Chapter Four: The Second Major Recession (A.D. 1350 – A.D. 1500)

The Unquenchable Light
by Kenneth Scott Latourette

Chapter Four: The Second Major Recession (A.D. 1350 – A.D. 1500)

Following the great advance of the Middle Ages there came a second major recession of the Christian tide. This, like its predecessor, showed itself both externally, in losses of territory, and internally, in a decline in morale.

The area across which Christianity was scattered became greatly reduced. In the extreme West and North, Christianity disappeared from Greenland. If it had ever been present in North America it had vanished from that continent. In the East, Christianity ceased to exist in China. Its passing from the Middle Kingdom was even more complete than in the ninth century, for in that former eclipse it had continued among the non-Chinese peoples on the borders of the empire, whereas now even these latter had abandoned it. The Nestorianism once widely disseminated in Central Asia lost its footholds there and shrank to dwindling remnants in Persia, Mesopotamia, and Southern India. The Jacobites east of Syria suffered even more severely. Christianity was fading out of Nubia. In Egypt it was on the slowly losing defensive. Except for a few captives and foreign merchants it was at last eliminated from North Africa. The Byzantine Empire was crushed, and with its passing went the bulwark which had long shielded Europe from the Moslem advance from the Southeast. In the first area to become prevailingly Christian, Asia Minor, the Christian communities became minorities. In Greece and the Balkan Peninsula, where in the preceding two periods the assimilation of pagan invaders had slowly been accomplished, Christianity was on the defensive against a resurgent Islam, and Islam was firmly planted as the faith of the ruling power. The retirement was prolonged. It began about the middle of the fourteenth century and lasted until the closing decades of the fifteenth century.

The Christian geographic retreat was less offset by gains elsewhere than it had been in the previous era of recession. In the shrinkage of its territorial boundaries the losses, too, were more pronounced.

Yet the core of what might be called Christendom suffered less from external aggression than it had between A.D. 500 and A.D. 950. Western Europe, which by A.D.1350 had become the main stronghold of Christianity, was comparatively unaffected. Proportionately the numerical losses to Islam were not so great as in the seventh and eighth centuries. Christendom was not hammered from all sides, as it had been from the fifth to the tenth century, by non-Christian invaders. The vast losses of territory were mostly in areas in which Christians had never been more than small communities or scattered minorities.

The inner loss of morale was pronounced. Even in the first half of the fourteenth century, the rising French monarchy had humbled the Papacy. Boniface VIII, who in his bull Unam sanctam had registered the high-water mark of Papal claims to supremacy over civil rulers, was imprisoned by King Philip the Fair, who was augmenting the French royal authority, and, although soon released, died within a few weeks. The Papacy now fell under the control of France, and from 1309 to 1377 had its headquarters at Avignon. Avignon was not actually in the French kingdom, but, what counted in the decline of Papal prestige, it was regarded by public opinion as under French influence. There followed, as an aftermath of this "Babylonian Captivity," the great Papal schism which divided the ecclesiastical allegiance of Europe. Two and then three rivals claimed to be the only legal Pontiff. This multiplication of Pontiffs was eventually resolved by a revival of church councils. Much hope was centered on these as a means of reform. Unfortunately they, too, in the weakness of their performance, lost the confidence of much of Europe. When the Papal division was at last healed, the Renaissance was in full swing. The See of Peter fell into the hands of men who were more interested in using it as a power in Italian politics, in aggrandizing the members of their families, or in promoting art and their own personal pleasures than they were in making it effective in furthering the spiritual and moral life of Europe. The burden of Papal taxation increased. The Papacy incurred the hatred and contempt of millions. With such abuses rife at the top, it is not strange that much of corruption infected the body of the clergy and of monasticism. The Church and the clergy fell into widespread disrepute.

The Renaissance brought with it practical skepticism. Christianity contributed to the Renaissance. Some have declared the latter to have been in its inception largely due to earnestly Christian movements. Certainly Christianity entered into it. The Renaissance was not a revival of unaltered Greco-Roman culture. Yet in it Christianity was not dominant. In the Middle Ages Christianity had taken the non-Christian philosophy which had come down from the Greeks and had subordinated it to a Christian purpose, to help to give form to Christian theology. In the Renaissance the reawakened interest in the art and literature of Greek and Roman antiquity was often directed to Christian themes, but the latter did not loom so prominently as they had in the philosophical awakening of the Middle Ages.

