This is a continuation of In the Beginning, There Were Catacombs, which has been split into three posts now due to length.
Christianity as a lifestyle of willful self-deprivation of the pleasures of the flesh, be it debauchery, fashionistaness, gluttony, vanity, etc., or having to live respecting others is not an easy sell. Putting one’s own desires aside to accept the will of God in pagan Europe was just not done prior to Christianity. Neither was remaining in an unhappy marriage just because vows taken before God are considered sacred. Pagan law had different arrangements, which actually somewhat resembled what western laws have evolved to be concerning marriage. There was no such thing as illegitimacy, either, and no shame in being a natural born child sent to be raised by one’s father. Life was only lived for what was seen on earth. Christianity’s rewards are not earthly, but come after death. For people who don’t think abstractly or have a hard time believing what they cannot see, this is more than a little odd. Frankly, the people were perfectly happy being pagans.
This is the mentality the evangelizers of the 400 years or so, from the 5th century to the 8th, when Christianity rose to prominence in Europe, faced. (Not so different from our own time, actually, since that is where society has been directed by popular culture.)
In the early part of the Middle Ages, without the influence of leadership, the people, comfortable and peasant alike, may not have so readily converted. As it was, with kings converting thanks to St. Patrick’s teaching, Ireland took about a hundred years to become devout and develop the flourishing monastic life that preserved the writings of Classical Rome while the Visigoths sacked it. England-Scotland-Wales was converted in two waves, the first being in the 6th century with St. Augustine of Canterbury being sent to what had been Roman territory. The wilds took a lot longer. Frankish King Clovis, converted by his wife and St. Remi, led the way in what we now know as France, taking Christianity another step away from the heresy of Arianism that had taken hold in the Germanic tribes. Remember, this was just western Europe. Great inroads had not happened in the east and no one had made it to Scandinavia, Russia or the Baltics as yet. (And in Russia, a Czar chose Eastern Orthodoxism over Catholicism and Islam. Rejecting Islam was a simple matter of no vodka allowed.)
It was not until Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in 800 A.D., by the pope at the time, that any consideration of Christianity being the norm of social discourse in western Europe could be taken truly seriously. And even then, the people celebrated Christianity and paganism side by side.
That didn’t stop unwelcome visitors. From the north, the Vikings hadn’t been converted and they regularly invaded western Europe targeting church buildings more or less to loot church goods (Chalices, Patens, Monstrances, etc.) because they are made of non-porous, precious metals. In the south, Islam pretty much surrounded the Mediterranean Sea by that time, and in fact had already started to destroy Christian churches and Holy Sites in what we now call Spain, Italy (including attacking Rome in the 9th century), and northern Africa. Political discord was a problem as well (when is it not?) as the children and grandchildren of conquerors fought amongst themselves for land, power and prestige. By the time Europe had really had it with Islam and pushed back (that would be the Crusades starting in the 11th century) was when the Church really was at the height of Her influence, despite kings installing their own choices for bishops and the people wanting the eternal salvation that Christianity taught, but being really reluctant to give up on earthly rewards. (That never seems to change, either.)
And so, at the beginning of the latter half of the Middle Ages, the upper crust (not necessarily the popes, though), as it were, were outwardly Christian, but just as rotten on the inside as those who were purged from the priesthood in the last 10 years of our lives for unspeakable crimes against those who trusted them. Homosexuality may not have enjoyed the attention it now has, but that’s not the only grave sin out there, and like every other time period in history, the wealthy and powerful of the latter 12th century did what they darn well pleased.
From this time, the early 13th century, is when the Church’s power and influence as a central source began to wane, despite it actually being a rebuilding period. During this very century was when all four orders of friars were founded – Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians, and their convent counterparts – as priests who actually took a vow of poverty and travelled preaching the Gospel rather than being under the central control of a diocese. St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscans, wrote poetry of peace and the power of nature as a force of God’s love. St. Dominic Savio not only wrote down the form of the Rosary, a symbolic psalter that was an organic peasant practice, but founded the Order of Preachers (Dominicans) that produced two of the most influential minds of recorded history, physical scientist St. Albert the Great and theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, who between them, arguably, set off the chain of thought changes that would culminate a couple hundred years later in the splintering of the western church and the eventual rise of science to challenge the primacy of God as the foundation of the universe. (Other people get credit for the details in later centuries, but that’s where the thought schools started, intentional or not. And with those two it was undoubtably unintentional. It all took time to develop.)
The 13th was a century of rebuilding, not unlike the 16th would be after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (really, the end of the Middle Ages no matter what the history books say). There was more moral rot developing at the top of the food chain and a couple hundred years of quiet, underground festering chafing against the Rome/Avegnon/Papal court as there was quite a bit of back and forth with the popes and anti-popes before the center of the Church permanently returned to Rome from France. Nationalism, resentment at the amount of money spent to secure Christian lands, and a certain amount of xenophobia became a problem (Okay, a lot of xenophobia, and the origins of not trusting Spaniards even though it was the Italians who tended to make up stories and cause rifts, and the French who were behind the papal nomadism).
The 15th century is actually when the beginnings of the “Bible only” and simplistic idealism started to surface out of the Franciscans. The first mentions come from England with John Wycliff around 1420, and a branch of the movement actually caused mass chaos in Bohemia shortly thereafter which would be replicated on a larger scale in the 16th century. It was also a main theme of one of the less successful pre-Borgia popes. It was a lifestyle that never really caught on in Catholicism until some of the Vatican II generation adopted a form of it, but before 1517 never really separated the practitioners from the Church. It was a sentiment that was growing and it was exploited.
To top it off, the Renaissance Popes, beginning in about the 1440s, led not so holy lives before turning to the priesthood and were chosen for papal leadership many times due to business, political and military skills rather than piety and holiness. You know, so they could hold off the Turks (Islam), find peaceful solutions among the kings and princes of the day, and balance the books of the Vatican bank above the table. There was quite a bit of nepotism and La Vita Dolce during the Renaissance…and like all gossip, backbiting and bad news, nasty words spread twice as fast as any good any of the popes may have done in furthering knowledge, the arts, and holding back the Turks. The messaging sank in and the manipulated flock protested.
And then Christendom more or less fell.
Part 3 is still being proofed. More to come.
Tags: augustine of canterbury, avignon popes, Catholic Church, charlemagne, clovis, Crusades, england scotland wales, fall of constantinople, ireland, Islam, middle ages, pagan europe, pleasures of the flesh, religion, renaissance, st augustine of canterbury, st patrick, st remi, turks