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Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
1st - 3rd century
4th century
5th century
6th - 10th century
11th-13th century
     Pilgrims and relics
     Crusaders and heretics
     Bogomils and Cathars
     Albigensian crusade
     Thomas Aquinas

14th - 15th century
16th century
17th - 18th century
To be completed

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Pilgrims and relics: 7th - 14th century

Pilgrims are the tourists of the Christian Middle Ages. Like tourism in modern times, pilgrimage is an important strand in the medieval economy. It needs careful nurturing. Even Rome, the centre of western Christianity, benefits from special offers to attract the tourists - such as the plenary indulgences available, from 1300, to Roman pilgrims in a jubilee year.

Lesser cities and towns need a compelling attraction to bring the pilgrims, and no draw can compete with that of an exceptional relic. Long a feature of other religions, such as Buddhism, holy relics become an obsession in medieval Christianity.


The most desirable relics are those connected with Jesus himself. The True Cross is so valuable as to provoke warfare between the Byzantine empire and the Persians. The exquisite Sainte Chapelle is built in Paris specifically to house the Crown of Thorns.

Physical remains of Christ incarnate would be irresistible, but the doctrine of the Resurrection makes any such fragment a theological impossibility. There is only one exception - the relic of the Circumcision.


The foreskin of Jesus, cut from his body during his first days on earth, is so desirable that as many as fifteen versions of it are on show to pilgrims in different medieval churches. The best-known of them is given to Charlemagne as an engagement present by the Byzantine empress Irene.

Another famous example of the Holy Foreskin can be seen by medieval pilgrims at one of the great French pilgrimage centres, Chartres - where the relics also include the Holy Tunic supposedly worn by the Virgin Mary when giving birth to Jesus.


Such relics of the Holy Family are of necessity rare. The objects more often on display are sometimes highly imaginative (pilgrims to Canterbury can see some of the clay left over after God fashioned Adam). But the normal fare is bones of the saints.

Even these can transform a town's economy. Santiago de Compostela thrives because of the bones of St James. The stature of Venice increases when it acquires the bones of St Mark (liberated, according to the story, in dramatic fashion from Alexandria). The incident of St Hugh of Lincoln and Mary Magdalene's arm indicates the desperate measures sometimes undertaken to secure a valuable relic.


The pilgrims tramping round Europe have a good time in a good cause (as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales vividly suggests). They pray to the saints whose relics they visit, and the saints - they hope - put in a word for them above. The particular appeal of the Virgin Mary, in addition to her feminine and maternal qualities, is that she has special influence within the family circle. The indulgences available at each shrine provide an added inducement to set out on pilgrimage.

Medieval christendom is a society on the move, and one of increasing affluence. Ordinary men and women on pilgrimage, like knights on crusade, indicate a community of restless energy.


Crusaders and heretics: 12th - 13th century

In the history of western Christianity the 12th and 13th centuries are associated most powerfully with the crusades - on one level a prolonged holy war against the Muslim infidel, on another a campaign of acquisition by a land-hungry feudal society.

But while the rival religion of Islam draws the avenging crusaders far away into Asia, a more subtly deviant creed flourishes within Europe and within the Christian fold. It surfaces in the Greek Orthodox church among the Bogomils. The equivalent heresy in western Christianity is that of the Cathars.


Bogomils and Cathars: 10th - 13th century

Both Bogomils and Cathars follow a long-established line of belief based on the concept of dualism, or a struggle between two irreconcilably opposed elements. Mani, preaching in the 3rd century AD, can be seen as one of their predecessors. His opposite forces are darkness and light. Theirs are the material and the spiritual.

Bogomil, a Bulgarian priest in the 10th century AD, teaches that all material things are the work of the devil. The incarnation of Christ is therefore a contradiction in terms. The eating and drinking of the sacraments are rituals of corruption.


Such beliefs involve much self-denial (the eating of meat, the drinking of wine, the enjoyment of sex are all a surrender to the devil), but self-denial is often inspirational. The followers of Bogomil become so numerous in the Byzantine empire that their rejection of the state's cult is perceived as a serious threat. In about 1100 their leader, Basil, is burnt at the stake in Constantinople. Many of his followers are imprisoned.

Such measures fail to stamp out the heresy. It spreads westwards during the 12th century and gives new energy to a similar sect, already in existence, in northern Italy and southern France. These western heretics become known as Cathars (from the Greek katharoi, 'pure').


