Vol. 4, Chapter VI. Morals and Religion

73. Literature

I. The chief and almost only sources for this chapter are the acts of Synods, the lives of saints and missionaries, and the chronicles of monasteries. The Acta Sanctorum mix facts and legends in inextricable confusion. The most important are the biographies of the Irish, Scotch, and Anglo-Saxon missionaries, and the letters of Boniface. For the history, of France during the sixth and seventh centuries we have the Historia Francorum by Gregory of Tours, the Herodotus of France (d. 594), first printed in Paris, 1511, better by Ruinart, 1699; best by Giesebrecht (in German), Berlin 1851, 9th ed. 1873, 2 vols.; and Gregorii Historiae Epitomata by his continuator, Fredegar, a clergyman of Burgundy (d. about 660), ed. by Ruinart, Paris 1699, and by Abel (in German), Berlin 1849. For the age of Charlemagne we have the Capitularies of the emperor, and the historical works of Einhard or Eginard (d. 840). See Ouvres complètes d’ Eginard, réunies pour la première fois et traduites en français, par A. Teulet, Paris 1840-’43, 2 vols. For an estimate of these and other writers of our period comp. part of the first, and the second vol. of Ad. Ebert’s Allgem. Gesch. der Lit. des Mittelalters im Abendlande, Leipz. 1874 and 1880.

II. Hefele: Conciliengesch. vols. III. and IV. (from a.d. 560-1073), revised ed. 1877 and 1879.

Neander: Denkwuerdigkeiten aus der Geschichte des christl. Lebens. 3d ed. Hamburg, 1845, ‘46, 2 vols.

Aug. Thierry: Recits des temps merovingiens. Paris 1855 (based on Gregory of Tours).

Loebell: Gregor von Tours und seine Zeit. Leipz. 1839, second ed. 1868.

Monod: Études critiques sur les sources de l’histoire mérovingienne. Paris 1872.

Lecky: History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, fifth ed. Lond. 1882, 2 vols. (part of the second vol.).

Brace: Gesta Christi, N. York, third ed. 1883, p. 107 sqq.

Comp. Guizot (Protest., d. 1874): Histoire générale de la civilisation en Europe et en Prance depuis la chute de l’empire romain jusqu à la révolution française, Paris 1830; seventh ed. 1860, 5 vols. (one vol. on Europe in general).

Balmez, (a Spanish philosopher and apologist of the Roman church, d. 1848): El Protatantismo comparado con el Catolicismo en sus relaciones con la civilisacion europea. Barcelona, 1842-44, 4 vols. The same in French, German, and English translations. A Roman Catholic counterpart to Guizot.


74. General Character of Medieval Morals

The middle age of Western Christendom resembles the period of the Judges in the history of Israel when “the highways were unoccupied, and the travelers walked through by-ways,” and when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Comp. Jdg_5:6; Jdg_17:6) It was a time of civil and political commotions and upheavings, of domestic wars and foreign invasions. Society was in a chaotic state and bordering on the brink of anarchy. Might was right. It was the golden age of border-ruffians, filibusters, pirates and bold adventurers, but also of gallant knights, genuine heroes and judges, like Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and Samuel of old. It presents, in striking contrasts, Christian virtues and heathen vices, ascetic self-denial and gross sensuality. Nor were there wanting idyllic episodes of domestic virtue and happiness which call to mind the charming story of Ruth from the period of the Judges.

Upon the whole the people were more religious than moral. Piety was often made a substitute or atonement for virtue. Belief in the supernatural and miraculous was universal; scepticism and unbelief were almost unknown. Men feared purgatory and hell, and made great sacrifices to gain heaven by founding churches, convents, and charitable institutions. And yet there was a frightful amount of immorality among the rulers and the people. In the East the church had to contend with the vices of an effete civilization and a corrupt court. In Italy, France and Spain the old Roman vices continued and were even invigorated by the infusion of fresh and barbaric blood. The history of the Merovingian rulers, as we learn from Bishop Gregory of Tours, is a tragedy of murder, adultery, and incest, and ends in destruction.

The church was unfavorably affected by the state of surrounding society, and often drawn into the current of prevailing immorality. Yet, upon the whole, she was a powerful barrier against vice, and the chief, if not the only promoter of education, virtue and piety in the dark ages. From barbaric and semi-barbaric material she had to build up the temple of a Christian civilization. She taught the new converts the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments the best popular summaries of faith, piety, and duty. She taught them also the occupations of peaceful life. She restrained vice and encouraged virtue. The synodical legislation was nearly always in the right direction. Great stress was laid on prayer and fasting, on acts of hospitality, charity, and benevolence, and on pilgrimages to sacred places. The rewards of heaven entered largely as an inducement for leading a virtuous and holy life; but it is far better that people should be good from fear of hell and love of heaven than ruin themselves by immorality and vice.

