Constantine to the Reformation
This series covers the history of the church from the time when Emperor Constantine legalized the church until the time when the Reformation began to tear the church apart in Europe.
Constantine and Legalization
Key Concepts: Constantine (c. 272 – c. 337) was one of the great leaders of the Roman Empire. The changes he made in the Empire not only solidified the place of Christianity but also stabilized the Empire for almost a thousand years.
The Story: Constantine’s early years were spent in virtual house arrest in Rome. HIs father, Constantius, was a renowned Roman General and deputy-emperor of the Western Roman Empire The reigning Emperor Diocletian saw Constantius as a possible threat and so kept Constantine either at court or campaigning far from his father in order to insure Constantius’ loyalty. While at court, Constantine mixed with both pagans and Christians. In 303 he witnessed Diocletian’s proclamations against Christians and the church. There are no records of Constantine either participating in or opposing this persecution. During this time Constantine proved to be an able general and beloved leader. In 305 Galerius became Emperor and after a long night of drinking agreed to send Constantine to serve with his father. A year later, when his father died, the Army in Britannia (where Constantine was headquartered) declared Constantine not only to be their leader, but to be deputy-Emperor of Rome, his father’s old title. This “promotion” was only grudgingly approved by Galerius.
Soon after this there began a struggle within the Roman Empire for power and dominance. At one point there were no less than six men who laid claim to leadership of the Empire. Constantine, as ruler of Britannia, Spain and Gaul, controlled one of the largest armies in the Empire and thus was in a strong position to claim the title. One of the interesting facts of his rule, which foreshadowed some of his future decisions, was that Christians were not persecuted in the areas under his control. People suspected that this may have been due to the fact that his mother, Helena, was a Christian. This lack of persecution spreads further when, in 311, Galerius, issued a death bed edict ending all religious persecutions and resuming religious toleration.
In 312 Constantine moved toward Rome to confront one of his major opponents. The night before the decisive battle Constantine had his troops emblazon their shields with a new sign, the C (Xi) and r (rho), which were the first two letters of Christ in Greek. Constantine later said that he did so because he had a vision where he saw the words, “In this sign you will conquer.” The battle, in which his troops were outnumbered 2 to 1, ended with a sudden and overwhelming victory for Constantine. Following his victory he did not go to the Temple of Jupiter to offer sacrifices; the first new Emperor not to do so. The next year he met his closest remaining rival, Licinius, and they agreed to the Edict of Milan, which fully legalized Christianity and gave the church back all of its property.
By 320 however, Licinius began to once again persecute the church. This led to a series of battles in which Constantine and his troops seeing themselves representing the Christian future of Rome defeated Licinius and his forces which saw themselves as representing Rome’s pagan past. With Licinius’ defeat, Christianity was safe in the Empire.
No one is quite sure whether Constantine had always been a Christian or became one later in life. It was not until he was over 40 that he made a public profession of his faith. The remainder of his life was spent building basilicas, exempting clergy from certain taxes and promoting Christians to important positions. He was finally baptized days before his death. His legacy is that of a Christianized Empire, the vestiges of which are still with us today.
Key Concepts: When Constantine (c. 272 – c. 337) legalized Christianity in 313 with the Edict of Milan what he found was a church divided. It was divided on two fronts; How to treat those who had turned from their faith in the face of persecution and what was the nature of Jesus.
The Story: Though the church had continued to grow in the face of persecutions, its legalization did not mean that it was united in its practices or its beliefs. The first great issue that Constantine had to deal with was the Donatist controversy. Prior to the legalization of Christianity the Roman leadership in North Africa had been lenient toward Christians. As long as they handed over their scriptures, they could worship and live as they pleased. After the Edict of Milan, Christians in this area, led by Bishop Donatus Magnus, branded all of those who had handed over the scriptures (mostly the poor) as traitors. Any sacraments performed by or for the “traitors” was considered to be invalid. This created a rift in the churches in North Africa which led to threats of riots.
Constantine tried to intervene with gifts to the churches, but these only went to non-Donatist churches, which made matters worse. The Emperor then called together two councils of bishops to sort out the issue. Both of the councils, being heavily weighted with “catholic” bishops ruled against the Donatists. Making the matter worse was the fact that while the “catholic” bishops saw Constantine as head of the church, the Donatists still viewed him as evil. In response Constantine confiscated the property of the Donatists and sent their leaders into exile. Ultimately though this did not unite the church and in 321 Constantine granted Donatists the right to follow their conscience.
