home | history

Life and Authority in the 12th and 13th Centuries

Many were ignoring Church law. The Church condemned killing of the newborn, but it was widely practiced, especially the exposure of infant daughters — exposure preferred over abortion.

The use of money was increasingly common, and a rising economy was changing lives. While ninety percent of Europe's population was to remain rural, towns had been growing and were centers of commerce. Town people wanted the king's protection against the lords who had dominated the area around their town – the lords having a history of rivalry with the king for power. In exchange for the king's protection the townspeople paid him taxes, the king gaining a new source of income.

Runaways serfs from large estates might win freedom if in a town they could elude capture for a year or so. Towns were inspiring a sense of freedom, and when a lord tried to block the move toward freedom by a community there might be violence. In 1070, the people of Le Mans formed a commune and rose against their lord – a rebellion that failed. In 1077 people of the town of Cambrai rebelled against an Episcopal overlord. And in 1112 a bishop in England who tried to suppress a commune was hacked to pieces.

In well-established towns, people who perhaps can be described as middle-class jumped at the opportunity for order. Fraternal and political clubs called guilds helped to create local regulations and local government that suited the interests of its members. The craft guilds buried members who had died, and they cared for the widows and orphans of those who had been their members. Some towns hired men as policemen. Religious worship remained dominant, and clubs built their own chapels, and, interested in education, they created schools.

Food production increased, and with a growth in population towns were often densely packed, with no sewers, rain turning dirt streets into mud and diseases spreading more rapidly than where populations were less dense. With the spread of diseases in the towns, more people in towns might die than were born, but the populations of these towns were replenished by migration. Into the 1200s, life expectancy at birth was to remain around thirty-five years.

Servility remained as a way of life. Despite everyone's dependence on those who labored at farming, the aristocrats treated the laboring peasants with little respect. The heroes were the knights — men of warfare. Knights were fighting each other for plots of land or revenge and destroying crops and killing peasants in the process. The Church denounced fighting for booty as a sin. The knights preferred to believe that their little wars were for honor rather than theft or greed. The papacy tried to discourage the knights warring against each other, and the knights obliged. They were beginning to be influenced by a refinement that accompanied the rise in prosperity. At royal courts a greater interest was taken in music, poetry and manners. Chivalrous knights would refrain from attacking another knight who had not yet prepared himself with his armor and weapons. And, in the place of warfare, tournaments were created for the knights. The Church objected to the tournaments also, but this the knights largely ignored. The tournaments became the favorite entertainment of the aristocracy. Sometimes tempers were lost and a participant was killed. The winners won horses and armor and losers were ransomed and allowed to go free when the ransom was paid.

But gory violence against the evils of the Devil remained. It was an age when, according to Stephen Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature, religious values were "imparted with bloody crucifixes, threats of eternal torture, and prurient depictions of mutilated saints."

In 1114, two peasants at Soissons were accused of holding meetings outside of the Church. One of the peasants was tied up and tossed into the tank of water that was blessed. The peasant floated and it was concluded that the "holy water" had rejected him and that he is was therefore guilty. The other peasant confessed. Two others were put in jail with the two, and local people excited and passionate about heresy broke into the jail and burned the four to death.

The violence of the First Crusade in the early 1100s was repeated in 1143 in the city of Cologne when a mob pulled people accused of heresy from ecclesiastic prisons and burned them at the stake.

The attacks on Jews during the Crusades were also repeated. Many still saw Jews as evil. In 1181, King Philip Augustus of France was in need of money for his struggle against feudal barons. He accused Jews of ritual murder, confiscated their land, wealth and buildings and he banished them from his realm.

The Rise of Cathedrals and Universities

Building with stone was on the rise. Castles of wood were replaced by castles of stone with thicker and higher walls, providing a greater sense of security.

This was in the age also of building cathedrals and churches (rather than freeways). Between 1050 and 1350 in France more than 500 large churches were built and 1,000 parish churches — a church or chapel for every 200 people. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries more stone was quarried in France for this building than had been used in all the buildings of ancient Egypt. These great cathedrals were a huge investment, taking more than a century to build. The Cathedral de Notre Dame in Paris was begun in 1163 and completed in 1345.

