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The Unquenchable Light by Kenneth Scott Latourette


Richard Heard, M.A., M.B.E., M.C., was a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge and University lecturer in Divinity at Cambridge (1950). This book was originally written as the William Belden Noble lectures at Harvard University in 1940.


Chapter Three: The Second Great Age of Advance ( A.D. 950 - A.D. 1350)


Even before A.D.950, movements were beginning to appear which were to mark a new major age of advance in the influence of Jesus. In the next four centuries that influence was to mold an important culture more profoundly than ever it had molded a culture before and was to expand more widely geographically than at any previous time.

The surge of life was most pronounced in Western Europe, that region in which, as we suggested at the close of the last chapter, because of a combination of factors, the influence of Jesus was less restrained and more nearly had free course than elsewhere.

The new life was evidenced in part by fresh religious awakenings which sought to bring the Church more nearly into conformity with the teachings of Jesus. In A.D. 910 the monastery of Cluny was founded and soon became the center of a widespread effort for the reform of monasticism. The revival associated with the name of Cluny extended its efforts beyond the monasteries. It endeavored to free the Church from "simony," the sale and purchase of ecclesiastical office by, money or other unworthy reward. It strove for a celibate clergy. By these two measures it would improve the leadership of the Church.

Before the end of the tenth century the reforming impulse had placed better Popes on Peter’s chair. In the eleventh century the reforming party put a series of great Pontiffs on the throne and devised a method of election which it was hoped would free the Papacy from that control by the Roman nobles which had contributed to bringing it to its low ebb of the tenth century. One of these Popes, Hildebrand (Gregory VII), fought the strongest monarchs of Western Europe, the Holy Roman Emperors, to free the Church from the domination of the secular arm by which it was chronically threatened. It was at the close of the twelfth and at the opening of the thirteenth century, under Innocent III (1198-1216), that the Papacy reached the acme of its power. Innocent III sought to make the Church and with it the voice of Jesus supreme in Western Europe. Some of the strongest of the monarchs were constrained to make concessions to his claims, and he brought John of England into humiliating surrender and induced him to acknowledge that realm a fief of the Papacy.

Reform movements multiplied, striving for a purer embodiment of the Christian spirit. Some of these, like Cluny, expressed themselves in a stricter monastic life. Among them were the Cistercians, the Camaldulians, the Vallombrosians, the Carthusians, and the Premonstratensians. Others, notably the Dominicans and the Franciscans, displayed some of the features of the older monasticism, but were more active in carrying the Christian message to the masses and in seeking both to raise the level of the living of professed Christians and to carry the Christian message to non-Christians. Still other movements were so radical and were so independent of the church of the majority that they were adjudged to be heretical and were persecuted. Among these were the Poor Men of Lyons, who took their rise from Peter Waldo, and the Cathari.

The Western Europe of these four centuries bore on more phases of its culture the impress of Jesus than had Greco-Roman civilization at the earlier high-water mark of Christian influence. In the Greco-Roman world the great achievement of the Christian spirit had been the erasure of the pagan cults and the creation of the Church and of Christian literature and theology. Large phases of life outside the Church and beyond what is usually deemed the strictly religious field had been but little affected. Now the imprint of Christianity was visible in every major aspect of the new culture which arose in Western Europe. This does not mean that the culture of the European Middle Ages was Christian, if by Christian is meant full conformity to the teachings and spirit of Jesus. It was not. Much in it was patently and flagrantly a denial of all that Jesus stood for. There was a large amount of practical skepticism. War was chronic. The strong oppressed the weak. Superstition was rife. Yet there was a more thoroughgoing effort to transform and inspire all of life by the Christian faith than there had been in the Greco-Roman world. The new culture largely grew up under the aegis of the Church. It was the Church which sought by its teaching and its penances to inculcate and enforce ethics. Most of the schools were under the Church, and in much of Western Europe the clergy were long the only lettered class. The universities which began to emerge in the thirteenth century were mainly, especially those in Northern Europe, the creation of churchmen. The chief subject of study, the one which engrossed the finest minds, was theology. Under the stimulus of the Christian faith imposing systems of thought arose, notably the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas. The greatest poet of the Middle Ages, Dante Aughieri, left as the outstanding creation of his genius his Divina Commedia, built around conceptions of Christian origin and unmistakably a product of Christianity. Monasteries were long the chief depositories and reproducers of books. Monarchs were crowned by religious ceremonies inspired by Christianity and took oaths in which the Christian element was strong. Laws showed the effect of the Christian heritage. In the Truce of God and the Peace of God the Christian conscience sought, and with some. effect, to reduce and regulate the warfare which was so constant. The attempts to fix and to enforce a just price and to prevent the charging of interest on loans sprang chiefly from Christian idealism. The care of the sick, the poor, the aged, and the orphans was largely in the hands of religious organizations and was inspired by Christian charity. The sense of a common European community had its major source in the conviction that there were Christian peoples and that all Christians should be included in one fellowship, "Christendom." On the basis of this conception came the later international law.

