CH 09: The medieval church


After the fall of Rome (476 AD), Western Europe was divided. This marks the beginning of the Middle Ages, which may be roughly dated from 500 to 1500 AD.

An important factor during the Middle Ages is the rise of Islam (around 625 AD) and the following Muslim conquest. In the early 700s, Muslims cross from Spain into France. At the Battle of Tours (732 AD) the invaders are defeated and pushed back into Spain.

The military leader in the Battle of Tours was Charles Martel (“the Hammer”); later, his grandson becomes King Charles I, also known as Charlemagne. On Christmas Day, 800 AD, the Pope crowns Charlemagne emperor.

Charlemagne was a successful ruler, extending his realm to Germany, Austria, and parts of Spain. He also took the Christian faith seriously. For instance, he attempted to unify the liturgy of the churches and insisted that the clergy memorize the Apostles’ Creed. Charlemagne also promoted schooling for all.

Church and State

Under Charlemagne and after, two types of leader vied for dominance in the “Holy Roman Empire”: the Pope as the head of the church and the Emperor as the head of the state. While their realms were theoretically of a different nature—spiritual vs. secular—in practice they crossed this boundary often. The Pope, for instance, had acquired a piece of land (the Papal states in central Italy), while the Emperor might try controlling the appointment of bishops. At times the Pope and Emperor were engaged in a debate who had the greater power. Certainly, the modern ideal of separation of church and state was not known.

The Crusades

In the Crusades, armies of Western Christians traveled to the Holy Land and modern-day Turkey to drive off the Muslims. This happened roughly between 1100 and 1300 AD. Initially, the emperor of the Easter Roman (Byzantine) Empire had asked the West for support. It may be argued that there was a legitimate occasion for the Crusades: Muslim invaders had conquered much land around the Mediterranean, often converting the population through violence and compulsion. The threat of the violent Turk overrunning Constantinople was real.

Sadly, the Crusades were also misguided in many ways. The soldiers fought with zeal for God, but often did not understand the purpose. The wars were unnecessarily bloody. In 1202, Crusaders from Italy actually sacked Constantinople for their own commercial advantage, rather than helping their fellow Christians. While the Western armies gained some ground, this success was only temporary.

Ultimately, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Muslim Turks. This ended the last part of the old Roman Empire. Turkish armies invaded the Balkans and remained the threat to Europe for some time.

Changes in medieval Society

In the High Middle Ages (1000-1250 AD) we see the development of Christendom, where people not only identify as Christians in the way of faith but as a political-cultural identity.

Out of the feudal system rises the new middle class of independent craftsmen. This boosts the growth of cities. The city churches build magnificent cathedrals, which become centers for worship but also for learning. Eventually this leads to the establishment of universities.

The Crusaders also bring home new insights in science, mathematics and philosophy. Thus the stage is set for the development of modern science.


In this climate develops Scholasticism, a method of learning and inquiry into theology and other studies. Rather than merely continuing the older Christian traditions, students were taught to ask detailed questions and analyze them systematically. Although Scholasticism sometimes has the reputation of being overly formal and detailed, it led to important insights in Christian theology.

The best-known Scholastic theologian was Thomas Aquinas. His Summa Theologica (around 1270 AD) is an overview of Christian teaching, analyzed according to Aristotelian philosophical concepts. One of the central questions Thomas and his contemporaries addressed was the relationship between “nature” and “grace”, between secular knowledge and living and the spiritual aspect of life.

The Inquisition

In the 1200s, the church appointed a task force to round up, try and execute heretics. This task force was known as the Inquisition. While there was a need to respond to various heretical movements, the Inquisition quickly gained too much power and abused it. Many were tortured and executed without due process. The Inquisition would remain an important factor in Christendom for centuries.

Reform movements

The church in the High and Late Middle Ages often suffered from corruption. Several individuals and groups attempted to reform their church and recover the simple principles of Christian living.

The Benedict monastery in Cluny (est. 910 AD) is one example of a reform movement. It returned to the traditional monastic life of liturgy and charitable living. While the Cluniac reforms boosted the monastic movement in Western Europe, it also gained much prestige and wealth. Other monastic orders attempted to correct this and reform monasticism further.

The Italian Francis of Assisi (around 1200 AD) established the first mendicant (“begging”) order. Mendicant monks live and work among the people and depend on their charitable gifts for their livelihood. Francis’s lifestyle of poverty and devotion inspired many; his followers formed the Franciscan order, which is still in existence today.

In the same time period, the order of Dominican friars started under leadership of Dominic Guzman. The church had tasked him with dealing with the Cathares, a group of gnostic heretics. Rather than displaying power, Dominic attempted to win them over by living a simple Christian life and preaching among the people. In his footsteps, Dominican friars would live among the people and spend their days preaching among them.

John Wycliffe and his followers

Around 1400, the corruption of the church organization was even more rampant than before. John Wycliffe from Britain publicly spoke against various abuses.

  • He criticized the Papacy for decadence and unfaithfulness. Instead of pursuing spiritual truth and spiritual riches, the Pope and his bishops sought secular power and wealth.
  • Wycliffe rejected the idea that the essence of the church is its hierarchy of Pope, bishops and priests. The true church consists of the true believers, God’s elect. (This concept of an “invisible church” would later return in various forms in Protestant theology.)
  • Likewise, salvation is not handed out by the clergy through sacramental actions, but is given directly by God to believers.
  • Wycliffe denied the doctrine of transubstantiation, which teaches that the wine and blood of the Eucharist, when consecrated, actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Rather, the elements of the Eucharist are symbolic and the communion with Jesus Christ happens in a spiritual manner.

Wycliffe sent out preachers to teach the people the basics of Christianity. In his mind, it was not enough to have implicit faith, where simple believers merely depend on the priest and are largely unaware of the content of their faith. Wycliffe wanted the people to know God’s Word for themselves. Famously, he translated the Bible from Latin into English. Wycliffe’s reforms were influential in England but not appreciated by the church organization. His followers were nicknamed Lollards, “mumblers”.

Wycliffe Bible cover Pastor Melissa Scott
A page in the Wycliffe Bible

The project of Wycliffe gained more traction in Bohemia. There, John Hus led a similar reform movement. He had a great following, but was eventually burned at the stake for his beliefs.

Wycliffe and Hus may be viewed as pre-Reformers. Many of their concerns and teachings were the same as that of the Protestant Reformation, which would take place a century later.

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