Medieval History Ch. 35: The Church in the Middle Ages, Ecclesiastics, Laity, Cathedrals, Monasteries

Model of Cluny III
Model of Cluny III

The following is an excerpt (pages 380-389) from Ancient and Medieval History (1944) by Francis S. Betten, S.J. Although some information may be outdated, the Catholic historical perspective it provides remains pertinent. Use the link at the bottom of post to read the previous/following pages. Use the Search box above to find specific topics or browse using the Resources tab above.





491. The Church a Bond of Unity. — We call this great period the age of religious unity. This is not to be taken in a merely temporal sense, as if the fact of such unity had nothing to do with the character of the time. The contrary is the case. The Church represented the unity of the world. Men felt that they were, first and foremost, Christians, and that every one, from the highest to the lowest, was a full-fledged member of a world-wide and organized community. They all professed themselves subject to one and the same authority, that of the pope and the hierarchy of the archbishops and bishops. All believed the same articles of faith. All had the right and duty to receive the same sacraments. The fact of this unity was emphasized in the sermons to which they listened. It was brought home to them by the visits of the bishop, — e.g., for the administration of the Sacrament of Confirmation, — and by the reading from the pulpit of his pastoral letters and ordinances.

What little news found its way from other nations into the town served to confirm implicitly the living knowledge of this fact of universal unity. Even the enemy in war had to be treated as a fellow Christian, or general reprobation would result. The same language, too, was used in all the church services in all the various nations, with insignificant exceptions (§ 453). It was this employment of Latin by the Church that secured to the Roman tongue its place as the language of science and thus helped bring about a further unity, namely, that of literary and educational endeavor (§§ 614, 617ff.).

492. The pope was held in great veneration. It was not until the fourteenth century that dissatisfied and revolutionary writers began to deny the infallibility of the head of the Church concerning matters of faith and morals. The pope was assisted from very early times by the cardinals, — those priests who were in charge of certain prominent Roman churches. The six bishops of the immediate vicinity of Rome also were called cardinals. For centuries the pope was elected by the clergy of Rome, the cardinals playing an important part in this momentous affair, while the people of Rome signified their adhesion to the choice by acclamation. We shall see how the papal election was reduced to a more definite form (§ 577).

Apart from large voluntary donations sent to Rome, or brought by the numberless pilgrims, the popes drew little revenue from foreign countries. England, however, had promised to pay a certain sum annually, the “Peter’s Pence,” which name is in our days given to any voluntary contribution toward the support of the Vicar of Christ. After the thirteenth century the popes, on account of peculiar circumstances, were forced to make a more extensive use of their right to tax the Church property of other countries. (On papal documents, as briefs and bulls, see H. T. F., page 108.)


493. The Bishops and Clergy. Church Property. — Bishops and clergy were not supported by collections as is the case in our country. The establishment of a bishopric or parish required, in the mind of the people, the donation by the king or other rich landowner of as much property as would afford a revenue upon which the incumbent could live conformably with his social rank. In many cases this endowment was very liberal. The same was the case concerning monasteries (§ 410). Much of this property was allodial; but the bishops, and the abbots of the great monasteries, commonly held many feudal possessions (§ 471, 3). This made them the temporal rulers of certain districts and placed them in a new relation to the sovereign.

DURHAM CATHEDRAL Norman style (see § 625). Begun in 1093.
Norman style (see § 625). Begun in 1093.

The lawful way of appointing the bishops was by election. All the priests of the diocese who could be present at the occasion were permitted to participate. Naturally those of the episcopal city, and in particular those attached to the bishop’s cathedral, enjoyed greater prestige. Prominent seculars, above all royal officers, were also allowed some influence, and they sometimes usurped rights which had been by no means granted. Soon the right of electing the bishop was restricted to the chief ecclesiastics of the cathedral, the “canons of the cathedral chapter.” We shall see how the lay element was completely eliminated. (On the title “ Canon” see H. T. F. under “Canon.”)

