Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME
Lectures for A Medieval Survey
Lynn H. Nelson
The Feudalization of the Church: 850-1000
We have already noted that one of the factors leading to the disintegration of the Carolingian empire was that its failure to expand turned the energies of its land-hungry class of fighting land-holders inward. The contending parties in the civil wars of the time needed assistance and had to purchase it. Dukes and counts, margraves and local officials first demanded that their land-holdings and offices be made hereditary, and, when this point had been won, often sought grants of land from the royal fisc. Soon the claimants to power in Neustria (France) had given away so much land that they had less wealth and power than some of their landholders. With hereditary lands and offices, these fighting landholders began to coalesce into a class that it often called the feudal aristocracy.
The bishoprics and monasteries of the land no longer had the power of central government to protect their personnel and endowments, and the Church was inevitably drawn into serving the needs of the secular rulers. This period is sometimes called "The Feudalization of the Church." This occurred in various ways. Local aristocrats often established churches, monasteries, and convents that they then considered as family property, taking revenues from them, appointing friends and relatives to serve the institutions, and setting the duties that these men and women were to perform. The question arose was to whether the Church should benefit from protection and not contribute to the cost of that protection, and was usually answered in the affirmative. Church lands were expected to provide fighting men. This was sometimes accomplished by the local bishop or abbot becoming fighting men themselves and staffing their cathedral or monastery with fighting men. Needless to say, spirituality suffered under these circumstances. Sometimes the churchman would "hire" a warrior by granting him Church lands, only to find that their warrior soon turned his position and possessions into hereditary holdings. Other times, a noble - a count, for instance -- would take the post of bishop and convert it into a family possession so that some areas were ruled by men called prince-bishops.
The most important practice was that which became common in the Germanies. For many reasons, disintegration in Austrasia (the Germanies) did not proceed as far as it did in Neustria but stopped at the level of the great tribal units ruled by hereditary dukes -- Saxony, Lotharingia, Thuringia, Franconia, and Bavaria. Menaced on many sides, the German dukes sought to create a federation. Henry the Fowler, duke-king of Saxony (912-936), agreed to act as leader on the proviso that he would have control of the Church in all of the Germanies. Although many rulers sought such power, only in the Germanies did the sovereign have such sweeping powers to choose and invest Church leaders. Many of these German churchmen were prince-bishops ruling extensive and wealthy districts -- Cologne, Trier, Mainz, Strasburg, and others. The German rulers, who succeeded to the title of Holy Roman Emperor, depended upon the support of these churchmen to maintain the unity of the Empire and to defend it.
No one necessarily enjoyed this situation. The people of the time believed in a very real and quite horrible Hell, and looked to the Church as affording them their only chance of escaping eternal torment. A feudalized and corrupted Church did them no good, and some were quite willing to try to find a way out of their dilemma. Gerald of Aurillac was one such pious noble. Before his death in 907, he established a monastery at Aurillac with a charter that guaranteed it freedom from all local authorities, both lay and ecclesiastical, and made it subject only to the pope. Perhaps its endowment was too meager, perhaps there were too few potential monks, or perhaps there was too little local support; at any rate, the monastery of Aurillac did not prosper to any great degree. It did, however, inspire Duke William of Aquitaine (935-963). William had acquired a piece of land in Burgundy, so far distant that he would not be able to hold it. Rather than relinquish it, he established it as a monastery on the same basis at Gerald's institution at Aurillac. Considering that the Alps separating France from Italy were dangerous and difficult, and the pope was, to all intents and purposes, a puppet of Roman local politics, William's new monastery of Cluny was completely independent.
We have seen in our discussion of Gerald of Aurillac how Odo of Cluny's conclusion that Gerald had in fact been a saint had led him to accept the proposition that the end of time was not imminent and that the world was susceptible of reform. When he became the abbot of Cluny, he undertook to make it a center of reform. The first step was to impose a strict discipline upon the community, such that secular visitors were struck and awed. Local families began to support Cluny with the sons and with endowments in exchange for the monk's prayers. Soon, nobles and bishops were asking Cluny to reform their own churches and monasteries. Cluny did so, but only on the condition that the reformed establishments would then belong to Cluny and be independent of local officials. These reformed houses, and new ones established by Cluny, did not have abbots, but priors, second-in-command subject to the abbot of Cluny. These priors periodically held assemblies at Cluny where they would discuss their problems and recommend measures that the abbot would make official policy. In this fashion, reform initiatives from all over western Europe were considered at Cluny and the entire weight of the Cluniac organization was thrown behind those considered worthy of such support. Cluny became, in many ways, the dynamo that powered the engine of reform directed toward rescuing the Church from feudalism and rescuing lay society as well.
