A long string of weak popes ended by the middle
of the 10th-century when some monks gained control of the papacy. Starting with
Pope Leo IX [1049–1054], some reform minded popes began a period of renewal.
Pope Gregory VII [1073–1085, Hildebrand] moved to reform the church with
emphasis on priestly celibacy and the abolition of simony. The struggle to free
the church from political control continued for a long time and was best
illustrated by the humiliation of the powerful Emperor Henry IV by Gregory VII
at Canossa . Eventually, a compromise
was signed with the Concordat of Worms , separating ecclesiastical and
The growing dominance of the popes and bishops
in social and political affairs reached its peak with Pope Innocent III [1198–1216].
Not only did he wield authority over monarchs of all Europe
in an unprecedented manner, but he presided over the most significant gathering
of the church in the medieval period, the Fourth Lateran Council . Transubstantiation
of communion was declared, auricular confession was mandated, and military
crusades were sanctioned against dissidents within the church and against
Islam. Papal bull Unam sanctum 
pronounced the highest papal claims to supremacy.
The positive side of this church renewal, however,
was a new surge in missions that penetrated into Scandinavia.
Missionary work from both the Western and the Eastern churches also brought an
increasing number of eastern European and Slavic people into Christianity. The
conversion of Russia
led eventually to the establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church .
The Western church centred in Rome
and the Eastern church centred in Constantinople
had long been competing for dominance. The Eastern church
recognized the decisions and creeds of only 7 ecumenical councils: the 2
councils of Nicea [325 and 787], the 3 councils of Constantinople [381, 553,
and 680–681], and the councils of Ephesus 
and Chalcedon .
They permitted lower ranks of clergy to marry, whereas celibacy had become an
institutionalized requirement from the time of the monastic renewal in the
West. The Eastern church’s more mystical outlook and
veneration of icons caused open strife at times in the 8th and 9th centuries
during the Iconoclastic Controversy. The two churches even differed over the
type of bread to be served in the communion.
An even older feud had to do with a seemingly
minor point of understanding regarding the Trinity. The Eastern church held that the Holy Spirit was proceeded from the
Father alone, through the Son. The Western held that the Spirit proceeded from
both the Father and the Son. An earlier conflict over spiritual jurisdiction
and the doctrine of Trinity occurred when Photius (820–895), a renowned
scholar, became Patriarch of Constantinople .
With the renewal of the church and growing papal
fortunes in the West, the hostilities between Eastern and Western churches once
again surfaced. Popes in Rome demanded that the
Eastern church acknowledge the supremacy of Rome, but this was unacceptable
to the Eastern patriarchs. Finally the simmering conflict boiled over into a
permanent schism . The Western (Catholic) Church and the Eastern
(Orthodox) churches went their separate ways and the division has lasted to the
The vitality of the Western church, as well as
its increased political strength, was manifested clearly in its ability to deal
with the Islamic threat. When Jerusalem was
under the conquest of Islam, Pope Urban II proclaimed the First Crusade to
from the Muslims . Armies from various Christian countries united and
marched to the East in an effort to stem the tide of Islamic encroachment on
Christian territories. Jerusalem was recaptured
, a Latin kingdom established, and holy sites recovered throughout Palestine. Yet the Muslim
invaders would return to sack Jerusalem
again and again. These huge military activities would last two centuries. In
all, there were 8 crusades between 1096 and 1270. Eventually, the Crusader
presence in Holy Land would end with the fall
of Acra .
A more successful front was the expulsion of
Muslims from Spain and Sicily. The Christian
kings joined to defeat the Moors . By 1248, the only Moorish state in Spain was the kingdom of Granada
which eventually fell to the army of Ferdinand and Isabella .
The atrocities and bloodshed of these wars were
to cause permanent tensions between Muslims and Christians. However, the
Crusades did stop the expansion of Islam into Europe.
The political and
economic stability in Western European society after the 10th-century hastened
the emergence of nation-states and the building of magnificent Gothic churches
Within these huge structures emerged the cathedral schools, the seeds of the
universities, whose educational methods and philosophy stood in contrast to the
monastic schools of previous centuries. A new approach to academic training
emerged, created in part by the need to answer the intellectual and
philosophical challenges posed by Islam.
A new breed of teachers, the scholastics, appeared.
