Selskar Abbey, Wexford … an early Augustinian foundation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Church of Ireland Theological Institute
Reader Course Day Conference Programme
4 February 2017, 12 noon to 1 p.m.:
Church History: The Mediaeval Church and the Reformation.
Recently, we discussed the arrival of Christianity in Ireland, the contribution of the Irish monastic tradition to the spread of Christianity throughout Continental Europe; and the reshaping and reform of the Church in Ireland prior to the arrival of the Anglo-Normans.
I imagine that many of us, in our imaginations, make a mental leap, between the Early and Celtic Church straight through to the Reformation.
I want us this morning to look at the mediaeval Church, to consider its problems and its riches, the legacy and the burden it has left us, and then to look at the Reformation.
Let us engage in a little bit of random thinking for a moment.
What images come to mind when you think of the mediaeval Church?
● The rise of Islam and the Crusades?
● The Great Schism?
● The campaigns against the Cathars, Lollards and Hussites?
● The Papal schisms and the Papal exiles in Avignon?
● The rise of the monastic houses?
● Gothic architecture?
● An over-developed liturgy?
● Papal decadence?
At the same time as Patrician Christianity was being formed on this island, the wider Church was debating doctrine, formulating the creeds, finalising the canon of Scripture, and dealing with heresies, all part of the agenda of the first great councils of the Church.
Doctrine was being affirmed, heresy was being combatted, and unity was being expressed in the councils and the Creeds.
The locus for all these activities is the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly Constantinople, Antioch and Alexandria, the Syrian and Egyptian deserts, and the great commercial and cultural centres of western Anatolia, such as Ephesus and Chalcedon, across the Bosporus from Byzantium.
An icon of the Council of Nicaea, with the Emperor Constantine and the bishops holding a scroll with the words of the Nicene Creed
When Constantine moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium in 330, the centre of Christianity moved from the Old Rome to the New Rome, and the Eastern rim of the Mediterranean basin became the centre of Christian intellectual activity and debate as the western empire was crumbling and collapsing.
But divisions began to afflict the Eastern Church too, as illustrated by the fate of Saint John Chrysostom.
Saint John Chrysostom (Ἰωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος, ‘John the Golden-Mouthed’ (ca 347–407), Patriarch of Constantinople, is known for his eloquent preaching and his denunciation of the abuse of power and privilege. He has given his name to the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom and the ‘Prayer of Saint Chrysostom’ in The Book of Common Prayer.
He was a monk and a priest in Antioch when he was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople in 397. He quickly became unpopular with the ruling class, the wealthy citizens and the clergy of Constantinople, and his reforms proved unpopular.
At a synod in 403, he was deposed and banished. But on the night of his arrest an earthquake hit the city; the Empress Eudoxia saw this as a sign of God’s anger, and John was reinstated.
But this peace was short-lived, and John compared Eudoxia with Herodias, who ‘desires to receive John’s head in a charger.’ This time, he was banished to the Caucasus in Armenia. In exile, he appealed for support to three Church leaders in the West, the Bishop of Rome, Pope Innocent I, the Bishop of Milan and the Bishop of Aquileia.
But the three bishops Pope Innocent sent to intercede on John’s behalf were not allowed to enter Constantinople. He was exiled to furthest eastern end of the Black Sea, and on that gruelling journey he died in Comana in Cappadocia on 14 September 407.
After his death, relations between Rome and Constantinople were broken off, and were not restored for 11 years. Eventually, his relics were returned to Constantinople in 438. But his deposition, his appeal to Rome, the treatment of the Roman delegation by Byzantium, and the breach in communion for over a decade set the agenda and paved the way for further divisions between the Church of the East and the Church of the West.
Two long-lasting divisions
Meanwhile, two further divisions beset the Church in the East – the heresies labelled as Nestorianism and Monophysitism.
Monophysitism was born in the theological School of Alexandria, which began its Christological analysis with the divine eternal Son or Word of God and sought to explain how this eternal Word had become incarnate as a man. In contrast, the School of Antioch, the birthplace of Nestorianism, began with the human Jesus of the Gospels and sought to explain how this man is united with the eternal Word in the Incarnation.
