[T]he period of European history known as the Renaissance and Reformation was an age of profound and even revolutionary change. It is true of all revolutions that they cannot be adequately understood without some awareness of the conditions that preceded them and that they eventually destroyed or modified. To appreciate the importance of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the student needs some knowledge of the era that came before them, which we call the Middle Ages.

The expression "Middle Ages," from which is derived the adjective "medieval," originated in fifteenth-century Italy. By that time the notion was becoming familiar among certain scholars that the glorious days of classical antiquity, which had ended with the fall of Rome, had been followed by a long interval of darkness. In their own times these scholars discerned signs of a new dawn, a revival, even a "rebirth." They were unwilling or unable to recognize their profound indebtedness to the centuries in between, which they therefore regarded with contempt. Not all scholars felt that way at the time, and no responsible scholars hold that view today. Indeed the Middle Ages were an extraordinarily creative period and the basis not only for the Renaissance and Reformation but also for modern European civilization.


[T]he society of western Europe in the Middle Ages was agrarian the largest segment of the population consisted of the tillers of the soil; the chief basis of wealth and of political power was the land. Industry and commerce were less important relative to agrarian pursuits than they had been in Roman times or were to be in the modern era.

The basic unit of agrarian society was the manor. A manor was an agricultural estate belonging to a lord, a member of the noble class. Most of the inhabitants of the manor were peasants, whose basic job was to cultivate the soil for the lord's benefit. The arable land that is, the land on which crops were raised (arable is based on the Latin word for plough) was often cultivated according to the three-field system, a primitive kind of crop rotation. In this system, one part of the land was planted in any given year with a winter crop, and one part with a spring crop; the third part was allowed to lie fallow, because no better method was known for preventing soil depletion. In the following year the three fields would change roles. Thus approximately one-third of the land was always kept out of production.

The peasant on a manor which used this cycle did not cultivate consolidated blocks of land. Instead, each of the three fields was divided into strips, and the individual peasant had strips in each field. The lord's own holdings, called the demesne or domain lands, were also, at least in part, scattered among the fields, though the lord also normally had a solid block of land nearer his residence. The lands were cultivated by the peasants acting together; the animals and the instruments needed for cultivation were too costly for the individual peasant, but belonged to the whole community and were used jointly by its members.

The first duty of the peasant was to help cultivate the demesne, from which the lord got the entire product. Having fulfilled this obligation, the peasant could turn his attention to his own strips. These were not his property, however; he held them by grant of the lord who was consequently entitled also to an agreed share of their produce, with the remainder going to the cultivator. There were other obligations to the lord: to grind grain into flour, to bake bread from the flour, and to press wine from grapes. The lord's mill, oven, and winepress had to be used, and a fee of so much flour, so many loaves, so much wine had to be paid. When a peasant died, his family paid a death tax; when a member of a peasant's family married, the lord's consent was needed. The peasant possessed, it was said, nihil praeter ventrem nothing but his belly.

Peasants were, in law, divided into two categories -- unfree and free. The unfree peasant known on the Continent as a serf, in England as a villein was supposedly entirely at his lord's disposal. The free peasant, on the other hand, had certain rights. He could not, for example, be held to more than a specified number of days of labor on the demesne every week. In practice, the status of the free peasant tended to approach that of the unfree, rather than the other way around. The peasant also had to pay for the services of religion. A tithe of his produce went for the maintenance of the priest. Strictly speaking, tithe means a tenth, but tithes tended to become fixed payments of each kind of produce without much necessary relationship to a tenth. It is to be assumed that the peasant whose life was a constant round of backbreaking drudgery from which he himself derived little profit, was in great need of the consolations of the church. Certainly the church was a pervasive presence in his life, encompassing him in its ministrations throughout all the important events and turning points of his career and indelibly coloring his outlook on the everyday incidents of his existence.

The manor also had its judicial aspect. The lord had rights of justice over his peasants, and the lord's court held jurisdiction over many aspects of manorial life. The law that was enforced was the customary law, and custom varied from one manor to another. It was probably custom that provided the chief protection to the peasants against excessive demands by their lords custom and the natural desire of any prudent employer to keep the labor force healthy for his own benefit. The manor was to a considerable degree self-sufficient. Clothing, household utensils, and other necessities were produced right there by peasant craftsmen. Some goods were purchased that were not products of the manor itself, but contact with the outside was comparatively slight.

At no time, however, did the manor and manorial system constitute all there was of medieval society. In some areas, agriculture was organized on a non- manorial basis. Moreover, the towns and the cities of the ancient Roman Empire often survived, though much diminished. From the eleventh century, they began to grow again. This growth occurred earliest in Italy and the Netherlands, and spread from there to other parts of western Europe, producing numerous important urban centers. London and Paris, Lübeck and Naples, Bruges and Bergen, and numerous other cities, made their distinctive contributions to medieval life.

The underlying force in medieval urban growth was economic, a revival of trade. Such towns and cities as had survived the fall of Rome had owed their urban status to the presence of military garrisons or episcopal sees. They were not very large, and were distinguished from the surrounding countryside largely by the possession of walls. With the revival of trade, this was changed. The towns grew at a rate unknown for centuries; so many persons came to settle outside the old walls that new ones had to be built enclosing a much greater area. Not only did the size of the towns increase, but a whole new way of life came to be established within them. Many of the inhabitants were merchants conducting their trade, often international in scope, from their city headquarters.

