A.D. 800-1350

We have now reached a period when the middle ages definitely took shape, and from which they dragged on for generation after generation, an ecclesiastical hierarchy preying upon the very life, both spiritual and material, of the peoples of Europe, and the world outside waiting in darkness and anguish for the Gospel which was never brought. For convenience' sake, we may say historically that this mediaeval period began in the year 800 with the crowning by the pope of Charlemagne, King of the Franks, as the first monarch of the so-called Holy Roman Empire. Throughout the thousand years of its existence this institution was essentially German, and, contrary to the intentions of the pope at its foundation, provided some check upon the papal power. Otherwise it has little to do with the fortunes of the true church until the time of the Reformation. In this section we shall carry our story to the middle of the fourteenth century.

The Teutonic nations of northern and western Europe were by this time entirely christianised, but there was one further field upon which expansion continued to take place after the end of the eighth century. The great migratory movements in Asia which had pressed the northern barbarians further and further towards and into the Roman empire had not yet finally settled down. During the ninth century bands of the people known since as Slavs descended from Russia into the Balkan peninsula, occupied Bulgaria and large tracts to the west of it and ravaged Greece. They were, of course, heathen, as the Teutonic barbarians had been. In the ninth and tenth centuries the Greek church set out to christianise these people. Its purpose was not one of individual evangelisation but of policy, the idea being that these nations, civilised and christianised, would be harmless, as turned out to be the case. An alphabet based upon the Greek was invented for them by Archbishop Cyril, containing several extra characters to accommodate the sounds of their language. The Scriptures and the Liturgy were translated into the language now known as Old Bu1garian or Old Church Slavonic, in which the Liturgy is chanted among them to this day, having been for generations unintelligible even if it were ever understood at the beginning. Politically and socially, this civilising mission was of benefit to Europe, but it had no relation to the true Gospel. The Scriptures were not circulated among the people at large, and apart from the presence in their midst of the Bogomil movement, which we are to look at later in this section, the Slavonic peoples of the Balkans had little chance of hearing the truth until the British and Foreign Bible Society began circulating the Scriptures among them in their own language during the nineteenth century.

This was the last of the civilising and educative missions of the mediaeval church. Her dominion now stretched to the Atlantic on the west and over the Teutonic nations in the north. To the north-east she had christianised the Slavs. The whole southern and south-eastern shores of the Mediterranean were firmly in the grip of islam, and she was cut off from the Nestorian churches in the east, not only by her own refusal to recognise and co-operate with them, but by the encroachments of Mohammedanism in those regions and also, particularly from the close of the eleventh century onwards, by the assaults of the Turks. Pseudo-Christianity had now become a world system of religion comparable to Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam, and the confusion resulting from the pouring of the new wine of the Gospel into the old bottles of worldliness and carnality rendered this Christian world religion, as might have been expected, the most corrupt of them all.

The rise of the Turks in the east and their capture of Palestine towards the close of the eleventh century was the occasion for a still further and stranger alteration in the methods by which the mediaeval church undertook to propagate Christianity. The individual evangelisation and scriptural preaching of the Gospel which had marked the primitive Christians had gradually degenerated, as we have seen, into movements instigated by political motives which had in view the education and civilization of the heathen masses. We have seen the Celtic missions in the north, which still retained a measure of true evangelisation, supplanted by the Benedictine monasteries which brought Roman civilization but no Gospel message to the individual. We have seen these movements culminating in the civilising mission of Cyril to the Slavs. If the church had forgotten her commission and lost her message, we might have imagined that her very name and tradition would have obliged her to confine her methods of propagation to the social uplift of those to whom she went. But so far was she removed from what her Master intended His church to be, that she took a further, and that an important, step in the downward path. Faced by the overbearing conduct of the new conquerors of Palestine towards her pilgrims as they visited the Holy Land, she never dreamed of sending missionaries to the Turks with the Gospel. It did not even occur to her to make the attempt to establish monasteries among them with a view to introducing them to western civilization. Instead she put into practice the determination she had formed of propagating Christianity by war and wresting the Holy Land from the Turks by force of arms.


One of the most astonishing of all the strange phenomena of the middle ages is that of the crusades. Most of the crusaders came from France. The preaching of monks produced a religious fervour which, coupled with love of adventure and aided by the ecclesiastical machinery which freely granted all sorts of spiritual privileges to those who took part, and especially to those who fell, raised armies actuated by a fierce spirit of idealism and eager to plunder the wealth which they supposed would be found in the mysterious lands of the east. The first crusade set out at the request of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus, but it rendered him no material aid against the Turks. It succeeded, however, in establishing a Latin kingdom in Palestine, which survived only till the thirteenth century. The third crusade set out in the year 1189, and is perhaps the most important and famous of all these strange expeditions. It was the last that ever reached Palestine, and was led by the German Emperor, the King of France and the King of England. These illustrious names did not prevent the armies following them from degenerating into what has been rightly described as an undisciplined rabble. Early in the thirteenth century a crusading army sacked Constantinople, doing more damage to the accumulated treasures of centuries of civilization than was done later by the Turks. Other crusading armies were led during the thirteenth century to Egypt and to the coast of north Africa, but the miserable failure of either expedition put an end to this form of Christian activity.

