Religious and Intellectual Life in the High Middle Ages

Intellectual life:  Rediscovering the Classics

In the 1200s, European scholars "rediscovered" Greek science and arts.  Europe's “new” knowledge of Classical culture came through contact with Jews and Arabs in Spain and in Sicily.  Arabic and Jewish scholars translated the works of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Galen, etc., into Latin.  These translations opened up the knowledge for Europeans who could not read Greek or Arabic.  A handful of European scholars like Roger Bacon,  though, mastered Greek, and also made new contributions to mathematics and science.  By the 1300s, new Universities were becoming centers for study of theology, the Classics, and natural philosophy (what we call "Science").


The new approach in Universities became known as Scholasticism.  Scholasticism held that God gave man the ability to understand the world both through Divine Revelation (the Bible) and through use of human reason and observation.

Scholasticism at first led to direct clashes between scholars and the Church.  The French scholar Peter Abelard was charged with heresy for supposedly using logic to criticize the Church.  But Abelard actually tried to use logic to prove the Bible's infallibility and argued that the Bible should be studied using the methods of classical logic (that there was no contradiction between faith and rationalism). 

Abelard's method of analysis became the standard in universities, thanks to the writings of his student, Peter Lombard.  In the mid 1100s, Lombard introduced a method of logical theological analysis based upon Abelard's ideas.  By the mid-1200s, this method, "Scholasticism," was strengthened by the study of "new" works of Aristotle (translated from Arabic).  Scholasticism molded Aristotelian concepts to fit the dominant Christian worldview.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

The most important Scholastic scholar—and a key shaper of Christian theology—was Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas, who taught at the University of Paris.  Aquinas argued that God's greatest truths were in the Bible, but that Christians also must study nature, since it too was God's work.  Some topics beyond human reason could be understood only through revelation—like the Trinity.  But nature could be studied using the methods of logic and science..  In the Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles. Aquinas tried to blend philosophy and theology.   His writings became fundamental texts for Catholic theology, and opened up Christianity to the methods of logic and science.



The Universities

Universities—new institutions “born” in the 1100s--grew out of the Church's schooling system.  Students from Cathedral schools who needed advanced training went to University to study theology,  law, medicine, or in the "liberal arts" (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).  Only males with a "grammar school" education (who could read and write Latin) could enter university.  After about four years, students who passed examinations in logic and advanced Latin obtained a "Bachelors" degree; a "Masters" degree in liberal arts took at least four more years; a "Doctors" degree in medicine, law, or theology, ten more years.     

The university, like other medieval institutions, was organized as a guild.  Universities had charters from the Church or King (etc.) that gave students and scholars certain liberties.  Students pushed their liberties to the limits of the law (often angering townspeople).  University charters granted certain privileges to graduates:  graduates with advanced degrees had the exclusive privilege of teaching or practicing professions such as law or medicine.    

The two most important universities of the High Middle Ages present two different methods of corporate (guild) organization.  At the University of Paris, the model for universities in Northern Europe, the teachers constituted a guild.  The teachers (professors) divided the university into four faculties:  arts, law, medicine, and theology.   The students were organized according to their housing:  each student residence (dormitory) became the center of a separate college within the university, with its own faculty.  (Cambridge and Oxford are still organized this way.)  At the University of Bologna (in Northern Italy), the students (not the teachers) constituted the guild (and actually hired the teachers).   Most Southern European universities followed the Bologna model.


To enter University, a student had to have a very good knowledge of Latin, which they would have learned in a "grammar" school.  Grammar schools began with Charlemagne's effort to set up a school in every bishopric and every monastery.  Despite a shortage of teachers, this network of church-based schooling spread and was the most important form of primary education in the High Middle Ages (especially after the Papacy ordered that all bishoprics set aside funds to hire teachers, in the 1170s). 

At first the Church saw Cathedral schools as institutions for training priests, but in the 1100s the student body and the curriculum broadened.  Royal governments, the Church bureaucracy, and commerce all needed literate, educated men.  Grammar schools now prepared students for university studies in law and medicine as well as theology.  

It took a few hundred years for schools to create a much higher literacy rate in Europe.  In the 1100s most priests were only functionally literate and most laypeople were illiterate (the literacy rate was about 1 percent).  By the 1500s, England (the most impressive example) had a literacy rate of almost 40 percent.  Lay schooling advanced literacy, but also launched secular (non-religious) intellectual trends that would emerge in the 1400s.

The “Pre-Renaissance"

The expansion of education and arts based on Classical examples in the High Middle Ages is sometimes called the "Pre-Renaissance." One example is the rebirth of secular poetry, which had fallen into decline when Rome collapsed.  Some popular poetry of the High Middle Ages directly parodied the Church and its teachings.  So did many of the popular "fables" of the period, which were written largely for a popular audience.  The poetry favored among the educated elites seldom parodied the Church, but still had "secular" in its subjects.  

