World History 1 208 - 13.3.1 The East-West Schism

The chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Carolingian Empire led to a complicated situation between secular rulers and the Christian Church. According to German law, lords had the right to control everything on their land, including churches and monasteries. This control even extended to the appointment of officeholders to church positions such as abbot or bishop. To ensure they had the loyalty of church officials, lords staffed these offices with their family members or even sold them to the highest bidder. The consequence was that those without religious vocations, or even familiarity with Christian doctrine, could be installed into church leadership. Even the position of the pope, the bishop of Rome, could come up for sale.

Revulsion at this treatment of religious office led to a reform movement intended to remove the influence of secular lords from the management of the church. The movement is often associated with the monastery of Cluny in France, which managed to get independence from the local aristocrat. Other monasteries around France flocked to be included in the rights and privileges that Cluny had earned, creating a movement called the Cluniac reform. The Cluniac movement eventually drew in other clergy who wanted the church to control the election of bishops, independent of secular influence. This desire for independence finally reached the top of the Catholic Church and the office of the bishop of Rome (Figure 13.16).

An image of the inside of a towered building is shown with script above in two paragraphs, one on each side. The building shows two tall bricked towers at each end with red bricks and gold figures at the top. Both towers are round and show windows and doors. The one on the right also has several shorter round towers next to it and in front of it. The roof shown is red tiled and the middle tower is shorter and yellow and black with a small cross at the top. Inside, three archways are seen with black decorations. The left arch shows eight figures with tall pointy red hats in the background in a row. In front of them stand six men with beards, gold and white religious hats and long richly decorated robes with staffs. At the bottom left are thirteen figures with red hair and simple colorful robes with fingers pointing to a large figure in gold robes standing to the right in the image. He wears a tall religious hat in gold and white with long richly decorated robes. He holds a tall staff and points his right arm toward the middle arch. Inside the middle arch is an altar decorated in gold with seven tall sticks protruding upward. The archway on the right shows ten figures standing in a cluster, with brown or white robes, and bald heads with a small line of hair around the middle of their heads. One figure in front holds a large gold object in their hands. In the left forefront of this group a figure stands dressed in richly decorated blue and gold robes, a tall religious headdress on his head holding a gold spear. Faded script is seen across the bottom of the image on a yellow and orange spotted background.
Figure 13.16 This twelfth-century image shows the consecration by Pope Urban II (in gold robes on the left) of the third Abbey of Cluny. Popes developed their reforming platform from Cluny’s program. (credit: “Consécration de Cluny III par Urbain II” by Bibliothèque Nationale de France/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The bishops of Rome were eventually influenced by the Cluniac movement to reform the church. They condemned the sale of offices as a sin called simony and insisted that bishops should be elected by clergy, independent of a lord. Any clergy member who had bought an office or had it bought for them could be removed. To end the practice of treating church positions like a fief to be passed on to the officeholder’s children, priests were told to practice celibacy and were forbidden to marry. While celibacy was not a new concept in the Catholic Church, reforming monks and popes began to enforce it with energy. These changes caused bitter conflict with the rulers of Europe, so the church declared that a king who tried to appoint a bishop or asked for a bribe could be excommunicated (placed outside the church, its communion, and the sacraments, in hopes of reforming the offender). Excommunication could threaten the king’s position and lead to rebellions.

The reformers were also interested in creating a thoroughly Christianized society by distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate warfare. The church argued that Christian soldiers, especially knights, should obey a code of conduct that reflected the church’s values. For example, they should not loot monasteries or hold clergy for ransom. They should protect the church as well as women and the defenseless. They should observe periods of publicly declared truces and not fight on religiously significant days like Easter. These principles contributed to the ideals of chivalry, a code of conduct that was meant to Christianize knightly violence and behavior. Although it was never successful at curbing violence, the idea of Christianized warfare was only one strand of a broader, secular interest in a newly defined chivalric culture of knighthood, and images of Christian knights helped popes justify their directing the military classes of Europe to act against peoples deemed to be enemies of the church, and therefore also of God.

The reform movement gained the church some moral prestige, but the growing power of the pope also worsened the relationship between the eastern and western halves of the faith. By the time of the Middle Ages, five ancient seats of Christianity were recognized as the most prestigious: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. Each was led by a bishop with the honorary title of “patriarch.” In the tenth century, only Rome and Constantinople were in territory not controlled by Muslims.

While the pope in Rome and the patriarch of Constantinople believed many of the same things, linguistic and cultural differences helped drive a wedge between them. For example, the church in the west operated in Latin, insisted on a celibate clergy, and elevated the pope as the final authority for all matters regarding the church everywhere. The church in the east used Greek, permitted priests to marry (although tradition held that bishops should be unmarried), and believed other patriarchs were just as authoritative as the pope. The reform movement unintentionally made divisions sharper.

In 1054, the pope sent representatives to the patriarch of Constantinople to discuss the differences between the two halves of the church. The pope’s chief representative felt the patriarch was not cooperating with or even recognizing the embassy, so he issued a letter excommunicating the patriarch and his followers. Soon after, the patriarch issued his own letter excommunicating the pope’s representatives. Following this Great Schism of 1054, the eastern church became known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the western half the Catholic Church.

The Great Schism was not the only cause of their division, given that tensions and disagreements had been growing over time. But it did help to highlight the way Christianity was being shaped by different forces in different parts of Europe. From this time on, the popes hoped to reunite the two halves under their authority and impose their vision of a reformed church on the Orthodox Church. While Orthodox bishops might accept the pope as “first among equals,” the papacy insisted on being the supreme authority in the church.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax