Christianity and the Expansion of Europe during the High Middle Ages

During the High Middle Ages, Western Europe remained thoroughly Roman Catholic, and the church guided European thought on all religious, moral and ethical matters. The Church itself, however, underwent some changes between 1000 and 1300, with the re-introduction of Aristotle and the production of works of philosophy which synthesized the ideas of Aristotle with those of the Church. Some challenges to Church doctrine appeared, particularly in the development of popular religious ideas in the lower classes; but the Church was able to withstand this challenge.

During the early middle ages, European society could not support institutions of advanced education; the society was simply not stable enough to do so. Such education as was available was offered at monasteries; and typically only those who intended to enter the clergy learned to read and write. Education consisted primarily of lessons from the Bible and from the teachings of church fathers such as St. Augustine of Hippo. During the High middle ages, however, economic development increased the wealth of Europe, and more resources were made available for education. As society grew more complex, there arose the need for those trained to deal with political, legal, or religious issues. Schools were soon organized in cathedrals where scholars were invited to serve as master teachers. By the twelfth century, cathedral schools had established a formal curriculum based on writings in Latin. Curriculum consisted of liberal arts, particularly literature and philosophy, and some works by Plato and Aristotle. Later, students and teachers organized academic guilds and persuaded local authorities to grant them charters which guaranteed their rights. Cathedral guilds were thus transformed into Universities, which awarded degrees. Together, students and teachers formed a collective identity and created for themselves a recognized corporate status known as the Universitas societas magistrorum discipulorumque: "the university, or society, of masters and students." Hence the modern term, "University," from the Latin meaning any collective group. A master and students together were referred to as the Scholae from the Latin schola meaning "group." A group of scholae working together was called a stadium, and if designated stadium generale.

Studentís engagement at Universities were similar to an apprenticeship in a guild. One had to serve as an apprentice and journeyman before he could be awarded his final degree. The final degree was considered a license to teach; although many students preferred the practice of law for pecuniary reasons. Guilds of masters were licensed by the bishop who could intervene if he were concerned about doctrinal interpretation.

Living conditions for students were substandard at best, and prices for food and lodging exorbitant. Riots between students and townsmen were not uncommon. One such encounter led to the founding of the University of Cambridge after masters and students abandoned Oxford. By the thirteenth century, wealthy benefactors established communal housing for students, known as "colleges."

The emergence of universities coincided with the rediscovery of the works of Aristotle. Aristotle was known to the Byzantines, but they had few dealings with the Roman Church. Some few writings of Aristotle had been available in Latin, but they were primarily his minor works. Changes occurred as early as the tenth and eleventh centuries when a trend developed to interpret scripture in the context of grammar and rhetoric. A substantial factor in these changes was the Reconquista, the recapture of certain areas of Spain from the Arabs. When Toledo was captured in 1085, Scholars interpreted the ancient texts first from Arabic and later from the original Greek. The foremost of the ancient scholars to be translated and adopted into Western learning was Aristotle. Remarkably, Western Christian scholars were more intrigued by Aristotleís works than were the Arabs, whose scholars discouraged philosophical speculation. One caliph, upon being told that his city held a great library of thought replied that if books of philosophy agreed with the Quíran they were unnecessary; if they disagreed, they were blasphemous. Either way, they should be destroyed.

Medieval scholars attempted to synthesize the teachings of Aristotle with those of the Bible which led to the development of an educational discipline known as Scholasticism. The most famous proponent of Scholasticism was St. Thomas Aquinas, who saw not conflict between Aristotle and the Bible; in fact he held that Aristotle provided the most powerful analysis of the world according to human reason while Christianity explained the world and life as the result of a divine plan. Together, the two complemented each other perfectly. An example was St. Thomasí position that one need not depend upon faith alone to prove the existence of God; rather it was possible to prove His existence rationally. (Aristotle had not recognized a personal deity; but had argued that a conscious agent had set the world in motion. St. Thomas asserted that this personal deity was the God who worshiped by Christians.)

St. Thomas and other theologians of the day addressed a fairly sophisticated intellectual audience; not the common people, who neither understood nor cared for Aristotle. Christianity was important to them as a source of meaning for their lives and as a series of principles that bound them together. Formal doctrine and theology did not appeal to them as much as ceremonies and religious observances. Popular religion often involved observance of sacraments and devotion to saints. The Church recognized seven sacraments (rituals designed to bring spiritual blessings), among them, baptism, matrimony, penance, the Eucharist, and last rites. The most important was the Eucharist, the forerunner of the present Communion service, which commemorated Jesus Last Supper with his disciples. The Eucharist kept one in good standing with the church, so much so that many observed it weekly, some even daily. Some superstition was attached to the Eucharist, that it would protect one from sudden death, or advance oneís worldly interests.

