Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Insecurity of the Medieval Church

Part 1: Augustine as Conduit to the Inquisition
Part 2: How Confession became a Divinely Instituted Sacrament
Part 3: The Origins of Payment for Penance
Part 4: Crusading and Other Indulgences
Part 5: The Great Schism of the Fifth Century
Part 6: “Deliver us from the hands of the Romans”
Part 7: “Impetus for the Crusades”
Part 8: “Babies roasted on spits”

Here Johnson begins to tie some of the loose ends together. In a way, this post provides a response to some of the comments which suggested that things might not be coming together. Johnson is a writer who writes 1000 page books; he takes a while to get to his point – he necessarily must tie in a lot of information – but when he gets there, you genuinely have an understanding of what he was trying to say.

After the twelfth century, the crusading idea lost its appeal in the West. Population was no longer rising at the same rate, and the surplus, in France, tended to drift instead to the towns; in Germany, led by the Teutonic knights who transferred their activities to Prussia and Poland, it pushed to the east. After about 1310 population actually fell, and from the mid fourteenth century there was an acute labour shortage in Europe. Population did not begin to expand again significantly until the sixteenth century, when emigration was resumed, but in a westerly direction. But the decline of the crusade was due to more than demographic factors. … By the end of the twelfth century some Europeans, at least, rejected the crude popular theology of the crusading movement. …

By this time, of course, the papacy had long since devalued the crusading ideal by adapting it for internal political and financial purposes. The legal mechanism of crusading was too tempting to escape abuse. A man who took the cross enjoyed the protection of the courts. He might evade his debts and taxes. On the other hand, careful investigations were made after a crusade had been preached to ensure that people had fulfilled their vows. Reneging was punished canonically.

The papacy was quick to use the procedure against the Hohenstaufen. Fredrick II was first excommunicated for not going on crusade, then for going without the Popes permission; and he was denounced as an infidel for showing that, with the Saracens, more could be obtained by negotiation than by force. Later the weapon was turned against Henry III of England, who could not fulfil his vow to go on crusade by midsummer 1256: Alexander IV commuted it, but Henry in return had to provide troops for the Pope’s anti Hohenstaufen campaign in Italy, and pay in addition 135,541 marks, with excommunication and interdict in default. England could not pay and the result was a constitutional crisis and the famous Oxford Parliament of 1259, the episode forming an important landmark in the progressive breakdown of Rome’s relations with England.

It is, in fact, a misleading over-simplification to see the crusade simply as a confrontation between Christian Europe and the Moslem East. The central problem of the institutional church was always how to control the manifestations of religious enthusiasm, and divert them into orthodox and constructive channels. The problem was enormously intensified when large numbers of people were involved. At what point did mass-piety become unmanageable, and therefore heresy? It was a matter of fine judgment, a dilemma s old as the Montanists.
A crusade was in essence nothing more than a mob of armed and fanatical Christians. Once its numbers rose to over about 10,000 it could no longer be controlled, only guided. It might be used to attack the Moslems, or unleashed against Jews, or heretics; or it might become heretical and antinomian itself, and smash the structures of established society. This fear was always at the back of the minds of the clerical and secular authorities. In the Dark Ages, the West had been comparatively free of heresy.

The Church was cocooned within the authoritarian tradition of Augustine.
But occasionally strange figures popped up: nearly always lay-folk, spontaneously reenacting the Montanist tradition. Gregory of Tours tells of a freelance preacher from Bourges, who called himself Christ, collected an army of followers and amassed booty in the name of God. He and his men finally presented themselves to the Bishop of Le Puy, stark naked, leaping and somersaulting. The leader was killed on the spot, his female companion, Mary, tortured until she revealed “their diabolical devices”. This type of incident became more common with the development of long-distance pilgrimages.

Pilgrims brought back weird religious ideas and cults from the East, where dualist or Gnostic heresies had always flourished, and indeed ante-dated Christianity. And then, the man from Bourges was an example of the low-born charismatic leader who often led mass pilgrimages, which in the eleventh century developed into popular crusades: Peter the Hermit was an archetype. The phenomenon took on huge and dangerous dimensions in the eleventh century, with the rapid growth of population, the increase in travel and the spread of ideas, and the impact of the Gregorian reforms. Gregory’s vision [Gregory VII] of a pure, undefiled church aroused more expectations than it could fulfil. The clergy, in particular, simply could not produce the results, in terms of piety and pastoral enthusiasm, which Gregory had seemed to promise. Hence, as with the original Montanists, Christian activists tended to turn against the clergy, and take the religious reform, or revival, into their own hands.

Here was a mortal threat to the Church. We mistakenly think of medieval institutional Christianity as an immensely solid and stable structure. But in some ways it was much more vulnerable than the civil power, itself a fragile vessel. Like civil government, the regular routine of organized Christianity could easily collapse; the two often disintegrated together, under pressure. The Christian system was complex and [could be] disorganized with comparative ease; an accidental conjunction of two or more of a huge number of forces could bring about de-Christianization over quite a large area very suddenly. Thus St Bernard of Clairvaux on a preaching tour of southern France in 1145 reported that a number of heresies were common and that in large areas Catholicism, as he understood it, had disappeared.

Naturally, where antinomian mobs were liable to sweep away church institutions, established authority was anxious to get them out of Christendom – preferably to the East, whence few would return. These mass crusades or armed pilgrimages were usually led by unauthorized prophetae or Montanists, and were a form of popular millenarianism, highly unorthodox but to some extent controlled or canalized by authority. Sometimes they attacked the Jews, regarded as devils like the Moslems, but more accessible. But if now Jews or Moslems were available, they nearly always, sooner or later, turned on the Christian clergy.

Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, © 1976 Athenium, pgs. 248-249.

I’m envisioning two more posts in this series after this one: the “crusade” against the Cathars, one of these “de-Christianization” events that the Institutional Church chose to combat by force, and also, the development of the Inquisition, which was the stated intention of this series at the beginning.

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