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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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1. The Church and the Barbarian Invaders. Be-
tween the fifth and the tenth centuries, the downfall
of the Roman Empire in the West, the eruption of
barbarian hordes from Asia, the establishment of
Teutonic monarchies and the long period of wars and
migrations threw the map of the European continent
into the melting pot, until it finally emerged with a
general pattern that is still recognizable today. From
the seventh century, the rise of Islam and the expansion
of the Arabian Empire produced a drastic and perma-
nent division in that Mediterranean world which had
been the seat of the Greco-Roman civilization and had
formed the original Christendom. In the eastern half
of the ancient Roman Empire, the imperial system
maintained itself at Byzantium, and, though it lost to
Islam most of its territory bordering on the eastern as
well as all the southern Mediterranean, it retained its
cultural continuity (and preserved Christianity in
Constantinople) for a further period of something like
a thousand years.

In a sense it is now the history of Europe that really
opens, and this Europe is to emerge as the new form
of “Christendom” though it is only very slowly that
the northern part of it becomes Christianized. The
centuries of upheaval produced a grave decline of
culture even in the south, and much of what had been
subtle and profound in classical thought—much even
of the scholarship and science—was to disappear for
a long period. Henceforward, there is a separate history
of the West and we trace the rise of a Western civili-


zation from a comparatively early stage at which soci-
ety itself has returned in many respects to primitive
forms. Compared with the Byzantine world, and even
later with the rapidly developing culture of Islam, the
West appears as a backward region for a long time,
its backwardness illustrated by the appalling collapse
of its city-life, at a time when Constantinople, and later
Bagdad, were of tremendous prestige and size. For
special reasons this Western civilization at its formative
period, when everything was still malleable, found
itself under the presiding influence of a Christianity
that had acquired greater power over mundane affairs
than ever before.

Some of the Teutonic invaders had become Chris-
tianized before their eruption into the Roman world,
but they had been converted by Arians and had re-
ceived the faith in a heretical form. This would seem
to have created difficulties with the populations they
subjected, for no Arian dynasty survived, though, in
the case of Spain, the Visigoths maintained themselves
by going over to Catholicism. The Frankish invaders
of Gaul may have owed some of their success to the
fact that their dynasty was converted only after their
migration into the Roman Empire, so that from the
very first, they adhered to the Catholicism of their
Gallo-Roman subjects. For centuries the reigning
dynasties were to have an exceptional part to play in
the shaping of the map, the history and the culture
of Europe, and it was they who brought their peoples
over to Christianity in those more primitive conditions
under which it was inevitable that religion should be
regarded as the affair of the group.

If Christianity had won its way in the Roman Empire
through individual conversion, it owed its spread over
Europe sometimes to mass-conversion, i.e., to the de-
crees, perhaps the example, sometimes the pressures
and persecuting policies, of those who held the govern-
ment. It was to be extended further in the north of
Europe in subsequent centuries by movements from
both the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, so that,
when the thirteenth century opened, only a small
wedge of paganism remained, near the point where
the southern coast of the Baltic turns north. Lithuania
resisted longest of all, balanced for a considerable
period between the influence of Rome and the influ-
ence of Byzantium. From the western side the advance
was sometimes made through military conquest and
colonization policies, particularly in the east of what
the modern historian knows as Germany. Here the
warfare between Christian and pagan might be of a
brutal kind, down to the time when, in the thirteenth
century, Prussia was “converted” by the Teutonic

A considerable part of Europe was Christianized,
therefore, by methods not unlike the ones by means
of which a similar area was brought over to commu-
nism in the twentieth century. As in the case of
communism—though with greater effect in those ear-
lier stages in the history of society—the Christian
control of education, the procedures of indoctrination,
and the withholding of knowledge about possible al-
ternative systems (or the treatment of all alternatives
as merely disreputable) ensured the maintenance of the
authoritarian creed in subsequent centuries, without
the need to continue perpetually the forcible methods
that had been required for its installation. Granted the
conditions of the time, one could say, however, that
those countries which became Christian were fortu-
nate. The existing alternatives would hardly have been
more happy for them. Indeed, it was their conversion
that brought them into the orbit of civilization.

In the Byzantine East, Roman Emperors, continuing
a regime that had developed from the time of Con-
stantine, were able to exercise in some respects (though
perhaps less than was once thought) a species of
“caesaropapism.” But in the West the Roman Emperor
had disappeared, while the bishop of Rome maintained
his spiritual ascendancy amongst Christian believers
and acquired during the invasions even a certain lead-
ership in some secular matters. Pope Gregory the Great
(590-614) was fervent in his religious duties, extending
his influence over western countries, directing the con-
version of England, and asserting the spiritual su-
premacy of Rome as the see of Saint Peter. But in
default of anybody else, at a time when Byzantine
authority in Italy had become inert, he was compelled
to negotiate with the Lombard invaders of Italy and
to administer Rome as a governor, inaugurating the
temporal power of the papacy. It almost seemed as
though the Church in the centuries before the barbar-
ian invasions had unwittingly been developing an or-
ganization exactly calculated to survive, and to pre-
serve the faith, through just such a period of cataclysm
as had now occurred.