The Clergy below the Bishops. — If we were transported back to a medieval town, the large number of clerics would certainly attract our attention. They appeared on the streets in their long black cassocks. The monks, too, wore their habits in public wherever they went.

Then, as now, the first step toward the priesthood was the tonsure, a ceremony in which the bishop cuts off some of the hair of the young levite, to signify that he must renounce the vanities of worldly life. Next he receives the four minor orders, as ostiarius (doorkeeper), lector (reader), exorcist, and acolyte (Mass server). Those in minor orders only can at any time recede from the clergy and take up secular pursuits. The higher or major orders are subdeaconship, deaconship, and priesthood. The number of persons who had received the minor orders only was much greater than now. Many of them did not intend to go any further. All the young men who wished to devote themselves to a life of study, and many who strove for posts like those of advisers of lords or other great men, would at least take minor orders. Many of the positions in the administrative offices of the bishops were given to such men, or such as had been ordained deacons. In fact the number of deacons in a bishop’s service was often very great.

494. Clerical Privileges. — The clergy and the religious of both sexes enjoyed exemption from the ordinary courts. If they had transgressed, their cases came before special ecclesiastical tribunals. This privilege was based on the consideration that those who in the highest sense take the place of the King of Kings should not be subject to the verdict of others, and that they would be freer in guiding and even rebuking laymen if they knew they would never have to face the same men as their judges. Thus, too, the most educated and cultured class of society was brought before judges more intelligent than those of the secular courts, which had not yet divested themselves completely of the methods of barbarism. The clerical judges were men of talent and education: the uniformity and equity of their decisions were preferred to the caprice and violence which often swayed the royal and baronial justiciaries.

The ecclesiastical court could inflict all kinds of punishments, death alone excepted. As a matter of fact, the punishment of clerical offenders was often rather drastic. The severest was degradation. A degraded priest can, of course, not lose the very character of priesthood which remains indelibly imprinted in his soul. But he may no longer officiate in any capacity, nor draw the revenues of any ecclesiastical property, nor enjoy any privilege granted to the clerical state. Degradation is the death penalty for the priest as priest. In its strictest form it is carried out with stern and doleful ceremonies.

The large possessions and privileges connected with ecclesiastical offices sometimes led light-minded men to embrace the clerical state not for the good that could be done in it but to obtain the means for an easy and carefree life. Influential nobles and princes, too, often contrived to provide for their sons by forcing them into well-endowed prelacies. Such men never were a blessing but often a curse for Church and State. On the other hand the clerical state offered for a long time the only chance for talented boys of the lower classes to rise above their condition. Many a bishop, abbot, or pope was not ashamed to own his lowly extraction.

495. Ecclesiastical Penalties. — The penalties we speak of here are not the penances imposed in the sacrament of penance upon a contrite and willing penitent, but those inflicted outside that sacrament upon the obstinate offender for certain great crimes. The greatest of these penalties is the excommunication, which cuts a man off entirely from the communion of saints. The excommunicate has no share in the good works performed in the Christian world and cannot receive the sacraments. Excommunication may be pronounced by the bishop or the pope. If it is inflicted publicly with the name of the guilty party mentioned, the latter may no longer hear Mass, nor is a priest allowed to say Mass while such a person is in the church. All the faithful are enjoined to avoid intercourse with him, unless they are excused by very grave reasons. In the Ages of Faith it was considered evident that an excommunicated man was unfit to rule over a Christian country.

The interdict, as far as this notion concerns us here, does not affect the people directly. It does not exclude any one from the communion of saints. But it prohibits the administration of sacraments and blessings within a specified territory. It has been inflicted to punish a nation or city for its notorious disobedience or other crimes, and also to force some headstrong ruler to yield to the entreaties of his people.