The crusades bear witness to the utter spiritual degradation of the mediaeval church. The increasing confusion of secular and religious, of heathen and Christian, had produced so curious an anomaly that both to the scriptural Christian and to the rationalist the middle ages seem a period in which all the world went mad. The supposed representatives of the Christ of the New Testament, without a thought being given to the directions there laid down, set out to subdue the enemies of the church by force of arms. The atrocities committed by the crusading armies had the blessing of the clergy. The men who composed these armies often enjoyed, among other pretensions to sanctity, freedom granted officially by ecclesiastical authority from all moral restraint. The extraordinary idealism which we call chivalry, that stirred such strange emotions and fed upon the romantic legends which the ignorance and superstition of the day made half real to those who heard them, was not without advantage in restraining and directing passions that in an age of such wickedness might have brought society to ruin. The extent of the force which this ideal possessed is shown by the fact that it has not entirely spent itself today. It was wholly unreal, and in some senses superficial. It was closely bound up with the so-called Christianity of the time, but we should have far to seek to find anything in common between it and the spiritual ideals that actuated the primitive Christians and that shine in the pages of the Bible. Yet this is the period to which we are nowadays sometimes asked, with a na´vetÚ that betrays ill-considered propaganda, to look with envy as constituting the "ages of faith." If the crusades had any permanent result, it was to increase the contempt which Mohammedans had for Christians, and to harden them still more against the reception of the Gospel. It may be that the crusades have played their part in the difficulties with which Protestant missionaries are faced in working among Mohammedans today.

Recognition of Corruption

It must not be thought that the anomalous position in the world of the Christian church escaped the notice of all thoughtful or religious people within her pale. The vice and corruption of the papal court, the Immorality and ignorance of the clergy, caused a reaction which began to evidence itself during the twelfth century and came to fulfillment in the thirteenth. The monk Joachim set himself to the study of prophecy. The prevailing ignorance of the age, the utter confusion of spiritual values that existed, prevented any intelligent result from accruing. This monk published treatises, however, upon prophecy, and many who read them were able to agree that the condition of the visible church was such that they were justified in regarding the era as apocalyptic. A great stimulus was given to the study of the Book of Revelation, and a large number of copies of it were made during the thirteenth century, adorned by illustrations of its visions depicted by an art which, if crude in conception, is often beautiful in design and colouring. The most prominent aspect of Joachim's teaching seems to have been that an era of blessing was to follow the then present corrupt age. A good pope was to arise who would lead the church back to purity, and apostolic bands engaged in works of charity would go out over the world. The influence of Joachim was considerable and lasted till the time of the Reformation, when there were some who recalled what he had said, and sought to find in the Reformers' work the fulfilment of his visions. The followers of Joachim constituted a loosely defined party within the church, made up of various elements who looked for a purification in the church at some future date. Individuals among them were from time to time suspect to the ecclesiastical authorities, but these people never separated themselves from the ecclesiastical body. They had neither the courage nor the insight to do so. They were ignorant of Scripture, and sincerely identified the visible church with the true. They were acutely aware of the evil and avaricious administration of the church, and felt that it must incur the judgment of God if a remedy was not found.

A result of this reaction, largely influenced by the writings of Joachim, was the institution of the Franciscan and Dominican orders of Friars in the early thirteenth century. The former was founded by that curious character, so typical of the age in which he lived, Francis of Assisi. The ignorance of scriptural teaching on the matter of salvation and justification, and the notion that merit attached to good works, cannot fail to render the purity of motive of this man and his followers suspect. We must, however, recognise that there was a true desire on the part of the early friars to alleviate the sufferings of their fellow-men. It is said that it was a passage of Scripture, the tenth chapter of Matthew, that first inspired Francis of Assisi to undertake the labours that he did. Inevitably there were absurdities and extremes in his outlook and practices. His attempts to preach to birds can only arouse ridicule, while his kissing of the wounds of a leper rightly produce disgust. Yet he had a wide vision. He seems to have attempted to reach the Turks in order to preach to them - a happy contrast to the methods of the crusaders - but it is difficult to understand what Gospel he intended to preach. He managed to get his order recognised by the pope, without which, of course, it would have been idle to proceed, and bands of friars began to travel over all the countries of western Europe. They were poorly, sometimes miserably, clad, and begged their way from place to place. They carried with them small thick copies of the Latin Bible, of which thousands were made during the thirteenth century, with the writing in a minute hand. Thousands flocked to hear them preach. Their preaching was moral and hortatory. They urged their hearers to win salvation by abandoning vice and following virtue. They emphasized the terrors of the day of judgment and the world to come. They exhorted men and women to lives of asceticism and abstinence, and were not afraid to denounce the worldliness and luxury of ecclesiastics.

