How Effectively Did The Late Medieval Church

Satisfy The Aspirations Of Its Members? Essay, Research Paper

The Church had been absorbed into European culture as part of

a large corpus of local beliefs.? Ranging from the powers of

seventh born sons, to the role of bleeding horses on St. John the

Baptist’s day, local beliefs permeated the everyday lives

of the peasantry as an integral part of their spiritual lives.?

The power of shrines was held not to be in their devotion to an

interceding saint, but their location and magical power.? The

copying, parodying or adaptation of Church ceremonies was an

oft-cited ritualism and clergymen often complained about the

sacrilege of such activities, but the original successes of

Christianity had been due to their absorption of rural beliefs.

?These beliefs “bond people to the rituals, and implicitly

to the institutions, of the old Church.”? The elites of Europe viewed religion in a wholly different

way.? Whilst the poor were concerned with their next harvest, or

some other material need, the rich could afford to invest in

their souls. Being a “good Christian” was of vital

importance to them, and the posthumous sanctions were known to be

very severe for failure in this respect.? As a result, the elites

were keen to appear to be good Christians, in that they made a

show of learning the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s

Creed, stopped work on Sundays, went to hear Mass, confessed at

least once annually, upheld the fasts, venerated the saints,

sought the sacraments and left money for masses for their own

souls.? The sacrament of confession was an important part of religious

life, especially within the ruling classes.? Whilst Cameron sees

some ruling class supervision of the lower rungs of society via

confession, he accepts that reconciliation was not a cynical

means of domination, and that there was a great need for

confessors, reflected in the ruling classes’ maintenance of

house-hold priests. Just as late medieval Catholicism offered a

rule for life and the means required to police that rule, it also

allowed the rich pious to pay someone to take over their piety

for them.?? Prayer and masses could occur on behalf of patrons by

priests paid accordingly in order to ensure the spiritual health

of a founder. The growth of the cult of relics was a vital part in the

dissatisfaction that led to the Reformation.? At a shrine of

relics, the work imposed upon a pious man after their last

confession could be paid off, but soon these indulgences spread

elsewhere, away from the shrines.? The aim of the indulgence was

to add the holiness of the Church to the believer’s efforts

to help one’s soul.? This was, for the most part, an elite

custom, using the Church to get reassurance in the face of divine

judgement rather than invoking divine aid against nature or

demons. The religion of the elites and the religions of the poor were

very different, but both sectors benefited from certain aspects

of the ecclesiastical service.? The sacraments were given

regardless of the status of the individual, and

“sacramentals” which included blessed palms from Palm

Sunday, holy water and consecrated candles were also given out

freely. The whole of European society used the church as an important

forum and structure for their lives and the central position of

the Church reinforced communities.? The church-going process was

not the modern sombre affair.? The mass could be heard whilst the

congregation talked on the other side of the screens.? Contact

between different social branches of the church, the rich and the

poor, allowed the support of the poor. This idea did not

necessarily mean communities of local people meeting at mass.?

Guilds, brotherhoods and fraternities often heard mass together.

The role of the Church in community spread beyond the walls of

the churches themselves.? Plays, processions and other

entertainments were church events.? In 1533 in Augsburg, rival

protestant and Catholic families argued over the processing of a

cross through the town centre.? n Cameron’s words, “the Christianity of the late

Middle Ages was a supple flexible, varied entity, adapted to the

needs, concerns and tastes of the people who created it”

and “if it were only a question of piety and worship, we

should be hard put to find signs of real mass dissatisfaction

with the Church.”? The problem comes with the tangle of

duties within the Church and the corruption of the hierarchy

within the Church. A modern observer would see the Church has having a religious

function that had several basic components.? At a parochial

level, the Church served its adherents by ministering to them,

both in life and in death and in addition, by offering to them

the chance to attain a higher level of holiness unreachable

outside holy orders. However, by the sixteenth century, these had

been disrupted.? In the Middle Ages, the church was the custodian

of the skill of literacy – a role retained well into the

Early Modern period because of the failure of bureaucracy to move

into the hands of the laity.? Indeed, after the reunification of

the Papacy, Martin V pushed for an increase of papal prestige by?