In a world where civilization had suffered such a
recession, Christianity itself shared in the “barbariza-
tion,” coming closer sometimes to those pagan super-
stitions that governed primitive minds. Neither the
spiritual life nor examples of saintliness were impossi-
ble, but the intellect was ready to accept magic and
legend even more easily than before; and, since ancient
thought itself was now imperfectly known and imper-
fectly understood, something of superstition was run
into the interstices, and there was produced an outlook
which entangled the material with the spiritual, mak-
ing religion more earthy, in a way, and nature herself
a field for the miraculous.

On the other hand, whatever may be said about the


way in which the new nations of Europe were con-
verted, there was a sense in which the spread of
Christianity was the kind of conquest that justifies itself
retrospectively. The most impressive part of the story
is the tremendous internal missionary work which the
Church conducted in the succeeding centuries in the
countries into which it spread—work calculated to
bring religion home to the individual, and to make it
gradually more genuine and profound, even if it had
been shallow and unreliable at first. It was not merely
a case of eliminating all the superstitions that could
not be harnessed to Christianity or preventing lapses
into paganism, but also teaching the belief that had
been handed down, influencing manners and morals,
and deepening sincerity, deepening the appreciation
of the faith. Part of the curious charm of Bede's Eccle-
siastical History
(including those papal letters which
provide guidance for the conversion of England and
prescribe special consideration for those who need
careful weaning from paganism) lies in an amazing
gentleness that stands out (early in the eighth century)
against a background of violence; in it also is found
a combination of high ideas at the spiritual level with
crude notions about the universe, a simple love of
amiable miracles. The great support of the Church in
the Middle Ages was to be the sheer fidelity of the
mass of the people to their beliefs, and whether the
faith were superstitious or not, its genuineness was in
the last resort the real weapon that popes were to have
against kings.

During its earliest centuries, the Church had devel-
oped in a highly civilized world, and its theological
teaching had come to require a considerable degree
of sophistication. The literature to which it was at-
tached, and its own insistence on the continuity of its
doctrinal tradition, gave it a vested interest in the
preservation of the Greco-Roman culture. It could not
prevent a serious relapse even within its own ranks;
but in a sense it had from the first been particularly
organizing itself for the preservation of a creedal system;
and this—indeed the maintenance of the whole tradi-
tion—called for a staff of trained ecclesiastics. These
latter, precisely because of the education that was so
essential for them, were to become indispensable also
in the work of secular government. The attachment
to the Scriptures made the Christian Church the enemy
of illiteracy at a crucial stage in the development of
peoples; and the need to have translations for mission-
ary purposes secured that it might even be the chief
agency in the development of a literary language.

The whole situation, in fact, imposed upon church-
men the tasks of educating the “barbarians” and they
became the principal instrument by which the culture
of the ancient classical world was transmitted to the
Teutonic peoples who had acquired the predominance
in Europe. In the most violent days the monasteries
stood like fortresses, preserving the tradition of learn-
ing—preserving, sometimes without knowing it, the
manuscripts of classical works that went out of circu-
lation for centuries. And for centuries it was church-
men—people with minds primarily shaped by their
religious beliefs and religious training—who took the
lead in the gradual recovery and deepening apprecia-
tion of the thought and learning of antiquity. The
ancient materials were now envisaged in a framework
of Christian ideas. It was as though, in Western Europe,
a civilization was being constructed from old materials
but to a new architectural design. There emerged in
the Arabian Empire a parallel culture, closely con-
nected with that of ancient Greece, but under the
presidency of the Islamic faith. These two imposing
examples of a culture which developed in a religious
setting almost under the eye of the historian, offer
promising material for a resort to the comparative

During centuries of tumult and upheaval, however,
the framework of medieval culture (like the pattern
on the map of Europe itself) was slow in taking shape.
There was a period in the eighth century when
England and Ireland seemed to be the last refuge of
civilization, and missionaries particularly from Nor-
thumbria (often in the tradition of Bede) carried the
light back to the continent, converting parts of
Germany that had never been Christianized, and con-
tributing to the emergence of the “Carolingian Renais-
sance” at the end of the century. At this latter date,
a long alliance between the papacy and the prede-
cessors of Charlemagne had resulted in the re-creation
of an “empire”—one in which Charlemagne was able
to exercise a sort of “caesaropapism,” controlling the
Church even in essential matters and expecting from
it spiritual support—as though the function of the laity
was to fight the battles while the function of the clergy
was simply to assist the warfare with their prayers.
A “Carolingian Renaissance,” which did not itself open
out into a long-term cultural development, established,
through the emperor's edicts, the enduring principle
that monasteries and cathedrals should accept the re-
sponsibility for education.