By the second half of the 12th century both Bogomils and Cathars have church hierarchies of their own. Bishops are appointed, councils are held. At the end of the century there are eleven Cathar bishoprics in France and northern Italy. There are also Cathar versions of the Bible in vernacular languages, with the text edited to fit the doctrine. Jesus in these gospels is not a man but an angel, whose sufferings are an illusion.

The heresy is strongest in southern France, particularly in Toulouse. (Albi is only involved to a lesser extent, yet the Albigenses becomes an alternative name for the Cathars). Inevitably the papacy takes steps against such a sect.


Early in the 13th century Innocent III sends bishops to Toulouse to preach against the Cathar heresy. But the pronouncements of these grandees of the church do little to convince the heretics. They are much more readily swayed by the certainties of their own self-denying leaders.

In 1206 a different approach is proposed by Dominic de Guzman (better known now as St Dominic), a canon accompanying a Spanish bishop to Toulouse. Christian preachers, he argues, should learn from the Cathars. They must live an equivalently simple life if ordinary people are to listen to their message. It is the beginning of the Dominican system of evangelical preaching.


Dominic's approach achieves early successes. In 1207 he establishes a convent at Prouille, in which the nuns are converts from the Cathar heresy.

This convent becomes the headquarters of his mission until an act of violence puts preaching in second place. In January 1208 the pope's legate to Toulouse is assassinated.


The Albigensian crusade: 1208-1255

Toulouse is a centre of the Catharist heresy but its count, Raymond VI, appears to view the heretics with undue tolerance. The pope, Innocent III, sends a legate to remind the count of his duties. The legate, making little progress, excommunicates Raymond in 1207 and is murdered - it is said by the count's men - in 1208.

Innocent preaches a crusade against the heretics. The nobles of France rally with enthusiasm to the cause. Over the following decades Cathars are treated with great brutality wherever they are captured. But as with the crusades to the east, territorial greed is mixed inextricably with the passion of outraged orthodoxy.


The first leader of the crusading army is Simon de Montfort. His defeat of Raymond at Muret in 1213 is often described as the end of the crusade, but it merely transforms this particular struggle into a baronial war. In 1215 a papal council grants Simon the extensive territories previously belonging to Raymond. Raymond recovers Toulouse in 1217. Simon dies in 1218 trying to win it back.

Meanwhile there are many surviving Cathars. And Louis, heir to the French throne (as Louis VIII), has his own good reasons for campaigning into territories held by others in the south of France.


Louis, together with Simon de Montfort's son, takes Marmande in 1219 and massacres the Catharists of the town. A few years later Toulouse, under a new count (Raymond VII, son of Raymond VI), seems once again a hotbed of heresy. A new pope, Honorius III, asks the French king to lead a crusade into southern France. Louis VIII besieges and captures Avignon in 1226. By 1229 Raymond of Toulouse agrees terms which after his own lifetime will transform much of southern France into a possession of the French crown.

Territorial purposes are thus satisfactorily achieved. But the battle against heresy rumbles on intermittently for another two decades, after the Cathars withdraw to the foothills of the Pyrenees.


Small communities of Cathars hold out in isolated castles. The last to fall is the stronghold of Qué ribus in 1255. But the effective end comes earlier, with a gruesome display at Montségur.

The Cathars of Montségur are besieged by a crusading army for ten months, from May 1243 to March 1244. When they finally capitulate, some 200 refuse to deny their heretical faith. They are herded within a wooden stockade below the castle walls and are burnt as a group. The sect, with its undeniably high ideals, fades from history. Its main legacy is the Inquisition.


Inquisition: 1233-1478

The survival of the Catharist heresy in parts of France, even after the brutality of the Albigensian crusade, persuades pope Gregory IX that specialists are required. In 1233 he writes to bishops in France saying that he is sending them some Dominican friars to help them in this necessary task of rooting out heretics.

Some of these first inquisitors have the special expertise of poachers turned gamekeeper. Robert le Bougre, the most severe of those sent to France in 1233, was drawn into the sect as a young man for love of a Cathar girl. St Peter Martyr, appointed inquisitor for northern Italy by Gregory IX (and assassinated by a Cathar in 1252), was born into a Catharist family.


The work of the Inquisition is accompanied from the start by alarming ceremonies. An inquisitor, arriving in a place where heresy is suspected, commands the local people to divulge what they know of their neighbours. The names of witnesses are concealed, so there is a strong temptation to settle scores. From 1252, by a bull of Innocent IV, suspects may be tortured to obtain confessions.