A vast amount of private virtue and piety is never recorded on the pages of histor y, and is spent in modest retirement. So the wild flowers in the woods and on the mountains bloom and fade away unseen by human eyes. Every now and then incidental allusion is made to unknown saints. Pope Gregory mentions a certain Servulus in Rome who was a poor cripple from childhood, but found rich comfort and peace in the Bible, although he could not read himself, and had to ask pious friends to read it to him while he was lying on his couch; he never complained, but was full of gratitude and praise; when death drew near he requested his friends to sing psalms with him; then stopped suddenly and expired with the words: “Peace, hear ye not the praises of God sounding from heaven?” This man’s life of patient suffering was not in vain, but a benediction to many who came in contact with it. “Those also serve who only stand and wait.”

The moral condition of the middle age varied considerably. The migration of nations was most unfavorable to the peaceful work of the church. Then came the bright reign of Charlemagne with his noble efforts for education and religion, but it was soon followed, under his weak successors, by another period of darkness which grew worse and worse till a moral reformation began in the convent of Cluny, and reached the papal chair under the lead of Hildebrand.

Yet if we judge by the number of saints in the Roman Calendar, the seventh century, which is among the darkest, was more pious than any of the preceding and succeeding centuries, except the third and fourth (which are enriched by the martyrs).



The following is the table of saints in the Roman Calendar (according to Alban Butler’s Lives of the Saints):





First Century 53   

Second Century 43   

Third Century 139   

Fourth Century 213   

Fifth Century 130   

Sixth Century 123   

Seventh Century 174   

Eighth Century 78   

Ninth Century 49   

Tenth Century 28   

Eleventh Century 45   

Twelfth Century 54   

Thirteenth Century 49   

Fourteenth Century 27   

Fifteenth Century 17   

Sixteenth Century 24   

Seventeenth Century 15   

Eighteenth Century 20  


In the first centuries the numerous but nameless martyrs of the Neronian and other persecutions are not separately counted. The Holy Innocents, the Seven Sleepers (in the third century), the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste (fourth century,) and other groups of martyrs are counted only one each. Lecky asserts too confidently that the seventh century was the most prolific in saints, and yet the most immoral. It is strange that the number of saints should have declined from the seventh century, while the church increased, and that the eighteenth century of infidelity should have produced five more saints than the seventeenth century. It would therefore be very unsafe to make this table the basis for general estimates.


75. Clerical Morals

1. Social Position. The clergy stood, during the middle ages, at the head of society, and shared with kings and nobles the rule of the people. They had the guardianship of the souls and consciences of men, and handled the keys of the kingdom of heaven. They possessed nearly all the learning, but it was generally very limited, and confined to a little Latin without any Greek. Some priests descended from noble and even royal blood, others from slaves who belonged to monasteries. They enjoyed many immunities from public burdens, as military duty and taxation. Charlemagne and his successors granted to them all the privileges which the Eastern emperors from the time of Constantine had bestowed upon them. They could not be sued before a civil court, and had their own episcopal tribunals. No lay judge could apprehend or punish an ecclesiastic without the permission of his bishop.

They were supported by the income from landed estates, cathedral funds, and the annual tithes which were enacted after the precedent of the Mosaic law. Pepin, by a decree of 764, imposed the payment of tithes upon all the royal possessions. Charlemagne extended it to all lands, and made the obligation general by a capitulary in 779. The tithes were regarded as the minimum contribution for the maintenance of religion and the support of the poor. They were generally paid to the bishop, as the administrator of all ecclesiastical goods. Many nobles had their own domestic chaplains who depended on their lords, and were often employed in degrading offices, as waiting at table and attending to horses and hounds.

2. Morals. The priests were expected to excel in virtue as well as in education, and to commend their profession by an exemplary life. Upon the whole they were superior to their flock, but not unfrequently they disgraced their profession by scandalous immorality. According to ancient discipline every priest at his ordination was connected with a particular church except missionaries to heathen lands. But many priests defied the laws, and led an irregular wandering life as clerical tramps. They were forbidden to wear the sword, but many a bishop lost his life on the battle field and even some popes engaged in warfare. Drunkenness and licentiousness were common vices. Gregory of Tours mentions a bishop named Cautinus who, when intoxicated, had to be carried by four men from the table. Boniface gives a very unfavorable but partizan account of the French and German clergymen who acted independently of Rome. The acts of Synods are full of censures and punishments of clerical sins and vices. They legislated against fornication, intemperance, avarice, the habits of hunting, of visiting horse-races and theatres, and enjoined even corporal punishments.