John Scotus Erigena (810–877), one of greatest theologians of early Middle Ages, helped pave the way for scholasticism which was
characterized mainly by their method in dealing with theology, that is, the
application of reason to questions of faith. Anselm (1033–1109), archbishop of Canterbury wrote Why Did God Become a Man? explaining the reasons for Christ’s death and formulated the
ontological argument for the existence of God. Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote Yes and No which discussed how
theological questions could have rational solutions. Peter Lombard (1095–1160)
wrote Four Books of Sentences which
became the precursor of systematic theology. Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) was the
foremost defender of the church and the greatest theologian in the Middle Ages. He summarized scholastic theology in his great
work Summa Theologica [1265–1273].
The renewal movement lost its momentum after the
12th-century, and the church encountered many problems. The old question of the
authority of church over state continued. Under threat from surrounding secular
governments, Pope Clement V moved from Rome to Avignon in 1309.
Successive popes increasingly became pawns under the control of the French
king. Luther would later refer to the era as the “Babylonian Captivity of the
church” [1309–1377] illustrating how the true church had been taken captive by
the Roman hierarchy.
Under the urging of Catherine of Siena (1347–1380),
the Pope returned officially to the Vatican
, but France simply
installed a rival papacy at Avignon,
resulting in the 40-year Great Schism [1378–1417]. During this era, there were
two colleges of cardinals electing two popes. Multiple popes each claimed to
hold Peter’s celestial keys and excommunicated all who refused to acknowledge
them. Gradually, the church grew weary of the division. The Conciliar Movement,
an effort to return to a single pope and unity in the church, succeeded in
electing Martin V at the Council of Constance [1414–1418]. The right of general
councils to take such action, however, would continue to be an unresolved
The renewal of the Roman Church brought with it
an attempt to deal with forces that threatened it both from within and without.
Anti-clerical and anti-hierarchical movements emerged in the 10th-century.
Among these were the Albigensians and the Waldensians [begun in 1173] who sought
truth in the Bible rather than medieval tradition. They were branded as
heretical and were subjected to cruel torture and execution. Later, Protestants
came to regard the Waldensians as a positive response to the corruption in the
church and as predecessors of Protestant reform.
The decline of prestige in the papacy was
accompanied by cries for ecclesiastical and spiritual renewal. Echoing the
complaint of the Waldensians, John Wycliffe (1329–1384) of Oxford wrote books calling for a more
Bible-centred faith and for the deposing of unworthy priests, including popes.
His ideas for reform led him to translate the Bible into English and to send
out lay preachers, called Lollards. These efforts brought about the
condemnation of his works after his death by the Council of Constance. The same
council killed John Huss (1369–1415), a Bohemian reformer and follower of
Wycliffe. Girolamo Savonarola (1452–1498) preached moral and political reform
and instituted a theocratic government at Florence,
only to be martyred. Change of direction was demanded, but there was no
consensus on the kind of measures needed to correct the abuses.
While the papacy sank in the worst moral and
spiritual decay, western civilization were stirred by
a new movement, known as the Renaissance. This movement was spawned by
humanists—the intellectual and artistic elite of the day—and it quickly spread
across Europe. Ideas were disseminated widely
with the invention of movable printing press by Gutenberg . The
Renaissance, with its biting works of literature such as Boccaccio’s Decameron  and Dante’s Divine Comedy , proved to be a popular
criticism of medieval decadence. Most importantly, the Renaissance emphasized
that people could solve their own problems by reconnecting with the past, an
idea that unwittingly undercut confidence in the church.
In Italy, the Renaissance focused on
art, sculpture, and architecture along with a rediscovery of the Greco-Roman
past. In northern Europe, however, humanism
was identified with scholarship and with the return to original sources. This,
in turn, brought about an increased emphasis on the study of biblical languages
and the early Church Fathers. Scholars discovered that many of the problems in
the church had come about because the church had deviated from its original
teachings. Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), the greatest of the
Renaissance humanists, promoted renewal along Biblical lines with his critical
edition of the Greek New Testament 
and editions of the Greek and Latin Fathers. He let the Scripture speak for
themselves and used essays employing harsh sarcasm to criticize the church’s moral
and intellectual failures.
Preoccupied with wars, political intrigues, and
the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome,
the papacy ignored pleas for renewal. By the 15th-century, the highest office
of the church had become a model for the worst kind of moral degeneration. The
ineffectiveness of centuries of attempted reform would result in the decisive Reformation.