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The Middle Ages

By Brian Hendricks

There is a running joke at my church that whenever our pastor wears a dark suit on Sunday morning, the congregation can expect a “heavy” sermon.  This observation is repeated from the pulpit by the pastor himself, and it is usually accompanied by a message on the depravity of man, spiritual threats facing today’s society, or a Scripture passage from one of the Minor Prophets

As I have worked on composing this essay on the history of the Medieval Church, I have felt the need to put on a dark suit.

The Church in the Middle Ages was a church of patterns.  Sadly, they were patterns of deception, division, and drift.  Whatever dynamism that emerged from the Church was kept on the margins or treated as unwelcome or even heretical.  It is easy to understand how those who were allowed access to Scripture in the medieval era could have an apocalyptic view of their times, especially when they read Paul’s warning to Timothy that “in the last days there will come times of difficulty.  For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive . . .”1  The Medieval Church had the appearance of godliness to many.  While they did not deny its power, they certainly did abuse it.

The Church in the Middle Ages faced threats from without (emperors and kings who vied with popes for supremacy, invading Muslims, poorly-managed Crusades) and threats from within (lax and corrupt church leadership, schisms, heresies that took root).  It also saw reforms, from the monastic movement to humanistic scholars.  Finally, it prompted a reaction – an Inquisition that targeted not only Jews and Muslims, but also those daring, Christ-believing men and women who challenged the Church at the expense of their own lives.


During the medieval era, the Church, as it has throughout its entire history, faced many “threats from without.”  Yet while the external threats faced by the Early Church involved Roman emperors bent on persecuting Christians, those faced by the Medieval Church were of a completely different nuance.  Thanks to the conversion experience of Constantine, a Roman emperor in the 4th century, “Christianity moved swiftly from the seclusion of the catacombs to the prestige of palaces.”2  There, a new danger lay in wait.

Christians in the Early Church were considered threats to Rome.  Rather than worship the emperor, Christians looked to a kingdom of their own with Jesus Christ as their king.  That they worshiped in seclusion and chose to avoid participating in the “public life” of Rome caused suspicion (since many public spectacles were marked by worshipping one or more Roman gods).  The believers’ practice of partaking in communion to remember Christ’s sacrifice – a practice that involved the “body and blood” of Jesus – confused and alarmed pagan Rome even further.

Roman emperors had little or no hesitancy to stamp out these perceived threats, nor were they reluctant to scapegoat Christians.  Nero, who accused Christians for starting the Great Fire of Rome in the year 64 AD and burned them alive to illuminate his own gardens, is the best example but not the only one.  Domitian, who reigned from 81-96, enforced emperor worship, sent John to Patmos, forced people to pay a tax to fund a temple to Jupiter (with severe punishments for those who did not comply), and outlawed Christianity in general.3

Diocletian, who reigned from 284-305, engaged in a persecution of Christianity that was even more systemic.  Not content to ban Christians from military service, Diocletian began a “general persecution” of Christians in 303 that attacked pastors and congregations, required sacrifices to Roman gods in Roman temples, demanded denunciations of the faith, and collected and burned any Christian writings.  (Jews were mostly exempt from such persecution, since they did not proselytize.)  The noted Christian apologist Tertullian wrote that “If the Tiber floods, if the Nile fails to rise, if there is an earthquake, a famine, a plague – the cry is heard: ‘Toss the Christians to the lions!’”4

Thankfully, Tertullian also wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  The Christian faith not only survived the Roman onslaught, it flourished.  It also won a convert in Constantine, who won a major battle on the outskirts of Rome in 312 after seeing a vision of a cross in the clouds with the words “By this sign you shall conquer.”  With his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, his ascent to the Roman emperorship, and his spiritual conversion, Constantine changed Christianity from a faith that was not tolerated to one that was “most favored.”  The change in status did not eliminate Christianity from all challenges, but rather changed the nature of them.  And many historians have noted the irony in the fact that the same Roman government that ordered the crucifixion of Christ eventually became His “biggest promoter.”  As Merrill Unger writes, “The church’s prosperity became her greatest peril.”5

By the time the Church entered the medieval period (as delineated by most scholars), it was an institution that had been “married to the state” for over 250 years.  While such an arrangement guaranteed the safety of Christian adherents, it also meant that theological issues became political footballs and ecclesiastical leaders were chosen by, and beholden to, Rome.  It was Roman emperors who summoned ecumenical councils to hash out Church doctrine and respond to heresies.  It was also Roman emperors who demanded obedience and the laying aside of theological disputes whenever barbarians threatened Rome’s borders.