During these centuries this Western Christendom was expanding its territories and propagating its faith. The geographical extension which, in spite of adverse conditions, had been going on in the preceding centuries, continued without a break. The Scandinavians accepted the faith. Their conversion, especially of those who had settled outside Scandinavia in lands which were professedly Christian, had begun before A.D. 950. In the latter part of the tenth and in the eleventh and twelfth centuries Denmark, Norway, and Sweden became officially Christian. Iceland, peopled by Scandinavians, also accepted the faith. The Scandinavian settlements in Greenland were Christian and had a bishop. The imperfectly known Scandinavian adventurers to North America probably carried the faith to that continent and may even have baptized some of the Indians and Eskimos. The conversion of the Slays who bordered the Germans on the east was completed—notably of the Bohemians, the Poles, and the Wends. The peoples on the eastern and southern fringes of the Baltic were brought to the faith, although it was well into the fourteenth century and after the close of this period that the formal conversion of the last of them, the Lithuanians, was accomplished. The Magyars, who in the ninth century had been a major pagan menace, late in the tenth and early in the eleventh century were welded into an officially Christian state. Missionaries from Western Europe, especially from Italy, traversed much of Asia from the Near East to China, and and there gathered small bodies of Christians.

Christianity also spread from the Byzantine Empire. conversion of Russia was begun through the baptism :he Scandinavian-descended rulers of Kiev and conied throughout and beyond this period. Christianity Serbia was deepened and the Serbian Orthodox which was fully organized.

In Central Asia and the Far East, Nestorian Christiy had a wide extension. There were Christians among Turkish Keraits, the Tartar Onguts, and the Uighurs Chinese Turkestan. Largely through intermarriage with the Keraits, some of the ruling Mongols were professedly Christian. Nestorian Christians were numerous the edges of China and, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, within China itself. For a time it seemed beyond the range of possibility that the Mongols, the conquerors of much of Asia and Eastern Europe, might me officially Christian. That at least was the dream of some Christians of the thirteenth century.

By A.D. 1350, then, Christianity and the influence of is of which it was the vehicle had reached a new higher mark. In Western Europe, in spite of the unpromising outlook six or seven centuries before, it had deepened its strongest center. There religious movement r religious movement evidenced its vitality. There it entered more generally into the shaping of culture than ad in any other culture up to that time. Geographically Christianity was scattered over more territory than any other faith had ever been. Christians were to be found from Greenland and possibly North America on the west to China on the east and from Greenland and Iceland in the north to Nubia, Ethiopia, Socotra, and Southern India in the south.

It must be noted that, in point of influence, Christianity was as yet by no means the leading religion of mankind. To be sure, in geographic extent it surpassed all others. However, Western Europe, in which it was most potent, was not so prominent as it was to become in later centuries. China, predominantly Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist, India, prevailingly Buddhist and Hindu, and the Moslem world loomed much larger in the total picture of contemporary civilization. Western Europe was relatively insignificant. The Christian Byzantine Empire, although boasting Constantinople, one of the great urban centers of commerce and culture, was politically a third-rate power and was waning. Over most of the vast area across which it had been carried, Christianity was represented by small minorities sprinkled among non-Christian majorities. In one respect Christianity was not proportionately as outstanding as in A.D. 400. In the latter year it had been the faith of the Roman Empire, which was then still the strongest and most populous, state on the globe. In A.D. 1350, although diffused much more widely and having impressed itself more deeply upon Europe than it had upon the fifth-century Greco-Roman world, it was not professed by a cultural center which was so outstanding as the Roman Empire had been. In spite of this important qualification, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries witnessed the greatest effect of Jesus upon the human race that had thus far been recorded.