The Friars

In the friars of the thirteenth century we see the best side of mediaeval religion, and it is poor at that. There is a tragedy in the fact of thousands of people stirred in conscience and seeking peace with God, but pitiably ignorant of how to obtain it. Those who could tell them were branded as heretics, and any intercourse with them would have been a danger to life. Hundreds of sermons must have been preached in the vernacular during the thirteenth century. Many of them survive in contemporary manuscripts. This deeply religious spirit did not die out until it was satisfied at the time of the Reformation in those countries in which Protestantism was accepted. In our own country it was strong, and found partial vent in Lollardism. For the time being the friars magnified asceticism and stressed the mortification of the flesh in order to gain spiritual blessing. This was the age of flagellants, large companies of persons, including women and even children, who marched about half-naked, flogging themselves with whips "till the blood gushed out upon them." This foolish fanaticism arose in the first place from a troubled conscience. People were ready for sacrifice and suffering if only they could get right with God. The friars met with much opposition both from the secular clergy, who regarded them as stealing their flock, and from the regulars, whose great wealth, worldliness, luxury and immoral living were rebuked. Appeals were made to Rome, but the friars were never driven out of the church nor their orders suppressed. Individuals among them fell under the power of the Inquisition and were burnt alive, but a more subtle policy was followed by the authorities. Worldly-minded men were placed at the head of the orders of friars, and before Francis of Assisi died he saw his ideal crumbling. The rule of poverty and against the holding of property was slackened, and by the end of the century the orders had come to resemble the Benedictines and other older orders in worldliness and lack of care for spiritual things.

This development holds a lesson and a warning. Shortly before the days of Francis of Assisi, Peter Waldo, a merchant of Lyons, had been moved by much the same ideals. Waldo, however, perceived that it was impossible to carry them out inside the framework of the corrupt church. He founded the Waldensian body, which was an Evangelical church before the time. This church carried the witness triumphantly through the days of the Inquisition, became merged in Protestantism, and exists today. The distinct witness of the Franciscan friars was over in hundred years. The reason is that Waldo had learnt the scriptural lesson of separation, while Francis attempted to reform from within. The history of the Christian age proves that the spiritual laws involved in the principle of separation work with unerring constancy and accuracy, exactly, in fact, as they do in nature. Only the foolish would place or leave good apples in the same dish as rotten ones. If it is impossible to remove the rotten ones, the only course is to separate the good. And so it is in spiritual things. If Francis had understood this as well as Waldo, it may be that many souls would have found the peace which they seem to have been so desperately seeking. The attitude of separation from older bodies that have fallen into error, which is taken by most conservative Evangelicals today, is amply justified by history. The survival of our witness depends upon it.

Rolle's Commandment

It might be of interest to quote here part of one of the current moral exhortations of the day. Here are a paragraph or two from a work of the popular English fourteenth-century hermit, Richard Rolle of Hampole near Doncaster The work had no title, but is referred to in modern editions as " The Commandment," as these are its first two words. My quotation is taken from Miss H. E. Allen's edition of 1931:

"And that thou may wynne til the swetnes of Goddes lufe, I sett here thre degres of lufe, in the whilk thou be ay waxind. The fyrst degre es called insuperabel, the secunde inseparabel, the thyrd singuler. Thi luf es insuperabel, when na thyng may overcome hit, that es, nowther wele ne waa, ese ne anguys, lust of flesch ne likyng of this worlde; bot ay it lastes in gode thoght, if it wer temped gretely, and it hates all syn, sa that na thyng may slokken that lufe. Thi lufe es inseparabel, when al thi thoghtes and thi willes er gederd togeder and festend holy in Jhesu Criste, swa that thou may na tyme forgete hym, bot ay thou thynkes on hym. And forth it es called inseparabel, for it may noght be departed fra the thoght of Jhesu Criste. Thi luf es singuler, when al thi delyte es in Jhesu Cryste, and in nane other thyng fyndes joy and comforth. In this degre es lufe stalwarth as dede, and hard as hell; for als dede slas al lyvand thyng in this worlde, sa perfite lufe slas in a mans sawle all fleschly desyres and erthly covaytise; and als hell spares noght til dede men, bot tormentes al that commes thar till, alswa a man that es in this degre of lufe, noght anly he forsakes the wretched solace of this lyf, bot alswa he covaytes to sofer pygnes for Goddes lufe.
"Tharfore, if the ltst lufe any thyng, lufe Jhesu Criste, that es the fayrest, richest, and wysest, whas lufe lastes in joy endles. For al erthly lufe es passand, and wytes sone away. If thou be covetose after gode, lufe hym, and thou sal have al gode. Desyre hym trewly, and the sal wante na thyng. lf delites like the, lufe hym, for he gyfes delites til hys lovers, that never may perisch. Bot al the delytes of this world er faynt and fals and fayland in maste nede; thai bygyn in swettnes, and thair endyng es bitterer than the gall. If thou kan noght lyf withoeten felichip, lyft thi thoght til heven, that thou may fynd comforth with aungels and halows, the whilke wil helpe the til God and noght lett the, als thi fleschly frendes dos. Restreyn thi will a while fra al lust and lykyng of syn, and thou sall have efterwarde al thi will; for it sal be clensed, and made sa fre that the lyst do nathyng bot that that es payng of God."

The great problem of human inability to please God was recognised to the extent that later the one addressed is made to say, "I may" (may in the English of that time is the same as modern can), "noght despyse the worlde; I may not fynd it in my hert to pyne my body; and me behoves lufe my fleschly frendes, and take ese when it comes." To this unhappy plaint there is no answer but further exhortation to remember that those who loved the world are now suffering the torments of hell, and to love the Name of Jesus more than life. In this spiritual movement of the later middle ages we see souls seeking God without any knowledge of how to get right with Him or of Christ's saving and keeping power.

