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The Crusades


The Crusades were a series of eight attempts made by Christians to liberate the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims. These attempts started late in the eleventh century and continued up to most of the thirteenth century.


Since the time of Emperor Constantine, pious Christians, following the example of St. Helena, have been visiting Jerusalem and other places in Palestine to show their devotion to Christ. Things changed in A.D. 1064 when the Seljuk Turks, who were also followers of Mohammed, took control of Asia Minor and the islands in the Aegean Sea. In the year 1071, they also captured Jerusalem, desecrated the holy places in Palestine, and made the Holy Land unsafe for Christian pilgrims.


First Crusade (1096–1099) 


Pope Urban II heard of the sufferings of the Christians in Palestine. In 1095, the Byzantine Emperor, Alexis Comnenus, also asked the pope for assistance in resisting the Muslim Turks who were threatening the Empire. The pope thought that it was good to respond to the emperor’s call for help because it would improve the relationship between Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. At a council in Clermont, France, Pope Blessed Urban II, therefore, spoke and made an eloquent speech to help Constantinople recapture Jerusalem. The pope appealed to the princes, nobles, counts, and people of Europe to recover the Holy Land from the Turks. The people enthusiastically supported him with the cry, “God wills it!” Immediately, large armies were raised. The first to rise in arms were the peasants, who, through the preaching of Peter the Hermit, undertook what was to be known as the People’s Crusade. But this crusade was not very successful. Another army was formed, led by a valorous knight, Godfrey of Bouillon. His army consisted not only of peasants but also of other knights and nobles, on account of which the Crusade was also known as the Knight’s Crusade. Soon, Count Raymond of Toulouse and Bohemond of Taranto joined Godfrey. Together, the Crusaders marched into Constantinople, captured Nicaea (A.D. 1097), Antioch (A.D. 1098), and finally, Jerusalem (A.D. 1099).


The Conquest of Jerusalem

A painting by Emile Signol (1804-1892)

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Second Crusade (1147–1149)


The Crusaders conquered Edessa during the First Crusade, but in 1144, while its army was away fighting another war against Aleppo, the Muslim Turks laid siege to Edessa and massacred the Christians on the Black Sea. When the news of this massacre reached Europe, Pope Eugene III commissioned St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) to preach and gather support for another crusade to retake Edessa from the Turks. King Louis VII of France and Conrad III of Germany, who was also the Holy Roman Emperor at that time, responded to St. Bernard’s call and led the new crusade. King Baldwin III of Jerusalem joined, too, because he wanted to capture Damascus from the Turks. However, the crusade was unsuccessful due to poor leadership and dissension among the Crusaders. Edessa and Damascus were not conquered, and the Crusaders returned to their home countries with only a fraction of their armies remaining. St. Bernard was very disappointed by the dismal failure of this crusade, which he helped to organize, but he blamed its failure on the “sins of the Crusaders.”


St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) was commissioned by Pope Eugene III to call the second crusade. Unfortunately, the crusade ended up as a failure, and the Crusaders came home with heavy casualties.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux

A portrait from A Short History of Monks and Monasteries, Ch. IV by Alfred Wesley Wishart

Third Crusade (1189–1193)


When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem during the First Crusade, it remained in the possession of the Christians for eighty-eight years until the Muslim Turks re-captured it again in 1187. Plans were made once more to liberate Jerusalem from the hands of the Turks. This time, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa of Germany, King Philip of France, and King Richard I (aka Richard the Lionheart or Richard Coeur-de-Lion) of England led the crusade, which was better organized and more equipped than the previous ones. The soldiers began their military expedition to Jerusalem in 1189, but Emperor Barbarossa died on the way. King Philip returned to France in 1191 after Acre (an important city in Israel) was won, leaving King Richard alone to continue the fight in the Holy Land. In 1192, King Richard succeeded in getting Saladin, the Muslim leader, to sign a treaty permitting the Christians to visit Jerusalem unharmed, but Jerusalem remained under Muslim control.