Moreover, while a professing believer of the Early Church could truly be seen as one (since a profession of faith back then carried dangerous possibilities), a professing believer of the Medieval Church was, on the whole, more suspect.  Was he professing Christ for the sake of political convenience?  Was he really a follower of Christ or a pagan who mingled his faith with Christian overtones?  Or was he really indifferent to the faith yet chose to attach the term “Christian” to himself in order to avoid trouble?  During this time in history, it was not always easy to discern.

In the days since Constantine, Roman emperors were considered the guardians of both church and state, but a weak emperor combined with a strong Pope often changed that dynamic.  The collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century reversed it.  While the remnants of the Roman Empire in the East – the Byzantine Empire – remained strong, the West faced a power vacuum that mostly Popes, and occasionally barbarian tribes, attempted to fill.

At the end of the 8th century, circumstances caused the re-marriage of church and state in Western Europe.  Pope Leo III, who had witnessed the sacking of Rome by barbarians and was threatened by advancing Muslim armies and political opponents at home intent on capturing and torturing him, fled across the Alps and found Charlemagne.  Charlemagne (“Charles the Great”), who was king of a Germanic tribe called the Franks, accompanied Leo back to Rome along with his sizeable army.  Leo rewarded and surprised Charlemagne on Christmas Day of 800 AD by crowning him as emperor of a newly-formed Holy Roman Empire.  While historians have argued that the Holy Roman Empire deserved none of its three names, it lasted for over a thousand years and became a staunch protector of the Church.6

However, not every Holy Roman Emperor was as dominant as Charlemagne, and not every Pope after Leo III was so obliging.  To quote Unger once more, “the popes of the 11th to the 14th centuries instituted reforms and humbled kings.”7

Some popes amassed armies and levied taxes to the extent that they were considered kings.  One pope who was adept at both reforming and humbling was Gregory VII, who reigned from 1073-1085.  Gregory insisted on the celibacy of clergy and the ending of the practice known as “simony,” which was the selling of influential church positions to the highest bidder (and named after the Simon in Acts 8 who attempted to buy spiritual power from the apostles).  He also squared off in a high-stakes power struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV of Germany, in what historians call the Investiture Controversy.

The Investiture Controversy involved who had the authority to appoint church officials (i.e., “invest” clerics with their offices).  Those siding with Gregory felt that the Church was the premier institution on Earth and that the Pope was Christ’s representative on Earth, so it was only natural that the Church would make those decisions.  Those favoring Henry’s position argued that the emperor was the earthly reflection of the heavenly king8 and that the Church’s role was to aid the emperor.  As it turned out, while both men claimed to be God’s ambassador, Gregory had an extra weapon in his arsenal:  the threat of excommunication.  Ultimately, Henry IV humiliated himself to the point of kneeling barefoot in the snow in front of Gregory’s castle in northern Italy to beg forgiveness.  While Henry ultimately forced Gregory out and installed an “antipope” in his place a few years later, the responsibility of making Church appointments stayed mainly with the Church itself.9

On a smaller scale, another important church-versus-state squabble occurred in England in 1170.  Thomas Becket, who was named by King Henry II as Archbishop of Canterbury, did not always follow Henry’s demands after the appointment.  Frustrated by Becket’s apparent lack of gratitude or contrition, Henry mused aloud “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”  Four knights who heard the King took this as an indirect command and proceeded to Canterbury, where they murdered Becket near the altar of the cathedral.  Becket’s death and the nature of it horrified England.  Canterbury became a famous medieval pilgrimage site, and one such pilgrimage was the setting for Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic Canterbury Tales.10

The conflicts between the Church and European monarchs did not end with the Investiture Controversy.  By the time of the Reformation, people throughout the Continent grew to resent the Church’s interference in state affairs and their heavy taxation.  Moreover, political leaders capitalized on the growth of nationalism – the ethnic, geographic, and cultural associations that held people together like glue – to turn the tide in their favor.

