This is simply a book that everyone must sit down and read.
Alice Walker

This book is dedicated to freedom and human dignity.


Preface i Introduction

ONE Seeds of Tyranny

TWO Political Maneuvering: Making Christianity Palatable to the Romans 


Preface i Introduction

ONE Seeds of Tyranny

TWO Political Maneuvering: Making Christianity Palatable to the Romans 


THREE Deciding Upon Doctrine: Sex, Free Will, Reincarnation and the Use of Force 


FOUR The Church Takes Over: 

The Dark Ages 


FIVE The Church Fights Change: 

The Middle Ages 


SIX Controlling the Human Spirit: 

The Inquisition and Slavery 


SEVEN The Reformation: 

Converting the Populace 


EIGHT The Witch Hunts: 

The End of Magic and Miracles 


NINE Alienation From Nature 139 

TEN A World Without God 165 

ELEVEN Conclusion 185 

Notes Bibliography Index Illustration Credits 

189 208 213 220 


In June of 1995 the Chicago Tribune reported that Pope John Paul II had urged the Roman Catholic Church to seize the “particularly propitious” occasion of the new millennium to recognize “the dark side of its history.”1 In a 1994 confidential letter to cardinals which was later leaked to the Italian press, he asked, How can one remain silent about the many forms of violence perpetrated in the name of the faith—wars of religion, tribunals of the Inquisition and other forms of violations of the rights of persons?2 Unfortunately, too many have remained silent. Several years ago I listened in amazement as an acquaintance spoke of how the Christian Church had embodied the best of Western civilization and how it had brought peace and understanding to the people it touched. He seemed entirely unaware of the Church’s dark past. I decided to prepare a short presentation chronicling the dark side of Christian history—a presentation to help balance the perception that organized Christianity has historically lived up to its professed principles and ideals. I assumed that I would easily find all the information necessary for this presentation at the bookstore, but was soon shocked to find so little available on the subject. While historians have certainly written about the dark side of Christian history, their words have largely stayed within the confines of academe. And few have written of Christianity’s role in creating a world in which people feel alienated from the sacred. Why, at a time when so many are searching for deeper spiritual meaning, isn’t 


there more accessible information about the history of the institutions which are purported to convey such spiritual truth? Without understanding the dark side of religious history, one might think that religion and spirituality are one and the same. Yet, organized religion has a very long history of curtailing and containing spirituality, one’s personal and private relationship with God, the sacred, or the divine. 

This book is what became of that short presentation. My intention is to offer, not a complete picture of Christian history, but only the side which hurt so many and did such damage to spirituality. It is in no way intended to diminish the beautiful work that countless Christian men and women have done to truly help others. And it is certainly not intended as a defense of or tribute to any other religion. 

Helen Ellerbe February 1996 


The Christian church has left a legacy, a world view, that permeates every aspect of Western society, both secular and religious. It is a legacy that fosters sexism, racism, the intoler- ance of difference, and the desecration of the natural environ- ment. The Church, throughout much of its history, has demon- strated a disregard for human freedom, dignity, and self- determination. It has attempted to control, contain and confine spirituality, the relationship between an individual and God. As a result, Christianity has helped to create a society in which people are alienated not only from each other but also from the divine. 

This Christianity—called “orthodox Christianity” here—is embedded in the belief in a singular, solely masculine, authori- tarian God who demands unquestioning obedience and who mercilessly punishes dissent. Orthodox Christians believe that fear is essential to sustain what they perceive to be a divinely ordained hierarchical order in which a celestial God reigns singularly at a pinnacle, far removed from the earth and all humankind. 

While orthodox Christianity originally represented but one of many sets of early Christian beliefs, it was these Christians who came to wield political power. By adapting their Christianity to appeal to the Roman government, they won unprecedented authority and privilege. Their church became known as the Church. This newly acquired power enabled them to enforce conformity to their practices. Persecuting those who did not conform, however, required the Church to clarify its own 


doctrine and ideology, to define exactly what was and was not heresy. In doing so, the Church consistently chose tenets and ideologies that best supported its control over the individual and society. As it took over leadership in Europe and the Roman Empire collapsed, the Church all but wiped out education, technology, science, medicine, history, art and commerce. The Church amassed enormous wealth as the rest of society languished in the dark ages. When dramatic social changes after the turn of the millennium brought an end to the isolation of the era, the Church fought to maintain its supremacy and control. It rallied an increasingly dissident society against perceived enemies, instigating attacks upon Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and Jews. When these crusades failed to subdue dissent, the Church turned its force against European society itself, launching a brutal assault upon southern France and instituting the Inquisi- tion. The crusades and even the early centuries of the Inquisition did little to teach people a true understanding of orthodox Christianity. It was the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter Reformation that accomplished this. Only during the Reformation did the populace of Europe adopt more than a veneer of Christianity. The Reformation terrified people with threats of the devil and witchcraft. The common perception that the physical world was imbued with God’s presence and with magic was replaced during the Reformation with a new belief that divine assistance was no longer possible and that the physical world belonged only to the devil. It was a three hundred year holocaust against all who dared believe in divine assistance and magic that finally secured the conversion of Europe to orthodox Christianity. By convincing people that God was separate from the physical world, orthodox Christianity—perhaps unwittingly—laid the foundation for the modern world, a world believed to be 


mechanical and determined, a world in which God is at most a remote and impersonal creator. People came to attribute their sense of powerlessness, not so much to their sinful human nature as to their insignificance in such a world. The theories of scientists and philosophers such as Isaac Newton, Rene Descartes and Charles Darwin reinforced orthodox Christian beliefs such as the inevitability of struggle and the necessity for domination. Such beliefs, however, are now proving not only to have serious drawbacks, but also to be scientifically limited. Orthodox Christianity has also had devastating impact upon humanity’s relationship with nature. As people began to believe that God was removed from and disdainful of the physical world, they lost their reverence for nature. Holidays, which had helped people integrate the seasons with their lives, were changed into solemn commemorations of biblical events bearing no connection to the earth’s cycles. The perception of time changed so that it no longer seemed related to seasonal cycles. Newtonian science seemed to confirm that the earth was no more than the inevitable result of the mechanistic operation of inanimate components; it confirmed that the earth lacked sanctity. The dark side of Christian history can help us understand the severing of our connection with the sacred. It can teach us of the most insidious and damaging slavery of all: the control of people through dictating and containing their spirituality. This ignored side of history can illuminate the ideas and beliefs which foster the denigration of human rights, the intolerance of difference, and the desecration of the natural environment. Once recognized, we can prevent such beliefs from ever wreaking such destruction again. When we understand how we have come to be separated from the divine, we can begin to heal not only the scars, but the very alienation itself. 

Chapter One Seeds of Tyranny 

100 – 400 C.E. 

Those who sought to control spirituality, to restrict personal relationships with God, gained prominence within the first centuries of the Christian era. Their beliefs formed the ideologi- cal foundation for much of the dark side of the Christian church’s history. Committed to the belief in singular supremacy, these orthodox Christians thought that fear and submission to hierarchical authority were imperative. Not all Christians agreed. In fact, contrary to the conventional depiction of the first centuries of Christianity as a time of harmony and unity, early Christians disagreed about everything from the nature of God and the roles of men and women to the way one finds enlighten- ment. Perhaps most pivotal to the group of Christians who would triumph—called “orthodox Christians” here*—was the belief in a singular supremacy, the belief that divinity is manifest in only one image. The belief in a singular God differed radically from the widespread belief that divinity could be manifest in a multiplicity of forms and images. As people believe that God can 

* The use of the term “orthodox” in this book refers to the traditional ideology within most denominations of Christianity, not to any specific church or denomination. 


have but one face, so they tend to believe that worth or godliness among humans can also have but one face. Different genders, races, classes, or beliefs are all ordered as better-than or less- than one another. Even the notion of two differing opinions existing harmoniously becomes foreign; one must prevail and be superior to the other. 

Within such a belief structure, God is understood to reign singularly from the pinnacle of a hierarchy based not upon love and support, but upon fear. The Bible repeatedly exhorts people to fear God: “Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”1 “Blessed is everyone that feareth the Lord.”2 “Fear Him, which after He hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear Him.”3 The third century Church Father, Tertullian, could not imagine how God could not demand fear: But how are you going to love, without some fear that you do not love? Surely [such a God] is neither your Father, towards whom your love for duty’s sake should be consistent with fear because of His power; nor your proper Lord, whom you should love for His humanity and fear as your teacher.4 One’s beliefs about God have impact upon one’s beliefs about society. As the Lord’s Prayer states, God’s will should “be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Orthodox Christians believed that people should fear their earthly ruler as they fear God. The fourth century St. John Chrysostom describes the absolute necessity for fear: 

...if you were to deprive the world of magistrates and the fear that comes from them, houses, cities and nations would fall upon one another in unrestrained confusion, there being no one to repress, or repel, or persuade them to be peace- ful through the fear of punishment.


To the orthodox, fear was essential to maintaining order. Christians, such as the second century Marcion, who stressed the merciful, forgiving and loving nature of God, found them- selves at odds with the orthodox. In orthodox Christian eyes, God must be prone to anger and demand discipline and punish- ment. Tertullian wrote: Now, if [Marcion’s God] is susceptible of no feeling of rivalry, or anger, or damage, or injury, as one who refrains from exercising judicial power, I cannot tell how any system of discipline—and that, too, a plenary one—can be consistent in him.6 Scholars have suggested that the first line of the Christian creed, “I believe in one God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth,” was originally written to exclude Marcion’s followers by emphasizing the monotheistic and judgmental nature of God.7 Orthodox Christians placed great importance upon the singular authority of the bishop, upon rankings within the clergy, and upon distinction between the clergy and the laity. As there is only one God in heaven, declared the first century bishop, Ignatius of Antioch, so there can be only one bishop in the Church.8 “Your bishop presides in the place of God, and your [priests] in the place… of the apostles,” he wrote. “Apart from these, there is no church.”9 Such beliefs and attitudes, however, were certainly not shared by all Christians. The orthodox emphasized rank to such an extent that one Gnostic Christian wrote of them: “They wanted to command one another, outriva- lling one another in their vain ambition,” lusting “for power over one another,” “each one imagining that he is superior to the others.”10 Not all Christians accepted the belief in singular supremacy. Some Gnostic Christians understood God to be multi-faceted, having both masculine and feminine aspects. Some thought of the divine as a dyad; one side being “the Ineffable, the Depth, the 


Primal Father” while the other side was “Grace, Silence, the Womb and Mother of the All.”11 In the Gnostic Apocryphon of John, a vision of God appears saying, “I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Child.”12 Theodotus, a Gnostic teacher, said, “each one knows the Lord after his own fashion, and not all in the same way.”13 To root out Gnostic Christians from the orthodox, the second century orthodox Bishop Irenaeus encour- aged Christians to “confess with the tongue one God the Father.”14 Without the belief in singular supremacy, it followed that Gnostic Christians would also reject hierarchical order and strict rankings within their church. In contrast to the orthodox Ignatius of Antioch who believed that the rankings of bishop, priest and deacon mirrored the heavenly hierarchy,15 some Gnostic Chris- tians did not even differentiate between clergy and laity, much less between stations of the clergy. Tertullian described the Gnostics: So today one man is bishop and tomorrow another; the person who is a deacon today, tomorrow is a reader; the one who is a priest today is a layman tomorrow; for even on the laity they impose the functions of priesthood!16 And: …they all have access equally, they listen equally, they pray equally—even pagans, if any happen to come… They also share the kiss of peace with all who come…17