Fourth Crusade (1202-1204)

This crusade is sometimes referred to as a pseudo-crusade because the Crusaders en route to Jerusalem ended up attacking Constantinople instead. What happened was that the Byzantine emperor promised to give them financial and military assistance in their fight against the Turks. But, in 1204, a popular uprising deposed and murdered the emperor. Unable to get the assistance they needed to fight in the Holy Land, the Crusaders, under Count Baldwin of Flanders, turned against their fellow Christians in Constantinople, attacked and looted the city, and established their own Latin Empire in Constantinople that lasted for 57 years. Eight hundred years later, Pope John Paul II apologized to the Greek Orthodox Church for the massacres and injustices perpetrated by the Western Crusaders against Constantinople. Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, formally accepted the Pope’s apology in 2004.

Fifth Crusade (1213–1221)

This crusade was another attempt by Western Christians to win the Holy Land by first conquering the Ayyubid state in Egypt. In April 1213, Pope Innocent III issued the papal bull Quia maior, which called for a new crusade. The first to lead the crusade was King Andrew II of Hungary, who later joined John of Brienne, King of Jerusalem. In 1218, King Andrew became sick and returned home, leaving John and other allies to capture Damietta in Egypt.


The Tower of Damietta in Egypt

A painting by Cornelis Claesz van Wieringen (c. 1576 – 1633)

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The Crusaders were able to get the tower outside the city, but the outbreak of diseases prevented them from capturing Damietta itself. In 1219, Pope Honorius III sent Pelagius of Albano to continue the crusade. Pelagius did capture Damietta and proceeded to advance to Cairo. However, his troops were trapped and couldn’t resist enemy raids when the Nile River flooded. The Crusaders suffered great casualties, and Pelagius relinquished control of Damietta to the Sultan of Egypt in exchange for the safe passage home of his troops. Therefore, the Fifth Crusade was another failure.

Sixth Crusade (1228–1230)

The Sixth Crusade, which might be called the German Crusade, was led by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Germany. The fact that a monarch undertook this crusade without the prompting of the pope was significant. It showed the declining power of the papacy over the crusading movement. Although this crusade enabled the Christian emperor (by a ten-year treaty rather than by war) to gain control of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and other places in Palestine, it was not a great victory for the Christians because Frederick II had to make a shameful treaty with the Sultan of Egypt (or of the Ayyubid Empire) permitting the Muslims to worship in Jerusalem and prohibiting the Jews from living in Jerusalem.

Seventh Crusade (1248-1254)

With the termination of Frederick II’s ten-year treaty with the Muslims, Jerusalem fell again into the hands of the Turks in 1244. King St. Louis IX of France led the Seventh Crusade and, in 1248, headed with his army to Egypt. He knew that it would not be possible to capture Jerusalem without defeating the Sultan of Egypt first. He captured Damietta in Egypt, although it was heavily fortified, but the flooding of the Nile River stalled his advance toward Cairo. Plague, dwindling supplies, and an army that was worn out in battle caused King Louis to retreat to Damietta, but the Egyptians blocked his retreat and held him captive. The king and his nobles were set free upon the payment of a huge ransom. However, King Louis did not return to France but stayed in Palestine for four years.


Eighth Crusade (1270-1274)


The Eighth Crusade may be regarded as St. Louis’ second crusade or his second attempt to recover the Holy Land. After years of preparation, he decided to capture the city of Tunis in Africa first, thinking that this would make it easier to defeat Egypt. However, pestilence and a lack of provisions wiped out half of his army and hampered his advance. Louis himself became a victim and died of a fever. For a while, Edward of England (son of King Henry III) continued the crusade, but pressing problems at home also caused him to withdraw, thus ending the period of the Crusades to the Holy Land.


Death of King St. Louis IX

A painting by Jean Fouquet (1420 - ?)