Aside from the external threat of political interference from heads of state, the other “threat from without” concerned the rise of Islam and the Crusades that emerged in reaction to it.  Islam’s expansion following its creation in the 7th Century was violent, but such violence did not draw the attention of the Western Church until Muslim caliphs had conquered the Arabian Peninsula, northern Africa, and Spain.  When Charles Martel, a Frankish warrior and the grandfather of Charlemagne, defeated an invading Muslim army at the Battle of Tours in 732 AD, he most likely prevented the entire continent from being overrun by Islam.  This battle in modern-day northern France, also known as the Battle of Poitiers, is considered one of the most consequential in all of history.11

Ultimately, Islam succeeded in capturing the Holy Land.  In 1095, Pope Urban II, a Frenchman, convened a church council in Clermont, France, and rallied all Christians to embark on a “crusade” (literally, “taking the cross”) to reclaim the Holy Land for the followers of Christ.  With his cry of “Deus le volt” (“God wills it”), Urban painted a picture of barbarous Muslims who were desecrating Christianity’s sacred sites and attacking Christians making pilgrimages to them.  He also proclaimed, as many Muslim clerics have done when proclaiming jihad on the West, that anyone participating in this holy war would acquire not only material wealth but remission of all sins.

The First Crusade began in 1097 and was a military success.  It was also an aberration, as future crusades did not achieve anything close to the successes experienced in the first one.  Crusaders – mostly knights from noble families – wore the cross on their chests on the way to the Holy Land and wore them on their backs when returning home.  From 1097-1099, they journeyed to the Holy Land, defeated armies of Seljuk Turks, captured Antioch and Jerusalem, and established a Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem that lasted for almost 200 years.

The Crusades that followed were disastrous in one way or another.  The Second Crusade began in 1148 to repel Muslim armies that were gathering on the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem’s northern borders.  While Christians held on to Jerusalem, they lost the city to the Muslim warrior Saladin in 1187.  The loss of Jerusalem begat the Third (and most romanticized) Crusade in 1189, which was also known as the “Crusade of the Three Kings.”  Three powerful rulers – the Emperor of Germany, the King of France, and the King of England (Richard “the Lionheart”) – took up the cross and joined the fight.  While the military did enjoy some successes, the German emperor drowned en route to the Holy Land and the Muslims kept Jerusalem.  Thankfully, Saladin and King Richard agreed to a treaty that allowed Christians access to the Holy Sepulchre and other revered sites in the city.

The Fourth Crusade, lasting from 1203-1204, was the last of the major Crusades, and it was an unmitigated disaster that had implications well into the 21st Century.  By the time the Fourth Crusade began, the Church had been split into Western / Roman Catholic and Eastern / Orthodox factions for 150 years (more on this later), and tensions between the two sides still simmered.  Amazingly, a vengeful Venetian lord succeeded in persuading the Crusaders to sack Constantinople, the Christian capital of the Eastern Church, instead of attacking Muslim forces in the Holy Land as originally planned!  The Crusade became permanently sidetracked once Crusaders sacked and looted the city and raped and murdered thousands of the inhabitants.  Their actions drew a stern and furious rebuke from Pope Innocent III, deepened the rift between the Catholics and Orthodox, and was seen as more of a “war on the holy” than a holy war.12

The Crusades cause resentment even to this day.  One prominent medieval scholar, Steven Runciman, went so far as to say that “There was never a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade.”13  The very word “crusade” is considered a pejorative term by Muslims, much like “jihad” is to Christians.  Days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush remarked that “this crusade – this war on terrorism – is going to take a while,” and his words were widely condemned by Arabic-speaking nations and European allies.14  The Fourth Crusade in particular caused resentment among Orthodox adherents, and one year before his death in 2005, Pope John Paul II found it necessary to publicly apologize to the Patriarch of Constantinople for events that happened eight hundred years earlier.15

“Unfortunately,” wrote Bruce Shelley, “the popes never held two basic truths that we must never forget: Christianity’s highest satisfactions aren’t guaranteed by possession of special places, and the sword is never God’s way to extend Christ’s church.”16


While struggling to create the appearance of unity, the Church in the Middle Ages was badly divided.  It faced an organizational divide when the Eastern half split to form the Orthodox Church in the 11th Century, and it faced a spiritual divide thanks to the depravity of its leadership and heresies that were oft times encouraged instead of challenged.

At the risk of offending my graduate school history professor who insists that no epochal event in history was ever inevitable, the schism in 1054 that created the Orthodox Church seems to qualify as an “inevitable result,” and it was centuries in the making.  Considering that the Roman Empire was split into western (Roman) and eastern (Byzantine) halves, and that church and state had been “institutionally married” for many years beforehand, it is nothing short of miraculous that the Church remained intact as long as it did.