Along with trade came banking and manufacturing. A class of big businessmen arose, and in connection with it an urban working class, or proletariat. For this new urban society, new types of legal institutions and property tenure had to be devised. A mercantile law, or law merchant, grew up to settle cases arising from trade disputes. Property holding was set free from the complex network of relationships and obligations that had burdened it, and it became possible for city dwellers to hold property outright.

One of the most distinctive characteristics of urban life was freedom. Many peasants, perhaps most, were unfree; all town dwellers were free. "The air of the city makes free" was a proverbial saying; a serf who escaped from the manor and lived in a city for a year and a day without being apprehended by his lord became legally a free man.

Freedom is contagious; these islands of freedom in a largely unfree society infected neighboring areas, and freedom spread to the countryside. To meet the needs of the expanding urban populations, new lands had to be opened for cultivation. Workers had to be induced to move to this land from their former homes, and one attraction that was held out to them was freedom. Thus from the eleventh century, a series of interrelated developments can be traced which changed the face of Europe. Towns grew and flourished; trade, banking, and manufacturing became established on a new scale; more and more persons achieved the legal status of free men. Along with all this, and possibly more basic than any of it, vast tracts of land, which had been uninhabited or uninhabitable forest or swamp, were cleaned, drained, and subjected to cultivation. The great German "Drive to the East" pushed several hundred miles eastward the boundaries of western and central European settlement, encroaching on the lands of such Eastern Europeans as the Slavs, and producing fateful and enduring consequences.

Among the dwellers in the towns were the class of small shopkeepers and craftsmen organized into guilds. Each craft guild regulated a particular branch of economic life in the town. It was a protective organization. On the one hand, it protected its members from outside competition by strictly regulating the conditions under which goods or their makers could come in from other towns. It also protected the members from one another by regulating their hours of work and the number of employees they could hire. Finally, it protected the public by enforcing standards of workmanship on its members.

When a boy was accepted by a guild to learn the trade, he was called an apprentice. When his training was completed after a specified period of time -- often seven -- years he became a journeyman, that is a man who worked by the day. (Journe in French means "day.") He could then become a paid worker for a master of his guild. In some areas, as in Germany, it was customary for a journeyman to have a period of travel (the so-called Wanderjahre) before settling down.

The ultimate goal of the apprentice and journeyman was to become a master. This meant that he could open his own shop, hire journeymen, and train apprentices. Only the masters were actually members of the guilds and regulated their affairs. To become a master, the aspirant had to satisfy the already existing masters as to his possession of sufficient capital and sufficient competence. One way to fulfill the latter requirement was to produce a piece of work which was worthy of a master that is, a masterpiece.

In addition to the craft guilds, there also existed merchant guilds, organizations of the greater businessmen whose enterprises transcended the boundaries of their town and sometimes their nation. The ordinary workers employed by these great businessmen were not allowed to organize into guilds. They were permanently disfranchised, with no economic or political power. They were most vulnerable to all the dangers of life in a medieval town. Economic conditions in these towns were more unstable than in the countryside, and when business was bad it was the workers who suffered most. Living in crowded, unsanitary conditions, they were hit hardest by epidemics and plagues. In bad crop years, when food was scarce and prices high, they were the ones who went hungry. In good times, they might be quiescent; when things were bad, they formed a permanent source of potential discontent and even of revolutionary violence.

It was the guild masters who tended to dominate the towns politically. Sometimes this required a struggle against existing authority: a bishop, a nobleman, or an older ruling class. Invariably, however, it was the guilds who won out. In doing so, they managed to establish governments that were more representative than could be found elsewhere in medieval Europe. The degree of independence enjoyed by the towns varied according to the presence or absence of a strong central authority able to subject them to its rule.

In Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, where no such government succeeded in establishing itself permanently, towns achieved virtual independence. In France and England strong monarchies kept the towns under their control. In the Netherlands an intermediate status prevailed. While the towns enjoyed a large measure of autonomy, they had overlords, lay and ecclesiastical, who retained considerable power over them.


[F]eudalism is a word of fairly recent origin which was coined to describe the type of government that prevailed in medieval Europe. There has been much debate about the origins of feudalism. Did it spring from Roman or Germanic roots? The answer seems to be that it was primarily Germanic in origin, but that some practices and arrangements that grew up in ancient Rome also made their contribution.

Medieval feudalism arose in, and was adapted to, a state of society in which land was the source of wealth and military force the basis of power an agrarian society under siege. In the early Middle Ages, after the breakdown of Rome and its institutions, and with western Europe subject to attack by Moslems, Norsemen, and Hungarians, feudalism took shape. Until about the end of the thirteenth century, it succeeded fairly well in maintaining order. With innumerable variations in practice, it prevailed throughout the West, though in some areas, notably Italy, it never took deep roots.

Feudalism derives its name from the fief (in Latin, feudum). The fief was generally, though not always, a grant of land from one nobleman to another. The one granting the fief was the lord; the recipient was his vassal. A lord could have several vassals, and a vassal could have several lords. The same man could be both a lord and a vassal. The relationship between lord and vassal was a personal one; in theory, it could not be inherited or transferred. It was established when the vassal swore an oath to be the man (homo in Latin; homme in French) of the lord. This was the oath of homage.

