyn de Worde’s edition. (Heidelberg: n.p., 1990), 7-8.
- qtd. in Saupe, Karen. Introduction. Middle English Marian Lyrics, ed. Karen Saupe, Russell A. Peck, and Alan Lupack. (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute, 1998), 26.
- Morrison, Susan Signe. Women Pilgrims in Late Medieval England: Private Piety as Public Performance. (New York: Routledge, 2000), 6.