The papacy had reached the zenith of its political power in Europe under Innocent III. His death in 1216 was followed by a period of eclipse and, finally, catastrophe. The popes continued to struggle for supremacy against Germany’s “Holy Roman” emperors. However, the long war between papacy and empire had sapped the power of the imperial court by undermining Germany’s national unity. The threat to the independence of the papacy no longer came from Germany, but from France.
THE FRENCH THREAT
The French monarchy was growing in strength that reached dangerous levels, from a papal perspective, under King Philip the Fair (reigned 1285-1314). Philip was a ruthless tyrant who believed he had absolute authority over all French affairs. Conflict broke out between Philip and Pope Boniface VIII (reigned 1294-1303) when, in 1295, Philip levied a tax on the French clergy to finance a war with England. The French clergy complained to Boniface, who decreed the excommunication of all who imposed or paid such taxes without papal permission. Philip responded by forbidding the export of gold and silver from France, which crippled Rome’s economy. Boniface had to compromise, allowing the French clergy to make “voluntary” contributions to Philip’s war.
Then, in 1301, Boniface sent a papal legate, Bernard of Saisset, to Philip’s court to complain about various highhanded acts of Philip, including the seizure of church property. Philip had Bernard arrested and charged with high treason. Boniface ordered the release of Bernard, summoning Philip to Rome. Philip called a national assembly of French nobles, clergy, and commoners to support him. Boniface reacted in 1302 by issuing the famous papal bull Unam sanctam, where the most exalted political and spiritual claims for the papacy were made:
There is one body and one head of this one and only [Catholic] Church—not two heads, like a monster—and that is Christ, and Christ’s vicar is Peter and the successor of Peter….Both the spiritual and the civil sword are in the power of the Church….We declare, state, define and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary to salvation for every human being to be subject to the Roman Pope.
Philip’s response was to declare Boniface unfit to occupy the papal throne, and he summoned the pope to appear before a general council of the whole church. The French parliament, French clergy, and Paris University all joined in this declaration. Boniface prepared to excommunicate Philip, but before he could do so, the French king had Boniface kidnapped and imprisoned. Philip’s agents demanded that Boniface resign; he refused. Allies rescued him from prison, but Boniface died a month later, an old and broken man, while the struggle was still raging.
The papacy was in serious trouble. Philip had appealed to French national opinion against the claims of Rome, and he had succeeded. Nationalism as a political and anti-papal force had arrived on the European scene.
THE AVIGNON PAPACY
The worst for the papacy was still to come. When Boniface’s successor, Pope Benedict XI (reigned 1303-4), died after a reign of only eight months, the French faction of cardinals succeeded in electing a French pope, Clement V (reigned 1305-14). Clement was a weak man who simply became a tool of King Philip. He never set foot in Rome, and after four years of wandering around southern France, Clement in 1309 established the papal court in Avignon, a city on the Rhone River, surrounded by French territory and under French political influence.
The papacy remained in Avignon for nearly seventy years (1309-77), a captive of the French monarchy and its policies. Those hostile to France referred to this period as the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy. There were seven popes during this period, all French, and they made sure that most of the cardinals were French, too.
The Avignon Papacy had a calamitous effect on the prestige and influence of the office of the pope. According to Catholic theory, the Apostle Peter had been the bishop of Rome and therefore the first pope, which was why the church and bishop of Rome were paramount. With the popes now in Avignon, torn loose from their ancient historic seat in Rome, it seemed to many that the papacy had lost its true identity, becoming a mere political pawn in the hands of the French kings.
The Avignon Papacy led to several remarkable attacks on the papacy by Christian thinkers. Most of them came from the Holy Roman Empire, which was even more hostile to the papacy now that it was under French domination. The most radical critiques of papal claims were made by the English schoolman William of Ockham (1287-1347) and the Italian Marsilius of Padua (1280-1343).