Mediaeval Doctrine

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were days when the dogma of the church was further systematized. The thirteenth century particularly was one of great intellectual activity, and it was at this epoch that the universities were founded. We have seen the church emerge successfully from the great doctrinal disputes of the fourth to seventh centuries. From the days of Nicea she had laid up her belief in creeds and formulae and she never abandoned the great creeds. On some points the doctrine of the mediaeval church was scriptural and correct. Her fatal mistakes were that she held this doctrine merely as intellectual belief, and made little attempt to relate it to practice, and also that she added to scriptural doctrine so enormous a quantity of tradition as quite to conceal the truth. On the question of the nature of God, the Trinity in Unity the church's teaching was scriptural and perfectly correct. The struggle with Arianism had settled that question, which was never reopened. Then the great Christological controversies in the east had forced the western church to a scriptural position upon the nature and Person of Christ. She believed and taught that Christ was both divine and human. She believed rightly about the incarnation.

When we speak of the church's beliefs and doctrines, we must remember that, in the middle ages, these things were little more than matter for intellectual discussion and expression among theologians. The mass of the people was quite ignorant of doctrine. It was never intended that they should know. Many of the clergy could not write. Services were read in Latin, and though there was preaching, it was not, on the whole, doctrinal preaching but exhortation. No personal knowledge of God existed among the people at large during the later middle ages, unless they were dissociated from the church.

The false traditions which the church added to Christian doctrine, and the superstition of the popular mind, reacted upon each other. In our last section we noticed the prominence attained by the Virgin Mary as a result of the accommodation with paganism in early days. In the middle ages the Virgin was approached and worshipped by the people at large far more than the Lord Himself. Hers was the popular cult. Sometimes the same language was used about her as was used about God. A large number of legends grew up around her and other saints, and countless miracles were attributed to her. Individuals put themselves under Mary's protection and cheerfully expected her to work miracles on their behalf. Some of these stories are preserved today in mediaeval manuscripts. Sometimes they were carved upon the screens of churches or painted on friezes. It is almost incredible, but true, that a set of these which had been painted in Winchester cathedral and rediscovered in modern times were a few years ago painted up again by order of the dean and solemnly rededicated. The awful lessons of the middle ages fall today upon deaf ears.

As regards the atonement, the mediaeval church believed and taught that Christ made a propitiatory atonement on the cross. There was room for barren intellectual speculation about details not revealed in Scripture. Until the twelfth century, when Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote a treatise on the subject, it was believed that the ransom paid by Christ was paid to the devil. The argument went on to unfold the view that the devil in agreeing to accept the ransom of the life of Christ was tricked by God, Who deprived the devil of the fruits of the bargain by raising Christ from the dead. This extraordinary theory provides an insight into the mediaeval mind. The dishonourable conduct attributed to God seems to have been received without a scruple and to have raised no protest. The dragging in of the devil where he is not mentioned in Scripture illustrates the prominence assigned to him during the mediaeval periods, a prominence only equalled by the distortion of the view of his nature. The mediaeval devil was a fiend with horns and tail, who took an active interest in the petty affairs of life and intervened constantly in them. Ignorance and superstition produced distorted views of the laws of nature. Disease and misfortune were attributed to the direct intervention of the devil. Devils waited to seize the souls of the dying, and, in all circumstances, their malicious purposes might be thwarted by the incantations of priests.

The resurrection and ascension of Christ were accepted and taught by the mediaeval church, though no opportunity was lost of importing crudity into the representation of them. She believed in theory the facts of the Gospel. Where she was hopelessly astray was in her teaching upon their application. How could this fail to be so? A church that solemnly professed belief in one God, yet in practice worshipped countless minor ones, could quite well profess belief in the facts of salvation, yet go hopelessly astray in their application. The continent was filled with shrines erected to the Virgin or to saints. Each city had its local patron. Lists of saints appeared at the end of the litany, and these were chanted with the phrase Ora pro nobis after each. The mediaeval church's doctrine of salvation was semi-pelagian, as is that of the modern Roman church today. She reverenced Augustine of Hippo as one of her greatest teachers, and her theologians constantly read his books, but she never followed his doctrines of grace and predestination. It will be remembered that, in the fourth century, the British monk Pelagius collected a large following behind his denial of original sin. He had taught that men could live without sin and then could merit salvation. Pelagianism was resisted by the church but, though she taught original sin and the propitiatory atonement of Christ, she never understood their implication. She knew nothing whatever of the finished work of Christ or of the assurance of sins forgiven. Grace was bestowed by mechanical means. Regeneration came in baptism that is to say "by the will of man," in direct contradiction to John i. 13. But regeneration did not bring, illogically enough, assurance of salvation. The individual fell in and out of a state of grace, so that he might be saved one day and lost the next. These vagaries were governed in the first place by his conduct. Sin, or at any rate certain kinds of sin, caused him to cease to be in a state of grace. He could be restored by the absolution of a priest, and that is the important fact to remember. It was one of the chief supports of the exalted position and importance of the priesthood, and, in an ignorant and superstitious age, one of the chief means by which the clergy maintained their ascendancy over the souls and bodies of the people. This ascendancy brought them no little material advantage. A frightened soul, in order to obtain absolution, would do anything the priest demanded, and money could be extorted at will.