The effect of this oath was to set up a series of reciprocal duties and obligations. The lord had to protect his vassal, the vassal to serve his lord. Service to the lord was strictly defined, and limits could not be exceeded except with the vassal's consent. It involved, first of all, military service. The noble class was a class of fighting men, and its members were knights, men who fought on horseback. (Both the Latin and French words for knight, eques and chevalier respectively, have as their roots words for horseman.) This military service was limited to a certain number of days each year; forty was a common number.

The vassal also had to make payments to his lord on specified occasions, such as the marriage of the lord's oldest daughter or the knighting of his oldest son. He had to contribute to his lord's ransom when the latter was captured in battle. He was required to extend hospitality to his lord for a given number of days each year; that is, he had to put up at his own castle not only the lord, but the latter's retinue of persons and animals, which might be a considerable one. The feudal vassal also had the general obligation to give advice and counsel to his lord when called upon to do so. This might involve a summons to the lord's court, where the lord met with all his vassals to adjudicate cases arising out of the feudal relationship. Some breach of obligation or some conflict between lord and vassal, or between vassals, might need to be settled. Here the lord and his vassals were acting in what might be called a judicial capacity. Thus the nobles were involved in two different sorts of courts: the manorial court where the lord or his representative judged cases involving the peasants on the manor, and the feudal court for cases involving nobles.

Of course, the lord might require other sorts of advice and counsel. Where the feudal lord was also a king, as in England after the Norman Conquest of 1066, his meetings with his vassals form the embryo of national government. When a king summoned his vassals to give him advice and assistance, this meeting was called the curia regis. The fact that the Latin word curia, as used here, can be translated as either court or council, indicates that the functions of government were not classified and specialized then as they are today. This council, or court, of the king and his advisers took actions that were administrative, judicial, fiscal, military and diplomatic, and even legislative. The word legislative must, however, be used here with caution. In the states that arose during the Middle Ages out of the Germanic kingdoms, the idea of legislation making law did not really exist. Law was identified with the established custom of the tribe or of a specific area, and, therefore, it already existed.

Thus the law applicable to a particular situation did not need to be made, but to be found, perhaps by asking the oldest inhabitants of a given area. One of the earliest uses of the jury, which means a sworn body of men, was to provide such information. Of course, new laws were made, but for a long time the process was disguised.

In England, to take a convenient example, the meetings of the king and his council contained the germ of all the great offices and institutions of royal government. From these meetings, at first so informal and unspecialized, there arose the Chancery, the Treasury, the Exchequer, and the Courts of Common Law. As their activities expanded and their procedures became more complex and elaborate, they tended to acquire an increasing number of functionaries and a body of permanent records. With these developments came necessarily a fixed headquarters; members of the government no longer followed the king but did their business in a permanent location, in Westminster to be exact, though royal judges continued to travel regularly through the country, hearing cases in the king's name.

Even Parliament developed out of the primitive curia regis. From time to time, starting, as far as the records show, in the thirteenth century, representatives of the local districts were summoned to appear before the king and his council. These local representatives might come from the shires (counties) or from the boroughs (towns) or both. The kings might summon them to get their consent to new taxation or to some proposed royal policy, or for a variety of other reasons. It was entirely up to the king whether to call them or not; he did not legally require their consent, but apparently found that obtaining it reduced resistance to his policies and thus made the country easier to govern.

These representatives, knights of the shires and burgesses from the towns, were not invited to come as part of the royal council; they were summoned to appear before the king and council. Although knights and burgesses might have met separately, they developed a habit of meeting together as one body. One of their functions was to present petitions to the king and council. In addition to local petitions, presented perhaps by representatives from one particular district, there arose the device of common petitions, presented by all the members on behalf of all the communities of the realm. The king and council would examine these petitions, grant some, and deny others. The members or Commons, as they came to be called were not slow to realize that, in asking them for money, the king was putting a powerful weapon in their hands. They could make the granting of funds conditional upon the approval of at least some of their petitions. The kings got the message without difficulty, and thus the power of the purse directly influenced royal decisions.

Thus we see the origin of the House of Commons and, in the common petitions granted by the crown, the beginnings of parliamentary legislation. We also see representative government, since the knights and the burgesses were elected. They were not chosen on the basis of what we would today regard as a democratic franchise, but because they were property owners and people of influence. Nevertheless, it is quite likely that they did essentially represent the wishes of the politically conscious groups in the population, and that medieval English government was to a large degree government by consent.

Representative government was widespread in the Middle Ages. It was embodied in assemblies of estates, in this connotation meaning distinct social groups or classes. These estates were generally the clergy, the nobility, and the townspeople; in Sweden the peasants came to form a separate estate, but this was unusual. In France the Estates-General consisted of the First Estate, or clergy; the Second Estate, or nobility; the Third Estate, which in theory represented the rest of the population, but in practice was made up of men from the towns. The bulk of the French population, the peasantry, was really unrepresented. In France, besides the Estates-General of the realm as a whole, there were local estates in some of the provinces, particularly those which had been most recently added to the territory of France. These local estates served as valuable buffers between the people of the provinces and the demands of the royal government.

Although feudal institutions were established throughout western Europe, the political evolution of feudal states did not always move in the same direction. In France and England, strong monarchies developed; in both countries there was a happy combination of favorable circumstances with a remarkably large number of kings of exceptional strength and ability. The case of Germany, however, shows that under less fortunate conditions feudalism might contribute to a breakdown of effective government.