Both sides agreed, of course, that Christ is both human and divine. But the School of Alexandria emphasised the Divinity of Christ, including the concept that the divine nature was itself ‘impassible’ or immune to suffering. On the other hand, the Antiochines emphasised humanity of Christ, including the limited knowledge and growth in wisdom of the Christ of the Gospels. In reality, individual Monophysite and Nestorian theologians rarely believed the extreme views attributed to them by their opponents, even if some of their followers may have.
Nestorius and Nestorians
Saint Mary’s Basilica … the Double Church where the Council of Ephesus met and Nestorius was condemned in 431 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Nestorius (Νεστόριος, ca 386–ca 451) was the Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to August 431. He rejected the title Θεοτόκος (Theotokos, ‘God-bearer’ or ‘Mother of God’) for the Virgin Mary, and he was understood by many to imply that he did not believe that Christ was truly God. However, Nestorius actually was concerned that the use of the term Θεοτόκος ran the risk of venerating the Virgin Mary as a goddess.
Saint Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, accused Nestorius of heresy. Nestorius sought to defend himself at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 – a year before Saint Patrick is traditionally said to have landed in Ireland to begin his mission. The council formally condemned Nestorius for heresy, he was deposed as Patriarch, exiled to Upper Egypt, and was anathematised in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
The Assyrian or Chaldean Church, which also calls itself the Church of the East, never accepted that he was a heretic, but the Second Council of Constantinople (553) confirmed the condemnation of Nestorius. Yet, by the early seventh century, Nestorian missionaries were firmly established in China under the Tang Dynasty (618–907). The so-called ‘Nestorian stele’ records a mission under Alopen, a Persian Christian, who introduced Nestorian Christianity to China in 635.
Following the Muslim conquest of Persia in 644, the Persian Church became a protected faith community under the Caliphate, and flourished in China and India.
Monophysites and Monophysitism
The Monophysite concepts developed in reaction to Nestorianism. This new teaching asserted that Christ had but one nature, his human nature being absorbed into his divinity. This doctrine was condemned in 451 at the Fourth Ecumenical Council, he Council of Chalcedon.
The Chalcedonian decrees were accepted in Rome, Constantinople and Antioch, but were resisted strongly in Alexandria and in the Egyptian monasteries. This led eventually to the schism between the Chalcedonian churches and the Oriental Orthodox churches.
Monophysitism was later attributed mistakenly to the non-Chalcedonian churches, including the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Egyptian and Ethiopian Orthodox churches (Copts), and many of the Syrian Orthodox Churches in the Middle East and India, although today it is condemned as heresy by the modern Oriental Orthodox churches.
Later, monothelitism – the belief that Christ was two natures in one person except that he only had a divine will and no human will – was an effort to bridge the gap between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites. However, it too was rejected by the Chalcedonian synod, despite at times having the support of Byzantine emperors and once avoiding being condemned by the Pope of the day, Honorius I.
Orthodoxy was now triumphant in Byzantium, and that triumph was symbolised by Aghia Sophia (Ἁγία Σοφία), the great Church of Holy Wisdom, which would remain the largest cathedral in the Christian world for almost 1,000 years.
The Rise of Islam
But the greatest threat to the East at the time was posed not by internal divisions, not by the rival claims of Rome and the Church in West, but by the rise of Islam.
The fertile crescent of the Middle East is the birth place of great ancient kingdoms such as Babylon, Jerusalem and Persia, and of three of the great surviving monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Just five centuries after the start of Christianity, Muhammad was born ca 570, little more than a generation after the completion of Aghia Sophia, and Islam would rise as a religious, political and social force in the Middle East.
Muhammad was a member of the Quraysh tribe in Mecca, Around 610-613, he claimed to have received revelations from God through the Archangel Gabriel that he was a prophet in the same line as Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and calling him to preach the religious message of Islam.
His monotheistic message was not well received in Mecca, a centre of polytheistic worship that profited from pagan pilgrims to the Kaaba; the early Muslim converts faced persecution, and Muhammad and his followers were forced flee to Medina in the hejira in the year 622. In 624, the Muslims attacked and defeated a heavily-guarded merchant caravan in the Battle of Badr, the first major battle in the Muslim conquest of Arabia.