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Overall, one may judge that the Crusades were a big failure. The Christians lost many lives and did not accomplish their objective of recovering the Holy Land from the Muslims. Although the Christians gained control of Jerusalem after the First Crusade, their victory was short-lived. Other crusades had to be undertaken. And, except for another 15 years following the Sixth Crusade, Jerusalem remained for the most part under Muslim rule. Jerusalem remained in the hands of the Muslims until 1917, when the British Army defeated the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Jerusalem during the First World War.


Despite the disappointing results of the Crusades, there were also good things that came out of them. Among these are the following:

  1. The Crusades halted the advance of Islam in Europe.

  2. They revived Christian faith and charity because the Crusaders knew that they were fighting for a spiritual cause.

  3. They also fostered the spirit of chivalry and knighthood because the leaders of the Crusades relied heavily on the services of the knights in their fight against the Muslims.

  4. They promoted unity among nations in their common cause to restore peace and protect Christians in the Holy Land.

  5. They promoted cooperation between the Byzantine Empire and the West.

  6. They provided the occasion for an exchange of commerce and industries, art, and the sciences between the East and the West.

The Military Orders of Knights


Even in the ninth century, with the rise of feudalism, the knights—soldiers on horseback—rendered invaluable services to kings and nobility in Europe. The knights were not merely trained for combat but were also trained to uphold the high principles of chivalry. They worshiped God, lived honorable lives, and were champions of justice. They protected the poor, the innocent, the orphans, and the widows, and they were known to be loyal to their lords.


The leaders of the Crusades depended heavily on the services of these knights. To serve the cause of the Crusades better, the knights banded together in the form of military organizations or orders. Although the main members of the orders were combatants, the orders also had non-combatant members—priests and lay members who cared for the sick and the wounded. Also, although these orders were military in their purpose and structure, they had the character of religious institutes. The members were initiated with religious ceremonies, and their swords were blessed and dedicated to protecting the innocent, the poor, and the Church.


There were three military orders of knights organized during the time of the Crusades:


1. The Knights of St. John the Baptist. This order started only as a hospice for pilgrims in Jerusalem, but it eventually organized a militia of knights from among its members shortly after the First Crusade. Therefore, the order had a mixed membership of combatants (knights) and non-combatant members. The knights have actively participated in the Crusades ever since, while the non-combatants cared for the wounded and the sick. The members wore a black mantle with a white cross. Because the order built a hospital in the Holy Land, it came to be known as Knights Hospitallers. Three decades after the end of the Crusades, the Knights of St. John settled in Rhodes (1310) and later on the island of Malta (1530), on account of which they also came to be known as the Knights of Malta. Napoleon expelled them from Malta in 1798, but the order still exists today and is known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Through an agreement with the Maltese Government, the knights today still enjoy the exclusive use of Fort St. Angelo in Malta, where they host historical and cultural activities related to the order.


2. The Knights of the Temple, otherwise known as the Knights Templars. The reason for their name is that their headquarters used to be on the site of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The order was founded before the beginning of the Second Crusade by nine French knights headed by Hugh de Payens. St. Bernard, who preached for the support of the Second Crusade, was the one who wrote the rule for the order. To bolster its membership, he also wrote a treatise, In Praise of the New Knighthood. The members of the order, who wore a white coat emblazoned with a red cross, fought valiantly during the Crusades but returned to Europe after the last Crusade. During the Crusades, the order grew marvelously and became very wealthy. It did not merely receive generous gifts and donations from grateful pilgrims but also received land, property, special privileges, and favors of every kind from both ecclesiastical and secular authorities. These privileges included being exempt from taxation, having legal jurisdiction, etc. Early in the fourteenth century, the bankrupt King Philip IV (aka King Philip the Fair) of France coveted the wealth of the Knights Templars. In 1307, he commanded the mass arrest of its members and accused them falsely of heresy to confiscate their wealth. He spread lies, used torture to force confessions from the members, and pressed false charges of heresy, devil worship, fraud, financial corruption, and sodomy. In 1310, he prevented 54 Templars from retracting their false testimonies in a trial at the papal court by having them burned as heretics outside Paris ahead of the trial.