Then further waves of invasion in Europe—and even
in Britain—in the ninth and tenth centuries brought
a renewed period of turbulence; and in the tenth cen-
tury the papacy, having no longer an emperor to pro-
tect it, came to “the saddest period in its history” when
it met something worse than “caesaropapism,” becom-
ing the victim and the plaything of the local Roman
aristocracy. The danger from violence of this immedi-
ate sort was doubled by the spread of the doctrine that


the lord of the soil had the ownership of all the land,
even the land that was devoted to religious use. David
Knowles (in a paper, “Some Trends of Scholarship,
1868-1968, in the Field of Medieval History”) has
described how

The ownership and control of all churches, not excluding
monastic and canonical foundations, passed gradually into
the hands of individuals who, whether laymen or ecclesi-
astics, were lords of the land. Thus from the eighth century
onwards there was gradually established in western Europe
the regime of the private or proprietary church, of which
the lord enjoyed many of the fruits and to which he ap-
pointed a priest (or abbot or bishop) of his choice, and which
he could give, sell or divide like any other real property.
When the system was linked at the summit to the extreme
claims [of] the emperors to appoint bishops and even popes,
there existed in perfect form the “church in the hands of

2. The Establishment of the Medieval Order. The
real recovery of Europe from what can justifiably be
regarded as “Dark Ages” dates from the latter half of
the tenth century, when the Germans halted the
Magyars, nomadic hordes from Asia, who had carried
their raids across the length and breadth of the conti-
nent. Henceforward the west of Europe was guarded
against the worst of its dangers by the consolidation
of Germany and the establishment of the Magyars in
a sedentary Christian state in Hungary, as well as the
development also of Christian monarchies in Poland,
Bohemia, and Scandinavia. The establishment of a
“Roman Empire” under Otto I in 962 opened at last
a period of comparative stability, and there emerged
something like the shape of the Western Europe we
know—a Europe which by 1053 had lost a great deal
of its connection with the Orthodox Church. Trade and
industrial production increased again, and the Medi-
terranean, which in 972 “like the Baltic, was a hostile
sea,” saw important developments which brought
Venice, Genoa, and Pisa to the front. The period be-
tween 1050 and 1150 was to prove one of the most
creative epochs in European history, and its great
achievement was that it established the real bases of
the medieval system. In this period intellectual influ-
ences from the more highly developed Islamic world
provided an important stimulus; but it was only one
factor in the case. The intellectual leadership had
passed to the northern part of France and to Lorraine.
The promotion of the study of logic (which goes back
to Gerbert in Rheims, A.D. 972, and was based at first
on the writings of Boethius) became “the most impor-
tant feature in the advancement of learning in northern

But from the time of Otto I the Church had become
still more the prey of the laity and a low-water mark
was reached when the Emperor Henry III (1039-56)
deposed three popes and installed his own nominees.
From the Church's point of view, the main problem
to be solved was the question of the independence of
the spiritual authority; for the existing system led to
many abuses and obstructed any attempt to bring the
clergy under discipline. A monastic reform which
started in Cluny in 910, though it did not attack this
problem, established centers of piety over a very wide
area. Another such movement in Lorraine can be seen
from 1046 making a specific call for the absolute inde-
pendence of the spiritual authority. The demand for
change arose in the provinces therefore, and it was
a band of people connected with the Lorraine move-
ment who brought this latter program to Rome and
became influential in that city. They supported their
cause by a study of the canon law, and if on the one
hand they made use of what we know as the “False
Decretals” (produced two centuries earlier in the
province of Tours) they also found more imposing
evidence, including documents from the time of
Gregory the Great.

Perhaps their labors would have been ineffectual if
the Emperor Henry III, though nominating popes, had
not appointed some worthy people to the Holy See.
Their efforts at a time when the next emperor, Henry
IV, was a minor, led in 1059 to a crucial decree which
excluded the laity—whether the emperor or the Roman
aristocracy—from any part in the appointment of a
pope and prescribed an independent election by cardi-
nals. A great development of ecclesiastical litigation
and an increasing number of appeals to Rome may
have represented another way in which action from
the provinces helped to elevate and transform the
papal office. The Lorraine reformers had been equally
anxious—indeed, it would seem to have been their
initial anxiety—that local ecclesiastical authorities
should be liberated from subservience to a powerful
laity. During the pontificate of Gregory VII (1073-85)
the zeal of the pope for the reform of the Church at
large, and particularly the Church in Germany—the
determination to get rid of such evils as simony—led
to that conflict between papacy and empire which was
to form one of the great themes of medieval history.
In any case, the essential system of the Middle Ages
now took shape.

At first it was a controversy as to whether the mon-
arch should choose his own bishops and invest them
with the insignia of the spiritual office. And here the
Church was faced with problems that arose out of the
character of its new entanglement with the world.
Bishops in Germany had vast temporal possessions and
might be the heads of considerable principalities. An
emperor could not be indifferent to the appointment


of such formidable dignitaries. What was called the
“Investiture Contest” was in fact open to compromise,
and one pope, in what seems like a fit of absent-
mindedness, accepted the interesting idea of turning
the bishops into purely spiritual officers—a thing which
had no chance of being tolerated by the German epis-
copate. The pope possessed weapons—he could use
discontented magnates, or incite foreign powers, or
foment public opinion, against an emperor. Before
long, pope and emperor were presuming to depose one

There can be little doubt that the assertion of the
independence of the spiritual authority, and the result-
ing conflict between “spiritual” and “temporal,” were
amongst the factors that were to give to Western his-
tory its remarkable dynamic quality. The controversy
directed the thought of men to the question of the
origin and basis of government, whether secular or
ecclesiastical, and produced a literature that has little
parallel in the history of Byzantine Christianity. At
times it led to a confrontation between the theory or
the assumptions of the canon law and the principles
that lay behind Roman Law. The fervor for political
theory in Europe in the centuries from the time of
the Renaissance may owe something (just as medieval
thought itself owed something) to the influence of the
ancient world. But many of the modern ideas rise more
directly out of the politico-ecclesiastical controversies
of the Middle Ages. This point became a great feature
in the historical thinking of Lord Acton, who summed
up the matter by saying that Saint Thomas Aquinas
had been “the first Whig.”