While decay was undermining the morale of the Church in the main center of Christianity, Western Europe, among most of the Eastern Churches it was even more pronounced. Particularly as the Byzantine Empire succumbed to the Ottoman Turks, the Greek Orthodox Church, next to the Roman Catholic Church the strongest of the Christian bodies, declined.

The reasons for this recession in Christianity were many.

The contraction of the physical borders of the Christian communities cannot be ascribed to any one factor. A combination of causes, not all of them interrelated, brought it about. The disappearance of Christianity from Greenland arose from the extinction of the Scandinavian settlements on that island. This, in turn, was caused by the termination of contact with the mother country. The dying out of Christianity in China was largely a consequence of the collapse of Mongol rule. The Mongols were driven out in the second half of the fourteenth century. The advent of a native dynasty was accompanied by the end of the large share which foreigners had in the administration of the land and possibly by the decline of foreign merchant communities. Since Christianity, both Nestorian and Roman Catholic, was closely associated with these foreigners and was largely alien in membership and leadership, its end followed. In Central Asia as in China the Christian communities disappeared so completely that we do not know the story of their death. The peoples among whom Christianity had had adherents became either Buddhist or Moslem. The opposition of Zoroastrian Persia in the early Christian centuries had prevented Christianity from penetrating in force into Central Asia. It was Buddhism and Islam which made the greatest progress. Just how the transition to these two religions was made we do not know. Most of the losses of Christianity were from a resurgent Islam. In Persia, where some of their rulers had once been Christian, the Mongols became Moslems. This was because Islam was already the dominant faith in that region, a favored position which went back to the conquest of the country by the Arabs and to the consequent displace-of the earlier Zoroastrianism by Islam. In Russia the Mongols adopted Islam, possibly because that was what their kinsmen were doing in Persia. The Turkish peoples of the Near East became Moslem, notably the Ottoman Turks who exterminated the Byzantine Empire and carried the Crescent into the Balkan Peninsula and to the gates of Vienna. A few from the great Turkish family had once been Christian. However, the position which had been won for Islam in Persia and Central Asia by Arab arms accorded to that faith a prestige which Christianity had never enjoyed in those regions. The place gained for Islam on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean by the Arab conquest also gave to that religion a dominance which it never lost. It was natural that Turks cradled in Central Asia or growing up in the Near East from immigrant stock should acquire the prevailing faith of the cultures with which they came in closest contact. The break-up of the Mongol Empire and the wars which ensued helped to terminate the widely extended commerce of Europeans in Asia with which Roman Catholic missionaries had been associated. Over vast areas both commerce and missions ceased. The adoption of Islam by the Mongols also proved inimical to European enterprises, both commercial and religious. It was Islam, advancing up the Nile from the Egypt in which the Arab centuries before had given it pre-eminence, which extinguished Christianity in Nubia and began to hem it in in Ethiopia. Even had there been opportunity, a church so distraught and divided and so honeycombed with corruption as was the Roman Catholic Church of the fifteenth century could scarcely be the source of very active missions.

The decline of morale in the Church was also the outgrowth of several factors. Obviously the churches in the lands which had once been ruled by the Byzantine Empire were on the defensive against the triumphant Turk. Their clergy could hold their posts only through tactful and even servile dealings with their Moslem overlords. In Western Europe the culture which had been associated with the Medieval Church, and which the Church had done so much to create, was breaking up. As at the time of the decay of the Roman Empire the success of Christianity in winning that Empire and becoming largely identified with it proved almost its undoing, so the passing of the culture which the Church had helped to nurture and with which it had unavoidably become closely interwoven proved a menace to the Church and its faith. The rising national states sought freedom from the super-national Papacy which had bound Western Christendom together either by dominating it or by reducing its power within their borders. Fresh intellectual currents diverted men’s interest from the theological and philosophical systems which the medieval mind, under the stimulus of Christianity, had erected.

