With the assent to power of Constatine in 306 AD the Roman Empire essentially became a Christian Empire. Now favored, the Christians began to receive favors from the new leader. The Church received special privileges and more and more Christians were allowed to achieve status in public life, wealth, and prestige. By the end of Theodosius I reign in 395 Christianity had been made the official religion of the Empire. During this time mass conversions to the new religion occurred.
In the third century barbarian raids into the Western part of the empire from the Germanic lands caused a split between east and west. This occurred in 285 AD. When the emperor Constatine came to power the two empires were temporarily reunited until 340 when they divided. In the East Constantius II assumed the role as Emperor and in the West it was Constans. The new barbarian invasions in the fifth and sixth centuries destroyed the rest of the Roman Empire in the West. With the last Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus in 476, the Barbarian invaders took Western Europe. Meanwhile the empire in the East survived. The new barbarian peoples were assimilated into the culture of this new land by the Church. In time, the Germanic peoples embraced Christianity and many of the forms of Roman culture.
In the east, the Byzantine empire came to be dominated by the Church. A institution called caesaropapism rose in which the Church and state are controlled by a single individual called a caesar-pope. The emperor at Constantinople became the head of both the Church and the state which lasted for a millennium. This institution was also tried in the west but failed since the Western Christians began to realize that the fall of the Empire did not signify a collapse of the Church or the end of the world they lived in. Here the Church attempted to become independent of imperial rule which caused much conflict in the coming centuries.
The fusion between Christianity and Greco-Roman civilization reached its climax in the West during the later fourth and early fifth centuries with the work of men as St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, called the Doctors of the Latin Church.
Saint Ambrose was the bishop of Milan who was one of the first supporters of ecclesiastical independence from imperial authority. He asserted this power after Theodosius I massacred the inhabitants of Thessalonica by excommunicating the emperor from the Church of Milan. Quickly the emperor humbled himself and begged for forgiveness.
Saint Jerome (340-420) is a significant figure in the three because he produced the first Latin translation of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew text. Called the Latin Vulgate Bible, Catholics have used it ever since.
Finally was Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430). Augustine’s discussion of his own intellectual and moral journey from paganism and Manichaeism to orthodox Christianity was written to serve as inspiration to others who wandered down the wrong path as well. Augustine came to be concerned by pagan thought but concluded that it, though not enjoyed, could be used to benefit the Christians. He used Platonism and Neoplatonism to form a brand new Christian philosophical scheme. In his writings the theologian also entertained such problems as the Trinity, evil in the world, the power and authority of the priesthood, and the struggle between free will and fate.
Named after its capital Byzantine and also called Constantinople, the Byzantine or Eastern Empire had three pillars that made it stand out. They are Roman government, Christian religion, and Greco-Oriental culture. As well, the empire went through two periods of greatness followed by periods of decline. The first occurred in the sixth century and about 200 of years of decline followed. The second was in the eleventh century and was followed by 400 years of decline. This last period ended in the fall of the empire to the Turks in 1453.
The most influential institution in the lives of these people was the Church. The people sought the Church for comfort and consolation since his life at the time was wrought with fear of foreign invasion, crisis, and tax collectors. The Church was placed under the control of the state and so politics and religion were fused. In fact, the schism of 1054 that permanently separated east and west came about largely due to political considerations and not theological. Its effects were far reaching because the East did not experience the Renaissance, Reformation, or Enlightenment that helped to shape western culture and thought. In fact very little philosophical speculation occurred in the East because of the Church.
What of other fields? In art, they had a blending of classic Greek and Roman styles with Near Eastern. In architecture, much of the same was seen. They used the engineering skills of the Romans and big domes from Persia in their buildings as the church of St. Sophia. In writing an emphasis towards devotional works, sermons, hymns, and the lives of saints is apparent.
So with so little to show of itself, what did the Byzantine Empire accomplish. First it acted as a military shield for the Western Empire and as such protected the new religion of Christianity from Moslem invaders. It also preserved much of the Greek and Roman culture it inherited. Thirdly, it created a new form of art by blending the classical styles with Near Eastern styles. Finally, it transmitted its culture to the Moslems through the dispatching of artists and architects to do work for them and by the sending of missionaries to convert the Slavs and Russians to Christianity.