taking on the organisation of Europe’s bureaucracies. This

laid unsustainable pressure on the church as it cold neither

abandon its role nor find sufficient viable capital to sustain

itself.? As a result, the low-level clergy were forced to live on

very meagre means, an effect that led to priests needing to raise

their own capital, often by abuse of their status and

privileges.? The predicable problems caused by this inflamed the

sensitivities of the lay public. An example of ecclesiastical control over what we see as

secular domains include the universities.? Universities were

notably ecclesiastical in nature, the majority being founded by

papal bulls and most of the rest by senior clerics.? Wittenberg,

an exception in that it was founded by a secular patron, had

three higher faculties; theology, law and medicine. Theology was

run, controlled and monitored by churchmen and much of the law

course was based on Canon Law.? The rush for resources within the

church disrupted the structure of the church to a notable

extent. In the twelfth and thirteenth century, clerics were

financially self-supporting bureaucrats useful to government for

their cheapness.? The church was in theory a hierarchy from the Pope, through

the College of Cardinals to the archbishops and bishops and then

to the parishes. However, the system was never so simple. From

the very top, right through to the simplest parish priest, there

were issues that needed resolving. The Church’s most obvious target was the Pope.? It must

also be remembered that the Papacy was a post dominated by

Italians, run by Italians, and with two exceptions in the era

1494 to 1660, held by an Italian.? In 1500, 21 of the 35

cardinals were Italian.? Moreover, the system of elections of

Popes opened an opportunity for Cardinals to sell votes or set up

vote-rigging schemes, so diminishing the respect of the Papacy

further.? That eight Carafa family members took the papacy, seven

Gonzagas, four Colonnas, four Farnese, seven Medici and eight

Della Rovere would only serve to diminish the Papal reputation

further.? These supposed advisers, when not seen as corrupt, were

seen as coerced lackeys.?? Corruption, embezzlement and treason

against the Pope were all charges brought against Cardinals by

the head of state of the “Lands of St. Peter.”

Attempts to reform the College of Cardinals came to nothing as

plans laid in the fourteenth century for a proportional

transcontinental College were abandoned.? The aristocratic nature

of the College is clear not only from the number of famed houses

represented in the College (reflected in the number of Popes of

those houses elected by the College) but maintained by the

Cardinals’ need of substantial private incomes to support

themselves. As the head of western Christendom and the ruler of the Papal

States, the Pope had a great many conflicts of interest, and

owing the Cardinals nothing after election, the Pope’s

family’s dynastic objectives often became a primary

consideration after his coronation, as the relative security of

the Papal seat allowed them to exploit their position without

fear of repercussions.? Indeed, at least four Popes recognised

children of their own.? Alexander VI promoted the cause in the

Romagna of his son, Cesare Borgia, whilst Leo X reinstated his

house, the Medicis, in Florence and made his nephew Duke of

Urbino.? The Medici expulsion of 1527 had much to do with the

failures of Clement VII, a family member, just as his subsequent

successes would bring them back to power.? The short average term

length and lack of continuous dynasty led to a confusing and

inconsistent set of policies as the elected autocrats each used

their positions to promote their own interests. Having exhausted self-interest as a motive, Popes concerned

themselves with the need to increase the Church’s revenues,

to maintain the Papal absolutism and to regain control of the

Papal states, where supposed “Papal vicars” had set

up dynasties: the affairs of the average Early-Modern Pope were

certainly more worldly than spiritual.? The papacy’s

embroilment in war with other states did not help its pristine

image, nor did forgeries claiming that Constantine left the popes

great wealth “found” in the 1440s.??? The bolstering of the Papal seat, the reconstitution of the

Papal States, the building schemes and the Papal bureaucracy were

all expenses that needed meeting.? The rebuilding of St. Peters

necessitated a massive sale of indulgences, a source of revenue

exploited in addition to such sources as tithes and other

temporal revenues.? Land, mines, fisheries, tolls, ports and the

church taxed all other sources of wealth.? In theory, lay gifts

to the church were always feasible, but states disliked the

amount of land held by the Church, as it ate away at the land

available for supporting the aristocracy.? New money from the

aristocracy was almost always for fashionable purposes in any

case.? Land and money were never endowed to help the church in

general, but always to fund a new type of order, or to maintain a

chancery priest and so on. The reconstruction of Papal power, both in Italy and outside,

was another major issue.? The papacy’s relationship with

other nations, thanks possibly to its abilities to switch sides

with different houses holding the throne in successive

years.? The council at Basel of 1433-7 was a good example of the

conclilliar movement’s attempts to strip the Popes of their

power and their financial resources although the council was

condemned and the bull “Execrabilis” denounced

such “rebellion” and fictional claims of

“rights of appeal” to the Pope, in 1511-2, Louis XII

attempted to impeach Julius II resulted in a council at Pisa.?

