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History of the Medieval Church


Philip Schaff

The Middle Ages, Limits and General Character

The Middle Age, as the term implies, is the period which intervenes between ancient and modern times, and connects them, by continuing the one, and preparing for the other. It forms the transition from the Graeco-Roman civilization to the Romano-Germanic, civilization, which gradually arose out of the intervening chaos of barbarism. The connecting link is Christianity, which saved the best elements of the old, and directed and moulded the new order of things.

Politically, the middle age dates from the great migration of nations and the downfall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century; but for ecclesiastical history it begins with Gregory the Great, the last of the fathers and the first of the popes, at the close of the sixth century. Its termination, both for secular and ecclesiastical history, is the Reformation of the sixteenth century (1517), which introduces the modern age of the Christian era. Some date modern history from the invention of the art of printing, or from the discovery of America, which preceded the Reformation; but these events were only preparatory to a great reform movement and extension of the Christian world.

The theatre of mediaeval Christianity is mainly Europe. In Western Asia and North Africa, the Cross was supplanted by the Crescent; and America, which opened a new field for the ever-expanding energies of history, was not discovered until the close of the fifteenth century.

Europe was peopled by a warlike emigration of heathen barbarians from Asia as America is peopled by a peaceful emigration from civilized and Christian Europe.

The great migration of nations marks a turning point in the history of religion and civilization. It was destructive in its first effects, and appeared like the doom of the judgment-day; but it proved the harbinger of a new creation, the chaos preceding the cosmos. The change was brought about gradually. The forces of the old Greek and Roman world continued to work for centuries alongside of the new elements. The barbarian irruption came not like a single torrent which passes by, but as the tide which advances and retires, returns and at last becomes master of the flooded soil. The savages of the north swept down the valley of the Danube to the borders of the Greek Empire, and southward over the Rhine and the Vosges into Gaul, across the Alps into Italy, and across the Pyrenees into Spain. They were not a single people, but many independent tribes; not an organized army of a conqueror, but irregular hordes of wild warriors ruled by intrepid kings; not directed by the ambition of one controlling genius, like Alexander or Caesar, but prompted by the irresistible impulse of an historical instinct, and unconsciously bearing in their rear the future destinies of Europe and America. They brought with them fire and sword, destruction and desolation, but also life and vigor, respect for woman, sense of honor, love of liberty—noble instincts, which, being purified and developed by Christianity, became the governing principles of a higher civilization than that of Greece and Rome. The Christian monk Salvian, who lived in the midst of the barbarian flood, in the middle of the fifth century, draws a most gloomy and appalling picture of the vices of the orthodox Romans of his time, and does not hesitate to give preference to the heretical (Arian) and heathen barbarians, "whose chastity purifies the deep stained with the Roman debauches." St. Augustin (d. 430), who took a more sober and comprehensive view, intimates, in his great work on the City of God, the possibility of the rise of a new and better civilization from the ruins of the old Roman empire; and his pupil, Orosius, clearly expresses this hopeful view. "Men assert," he says, "that the barbarians are enemies of the State. I reply that all the East thought the same of the great Alexander; the Romans also seemed no better than the enemies of all society to the nations afar off, whose repose they troubled. But the Greeks, you say, established empires; the Germans overthrow them. Well, the Macedonians began by subduing the nations which afterwards they civilized. The Germans are now upsetting all this world; but if, which Heaven avert, they, finish by continuing to be its masters, peradventure some day posterity will salute with the title of great princes those in whom we at this day can see nothing but enemies."

The Nations of Mediaeval Christianity. The Kelt, the Teuton, and the Slav.

The new national forces which now enter upon the arena of church-history may be divided into four groups:

1. The Romanic or Latin nations of Southern Europe, including the Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and French. They are the natural descendants and heirs of the old Roman nationality and Latin Christianity, yet mixed with the new Keltic and Germanic forces. Their languages are all derived from the Latin; they inherited Roman laws and customs, and adhered to the Roman See as the centre of their ecclesiastical organization; they carried Christianity to the advancing barbarians, and by their superior civilization gave laws to the conquerors. They still adhere, with their descendants in Central and South America, to the Roman Catholic Church.

