The Development of the Church in Medieval Christianity
By Fr. Chad J. Stumph, D.D.
Christianity transformed from a persecuted, unorganized group of believers into a hierarchical, dominating Church over the course of seven centuries, developing alongside the changing political environment of post-Roman Europe. The development of the institution of the Catholic Church and the spread of Christ throughout Europe during these seven centuries directly impacted every aspect of late-antiquity and early-medieval life, especially politics and the relationship between kings and religion. During this time period the Church rejected its domination by the Roman and Byzantine emperors, in turn exerting its own type of spiritual dominance over the rulers of post-Roman Europe. Christianity, through the Church, became organized and “conquered” all of Europe by the time of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066.
Christianity had developed as a religious idea in Roman Palestine, and had slowly spread throughout the eastern part of the Empire toward the west. During the first three centuries of its existence, Christianity remained disorganized and concentrated within the cities. Each group of believers centered around a few charismatic local leaders and developed their own liturgy. However, the conversion of Emperor Constantine in AD312 changed the structure of Christianity and turned it into a well-organized, quasi-political institution. The Church provided Constantine with a tool to use to hold together the crumbling Empire. The Church came under the Emperor’s control with the Emperor as the divus caesar, or divine emperor. Constantine used the Christian bishops as imperial officials to administer law and justice throughout the Empire. These “imperial bishops” answered directly to the Emperor, thus instituting imperial dominance over the Church. The Council of Nicaea in AD325 further brought the Church under imperial control with the establishment of a uniform liturgy to use throughout the Empire and approved by the Emperor. Imperial dominance was completed with Theodosius II proclaiming Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire a century later. Thus began the period of praeparatio evangelii, the Christian conquering of the world.
The Western Roman Empire gradually collapsed during the fourth and fifth centuries to be replaced by “barbarian” kingdoms that thought of themselves as “Roman” and maintained many of the classical Roman institutions. The political structure and culture of the new kingdoms was different, however. Germanic kings with long hair and animal skins took the place of the emperors. These barbaric kings had been converted to Christianity during the Roman Empire by missionaries, but practiced Arianism rather than Roman Catholicism. Christianity continued to thrive under the Germanic kings, spreading the religion through Western Europe. In AD508, Clovis of the Franks converted to Christianity followed by his warriors and subjects. He was followed by the Visigothic king, Reccared in AD589 by the conversion of Ireland during the sixth century.
Under the Germanic kings, the Christian bishops became the predominant source of continuity between the Empire and the Germanic kingdoms. The bishops also became a source of great power in the post-Roman kingdoms. Germanic kings used the bishops as a link between the king and the Roman citizens living in the kingdom. The bishops grew very powerful serving as the representative of the largest class of subjects. The kings recognized this power and acknowledged it by granting the bishops political power to administer to the needs of the former Romans. Monasteries also became important institutions for the Germanic kings. The monasteries became centers of culture, scholarship, and economics, enabling the Germanic kings to better govern their kingdoms through the established religious institutions.
To increase their political power and tighten their rule of the countryside, the kings and nobles founded their own royal monasteries to supplement their own spiritual power. The idea that the Christian God would assist Christian rulers to effectively rule their kingdoms and gain victory in battle began to be developed in Western Europe. However, close ties between kings and the Church was not the only factor transforming the Church. The spread of Christianity into Ireland in the sixth century played a major role in changing Church liturgy. The Irish readily accepted Christianity as their own religion and with the fanaticism of the newly converted began to zealously transform previous Christian thought and liturgy to better suit their situation. The Irish developed a slightly different form of Christianity and sent missionaries across Europe spreading the Irish version of Christianity. Irish missionaries and monasteries influenced and transformed Christianity from the seventh century onward.
Christianity was again transformed and adapted to suit the wishes of a powerful ruler with the ascension of Charlemagne. Charlemagne was an influential proponent in the creation of “Christian kingship.” Unlike the situation the Church experienced under the Roman Emperors, with the Emperor controlling Church policy and actions, the notion of Christian kingship placed the Church in a powerful position, while not actually dominating the king. Charlemagne’s father, Pippen, received the Pope’s blessing in AD751 to become king of the Franks. This established a very strong connection between the Church and the Carolingian line of Frankish kings. Due to this strong link, the Carolingian kings were willing to become the protectors of the Papacy in destroying the power of the Lombards in Italy and guaranteeing the independence of Rome. Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Franks by Pope Leo III in AD800 and continued to carry out a policy of praeparatio evangelii by spreading Christianity everywhere his military conquests led him.
Under Charlemagne, Christianity emerged as a political concept as well as a religious one. Much like the Visigoths before him, Charlemagne viewed kingship as a religious office and the kingdom as the Church. In this there was no separation of Church and state-they became one entity. Secular law was replaced by Christian law and the bishops became even more powerful than they had previously been. The reign of Charlemagne was marked by a merging of Christian ideals with Germanic kingship, creating unity throughout the Frankish Empire. However, the next transformation of Christianity would ultimately destroy the unity enjoyed under Charlemagne and his immediate successors.
Upon the death of Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious, his three grandsons engaged in a civil war for succession to the imperial throne. The result of this war was the division of Charlemagne’s Empire into three parts. The three grandsons attempted to restore the glory of Charlemagne, but were all three unsuccessful. The idea of Christian kingship continued with the three grandsons, but the quality of rulers declined over the next half century so that by AD900, the internal divisions and the increasing irrelevancy of the king transformed the political and religious landscape of Europe. This was the period of feudal mutation and marked the end of Church independence and freedom throughout Europe. In the place of kings, local, independent nobles arose to govern the countryside.
The monasteries, churches, and bishops came under the influence of these local warlords. powerful monasteries and bishops assumed control of the local area themselves and governed them directly as the local lord. As can be seen in the account by Hugh of Lusignan, bishops assumed regional power and acted independent of Rome and other religious centers. The Church was tied into the vassalage system with clerics invested into proprietary churches by local nobles. By the turn of the first millennium, the power of the Church in Rome had been eroded, and the unity of the Church throughout Europe had been destroyed. Christianity still remained in Europe as the dominant religion (only religion in most places), but the Roman Catholic Church had been divided by the political turmoil engulfing Europe following the collapse of Charlemagne’s Empire.
Christianity had transformed greatly throughout the first millennium of its existence along with the changing political culture of Europe. The collapse of the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries gave rise to an increasingly powerful and influential Church that would remain so for five hundred years. However, the onset of the feudal mutation and the collapse of imperial and royal power in Europe in the tenth century led to the division and subjugation of the Church.
Originally published by WikiBooks, 10.01.2006, under a Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.