The second great issue which was dividing the church was the nature of the person of Jesus. For the earliest church, there was no need to examine the nature of Jesus. All that mattered was that Jesus was Son of God and messiah, through whose death and resurrection the power of sin and death were broken. By the time of Constantine however, the church had become divided between two distinct views of the nature of Jesus. There were those who followed Bishop Athanasius who believed that Jesus was “begotten” of God and thus eternal in nature (meaning Jesus shared God’s very essence) and those who followed Presbyter Arius who believed that Jesus was created and thus had a beginning. While this may appear to be an esoteric argument, it is not. The heart of the matter was, and is, when we look at Jesus do we see God (Athanasius) or do we see someone who is only like God (Arius). If we see God then we know that what he hear from Jesus is what we would hear from God. If we only see someone like Jesus then we may or may not be hearing from Jesus what God wants us to hear.
In order to deal with this division in the church, Constantine called the first church-wide council to discuss the matter. This council was held at Nicaea. Tradition tells us that when the bishops could not agree on language concerning Jesus, Constantine recommended language about Jesus which was adopted. Those believing that Jesus was “begotten” and not made won the day with only two dissenting votes (both of those bishops were sent into exile by Constantine). The language of the council was formalized into what we know as the Nicaean Creed (though the Creed we possess today was the result of later clarifications in both 381 and 451). This creed then became the first basis for orthodoxy (acceptable belief) within the Church. Even today it defines the boundaries of orthodoxy for churches around the world.
From Pagan to Christian
Key Concepts: Even though the church had been legalized and had the backing of the government, its members were still a minority within the Empire and it took a considerable period of time for Christianity to replace the earlier Roman religion.
The Story: As was noted in pervious articles, Christianity was persecuted off and on over the first three hundred years of its existence. This persecution ended with a declaration of tolerance by Emperor Galerius (311) and was codified in the Edict of Milan (313). Tolerance of Christianity soon gave way to active support under Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – c. 337). He built churches, took an active role in the life of the church (including declaring himself to be its head), gave tax breaks to clergy and insured that all previously confiscated churches were returned to the church. Though Constantine still insisted that all Romans worship the Sun god, he finally declared himself to be a Christian. The impact of his favoring of Christianity can be seen when, at his death, mobs in Constantinople, sacked pagan shrines and stole much of the wealth they contained.
Constantine was succeeded by his son Constantius II who began the slow but steady process of removing all vestiges of Paganism from the Empire. It began in the 350s when Constantius II encouraged legislation that banned all temple sacrifices. This was consistent with his motto of, “Let superstition cease; let the folly of sacrifice be abolished.” By 353 he had imposed the penalty of death on anyone making a sacrifice and then began shutting down temples, forbidding access to them and ending any public funding of pagan activities. In the face of the destruction of pagan temples by Christians, which he did not actively try to stop, the Emperor fined those who committed such acts. At the same time Constantius did not wipe out all vestiges of pagan culture (though there were many Christians encouraging him to do so). He left open pagan schools and some of the more well-known pagan cults such as the Vestal Virgins (priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth).
These changes did not go unchallenged and were often not well received. There were many places in the Roman Empire where paganism was still strong and the commands of the Emperor were ignored by the local leaders. In the Roman Senate, Constantius removed the Altar of Victory, which had been installed in 29 BCE, but after his death it was immediately restored. Constantius’ successor Julian (r. 361-363) attempted to restore paganism as the religion of the Empire and he rejected Christianity because of its intolerance of other faiths. He withdrew Christian privileges and ordered those who had destroyed temples to rebuild them. Even so he did not either persecute Christians or force them to offer pagan sacrifices.
Following the death of Julian in 363, there was a decade of tolerance driven by the next three short-lived Emperors. This changed in 375 with a new Emperor, Gratian, who began a series of anti-pagan acts including confiscation of their property and revenues. This persecution continued under his successor Theodosius I (347-395) who essentially banned all pagan practices (including those in homes), some under the penalty of death. The struggle between paganism and Christianity continued off and on through the period of 450-488 during which there were numerous plans and revolts by pagans to regain control of the Empire, all of which failed and only served to increase the persecution of those who desired to return to Roman religion. Ultimately most pagans either went underground or converted to Christianity.