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Templars Being Burned at the Stake

by an anonymous illustrator

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King Philip asked Pope Clement V to suppress the order by condemning it, but the pope in 1312 decided simply to dissolve the order rather than to condemn it. After the order was abolished, some of the Knights Templars, who had earlier confessed under torture to wrongdoing, retracted their confessions and, for that reason, were executed. This included the last grand master, Jacques de Molay, who was burned at the stake in 1314. Those who want to paint a different picture of Christianity for unsuspecting Christians continue to spread lies about the Knights Templars. In 2003, for example, Dan Brown made several statements—in his pseudo-historical novel, The Da Vinci Code—that have no historical basis: (1) We know who founded the Knights Templars, but he reported that it was founded by the mythical Priory of Sion. (2) We know how the Knights Templars became rich, but he asserted that it was because the Knights Templars discovered treasures beneath the ruins of the Temple of Solomon. (3) We also know that the Knights Templars were organized to guard Christian pilgrims and protect the Holy Land, but he said that the order was established to retrieve the documents that show Christ’s real bloodline and His relationship with Mary Magdalene. Also, the Catholic military order, known as the Knights Templars, does not exist anymore since it was abolished in 1312. Therefore, one should distinguish it from the various Masonic orders today that use the same name, “Knights Templars.” The Freemasons insist that after the suppression by King Philip IV, the military order continued to exist in secret and that the Masonic orders today are the present-day forms of that once illustrious order.


3. The Teutonic Knights. This order started in 1190, when German knights joined the members of a German hospital in Jerusalem to form the “Brothers of the German House of St. Mary in Jerusalem,” otherwise known as the Order of the Teutonic Knights. The word “Teutonic” simply refers to the Germanic roots of the order. To distinguish themselves from members of other military orders, the Teutonic Knights wore a white cloak with a black cross. Like the Knights Hospitallers, this order fought as well as served in the hospital during the Crusades. But in 1225, at the invitation of Duke Conrad of Masovia, the Teutonic Knights left the Crusades to aid in defending the Christians against pagan tribes in those areas of Poland that were later to be known as Prussia. They had since played a military role in the Christianization of northeastern Europe, and at the same time, they increased their holdings and their wealth. They eventually settled in Marienburg, Prussia, in 1309. During the Protestant Reformation, their grand master, Albrecht of Brandenburg, resigned and became a Lutheran. In 1525, the new grand master fixed his residence at Wurttemberg, Germany, and the order ceased to be exclusively Catholic and became open to Protestant members. The order was dissolved by Napoleon in 1809 but re-established again in Vienna in 1834. However, in 1839, the functions of the order were limited to charitable activities and nursing. In 1871, Pope Pius IX approved new rules for the priests of the order. The order still keeps its headquarters in Vienna, although it has branch houses in Bavaria, Hesse, and the Italian Tyrol. A Protestant branch also exists in Holland.

The Rise of the Mendicant Religious Orders


In addition to the establishment of military orders during the Crusades, the thirteenth century also witnessed the rise of mendicant religious orders that played a big role in the history of the Church during the Middle Ages and beyond. There were four mendicant orders recognized by the Second Council of Lyons in 1274: the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites, and the Augustinians. There was a fifth religious mendicant order, the Servites, founded in A.D. 1233. However, although it was approved as a religious order by the Bishop of Florence before the Second Council of Lyons, it was not definitively approved by the Holy See until 1304.


The above-cited religious orders were called “mendicant” (which means “beggar”) because they avoided owning property and depended for their survival on the voluntary offerings and goodwill of the people whom they served. Today, except for the Franciscans, the members of mendicant orders are generally permitted to own property collectively but not individually on account of their vow of poverty.