This use of council was a mark of the influence of the

Concilliary movement, which saw the Pope not as a divinely

appointed successor to St. Peter, but as merely as the Bishop of

Rome.? The movement for concilliar Christianity failed, as its

challenge upon the supremacy of the Papacy faltered. The Pisa

Council resulted in the reactionary Fifth Lateran Council

(1512-7).? The Council is important in that it showed the

Church’s true focus and its lack of drive.? Strongly

Italian, the council was almost entirely political in its

discussions and the lack of perceived urgency is clear as regards

the future of the church’s unity, as it was not until 1521

that the council’s findings were published. The Papal councils’ discussions were, however, often

symptomatic of problems lower down in the church.? The Papacy was

often blamed for things that it could not influence, even in

countries where the power of appointment had slipped from its

grasp, such as in Spain. Having said that, although its power

remained strong in Germany and in Italy, it was not used

effectively and reforms were not implemented even in these

areas.? Clerical absenteeism was a major problem that needed

addressing for example.? The Council of Trent reasserted the

doctrine that bishops should reside in their dioceses and travel

around the diocese in order to check on the progress of the local

clergy.? However, despite this reassertion, as late as 1560, 70

of the 250 Italian bishops resided in Rome.? Absenteeism was

encouraged by another banned activity, pluralism, which occurred

above all in the Holy Roman Empire, where eight or so archbishops

and around forty bishops were also local territorial princes.? In

France, Henri de Guise held seven benefices (with an annual

income of 300,000 livres) and de Richilieu’s benefices

achieved much the same level of earning.? However, even these men

pale in comparison to de Mazarin, whose 21 abbeys generated one

third of his two million livres annual income.? Whilst royal

appointments could evidently be dubious and political in their

aims, it is perhaps surprising to see the set-up of Venal Offices

– offices specifically designed to allow wealthy young men

to buy some way into the heights of the hierarchy.? In 1525, the

Datary took over 2.5 million gold florins in payment for these

offices. It must be remembered that such high level corruption

across the Church was not a cause of great unpopularity.?

Although the Italian dominance of the College of Cardinals would

later spur the German nationalist aspect of the Reformation, the

Church kept a very strong popular following.? Naturally, the pattern of abuses lower down in the church

varies from area to area, but in general, the conservative

countryside showed worse discipline than the urban areas.? In the

diocese of Strasbourg, the number of clerical offences, from

breaching vows of celibacy to acts of violence, decreased before

the Reformation.? Pluralism was a necessity for most priests as

the distribution of wealth to the parishes was so uneven, and in

some places training was also absurdly poor.? The imposition of

tithes to support a priest never seen in the parish was an

important cause of discontentment.? In Venice it is known that

there were priests who did not say the offices and Mass

regularly, and records of canonical proceedings for gambling,

sexual and other offences show a general ignorance about what was

expected of the clergy.? 3 percent of the population of Venice

took holy orders, so a low standard of discipline is perhaps to

be expected, but the proportion of the population was even higher

elsewhere. The problem of tithes payable to absentee or untrained priests

was very big.? The power to excommunicate or interdict people or

areas should they fail to pay was a great incentive for payment.?

In 1529 it was written that “priests look so narrowly on

their profits that the poor wives must be countable to them of

every tenth egg, or else she… shall be taken as a

heretic.”? Most vicarages had a small “glebe”

where the clergy could grow some crops, and even make a surplus

to sell on at market.? The result of this was that occasionally,

production tithes were payable to a priest who was a competitor

at market. ? The resevoir of problems with the church were not so much

causes of bitterness or anger so much as hostages to fortune to

be used as a casus belli if the church became unpopular. Ultimately, the best way of measuring satisfaction with the

church is in contemporary literature and activity.? The rise of

Waldo, Wyclif, Hus and the Lollards suggests some dissatisfaction

with the church, although the failure of these movements to

spread suggests a local interest group at work rather than an

international one. ?The Hussites drew their strength from the

martyrdom of Jan Hus, and the failure of the movement to spread

far out of the Czech-speaking regions is not only a reflection of

the lack of translated Hussite material (which was available in

Germany, and of which Luther was given a copy) but also of the

entrenched interests in the church elsewhere and in Hussitism

within Bohemia.? Equally Waldenism remained an alpine movement

and the Wycliffites and Lollards were ineffective, small

groups. Erasmus wrote in Moriae Encomium a biting satire on

monasticism and contemporary corruption, in his Novum

instrumentum omne on contemporary ecclesiastical practises

and in Julius Exclusus about the “warrior

pope” Julius II.? Despite having written these, Erasmus was

no reformer and was merely counting the hostages to fortune left

by the church as opposed to actually acting on them.? His attack

on Luther in Diatribo de libero arbitrio ?never left his

adherence to the old church in doubt.? Although Erasmus believed

in the philosophia Christi, and famously said that

“monkery is not piety”, attacks on him soon gave way

to attacks on Luther by the theologians of the Carmelites,

Dominicans and Fransiscans who were notably offended by his

attacks on the monastic movement. Ultimately, the church left itself in a vulnerable position

and open to attacks, but it was usually satisfying to its



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