Germany in the Middle Ages was more or less identical with the Holy Roman Empire; though the emperors often laid claim to non-German territories, such as Italy, these claims proved more and more difficult to translate into fact. Throughout much of the tenth and eleventh centuries, Germany was one of the most powerful of the European states, but from the later eleventh century this development was arrested. Conflict between emperors and popes was one factor; this conflict gave the German nobles and princes an opportunity to assert their independence of the emperors, and this independence they never lost. Power in the empire came to rest with the princes, some of whom were lay and some ecclesiastical. The German ecclesiastical princes, the archbishops and bishops, were territorial lords as well as spiritual leaders. As towns grew in Germany, they too acquired a share of political power, particularly the imperial free cities, which owed allegiance only to the emperor and thus enjoyed virtual independence.

The growing weakness of the emperors made possible such an assertion of power by lay nobles, prelates, and towns. It was both a cause and an effect of this weakness that the position of emperor never became hereditary. Emperors were elected, and although several successive emperors might be chosen from the same family, no family ever succeeded in making the crown hereditary in its own line. Elective monarchies were normally weaker than hereditary ones, partly because of the concessions that candidates for the throne had to make to those who chose them. After 1356, the Holy Roman emperor was always chosen by seven electors.

Three of these were princes of the church: the archbishops of Mainz, Trier, and Cologne. Three were the rulers of important territorial states within Germany: the duke of Saxony, the margrave of Brandenburg, and the count Palatine of the Rhine. The seventh elector was the king of Bohemia. These men formed the electoral college and were also the upper house in the assembly of estates in Germany, the Imperial Diet or Reichstag.

When meeting as part of the diet, the electoral college consisted of only the six German electors; the king of Bohemia was present only for imperial elections. The second house of the diet represented the other German princes, some of whom were powerful rulers in their own rights, and the third house (beginning in the sixteenth century) contained delegates from the imperial free cities. The same pattern of a ruler and a body of estates prevailed in the individual German states as well as in the empire as a whole. But an important distinction must be made. While in the separate states the ruler and the estates engaged in struggles for effective power, in the empire as a whole emperor and diet both became steadily weaker. The empire became little more than a very loose collection of states of various sizes, types of government, and degrees of political importance, largely independent of both the emperor and the diet.

Some emperors made valiant efforts to reverse this trend, but in the long run these efforts proved ineffective. Nevertheless, in spite of its weaknesses, the Holy Roman Empire was still accorded a type of formal and ceremonial precedence in the courts of Europe. Some emperors who held other positions as well as that of emperor could still play an important role in European affairs.


[t]he inhabitant of western Europe in the Middle Ages was a Christian, a part of the Roman church, which claimed for itself the name of Catholic or Universal. The Church of Rome was monarchical in structure, under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, called the pope (from papa or father, a word originally applied to priests in general). Throughout the Middle Ages, the power of the pope within the church grew steadily, though with occasional setbacks. His power with respect to the secular world probably declined from about the start of the fourteenth century or even earlier.

Popes were elected, after 1059, by a body of men known as cardinals, who in their turn were chosen by the pope. It came to be the normal practice for the cardinals to elect one of their own number to the papacy. The College of Cardinals not only chose the pope but also served as his chief advisers. They formed part of the papal headquarters at Rome, known as the Roman Curia, which, like the administrative organs of the European states, became more elaborate as the powers and activities of the papacy grew. The analogy between the Curia and a secular government can be carried further. It acquired many of the organs of such governments, including a body of law with a judicial system to apply it, and a highly developed fiscal system. Indeed, in many ways it led the European states in these areas.

The law of the church was called canon law. Based on decisions of popes and of general councils, it constituted one of the professional subjects studied in the universities. A student could become a doctor of canon law, and many men ambitious for advancement in the church acquired this degree as a stepping-stone to such advancement. As the powers of the pope and church increased, the scope of canon law broadened, encompassing an ever larger variety of cases and situations.

The pope and his Curia presided over a great hierarchy of priests, the clergy. Within this priesthood, the real ruling class of the church was the episcopate, that is, the archbishops and bishops. Each bishop presided over a diocese and took his title from the city which was the site of his cathedral; each archbishop, or metropolitan, was the head of a province, consisting of several dioceses. In each diocese, the bishop or his representatives, among their numerous functions, presided over a court in which cases were tried under canon law. Appeals from these local courts could be carried to Rome. Another function of bishops was to ordain priests.

Each diocese contained a number of parishes, and each parish required a priest to look after the spiritual needs of the people, the laity. For the spiritual welfare of their flocks, the priests delivered sermons and administered sacraments. The seven sacraments provided for the Christian soul from baptism, normally received shortly after birth, to extreme unction, administered to the dying. Confirmation marked the entry of young persons into the church, and the sacrament of ordination, or Holy Orders, made a man a priest; both these sacraments had to be performed by a bishop. Marriage was a sacrament, and divorce was not allowed, though in certain cases a marriage might be annulled. There were two sacraments which were received frequently: Penance and the Lord's Supper. The sacrament of penance centered on the act of confession to a priest. The individual penitent revealed his sins to the priest, or confessor, who then absolved him, sometimes prescribing acts of penance or satisfaction.

