Why was the Church so Dominant in Medieval Society?

Essay, 2012
17 Pages, Grade: 76.0%



A critical starting point for any historical scrutiny of the medieval church must beginwith Colin Morris, whose foundational work argues that that the years 1050 to 1250witnessed “the supreme age of papal monarchy”.1 Morris stands within a longhistoriographical tradition of medievalists who have argued for this prevailing perspective ofthe church in the medieval epoch as defined by its primacy, universality and supremacy overan ostensibly lay society. Underpinning this conception of the church is the novel andextensive reform movement that began during the pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-85),which articulated and firmly established the concept of a ‘hierarchical church’.2 This notionof the ecclesiastical hierarchy, elucidated by both contemporary writers and modernhistorians, arguably dominates our perspective of the medieval religious landscape, and partof the historian’s task is therefore to reach a judgement as to what we understand by the ecclesia and societas in this period. As John van Engen postulates ‘[a]ll the texts poured overby generations of medievalists ... have disclosed the views of only a miniscule clerical elite;the great mass of medieval folk lived in a “folklore” culture’.3 Arguably, our period ischaracterised by a divergence between ecclesiastical rhetoric and popular culture, mostevident in the historical tradition which attributes to our period the birth of popular heresy invarious forms. The rise of heresy, and the ‘choice’ inherent in its initial and continuing prevalence within medieval society, stands in clear contradistinction to the concepts of ecclesiastical hierarchy and papal authority advocated by the medieval church.4 Indeed, whilst historians have recognised, and in many cases extolled, the conceptual legacy bequeathed by the Gregorian reform movement upon the ascendant medieval church, they have arguably overlooked, most pertinently in the case of heresy, the realities of “the universal episcopacy claimed by the pope”.5

According to Geoffrey Barraclough, the reforms instituted by Gregory VII “set thepapacy on the road to universal dominion and absolute theocratic power”.6 Contained in aletter addressed to all the faithful (July-November 1084), Gregory VII outlined his essentialconception of his role as supreme pontiff: ‘that holy church, the bride of Christ, our lady andmother, should be returned to her true glory and stand free, chaste, and catholic’.7 Thisrepresents a trenchant statement on Gregory VII’s behalf of the need for the reform of the lateeleventh-century church. As Cowdrey suggests, as well as aspiring to secure the reform andchastity of the church, particularly the eradication of simony and clerical marriage, Gregoryset himself with “demonic zeal” to achieve its liberty and freedom from secular lordship.8 The papal pronouncement Dictatus Papae (1075), a compilation of twenty-seven axiomaticstatements of powers arrogated to the pope and the papacy, is an important window into theliberty which Gregory was vying to achieve. The eleventh and twelfth statements, whichadvocate that ‘all princes shall kiss his feet’ and that the pope is permitted to depose emperorsrespectively, are indicative of the drive for papal autonomy from secular powers.9 AsBarraclough argues, the Dictatus Papae is “a key to Gregory’s thought and attitude” and reflects how revolutionary his reformist pontificate was.10 Further to the above statements, this document advocated that, for the first time in the history of the pontificate of Rome, thepope was granted the sole right of being called ‘universal’; and ‘[t]hat the Roman Church hasnever erred; nor will it err to all eternity’;.11 The Dictatus Papae of Gregory VII thusillustrates the new conception of the Roman church at the turn of the twelfth-century, that is,a declaration of the universality and infallibility of the supreme pontiff and the Romanchurch. As Kathleen Cushing argues, the legacy of Gregory VII was the “the transformationof the papacy into a supranational institution” at the turn of the twelfth-century.12