When pronouncing the interdict on France, in 1200, for the immorality of King Philip Augustus, Innocent III said in part: “ Let all the churches be closed; let no one be admitted except to baptize infants, or when the priest shall come for the Eucharist and Holy Water for the use of the sick. We permit Mass to be said once a week, on Friday, to consecrate Hosts for the Viaticum. Let the clergy preach on Sundays in the vestibules of the churches. Let them not permit the dead to be interred (i.e., with the ceremonies of the Church), nor their bodies to be placed unburied in the cemeteries.” This interdict, though imperfectly observed, produced the desired effect. The voice of the people became so loud that the king had to give up his wicked life.


496. Religious Life of the People. — The people lived with the Church. They knew the importance of the sacraments. Private prayer was extensively practiced both by the individual and in the families. The ecclesiastical year with its round of Sundays, holydays, and sacred seasons kept elevating ideas ever fresh in the minds of all. People loved to assist at the divine services, and the daily hearing of Mass was a very common practice.

The greatest natural blessing Christ bestowed on mankind is the elevation of matrimony to the dignity of a sacrament and the restoration of the indissolubility of marriage. This, together with the fundamental doctrine of the immortality of every human soul, elevated both the woman and the child and at the same time reestablished the rights and duties of parents. Christian home life flourished in the Ages of Faith. Parents were respected and loved, and the children were the treasures of the family.

The rest from servile work on Sundays and the numerous holydays was of immense importance for the worker. These were the days of his recreation. And he was wise and Christian enough not to consider the religious duties of his Sunday piety an impediment to his relaxation. They took his mind away from the drudgery of his occupation during the week and filled him with elevating and consoling thoughts.

497. Liberality. — Charity was very widely practiced, not only by the monasteries (§ 408) but by the entire clergy and laity, high and low. Almsgiving was a daily exercise of piety with many. Pope Innocent III inaugurated the establishment of regular hospitals on a large scale. A similar open-handedness showed itself in the contributions for the building of churches. The rich gave their treasures, the poor their labor. Thus many small towns were able to erect large and expensive temples, which are still the objects of our admiration. The jewelry of the ladies was often sold for the benefit of the poor or was changed into sacred vessels. The holy vestments of old churches still testify to the medieval lady’s admirable skill in every kind of needlework (§ 484).

498. Penance.—Sins were indeed committed, — grievous, sometimes enormous sins. But deep in the heart of the sinner there remained the Christian faith in all its strength. Sooner or later, at least before his death, the sinner returned seriously and honestly to the God Whom he had never denied, and if still possible made the reparation imposed on him by the priest or bishop. The people much more than now realized the guilt of sin and were more ready to do penance for their trespasses. The confessors in the sacrament of penance and ecclesiastical authorities outside it enjoined greater works of atonement than is now customary.

SAINT-MARTIN-DE-BOSCHERVILLE Romanesque style (See § 625.)
Romanesque style (See § 625.)

499. The veneration for the saints and their relics was a characteristic of the times. It came very natural to the medieval mind that he who loves God must needs love those who love Him. Each region and town had its special patron. The places where the remains of saints reposed were the goal of pilgrimages, which the faithful undertook to atone for sins, to obtain favors, to return thanks for benefits received. The Christian countries were dotted with such shrines. The pilgrims went singly or in groups or in organized processions. Before setting out they received the “pilgrims’ blessing” in the church. In many places they found hospices ready to shelter and care for them. Kings and other prominent persons often established such houses for the pilgrims of their nationality. Thus Irish hospices were spread over the whole continent.

The Middle Ages, though great in certain branches of knowledge, had not much of a critical spirit. With childlike simplicity the people accepted whatever was told them, especially when it seemed to redound to the honor of some saint. Many of the miracle stories, for instance, which were current in those days, are no longer credited by Catholic historians.

YORK CATHEDRAL Gothic Style (see §626). Built in its present shape during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is considered the finest ecclesiastical building in England.
Gothic Style (see §626). Built in its present shape during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is considered the finest ecclesiastical building in England.