Clerical immorality reached the lowest depth in the tenth and eleventh centuries, when Rome was a sink of iniquity, and the popes themselves set the worst example. But a new reform began with the Hildebrandian popes.

3. Canonical Life. Chrodegang, bishop of Metz (a.d. 760), reformed the clergy by introducing, or reviving, after the example of St. Augustin, the “canonical” or semi-monastic life. The bishop and lower clergymen lived in the same house, near the cathedral, ate at the same table, prayed and studied together, like a family of monks, only differing from them in dress and the right of holding property or receiving fees for official services. Such an establishment was called Chapter, and the members of it were called Canons.

The example was imitated in other places. Charlemagne made the canonical life obligatory on all bishops as far as possible. Many chapters were liberally endowed. But during the civil commotions of the Carolingians the canonical life degenerated or was broken up.

4. Celibacy. In the East the lower clergy were always allowed to marry, and only a second marriage is forbidden. In the West celibacy was the prescribed rule, but most clergymen lived either with lawful wives or with concubines. In Milan all the priests and deacons were married in the middle of the eleventh century, but to the disgust of the severe moralists of the time. Hadrian II. was married before he became pope, and had a daughter, who was murdered by her husband, together with the pope’s wife, Stephania (868). The wicked pope Benedict IX. sued for the daughter of his cousin, who consented on condition that he resign the papacy (1033). The Hildebrandian popes, Leo IX. and Nicolas II., made attempts to enforce clerical celibacy all over the West. They identified the interests of clerical morality and influence with clerical celibacy, and endeavored to destroy natural immorality by enforcing unnatural morality. How far Gregory VII. succeeded in this part of his reform, will be seen in the next period.


76. Domestic Life

The purity and happiness of home-life depend on the position of woman, who is the beating heart of the household. Female degradation was one of the weakest spots in the old Greek and Roman civilization. The church, in counteracting the prevailing evil, ran into the opposite extreme of ascetic excess as a radical cure. Instead of concentrating her strength on the purification and elevation of the family, she recommended lonely celibacy as a higher degree of holiness and a safer way to heaven.

Among the Western and Northern barbarians she found a more favorable soil for the cultivation of Christian family life. The contrast which the heathen historian Tacitus and the Christian monk Salvian draw between the chastity of the Teutonic barbarians and the licentiousness of the Latin races is overdrawn for effect, but not without foundation. The German and Scandinavian tribes had an instinctive reverence for the female sex, as being inspired by a divinity, possessed of the prophetic gift, and endowed with secret charms. Their women shared the labors and dangers of men, emboldened them in their fierce battles, and would rather commit suicide than submit to dishonor. Yet the wife was entirely in the power of her husband, and could be bought, sold, beaten, and killed.

The Christian religion preserved and strengthened the noble traits, and developed them into the virtues of chivalry; while it diminished or abolished evil customs and practices. The Synods often deal with marriage and divorce. Polygamy, concubinage, secret marriages, marriages with near relatives, mixed marriages with heathens or Jews or heretics were forbidden; the marriage tie was declared sacred and indissoluble (except by adultery); sexual intemperance restrained and forbidden on Sundays and during Lent; the personal independence of woman and her rights of property were advanced. The Virgin Mary was constantly held up to the imagination as the incarnation of female parity and devotion. Not unfrequently, however, marriages were dissolved by mutual consent from mistaken ascetic piety. When a married layman entered the priesthood or a convent, he usually forsook his wife. In a Roman Synod of 827 such separation was made subject to the approval of the bishop. A Synod of Rouen, 1072, forbade husbands whose wives had taken the veil, to marry another. Wives whose husbands had disappeared were forbidden by the same Synod to marry until the fact of death was made certain.

Upon the whole, the synodical legislation on the subject of marriage was wise, timely, restraining, purifying, and ennobling in its effect. The purest and brightest chapter in the history of Pope Nicolas I. is his protection of injured innocence in the person of the divorced wife of King Lothair of Lorraine.


77. Slavery

See the Lit. in vol. I. § 48, and in vol. II. § 97. Comp. also Balmes (R.C.): Protestantism and Catholicism compared in their effects on the Civilization of Europe. Transl. from the Spanish. Baltimore 1851, Chs. xv.-xix. Brace: Gesta Christi, Ch. xxi.