Within an orthodox belief structure, there is no understanding of shared authority and supremacy between genders; one must be superior to the other. Perceiving the singular face of God to be male, orthodox Christians considered male supremacy an extension of heavenly order. St. Augustine wrote in the early fifth century, “we must conclude, that a husband is meant to rule over his wife as the spirit rules over the flesh.”18 In his first 


letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul tried to explain the reason for male supremacy: For a man did not originally spring from woman, but woman was made out of man; and was not created for woman’s sake, but woman for the sake of man.19 As late as 1977, Pope Paul VI still explained that women were barred from the priesthood “because our Lord was a man.”20 

Among the orthodox, women were to take submissive roles. In the first letter to Timothy, St. Paul says: Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness, I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent.21 When Christian monks in the fourth century hacked the great scholar Hypatia to death with oyster shells, St. Cyril explained that it was because she was an iniquitous female who had presumed, against God’s commandments, to teach men.22 

There were early Christians, however, who embraced neither the idea that God is exclusively male, nor the concept of male supremacy. An early group known as the Essenes, many of whose writings have been discovered in the Dead Sea Scrolls, thought of divinity as having a feminine aspect. In the Essene Gospel of Peace, Jesus says, “I will lead you into the kingdom of our Mother’s angels…”23 A Gnostic text tells how Eve, the daughter of Sophia who had wished the first heavenly light into the world, gives life to Adam: 

…[Eve] said, ‘Adam, live! Rise up on the earth!’ Immediately her word became a deed. For when Adam rose up, immediately he opened his eyes. When he saw her, he said, ‘You will be called “the mother of the living” because you are the one who gave me life.’24 Not all early Christian women accepted subservient roles. 


While Gnostics held a wide range of views, several of their writings refer to Mary Magdalene as one of the most important leaders of the early Christian movement. Some believed that she was the first to see Jesus Christ resurrected and that she challenged Peter’s authority as part of the emerging Church hierarchy. Tertullian was appalled at the role of women among Gnostics: The… women of the heretics, how wanton they are! For they are bold enough to teach, to dispute, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures —it may be even to baptize!25 Another point of contention among Christians dealt with the nature of truth and how an individual might become enlightened. Much of this argument centered around the resurrection of Christ, around whether it was Christ’s physical body or his spirit that had been resurrected. Orthodox Christians insisted that it had been Christ’s physical body, to use Tertullian’s words, his “flesh suffused with blood, built up with bones, interwoven with nerves, entwined with veins… “26 They believed that since it was Christ’s physical body, the resurrection was a one-time occurrence, never to be experienced again. 

The orthodox insisted that one could learn of Christ only through those who had experienced this resurrection, the Apostles, or those men appointed as their successors. This confined power and authority to a small few and established a specific chain of command.27 It restricted the avenues through which one could discover God. Orthodox, catholic (“universal”) Christians claimed to be those appointed successors of the Apostles and thus the only ones who could enlighten others. Bishop Irenaeus declared: 

It is incumbent to obey the priests who are in the Church… those who possess the succession from the apostles; those who, together with the 


succession of the episcopate, have received the certain gift of truth.28 To this day the Pope traces his authority and primacy to Peter himself, “first of the apostles,” since he was “first witness of the resurrection.”29 

Some Gnostics, however, called the belief in the resurrection of Christ’s literal, physical body rather than his spirit the “faith of fools.”30 They took issue both with the idea that anyone had seen Christ in physical body after the resurrection as well as with the assertion that Peter had been the first to experience the resurrected Christ. Even the canonized gospels of Mark and John relate how Jesus first appeared, not to Peter or to the Apostles, but to Mary Magdalene.31 By Jesus’s saying to Mary “Touch me not,”32 some think that Jesus implied he was in spirit form rather than in physical body. Believing Christ’s spirit to have been resurrected suggests that anyone, regardless of his or her rank, could experience or “see the Lord” in dreams or visions. Anyone could become empowered with the same authority as the Apostles.33 Anyone could have access to and develop his or her own relationship with God. 

Christians disagreed about the very nature of truth. To the orthodox, who believed that truth could come only through the successors of the Apostles, truth was static and never-changing. It had been revealed only once at the resurrection. Consequently, they thought that one should learn of God only through the Church, not from personal inquiry and not from one’s own experience. Blind faith was considered more important than personal understanding. Bishop Irenaeus cautioned not to seek answers “such as every one discovers for himself,” but rather to accept in faith that which the Church teaches and which “can be clearly, unambiguously and harmoniously understood by all.”34 He wrote, “If… we cannot discover explanations of all those things in Scripture… we should leave things of that nature to God who created us, being most properly assured that the 


Scriptures are indeed perfect.”35 Tertullian declared: We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.36 One should unquestioningly accept and submit to whatever the Church teaches. 

Indeed, orthodox Christians deemed rigorous personal pursuit of truth and understanding an indication of heresy. As Tertullian wrote: This rule… was taught by Christ, and raises amongst ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics.37 And: But on what ground are heretics strangers and enemies to the apostles, if it be not from the difference of their teaching, which each individual of his own mere will has either advanced or received?38 Since the orthodox believed truth to be known only to the successors of the Apostles, one could learn of it only by accepting the Church’s teachings in blind faith. 

Others, however, believing that Christ’s spirit and presence could be experienced by anyone at any time, considered truth to be dynamic and ever-increasing. Some Gnostics believed that truth and Gnosis or “knowledge” was found, not by looking to the Church, but by looking within oneself. Self-knowledge would lead to knowing God. A Gnostic teacher named Monoimus wrote: 

Look for (God) by taking yourself as the starting point… Learn the sources of sorrow, joy, love, hate… If you carefully investigate these matters you will find him in yourself.39 


The first century Simon Magus taught that within each human being dwells “the Boundless power, which… is the root of the universe.”40 The path to enlightenment involved not simply accepting the words of the Church on faith, but an active personal search for understanding. A Gnostic text reads “…the rational soul who wearied herself in seeking—she learned about God.”41 

These Christians believed self-exploration to be imperative to one’s spiritual path. In the Gnostic Gospel According to Thomas, Jesus says: 

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.42 They believed that searching could dispel the ignorance that produced a nightmarish existence in which one is caught in “many illusions” and experiences “terror and confusion and instability and doubt and division. “43 The Gospel of Truth reads: ignorance… brought about anguish and terror. And the anguish grew solid like a fog, so that no one was able to see.44 Searching within oneself could bring the knowledge and enlightenment to dispel such ignorance. They believed that Jesus had encouraged self-exploration. Jesus said, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” and “the Kingdom of God is within you.”45 

Just as the orthodox wanted to control truth, so they wanted strict control over who could dispense that truth. Early Christians differed sharply about the role of the Church. Gnostic Christians who valued personal exploration believed that the structure of the Church should remain flexible, while orthodox Christians insisted upon strict adherence to a singular Church.46 Bishop Irenaeus insisted there could be only one church, and outside that church “there is no salvation.”47 He said of the 


Church, “she is the entrance to life, all others are thieves and robbers.”48 Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, wrote, “Let no man deceive himself: if any one be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God. “49 And Clement, the Bishop of Rome from 90-100 C.E., argued that God alone rules all things, that He lays down the law, punishing rebels and rewarding the obedient, and that His authority is delegated to Church leaders. Clement went as far as to say that whoever disobeys these divinely ordained authorities has disobeyed God Himself and should receive the death penalty.50 Long before the Church’s attempt to control spirituality would take its devastating toll, the seeds of its tyranny were evident in the ideology of early orthodox Christians. Their belief in singular supremacy limited the way one could understand God and it eliminated any representation of shared supremacy. It encouraged a fear-based authoritarian structure that segregates people into positions of superiority or inferiority, restricts personal empowerment, and demands unquestioning obedience. Although orthodox Christians represented only one of many early branches, within a few centuries they had effectively suppressed the diversity of early beliefs and ideas. Orthodox Christian beliefs became synonymous with Christianity itself. 

Chapter TWO 

Political Maneuvering: Making Christianity Palatable to the Romans 

200 – 500 C.E. 

Christianity owes its large membership to the political maneuvering of orthodox Christians. They succeeded in turning Christianity from an abhorred minor cult into the official religion of the Roman Empire. Their goal was to create what Bishop Irenaeus called “the catholic church dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth.”1 To that end, they used nearly any means. They revised Christian writings and adapted their principles to make Christianity more acceptable. They pandered to Roman authorities. They incorporated elements of paganism. Orthodox Christianity appealed to the government, not as a religion that would encourage enlightenment or spiritual- ity, but rather as one that would bring order and conformity to the faltering empire. The Roman government in turn granted orthodox Christians unprecedented privilege, enabling the Christian church to become the very sort of authoritarian power that Jesus had resisted. Winning acceptance for Christianity was no small feat; Christians were not well-liked within the Roman Empire. 


Romans had easily incorporated new gods and goddesses into their pantheon with the hope of adding to their own protection and security. The 313 C.E. Edict of Milan, for example, granted everyone religious freedom so “whatever divinity (is) enthroned in heaven may be well-disposed and propitious towards us and all those under our authority.”2 Christians, however, believing theirs to be the one and only God, refused to allow Him to be worshipped alongside others. When they refused to profess loyalty to the Roman pantheon of gods, Christians were seen as likely traitors to the Roman state. For once Roman emperors began to represent themselves as divine, loyalty to the Roman gods also symbolized loyalty to the Roman state. 