Over the next few years, he expanded his territorial control and waged war with both pagan and Jewish Arab tribes, his power and influence grew and relations with the three Jewish tribes of Medina deteriorated. In 630, Muhammad conquered Mecca and over the next two years he sent his armies throughout western Arabia to conquer the remaining tribes. He demolished the temples of his defeated enemies and refused to accept their surrender until they agreed to convert to his religion.
After the death of Muhammad in 632, the Muslims were led by a series of Caliphs, his closest companions, who continued his aggressive expansion, first in the Arabian peninsula and then attacking the two major powers in the region, the Byzantine Empire of the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Sassanid Empire of Persia, who had been in a state of almost continuous war with each other for an entire century and who were now were weakened and unable to resist.
In the year 638, Jerusalem was captured by the Muslims. Muslim armies went on to conquer almost the entire Middle East, including the Levant, Egypt, and Persia. Islam spread quickly to northern Africa and east as far as India.
Once all of North Africa had come under the rule of the Caliphate, the Muslim forces invaded Europe, and pressed north, almost reaching Paris before Charles Martel defeated the Muslim armies at the Battle of Tours in 732.
Should we regard this as the battle that saved Europe for Christianity? Certainly, the expansion of Islam was astonishing in its days. In just 100 years, Islam had conquered all of Arabia and then expanded, conquering vast territories as far west as Spain and as far east as Afghanistan.
The village mosque in Sirinçe, is now the only public place of worship in the former Greek-speaking village in Anatolia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Islamic Caliphate was now the largest empire the world had yet known, controlling some of the most important centres of civilisation. Of the five Christian Patriarchates, three had fallen under Islamic rule – Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch. Indeed, there is evidence that in some places, including Alexandria in Egypt and Damascus in Syria, Christians who had been living under oppressive rule welcomed the Muslim conquerors.
Only Rome and Constantinople remained in Christian hands. From this point on, much of Mediterranean history would be marked by the struggles between Christianity and Islam, with Christianity dominating the northern shores of the Mediterranean and Islam the southern shores. The battlegrounds would be Spain, Jerusalem, Constantinople, and the islands caught in the middle.
Meanwhile, way out West
In all these debates, Rome seemed to be little more than a provincial backwater, and it took centuries for the ‘Eternal City’ to claim or reclaim its authority and its claims to primacy.
Saint Jerome translated the Bible in his Latin Vulgate version in 404. But only six years later, in 410, Rome was sacked by Alaric and the Goths, sending shockwaves throughout the civilised world. It is seldom remembered that Alaric was an Arian, and that he left the great churches of Rome untouched. Pelagianism rather than Arianism appeared to pose a greatest threat in Rome until Pelagius moved to North Africa and there he clashed with Augustine of Hippo.
Nevertheless, the old order seemed to be crumbling and Christianity appeared to be under siege, inspiring Augustine to write his City of God (ca 413-427). Leo the Great, who became Pope in 440, was the first Bishop of Rome to assume the title of Pontifex Maximus, a title previously used only by emperors.
But Leo was not present at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and a year later, in 452, Attila the Hun and his forces arrived in Italy. At an encounter in Mantua, Leo persuaded Attila and his forces to turn back from Rome, but the Vandals captured Rome in 455, and spent a fortnight looting and sacking the city.
Less than two decades later, in 476, the German warrior Odoacer became the first barbarian King of Rome. The links between the Old Rome and the New Rome were now merely nominal and not always respected.
When the Frankish king Clovis sought to be baptised in Rheims Cathedral ca 500, he consciously modelled himself on the Emperor Constantine almost two centuries earlier.
But the recovery of the Latin Church only truly begins with the Papacy of Gregory I, Saint Gregory the Great, who was Pope from 590 until his death in 604. He was the first pope to come from a monastic background, and he is revered by Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church, Anglicans and Lutherans. Even Calvin admired him, and declared in his Institutes that Gregory was the last good pope.
