Western Europe in the Middle Ages: A Short History

By Joseph R. Strayer | Go to book overview

was reasonably successful in gaining the support of the people of Western Europe for these policies.

The Church had great advantages in seeking to maintain and extend its leadership. It was the only really universal institution in Europe. The Empire, which claimed theoretical universality, actually included only Germany, part of Italy, and the old middle kingdom. Moreover the Empire, greatly weakened by the struggle between Henry IV and the Church, had little prestige during the first part of the century. The Church had more than its share of administrative experts and intellectual leaders, thanks to the fact that it offered opportunities to men of the middle and lower classes. Not that the Church ignored status altogether--most bishops and abbots were well born--but it did promote men who would have had little chance of recognition by secular rulers. Finally, while government was improving everywhere, the government of the Church made greater advances during the century than that of any other organization. The administrative control of the pope over the bishops was increased; the judicial system was improved; records were better kept and revenues more efficiently collected. Not until the thirteenth century did any secular state reach the high level of organization which the Church attained in the twelfth.

This ecclesiastical government, developing slowly through several generations, was naturally more effective in the last half of the twelfth century. In the first half, leadership was exercised more by local bishops and abbots than by the pope and his court. Such men were to be found in every part of Europe, carrying on the great work of reform which had begun in the preceding century, directing and stimulating the new piety, advising rulers, and at times even governing kingdoms. Of these leaders, by far the greatest was St. Bernard, who was, for a generation, the uncrowned ruler of the Commonwealth of Christendom.

St. Bernard was born of a noble family in Burgundy in 1093.

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