Christians held attitudes that did little to endear them to Romans. Bishop Irenaeus, for example, declared, “We have no need of the law for we are already far above it in our godly behavior.”3 Accounts from around the year 200 reflect the dislike Romans had for Christians: …they were ‘the ultimate filth’, a gang ‘of ignorant men and credulous women’, who ‘with meetings at night, solemn fasts and inhuman food’ made up ‘a hole-in-the-corner, shadow- loving crew’, ‘silent in public but clacking away in corners’, ‘spitting on the gods and laughing at holy things…’4 Yet, despite such an environment, Christians won not only acceptance but political prominence as the official religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. The orthodox used politically expedient means to accomplish such ends. They designed an organization not to encourage spirituality, but to manage large numbers of people. They simplified the criteria for membership. The Catholic Church decided that anyone who confessed the Creed, accepted baptism, participated in worship, obeyed the Church hierarchy and believed “the one and only truth from the apostles, which is 


handed down by the Church”5 was a Christian. As one historian writes, such criteria suggest that “to achieve salvation, an ignoramus need only believe without understanding and obey the authorities…”6 The orthodox ignored the argument that a true Christian could only be identified by his or her behavior and maturity, not by simply going through the motions of ritual. Some Gnostic Christians, for example, insisted that Jesus had said, “By their fruits ye shall know them…”7 Baptism did not necessarily make one a Christian, they said, since many people “go down into the water and come up without having received anything.”8 The simple standards of the orthodox, however, made it much easier to garner a large following. Orthodox Christians assembled the Bible not to bring all the gospels together, but rather to encourage uniformity. From the plethora of Christian gospels, Bishop Irenaeus compiled the first list of biblical writings that resemble today’s New Testament around 180 C.E. By 393 and 397, Bishop Athanasius had a similar list ratified by the Church councils of Hippo and Carthage.9 By prohibiting and burning any other writings, the Catholic Church eventually gave the impression that this Bible and its four canonized Gospels represented the only original Christian view. And yet, as late as 450, Theodore of Cyrrhus said that there were at least 200 different gospels circulating in his own diocese.10 Even the Catholic Encyclopedia now admits that the “idea of a complete and clear-cut canon of the New Testament existing from the beginning… has no foundation in history.”11 Beyond choosing from the many gospels and writings to construct the Bible, the Church edited its message with each translation. The Roman philosopher Celsus, witness to the falsification of Christian writings already in the second century, said of the revisionists, Some of them, as it were in a drunken state producing self-induced visions, remodel their 


Gospel from its first written form, and reform it so that they may be able to refute the objections brought against it.12 The Catholic Encyclopedia concedes that “In all the departments forgery and interpolation as well as ignorance had wrought mischief on a grand scale.”13 Despite Church prohibitions against any further research into the origins of the Gospels, scholars have shown that all four canonized Gospels have been doctored and revised.14 While the Church claimed that truth was static in nature and had been revealed only once, it continually found cause for changing that truth. 

Attempts at uniformity did not entirely succeed. Even the four canonized Gospels contradict one another. The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus was an aristocrat descended from David via Solomon, whereas the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was from much more humble stock, and the Gospel of Mark says that Jesus was born to a poor carpenter. At his birth, Jesus was visited by kings according to Matthew, but according to Luke, he was visited by shepherds. And at Jesus’s death, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew tell us that Jesus’s last words were “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” But according to Luke, he said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and in John he says simply, “it is finished.”15 As the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail ask, “How can (the Gospels) be unimpugnable when they impugn each other?”16 

Yet, it was the Church’s insistence upon uniformity that appealed to the Roman Emperor Constantine. Constantine, a man who had his own son executed and his wife boiled alive,17 saw in Christianity a pragmatic means of bolstering his own military power and uniting the vast and troubled Roman Empire. The story is told of Constantine’s dream which led to his acceptance of Christianity in which he saw a cross in the sky inscribed with the words, “In this sign thou shalt conquer.” While he person- ally converted to Christianity only on his deathbed, Constantine 


recognized Christianity as a means of conquering dissention within the Roman Empire and instated it as the Empire’s official religion. 

Orthodox Christians dissociated Christianity from political insurgence. In all likelihood, they compromised the truth of Jesus’s political involvement, holding Jews rather than Romans accountable for his death. The canonized Gospels conspicuously ignore the tension of increasing Jewish resistance to the Roman occupation of Judea during Jesus’s lifetime. One exception is in the Gospel of Luke when it recounts how authorities “found this man [Jesus] perverting our nation, and forbidding [Jews] to give tribute to Caesar.”18 Less than 40 years after Jesus’s death, that tension erupted into a violent war between the Roman army and Jews. Jesus was probably engaged in the concerns of his time as both a political and spiritual leader. The term Christ, both in Hebrew and in Greek, was a functional title for a king or a leader.19 Given the political environment, it is far more likely that the Romans—not the Jews—killed him for his political activity. Crucifixion had been the standard Roman punishment for sedition and the cross a symbol of Jewish resistance to Roman occupation.20 Blaming Jews for Jesus’s death was most likely a convenient means of obscuring Jesus’s political involve- ment and dissociating Christianity from political rebellion.21 

Once Christianity gained prominence, the orthodox allowed the Roman emperor to directly influence Christian doctrine. To settle ideological disputes in the Church, Constantine introduced and presided over the first ecumenical council at Nicea in 325. In his book The Heretics, Walter Nigg describes the means of 

2.1 The Roman Emperor Constantine believed Christianity would provide a means to greater political and military power. This illustration depicts him on the eve of an important battle when he is said to have seen a cross in the sky with the words, “In this sign thou shalt conquer.” 



reaching a consensus: Constantine, who treated religious questions solely from a political point of view, assured unanimity by banishing all the bishops who would not sign the new profession of faith. In this way unity was achieved. ‘It was altogether unheard-of that a universal creed should be instituted solely on the authority of the emperor, who as a catechumen was not even admitted to the mystery of the Eucharist and was totally unempowered to rule on the highest mysteries of the faith. Not a single bishop said a single word against this monstrous thing.’22 One of the political decisions reached at the Council of Nicea established the Nicene creed, a means of keeping the belief in singular supremacy intact while simultaneously incorporating Jesus into the image of God. Jesus was not to be considered mortal; he was an aspect of God which could be understood as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. This new Holy Trinity mim- icked a much older portrait of divinity that embodied the value of difference. For instance, the vision of God in the Gnostic Secret Book of John, “I am the Father, I am the Mother, I am the Child,”23 illustrates the concept of synergy where the whole created is greater than the sum of the parts. Another text called The Sophia of Jesus Christ tells how masculine and feminine energies together created a 

…first-begotten, androgynous son. His male name is called ‘First-Begettress Sophia, Mother 

2.2 A depiction of the Christian Trinity, a concept that allowed Jesus to be considered part of God while still maintaining the belief in a singular supremacy. It took the older concept of trinity illustrating the value of difference, in which a man and a woman together create a synergy, something that is greater than them both, and replaced it with a trinity that exalted sameness. 



of the Universe.’ Some call her ‘Love.’ Now the first-begotten is called ‘Christ. ‘24 Even the later Islamic Koran mistook the Christian Trinity for this archetypal one, referring to it as the trinity of God, Mary and Jesus.25 

The Nicene Creed, however, established a trinity that extolled sameness and singularity. All reference to a synergy, an energy, a magic, that could result from two different people coming together was lost. The council eliminated the image of father, mother and child, replacing the Hebrew feminine term for spirit, ruah, with the Greek neuter term, pneuma.26 The trinity was now comprised of the father, the son, and a neuter, sexless spirit. Christians depicted it as three young men of identical shape and appearance.27 Later medieval sermons would compare the trinity “to identical reflections in the several fragments of a broken mirror or to the identical composition of water, snow and ice.”28 Two popes would ban the seventeenth century Spanish nun Maria d’Agreda’s book, The Mystical City of God, for implying a trinity between God, Mary and Jesus.29 All allusions to the value of difference were lost; divinity was to be perceived as a singular image, either male or neuter but never female. 

Yet, it was their belief in the many faces of God that helped Romans accommodate Christianity, not the uniqueness of Christian theology. Christianity resembled certain elements of Roman belief, particularly the worship of Mithra, or Mithraism. As “Protector of the Empire,”30 Mithra was closely tied to the sun gods, Helios and Apollo. Mithra’s birthday on December 25, close to the winter solstice, became Jesus’s birthday. Shepherds were to have witnessed Mithra’s birth and were to have partaken in a last supper with Mithra before he returned to heaven.31 Mithra’s ascension, correlating to the sun’s return to prominence 

2.3 Holding Jews rather than Romans accountable for Jesus’s crucifixion was most likely a means of making Christianity more acceptable to the Roman government by ignoring Jesus’s probable role as a political rebel. 



around the spring equinox, became the Christian holiday of Easter. Christians took over a cave-temple dedicated to Mithra in Rome on the Vatican Hill, making it the seat of the Catholic Church. The Mithraic high priest’s title, Pater Patrum, soon became the title for the bishop of Rome, Papa or Pope.32 The fathers of Christianity explained the remarkable similarities of Mithraism as the work of the devil, declaring the much older legends of Mithraism to be an insidious imitation of the one true faith.33 With no initial support from the Church, the figure of Mary became revered as an image for the feminine aspect of God. As Christianity paralleled Mithraism, so the worship of Mary resembled the worship of faces of the Goddess, particularly that of mother/son traditions such as Isis/Horus, Juno/Mars, Cybele/ Attis, and Neith/Ra. Mary was perceived to be a more accessi- ble, approachable and humane figure than the judgmental, almighty God. She was more gentle and forgiving and much more likely to help one in everyday affairs. The fifth century historian Sozomen describes Mary’s character in his writing of the Anastasia in Constantinople: A divine power was there manifested, and was helpful both in waking visions and in dreams, often for the relief of many diseases and for those afflicted by some sudden transmutation in their affairs. The power was attributed to Mary, the Mother of God, the holy Virgin, for she does manifest herself in this way.34 

Neither the Bible nor the early Church encouraged Marian worship or even recognized Mary as a saint.35 Although the Council of Nicea reaffirmed that Christ was indeed born from the Virgin Mary, the fourth century Bishop Epiphanius expressed 

2.4 The early Church reluctantly permitted worship of the Virgin Mary. In doing so, it allowed pre-Christian veneration of feminine divinity to continue as Marian worship. 



the sentiment of orthodox Christians: “Let the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit be worshipped, but let no one worship Mary. “36 During the first five centuries, Christian art depicted Mary in a less venerable state than even the Magi, the three wise men, who wore halos while Mary wore none.37 St. Chrysostom in the fourth century accused Mary of trying to domineer and “make herself illustrious through her son.”38 Diminishing Mary’s significance was a way of discouraging her association with older pre-Christian faces of the Goddess. Bishop Epiphanius wrote: God came down from heaven, the Word clothed himself in flesh from a holy Virgin, not, assur- edly, that the Virgin should be adored, nor to make a goddess of her, nor that we should offer sacrifice in her name, nor that, now after so many generations, women should once again be appointed priests… (God) gave her no charge to minister baptism or bless disciples, nor did he bid her rule over the earth.39 Christianity, as the orthodox understood it, was about the singular power of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not about any feminine aspect of God. 

Nevertheless, Marian worship persisted. When a council at Ephesus in 431 implied that Mary could be safely worshipped, crowds burst into delirious celebrations, accompanied by torchlight processions and shouts of “Praised be the Theotokos (Mother of God)!”40 Older temples and sacred sites, once dedicated to pre-Christian goddesses, were rededicated or replaced with churches for Mary. In Rome on the Esquitine hill the Santa Maria Maggiore replaced Cybele’s temple. Near the Pantheon a church dedicated to Mary adjoined Isis’s sanctuary while another was built on a site which had been dedicated to Minerva. On the Capitoline in Aracoeli the Santa Maria sup- planted a temple of the Phoenician goddess Tanit. In Cyprus, 


shrines that were Aphrodite’s hallowed ground easily became those of Mary, who to this day is still called Panaghia Aphroditessa.41 Geoffrey Ashe notes in The Virgin: Like Cybele [Mary] guarded Rome. Like Athene she protected various other cities. Like Isis she watched over seafarers, becoming and remaining the ‘Star of the Sea’. Like Juno she cared for pregnant women… She wore a crown recalling Cybele’s. Enthroned with her child she resembled Isis with Horus. She even had touches of Neith about her.42 The Church had not subdued veneration for feminine divinity; it had simply renamed it. 