500. The monasteries and their inmates were an essential feature of medieval life. It was an age of religious enthusiasm. Many were not satisfied with the fulfilling of the common duties of Christians. They desired to show more generosity to their God and to serve Him more exclusively, or to do more penance for their sins and the sins of the world (§ 406 ff.). Hence the monasteries never lacked recruits (“novices”). Men and women of all ranks, royal personages included, entered the convents and bound themselves by the three vows to another kind of spiritual freedom. The monasteries rose on hilltops, in secluded valleys, or in and near towns. Their midnight bells roused their thousands of inmates from slumber to sing, in the stillness of the night, the praises of their Creator. Their daily work was again interrupted by the hours of prayer, while the very life, as regulated by the rule, meant a constant victory over the cravings of nature. A peculiar dress distinguished the monks from the rest of the people. Commonly it was the attire worn by the poorer classes at the time when the order was founded.

The convents were constantly increasing in number. Rich persons would endow such houses of prayer in thanksgiving for divine favors, or as a memorial for their deceased relatives, or with the intention that their own souls after death be remembered by the inmates. Abbey churches were the resting places of the dead of many a princely family.

The monks and nuns continued to be educators. It was a very common custom that the daughters of the higher classes should receive their schooling in the retirement of a convent. By educating these girls, says a Protestant historian, the nuns did more for the development of genuine womanhood than all the rules of etiquette and the chivalry of the knights and all the effusions of poets could have achieved.

501. New Religious Orders. — In the course of time certain features of religious life were emphasized more explicitly in the foundation of new orders. A Burgundian nobleman founded the order of the Cistercians, which devoted itself to the practice of a rigorous penance. It became famous chiefly through St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the preacher of the second crusade and one of the greatest men of the twelfth century. The Carthusians, founded by St. Bruno of Cologne, combined the life in a community with the eremitical or hermit life. The members dwell in separate cells clustered around a court, observe the strictest silence, and assemble only for meals and for services in the church. Once a week the silence is relaxed for a few hours of recreation. St. Norbert wrote the rule of the Premonstratensians, in whom he aimed to unite monastic sanctity with the work of the secular clergy. The Cistercians and Premonstratensians were the chief instrument of the Church for the Christianization and civilization of the now German countries east of the Elbe. All these orders had adopted the principle of centralization, that is, their several houses were under one general superior.

This principle had been tried in an earlier period. In the course of time the possessions of the monasteries had increased very much, partly through the incessant labor of the monks, partly by the general appreciation of all property in value, partly through the donations of benefactors (§ 410). This occasionally led to a loss of the primitive spirit. Interference of the secular power with the right of the monks to elect their own abbot had the same sad effect. One of the successful efforts to restore the first fervor was the Congregation of Cluny established in 910 A.D. It consisted of a number of Benedictine monasteries united under the “mother-abbey” of Cluny in northern Burgundy. The monks took their vow of obedience not to the head of their own house but to the Abbot of Cluny. The latter had full power to examine into the conditions of each abbey and to set things right if necessary. This congregation, which is much older than the above-mentioned new orders, exercised a widespread influence on the monastic houses and on the reform of the Church at large (§ 576).

Who establishes Religious Orders? Divine Providence often inspires some person with the desire to originate a new monastic organization for a certain purpose. After mature consideration this person gathers around him others filled with the same spirit, and in a private way all live like religious and practice the principles they lay down for themselves. But to become a Religious Order this group must apply to the ecclesiastical authorities. What is commonly called the approbation of an Order is really its foundation. The Pope is the supreme superior of all Religious Orders. To him the vow of obedience is made in the last instance, and whatever binding force the Rules or Constitutions have they receive from the Pope’s will. Religious Orders are not private pious cliques but are an integral part of the organization of the Church. In the case of the oldest Orders approbation was often given by way of fact, that is, by not opposing but by praising them, rather than by official documents.