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Early Middle Ages (475-1000)

Christianity, 650s-950s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism II

Christianity, 325-650s: Conversion, the Papacy, and Monasticism I

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As the quality of Frankish kingship declined from the 600s, certain trends negatively affected the quality of the Church in the region. Increasingly, Frankish kings and Major Domos appointed cronies and illiterate non- clerics to bishoprics and parish priestships. Illustrating the dilemma are Pepin II and Charles Martel, who brought the fourth phase of English-Irish missionary work into full swing. On the one hand they conquered non-Christian eastern areas such as Frisia, opening the way to missionary work and establishment of dioceses more closely linked to Rome. Of course, this was done partially out of a desire to more easily manage and administrate conquered areas. Thus, extension of the religion was linked to securing Frankish domination. This began with Pepin II's support of Wilfred Rippon in 678-680 in Frisia. Later, from the 690s Willibrord, another Saxon, returned to Frisian lands with Pepin II's support, making enough headway despite Radbod's opposition to establish an archbishopric in Utrecht. After Pepin's 714 death, Frisian attempts at breaking away slowed the missionary efforts, yet Willibrord continued, this time focusing on Thuringia until his own death in 739. By this time, Popes had come to see conversionary efforts under the English as a way to outflank the low-quality, recalcitrant Frankish clergy, and actively supported the campaign. At this time, Wynfrith from Wessex arrived as the successor to Willibrord. He had spent time in Frisia in 716, after which he had proceeded to Rome, and been renamed Boniface by Pope Gregory II. Sent north to assist in reviving the Frisian mission, he then moved south and east as Papal legate to Germans beyond the Rhine from 722. Carloman and Pepin III later supported him. Staying in the area, he was elevated to Archbishop of eight new episcopal dioceses in eastern Germany. From the late 730s he evangelized in Bavaria as the Pope's representative. Though near to Lombard areas and les inclined to Frankish influence, they accepted Boniface due to his roman affiliation. This meant that in addition to Eastern Francia, the Pope was now in charge of the ecclesiastical hierarchy in Bavaria as well. Efforts here were carried on by the Irish Bishop Virgil of Salzberg. Finally, from 741-747 Boniface held councils with Carolingian support to Christianize the populace, reform the area church, and monasticize it. His three major reform efforts were to 1) depose unfit clergy; 2) enjoin celibacy upon churchmen; and 3) mandate lower clergy obedience to bishops. Though killed in 754 by marauding Frisians, Boniface and his colleagues had done much to Christianize the area under Roman spiritual control, and bring it under tighter Frankish secular control.

On the other hand, Charles Martel and his predecessors confiscated Church lands and gave it to his favored counts, at the same time as appointing his own bishops. These in turn often tried to stymie ecclesiastic reform. Such trends degraded the quality of the Church, as well as its mission. It also meant the nature of further Christianization was questionable. This was especially true after the terrible decades of warfare and Lombard advance in Italy had wrecked the remnants of classical learning. Further, during the years of Merovingian- Carolingian transition in the 700s, the ability of Byzantium to provide any safety against Lombards disappeared. In these circumstances, the Pope had actually become a secular power in Italian areas abandoned by the Byzantines and not under direct Lombard control. He was a comparatively weak secular ruler, though, and looked to the rising new Frankish rulers for help, even while insisting on his spiritual-temporal prerogatives. Thus, the ever-closer Papal- Carolingian embrace between 750-800 was quite understandable.

Matters improved under Pepin III and Charlemagne, when both the Church and secular monarchs exhibited a confluence of interest in mutual support. Monasticism was of further importance to Christendom in its role as a missionary force. The first instance of this was in Britain, after which the new adherents became the most dynamic force in Christianizing the semi-Christian countryside of Gaul as well as the still pagan expanses of eastern Germany and beyond. As can be seen here, after resolving doctrinal controversies in the 4-500s, four major goals motivated Western Christendom during this period: a) establishing the primacy of Rome and the Pope both within the Church hierarchy and vis-a-vis secular rulers who would meddle in religious affairs; b) establishing Papal temporal authority in regions of Italy in such a way that foreshadowed aspirations to a Papal monarchy of the High Middle Ages; c) converting all of Europe, and d) expanding monasticism while under Papal control, and maintaining its spiritual vitality. Regarding the first three points, intimacy with the early Carolingians had both helped the Church and hindered papal autonomy. Regarding the last point, monasticism faced a dilemma of decreasing standards during the tenth century, and this realization evoked a thorough-going reform movement in the monastery's products of which would ascend to the Papal office by the end of the early medieval period.

