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Lecture 10

Religious and Intellectual Life in the High Middle Ages

Intellectual life

Rediscovering the Classics (with Arab and Jewish help)

One of the most important intellectual and cultural developments of the High Middle Ages was the "rediscovery" of the great works of Classical Greek science and arts.  The monasteries, as we have seen, had helped to preserve some major classical.  Ironically, though, most of the Europe's knowledge of Classical culture in the High Middle Ages came through contact with Jews and Arabs, at the same time that the Crusaders were slaughtering Jews and Arabs.

In Spain and in Sicily, where large Islamic and Jewish communities lived in close proximity to Christians, Arabic and Jewish scholars translated the great works of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Galen, etc., into Latin.  These translations opened up the knowledge of the past for European scholars—most of whom could not read Greek or Arabic.  Translations into Latin also gave Europeans access to the mathematics, science, and philosophy of the great Arabic and Hebrew scholars of the Middle Ages. 

By the 1200s, a handful of European scholars like Roger Bacon had mastered Greek themselves and were making new contributions to mathematical and scientific scholarship—fields that did not seem to conflict (at the time) with the dogmas of the Church.  Universities, which I will discuss below, now became centers both for study of Christian theology and the Classics, but also for new thinking about natural philosophy (what we call "Science").


The new approach to understanding nature that emerged in University communities in the High Middle Ages became known as Scholasticism.  The essence of Scholasticism was the idea that God had given to man the ability to understand the world both through Divine Revelation (the Bible) and through the use of human reason and observation.

The origins of Scholasticism lay in the mid-1100s, just as new Latin translations were beginning to make a broader range of Classical learning available in Europe.  And it also involved some direct clashes between scholars and the Church.  One of the fathers of Scholasticism, the Frenchman Peter Abelard (whose tumultuous personal story Coffin tells on pp. 370-371), several times found himself charged with heresy.  According to his critics, Abelard had used his mastery of logic to criticize the Church.  But Abelard's most important works (like Sic et Non [Yes and No]), actually aimed at using logic to prove the Bible's infallibility.  Abelard argued that the Bible could and should be studied using the methods of classical logic—in other words, he argued that there was no contradiction between faith and rationalism. 

Abelard's method of analysis became entrenched in universities and other schools teaching theology thanks to the writings of his student, Peter Lombard.  In the mid 1100s Lombard introduced a method, or ordering, of logical theological analysis based upon Abelard's ideas.  By the mid-1200s, this method, "Scholasticism," had been bolstered by the study of "new" works of Aristotle (introduced through translations from Arabic); Scholasticism then helped mold the Aristotelian conceptions of the universe (see lecture 5), of ethics, of aesthetics, etc, into the dominant Christian worldview.

 Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

The most important figure in the shaping of Scholasticism, and one of the most important shapers of Christian theology, was the Dominican priest (Saint) Thomas Aquinas, who taught at the University of Paris.  Aquinas, who drew heavily upon the writings of Aristotle and those of Saint Augustine, argued that God's greatest truths lay in the Bible, but that nature, as God's work, was also a worthy subject of study for Christians.  Some topics, he admitted, were beyond human reason and can be understood only through revelation—for instance, the nature of the Trinity.  But the natural word, Aquinas insisted, was best studied using the methods of logic and science developed by the Greeks.  In his greatest works, like the Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles, he sought to marry philosophy with theology.   Within decades of his death, Thomas Aquinas' writings had joined the fundamental texts of Catholic theology.  Therefore, Christian thought opened to the methods of logic and the study of science.

The Universities

Abelard, Lombard, and Aquinas all taught in Universities, which were entirely new institutions introduced in the 1100s.  The universities grew out of the Church's educational hierarchy system; students from Cathedral schools who needed advanced training went on to University for further study in theology, or in law or 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, etc.) could enter university.  After about four years, students who passed examinations in logic and advanced Latin obtained a "Bachelors" degree; the students' goal, however, was to go beyond this to study for a "Masters" degree in liberal arts (which took at least four more years), or a "Doctors" degree in medicine, law, or theology(which took at least ten more years).     