In the age of the Reformation many of the medieval
patterns of thought are still visible, whether in the
theory of the divine right of kings, or the notion of
a contract between king and people, or the idea of
constitutional limitations on monarchical authority, or
the controversy over tyrannicide. At a later period still,
it is possible to trace the actual secularization of what
had once been politico-religious ideas. Without what
under various forms was an epic conflict between the
secular authority and the spiritual, a Western Europe
under a predominant religious faith might have
hardened into something like the Byzantine or oriental

Gregory VII and the restored papacy stood for the
idea of a Christian Commonwealth—not a “state” but
a “religious society” existing for the glory and the
service of God. The whole was to be managed by a
secular arm and a spiritual arm, and these were sup-
posed to cooperate with one another. Often the two
did cooperate, the Church not only offering its prayers
and its spiritual services—not merely giving a vague
support to the whole order of things—but allying with
the monarch because, for example, it had an interest
in preserving the larger territorial unit from disruption.
The ecclesiastics might introduce the monarchy to
ideas of law, notions of property, the use of written
deeds—techniques of an older civilization which they
were in a position to remember, and perhaps to need
for themselves. Monarchs in turn defended and
endowed the Church; and at a desperate moment an
emperor had helped to produce that reformed papacy
which was to harass his successors. When the two
clashed, it was almost in the logic of the medieval
system that the conflict should be long and that the
spiritual arm should ultimately prevail, but only to its
own detriment. Already, for Gregory VII, the pope
represented Christ, the real governor of the world, and
it was for him to guide the destiny of the “religious
society,” directing and coordinating its larger purposes.
The most signal illustration of this in the latter half
of the eleventh century was the way in which Gregory
VII and his successor took up the idea of a Crusade
assuming that Rome should have the role of inspirer
and director. At a time when monarchs were in revolt
against the Holy See, and Germany in particular with-
held its support, it was the pope, not the emperor, who
launched the First Crusade (1096-99) and showed
himself the leader of Western Europe.

3. The Culmination of the Middle Ages. What was
now in the process of formation was a Christian culture
based on the universal acceptance of the faith and
typified in the twelfth century by the rise of scholas-
ticism, the great cathedral building, and the gradual
transition to what we call universities. Behind it lay
the revival of Western economic life in the eleventh
century; the growth of towns; the emergence of some-
thing like city-states in Italy; the development of
Mediterranean trade by some of these as Moslem
power in that sea declined; the success of the First
Crusade; the wider view of the world; the contacts
with Arabian civilization; and the recovery of impor-
tant areas of ancient thought—all these, together with
the fact that both men and society had come to the
stage of general intellectual awakening, or had found
the kind of exhilaration which lights the spark. Starting
from the discovery of Aristotelian logic—and greatly
relishing this—while lacking the concrete knowledge
of the world and nature which Aristotle had possessed,
men ran to a great amount of deductive reasoning from
little material; and, as the more scientific work of
Aristotle emerged, they accepted virtually his whole
system of nature, which became to them an inherited
“authority,” almost like the Bible—an authority all the
firmer because it was in schools that medieval thought
developed. The great achievement was the degree to
which the natural science and the philosophy of Aris-


totle were combined with the Christian faith, to pro-
duce a “scholasticism” which was bound to have a
character of its own, if only because the philosophy
(always remembering theology in the background)
tended to concentrate on such problems as the exist-
ence of God, the immortality of the soul, the question
of free will.

The pontificate of the statesmanlike Innocent III
(1198-1216) sees the “religious society” of Western
Europe in all its majesty, and it is this that sets the
stage in the thirteenth century for the development
of scholasticism to its culmination in Saint Thomas
Aquinas, the renewed cathedral building, and the
spread of universities—the climax of that Christian
culture which, a century after Innocent, was to pro-
duce a Giotto and a Dante. Innocent more than once
chose an emperor, and he forced Philip Augustus of
France to recognize as a queen the first wife whom
he had tried to divorce. He had the kings of Aragon,
England, Portugal, Castile, Denmark, and Sicily as his
vassals. He launched two crusades against the infidel,
as well as a third against the heretics in the south of
France. He also dominated the whole European diplo-
matic situation. His Lateran Council of 1215 was at-
tended by over 1200 bishops, abbots, and priors (in-
cluding representatives from Armenia and the Latin
churches that the crusaders had established in Syria
and the Balkans) as well as many other people from
European countries—proctors from the Emperor at
Constantinople, for example, and from the kings of
France, England, Hungary, and Poland. In other words,
it was “like a representative Parliament of all
Christendom.” It was entirely the pope's council and
it passed judgment between rival candidates for the
empire, and between King John of England and his
barons. It also allotted the major part of the county
of Toulouse, besides taking measures for the reform
of the Church, and planning a new crusade.