Gregory is credited with re-energising the Church’s missionary work in northern Europe. In 596, he sent Augustine on a mission to England, and he is counted as the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
Rome was beginning its recovery and the defeat of the Muslims at Tours by Charles Martel in 732 prepared the ground for the reunion of the Frankish kingdoms. The link between the Frankish kingdoms and the Papacy was consolidated when Charles the Great, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome on Christmas Day 800.
Although the Vikings were still plundering the monasteries of northern Europe, the Moors were ensconced in Spain and Jerusalem, and the Byzantine Empire was holding out in the East, the Vikings and the Slavs were learning to write, and Christian kingdoms were emerging throughout northern and western Europe. Western Christianity appeared to have triumphed in the face of adversity and the next four centuries, between 800 and 1200, saw a new relationship between Church and State.
The monastic houses were providing renewal and learning, and Anselm was asking his great questions about God, Faith and Understanding.
But the divisions already created between Greek East and Latin West continued to simmer.
In a defence against the Arianism of the Visigoths in Spain, the filioque clause had been inserted in the Latin version of the Nicene Creed used in the West. By 800, it was being used in the chapels of Charlemagne. At first, its use was opposed by the Popes, and East and West agreed in Constantinople in 879 that all additions to the Creed were prohibited. But it was soon accepted quiescently; and finally it was accepted without any conciliar approval and against the wishes of the Church in the East, to the point that delegates from Rome to Constantinople even accused the Greeks of removing the filioque from the Creed.
The Church in East had already been weakened externally by the assaults from its Muslim neighbours and internally by the frictions created by the iconoclast controversy.
The debate about the filioque was a result of rather than the cause of the divisions between East and West. On16 July 1054, the Papal Legate, Cardinal Humbert, stormed into Aghia Sophia with his retinue, interrupted the Divine Liturgy, marched up to the high altar, and laid down a Bull of Excommunication against Patriarch Michael Keroularios. The Patriarch responded in kind, and the schism, exacerbated by the Crusades, has continued to divide the Church ever since.
External and internal priorities: the Crusades and the Monasteries
By the time of the Church at the Great Schism between East and West, the Western Church was in need of consolidation, and two priorities, pressures or forces, one external and one internal, helped to provide that consolidation or focus in very different ways – the development of monastic and mendicant traditions, and the lessons and disasters of the Crusades.
In many ways, those two movements are brought together in the person of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who is remembered for his efforts to reform the Benedictine monastic tradition, and for his zeal in preaching on behalf of the Crusades.
The Crusades were a series of religious wars between 1095 and 1291, blessed by the Pope and the Church with the expressed goal of restoring Christian access to holy places in and near Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was first captured by Islamic forced in 638. When the Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine army in 1071, Christian access to Jerusalem was cut off. The Byzantine Emperor, Alexis I, feared the Turks would over-run Asia Minor and called on western Christian leaders and the papacy to come to the aid of Constantinople and to free Jerusalem from Islamic rule.
In all, there were nine Crusades from the 11th to the 13th century, along with many “minor” Crusades. Several hundred thousand Crusaders came from throughout western Europe, but they were not under any one unified command. Their emblem was the cross, and the term ‘Crusade,’ although not used by the Crusaders to describe themselves, comes from the French term for taking up the cross. Many were from France and were called ‘Franks’ – the common term used by Muslims.
In the decades immediately before the launch of the Crusades, the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bin-Amir Allah ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. His successors allowed the Byzantine Empire to rebuild the church in 1039 and Christian pilgrims were allowed once again to visit the holy sites in Palestine.
In second half of the 11th century, even before the First Crusade, European forces had been at war with Muslim forces:
● The city of Pisa in Italy funded its new cathedral through two raids on the Muslims – in Palermo (1063) and Mahdia (1087).
● In Sicily, the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard had conquered northern Sicily by 1072.
● In 1085, Moorish Toledo fell to the Kingdom of León.
The Crusades came as a response to wave-after-wave of Turkish assaults on the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine emperors sent emissaries to the Pope asking for aid in their struggles with the Seljuk Turks. In 1074, Emperor Michael VII sent a request for aid to Pope Gregory VII, but there was no practical response.
In 1095, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos appealed to Pope Urban II for help against the Turks, and Urban II responded by launching the crusades on the last day of the Council of Clermont.
