Session 12: The Late Middle Ages

Session 12 Late Middle Ages (1300-1500)

We begin this lesson by covering ministry, worship, and music in the Late Middle Ages.  

The issue of the Papacy and its control by the state for much of the fourteenth century raised the question, not only of the role of the pope in the church but the role of the state as well.  

We will finish by reviewing late medieval attempts to renew devotional life among laypeople.


At the end of this lesson, participants should

• understand some of the practices of pastors in the Late Middle Ages and be able to contrast these to present pastoral practices

• gain an understanding of the development of worship

• discuss continuities and discontinuities in contemporary worship practices

• tell why the Papacy moved from Rome to Avignon and back to Rome

• discuss some of the abuses within the church during the fourteenth century

• appreciate the power of Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ and use it in their own devotions

• know the theological trends and reform movements of the Late Middle Ages as background for the Reformation

Assignment to be done before class
A. Read: Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, chapters 23
            Write a Big Idea paragraph from your reading.

B. Read the following articles and give a one paragraph answer to the question asked.
            1. Ministry and Worship in the Late Middle Ages
                        How is pastoral care different now than in the Middle Ages?
2. The Struggle Within the Church
                        Describe a person who might be called a heretic in the church today.
            3.Theology Devotion and Reform.
                        What areas of contemporary church life are deeply affected by decisions made during
 the Middle Ages? 

C. Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following:  

Ministry and Worship in the Late Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, there was an increasing sense of the “secular” as compared to the “sacred” spheres of life and vocation. Towns were developing. Trade and commerce grew and with them the spirit of liberty. Secular rulers often were hostile toward the church, but the church found ways of renewing itself.

Pastoral Care in the Late Middle Ages

The vibrancy of monasticism in the thirteenth century, with the rise of the Dominicans and Franciscans, represented the spiritual hunger of the church, as well as its need for reform. The monks emphasized spiritual rather than worldly values and sought to cultivate the soul. Out of this movement came a renewed concern for pastoral care as well as literature, music, philosophy, and theology. 

Refer to Resource 12-1 in the Student Guide.

The ideal priest cared deeply for his people. Priests instructed the laity on creeds, the Ten Commandments, capital sins, and virtues. These emphases also formed bases for preaching. Stories circulated about the saints and these, along with the Gospels, formed illustrations in sermons. 

An influential book for pastors was Hugh of St. Victor’s The Five Sevens, published in the twelfth century. Hugh described the seven vices, the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven virtues, and the seven beatitudes. Another influential book, similarly organized, was the fourteenth-century English Book of Vices and Virtues. In it, “mirth and jollity” were associated with evil company and intemperance.

The Dominicans also published books of guidance to help confessors. These were theological treatises showing that penance, as a sacrament, offered absolution for sins. The most influential of these was Summa Casuum, written about 1225 by Raymond of Penafort, who had succeeded Dominic as leader of the Order

The priests were to exercise secrecy regarding what was confessed. The seal of silence could be broken only on matters involving heresy and issues that would bar the one confessing from either priesthood or marriage. At the same time, sexual advances were not infrequent during confessions. Sometimes observers served as safeguards. Where a priest erred, he could confess to and be given absolution by another priest, who might conceivably be equally guilty. Among both clergy and laity, the practice of penance for sins deteriorated. This accompanied the granting of indulgences for sins. 

Indulgences were based upon the understanding that the church was one with departed as well as living members. Saints were those who had more than the required number of good works. Their surplus of good deeds could be applied to sinners, both departed and living. Their surplus provided a “treasury of merits” that others, through the church’s granting of “indulgences,” could draw upon. The doctrine of the “treasury of merits” was taught by Alexander of Hales (1186-1245), a Franciscan theologian teaching at the University of Paris. The treasury of merits was defended and expounded by Thomas Aquinas, who taught that the indulgences did not annul the penalty, but provided the means of paying the penalty. Quoted in McNeill, A History of the Cure of Souls, 150.

As a result, the selling of penance became a lucrative trade in late medieval times. People no longer dreaded sin. There was little spirit of true repentance, and corruption even among the orders was irresistible. It seemed, as William Langland described in Piers Plowman in the late 1300s, “God’s love has turned trader.” There was rising indignation regarding such abuses in the church.

Some restrictions were placed on monks in the fourteenth century regarding their hearing confessions. The presupposition was that the priests alone exercised the keys by which souls were bound or loosed spiritually. The priest, this reasoning went, held a truly authoritative role over souls. Thomas Bokenkotter, A Concise History of the Catholic Church, rev. ed. (New York: Image, 1979), 190.

During the fourteenth century, priests were forced to deal with overwhelming death. Peaking from 1348 to 1358, an epidemic Black Death descended over Europe, killing one-half of the population. The churches, as well as towns, were decimated. Chaos ensued, with roving bands attacking monasteries and convents. Some monks left the monasteries to wander throughout Europe as flagellants.

