The Roman Catholic Church



IN many aspects religion is the most interesting of man’s ways, for it is his ultimate commentary on life and his only defense against death. Nothing is more moving, in medieval history, than the omnipresence, almost at times the omnipotence, of religion. It is difficult for those who today live in comfort and plenty to go down in spirit into the chaos and penury that molded medieval faiths. But we must think of the superstitions, apocalypses, idolatry, and credulity of medieval Christians, Moslems, and Jews with the same sympathy with which we should think of their hardships, their poverty, and their griefs. The flight of thousands of men and women from “the world, the flesh, and the Devil” into monasteries and nunneries suggests not so much their cowardice as the extreme disorder, insecurity, and violence of medieval life. It seemed obvious that the savage impulses of men could be controlled only by a supernaturally sanctioned moral code. Then, above all, the world needed a creed that would balance tribulation with hope, soften bereavement with solace, redeem the prose of toil with the poetry of belief, cancel life’s brevity with continuance, and give an inspiring and ennobling significance to a cosmic drama that might else be a meaningless and intolerable procession of souls, species, and stars stumbling one by one into an inescapable extinction.

Christianity sought to meet these needs with a tremendous and epic conception of creation and human sin, of the Virgin Mother and the suffering God, of the immortal soul destined to face a Last Judgment, to be damned to everlasting hell, or to be saved for eternal bliss by a Church administering through her sacraments the divine grace earned by the Redeemer’s death. It was within this encompassing vision that most Christian lives moved and found their meaning. The greatest gift of medieval faith was the upholding confidence that right would win in the end, and that every seeming victory of evil would at last be sublimated in the universal triumph of the good.

The Last Judgment was the pivot of the Christian, as of the Jewish and the Moslem, faith. The belief in the Second Advent of Christ, and the end of the world, as preludes to the Judgment, had survived the disappointments of the apostles, the passing of the year 1000, and the fears and hopes of forty generations; it had become less vivid and general, but it had not died; “wise men,” said Roger Bacon in 1271, considered the end of the world to be near.1 Every great epidemic or disaster, every earthquake or comet or other extraordinary event was looked upon as heralding the end of the world. But even if the world continued, the souls and bodies of the dead would be resurrected at once* to face their Judge.

Men hoped vaguely for heaven, but vividly feared hell. There was much tenderness in medieval Christianity, probably more than in any other religion in history, but the Catholic, like the early Protestant, theology and preaching, felt called upon to stress the terror of hell. Christ was to this age no “gentle Jesus meek and mild,” but the stern avenger of every mortal sin. Nearly all churches showed some representation of Christ the Judge; many had pictures of the Last Judgment, and these portrayed the tortures of the damned more prominently than the bliss of the saved. St. Methodius, we are told, converted King Boris of Bulgaria by painting a picture of hell on the wall of the royal palace.4 Many mystics claimed to have had visions of hell, and described its geography and terror.5 The monk Tundale, in the twelfth century, reported exquisite details. In the center of hell, he said, the Devil was bound to a burning gridiron by red-hot chains; his screams of agony never ended; his hands were free, and reached out and seized the damned; his teeth crushed them like grapes; his fiery breath drew them down his burning throat. Assistant demons with hooks of iron plunged the bodies of the damned alternately into fire or icy water, or hung them up by the tongue, or sliced them with a saw, or beat them flat on an anvil, or boiled them or strained them through a cloth. Sulphur was mixed with the fire in order that a vile stench might be added to the discomforts of the damned; but the fire gave no light, so that a horrible darkness shrouded the incalculable diversity of pains.6The Church herself gave no official location or description of hell; but she frowned upon men who, like Origen, doubted the reality of its material fires.7 The purpose of the doctrine would have been frustrated by its mitigation. St. Thomas Aquinas held that “the fire which will torment the bodies of the damned is corporeal,” and located hell in “the lowest part of the earth.”8

To common medieval imagination, and to such men as Gregory the Great, the Devil was no figure of speech but a life and blood reality, prowling about everywhere, suggesting temptations and creating all kinds of evil; he could usually be sent packing by a dash of holy water or the sign of the cross; but he left an awful odor of burning sulphur behind him. He was a great admirer of women, used their smiles and charms as bait to lure his victims, and occasionally won their favors—if the ladies themselves might be believed. So a woman of Toulouse admitted that she had frequently slept with Satan, and had, at the age of fifty-three, given birth, through his services, to a monster with a wolf’s head and a serpent’s tail.9 The Devil had an immense cohort of assistant demons, who hovered around every soul and persistently maneuvered to lead it into sin. They, too, liked to lie as “incubi” with careless or lonely or holy women.10 The monk Richalm described them as “filling the whole world; the whole air is but a thick mass of devils, always and everywhere in wait for us … it is marvelous that any one of us should be alive; were it not for God’s grace, no one of us could escape.”11 Practically everybody, including the philosophers, believed in this multitude of demons; but a saving sense of humor tempered this demonology, and most healthy males looked upon the little devils rather as poltergeist mischief-makers than as objects of terror. Such demons, it was believed, intruded audibly but invisibly into conversations, cut holes in people’s garments, and threw dirt at passersby. One tired demon sat on a head of lettuce, and was inadvertently eaten by a nun.12

