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History of Christianity: 13th Century

Updated on March 7, 2019
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James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and a writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.

"FRANCIS OF ASSISI" PAINTED  BY FRANCISCO DE ZURBARAN IN 1635
"FRANCIS OF ASSISI" PAINTED BY FRANCISCO DE ZURBARAN IN 1635

St. Francis of Assisi

One of the most important figures in Christian History was Giovanni Bernardone (1181-1226), known as Francis of Assisi. He a playboy and a warrior in his early life. He was fortunate to have been born into an affluent family in Assisi, Italy. His father had nicknamed him Francis; the name by which he is known.

In 1206, at the age of 25, Francis of Assisi had an epiphany in which Jesus spoke to him, telling him Francis, as you can see, my church is falling to pieces. Go and rebuild it.”

Francis of Assisi gave away his fine wardrobe and began to dress in rags. He took up the life of a beggar and started a new movement in Christian History named after him, the Franciscan Order (16,000 strong today). Francis of Assisi later wrote, You cannot help the poor without becoming one of them.”

Francis of Assisi, who had previously abhorred lepers, now embraced them and tended to their wounds. Leprosy was a common and highly contagious disease in Europe at the time. The disease causes oozing boils to break out, disfiguring its victims and resulting in a putrid odor. Lepers were quarantined in “colonies,” of which there were 20,000 in Europe during the days in Christian History of Francis of Assisi.

Francis rebuilt a few old churches nearby with money taken from his father. The old man was enraged at his son’s behavior; he beat him up and had him arrested. Francis became street-preacher and soon drew large crowds. He would not accept money, only food. He and his followers were often mocked and beaten.

Francis preached to the pope and broke out into a dance. Many in the audience wept and sang. Francis of Assisi altered the Medieval view of nature from that of a threatening menace to something to be loved as a manifestation of God’s creativity.

In 1224 Francis of Assisi built the first recorded crèche at the Mount La Verna Church. That same year he became the first known person in Christian History to receive the stigmata. Here is the famous Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me a channel of your peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, your pardon Lord;

and where there's doubt, true faith in you;

O Master,

grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

FRANCIS OF ASSISI COMFORTS A LEPER
FRANCIS OF ASSISI COMFORTS A LEPER
THE CHURCH THAT FRANCIS OF ASSISI BUILT BY HAND AT PORTIUNCULA (NOW INSIDE BASILICA OF ST. MARY OF THE ANGELS)
THE CHURCH THAT FRANCIS OF ASSISI BUILT BY HAND AT PORTIUNCULA (NOW INSIDE BASILICA OF ST. MARY OF THE ANGELS)

The Franciscan Order

It was decided by Cardinal Ugolino that the original teachings of St. Francis were impossible for more than a few men to adhere to. Francis was brokenhearted, and resigned as head of the Franciscan Order.

The Franciscan Order in England were known to go barefoot all winter through the ice and snow, fulfilling their vow of poverty to the extreme. Eventually, Brother Elias took over the reins, and it was he who built a church to contain the remains of St. Francis.

The Franciscan Order was instrumental in the rise of the universities. It played a major role in the “thirteenth-century renaissance” by establishing the value of secular learning apart from theology. The Franciscan Order at the Universities both studied and taught Theology, but added faculties of Law, Medicine, Art, Music, and Philosophy. Universities were incorporated by charter and were self-governing---apart from the Church. Bologna, Paris and Oxford were the first universities. By 1300 they had proliferated throughout Italy, France, England, and Spain.

FRANCISCAN ORDER TODAY
FRANCISCAN ORDER TODAY

St. Bonaventure

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) guided the Franciscans after Brother Elias, and established the lasting ideals of the Franciscans. St. Bonaventure declared that churches were to be simple without bell towers; vestments must be made of plain cloth; there would be no pay for preaching; no collection plates; the mendicants were to be devoted to moral teachings.

St. Bonaventure touted the personal religious experience, which was inspired by St. Francis. He wrote of mentally going beyond doctrine and reason to supernatural transcendence “First descend by grace into your own heart and then be transported in ecstasy above the intellect."

