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Was the Medieval Church Corrupt?
Frans van Liere

Just as the myth that medieval people believed the earth to be flat is persistent and attractive mainly because it offers an easy explanation for Columbus's voyages of discovery, the myth that the medieval church was a landmark of corruption is often used to explain the success of Luther's Reformation. It depicts the church as ruled in a totalitarian and authoritarian way by power-hungry popes, aided by the Holy Inquisition, enriching themselves by exacting tithes from impoverished peasants and extorting indulgence money from misguided believers. From this point of view, Luther and the other reformers are credited with bringing the church back to the original New Testament ideal. There may be traces of a barely concealed anti-Catholicism lurking here (even though the identification of the medieval Church with the present-day Roman Catholic church is an unfortunate anachronism), but this notion is more widespread than just Protestant churches; the same view is often promoted in movies 1 and taught in high schools. It is hard to disprove, because a large amount of historical evidence, ranging from medieval fabliaux to Reformation polemics, can be manipulated to perpetuate it.

From a historical point of view, the idea that the medieval church was corrupt is based on a couple of methodological fallacies, such as disrespect for the peculiarities of medieval religion, arbitrary use of historical evidence, and ignorance of the situation in the medieval church. To represent "the medieval Church" as a corrupt institution lumps one thousand years of Church history together with a complete disregard for any form of historical development, and also applies the label "medieval" somewhat arbitrarily. After all, the pope who eventually excommunicated Luther in 1521, Leo X, behaved as a Renaissance prince rather than a medieval pope, and Luther's own ideas have recently been reinterpreted as having more in common with medieval thought than any of his adversaries.2 It is also worth remembering that not all reform-minded contemporaries, including Catholic humanists such as Erasmus, joined Luther's Reformation.

This is not to deny that there were some instances of clerical abuses during the later Middle Ages, that were correctly addressed by the Protestant reformers. One of these was the traffic in indulgences. An indulgence is "the remission of the temporal penalty due to forgiven sin, in virtue of the merits of Christ and the saints."3 The granting of indulgences, a practice that became generally accepted with the first Crusade and grew considerably during the later Middle Ages, had fallen victim to commercial exploitation; professional pardoners sold indulgences on a large scale. The practice of Luther's adversary Tetzel went far beyond the legal and doctrinal limits the official church had set, even though it was encouraged by the financial policy of Renaissance popes like Julius II and Leo X, whose maecenate of the arts left them in a dire want of cash. The commercial trafficking in indulgences was eventually prohibited by Pius V in 1567. The late medieval malversations with benefices might be considered another abuse; while it became a lucrative enterprise for clerics to accumulate ecclesiastical functions and collect revenues, these offices required no presence or care of souls in the place where they were held. The result was a misuse of ecclesiastical funds and an increasing absenteeism of the clergy.

But Luther's main point of difference with the Church of his time was theological, not practical. The main issue was not the abolition of clerical abuses; the central question was "How does Man partake in God's salvation"? After all, many of the abuses Luther fulminated against were abolished some fifty years later at the Council of Trent (1545-63); the result was hardly a reconciliation of the Protestant and Catholic churches. Luther's Reformation was more than just the righting of a number of abuses and corruption; it brought a new type of spirituality, which in its emphasis on the centrality of Christ's passion did have some medieval precedents. 4

Luther and his contemporaries were certainly not the first to bring up the theme of "reform". In medieval monastic and theological sources, corruption, and the wealth and luxury of monastic orders was almost a topos. One should keep in mind that these texts may not give an historically accurate representation of the state of church affairs in their own time; they are coloured by what Giles Constable calls the "rhetoric of reform". 5 Many polemical monastic treatises do their best to make their opponent as black as possible, and by depicting their opponents' lives as filled with luxury, worldliness, and corruption, they establish a raison d'être for their renovation of the old monastic ideal. The call for reform in Christianity is as old as the New Testament itself (Rm. 12, 2); it hardly reflects a realistic representation of the state of affairs in the Church, but rather a call to internalize religion and heed the call to conversion.

This constant call to reform, a constant reapplication of old Christian ideals to new situations, is in fact typical of the spirit of medieval Christianity. Looking at the period c. 500 - 1500 in Church history, an image of stagnation, of "thousand years of uncertainty" 6 is certainly misplaced. Christianity established itself firmly in Western Europe, and it displayed an extreme vitality and creativity, witnessed by an adaptation of Christianity to the specific Western European situation, a diversification of the monastic ideal, a resurgence of lay piety, and creative and original political experimentation. In short, medieval Christianity experienced a transformation that makes it almost impossible to speak of "the medieval Church" as if it were a unified entity. The diversity of the medieval Church is not only diachronic, but also synchronic. Studying medieval Christianity, one will discover a multiformity of religious experiences, depending on the differences between social classes and estates, between clergy and laity, between the various monastic orders, and between monks and mendicants. In this way, both reformations of the sixteenth century, Protestant and Catholic, constitute a break with the past and mark the transience of Christianity into the modern age.