One of the most helpful books for pastors, as they dealt with grief, was The Art of Dying by Jean Gerson (d. 1429). The book advised friends not to encourage the dying falsely. It included prayers to be offered to God, Mary, guardian angels, and saints. The dying one was to be given Eucharist and read stories of faith. An image of the Cross was to be held over the deathbed, which was considered the final “battlefield” for the soul of the dying. It was the place where evil spirits battled with good for the person’s soul. 

Another book, written by John Merk about 1440, Instructions for Parish Priests, offered admonitions on the duties of parenthood, behavior in church, witchcraft, and sloth. The book, for instance, instructed midwives to baptize stillborn babies. 

How is pastoral care different now than in the Middle

How is it the same?

Medieval Worship and Church Music
Refer to Resource 12-2 in the Student Guide.

By the Late Middle Ages, Christian worship and music had taken a distinct form throughout much of Europe. Christians began regular worship on Sunday from the days of the primitive church, but until the time of Constantine, had to do so in the early morning or late evening. After the fourth century, Sunday typically was observed as a public holiday or “holy day.” 

The Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, was the center of Christian worship. The service was also known as the dominicum, meaning “the Lord’s.” It became known as the “mass” based on the last words of the Latin service, ite, missa est, meaning, “go, it is the dismissal.” In the sense that the mass reenacted the death and resurrection of Jesus, it provided a kind of religious drama for the laity. It had two parts: the liturgy of the Word and the Eucharist “feast.” The ministry of the Word was the preparation for receiving the elements.

Prayer normally consisted of praise, thanksgiving, and confession. There were three types of prayers. In “litany” prayers the priest invited the congregation to pray for various, specified needs. In the Eastern Church, a deacon enumerated the prayer’s petitions. The Eastern Church retained litany prayers, while the West eventually discarded them. The second type of prayer was the “collect” or collective prayer, which was prayed as the officiating minister or presider over worship invited the faithful to pray with him. The congregation often stood with their arms raised and hands extended. The third type of prayer was the reciting or chanting of the Psalms. The Psalms were chanted by the clergy, with the congregation repeating the last words of the chant. Contemplation and meditation were also parts of prayer. See Sing to the Lord, 40, 719. 

The churches conducted prayer times at least twice a day: the morning prayers, which became known as “lauds,” and the evening prayers, or “mattins.” The “lauds”—taken from the concept of praise—included prayers from Psalms 148-150. The “mattins” consisted of prayers from Psalm 95, a hymn, other psalms and readings from the Bible, the Church Fathers and lives of saints, and the te deum, an ancient Latin hymn to the Father and the Son. It began, “We praise thee, O God.” Refer to Resource 12-3 in the Student Guide.

Monasteries conducted prayers throughout the day:
• before daybreak
• at dawn
prime at the first hour—6 a.m.
terce at the third hour—9 a.m.
sext at the sixth hour—12 noon
none at the ninth hour—3 p.m.
vespers at the evening time—about 6 p.m.
compline at the completion of the day
The prayer services were so linked to the Psalms that all 150 psalms were read or chanted in a week.

Refer to Resource 12-3 in the Student Guide.

The rite of baptism gained a more precise definition and usage in the Western Church in the Late Middle Ages. Before baptism, converts and catechumens learned basic Christian beliefs and ethics. Those preparing for baptism were considered part of the Christian community.

Baptisms usually were held at Easter. Sometime in the fourth century, Holy Week, climaxing in Easter, became widely observed by all Christians. The marking of Christ’s death became separated from the celebration of His resurrection. The date for the celebration of Easter was based on Jewish observance of the Passover, in relation to the lunar calendar—rather than on a fixed day, like Christmas. This was set by the Nicene Council in 325, but various sectors of the church, particularly in Northern Africa and Ireland, continued to use different dates.

Candidates for baptism were to prepare themselves in advance of Easter. They were to prove their moral fitness for baptism during this time. It required fasting, prayer, and the memorization of the creeds. One meatless meal a day was required. Originally, the period was for 36 days. Even those who already had been baptized began observing the disciplines of preparation for Easter. The number of days was extended to 40 days in the time of Charlemagne.

The quadragesima or “Lenten” preparation—the term “lent” coming from the old English word for springtime—was initiated by “Ash Wednesday.” Each day between Ash Wednesday and Easter had its own special mass. In England and Ireland, the Nicene date for Easter was accepted at the Synod of Whitby in 664. The Eastern Church has a different system of determining the date of Easter observance than the West.

