The Decline Of The Medieval Church

Religion, Politics, And Culture, 1300-1500




In Europe, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were marked by the gradual passing of the culture that is thought of as typically "medieval."


In the years of the High Middle Ages, European civilization had reached a pinnacle of development.


But after 1300, the nature of civilization during the High Middle Ages began to change.


In thought and art, a rigid formalism replaced the creative forces that had given the Middle Ages such unique methods of expression as scholasticism and the Gothic style.


Economic and social progress yielded to depression and social strife, with peasant revolts a characteristic symptom of instability.


Church government in Rome experienced a loss of prestige, and a series of challenges weakened its effectiveness after 1300.


The church was gravely weakened from within by would-be reformers and dissidents as well as by external factors, chiefly political and economic.


By the sixteenth century these forces would be strong enough to bring about the Protestant and Catholic reformations.


Despite the desolation and death brought about by the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, the process of nation-making continued during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.


In western Europe the contrasting political trends clearly evident at the end of the thirteenth century - unification in England, France, and Spain, and fragmentation in Germany and Italy - reached their culmination.


In much of Europe by the end of the fifteenth century, the conflicting aims of what are sometimes called the "new monarchies" were superseding the quarrels of feudal barons.


The Decline Of The Medieval Church


The history of the medieval church divides roughly into three periods - dissemination, domination, and disintegration.


In the initial period, which lasted from about the fifth through the eleventh centuries, Roman Catholic Christianity spread throughout the West.


The advent of feudalism in the tenth century hindered the development of the church’s administrative structure dominated by the papacy;


but late in the eleventh century, the curch, directed by strong popes, became the most powerful institution in the West.


The period of the papacy’s greatest power - the twelfth and thirteenth centuries - reached its height with the pontificate of Innocent III, who exerted his influence over kings and princes without challenge.


The church then seemed unassailable in its prestige, dignity, and power.


Yet that strength soon came under new attack, and during the next two centuries the processes of disintegration were to gain in influence.


Papal power was threatened by the growth of nation-states, which challenged the church’s temporal power and authority.


Joined by some of the local clergy, rulers opposed papal interference in state matters and favored the establishment of general church councils to limit papal power.


In addition, the papacy was criticized by reformers, who had seen earlier reform movements


and the crusades transformed from their original high-minded purposes to suit the ambitions of the popes,


and by the bourgeoisie, whose realistic outlook was fostering growing skepticism, national patriotism, and religious self-reliance.


During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries these challenges to papal authority were effective, and papal influence rapidly declined.


Boniface VIII


A century after the papacy’s apex under Innocent III, Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) was forced to withdraw his fierce opposition to taxes levied on the great wealth of the church by Edward I in Britain and Philip IV in France.


Modeling his actions after Innocent, Boniface threatened to depose the "impious king," as he termed Philip,


but he gave way when Philip with the support of the Estates-General prohibited the export of money to Rome.


A final and more humiliating clash with the French king had long-term implications for the papacy.


When Boniface boldly declared, in the papal bull, Unam Sanctam (1302), that "subjection to the Roman pontiff is absolutely necessary to salvation for every human creature," Philip demanded that the pope be tried for his "sins" by a general church council.


In 1303 Philip’s henchmen broke into Boniface’s summer home at Anagni to arrest him and take him to France to stand trial.


Their kidnapping plot was foiled when the pope was rescued by his friends.


Humiliated, Boniface died a month later, perhaps from the shock and physical abuse he suffered during the attack.


The Avignon Papacy


The success of the French monarchy was as complete as if Boniface actually had been dragged before Philip to stand trial.


Two years after Boniface’s death, a French archbishop was chosen pope.


Taking the title of Clement V, he not only excused Philip but praised his Christian zeal in bringing charges against Boniface.


Clement never went to Rome, where feuding noble families created turmoil in the city,


but moved the papal headquarters to Avignon in southern France, where the papacy remained under French influence from 1305 to 1377.


During this period, the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the church, papal prestige suffered enormously.


All Christendom believed that Rome was the only suitable capital for the church.


Moreover, the English, Germans, and Italians accused the popes and the cardinals, who were also French, of being instruments of the French king.


The Avignon papacy added fuel to the fires of those critics who were attacking church corruption, papal temporal claims, and the apparent lack of spiritual dedication.


Increasing their demands for income from England, Germany, and Italy, and living in splendor in a newly built fortress-palace,


the Avignon popes expanded the papal bureaucracy, added new church taxes, and collected the old taxes more efficiently.


Such actions produced denouncements of the wealth of the church and a demand for its reform.


The Great Schism


When the papacy paid attention to popular opinion and returned to Rome in 1377,


it seemed for a time that the fortunes of the Roman church would improve.


But the reverse proved true.


In the papal election held the following year, the College of Cardinals, perhaps influenced by a shouting mob milling around the Vatican, elected an Italian pope.


A few months later the French cardinals declared the election invalid and elected a French pope, who returned to Avignon.


The church was now in an even worse state than it had been during the Babylonian Captivity.


During the Great Schism, as the split of the church into two allegiances was called,


there were two popes, each with his college of cardinals and capital city, each claiming universal sovereignty,


each sending forth papal administrators and taxing Christians, and each excommunicating the other.


The nations of Europe gave allegiance as their individual political interests prompted them.


In order to keep that allegiance, the rival popes had to make numerous concessions to their political supporters


and largely abandoned the practice of interfering in national politics.


The Great Schism continued after the original rival popes died and each camp elected a replacement instead of working to heal the breach in the church.


Religious life suffered, for "Christendom looked upon the scandal helpless and depressed, and yet impotent to remove it.