His speech is of the most influential speeches ever. When he finished, those present chanted: ‘Deus vult, God wills it.’
Immediately, thousands pledged themselves to go on the first crusade. Pope Urban’s sermon at Clermont was the start of an eight-month preaching tour throughout France, and preachers were sent throughout Western Europe to talk up the Crusade.
First Crusade (1095–1099):
The leaders of the First Crusade were Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke William II of Normandy, but not King Philip I of France or the German Emperor Henry IV. In all, the forces may have numbered 100,000.
The first crusader armies set off from France and Italy on 15 August 1096, with only a fraction of their original forces finally reached the walls of Jerusalem on 7 June 1099. They entered the city on 15 July 1099 and proceeded to massacre the remaining Jewish and Muslim civilians, pillaging or destroyed the mosques and the city itself.
The historian Steven Runciman writes of the First Crusade as a barbarian invasion of the civilised and sophisticated Byzantine empire, ultimately bringing about the ruin of Byzantine civilisation.
The Second Crusade (1147–1149):
After a period of relative peace, the Muslims reconquered Edessa and a new crusade was called for by various preachers, especially Saint Bernard of Clairvaux. However, Bernard of Clairvaux was upset with the amount of misdirected violence and the slaughter of the Jewish population of the Rhineland.
French and German armies under the King Louis VII and King Conrad III marched to Jerusalem in 1147 but failed to win any major victories. Even the pre-emptive siege of Damascus was a failure. By 1150, the kings of France and Germany had returned home without any gains.
The Third Crusade (1187-1192)
The divided Muslim forces and powers were united by Saladin, who created a single powerful state. Following his victory at the Battle of Hattin, he overwhelmed the disunited crusaders in 1187 and all of the crusader holdings except a few coastal cities.
Saladin’s victories shocked Europe. When he heard of the Siege of Jerusalem (1187), Pope Urban VIII died of a heart attack on 19 October 1187. On 29 October, Pope Gregory VIII issued a papal bull calling for the Third Crusade. But the Third Crusade ended without Jerusalem being retaken.
The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204):
The Fourth Crusade was initiated by Pope Innocent III, with a plan to invade the Holy Land through Egypt, with a fleet contracted from Venice. But the crusaders lost the support of the Pope and were excommunicated.
They lacked supplies, the leases on their vessels were running out when they turned on Constantinople and tried to place a Byzantine exile on the throne. In 1204, the Crusaders sacked the city and established the so-called ‘Latin Empire’ and a collection of petty Crusader states throughout the Byzantine Empire.
The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221):
The Fifth Crusade is remembered for an incident in 1219, when Saint Francis of Assisi crossed the battle lines at Damietta to speak to the Sultan.
The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229):
Emperor Frederick II launched the Sixth Crusade in 1228, but there were no battles in the Crusade, and Frederick signed a treaty with the Sultan of Egypt allowing Christians to rule over most of Jerusalem and a strip of territory from Acre to Jerusalem, while the Muslims had control of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount and al-Aqsa Mosque. In 1244, the Muslims regained control of Jerusalem.
The Seventh Crusade (1248-1254):
King Louis IX of France organised a crusade against Egypt from 1248 to 1254. The crusaders were decisively defeated on their way to Cairo and King Louis was captured, released only after a large ransom had been paid.
The Eighth Crusade (1270):
Louis IX again attacked the Arabs in 1270, this time in Tunis in North Africa. The king died in Tunisia, ending this last major attempt to take the Holy Land.
The Ninth Crusade (1271–1272):
The future Edward I of England, who had accompanied Louis on the Eighth Crusade, launched his own Crusade in 1271. But the Ninth Crusade was a failure and it marks the end of the Crusades in the Middle East.
Some other ‘Crusades’:
The Albigensian Crusade was launched in 1209 against the heretical Cathars of Occitania in southern France.
The ‘Children’s Crusade’ in 1212 ended with many of the children dying of hunger or exhaustion and most of the survivors being captured and sold into slavery.