The raids by Germanic barbarians in the fifth century destroyed Roman political structure and sent the west into 500 years of disorder. This period is generally called the early Middle Ages. In 500 AD the political situation in Europe looked something like this: in Italy the Ostrogoths were in charge, in North Africa it was the Vandals, in Spain it was the Visigoths, the Franks in Gaul, and the Anglo-Saxons in England. By the seventh century North Africa fell to the Byzantines and Italy had collapsed. In the ninth and tenth centuries city life all but disappeared. In Rome, cattle grazed in the Forum and in the baths of Caracalla bats, lizards, and snakes moved in. The Roman roads fell apart and the bridges crumbled. Learning became virtually non-existent as many of the educated were killed during the invasions. Also, paganism persisted, the Church failing to eliminate it.
Despite all this, a few center of higher civilization remained, untouched by the barbarian invasions. For example, Ireland took in many refuges from these invasions. Their scholars could read in both Latin and Greek, monks maintained good schools, and art was produced.
The Church at this time had an enormous task to undertake. It had to try to preserve what it could of the classic traditions and transmit this to the barbarians. To combat the military code of these people it established ideals of peace, charity, and love. Also, the peasantry was plagued by ignorance and paganism. In order to help the Church needed a strong papacy. Leo I announced a principle of papal supremacy during his tenure as Pope from 440-461, traditionally called the Petrine theory. The Church had patriarchs at Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Byzantium, and Rome before this. As well, the Church’s of Gaul and Spain were self-governing leaving the bishops of Rome powerless outside the city. With the Arab conquests of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Spain, and North Africa, only Byzantine remained as a rival. Now papal authority could take shape.
At this time there was also a move toward monasticism. It was the most dynamic and significant institution during the early Middle Ages regarded as the perfect form of the Christian life. In the early fourth century Egypt monastic communities began to spread like wildfire across the Roman Empire, based on a cooperative life. People flocked to these places because they could not deal with the rough life in the outside world. In addition to these people the younger sons and unmarried daughters of the nobility also flocked to the monasteries.
St. Benedictine (480-544) found a number of monasteries which attracted not only saints, but ordinary people as well. His greatest monastery was Monte Cassino on top of a mountain between Rome and Naples. His monks were dressed decently, adequately fed, lived a life dedicated to God, had to discard all personal possessions, must be celibate, and had to obey his abbot, the elected leader of the monastery who was in charge.
The religion of Islam was founded by a very profound man named Mohammed. He taught his followers to surrender to the will of Allah and to follow his every command. He offered to them eternal bliss if they led upright lives and followed the precepts of Islam. The religion of Islam had no priesthood, no Church separate of the state, and its leaders or caliphs were defenders of the faith. The whole society revolved around the religion.
After Mohammed’s death the explosive energy of the Arabs was unleashed upon the world. The motivation of the Arab invaders was the wealth and luxuries of the civilized world as well as their remarkable physical endurance as desert dwellers, naval control of the Mediterranean which allowed them to strike coastal cities of France and Italy, and the fact that their opponents were weak. They conquered Syria in 636, Peria in the next year, and penetrated into India in following years. By the end of the 640s they pushed into Egypt, took Cyprus, and then defeated a large portion Byzantine fleet in 655.
In 655 the expansion ended due to a savage dynastic struggle between the Omayyads, a leading family in the old Meccan commercial oligarchy and the son-in-law of Mohammed himself, Ali. The struggle ended in 661 when the Omayyad forces defeated Ali thereby initiating a Omayyad dynasty. Their first change was to move the capital from Medina to Damascus. They decided to make Constantinople their chief military goal and set out conquer the city. In 717-718 they launched attacks to seize the city but failed and abandoned any effort to take it. The Byzantine’s used an invention of their own called Greek Fire. It was a liquid which ignited when exposed to air and could only be extinguished with vinegar or sand.
Since Constantinople seemed impregnable, the Moslem invaders moved through Egypt, North Africa, Carthage, and Spain. In 733 their advance was halted by Charles Martel of the Frankish Kingdom in the Battle of Tours. Soon after this the Omayyads were overthrown by the Abbasids in 750. They moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad. It became one of the greatest cities under the Abbasid dynasty and was a center of a vast commercial network spreading across the Islamic world and far beyond. Baghdad reached its climax under caliph Harun-al-Rashid (786-809) during whose era the learned traditions of Greece, Rome, India, and Persia were absorbed and synthesized.
In the late ninth century the power of the Abbasids was slipping away to military commanders. By 950, the caliphs were controlled by the supreme army commander and the imperial guard. Despite this, their dynasty lasted until 1258 when Baghdad was decimated by Mongol invaders.
