THE ELEVENTH CENTURY
An era of almost miraculous restoration! In the course of the century the centralization of government, which Rome had striven after for so long, was finally realized. The Catholic Church became a papal church, governed from Rome. From 1059 onwards the popes were no longer appointed by powerful Roman families but by a college of cardinals (advisers who are appointed by the pope). Gradually the way things were done in all local parishes in Europe was dictated by universal laws which Rome had written. The new strength that the Church began to radiate strengthened the position of the priests, particularly in their dealings with laymen. In addition the much more successful legal order saw to it that the behavior of priests strongly improved. Simony and sexual misconduct were no longer tolerated. In the dogmatic field this century witnessed the development of the doctrine of the transubstantiation (which says that during the celebration of the Eucharist the priest really changes the bread and the wine into the body and the blood of Christ) and the doctrine of heaven, hell and purgatory.
---The great turning point came during the papacy of Gregory the Seventh (1073-1085). Up to the beginning of his papacy the popes were appointed by the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and the bishops were appointed by local princes and noble families (this is called lay investiture). Those who had the last word in all worldly matters (the emperor, the princes of federal states and the nobility) also had all the power within the Church. Pope Gregory challenged this power, put an end to it and in principle he made the Catholic Church independent of the state. After him the cardinals could choose the pope and the people with high positions in the Church could appoint their own bishops for their own regions. In addition Pope Gregory claimed universal authority for the pope.
---During the first six centuries of its existence Christianity had a number of centers of power: for Africa there was Alexandria, for the Middle East Antioch, for Eastern Europe Constantinople, for Western Europe Rome. In the seventh century Christianity lost Africa and the Middle East and from this period until the middle of the eleventh century Rome and Constantinople competed with each other for the first place within European Christianity. When in 1054 the pope of Rome demanded submission from the patriarch of Constantinople and the patriarch was not willing to submit, the first great split or schism within Christianity was a fact: since that year the western Roman Catholic Church and the eastern Orthodox churches have each gone their separate ways.
---In 1095 the pope called on the Christians to wage a holy war against Islam, which was advancing everywhere. The first concrete end was the “liberation” of the Holy Land. The result was the first Crusade, which began in 1096 and resulted in the conquest of Palestine in 1099. Both in this crusade and the ones following it the Christians acted very cruelly towards Muslims and Jews.
THE TWELFTH CENTURY
A number of things that had been going on inside the Christian Church for centuries just continued during this period. To mention three: tensions between the popes and the emperors regarding the question which had the last word in worldly and in ecclesiastical matters, the ambition of the popes to draw more and more power towards themselves, the crusades to put an end to the expansion of Islam. The Catholic Church built up its role as mediator between God and humans to the level that we still know today by definitively formulating the doctrines regarding the sacraments. There came seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, matrimony, holy orders, Eucharist, confession and the anointing of the sick. This century witnessed a tremendous flourishing of the worship of Mary. It was generally believed that Mary lived in heaven and that people who wanted to ask favors from Jesus Christ could ask her to act as their advocate. All these developments contributed to the fact that by the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century the Church began to flourish like never before. The educational institutions of the Church also prospered. About the year 1150 the monastic schools in Oxford and Paris developed into the first universities. However, the students of those days possessed hardly any books: they had to rely on their memory and on notes they had to make themselves.
---From the middle of the century the constantly increasing power, wealth and laziness of many priests began to arouse anger and resistance. In Southern France and Northern Italy the resistance got organized in the form of movements which promoted poverty and spread the idea that it was more Christian to give than to receive. A well-known movement which emphasized the idea that poverty was a virtue was formed by the Albigensians, also called Cathars. Even more influential was the movement of the Waldensians, who sharply criticized the power structures of the established Church. They also rejected the role of the Church as mediator between God and humans, the sacraments and the authority of the Church in doctrinal matters. They only recognized the authority of the Scriptures. They ignored the prohibition of the official Church to preach and to manifest themselves as an independent religious movement. From the very start the Roman Catholic Church did all it could do to repress this movement and to destroy it by means of force and violence. In 1184 the pope set up the infamous Inquisition. This institute consisted of official ecclesiastical functionaries whose task it was track down heretics (people of different beliefs), to have them condemned by ecclesiastical courts, and then to have them killed by worldly law-officers. In spite of the excessively cruel and inhuman persecution by the Inquisition the Waldensians survived. In the fifteenth century they merged with Protestantism. They still exist today. Particularly in Italy.
THE THIRTEENTH CENTURY
There can be no doubt about it that this century forms the culminating point within the existence of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. In 1215 the council of the Lateran definitively confirmed the doctrine of transubstantiation, the absolute power of the pope and the priests and the duty of all true believers to go to confession and to receive the Holy Communion at least once a year. In 1234 followed the decision that only the pope would be entitled to canonize people. In this century the Church also came forward with its own reaction to the criticism of its excessive wealth in the form of the mendicant orders: monastic orders like the Franciscans and the Dominicans which demanded strict poverty from all their friars. On the other hand the cruel persecution of people of different beliefs (heretics) continued more fiercely than ever before. In 1252 the pope allowed the Inquisition to torture suspects during their judicial hearings.