The university, like other medieval institutions, was organized as a guild, which obtained charters from the Church (or King, etc.) that gave students and scholars certain liberties.  Students then (as now) were notorious for pushing their liberties to the limits of the law, often to the great frustration of townspeople living near the university.  University charters also granted certain privileges to graduates;  graduates with advanced degrees, for instance, had the exclusive privilege of teaching or of practicing professions such as law or medicine. This idea that degrees confer privileges is reflected still in the language of graduation ceremonies.  As you know, we still call people with advanced degrees "Masters," as in guild masters, and "Doctors."   

The two most important universities of the High Middle Ages presented 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.  The grammar schools began with Emperor Charlemagne's effort to establish schools within the Church administration.  Charlemagne's aim had been to set up a school in every cathedral (thus one in every bishopric) and in every monastery.  Despite a shortage of teachers, by the High Middle Ages this network of church-based schooling was flourishing.  The cathedral schools proved the most important center 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). 

The Church first considered Cathedral schools only as institutions for training prospective priests, but in the 1100s both the student body and the curriculum broadened.  The growing complexity of Royal governments, the expanding bureaucracy of the Church, and growing importance of commerce all created a greater need for literate, educated men.  The grammar schools now prepared students for future university studies in theology, law, etc., at the universities.  Enrollment the grammar schools increased and included boys bound for careers other than the priesthood (although most students still went on to become priests); the courses offered also changed, and now gave greater attention to the study of classical literature.

Within a few hundred years the education of laity (non-clergy) would lead to a much higher literacy rate in Europe.  In the 1100s most priests were only functionally literate and almost all laypeople were illiterate (most historians estimate the literacy rate for this period at about 1 percent); by the 1500s, the corners of Europe in which lay education had advanced most had literacy rates approaching 40 percent.  (England is the most dramatic example.)  Lay schooling not only advanced the cause of literacy, but it also laid the foundations for the secularist (non-religious) intellectual trends that would emerge in the 1400s.

Masterworks of the 12th Century "Renaissance"

Historians often refer to the rapid expansion of education, of knowledge drawn from and building on the classics in the 1100s as a "Renaissance," or "rebirth.   In the arts, one of the most significant signs of this "renaissance" was the rebirth of secular poetry, which had fallen into decline with the collapse of Rome.   Some popular poetry of the High Middle Ages directly parodied the Church and its teachings.  This also was true of many of the popular "fables" of the period, which were written largely for an urban (commoner) audience.  The poetry favored among the educated aristocracy seldom directly parodied the Church, but was decidedly "secular" in its subjects.  

The great national sagas written in the late 1100s and early 1200s, for instance, such as the French Song of Roland or the Spanish El Cid, were epic poems about mythic warrior-heroes.  (So was the earlier Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf.) Although they wore a veneer of Christianity, these stories had little to do with the values or teachings of the Church.   Moreover, they were written in the "vernacular" (local languages of their countries, French, German, Spanish, etc.), not in the language of the Church (Latin).   The great "Romantic" tales of the era also made use of Christian iconography.  In Chretien de Troyes'  French-language tale of King Arthur (late 1100s), for instance, Arthur goes off in search of the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper.  The hero of Wolfram von Eschenbach's German-language Parzival (early 1200s) embarks on a similar quest.  But these religious elements generally were little more than plot devises in stories that were about adventure, chivalry (honor), and love.  Another mammoth (and very popular) work of the 1200s, the French Romance of the Rose, took as its subject love and sex, without any concern for the squeamishness of the Church.  Similarly, the troubadours, the singing poets who performed for French aristocrats, sang both of romantic love and of sexual love (often in the form of extramarital relations).   

The single greatest literary work of the High Middle Ages, however, combined fascination with romantic love with deep religious sentiments.  This was Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, written at the dawn of the 1300s.   Dante (who had a remarkable grasp of Classical literature as well as a mastery of theology ranging from the Bible to the works of Aquinas), wrote this great work of Italian poetry after having been exiled from his beloved city-state of Florence, in Northern Italy.  In the poem's first book, he is in despair over his religious doubt.  The Roman poet Virgil then guides him through Hell and Purgatory, where he meets and has discussions with several famous philosophers and rulers.  In the second book, Dante's beloved Beatrice (whose death had cast him into his 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.  Here, again, is the theme of Scholasticism—the marriage of faith and reason.  Man, Dante concludes, has free will and can use his reason to choose good over evil. 

