80. The Churches of the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages every city and town was proud of its church or churches. In our cities to-day we have many public buildings,—the city hail, the post office, the courthouse, and many more. The people now belong to different churches and worship in various places. But in the Middle Ages everybody in western Europe belonged to a single church, and all alike took interest in building the same stately and magnificent structures for the glory of their native city. Each guild had a fine hail for its meetings, and in most cities there was at some corner of the walls a powerful castle for defense. But in beauty and expense all these were far surpassed by the central church, or "cathedral" as it was called, if it was the church of a bishop.

The church in the Middle Ages was not merely a place for holding religious service. Great public meetings took place within its walls. There, too, people came to visit with their friends, to hear news, and to see the fine and beautiful ornaments. So all felt that the building belonged to them and was a part of their daily lives.

To people who love what is old and what is beautiful, there is nothing more splendid in the whole world than the cathedrals of Europe. The older ones are great solid buildings of stone, with heavy walls and massive towers. But later people learned how to construct churches in a new style, with lofty spires, graceful tapering ornaments, and long rows of buttresses which served to give strength and beauty at the same time.

If the outside of the cathedrals seems wonderful, the interior fills the visitor with admiration and awe. The long rows of great columns, the lofty roof, and the huge windows filled with stained glass through which the sunshine floods the building in a blaze of colored light,—all are parts of a wonderful picture never to be forgotten. But if the visitor begins to examine more carefully, his wonder will often become still stronger, for the artists and the workmen of the Middle Ages strove to adorn column and ceiling with the finest carving their hands could produce. Even the tapering spires and turrets without are frequently so beautifully carved that they seem like lacework to the eye. Yet the graceful figures of saints and angels, the forms of flowers and fruits, the flowing scrollwork, --all are carved from the solid stone. Sometimes, indeed, portions of the carving of the older time may seem rather rude and stiff as compared with the work of sculptors of our day, but taken all together it cannot now be equaled.

One strange thing about the men who did this beautiful work was that they also loved what is grotesque and whimsical. Often, right in the midst of the most beautiful carving, they put the figures of grinning imps and queer, impossible beasts, or perhaps funny little figures of cats playing with mice, or naughty boys in trouble and howling with pain. But these curious things are never so placed as to spoil the general effect.

How could the men of the Middle Ages, who knew nothing of steam and little about machinery, and who did their work by hand, build such great buildings and fill them with such ornament? The answer is that they had patience. Great cathedrals like those of Canterbury or Lincoln often took centuries to build. One of the largest, that at Cologne in Germany, begun in the Middle Ages, was not finished until i88o. A boy who wanted to be a stone cutter might learn his trade, become a clever artist, and work all his life on the same building. In those times men cared not alone for pay, but felt satisfied if after years of toil they had adorned a column or wrought out an ornament which was really beautiful.

How impressive was the scene in one of these great cathedrals when the bishop in his flowing robes, accompanied by a great body of other clergy, solemnly chanted the service in the presence of all the citizens of some old town. The music, the dimly burning candles on the altar, the multitude of people devoutly kneeling,—all told of the piety and devotion of that simple old time—’ ‘the age of faith" as men sometimes call the Middle Ages to-day.

81. The Clergy and the Pope. In those days, when hardly anybody had any learning and only the clergy could read and write, the officers of the church did many things which they would not think of undertaking now.

Every church, either in town or country, had at least one priest to perform its services. To him the simple people went with all their troubles, and if he was a wise man he could do much good. People who broke the laws of the church he sometimes declared "excommunicated,"—that is, he cut them off from coming to church. This usually so frightened them that they repented or pretended to repent. But since education was hard to get in the Middle Ages, the priest himself in the little peasant villages was often very ignorant. Some priests could hardly read the service.

Far more important was the bishop, who usually lived in a city and bad a beautiful cathedral. A bishop wore a peculiar and impressive dress, with a tall hat called a miter, and carried a staff of a kind allowed to him alone. He was overseer or superintendent over all the priests and other clergy in the district, or "diocese" as it was called, which lay about his church. He traveled about to see that they were doing their work well, and sometimes punished or dismissed those who were not faithful.

The bishop dwelt in a castle or palace and had charge of all the vast lands which belonged to the church, for since many people were anxious to make gifts to the church it had become very rich. Frequently he was stronger and more powerful than many dukes or counts. In fact, in many parts of Europe a bishop was a count at the same time.

Above the bishop was a still higher officer, called the archbishop, who lived in some large city. Often a great archbishop, like the Archbishop of Canterbury in England, was the man next in importance to the king of the country.

But the ruler of the whole church was the pope at Rome. In the Middle Ages the pope lived in the ancient Lateran palace, surrounded by the great court of officials and secretaries through whom he carried on his work. Later he removed to the even more famous Vatican, which is still his home. He made all the laws and rules of the church, decided all ‘sorts of matters which were brought to his court from every part of Europe, and governed the city of Rome and the surrounding country.

In early times the election of a pope often caused great trouble; finally it was settled that when one pope died all the great officers of the church who held the rank of cardinal should assemble to choose another. These notable persons, the special advisers of the pope, were distinguished by the red hats and red robes they wore. They usually chose the new pope from among themselves.

During the Middle Ages the pope of Rome was for several centuries far more powerful than any king or other ruler. The popes claimed, and several times used the power of deposing any king whom they found to be wicked or tyrannical, and of giving his throne to another Many were the struggles between the popes and the haughty emperors or kings who tried to defy them such, for example, as the wicked King John of England But few rulers were able to hold out when the pope excommunicated them or ordered all the churches in their country closed.

Among all the great popes of this period perhaps the strongest were Gregory VII, the man who rose from the position of a humble monk to be the ruler of all Europe and the famous Innocent III, who humbled King John

With such men as these at the head, the church of the Middle Ages was certain to set on foot great things. But among all the enterprises which it started, the most exciting and interesting were the Crusades.


The Leading Facts. 1. The chief building of a city in the Middle Ages was the cathedral or church. 2. Many of these are among the most beautiful and wonderful buildings ever erected. 3. The cathedrals often took centuries to build. 4 The clergy in the Middle Ages had great influence because they were almost the only educated people. 5. The head of the church was the pope at Rome. 6. The popes often had far more power than any king or emperor. 7. Among the greatest popes were Gregory VII and Innocent III.

Study Questions. 1. Why did the people of the Middle Ages care so much for cathedrals and churches? 2. Why do people visit these old churches now? 3. Picture in your mind a great old cathedral, and tell what you see. 4. Give at least one reason why the workmen of the Middle Ages did such beautiful work. 5. Why did the priest of a village church have so much influence among his people? 6. What was a bishop? 7. Tell some of his duties. 8. What was an archbishop? 9. What archbishop about whom we have studied dared to oppose a king? io. Tell something of the power of the pope. 11. How was a pope chosen? 12. Name two great popes of the Middle Ages.

Suggested Readings. Tappan, When Knights Were Bold, 338-366; Grierson, The Children’s Book of English Minsters, 1-81, 260-337; Harding, The Story of the Middle Ages.

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© 2001 by Lynn Waterman