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27 Jul

Life of Clergy in the Middle Ages

Christianity became the leading religion in the Medieval Times, while Christian doctrine of divine right and salvation by suffering provided the basis for the establishment of feudalism and feudal society. The Christian Church was organized in a strict hierarchical structure of a pyramid and remained practically unchanged until nowadays. The Pope was on the top of the hierarchy and below the Pope were the ordained clergymen: bishops, priests and deacons. Bishops (including metropolitans, archbishops or patriarchs) exercised authority over priests and deacons who were on the bottom of the churchly hierarchy.

Members of the clergy were also the monks and other religious officials who obtained the Holy Order and had been ordained or appointed to offices of pastoral leadership in the church. The unordained monks, nuns, friars and religious brothers and sisters were not members of the clergy. Clergy could had been either regular and secular. The members of the regular clergy were all who belonged to a religious order and followed the religious rule under the leadership of a religious superior, while the members of secular clergy were not bound to religious rule and were not members of any religious orders.

A detail from Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, 1432The monarchs and feudal lords donated to the Church large estates because of its role in the medieval society and because of its support to secular authorities. Thus bishops and other high officials of the Church were also the feudal lords. Large estates enabled the high officials of the Church to live a leisurely life comparable to the life of high nobility. For that reason the majority of the high officials of the Church originated from the local noble families and were considered noble. In contrary to bishops and other high officials of the Church who were often also military leaders and lived the life of other high nobility, the clerics of a lower rank were not members of nobility.

Church gained possession of the land through donations of deeply religious people as well as in exchange for the “salvation of the soul” of its donor and for performing various post-mortal memorial ceremonials. Most of the medieval churches and monasteries were built by local noble families for various reasons. Very important role had the custom of noble families to send at least one of its family members (a son or daughter) in service of the Church or into a monastery. Noblemen in service of the Church often took advantage of their position to implement the interests of their families.

The Church had great influence and power in feudal society. Its influence and power greatly increased during the political, economic and spiritual crisis which marked the period after the Fall of Rome in 476. The Church was only the only centralized institution surviving the Fall of Rome and eventually emerged as the leading spiritual guide and played an important role in restoration of institutionalized government. The decline of a strong central government and further disintegration of governmental institutions was prevented by bishops who began to replace the secular authorities and took over the administrative affairs.

The influence and power of the Church in the early medieval political affairs became obvious at the deposition of Childerc III who was deposed by Pippin the Younger with Papal support in 751. Pippin the Younger was anointed in coronation ceremony at Soissons by Boniface, Archbishop of Mainz who was along with his niece Saint Leoba also a court advisor. Anointment performed by the Pope or (arch)bishop symbolized the conferring of religious sanction of the monarch’s divine right to rule and for that reason anointment was desired by all medieval monarchs and kings. The Church was also the only institution that could confer the Imperial title which was considered the highest of all monarchical titles and was supposed to be performed by the Pope in Rome. Thus the Church had important instruments through which it could acquire certain privileges from the secular authorities and to implement its interests.

The Church exercised its power also by regulating conduct and by insisting on punishment for sins of all classes of society which was achieved by creating guilt for conscious act of sin, by depicting the horror of sinners in the afterlife, by excommunication or banishment from the church and sometimes by interdict or excommunication of a whole area. Forgiveness as well as lifting of excommunication could have been achieved by repentance (expressing regret for committing sin) and atonement (repayment) for sins.

The Church and its institutions also represented social and cultural centers of the medieval society. Education was carried out only by the priests who were often also the only literate individuals in predominantly illiterate communities. The monasteries throughout Europe evolved from institutions of life of prayer and self sacrifice into centers of culture, art and education. Besides praying and devotion to religious matters the monastic life also included projects of writing, copying and decoration books. Monastic communities also often took care for social services such as education and healthcare.

With the movement Peace and Truce of God the medieval Church endeavored to Christianize and pacify the medieval society through nonviolent means, to protect the noncombatants who could not defend themselves (in first place the peasants and clergy) from violence and to prevent the violence between the Christians. However, the movement to limit the violence turned out to be ineffective, while the Church with its call and support to the Crusades even encouraged violence.

Close collaboration between the Church and the highest political and military officials was followed by occasional struggles for supremacy. The tensions between the Church and secular authorities became evident already in the 9th century and reached their height with the Investiture Controversy, the dispute between Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and Pope Gregory VII over appointments of church officials in the 11th century. Besides struggles for supremacy with secular rulers the Church also put a lot of effort to prevent priestly marriages and simony (purchase of church offices). First major step towards introduction of celibacy of the clergy was made by Pope Gregory VII by publishing an encyclical which absolved the people from their obedience to bishops who allowed priestly marriages. However, the compulsory celibacy of the clergy and ban of priestly marriages was formally introduced with the First Lateran Council in 1123. That way the Roman Catholic Church avoided an eventual division of the land and heritable offices in case if married clergymen produced heirs.

The Christianity and churchly doctrine had an absolute “monopoly” over mentality of all classes of feudal society during the period of highly developed feudalism. Any theological or religious opinion which opposed to the official churchly doctrine was considered heretic and was persecuted, while religious believes dominated in all aspects of a life of a Christian.

The Papacy reached height of its power and prestige during the pontificate of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), while his successor Pope Honorius III (1216-1227) gave papal sanction to the Dominican Order, Franciscan Order and Carmelite Order – the mendicant orders which successfully stopped the spread of heresy for a while. However, the Papacy slowly lost its power to the national monarchs by the 14th century which became obvious with the so-called Avignon Papacy between 1305 and 1376 when the residence of Papacy was moved to Avignon, France. Although the Popes who resided in Avignon were probably less under French influence than it was commonly believed they were brought into discredit in other countries and the Church lost respect and support in great extent.

Dissatisfaction with the Avignon Papacy, corruption and immorality of the clergy (selling of church offices and indulgences, concubines, drinking, gambling), the Papal Schism from 1378 to 1417 and the Conciliar Movement resulted in the further decline of Papal prestige and power as well as in general decline of Church organization which never recovered in its former strength. The Council of Constance (1414-1418) and Council of Basel (1431-1449) made some efforts to reform the church but failed to implement the reforms in practice.

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