HISTORY of the CHRISTIAN CHURCH*
THE MIDDLE AGES.
THE DECLINE OF THE PAPACY AND THE
PREPARATION FOR MODERN
FROM BONIFACE VIII. TO MARTIN LUTHER.
THE SIXTH PERIOD OF CHURCH HISTORY.
§ 1. Introductory Survey.
The two centuries intervening between 1294 and 1517, between the accession of Boniface VIII. and the nailing of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses against the church door in Wittenberg, mark the gradual transition from the Middle Ages to modern times, from the universal acceptance of the papal theocracy in Western Europe to the assertion of national independence, from the supreme authority of the priesthood to the intellectual and spiritual freedom of the individual. Old things are passing away; signs of a new order increase. Institutions are seen to be breaking up. The scholastic systems of theology lose their compulsive hold on men’s minds, and even become the subject of ridicule. The abuses of the earlier Middle Ages call forth voices demanding reform on the basis of the Scriptures and the common well-being of mankind. The inherent vital energies in the Church seek expression in new forms of piety and charitable deed.
The power of the papacy, which had asserted infallibility of judgment and dominion over all departments of human life, was undermined by the mistakes, pretensions, and worldliness of the papacy itself, as exhibited in the policy of Boniface VIII., the removal of the papal residence to Avignon, and the disastrous schism which, for nearly half a century, gave to Europe the spectacle of two, and at times three, popes reigning at the same time and all professing to be the vicegerents of God on earth.
The free spirit of nationality awakened during the crusades grew strong and successfully resisted the papal authority, first in France and then in other parts of Europe. Princes asserted supreme authority over the citizens within their dominions and insisted upon the obligations of churches to the state. The leadership of Europe passed from Germany to France, with England coming more and more into prominence.
The tractarian literature of the fourteenth century set forth the rights of man and the principles of common law in opposition to the pretensions of the papacy and the dogmatism of the scholastic systems. Lay writers made themselves heard as pioneers of thought, and a practical outlook upon the mission of the Church was cultivated. With unexampled audacity Dante assailed the lives of popes, putting some of St. Peter’s successors into the lowest rooms of hell.
The Reformatory councils of Pisa, Constance, and Basel turned Europe for nearly fifty years, 1409–1450, into a platform of ecclesiastical and religious discussion. Though they failed to provide a remedy for the disorders prevailing in the Church, they set an example of free debate, and gave the weight of their eminent constituency to the principle that not in a select group of hierarchs does supreme authority in the Church rest, but in the body of the Church.
The hopelessness of expecting any permanent reform from the papacy and the hierarchy was demonstrated in the last years of the period, 1460–1517, when ecclesiastical Rome offered a spectacle of moral corruption and spiritual fall which has been compared to the corrupt age of the Roman Empire.
The religious unrest and the passion for a better state of affairs found expression in Wyclif, Huss, and other leaders who, by their clear apprehension of truth and readiness to stand by their public utterances, even unto death, stood far above their own age and have shone in all the ages since.
While coarse ambition and nepotism, a total perversion of the ecclesiastical office and violation of the fundamental virtues of the Christian life held rule in the highest place of Christendom, a pure stream of piety was flowing in the Church of the North, and the mystics along the Rhine and in the Lowlands were unconsciously fertilizing the soil from which the Reformation was to spring forth.
The Renaissance, or the revival of classical culture, unshackled the minds of men. The classical works of antiquity were once more, after the churchly disparagement of a thousand years, held forth to admiration. The confines of geography were extended by the discoveries of the continent in the West.
The invention of the art of printing, about 1440, forms an epoch in human advancement, and made it possible for the products of human thought to be circulated widely among the people, and thus to train the different nations for the new age of religious enfranchisement about to come, and the sovereignty of the intellect.
To this generation, which looks back over the last four centuries, the discovery of America and the pathways to the Indies was one of the remarkable events in history, a surprise and a prophecy. In 1453, Constantinople easily passed into the hands of the Turk, and the Christian empire of the East fell apart. In the far West the beginnings of a new empire were made, just as the Middle Ages were drawing to a close.
At the same time, at the very close of the period, under the direction and protection of the Church, an institution was being prosecuted which has scarcely been equalled in the history of human cruelty, the Inquisition,—now papal, now Spanish,—which punished heretics unto death in Spain and witches in Germany.
Thus European society was shaking itself clear of long-established customs and dogmas based upon the infallibility of the Church visible, and at the same time it held fast to some of the most noxious beliefs and practices the Church had allowed herself to accept and propagate. It had not the original genius or the conviction to produce a new system of theology. The great Schoolmen continued to rule doctrinal thought. It established no new ecclesiastical institution of an abiding character like the canon law. It exhibited no consuming passion such as went out in the preceding period in the crusades and the activity of the Mendicant Orders. It had no transcendent ecclesiastical characters like St. Bernard and Innocent III. The last period of the Middle Ages was a period of intellectual discontent, of self-introspection, a period of intimation and of preparation for an order which it was itself not capable of begetting.
* Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.) 1997. This material has been carefully compared, corrected¸ and emended (according to the 1910 edition of Charles Scribner's Sons) by The Electronic Bible Society, Dallas, TX, 1998.