The activities of the papal curia and its agents were
now undergoing a great expansion. The multiplicity
of the appeals to Rome and the constant despatch of
delegates from Rome to all parts of Europe secured
the authority of the canon law throughout the system,
and kept the papacy in touch with all regions. The
increasing organization and the increasing circulation
of money assisted the development of papal finances
and enabled Innocent to draw on the great wealth of
the Church.

This mundane success had its darker side, and, in-
deed, for some time the protests against the worldliness
of ecclesiastics had been rising—protests that took
shape as heresies. In the case of the Cathari, who had
brought Manichaeism from the East and had captured
much of society in the south of France, as well as
spreading into neighboring regions, the class of austere
perfecti were a reproach to the Church, while the
ordinary credentes were allowed excessive license, and
the whole movement could be regarded as a threat
to society itself. The menace was so formidable that
the idea of the crusade was now directed to the conflict
against the heretic as well as against the infidel. A cruel
suppression took place and the Inquisition was gradu-
ally developed to cope with the aftermath.

In the case of Peter Waldo and his followers who
from about 1170 took to poverty and began to draw
doctrine straight from the New Testament, the sup-
pression of the unauthorized preaching drove a band
who had erred only through their enthusiasm, into
revolutionary ways and actual heresy. When Saint
Francis dedicated himself to poverty in 1208, Innocent
III took care not to repeat the error, though Francis
and his followers had found their own way of imitating
the apostolic life and they, too, had preached without
license. They were harnessed to the Church, and the
organization of the movement was gradually taken out
of Saint Francis' hands. The monastic system, based
on poverty, chastity, and obedience, was adapted to
the purpose of men who went out into the world to
preach; and so the friars found their way into the
medieval landscape.

Similarly, Saint Dominic in 1215 received permission
to establish an order which should meet heresy with
argument and learning, and the members of this order
were particularly trained for a preaching and teaching
role. These new orders of wandering friars, who served
under the direct command of the pope and constituted
his special sort of army, quickly became important and
numerous. They brought religion home to the people
and acquired a popularity that sometimes weakened
the position of the parish priest. They recruited bril-
liant men, some of the Dominicans leading in the
development of scholasticism; and they came to ac-
quire an important place in universities. The Francis-
cans soon carried their missionary work into northern
Europe and North Africa. Before long they were in

This was a period when religion was so imposing
in the way in which it was handed down and presented
to people—and was so powerful in its forms of current
expression—that, in spite of some strange deviations,
it hardly occurred to the great mass of human beings
(even to the rebels and the powerful intellects) that
there was the alternative of disbelief. A religion that
has soaked itself into the minds of men, and almost
become second nature to them, can work like a chemi-
cal in society, inspiring original thought, giving wing
to the imagination and inciting the believer to strange
adventures, curious experiments in living. In the Mid-


dle Ages a certain marriage of Christianity and the
world—Christianity with the whole mundane order—
produced a supra-national religious society that was
itself an amazing structure and can now be envisaged
as a work of art. If we have in mind all the external
apparatus of the religion as it existed at that time—its
symbolism and its ceremonial, its biblical personalities
and famous saints, its associations with a peculiar pat-
tern of the cosmos, even its view of the hand of God
in history—we can entertain the hazardous idea of a
“Christian civilization,” which, culminating in the
thirteenth century, affected the landscape of town and
country, governed the calendar of the year, touched
the home, the craft guilds, the universities, and even
put a stamp of its own on the most idle superstitions.
This civilization carried its own ideas about the nature
of personality and about the right posture to be
adopted by human beings under the sun. It provided
the conditions for the development of piety and the
inner life—for the deepening of religious thought and
religious experience—and for the expression of all this
in cathedrals, in painting, and in poetry.

Even the papacy, which can seem so unattractive
to us as it asserts its claims against powerful monarchs,
stood in many ways as a beneficent influence, insisting
on certain standards, raising the quality of the clergy,
checking forms of tyranny, providing antecedents for
modern international law, and directing governments
to objects that transcended the ambitions of secular

4. The Beginning of Decline. However, in this
whole medieval order of things Christianity was
gravely entangled with the systems of the world, its
bishops, for example, being great landholders and
feudal lords. Even if men in general had been more
otherworldly, the conditions in the terrestrial sphere
itself were bound to suffer changes as time went on.
Because even the ecclesiastics (by the very character
of the situation) were not sufficiently otherworldly, the
Church itself came under the operation of some of the
laws which govern other religions—govern human
systems generally. In a sense it became the victim of
the remarkable success that it had achieved in the
preceding period. To the upholders of the existing
order of things, the changes that were brought about
during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were
bound to appear as a decline; and in certain respects
the medieval synthesis can be seen to be breaking
down. But the story of religion—even the story of the
state as essentially a “religious” society—had by no
means come to its end. The downfall of the old order
is difficult to disentangle from the interesting move-
ments that were reassembling the materials and bring-
ing about the creation of a new one. In some respects
the medieval period moved into what we call modern
times on its own momentum, as a result of impulses
within itself. Amid much confusion, we see deeper lines
of continuous development, as though the logic of
events were working itself out.