During Holy Week, the candidates for baptism received specific instruction. “Scrutinies” right before baptism called upon the candidates for baptism to prostrate themselves in prayer. The minister then laid hands upon the candidates in the form of an exorcism. Then the baptismal candidates were anointed with oil. This ritual prepared them to bind themselves to Christ. Finally, commonly on Easter day, the candidate was baptized. 

Normally, a priest took water from a font or basin and poured the water over the heads of the persons being baptized. After the newly baptized ones put on new garments, they were taken to a consignatorium, a room in the church where a priest then anointed them with oil, making the sign of the cross with his thumb on the forehead of each. This “second work of grace” was the “confirmation” of the baptized, and this was thought to be the time of their receiving the Holy Spirit. Only after baptism and confirmation were they able to partake of communion. Refer to Resource 12-4 in the Student Guide.

The high point of Easter observance in the Middle Ages was the midnight mass or Paschal Vigil Service preceding Easter Sunday. At first, this service both commemorated the death and celebrated the resurrection of Jesus, but after the fourth century, the church commemorated the death on Good Friday, and the Resurrection at the midnight mass preceding Easter day.

Refer to Resource 12-4 in the Student Guide.
Pentecost Sunday was celebrated 40 days after Easter and became one of the most commemorated feasts in the church’s year. After Easter, it became a secondary date for baptisms. In fact, it was called “Whitsunday”  for the white robes the candidates for baptism wore on that Sunday. 

In 1334, the Sunday following Pentecost Sunday was established as “Trinity Sunday.” It celebrated God in three persons. 

Celebrations of the birth of Jesus probably began in the fourth century. Eastern and Western traditions had different dates. The Western churches by 336 had decided upon December 25 as the date of Christmas, which probably corresponded to a pagan feast day to the “sun of righteousness.” 

Just like Easter, Christmas acquired a preparatory period, known in this case as Advent—taken from the Latin adventus, meaning coming. In the Western church, Advent began on the Sunday nearest November 30, which was Saint Andrew’s Day. Advent began the liturgical year of the church. 

Like Lent, the season of Advent became one of penitence and sacrifice, in this case in preparation for the coming of Christ. By the fifth century, the Eastern churches celebrated the Nativity on January 6. The West celebrated this date as the Epiphany or “manifestation.” January 6 became associated with the baptism of Christ, the visit of the magi, and through them, the annunciation of the gospel to the Gentiles, and the miracle of Cana.

With the development of the church calendar around the Lenten and Advent seasons, different colors for the priests’ robes represented a different time in the church year. The priests wore purple robes during periods of fasting—during the Lenten and Advent seasons. They wore white robes for the major celebrations of Easter, Christmas, Ascension Day, and some saints’ days. Green robes were worn at other times in the church’s calendar. Priests used red robes to mark both the martyrs’/saints’ days and Pentecost Sunday.

An Eleventh-Century Mass Was Typically Composed of:

The Liturgy of the Word

Refer to Resource 12-5 in the Student Guide.

Introit: antiphonally sung—that is, with a response from either half of the choir or the congregation— psalm-verse and repeat of the antiphon sung by the choir as the priest and the ministers proceed to the altar.
 Kyrie: a threefold repetition of “Lord, have mercy” and “Christ, have mercy” that everyone sings.

Prayers: prayers of confession and forgiveness offered by the priest. 

Gloria: a free-composition song of thanks and praise, based on Luke 2:14.

Versicle and response: “The Lord be with you,” the priest says, and the congregation responds, “And also with you.”

Collects: chanted or “cantillated” prayers for the day.

Epistle: chanted New Testament reading.

Gradual: antiphon, psalm-verse, antiphon, a highly elaborated music for the choir.

Alleluia: “alleluia,” psalm-verse, “alleluia” for the choir.

Sequence: free composition for the choir.

Gospel: chanted, the worship service book is carried to the place of the cross.

Credo: a statement of faith for all to say or sing.

Eucharistic Feast

Offertorium: antiphon, for the choir.

Prayers: including “Lift up your hearts,” and the proper Preface for the day, in preparation
For communion.

Sanctus and benedictus: the sanctus begins, “Holy, holy, holy,” and the benedictus is a prayer of thanksgiving (Luke 1:68-79) sung by everyone, with the sanctus repeated after the benedictus. 

The canon of the mass: the consecration of the bread and wine.

Paternoster—“Our Father”: the Lord’s Prayer, recited by the priest.

Agnus Dei—“Lamb of God”: free composition is sung in three parts, each part beginning, “lamb of God,” sung by everyone.

The communion antiphon: for the choir.


   Versicle and response: a short sentence took usually from the Psalms, said or sung antiphonally. 

Postcommunion: chanted.

  Ite, missa est: a short sentence of dismissal, to which everyone responds deo gratias—thanks be to God. Refer to Resource 12-6 in the Student Guide.  

Refer to Resource 12-6 in the Student Guide.