History is a slow but steady progress of emancipation from the chains which sin has forged. The institution of slavery was universal in Europe during the middle ages among barbarians as well as among civilized nations. It was kept up by natural increase, by war, and by the slave-trade which was carried on in Europe more or less till the fifteenth century, and in America till the eighteenth. Not a few freemen sold themselves into slavery for debt, or from poverty. The slaves were completely under the power of their masters, and had no claim beyond the satisfaction of their physical wants. They could not bear witness in courts of justice. They could be bought and sold with their children like other property. The marriage tie was disregarded, and marriages between freemen and slaves were null and void. In the course of time slavery was moderated into serfdom, which was attached to the soil. Small farmers often preferred that condition to freedom, as it secured them the protection of a powerful nobleman against robbers and invaders. The condition of the serfs, however, during the middle ages was little better than that of slaves, and gave rise to occasional outbursts in the Peasant Wars, which occurred mostly in connection with the free preaching of the Gospel (as by Wiclif and the Lollards in England, and by Luther in Germany), but which were suppressed by force, and in their immediate effects increased the burdens of the dependent classes. The same struggle between capital and labor is still going on in different forms.

The medieval church inherited the patristic views of slavery. She regarded it as a necessary evil, as a legal right based on moral wrong, as a consequence of sin and a just punishment for it. She put it in the same category with war, violence, pestilence, famine, and other evils. St. Augustin, the greatest theological authority of the Latin church, treats slavery as disturbance of the normal condition and relation. God did not, he says, establish the dominion of man over man, but only over the brute. He derives the word servus, as usual, from servare (to save the life of captives of war doomed to death), but cannot find it in the Bible till the time of the righteous Noah, who gave it as a punishment to his guilty son Ham; whence it follows that the word came “from sin, not from nature.” He also holds that the institution will finally be abolished when all iniquity shall disappear, and God shall be all in all.

The church exerted her great moral power not so much towards the abolition of slavery as the amelioration and removal of the evils connected with it. Many provincial Synods dealt with the subject, at least incidentally. The legal right of holding slaves was never called in question, and slaveholders were in good and regular standing. Even convents held slaves, though in glaring inconsistency with their professed principle of equality and brotherhood. Pope Gregory the Great, one of the most humane of the popes, presented bondservants from his own estates to convents, and exerted all his influence to recover a fugitive slave of his brother. A reform Synod of Pavia, over which Pope Benedict VIII., one of the forerunners of Hildebrand, presided (a.d. 1018), enacted that sons and daughters of clergymen, whether from free-women or slaves, whether from legal wives or concubines, are the property of the church, and should never be emancipated. No pope has ever declared slavery incompatible with Christianity. The church was strongly conservative, and never encouraged a revolutionary or radical movement looking towards universal emancipation.

But, on the other hand, the Christian spirit worked silently, steadily and irresistibly in the direction of emancipation. The church, as the organ of that spirit, proclaimed ideas and principles which, in their legitimate working, must root out ultimately both slavery and tyranny, and bring in a reign of freedom, love, and peace. She humbled the master and elevated the slave, and reminded both of their common origin and destiny. She enjoined in all her teaching the gentle and humane treatment of slaves, and enforced it by the all-powerful motives derived from the love of Christ, the common redemption and moral brotherhood of men. She opened her houses of worship as asylums to fugitive slaves, and surrendered them to their masters only on promise of pardon. She protected the freedmen in the enjoyment of their liberty. She educated sons of slaves for the priesthood, with the permission of their masters, but required emancipation before ordination. Marriages of freemen with slaves were declared valid if concluded with the knowledge of the condition of the latter. Slaves could not be forced to labor on Sundays. This was a most important and humane protection of the right to rest and worship. No Christian was permitted by the laws of the church to sell a slave to foreign lands, or to a Jew or heathen. Gregory I. prohibited the Jews within the papal jurisdiction to keep Christian slaves, which he considered an outrage upon the Christian name. Nevertheless even clergymen sometimes sold Christian slaves to Jews. The tenth Council of Toledo (656 or 657) complains of this practice, protests against it with Bible passages, and reminds the Christians that “the slaves were redeemed by the blood of Christ, and that Christians should rather buy than sell them.” Individual emancipation was constantly encouraged as a meritorious work of charity well pleasing to God, and was made a solemn act. The master led the slave with a torch around the altar, and with his hands on the altar pronounced the act of liberation in such words as these: “For fear of Almighty God, and for the care of my soul I liberate thee;” or: “In the name and for the love of God I do free this slave from the bonds of slavery.”