More alarming was the doctrine that “many are called but few are chosen” (Matt, xxii, 14). Orthodox theologians—Mohammedan as well as Christian —held that the vast majority of the human race would go to hell.13 Most Christian theologians took literally the statement ascribed to Christ: “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark xvi, 16). St. Augustine reluctantly concluded that infants dying before being baptized went to hell.14 St. Anselm thought that the damnation of unbaptized infants (vicariously guilty through the sin of Adam and Eve) was no more unreasonable than the slave status of children born to slaves—which he considered reasonable.15 The Church softened the doctrine by teaching that unbaptized infants went not to hell but to limbo—Infernus puerorum—where their only suffering was the pain of the loss of paradise.16 Most Christians believed that all Moslems—and most Moslems (Mohammed excepted) believed that all Christians—would go to hell; and it was generally accepted that all “heathen” were damned.17 The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) declared that no man could be saved outside the Universal Church.18 Pope Gregory IX condemned as heresy Raymond Lully’s hope that “God hath such love for His people that almost all men will be saved, since, if more were damned than saved, Christ’s mercy would be without great love.”19 No other prominent churchman allowed himself to believe—or say—that the saved would outnumber the damned.20 Berthold of Regensburg, one of the most famous and popular preachers of the thirteenth century, reckoned the proportion of the damned to the saved as a hundred thousand to one.21 St. Thomas Aquinas thought that “in this also doth God’s mercy chiefly appear, that He raiseth a few to that salvation wherefrom very many fail.”22 Volcanoes were supposed by many to be the mouths of hell; their rumbling was a faint echo of the moans of the damned;23 and Gregory the Great argued that the crater of Etna was daily widening to receive the enormous number of souls that were fated to be damned.24 The congested bowels of the earth held in their hot embrace the great majority of all the human beings that had ever been born. From that hell there would be no respite nor escape through all eternity. Said Berthold: Count the sands of the seashore, or the hairs that have grown on man or beast since Adam; reckon a year of torment for each grain or hair, and that span of time would hardly represent the beginning of the agony of the condemned.25 The last moment of a man’s life was decisive for all eternity; and the fear that that final moment might find one sinful and unshrived lay heavy on men’s souls.

These terrors were in some careful measure mitigated by the doctrine of purgatory. Prayers for the dead were a custom as old as the Church; penances undergone, and Masses said, to aid the dead, can be traced as far back as 250.26 Augustine had discussed the possibility of a place of purging punishment for sins forgiven but not fully atoned for before death. Gregory I had approved the idea, and had suggested that the pains of souls in purgatory might be shortened and softened by the prayers of their living friends.27The theory did not fully capture popular belief till Peter Damian, about 1070, gave it the afflatus of his fevered eloquence. In the twelfth century it was advanced by the spread of a legend that St. Patrick, to convince some doubters, had allowed a pit to be dug in Ireland, into which several monks descended; some returned, said the tale, and described purgatory and hell with discouraging vividness. The Irish knight Owen claimed to have gone down through that pit into hell in 1153; and his account of his nether experiences had a prodigious success.28 Tourists came from afar to visit this pit; financial abuses developed; and Pope Alexander VI, in 1497, ordered it closed as an imposture.29

What proportion of the people in medieval Christendom accepted the doctrines of Christianity? We hear of many heretics, but most of these admitted the basic tenets of the Christian creed. At Orléans in 1017 two men, “among the worthiest in lineage and learning,” denied creation, the Trinity, heaven, and hell as “mere ravings.”30 John of Salisbury, in the twelfth century, tells of hearing many persons talk “otherwise than faith may hold”;31 in that century, says Villani, there were at Florence epicureans who scoffed at God and the saints, and lived “according to the flesh.”32 Giraldus Cambrensis (1146?-1220) tells of an unnamed priest who, reproved by another for careless celebration of the Mass, asked whether his critic really believed in transubstantiation, the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and resurrection-adding that all this had been invented by cunning ancients to hold men in terror and restraint, and was now carried on by hypocrites.33 The same Gerald of Wales quotes the scholar Simon of Tournai (c. 1201) as crying out, one day, “Almighty God! how long will this superstitious sect of Christians, and this upstart invention endure?”34 Of this Simon the story is told that in a lecture he proved by ingenious arguments the doctrine of the Trinity, and then, elated by the applause of his audience, boasted that he could disprove the doctrine with yet stronger arguments; whereupon, we are told, he was immediately stricken with paralysis and idiocy.35 About 1200 Peter, Prior of Holy Trinity in Aldgate, London, wrote: “There are some who believe that there is no God, and that the world is ruled by chance…. There are many who believe neither in good or evil angels, nor in life after death, nor in any other spiritual and invisible thing.”36 Vincent of Beauvais (1200?-64) mourned that many “derided visions and stories” (of the saints) “as vulgar fables or lying inventions,” and added, “We need not wonder if such tales get no credence from men who believe not in hell.”37