Key Concepts: From the moment that the church was born on Pentecost it understood its mission to be that of telling the story of God’s love shown in and through the Good News of Jesus Christ. This mission led to the conversion of people both inside and outside of the Roman Empire.
The Story: in this article we will take a very cursory look at the manner in which Christianity spread not only throughout the Roman Empire but also throughout the world. Between the end of Paul’s life (around 64 CE) and the legalization of Christianity in 313 estimates are that almost 10% of the population of the Roman Empire had become Christian. We can see this in that by the year 100 there are reports of Christians in Monaco, Algeria and Sri Lanka. By the year 200 there were Christian communities in Portugal, Morocco, Britain, Austria, southern France, India, the Persian Empire, China, North Africa and Japan. By the year 500 there are bishops and churches in what is now Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
There are some remarkable stories of the earliest missionaries and we will examine a few of them. The first is woman named Nino (now St. Nino) who lived around 296-340). Nino was the child of a Roman family and was related to St. George (yes of the dragon killing fame). She went to what is now the nation of Georgia (ancient Iberia) where the people worshiped the Persian gods. While there she converted the queen, Nana. This led to the conversion of the King, who according to tradition, while lost prayed to Nino’s god and was saved. The King, Mirian III eventually declared Christianity to be the religion of his empire. An interesting fact is that in the nation of Georgia, Nino is one of the most popular names for girls.
The second was a man by the name of Ulfilas (311-383). He was born to parents who were Greek but were taken as captives by the Goths (a Germanic tribe that ranged from Sweden into Greece). Raised as a Goth, we are not sure when he became a Christian, but when he did he became an Arian Christian (meaning he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus). He was also fluent in Greek and Latin and used that knowledge to create a written language for the Goths and then translate the Bible from Greek into Gothic (fragments of his original work still exist). During that time he was ordained as a bishop and converted many of the Goths to Arian Christianity.
The next three are Ninian who lived in the 4th to 5th century, Palladius (408-431) and Columba (521-597). They are credited with taking the Gospel to the Pictish people. The Picts were a tribal confederation that lived in what is now northern Scotland from the Iron Age until about the 10th century. Their religion had been a Celtic polytheism. Under these missionaries the Picts slowly become Christian. Columba is also the founder of the Presbyterian? training center on Iona.
The last of the missionaries we will look at is Patrick who is considered to be the founder of Christianity in Ireland. There are no firm dates for his life but he lived in the mid fifth century. As a child he was not an active Christian. At the age of 16 he was captured and enslaved by Irish Pirates. After six years he made his escape and returned to Britain. He began to develop his faith, ultimately studying in Europe before returning to Ireland. As an outsider his life was constantly at risk, yet he managed to baptize thousands of converts and ordain priests to found new communities. There are some wonderful legends about Patrick including his using the shamrock to teach about the Trinity and his banishing all the snakes from Ireland.
Key Concepts: The Roman Empire was slowly dividing between east (centered at Constantinople) and west (centered at Rome). This division impacted the churches throughout the Empire.
The Story: For many years (235-395) the Roman Empire had two courts, one in Rome (west) and the other in Constantinople (east), yet were ruled by a single Emperor. The last of these Emperors was Theodosius who died in 395. From that time forward the Western portion of the Empire was wracked by the struggles between “strong men” who contested for leadership, between Christians and pagans fighting over the religion of the Empire, by continuing invasions of Germanic and Hunic tribes and finally by declining economic conditions.
All of these factors ultimately allowed the western empire to be overrun by Germanic tribes including the Angles, Saxons, Franks, Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and the Huns. Interestingly enough, many of the Germanic tribes were Arian Christians, meaning they followed Christ, but were not convinced that Jesus was actually God. In some cases, such as in Italy, these invaders allowed the Roman Trinitarian Church to continue to operate and the church became the one stable organization in an ever deteriorating Empire. In other cases however, these invaders, especially the Vandals (who were again Arian Christians) attempted to destroy Roman Christianity wherever they found it, especially in North Africa (late 420s) where they almost completely eliminated it. The significant role of the church in the midst of the continuing chaos can be seen in 455 when the Vandals and their allies, coming from North Africa were poised to destroy Rome. Pope Leo I met directly with the invading king and convinced him not to burn the city and slaughter its inhabitants, as the Vandals had done elsewhere. Tradition states that the western empire fell in 476 when the last Roman Emperor was deposed.