Evaluating the Crusades:
The Crusades had political, economic, and social impacts on western Europe. Later consequences were, on the one hand, the way they weakened the Byzantine Empire, which fell eventually to the Muslim Turks; and, on the other hand, a long period of wars in Spain and Portugal leading to a Christian conquest or reconquest of the Iberian peninsula. The Crusades allowed the Papacy to assert its independence of secular rulers and developed the arguments for the proper use of armed force by Christians, leading eventually to the development of the ‘Just War’ theories.
Some historians have argued that the Crusades opened up European culture to the world, especially Asia, and gave Christian Europe a more cosmopolitan world view that led to its world-wide empires.
Sir Steven Runciman says of the Crusades: ‘High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed ... the Holy War was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God.’
Runciman has highlighted the tension between the Patriarchs of Constantinople and the Popes in Rome during the Crusades, and the more tolerant attitude of the Byzantines towards Muslim powers. For Runciman, the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 was the culmination of the mounting dislike and suspicion that western Christendom felt towards Byzantium.
The West misunderstood Byzantium, and could not accept the ideas that the Roman inheritance had shifted from Rome to Constantinople and that the civilised, Christian world was centred on Constantinople. For their part, the Byzantines had a deep-rooted antipathy towards the West, convinced of Byzantine cultural and religious superiority, despite Byzantium’s military and political weakness.
Nevertheless, the Crusades had an enormous influence on the Church and on western Europe in the Middle Ages. In part, they contributed to the development of nation states such as France, England, Spain, Burgundy and Portugal.
Much knowledge in areas such as science, medicine, mathematics, philosophy and architecture were introduced to Europe from the Islamic world during the crusades.
Along with trade, new scientific discoveries and inventions made their way east or west. Arab and classical Greek advances, including the development of algebra and optics and the refinement of engineering, made their way west and sped the course of advancement in European universities that led to the Renaissance in later centuries.
Maritime passage brought the rise of Western European and Mediterranean trading and naval powers such as the Sicilian Normans and the Italian city-states of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa.
Trade routes opened across Europe, bringing many things to Europeans that were once unknown or rare, including a variety of spices, ivory, jade, diamonds, improved glass-manufacturing techniques, early forms of gun powder, oranges, apples, and other Asian crops and produce.
The Crusades mark Europe’s recovery from the Dark Ages (ca 700–1000). The economy of Western Europe advanced, and the Renaissance began in the Italian maritime republics of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa which were opened to the ancient knowledge of the Greeks and Romans.
But the rising Ottoman Empire would pose a new threat to Western Europe in advance of Christopher Columbus’s voyage in 1492 and the opening of the Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century.
The rise of the monastic tradition:
The role of the monastic and mendicant orders at the time of the Crusades is crucial to their development. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, responsible for the reform of the Benedictine tradition, “preached up” the Second Crusade; Saint Francis of Assisi crossed the battle lines at Damietta to speak to the Sultan in 1219 during the Fifth Crusade; and the Carmelites arrived in Europe as a loose group of hermits forced to leave the Holy Land in the wake of the failure of the Crusades.
Two particular rules have shaped Western monasticism: the Rule of Saint Benedict and the Rule of Saint Augustine. But the monastic tradition has its roots in the Desert Fathers and a tradition that developed in Egypt and Syria.
The Benedictine tradition:
Within the Western monastic tradition, there are two key figures, Saint Benedict and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
Saint Benedict of Nursia is the most influential figure in western monasticism. He was educated in Rome but soon sought the life of a hermit in a cave at Subiaco, outside the city. He attracted followers and with them he founded the monastery of Monte Cassino ca 520, between Rome and Naples.
Saint Benedict was more focused on schools, and the education of the monks who followed his rule. He wished to reform the education throughout the monasteries so that a monk could be a better person, and more greatly achieve their quest of living a life like that of Christ.
He set out the rule that led to him being credited with the title of Father of Western Monasticism.
By the ninth century, largely under the inspiration of Charlemagne, the Rule of Saint Benedict had become the guiding rule for Western monasticism.
The Mendicant orders:
In the 13th century, with the decline of the monasteries, new mendicant orders of friars were founded to teach the Christian faith. Within the mendicant orders, two principal groups of friars emerged: the Franciscans and the Dominicans.