Christian music was largely monophonic, meaning it was written for a single voice, even if sung by a choir. Verses were taken directly from the Psalms. Notated music began only in the tenth century. Gregorian chants, already being sung for centuries, were finally written down. Chanting or “cantillation” was little more than a heightened speech, and accompanied some monastic prayer times. “Antiphon” was the choral “answer” or response of either the congregation or a part of the congregation to a stanza. Psalm 136, “his love endures forever,” set the pattern for this.

“Plainchant” was composed of Latin verses sung in free rhythms, rather than rhymed or metered. Eventually, spiritual leaders began rewriting scriptures in the form of verses set to music. One of the first to do so was Caedmon, a laborer at the monastery at Whitby in the seventh century. Both Abelard and Bernard contributed hymns to Christian liturgy.

One chant had the cantor (lead singer) begin: Into thy hands, O Lord. The choir responded: I commend my spirit. The cantor continued: For thou hast redeemed us, O Lord, thou God of truth. The choir responded again: I commend my spirit. The cantor: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. And the choir finished: Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.

In the twelfth century, the church began to sing “polyphonously,” with two-, three-, and even four-part harmonies. Melodies improved. Secular music influenced the church. Chords were added. As preaching developed under the new monastic orders in the thirteenth century, so did the free composition of songs. As the Franciscans emphasized the continuity of God and nature, they reflected their theology in songs. Refer to Resource 12-7 in the Student Guide. Sing the songs in praise and

Refer to Resource 12-7 in the Student Guide.

Many hymnals contain some of the very early hymns. Let us add our voices to those of yesterday

The Struggle within the Church
Refer to Resource 12-8 in the Student Guide.

The successful assertion of churchly authority over the state came at a price. Spiritual concerns no longer seemed central to the ministry and purpose of the Papacy.

Pope Boniface VIII, who served from 1294 to 1303, struggled with the French monarch, Philip the Fair, over the taxation of clergy without papal consent. Boniface defended his authority over all persons, while Boniface attempted to excommunicate Philip, he was taken prisoner by Philip. Though quickly released, Boniface died soon thereafter.

The election of Bertrand de Got by the College of Cardinals in 1305 began a 72-year period in church history called the “Babylonian Captivity” of the Papacy. Bertrand, who took the name Clement V, was from a wealthy French family, and upon becoming pope, declared his preference to stay close to his home in Avignon rather than to preside in Rome.

Though the king of Naples ruled Avignon, on political matters Clement sided with the French. With the papal seat in Avignon, the French saw themselves as in control of the Papacy, and in general, the states exerted a powerful influence over the pope. Clement was persuaded by King Edward I of England to condemn an objectionable archbishop of Canterbury. Though Clement asserted the right of the Papacy over the monarchs to appoint ecclesiastical offices, he stooped to the sale of these same ecclesiastical offices. Five of his family members were promoted to cardinals.

The removal of the Papacy from Rome caused resentment in Germany and in Rome. Italian sees declined to send revenues to Avignon. Many resented Clement’s extravagant use of power and money— though partly for the founding of universities at Orleans and Perugia and chairs of oriental languages in other schools to aid missionary work—which depleted the hoarded resources of both. The papal states, meanwhile, were engulfed in war. 

Following Clement, who died in 1314, five successive popes, all of French origin, chose to reside in Avignon rather than Rome. Following Clement’s lead, they enjoyed the splendor, luxury, and pomp of the papal office. They built a massive palace and gathered an impressive court around themselves that included great artists and scholars. They strengthened their control over church appointments and raised taxes and fees on bishops, abbots, and pastors. 

The Avignon papacy was not well accepted. Papal tax collectors were hated and persecuted. It brought to attention the issue of how church money was being used. The Papacy stood on the edge of bankruptcy, and because of this the Avignon popes sought other ways to generate revenue.
Fees and taxes were asked for any privileges from the church. There was also a practice that whenever a bishop was appointed, a so-called annate, his first year’s income, should go to the pope. In order to increase this source of revenue, the pope often transferred bishops. Sometimes he delayed the appointment of a bishop in order to receive all of the income from the see himself. 

Another scheme was the granting of indulgences, which were dispensed to raise money for various large and small projects, from building bridges to waging war. Extravagant claims for the spiritual benefits of indulgences mounted with each generation. When the pope did not have his way, he could threaten ex-communication. Hostility and antagonism were felt against the pope. 

The great malaise in the church was compounded by the papal seat being in Avignon. But the same problems continued when the Papacy was finally transferred back to Rome. Pope Gregory XI reentered Rome in 1377 but died within a year. When Pope Urban VI was elected he took his seat in Rome, but partly because of his dictatorial leadership and partly because of jealousies with the French, the Papacy divided. The French cardinals chose their own pope, Clement VII. He was followed by Benedict XIII. Until 1408 there were two claimants to the papal seat, one in Rome and one in Avignon. The prestige of the Papacy was at its lowest ebb.