The inquisitor's announcement of the penalties imposed provides an exciting public spectacle, with the condemned on parade to hear their fate.


The inquisitor may prescribe penalties such as fasting, pilgrimage, the wearing of a yellow cross, the confiscation of property, flogging, or imprisonment for any period, including even life. But he cannot impose a death sentence, on the grounds that the church does not shed blood.

Instead, those condemned to death are handed over to the secular authorities - who know their Christian duty and are happy to comply. Death by burning at the stake, long the traditional punishment for heresy, has the added attraction of maintaining - in a very literal sense - the fiction that no blood is being shed.


The medieval Inquisition is mainly used against the Cathars in France, though the burning of both John Huss and Joan of Arc follow investigations by inquisitors. The inquisitorial procedure becomes firmly established in the two centuries from Gregory IX's creation of the Inquisition in the 13th century to the deaths of Huss and Joan of Arc in the 15th.

It is therefore a simple matter for pope Sixtus IV in 1478 to authorize Ferdinand and Isabella to appoint inquisitors who will ensure that Spanish Jews are genuinely converting to Christianity. And it remains the tradition that Dominicans, among them Torquemada, will undertake the task. The Spanish Inquisition is an extension of what has gone before.


Scholasticism: 12th - 14th century

The philosophical tradition of Europe in the late Middle Ages is known as scholasticism - a term reflecting its close link with the newly founded universities (any university lecturer has the title scholasticus).

The first universities are created at a time when Christianity is central to all aspects of life in a way not true before or since. In these centuries Christian fervour provides the energy and funds to build the great Gothic cathedrals; crusaders fight their way east on an ostensibly Christian mission; pilgrims criss-cross Europe visiting Christian relics; Christian monasteries are at the forefront of economic activity. Scholasticism, in keeping with its time, is Christian philosophy.


The outstanding figure in the schools in the early 12th century is Abelard, who teaches logic and theology at Notre Dame in Paris from about 1115. His lasting fame in popular history derives from his tragic love affair with Héloïse, which brings his career in Paris to an abrupt end in about 1118 (see Abelard and Heloise). But in his subsequent career of some twenty-five years as a monk he continues to express philosophical views which outrage many of his most distinguished contemporaries (among them, in particular, St Bernard).

The controversial element in Abelard is his argument that God gave glimpses of the truth to pre-Christian philosophers, and that their work should therefore be studied with equal attention.


Aristotle is the ancient philosopher most available to Abelard, but of his works only those dealing with logic and with philosophical method (Categories and On Interpretation) have as yet reached the west. Abelard's main contribution is therefore the application of Aristotelian dialectic to Christian theology.

In the years after Abelard's death two developments of great importance affect scholasticism. The complete works of Aristotle reach western Europe, in many cases through the translators of Toledo. And the mendicant friars, Dominicans and Franciscans, provide a channel through which members of a Christian order can devote themselves to university life.


Thomas Aquinas: 13th century

Of the many distinguished friars at the forefront of scholastic thought during the 13th century, the Dominican Thomas Aquinas is the most influential. He writes when Christian philosophy is profoundly challenged by the great edifice of Aristotelian thought. Aristotle appears to provide answers to important questions without the need for Christian sources.

Much of scholasticism in its most creative period is concerned with reconciling the insights of Aristotle with the revealed truths of Christianity. There is also a perceived need to weed out impurities introduced to the Aristotelian canon in its passage through Muslim hands, particularly those of Averroës.


Aquinas achieves a reconciliation between his Aristotelian and Christian sources which his contemporaries find so convincing that Aristotle acquires something of a stranglehold on late medieval thought.

In two major works Aquinas sets out the framework of the new orthodoxy. His Summa contra gentiles is intended to explain the Christian faith to Muslims. The Summa theologica is a textbook for Christian students in the universities.


In the Summa theologica Aquinas uses a teaching method known as sic et non ('yes and no') which is central to scholasticism. The lecturer (scholasticus) begins a session with a lectio in which he explains the question for discussion. The rest of the lesson is the disputatio in which arguments on either side, for and against, are expressed - leading if possible to a conclusion, as in the logical form of the syllogism.

Scholasticism retains its appeal until the 16th century, when several themes undermine it - a revival of interest in Plato, a new approach to science which rejects Aristotle's ancient conclusions, and the natural tendency of the Reformation to distrust any philosophy endorsed by Rome.


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