“We firmly believe that God is master of the world and of its history. But the ways of His providence are often unknown to us. Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God ‘face to face’, will we fully know the ways by which – even through the dramas of evil and sin – God has guided His creation to that definitive Sabbath rest for which He created heaven and earth.” (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #314)
Despite the developments in learning and culture brought about by the Carolingian Renaissance, the 900s were a very dark time. Battles, raids and famines had devastating effects on government, agriculture, education and religion.
When the millennium dawned, there were hopeful signs of change. Thietmar of Merseburg wrote that “it seemed as if the world, shaking itself and casting off its old age, was putting on, here, there and everywhere, the pure white robe of churches.” The churches with their white gleaming stone visible for miles around were “symbol(s) of a great change, harbingers of a new and glorious age to come.”
By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, barbarian raids had mostly ceased except for Muslim attacks in the south. With peace came a revolution in agriculture that greatly changed European economic history.
The farming techniques that had began to develop in Charlemagne’s time saw further progression that improved agriculture. By the mid-eleventh century villages were flourishing. Towns became big cities. Cities built cathedrals, hospitals, universities. Government became efficient.
But life in the eleventh century was not all good. Half of the century saw many years of famine. The Church continued in its reform of freeing itself from secular control.
With the absence of invasions, learning and culture flourished. Learning, the arts, architecture, philosophy, science, visual arts, music, politics and spirituality all developed between 1000 and 1300.
The Catholic Faith inspired these developments. “In the High Middle Ages, Catholic doctrine and spirituality informed all of public and private life to a greater extent than ever before or since.”
The three major Western states were England, France and Germany. After the death of St. Edward the Confessor, William of Normandy (according to St. Edward the Confessor’s wishes) became ruler. Taking the name William I of England, he strengthened England’s feudal state and furthered Church reforms.
French rulers patiently increased their territorial rule. Under Louis IX, it became the most prosperous Western kingdom.
The Germans, on the other hand, couldn’t leave well enough alone. They had their own failed vision of the Holy Roman Empire. They kept trying to fight the Italians but every time they did, revolts broke at home. They made repeated attempts to take over the Church, a move which angered and motivated ecclesial reformers.
In medieval times, even with the success of the monasteries in adhering to a life of purity and following the Rule, there were still plenty of problems within the Church. The practice of buying and selling clerical offices – simony – was pervasive and bishops were often the worst offenders. Kings interfered in Church affairs, removing and appointing the pope of their choice.
Bishop Bruno of Toul, Pope St. Leo IX, was appointed to the Papal office in 1049 by the good King Henry III. Pope St. Leo insisted on using the ancient custom of being elected by the Roman clergy and people before he would consider himself pope. This move was the forerunner of our present system of elections by the College of Cardinals. His biggest accomplishment was making simony much less common. Unfortunately, his attempt to reconcile Rome and the Greek church was unsuccessful and the Greek Schism dates back to 1054.
The greatest Church reformer was Pope St. Gregory VII. His name is attributed to the reform movement: Gregorian Reform. For most of his pontificate his major struggle was with the German Henry IV and the problem of lay investiture – the appointment of bishops and other church officials by kings and nobles.
Henry IV was a self-indulgent, spoiled ruler whose mother “turned a blind eye to his moral faults, lack of self-discipline and finally, actual depravity of life.” Pope Gregory was problematic for him because he resisted Henry’s interference in Church affairs.
Their frequent confrontations resulted in Henry IV being excommunicated twice. After his second excommunication, Henry marched on Rome and installed his own pope, Clement III, in 1080. More fighting ensued beginning in 1081. By 1084, he succeeded in having his antipope crown him “emperor,” something which he couldn’t get Pope St. Gregory to do.
Pope St. Gregory died in exile in 1085 but he “had succeeded in liberating the Church from secular control and had largely destroyed the evils of simony and clerical impurity.”
By the thirteenth century, “the papacy was at the height of its independence, influence, and prestige, although the dreary conflict with the German kings persisted until late in that century.” Henry IV was excommunicated yet again, this time by Pope Victor III. He spent his life in turmoil and died in 1106, predeceased by his puppet pope, Clement III in 1100.
The period from 1000 to 1300 witnessed many marvelous developments in the papacy, the rise of European nations, cultural accomplishments, countless canonizations and material prosperity. But lurking in the background was the beginning of a new way of thinking that would bring many more changes.
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