A History of the Christian Faith: 13th Century
Frederick II (1194-1250) was named Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in 1220. His contemporaries called him “the astonishment of world.” To some this was meant as a compliment, and to others it wasn’t.
Frederick spoke six different languages, displayed an unlimited thirst for knowledge, and was an avid patron of the arts and sciences. One of his crowning achievements was the Constitutions of Melfi, the preeminent legal code of the Middle Ages. Frederick also wrote the foundational text of ornithology, The Art of Hunting with Birds.
Frederick II squabbled repeatedly with the Roman Catholic Church, and was excommunicated on two different occasions. Upon his second excommunication, he proclaimed Pope Gregory IX to be the “Antichrist.” He marched toward Rome with his army, which was led by Muslim troops, before thinking better of it.
Frederick II was a cruel man. He purged the clergy of perceived enemies; confiscated property; stuffed his dungeons; conducted mass executions of prisoners; cut off the hands and feet of emissaries from the Pope; blinded men with hot pokers; stuffed people into sacks filled with snakes. Other people he didn't like were mutilated, drowned, hung, burned to death, or dragged behind horses through city streets.
He traveled with a huge entourage that included a harem, a menagerie, the imperial library, and vast collections of both gold and jewels.
The Sixth Crusade
Frederick II led his own army, accompanied by the Teutonic Knights, to the Holy Land for what would be the Sixth Crusade (1228-1229), even though he had no support in his endeavor from the Pope in Rome. His actions and what he was able to accomplish astounded Europe as he was successful in negotiating a treaty without firing a shot.
Amazingly, in this treaty he was granted by the Sultan of Egypt the cities of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Sidon, and Jaffa for Christendom. But the treaty had a ten year expiration date.
The Teutonic Knights
The Teutonic Knights were formed in 1190 to care for German casualties in the Third Crusade. Soon after, they became a military monastic community that was sent by the Pope to forcibly convert the Baltic peoples to Christianity.
The Teutonic Knights conquered Prussia, Estonia and Finland. They later served the king of Hungary from 1211-1225, and then were hired by the Duke of Poland. Prussia became the Teutonic state in 1295.
Saint Louis and the Seventh Crusade
King Louis IX of France (1215-1270), would provide not only a model for monarchy for the rest of the Middle Ages, but also a model for political rectitude that would last for all time. He is the only French Monarch to become canonized; King Louis IX became St. Louis - the namesake of a very large American city.
King Louis IX, led the Seventh Crusade in 1249 with the aim of first conquering Egypt and then Jerusalem. His army laid siege to a city in Egypt during a particularly torrid summer. Poor conditions allowed for disease to set in amongst his troops, and shortly afterwards the Muslims were successful in cutting off their food supply.
Louis could have escaped on his own, had he been willing to leave the sick behind, but he refused to do so and was thus captured. A ransom was paid and the King was freed, but the Muslims---despite an agreement that they were free to go---then slaughtered thousands of sick French and English soldiers.
As king, St. Louis was notably frugal in his expenditures which included clothing, food, and drink. His need for penance and humility led to his voluntarily wearing a hair shirt as a constant reminder that Christians were still suffering in the Holy Land.
Louis willingly consulted with his court before dispensing justice, and even the humblest peasant could approach him with a grievance. He was a radical reformer who forbade royal officers from accepting “gifts” (bribery being common); he put an end to the common practice of selling political appointments; he stopped authorities from levying taxes without representation; and he outlawed fines against citizens without a court hearing. Louis was determined to stop money lenders from charging interest on loans (usury) within his kingdom, but he also compensated the lenders he put out of business so that their families wouldn’t suffer.
He founded the first homeless shelters in the history of France; he was responsible for the construction of the first home for the blind; and he was well known for stopping and visiting those who resided in the poor houses and leper colonies in order to wash the feet of these destitute and diseased individuals.
Pope Gregory IX (1157-1241) is the Pope who declared cats to be an instrument of the devil, leading to a great reduction in the cat population of Europe, which in turn helped the spread of the black plague from an exploding rat population. Anyway, I digress.
Pope Gregory IX founded the first Papal Inquisition in 1231 to root out heretics, to try them, and then hand them over to the state for execution. The Roman Catholic Church officially sanctioned torture in 1252---long a tool of governments---to encourage confessions and confidential accusations.
An accusation was enough to assume guilt, and the accused were tried in secret without benefit of counsel. If the accused confessed, they were let off with the confiscation of all their property---a fine way to finance the expenses of the Church, and if they didn’t, they were unmercifully tortured until they did. Those who did not confess even under torture; they were burnt at the stake.