ST BONAVENTURE
ST BONAVENTURE

The Fourth Crusade

The Doge (Duke) of Venice diverted the Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) from its original aim of conquering Jerusalem from the Muslims, to ransacking Christian Constantinople and massacring its inhabitants. In three days of rape and murder the Fourth Crusade found time to pillage the Hagia Sophia Cathedral, and to set a prostitute to dancing on the Patriarch’s throne.

The Fourth Crusade burnt down large swaths of Christendom’s most beautiful city, and they plundered untold riches of treasure and relics. Constantinople had possessed the world’s finest collections of literature and art, as well as three quarters of the wealth of Christendom. These acts of the Fourth Crusade embittered eastern Christians for centuries to come.

Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) launched the Fourth Crusade. He had decided that the 2nd and 3rd Crusades failed because they were managed by Kings---as opposed to the successful 1st Crusade, which was spearheaded by the Church in Rome.

Muslims had by this time closed the overland route through what is now modern day Turkey, necessitating a seafaring venture to the Holy Land. Without kingly financing, Innocent turned to the shipbuilding powerhouse of Venice for assistance, but Venice had already cut a secret deal with the Muslims, and the Doge’s real goal lay in subjugating Constantinople as retribution for an earlier affront. The Fourth Crusade assembled in Venice and the Doge announced he would only provide ships if they would first sack the Christian city of Zara, Hungary.

"SACK OF CONSTANTINOPLE IN THE FOURTH CRUSADE" ENGRAVING BY GUSTAVE DORE
"SACK OF CONSTANTINOPLE IN THE FOURTH CRUSADE" ENGRAVING BY GUSTAVE DORE
FOURTH CRUSADE
FOURTH CRUSADE

The Magna Carta

Bad King John of England (1166-1216), the younger brother of the beloved King Richard the Lionheart, was a fat, arrogant, tyrannical coward. While John was away fighting in France, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, called a secret meeting of the English nobility. He proposed the idea that the King should not be above the law but subject to it, and presented to those present a charter written a hundred years earlier but never enacted.

The charter was primarily focused on wills and inheritance, but more importantly conferred specific basic rights under the law to the common peasant that included the right to trial by jury and the forbiddance of taxation without representation. It also contained a catalogue of items the king would no longer be permitted to do.

King John was forced to sign the charter, now known in history as the Magna Carta---a lynchpin of democracy. To enforce the charter’s provisions, the first English Parliament was founded, and was soon replicated in France.

KING JOHN OF ENGLAND SIGNING THE MAGNA CARTA
KING JOHN OF ENGLAND SIGNING THE MAGNA CARTA

Fourth Lateran Council

Pope Innocent III convened the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In attendance were 71 patriarchs and archbishops; 412 bishops; 900 abbots and priors---it was the largest assemblage of the Middle Ages.

The Fourth Lateran Council approved the Dogma of Transubstantiation of the Holy Eucharist that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are truly contained in the Sacrament of the Altar under the outward appearances of bread and wine.” The basis for this was largely taken from I Corinthians 11:27 & 29.

It was decided by the Fourth Lateran Council that if the unworthy took the Holy Eucharist they would receive nothing except bread, while true believers received the heavenly food of the Body of Christ. The Holy Eucharist was considered the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament.”

In both testaments there exists a priesthood and the required sacrifice for which priests had primary responsibility. A priest had a responsibility and duty to stay right with God personally, since he handled the sacred. The “Holy of Holies” was now the Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Eucharist and the proper understanding of it had become the heart of the Christian religion.

The Fourth Lateran Council also determined that Jews and Muslims living in Christian lands must wear identifying badges---as Christians were already required to do in Muslim lands. In addition, the clergy were banned from wearing green.

POPE INNOCENT III
POPE INNOCENT III

The Dominicans

The Dominicans are officially called the Order of Preachers. To this day OP follows the names of many distinguished Christians. The Dominicans lived initially as beggars, devoted to study and evangelism.

The Dominicans spread rapidly throughout Western Europe after their founding in 1216, preaching the Gospel and establishing schools. Their attire led to the nickname Blackfriars, which to this day is the name of their college at Oxford.

The Dominicans proved to be great writers, artists and architects. They became confessors, advisors, and ambassadors for the Kings of Europe.

The Dominicans translated Bibles, compiled encyclopedias, and wrote about theology. They also played a major role in the Inquisition. Some have called the Dominicans the Secret Police of the Middle Ages.