The Franciscans begin with Saint Francis of Assisi in the early 13th century. Saint Francis realised that as the monks became rich from their earnings, they ultimately started to become lazy and proud. His Franciscans believed in living in poverty and sought to survive by begging.
The Dominicans or the Order of Preachers was founded by Saint Dominic de Guzman in the 13th century. He established a systematic and organised method of teaching the monks so they would be prepared to travel and preach to the people. Saint Dominic taught the most importance of linking the monastic rules with lives of poverty, chastity and obedience. He also emphasised charity and meekness.
The principal western monastic and mendicant traditions include:
● The Benedictines: founded in 529 by Benedict at Monte Cassino. They, stress the combination of work, prayer and study in the monastic life.
● The Augustinians, who evolved from the canons who lived under the Rule of Saint Augustine.
● The Carmelites (Whitefriars) who were founded ca 1206 and 1214, but claimed to have originated on the slopes of Mount Carmel.
● The Cistercians or Trappists, who developed out of reforms of the Benedictine tradition initiated by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.
● The Dominicans (the Blackfriars), founded in 1215 by Saint Dominic.
● The Franciscans, who followed the lifestyle of Saint Francis and Saint Clare.
The beginning of change
Detail from the ‘Market Cross’ in Kells, Co Meath … reform in Ireland begins at the Synods of Rath Breasail and Kells (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Meanwhile, what was happening in Ireland? For the Irish Church, the Middle Ages was a period of great change. The structural reforms had a lasting impact through:
1, The mediaeval reforms of the Church;
2,The arrival of the monastic and mendicant friars;
3, The Anglicisation of the Church;
4, The contribution of women;
5, The advent of the Reformation.
The former shrine of the heart of Laurence O’Toole in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
We have already seen that Celtic Ireland was a largely rural and agricultural society. On the other hand, the churches in the cities were looking towards England for their stimulus. Before the death of Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1109, six bishops-elect from Ireland – four from Dublin and one each from Limerick and Waterford – were consecrated by the Archbishops of Canterbury and accepted the Archbishops of Canterbury as primate.
For their part, when they looked at Ireland, two Archbishops of Canterbury, Lanfranc (d. 1089) and Anselm (d. 1109), identified specific faults in the Church, including simony, maladministration of the sacraments, and highly defective law of marriage. Anselm believed there were too many bishops in Ireland, and that these bishops had too little authority and not enough pastoral dynamism. He linked both these faults with the fact that the bishops had no defined territorial area in which to exercise their episcopal authority.
Half a century later, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux complained that ‘almost every single monastery [in Ireland] has its own bishop.’
So the Cistercian reforms on Continental Europe, introduced by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, had a strong influence on the reforms introduced to Ireland in the 12th century.
The foundation of the monastic houses was promoted by Archbishop Malachy of Armagh following the visit to Rome in 1139. Three years later, the Cistercians established their first house in Ireland in Mellifont, Co Louth, in 1142, and the Synod of Kells met there in 1152.
By 1148, the Augustinian canons had had established over 40 communities in Ireland, and they were introduced to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, by Laurence O’Toole, when he became Archbishop of Dublin in 1162.
The arrival of the Anglo-Normans in the second half of the 12th century, while Laurence O’Toole was archbishop, ushered in a period of further dramatic change and reform in Ireland.
At the Council of Cashel in 1172, the Bishops of Ireland acknowledged before Henry II that further, sweeping reforms were needed, and Archbishop Gelasius of Armagh and Archbishop Laurence of Dublin, welcomed Henry II to their dioceses.
The face of the mediaeval church changed with the arrival in Ireland of the monastic houses and the mendicant orders.
The Cistercians in Ireland:
● Were highly structured, compared with loose organisation of earlier Celtic monasteries;
● Had a rigid hierarchical structure within their monasteries;
● They were part of a wider community, with links throughout Europe;
● Their structures allowed them to resist local and family interests;
● They also introduced major economic and educational reforms, in agriculture, land reclamation.
The friars brought with them a revolutionary approach to the Church. At first they used the local parish churches, but they soon founded their own churches and houses.
