The Twelfth Century
by Nick Needham
The twelfth century was one of the most colorful of the medieval era. Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that it was the age of some of the most famous and influential Christians of all time. We need only think of Peter Abelard and Peter Lombard in the arena of theology, Bernard of Clairvaux in matters of spirituality, and Peter Waldo as the first great “forerunner of the Reformation.” The end of the century also witnessed the ascension to power of Pope Innocent III, in whom the papacy reached its dizzying height of political power across Western Europe.
This was the century when the fever of the Crusades gripped Christendom. The success of the First Crusade (AD 1096–99) had created a power bloc of “Latin kingdoms” or “Crusader states” in the Middle East. The twelfth century saw conflict between Christians and Muslims raging around these states. The Second Crusade (AD 1147–49) and the Third Crusade (AD 1189–92) were the last of the classic Crusades before the whole idea was shipwrecked in the infamy of the so called Fourth Crusade (AD 1202–04), when the Crusaders sacked Christian Constantinople and gave a mortal wound to the Byzantine Empire, opening up Eastern Europe to Islamic conquest. The fires of idealism were gone by then.
The flame still burned, however, in the Second and Third Crusades. The Second Crusade was a military failure for the Christian forces, but it gave unparalleled public prominence to Bernard of Clairvaux, son of a crusading knight who had taken part in the capture of Jerusalem in 1099. At the request of Pope Eugenius III, Bernard toured Europe, exhorting men to go east and rescue the Christian kingdom of Jerusalem from Islamic attack. To many believers today, it is the most embarrassing episode in Bernard’s life, but it helps us to locate in his own times a figure whose spiritual influence on the Protestant Reformers would be profound.
The Third Crusade, however, inspired the imagination of Western Europe more than any other. There was an outpouring of poetry, story, and song to celebrate the contest between the Muslim leader Saladin and King Richard the Lionheart of England, two of the greatest warrior-leaders of any age. To this day, the Third Crusade is the one most people know something about.
Anselm of Canterbury (AD 1033–1109) is usually regarded as the “father of scholastic theology.” The twelfth century saw the full blossoming of the scholastic spirit and enterprise. It went hand in hand with the rise of the universities as Western Europe’s key centers of higher education. The universities developed in the twelfth century out of schools attached to cathedral churches and abbeys. Many of these schools were originally founded to train boys for the church (for example, to sing in choirs). The earliest known choir school seems to have been the one attached to York cathedral, established in the seventh century. However, such schools often provided a free general education to boys living in the neighborhood as well. The first true universities were those of Bologna and Paris. There had been a law school in Bologna since 890. This formed the basis of what became Bologna University, given official recognition by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa (reigned AD 1152–90) in 1155. In Paris, there was a famous school attached to Notre Dame Cathedral, which by 1150–70 had taken on the features of a university.
The growth of the universities unleashed a theological revolution in Western Christendom. Previously, the great monasteries had been the centers of learning: the leading theologians had been monks who studied theology within the setting of monastic life and worship. The universities challenged this. Theology became an intellectual subject in its own right, and people studied it in the academic context of university life outside the constraints of monastic discipline. The great theologians were now university professors who earned their living by teaching doctrine. In one way, this had a liberating effect on Western theology, releasing torrents of intellectual energy, debate, and writing in the stimulating atmosphere of free academic discourse. In another way, though, it may have introduced a certain element of division between spiritual life on the one hand, and intellectual and theological pursuits on the other. Critics have judged this division to be a deeply harmful feature of Western Christianity since the 1100s. Like any revolution, the university movement probably produced both gains and losses for the church. Assessing the nature and extent of those gains and losses remains controversial.
Scholastic theology—the theology taught in the “schools,” that is, universities—found two of its most eloquent and far-reaching practitioners in the twelfth century, namely, Peter Abelard (AD 1079–1142) and Peter Lombard (AD 1100–1160). I am still surprised that Hollywood has not made an epic life of Abelard. It has all the makings of a blockbuster, with its blend of religion, sex, and violence. More important for us, Abelard and Lombard helped define a new role for reason in the theological endeavor. Lombard’s literary legacy, in particular, would be of towering significance, since his Sentences became the standard theology textbook of the Middle Ages and beyond. The first generation of Protestant Reformers learned their theology from Lombard. (Book One on the Trinity was finally translated into English in 2007.)
The ferment of the twelfth century was not exclusively intellectual; it was economic, political, and spiritual as well. There was a great upsurge of religious dissent and heresy in Roman Catholic Europe from about 1150 onward. This was probably related to serious changes taking place in the Western world’s social and economic system at this time. In the Netherlands, Western Germany, and Northern Italy and France, the growth of towns, cities, trade, and industry was undermining the feudal system by creating new wealth and a new economy based increasingly on money rather than on land. As a result, the rich became visibly richer and more numerous. The poor became visibly and distressingly poorer. Nobles began to be able to buy soldiers, and so profit assumed greater importance than the old feudal relationships of personal loyalty. Middle-class merchants were now even richer than the feudal nobility. At the same time, the population was growing, and the feudal, land-based way of life was less able to support those who lived in rural areas.
The real losers in this process of deep social change were the peasants, especially if they had to relocate to towns and cities. In the old feudal village, the lord of the manor personally looked after his peasant workers—he could not afford to let them starve. By contrast, a town-dwelling peasant who was unemployed would indeed starve. He no longer belonged to a lord, and to that extent he had gained personal freedom. However, with this freedom went the destruction of those close feudal bonds of community that had previously ensured that even the lowest classes had a place in society and were cared for. This loss of the sense of security and belonging, and the growth of great social inequality, created a fertile soil in which new religious movements could flourish. The two most widespread of these movements were the Waldensians and the Cathars. Since this issue of Tabletalk has a separate article on the Waldensians, I will focus our attention here on the Cathars.