The invasions of the Mongols simply meant a change of leaders in the conquered lands as there was no attempt to force conversion to Islam, Non-Moslems had to pay a special tax, and religious toleration was embraced. It was not the original Arabs that contributed to the Moslem civilization but the people’s they conquered. The Byzantine’s gave a system of government to Syria and Egypt, the Persians showed them the wonders of Greek learning, and the Indians contributed the game of chess, some wisdom literature, and mathematics.
Other achievements are as follows. In agriculture, they excelled at fertilization, irrigation, and grafting of plants and trees. In music they utilized instruments as flutes, lyres, cymbals, and the drum. In astronomy, the Arabs perfected the astrolabe and in physics they excelled in optics. The Moslem chemists were the first to establish systematic laboratories in history.
Over time, the Moslem civilization generally declined. The empire, without effective administration, soon separated into different states. Due to this, many of the areas previously conquered by the Moslems were now able to be recaptured by the Christians. In the east, the Seljuk Turks conquered Persia in 1055 and took control of the caliphate of Baghdad. Thus ended the Moslem Empire.
In the seventeenth century a great family came to power in Austria called the Carolingians. Their line included men such as Charles Martel who stopped the Moslem invasion, Pepin the Short who gained the Frankish Crown, and Charlemagne who won an empire.
A significant figure during this time was Saint Boniface in Germany who attempted to Christianize the Germanic peoples. In 732 he was appointed archbishop in Germany. After Martel’s death in 741 Boniface attempted to reform the Frankish Church which was corrupt, ignorant, and disorganized as evidenced by the sacrifice of animals to the gods by priests. In 742 he held a series of synods to work toward reform. The Frankish monasteries were then patterned after the Benedictines, monastic schools were established, and a sufficient parish system were formed.
Due to these reforms which added Roman discipline and organization into the Frankish Church, an alliance with Rome was soon struck. The Carolinigians saw this as an opportunity to secure the Frankish throne from the Merovingians while the papacy needed a strong ally against the Byzantines and the Lombards. In 751 Pepin the Short was anointed king of the Franks, a move blessed by the pope. In 754 the pope went to Frankland to personally anoint Pepin and his two sons which conferred every sanction he had upon the Carolinigins. In response, Pepin marched his armies into Italy to remove the threat of the Lombards to the Church, called the Donation of Pepin.
After Pepin came his son Charlemagne, by far the greatest of the Carolinigians. His skill as a military commander were evident by his conquests of the Lombards in 774, limited success against the Moslems in Spain, victory over Bavaria in 787 and the Saxons in Germany. His spent thirty years conquering and reconquering the Saxons which so exasperated him that in 782 he had 4500 of these unfaithful executed. His goal here was to force Christianity upon them. Charlemagne’s reign reached its climax when he was crowned Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day 800 by Pope Leo III.
This event was significant to the papacy. It was an attempt to regain some of the prestige and power it loss to this man. Now the popes would claim over successive centuries that what they could give they could also take away. They believed that the Emperor’s role was to yield their political power in the interests of the Roman Church. This was so convincing to them that the popes used whatever documentation was necessary to justify it. Charlemagne did not see this in the same manner as the papacy.
Charlemagne attempted to raise the intellectual standards of his kingdom by assembling scholars to his court from all across Europe. One such man was Alcuin who prepared an accurate edition of the Bible that contained no scribal errors thereby alleviating the problem of their most fundamental text being corrupt. These scholars though really had no interest in advancing the culture of the Carolingians but were drawn because of Charlemagne’s wealth and power.
After his death the Carolingian spiritual life began to deepen and scholarship continued to flourish in the monastic schools and cathedral. A significant figure during this time was John Scotus, an Irishman who was basically a lonely figure in intellectual history with no school of his own, no predecessors or successors to carry his ideas, and played a very minor role in the evolution of thought in the West.
It was in the eleventh century that things began to change. A new warlike tribe, the Seljuk Turks had risen to power in Central Asia and swept into Persia where they took up the Islamic faith and subjected the Abbasid caliphs to their will. They then proceeded to strike a blow at the Byzantine Empire in 1071 by destroying a Byzantine Army at Manzikert and seizing Asia Minor. Then Emperor Alexius Comnenus had to go to Pope Urban II and ask for help against this new threat.