Interestingly, the Christian version of feminine divinity excluded any portrayal of one of the most powerful aspects of the Goddess, the face of the old, wise crone. Three faces of feminine divinity were common throughout pre-Christian traditions, that of the Virgin or Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Mary embodied the first two as both Virgin and Mother. The third face of the Crone, representing the culmination of feminine power and wisdom, was excluded from the Christian canon of saints. The Church’s rejection of the Crone is significant in that it is precisely the Crone figure who later came to symbolize the ultimate enemy of the Church—the witch. 

The Church reaped enormous gains by compromising its ideology and adapting to prevalent beliefs. In 319 Constantine passed a law excusing the clergy from paying taxes or serving in the army43 and in 355 bishops were exempted from ever being tried in secular courts.44 In 380 Emperor Theodosius passed a decree that read: 

We shall believe in the single Deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity. 1. We command that those persons who follow 


this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of Our own initiative, which We shall assume in accordance with the divine judgement.45 The Theodosian laws made it illegal to disagree with the Church. And a 388 prohibition forbade any public discussions of religious topics. 

The ancient, multidimensional Pagan worship was prohibited in 392 and considered a criminal activity. In 410 the emperor Honorius decreed: 

Let all who act contrary to the sacred laws know that their creeping in their heretical superstition to worship at the most remote oracle is punish- able by exile and blood, should they again be tempted to assemble at such places for criminal activities…46 Pagan temples were pillaged and destroyed. A 386 written protest to the Roman government of Christian pillaging remains: If they [the Christians] hear of a place with something worth raping away, they immediately claim that someone is making sacrifices there and committing abominations, and pay the place a visit—you can see them scurrying there, these guardians of good order (for that is what they call themselves), these brigands, if brigands is not too mild a word; for brigands at least try to conceal what they have done: if you call them brigands, they are outraged, but these people, on the contrary, show pride in their exploits… they believe they deserve rewards!47 


By 435 a law threatened any heretic in the Roman Empire with death. Judaism remained the only other legally recognized religion. Yet, Jews were isolated as much as possible, with intermarriage between Jew and Christian carrying the same penalty as adultery: the woman would be executed.48 The Church had triumphed. The belief in but one face of God had led to the legal enforcement of but one religion. 

Orthodox Christians acted on their belief about God. As they perceived God to control in an authoritarian manner, so they set about finding a way in which they, in God’s name, could exercise similar authoritarian control. To that end, they built an organization that appealed to the government of the Roman Empire by promoting uniformity and obedience. In all likeli- hood, these Christians altered the story of Jesus’s death in order to dissociate Christianity from rebellion against Roman authority. They established criteria that made it easy to recruit large numbers of people. The early Church compromised its ideology to accommodate contemporary beliefs. It was through political maneuvering that the Church won its standing as the official religion of the Roman Empire and the accompanying secular power and privilege. 

Chapter Three 

Deciding upon Doctrine: Sex, Free Will, Reincarnation and the Use of Force 

300 – 500 C.E. 

The Church formulated its doctrine regarding sex, free will and reincarnation in response to early heretics. In each case, it chose ideological positions which best justified Church control over the individual and over society. The Church also developed a doctrine which justified its use of force in order to compel obedience. It was not long before the Church needed that doctrine to defend its violent suppression of heresy. “Heresy” comes from the Greek hairesis meaning “choice.”1 In the early centuries there was much to choose from within Christianity—and consequently, many heresies. Gnostics were joined by Marcionites, Montanists, Arians, Sabellians, Nestorians, Monophysites, the Copts in Egypt, the Jacobites in Syria, and the Armenian Orthodox Church in disagreeing with the Catholic Church. The heresies surrounding Pelagius, Origen, and the Donatists led to particularly significant new doctrine. The Mannichaean heresy, while not leading to specific doctrine, set a precedent for the Church’s denial of unpopular aspects of its own ideology. 


The Pelagian controversy brought about Church doctrine regarding human free will and sexuality. Pelagius, an Irish monk who arrived in Rome at the beginning of the fifth century, believed that a person had freedom of will and responsibility for his or her actions. He believed that a person’s own efforts play a part in determining whether or not he or she will be saved. In Pelagius’s eyes, reliance upon redemption by Christ should be accompanied by individual responsibility and efforts to do good.2 In granting humans responsibility for their acts, the Creator gave them freedom. As one historian writes: Pelagius fought for the immeasurably precious good of man’s freedom. That freedom cannot be surrendered without loss of human dignity… Unless man’s freedom to make his own decisions is recognized, he is reduced to a mere marionette. According to Pelagius, the Creator conferred moral authority upon man, and to detract from that authority is to cast doubt upon man’s likeness to God.3 Pelagius’ most vehement opposition came from St. Augustine, the celebrated Doctor of the Church and Bishop of Hippo. Salvation, as Augustine saw it, is entirely in God’s hands; there is nothing an individual can do. God has chosen but a few people to whom He will give bliss and salvation. It is for these few that Christ came into the world. All others are damned for all eternity. In Augustine’s eyes, it is only God’s grace and not any action or willingness on the part of the individual that leads to salvation. Augustine believed that our freedom of will to choose good over evil was lost with the sin of Adam. Adam’s sin, that, in Augustine’s words, is in the “nature of the semen from which we were propagated,” brought suffering and death into the world, took away our free will, and left us with an inherently evil nature.4 To sin is now inevitable. Should we occasionally do 


good, it is only because of irresistible grace. “When, therefore, man lives according to man, not according to God, he is like the devil,” Augustine wrote.5 An individual, according to Augustine, has little power to influence his or her predetermined fate and is entirely dependent upon God for salvation. Human sexuality, to Augustine, clearly demonstrates a human inability to choose good over evil. Augustine based this belief upon his own experience. Having himself led a promiscuous life in his youth during which he fathered and then abandoned an illegitimate child, he thought that sex was intrinsically evil. He complained of sexual desire: Who can control this when its appetite is aroused? No one! In the very movement of this appetite, then, it has no ‘mode’ that responds to the decisions of the will… Yet what he wishes he cannot accomplish… In the very movement of the appetite, it has no mode corresponding to the decision of the will.6 According to Augustine, human will is powerless either to indulge sexual desire or to suppress it: But even those who delight in this pleasure are not moved to it at their own will, whether they confine themselves to lawful or transgress to unlawful pleasures; but sometimes this lust importunes them in spite of themselves, and sometimes fails them when they desire to feel it, so that though lust rages in the mind, it stirs not in the body. Thus, strangely enough, this emotion not only fails to obey the legitimate desire to beget offspring, but also refuses to serve lascivious lust; and though it often opposes its whole combined energy to the soul that resists it, sometimes also it is divided against itself, and while it moves the soul, leaves the body unmoved.


“This diabolical excitement of the genitals,” as Augustine referred to sex, is evidence of Adam’s original sin which is now transmitted “from the mother’s womb,” tainting all human beings with sin, and leaving them incapable of choosing good over evil or determining their own destiny.

Augustine’s views regarding sexuality differed sharply from pre-Christian views which often considered sex to be an integral part of the sacredness of life. His views did, however, represent those of many Christians. With the exception of minor heretical groups such as the Gnostic Carpocratians who exalted sex “as a bond between all created things,”9 nearly all Christians thought that sex should be avoided except for purposes of procreation. St. Jerome warns, “Regard everything as poison which bears within it the seed of sensual pleasure.”10 In her book Adam, Eve and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels writes: Clement (of Alexandria) excludes oral and anal intercourse, and intercourse with a menstru- ating, pregnant, barren, or menopausal wife and for that matter, with one’s wife ‘in the morning’, ‘in the daytime’, or ‘after dinner’. Clement warns, indeed, that ‘not even at night, although in darkness, is it fitting to carry on immodestly or indecently, but with modesty, so that whatever happens, happens in the light of reason…’ for even that union ‘which is legitimate is still dangerous, except in so far as it is engaged in procreation of children.’11 Sex as an act that empowers the individual threatens a religion intent upon controlling society. As Clement said, “lust is not easy to restrain, being devoid of fear…”12 

Denying human free will and condemning sexual pleasure made it easier to control and contain people. Augustine wrote: 



…man has been naturally so created that it is advantageous for him to be submissive, but disastrous for him to follow his own will, and not the will of his creator…13 He believed that Adam’s “sin was a despising of the authority of God… it was just that condemnation followed…”14 Augustine wrote to the bishop of Rome in 416, warning him that Pelagian ideas undermined the basis of episcopal authority and that appeasing the Pelagians would threaten the Catholic Church’s new-found power.15 Augustine’s friend, the African bishop Alypius, brought 80 Numidian stallions to the imperial court as bribes to persuade the Church to side with Augustine against Pelagius. Augustine won. In April of 418 the pope excommunicated Pelagius. Ever since, the Catholic Church has officially embraced the doctrine of hereditary transmission of original sin.16 The Church formulated its position regarding reincarnation in response to the controversy surrounding Origen. Origen, a Christian scholar, thought that the human soul exists before it is incarnated into a physical body and then passes from one body to another until it is reunited with God, after which it no longer takes on a physical form. He believed that all souls eventually return to God. He thought that while Christ could greatly speed the reconciliation with God, such reconciliation would not take place without effort by the individual. Since humankind had fallen from God by its own free will, he argued, so humankind must also reunite with God through its own volition. The orthodox opposed Origen’s theories, insisting that they depended too heavily upon individual self-determination.17 Orthodox Christians also thought the theory of reincarnation 

3.1 St. Augustine, the much celebrated Father of the Church. His ideas and arguments gave the Church doctrines which denied human free will, condemned sex, and justified the use of force in order to compel obedience to the Church. 


minimized the role of Jesus Christ, downplayed the necessity for salvation in this lifetime, and diminished the unique nature of Christ’s resurrection. A person’s salvation, in orthodox eyes, depends not upon self-determination and free will, as Origen’s theories suggest, but only upon embracing Jesus Christ. Furthermore, if a person could choose to reunite with God in any one of many lifetimes, then there would be little fear of eternal damnation—and fear was deemed essential by the orthodox. Origen’s idea that the soul is separable from the body also seemed to diminish the extraordinary nature of Christ’s resurrection. The miracle of Christ’s resurrection was understood to offer the possibility of overcoming physical death. If, however, each soul periodically overcomes death by separating from one body and entering into another, then Jesus’s feat would not have been unique. 