Salvation by Works

So long as salvation depended upon merit, disadvantages of the sort we have described were not banished even by a movement such as that of the friars in the thirteenth century, although it showed reality in its search for true moral purity. Apart from such reactions as these, however, the conception of the mechanical, that is to say magical, conveyance of the grace of God reached its logical conclusion in divorcing the reception of grace altogether from morality. The priest was capable of conveying grace, quite apart from his own moral character. It might be well known that he kept a concubine. But this did not prevent him from pronouncing a valid absolution or regenerating a child by sprinkling water upon it, any more than a marriage would be illegal today if performed in church according to due form of law by a clergyman who was living an immoral life. It is therefore easy to understand that, if grace might be conveyed without reference to the moral character of the one who conveyed it, it might also be conveyed without reference to the moral character of the one who received it. This fact was made shamelessly clear at the time of the crusades. Men were persuaded to take part in these expeditions by being granted a kind of anticipatory absolution from all future sins. This left them free from all moral restraint. Merit was gained, not even by living a moral life, though this in itself, as we know, is teaching contradicted on every page of Scripture. It was gained by serving the ends of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, taking part in a crusade, or engaging in any scheme that pleased them, even if it included murder. What a commentary all this is upon the doctrine of salvation by works! The striving after holiness by effort, when it was believed that eternal issues hung upon success, if we allow that the striving was sincere, produced the utter breakdown of moral standards. A church that was always reminding itself of judgment to come lived as if there was nothing to live for but this world, or, at most, allowed a minority of its members to waste their lives in fanatical asceticism.

For practical purposes the propitiatory atonement, in which the church professed to believe, might never have existed. Its implications were no more than the intellectual sport of theologians. It was regarded as doing away with the guilt of original sin and placing the soul in the position where it might start de novo and win salvation for itself, theoretically by a life of moral purity, actually in the ways we have noticed above. This privilege of starting again, won by the atonement, was applied in the first instance by baptism. Without this rite it did not obtain at all, so that infants who died unbaptized went to hell. Much ingenuity was expended by the theologians upon the discussion of their condition there. Some pictured the babies crawling about on the red-hot floor of hell. Others relegated them to a kind of department of their own called limbo, in which they do not appear actually to suffer but are outside the presence of God. This is the sort of fantastic nonsense to which departure from the Scriptures leads. The sufferings of Christ were, however, perpetually before the mediaeval mind. The crucifix was prominent in every church and every shrine. It was sometimes worn as a charm or mascot, as has always been the case, for instance, in south Italy with the notorious phallic crucifixes, whose heathen origin is undisguised. This ubiquitous idol wrought upon the emotions by the representation of suffering and goaded to the ascetic mortification of the flesh.

Torments of the Damned

The event which, more than any other, was presented to the mediaeval mind was the day of judgment. It was represented in pictures and sculpture and described in sermons. The mediaeval church knew no "blessed hope," because no individual had the assurance of salvation. It was very naturally presumptuous to assert that one was in a state of grace, since it depended upon one's own effort, and even if one had reasonable hope that one might be in such a state, it was only too possible to fall out of it tomorrow. The thought of the day of judgment was therefore a terror to all who took religion seriously, and there was no one who dared openly not to do so. The fears engendered by guilty consciences and the sense of the hopelessness of personal moral effort were worked upon feverishly by the priesthood, and proved one of the strongest chains by which men's lives and consciences were enslaved. The warnings in the Gospels of the destiny of the lost are solemn enough, and the solemnity is enhanced by the restraint with which the subject is treated. No such restraint existed in mediaeval teaching upon the subject. Horrifying details of the torments of the damned, needless to say utterly unwarranted by Scripture, were the theme of discourse and of art. Those acquainted with Dante's Inferno will know something of the range of this subject. The torments of hell are dwelt upon by Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest thinkers of the middle ages, who, in the thirteenth century, reduced theology to a logical system of philosophy. Hell began for the lost soul at death, the future day of judgment merely bringing about the resurrection of the body to join the soul in suffering. Bernard of Clairvaux reported a vision he is supposed to have seen, in which he stood beside the throne of God for one day and watched hundreds of souls come up for judgment. He was horrified to find that only half a dozen were saved. But a soul coming to the end of its pilgrimage without falling out of favour with the priesthood and in communion with the church, so that it might be given assurance on the word of man that it left this world in a state of grace, did not reach the end of its terrors. Though it might not be lost, it was faced with the torments of purgatory. The doctrine of purgatory dates probably from the fifth or sixth century. It teaches that a soul, though saved, is not fit at death for the presence of God in heaven, but must pass through a period of purification by fire which involved great suffering. The doctrine is a quite logical corollary of the belief in salvation by works, as it is obvious that no soul can attain a perfect standard. It arises, of course, from misunderstanding of the scriptural doctrine of regeneration, whereby the believer is made a child of God and fit at any moment to enter God's presence. It provided an extra scope for fear and threatening which the priesthood could exercise even upon the most submissive and faithful who came under their influence. All these terrors in a superstitious age kept a world, conscious of its guilt and a stranger to the knowledge of the love of God, at the feet of an unscrupulous priesthood.