The Western Church saw many advantages to assisting the Eastern Empire. First, was the possibility of reuniting the Eastern and Western Churches. Second was stopping the private warfare that was plaguing Europe and turn that energy from killing each other to killing Moslems. Third was to place the papacy at the forefront of moral leadership in Europe. Finally was the possibility of winning Jerusalem back for Christianity. In 1095 the pope called all the nobility of Europe together at the Council of Clermont to take up the Cross and to reconquer the Holy Land. Promises of remission of sins and the assurance of the imperishable glory of the kingdom of Heaven, were made to draw in supporters.
In 1096 the First Crusade began. The army moved in two groups. The first consisted of some 20,000 men and women who were generally untrained and created havoc while on the way. This army was responsible for massacring many Jews and were seen as a menace by the Byzantine Empire. They were quickly shipped to Asia Minor where most of them died in a ambush by the Turks. The second group consisted of 12,000 knights and infantry mostly from France. They succeeded in recapturing Jerusalem in 1099 where they plundered the city and murdered its inhabitants. The captured land was divided into four states: the Kingdom of Jerusalem, the County of Tripolis, the County of Edessa, and the Principality of Antioch. This kingdom as a whole was weak, depending on help from the West and Moslem disunity to survive. Over time, they adopted the Moslem life, married their women, wore their clothes, made alliances with them against the Christians, and lost their crusaderer zeal.
The Second Crusade began in 1147 and lasted to 1148 with King Louis VII of France and Emperor Conrad III of Germany as its leaders. Upon meeting in Jerusalem they encountered friction with the inhabitants. They proceeded to besiege the city of Damascus but it proved impregnable and they failed. This ended the second Crusade. Between this one and the next, the Islamic state unified under a man named Saladin who moved on and captured Jerusalem in 1187.
The Third Crusade (1189-1192) began shortly after this with Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, King Philip Agustus of France, and England’s King Richard the Lion-Hearted as the leaders. Disaster met Frederick on his way to the Holy Land. He drowned in a river while traveling through Asia Minor leaving his army to return to Germany. Philip and Richard, enemies at home, continued this relationship in the Holy Land. Despite this, they joined forces and captured the coastal city of Acre. Shortly thereafter Philip returned to France and Richard fought Saladin. Jerusalem was not retaken and ended in a pact between the two which allowed Christian pilgrims access to the holy city.
In 1198 Pope Innocent III took power and used the tools of excommunication and the interdict freely to oppose political leaders. His accomplishments include calling several Crusades, approving the new orders of friars, and hosting the Fourth Lateran Council which defined the sacramental system and the doctrine of transubstantiation, declared yearly confession and penance for all Christians, established schools in the church, regulated the use of relics, and condemned heresy, to name a few.
In 1201 he called the Fourth Crusade which was led by feudal lords like the First. This was one of the strangest of the crusades in which the Crusaders chose to cross to the Holy Land in ships. In order to do this they had to bargain with the doge of Venice who demanded a price too high for the Crusaders to afford. They struck a deal with him to pay what they could and to capture the port of Zara for Venice in return for transportation. Both parties in agreement, the Crusaders set out to take the city. The Pope was angry at this deal since the king of Zara was a Christian, but a papal vassal. He ended up excommunicating the Crusaders. Once captured in 1202, the warriors were again diverted. Now they ended up in Byzantine to aid a claimant to the throne secure his lot. They succeeded but where driven out after his death. The Crusaders decided to try again in 1204 and succeeded. Finally, the impregnable city had fallen. This reunited the two churches for a short time and the Crusaders were readmitted to communion.
In 1208 another Crusade was called against Christian heretics in southern France. Several groups emerged as the Albigensians who accepted Zorastianism dualism, a struggle between light and dark, taught that Satan created matter and the world, and called themselves Cathari, or “pure” in Greek. Another group were the Waldensians and rejected oaths, transubstantiation, sacraments offered by sinful priests, and infant baptism while supporting clerical poverty, pacifism, services done in the vernacular, public confession, and encouraged all men to own and read the Bible. Innocent III saw them to be as dangerous as the Moselms and sent thousands of French knights south to extinguish the heresy.
In 1212 a Children’s Crusade was launched. Thousands of boys and girls, gripped by religious fervor, were convinced that the Mediterranean would dry up to allow them passage to the Holy Land. When this did not happen, many boarded ships to travel there only to be intercepted by Moslems subsequently being sent into slavery.
The Fifth Crusade from 1217-1221 achieved marginal success as the port city of Damietta in Egypt was captured. The Sixth and Seventh were led by saint-king Louis IX of France and failed. The Crusades ended when Acre, on the Syrian coast, fell to the Moslems.