Examples of poetry for the elites were the great epic poems like the French Song of Roland or the Spanish El Cid, about mythic warrior-heroes, which had little to do with the Church and were written in the "vernacular" (local languages, not Latin).   Epic “Romances” used Christian iconography (in the French-language tale of King Arthur, Arthur goes off in search of the Holy Grail, as does the hero of the German-language epic Parzival..  But these religious elements were just plot devises in stories about adventure, chivalry (honor), and love. 

The greatest literary work of the High Middle Ages--Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy --combined fascination with romantic love with deep religious sentiments.  Dante wrote his Italian-language masterpiece after being exiled from Florence.  In the poem's first book, he is in despair over his religious doubt.  The Roman poet Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory, where he meets several famous philosophers and rulers.  In the second book, Dante's beloved Beatrice (whose death had cast him into despair) guides him thorough Paradise, where he again has philosophical discussions with famous men.  By the poem's end, Dante's faith in Christianity has been restored through reason.  Note the main theme is that of Scholasticism—the marriage of faith and reason.  Dante said  Man has free will and can choose good over evil. 

Religious Life

Problems facing the Church

The Catholic Church was Europe’s dominant cultural institution in the High Middle Ages, but it faced serious challenges.  After the breakup of Charlemagne's empire feudal lords treated the parish churches (and often entire bishoprics and monasteries) as their own personal property.  In the early 1000s the Papacy wad so weak that it could not protect clergy.  Moreover, the personal behavior of Popes like John XII undermined the Church's moral authority.   

Reform in the monasteries

Church reform movements began in the monastic orders in the early 900s, with the creation of the Benedictine monastery "Cluny" (in Burgundy).  Cluny was under Papal supervision and independent of the local aristocracy.  The Benedictines at Cluny took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and devoted themselves fully to worship.  Cluny helped revitalize the Church as a spiritual institution and became the model for monastic reforms in other countries.  . 

In the 1000s, the reform movement in the monasteries began to change the character of the Church hierarchy.  In England and the German states, monarchs appointed "reformed" monks as bishops.  The reformer-Bishops campaigned to spread the monastic example of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the priesthood.  (Most parish priests still married and had families.)  They also campaigned against using ecclesiastical posts for personal profit.   

Papal reform initiatives

In the 900s, the agenda of reformer monks and bishops conflicted with Papal policies.  But in 1049, German Emperor Henry III appointed a monastic reformer as pope—Leo IX.  Leo IX then imposed reforms on the Church—e.g., banned marriage among clergy and banned the sale of church offices.  Leo argued that the Pope ruled the Church just as a monarch ruled the state; the bishops must obey the Pope, and the parish priests must obey the bishops. 

But the Papacy was relatively weak, and the Pope's power to impose reforms depended upon support from the German Emperor.  That changed somewhat when Pope Nicholas II created the College of Cardinals (in 1059), a select group of bishops with the right to elect the Pope.  The Emperor still had a voice in Papal elections, but the College of Cardinals now put the Papal succession in the hands of the Church.  This helped set up the conflict between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII…    

Gregory, who was Pope from 1073 to 1085, was a champion of Church reform.  He condemned corrupt, immoral, and abusive priests and encouraged laypeople to play a more direct role in the Church.  By raising the moral status of the Church and mobilizing the laity, Gregory fueled popular religious revival and popular piety.  

Popular religious movements

One manifestation of popular piety was the rise of new monastic orders.  The Cistercians, for instance, devoted themselves to simplicity, poverty, and prayer even than had the Benedictines. 

Another manifestation was the decline in ritual veneration of saints and of saintly relics and a greater emphasis on the Eucharist (the sacrament of the Last Supper—the taking of bread and the wine), representing communion with Christ.   According to the doctrine of Transubstantiation (as understood in the 1100s), God works through the priest to miraculously turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  This doctrine raised the dignity of the priests and emphasized the tied worshipers to God—the miracle was performed in front of the congregation, which then consumed the "host."  

Another new development was the cult of the Virgin Mary.  Jesus' mother was a minor figure in the Church before the 1100s.  The Cult of the Virgin ("Our Lady"--"Notre Dame" in French) became hugely popular in the 1100s.  Through Mary, whose mercy was infinite, Catholics could appeal to her son (Jesus) for salvation. 

While the Church benefited from popular religious enthusiasm, it also confronted new challenges to dogma—new forms of popular “heresy.”  Catharism was one of the great heresies of the period.  Cathars argued that there were two gods—a god of good, and a god of evil.  They believed that the good god would reward spiritual devotion with holy grace, and cast out the evil of the evil god.  The heresy of Waldensianism was even more popular than Catharism.  The Waldensians said that individuals must study the Bible and live Christ-like lives devoted to poverty, prayer, and preaching.   