It was in the realm of thought—indeed, it was at
the heart of scholasticism itself—that the most fateful
changes occurred. And these changes were calculated
to affect the actual character of religion, not merely
the relations between Christianity and the world. Saint
Thomas Aquinas, by his reexposition of Aristotelianism,
had provided believers with a philosophy which ex-
plained the cosmos and was crowned by a theology;
but the result had been to make philosophy an autono-
mous affiar. Even while he was at work there were
men who were more down-to-earth, more prepared just
to hold their Aristotelianism neat; and perhaps a cer-
tain worldly-mindedness made them a danger not only
to an ecclesiastical system but also to religion itself.
Others who were not worldly-minded or unbelieving
tended to argue their way behind the tradition of
classical philosophy itself, and to question its basis—to
doubt even the possibility of metaphysics. It meant
denying the ability of the human mind to reach the
kind of truths that were associated with “natural reli-
gion,” or to reason in any way about God.

Under the influence of William of Ockham a great
section of the academic world went over to a system
which, without denying the revelation, cut away the
forms of rationalization hitherto current, making reli-
gion a matter of pure fideistic acceptance. Even the
difference between right and wrong was removed from
the domain of reason—it came to be held that a thing
was good because an arbitrary God had decreed it so.
If scholasticism itself had emerged too directly out of
a passion for logic, and had lost something by its devel-
opments in an abstract realm, too remote from life and
from general culture, the fourteenth-century develop-
ments increased the gulf and helped to make the whole
system curiously arid. Even the content of religious
thought came to be altered, for reflection was now
concentrated on the absolute power of a God who was
beyond man's reason, and who, from a state of uncon-
ditioned freedom, settled all things by sheer arbitrary
decree. The will of God, the power of God, became
the great theme, and the result was by no means the
same as when the emphasis is placed on the thesis:
“God is love.” Even in the discussion of human beings,
attention was fixed on the role of man's will and that
of God's grace in the work of salvation.

These preoccupations help to explain some of the
peculiar emphases and developments in the sixteenth-
century Reformation. In any case, the separation be-
tween faith and reason was bound to create difficulty—


belief itself now appearing more farfetched and more
unreal, God himself more remote—a situation which
could encourage secularism and religious indifference.

Perhaps more dramatic at the time, however, were
the changes in the relationship between the Church
and the world, and even the appearance of a tremen-
dous controversy concerning the nature of the Church

At the beginning of the fourteenth century the
papacy both presumed too much on the success that
it had achieved, and discovered what it had lost by
the discomfiture of its chief rival, the empire in
Germany. Henceforward, it had to confront the rising
national monarchies without the powerful assistance
which, ideally, should have come from the ancient
partnership between pope and emperor. In the bull
Unam Sanctam of 1302, Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303), relying on the assertions and on the victories
of his predecessors, issued too high a challenge to
monarchs—claiming too boldly the right to direct and
judge them even in the exercise of their temporal
power. The resulting conflict, in which the French
government accused him of appalling crimes and
demanded his trial before a general council of the
Church, brought him to humiliation in 1303 at the
hands of a body of desperadoes, and he died within
a few weeks after he had been released.

In 1305, an archbishop of Bordeaux who was elected
as Pope Clement V proved to be a creature of the
French king; and, besides creating many French cardi-
nals, he took up his residence at Avignon, which was
then just outside the frontiers of France. Owing partly
to the political confusion of Italy, a return of the
papacy to Rome proved impracticable for a long time.
Gregory XI went back there in 1377, but he died in
the following year and then the cardinals in Rome
elected a pope, but another was elected in Avignon.
Now, therefore, the system reached its reductio ad
two successors of Saint Peter making con-
current claims and exercising concurrent power. Noth-
ing could have been more injurious to the Church and
more damaging to prestige than the existence for over
thirty years of the Great Schism—some parts of Europe
attaching themselves to a pope in Avignon, others to
a pope in Rome, with the further complication of
overlappings here and there, so that a diocese might
not be sure which of two rival claimants was its duly
appointed bishop. There now arose the question: What
means of rescue were open to a Church that seemed
to have been struck at its very heart?

5. The Conciliar Movement. It was natural that
there should be some tension in the Middle Ages be-
tween the idea of the Church as the entire community
of believers, collectively sustained and inspired by the
Holy Spirit, and the notion of a clerical hierarchy,
imposed from above, and deriving a special authority
from outside the system, i.e., direct from Christ. It had
been noted that if Peter had received the power of
“binding and loosing” (in Matthew 16:18-19) this
particular prerogative had been extended after the
Resurrection to all the Apostles (in John 20:22-23);
but though the effect of this was to widen the basis
of authority in the Church, it did not in reality override
the prevailing view that the bishop of Rome, as the
representative of Saint Peter, had the effective power
of government. The term “Roman Church” was
ambiguous—it could mean the local church of the city
of Rome but also it could signify the entire congrega-
tion of the faithful. It was the latter that was supposed
to be preserved against error, not in the sense that
lapses here and there were impossible, but in the sense
that the Church in its entirety would never go astray—
there would never be heresy in all its parts at a single