Origen’s work also challenged the Church’s control of intellectual and spiritual pursuit. Although he meticulously cited scripture to support his beliefs, Origen found that the scriptures provided limited direction in certain areas. Having received the education of a learned Greek, Origen continued to seek answers both in Platonic philosophy and in his own imagination when scripture was unavailing.18 Augustine, too, had pondered questions to which scripture provided little guidance. Augustine asked, for example: …and what before that life again, O God my joy, was I anywhere or in any body? For this I have none to tell me, neither father nor mother, nor experiences of others, nor mine own memory.19 Whereas Origen continued to contemplate and explore such questions, Augustine retreated from inquiry outside the scripture. He wrote: Either I would like to know those things of which 

I am ignorant as to the origin of the soul, or 


else I should like to know if it is not for us to learn such things as long as we live here in this world. And yet, what if this is one of those things of which we are told: ‘Seek not the things that are too high for thee, and search not into the things that are above thy ability: but the things that God hath commanded thee, think of them always and in many of his works be not curious.’ (Ecclesiastes 3:22)20 Augustine went so far as to entertain the idea that before creating the world, God had busied Himself preparing a place of punishment for those with the audacity to question what had preceded creation.21 

Although Origen died in 284, debate over his theories continued until 553 when he was officially anathematized, or cursed, by the Second Council of Constantinople. In condemning Origen, the Church indirectly dealt with the issue of reincarnation. Christians were not to believe in the pre-existence of souls, the existence of discarnate consciousness, or that a person has any more than this one lifetime to turn to the Christian God without being subject to eternal damnation. Furthermore, the anathemas against Origen served as another reminder that, regardless of the sincerity of one’s faith, one should always remain within the ideological confines of scripture. 

In dealing with the Donatist heresy, the Church set a precedent for using violence to suppress dissent. When the Donatists demanded higher standards of the clergy than the Catholic Church, their movement spread like wildfire, with Donatists outnumbering Catholics in Africa by the middle of the fourth century.22 Having long maintained that no one should be forced to believe against his will, Augustine tried to bring the Donatists back into the Catholic fold through discussion. Yet, when the talks failed, he resorted to force, invoking the newly 


established Theodosian laws against heresy. The Church followed his advice and brutally crushed the Donatist movement.23 

In opposing the Donatists, Augustine set forth the principle Cognite intrare, “Compel them to enter”, that would be used throughout the middle ages to justify the Church’s violent suppression of dissent and oppression of difference. Augustine contended: The wounds of a friend are better than the kisses of an enemy. To love with sternness is better than to deceive with gentleness… In Luke 14:23 it is written: ‘Compel people to come in!’ By threats of the wrath of God, the Father draws souls to the Son.24 Even at the beginning of the twentieth century Pope Leo XIII still argued that the ends justified the means: The death sentence is a necessary and efficacious means for the Church to attain its end when rebels act against it and disturbers of the ecclesiastical unity, especially obstinate heretics and heresiarchs, cannot be restrained by any other penalty from continuing to derange the ecclesiastical order and impelling others to all sorts of crime… When the perversity of one or several is calculated to bring about the ruin of many of its children it is bound effectively to remove it, in such wise that if there be no other remedy for saving its people it can and must put these wicked men to death.25 

Another controversy, the Mannichaean heresy, demonstrated the Church’s willingness to deny its own ideology when it was unpopular and unprofitable. Begun by the Persian Mani in the third century, Mannichaean theology is the logical consequence of the belief in singular supremacy. The belief in one all- 


powerful God often elicits the question of why there is pain and evil in the world. Why does an almighty God, who creates everything, create human suffering? The most common answer is that there must be a conflicting force, power, or god creating the evil; there must be a devil. A dualistic theology arises which understands life to be a struggle between God and satan, between good and evil, and between spirit and matter. The concept of a devil is exclusive to monotheism; evil is easier to understand and does not pose the need for a devil when there are many faces of God. In his book Religion and the Decline of Magic, Keith Thomas writes of early, pre-monotheistic Judaism: The early Hebrews had no need to personify the principle of evil; they could attribute it to the influence of other rival deities. It was only the triumph of monotheism which made it necessary to explain why there should be evil in the world if God was good. The Devil thus helped to sustain the notion of an all-perfect divinity.26 Mannichaeans embraced orthodox Christian ideology more completely than the early Catholic Church. They took the idea seriously that spirituality and godliness are detached from the physical world. The belief in a singular supremacy creates a hierarchy that separates its components, creating a division between heaven and earth, between spirit and matter. The components higher up on the hierarchy are considered good; the components lower down are considered evil. Accordingly, Mannichaeans advocated stringent asceticism and withdrawal from the world. Women, seen to tempt men with the earthly pleasures of sex and family, were considered to be part of satan’s forces. To be closer to God, Mannichaeans believed that one must avoid anything that would bind one to earthly life. 

Although the Church itself would adopt just such a Mannichaean theology centuries later during the Reformation, in the early years it could not politically afford to fully embrace 


such monotheism. The Church was struggling to incorporate vast numbers of people who still understood the world in a pagan, pantheistic and polytheistic context. Most people thought that everything within the physical world was imbued with a sense of the divine, that there was little separation between spirit and matter, and that divinity was personified in many different faces. To advocate a complete renunciation of the physical world as satan’s realm and to abolish all but one divine persona would have led to certain failure in the Church’s efforts to spread Christianity. So, although it still maintained the belief in a singular supremacy and in its implicit hierarchy, the Church also allowed worship of not only the Holy Virgin Mary, but also a multitude of angels and saints. Mannichaeanism may have been more consistent with orthodox ideology, but it was politically imprudent. Mannichaeans and all others who promoted similar ideas in the centuries that followed were labelled heretics. 

The tenets formulated in response to early heretics lent doctrinal validation to the Church’s control of the individual and society. By opposing Pelagius, the Church adopted Augustine’s idea that people are inherently evil, incapable of choice, and thus in need of strong authority. Human sexuality is seen as evidence of their sinful nature. By castigating Origen’s theories of reincarnation, the Church upheld its belief in the unique physical resurrection of Christ as well as the belief that a person has but one life in which to obey the Church or risk eternal damnation. With the Donatists, it established the precedent of using force to compel obedience. And with the Mannichaeans, the Church demonstrated its willingness to abandon its own beliefs for political expediency. 

Chapter Four 

The Church Takes Over: The Dark Ages 

500 – 1000 C.E. 

The Church had devastating impact upon society. As the Church assumed leadership, activity in the fields of medicine, technology, science, education, history, art and commerce all but collapsed. Europe entered the Dark Ages. Although the Church amassed immense wealth during these centuries, most of what defines civilization disappeared. The western Roman Empire fell during the fifth century under repeated attacks by the Germanic Goths and the Huns while the Roman province of Africa fell to the Vandals. Many blamed Christianity. In 410 when the Christian Visigoths sacked Rome, “the eternal city” which had held strong for 620 years, criticism of the new religion intensified. One of St. Augustine’s most famous works, The City of God, was written as a defense of Christianity against such accusations. However, the eastern Roman Empire, also called the Byzan- tine Empire, fared better. Especially under Emperor Justinian’s rule (527-565), it recovered much of its power, regained control of Italy from the Ostrogoths and recovered Africa from the Vandals. Justinian and his wife, Theodora, were credited with 


the revival of literature, art, architecture, as well as the codifica- tion of Roman Law. But this flourishing Byzantine culture was cut short when the bubonic plague, beginning in 540, struck with a virulence unknown at any time in human history either before or since. In Byzantium alone, the plague was said to have claimed 10,000 people a day. The severity of this plague is difficult to fathom. The later Black Death of the 1300’s, which some think killed one-third of Europe’s population, claimed an estimated 27 million lives. In contrast, the sixth century plague is thought to have taken 100 million lives.1 The Roman Empire never recovered. 

The plague had quite different impact upon Christianity. People flocked to the Church in terror.2 The Church explained that the plague was an act of God, and disease a punishment for the sin of not obeying Church authority. The Church branded Justinian a heretic. It declared the field of Greek and Roman medicine, useless in fighting the plague, to be heresy.3 While the plague assured the downfall of the Roman Empire, it strength- ened the Christian church. 

After the plague, the Church dominated the formal discipline of medicine. The most common medical practice between the sixth and sixteenth centuries used for every malady became “bleeding.” Christian monks taught that bleeding a person would prevent toxic imbalances, prevent sexual desire, and restore the humors. By the sixteenth century this practice would kill tens of thousands each year. Yet, when a person died during blood-letting, it was only lamented that treatment had not been started sooner and performed more aggressively.

Technology disappeared as the Church became the most cohesive power in Western society. The extensive aqueduct and plumbing systems vanished. Orthodox Christians taught that all aspects of the flesh should be reviled and therefore discouraged washing as much as possible. Toilets and indoor plumbing disappeared. Disease became commonplace as sanitation and 


4.1 Once the fields of Greek and Roman medicine were declared heretical, the dangerous medical practice of bleeding became common. This engraving published in 1516 illustrates the points from which blood was to be let. 


hygiene deteriorated. For hundreds of years, towns and villages were decimated by epidemics.5 Roman central heating systems were also abandoned.6 As one historian writes: From about A.D. 500 onward, it was thought no hardship to lie on the floor at night, or on a hard bench above low drafts, damp earth and rats. To be indoors was luxury enough. Nor was it distasteful to sleep huddled closely together in company, for warmth was valued above privacy.7 The vast network of roads that had enabled transportation and communication also fell into neglect and would remain so until almost the nineteenth century.8 The losses in science were monumental. In some cases the Christian church’s burning of books and repression of intellectual pursuit set humanity back as much as two millennia in its scientific understanding. Already in the sixth century B.C.E., Pythagoras had come up with the idea that the earth revolved around the sun. By the third century B.C.E., Aristarchus had outlined the heliocentric theory and Eratosthenes had measured the circumference of the Earth. By the second century B.C.E., Hipparchus had invented longitude and latitude and had deter- mined the obliquity of the ecliptic.9 After the onset of the Dark Ages, however, it would not be until the sixteenth century C.E. that Copernicus would reintroduce the theory that the earth revolves around the sun. And when Galileo attempted to promote the heliocentric theory in the seventeenth century, he was tried by the Inquisition in Rome. Only in 1965 did the Roman Catholic Church revoke its condemnation of Galileo. St. Augustine echoed the Church’s scientific understanding of the world: It is impossible there should be inhabitants on the opposite side of the earth, since no such race is recorded by Scripture among the descendants of Adam.10 


History was rewritten to become a verification of Christian beliefs. Orthodox Christians thought history necessary only in order to place the events of the past into Biblical context. In Daniel Boorstin’s words, “History became a footnote to ortho- doxy.”11 He writes in his book The Discoverers: The Christian test was a willingness to believe in the one Jesus Christ and His Message of salva- tion. What was demanded was not criticism but credulity. The Church Fathers observed that in the realm of thought only heresy had a history.12 Eusebius of Caesarea set about during the time of Constantine to rewrite the history of the world into a history of Christianity: ‘Other writers of history,’ Eusebius wrote, recorded the fighting of wars waged for the sake of children and country and other posses- sions. But our narrative of the government of God will record in ineffaceable letters the most peaceful wars waged in behalf of the peace of the soul… ‘13 Blind faith replaced the spirit of historical investigation. One should trust, as Eusebius said, “the incontrovertible words of the Master to his disciples: ‘It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.'”14 

Although the Church restricted historical inquiry more severely, it carried on a process of rewriting history that had started much earlier. Twentieth century archeology is beginning to reveal a very different picture of human history than may have been told even in pre-Christian Rome. The idea that history began only 5,000 years ago is terribly inaccurate. During the neolithic age after people had turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture, particularly between 7000 B.C.E. and 4000 B.C.E., cultures of startling sophistication flourished. Art, architecture, city-planning, dance, ritual drama, trade both by land and sea, writing, law and government were well-known to 


these peoples. The first ideas of democracy originally date back not to the Greeks but far earlier to this neolithic age. Perhaps most remarkable is that these cultures show no evidence of hierarchy as we know it; they knew no war, organized oppres- sion or slavery.15 

Rewriting history to erase awareness of such a past helped those in power deflect criticism for the current state of affairs. Portraying human society as having steadily evolved rather than having experienced major setbacks gives the impression that, however ugly and violent society may be now, it was even more savage in the past. Augustine’s disciple, Orosius, for instance, in his Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans, demonstrated that the evils of the time could not be blamed on Christianity because earlier times had experienced even worse calamities.16 Distorting and rewriting history gave the impression that Christianity had not only lifted society from harsher, more barbaric times, but that a social structure of hierarchy and domination had always existed and was therefore inevitable. 

