In Rome in 800 the Pope crowned a new leader with the title Holy Roman Emperor. This was Charlemagne, and he had a vision for a glorious Christian culture in which government and religion were one. The combination of a Pope with colossal control and an Emperor expanding his territory by conquering people created a mighty force – Christendom. A document called The Donation of Constantine was unearthed, which purported to show that this state of affairs was what the Emperor Constantine envisaged four centuries earlier. In fact it was a fake, but nobody admitted that for six hundred years.
Bishops of Christian communities hundreds of miles from Rome began to question why the Pope commanded such authority when their culture and needs were so dissimilar. In Constantinople (which was previously called Byzantium and is now called Istanbul) a different way of life and worship had established itself. This Byzantine Orthodox Church, under its own leader called a Patriarch, grew substantially many miles east of Europe, and trouble loomed.
It was growing by taking the news of Jesus to what is now Russia and the Balkans. They translated the Bible and encouraged people to worship in their own languages. (In contrast the Roman church continued to have services in Latin for many centuries.) They considered images of Jesus (icons) to be idols, and many beautiful works of art were destroyed.
Tensions grew between the Pope’s Latin-speaking Roman Church and the Patriarch’s Greek-speaking Byzantine church. A split seemed inevitable, but when it finally happened its trigger was disagreement over a single word in the Nicene Creed about the relationship of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The two leaders excommunicated each other and the Christian groups separated to become the denominations we now call the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
At the end of the 12th century Pope Gregory VII looked at his church, with lazy clergy and an Emperor with too much power, and sought reform. Theology matured as an academic study, with an Archbishop of Canterbury called Anselm writing about faith as a matter of intellect.
However, Gregory’s successor had different priorities. The growth of Islam was a pressing issue. Jerusalem was not only significant to Christians and Jews but also to Muslims, because it had associations with Muhammad. It had been occupied by Turks. Pope Urban II financed a military Crusade to retake it. His call to arms received a zealous response. He promised benefits for the relatives of those who fought, and that those who died in battle would go straight to heaven. The first Crusade secured Jerusalem in 1099.
Islam was also growing charismatic leaders. Saladin forged it into a religious and cultural power, and the lands where Jesus had lived were once again under Muslim rule ninety years later. There were further Crusades for three hundred years. There were partial victories, tragic and bloody atrocities, and a legacy of shame which continues to the present day as different races and religions seek to live side by side in the Middle East.
A further dismaying feature of the mediaeval Popes was their eagerness to impose taxes. Successive Popes who came from France in the fourteenth century made their home in Avignon instead of Rome, finding it safer and more luxurious. Whole cities were excommunicated as rival factions supported or opposed this. There was a return to Rome, but the disunity among senior bishops (called cardinals) was so great that one faction elected a rival Pope. An attempt to regulate the power of the Pope by making him subservient to a council of Christian leaders failed. The humble leadership of Jesus was unrecognisable in the armed conflict which followed, and at one point three rivals simultaneously claimed to be Pope.
Away from the political power-wrangling, however, monasteries continued to be places of education and craftsmanship. They were places of hope and care for the poorest in society. The rule of life which had been established by Benedict – simplicity, charity and hard work – was rediscovered by Cistercian monks under the leadership of a man called Bernard. They planted hundreds of monastic communities beginning in Clairvaux, France.
Another order of monks and nuns called the Carthusian order emphasised silence in their prayer and service of God. Francis of Assisi also founded an order in Italy which turned its back on the prosperity which many monasteries were accumulating through their excellent management. His humility and charm was inspirational for thousands who shared his vision for both serving and living like the poor. Franciscan monks did not retreat from the world but engaged with it. So did the similar order for nuns founded by his sister Clare.
The order founded by Dominic in the 13th century also thrives to this day – monks, nuns and a community surrounding them. It had education as one of its priorities. Thomas Aquinas belonged to the Dominican order and set his fine mind to the task of proving that God exists. His scholarly approach to the Christian faith still helps philosophers think about the great unknowable questions of existence.
A more mystical approach to contemplating Jesus was also rising. It was a simple and personal response to the power and privilege of the church as an institute. For instance, in Norwich a woman known as Julian was sealed alone in a room built on the side of a church. In the late fourteenth century she wrote beautiful and inspiring accounts of what God was teaching her about the goodness and compassion of his plan for humankind.
Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Where to find it:
About these words:
Paul writing about twenty years after Jesus that battles over religion are actually manifestations of a spiritual battle that is going on in heaven and earth – a concept that was very important to the Crusaders.
And they said…
Bonaventura, Italian theologian, 1221 – 1274:
What kind of man is this who for our sakes is hanging on the cross, whose suffering causes the rocks themselves to crack and crumble with compassion, whose death brings the dead back to life? Let my heart crack and crumble at the sight of him. Let my soul break apart with compassion for his suffering. Let it be shattered with grief at my sins for which he dies. And finally let it be softened with devoted love for him.
Clare, founder of the Poor Clare community of nuns, 1193 – 1253:
Love him totally who gave himself totally for your love.