A church was the focal point of community's life. Its primary purpose was worship, but the town market was usually nearby and townspeople often conducted business inside the church, and in the churches the important events of life took place, from baptism, confirmation, and marriage to burials in church grounds.

A modest rise in literacy accompanied schools that were called universities. Cathedrals were also to run schools. In monasteries, people studied scripture and the writing of influential early Christians known as "church fathers." Monasteries had been interested in seclusion. Cathedral schools were to be more public oriented. Wealthy merchants might be involved in school creation.

According to Wikipedia, referencing A. Giesysztor's A History of the University In Europe:

Initially medieval universities did not have physical facilities such as the campus of a modern university. Classes were taught wherever space was available, such as churches and homes. A university was not a physical space but a collection of individuals banded together as a universitas. Soon, however, universities began to rent, buy or construct buildings specifically for the purposes of teaching.

Before the year 1100, at Balogna, Paris, and Oxford in England a so-called university had become an institution for studying law, medicine, and theology. (Before the year 1500, more than eighty universities would be established in Western and Central Europe.) The University of Paris was officially chartered in 1200 by the King of France, Philippe-Auguste, and recognised in 1215 by Pope Innocent III.

Contacts with the Middle East had given a few Europeans an awareness of Aristotle, enough at any rate that the Bishop of Paris in 1210 banned his work, seeing it as incompatible with Christianity — Aristotle, among other things, having believed in the eternity of heaven and earth. This was after a popular professor, Peter Abelard, had studied Aristotle and had begun making waves.

Peter Abelard

One professor who was not stuck in orthodoxy was Peter Abelard. The son of a knight, he sacrificed his inheritance and the prospect of a military career to study philosophy and had an early go at it. In the year 1100 he was 21 and studying under a philosopher-theologian with whom he soon clashed. Abelard held to a fundamental point in philosophy: that something should be understood before it was believed. He proposed a division between faith and knowledge and claimed that faith alone did not answer the question whether one should be a Christian, a Muslim or a Hindu. He claimed that doubting led to inquiry and inquiry led to wisdom, and that by comparing arguments and choosing the best among rival alternatives one could come to truth.

Influenced by Aristotle, Abelard believed in dialogue as the basis of logic and that spotting contradiction was fundamental to logic. To sharpen the minds of his students, Abelard found contrary positions to each of 158 propositions drawn from scripture, which were published in a work he called Sic et Non (Thus and Otherwise). For example, on one hand there was the propostion that God can do all things, and on the other hand were the limits of God's power suggested elsewhere in scripture.

Abelard had fallen in love with one of his students, Heloise, the niece of a prominent Parisian clergyman, Fulbert. Abelard married Heloise. Marriage for the member of a religious order was a disgrace, and Abelard tried to keep it secret. Fulbert with a gang of men attacked Abelard and castrated him, and because of the castration Abelard was barred from the priesthood.

Abelard retreated to a monastery in Breton, becoming its abbot, but he left after discovering that its monks were "thugs." He joined the monastery of St. Denis but was restless there. The Church was not happy with Abelard's writings, including a book he wrote on the Trinity, and in 1141 he was condemned as a heretic. His prosecutor was St. Bernard, an abbot from the monastery of Clairvaux, who accused him and others like him of being motivated by vanity. Abelard died the following year at the age of sixty-three, while on his way to Rome to appeal the Church's ruling.

Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas, born in Sicily, was a man of the 1200s, born 145 years after Abelard, his father of Lombard heritage, his mother was of Norman-Viking heritage. He was then sent to the University of Naples. By around the age of thirty was at the University of Paris, said to be the most prestigious and turbulent university of the time. He too was interested in Aristotle and the issues of faith and reason. He believed that one could start with a truth and build from it logically to truths beyond sense experience, to God at the top of a hierarchical order, to the being beyond which there was no greater being. Aquinas argued that every effect has a cause, the universe is an effect, therefore the universe has a cause, and that cause is God. For Aquinas, God alone didn't have a beginning. Therefore, for Aquinas, the question what caused God was not relevant.