With two sections of Christendom each declaring the other lost, each cursing and denouncing the other, men soberly asked who was saved." ^1


Doubt and confusion caused many to question the legitimacy and true holiness of the church as an institution.

[Footnote 1: A. C. Flick, Decline of the Medieval Church, vol. I (London:

Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1930), p. 293.]


The Conciliar Movement


Positive action came in the form of the Conciliar Movement, a return to the early Christian practice of solving church problems by means of a general council of churches.


In 1395 the professors at the University of Paris proposed that a general council, representing the universal church, should meet to heal the schism.


A majority of the cardinals of both factions accepted this solution, and in 1409 they met at the council of Pisa, deposed both pontiffs, and elected a new pope.


But neither of the two deposed popes would give up his office, and the papal throne now had three claimants.


Such an intolerable situation necessitated another church council.


In 1414 the Holy Roman emperor assembled at Constance the most impressive church gathering of the period.


For the first time voting took place on a purely national basis.


Instead of the traditional assembly of bishops, the council included lay representatives and was organized as a convention of "nations" (German, Italian, French, and English, the Spanish entering later).


Each nation had one vote.


The nationalistic structure of the council was significant as an indication that the tendency toward such alignments was being recognized by the church’s hierarchy.


Finally, through the deposition of the various papal claimants and the election of Martin V as pope in 1417, the Great Schism was ended, and a single papacy was restored at Rome.


Failure Of Internal Reform


The Conciliar Movement represented a reforming and democratizing influence in the church, aimed at transforming the papacy into an institution similar to a limited monarchy.


But the movement was not to endure, even though the Council of Constance had solemnly decreed that general councils were superior to popes and that they should meet at regular intervals in the future.


Taking steps to preserve his position, the pope announced that to appeal to a church council without having first obtained papal consent was heretical.


The restoration of a single head of the church, together with the inability of later councils to bring about much-needed reform and with lack of support for such councils by secular rulers, enabled the popes to discredit the Conciliar Movement by 1450.


Not until almost a century later, when the Council of Trent convened in 1545, did a great council meet to reform the church.


By that time the church had already irreparably lost many countries to Protestantism.


Unfortunately, as the popes hesitated to call councils to effect reform, they failed to bring about reform themselves.


The popes busied themselves not with internal problems but with Italian politics and patronage of the arts.


"Thus the papacy emerged as something between an Italian city-state and a

European power, without forgetting at the same time the claim to be the

vice-regent of Christ.


The pope often could not make up his own mind whether

he was the successor of Peter or of Caesar.


Such vacillation had much to do

with the rise and success... of the Reformation." ^2

[Footnote 2: R. H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston:

Beacon Press, 1952), p. 15.]

Wycliffe And Hus


Throughout the fourteenth century the cries against church corruption became louder at the same time that heretical thoughts were being publicly voiced.


In England Piers Plowman mercilessly ridiculed the corruption, ignorance, and worldliness of the clergy,


and a professor at Oxford named John Wycliffe (1320?-1384) attacked not only church abuses but especially church doctrines.


Because of his beliefs that the church should be subordinate to the state, that salvation was primarily an individual matter between human beings and God,


that transubstantiation as taught by the church was false, and that outward rituals and veneration of relics were idolatrous, Wycliffe has been called the forerunner of the Protestant revolt.


He formed bands of "poor priests," called Lollards, who spread his views, and he provided the people with an English translation of the Bible, which he considered the final authority in matters of religion.


Although Wycliffe’s demands for reform did not succeed, the Lollards, including the famous John Ball, spread a more radical version of Wycliffe’s ideas until the movement was driven underground early in the next century.


In Bohemia, where a strong reform movement linked with the resentment of the Czechs toward their German overlords was under way, Wycliffe’s doctrines were popularized by Czech students who had heard him at Oxford.


In particular, his beliefs influenced John Hus (1369?-1415), an impassioned preacher in Prague and later rector of the university there.


Hus’ attacks on the abuses of clerical power led him, like Wycliffe, to conclude that the true church was composed of a universal priesthood of believers and that Christ alone was its head.


But Hus, who was more preacher and reformer than theologian, did not accept Wycliffe’s denial of the validity of transubstantiation.


Alarmed by Hus’ growing influence, the church excommunicated him.

Summoned to the Council of Constance to stand trial for heresy, Hus was promised safe conduct.


But Hus refused to change his views, and the council ordered him burned at the stake.


This action made Hus a martyr to the Czechs, who rebelled against both the German emperor and the Catholic church.


In the sixteenth century the remaining Hussites merged with the Lutheran movement in frustration with a church deaf to their protests.


Reasons For Church Decline


The reasons for the church’s decline during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries can be divided into internal and external ones.


By the early sixteenth century, these forces were strong enough to bring about the Reformation.


Valid criticisms of the clergy had come from a variety of sources, and the Conciliar Movement had challenged the supreme power of the papacy itself.


While criticisms increased, the church continued to decline in spiritual leadership.


The worldly concerns of the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century popes - including their deep involvement in Italian politics - pushed the church further and further away from religious concerns.


Among the outside pressures that led to the church’s decline, the growing spirit of inquiry resulted in a new critical attitude toward the institutionalization of the church.


Further, the newly invented printing press provided the means for the rapid dissemination of ideas.


From a socioeconomic view, the medieval church was slow in adapting itself to the new environment of the towns.


The problems arising from town life too often went unanswered by the church, which failed to provide enough parish priests to keep pace with the growth of urban population.


It is no accident that the towns became centers of heresy.


Finally, the development of nationalism and the growing reluctance of kings to obey any opposing institution, including the church, were evident in the encounters between Boniface VIII and the French ruler Philip IV.