Even this stress on the wide-ranging community of
believers, was not taken to mean that the community
as such could carry on the work of government without
the directing hand of the papacy; and those who glori-
fied General Councils of the Church normally assumed
that the pope himself would actually summon these
bodies and lead them—that, indeed, his own authority
came to its maximum when he worked through a
General Council. On the other hand, it was possible
to consider that, though the church in Rome had played
a distinguished part in the establishment and mainte-
nance of orthodoxy, the pope as a man might fall into
error; and if he notoriously supported what had long
been regarded as heresy, his authority would be ipso
at an end. It came to be asserted that the same
would be true if he were publicly and obviously guilty
of serious crime.

The possibility of such contingencies raised the
question of the part which the College of Cardinals
or General Councils might have to play at the moment
when the incapacity had to be declared. It has been
pointed out that in canonist writers of about A.D. 1200
are to be found anticipations of all the main assertions
of the Conciliar Movement. Yet this was the time when
the papacy under Innocent III was making the highest
possible claims and asserting that all other jurisdictions
in the Church were only a derivation from Rome.

In the thirteenth century, however, the development
of the kind of canon law which treated the Church
as a corporation tended to increase the possible lever-
age of conciliar ideas. There now appeared more of
the suggestion that a corporation is the source of the
authority of its head, that all members of a corporation
should take part in decisions which affect the whole


body, that a corporation could survive as a unity if
it lost its head, and could take the necessary measures
to rectify the default in the leadership. Such ideas were
able to develop at the very time when papal publicists,
for their part, were continuing the line of thought
which had brought the authority of Innocent III to
its height. Amongst writers hostile to the papacy the
idea arises not only that the cardinals could act on
behalf of the pope when he himself was defaulting in
some way, but also the idea that in serious matters
the pope should always act in consultation with the
cardinals—and moreover the idea that the cardinals
had the authority to summon a General Council.

In all this we find the insertion of what the modern
student would regard as “constitutional” ideas into
canonist reflections on Church government. The sup-
porters of the Conciliar Movement at the beginning
of the fifteenth century could feel that they were by
no means innovators—that, indeed, they were follow-
ing principles with a long and respectable ancestry,
principles essentially orthodox.

In any case, the Great Schism—the scandal of two
lines of successive popes reigning contemporaneously
and dividing the West—made it necessary to turn to
just that kind of thinking which envisaged the Church's
power of self-rectification during a failure in the su-
preme leadership. The Schism lasted for nearly thirty
years, and, though almost all of the popes elected
during this period had sworn to resign if their depar-
ture would help the cause of unity, the promises were
not kept. If either of the rival popes summoned a
General Council it could only be a party affair and
the two colleges of cardinals failed in their attempts
to persuade their respective popes to issue a joint
invitation to a Council. When in 1409 a Council was
called by cardinals at Pisa, its legality was doubtful,
and though it pretended to depose the two existing
holders of the papal office and secure the election of
a third, the real effect of this was to make the situation
worse—there were now three claimants to the dignity
instead of two. It is understandable if such an im-
passe provoked much discontent with the general con-
dition of the Church, and stimulated a great deal of
thinking about the position of both popes and General

The situation was aggravated by the fact that the
nation-states were now becoming more important and
governments that had the choice of adhering to one
pope rather than another acquired more power over
their national churches. Their diplomacies (particularly
during the Hundred Years' War between France and
England) affected their ecclesiastical loyalties (the
English disliking a pope at Avignon, for example); and
when the Emperor Sigismund combined with one of
the rival popes to summon the more imposing Council
of Constance, it was through diplomacy conducted
with various national governments that he secured a
broad basis for the assembly. This body attacked the
papal problem in 1415, and began by deposing the
successor of the pope who had gained office as a result
of the Council of Pisa—they struck at the very pope
who had joined Sigismund in summoning the new
Council. The resignation of another claimant was then
secured; and, though the pope at Avignon refused to
give way, the diplomacy of Sigismund prevented his
having the support of reigning monarchs.

The Great Schism was for practical purposes healed
and a new pope, Martin V (1417-31), was appointed—a
man who, once in authority, opposed the conciliarist
ideas then prevalent. The cry had gone up that a
General Council was superior to the pope and it was
decreed at Constance that a Council should be sum-
moned at least every ten years. There were some who
urged that even laymen should have a place in such
a Council, which was being regarded as a repre-
sentative body. Another Council which assembled at
Basel in 1431 refused to be dissolved at the command
of another pope, and it brought absurdity to a higher
degree than before, for it threatened a renewal of
schism by presuming to depose the pope and to ap-
point another one. The excesses of the radicals fright-
ened some of the moderates into conservatism, how-
ever, and in any case it was the pope rather than the
Council who had the power to execute a policy ef-

In 1439 a rival Council which the pope had sum-
moned to Ferrara decreed that a Council was not
superior to a pope; and though a dwindling body went
on meeting at Basel, they came to terms in 1449,
abandoning their adhesion to the man whom they had
presumed to appoint to the papal office. They had
humiliated a supreme pontiff and compelled him to
treat with them after he had decreed their dissolution;
but they brought the whole Conciliar movement to
a miserable end.