(In England the word shrive might be used instead of absolve; the confessor shrove the penitent.) In the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, it was made mandatory for Christians to confess and take Communion at least once a year, and Easter was the time frequently chosen for this purpose. Communion, or the Lord's Supper or Eucharist, was in many ways the central act of the Christian life. Based on Jesus' last supper with his disciples, this sacrament involved the use of bread and wine, consecrated by the priest and then consumed. Originally both the bread and the wine were offered to the laity, but eventually the wine was withheld from them and drunk by the priest alone, while the consecrated wafer, or host, was given to the laymen.

The reservation of the wine to the priest exclusively was concurrent with the rise of the doctrine of transubstantiation. In giving bread and wine to his disciples at the supper, Jesus had referred to them as His body and blood, respectively. These words can be interpreted in numerous ways, and the interpretation that was adopted officially by the church was a literal one. It declared that, although the appearance and physical qualities that is, the accidents of the bread and wine do not change, the essence or substance does. When they are consecrated by the priest, therefore, the substance of the bread and wine actually becomes the substance of Christ's body and blood hence the unwieldy but admittedly precise word, transubstantiation.

The effect of the sacraments was to confer divine grace, which was necessary for salvation. The efficacy of the sacrament did not depend on the moral character of the priest; an unworthy priest could administer a sacrament effectively. Only those who had been ordained to the priesthood were qualified to administer the sacraments. The one exception came in the case of an unbaptized infant in imminent danger of dying. To save him from the consequences of dying unbaptized, a layman could perform the rite if no priest were available. Since the sacraments were the keys to salvation, and the priests held these keys, the position of the priest was an exalted one.

In this manner, the church interpreted the power of the keys to the kingdom of Heaven promised by Jesus to Peter (see Matthew 16). Peter was regarded as the chief of the Apostles and the first bishop of Rome, and the popes as his successors. Respect for the sacraments and doctrines of the church was deeply ingrained, but was not always accompanied by reverence for the clergy. Perhaps it was the exalted spiritual status of the priests that made the ordinary Christian so sharply aware of deviations from the standard required.

The archbishops, bishops, and priests, whose offices brought them into constant touch with the lay world, were called the secular clergy. Alongside them there existed the regular clergy, those who lived by a rule (regula in Latin). For the observance of their rules, these regulars were organized in religious orders. Among these were orders of monks, men who lived in disciplined communities, under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These vows, if faithfully obeyed, meant no belongings of one's own; no contact with women and no impure thoughts; no will of one's own but rather complete submission to one's superiors.

The framework of the monastic day was the regular series of religious services from matins to vespers, and within this framework was a highly regulated life of prayer, study, and work. Although the monk's primary aim was the salvation of his own soul, many monasteries were centers of education and scholarship. The monastery was an ideal home for the studious and the contemplative, and much of what was preserved from classical antiquity was preserved by the monks. Some monks were writers themselves, producing works of devotion and of scholarship, including historical, philosophical, theological, and scientific writings. Women too could enter the life of the cloister; orders of nuns abounded, sometimes connected with orders of monks.

Among the monastic rules, the most influential was probably the Benedictine Rule of St. Benedict of Nursia (c.480 c.550), which formed the basis of the Benedictine order. There were numerous other rules and orders, among whom the Cistercians and the Carthusians are two of the most famous. Some rules were stricter than others, but all required self-denial and abandonment of the world. Since monks and nuns were bound to an even more austere code than priests, their shortcomings were judged even more harshly, and there grew up an abundant literature of satire and invective directed against lazy, gluttonous, avaricious, and lecherous monks. The nuns were not spared either. Though there was much exaggeration in this criticism, there was no doubt some basis of truth.

Not all inmates of monasteries and convents had entered freely as the result of an inner call. Some had been placed there by their parents when they were still too young to choose, and as they grew up and felt the impulses of youth stirring in them, many no doubt bitterly regretted their confinement. Some nunneries became refuges for undowried girls. Some houses, both of men and women, accepted only candidates from noble families and became centers of an aristocratic and elegant way of life, far removed from the ascetic ideal to which they were nominally devoted.

As a reaction to these divergences and abuses, reform movements periodically swept through the religious orders and raised their standards to something approaching their original purpose. One of these reform movements produced the orders of friars, of which the two most famous and influential were the Franciscans and Dominicans, founded respectively by the Italian St. Francis of Assisi (1182 1226) and the Spaniard St. Dominic (c.1170 1221). These new orders differed from the older monastic organizations by coming into direct contact with the world, by doing works of social service or by preaching. The official name of the Dominicans, for example, is the Order of Friars Preachers. The friars were originally mendicants, or beggars, living on alms given them voluntarily by the laity. They were dedicated to the ideal of Christian poverty, a constant theme among reformers of the clergy. However, these mendicant orders found it impossible to remain poor; so popular and successful did they become that they were showered with gifts and legacies and became rich and powerful. Consequently reformers arose periodically within these orders and strove to recall them to their pristine simplicity, humility, and poverty. Both the Franciscans and Dominicans distinguished themselves in the fields of education and learning. Many of the most distinguished philosophers, scientists, and theologians of the Middle Ages were members of these orders.