Time and space preclude my discussing other art forms of the High Middle Ages.  please be sure to pay extra attention to Coffin's discussion of drama, music, and especially architecture; her section on cathedrals is particularly good (pp. 377-379)

Religious Life

Problems facing the Church

As should be clear from what I've said above regarding education, the Church was the most dominant cultural institution of the High Middle Ages.  But at the start of this period, the Latin Church faced serious challenges.  As Charlemagne's empire collapsed, large portions of Europe were besieged by Muslim forces, as well as by pagans Vikings from the north and pagan Magyars from the southeast, all of whom destroyed churches and drove out (or killed) the clergy.  In the wake of the Empire's collapse, feudal lords treated the parish churches (and often entire bishoprics and monasteries) as their own personal property.  In the early 1000s the Papacy had become so weak that it could do little to protect clergy from aristocratic abuses.  Moreover, the behaviors of Popes like the notorious John XII undermined the Church's moral authority.   

Reform in the monasteries

The revitalization of Church institutions in the High Middle Ages began with reform movements in the monastic orders.  This process had actually begun in the early 900s, with the creation of the Benedictine monastery "Cluny" in Burgundy (France):  Cluny was under Papal supervision, and thus independent of the local aristocracy; it also established a network of satellite monasteries (priories) that were similarly free of aristocratic interference.  The Benedictines at Cluny took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience devoted themselves fully to lives of worship.  Free from external influences and interference, they helped revitalize the Latin Church as a spiritual institution and became models for monastic reforms in other countries.  Growing respect for the piety of monks helped fuel a religious revival. 

In the 1000s, the reform movement in the monasteries began to change the character of the Church hierarchy.  In England and Germany in particular, monarchs began appointing "reformed" monks to posts as bishops.  Once vested with power as bishops, the reformers campaigned to impose the monastic example of poverty, chastity, and obedience on the priesthood.  (Circa 1000, most parish priests married and had families.)  They also campaigned against the use of ecclesiastical office for personal profit and against the purchase and sale of ecclesiastical posts ("simony").   

Papal reform initiatives

The agenda of the reformed monks and bishops was in direct conflict with the practices and policies of the Papacy in the 900s.  But in 1049 German Emperor Henry III appointed a German monastic reformer as pope—Leo IX.  Leo IX then used his papal authority to impose reforms over the Church establishment, and banned marriage among clergy as well as the sale of church offices.  Leo's model of Papal authority and of discipline within the Church drew heavily on the hierarchical organization and codes of obedience in the monasteries, and also reflected the feudal organization of secular power.  The Pope, he argued, ruled the Church as a monarch ruled the state; the bishops were to obey the Pope, and the parish priests were to obey the bishops. 

But the Papacy as an institution was still relatively weak, and the Pope's status and ability to impose reform still depended upon support from the German Emperor.  This changed somewhat when Pope Nicholas II created the College of Cardinals (1059), a select group of Bishops with the right to elect the Pope.  Although the Emperor still retained a voice in Papal elections, the College of Cardinals now put control over the Papal succession in the hands of the Church.  This would lead directly to a conflict between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII, which we will return to shortly.   

Gregory, who served as Pope from 1073 to 1085, advanced the goals of reformers further than had either Leo or Nicholas.  Papal condemnations of corrupt, immoral, and abusive priests encouraged laypeople to play a more direct role in the Church.  Church historians generally argue that by raising the moral status of the Church and mobilizing the laity, Gregory fueled popular religious revival and popular piety.  

Popular religious movements and Dogma (What is and is not heresy?)