Blasphemy of the Mass

We have reserved until now what may be called the most important dogma of the mediaeval church, a dogma expressed in a practice in which the whole of her worship centred, and a dogma calculated more than anything else to exalt the authority of her priesthood. We saw how the heathen magical view of the rite of baptism extended logically to cover the other ordinance of the Lord's Supper. This developed gradually into the crude conception, contrary to elementary experience and common sense, that in spite of the fact that the elements remained in appearance exactly as they had been before, the words of consecrations pronounced by the priest, actually changed the bread and wine into Jesus Christ. Thus Christ's flesh was literally eaten by the priest and those who communicated, in direct contradiction to the teaching of the Gospel contained in John vi. 63. What is more, Christ was destroyed by the priest when he ate Him, and this destruction was the sacrifice of Him upon the altar, identical with the sacrifice of Calvary with atoning efficacy, not only for the living, but also for the dead in purgatory. In the year 1215 the dogma of transubstantiation, which means the change of the elements we have described, was promulgated as binding upon the whole church by a decree of the fourth Lateran Council. Pictures in thirteenth-century manuscripts represent the priest at the altar elevating, in the act of consecration, sometimes a wafer, sometimes a small human form. This shows the popular belief. Later in the century the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, in which the "host" (which means victim), that is to say the consecrated wafer, was carried about the church and streets to be worshipped by the people. In addition, there was not wanting a Thomas Aquinas to philosophize ingeniously about "substance" and "accidents" and to explain with a satisfying plausibility of logic that the substance or intrinsic nature of an object might be completely transformed, while its accidents, which conveniently included its external appearance, might remain the same as before. The critical moment during the celebration of mass was the elevation of the host at the time of consecration, when the change was supposed to take place. It was important for the congregation to watch this action, and when it took place a bell rang and the congregation fell on their knees or faces. The squints and the so-called lepers' windows in churches were intended to enable those in any part of the church as well as some outside its wails to see the elevation. Often, at the signal given, those working in the fields were expected to fall on their knees in unison with those inside the building.

The impressive symbolism and magic mystery of this ceremony, carried out by persons adorned in gorgeous vestments in surroundings of artistic beauty and dignity, did not fail to impress the minds of those present with that awe with which it was intended to impress them. The authority with which it invested the priesthood can scarcely be exaggerated. Each priest was able by pronouncing a Latin formula to do what writers of the age did not hesitate to designate as creating the Creator. Moreover, when he had done that, he set about destroying the Creator Whom he had created. The consecrated wafer was "reserved" in aumbries upon the church wall. It was "exposed" at stated times for adoration, and it was carried about in a case known as a monstrance, which was something the shape of a baby grandfather clock, the place of the dial being taken by a transparent circle through which the wafer could be seen, surrounded by precious stones. The absurdity, blasphemy and idolatry of this belief and this proceeding are beyond expression. Masses were taking place by the hundred every day. The propitiatory sacrifice of Calvary, repeated at mass, was considered efficacious for those who were present, and its efficacy was extended to cover the dead in purgatory. Masses could be asked for to benefit individual souls, and the extent of their benefit depended upon the amount of money that those who asked for them were willing to pay. Here was a strong additional strangle-hold upon the wealth of the people exercised by playing upon their most sacred affections. No wonder that the articles of the Church of England, as we shall see, when they come to deal with the mass, substitute very strong language for their normal restraint of expression.


During these long centuries of darkness were there none who understood the truth, none to protest against these things, none to hold out the Word of life? Thank God, there were. The true church was in the wilderness, the object of the scorn and hatred of the great organization that had usurped her place. Her sufferings were grievous, but by God's grace her faith and endurance never faltered. In our last section we saw something of the little companies of those known as Paulicians, whose centre was in the Taurus mountains, and who stood for purity of worship. Our knowledge of the real teaching and practice of these people is scanty, not so much because of the distance of time, but because of the thoroughness with which their enemies succeeded in destroying any records that they might have left. Much of our evidence about them comes from hostile sources. The orthodox writers of the day accused them of Manichaeism and Gnostic error, a device that had been followed in the west in the case of Priscillian. They were also charged with gross moral wickedness. The last accusation is obviously untrue, because we have testimony to the contrary even from their enemies, and because it is inconsistent with the influence they exercised, their unflinching courage in persecution, and the persistence of their belief through so many generations. If the accusation of immorality is untrue, we cannot place reliance upon the statement made by their enemies about their doctrine. About fifty years ago there was discovered in a library in Armenia a manuscript of a treatise, which seems to date from the seventh century, called "The Key of Truth." It is a Paulician doctrinal treatise. It reveals the knowledge of Scripture possessed by these people, and shows how careful they were to make the Scripture their rule. They seem, however, to have held what is known as the adoptionist view about the Person of Christ and to have taught that at His baptism He was adopted as the Father's Son. This seems an echo of Gnosticism, and it is disappointing that these people, so faithful in their protest against the corruptions of the time, appear to have held these unscriptural views about the Person of the Lord. There seems, however, to be no doubt that they emphasized individual conversion. They protested against the cult of the Virgin and saints and the use of images in worship. It seems that, though their grasp of truth was not as strong as it might have been for reasons which cannot be determined because of our ignorance of their early history, we ought not to exclude them from the company of the true people of God, spiritually descended from the Apostles, and basing their church order and practice, so far as they were able, upon Scripture alone.

While the iconoclastic Emperors were reigning in Constantinople, the Paulicians were, generally speaking, left in peace. When the controversy came to an end by the restoration of images in the year 842, the Empress Theodora commenced a violent persecution of the Paulicians. They were hunted from their mountains, beheaded, burnt and drowned. It has been estimated that within twenty-five years a hundred thousand of them were put to death. "The Key of Truth" shows that the Paulicians expected persecution. They remembered the Lord's words, "In the world ye shall have tribulation." They expected suffering and were prepared to meet it. They strengthened themselves in God, and realized that this was the way in which God had appointed them to witness.

