SOCIAL PROBLEMS FACING THE CHURCH 

Late Medieval and early Renaissance social developments left their mark on the church. We think immediately of Renaissance Humanism, but other circumstances placed tremendous stress upon the church.

I. The growth of towns and commerce

Throughout the lion's share of the Middle Ages, the feudal manor was the basic community unit. The mano6s, ruled by a noble, existed for mutual security. Serfs tied to the land depended on their liege lord for leadership, protection, and assistance. Nobles depended on the serf for manual labor, marketable or usable agricultural products, and manpower for fighting. When an enemy threatened the estate, the serfs gathered within the estate's walls (whether a castle or stockade) and organized for battle. During the early Middle Ages, such organization offered the only means of safety. Therefore, these relationships were essential.

Towns developed during the latter portion of the Middle Ages. Most great European cities began as towns growing up around monasteries. If a town grew up without a monastery nearby, an order soon established one in the vicinity. Merchants and craftsmen organized towns for the same reason that feudal lords organized manorial estates -- protection. These people, however, had no ties to the land.. Town government tended to be less autocratic. It is said that:

Throughout the West, the towns bore a family resemblance, and created a new type of government, that of free cooperation, of elective magistrates, of popular assemblies, which could vote, discuss, and decree.

Towns also tended to form upon road junctions, rivers, fords and ports.

Trade and commerce were tied inseparably to town development. Historians suggest that "the resurgence of trade, of manufacture...produced town and townsman, merchant and craft." Trade flowing upriver from the Mediterranean stimulated northern towns. Furs, wool, and minerals made their way south while spices, cloth, and other manufactured goods moved north. In time, these growing communities depended on trade expansion for well-being.

Trade with the eastern half of the Old Empire existed prior to the Crusades. Extensive eastern trade occurred in the tenth century. Europe's awareness of the east's massive wealth, luxury and trade possibilities increased with the Crusades. Those returning from Crusades created a market for spices and other Oriental products. Europeans knew of very few spices prior to the Crusades. Returning Crusaders had developed a taste for spicy food and looked to merchants to bring spices west. Crusaders also developed a taste for the east's fine cloth creating an instant market.

European cities grew wealthy by the thirteenth century. Cities in Flanders and northern Italy accumulated wealth from woolen textiles. My the mid-1200s, Europe revived gold coinage as a medium for international exchange. Norman Cantor says that "the gold florin first minted in 1252 to serve the needs of Florentine merchants became a monetary standard for Europe."

Trade and cities created the bourgeois. This middle class became society's strongest segment and the church soon found itself dependent upon it for financial support. Bourgeois bankers provided money for the papacy in the form of loans. Those who extend credit, however, can call the shots and the church found itself at the bankers' mercy. To make matters worse, many lenders were Jewish. As a result, the church, already in conflict with kings and princes, found its spheres of influence diminishing.

II. The impact of the Black Death

The Bubonic Plague swept across Europe during the later Middle Ages and early Renaissance leaving death everywhere. Two factors contributed to the plague's spread. First, towns contributed to the epidemic. A Town's narrow streets and poor sanitation made ideal conditions for the disease's spread. Here is a description of typical conditions in a European town of the era:

Narrow streets filled with mud, refuse, and human excrement were as much cesspools as thoroughfares. Dead animals and sore-covered beggars greeted the traveler. Houses constructed with each story projecting over the one below eliminated light and air. ... Houses were beginning to be constructed of brick, but many remained of wood, clay, and mud. A determined rat had little trouble tearing and entering such a house.

Second, personal hygiene and living conditions contributed to the Black Death's spread. Even aristocratic homes were overcrowded, and in most homes everyone slept in the same room. In poorer homes as many as eight people shared one bed for warmth. People rarely bathed and they considered water dangerous. Skin ailments were common. Common ailments, poor hygiene, and poor nutrition contributed to low resistance to disease. As you might expct, fleas and body lice were common. Another bite or two passed by unnoticed. But "if that nibble came from a bacillus-bearing flea, an entire household or area was doomed."

The black rat carried Bubonic Plague into Europe. Historians trace the Plague's path from "the great Crimean grain-port of Kaffa in 1346, and thence...to Constantinople, Sicily, Genoa, and Provence in 1348." From there it went to England, Germany, Scandinavia, and Poland. The plague followed trade routes and a rat infested barge became more deadly than an army.

How serious was the plague? Plague hit Italy's port cities in 1347 and within three years it had spread to Scotland. During that three year period, one-third of Europe's population died! In 1348, in a summer season, half of Florence's population died dropping the city's population from 90,000 from 40,000. In Bristol, England over 45% of the city's population died. Estimates place the total number of deaths across Europe at around 25 million.

No one knew what caused Plague or why it hit so hard. Some called it God's judgment for sin. Throughout northern Europe, flagellants beat themselves as a sign of penitence. Others accused Jews of poisoning wells. Europeans viciously vented their anger and frustration against these people . Most believed the plague came from some "vicious property in the air."

You cannot understate the plague's impact on Europe. It created a pessimistic view of life which left its mark on the period's literature and the church itself. Northern Europeans developed a fascination with death and Germans performed the totentanz, the dance of death.

How did the church respond? Pope Clement VI (1342-1352) offers the best example. Clement was an urbane, gentle man who enjoyed life's finer things. His court was a social whirl filled with corruption. Clement reigned from Avignon, a crowded city ripe for the plague. By April, 1348, half of Avignon's population lay in new graves and 7,000 homes were boarded up. Sixty-two thousand died in Avignon in 12 months. Clement purchased a new cemetery which saw 11,000 graves filled in just 43 days. During the outbreak, Clement provided doctors and bread and encouraged his priests to minister to the dying. When citizens persecuted Jews, Clement threatened excommunication to anyone who attacked them.

III. The growing sense of national identity

Those with similar cultures, language and values came together to form nations. Most Popes came from cultures distinctively different from those of northern Europe. Until the Avignon period, most Popes were Italian  and represented Italian culture, language, and tradition. As one writer put it, these northern Europeans "were not nationalists in the modern sense, [yet] they tended to view the pope as a foreigner who had no right to meddle with local affairs in England, France, or Germany."

Two important documents demonstrating this growing national awareness come out of England in the mid-fourteenth century. The Statute of Provisors (1351) denied the Pope's right to appoint anyone to an English position who is not English. The Statute of Praemunire (1352) prohibited any appeal to the Pope. Furthermore, the English considered it treasonous to appeal to any foreign arbiter. Remember, now, in many cases European princes directed appeals to a supposedly "neutral" Roman Pope. With an Avignon papacy, English kings felt the French influenced the Pope too greatly. When the Protestant Reformation erupts in England, these two documents become extremely important.

National Parliaments also formed during the period. Edward I of England called the Model Parliament in 1295. All of Prince John's fears when confronted with the Magna Charta in 1215 came true in the Model Parliament. The Magna Charta maintained that Parliament derives its power directly from the people, thus Parliament stands superior to kings. Philip IV of France summoned the first Estates General in 1303. France claimed three estates were represented in their Parliament: the nobility, the church, and the people.

Laying aside the importance of Parliaments for a moment, without absolute monarchs there would be no European nations. Rome's influence decreased simply because no absolute monarch would allow dual jurisdiction within his realm. Since men more easily identify with those who speak your language, live in your region, and hold similar interests, a foreign Pope  took a back seat. In time, the kings claimed the right to represent the church in their domain.

All three factors offered the church tremendous challenges. However, as the Middle Ages come to a close the Papacy itself is frightfully divided and the church in shambles.

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