The story in the east was different. While the eastern portion of the empire (Byzantine Empire) often felt the wrath of the Germanic tribes and especially the Huns, it was able to far better maintain its spiritual and cultural identity. This was due in part to its continuing political and military stability. This stability allowed it not only to repulse invaders but in the 550s to reconquer much of the western Empire, including North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. In addition Justinian I (r. 527-565) negotiated a treaty with the Persians in the east which made for economic stability. Justinian was also responsible for the codification and enforcement of a new set of laws, which form the basis for much of modern civil law.
The Byzantine Empire maintained its spiritual stability by holding seven ecumenical councils between 325 and 787. These councils dealt with a wide variety of issues ranging from the Trinity, to the role of Mary (who was declared to be Theotokos, mother of God), to the nature of Jesus and to the role played by icons. The set of religious beliefs (dogmas) produced by these councils became the only dogma recognized by the Eastern Church, which would eventually create friction with the church in the west. The Emperors were also supportive of the church and supported the building of the Hagia Sophia Basilica (537) and the creation of the Divine Liturgy which is still in use today. In the early 600s the Empire engaged in what it considered to be “holy wars” against the Persians in order to reclaim Jerusalem (which had been lost) and the “True Cross.”
The Rise of Islam
Key Concepts: Prior to the rise of Islam in the 630s, Arabia was a land divided between Jews, Christians and polytheistic religions. With the rise of Islam however, these traditions became marginalized and larger political units such as Byzantium and the Sassanid Empires (Persia) were either threatened or destroyed.
The Story: Islamic tradition holds that Muhammad was born in Mecca somewhere around the year 570. This was a time of great religious diversity and conflict. Muhammad was part of the dominant Mecca tribe of the Quraysh. Sometime around his fortieth birthday Muslims believe that he began receiving divine revelations. These revelations led him to become a monotheist, warn people about God’s judgment and, like the Jewish Prophets, call people to more just way of living. Through a series to events he ultimately seized control of Mecca (from which he had earlier fled) and the allegiance of the Quraysh in 623. Prior to his death in 632 he was able to enter into agreements with other tribes in the Arabian Peninsula, even when they did not accept his position as prophet.
Following Muhammad’s death the extent of Moslem domination expanded. Starting in the Arabian Peninsula with the defeat of local tribes it soon pushed into areas controlled by the Byzantine Empire including Egypt and Syria. They also moved east into the Sassanid Empire. The Sassanid Empire was the last great Iranian Empire and was considered to be a rival power to Rome. The major religion of the Empire was Zoroastrianism, but there were a significant number of Christians within its borders. Some areas of what was Assyria were almost completely Christian.
Interestingly enough the Muslim conquest of these areas was assisted by many of the indigenous Jewish and Christian communities. They did so in order to be free of what they saw as foreign governance. In addition it allowed them greater access to trade within the growing Islamic sphere of influence. The place of Christians within the growing Empire can also be seen in that when the Islamic governor of Syria created a navy it was manned by Coptic and Jacobite Christian sailors. This fleet, with Muslim soldiers, defeated the Byzantine fleet in 655, which opened the Mediterranean to Islamic trade.
The Christians were also willing to assist in the Islamic conquest because of two additional factors. First, initially Muslim troops never occupied cities. They stayed in their own camps outside of major urban areas in order to insure that their troops were not tempted by the wealth and decadence of the cities. Second, there were no forced conversions. In fact there was resistance to conversion by the Arab Muslims themselves. They saw conversion as diluting their power and prestige. Thus for a considerable period of time Christian, Jewish and in some places, Zoroastrian communities maintained their own religious identities. Over time however this changed with the percentage of Muslims growing from 10% in the late 600s to closer to 100% by the turn of the first Millennium. The Empire ultimately covered an area from Spain to India, making it one of the largest Empires the world had known.
After the fall of Christian Constantinople in 1453, Christianity was never again a significant religious tradition in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
A Church Divide
Key Concepts: As the church grew it was not immune to struggles over power and control. In the West the church in Rome claimed primacy while the East claimed that the church at Constantinople was Rome’s equal. Ultimately these differences, along with others would split the church in two.
