Historians like me discuss the medieval papacy, the Investiture Controversy, and the Crusades without saying much about Jesus Christ and his mission for the Church—a mission to bring forgiveness to sinners, to rescue victims of evil, and to heal the hurting in this world. Had the entire Church on earth fallen into apostacy during these centuries? Some writers claim that it had fallen, but the real Church still existed on earth, just as Jesus always promised the Church would continue. Individuals, families, congregations, and communities preserved the pure Gospel, even while the few popes and kings and crusaders went their own direction. The Church does not consist of Popes and Archbishops and Crusaders, any more than it consists of boards and committees and officers. The Church is found wherever people gather in the name of Jesus—that is, wherever his Word is preached correctly, wherever people are baptized in his name, and wherever people eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, remembering him.
As the Cluny Reform helped to counter abuses in the monasteries during the tenth century, so many movements among European Christians in later centuries helped to reform the Church—a body of sinner saints that always needs reformation. A preacher named Peter Waldo spoke against the church officials and their faulty behavior; although he and his followers were attacked by Church officials as heretics, they are often remembered today as genuine Christians and forerunners of the Protestants to come. Another group clearly fell into heresy. Called the Albigensians because of a region in France where many of them lived, they were also known as the Cathars or Cathari—the pure ones. They believed that they could stop sinning and could please God by their lives. They also revived some of the misunderstandings about God and Christ that had already been rejected by the Church. Warfare against the Albigensians was called a Crusade; killing an Albigensian in France was seen as equivalent to killing a Muslim in Jerusalem.
But a man from Spain named Dominic suggested a different approach. He said that if Christians knew the faith and proclaimed the faith, heretics and unbelievers—even Muslims and Jews—could be converted to the true faith. Dominic started a “back to the Bible” movement that stressed Biblical knowledge among Christians (especially preachers) and promoted sharing the faith in preference to fighting Crusades. While Peter Waldo’s movement was rejected by the Church leaders, Dominic’s approach was approved. He began a new order of Church workers who were called the Dominicans.
Around the same time, a man from Italy named Francis also tried a different approach. After a profound religious experience, he felt moved to obey literally Christ’s command to abandon all wealth and property and to dedicate his life to Christ. Feeling called by Christ to rebuild the Church, Francis began by repairing ruined church buildings around his home city of Assisi. Later, he came to believe that he could rebuild the Church by his example of faith and voluntary poverty. Francis’ approach was also approved by the Pope, and those who lived by his rules were called Franciscans.
The rules Francis made for himself proved impractical for some of his followers, and he was forced to soften his requirements. Discouraged, Francis looked for new ways to serve the Lord. He joined a group of Crusaders, traveled with them to Egypt, crossed enemy lines, and sought to preach Christianity to the Sultan. Although the Sultan was not converted, he admired the zeal of Francis and sent him back across the battlefield safely. Francis later received wounds in his hands and feet and side that resembled the wounds Christ received on the cross. Among western Christians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, Saint Francis is probably the most popular of all the post-Biblical saints.
Another order, based on the rules written by Augustine of Hippo, was also established at the same time as the Franciscans and Dominicans.
Many Christians joined these orders. Chapters were established for women as well as for men. Separate chapters were made for people who wanted to imitate the work of the orders part-time without abandoning families and careers. Wealthy people gave generous gifts to the Augustinians, Dominicans, and Franciscans. Because all three orders were trying to live in poverty and simplicity, receiving gifts was an embarrassment to them. But they put the wealth to work, establishing and maintaining hospitals and schools. In fact, the idea of the university came from these Church orders, and the great philosophers and scientists and other thinkers of medieval Europe were gathered into these universities. They had not yet invented football or basketball, but the universities competed in debate. A thinker at one school would publish a document of sentences, or theses, to be discussed at his school, and often these were shared among schools and promoted discussion between faculties. The system of thought used in these discussions is called “scholasticism.” Sometimes scholasticism is represented as covering trivial issues—a common example is the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (Such discussions do not happen today—some Christians do not believe in angels, others do not believe in dancing, and a few don’t even believe in pins.) But major issues also were open for debate. Some of the great scholastic scholars still read today include Peter Abelard, Anselm, Albert Magnus, and Thomas Aquinas. And an Augustinian monk was still following the same procedure of posting theses for debate when the Protestant Reformation began in Wittenberg in 1517.
Along with theology, music and communication and history and science were also studied in these universities. Although alchemists still believed that matter consists of only four elements, they performed chemical experiments that ultimately would lead to modern chemistry. Although astronomers still believed that the Earth rests unmoving at the center of the universe, they knew that the Earth is round, knew about how large it is, and measured the motion of the other planets with increasing precision—measurements that would result in more accurate perceptions of the solar system. Mathematics and medicine were also studied, including information imported from the Muslim world. And during these years—the centuries called the High Middle Ages—the grand cathedrals of Europe were designed and built. Later generations would dismiss these buildings as “Gothic”—suggesting that they were barbarian and uncivilized—but today they are recognized as magnificent achievements in art and design, as well as eloquent expressions of the Christian faith belonging to those who designed and built them. J.