Middle Ages Folder




Jose Orlandis

Christianity suffered the imprint of feudalism in the troubled times that marked the first stage of the Middle Ages. Churches and holders of benefices became implicated in the close network of relationships which provided the structure of feudal society. Interference by secular nobles in ecclesiastical life introduced a moral decadence and led to what has been called the 'Iron Age' of the papacy. The rise of Cluny and the establishment of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire was the beginning of a new age.

1. The eighth century witnessed a profound change in the history of Western Christianity, caused primarily by new relationships between the Holy See and the Frankish kingdom. The Eastern Empire, which still had important dominions in Italy, had for centuries been the secular protector of the papacy and of its territories — the so-called 'patrimony of St Peter' —which had always been under threat from restless neighbours, especially from the Lombards. But this protection became more and more ineffective as the Empire, growing every more easternised and worn out by constant pressure from Islam, paid less and less attention to the West. In need of a new 'secular arm', the papacy turned its eyes towards the only western kingdom (after the collapse of Visigoth Spain) capable of performing this function: the kingdom of the Franks, whose leader spiritual, Avitus of Vienne, foresaw, after the baptism of Clovis, would become the predominant Catholic power of the West.

Kingdom of the Franks

2. Circumstances were just right for this development. Pepin the Short, the powerful major domus of the French court, in the year 750 approached Pope Zachary on a matter of doctrine fraught with political implications: who, he asked, was the more worthy to be called king: he who was king only in name [the last of the Merovingians] or he who effectively held power [that is to say, Pepin himself]? The pope's reply brought the reign of the Merovingians to an end and marked the birth of Carolingian France. In 753, Pope Stephen II gave kingly anointment to Pepin and his two sons, Carloman and Charles, the latter two receiving the title of 'Patrician of the Romans' which gave them the power to play a part in the government of Rome and to watch over the states of the Church, the territory covered by the temporal power of the popes.



3. The process begun in this way peaked during the reign of Pepin's son, Charlemagne, one of the great shapers of medieval Christianity. On Christmas day 800, Charles was crowned emperor in St Peter's by Pope Leo III. The coronation of Charles was an event of immense significance: after a lapse of three centuries the western empire was born again, facing the Greek empire of the basileus of Constantinople. The new empire, whose capital was at Aachen, was Latin-Germanic but above all it was a Christian empire, with the emperor having, as his principal mission, the protection of the Church and the Roman see.

 Feudal society

4. Charlemagne's empire suffered from a congenital weakness due precisely to its being the brain-child of such a remarkable personality. Very soon after his death it began to decay due to territorial distributions, a weakening of central authority and a crisis in society: imperial order gave wav to feudal disintegration, for which the Church also paid the price. As sovereign authority evaporated, the dangers of anarchy increased and threats from Norsemen, Saracens and Magyars multiplied. The ordinary people, unable to defend themselves, sought protection from the only source available, the class of armed nobility which had monopolized real, effective power. A tightly knit system of vassaldom grew up, with patronage exacting the price of service, creating the structure of feudal society.

Church structures

5. Ecclesiastical structures also suffered the impact of feudalism. The nobles sought to nominate rectors and to benefit financially from their 'own churches’ which they had built in their domains for the religious service of the rural population: and they also tried to exercise similar rights over other churches and monasteries to which they gave patronage and protection. The larger magnates wanted to have control of ecclesiastical revenue to use them to reward their soldiers, or to be able to appoint relatives and favorites as holders of bishoprics and abbeys. positions much sought after by the nobility because of the social influence they involved. These repeated abuses were not anti-Christian in intention; those responsible for them were sincere, if uneducated, Christians; but they did lead to a noticeable secularization of ecclesiastical life and a general moral impoverishment.

The Papacy under feudalism

6. The most typical example of the impact of feudalism on the Church and on Christian society was the so-called ‘Iron Age' of the papacy. This lasted from the beginning of the tenth century to the middle of the eleventh, with a temporary improvement in the second half of the tenth century. The eclipse of imperial authority left the Roman See without a protector and allowed it to fall victim to the dominant feudal factions in Rome. Powerful noble families — the family of Theophylact, the Crescentii. the Tusculani — exercised a tyrannical oppression over the papal see, in an attempt to control it in the same manner as the feudal lords controlled their 'own churches.' The 'Patrician' Theophylact. the 'senators' Theodora and Marozia, the 'Prince of all Romans' Alberic, disposed of the pontificate as their whims took them: even adolescents and people of utter incompetence and unsuitability occupied the papal chair. The fact that the papacy survived this test and that even in its worst moments did not deviate on doctrine of faith and morals must be seen as a clear indication of divine assistance to the Church.

The monks of Cluny

7. But all was not disorder and darkness in these difficult times of the genesis of feudalism which are also known as the Dark Ages. A number of historical developments were in fact germinating at this time which would combine to produce the religious and cultural splendour of medieval Christendom. One of these factors was the foundation of a monastery destined to have enormous influence over the social and spiritual life of the West — Cluny. Monastic renewal in the Carolingian era, fostered by a Visigoth, Benedict of Aniane, had sunk without trace in the violence of the feudal abuses, when the secularization of the monasteries made it impossible for genuine religious life to survive. Cluny was founded in 909 by Duke William of Aquitaine; it depended directly on the pope, being 'exempt' from any lesser authority, ecclesiastical or lay. Cluny was very successful and many other monasteries submitted to the authority of this abbey or were founded from it. The so-called 'Order of Cluny' spread all over the West until it counted over 1,200 monasteries and a whole army of monks, so much so that the order has been described as a 'monastic empire'. The Cluniac monks — the 'black monks' — were an essential factor in the movement of Christian renewal which began towards the end of the eleventh century.

A Germanic Empire

8. Another development destined to have a deep influence on the history of European Christianity had begun in Germany, also at the beginning of the tenth century. When the last traces of the Carolingian past had disappeared, the German dukes, in 919, re-established the kingship, choosing Henry I, Duke of Saxony, as king. His son Otto 1 (936-73), a great monarch, must, like his predecessor Charlemagne a century and a half before, be considered one of the great builders of Christian Europe. Otto waged successful military campaigns against Slavs and Magyars, who became his vassals, and established his authority in the heartland of his kingdom. As a climax to his career he was crowned emperor in Rome in February 962, and thus a German empire succeeded the Carolingian as the Christian empire of the West. Otto I assumed the mission of protecting the Papal States and he also took control of elections to the papacy, thereby protecting them from interference from the Roman nobles. This situation obtained also during the reigns of Otto II (973-83) and Otto III (983-1002); and although the premature death of the latter allowed the Roman factions to interfere once again, the rights of the emperor were claimed forty years later by the energetic Henry III, allowing him to bring to an end once and for all feudal control of the Papal See.

This is a chapter taken from ‘A short history of the Catholic Church’ (Four Courts Press, Dublin 1985).

Rev. Jose Orlandis is Emeritus Professor of the History of Law at the University of Saragassa, Spain. At present he is Director of the Institute of Church History at the University of Navarre, Spain.

Reprinted with permission of ‘Faith Magazine’, U.K.

Copyright ©; Faith Magazine’, U.K. April 2001.

Published by: The ChurchinHistory Information Centre


Version: 23rd March 2008

Middle Ages Folder