The Story: As the church grew it struggled with issues of power and control. These issues included who elected/appointed church leaders, who made theological decisions (the nature of Christ and the Trinity for example), who resolved conflicts between churches and which churches if any were more important than others. As we will see, each of these issues will play a part in the lead-up to the great division of the church between West and East.
As a brief introduction, we should understand that over a period of several hundred years, power within the church moved from the people who elected elders, priests and bishops into the hands of bishops who oversaw larger and larger numbers of congregations. This process of centralized control continued as five churches (along with their bishops) gained exceptional power and influence because of their wealth and location. These were Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Constantinople and Rome. The result was that the power of local bishops moved into the hands of these “super” bishops. In some ways then it was inevitable that at least one or more of these “super” bishops would make the claim to ultimate authority.
The first effort toward this end occurred in the 2nd Century when Victor, who was bishop of Rome, attempted on his own to settle an ecclesial matter dealing with the calculation of when Easter was celebrated. When some church leaders disagreed with him he tried to excommunicate them. He did so, he claimed, because as Bishop of Rome he was the successor of Peter and thus had the authority. Ultimately however the issue was settled by a larger gathering (council) of bishops. Over the course of the next several hundred years the Bishops of Rome (or Popes) claimed that they were the only “apostolic see” (meaning only they had the authority of the Apostles), that their decisions were more important than those of Councils, that they should settle all major judicial cases and ultimately in the mid-800s that the power of the Papacy extended over every other church.
In the East, the church at Constantinople began to regard itself as only slightly below Rome in terms of power. This was made possible when Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to his new city on the Bosporus. Thus with a transfer of political power came a transfer of religious power. And just as Rome claimed authority over all churches, Constantinople claimed authority over all churches except Rome. True parity between the two churches became a reality when at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, a still united church claimed that there was equality between the bishops of Rome and Constantinople.
Ultimately the claims by each side made it virtually impossible for the church to hold together. In the West Pope Leo IX (1002-1054) not only claimed authority over all of the Eastern Church but changed the Nicene Creed which had been adopted in 325, which was a violation of a later Council. The result was a mutual excommunication. This meant that neither side would recognize the Councils or the authority of the other. Though these actions were not considered important in the moment they ended up splitting the church in two; a division which still exists today.
Church and State Struggle
Key Concepts: Following the legalization of the church by Constantine, the relationship between the church and the state had always been in flux. In the East the two worked smoothly together, while in the west the two contested for power for almost a thousand years.
The Story: In a very short period of time the Christian Church went from being outlawed to legal (313) to the official religion of the Roman Empire (380). During this period of transition the church began to be endowed with buildings, land and wealth. Along with these gifts it was also slowly accumulating power. It accumulated power because there was no separation between church and state. The Emperor was both head of the state and of the church, thus the power of the state was shared by the church.
This relationship, while surviving in the East slowly changed in the west. It changed because as the Roman Empire in the west collapsed, the church survived. And because it was the sole institution that survived the fall, it became in many ways the de-facto government, protecting the people and negotiating with invading armies. This led the church to see itself as a freestanding entity, unassociated with any particular political structure. The theological basis for this belief was provided by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in his book The City of God. Augustine argued that only the church can steer the world toward its appropriate end which is the heavenly city of New Jerusalem, because all secular power is of the Devil. Thus the church needs to exercise its power to guide and direct all civil authority.
Thus the church in the west began to see itself as the primary locus of power extending even to the authority to approve or disapprove secular political leadership. One great example of this was Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne as the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (December 25, 800 CE) even though there was still an Emperor in Constantinople. By 829 the Papacy declared that the king was subject to the church and that the power of the priest was greater than any secular authority.
This position was solidified by Pope Gregory VII (1073-85) in his dispute with Emperor Henry IV. Gregory excommunicated Henry three times in order to maintain Papal authority. In response Henry appointed a rival pope, Clement III. Even so Henry was finally unable to curb the growing power of the Papacy. The height of this power did not come until the reign of Innocent III (1198-1216) who arranged royal marriages, declared who would be Holy Roman Emperor, and forced one English king to pay tribute to the Papacy, as if the king’s lands belonged to the Pope.