Theology, Devotion, and Reform

                                                           Late Medieval Theology           

Refer to Resource 12-9 in the Student Guide.

Scholasticism in this period was divided between the via antiqua and the via moderna. The via antiqua was characterized by the Thomist optimism that reason and knowledge were necessary and important for the construction of theology. The via antiqua stressed the study of the Bible and other theological resources. For those embracing the via moderna, faith alone was necessary for the comprehension of theological truths. William of Ockham championed this latter position and ultimately it influenced Martin Luther.

The most significant late medieval theologian was John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), a Franciscan scholar. After studying at Paris, he taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Paris, and Cologne. His principal theological work was his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard. He combined elements of Aristotelianism with traditional Augustinianism. 

Whatever is, is intelligible, Duns Scotus argued. Only nonbeing is unintelligible. He offered metaphysical and basically ontological proofs for the existence of God. There were characteristics of being, such as “one,” “true,” “good,” and “beautiful” that is universally applied to human beings’ understanding of God. Some qualities, such as “infinite” and “uncreated,” are comprehended only by considering their converse, “finite” and “created.” 

Since human beings have an innate notion of these, there must be an existence given to the former. Like Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus started his logic with the concrete and contingent and worked from there to postulate the existence of God. Unlike Thomas, who gave reason primacy in his theology, Duns Scotus postulated the primacy of will over reason in God, though in God alone the two could not be separated. Christ, Duns Scotus said, was incarnated in order to become the primary object of divine love. Duns Scotus endangered the unity of Christ by arguing for two essences in Christ, the divine and the human. Redemption was both an act of love and an act of satisfaction. He believed salvation was due not so much to some rational necessity in God’s order, but simply because God willed it. Duns Scotus advocated the immaculate conception of Mary. 

Regarding human nature, Duns Scotus believed human perfection was not to be seen in reason but in the will. He also argued that the immortality of the soul was beyond rational proof; it was a statement of faith. Duns Scotus contributed to the divorce of reason and faith—a marriage built up by Thomas Aquinas. God was not subject to human rationality. Doctrines, said Duns Scotus was to be accepted on the basis of faith alone, not reason. Thus, no reasons were needed to substantiate church practices. No questions need be asked; that would be a sign of unbelief.

William of Ockham (1285-1347), a Franciscan who taught at Oxford was the chief architect of nominalism. Medieval nominalism or “conceptualism” understood that universal concepts were adequate representations of reality—but that universals were found only in human minds. Every substance or instance is independent. Human beings intuit or sense similarities among observed things. Knowledge of God, however, is intuited and cannot be determined by reason or sense, but only on the basis of revelation and authority. Like Duns Scotus, William facilitated the decline of the synthesis between reason and faith. 

William believed papal authority should be strictly limited to the church or sacred realm, and that the state should take precedence over the church in public affairs. For these views, William was charged with heresy and summoned before the pope at Avignon in 1323. He continued to compose his philosophy while detained at Avignon for several years. Though William was cleared of the charges, he accused the pope himself of heresy. 

In 1328 William fled Avignon, and was excommunicated. He found protection under Louis of Bavaria. In 1331 William was expelled from the Franciscan order and sentenced to imprisonment, but he continued to champion the rights of secular rulers and to criticize the Papacy.    


Refer to Resource 12-10 in the Student Guide.

 John Eckhart (1260-1327) was a German Dominican scholar educated at Paris. After serving his order in the provinces, he returned to Paris for two years as a teacher. In 1313 he entered a life of preaching, first at Strassburg and then in Cologne, where he also became the spiritual director of his order’s house of studies. 

The theme of unity or oneness runs throughout Eckhart’s thought. God’s oneness is His most basic attribute. God is eternally creating, but creation must itself be considered eternal. His mysticism ran counter to scholasticism since it downplayed the importance of reason. But it tended toward Neoplatonism. 

This oneness included the relationship between God and human beings. By becoming free of all things, including oneself, one becomes like God. Human beings are nothing apart from the existence of God, who works through all things. A person may know the Truth by becoming one with it. Eckhart identified the “likeness” of human beings to God with their intellect. 

Eckhart also spoke of the “birth” of the Son of God in the soul as being a kind of “breakthrough” of the individual by which the immediacy of God is realized. Through this birth, human beings are able to live a “detached” life. 