The question arises as to why medieval culture and society disintegrated. Some of the ideals held for them and toward which many of the noblest spirits strove were high. The conception of a Christendom united under an inclusive Christian state, the Holy Roman Empire, and under an equally inclusive spiritual fellowship, the Catholic Church, if it could have been fully realized, would have saved Europe the horrors of political division and the recurring and disastrous wars which have cursed and still curse that continent. The corporate life which was an ideal of the Middle Ages, with its combination of the recognition of divinely ordained authority and the voice of the people, might have avoided both the extremes of unregulated absolutism on the one hand and unchecked democracy with its mass hysteria and demagogy on the other. It may have been that the ideals were fundamentally impracticable. Certainly both Empire and Church proved unable to bring union and peace. The Empire had all but broken down before the new age with its nation states had dawned. The Roman Catholic Church, while by no means so nearly a phantom as the Holy Roman Empire, had also demonstrated its incapacity to bring into being such a society long before the Protestant revolt tore away much of Europe from its fold. Possibly the decay of the Middle Ages arose from the clash of a high impossible ideal drawn from Christian sources with the actualities of politics and the human scene. Whatever the cause, and it was probably not one but multiform, the Middle Ages passed. With their going Christianity and the continuation of the influence of Jesus were threatened.

Yet the decline of the influence of Jesus in this century and a half can easily be exaggerated. The dark shadows were not all of the picture. Already forces were at work and movements were in progress which after A.D. 1500 were to have fruition in the greatest advance which Christianity had yet experienced.

Geographic gains were being registered. In the Iberian Peninsula Christianity was achieving the most notable recovery of territory from Islam which it has ever recorded. This had begun long before A.D. 1350 but culminated after that year. The Christian princes gradually eliminated the Moslem political power. The last of the Moslem states disappeared in 1492, only about a generation after the Koran had supplanted the Christ in St. Sophia. Along with the political reconquest went a gradual conversion to Christianity, some of it by force or thinly disguised force, but much of it as a voluntary acceptance of the faith of the ruling classes. The final elimination of Islam in the peninsula was to wait until the sixteenth and the early part of the seventeenth century, when it was accomplished partly by the expulsion of all who were believed to cherish evidences of loyalty to it. Before the end of the fifteenth century those geographic discoveries were in progress which in the following centuries were to carry Christianity around the world and plant it in areas which heretofore had not known it. Prince Henry had already directed expeditions along the west coast of Africa, America had been reached, and the Portuguese had rounded the Cape of Good Hope. Then, too, on the northern marches of Russian settlement Christianity was continuing to advance and non-Christian tribes were being won. It was late in the fourteenth century that the formal conversion of the Lithuanians, to Roman Catholic Christianity, was effected.

Within Europe new movements were appearing which were to bring the greatest revival that Christianity had known. In the fourteenth century, beginning before A.D. 1350 but gaining in momentum after that year, came a marked development of mysticism, chiefly in Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Eckhart, Tauler, the Friends of God, the Theologia Germariica, John of Ruysbroeck, Gerhard Groot, the Brethren of the Common Life, the monastery of Windesheim and its affiliated houses, and the Imitation of Christ were among the more outstanding figures and creations of that movement. In England Wyclif attacked the abuses in the Church, inspired the translation of the Bible into the vernacular, sent out preachers to carry the Gospel message to the masses, and gave rise to the Lollards. In Bohemia John Hus left a following who proved to be one of the contributory streams of the Reformation. In Spain at the close of the fifteenth century reform had begun in the Church, partly through the austere Ximenez de Cisneros, the most prominent churchman of the realm, and partly through the emergence of the Discalced Franciscans. Even more than in the previous major recession, new life was stirring which was to issue in a great fresh advance.

As in the earlier recession, this life was in somewhat unexpected quarters. It was not in Rome or Italy or in Southern France, where Christianity had had its earliest strongholds in the Western world and where the Church had its official center, that it broke out. It was in Germany, the Low Countries, and among the English, where the faith had been effectively planted in the first dark era, and in Spain which in that age of greatest discouragement had seemed to be lost to a triumphant Islam, that the renewal had its inception. It was, moreover, from recent frontiers of the faith that such geographic expansion as was taking place was being achieved. It was from Russia, just emerging from the Moslem Mango! yoke, that the major advance of Eastern Christianity was being registered. It was from Poland, itself professedly Christian for only a little over three centuries, that Lithuania was won. Portugal and Spain, only recently fully freed from the Moslem yoke, were the leaders in the explorations which opened vast new territories to Christianity. The revival gave the first indications of its presence in unpredictable areas.