Aside from the rhetoric of Protestant reformers, certain other historical realities of the late medieval church also contributed to the persistence of the myth of pervasive corruption. First of all, the period the papacy resided in Avignon is often quoted as an example of the degeneration of the medieval papacy. In fact, medieval popes rarely resided in Rome. The idea that Rome is the inalienable turf of the representative of Saint Peter is of more recent date, and, as is often the case, later ideals may have been projected onto a non-existent medieval reality. The Avignon papacy probably received its bad name from Luther himself, who called it the "Babylonian captivity of the papacy", and Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose certainly did popularize this notion. How accurate is this representation? It may be true that the Avignon popes were inclined to nepotism; one might also see it as an attempt to build a reliable curia in a period when the increased political prestige of the papacy led to undesirable party struggles between French and Italian cardinals. The Avignon popes were generally able popes, most of whom were dedicated to reform and abolishment of clerical abuses. John XXII (1316-34) was intent on reforming the church administration and sanitizing the church finances, which were in a disastrous state after rule the rule of his predecessor, Clement V. His successor, Benedict XI (1334-42) was a stern ascetic, dedicated to ending nepotism, corruption, and malpractice among the clergy. He reduced the papal bureaucracy and the distribution of benefices, and tried to ensure that benefices were only given to clergy of good repute. He greatly reduced the number of clergy residing in Avignon. The beneficial effect of most of these measures was, however, undone by the largesse of his spendthrift successor, Clement VI (1342-52). One of the unwanted effects of the reform policy of the Avignon popes, however, was an ever increasing centralization and bureaucratization of church leadership, in a period when decentralization might have been a wiser policy.

Another instance that has often been cited to show the corruption of the medieval Church is the Western Schism (1378- 1417). Although this was only a brief interlude in the long period that the Middle Ages span, and although it was certainly not the first time there had been two (or even more) popes in Western Christendom, this episode certainly did hurt the notion of papal monarchy that had developed since the thirteenth century. Upon the death of Gregory XI (1370-78), who had brought back the papacy from Avignon to Rome, the cardinals were divided into two factions, Italian and French. Under pressure from riotous crowds of Rome Urban VI was elected, while many French cardinals were still at Avignon. The Italian Urban VI was not exactly a tactful personality, and insulted and threatened the French cardinals, who eventually decided that the election was made under pressure and was not valid. They elected another pope, Clement VII, who took up residency Avignon. But there is a bright side to this dark page; while the schism did much damage to the reputation of the church and the papacy (most of Europe's countries now divided their allegiance along political lines), it also was the direct cause of the growth of conciliarism, the notion that not the pope, but all bishops in council together are qualified to make canonical decisions.

A third element in the myth representing the medieval church as not only corrupt but intolerant, totalitarian, and even murderous, is the persistent misrepresentation of the medieval Inquisition. The work of the distinguished Protestant scholar Henry Charles Lea seems to have exacerbated this. 7 The myth probably originated by projecting the organization and practices of the Spanish Inquisition back onto the Middle Ages. The perception of the Spanish Inquisition, undoubtedly influenced by the infamous "black legend", is interesting in itself, but one should point out that the Spanish Inquisition, established in 1480 as an independent organization responsible only to the crown, was quite different from common medieval inquisitorial proceedings. Lateran Council IV, in 1215, had referred the problem of heresy to the bishop's ecclesiastical court, and admonished the bishops to hold visitations (i.e., an "inquisition", or inquest) to elicit testimonies from parishioners. Those persisting in doctrinal error after correction should be handed over to secular authorities for further punishment. To aid the bishop in his task, the bishop could be assisted by papal judge delegates, often mendicants. This eventually, as of 1243, became an official function: "inquisitor of heretical depravity". In special cases, these inquisitors were given a certain measure of autonomy and were made only responsible to the pope, but there was never a permanently established "Inquisition" as organization in the Middle Ages, only inquisitors.

Was the medieval church corrupt? Certainly there were abuses, grounded in human weakness, but the overall impression of vitality and diversity that characterized the medieval church does not justify this generalizing conclusion. To call the abuses that occurred during the Middle Ages "typical of the medieval church", while depicting its critics and reforms as "ahead of their time" is an historical fallacy. In the medieval church, good and bad were mixed together, as they were (and are) in the church throughout all ages. One need only watch a modern-day televangelist to see that the abuse of religion to extort money is by no means unique to the late Middle Ages.



1. One recent film that seems to propagate this image is Annaud's The Name of the Rose, an adaptation of the much more complex novel by Umberto Eco. I have shown this film in various college courses related to the Middle Ages. My students seemed univocal in deciphering the message of this film: for them it showed that the medieval church was utterly corrupted. (return)

2. Heiko A. Oberman, Luther, Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel (Berlin, 1982). (return)

3. "Indulgences," in F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone, Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford, 1974), p. 700. (return)

4. On the Reformation in its medieval context, see Heiko A. Oberman, The Dawn of the Reformation; Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (Edinburgh, 1986). (return)

5. Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century, (Cambridge, 1996), p. 125. (return)

6. Kenneth S. Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, vol. 2: The Thousand Years of Uncertainty, A.D. 500-A.D. 1500 (London, 1938). (return)

7. Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages (New York, 1887). (return)


Arnold Angenendt, Geschichte der Religiosität im Mittelalter. Darmstadt, 1997.

Geoffrey Barraclough, The Medieval Papacy (History of European Civilization Library). New York, 1968.

Giles Constable, The Reformation of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge, 1996.

Gerhardt B. Ladner, The Idea of Reform; Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers. Cambridge, MA, 1959.

Henry Charles Lea, A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church. New York, 1968.

Bernard McGinn, John Meyendorff, Jean Leclercq, eds., Christian Spirituality (World Spirituality, An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest, 16-17). New York, 1996-97.

Edward Peters, Inquisition. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1988.

Richard Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. (The Pelican History of the Church 2) Harmondsworth, 1970.


The author is assistant professor in medieval history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI.
< http://www.calvin.edu/academic/history/fvliere.htm>


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