A “detached” person lives ethically within the world, not really being a part of it. Eckhart wrote: People should not worry so much about what they do but rather about what they are. If they and their ways are good, then their deeds are radiant. If you are righteous, then what you do will also be righteous. We should not think that holiness is based on what we do but rather on what we are, for it is not our works that sanctify us but we who sanctify our works. However holy our works may be, they do not in any way make us holy in so far as they are works, but it is we, in so far as we are holy and possess fullness of being, who sanctifies all our works, whether these be eating, sleeping, waking or anything at all. Alois Maria Haas, “Schools of Late Medieval Mysticism,” in Christian Spirituality: High Middle Ages and Reformation, ed. Jill Raitt. New York: Crossroad, 1988, 145-50; Davies, Meister Eckhart, xi-xxxviii.

By 1326 Eckhart, like William of Ockham at the same time was accused of heresy. Eckhart died prior to a trial scheduled before the pope. It seemed to his accusers that Eckhart had taken up the same heresies the Dominicans had been founded to counteract—a mystical religion void of ethical content. However, Eckhart’s words were often taken out of context. His accusers did not appreciate the balance between law and the mystical presence of God that Eckhart attempted to maintain. 

Thomas à Kempis and The Imitation of Christ
Refer to Resource 12-11 in the Student Guide.

In the late fourteenth century, laypersons in the Rhineland organized the Brethren of the Common Life. The founder was Gerhard de Groote (1340-84), educated in Paris, and a sometime teacher at Cologne. In 1374 he committed himself to devout and simple living. He entered a monastery, and after three years, became a missionary preacher—though never ordained—in Utrecht. He loudly condemned the worldliness of the church, and for that was censured.

De Groote gathered a few followers as equally committed as he to a radically Christian way of life. They dedicated themselves to joyfulness, manual labor, and cultivation of the inner life. Their spiritual formation included study and meditation, mutual confession of sins, and the conscious attempt to imitate Christ both inwardly and outwardly.

Soon after the death of de Groote, some of the brethren reordered the community on the pattern of the Augustinian Rule. The brethren founded schools in the Netherlands and Germany. They copied and later printed many books for these schools. The brethren were condemned by the church for undercutting sacramentalism for suggesting there could be direct communion with God apart from the church order. “Introduction,” The Imitation of Christ (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1952), 12. Bro. Azarias, quoted by Sherley- Price, “Introduction,” 14.

Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) was a member of the Brethren of the Common Life. He represented a kind of devotional life that was Christocentric, holding up Jesus as an example. Thomas used Scripture to enable meditation upon Christ. As Leo Sherley-Price summarizes, the characteristics of Jesus that Thomas lifted up were: “his perfect humility, poverty of spirit, purity of heart, meekness, sorrow for sin, the forgiveness of injustice, and peace and joy in the midst of persecution.” 

That is, the imitation of Christ possessed both outward obedience and an inward attitude. “This life consists in the practice of the Christian virtues; the practice of the Christian virtues leads up to union with Christ; and union with Christ is consummated in the Holy Eucharist.” This provides the outline of his widely influential book, The Imitation of Christ. 

Thomas was more concerned with doing whatever would take him to inward union with Christ than with theologizing. Partaking of Christ’s virtues, Thomas taught, comes via outward discipline, as it does in asceticism through purgation and self-denial. One does not need deep insight into the mysteries of God in order to experience Him. But the person does require faith and an untainted life. Human beings are nothing morally, but by meditation, God may come into our presence; we may enjoy fellowship with God. The person lives with temptations as long as he or she lives, since sin comes from within. But we are enabled not to act on our every impulse. Where there is love within, God sanctifies the entirety of life. 

Not only was Thomas’s mysticism Christocentric, but it was both personal and communal. It was centered around the passion and death of Christ, the Lord’s Supper. The Imitation of Christ was written for laypersons who desired to enter a monastic-like order of communal life together. Thomas gave directions to novices, and advice to those already committed. Just as with monasticism, the way into the holiness of God was through movement away from the world. The Imitation of Christ can be used devotionally in various ways.

Prayers and responsive readings, for instance, can be gleaned from the work:
 Refer to Resource 12-12 in the Student Guide. The Imitation of Christ, book 2, chapter 11.

 All: Jesus has many lovers of his kingdom, but he has few bearers of his cross.

People: But those who love Jesus purely for himself, and not for their own profit convenience . . .

Leader: Bless him as heartily in temptation and tribulation and in all other adversities as they do in time of consolation.

People: If a man gives all his possessions for God . . .

Leader: He yet is nothing.

People: And if he does great penance for his sins, and if he has great wisdom and knowledge . . .

Leader: He yet is far from virtue.

People: The words of our Savior are very hard and grievous when he says:

Leader: Forsake yourselves, take the cross and follow me.

People: Why, then, do we dread to take His cross, since it is the very way to the Kingdom of Heaven, and there is no other way?

Leader: Take, therefore, your cross and follow Jesus, and you shall have life eternal. Behold then, how in the cross all things stand;

People: And how, in dying to the world lies all our health.