Occasionally a feeble voice was raised against the institution itself, especially from monks who were opposed to all worldly possession, and felt the great inconsistency of convents holding slave-property. Theodore of the Studium forbade his convent to do this, but on the ground that secular possessions and marriage were proper only for laymen. A Synod of Chalons, held between 644 and 650, at which thirty-eight bishops and six episcopal representatives were present, prohibited the selling of Christian slaves outside of the kingdom of Clovis, from fear that they might fall into the power of pagans or Jews, and he introduces this decree with the significant words: “The highest piety and religion demand that Christians should be redeemed entirely from the bond of servitude.” By limiting the power of sale, slave-property was raised above ordinary property, and this was a step towards abolishing this property itself by legitimate means.

Under the combined influences of Christianity, civilization, and oeconomic and political considerations, the slave trade was forbidden, and slavery gradually changed into serfdom, and finally abolished all over Europe and North America. Where the spirit of Christ is there is liberty.



In Europe serfdom continued till the eighteenth century, in Russia even till 1861, when it was abolished by the Czar Alexander II. In the United States, the freest country in the world, strange to say, negro slavery flourished and waxed fat under the powerful protection of the federal constitution, the fugitive slave-law, the Southern state-laws, and “King Cotton,” until it went out in blood (1861-65) at a cost far exceeding the most liberal compensation which Congress might and ought to have made for a peaceful emancipation. But passion ruled over reason, self-interest over justice, and politics over morals and religion. Slavery still lingers in nominally Christian countries of South America, and is kept up with the accursed slave-trade under Mohammedan rule in Africa, but is doomed to disappear from the bounds of civilization.


78. Feuds and Private Wars. The Truce of God

A. Kluckhohn: Geschichte des Gottesfriedens. Leipzig 1857.

Henry C. Lea: Superstition and Force. Essays on the Wager of Law — the Wager of Battle — the Ordeal — Torture. Phila. 1866 (407 pages).

Among all barbarians, individual injury is at once revenged on the person of the enemy; and the family or tribe to which the parties belong identify themselves with the quarrel till the thirst for blood is satiated. Hence the feuds and private wars, or deadly quarrels between families and clans. The same custom of self-help and unbridled passion prevails among the Mohammedan Arabs to this day.

The influence of Christianity was to confine the responsibility for a crime to its author, and to substitute orderly legal process for summary private vengeance. The sixteenth Synod of Toledo (693) forbade duels and private feuds. The Synod of Poitiers, a.d. 1000, resolved that all controversies should hereafter be adjusted by law and not by force. The belligerent individuals or tribes were exhorted to reconciliation by a sealed agreement, and the party which broke the peace was excommunicated. A Synod of Limoges in 1031 used even the more terrible punishment of the interdict against the bloody feuds.

These sporadic efforts prepared the way for one of the most benevolent institutions of the middle ages, the so-called “Peace” or “Truce of God.” It arose in Aquitania in France during or soon after a terrible famine in 1033, which increased the number of murders (even for the satisfaction of hunger) and inflicted untold misery upon the people. Then the bishops and abbots, as if moved by divine inspiration (hence “the Peace of God”), united in the resolution that all feuds should cease from Wednesday evening till Monday morning (a feriae quartae vespera usque ad secundam feriam, incipiente luce) on pain of excommunication. In 1041 the archbishop Raimbald of Arles, the bishops Benedict of Avignon and Nitard of Nice, and the abbot Odilo of Clugny issued in their name and in the name of the French episcopate an encyclical letter to the Italian bishops and clergy, in which they solemnly implore them to keep the heaven-sent Treuga Dei, already introduced in Gaul, namely, to observe peace between neighbors, friends or foes on four days of the week, namely, on Thursday, on account of Christ’s ascension, on Friday on account of his crucifixion, on Saturday in memory of his burial, on Sunday in memory of his resurrection. They add: “All who love this Treuga Dei we bless and absolve; but those who oppose it we anathematize and exclude from the church. He who punishes a disturber of the Peace of God shall be acquitted of guilt and blessed by all Christians as a champion of the cause of God.”

The peace-movement spread through all Burgundy and France, and was sanctioned by the Synods of Narbonne (1054), Gerundum in Spain (1068), Toulouse (1068), Troyes (1093), Rouen (1096), Rheims (1136), the Lateran (1139 and 1179), etc. The Synod of Clermont (1095), under the lead of Pope Urban II., made the Truce of God the general law of the church. The time of the Truce was extended to the whole period from the first of Advent to Epiphany, from Ashwednesday to the close of the Easter week, and from Ascension to the close of the week of Pentecost; also to the various festivals and their vigils. The Truce was announced by the ringing of bells.