FORERUNNER OF THE REFORMATION
Let us take Marsilius as our exemplar of papal critics. Rector of Paris University from 1313, Marsilius’ assaults on the papacy forced him in 1326 to flee for safety to Germany, where he placed himself under the protection of Emperor Louis the Bavarian (reigned 1314-47). Louis, who was excommunicated by Pope John XXII in 1324, was a determined foe of the papacy. Marsilius’ great anti-papal treatise was his Defensor pacis (Defender of peace), written in 1324 when he was still in Paris.
In Defensor pacis, Marsilius argued that authority lay with “the people”—the whole body of citizens in the state, and the whole body of believers in the church. Marsilius had learned this theory from Aristotle, of whom he was a devoted student. Political and spiritual leaders, therefore, were appointed by the people and accountable to the people. The supreme legislative power in the church was not the papacy, but an ecumenical council representing the entire body of believers. Scripture alone was the source of Christian doctrine; if there was any dispute over what Scripture taught, an ecumenical council must settle it.
Pursuing this line of thought, Marsilius distinguished between the catholic church and the Apostolic church. The catholic church included the Western church, the Eastern Orthodox, and all who believed in Christ. All members of the catholic church were within God’s grace. The Apostolic church was the Church of Rome, which was an embodiment and manifestation of the catholic church, but it was not infallible—Rome could err. Furthermore, the pope had no right to depose kings and emperors. The clergy, Marsilius insisted, were in all secular matters subject to the state, like all other people. Priests had power only to teach, warn, persuade, and rebuke.
Since Marsilius accepted that church and state were the spiritual and political aspects of a single Christian society, he also taught that a Christian state had the right to call church councils, appoint clergy, and control church property.
THE MYSTICAL BLOOM
The fourteenth century witnessed a great flowering of mysticism in the Western church. A new thirst for the direct personal experience of God burned in many souls. In Germany, three great Dominican preachers promoted this mysticism: Eckhart von Hochheim (1260-1327), usually called Meister (“master”) Eckhart, and his two disciples Johann Tauler (1300-61) and Heinrich Suso (1295-1360). Eckhart, Tauler, and Suso, three of the best-loved mystics in Christian history, pastored Dominican nuns and Beguines (similar to nuns) in western Germany. The influence of their preaching and writings gave rise to a wider group of German and Swiss mystics who called themselves the Friends of God. It was someone from the Friends of God movement who wrote the anonymous Theologica Germanica (German theology), one of the most profound and beautiful examples of Christian mystical writings.
In the Netherlands, the leading mystic was Jan van Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), head of an Augustinian monastery in Groenendael. Italy’s contribution to the mystical flowering came through Catherine of Siena (1347-80), a Dominican nun from Siena in northwestern Italy who acted as spiritual guide to an admiring circle of followers.
In England, mysticism found expression in the life and writings of a number of hermits: Richard Rolle (1300-49) of Hampole in Yorkshire, author of The Fire of Love; Walter Hilton (died 1396) of Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire, author of The Scale of Perfection; and most famous of all, Lady Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), an anchoress from Norwich in Norfolk, author of the highly imaginative and enchanting Revelations of Divine Love. The English mysticism of this period also appeared in an anonymous treatise called The Cloud of Unknowing, which put the theology and spirituality of the pseudepigraphal writer Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite into popular fourteenth-century English. Finally, we have Margery Kempe (1373-1440), a laywoman from Bishop’s Lynn in Norfolk and friend of Julian of Norwich. Her Book of Margery Kempe recounts her remarkable visions and her international pilgrimages to Rome, Jerusalem, Compostela (in Spain), Wilsnack (in Germany), and Canterbury.
These mystics shared a number of distinctives. They used the native language of their country (rather than Latin), aiming their ministries at laypeople as well as scholars and clergy. They emphasized the centrality of preaching and teaching in the church, the high value of studying and knowing the New Testament, and the importance of practical holiness in daily living. Their whole approach was eminently Christ-centred; Christ, they stressed, is always immediately available to the believing soul—He is not locked up inside the priesthood and sacraments.