The power of the Papacy began to decline when Pope Boniface VIII was captured by and then died in the custody of Philip the Fair of France (1303). Philip and many other rulers were tired of the arrogance and power of the Papacy. Their resistance to Rome corresponded with a rise in nationalism, opposition to the crusades and the Inquisition. This led to the “Babylonian Captivity” (1305-1377) when the popes were prisoners of the French and French national interests. In 1377 Pope Gregory IX returned to Rome but on his death two years later Bishops elected two Popes (one in Rome and the other in France). When the church tried to settle the matter in 1409 they ended up with three Popes. Though the church would ultimately return to a single pontiff, its ability to control the political situation in the west would never be the same.
The Rise of Monasticis
Key Concepts: Monasticism, or the living of Christians in religious communities, is one of the oldest traditions within the church. While originally designed for individual spiritual enlightenment they eventually became places of learning, compassion and social significance.
The Story: The precedent for the monastic life can be found in the New Testament, in the life of John the Baptist and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. The “wilderness” was seen in these stories as a place of spiritual testing, purification and growth. In addition the Old Testament contains the stories of God’s people wandering in the wilderness (the Exodus) and of prophets such as Elijah who encountered God there. Thus, for those who chose the monastic life, they saw themselves not as creating something new, but as following in a great Biblical tradition.
The monastic movement began with individuals who chose the life of the hermit. These were men and women who committed themselves to ascetic lifestyles. Though they lived in close proximity to larger communities, they maintained a life apart. This tradition slowly transitioned into the more familiar hermit like life in which individuals lived completely apart from civilization. The earliest known hermit of this kind was Paul the Hermit. In the face of Roman persecution (c. 250 CE) he fled to the desert and lived in a cave close to a spring and palm trees, which provided his food. The transition toward monastic communities began with Anthony of Egypt (252-356) who gathered followers in the desert, even though they still lived apart.
The first monastery (a community of monks who live together) was founded in Egypt in 346. This community was one in which monks lived in individual rooms (cells) but shared common meals and worship. Over time the monasteries developed special daily spiritual practices, divisions of internal labor and specific industries by which they provided for their members. Virtually every kind of industry was covered by the monastics, including shipping. What this meant was that many monastics moved away from being isolated from the world around them and simply became men or women living in a Christian community, guided by rules.
The importance of the monasteries cannot be overstated. As the western Roman Empire collapsed the monasteries became some of the few places where education was not only treasured but passed on to others. Within their walls the children of the poor and wealthy alike could learn alongside men or women seeking a religious vocation. The monks learned and taught everything from Greek and Latin, to mathematics, grammar, natural science and the Scriptures. By the turn of the 8th century Irish monastic schools were attracting students from throughout Europe. Some of these schools eventually evolved into universities. Additional areas of monastic achievement included advances in medicine (they had infirmaries for treating the monks) and agriculture (including wine and beer making).
One final note about the monasteries is that they also served social purposes. Dethroned monarchs would live in them rather than being executed or imprisoned. Second sons would be sent there in order that they not attempt to steal the inheritance of the first born son. Others were created in order to care for lepers and prostitutes. They were also used as safe havens for wealthy families to send their daughters to be educated prior to their arranged marriages.
Key Concepts: The crusades (which is actually a relatively new name (first used in 1757) for the journeys undertaken in the Middle Ages) were a series of military pilgrimages intended to insure free access to and or wrest control of the Holy Land from the Muslims.
The Story: Both the Christian world and the Islamic world were undergoing great change in the period leading up to the crusades (1096 – 1487). The Christian world in the East (Byzantium) was slowly collapsing under the ongoing expansion of Islam. By 636 Byzantium had lost almost all of its territory to early Islamic dynasties. Yet, those dynasties (Abbasid and Fatimid) were open to not only trade with Christians, but pilgrimages by Christians to Holy sites. All of this changed when Great Seljuk Empire (1016-1141) took control of an area that includes modern day Turkey to Afghanistan. The Seljuks ended all friendly contacts with Christians. Europe on the other hand was a growing industrial and agricultural powerhouse. Thus two great growing powers, European Christianity and Middle Eastern Islam were bound to contest for not only the Holy Land but for control of the Western world.
The First Crusade (1096-1099) was launched at the behest of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I by Pope Urban II. The stated goal was securing access to Holy sites. In order to encourage people to go, the Pope promised forgiveness of sins to all who undertook the trek. The crusader armies and followers may have totaled as many as 100,000 people. Along the way the armies slaughtered thousands of Jews in the Rhineland, then thousands more Jews and Muslims in Antioch and Jerusalem.