The Gregorian reform movement hence offered a novel formulation of theunderstanding of the church hierarchy and the role of the papacy. Whilst advocating both theautonomy and universality of the papacy, the Dictatus Papae most importantly elucidated anovel understanding of papal authority: the pope was granted the prerogative to ‘according tothe needs of the time ... make new laws’; and ‘[t]hat no chapter and no book shall beconsidered canonical without his authority’.13 In this manner, the papacy was transformed,theoretically, into the directing head of the Christian community. The pope was granted thecanonical authority to direct and dictate the moral and spiritual currents of medieval life, andwith the jurisdictional dimension added to the papal arsenal, the prerogative to intervene at alllevels of Christian society.14 However, the fundamental import of the Gregorian reformmovement, reflected by the edicts of the Dictatus Papae was, as G. R. Evans suggests, in thenew conception of the papacy as “a source of definitive pronouncements”.15 Indeed, thepenultimate statement of Gregory VII’s Dictatus Papae states ‘[t]hat he who is not at peace with the Roman Church shall not be considered catholic’.16 Here contained is an effective statement of the grounds for membership of the Christian community at the turn of thetwelfth-century. Whilst this penultimate dictate importantly contains no tangible formulationor clear definition of orthodoxy, it does state means for exclusion. As such, it reflects thepapacy’s new-found self-conception as possessing “the universality of jurisdiction of the ecclesia Romana”, whereby lay, or non-clerical, society was subject to, and bound by, itsunrestricted spiritual authority.17 Indeed, the concept of the church became equated more andmore with the universal idea of the papacy, and the ecclesia Romana was equated more thanever with authority and infallibility. As Richard Southern advocates, it becomes more naturalfor the historian to speak of this post-Gregorian ecclesiastical hierarchy as the ‘church’ in thetwelfth-century.18

Thus enshrined in the conceptual legacy bequeathed by the Gregorian reformmovement was the new concept of papal authority, and the universality of jurisdiction whichformed an inherent part of it. Yet, as Malcolm Lambert argues, the impact of the Gregoriansimultaneously “stirred the consciences of the laity at large”.19 Indeed, many historians haveargued for the naissance of a ‘new lay spirituality’ in the twelfth-century, whereby the noveltyof the Gregorian reform programme instituted not merely a re-conception of the ecclesia Romana, but arguably created an autonomous groundswell of popular dissent.20 Suchheretical groups of the mid-twelfth century were characterised by a desire for autonomy fromthe institutional church. For example, the heretical group led by Henry of Lausanne spurnedthe ecclesiastical leadership of the bishop of Le Mans, Hildebert, claiming ‘[w]e have a father,we have a pontiff, we have an advocate who surpasses you in authority; he exceeds you in probity and knowledge’.21 Indeed, when the clergymen of Le Mans attempted to debate with Henry one day, they ‘were violently assaulted ... and barely escaped from the attack of thefurious crowd with their lives’.22 The case of Henry of Lausanne at Le Mans thus reflects anostensible apathy towards the universality of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and a disregard fororthodox spiritual leadership in the face of their own preferred spiritual talisman.Furthermore, such heretical groups displayed a palpable reluctance to reform their ‘heretical’and dissident ways. Eberwin of Steinfeld records that the heretical bishop and his assistant,found among a group of heretics at Cologne (1143-4) were ‘thrown into the fire and burned.What is more marvelous, they met and bore the agony of the fire not only with patience buteven with joy’.23 Similarly, William of Newburgh records how the followers of Eudo ofBrittany ‘chose rather to die than reform their lives’.24 Whilst such sources reflect the viewsof a minuscule clerical elite, as suggested by van Engen above, and hence must be approachedwith analytical trepidation, they are indicative of a divergent culture of religious dissent whichopposed the twelfth-century hierarchical church. However, as R. I. Moore elucidates, we mustapproach the problem of popular heresy in the twelfth-century in terms of “an overspill, as itwere, or enthusiasm, doubtless excessive or ill-judged, but at bottom an expression ofChristian piety nonetheless”.25

However, a fundamental legacy of the Gregorian reform programme was theaxiomatic divergence between clerical and lay elements of medieval society. As Tellenbachsuggests, the Gregorian reforms “called forth a desire to fundamentally change therelationship of clergy and laity”, as evidenced by the Gelasian dualism which pervades the Dictatus Papae.26 The practical impact of these reforms witnessed the up-grading of the priest and the down-grading of the layman, and the ascendancy of a primarily ‘clerical’ Catholicchurch.27 Whilst the Gregorian reform movement had triggered the revival of a new layspirituality, it had concurrently distanced the laity from the clergy and thus ostracized the laitythe currents of spiritual and religious reform in this period. As Moore suggests, the religiousprerogatives of the laity were dismissed as lacking “the legitimacy conferred by membershipof the reinvigorated and redefined clerical elite”.28 This emphatically clerical ‘church’ thusapproached lay elements of society and the problem of heresy from this perspective,overlooking the ‘increasing popular rationalism’ inherent in the new lay Christian piety.29