The means by which Christianity achieved this position were, as usual, varied. In these means were also to be found at least some of the causes for its gains. They were largely a continuation of those which had been responsible for the advances which had been registered in the preceding period.

The prestige of the culture associated with Christianity probably had much to do with the acceptance of the faith by the peoples of Northern Europe. The civilization with which these peoples had their most intimate contacts, that on their south, was ostensibly Christian. When they adopted this higher civilization, as they naturally wished to do, as a part of the process of acculturization they accepted Christianity. This appears to have been an especially potent factor in the conversion of the Scandinavians and the Magyars.

The initiative of monarchs and princes was fully as important as in the preceding period. It was usually these, the natural leaders, through whom acceptance of the faith was accomplished. Some of the rulers seem to have been actuated by a genuine, even if not always understanding, zeal for the Christian faith. Some of them appear also to have been moved by political considerations. It seems fairly clear, for example, that Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf Heraldsson, the kings who were largely responsible for the conversion of Norway, used their advocacy of the faith to build up the royal power against the nobles. The latter had as part of their perquisites the control of the local pagan shrines. By abolishing paganism the Olafs would reduce the functions of the chieftains and enhance their own authority. So, too, Kings Geisa and Stephen of Hungary carried on simultaneously the conversion of the Magyars and the welding of them into a unified monarchy. Presumably the resistance of members of the old nobility was as much due to dislike for the curtailment of their position by the new political order as it was to hatred for the new faith. In Poland under Boleslaw Chrobry the extension of royal power and of territory went hand in hand with the spread of the faith and presumably the pagan reaction which followed Boleslaw’s death was directed against Christianity as a bulwark of the innovating political order.

Imperialism was one of the chief agencies for the propagation of Christianity among the Slays on the German borders. Even more than in the preceding period the Germans backed with force their efforts at conversion. From the time of Henry the Fowler and Otto I, strong German monarchs used baptism and the furtherance of an ecclesiastical establishment to extend their rule over the Wends on their northern marches. The V/ends fiercely and stubbornly resisted, and the final triumph of Christianity was accomplished more through colonization by Germans and the extermination or assimilation of the Wends than by the voluntary acceptance of baptism. The exploits of the Knights of the Sword and the Teutonic Knights in subjugating to German power and German Christianity and culture the peoples on the Baltic south of the Gulf of Finland are one of the commonplaces of medieval history.

The association of Christianity with imperialism was not confined to the Germans. The spread of Christianity in Finland was a phase of the Swedish conquest. For a time German imperialism and missions clashed on the Baltic with the more weakly supported Danish commercial, political, and ecclesiastical ambitions. The first successful missionary efforts among the Pomeranians were at the initiative of a Polish ruler who wished in this fashion to extend his domains.

A spectacular form of the spread of Christianity through imperialism and armed force was the crusades. It need scarcely be said that Christianity was not the only or even the chief cause of these expeditions. The crusades were really one phase of the expansion of Northern and Western European peoples, a continuation of the invasions of the Mediterranean world which had been in progress since the fourth century and precursors of the later movements which were to- carry European peoples over the globe. Many factors, economic and political as well as religious, produced them. Yet the avowed purpose of the crusades was connected with Christianity. In spite of the attention which they attracted and the effort which went into them, it is doubtful whether they helped as much as they hindered the geographical extension of the faith. They facilitated the planting of small Christian communities in the Near East, some of them mercantile and some, more ephemeral, military, and a few conversions can be traced to the channels opened by them.