DOMINICANS TODAY
DOMINICANS TODAY

Introducing the Plough

By the year 1200, a revolution in agriculture was complete in Europe, enabling the sustenance of larger populations with a growing supply of ever more nutritious food. A large part of this revolution was the invention of a new plough.

The heavy, iron, three-piece plough on wheels could turn even the most stubborn of fields. Horses had largely replaced teams of oxen. This was made possible as a result of special breeding techniques, and the inventions of the horse-collar and horseshoe.

Three-field crop rotation had increased yields by 50%, and also permitted the growing of all four cereals, while distributing the workload of farmers from spring to autumn. Upland fields were abandoned in favor of long open-strip fields in valleys, resulting in large valley villages across Europe. The new plough helped feed Europe for centuries to come.

HORSES PULL MOULDBOARD PLOUGH AS IN 1200
HORSES PULL MOULDBOARD PLOUGH AS IN 1200

National Flags

Denmark raised its national flag---the first in history---a red banner with a white cross, on the battlefield in 1219. Since then, every independent nation has adopted a flag of its own. National flags became a vital symbol of identity and a focus of patriotism.

THE FIRST NATIONAL FLAG "DANNEBROG"
THE FIRST NATIONAL FLAG "DANNEBROG"

The Fifth Crusade

The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) featured armies from Hungary and Austria. They succeeded in reacquiring Jerusalem by 1217. The following year, additional armies arrived from Germany and Holland to mount a campaign against Egypt.

The armies occupied the port city of Damietta, but their next move, a march on Cairo, proved to be disastrous. Tropical diseases took their toll on the Crusaders, and decimated their ranks. Finally, in 1221 the Crusaders were defeated and surrendered to the Muslims.

CAPTURE OF DAMIETTA IN THE FIFTH CRUSADE
CAPTURE OF DAMIETTA IN THE FIFTH CRUSADE

The Virgin Mary

By the year 1200, devotion to Mary the mother of Jesus had reached full bloom. The Virgin Mary had conquered worldly wisdom through the miracle of the Virgin Birth. The view was that she was unique among not only human beings, but of all creatures---a creature that had become the mother of her Creator.

She alone had the combination of motherly fertility and virginal purity. Since Mary the mother of Jesus had been a virgin and Jesus had remained a virgin, clerical celibacy was emphasized in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Virgin Mary had been called “full of grace” in Luke 1:28, because of her humility and obedience. Now, some Catholic theologians went further, writing that she had lived a life that was free from all sin. This led to a growing emphasis on the office of Mary the mother of Jesus as “mediatrix.”

To quote Bernard of Clairvaux “The Virgin Mother was the way by which the Savior came to mankind in the incarnation and the redemption, and she was to be the one through whom we ascend to him who descended through her to us; through whom we have access to the Son; so that through her he who through her was given to us might take us up to himself.”

The idea was that through Mary the mother of Jesus heaven had been filled with saints who would have ended up in hell had it not been for her. As Bernard said She is our mediatrix, she is the one through whom we have received thy mercy O God, she is the one through whom we have welcomed the Lord Jesus into our homes.”

The curse of Eve’s original sin had been lifted due to the blessing of the Virgin Mary. The “mediatrix” not only referred to her place in salvation, but also to her continuing position as intercessor between Christ and us.

It was posited that God had chosen the Virgin Mary for the specific task of pleading the cause of men before her Son. Mary the mother of Jesus was addressed as the one who could bring healing and cleansing to sinners and give succor against the wiles of the devil. Guibert of Nogent asserted “there is nothing in heaven that is not subject to the Virgin through her Son.

Since the Virgin Mary possessed a unique holiness, it was fitting that veneration and prayer be addressed to her. This veneration went a step further for some, who decided that Mary the mother of Jesus must also have been immaculately conceived, so as to not taint Jesus with Original Sin.

"MADONNA WITH CHILD BLESSING" PAINTING BY GIOVANNI BELLINI IN 1464 OF THE VIRGIN MARY
"MADONNA WITH CHILD BLESSING" PAINTING BY GIOVANNI BELLINI IN 1464 OF THE VIRGIN MARY
"THE ASSUMPTION OF MARY" AS PAINTED BY TITIAN
"THE ASSUMPTION OF MARY" AS PAINTED BY TITIAN

Communion of Saints

The Apostles’ Creed includes these words:“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.”