From 476-1053, events chipped away at the veneer of unity.  Consider:

  1. No clear boundaries between the Roman and Byzantine Empires caused political disputes and religious disputes over assigned territories.
  2. The Bishop of Rome (the Pope) and the Bishop (Patriarch) of Constantinople engaged in a power struggle, “unwilling to be subservient to each other” writes Howard Vos.  The pope wanted primacy AND supremacy.17  The Patriarch of Constantinople, however, was and is considered the “first among equals.”
  3. The two sides experienced differences in language (Latin vs. Greek), theology (practical vs. speculative), liturgy (leavened vs. unleavened bread), and political authority (weak rulers in the West vs. a strong Byzantine emperor who felt the Church worked for him).18
  4. Charlemagne’s coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 deeply worried the East.  The Byzantine emperor styled himself as God’s ruler on Earth and the only one fit to oversee the Church.  The notion of two Emperors was akin to the notion of two Gods – that would be one too many.
  5. Pope Leo III, who felt that Muslim victories in the Crusades were God’s way of frowning on the East’s idolatry, tried to ban the use of icons (images / paintings).  Future popes (and Church councils) reversed Leo’s decision, but only allowed for the use and veneration of icons and not statues.  Even today, Orthodox churches are adorned with scores of icons depicting Christ, Mary, the Apostles and Saints.

The tipping point that led to the “Great Schism of 1054” involved the East’s position on the procession of the Holy Spirit, also known as the “Filioque Controversy.”  In the Early Church, one of the most dangerous heresies that took root was Arianism, the belief that Christ was not divine but was rather a creation of (and thereby subservient to) God the Father.  This heresy arose again in the Eastern church when the Emperor claimed that the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father BY the Son” instead of proceeding “from the Father AND the Son.”  (The Latin term filioque means “and the Son.”)  A heated dispute arose when the Pope decided to add the filioque line to the Nicene Creed without calling for a Church council to settle the matter.  Clearly, those siding with Arianism did not heed the words of Jesus, who said “I and the Father are one.”19

On July 16, 1054, Cardinal Humbert, a legate (representative) of the Pope, entered the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople during a service conducted by the Patriarch and placed a Bull of Excommunication – an official notice from the Pope – on the altar.  He then shook off the dust from his feet upon departing and said, “Let God look and judge.”20

With that, the Great Schism that had been anticipated came to pass and the Church was irrevocably split.  The Fourth Crusade some 150 years later ruined any hope for reconciliation, and bitter feelings between two Christian camps remained for centuries.  The acrimony was so deep that the Grand Duke of Constantinople claimed, “I would rather see the Muslim turban in the midst of the city than the Latin mitre.”21

Rifts in the Church did not end with the departure of the Eastern half.  Italy and France engaged in a power struggle for the Papacy that damaged the Church significantly.  In 1309, Pope Clement V, a native of France, moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon, where it remained for nearly 70 years.  The Popes themselves were also French throughout the Avignon period, which caused a weakening of the papacy in England (who was fighting France in the Hundred Years War during this time) and in Italy, where Dante and Petrarch satirically called this 70-year interregnum the “Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy.”22

Once the Papacy moved back to Rome in 1377, the new (Roman) Pope, Urban VI, alienated all of the French cardinals, who left Rome and named their own Pope.  From 1378-1417, two centers of power – Rome and Avignon – had their own Pope who called the other an “antipope.”  This disaster was complicated even further in 1409, when a church council meeting in Pisa to solve the matter chose a third Pope instead, resulting in three Popes “anathematizing and excommunicating one another.”23  This, rightfully, earned for the Church the reputation as a group that couldn’t get its act together.

The spiritual divisions of the Church were deeper and broader.  They also led in no small way to the second great schism – the Protestant Reformation – in the 1500s.

