Spiritual vacuum among the people

We’ve been talking about 11th century Europe in terms of its political strife and church reform movements at the top. To understand the next event in the new Crusade, we have to look at the vacuum left among the common people.

The recent Popes had been monks of the Cluniac variety, referring to the Benedictine monastery founded in 910 in Cluny, France. As yet, there were no other orders of monks; all Western monasteries followed the Order of St. Benedict, laid down in pre-medieval times. It stipulated what a monk could own, wear and eat; at what hours the monastic community must gather for prayer; and other aspects of life. Ordination as a monk meant giving up most rights to choice. The ideal was to leave the world, deny oneself, and center each day around prayer. Every monk who left the world and went into a cloister helped to save society by keeping a continual prayer rising to God.

Over time, Benedictine monasteries had grown somewhat slack. Property left in exchange for prayers for the dead made the monastery, if not the individual monk, rich. This land was often controlled by a secular ruler who became the de facto ruler of the monastery. Some monks took concubines and nobody did anything about it.

The monastery at Cluny was stricter; it returned to the original Rule of Benedict in the most literal sense. Most importantly, the Abbot at Cluny was responsible only to the Pope. The 11th century Cluniac monks who became Popes were fiercely opposed to any secular or state control over the church. But at the same time, they also upheld the ideal of holiness as withdrawal from the world and giving up sex. By the 11th century, many of them were agitating for all priests to conform to the Rule of Benedict; at that time some local priests were married.

The battle against state control and “the world” was the Big Question of the time, and little attention was given to what non-monks should be doing. Obviously, if everyone became a monk, society would come to an end. But the monastic ideal suggested that everyone else could go on living while the monasteries would be spiritual on their behalf. Ordinary people were to follow the Sacraments (baptism, Mass, confession, marriage if financially possible, last rites) and go about their business in a non-blasphemous way. While this was enough for most people, it left some feeling like there should be more. If they couldn’t go into monasteries, but wanted to be holier, what was left? Eventually, this vacuum contributed to the Cathar religious movement and then to the Protestant Reformation/Revolution. But for now, it just hung in the air, unstated.

I read somewhere recently that in order to get a bill passed into law, you have to use overkill and oversell. Not passing the bill has to be portrayed as the worst thing ever, while passing it would solve everything. That’s the process Pope Urban II embarked on. He needed to unite Europe, swaying the French and Norman kings to jettison their German-led loyalty to the other Pope. He needed to inspire the wealthy aristocrats to give large gifts and become leaders. He had to inspire them to leave their homes and go to likely deaths, as well, by entering a voluntary foreign war. In the Pope’s new sermon series, not going on this pilgrimage meant permitting unspeakable horrors, while going meant instant salvation and eternal glory.

The process of overkill and oversell worked too well. We’ve already seen how many of Europe’s second rank of royalty joined up; but the sermons preached in public reached other ears. Some of the listeners chose to boost the Pope’s signal by carrying the message of salvation by pilgrimage to everyone, not just to the royal courts. When the Byzantine Emperor sent his request for help to Pope Urban II, he lost control of the message as the Pope worked it into his own goals. Now, the Pope lost control of the message as the people of Europe took up a new cry: salvation by pilgrimage! God wills it!

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