However, they dealt a serious blow to the already weakened Byzantine Empire, that outpost of Christendom against Islam, and prepared the way for its later conquest by the Crescent. The crusades which were not waged against the Moslem, such as those against the pagan Wends and the heretic Cathari, accomplished something in the extirpation of those against whom they were directed, but it is difficult to believe that they did much to advance the spirit of Jesus—even though they may have promoted the acceptance of Catholic Christianity.

More than in any other period armed force was deliberately employed for the extension of the Christian faith. The use of the crusade, a war consecrated by the Church, became a characteristic device of the Middle Ages. The crusades began in the eleventh century, and while later attempts were made to invoke them, before the middle of the fourteenth century they had passed their heyday. The resort to armed force to effect conversions was not confined to formal crusades. Charlemagne had begun it in the eighth century. Again and again we read of it. There were those who knew that the spirit of Jesus could never be communicated in this fashion and who said so. They, however, were a minority. In earlier centuries armies and navies had sometimes opened the way for Christianity. In later centuries they were repeatedly to do so. Usually, however, wars in whose wake Christianity spread had other objectives which were primary. The propagation of Christianity was at most only a secondary purpose and, with some exceptions, followed as a result unplanned by the generals and admirals.

It was chiefly in the four centuries between A.D. 950 and A.D. 1350 that war was resorted to on the ground that it was for the propagation of the faith.

At their outset and for the first three or four generations, the Mongol conquests made for the expansion of Christianity. To be sure, the enormous destruction of life with which they were accompanied dealt blows to Christian communities in some regions, notably in Central Asia. In Russia the Church suffered for a time. However, at the beginning of their rule the Mongols were religiously tolerant and were not given to religious persecution. Some of the tribes which they conquered or forced into alliance with themselves contained Nestorian Christians. Through marriage Christianity entered the ruling house and several of the Mongol princes were baptized as children and were reared as nominal Christians. By bringing under their sway the areas across which went the caravan routes from the Near to the Far East, the Mongols facilitated commerce. With commerce went missionaries. Under Mongol rule Nestorian Christianity re-entered China, and Roman Catholic Christianity for the first time was carried to that land. In Russia the Mongols favored the Church. Moreover, Christian Russians, seeking escape from Mongol rule, pushed the frontiers of their settlement northward, taking their faith with them. For a time, too, the Mongols in the Near East were inclined to court Western Europeans, whom they found ensconced in the crusaders’ fortresses, as allies against the Moslem powers and so were not unfriendly to Christianity. However, after the fall of Acre (A.D. 1291), the last of the strongholds of the crusaders in Syria and Palestine, they seem to have made up their minds that Western Christians were a broken reed and their approaches to them ceased.

Commerce facilitated the spread of Christianity. It was German trade which opened the way for the early missionaries to some of the Baltic peoples. The commerce of the Italian cities aided in the establishment of Christian communities, even though these were primarily of alien merchants, in the Moslem Near East, and assisted in the passage of missionaries to that region. Italian commerce to the Far East made possible the introduction of Roman Catholic Christianity and missionaries to China. The Polos, Italian merchants, stimulated Khubilai Khan to ask the Pope for teachers of science and religion. Although no missionaries reached China in ‘direct response to this request, it was in company with an Italian merchant that John of Montecorvino, the first Roman Catholic missionary whom we know to have entered that realm, reached Cathay. Christian merchants aided some of those who followed him.

As in the preceding period, however, the spread of Christianity was not due solely to these adventitious factors, some of them contradictory to the teachings and temper of Jesus. The active agents who preached and taught the faith were almost always monks or friars. It was by secular rulers that Christianity was propagated in Scandinavia, sometimes forcibly and for political quite as much as for religious purposes, but it was largely through English monks that most of the labor of baptizing and instructing the neophytes and introducing a continuing church life was accomplished. Much of Britain bad been conquered by the Vikings, and the latter, as they became Christian, were willing to see English priests, from whom they need fear no connection with foreign imperialistic aggression as they did from the German clergy, come to their realms. It was largely by monks that the active missionary efforts among the peoples of the eastern shores of the Baltic were made. Stephen of Hungary used monks to assist him in the conversion and instruction of his people. He corresponded with the Abbot of Cluny and so was in close touch with the currents of the most earnest Christian living of his day. After their inception Franciscans and Dominicans were the chief Roman Catholic missionaries to Asia. It was Franciscans who carried Roman Catholic Christianity to China. It was monks who were the pioneers of Russian Christianity in its northern advance. Often after Christianity had been planted in a new area and had been formally accepted by a people, monks, by founding fresh monasteries, established centers for the perpetuation and the deepening of the faith that had been adopted. Monks, we need again to remind ourselves, were those who in theory had given themselves most fully to the Christian ideal, and the friars were at once the products and the agents of one of the great revivals of devotion to the Christian faith.