Heresies which had plagued the Church from its inception were largely ignored, sometimes encouraged, and in other cases authorized by the leaders themselves during the Middle Ages.  Questionable doctrines adopted by the Roman Catholic Church in this time included the doctrine of Purgatory (whereby the souls of imperfect believers are “purged” of their sins upon death before entering Heaven); the offering of prayers directed to Mary, angels, and departed saints; the worship of the cross, images, and relics; adoration of the communion wafer due to transubstantiation (the belief that the wafer is miraculously transformed into the actual body of Christ upon ingestion), and the decision by the Council of Toulouse in 1229 to place the Bible on the “Index of Forbidden Books” that laymen were not allowed to own or read in their own language!24

Mysticism, man’s attempt to become one with God and focusing on experiences and extrabiblical visions and revelations, was pervasive throughout this time.  Theresa of Avila, Meister Eckhart, Catherine of Siena, and Julian of Norwich were just some of the practitioners of mysticism in the Middle Ages.  Meister Eckhart, a Dominican monk, foreshadowed the Quakers of the 17th and 18th Centuries by affirming the existence of a “Divine Spark within each of us.”25  “Medieval mysticism,” writes Gary Gilley, “has managed to survive within small pockets of Roman Catholicism for centuries.”26

By now, anyone reading this essay has probably recognized a void – an omission of the day-to-day experiences of the 99.9% of professing Christians in the Middle Ages who were not Popes, priests, or princes.27  The truth is that up until very recently, the recording of history was considered a “top-down” enterprise where only the movers and shakers of society deserved to have their deeds preserved for posterity.  Moreover, as most of the people in Medieval Europe were illiterate and destitute, they had neither the ability nor the means to write their own histories.

Thankfully, we have an exception to this historic rule in Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou:  The Promised Land of Error.  Montaillou was a village in southern France that was a hotbed of heresy in the early 1300s.  The heresy in question was Catharism (also called “Albigensianism” due to its origins in the French town of Albi), which posited the belief in two Gods, a “good God” (found in the New Testament and who created the spiritual realm) and a “bad God” (found in the Old Testament and who created the physical realm).

After authorities launched an “Albigensian Crusade” to wipe out the heretics, a local French bishop led an interrogation at Montaillou of peasants and shepherds that was transcribed and preserved in an “Inquisition Register.”  Ladurie used this register to reconstruct the everyday lives of the villagers who shared their thoughts and feelings on faith, the Church, love, death, and family.  One such villager, a prefect named Bélibaste, voiced a common opinion when he stated that “There are four great devils ruling over the world:  the lord Pope, the major devil whom I call Satan; the lord King of France is the second devil; the Bishop of Pamiers the third; and the lord Inquisitor of Carcàssonne, the fourth.”28

Finally, one of the clearest examples of depravity in the Medieval Church is that those in positions of ecclesiastical authority did not heed Paul’s warning that “the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption.”29  Some used the powers of their office to employ relatives and expand their own power base.  Others considered themselves as beings worthy of the worship and idolization of others.  Many turned their positions into profit-making enterprises by either levying crippling taxes, selling other church positions to the highest bidder (“simony”), or selling grain and sacraments (and indulgences) to the poor.30

Furthermore, a great deal of them failed to adhere to their celibacy vows.  The most notorious example was Pope Alexander VI, who reigned from 1492-1503.  Alexander was a member of the Borgia family, a group so scandalous as to make certain Roman imperial families look tame.31

Alexander, who obtained the Papacy through simony,32 engaged in the practice after becoming Pope as well.  He also fathered many children through multiple mistresses both before and during his reign.33

In Luke 12:48, Jesus said that “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.”  By that standard, generally stated, the leaders of the Church in the Middle Ages failed spectacularly.


Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Romans 12:2 (ESV)

The creation and growth of monasteries was the direct result of the “secularization of the faith” that took place after Constantine’s conversion.  “Once Christians had laid down their lives for the truth; now they slaughtered each other to secure the prizes of the church.”34  Many believers who wanted a return to the simplicity and perceived purity of the church in the Apostles’ time concluded that since they could not change the world, they would separate themselves from it.

The first monks were actually Egyptian hermits.  By the time of the Medieval era, they had created communities and their own separate, distinct practices.  Nearly all who committed themselves to monasticism lived a very orderly life where they ate, worked, and worshipped together at set times.  “To save souls,” went one credo, “you must bring them together.”35  Monks (and nuns) took three-fold vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and many considered them to be the backbone of the Church.  They were also responsible for putting a “kinder, gentler” face on the Church even when they could not reform it altogether – their missionary zeal won many converts and provided comfort to thousands suffering through the realities of medieval life.