To the Church, Cathars were heretics for questioning the nature of the God, and Waldensians were heretics for believing that they could preach the Gospels.  The Church clergy alone, the Papacy insisted, could lead men to salvation. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215, called by Pope Innocent III),declared that salvation came only through sacraments administered by the Church.  The council said that the two most important sacraments were the Eucharist and penance (confession), which required the priest as intermediary.   So the 1215 Council established a clear set of dogma defining the only acceptable forms of (Catholic) Christian worship. 

In the early 1200s (under Pope Innocent III), the Church acted to crush heresy by crusading against the Cathars in Southern France and Northern Italy, and by using torture to force heretics to  confess, recant, and convert—a "judicial" procedure called the Inquisition.  In the 1250s, the Church began burning heretics (including Cathars and Waldenians) at the stake.   

The Church also saw a threat in the presence of non-Christians in Christian Europe.  It endorsed punitive taxes and restriction on Jews and tolerated popular anti-Jewish mythologies, like the  myth that Jews used the blood of Christian children to make Passover matzo.  In the late 1200s-1300s, the Church encouraged European princes and kings to expel Jews from their territories, a process that culminated in 1492 with the expulsion of Jews from Spain.  

At the same time that the Church persecuted "heretics" and Jews, it also embraced new movements if these recognized papal authority.  Two new orders accepted by the Church, the Dominicans and the Franciscans, were itinerate preachers.  The Dominican order was formed by the Spanish priest (Saint) Dominic as a teaching order, but also became famous for hunting down heretics, Jews, and Muslims.  The Franciscans were founded by a wealthy Italian layman, (Saint) Francis of Assisi, who took a vow of poverty and called on his followers to live a simple life in imitation of Christ.  The Franciscans recognized Papal authority, but they also appealed to people who might otherwise follow the Waldenians (who did not recognize Papal discipline).   

Royal vs Papal authority:  The Investiture Conflict

Pope Innocent III's attempt to stamp out heresy was part of Papacy's ongoing effort to consolidate its authority, which brings us back to the Investiture conflict between Pope Gregory VII and German Emperor Henry IV in the 1070s.  Remember that they had battled over “lay investiture"—the power of kings (who were laymen, not clerics) to appoint bishops and abbots.   Henry IV insisted that this was a traditional "right" of Christian monarchs and that appointment of bishops was under the Emperor's authority.  Gregory VII argued that only the Church had the power to appoint men to clerical posts and that this was under the Pope’s authority.  For Gregory VII, asserting Papal authority over investiture was critical to other reforms.    

When Henry IV ignored the Pope's ban on lay investiture and appointed his own bishop for the Northern Italian city of Milan, Gregory VII excommunicated several of the Emperor's hand-picked bishops.  Henry IV retaliated by renouncing his oath of obedience to Gregory, whom he called on to resign.  Gregory VII then excommunicated Henry and claimed that  Henry IV no longer had the right to the imperial throne and supported behind the Saxon princes who were fighting against the Emperor.  When in 1077 Henry IV begged for Papal forgiveness, Gregory VII reversed his excommunication.   But as soon as Henry IV was able to beat the Saxon rebels, he forced Gregory into exile.   

Again, the key issue in the all this was who had greater authority, the Papacy or the Crown—who had supreme authority over the Christian community.   

The Church moved toward a compromise in 1122, in the Concordat of Worms.  This agreement allowed the Emperor to grant bishops "temporal" (secular) but not religious authority (in other words, the Emperor could appoint a bishop to rule a territory).  This gave the crown influence over the bishoprics.  Still, the effect was to recognize a distinction between Church and State and to establish the principle that the State held responsibility in the sphere of temporal affairs, while the Church held authority in the sphere of spiritual affairs. 

The Pope as Monarch

After Gregory VII, popes tried to strengthen Papal authority over the Church and rule the Church like a kingdom.  The Papacy established a bureaucratic structure like other monarchies, with a central Chancery that coordinated Papal relations with the Bishops and sent out papal legations (similar to the royal missions kings used to reinforce their authority over the feudal lords).  The Papacy became the final judge of legal disputes within the church ("Cannon Law").  By 1200, all Popes had to have some expertise in cannon law. 

Innocent III, at the 4th Lateran Council, strengthened the Papacy's control over (Latin) Christian worship and claimed that kings, like all Christians, had to obey Papal decrees.  He also established the Papacy as a temporal power, by claiming rule over territories in central Italy (the Papal States)  and pressuring kings to grant the Papacy several fiefdoms. 

Innocent III's reign marked the highpoint of the Papal power in the High Middle Ages.  In the late 1200s, the balance of power and authority shifted from the Papacy to the national monarchies.