Leader: And that there is no other way to life and true inward peace but the way of the cross.

People: And the way of daily submission of the body to the spirit. If we arrange everything after our own will . . .

Leader: Yet you will find that you must suffer.

People: Either according to our will or against it.

Leader: And so you will always find the cross.

People: This cross is always ready.

Leader: And everywhere it awaits you.

People: And we cannot flee it nor fully escape it.

Leader: Wherever you go.

People: If we gladly bear this cross . . .

Leader: It will bear you.
People: If there had been any nearer or better way than to suffer . . .

Leader: But because there was not, he openly exhorted his disciples who follow him,

People: And all we desire to follow him.

Leader: To forsake their own will.

People: And to take the cross.

Leader: And so, when all things are searched and read this is the final conclusion:

All: By many tribulations we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, and may our Lord Jesus bring us there. Amen.

The tendency in Thomas, and in mysticism in general, was to emphasize less the needs of society and the world, and even the church. Mysticism accepted the perpetuity of sin and grace in human beings but taught that human beings could transcend sin by constant prayer and disciplined ascetic living. There was a transcendent meaning and purpose, something beyond calling men and women out of themselves, a place of blessed fellowship with their Lord.

Gabriel Biel (1420-95), a member of the Brethren of the Common Life followed William of Ockham in emphasizing that faith alone was necessary for the comprehension of theological truths.

Attempts at Reform

Refer to Resource 12-13 in the Student Guide.
The Avignon “Babylonian Captivity” severely weakened the Papacy, which was accumulating wealth and beauty at others’ expense. The pope’s affairs were the same as any earthly prince. He was a devoted patron of the arts. 

Many sought far-reaching reform. Among them, John Wycliffe (1328-84) was an Augustinian scholar in the Neoplatonist tradition. He taught at Oxford from 1361. On the matter of universals, Wycliffe was a realist rather than a nominalist. He believed God’s will was in perfect accord with reason since reason and revelation cannot contradict. 

Wycliffe abhorred the disorder and corruption of the church and attacked the luxury and venality of the popes. Life and behavior, not a vocation, marked the elect, he taught. Hence, even the pope might be reprobate. Ecclesiastical dominion lost authority whenever it ceased to be just. In essence, Wycliffe denied the authority of the pope. 

Wycliffe affirmed that the Bible must be taken as the sole law of the church and that it must be translated in a language easily understood by the people. Wycliffe himself, without the encouragement of his church superiors, undertook the translation of the Vulgate or Latin Bible into English. 

Through a direct reading of the Bible, Wycliffe was able to demonstrate vast differences between the apostolic church and the church of his own day. He believed the church had no right to withhold grace from anyone, for instance. He attacked various abuses in the church, including monasticism, and the cults to the saints, with pilgrimages to their shrines and their supposed sacred relics. Wycliffe attacked the sale of indulgences. He preached a religion of personal faith and piety, and the universal priesthood of all believers standing in a direct relationship with God.

Not surprisingly, in 1377 the pope condemned Wycliffe. The archbishop prohibited Wycliffe from preaching, but Wycliffe was protected by the state from worse censure. Though he lost some supporters when he publicly disagreed with the doctrine of transubstantiation, Wycliffe only increased his attacks on the abuses and even the necessity of the priesthood. He sent out his own preachers, who preached wherever they found a hearing—on roads, village greens, and churchyards. His itinerant preachers won many converts. 

As a nationalist, Wycliffe’s view that the government should assume control over church property appealed to the people. They were stirred by Wycliffe’s indictments of the church. Partly in response, the English peasants revolted in 1381. 

Wycliffe spent the last years of his life as a parish priest. After Wycliffe’s death his followers, known as Lollards, hiding from the church’s hierarchy, continued many of his teachings.

Refer to Resource 12-14 in the Student Guide. 

Influenced directly by Wycliffe’s writings, John Hus (1373–1415) became a symbol of anti-German, nationalist sentiment in Bohemia. As a priest in Prague, Hus began preaching directly from the Bible. He believed it was wrong for the church to establish any doctrine contrary to the Bible. Its authority, Hus became convinced, was greater than either popes or councils. 

Though he agreed with Wycliffe’s indictments of the church, Hus retained the transubstantiation doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. But he called for the church to distribute both the wine and the bread—rather than only the bread—to communicants. For this reason, his followers became known as “utraquists,” wanting “each,” communion of both kinds. Like Wycliffe, Hus condemned the low morals of priests and corruption within the church. He saw the sale of indulgences as one example of such corruption. 