Popular religion often involved devotion to Saints, individuals who were now dead, but who had led such exemplary lives while on earth that they were believed to enjoy a special influence with God, and could intervene on behalf of humans. Many prayed to Saints for aid and to ensure their admission to heaven. The Saints were also believed to be able to intervene on behalf of the souls of the dead. Certain saints were believed to intervene in lost causes; guide sailors lost in storms at sea, cure diseases, or even heal toothaches. The most venerated of saints was the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, who personified the idea of Christian womanhood, love and sympathy. She reportedly frequently intervened on behalf of those who prayed to her; reportedly once even saving a man from the gallows when he prayed to her as he was about to be hanged. Many Churches in Europe were dedicated to "Our Lady," known in French as "Notre Dame."

Adoration of saints often took the form of veneration of relics, often their physical remains, which were believed to retain powers associated with the saints themselves. Clothes, locks of hair, teeth and bones of famous saints were often treasured by Medieval churches. Especially prized were relics associated with Jesus himself, such as the crown of thorns which he wore. Some especially religious people possessed small pieces of wood believed to be a portion of the True Cross.

Oftentimes, religious relics became famous outside their own regions, and devout European Christians traveled on pilgrimages (very similar to the Muslim Hajj) to honor the relics and the saints they represented. Rome was a popular destination, as it housed the relics of St. Peter and St. Paul. Compostela, Spain presumably held the relics of St. James, which also made it popular for pilgrims. Many also visited Jerusalem and other areas occupied by Jesus. Pilgrimages became so common that a travel industry developed to meet their needs. Inns opened along the way and guides led pilgrims to their chosen destinations. Guide books pointed out attractions along the route and warned of difficult terrain, or of scoundrels who might take advantage of them.

Reform Movements and Popular Heresies: As European society became more prosperous, many devout individuals feared that society was becoming too materialistic. Even the church itself and a significant number of its higher ranking clergy were wealthy. Benedictine monasteries, which originally had observed poverty, chastity and obedience, became comfortable retreats for privileged individuals. Some people formed movements to champion spiritual virtue over materialistic gain. The most prominent were St. Dominic and St. Francis of Assisi. Each founded orders of mendicants ("beggars"), known as Dominican and Franciscan friars. Members of the orders had no personal possessions and had to beg for their subsistence needs from audiences before whom they preached. They were especially active in towns and cities where they spoke to large numbers of migrants. They also worked to persuade those with divergent religious beliefs (heretics) to return to the Catholic Church.

Several popular movements formed which represented heresy, beliefs contrary to that of the established church. Among them were the Waldensians of southern France and northern Italy who advocated simple, modest lives and claimed the laity had the right to preach and administer the sacraments, functions reserved exclusively for the clergy in the Roman church. Another group, the Cathars, also known as Albigensians, who considered the material world to be evil and advocated an esthetic existence. They renounced wealth and marriage; ate a vegetarian diet, and, because they considered the physical world to be corrupt, believed that Jesus was never human, but only came to earth in spirit form.

The teachings of heretics was considered dangerous by the established church, as those who followed these teachings were, in the eyes of the church, condemned to perdition. To stop their teaching, Pope Innocent III launched a military campaign against the Cathars, the Albigensian Campaign, which all but destroyed the movement.

The Expansion of Medieval Europe: Europeans began to expand their influence into areas outside their own borders as early as the eleventh century. Much of the expansion was based on missionary efforts to carry Christianity to the heathen. Christianity was introduced to Prussia, Livonia, and Finland. Many areas in the Mediterranean held by Muslims were recaptured and a series of campaigns were organized to wrest the Holy Land from the Muslims.

Among the earlier explorers were Vikings from Scandinavia, who occupied Iceland and later Greenland. About 1000 C.E., Leif Ericsson, son of Eric the Red, landed in North America at present day Labrador. He named the area Vinland, presumably for the wild grapes he found growing there. Several attempts to establish a permanent colony there failed.

In the meantime, Scandinavia itself became Christian. The kings of Denmark and Norway converted in the tenth century, later followed by Sweden and Finland. Conversion of their subjects was slow and gradual, but eventually was accomplished.

A series of military religious orders, such as the Templars, the Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights, took religious vows but also devoted themselves to the struggle against Muslims and Pagans. The Teutonic Knights waged military campaigns against the Slavs of the Baltic region while religious orders extended Christianity into most of Eastern Europe.

During the eleventh century, Norman warriors invaded Sicily, held by the Muslims, and returned it to Christianity. Islam did not disappear immediately, many practiced their faith privately and Muslim scholars in Sicily introduced Christians to translations of Aristotle. Over the long term, however, the Muslims left of converted and the religion gradually disappeared from the Island.