Why were the Crusades important? By far one of the best reasons was that it brought East and West closer together and taught them a great deal of geography. Also, the West now was knowledgeable on how to operate a crossbow, pointed arch, carrier pigeons, rosary, portcullius, and heraldry. The windmill and apricot were seen for the first time and trade was stimulated with the Near East. A further result was the disillusionment people felt with the church despite early successes. This in time came to discredit the Church.
As we have seen Pope Innocent III called a Crusade against southern France to remove the threat posed by the heretical Waldensians and Albigensians. He took further steps to ensure their neutralization when he established a permanent central tribunal for the prosecution of heretics in 1233. Before this, acts of heresy were handled and punished at a local level. This Inquisition as it was called frequently imposed methods as torture, conviction on only the testimony of two witnesses, secret testimony, denial of legal counsel, and still other procedures. This centralized tribunal would ensure that justice was carried out as many local magistrates were sympathetic and not as strict in their investigation as papal Inquisitors would be. European rulers were compelled to cooperate with these Inquisitors or face excommunication.
It was not uncommon for charges to be invented to demonstrate the zeal of a fanatic and sadist and spiteful persons often accused their enemies of heresy in an act of vengeance for petty arguments. The Inquisitors came to realize that most of the heretics were extremely knowledgeable of the Bible leading the Church to identify this as a potential source of the problem. In 1229 a Church council declared that laymen would only be allowed to read extracts including the Psalter and Hours which also had to be in Latin. Additionally, the works of Aristotle and Moslem commentaries were outlawed.
From 1210 to 1215 two new and significant orders of monks came into existence. These groups were entrusted with conduct of the Inquisition and so became effective in fighting heresy. As well, they were the leading scholars of the time. These new orders served as a well-organized army under control of the papacy.
First was a group called the Franciscians under Saint Francis of Assisi who saw Christianity as poetic and mystical dedication, distrusted logic, and emphasized love and praise of all God’s creation, the glory of nature, and the brotherhood of man. In 1210 Pope Innocent III sanctioned his work. At his death in 1226 the Franciscans numbered some 5,000.
What was once a small group of volunteers to do work among the Albigensians grew into a separate religious order recognized by the papacy in 1215. The Dominicans under Saint Dominic (1170-1221) attracted men of imagination and extreme religious dedication. They led strict and regulated lives with midnight services, abstinence from meat, fasts, and prolonged periods of mandatory silence. By 1300 his numbers grew to over 500 scattered throughout every country in Europe.
The philosophers of the High Middle Ages were all churchmen of one sort or another whose thought processes were not stifled by ecclesiastical authority. These men were influenced by the philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle, the Arabs who preserved much of the Greek scientific and philosophical works and passed down to Europe, the Latin Doctors of the early Church, early medieval scholars as Bede, Alcuin, and John the Scot who were now seriously studied in the universities, and finally to the Hebrew and primitive Christian traditions recorded in Scripture.
This system of thought in the High Middle Ages came to be called scholasticism and was a movement concerned with exploring the relationship between rationalism and theism. Scholastics focused their attention on matters such as the purpose of human life, God’s attributes, ethical imperatives, the nature of man, and the relationship between God and man. From this two philosophical questions rose. The first, Realism, asserted that universals as man and tree designated real kinds that exist in nature. Nominalists, on the other hand, said universals were only names and what existed were particular individual things as John or that tree. Nominalism carried to the extreme became materialism which denied the existence of spiritual beings and Realism became pantheism which placed the ultimate reality only in those universal principles that existed all throughout the corporeal world.
Peter Abelard, 1079-1142, wrote a treatise called Sic et Non (Yes and No) which presented 158 theological propositions for which he juxtaposed arguments from both sides to show how the ecclesiastical authorities could not agree about basic issues.
Saint Anselm, 1034-1109, taught that faith must precede reason but reason could illuminate faith. He attempted to work out proofs for God and his work Cur Deus Homo scrutinized the doctrines of incarnation and atonement.
Peter Lombard wrote a book like Abelard’s called the Book of Sentences, but that went a step further to reconcile the contradictory opinions.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, born in 1225, wrote a comprehensive philosophical work called Summa Theologica, in which he explored questions of philosophy, political theory, theology, morality using Aristotle’s logical method but arriving at answers that were in complete harmony with Christian doctrine.
Finally, William of Ockham, 1300-1349, stated that Christian doctrine could not be approached by reason but had to be accepted on faith. Expanded further, God could only be accepted but not defined. By this approach he elevated reason above the world of senses.