2. The Keltic race, embracing the Gauls, old Britons, the Picts and Scots, the Welsh and Irish with their numerous emigrants in all the large cities of Great Britain and the United States, appear in history several hundred years before Christ, as the first light wave of the vast Aryan migration from the mysterious bowels of Asia, which swept to the borders of the extreme West.[1] The Gauls were conquered by Caesar, but afterwards commingled with the Teutonic Francs, who founded the French monarchy. The Britons were likewise subdued by the Romans, and afterwards driven to Wales and Cornwall by the Anglo-Saxons. The Scotch in the highlands (Gaels) remained Keltic, while in the lowlands they mixed with Saxons and Normans.

The mental characteristics of the Kelts remain unchanged for two thousand years: quick wit, fluent speech, vivacity, sprightliness, impressibility, personal bravery and daring, loyalty to the chief or the clan, but also levity, fickleness, quarrelsomeness and incapacity for self-government. "They shook all empires, but founded none." The elder Cato says of them: "To two things are the Kelts most attent: to fighting (ars militaris), and to adroitness of speech (argute loqui)." Caesar censures their love of levity and change. The apostle Paul complains of the same weakness. Thierry, their historian, well describes them thus: "Their prominent attributes are personal valor, in which they excel all nations; a frank, impetuous spirit open to every impression; great intelligence, but joined with extreme mobility, deficient perseverance, restlessness under discipline and order, boastfulness and eternal discord, resulting from boundless vanity." Mommsen quotes this passage, and adds that the Kelts make good soldiers, but bad citizens; that the only order to which they submit is the military, because the severe general discipline relieves them of the heavy burden of individual self-control. [2]

Keltic Christianity was at first independent of Rome, and even antagonistic to it in certain subordinate rites; but after the Saxon and Norman conquests, it was brought into conformity, and since the Reformation, the Irish have been more attached to the Roman Church than even the Latin races. The French formerly inclined likewise to a liberal Catholicism (called Gallicanism); but they sacrificed the Gallican liberties to the Ultramontanism of the Vatican Council. The Welsh and Scotch, on the contrary, with the exception of a portion of the Highlanders in the North of Scotland, embraced the Protestant Reformation in its Calvinistic rigor, and are among its sternest and most vigorous advocates. The course of the Keltic nations had been anticipated by the Galatians, who first embraced with great readiness and heartiness the independent gospel of St. Paul, but were soon turned away to a Judaizing legalism by false teachers, and then brought back again by Paul to the right path.

3. The Germanic [3] or Teutonic [4] nations followed the Keltic migration in successive westward and southward waves, before and after Christ, and spread over Germany, Switzerland, Holland, Scandinavia, the Baltic provinces of Russia, and, since the Anglo-Saxon invasion, also over England and Scotland and the northern (non-Keltic) part of Ireland. In modern times their descendants peacefully settled the British Provinces and the greater part of North America. The Germanic nations are the fresh, vigorous, promising and advancing races of the middle age and modern times. Their Christianization began in the fourth century, and went on in wholesale style till it was completed in the tenth. The Germans, under their leader Odoacer in 476, deposed Romulus Augustulus—the shadow of old Romulus and Augustus—and overthrew the West Roman Empire, thus fulfilling the old augury of the twelve birds of fate, that Rome was to grow six centuries and to decline six centuries. Wherever they went, they brought destruction to decaying institutions. But with few exceptions, they readily embraced the religion of the conquered Latin provinces, and with childlike docility submitted to its educational power. They were predestinated for Christianity, and Christianity for them. It curbed their warlike passions, regulated their wild force, and developed their nobler instincts, their devotion and fidelity, their respect for woman, their reverence for all family-relations, their love of personal liberty and independence. The Latin church was to them only a school of discipline to prepare them for an age of Christian manhood and independence, which dawned in the sixteenth century. The Protestant Reformation was the emancipation of the Germanic races from the pupilage of mediaeval and legalistic Catholicism.

Tacitus, the great heathen historian, no doubt idealized the barbarous Germans in contrast with the degenerate Romans of his day (as Montaigne and Rousse