ERA 3—Medieval Church (1): Expansion and Conflicts
(AD 600–1000)


Rise of Monasticism


Monasticism was an isolationist and pietistic ideal, and a protest movement against worldliness. Later, the monasteries became the preserver of Christian scholarship as well as the source of Christian missions and education. When the church was in deep corruption, the monasteries acted as the centre of a revitalization movement.


The beginning of monasticism was traced to Anthony of Egypt (251–357). In his youth, he sold his possessions, and went into solitude, living as a hermit under the strictest self-denial, and engaging in prayer and meditation. In the 6th-century, Benedict of Nursia put his ascetic ideal into communal monasticism and founded the Benedictine Order [529]. While the papacy fell into its darkest period of corruption in the 10th-century, the monasteries became the place where order in the church remained. The founding of the monastery of Cluny [910] was the beginning of an aggressive spiritual renewal that focused on the Benedictine vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. A Benedictine monk Hildebrand later became Pope Gregory VII [1073–1085].


More monastic orders were founded after 1000: [1] Cistercian Order [1098], with emphasis on the rule of silence, contemplation, and poverty. [2] Carmelite Order [1155]. [3] The Franciscan Order [1209] founded by Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), with emphasis preaching and poverty. [4] Dominican Order [1216] founded by Dominic Guzman (1170–1221), with emphasis in scholarly studies and preaching.


Missions among the Barbarians


Before this era, there were sporadic attempts to spread the gospel to fringe areas of the Roman Empire. Through the work of Patrick (390–461), Christianity flourished in Ireland during the 5th-century. However, major missionary effort was only initiated as a response to the challenge by invading barbarians. In 496, the King Clovis of the Franks, the most dominant of the pagan tribes, converted to Christianity and was baptized. He later conquered half of France and paved the way for Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire.


The invasion of pagan tribes, such as the Goths, Franks, and Vandals brought an end to the Roman Empire in the 5th-century. Augustus Romulus was the last Roman emperor [475–476]. In the midst of this political collapse and cultural chaos, the church assumed increasing power in the western Mediterranean. In response to the invasion, Pope Gregory I sent missionaries to the pagan tribes that had settled across the empire. The effort was highly successful.


In the 6th-century, Recared, Visigoth king in Spain became a Christian. Missionaries from Ireland and England, such as Boniface (680–754), went to labour among the tribes in central Europe. Anskar (801–865), “Apostle of the North,” laid foundation for Christianity in Scandinavia. Cyril (826–869) and Methodius (815–885), the “Apostles of the Slavs,” worked in Moravia. In the 10th-century, Hungarians, Bohemians, and Poles began to convert to Christianity. In 988, Prince Vladimir of Kiev was baptized. Christianity also expanded to Iceland and Greenland in the west.


A distinctive character of this era was the transition of the centre of the church from western Asia and North Africa to central and western Europe, from the Greco-Roman nationality to that of the Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic races. A historian was probably correct in saying that European civilization would have been wiped out by the pagan barbarians were it not for the missionary efforts of the church.


Emergence of Islam


The emergence of the Islamic religion was a major disaster for the future fortunes of Christianity. Invented by Muhammad (570–632) based on a modified but corrupted Christianity, this militant monotheistic religion took advantage of the power vacuum that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, and the deep political and spiritual divisions of the Byzantine Empire in the East. Islam faced no significant military obstacles as it entered Jerusalem [638] and Damascus, reached into the Indus Valley, spread across North Africa, invaded and conquered Spain, and threatened to sweep across all of Europe. All of these gains occurred between 622, when Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina, and 732, when Islam encountered its first significant military defeat at the hands of Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in France—a decisive turning point in Christian resistance to Muslim advance. Throughout this era, the Islamic faith posed both an intellectual and a military threat to the Christian church.


Holy Roman Empire


The Franks, embracing Christianity since Clovis, gave rise to dynasties of kings in central Europe. First was the Merovingian dynasty which was replaced [614] by one of history’s most successful dynasties, the Carolingian. Rulers such as Charles Martel and Pepin the Short maintained a close link to the papacy which relied on them for its protection.


The connection between the civil authority and the ecclesiastical authority reached its summit with the reign of Pepin’s son Charlemagne (Charles the Great, 742–814). In 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne the first “Holy Roman Emperor” at St. Peter’s in Rome. The occasion was important in its implication that the state’s authority was derived from the church. Charlemagne was famous for military conquests, strong central government, ecclesiastic reform, and educational patronage. Later, Otto the Great [emperor, 936–973] revived Charlemagne’s dream of a Holy Roman Empire among the German people. In some form, the empire continued until the time of Napoleon [1806].


Corruption in the Papacy


With the demise of the Carolingian dynasty, which occurred at the time of Viking intrusions into Europe, a chaotic period occurred in the church. Pope Leo III [795–816] became the supreme bishop in the West. But the period in the 9th and 10th centuries was one with continuous ecclesiastical corruption and injustice. The investiture of the popes and church officials fell into the hands of powerful aristocratic families through simony (buying and selling of the ecclesiastic posts, including the papacy), violence, and even murder.


Pope John VIII [872–882] was murdered. After that, pope succeeded pope in rapid sequence. Some were strangled; some died of starvation in dungeons. At times, there were two popes, or even three, each claiming to be the one true pope. Between 882 and 1003, there were officially 32 popes, averaging less than 4 years per pope. In 1032, a 15-year old boy was named Pope Benedict IX. He abdicated for a financial reward [1044], but then retracted and became pope again [1045]. He was deposed shortly after, became pope again [1047], deposed again [1048] and was excommunicated.


As the church accumulated land and wealth, church leaders such as bishops and abbots controlled public properties for personal use, enjoying luxurious way of life. All these corruptions awakened a deep yearning for renewal and reform among the faithful.