One manifestation of popular piety was the rise of new monastic orders, whose membership grew rapidly in the 1100s.  The Cistercians, for instance, developed a monastic practice even more austere and devoted to simplicity, poverty, and prayer than that of the reform Benedictines; the order expanded quickly and dramatically throughout the 1100s.  Another manifestation of this new religious fervor was a shift in the focus of devotion, away from the ritual veneration of saints and of saintly relics.  In their place developed a new emphasis upon 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 it evolved in the 1100s, God works through the priest to miraculously turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  This doctrine both raised the dignity of the clergy and emphasized the identification of the worshiper with God—the miracle was performed in front of the laity, who then consumed the "host."  

The move away from veneration of saints towards a greater (renewed) emphasis on the direct worship of Christ also spawned the cult of the Virgin Mary.  Jesus' mother, Mary had been an almost incidental figure in the Latin church before the 1100s.  The Cult of the Virgin, often referred to as "Our Lady," ("Notre Dame" in French) became hugely popular among both clerics and laity.  Mary became the key figure through which Catholics could seek intercession; through Mary, whose mercy was infinite, they could appeal to her son (Jesus) for salvation.  The Church's depiction of women was thus transformed:  women no longer were represented only by Eve, who had drawn man into sin, but also by the Virgin Mary, who offered hope for redemption. 

While the Church benefited greatly from the outpouring of popular religious enthusiasm in the High Middle Ages, it also confronted new challenges to Dogma.  The Papacy, which had used the laity to discipline the clergy in the early 1100s, soon had to discipline the laity drawn towards popular religious stances that the Church defined as heresy.  One of the most widespread heretical views of the late 1100s was called Catharism.  The Cathars argued that there were two gods—a god of good and a god of evil.  The aim of spiritual devotion, they believed, was to achieve holy grace from the good god by casting out the evil of the evil god.  Even more popular than Catharism was Waldensianism.  The Waldensian laity studied the Bible and tried to pattern their entire lives on Christ through complete dedication to lives of poverty, prayer, and preaching.   

To the Church, the Cathars were heretics who questioned the very nature of the Christian God, whereas the Waldensians were heretics for believing that they (rather than ordained priests) could preach the Gospels.  The Church and the Church alone, the Papacy insisted, could lead men to salvation.  According to the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) held under Pope Innocent III, only through sacraments administered by the Church could any person be saved.  The two most important sacraments, the council declared, were those of the Eucharist and of penance (confession of sins to the priest and then performing acts designated by the priest, such as the recitation of prayers, as a plea for divine forgiveness).  The 1215 Council established a clear set of Dogma, defined by the Papacy, detailing the only acceptable forms of (Latin) Christian worship. 

In the early 1200s, under Pope Innocent III, the Church moved to crush such heresies.  Innocent authorized a military crusade against the Cathars in Southern France and Northern Italy, and he also authorized the use of torture to exact confessions, recantations, and conversion from heretics—a "judicial" procedure that became known as the Inquisition.  In the 1250s, the Church began burning heretics (including Cathars and Waldenians) at the stake.   

The Church saw a threat not only in heresy, but also in the presence of non-Christians in the midst of Christian Europe.  In addition to supported punitive taxes and restriction upon Jewish communities, the Church also tolerated (and in some cases directly encouraged) popular anti-Jewish mythologies.  These included the myth that Jews ritually slaughtered Christian children to use their blood in baking Passover matzo and the myth that Jews desired to profane the body of Christ by desecrating the Eucharist host.  Such anti-Jewish fantasies helped justify horrible violent attacks against Jews, not only in the Middle Ages, but into the modern era.  In addition, the Church encouraged European princes and kings to expel Jews from their territories in the late 1200s and 1300s, a process that culminated in 1492 with the expulsion of Jews from Spain.  

At the same time that Innocent III persecuted "heretics" and Jews, it embraced new movements within the Church that recognized papal authority.  These included two new orders, the Dominicans and the Franciscans.  Unlike monks, these "friars" (brothers) were itinerate preachers.  The Dominican order of priests had been formed by the Spanish priest (Saint) Dominic primarily as a teaching order, and had great influence in the universities (Aquinas was a Dominican).  But they were also famous for their zeal in pursuing and converting heretics, Jews, and Muslims; in this capacity they proved very useful to Innocent III.   The Franciscans had been formed by the wealthy Italian layman (Saint) Francis of Assisi, who had taken a vow of poverty and called on his followers to live a simple life in imitation of Christ.  The Franciscans also proved useful to Innocent III, in that the practices of the Franciscans—who recognized Papal authority—appealed to people who might otherwise follow the Waldenians (who did not recognize Papal discipline).   