The Dominicans became especially prominent also in the work of the Inquisition, an ecclesiastical tribunal set up with the primary mission of seeking out and prosecuting cases of heresy. For this work they were called, in a Latin pun, Domini canes or the "Hounds of the Lord." The two orders became rivals; in the fifteenth century, when the question of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin came to be a subject of debate within the church, the Franciscans espoused this doctrine, while the Dominicans opposed it.

The impact of the friars was profound. They came into existence at a time when religious ferment and questioning seemed to endanger the church, and they succeeded in guiding these currents into approved channels. In the great church of St. Francis at Assisi there is a fresco showing one of the popes, in a dream, seeing a vision of Francis upholding the tottering church. In time, the friars themselves became the objects of much criticism; Dante, for example, in the Divine Comedy, has some harsh things to say about them.

In spite of all the criticism of the religious, the ordinary layman undoubtedly considered himself a faithful Christian. It has long been a historical cliché to refer to the Middle Ages as the Age of Faith, as though religious feeling dominated the minds of the masses. Such things, however, cannot be measured. Religious feeling may indeed have been stronger and more widespread than now, but there must also have been innumerable conventional Christians, who accepted without much reflection what the church taught them but who behaved in much the same way as they would have done if they had not been Christians. What we can surely say is that the influence of the organized church was greater than it is today. But the organized church and religious feeling are two separate things, sometimes, but not always, related to each other.

In any event, there was universal acceptance of the Christian interpretation of the nature of the universe and man's place in it. God had created man and woman perfect and placed them in an earthly paradise, endowed with freedom of the will to choose whether or not to obey Him. At the onset of temptation, they had disobeyed. This was the Fall, and it resulted in their expulsion from the garden and the loss of their free will. Henceforth, all the human race was tainted with the result of the first transgression, that is, with original sin. It was this sin that corrupted the will, so that man was no longer free to choose good and reject evil. In this state he could not hope for salvation. To redeem man from this desperate condition, God in His mercy sent His Son, both God and man, to redeem sinners and open the way of salvation. Thus Jesus had lived among men, suffered on the cross, risen from the grave, and ascended to Heaven. He left behind him the church, the body of Christ, to make available to mediate redemption to men, through the sacraments. Man's will was not completely in bondage to sin; he could cooperate with divine grace in the work of his salvation. Salvation was offered to all; each was free to accept or to reject it.

Those who rejected it were damned; they faced an eternity of torment in Hell. Those whose lives were outstanding for merit and holiness might be received directly in Heaven; that is, they might be saints. Most Christians, dying in the bosom of the church and duly repentant of their sins, went to Purgatory, where, as the word indicates, they were to be cleansed or purged of their sins. The growing importance of the idea of Purgatory had numerous effects on religious practices. The sacrament of penance came to be regarded largely as a means of reducing the amount of purgatorial punishment required for the penitent.

Those who were still alive on earth could help in various ways to shorten the period of purgatorial punishment for those who had died. One way was by praying for them; the souls whom Dante encounters in Purgatory frequently ask him to convey to their surviving friends and relatives their desire for prayers. Endowments were established for priests to say Masses for the souls of the dead; in England these endowments were called chantries. One of the chief purposes of the foundation of monasteries was to have regular prayers for the souls of the founder and members of his family. One prayed to the saints in Heaven, but one prayed for the souls in Purgatory.

It was the idea of Purgatory that was responsible for the popularity and importance of indulgences. These came into use as a means of attracting men to participate in the Crusades, the series of expeditions which, beginning shortly before 1100, tried to wrest the Holy Land from the Moslem infidels and return it to Christian hands. To induce men to go on these expeditions to take the Cross, the popes offered full remission of sins to those who fell in battle. This was a plenary indulgence and amounted to a promise of immediate admittance to Heaven for those who gave their lives for the faith.

From this simple beginning, indulgences enjoyed a rather luxuriant development. Those who donated money for a Crusade might receive the rewards promised to those who went. Visitors to Rome during Jubilee years, the first of which was 1300, could receive indulgences. Indulgences might be granted for specific purposes, to specific territories, and might not be full indulgences but carry only the promise of the remission of a certain amount of purgatorial punishment. They might be hedged about with very careful restrictions and qualifications. However, the practice was undoubtedly corrupted by the increasing rise of the indulgence as a moneymaking device. Salesmen of indulgences were sent out, who in their zeal to attract buyers made extravagant claims which were eagerly swallowed by the simple. The buyers thought they were acquiring immediate tickets to Heaven without the need for repentance or change of heart.

These indulgences could also be purchased on behalf of the souls of the departed. The theory of a "Treasury of Merits," which developed from the thirteenth century, made this possible. According to this theory, the saints, while on earth, had performed good works beyond what was required for their own salvation. It was these good works that constituted the treasury, which was inexhaustible and at the disposal of the pope. It is not strange that the abuses of indulgences aroused objections among earnest Christians before Luther's protest against them; they appeared to make salvation mechanical and relieve the individual of responsibility for the state of his soul.

There were numerous beliefs and practices which, although approved by the church, were susceptible to abuse through ignorance or exaggeration -- for instance, the veneration of relics. A relic was an object which had been associated with a saint: an article of clothing perhaps, or the instrument of a martyr's suffering, or even a part of the body. While the church sanctioned the veneration of such relics as a way of fostering the desire to emulate the saint's virtues and holiness, it did not approve of the actual worship of such objects. Many persons, however, appear to have worshipped them, often in the hope of obtaining supernatural help thereby. Relics also were subject to abuse for monetary reasons. A church which had an impressive relic or collection of relics attracted pilgrims, who often left money. Numerous relics were spurious, some no doubt through ignorance but others as a result of deliberate deception. Erasmus commented wryly that there were enough pieces of wood from the cross on which Jesus had been crucified to build a ship.