Most monastic orders patterned their way of life from the teachings and writings of famous theologians.  Augustine, the author of City of God, inspired Italian hermits to create an order bearing his name in 1256.  Over 200 years later, the Augustinian Order attracted to its fold none other than Martin Luther himself.  Gregory the Great, who was originally a monk, became Pope in 590 and championed many reforms.  Gregory, who was a prominent writer like Augustine, wrote Pastoral Care, a book that influenced monasticism for centuries.  He also established schools to train singers and promoted the use of chanting (hence the “Gregorian chant”) in worship services.36

Another influential figure was Benedict of Nursia, whose community in Monte Cassino and rules regarding everyday monastic life were the hallmarks of monasticism until the 12th century.  The Benedictine monasteries provided everything needed – monks made their own clothes, grew their own crops, made their own wine, and did their own building and repairs.  Most importantly, every monastery had a library where monks hand-copied Scripture and other classical Latin works.

Dominic of Guzman (1170-1221) created a group that bore his name when he became alarmed with both the heresies that emerged in Spain and the violent methods employed by the Church to stop them.  His Order of Preachers attempted (with little success) to use persuasion and reason to make the heretics see the errors of their ways.  Ironically, an order that was created out of an aversion to strong-arm tactics became synonymous with them, as many Dominican friars were used to carry out the Spanish Inquisition centuries later.37

While the Dominicans were the personification of missionary zeal, the order founded by Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was known for their emphasis on poverty and asceticism.  Francis, one of the most honored men of the entire period, was inspired by a sermon on Matthew 10 where Jesus tells his disciples “You received without paying; give without pay.  Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food.”38

Gregory, too, was committed to an ascetic life, but Francis practiced it better than anyone.  When a friend asked him if he had gotten married, Francis replied, “Yes, to the fairest of all brides, to the Lady Poverty.”39

His Prayer of St. Francis reverberates to this day:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.40

Reform in the Middle Ages also transpired through an emphasis on learning as well as Christian living.  Monasteries became “the conservatories of learning and the centers of missionary and philanthropic work,” and monks were “the writers, preachers, philosophers, and theologians of the age.”41  Another important element of medieval learning was scholasticism.  Scholasticism involved researching, questioning, and debating theological matters in a world where all such methods were highly discouraged.  Famous Medieval figures such as Anselm and Peter Abelard were among the first to utilize scholastic methods.  Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274), a Dominican monk, lived in a community where contemplation and strict obedience were demanded.  One did not question authority, the Bible, or the Church Fathers.  Yet Thomas Aquinas was able to use the scholastic method to produce Summa Theologica, a masterpiece of theology that was a “systematic exposition of the Christian faith.”  It also reconciled Christian theology with Aristotle, Plato, and other classical philosophers.  While Aquinas was later censured by the Church for favoring non-Christian authorities and challenging the worldview of the Church, he was elevated to sainthood in the following century.42

Sadly, even monasteries were unable to avoid corruption.  While monks and nuns themselves took and maintained vows of poverty, the monastery as a whole “often grew immensely rich through gifts, especially land.”43  Abbots faced the temptations that went with obtaining and keeping vast amounts of wealth.  Those in the monastic community were also often guilty of a simple heresy of their own – the concept of a “works righteousness” or “works salvation” through their asceticism.  Luther was especially critical, writing in his pamphlet On Monastic Vows that monasticism implied a “higher order” of Christians that had no basis in Scripture.  He also suggested that God had allowed him to become a monk so that he could testify against the practice with more credibility.44

The reforms that were attempted in the Middle Ages caused various reactions within ecclesiastical leadership.  While some reformists were embraced (monks) and others less so (scholars), many who were perceived by the Church as threats were targeted aggressively, and they paid with their lives.

One of the most consequential and powerful Popes was Innocent III, who reigned for just 18 years (1198-1216).  He forced his will through exercising spiritual penalties.  He excommunicated heads of state who would not comply, and in some cases he even imposed an “interdict,” which was a mass excommunication of entire kingdoms whose rulers were uncooperative (Norway in 1198, England in 1206 when King John refused to accept Innocent’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury).  To him, the Pope was like the Sun and kings were like the Moon.  And as the Moon received its light from the Sun, so kings received their powers from him.

It was also Innocent III who exercised the physical penalty of the Inquisition on certain groups.  He launched the Inquisition against the Albigensians in southern France and against the Waldensians – a group led by a French merchant named Peter Waldo who, like Francis, took a vow of poverty, but unlike Francis believed in the “priesthood of all believers,” as did the Protestant reformers of the 16th Century.