The Christian church had similar impact upon education and learning. The Church burned enormous amounts of literature. In 391 Christians burned down one of the world’s greatest libraries in Alexandria, said to have housed 700,000 rolls.17 All the books of the Gnostic Basilides, Porphyry’s 36 volumes, papyrus rolls of 27 schools of the Mysteries, and 270,000 ancient documents gathered by Ptolemy Philadelphus were burned.18 Ancient academies of learning were closed. Education for anyone outside of the Church came to an end. And what little education there was during the Dark Ages, while still limited to the clergy, was advocated by powerful kings as a means of providing themselves with capable administrators.19 

4.2 As the Church grew more powerful, Christians closed academies and burned books as well as whole libraries. This engraving depicts converts to St. Paul burning books. 



The Church opposed the study of grammar and Latin. Pope Gregory I, or Gregory the Great, a man thought to have been one of the greatest architects of the medieval order,20 objected to grammatical study. He wrote: I despise the proper constructions and cases, because I think it very unfitting that the words of the celestial oracle should be restricted by the rules of Donatus [a well-known grammarian].21 Gregory the Great also condemned education for all but the clergy as folly and wickedness. He forbade laymen to read even the Bible. He had the library of the Palatine Apollo burned “lest its secular literature distract the faithful from the contemplation of heaven.”22 

The Fourth Council of Carthage in 398 forbade bishops to even read the books of gentiles.23 Jerome, a Church Father and early monastic in the fourth century, rejoiced that the classical authors were being forgotten. And his younger monastic contemporaries were known to boast of their ignorance of everything except Christian literature.24 After Christians had spent years destroying books and libraries, St. John Chrysostom, the preeminent Greek Father of the Church, proudly declared, “Every trace of the old philosophy and literature of the ancient world has vanished from the face of the earth.”25 

Monastic libraries, the only libraries left, were composed of books of devotion. Even the most significant monastic libraries carried little aside from books about Christian theology.26 While monks did copy manuscripts, such work was not esteemed for its intrinsic value but rather considered part of the prescribed manual labor, necessary in the effort of “fighting the Devil by pen and ink,” in the words of the Christian Cassiodorus.27 

4.3 St. Gregory the Great, Pope from 590-604. While best known for strengthening the Pope’s independence from the Byzantine Emperor, he also burned books and restricted reading and education to the clergy. 



Copying manuscripts, even if those manuscripts were classical, did not necessarily indicate an appreciation for classical learning. An historian notes that the order of Cluni followed customs that implied a lack of respect for classical works. “If a monk wanted a book during the hours of silence, he made a sign of turning the leaves; if he wanted a classical book, he scratched his ear like a dog.”28 

The Church had devastating impact upon artistic expression. According to orthodox Christianity, art should enhance and promote Christian values; it should not serve simply as an individual’s creative exploration and expression. New works of art which did not concur with the Church’s ideology would not be created again until the Renaissance. Marble statues of ancient Rome were torn down, most notably by Gregory the Great, and made into lime. Architectural marbles and mosaics were either made into lime or went to adorn cathedrals all over Europe and as far away as Westminster Abbey in London. The ravaging of marble works accounts for the thin ornate slabs with ancient inscriptions still found in many churches today.29 

The rise of the Christian church coincided with a severe economic collapse throughout the western world. The Church did little to encourage trade. The canons of Gratian include a sixth century document which states, “Whoever buys a thing in order to re-sell it intact, no matter what it is, is like the merchant driven from the Temple.”30 The Church stigmatized lending money at interest, which made funding economic ventures extremely difficult. Commercial contracts of the time indicate that the Church would sometimes intervene and free a debtor from liabilities, undermining even further the likelihood of anyone wanting to lend money.31 

The Church itself, however, was one of the few profitable organizations of the time. As such, it provided a potentially lucrative occupation for many men. Money and power played a critical role in a man’s ascent through the Church hierarchy and 


contributed to the disreputable nature of the medieval Church. At least forty different Popes are known to have bought their way into the papacy.32 Allegations of murder and crime within the Church abounded as the papacy so frequently changed hands. In a particular one hundred year period, more than forty Popes came to office. In the twelve year period from 891 to 903 alone, no less than ten different Popes held power.33 The Church amassed inordinate wealth during the Dark Ages. Patrimonial properties, the Church-held lands that were free and clear of taxes or military obligation to the king, made up between one-quarter and one-third of western Europe.34 In addition to patrimony, bishops often held territories in feudal tenure, obliging them like any count or baron to provide the king with soldiers when called. The Church made money by collect- ing revenues from imperial rulers, by confiscating property as the result of court judgments, by selling the remission of sins (called “indulgences”), by selling ecclesiastical offices (called “simony”), and sometimes by simply taking land by force.35 Alliances with the state were essential to the Church’s secular influence and wealth. However, unlike during the Roman Empire, several imperial forces now held power. By the year 700, for example, the West was divided into four political realms. Spain was ruled by the Christian Visigoths and would fall in 711-713 to the Islamic Moors. Anglo-Saxons ruled England. The Franks ruled Gaul. Italy was held primarily by the Lombards with a few regions still in the hands of the Byzantine Empire.36 The new, more complicated alliance between the Church and various imperial rulers came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire and was best symbolized by the Pope’s crowning of Charlemagne in 800 and the German king, Otto I, in 952. Both Church and state profited from their alliance. Imperial rulers provided not only military resources but also lucrative positions for the clergy. By overseeing the administrative matters 


of rulers, bishops became vested with both military and civil authority. They came to be as powerful and as influential as the greatest of feudal lords. The historian Jeffrey Burton Russell writes: The system was self-perpetuating: the more power and wealth the bishops had, the more the kings needed to appoint loyal men; but to secure and preserve the loyalty of such men, the kings had to bestow upon them further power and wealth. It is no wonder that the bishops kept their eyes more attentively upon the throne than upon the cross.37 In an age when the belief in the divine right of kings prevailed, the Pope’s support of a king was thought to be essential. The Church also brought a semblance of unity to an imperial realm by converting its people to Christianity. These widespread conversions, however, were usually little more than a facade. Pope Gregory I in a letter to his emissary to Britain, St. Augustine of Canterbury, illustrates his concern with the appearance that people had converted to Christianity: …the people will have no need to change their place of concourse; where of old they were wont to sacrifice cattle to demons, thither let them continue to resort on the day of the Saint to whom the Church is dedicated, and slay their beasts, no longer as a sacrifice to demons, but for a social meal in honour of Him whom they now worship.38 Although the medieval Church wrought havoc in most arenas of life, it did not effect real change in the way common people perceived God. The Church’s continual admonishments against pagan practices indicate how insubstantial most conversions to Christianity were. It constantly warned against customs relating to trees, nature and the belief in magic, occasionally going so far 


as to raze a church after discovering that people were actually worshipping older gods or goddesses there.39 A 742 Church decree read: 

every pagan defilement should be rejected and spurned, whether it be sacrifices of the dead, or soothsaying and divining, or amulets and omens, or incantations, or the offering of sacrifices—by (all of) which ignorant people perform pagan rites alongside those of the church, under cover of the names of the sacred martyrs and confes- sors.40 Sacred springs were renamed in honor of saints and churches built over the sites of pagan temples, yet the nature of reverence and worship remained unchanged. 

The Church played a critical role in taking Europe into the Dark Ages. Its devastating impact was felt in nearly every sphere of human endeavor. Ironically, the one area where the medieval Church had little profound impact was in changing the spiritual- ity of common people. While most people adopted a Christian veneer, they did not significantly change their understanding or perception of God. 

Chapter Five 

The Church Fights Change: The Middle Ages 

1000 – 1500 C.E. 

The spirit of the Middle Ages challenged the Church’s now- established authority. The Church responded by bolstering its authoritarian structure, asserting the Pope’s supremacy over all imperial powers, and rallying Europe against Muslims, Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians. When the crusades failed to unify Europe under its control, the Church attacked whomever it perceived as an enemy: money-lenders, supporters of nation- states, and the Cathars. Dramatic changes after the turn of the millennium ushered in the high Middle Ages. An agricultural society began to give way to rapidly growing towns as the population exploded in a surge unparalleled in the Western world until the 19th and 20th centuries.1 Many more people began making their livelihoods in commerce and industry, giving rise to a new social class of traders and manufacturers.2 These merchants often served as examples that through wit, activity and industry one could change one’s lot in life. Merchants also disseminated new information and ideas from the Arab and Greek worlds as they traveled along trade routes from northern Spain and southern 


Italy. Latin classics, largely lost under Christian rule, were translated from Arabic back into Latin. When Aristotle’s work was reintroduced to the West, its example of systematic thought spawned scholasticism, a discipline that challenged the Church’s demand that one accept its assertions on blind faith. The twelfth century Peter Abelard, for example, used the scholastic method to encourage individual decision-making, to question authoritar- ian assertions, and to point out contradictions in Church doctrine and scripture. 

The Church’s confinement of all education and creativity to monasteries began to break down. Not only were lay schools created to provide elementary education to merchant and artisan classes, but universities were formed in urban areas such as Paris, Oxford, Toulouse, Montpellier, Cambridge, Salerno, Bologna and Salamanca.3 The age saw literary epics and romances such as The Romance of the Rose, The Song of the Cid, Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, the Nibelungenlied, and Dante’s Divine Comedy.4 Court jesters or fools provided contemporary sources of vernacular poetry and literature. Renewed interest in architecture produced the culmination of the Romanesque style and the beginning of Gothic artistic and engineering feats. Even within twelfth century monasteries, the art of illumination and ornamentation of manuscripts came alive.5 Art, literature, philosophy and architecture all began to flourish again during the high Middle Ages. 