In the tenth century many Paulicians passed over into Europe and settled in the Balkans. Here they spread rapidly among the Slavs and became known as Bogomils - that is to say, Friends of God. Their sufferings were not over, for they were still in some parts of the Balkans in the power of the Byzantine Emperors. The Princess Anna Comnena, daughter of the Emperor Alexius, whose appeals for help against the Turks were one of the factors that produced the first crusade, gave some account of them in the memoirs which she wrote. A prominent leader among the Bogomils in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was a and man named Basil, who practiced as medical doctor, spent forty years in preaching and teaching. In the year 1111 he was tricked by an invitation to Constantinople, in which the Emperor claimed to be an interested enquirer into the doctrines that Basil taught. He was invited to dine with the Emperor and to talk freely with him about what he believed to be the truth, but the conversation was taken down by a concealed shorthand writer, while the guest was suddenly seized and imprisoned, the notes taken at the interview being worked up into the substance of an accusation of heresy brought against him at his subsequent trial. He spent eight years in prison, during which time attempts were made to make him recant. He continued to refuse and was burnt alive in the hippodrome at Constantinople before a large concourse of people that included Anna Comnena, who described the scene with equanimity and interest, calmly incorporating in her narrative details of the appearance of the prisoner and his reactions during the ordeal. If we assume that the doctrine of the Bogomils upon the important point of the Deity of Christ was sufficiently unscriptural to constitute evidence that their eyes were closed to saving truth, they were at least earnest pious men and women who clung so far as they were able to the Scriptures and were most definite seekers after God. What shall we say of a church, the professed followers of those commissioned to hold forth the Word of Life to a perishing world, that treated seekers after that life in the way described above? But the evidence of their simplicity and purity of life suggests that Basil and those to whom he had ministered were true children of God. In any case the mind dare not attempt to picture Anna Comnena and those who enacted this tragedy as they will appear on the day of judgment. And yet these things were as nothing to what was to take place later in western Europe, as we shall see.

Bogmils in Bosnia

In the twelfth century begins one of the most remarkable episodes in the history of pre-Reformation Protestant churches. The events which took place in the western Balkans during the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries go a long way to prove that the Bogomil teaching was scriptural, and that these people represented the true church in the wilderness during the ages of the preeminence of the enemies of the truth. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were the period of our own country's thickest darkness. There were few fully enlightened Christians among the inhabitants of these islands during those two hundred years. All was sunk in superstition and idolatry. Yet in the opposite corner of Europe there existed for about a hundred years a prosperous Protestant country fiercely resisting papal aggression and displaying to those who could see them the spiritual and material results of adherence to the truth of the Gospel. This country was Bosnia, whose capital, Sarajevo, attained notoriety in 1914 as the scene of the assassinations that provided the immediate occasion for the outbreak of the European War. The persecutions of the Greek church drove the Bogomils further and further west into Serbia and Bosnia and as far as the Adriatic coast. Their appearance in Bosnia during the twelfth century corresponded in time with the spiritual reaction in the west, which we have already noted, that instigated the prophetic studies of Joachim and later resulted in the formation of the Franciscan orders. We do not know the mutual relationship between these two events, but we may suspect that they had some connection. Before the year 1199 Kulin Ban (Chief) of Bosnia had been converted, as well as the Prince of the neighbouring region of Herzegovina and the Bishop of Bosnia, who had owned obedience to the pope. Scriptural worship was set up all over the country. Altars and crosses were removed, the distinction between clergy and laity disappeared, the priesthood of all believers being recognised. A fixed proportion of the believers' income was set aside, as in apostolic days, for the relief of the poor and the support of travelling evangelists. The blessing of God immediately resulted. The country enjoyed a period of such material prosperity that it was able to recuperate itself again and again during the wars with Hungary that lasted for most of the thirteenth century. In 1203 Pope Innocent III, with the aid of the King of Hungary, forced an agreement upon Kulin Ban by which he acknowledged the papal religion. From the beginning, however, the agreement was a dead letter. On the death of Kulin in 1216 the pope sent a mission to convert the people to Rome, but this ended in complete failure, whereupon in 1222 he ordered the King of Hungary to invade the country, and a long period of war and devastation began. In 1291 the Inquisition was established in Bosnia, and the churches began to decline. Their subsequent history we shall follow in our next section.

The same movement that produced such an earnest search for a higher spiritual level of doctrine and practice within the framework of the church as was seen in the Franciscan friars drew others who were more clear-sighted outside her limits. In addition to the remarkable Bogomil movement in Bosnia, two other communities claim our attention. The first is that of the Albigenses, who appeared in Provence during the twelfth century. The name is derived from that of the town of Albi, but is inaccurate, for the Albigenses had no particular connection with that place. Their movement seems to have been begun by missionaries from Bosnia, and their tenets to have been the same as those of the Bogomils and Paulicians. They clung to simplicity of worship and a high standard of moral conduct, and claimed to be guided by Scripture alone, although it seems impossible to absolve them from holding certain errors about the Person of Christ. In the opening years of the twelfth century one Peter de Brueys began to preach in Provence and collected a large following. He was burnt alive by the ecclesiastical authorities in 1126. With him was associated a monk of Cluny named Henry, who seems to have been a remarkable personality and to have possessed singular oratorical powers. This man attained such an influence in Provence that the authorities were alarmed. The great Bernard of Clairvaux was sent to oppose him. Bernard was alarmed at the extent of the heresy and made every effort to counteract Henry's teaching and to capture his person. Henry eluded him for some years, but was at last caught and imprisoned, and died, probably in prison, in 1147. We can admire the sentiments on Christian love expressed by Bernard of Clairvaux and appreciate the admirable hymns he wrote, of which there are a few in our modern hymn books, but it is difficult to forget that this was the man who hunted a pious man to a cruel death and spared no effort to overthrow scriptural teaching.