Dissent Against the Roman Catholic Church
Theology in the Thirteenth Century was focused on defending the “true and catholic faith” that originated in divine revelation against the “foolish wisdom of philosophers and heretics,” that was derived strictly through human thought.
There was a rise in the movements that criticized the Church for corruption, and eventually these criticisms expanded to include the institutional structure and liturgical practices of the Church, including the sacramental system.
Secret groups of Christians sprang up who did not participate in the formalities of the Roman Catholic Church. Many of these groups did not eat meat or drink alcohol; they refused to swear oaths; they repudiated war and capital punishment; and they completely opposed celibacy for priests.
Their chief ideal was that of Christian poverty---something they hadn’t seen in the ostentatious display of wealth by the Catholic Church. They were particularly incensed over the opulent lifestyles of the Catholic bishops and priests, whom they viewed as not only dishonest, but as a “den of thieves.”
There is evidence that some of these “heretics” were themselves former clergymen, that they had become dismayed over the offices of the Church being used for personal profits and shady dealings, and that they had left their positions to serve the Lord for the Lord’s sake.
Infant baptism also came to the fore as a major cause of dispute with the Church. It was said by some that baptism couldn’t confer anything onto a baby because Christ had commanded in Mark 16:15-16, that one must believe and be baptized---how can a baby believe the Gospel? Is it not impossible to please God without faith? How can a child have saving faith before its mental faculties are developed? Was not Christ himself baptized as an adult?
Dissenters from the Catholic faith refused to believe that babies were in need of salvation, and they denied that the Church itself had the power to save them if they did simply by sprinkling them with water. The Catholic Church responded “Who are you to declare the entire Church to be in error for a thousand years?”
Purgatory was another cause of dissent. It was not thought to be a Biblical doctrine by some people, but the Catholic Mass and the Eucharist were closely tied to it to a belief in Purgatory.
Christians deemed “Heretics” by the Church had argued against praying (or giving offerings and such) for the dead, not believing that living people or the Church can benefit the dead in any way. The Catholic Church held firm to their position that it was right and proper to pray for the rest and glory of the dearly departed.
There were also people who scorned the edifices of the Catholic Church, going as far as to refuse to call them churches at all, believing that the “Church” refers to the body of believers---not to manmade buildings. These folks opposed towers, bells, altars, religious imagery, Church Festivals, and even the display of crosses.
One heretic charged that it was “foolish and profane to adore or venerate the cross, because the tree that tortured the body of Christ deserves to be crushed and burned rather than adored and venerated."
The Catholic Church declared that these heretics were “tearing asunder the seamless robe of Christ by created division within the Church.”
Then along came the Cathars, a group who rejected all Roman Catholic Church tradition and authority. They declared themselves the “True Christians.” The Church stated that tradition and authority came from the same Holy Spirit who had inspired Scripture.
The Cathars charged that the Roman Catholic Church had fallen away from apostolic purity during the time of Constantine the Great---even proclaiming Pope Sylvester I to be the Antichrist prophesied in the New Testament.
They objected to the idea of praying to the dead, as well as its corollary that the dead are somehow praying for the living. The Cathars denied that shrines were “holy places,” and that church buildings should be called, “the house of God.” They denounced pilgrimages, and they denounced the sacraments.
Thus far, these objections are not far removed from the Protestants who would arrive a few hundred years hence, but that was not all. The Cathars believed in the existence of two Gods, a good God and a bad God. This belief was partly based on the saying of Jesus that a good tree cannot bear evil fruit. Therefore, it followed that a good God could not have created an evil world. Some went as far as to say that the devil himself had created the physical world in which we dwell, but that’s not all.
Church authorities were incensed over assertions that were made declaring that the Law of Moses was actually given by the Prince of Darkness; that in fact the Old Testament was indeed about the evil God, and that only the New Testament was about the good God. This belief meant that the Old Testament patriarchs were damned. Thus, the Cathars claimed exclusive possession of the truth of the Christian faith and universally condemned the Church Fathers.
The targets of the first inquisition were the Cathars of Languedoc, part of modern day France. The Church had already launched a 21 yearlong assault on them that had become known as the Albigensian Crusade.
This specific crusade against the Cathars involved a humungous amount of breaking and entering, chasing, bludgeoning, stealing, raping, stoning, blinding, and burning. In the first day of the crusade a total of 20,000 died at Beziers. It is estimated that by the time it was over, one million lay dead, and that many of those who lost their lives were falsely accused orthodox Christians.
The Cathars (Katharoi means pure in Greek) were spiritual descendents of the ancient Gnostics, Manichaeans, and Bogumils. Among other things, they were vegetarian puritans who believed in the equality of women. More troubling, was their declaration that the humanity and crucifixion of Jesus was just an illusion.