The doctrine of hell stuck in many throats. Some simple souls asked “why God had created the Devil if He foresaw Satan’s sin and fall?”38 Skeptics argued that God could not be so cruel as to punish finite sin with infinite pain; to which the theologians answered that a mortal sin was an offense against God, and therefore involved infinite guilt. A weaver of Toulouse, in 1247, remained unconvinced. “If,” he said, “I could lay hold on that god who, out of a thousand men whom he has made, saves one and damns all the rest, I would tear and rend him tooth and nail as a traitor, and would spit in his face.”39 Other skeptics argued more genially that hell-fire must in time calcine the soul and body to insensitivity, so that “he who is used to hell is as comfortable there as anywhere else.”40 The old joke about hell having more interesting company than heaven appears in the French idyl of Aucassin et Nicolette (c. 1230).41 Priests complained that most people put off thought of hell to their deathbed, confident that however sinful their lives, “three words” (ego te absolvo) “will save me.”42

Apparently there were village atheists then as now. But village atheists leave few memorials behind them; and the literature that has come down from the Middle Ages was largely composed by churchmen, or was largely screened by ecclesiastical selection. We shall find “wandering scholars” composing irreverent poetry, rough burghers swearing the most blasphemous oaths; people sleeping and snoring,43 even dancing44 and whoring,45 in church; and “more lechery, gluttony, murder, and robbery in the Sunday” (said a friar) “than reigned all the week before.”46 Such items, suggesting a lack of real faith, might be multiplied by heaping up instances from a hundred countries and a thousand years on one page; they serve to warn us against exaggerating medieval piety; but the Middle Ages still convey to the student a pervasive atmosphere of religious practices and beliefs. Every European state took Christianity under its protection, and enforced submission to the Church by law. Nearly every king loaded the Church with gifts.

Nearly every event in history was interpreted in religious terms. Every incident in the Old Testament prefigured something in the New; in vetere testamento, said Augustine, novum latet, in novo vetus patet; e.g., said the great Bishop, David watching Bathsheba bathing symbolized Christ beholding His Church cleansing herself from the pollution of the world.47 Everything natural was a supernatural sign. Every part of a church, said Guillaume Durand (1237?-96), Bishop of Mende, has a religious meaning: the portal is Christ, through whom we enter heaven; the pillars are the bishops and doctors who uphold the Church; the sacristy, where the priest puts on his vestments, is the womb of Mary, where Christ put on human flesh.48 Every beast, to this mood, had a theological significance. “When a lioness gives birth to a cub,” says a typical medieval bestiary, “she brings it forth dead, and watches over it three days, until the father, coming on the third day, breathes upon its face and brings it to life. So the Father Almighty raised His Son Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.”49

The people welcomed, and for the most part generated, a hundred thousand tales of supernatural events, powers, and cures. An English urchin tried to steal some pigeon fledglings from a nest; his hand miraculously adhered to the stone upon which he tamed; only three days of prayer by the community released him.50 A child offered bread to the sculptured Infant of a Nativity shrine; the Christ Babe thanked it, and invited it to paradise; three days later the child died.51 A “certain lecherous priest wooed a woman. Unable to win her consent, he kept the most pure Body of the Lord in his mouth after Mass, hoping that if he thus kissed her she would be bent to his desire by the force of the Sacrament…. But when he would fain have gone forth from the church he seemed to himself to grow so huge that he struck his head against the ceiling.” He buried the wafer in a corner of the church; later he confessed to another priest; they dug up the wafer, and found it had turned into the blood-stained figure of a crucified man.52 A woman kept the sacred wafer in her mouth from church to home, and placed it in a hive to reduce mortality among the bees; these built “for their most sweet Guest, out of their sweetest honeycombs, a tiny chapel of marvelous workmanship.”53 Pope Gregory I filled his works with stories of this kind. Perhaps the people, or the literate among them, took such tales with a grain of salt, or as pleasant fiction no worse than the wondrous narratives wherewith our presidents and kings relax their burdened brains; credulity may have changed its field rather than its scope. There is a touching faith in many of these medieval legends: so, when the beloved Pope Leo IX returned to Italy from his tour of reform in France and Germany, the river Aniene divided like the Red Sea to let him pass.54

The power of Christianity lay in its offering to the people faith rather than knowledge, art rather than science, beauty rather than truth. Men preferred it so. They suspected that no one could answer their questions; it was prudent, they felt, to take on faith the replies given with such quieting authoritativeness by the Church; they would have lost confidence in her had she ever admitted her fallibility. Perhaps they distrusted knowledge as the bitter fruit of a wisely forbidden tree, a mirage that would lure man from the Eden of simplicity and an undoubting life. So the medieval mind, for the most part, surrendered itself to faith, trusted in God and the Church, as modern man trusts in science and the state. “You cannot perish,” said Philip Augustus to his sailors in a midnight storm, “for at this moment thousands of monks are rising from their beds, and will soon be praying for us.”55 Men believed that they were in the hands of a power greater than any human knowledge could give. In Christendom, as in Islam, they surrendered to God; and even amid profanity, violence, and lechery, they sought Him and salvation. It was a God-intoxicated age.

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