As in the preceding periods, the chief channel for the continuation of the influence of Jesus was the Church. The monastic movement, at first held in suspicion by the organized Church, had long since been accepted by it and included within its fold. It was through the parish clergy, most of them not monks, that the Church, its message and its ministrations, were brought to the rank and file of Christians. Although often in conflict with the monasteries, the episcopate, developed in the first few centuries of the Christian movement, remained the chief form of ecclesiastical administration.

As we pointed out at the close of the last chapter, it was in the Church in Western Europe that most of the new life of the period was manifested. It was through that portion of the Church, moreover, more than through any other, that the geographic extension of the faith was accomplished.

A thoughtful observer of A.D. 500 or A.D. 600 would scarcely have predicted that the main stream of the influence of Jesus would find its channel in Western Europe. To be sure, the presence of Rome and the strong church in that city gave a certain advantage. However, Western Europe was much later in becoming professedly Christian than was the Greek East. The areas longest prevailingly Christian were in the Byzantine realms. Here most of what up to that time had been the greatest Christian literature had been produced. Here the Christianized Roman state remained intact. In the West wave after wave of barbarians, many of them pagans, seemed to be engulfing civilization. If a prophecy had been ventured as to the center from which Christianity, if it survived at all, would go on, the Byzantine Empire and not Western Europe would probably have been picked.

However, the West possessed a certain geographic advantage. It was situated at the extreme end of Euro-Asia, and the main force of some of the invasions issuing from Central Asia largely spent itself before reaching it. The Byzantine Empire was long a partial bulwark against the Moslem. Isolation was an asset.

Moreover, in the East, in an area in which the Roman Empire had gone on without a break and had become by almost imperceptible stages the Byzantine Empire, the state tended to continue the close direction of all phases of life which had been the growing trend in the centuries in which Christianity was being adopted. Following the precedent of the position of the official cults to which Christianity fell heir, the Church, in spite of some remnants of its former independence, was also dominated by the state. This tradition of state control was carried over into those countries, such as Bulgaria and Russia, into which Greek Orthodox Christianity spread but which were not in the domains of the Eastern Empire. Excluded from much active participation in the life of this world, the Greek Orthodox Church moved in the direction of quietism and the inner life. It placed much emphasis upon the liturgy and the spiritual experience which came through the celebration of the liturgy. This trend may have been in part due to influences which entered Christianity through the Hellenism of the first Christian centuries. However, the relation to the Byzantine state was responsible for much of it.

Most of the other Eastern Churches were even more shackled by the state than were the Greek Orthodox bodies. The majority of them were in Moslem lands. Moslem rulers, while usually tolerating Christianity, regarded the Christian communities as enclaves which must be watched and supervised. They fell into the custom of holding the heads of the churches responsible for the conduct of the members. They felt it necessary to have in these posts men in whom they had confidence. This meant determination of the choice of the ranking ecclesiastics. All too frequently, accordingly, the positions were gained through bribery and political chicanery. At best the chief ecclesiastics had to be circumspect in their relations with the Moslem princes and from time to time to engage in intrigue and to adopt an attitude of servility. With such leadership the morale of the churches inevitably suffered. The Eastern Christians, on the defensive against the dominant Islam, with no hope of gaining and holding converts from that intransigent faith, were forced to depend on their wits. They acquired, therefore, among their Moslem neighbors the unfortunate reputation of unprincipled cleverness and of trickiness. Adherence to the Christian faith was not a matter of personal choice and conviction, but of heredity. Now and then a convert would be won from Islam, but, if he were caught, his life was the forfeit. Some advances were made by the Eastern Churches, but they were outside the territories in which Islam was the other faith.