Hus’s teachings were drawn together at Prague in 1421 in a series of Articles. The Articles advocated the free preaching of the Word of God, the communion of both wine and bread to the laity, the confiscation of church property, and secular punishment for clergy living in mortal sin. Hus’s followers included influential townspeople. His more radical disciples, called Taborites, created the Unitas Fratrum or New Unity of the Brotherhood, which directly challenged the authority of the church. 

Hus became especially incensed when the pope promised remission of sins for any who would join forces against the king of Naples, who had invaded papal states in a political dispute. Because of his opposition, the pope disallowed Hus from preaching at his church. Hus refused to obey. He said God, not the pope, had called him to preach. Though Hus was excommunicated, many of his parishioners supported him, and in the midst of the dispute with the pope, he was elected to a prestigious university position. 

Meanwhile, reform sentiment sought the strengthening of the councils. The nominalists’ understanding that the church was not to be found in some eternal idea, or in a hierarchy, but in the believers themselves joined as a body, strengthened this movement. Some believed such councils had an authority that superseded that of the pope. The pope, said those who promoted councils, was the church’s only chief administrator. He and the church’s leaders were instruments of and servants to the will of the church. 

Leading scholars called for a great council that would restore unity to the fragmenting church. This concept was reinforced during the Avignon captivity of the Papacy when cardinals could not decide on the true leader of the church. 

Emperor Sigismund called for a council, which met at Constance 1414-18. The council issued two important decrees. The first was that general councils had authority directly from Christ, so the whole church was bound to their decisions. The second decree was that councils must meet regularly. 

The Council of Constance also summoned Hus to defend his teachings. Though he had been promised safe passage, Hus found himself immediately imprisoned. The council condemned Hus’s teachings and ordered him put to death unless he recanted his views. Hus refused to recant, recalling that he had never preached or written anything contrary to the Bible or the faith of the church. Hus was burned at the stake. 

Another council met in Basel over a period of years, 1431-49. In the midst of this council, the French clergy  met at Bourges in 1438 to issue the “Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges,” which affirmed the power of the councils, stated the right of the French church to elect its own clergy without papal interference, prohibited the payment of taxes to the pope, and limited the number of appeals French courts could make to the Roman Curia. Similarly, the Concordat of Vienna in 1448 reaffirmed the right of the emperor to nominate all clergy to important church posts. 

Nonetheless, conciliarism, for all its potential as a movement of true reform in the church, failed. One of the reasons was that the pope moved behind the scenes to undermine their decisions. The pope continued to administer papal lands. Secular rulers were willing to compromise with the pope on religious issues if he aided them politically. Pope Pius II directly condemned conciliarism in an edict in 1460. 

Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98), a Dominican, was a Thomist, Joachimist, and Italian reformer. He became a preacher to the rich and powerful de Medici family in Florence, which lay at the heart of the Italian Renaissance. The pope had become the leading patron of the arts. While preaching, Savonarola claimed to receive prophecies, which included the collapse of Medici rule over the city. 

Popular with the people, Savonarola was responsible for political reforms initiated in 1495. At a carnival in 1497, he went so far as to burn articles that represented ostentatious wealth, such as wigs, playing cards, immodest books, pagan art, and trinkets. The upper classes were incensed. Papal commissioners declared him a heretic, the lord of the city accused him of treason, and the pope excommunicated him in 1497. He was condemned and hanged, and his body burned in Florence. 

But the church could not forever stifle voices that protested its authority and corruption, and who called for reform. 

Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following:


The end of the autobiography. He is baptized.

From autobiography to self-analysis. In conclusion, he undertakes a detailed analysis of appetite and the temptations to which the flesh and the soul are heirs, and comes finally to see how necessary and right it was for the Mediator between God and humanity to have been the God-Human. 

60. By these temptations we are daily tried, O Lord; we are tried unceasingly. Our daily “furnace” is the human tongue. And also in this respect you command us to be continent. Give what you command and command what you wilt. In this matter, you know the groans of my heart and the rivers of my eyes, for I am not able to know for certain how far I am clean of this plague; and I stand in great fear of my “secret faults,” which your eyes perceive, though mine do not. For in respect of the pleasures of my flesh and of idle curiosity, I see how far I have been able to hold my mind in check when I abstain from them either by voluntary act of the will or because they simply are not at hand; for then I can inquire of myself how much more or less frustrating it is to me not to have them. This is also true about riches, which are sought for in order that they may minister to one of these three “lusts,” or two, or the whole complex of them. The mind is able to see clearly if, when it has them, it despises them so that they may be cast aside and it may prove itself. But if we desire to test our power of doing without praise, must we then live wickedly or lead a life so atrocious and abandoned that everyone who knows us will detest us? What greater madness than this can be either said or conceived? And yet if praise, both by custom and right, is the companion of a good life and of good works, we should as little forgo its companionship as the good life itself. But unless a thing is absent I do not know whether I should be contented or troubled at having to do without it.


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