Foundation of Inquisition

The Albigenses were protected by the ruling class in Provence and increased greatly during the twelfth century. The attempts of the pope to persuade the civil authorities to proscribe them failed, and at last in the year 1209 Innocent III declared a "crusade" against the Albigenses and ordered the King of France to carry it out. The same monstrous indulgences were made to those who took part in this persecution as had been granted during the crusade against the Turks. The crusade against the Albigenses is noteworthy for an event which had consequences and repercussions far wider than perhaps were at first foreseen. In 1210 in order to prosecute it more thoroughly there was established at the suggestion, and under the superintendence, of the monk Dominic, founder of the new order of Dominican friars, the so-called Holy Inquisition. This is the most monstrous instrument of barbarous oppression that has ever appeared in the known history of the human race. Its atrocities not only cannot be exaggerated, but no language be found sufficient to describe them adequately. The horrors of Dante's Inferno reflect something of what went on in the clambers of the Inquisition. The word "hell" is often used only too lightly today. Let the mind dwell upon that word for a moment in all its solemn seriousness; let there be added any conception by which the popular mind may have increased the awful solemnity that belongs to the word; let the mind face for one moment, so far as it is able, the despair, the darkness, the misery that that word conveys; and it will have added nothing to the appalling realities of the Inquisition except only the sense of eternal duration. And to those - and they were many - who spent life-times In the clutches of the devils of the Inquisition even that may have seemed to have been added as well. It is in our next section that we shall be obliged to see something of the Inquisition at work. These facts must be faced in order that we may understand both something of the contrast between the light brought to us by the Gospel and the darkness of the ages that had rejected it, and something of the reason for the rationalist revolt today against a religion which a superficial knowledge of history intelligibly identifies with the cruelties committed in its name. At present it will be enough for us to notice that the Inquisition was established experimentally in 1210 in order to crush the Albigenses, and that it was made a permanent institution by a papal decree nineteen years later. This decree is important because it contained a clause forbidding the possession of copies of the Bible to the laity and charged the Inquisition with the duty of seeing that this prohibition was carried out. The crusade against the Albigenses was successful in the sense that it destroyed the culture and independence of Provence, which was attached to France. As soon as the Albigensian communities were thus deprived of protection the Inquisition quickly exterminated them.

The Waldenses

There is one more community that rises to prominence during the twelfth century in which we may see, with greater assurance than in those we have already mentioned, an expression of the true city of God. It was that of the Waldensians. Their home was in the mountain valleys of Piedmont and Savoy. Their church continues to exist in Italy, and they themselves hold that their tradition goes back to the fourth century if not to apostolic times. The origin of the name Waldenses is not certainly known, but while we cannot directly deny the ancient existence and continuity of their church, there is no clear evidence to support it. The name is probably connected with that of Waldo, a merchant of Lyons, who lived during the close of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth. In the year 1160 he was stirred in conscience, and probably under Albigensian influence began to search the Scriptures. Thirteen years later he made over all his property to his wife, and determined to devote himself to spiritual work. Fortunately for the spiritual results of his labours, his request for the recognition of his work and following by the pope was indignantly refused, in contrast to the reluctant granting of recognition to the Franciscan friars a few years later. The next year Waldo started travelling and preaching. In 1184 he was excommunicated, and he died while on a preaching tour in Bohemia in the year 1217.

As a result Waldensians appear at this time in many of the countries of Europe. In 1192 they were proscribed in Spain. In the thirteenth century we find many of them in Germany. It is, however, difficult to determine whether all those mentioned in contemporary records, which are usually accounts of their trials for heresy, were in direct communion with the churches of the Alpine mountains. The ecclesiastical authorities did not take the trouble to distinguish one kind of "heretic" from another, and we find everywhere names such as Bulgarians, Bogomils, Petrobussians, Albigenses, Cathari, Paterini, Waldenses, applied. It is therefore difficult to determine what doctrine was generally taught by the Waldensian churches at this time. They seem to have had no rigid rule of faith and to have allowed wide variations of interpretation. Differences of opinion on the question, for example, of infant baptism existed among them. They do not appear to have shared the dualistic tendencies nor the unscriptural views of the Person of Christ of which it does not seem that we can acquit the Paulicians, Bogomils, and Albigenses. Some had fallen into various mediaeval errors, but all were united in opposing the worldliness, idolatry and unscriptural doctrine and practices of the church of the day. Strangely enough it does not seem that during the thirteenth century any systematic attempt was made by Rome to root out the Waldensian churches from their centre in the Alps. Their existence in these remote fastnesses almost escaped notice, or at least was not considered dangerous. Their trial was not to begin till about two hundred years after Waldo's time.


Cambridge Mediaeval History.
Howells (T. B.): as before.
Articles Bogomils and Crusades in Encyclopedia Britannica.
Coulton (G. G.): Five Centuries of Religion.