What is the communion of saints? Alcuin had offered an explanation: “Saints are those who, in the faith that we have received, have migrated from this present world to God, and with whom believers have an association and a community of hope.”

This meant that the communion of saints made believers fellow citizens and comrades of the blessed spirits.”

Their footsteps were to be imitated and followed; a saint was a hero of the faith. According to Herman of Scheda, the communion of saints were, “angelic in appearance, steady in gait, holy in activity, sound in body, smart of mind, circumspect in work, outstanding in genius, great in counsel, catholic in faith, patient in hope, and universal in love.”

A saint was a reflection of Christ. Even now---before the general resurrection--- the communion of saints shared Christ in their spirits, and would eventually share Him in their bodies. This understanding of the relationship between Christ and the communion of saints made way for the ideas that believers should invoke the names of saints when praying to God, and that the communion of saints prayed for believers.

Anselm had proclaimed that sin was not only an offense against God, but also against the communion of saints, and it was from there that prayers were developed for the salvation of the dearly departed.

Over time cults developed that were devoted to particular saints, based on the belief that certain saints possessed certain qualities. Many times these cults were geographically specific.

The first saint to be canonized was Ulrich of Augsburg. He had gone to Rome to commend himself to the martyrs there. Since Martyrs had been put to death for Christ, is was believed they were in such a state as to where they could pray for believers on earth. The veneration of martyrs preceded the veneration of saints.

Not all theologians approved of this growing devotion to martyrs and saints. There were those who not only ridiculed praying to dead saints for help, but also praying for the dead---and even the baptism of infants.

The veneration of relics had preceded the veneration of martyrs. In the Middle Ages and earlier, the arrival of a relic to a new site would be occasioned by miracles. Relics had to be protected against hostile forces, because through the relics of his body a saint became the “patron” of the place where they reposed.

The power of God that manifested itself in a saint did not end at his death---it continued to work through the remains of his body. The very purpose of God performing miracles through relics was to show believers that the saint himself is alive and with the Lord.

With the growing popularity of relics came the inevitable charlatanism. All sorts of items turned up from the cords that bound Jesus at his trial, the sponge lifted to his mouth on the cross, a vial of bread from the Last Supper chewed with Jesus’ own teeth, Jesus’ baby teeth, and finally the granddaddy of them all: Jesus’ foreskin.

COMMUNION OF SAINTS
COMMUNION OF SAINTS
"ALL SAINTS DAY" PAINTED BY FRA ANGELICO IN 1430
"ALL SAINTS DAY" PAINTED BY FRA ANGELICO IN 1430
COMMUNION OF SAINTS
COMMUNION OF SAINTS

The Holy Eucharist

By the Thirteenth Century a definite shift occurred regarding the Sacraments. Baptism was no longer the chief sacrament---it was now the Holy Eucharist (Communion). In centuries past, baptism was, as Anselm said, “chief among the sacraments that Christ instituted in the church because it alone was necessary for salvation.” It was widely believed that un-baptized children were condemned.

The new emphasis was on the Holy Eucharist since it was the work of the very “logos” of God, whereas baptism worked by merely invoking the Trinity. Baptism came to be viewed as a temporary measure, while the Holy Eucharist carried divine power eternally.

Not everyone agreed with this assessment. Dissenters wrote that Transubstantiation was a false belief---that just as in baptism, the Holy Eucharist is figurative, not literal. The Roman Catholic Church answered that baptism is indeed figurative, but that the Holy Eucharist is literally the Body of Christ and no longer bread and water.

All of this was more important than we postmoderns might imagine. The position of the Roman Catholic Church was that each sacrament contained a certain spiritual grace, and that it was only through the sacraments that grace---forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation---was communicated to the believer. As Hugo of Saint-Victor said, “The sum of human salvation consist of three things: faith, love, and the sacraments. The denial of the sacraments is tantamount to a denial of the Church itself.”

THE HOLY EUCHARIST
THE HOLY EUCHARIST
THE HOLY EUCHARIST
THE HOLY EUCHARIST
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