Having prospered and thrived while society remained subdued and quiescent, the Church now resisted the many changes taking place. Papal prohibitions in 1210 and 1215 restricted the teaching of Aristotle’s works in Paris. By 1272 discussion of any purely theological matter was forbidden.6 St. Bernard of Clairvaux gave voice to Church sentiment when he said of Abelard’s scholasti- cism, “everything (is) treated contrary to custom and tradition.” Bernard wrote: 


The faith of simplicity is mocked, the secrets of Christ profaned; questions on the highest things are impertinently asked, the Fathers scorned because they were disposed to conciliate rather than solve such problems. Human reason is snatching everything to itself, leaving nothing for faith.7 The Church demonstrated a similar disdain for the revival of classical literature. As the twelfth century Christian Honorius of Autun asked: How is the soul profited by the strife of Hector, the arguments of Plato, the poems of Virgil, or the elegies of Ovid, who, with others like them, are now gnashing their teeth in the prison of the infernal Babylon, under the cruel tyranny of Pluto?8 The Church regarded poetry with particular disfavor, sometimes classifying poets with magicians whom the Church despised. The illustrations in the twelfth century Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg, for example, depict four “poets or magicians,” each with an evil spirit prompting him.9 Clerics insisted that court jesters also “have no use or virtue” and are “beyond hope of salvation.”10 

Orthodox Christians expressed disdain for the flourishing creativity and declared supporters of the arts to be heathens and pagans. The outspoken fifteenth century Dominican prophet Girolamo Savonarola believed that classical poets should be banished and that science, culture and education should return entirely to the hands of monks. He wrote: 

The only good thing that we owe to Plato and Aristotle is that they brought forward many arguments which we can use against the here- tics. Yet they and other philosophers are now in hell… It would be good for religion if many 


books that seem useful were destroyed. When there were not so many books and not so many arguments and disputes, religion grew more quickly than it has since.11 Savonarola carried out his moral reforms in Florence using techniques characteristic of a police state: controlling personal morality through the espionage of servants and organizing bands of young men to raid homes of items that were inconsistent with orthodox Christian ideals. Books, particularly those of Latin and Italian poets, illuminated manuscripts, women’s ornaments, musical instruments, and paintings were burned in a huge bonfire in 1497, destroying much of the work of Renaissance Florence. Yet medieval society abounded with dissent. Many began to seek a relationship with God outside of the Church. Common people in the Middle Ages found little in the Church to which they could relate. Churches had become grander and more formal, sharply emphasizing the difference between the clergy and laity. In some churches, a choir screen would even segregate the congregation from the altar. The language of the Mass, which in the fourth century had been changed from Greek to Latin so as to be more easily understood, was by the end of the seventh century totally incomprehensible to most people, including many priests. As a result, services were often an unintelligible mumbling which was absolutely meaningless to the congregation.12 

The Church, now enormously wealthy, interested itself more in collecting money than in relating to its members. The medieval Church’s preoccupation with riches was such that its ten commandments were said to have been reduced to one: “Bring hither the money.”13 Priests were selected more on the basis of their money than upon any other virtue. A huge disparity developed not only between the clergy and the laity but also between ranks of the clergy. The income of a wealthy bishop, for example, could range from 300 times to as much as 


1000 times that of a vicar.14 In the twelfth century the Church forbade clergy to marry in order to prevent property from passing out of the Church to the families of clergy.15 The incongruity of an extravagantly wealthy organization representing the ideals of Jesus Christ prompted the papal bull or edict Cum inter nonnullos in 1326 which proclaimed it heresy to say that Jesus and his Apostles owned no property.16 

Those seeking a more meaningful connection with God increasingly turned to movements outside the Catholic Church. These medieval heresies exhibited great diversity of thought. There were apocalyptic sects that were convinced that the world was coming to an end, such as those led by Tanchelin, Peter de Bruys, Henry of Lausanne, and Arnold of Brescia. Other groups such as the Waldensians and Lollards foreshadowed the Protes- tants in their desire for a stricter adherence to Christian scrip- ture. And yet other groups like the Brethren of the Free Spirit, the Tulupins, and the Adamites embraced pantheistic and animistic beliefs that perceived the physical world to be wholly imbued with God’s presence.17 At the turn of the fourteenth century, Meister Eckhart challenged the very need for a Church. He wrote, “When the Kingdom appears to the soul and it is recognized, there is no further need for preaching or instruc- tion.”18 

Many heretics insisted upon a direct relationship with God. Despite the danger, they translated the Bible into common or vernacular languages which lay people could understand. Simple possession of such a Bible was punishable by death.19 In the spirit of providing images to which people could relate, the portrayal of Christ also became more human and accessible. From Romanesque depictions of Jesus as the stiff, hieratic, and unapproachable judge of the universe, Gothic art now portrayed him as more of a suffering, compassionate human being.20 

The cult of the Virgin blossomed in the Middle Ages. The Virgin Mary became a figure to whom one could turn for 


forgiveness and who could protest God’s judgment and unrelent- ing law. In his book The Virgin, Geoffrey Ashe tells of the stories which illustrate her kindness and compassion: 

A thief prays to her before going out to rob, and when he is hanged, she sustains him in the air till the hangman acknowledges the miracle and lets him live. A nun who leaves her convent to plunge into vice, but keeps praying to Mary, returns at last to find that Mary has taken her place and no one has missed her.21 Complete litanies were devoted to the Virgin Mary. The grandest of medieval cathedrals were dedicated to her: at Paris, Chartres, Reims, Amiens, Rouen, Bayeux, Coutances, Noyon, and Laon.22 She developed names like “spiritual vessel,” “cause of our joy,” “Ark of the Covenant” and “Seat of Wisdom.” Chaucer refers to her as the “almighty and all merciful Queen.”23 A painted wooden figure of the Madonna and child by a fourteenth century German artist gives an indication of medieval veneration for this female image of divinity. When her figure is opened, the Madonna is shown to contain the whole Trinity.24 

The Church responded, not by trying to meet people’s needs, but by strengthening its own authoritarian structure, developing its own judicial system, and more forcefully asserting its supremacy over all. The papacy expanded its administrative and advisory council called the curia, increased its regulation of bishops, began again to summon councils, and, most signifi- cantly, used papal legates. Papal legates were officers who could override the authority of bishops and archbishops, effectively eroding the local authority of bishops and bringing the monaster- ies more directly under papal control.25 

The Church developed its own system of law to claim authority in secular matters. The revival of civil law, derived from Roman and Germanic law, had been replacing many feudal 



OPPOSITE: Figure 5.1 This fifteenth century woodcut illustrates the nur- turing and protective nature attributed to the Virgin Mary. 

ABOVE: Figure 5.2 This woodcut, also from the fifteenth century, similarly depicts the Madonna as a protectress. With the help of angels, she shelters people from God’s arrows. 


customs and facilitating trade by implementing principles with wider application than rural customs which could differ with each locale.26 Roman law, however, did not recognize the Pope. By 1149 St. Bernard had realized the implicit threat of civil law to the Church and complained that the courts rang with Justin- ian’s laws rather than those of God.27 By 1219 the Pope had forbidden priests to study Roman law and had altogether prohibited its teaching at the University of Paris.28 

Instead, the Church drew up its own system called canon law. The eleventh century Ivo of Chartres and the twelfth century Gratian reworked the bulk of uncoordinated and often conflicting decrees and letters into comprehensive codes that asserted the Pope’s supremacy. Should the Pope himself find these laws inconvenient, however, he was allowed under these same canon laws to dispense with them at any time. Ecclesiastical tribunals claimed jurisdiction over all cases in which Church interests were at stake such as those concerning tithes, benefices, dona- tions and wills. To protect its own, the Church claimed the right to try all members of the clergy.29 The Church also claimed jurisdiction over any matter pertaining to a sacrament or an oath. As one historian points out, “there was scarcely a limit to [the Church’s] intervention; for in medieval society wellnigh every- thing was connected with a sacrament or depended upon an oath.”30 

Many of the Church’s efforts at systematizing and adding credence to canon law focused upon establishing the Pope’s supremacy over imperial powers. The theory of the “plentitude of power” gave the Pope as the vicar of Christ full authority over both secular and spiritual affairs. It allowed him to prohibit the distribution of sacraments within an imperial realm and to both excommunicate and depose a king.31 Dictates of canon law invalidated the ordination of imperially appointed Popes, called anti-popes, and any members of the clergy ordained as a result of such imperially appointed Popes. 


Ancient letters were “discovered” and incorporated into canon law as evidence of the Pope’s supremacy over imperial powers. One such letter, the “Donation of Constantine,” purported to be a letter from Emperor Constantine to Pope Sylvester in which Constantine attributes his power to the Pope. It reads, “We give to… Sylvester, the Universal Pope… the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts, and cities of Italy and the Western regions…”32 By the sixteenth century these letters were exposed as total forgeries. The Pope became increasingly involved in directing political conflicts and the conquering of lands. Pope Boniface VIII wrote to the Hapsburg Albert of Austria, “We donate to you, in the plentitude of our power, the kingdom of France, which belongs of right to the Emperors of the West.”33 In his letter to King Henry II of England, the twelfth century Pope Adrian IV sanctioned the English invasion of Ireland. He wrote: It is not doubted, and you know it, that Ireland and all those islands which have received the faith, belong to the Church of Rome; if you wish to enter that Island, to drive vice out of it, to cause law to be obeyed and St. Peter’s Pence to be paid by every house, it will please us to assign it to you.34 Historian Phillip Schaff describes the actions of the medieval papacy: To depose princes, to absolve subjects from allegiance, to actively foment rebellion as again- st Frederick II, to divert lands as in Southern France, to give away crowns, to extort by threat of the severest ecclesiastical penalties the pay- ment of tribute, to punish religious dissenters with perpetual imprisonment or turn them over to the secular authorities, knowing death would be the punishment, to send and consecrate 


crusading armies, and to invade the realm of the civil court, usurp its authority, and annul a nation’s code, as in the case of Magna Charta, —these were the high prerogatives actually exercised by the papacy.35 Papal desire for power grew insatiable. Seeing themselves as superior to all other mortals, Popes claimed not only that every person was subject to papal authority, but that the Pope himself was accountable to no one but God. In 1302 Pope Boniface issued the bull Unam Sanctam: Therefore, if the earthly power errs, it shall be judged by the spiritual power… but if the su- preme spiritual power errs it can be judged only by God, and not by man… Therefore we de- clare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.36 Understandably, arguments erupted over who would be Pope and hold such power. In what was called the Great Schism, two separate lines of Popes, one living in Rome and one in Avignon, reigned from 1378 to 1417. They disagreed, not over matters concerning Christian ideology or religious practices, but over politics and who should reign. Another means with which the Church responded to the time was an attempt to focus attention away from the tumultuous social changes and towards an outside enemy. In 1095 Pope Urban II called for the knights of Europe to unite and march to Jerusalem to save the holy land from the Islamic infidel. The crusades provided an opportunity to vastly increase the influence of the Catholic Church. They also served a political purpose much closer to home. When the Pope initiated the first crusade in 1095, many of the imperial powers were outside the Church: the King of France, the King of England, and the German 


Emperor.37 The crusades were a means of uniting much of Europe in the name of Christianity. 