According to Lorenzo Paolini, the twelfth-century church viewed the heretic as alayman, illiterate and unintelligent.30 In his sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard ofClairvaux characterises heretics as ‘a base and rustic folk, unlettered and entirely devoid offighting qualities’.31 Of particular import here is Bernard’s rhetoric of the medieval heretic asunlettered, that is, unable to read Latin, a rhetoric that pervades clerical comments on heresy.Indeed, William of Newburgh writes of Eudo of Brittany, who came before the tribunal at theCouncil of Reims (1157), as ‘an unlettered and ignorant man’.32 Furthermore, Alain de Lille,in his polemical treatises against the Waldenses, employs a lack of literacy and knowledge asthe foundation for his denunciation of the Waldensian heresy.33 Similarly, Stephen ofBourbon denounces Valdès, the leader of the Waldenses, as ‘not very literate’.34


1 Colin Morris, The Papal Monarchy: The Western Church from 1050 to 1250 (Oxford, 1991), p. 2.

2 Jeffrey Burton Russell, Dissent and Reform in the Early Middle Ages (Berkeley, 1965), pp. 3-4.

3 John van Engen, ‘The Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem’, The American Historical Review, 91 (Washington DC, 1986), p. 519.

4 Bernard Hamilton, The Medieval Inquisition (London, 1981), p. 13.

5 Gerd Tellenbach, Church, State and Christian Society at the time of the Investiture Contest (trans.) R. F. Bennett (Oxford, 1940), p. 142.

6 Geoffrey Barraclough, The Medieval Papacy (London, 1968), p. 89.

7 H. E. J. Cowdrey, The Epistolae Vagantes of Pope Gregory VII (Oxford, 1972), p. 133.

8 Ibid., pp. xxvii - xxviii

9 Dictatus Papae (1090) in Ernest F. Henderson (ed.) Select Historical Documents of the Middle Ages (London, 1910), pp. 366-367.

10 Barraclough, The Medieval Papacy, p. 85.

11 Dictatus Papae.

12 Kathleen G. Cushing, Reform and the Papacy in the Eleventh Century: Spirituality and Social Change (Manchester, 2005), p. 55.

13 Dictatus Papae.

14 Cushing, Reform and the Papacy, p. 78.

15 G. R. Evans, A Brief History of Heresy (Oxford, 2003), p. 10.

16 Dictatus Papae.

17 Cushing, Reform and the Papacy, p. 75.

18 R.W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth, 1990), p. 37.

19 Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (Oxford, 1992), p. 39.

20 Lester K. Little, Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe (London, 1978), p. 135.

21 ‘Henry at Le Mans’ in Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans (eds.) Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York, 1969), p. 113.

22 Ibid,. P. 110.

23 ‘An Appeal from Eberwin of Steinfeld against Heretics at Cologne’ in Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans (eds.) Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York, 1969), p. 129.

24 ‘A Description of Eudo by William of Newburgh’ in Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans (eds.) Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York, 1969), p. 145.

25 R. I. Moore, ‘Heresy, Repression, and Social Change in the Age of Gregorian Reform’, in Scott L. Waugh and Peter D. Diehl (eds.) Christendom and its Discontents: Exclusion, Persecution, and Rebellion, 1000-1500 (Cambridge, 1996), p. 24.

26 Tellenbach, Church, State and Christian Society, p. 137.

27 Jane E. Sayers, Innocent III: Leader of Europe, 1198-1216 (London, 1994), pp. 136-7.

28 Moore, ‘Heresy, Repression, and Social Change’, p. 41.

29 Lambert, Popular Movements from Bogomil to Hus, p. 46.

30 Lorenzo Paolini, ‘Italian Catharism and Western Culture’, in Peter Biller and Anne Hudson (eds.) Heresy and literacy, 1000-1 530 (Cambridge, 1994), p. 84.

31 ‘A Sermon of Bernard of Clairvaux Against Heresy’ in Walter L. Wakefield and Austin P. Evans (eds.) Heresies of the High Middle Ages (New York, 1969), p. 138.

32 ‘A Description of Eudo’, p. 143.

33 Peter Biller, ‘The Cathars of Languedoc and Written Materials’, in Peter Biller and Anne Hudson (eds.) Heresy and literacy, 1000-1 530 (Cambridge, 1994), p. 83.

34 As quoted in: Ibid., p. 80.

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Why was the Church so Dominant in Medieval Society?
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James Pinnock (Author), 2012, Why was the Church so Dominant in Medieval Society?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/413470


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