6. The Transition to a New Order. In the meantime
new forms of heresy had been arising, and they gained
additional strength from the abuse that was being made
of such things as indulgences, from the jealousy felt
toward ecclesiastical property, and from national feel-
ing against the intrusions of papal power into one
country and another. From about 1374 John Wycliffe
in England was preaching against the excessive wealth
of the Church and claiming that the monarch should
decide how much of this should be retained—a gospel
that brought him the patronage of a powerful and
covetous nobility. He lost some of his humbler allies
when he attacked the problem of the eucharist, declar-


ing that Christ was present spiritually but that the
bread and wine retained their former substance. Em-
phasizing the absolute power of the will of God—a
form of emphasis which the influence of Saint
Augustine as well as contemporary movements in phi-
losophy encouraged—Wycliffe ran to predestinarian
views which were calculated to lessen the role of
church offices in the work of salvation. He encouraged
the reading of the Bible (and its translation into the
vernacular) because the Scriptures were of higher au-
thority than the traditions of the Church.

Some analogies to the later Protestantism are appar-
ent in all this; but the first Lancastrian monarch of
England, Henry IV (1399-1413), desired the Church's
recognition of his title to the throne of England, and
his parliament carried a new statute, requiring the
burning of heretics—a statute which was severely exe-
cuted during the reign of his son. The “Lollard” fol-
lowers of Wycliffe, some of whom had tended to revo-
lutionary ideas, could survive only as ineffectual secret

Partly under the influence of the English movement,
John Hus led a similar revolt against ecclesiastical evils
in Bohemia, and, though he avoided some of Wycliffe's
doctrinal innovations, he was burned in 1415 by the
Council of Constance, which wished to show that at
least it did not tolerate heresy. Some of Hus's associates
came nearer to the ideas of Wycliffe, and there
emerged a popular radical movement which attacked
monasticism, the adoration of saints, purgatory, indul-
gences, etc., on the ground that these things were not
authorized by the actual words of Scripture. And here,
as in England, a powerful and richly endowed Church,
rife with obvious abuses, was challenged by a danger-
ous picture of Apostolic Christianity—the concept that
the clergy should be poor men leading a simple life
as they guarded their flocks.

In 1419 the Czechs revolted and their religious
grievances, which gave the conflict at times something
of an apocalyptic character, combined with a tremen-
dous national hatred against the Germans, who had
acquired a strong position at court, in the university
of Prague, and in the industry of the towns. Successive
campaigns against the rebels came to disaster, and
though the extremists were defeated in 1434, an agree-
ment had to be made with the moderates which put
the Bohemian church in a special position (e.g., in
regard to the reception by the laity of communion in
both kinds). Bohemia remained, indeed, a region of
potential revolt, potential heresy.

It might have been argued that the fifteenth century
had a special need for the Christian religion at its best,
since deep forces in society were producing a great
secularization of life—producing indeed a society that
increased the mundane claims on human beings. The
growth of industry and commerce, the development
of high finance, the increasing importance of a bour-
geois class, and the blossoming of virtual city-states in
Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands provided a new
dynamic for the secular activities of men. The resulting
erosion of the traditional feudal forms of society was
bound to produce disorder in the period of transition,
and the Church had tied itself unduly to the older order
of things—the very pattern of its organization ceased
to correspond with the systems that were developing
in the world. The exile of the papacy in Avignon, the
ensuing Great Schism and the Conciliar Movement had
increased the tendency of separate regions to look after
their local religious affairs, and the national govern-
ments were growing in strength and importance, legis-
lating against papal interference or making their own
terms with the popes.

The principle of nationality was itself receiving
recognition, even in the organization of General
Councils and universities. The Renaissance in Italy and
the more effective recovery of the thought of antiquity,
assisted a secularization which, however, had also been
showing itself in the development of vernacular litera-
ture and its advance to high artistic status. And the
secularization showed itself within the great develop-
ment of the visual arts, especially in Italy—perhaps
also in the tendency of some scholastic writers to move
over to science, to problems of celestial mechanics, for

But all this—and the palpable abuses in the Church
itself—did not mean that Christianity was coming to
its terminus or that there had been a serious decline
of religious faith as such. The very revolts against the
Church were born of religious zeal—themselves signs
of a questing kind of religion that gets behind the
conventions and seeks the original fountain of the faith.
The interesting eruptions of spontaneous life are not
antireligious but are more like a groping for fresh
adventures in religion, longings for an almost noninsti-
tutional kind of piety, as though it were felt necessary
to cut through the artificialities and go direct to the
essential things. Most significant of all are the devo-
tional movements, that press for contemplation and
austerity, or seek a mystical apprehension of Christ.
And the Imitation of Christ which has been the inspi-
ration of both Protestants and Catholics—written in
the mid-fifteenth century, and more widely published
and translated than anything in Christianity except the
Bible—contains hardly a reference to the Church in
spite of its devotion to the Eucharist. An interesting
feature of the new age is the involvement of the laity
in the new religious movements, and the association
of these with municipal life.