In this century lived the greatest philosopher and theologian that the Church has produced: Thomas Aquinas. He laid the scholarly basis for practically all the Roman Catholic teachings and doctrines which Catholics have believed in up to the present day. By using his profound knowledge of the classical Greek philosophers he tried to demonstrate that the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church were completely in harmony with what human reason and human logic considered true and realistic. In particular he lay the foundation of the well-known doctrine that all people have a soul which is immaterial and immortal.
THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY
In the history of Christianity the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries formed a period of terrible deterioration. In the decline of the Church the popes led the way. They got excessively wealthy through the sale of ecclesiastical offices, titles and favors. All over Europe the priests had to pay ecclesiastical taxes to the pope. The popes rolled in wealth and threw their money about wherever they came. Ecclesiastical offices were sold to the highest bidders or granted to relatives. People who wanted to get rich bought as many ecclesiastical offices as they could afford and had the work done by underpaid and uneducated substitutes. The popes got more and more involved in worldly and political developments. France and the Vatican got so entangled with each other politically that the popes did not want to live in Rome any longer and moved to the French town of Avignon. The Church leaders resided in this French place from 1305 to 1376, when Pope Gregory the Eleventh returned to Rome. At his death in 1378 the hopelessly divided cardinals were unable to choose a successor. The highest top of the Church hierarchy fell apart into two implacable camps: the Western schism. One camp was supported by France, Spain and Portugal. They had their own pope, who resided in Avignon. The group that was supported by Germany and England had its own popes in Rome. Thus between 1378 and 1417 (the years of the western schism) there were always two and sometimes even three rival popes. This sad situation led to increasingly heated protests and louder and louder calls for reforms. Partly inside the Church, but much more important were the protest movements outside the Church. These protest movements were particularly critical of the Church hierarchy. Thus the Franciscan friar Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1349) protested against the traditional Biblical exegesis (way of interpreting) of the Church, which attached much more value to the Catholic tradition than to the actual Biblical texts. In England John Wycliffe (1329-1384) turned against the doctrine of transubstantiation and also protested against the idea that, for real contact between humans and God, priests were needed as mediators. He also translated the Bible into English because he wanted all people to be able to verify for themselves if the teachings of the Church were in agreement with God’s Word or not. He got a lot of followers in England. They were called Lollards. In the area around Prague John Huss (1369-1415) got a lot of followers, who agreed with his opinion that the teachings of the Church must be based on the Bible and not on tradition. They also believed that Jesus Christ, and not the pope, was the head of the Church and that only God could forgive sins. They also turned against the worship of statues of saints and against the fact that all sorts of miracles and supernatural phenomena were becoming more and more dominant in the Church. He died on the stake as a condemned heretic.
THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY
In this century the depravity of popes reached an all-time low with Sixtus the Fourth (1471-1484) and Alexander the Sixth (1492-1503). Sixtus set up an absolute record in the field of nepotism (granting profitable offices to relatives): he appointed six cousins cardinals. Pope Alexander the Sixth (born as Rodrigo Borgia) is generally viewed as the most immoral pope the world has ever known. He begot a lot of children. One of them was the well-known Lucretia Borgia. Just like in the fourteenth century many priests were not interested in their work, poorly educated, obscene and greedy. The common people were very much aware of this and the resistance against the Church as an institute strongly increased. Already in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries this resistance paved the way for the Reformation of 1517.
---In the Middle Ages it was generally believed that people have an immortal soul, which after death goes to heaven, hell or purgatory. Purgatory was viewed as a place where the souls of righteous ones were tortured to do penance for their sins. The fear of this torture, which could last for decades or centuries, was deeply felt by the people. The Church put indulgences at the people’s disposal: remission of punishment and torture, measured in numbers of days. At first people could earn indulgences by doing religious things: praying, charity, pilgrimages. Later on it became possible to buy indulgences by paying money. Before long the selling of indulgences was a means for priests to get very rich.
--- By the end of the century the Inquisition began to persecute witches in addition to heretics. Witches were women of whom it was proved that they had made a pact with the devil.
--- About 1450 there was a great revival of the interest in the art, the philosophy and the writings of Greek and Roman antiquity: the Renaissance. People who took part in this movement called themselves humanists. They opposed all forms of authoritarian thinking and acting, also within the Church, and wanted to start their own, individual quest for truth. Many of them learned how to read Greek and were then able to study the holy Greek Scriptures for themselves.
--- About 1450 the art of printing was invented near Mainz in Germany. In 1456 Gutenberg made the first printed book: the Gutenberg Bible. After this invention it became possible to mass-produce books. The fact that books were much cheaper now created a new and critical reading public. But for this new reading public and printed texts and books which could quickly spread all over Europe the Reformation of the sixteenth century would not have been possible.
--- About 1500 European explorers reached America, the west coast of Africa and Asia. In the following decades Europeans conquered a large part of the world.