Called “one of the most terrible engines of tyranny ever created by man,” the Inquisition often involved secret tribunals where those charged were often guilty before proven innocent.  Torture was used to obtain confessions from the accused or testimonies against them by their acquaintances.  Those who refused to recant were at best thrown in jail and suffered the loss of their property, while many were burned at the stake.  Those who did recant still faced fines, floggings, or other punishments.

The Inquisition long outlasted Innocent III, particularly in Spain, but thanks in part to him it was expanded to include Jews and Muslims.  Jews were targeted mercilessly throughout the Middle Ages.  Pogroms, similar to the Inquisition but without the pretense of a trial, were organized massacres that slaughtered many in Jewish ghettos.  Jews were blamed for causing the Black Death (bubonic plague) in 1348, of capturing and sacrificing Christian children, and of stealing and stabbing communion wafers to re-enact the death of Christ, a practice called “host desecration”).  Innocent III also demanded that Jews and Muslims wear distinctive dress.45  Those who lived through the Holocaust of World War II and who were familiar with this period of history could rightly claim that history was repeating itself, and at a much larger scale.

The Inquisition lasted for hundreds of years, and it was responsible for the execution of tens of thousands and the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands.  Sadly, it was carried out mostly by the monastic orders, particularly the Dominican monk Tomás of Torquemada, who was named “grand inquisitor” by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1480 and who, over the course of 15 years, “put an untold number of heretics to torture and death at the stake.”46


In the long run, such persecutions restrained many enemies of the Church but created even more.  John Wycliffe (1329-1384), a teacher of divinity at Oxford, was harassed by the Church for preaching against papal authority and the mass.  He was also responsible for creating the first translation of the Vulgate – the Latin translation of the Bible – into English.  While he died of natural causes, he was declared a heretic over 30 years after his death, his body was exhumed, and his bones were burned and tossed into a river.  Wycliffe’s actions earned for him the title “Morning Star of the Reformation.”

Jan Hus (1373-1415) was another reformer-branded-heretic.  In what became familiar themes of the Protestant Reformation, Hus attacked the practice of indulgences and the doctrine of papal infallibility.  Hus was burned at the stake in Prague, but he became a symbol of Czech nationalism and the inspiration of armed and written resistance against the oppressive methods of the Church.

Luther’s nailing-to-the-wall of the 95 Theses in 1517 was pivotal to the Protestant Reformation.  But the Reformation did not begin at Wittenberg.  The seeds were planted early, by monks and nuns who pledged their lives to pursuing holiness in an unholy world, and by warriors who fought with pen and ink.  Ultimately, the change that came would be the fruit that sprang from the hearts of a multitude of faithful believers between 590 and 1517 who prayed desperately for change.

Recommended Books on Church History / Middle Ages

Bainton, Roland H.  Christianity.

Bauer, Susan Wise.  The History of the Medieval World.

Bauer, Susan Wise.  The History of the Renaissance World.

Bishop, Morris.  The Middle Ages.

Cantor, Norman. The Civilization of the Middle Ages.

Holland, Thomas.  The Forge of Christendom.

Hollister, C. Warren.  Medieval Europe:  A Short History.  (If I ever had to escape my house due to fire or flood and could only grab one book on Medieval history, I’d grab this one.)

Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy.  Montaillou:  The Promised Land of Error.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott.  A History of Christianity, 2 volumes.

Manchester, William.  A World Lit Only by Fire.

McBrien, Richard P.  Lives of the Popes.

Needham, Nicholas R.  2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Vol. 2 – The Middle Ages.

Pirenne, Henri. Mohammed and Charlemagne.

Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades: A History.

Shelley, Bruce L.  Church History in Plain Language.

Singman, Jeffrey.  Daily Life in Medieval Europe.

Tuchman, Barbara. A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century.

Unger, Merrill F.  The New Unger’s Bible Handbook.

Vos, Howard F.  Exploring Church History.