Although the idea was not developed by Cluny but originated in Cataluña, the Peace of God and Truce of God, it supported these movements energetically. Under the leadership of a local bishop and with the support of at least some of the local nobles, an assembly would be held in which the nobles of a region would be asked to take an oath "to keep the peace," to observe the Peace and Truce of God. The Peace of God was the simple principle that those who did not benefit from feudal warfare should not be harmed by feudal warriors. Although this was often honored only in the breach, the idea that non-combatants should be secure from harm was an important idea and persisted in Western thought until the emergence of the total wars of the twentieth century. The Truce of God, by the terms of which feudal warfare was not to be pursued on holy days or on Friday through Monday, was less practical and exerted relatively little influence. Since it was so difficult to observe, the Church soon ceased trying to enforce it. On the other hand, both the Peace and Truce of God established principles that would do much to protect traders and the markets and fairs at which they congregated, and, by so doing, contributed to the revival of commerce and trade of the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Another Spanish Idea that was given great currency by Cluny was that of the crusade. The Muslim practice of Jihad, or "Holy War," gave them a considerable advantage in morale and recruiting, and Christians needed something comparable, but it was not simple to find a military mandate in Christianity, a basically pacifist faith at least as far as its scriptures went. The Europeans devised what we sometimes call a "work-around." Pilgrimages to sacred places were pious acts and it stood to reason that no one should be allowed to prevent a Christian from performing a pious act. So the idea of liberating the Holy Land from the Muslims was conceived as going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and killing if necessary anyone who might attempt to stop you. This concept was pervasive and persistent. The men and women of the middle ages did not talk of the crusade, but of "the Great Pilgrimage," and the crusaders were called "pilgrims." Cluny supported such expeditions on the basis that the energies of the feudal aristocracy should be expended against enemies of the faith rather than against each other.
One could suggest many other reforms pressed by Cluny, but it should suffice to say that Cluny fulfilled the aspiration of the Rule of St. Benedict, became an exemplar of the monastic life, and so contributed to the spread of Benedictine monasticism and its emergence as the fundamental approach to ascetic life in the West.
More than that, Cluny developed a new concept of the function and proper status of the Christian Church. Since its legalization in 313, the Church's institutions and self-concept adapted it to serve in partnership -- even an unequal partnership with secular empires. It was clear, however, that an eternal Church could not depend upon the support of transient human political structures. The result of the Church's reliance on the Carolingian empire had proved that. So the Cluniacs and other churchmen of the time began to think in different terms.
They held to the tradition of One Flock, One Shepherd, One Church. In a Europe in which political authority had become permanently fragmented, they worked for a universal and centralized ecclesiastical establishment, with the Bishop of Rome to whom scripture had given "the Keys to the Kingdom" as its supreme authority. This Church was to be independent of secular authority and, to be independent, its supreme authority had to stand on ground that owed no service to anyone other than himself. The pope had to be able to control the property, personnel, and rights of the Church, and to require the secular authority to obey and enforce the decisions which were his to make. The persistent pursuit of these aims overcame any resistance by secular authorities, most of who were sympathetic in the reform movement in any case. By the mid-eleventh century, the pope had been freed from local Roman politicians and the office was being filled with men thoroughly committed to the reform movement, and so the Cluniac Reform became a papal reform movement.
This was successful in many parts of western Europe, but not in the Germanies. Here, the Holy Roman Emperor's power depended on his ability to select and swear in the great ecclesiastics of the region. The Empire could not continue if the emperor lost that power, and the pope could not reign supreme in the Church unless wrested that power from the emperor. This conflict led directly to that struggle that we call The Investiture Controversy, a life and death confrontation in which either the new concept of the Church or the old idea of the Holy Roman Empire would be eliminated.
Encyclopedia | Library | Reference | Teaching | General | Links | About ORB | HOME Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.