Aquinas transposed Aristotle's view of happiness as the purpose of life — a view coupled with well being, moderation, virtue and fulfillment. For Aquinas all of these good things were realized by knowing God and could be acquired by practice and also, most importantly for the Church, infused into believers by the grace of God mediated by Church sacraments.

Aquinas believed that not all people had the intellectual capacity to reason as well as he or those who understood him. Those people, he claimed, did best for themselves by clinging to the authority of those more capable than they. The wisest of men, Aquinas believed, had faith in the authority of God as revealed in scripture.

Aquinas addressed the question of just wars. He found a rationale for getting around scripture that expressed the pacifism of early Christianity, beginning with an argument by Augustine. He described three things necessary for a war to be just: it had to be commanded by a sovereign; those attacked had to "deserve it on account of some fault;" and those doing the attacking had to have "rightful intention." It was a definition under which the Christian Crusades, however futile or absurd, might be classified as just.

Aquinas' was not welcomed at first by the Church. In 1277 the archbishop of Paris declared Aquinas' views as heresy, and this was repeated in England by the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Church doctrine regarding philosophical complexities and Aristotle would change.

The 1200s and Monarchy-Church Jurisdictional Conflicts

Into the 1200s, rope, clocks and eyeglasses were coming into use. Buttons were being sewn onto clothing. Western Europeans were doing more measuring and beginning to use navigational charts. Advances were made in the smelting of ore. More iron was being used in tool making. The use of water power was increasing. Spinning wheels and foot-driven treadles were being used in the fabric industry. Trade was spreading over a greater distance. There were periods of booming commerce.

There was also more food and the continuing increases in population. By the end of the 1200s, Paris, Milan, Florence and Venice would be cities with more than 80,000 inhabitants. London, Cologne and Barcelona would have 40,000 persons. Rome, Naples, Vienna, Prague, and Lisbon would have more than 20,000, and Dublin more than 10,000.

Monarchs, meanwhile, had been building centralized bureaucracies and extending their rule across territory that had been dominated by nobles. In 1284 the English monarchy completed its conquest of the English countryside.

By necessity, Church bureaucracy was growing. The rise of universities and scholastic philosophy increased the Church's notion of its responsibility, and there were finances to be handled from across a vast territory, all of which required bureaucracy.

Monarchies, meanwhile, needed money to conduct their affairs.

(In 1269 the King of England, Henry III, switched from borrowing money from Jews to borrowing from Italian bankers. Less dependent on Jews, he restricted them from passing their wealth to their children. When a Jew died, his money was to be confiscated by the king's government. In 1275, his successor, Edward I, forbade Jews to lend money on interest. Jews were arrested and hanged for secretly lending money.)

In 1294, King Edward I of England and King Philip IV of France went to war against each that began as a conflict between English and French fishermen. Philip sent a force into Gascony and Edward retaliating by moving a force into Flanders. Conflict with the Church followed concerning money, Edward and Philip laying taxes upon the clergy in order to pay for their military actions. Pope Boniface VIII objected. He insisted that all Christians were subject to him and that kings must submit to papal authority. Boniface proclaimed that the clergy was not to pay taxes to secular rulers. Philip charged Boniface with heresy and in 1303 sent troops to Italy to arrest him. Pope Boniface had no substantial military power of his own. He was rescued by friends. But he was 69, and he died a month later.

In 1305, French influence in the College of Cardinals in Rome resulted in the election there of the Bishop of Bordeaux as the new pope. He became Pope Clement V — a French pope. This left Romans feeling slighted, and they rioted. At the request of King Philip, Pope Clement moved his court away from hostile Rome to the fortress town Avignon, in southeastern France, and Pope Clement appointed cardinals from French clergy.

The monarchies of England and France taxed and took payments from bishops and lower clergy within their realm. Papal prestige suffered. English, Germans and Italians accused the pope and cardinals at Avignon of being the tools of the French monarchy. And pious Christians called the Avignon papacy the Babylonian Captivity.

CONTINUE READING: Climate Change, Hunger, War and Plague, to 1350


comment | to the top | home

Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.