The reconquest of Spain, known as the Reconquista, took longer. The process began in the 1060ís from two small Christian settlements in Spain, Catalonia in the northeast and Leon in the Northwest. Christian forces from Europe captured Toledo and Lisbon by 1150, and held half the Iberian peninsula. Their success inspired others from Europe to join in a new campaign which brought the entire peninsula except for the kingdom of Granada into Christian hands. Granada remained Muslim until 1492 when Christian forces recaptured it.

The reconquista was driven by Popes and churchmen who considered Islam an affront to Christianity. When areas were recaptured by Christian forces, bishoprics were established and campaigns launched to convert the local populace. Dominican scholars in Spain explained Christianity in terms of Scholastic theology based on Aristotle, whom the Arabs held in high esteem. In time, Christianity replaced Islam as the religion of Spain.

The Crusades: The word "crusade" is derived from the Latin Crux, meaning "cross." Soldiers who fought in a holy war against Muslims were said to "take up the cross;" and crusading was to engage in Holy War. Knights on crusade would often sew crosses to their garments and venture forth in what was often considered a holy pilgrimage. Although Crusades were fought against the Cathars and Muslims of Spain, the major crusades were waged against the Muslims who held Palestine and Jerusalem, areas considered holy to Christianity.

The First Crusade was launched by the preaching of Pope Urban II in 1095 who in a sermon at the Council of Clermont, called for Christian knights to take up arms and size the holy land. Urban was acting in response to a plea from the Patriarch at Constantinople, who asked for aid against the Turkish Muslims. Urban saw this as an opportunity to reunite the two churches under himself. He promised salvation to any who died while on the campaign, and peppered his speech with gory details of atrocities presumably committed by Muslims against Christians. Urbanís preaching caused such a stir that even common people, who were not equipped to fight, were caught up in the spirit of crusade. A popular preacher known as Peter the Hermit led a group of peasants throughout Europe who massacred Jews along the way, but were themselves destroyed by a Muslim army as they approached Anatolia. Those who were not killed were sold into slavery.

The First Crusade consisted primarily of French and Norman knights left in late 1096. They were not altogether welcomed at Constantinople when they indicated they expected that city to foot the bill for their expedition. Still, they eventually captured Edessa, Antioch, and other important cities. In 1099, they captured Jerusalem, and set up the Kingdom of Jerusalem with one of their own as King.

European success was largely the result of disorganization and disagreement among the Muslims who were unable to present a united front. However, the loss of Jerusalem united them in a common cause, primarily under the leadership of Salah al Din, known to the Europeans as Saladin. Saladin recaptured Jerusalem in 1187. Five other major crusades followed, but none met with success. During the Second Crusade, Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor drowned along the way, and a quarrel between other leaders forced the campaign to turn back without ever reaching the Holy Land. More notoriously, the Fourth Crusade, which needed funding from Venetian merchants for passage, abandoned their campaign and instead attacked Constantinople which they sacked in 1204. The city was so badly damaged that it never recovered, and eventually fell to the Turks in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks, who renamed the city Istanbul, marks the end of the Middle Ages.

Among the more bizarre instances was a "Childrenís Crusade," launched in 1212 as the result of the teaching of two young boys in Germany and France. They led a large army of young children who believed that when they reached the Mediterranean, God would part the waters for them as He had the Red Sea in the Old Testament. When the waters did not part, two kind gentlemen offered them passage in support of their cause; however the two were deceitful. One ship crashed on rocks in which most of the children perished. The others were sold to the Arabs as slaves.

The effect of the crusades was largely economic and social rather than religious. European scholars and missionaries often dealt with Muslim philosophers and theologians. European merchants often traded with Muslims merchants. As a result, a large scale exchange of trade, ideas, and technology took place. Europeans became acquainted with the works of Islamic science and astronomy, "Arabic" numerals (which the Muslims had adopted from the Hindu of India ;) and paper production (which the Arabs had learned from the Chinese.) They learned of new foods, such as cane sugar, coffee, spices, and dates; and also trade goods such as silk, cotton textiles, carpets and tapestries.

Europeans at first had little to trade in return other than wool textiles, fur and timber. As demand for new commodities increased in Europe, Italian merchants developed new products and marketed them in cities such as Alexandria, Cairo, Damascus, and Constantinople. Often they traded gems and jewelry, fine woolen textiles, and glassware. Italian merchants soon traveled beyond Egypt and Palestine to avoid dealing with Muslim intermediaries, and traded directly in India, China, and southeast Asia for spices and silks. Thus, although the Crusades were a failure militarily, they helped encourage the re-integration of western Europe into the larger economy of the eastern hemisphere.

Of more modern concern, the Crusades were largely responsible for an exacerbation of relations between Muslims and Christians. Modern Islamic radicals often cite the Crusades as an example of Western atrocity. Osama bin Laden frequently speaks of the United States as "crusader America."