A plaque in Cloister Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, recalls John Duns Scotus and the Franciscans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
An interesting example of an early learned Irish Franciscan theologian and philosopher of the High Middle Ages may be John Duns Scotus (1266-1308). The name Scotus may indicate he was born in Ireland, and an entry the Franciscan library in Assisi dated 1381 refers to him as Irish. That entry designates Duns Scotus’s commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard as ‘magistri fratris Johannis Scoti de Ordine Minorum, qui et Doctor Subtilis nuncupatur, de provincia Hiberniæ’ (‘the work of master John Scotus of the Franciscan Order known as the subtle doctor, from the province of Ireland’).
The prominent 16th and 17th century Irish Franciscans who translated his works, including Mauritius de Portu (O’Fihely), Hugh MacCaghwell, and Luke Wadding, also regarded Duns Scotus as Irish. However, he is also claimed by Duns in Berwickshire.
Duns Scotus was known in the Middle Ages as Doctor Subtilis (‘Subtle Doctor’), and was one of the most important philosophers and theologians of the High Middle Ages.
The 15th century saw a thorough-going reform and renewal movement in all four orders of mendicant friars in Ireland. About 90 new houses were founded in Ireland, many of them in Gaelic-speaking areas in Connacht and Ulster.
What was the impact of the mendicant friars on the life of the Church in Ireland in these centuries before the Reformation?
● They changed the face of parochial life.
● They raised the expectations of the laity when it came to the education and skills of the parochial clergy.
● They challenged the attitudes of slack and ignorant clergy.
● Their loyalty to their orders, and through them, to the Pope challenged the episcopal and diocesan structures.
The Anglicisation of the Church
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin … the Anglicisation of the Church also brought new styles of architecture to Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Apart from the spread of the monastic and mendicant houses, another great factor in reform and change in the Irish Church was the Anglicisation of Ireland following the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, and which reached its peak within a century in the reign of Edward I (1272-1307).
When 20 bishops from Ireland attended the Fourth Lateran Council in Rome in 1215, six or seven were English. By the end of the 13th century, about half the bishops in Ireland were English or from English families. Yet, in some parts of Ireland, the Gaelic Irish clergy tried to block English priests from being admitted to cathedral chapters, even when this was condemned by Pope Innocent IV.
The mutual discrimination – which we could describe as an early form of apartheid – was enshrined in civil law and passed into legislation with 35 acts of parliament known as the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366, reasserting the primacy of English culture, customs and manners.
English common law became the norm, and the separation of the Irish and English churches was ensured by requiring that ‘no Irishman of the nations of the Irish be admitted into any cathedral or collegiate church ... amongst the English of the land.’
But, while the Statutes were sweeping in scope and aim, they never fully succeeded because the government did have the resources to fully implement them.
The contributions of women
While the public face of the Church in the High Middle Ages may have been the bishops and the male monks and mendicants, it should not be forgotten that women also played interesting roles in the development of life in the Church in Ireland.
In late mediaeval western European society, women were, in the main, more profoundly religious than men.
Their role in the development of the Church was not confined to the cloisters of enclosed communities of women. Mary Ann Lyons has written an interesting study on ‘Lay female piety and church patronage in late medieval Ireland.’
She shows that women played a key role in the development of the Church in both Gaelic and English-speaking areas, and she explores those by examining their religious beliefs, church patronage, funeral customs and their attitudes towards death and salvation.
She has documented interesting examples of the inversion of gender authority roles that characterise church patronage in pre-Reformation Irish society. They were the organisers of pilgrimages, the founders of monastic and mendicant houses, and the benefactors of the poor, the clergy and scholars. They often had great collections of books, and were generous with their endowments.
Awaiting the Reformation
During these centuries of the High Middle Ages, we should not forget, there were other signs of truly religious life and great cultural awakenings in the Church in Ireland. Great manuscripts were being illuminated, great churches were being built, and they were being decorated with great windows.
But by the 16th century, while the mendicant friars were totally identified with the people, particularly in the towns and cities, only handfuls of monks remained in the great Cistercian abbeys, and the church in general was failing to meet the needs of the people and was in need of reform.
(Revd Professor) Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture as part of the Reader Course Day Conference on 4 February 2017.