Monasticism and the papacy, representing the opposite extremes of abandonment of the world and lordship over the world, strange to say, entered into the closest alliance. The monks came to be the standing army of the popes, and were their obedient and valorous champions in the battles the popes waged with secular rulers. Some of the best popes were monastic in their training, or their habits, or both. Gregory VII. was trained in the Benedictine convent on the Aventine, Victor III. proceeded from Monte Cassino, Urban II. and Pascal II. from Cluny, Adrian IV. from St. Albans. Eugenius III., the pupil of St. Bernard, continued after he was made pope to wear the shirt of the monks of Citeaux next to his body. Innocent III. wrote the ascetic work, Contempt of the World.575
One monastic order after the other was founded from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. The organizing instinct and a pious impulse dotted Christendom with new convents or rebuilt old ones from Mt. Carmel to northern Scotland.576 Innocent III., after the manner in which the modern Protestant justifies the denominational distinctions of Protestantism, likened these various orders to troops clad in different kinds of armor and belonging to the same army. "Such variety, " he said, "does not imply any division of allegiance to Christ, but rather one mind under a diversity of form."577 So Peter of Blois writing to the abbot of Eversham said, that as out of the various strings of the harp, harmony comes forth, so out of the variety of religious orders comes unity of service. One should no less expect to find unity among a number of orders than among the angels or heavenly bodies. A vineyard bears grapes both black and white. A Christian is described in Holy Writ as a cedar, a cypress, a rose, an olive tree, a palm, a terebinth, yet they form one group in the Lord’s garden.578
It was the shrewd wisdom of the popes to encourage the orders, and to use them to further the centralization of ecclesiastical power in Rome. Each order had its own monastic code, its own distinctive customs. These codes, as well as the orders, were authorized and confirmed by the pope, and made, immediately or more loosely, subject to his sovereign jurisdiction. The mendicant orders of Sts. Francis and Dominic were directly amenable to the Holy See. The Fourth Lateran, in forbidding the creation of new orders, was moved to do so by the desire to avoid confusion in the Church by the multiplication of different rules. It commanded all who wished to be monks to join one of the orders already existing. The orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic, founded in the face of this rule, became the most faithful adherents the papacy ever had, until the Society of Jesus arose three centuries later.
The papal favor, shown to the monastic orders, tended to weaken the authority of the bishops, and to make the papacy independent of the episcopal system. Duns Scotus went so far as to declare that, as faith is more necessary for the world than sacramental ablution in water, so the body of monks is more important than the order of prelates. The monks constitute the heart, the substance of the Church. By preaching they start new life, and they preach without money and without price. The prelates are paid.579
Papal privileges and exemptions were freely poured out upon the orders, especially upon the Mendicants. They were the pets of the popes. They were practically given freedom to preach and dispense the sacrament in all places and at all times, irrespective of the bishops and their jurisdiction. The constant complaints and clashing which resulted, led to endless appeals of monasteries against the decisions of bishops, which flowed in a constant stream to Rome, and gave the members of the curia a rare chance to ply their trade.580 The convents, by their organization and wealth, and by the number of their constituents, who were free to go to Rome and spend an indefinite time there, were able to harass and to wear out the patience of their opponents, the bishops, or prolong the cases till their death.581
The riches, luxury,582 and power of the great convents became proverbial. In Lorraine and other parts of Europe they were the leading influence.583 Abbots often took precedence of bishops, just as the general chapters of the orders,584 made up of representatives from the farthest East to the Atlantic, were more imposing than the diocesan and even the provincial councils.
A little earlier than our period the abbot of Weissenburg was able to muster as many men as his diocesan bishop of Spires, and the three abbots of Reichenau, St. Gall, and Kempten, three times as many as the bishop of the extensive diocese of Constance.585 In the twelfth century the abbot of Fulda claimed precedence over the great archbishop of Cologne. Beginning with John XVIII. (1004–1009) the abbots were not seldom vested with the insignia of the episcopal office. The English abbots of St. Albans, Bardney, Westminster, and the heads of other English abbeys were mitred.586 They were great personages; they sat in oecumenical councils; the bells were rung as they passed; they engaged in the hunt, had their horses and armed retinues, and entertained on an elaborate scale. The abbot of St. Albans ate from a silver plate, and even ladies of rank were invited to share the pleasures of repasts at English abbeys.
Thus, by wealth and organization and by papal favor, the monastic orders were in a position to overshadow the episcopate. Backed by the pope they bade defiance to bishops, and in turn they enabled the papacy most effectually to exercise lordship over the episcopate.
In the struggle with the heretical sects the orders were the uncompromising champions of orthodoxy, and rendered the most effective assistance to the popes in carrying out their policy of repression. In the Inquisition they were the chief agents which the papacy had. They preached crusades against the Albigenses and were prominent in the ranks of the crusaders. In the work of bloody destruction, they were often in the lead, as was Arnold of Citeaux. Everywhere from Germany to Spain the leading Inquisitors were monks.
Again, in the relentless struggle of the papacy with princes and kings, they were always to be relied upon. Here they did valiant service for the papacy, as notably in the struggle against the emperor, Frederick II., when they sowed sedition and organized revolt in Germany and other parts of his empire.
Once more, as agents to fill the papal treasury, they did efficient and welcome service to the Holy See. In this interest they were active all over Europe. The pages of English chroniclers are filled with protests against them on the score of their exactions from the people.587 The pope treated the orders well, and in turn was well served by them. They received high favors, and they had the rare grace of showing gratitude.
The orders of this period may be grouped in five main families: the family which followed the Benedictine rule, the family which followed the so-called Augustinian rule, the Carmelites, the hermit orders of which the Carthusians were the chief, and the original mendicant orders,588 the Franciscans and Dominicans.