The Cathars (Greek for “pure ones”) were the most geographically widespread of the dissenting movements to flourish in the unsettling climate of social and economic change. They were divided into many sects. Sometimes they were known as Patarenes (from the Pataria district of Milan in Northern Italy) and sometimes as Albigensians (from the town of Albi in Southern France, one of their chief centers of influence). They originated in Northern Europe in about 1140, but soon moved south and became strongest in Northern Italy (Lombardy and Tuscany) and above all in Languedoc (the southern French coastland and allied inland regions). By 1200, Cathars had become a powerful force in Southern France, enjoying the support and protection of many French nobles, who sided with them out of a shared hostility to the church (although in the case of the nobility, this was motivated less by serious religious idealism and more by the desire to refuse paying tithes and to seize church land for themselves). French Cathars were called Albigensians, and they aroused the anxiety and hostility of the Roman Catholic Church more than any other dissenting movement. This would lead eventually to Europe’s first internal Crusade, the Albigensian Crusade of 1209–29, which shattered the power of both Albigensian dissenters and southern French nobility.
The beliefs and practices of the Cathars were basically identical with those of the Gnostics from the early church period and the neo-Gnostic Paulicians and Bogomils of the Byzantine Empire. (Bogomil missionaries were at work in Western Europe in the twelfth century, coalescing with the Cathars.) They taught that the physical world had been created by Satan, who was as eternal and powerful as God. The soul, they said, was an angelic spirit kidnapped by Satan from heaven and imprisoned in an evil physical body. The ultimate sin was sexual reproduction because it increased the number of evil bodies for Satan to use as prisons for kidnapped spirits. Christ did not have a physical body, did not really die, and did not experience a bodily resurrection. Salvation did not come through the cross but through spiritual enlightenment (accepting and following the Cathar teachings). Cathars rejected water baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as they believed nothing material could convey divine blessing.
Joachim of Fiore
Cathars believed that the papacy was the Antichrist prophesied in Scripture. They were not alone in applying eschatological thinking to their own times. Joachim of Fiore (AD 1135–1202), one of the most influential “eschatologists,” lived and worked in the twelfth century. (Fiore is sometimes spelled Flore or Flora.) Joachim was a Cistercian monk and abbot of Curazzo in Calabria (located in southwestern Italy). In 1192, he founded the new monastery of Saint John in Fiore, near Curazzo. Joachim’s monastery at Fiore became the centre of a new order of Saint John and was recognized by Pope Celestine III (AD 1191–98) in 1196.
However, Joachim’s real fame rests on his mystical writings, collectively known as The Everlasting Gospel. He divided the history of the world into three stages, corresponding to the three persons of the Trinity. The Old Testament was the age of God the Father, when humanity lived under the law; it was characterized by fear. The New Testament was the age of God the Son, when humanity lived under the grace of the gospel; it was characterized by faith. But a new age was about to dawn, the age of God the Holy Spirit, which Joachim identified with the “thousand years” of Revelation 20:1–6. In this new age of the Spirit, Christ would purify the church from all corruption, a new monastic order would arise that would evangelize and convert the whole world (including the Jews), and humanity would enter a “golden age” of spiritual freedom and contemplation—the world itself would become one vast and holy monastery. As fear and faith characterized the first two ages, love would characterize the third. Joachim predicted that the age of the Spirit would begin in the year 1260.
Joachim’s ideas were very influential on dissenting movements opposed to the papacy from the thirteenth century onward. They took Joachim’s teaching about the corruption from which the “new age” would free the church and interpreted that corruption as the papacy itself, or at least the papacy in its present form. The most important group Joachim influenced was the “spiritual Franciscans,” the radical wing of the Franciscan movement that saw itself as the new monastic order prophesied by Joachim. Joachim’s teaching about a spiritual “golden age” on earth before Christ’s return also influenced some of the Radical Reformers in the sixteenth century. It may be one source of the “postmillennial” view of history that was once the reigning orthodoxy among English-speaking Protestants, teaching that the conversion of the Jews and a time of worldwide spiritual blessing will occur before the return of Christ.
The Power of the Papacy
This hostility to the papacy among dissenters and reformers coincided with the papacy’s rise to preeminent power over church and state. By the close of the twelfth century, with the election in 1198 of Lothario Conti as Pope Innocent III, the papacy had at last ascended to the summit of practical authority that Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII) had dreamed about in the eleventh century. This apotheosis of papal power can be seen in the way that the title “vicar of Christ” became central to the claims of the papacy. Previously, popes had claimed that their special position was as the “vicar of St. Peter,” standing in Peter’s place and exercising Peter’s supreme Apostolic authority. Even Hildebrand had claimed no more than this. From the twelfth century on, however, the more sublime title “vicar of Christ” began to be applied to the pope, even by Bernard of Clairvaux. However, before Innocent III, people normally gave the title “vicar of Christ” to kings, especially the Holy Roman Emperor. It had been part of the Western “sacred kingship” ideal—the king represented Christ on earth. The papacy now challenged this ideology. Christ did indeed have a visible representative on earth, but it was no king or emperor: it was the bishop of Rome. Humbler papal titles like “vicar of St. Peter” were now passé. The stage was set for some of the most titanic battles between popes and secular rulers that Europe would ever witness.
This, then, was the twelfth century, in all its richness, vigor, and paradox.
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