Part I Part II
The Middle Ages: 476-1453
The Medieval Period began with the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. In 410, Rome was conquered. In 476, the Western Emperor was deposed by a Gothic King.
The Eastern Empire did not collapse, however; rather it rose in the fifth and sixth centuries. The greatest Byzantine ruler was Justinian, emperor from 527-565, who rebuilt Hagia Sophia and, influenced by his wife Theodora, instituted many reforms improving the status of women. The decline of the East began with the first Muslim invasions in 622. Finally Constantinople fell in 1453, the end of the Middle Ages, and was renamed Istanbul.
During this era, there were "wars and rumors of war" and a lot of suffering including the bubonic plague. The Apocalypse seemed near. On the eve of the year 1000, the first millennium in the Western calendar, a crowd gathered in Rome awaiting the end of the world. The year had been a chaotic one, with some using apocalyptic scripture to predict the end of time. Many people panicked and brought riches to monasteries and churches in hope of being judged favorably. When midnight came that New Year's eve, nothing happened. Pope Sylvester II came out, blessed the crowd, and sent them on their way.
Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne emperor of the Romans in 800
War and conflict pervaded this one thousand year era. The West suffered several invasions from Islamic peoples and the Scandinavians. For a brief time, during the rule of Charlemagne, the West experienced some stability.
The East also was in conflict. Beginning in 1071, Seljuk Turks conquered much of Asia Minor, including the key Christian cities of Antioch, Edessa, and Nicea. By 1079, they were in control of Jerusalem; Christian pilgrimages to the Holy City were essentially stopped.1
Christians were not only victims but they also were the perpetrators of violence. The Crusades, called in response to the Seljuk Turks taking over Jerusalem, were military conquests that attacked not only Moslems, who were labelled the enemy, but also Christians. The Crusades also stirred up anti-Semitic bias and violence, which had first been expressed within Christendom during the reign of Constantine the Great.
Charles the Great (742-814), better known as Charlemagne, was crowned emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day, 800 by Pope Leo III. Charles was genuinely surprised. About three decades earlier, Charlemagne had begun his rise to power when he became king of the Franks (768). Through numerous military campaigns, he increased the size of his kingdom so that it included a large part of western Europe. He forced those whom he conquered to become Christians.
Charlemagne waged war with the Saxons from 774-804. At one point, he threatened that he would kill all of the Saxons unless they became Christians.
He founded sees, issued a decree banning the rites of the heathen gods, and ordered the Saxons to be baptized and to pay tithes. The only result was another large raid on the Franks, after which the emperor beheaded 4,000 Saxons at Verden. The war went on, with Saxons burning new churches, killing Christian priests, and rebuilding the shrines of the gods. 2
In the end, Charlemagne accomplished his goals. Missionaries were sent to the Saxons so that the conquered people could be instructed in their new faith.
"Charlemagne and His Scholars" (the man in the background probably is Alcuin)
Charlemagne was not only a military man and ruler but also a reformer of both church and society. He invited cleric scholars to advise him, including Alcuin, Paul the Dean, Peter of Pisa, and Paulinus. Through his efforts, the brief "Carolingian Renaissance" of scholarship occurred.
Alcuin, an English monk and deacon from York who directed a school at Charlemagne's palace in Aachen, founded and expanded monastic schools, scriptoria (where manuscripts were produced by scribes), and libraries throughout the kingdom. He saw to it that classical and Christian patristic texts were copied using a standardized style of handwriting called the Carolingian minuscule.
With Charles' support, many beautiful books were produced, including illuminated manuscripts such as the Aachen Gospels and The Fountain of Life. The latter book, one of the first written in Carolingian minuscule script, was produced to commemorate the baptism of Charlemagne's son Pepin.
Charlemagne was a sincere Christian who was both interested in and took authority over religious affairs. He requested that Alcuin reform and unify the people's diverse liturgical practices. The Apostles' Creed was one element that was added. Charles also appointed bishops and called church councils. He built up a hierarchical church order with archbishops at the head of sees who supervised the bishops who, in turn, watched over their provinces.
Pope Hadrian I (772-795) ended the West's formal acknowledgement of the rule of the emperor in Constantinople. He treated Charlemagne as the lay head of Christianity, which seemed very much in line with Charles' history of being both an effective military conqueror and church and social reformer. Just why the Hadrian's successor Pope Leo III crowned the king of the Franks and the Lombards is a matter of debate. Some think the Pope was trying to assert his authority over the very powerful man who was not under papal control. Others believe the Pope was openly rejecting the sovereignty of the Byzantine Emperors.3
The Reformation began in 1453, the year that the Turks captured Constantinople. It was a time of discovery and discontent-- new ideas and worlds-- persecution and oppression. Meet Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish priest who sought to abolish the oppression of the native peoples in the Americas.
1. Read about the Crusades and other Christian campaigns, including eyewitness accounts:
2. Authority and the Western Church
3. The description of the Hagia Sophia, 537 by Procopius (c.490/507-c.560s)
4. Visit other web sites.
Next Page: Reformations: 1453-1800
1A History of the Christian Church, 4th ed., edited by Williston Walker, Richard A. Norris, David W. Lotz, and Robert T. Handy
(New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985), p. 284.
2 Owen Chadwick, A History of Christianity (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995), p. 101.
3 Walker, et.al., pp. 241-242.
"Charlemagne and His Scholars" is a detail from painting by Karl von Blaas in An Outline of Christianity: The Story of Our Civilization, Vol. II (New York: Bethlehem Publishers, Inc., 1926), p. 230.
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