But there was a deeper issue. Even if the relics were what they purported to be, and had indeed belonged to a saint, what benefit could accrue to the believer merely from viewing such objects? And was it desirable for people to leave their homes, families, and work to go on pilgrimages for long distances to see such relics? Always present was the danger of externalization of religion, and with the growth of the church into a powerful and complex machine, this danger increased. Hence the repeated call for a religion of the heart, an inward religion which would express itself in a cleansing of the soul and in works of love and service toward one's neighbor.

Popular religion contained a good many elements of superstition, some of which came down from antiquity. There was general belief in witches and their malign powers; the church itself upheld this belief and in fact did a good deal to perpetuate it. The air was filled with good and evil spirits, able to help or harm. The line between the natural and the supernatural was not clear, and men and women lived constantly in the presence of occult forces, against which their religion provided the best protection. Thus religion itself was often used as a sort of magic charm.


[I]n the field of scholarship and learning, the Middle Ages invented the university. Universities began to come into existence in the twelfth century, arising out of existing institutions such as cathedral schools. A university was a guild (universitas), either of teachers, like the University of Paris, or of students, like the University of Bologna. It was divided into faculties, each of which was responsible for a body of subject matter. The boy who entered a university (girls were not admitted) might be quite young, fifteen years old or even younger. He matriculated in the faculty of Liberal Arts, also called the philosophical faculty, where he studied first the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Successful completion of this program entitled him to the degree of Bachelor of Arts. From this he went to the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Study of these subjects entitled him to the degree of Master of Arts, which was essentially a license to teach. He was then a member of the guild of teachers and could rent a room and advertise for students, who were expected to pay him a fee.

Many Masters of Arts, in addition to their teaching, went on to study in one of the "higher" faculties: medicine, law, or theology. There were two branches of legal study, canon law and civil or Roman law, based on the Code of Justinian. A student might have a degree in either law, or he might be a Doctor of Both Laws (J.U.D. or Juris Utriusque Doctor). The degrees of master and doctor were not distinguished then as they are today, but were more or less synonymous. Certain universities specialized in one subject or another: Bologna was noted for legal study, Paris for theology. Theology had the greatest prestige of any subject, and the theological faculty at Paris was the outstanding one in Europe: Its pronouncements on doctrinal matters had an almost official standing.

The development of universities was stimulated by a great increase in knowledge based on the Greek and Roman classics. Many classical works neglected in Europe for centuries began to come back into circulation in the twelfth century, reaching Europe from Arab sources. The Arabs had preserved the tradition of Greek learning during the centuries in which it had been largely lost to Europeans. Of particular importance were the writings of Aristotle, covering a large number of what we would now call scientific and philosophical fields. His prestige in the medieval schools was immense; when Thomas Aquinas referred simply to "The Philosopher," and when Dante mentioned "The master of those who know," it was not necessary to give his name.

Scholarship in the universities employed what is known as the scholastic method. This involved the use of a rigorous technique of logical reasoning starting with premises supplied by some standard authority. The authorities were relatively few in number; for theology, there were chiefly the Bible, the writings of the church fathers and the Sentences of the twelfth-century writer Peter Lombard. For secular fields of knowledge the classical texts were widely used. When authorities appeared to disagree, the scholastic writers did not choose one and reject the other, but instead developed a technique for reconciling the apparent differences and explaining away the disagreement.

The scholastic method produced great works of synthesis, like the Summa theologiae of Thomas Aquinas (c.1225 74). It encouraged close analysis of texts and fostered depth if not breadth of understanding. It ran the risk of degenerating into subtle and abstruse reasoning about things of minor importance, and of losing contact with the realities of the world what Francis Bacon was to call "the commerce of the mind with things."

It would be a mistake to think, however, that there was no interest in nature in the Middle Ages. Important investigation and speculation on scientific subjects were carried on, especially by some Franciscans at Oxford and by a group of Paris scholars in the fourteenth century. Such matters as gravity and motion were studied, and the way was prepared for the scientific revolution which started in the sixteenth century.

In art and literature the Middle Ages produced impressive monuments. It is interesting to recall that the word Gothic, applied to works of art, originally meant barbarous and was a term of disparagement. Today we recognize the so-called Gothic cathedrals as outstanding achievements in art, engineering, and religion. Even before the rise of Gothic, there were fine medieval structures in the style known as Romanesque, the English equivalent of which is called Norman. Romanesque or Norman architecture was capable of producing effects of solidity and grandeur, with its massive piers and round arches. It ran the risk of excessive heaviness, and its churches were likely to be dark and gloomy inside, because it had not solved the problem of introducing sufficient light. Since the walls supported the structure, they had to be very heavy, allowing little space for windows.


To solve these problems the Gothic style was worked out. One of its most important accomplishments was to transfer the weight of the building from the walls to the flying buttresses. Since the walls no longer had to bear such a heavy burden, windows could be greatly enlarged. These windows were often made of stained glass, with magnificent effects of color and light. The rounded arch of the Romanesque gave way to a pointed arch, and churches became higher, with their vaults soaring far over the heads of worshippers. The piers were less massive than in the Romanesque. As a result of all these changes, the Gothic cathedrals produced an effect of soaring, of aspiration toward the heavens. The solution of structural problems had made possible a greater expression of religious feeling.