The teaching of the mystics often brought them under great suspicion from church authorities who feared that mysticism would lead people to despise the official doctrines and structures of the church. Eckhart, along with some other mystics, sometimes taught (or appeared to teach) that there was an uncreated and eternal “divine spark” in the human soul; orthodox theologians rightly rejected this idea because it blurred the distinction between Creator and creature. However, Eckhart did not mean to offer a deliberate alternative to official church doctrine, and he attempted to clarify his teachings.
The German mystics deeply influenced the great Reformer Martin Luther, at least in the earlier part of his career. He praised Tauler’s sermons as a source of “pure theology,” and had the Theologica Germanica reprinted twice, adding introductions from his own pen.
THE MODERN WAY OF SERVING GOD
Possessing some similarities with this mystical blossoming was the movement known as the devotio moderna (the modern way of serving God). It began in the Netherlands with Gerard Groote of Deventer (1340-84), a friend and admirer of Jan van Ruysbroeck. Groote’s ideal of the religious life was communities of Christian men and Christian women (“brotherhoods” and “sisterhoods”) who would live, pray, and follow Christ together, but without becoming monks or nuns. These brotherhoods and sisterhoods would work for a living “in the world” and take no monastic vows. These communities proved very popular and spread throughout the Netherlands and western Germany. In time, the majority of the female communities adopted some form of monastic discipline, but most of the male communities—the Brothers of the Common Life—stayed true to Groote’s ideals. They dedicated much of their energy to copying and distributing religious literature.
The “modern way of serving God” was marked by a sense of God’s closeness to the believer, and a focusing of the mind on Christ’s life and sufferings as recorded in the Gospels. The most influential and well-known writing to emerge from this movement was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471).
DAWN OF THE RENAISSANCE
The fourteenth century also saw the first green shoots of the Renaissance. The original “Renaissance Man” was the poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-74). Petrarch’s parents were natives of Florence, but he grew up in Avignon during the Avignon Papacy.
The first half of Petrarch’s life was a cause of profound shame to him. He became a priest without any sense of divine calling, and he lived with several mistresses, siring a number of illegitimate children. However, in 1350, Petrarch experienced a religious conversion, at which point he turned from his immorality.
Petrarch was a zealous admirer of the ancient Latin pagan writers, especially Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca, and he modeled his writing style on them. Petrarch’s own writings made him internationally famous—his Italian love poems were works of literary genius. After his conversion, Petrarch’s spiritual hero was Augustine of Hippo, and he never went anywhere without a copy of Augustine’s Confessions. Since Augustine was a Platonist, Petrarch accepted Plato as the supreme philosopher. This put him in sharp conflict with the theology of the scholastics, who had largely abandoned Plato for Aristotle.
In Petrarch, we see the ingredients that went into the making of the Renaissance, especially in its more Christian form:
1. An attitude of contempt for the medieval period as “the Dark Ages.” (Petrarch was the first man to refer to the Middle Ages by this name.)
2. A belief in a “golden age” of civilization in classical Greece and Rome, and a spiritual golden age in the days of the Apostles and early church fathers.
3. A new fervor for Plato that checked the commitment to Aristotle that operated in much scholastic theology, and a tendency to prefer Augustine over scholasticism in any case.
4. The admiration of ancient Latin authors as masters of literary style.
5. The conviction that all philosophy and theology should not be abstract, but should revolve around humanity and human life, especially the relationship between human beings and God.
THE BLACK DEATH
We cannot leave the fourteenth century without contemplating the Black Death. This was a devastating plague that swept through Europe from 1347 until about 1400. A third of Europe’s population perished—in some regions, half the population. Petrarch has left us this description:
When will our descendants be able to believe that there was a time when . . . almost the whole earth became uninhabited— empty houses, deserted cities, fields growing wild, the ground covered in dead bodies, and everywhere a vast and dreadful silence?
Under the desolating impact of the Black Death, the church’s missionary army—the Franciscans and Dominicans—found they could not keep up their supply of missionaries to the East. As a result, the entire missionary program shrank to a negligible size. It did not effectively revive for another two hundred years.