Royal vs Papal authority:  The investiture conflict

Beyond theological questions, Innocent's efforts to stamp out heresy reflected the Papacy's ongoing effort to consolidate its secular authority, which brings us back to the conflict between Pope Gregory VII and German Emperor Henry IV in the 1070s.  The trigger for this conflict was disagreement over "lay investiture"—the power of kings (who were laymen, not clerics) to appoint bishops and abbots.  This had been practice, as we have seen, since before the time of Charlemagne.  Henry insisted upon this traditional "right" of Christian monarchs, and argued that appointment of bishops was critical to preserving the Emperor's authority.  (Many of "his" Bishops agreed entirely with the Emperor.)  Gregory argued that only the Church had the power to appoint men to clerical posts and that the Church fell under the authority of the Pope, not the Emperor; for Gregory, 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 responded by excommunicating several of the Emperor's hand-picked bishops.  Henry retaliated by renouncing his oath of obedience to Gregory, whom he called on to resign.  Gregory then excommunicated Henry.  More than that, Gregory argued that Henry IV no longer had the right to the imperial throne and through his support behind the Saxon princes engaged in a civil war against the Emperor (see lecture 9).  When in 1077 Henry begged for Papal forgiveness, Gregory declared him once again within the body of the faith.  But Henry then rallied his armies, crushed the Saxon rebels, and forced Gregory into exile.   

Both the Pope and the Emperor held the traditional view that those in authority had responsibility to lead all Christians toward salvation (see lectures 8 and 9), and neither had could conceive of the idea of a separation of secular and ecclesiastical power; they disagreed about which institution had greater authority, the Papacy or the Crown.  At its heart, the Investiture Conflict was about who was the supreme authority over the Christian community.   

The Church moved toward a compromise in 1122, in the Concordat of Worms (the city in Germany, not the crawling critter!).  The Concordat ("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).  In practice, 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.  This by no means ended debate over the relationship between the power of kings and the power of the Church, but it did introduce one of the most fundamental principles of modern Western civilization.   

The Pope as Monarch

After Gregory VII, successive popes sought to strengthen Papal authority over the Church and expanded on Leo IX's argument that the Pope ruled the Church as a kingdom.  The Papacy established a bureaucratic structure like that of other European monarchies, with a central Chancery that coordinated Papal relations with the Bishops and that sent out papal legations similar to the royal missions that Europe's kings used to reinforce their authority over the feudal lords.  Just as royal courts functioned as high courts of justice (of final appeal), so the Papacy become the final judge of legal disputes within the church ("Cannon Law").  By 1200, expertise in cannon law had become a virtual prerequisite for Papal office.  Innocent III (1198-1216), whom we have already met, had been trained in both theology and cannon law. 

Innocent III, who you will recall presided over the 4th Lateran Council, which established Dogma and solidified the Papacy's control over (Latin) Christian worship, argue that considered kings, as members of the Christian community, were responsible before the Pope in matters of faith.  He expected that they, like all Christians, would obey Papal decrees.  He used this argument several times in disciplining and winning his demands from Europe's kings.  He also established the Papacy as a temporal power by laying claim to territories in central Italy that became the Papal States and by pressuring Europe's kings to grant the Papacy numerous fiefdoms.  Innocent III's reign marked the highpoint of the Papacy's temporal power in the High Middle Ages.  Succeeding popes in the 1200s reignited the conflict between the Papacy and the German Emperor, which had the effect of sparking decades of destructive warfare between competing European states and resulted in the decline of the Papal monarchy's territorial power.  When Boniface VIII (1294-1303) ran into conflicts over secular (temporal) matters with the kings of France and England, he lacked support even from his own Bishops and backed down.  The balance of power and of authority had shifted from the Papacy to the national monarchies.