They proclaimed marriage to be evil, and homosexuality was embraced because it produced no children. Suicide was considered the noblest death for a Cathar.
This heresy appealed to some folks because at the time both the Church and its leaders were engaged in an age of wild sinfulness and luxurious living. Peasants were isolated from the cathedral, their children were not taught the faith, and superstition ran rampant amongst the masses. Caesarius of Heisterbach, a monk and chronicler, wrote, “The tragic law of civilization is that discipline creates wealth, and then wealth destroys discipline.”
The crusade’s conclusion was soon followed by the Inquisition. Its leader? One Robert the Bugger (I’ll let my readers sort out how he got that appellation).
Every parish was ordered to provide two laymen and a priest called “inquirers,” to search out the Cathars in their area. Although, when it became apparent that public accusations would bring retribution to the stool pigeons, secret indictments were then approved.
The inquisition against the Cathars continued on for a 40 year period that was filled with torture, terror, and death, and before it was over five thousand Cathars had been executed.
Defense of the Church Against Islam and Judaism
The greatest enemies of Holy Christendom were declared to be the Saracens (Islam) and the Jews. Saracens were alternately called pagans or heretics. Polemics against them were plentiful during these times since they occupied the divine city of Jerusalem and had subjugated the Holy Land.
Theological treatises about the doctrines of Islam accompanied the military actions of the Crusades in their quest to retake the Holy Land for Christendom. Theologians expressed a grudging admiration for the way Islam had “mixed the true with the false.” Some even called Islam a Christian heresy because it accepted some Christian truths, but yet again, rejected others.
Mohammed had learned what he knew about Christian doctrines from heretical sources, in particular the Nestorian monk who had converted him from heathenism. Mohammed then added elements of Judaism into the mix, charging that Christianity was most obviously polytheistic because of the Trinity; along with the accusation that the Church’s use of images constituted idol worship.
Muslims believe that Christ was born of a virgin, and conceived by the Holy Spirit of God. They also believe His teachings to be true, and that His miracles were indeed real, but they deny that Christ was God, or even the Son of God. Instead, he is believed to be a prophet who neither lied nor sinned. The Muslims teach that Jesus never died, but that he ascended to heaven.
Christian theologians did not appreciate Muslim eschatology. The promises of the heavenly paradise after death for devout Muslims in the Koran seemed utterly materialistic, focused on objects of earthly desire and physical appetites.
Most Christians had an even more dim view of the Jews than they did of the Muslims. They charged that Jews were still like the Pharisees who observed the Law of God, but who knew God not. Jews used the Sabbath as a point of contention with Christians.
The Christian view was that the Mosaic Law and the Old Testament were temporary, that they were placeholders for the new eternal law and the New Testament. Hadn’t the Old Testament prophets promised a new law “written on the heart” to replace the old law “written on stone?”
Christian theologians believed the new law to be a recovery of the original Natural Law, which had preceded Mosaic Law. The patriarchs of the Old Testament, including Abraham, did not have Mosaic Law, which it was said was valid for its own time, but not for all time.
The Jews responded by saying, “All these things you say belong to me, and you have taken them over from my books. Where did you get these things? What business do you have with my Scriptures?”
Christians believed that the Roman conquest of Jerusalem and the Holy Land was a result of divine retribution. The destruction of the Jewish temple showed that Judaism, while valid for its time, had now come to an end as a dispensation of God. A calamity of this proportion could not have come upon the Jewish nation as Peter Abelard put it: “except by the most extreme wrath of God and by his righteous vengeance brought on by no cause other than their sin against Jesus Christ.”
The Jews objected to Christians calling Christ “God” and Lord.” Christians countered that the Diaspora was the direct result of Jewish culpability in the death of Jesus and their continued malevolence toward him. To Jews the Messiah has not yet come. The Christian belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Jews defined the difference between Jews and Christians.
So it was that heretics, Jews and Muslims were considered worse than unbelievers to the Christian Church in those days. Whereas in times past, Church authority had been the chief weapon against rival belief systems, it was now becoming more necessary to refute other belief systems with reason and rhetoric. After all, God made man in His own image, capable of reasoning, so that man might be aware of Him, ponder Him, and love Him. So, that which is rational bears the likeness of the supreme nature of God.
My resources used for this article include these books: "The Christians" by the Society to Explore And Record Christian History (SEARCH); "Europe" by Norman Davies; "The Growth of Medieval Theology" by Jaruslav Pelikan; and "A Short History of Christianity" by Stephen Tompkins.