The Church in Western Europe, which we may now call by the name of Roman Catholic, enjoyed much greater freedom than the Greek Orthodox or the various Eastern Churches. This, as we have said, was because the earlier collapse of the Roman state in the West left it less trammeled by the secular authorities and because its own vigor enabled it to step into the breach. Probably, too, the Roman genius, entering the Church, helped to make it the spiritualized successor of the Empire. However, this latter would have been impossible had not the Church possessed a vitality sufficient to attract men of ability. The Church became the most comprehensive organization in Western Europe, both geographically and in the functions which it assumed.

The Church of the West was not allowed to live unchallenged by the state. Again and again secular rulers sought to control it within their domains. In each Scandinavian kingdom the monarch insisted on having an archbishop to head the church in his realm independent so far as might be from any external authority, secular or religious. In England and France the struggle between Church and state was prolonged. The contest between the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperors became one of the classics of medieval history.

Moreover, in countless instances men who had little or no interest in the spiritual and moral mission of the Church, or in following Jesus, sought and obtained ecclesiastical office for the power or the material emoluments which went with it. Many of these clergy, from lowly parish priests to bishops and abbots, were notorious as contradictions of Christian ideals. Many others among the higher clergy, and even among the Popes, while not so flagrantly un-Christian, were, because of the very position of the Church, more statesmen than saints, absorbed in secular affairs to the neglect of their religious duties and compromising principle in the interests of practical administration. Through its very success and the prestige and consequent power and wealth which accrued to it, the Church was nearly undone, and the continuation of its true function was threatened. Then, too, we must note that the Roman Catholic Church cast out of its fold and persecuted as heretics some radiant and devoted spirits whom loyalty to Jesus as they understood him made obnoxious to the ruling ecclesiastics.

The influence of Jesus was not always confined to ecclesiastical channels. It spread through such extra-churchly means as folk tales and great literature by laymen such as Dante.

When these and other qualifying facts are taken into account, the fact remains that in Western Europe the Church was, in general, the instrument through which the impulses which issued from Jesus had freer course than in any other major geographic area. Men never forgot that ideally it stood for him and was designed to represent him. Less handicapped by the state than elsewhere, it was better able to strive to make his teachings effective in all phases of culture.

As from the vantage of the perspective given by the long passage of time we now look back to these ages, it becomes clear that, even in the dark period which succeeded the fifth century, forces were at work which were to make of the Church of Western Europe the chief channel for the continuing Christian stream. The inception of Benedictine monasticism just at the beginning of the sixth century, the rise of Irish monasticism, the strengthening of the Papacy through Gregory the Great, and the spread of the faith among the Germanic peoples, largely through monks and nuns, all were movements of prime significance. The flowering of the European Middle Ages sprang from seed sown in most discouraging times.

The Church and its faith were the chief force binding together in some semblance of conscious unity the chaotic, disintegrated society which succeeded the eclipse of the Roman Empire in the West. That unity can easily be exaggerated, but it was real. Largely because of Christianity and the Church, Western Europe eventually constituted a society. The sense of being a community, although a tragically quarrelsome community, which has come down to our day in Western Europe, was chiefly the creation of the Christian faith and the Christian Church. Through the Church, between A.D. 900 and A.D. 1350, Christianity was built into the life of the West.

Never was that West fully Christian. Always a tension existed between the high calling of Jesus and the actual practice of Western culture. But the tension was there. Men were not allowed to forget Jesus. Always he haunted them and disquieted their consciences. This was because, more nearly than elsewhere, out of what had seemed the irremediable catastrophe of the collapse of the Roman Empire and the order and civilization of which it was the embodiment and the guardian, had come to the Church a freedom and an opportunity such as it did not know elsewhere. It was also because there was within the Church, thanks to the Christian faith, a vitality which inspired and enabled it to rise to the challenge. Without this vitality what became an opportunity would have proved a major disaster.

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