The Age of Chivalry: Europe in the central middle ages Peter Lawn
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The underlying aim of Church reform in the period 1000-1250 at least in terms of its rhetoric was to return the Catholic Church to the princilpes and practices of early Christianity. In practice this meant incresing the level of religious discipline and elimanating the abuses that existed in the Church itself. The reform of the Church in this period has two distinct phases. First of these was what have been called the “Gregorian reforms”1 of the eleventh century. They were centred principly on the papacy and the higher ecalons of the Church.
The main aim of these reforms was to free the Church from lay control and put an end to the practice of Simony and Nichantilism. These aims were linked together in a number of ways. Simony was the practice of gainining ecclesiastical office in return for payment or service. This was seen as being the inevitably result of lay control of the church, specifically lay investiture. Removing lay contol of the Church was also important in making other reforms possible. Only a strong and independent Papacy would be capable of imposing changes across the Church in the middle ages.
Without it reforms such as the eradication of Nichantilism by enforcing celibacy amoung the clergy would have been impossible. Freeing the Church from lay control was also seen as a laudable goal for its own sake removing the taint of the secular from the Church. The second phase of Church reform in theis period occurred later and was more to do with the monastic elements of the Church. The twelth century saw a spiritual revival in Europe. This was reflected in the rise of new monastic orders. It was nessecceary for the Church to reform to meet the needs of the time.
The basis of this spiritual reawakening was the search for the “viva apostolica”. This meant returning to the principles and practices of the early Christianity to a greater extent than earlier reforms. The “viva apostolica”2 meant following more closely the example of the apostals, especially in terms of communal living and voluntary poverty. In what follows I will examine the extent to which the reforms began in the eleventh century were successul in achieving its aims of freeing the Church from lay conrol and ending the practice of Simony and Nichantilism.
I will then look at the later monastic reforms and determine to what extent the Church and religious orders such as the cisteresians were succesful in bringing about change. Attempts to reform the Church in the period 1000-1250 of any great significance were not made until Leo XI became Pope. Although the reforms that were brought in early in this period are often reffered to as Gregarion reforms after Pope Gregory VII it was Leo XI who set the process in motion. It was Leo XII who put the papacy at the head of the reform movement. He went on tours across Europe holding concils that were very successful in mobilising suppoert for reform.
They allowed Church law to be set down in greater detail through the issueing of decrees and made the papacy the international institution it needed to be if its leadership of the Church was going to more than theoretical. In order for the reform of the Church to be succesful first there needed to be a “reformed and fortified papacy”3. Only a strong independent papacy could impose and implement reforms on the rest of the Church. The reform of the papacy was then at the root of all other reform. Pope Urban II was the first to have any success freeing the papacy from lay control.
He attempted to end the right of lay rulers to carry out the investiture of prelates. Compromises were reached with the rulers of England and France to the effect that they would continue to bestow prelates with their secular offices and the Church woul bestow spiritual offices by elecion in the presence of the ruler or his representative. Later after the concordant of Worms the same practice was brought in to the Holy Roman Empire. This reform was not only successful in making the investiture of prelates more religiously sound it also helped improve the position of the papacy.
When Gregory VII became Pope he improved the position of the papacy further. Gregory VII was at “the centre of a vast movement of ideas”4. He claimed the right to supreme control and supervision of the Church and secular rulers. He defined this suremacy as giving him the sole right to create Church laws and making him the ultimate arbitrator of their interpreation. It would also give hime the right to appoint and remove prelates or even secular rulers. In addition to this he claimed that only those who followed Rome were Catholics. In 1059 he initiated the reform of papal elections.
This led to elections taking place outside Rome, where they had been heavily influenced by the Roman nobility. The Cardinals of Rome became much more important, gaining the right to propose the candidates and eventually becoming exclusivly responsible for electing Popes. This removed the influence of lay rulers over the Popes making them more independent. In this practice this reform was not initally successful but was eventually implemented. The Cardinals developed into a kind of court for the Pope, acting as his most imortant legates. This role allowed them to help consolidate Papal power and expand its reach.
Acting as the Popes representative they could investigate abuses and hold councils. These local councils would spread legislation passed at papal councils. This helped to creat the standardised centralised hierachy that was esential to the implementation of successful reform. Another aspect of reform which was important in in standardising Church practices was the compiling of cannon law collections. These were large, comprehensive and widely read. This made them succsesseful in raising awareness of the right way of doing things. Papal reform was to a great extent successful. The pope had at least in theory achieved universal suprmacy.
In practice this was not the case everywhere. In Easter Europe and Scandanavia the Pope’s influence continued to be weak, disputes over the investiture of Prelates had permenently soured relations between the Papaacy and the Holy Roman Empire, and reforms had also made the Pope less secure in Rome. Although secular rulers were now effectivly dependent on the papacy for their sacred titles there were limits to the Pope’s inflence, no King joined a crusade. However it can still be said that the power and preastige of the papacy increased dramatically as a result of reform in this period.
The two primary abuses that were most seen as taking the Church away from the ideals of the early Church were the practice of Simony and Nichalantism. Leo XI began the process of attempting to extermenate Nichantilism. This reform had a spiritual aim of contributing to the development of a “purified Priesthood”5 and a practicle aim of preventing clerics having children, who would then inherit their offices. Celibacy was made mandatory for all those ordained into higher orders, sanctions were imposed on the children of clerics and the wives of clerics were reduced to the status of concubines.