Having made great advances by 800, the cause of Christianity was injured greatly by Carolingian decline, Viking and Magyar raids, as well as by feudal chaos. As well, it was inherently difficult to maintain moral excellence at all times in a world of material need and temptation. As regards the 'secular' or non-monastic church, the first half of the ninth century demonstrated a rally, yet by 900 and after, it had become inseparable from feudal dynamics. French bishop Hincmar in Reims had tried to temper the martial and moral abuses of post-Charlemagne kings, often rebuking their behavior for its effects on lay and clerical people alike. The Pope Nicholas I (858-867)--the only noteworthy Pope of the century--asserted Rome's primacy both versus Constantinople as well as regards secular rulers in the West. For him, only the Pope, as exemplary leader of Christendom, could and should judge the moral conduct of man, including kings. Fighting Lothair II of Lorraine, he insisted that the king repudiate his illegally acquired second wife and take back his first.

After these years, the Throne of St. Peter was occupied by morally corrupt power seekers. This was natural perhaps. Given political upheaval and petty Italian statelets, only a powerful local secular noble could protect the city and the pontificate. Thus, the papal office became a prize over which fought Rome's noble clans. Popes were drawn mostly from aristocratic leadership. The worst example was John XII (956-963), who became pope at age sixteen, and was deposed by German King Otto I based on accusations of terrible crimes. For the next century, popes either ascended to the position by German Imperial appointment when Germans dominated Italy, or through the uneasy consensus of the Roman urban nobility. The latter was more often the case, and their popes were actually poorer than the German candidates.

On the episcopal level, the Church also declined. The sheer destructiveness of Viking raids in Britain and France meant that churches and monasteries suffered greatly. In the process, discipline and learning receded, as clerics were obliged to become part of feudal relations for the sake of survival. Kings, as well as the more powerful feudal lords, began to appoint bishops, and protect churches. This entailed vassal-like responsibilities on the part of bishops and priests. Obliged to provide soldiers, often times the clergy would hire advocates, who, not people of the cloth, could engage in warfare. The latter were often awarded church lands as fiefs, and took over some of the cleric's judicial duties. Sometimes the advocate's power increased to the point that he could dominate the local church structure. Lay control over the church was often the result. Priests, who back-slid into clerical marriage, were often incorporated into the great feudal clans. They were not focused on the religion as much as on using church property to support their family and feudal lord. A similar process affected monasteries. Based on the St. Benedict's rule, monasteries were independent of each other. Thus, monastic discipline depended on individual abbots. When they too became agents of powerful lords, political as opposed to spiritual criteria came to dominate their selection. At times, secular feudal lords acted as monasteries' titular abbots. In these conditions, Clerical positions could be viewed as revenue-producing positions. This opened the way to simony, the auctioning of church posts to the highest, and most often lest qualified bidder. Thus, "the early feudal period saw a general collapse in standards of clerical discipline."

By the 900s, some in church service were appalled by practices such as clerical marriage, simony, and general subservience to secular feudal leaders. In Burgundy, earnest monastics were able to convince William the Pious of Aquitane to found the Cluny monastery around 910. It was endowed generously from the start with relatively few strings attached, so that it would not be dependent on secular rulers. Additional gifts of land or provisions would not be in return for feudal services, but would be recompensed by the monks' prayers. Furthermore, the monks received the right to elect their own abbot, putting the position beyond lay interference. As well, Cluny's founders tried to eliminate any potentially idle time by instituting heavy schedules of communal liturgical prayer services, in addition to fieldwork and manuscript reproduction. Cluniac monks attained a high level of sustainable piety and discipline throughout the tenth century and into the eleventh. What is more, Cluny-based monasteries proliferated throughout France and Western Europe. To maintain effective supervision and unity of praxis, the order only had one abbot, with other houses ruled by priors subordinate to him. By the time of the great abbot Odilo (994- 1048), the original Cluny compound had 300 monks, in addition to more than 150m dependencies. These dependencies were allowed to have lay patrons, who were often kings. Cluniac monasticism entered Germany from the early 1000s, with Conrad II (r. 1024-1039) supporting them, though he did oppress his native clergy. His son Henry III (r. 1039-1056) actually viewed himself as the order's protector and patron, lending momentum to the eleventh century 'reform party' in the Church. Ultimately, alumni of Cluny would enter the 'secular' church's hierarchy, as well as the papacy. Reforming they would articulate the idea of a papal monarchy entitled to temporal powers for the sake of spiritual betterment of Europe. Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-85) exemplified this striving.

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