Crusaders, caught up in their sense of righteousness, brutally attacked the Church’s enemies. Pope Gregory VII had declared, “Cursed be the man who holds back his sword from shedding blood. “38 The chronicler, Raymond of Aguilers, described the scene when a band of crusaders massacred both Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem in 1099: Wonderful things were to be seen. Numbers of the Saracens were beheaded… Others were shot with arrows, or forced to jump from the towers; others were tortured for several days, then burned with flames. In the streets were seen piles of heads and hands and feet. One rode about everywhere amid the corpses of men and horses. In the temple of Solomon, the horses waded in the blood up to their knees, nay, up to the bridle. It was a just and marvelous judgement of God, that this place should be filled with the blood of unbelievers.39 Nicetas Choniates, a Byzantine chronicler, wrote, “Even the Saracens (the Muslims) are merciful and kind compared to these men who bear the cross of Christ on their shoulders.”40 

Another enemy targeted by the crusades was the Eastern Church based in Constantinople. The cultures of the East and West had been growing apart for centuries. Having upheld more respect for the arts, literature and education, Eastern culture seemed more sophisticated than the West. The East had rever- ently preserved the writings of the ancient Greeks. Greek remained the official language of law, government, the Eastern church, and Eastern literature. In the West, however, even the Greek alphabet was lost. As the historian Charles H. Haskins writes, “at the hands of the medieval scribe a Greek word becomes gibberish or is omitted with grecum inserted in its 



place—it was “all Greek” to him.”41 Starting in the late 700’s the two cultures began to use different coinage.42 Disparity between the two cultures grew as the churches each developed their own forms of Christian rites. They celebrated Easter on different days. They differed in their views regarding the use of icons, and in the ordering of the Holy Trinity in the Nicene Creed.43 There was little that the East and West now shared in common other than that they both considered themselves Christian. 

In 1054, after attempts at reconciling the differences between Rome and Constantinople failed, the two branches of Christianity formalized their separation. To a Roman Church that vigorously asserted its supremacy over all, however, such a separation was seen as an affront to and a rejection of the Pope’s authority. With the help of priests who encouraged the idea that the schismatic Greeks were satan’s henchmen and were to blame for every misfortune, the People’s Crusade of 1096 sacked Belgrade, the chief imperial city after Constantinople.44 A Greek chronicler wrote of the Pope: …he wished to compel us to recognize the Pope’s primacy among all prelates and to com- memorate his name in public prayers, under pain of death against those who refuse.45 Later in 1204 Pope Innocent III sent a group of crusaders to Constantinople. The soldiers of Christ fell upon Constantinople with a vengeance, raping, pillaging and burning the city.46 According to the chronicler Geoffrey Villehardouin, never since the creation of the world had so much booty been taken from a city.47 The Pope’s response to the Greek Emperor: 

…we believe that the Greeks have been punished through (the Crusades) by the just judgement of 

5.3 Pope Urban preaching the crusades. While the ostensible purpose of the crusades was to rescue the holy land from the infidel, the crusades also helped unify Europeans under the banner of Christianity and avert criticism from the papacy. 


God: these Greeks who have striven to rend the Seamless Robe of Jesus Christ… Those who would not join Noah in his ark perished justly in the deluge; and these have justly suffered famine and hunger who would not receive as their shepherd the blessed Peter, Prince of the Apostles…48 To the Pope, the rape of Constantinople was just punishment for not submitting to the Roman Catholic Church. Biblical passages supported his stance: “But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.”49 Following the attack, a Latin patriarch subject to the Pope ruled the domain until 1261.50 Constantinople, however, was left severely weakened and in 1453 fell to Turkish conquest. 

In the roughly 200 years of crusades, thousands, if not millions, were killed. Invading crusaders destroyed in much the same way as the Church had at the onset of the Dark Ages. They burned any books they found.51 Hebrew scrolls such as 12,000 volumes of the Talmud and the works of Maimonides were burned.52 While they pillaged and looted with a vengeance, crusaders were often unable to transport anything upon the difficult journey home. Although the crusades did bring about moments of solidarity as Europeans rallied together in the name of Christianity, they fell far short of all their other intentions. The crusades failed to gain more than fleeting control of Jerusalem, and failed to enrich their crusaders. Far from gaining converts to the Roman Catholic Church, the crusades spread a bitter animosity that still lingers today.53 

European Jews were often the first victims of a crusade. But Christian persecution of Jews continued long after the crusades ended. Jews became the scapegoats for many problems that the Church could not fix. When, for example, the black death, the 

5.4 A depiction of Crusaders entering Constantinople. 



bubonic plague, struck in the fourteenth century, the Church explained that Jews were to blame and prompted attacks upon them.54 A whole folklore developed claiming that Jews kidnapped and ate Christian children in Jewish rituals of cannibalism, and that Jews stole and profaned the blessed Christian sacraments. These were the same tales that Romans once told of the hated Christians, the same tales that Christians would tell of witches, and the same tales Protestants would tell of Catholics.55 Po- groms, the raiding and destroying of Jewish synagogues and ghettos, became a common demonstration of Christian righteous- ness. Jews were easy targets for they had never been embraced by Christian society. Under the feudal system, a ceremony of investiture involving a Christian oath excluded Jews from working the land and sent them into commerce and crafts in the towns. However, with the rapid population expansion of the eleventh and twelfth centuries and the consequent influx of people to the cities, artisan guilds were established, each with its own patron saint. Jews were again driven from the crafts into what fields remained: banking, money-changing and money- lending.56 Persecuting Jews, therefore, also became a convenient means of getting rid of one’s creditors. Religious arguments were taken up by indebted kings to justify their confiscation of Jewish property and their expulsion of Jews from their domains.57 

Anyone who held power became a likely target for the Church. The Knights Templar, a group originally formed to protect crusaders, gained political influence and became known as trustworthy moneylenders.58 They were also thought to have brought back with them Gnostic, Kabalistic, and Islamic mysteries. Threatened by the Templars’ growing political power, suspicious of their seemingly independent religious beliefs, and jealous of their wealth, both Church and kings had reason to persecute them. As with the Jews, incredible stories began to 


circulate about the Templars, including accounts of an initiation ritual which involved denying Christ, God, and the Virgin, and spitting, trampling and urinating upon the cross. Accused of homosexuality, of killing illegitimate children, and of witchcraft, the Templars were murdered and their property confiscated.59 

The Church found itself at odds with a seemingly endless array of people in the Middle Ages. It reacted swiftly and forcefully to suppress the first seeds of nationalism and desire for independence from Rome. When disputes over tribute payments arose in 1275, the Pope excommunicated the whole town of Florence.60 And, when a group of smaller Italian city-states organized a revolt against papal control in 1375, the Pope’s legate in Italy, Robert of Geneva, hired a mercenary band to reconquer the area. After failing to take the city of Bologna, this band set upon the smaller town of Cessna.61 Swearing clemency by a solemn oath on his cardinal’s hat, Cardinal Robert persuaded the men of Cessna to lay down their arms, and won their confidence by asking for 50 hostages and immediately releasing them as evidence of good will. Then summoning his mercenaries… he ordered a general massacre ‘to exercise justice.’ … For three days and nights beginning February 3, 1377, while the city gates were closed, the soldiers slaughtered. ‘All the squares were full of dead.’ Trying to escape, hundreds drowned in the moats, thrust back by relentless swords. Women were seized for rape, ransom was placed on children, plunder succeeded the killing, works of art were ruined, handicrafts laid waste, ‘and what could not be carried away, they burned, made unfit for use or spilled upon the ground.’ The toll of the dead was between 2,500-5000.62 Robert of Geneva was appointed Pope three years later in 1378 and became Clement VII.63 


Judging by the ferocity of its attack upon a group called the Cathars, the Church was more grandly threatened by this heresy than by any other in history. Catharism thrived in southern France, an area then known as Langedoc. Politically and culturally distinct from the north, Langedoc was tolerant of difference. Many races lived together harmoniously—Greeks, Phoenicians, Jews and Muslims. Jews were not only free from persecution, but held management and advisory positions with lords and even prelates. There was less class distinction, a milder form of serfdom, freer towns, and a judicial system based upon Roman law.64 Nowhere were citizens as educated.65 Culture and commerce flourished, making it one of the most prosperous regions in Europe. Catharism incorporated diverse religious elements. There is evidence of a strong connection between Catharism, Moslem Sufi communities and the Jewish Kabbalist tradition.66 Women served as priests and could administer even the most important rite, the consolamentum.67 Cathars were closely associated with the Troubadours, the writers of romantic poetry, and were thought to believe that God was manifest in nature’s colors and sounds.68 They were liked and protected both by the upper classes and by their Catholic neighbors to such an extent that, when the Roman Catholic Church later attacked, many Catholics chose to die rather than turn their Catharan neighbors over to the Church.69 Responding to the growing popularity of the Cathars, the Catholic Church accused them of the standard malefactions: desecrating the cross and the sacraments, cannibalism, renounc- ing Christ, and sexual orgies.70 And, yet, the Catholic St. Bernard, who was hardly a friend of the Cathars, said of them: If you interrogate them, nothing can be more Christian; as to their conversation, nothing can be less reprehensible, and what they speak they prove by deeds. As for the morals of the heretic, he cheats no one, he oppresses no one, he 


strikes no one; his cheeks are pale with fasting, he eats not the bread of idleness, his hands labor for his livelihood.71 Circulating scandalous stories of Catharan atrocities did little either to check the Cathars’ popularity or to stem the tide of tolerance and independent thought. Disregarding one of the 

5.5 – Innocent III, Pope from 1198 to 1216. 


Church’s most severe sentences, the town of Viterbo even elected an excommunicated heretic as chamberlain.72 

In 1139 the Church began calling councils to condemn the Cathars and all who supported them.73 By 1179 Alexander III proclaimed a crusade against these enemies of the Church promising two years’ indulgence, or freedom from punishment for sins, to all who would take up arms, and eternal salvation for any who should die. While this set a precedent for providing the Church with a warlike militia to fight the Church’s private quarrels,74 it failed to rally force against the popular Cathars. Then in 1204 Pope Innocent III destroyed what remained of the independence of local churches when he armed his legates with the authority “to destroy, throw down, or pluck up whatever is to be destroyed, thrown down, or plucked up and to plant and build whatever is to be built or planted.”75 In 1208 when Innocent III offered, in addition to indulgences and eternal salvation, the lands and property of the heretics and their supporters to any who would take up arms, the Albigensian Crusade to slaughter the Cathars began. 

The savagery of the thirty-year-long attack decimated Langedoc. At the Cathedral of St. Nazair alone 12,000 people were killed. Bishop Folque of Toulouse put to death 10,000.76 When the crusaders fell upon the town of Beziers and the commanding legate, Arnaud, was asked how to distinguish Catholic from Cathar, he replied, “Kill them all, for God knows his own!”77 Not a child was spared. One historian wrote that “even the dead were not safe from dishonor, and the worst humiliations were heaped upon women.”78 The total slain at Beziers as reported by papal legates was 20,000, by other chroniclers the numbers killed were between 60,000 and 100,000.79 The Albigensian crusade killed an estimated one million people, not only Cathars but much of the population of southern France. Afterwards, with its population nearly annihi- lated, its buildings left in rubble, and its economy destroyed, the 

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