In 1139 the second Lantern Council set down stricter rules. It was decided Priests could not marry and those marriages that existed were void. This reform was successful in creating detailed new rules and practices but these rules were still broken. The legislation passed was more successful in in achieving its practicle aim than its spiritual one. There is evidence to suggest that incidence of Nichalantilism dropped significantly higher up the church hierachy6 but was much harder to eradicate at the local level of the parish clergy.
Nichantilism was only punished if it became “notorious”7 or made public. This meant that there was a strong “propensity to hypocracy”8 with vows of celibacy being broken in secret. Hereditary churchs also continued but only in remote rural areas. Reform did not just come from on high with the papacy there were also grass roots movements against Nichantilism and simony. In Milan for example a priest named Ariald and an aristocrat named Laundaf led a strike against those clerics who held their offices through Simony or didn’t practice practice celibacy.
Together they set up an alternative church and tried to get papal support. The papacy did not support or encourage movements like this as they were seen as a threat to episcapal authority. As a conseqeuence of this these grass root movements fot Church reform did not achieve any great dgree of success. Simony was also difficult to eradicate. Leo XII was the first to declare a ban on simony but this was not very successful. A ban on simony was impossible to implement without a clear and accepted definition of what simony actually was.
A very broad definition of who was a simonist could include the entire clergy of Rome. Offices did not have to bought with money to have been atained through simony, attaininf Church office through service or the promise of service could also be considered to be simony. The reformer Peter Damien reffered to simonists as “acting as lackeys to become lords”9. The papacy itself was accused by some radical reformers of being the “chief simonist”. An answer also had to be found to the difficult question of whether or not simonists needed to be reordained.
The problem how to eliminate simony was eventually solved by returning to the practice of the early church in having Abbots and Bishops voted in through free elections. The regulations on how these elections were very vague and open to interpratation. This gave the papacy the opportunity to intervene in the inevitable disputes that would arise and so control and dominate local churches. Aside from this it does seem that reform was successful as less is said about simony after the reforms and accusations of it are are made more rairly10. Another important aspect of Church reform was monastic reform.
The aim of this was to eliminate abuses within monastries and remove those who were not living like proper monks. In the early part of the period 1000-1250 these reforms were not successful to any great extent. Only minor changes were made and the only significant effect they had was to cut opperating costs and increse the prayers for the dead that were the monastries chief source of revenue. Although Holy orders such as the Cluniacs did have a role to play in the Gregorian reforms of the eleventh century. The support they gave was of limited importance as the monastries were quite insular and dependent on lay doners.
Despite being affiliated with the papacy monastries did not always act as fifth columns campaining for reform within localities. The link they had with the papacy was not consistant and in some cases nominal. In the twelth century the reform of the monastries was much more successful and significant. This period saw the emergence of a “Spirtual rebirth”11 in Latin Christanity. The aim of returning to the princilpes and practices of early Christianity was attempted more seriously. New orders such as the Cistercians, the cannons and later the Cathusians and Vallumbrosans emerged with the aim of returning to the viva apostolica.
This meant following more closely the example of the apostals through strict observance of the ascertic life. Communal living and voluntary poverty would become the most important elements of monastic life. Thereby giving the orders a greater level of simplicity and spiritual intensity. These reforms marked a radical break with the Benedctine rule that they replaced. Earlier Church reforms had provoked questions about the privalages and wealth of monks. Benedictne monastries were seen as feeding, clothing and housing monks with far to great material prosperity.
It was believed they were “preoccupied with legal and economic affairs”12. Whether or not this is an accurate protrayal of the condition of Benedictine monastries is a matter of debate. It is worth taking note of the fact that most of the sources from the time which critisise traditional monastism were writern by the “new monks”13 with a purpose. They were trying to justify their actions and encourage recruitment for their orders so it was in their intrests to paint the “old monks”14 in an unflattering light. On the surface however it does appear that monastic reform had a great degree of success.
The new vision of religious life and how to pursue perfection according to the Gospel was apparent in the orginisaton of the new orderas. Rules about strict poverty were enforced and humble monastries were built in “the Wilderness”. This meant disregarding obligations to and isolation from society. The literature and thinking that came out of the new orders would have a great deal of success in reshaping the Western Church. The effect of monastic reform can be seen in other areas of the Church such as the papacy. In 1207 Pope Innocent III gave up wearing rich vestements and instead wore a white wool tunic.
Then in 1215 all Benedictines were ordered to organise their monastries like Cistercians. Twelth century monastic reform was very successful in that it attacked an established way of life and replaced it. Judged in terms of its underlying aim to return the Catholic Church to the princilpes and practices of early Christianity attempts to reform the Church in the period 1000-1250 were to a great extent successful. The papacy was successful in reforming itself, freeing itself from lay control and becoming stronger and a more far-reaching instituton.
This gave it the power to carry out reforms and ensure that they were implemented. The two most important reforms that the Church attempted were the eradication of simony and nichalantilism. These were the two abuses that were most seen as taking the Church away from the ideals of the early Church. Attempts to reform these practices had only mixed success. Nichantilism was pushed underground reducing the number of hereditary churches but not nessesarliy incidences of fornication amoung priests. Reforms relating to simony had more success, bishops and Abbots were elected but the papacy still had influence over the process.
Monastic reform was unsuccessful in the eleveth century but much more so in the twelth. The new orders which appeared and expanded were successful in replacing what had gone before with something far more in line with the principles and practices of early Christianity. The Church in this period saw an earlier reformation. Reform was often gradual, at first disputed then becoming more accepted over time. Despite not being completely successful Church reform in this period did result in a rewnual in the Church and in Christianitry as a whole.