  1. 2 Timothy 3:1-2 (ESV). []
  2. Shelley, Bruce L.  Church History in Plain Language (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 2013), 95. []
  3. Eusebius of Caesarea.  Eusebius:  The Church History (Grand Rapids, MI:  Kregel Publications, 2007), 92-96. []
  4. Kesich, Veselin.  Formation and Struggles:  The Birth of the Church AD 33-200 (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2007), 161. []
  5. Unger, Merrill F.  The New Unger’s Bible Handbook. (Chicago:  Moody Press, 1984), 692. []
  6. Bishop, Morris.  The Middle Ages (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1985), 23-28. []
  7. Unger, The New Unger’s Bible Handbook, 696. []
  8. Hollister, C. Warren.  Medieval Europe:  A Short History (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1994), 221-223. []
  9. Ibid. []
  10. Ibid., 247-248, 361. []
  11. Needham, N.R.  2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Part Two: The Middle Ages (Durham, England:  Evangelical Press, 2005), 24. []
  12. Riley-Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades: A History (London:  Bloomsbury, 2014), 23-69, 145-186. []
  13. Tyerman, Christopher.  The Debate on the Crusades, 1099-2010 (Manchester, UK:  Manchester University Press, 2011), 213. []
  14. Ibid., 236. []
  15. Flynn, Ray.  John Paul II:  A Personal Portrait of the Pope and the Man (New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 209-210. []
  16. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 202. []
  17. Vos, Howard F.  Exploring Church History (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 1994), 63. []
  18. Ibid. []
  19. John 10:30 (ESV). []
  20. Galli, Mark.  “The Great Divorce,” Christian History, Issue 54, May 1997, 10-18. []
  21. Ware, Timothy.  The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books:  London, 1993), 71. []
  22. Vos, Exploring Church History, 73. []
  23. Vos, Exploring Church History, 74. []
  24. Arnold, Dr. Jack L.  “The Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages.”  Accessed at http://www.thirdmill.org/newfiles/jac_arnold/CH.Arnold.RMT.1.html. []
  25. Gilley, Gary.  “Roots of the Spiritual Formation Movement,” Think on These Things, Vol. 20, Issue 4, August 2014. []
  26. Gilley, Gary.  “Mysticism – Part 2,” Think on These Things, Vol. 11, Issue 2, February 2005. []
  27. Karl Marx’s famous castigation of religion as the “opiate of the masses” was probably due in part to the misery and squalor experienced by those 99.9% and the comfort that their faith gave them, along with the promise of an eternity in Heaven.  Religious authorities frequently controlled their angry subjects through threats of excommunication and raised money by appealing to their fears of Purgatory (through the selling of indulgences). []
  28. Ladurie, Emmanuel Le Roy.  Montaillou:  The Promised Land of Error (New York:  Random House, 1979), 13. []
  29. Galatians 6:8a (ESV). []
  30. McBrien, Richard P.  Lives of the Popes (San Francisco:  Harper Collins, 1997), 98-99, 215-216, 229-232, 266-267. []
  31. The “House of Borgia” entry on Wikipedia.org lists adultery, bribery, incest, simony, theft, and murder – specifically arsenic poisoning – as crimes for which they were suspected! []
  32. McBrien, Lives of the Popes, 267-269. []
  33. Alexander was a consequential Pope for another reason as well:  Spain and Portugal, two expanding empires, asked him to arbitrate their dispute over territory in the New World.  Alexander famously drew a “line of demarcation” that gave modern-day Brazil and territories east to Portugal (which explains why Brazilians speak that language) and the rest to Spain. []
  34. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 127. []
  35. Ibid., 128. []
  36. Bishop, Middle Ages, 10, 289. []
  37. History of the Order of the Preachers, the Dominican Friars,” accessed at http://dominicanfriars.org/about/history-dominican-friars/. []
  38. Matthew 10:8-10 (ESV). []
  39. Bainton, Roland H.  Christianity (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987), 191. []
  40. “Peace Prayer of St. Francis,” accessed at http://www.loyolapress.com/our-catholic-faith/prayer/traditional-catholic-prayers/saints-prayers/peace-prayer-of-saint-francis. []
  41. Vos, Exploring Church History, 75-80. []
  42. Hollister, Medieval Europe, 302-304. []
  43. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 132. []
  44. Florovsky, Fr. Georges.  “Luther’s Rejection of Monasticism,” accessed at http://oodegr.co/english/protestantism/louther_antimonaxismos1.htm. []
  45. He was also the Pope who initiated the disastrous Fourth Crusade and approved the creation of the Dominican and Franciscan Orders.  On a side note, I have long held to a theory that Popes named “Innocent” were anything but. []
  46. Bainton, Christianity, 236. []