The Second Crusade (1145-1149) was launched by Pope Eugene III as a holy war against Islam. The precipitating event was the loss of the County of Edessa (the first Crusader state in the Holy Land) to Islamic forces. The crusade was ill-fated from the beginning because it was opposed not only by the Muslims but by the Byzantines. The only success occurred not in the Holy Land but in Portugal where crusaders expelled the Moors from Lisbon.
The Third Crusade (1189-1192), often called the King’s Crusade, was intended to recapture Jerusalem which had fallen to the Muslims in 1187. Knights and soldiers from England (Richard the Lion Hearted among them), France and Germany all participated. While the crusaders managed to recapture several key cities they were unable to retake Jerusalem. In the end Richard was able to negotiate the Treaty of Jaffa allowing unarmed Christian and Muslim pilgrims access to all holy sites.
The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was intended to retake Jerusalem by way of Egypt. Due to a series of events the crusading armies ended up outside of Constantinople, expecting payment from the Byzantine emperor and awaiting Venetian transport. When the payments did not arrive the crusaders and Venetians sacked Constantinople, killing thousands of Christians in the process. This event would ultimately lead to the end of the Byzantine Empire.
Continuing Crusades (1208 – 1487) focused not only on the Holy Land but on the subjugation of pagans and non-Roman Christians along with the defense of Europe from the continuing encroachment of Islamic armies. Crusaders went to Tunis, Spain, Bohemia, Hungary, southern France, northern Italy, Sicily, Albania and once again against Constantinople. The final attempt to regain the Holy Land failed in 1270 and the last Latins left the region in 1291.
The Medieval Churc
Key Concepts: The medieval period covers almost 1,000 years from the 5th to the 15th Centuries. During this time the church focused on searching for the sacred, serving God and seeking power.
The Story: The first of the great themes was searching for the sacred. As the church expanded across Europe, the people who were converted were coming out of pagan environments in which the sacred, the presence of the gods, was all around them. There were no scientific laws and so the daily reality of illness, disease, flood and famine meant people needed spiritual explanations and protection. The church provided these. Faithfulness to saints and sacraments offered an opportunity to find better harvests and safe journeys. Pilgrimages to centers of faith such as Jerusalem, Rome or Santiago de Compostela (shrine of St. James the Great, a 9th century destination) offered pilgrims an opportunity for spiritual purification and for an encounter with the sacred in the form of relics (pieces of the true cross or the bones of saints). For those who could not travel as far, the sacraments offered them an encounter with the sacred. In baptism original sin was washed away. In communion they actually partook of the very body of Christ. In a world in which life was often brief and brutal, encounters with the sacred offered meaning and hope.
The second great theme was serving God. This was accomplished in two very distinct ways. The first was in the use of art and architecture. Both of these were focused on drawing people into an encounter with God. Art focused on helping people (most of whom were illiterate) know the great Biblical stories or about the lives of the saints. There was no glorification of nature or humanity, only God. Architecture was focused not on the secular (government offices or places of business) but on the church. Churches and cathedrals were designed to increase one’s sense of the presence of God; and the separation of the sacred from the profane. The altar was placed in such a way that it was fenced off from the people, and only the priest could enter the holy of holies. Then at the altar the priest would turn ordinary elements into the body and blood of Christ. In the great cathedrals the focus on God was even more obvious. The spires towered over the local communities, literally pointing to God. The interior spaces were filled with images and statues of the saints, reminding people of how they were to live. The second distinct way in which God was served was through poverty. Thousands of men and women chose to live in poverty in monastic communities in order to live in imitation of Christ, following after Saints such as Francis and Anthony.
The third great theme was seeking power. Regardless of its spiritual roots and role, the church was a very human institution. In order to increase and maintain its power it used access to the sacred as a weapon. Rulers who refused to bow to the power of the church would have their entire lands cut off from the sacraments and thus from salvation. The greatest battle of this kind was called the Investiture Controversy. This was a struggle over who could name (invest) bishops. This mattered because bishops controlled land and great wealth. For generations rulers named bishops and the church consecrated them. But in 1075 Pope Gregory VII declared that only the church could invest bishops and when the Emperor refused to agree, Gregory excommunicated him thus forcing him to relent. In the end though a compromise was reached (Concordat of Worms, 1122) in which the church vested the bishops (thus keeping their wealth) who then swore loyalty to the ruler.