Sculpture was also represented in these cathedrals. Some of the statues of saints and of characters from Bible history are vivid and lifelike, refuting any belief that medieval people were not interested in accurate observation of nature. This is further borne out by the decorative carvings of animals, fruits, and flowers, which also show a keen observation and love of nature.

Thus the cathedral provided a kind of synthesis of the arts. In the wide range of subject matter encompassed by the sculpture and especially by the stained- glass windows, these great buildings might be considered a synthesis of all medieval life and thought. There was a strong tendency in the Middle Ages toward such building of syntheses. The cathedrals are not the only evidence of this; Aquinas created a great synthesis of theology, and Dante, in his Divine Comedy, accomplished a feat analogous to these.

[DANTE ALIGHIERI] Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is not easy to classify; possibly none of the greatest men are. More than any other individual he embodies the philosophical, theological, and literary currents of the Middle Ages, but in some ways he looks forward to a later period. He was a Florentine of noble birth who took an active part in the political life of his native city until, in 1302, the faction to which he belonged was defeated, and he became an exile, with a price on his head. He never returned to Florence, although in later years he could have done so in safety, because he would first have been required to undergo a public ceremony of expiation. He would never admit that he had done anything that required forgiveness, and so he preferred to endure the humiliation and loneliness of exile rather than return to the city which alone he thought of as his home.

This proud, austere man was familiar with all the intellectual activity of his time, and was further endowed with extraordinary depth of thought and feeling, together with poetic genius. He called his great poem the Comedy; a later generation called it divine. The subject of the Divine Comedy could not be broader in scope or more sublime; it is the journey of the individual soul through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. This at least is its story, but there are numerous other levels of meaning, conveyed by allegory and symbol, so that Dante is able to deal with all of his deepest concerns and indeed with all the most significant issues of his day.

The poem tells of Dante himself, lost in a dark forest and threatened by wild beasts, rescued by the Roman poet Virgil, who was greatly revered in the Middle Ages because of a mistaken notion that he had foretold the coming of Christianity. Virgil guides Dante first through Hell (the Inferno). Here are all the sinners who are condemned to eternal torment, with the type of suffering always appropriate to the transgression. In addition to figures from the Bible or from Greek and Roman antiquity, there are many from more recent times, including some known personally to Dante. A number of popes are in Hell. Hell is located beneath the earth, in a series of circles through which Dante and his guide descend to the bottom, at the center of the earth. In the prevailing geocentric view of the cosmos, this is the center of the universe. Here, frozen in ice, Satan holds in each of his three mouths one of the blackest sinners of all mankind: Judas, who betrayed the Lord, and Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar. In this way Dante shows his reverence for the divine mission of the Roman Empire, of which Caesar is the symbol.

Near the beginning of their journey, Virgil leads Dante to Limbo, where he meets the great figures of antiquity. Since they lived before Christ, they were never able to receive Christian baptism. They must therefore remain forever cut off from the presence of God, though they are not subject to actual physical torment. Here Dante shows a greater severity than some of his contemporaries. In Limbo, Dante is introduced to the great poets; in addition to Virgil, there are Homer, Horace, Lucan, and Ovid. Among them, says Dante without false modesty, "I made a sixth."

From the terrors of Hell, Virgil leads Dante to Purgatory, where the souls of those who died repentant are expiating their sins. Purgatory is a place of punishment and hope; those who have been sent there will reach Heaven in due time. For the final journey to Heaven, Virgil must turn Dante over to another guide. The great Roman poet, as we have seen, is shut out from God's presence. In his allegorical meanings, Virgil represents human reason or philosophy, which cannot by itself lead to God. For this, grace is required. The embodiment of grace, and of theology, is another real person, Beatrice. From childhood, Dante loved from afar Beatrice Portinari, who appears in his work in a glorified form as the bearer of his highest ideals. Now she leads him through Paradise, where he meets many of the great saints. When these saints discuss those still on earth who should be their followers, they become filled with indignation. Thus Peter castigates the popes, and St. Francis and St. Dominic express their disappointment over their own unworthy followers. The climax of the poem comes when Dante, under the guidance now of St. Bernard, receives a beatific vision of the Trinity itself, and the poem concludes with an invocation of the Virgin Mary. Each of the three main sections of the Divine Comedy -- "Inferno," "Purgatory," "Paradise" -- ends with the word stars. In the course of his poem, Dante deals with a vast array of subjects. He treats the urgent theological and philosophical problems of his age. He reveals the nature and arrangement of the universe as it appeared to educated men. He discusses developments in poetry, and pays tribute to his predecessors in the field. He draws on classical history and literature, showing how much was known about antiquity. And he concerns himself with the history of Italy and Florence in recent times, showing how strongly he feels about developments there. Throughout, he manages to tell us a good deal about himself what sort of man he was. He emerges as a highly developed, self-conscious individual, aware of his own greatness, very much his own man, somewhat isolated, and, although highly critical of church and papacy, deeply religious.

Even as Dante wrote, forces were at work that were to cause the dissolution of medieval civilization. These forces will be the subject of our next chapter.