1. The Franciscans. This order was founded by St. Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) and approved by Pope Innocent III in 1210. Being the son of a rich cloth merchant, St. Francis was carefree and pleasure-loving in his youth. In his twenties, he became very sick, which gave him some time for serious reflection and prayer. Inspired by the text, “Do not possess gold, not silver, nor money in your purses” (Matt. 10:9), he decided to embrace apostolic poverty and, to his father’s dismay, gave all his possessions to the poor. Then he replaced his expensive garments with a peasant’s garb—a brown robe girded with a knotted cord. His edifying example, which exhibited a stark contrast to the leisurely lifestyle of the clergy at that time, plus his moral preaching, inspired other men to follow him. Because of their humility, these men came to be called “Little Brethren” or “Friars Minor.” The official name given to the order when it was approved by the pope was the Order of Friars Minors (OFM). When the Order was approved by the pope, its membership quickly grew to the thousands. St. Clare of Assisi (1194–1253), a close friend of St. Francis, joined the ranks of women who wanted to follow St. Francis. St. Francis gave them the rule to follow, and they formed the Second Order of the Franciscans, called the “Poor Clares.” They were cloistered nuns who lived a life of prayer.


St. Francis of Assisi

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St. Clare of Assisi

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Years later, a Third Order was formed, which consisted of (a) congregations of vowed men and women who lived in communities and (b) fraternities of lay men and women (previously known as “tertiaries”) who, though living in the world, wished to be affiliated spiritually with the order. Over time, the Franciscan Order has produced many illustrious saints and eminent theologians, including St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bonaventure, St. Catherine of Bologna, etc. Important lay tertiaries in the Franciscan Order include King St. Louis IX of France (who led the failed Eighth Crusade), Queen St. Elizabeth of Hungary, etc. Today, the Franciscans continue to contribute greatly to the vitality and growth of the Church.


The Order of Friars Minor (OFM) should be distinguished from what is known today as the Order of Saint Francis (OSF). The OSF was founded only in 2004 and consisted mostly of members of the Anglican Church or other churches that are now in full communion with the Catholic Church but who wanted to live a religious life in the tradition of St. Francis. Therefore, the Order of Saint Francis is an apostolic religious order in the tradition of St. Francis, but it is not a part of the original Order of Friars Minor. Because some of the members were originally married ministers of other churches, they do not live in an enclosed community similar to the friars of the OFM. Rather, they live separately in different parts of the world and minister to their local parishes' needs.

2. The Dominicans. In 1216, St. Dominic (1170–1221) founded the order, whose true name was the Order of Preachers (Ordo Praedicatorum), in response to the growing threat of the Albigensian heresy in southern France. Unlike the Franciscans, who merely preached for sinners to do penance, St. Dominic and his companions—who have been referred to as “Dominicans” since the foundation of their order—were to preach (explain and defend) the faith for the salvation of souls. Their preaching was, therefore, more doctrinal than moral. However, since the heretics were averse to the luxurious lifestyle of many of the clergy, the Dominicans, like the Franciscans, adopted a life of apostolic or evangelical poverty to make their preaching more effective. In their work of controlling the spread of heresy, the Dominicans used a powerful spiritual weapon: they promoted devotion to the Mother of God, which later evolved into the practice of reciting the Rosary. Phenomenal growth accompanied the success of the Dominicans in stopping the spread of heresy. By the time of St. Dominic’s death in 1221, there were already sixty Dominican houses in eight provinces.


St. Dominic

A painting by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

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Like the Franciscans, the Dominicans also had a Second Order, which initially consisted of women converted from the Albigensian heresy and who lived in communities as cloistered nuns. The Second Order still exists today, and its members should be distinguished from the many Dominican sisters who are not cloistered nuns. The members of the Second Order live a secluded life of prayer and contemplation. On the other hand, Dominican sisters, who are not cloistered nuns, belong to the first division of the Third Order and are referred to as Regular Tertiaries. They also live in communities, wear an external habit, and observe daily regular observances in addition to their religious vows, but they also live an active life of charity rather than a purely contemplative life of prayer. They mostly work in schools, but they may also work in orphanages or anywhere charity calls them to devote their time. Like the Franciscan Third Order, the Dominican Third Order has a second division, called the Secular Tertiaries, who are also associated with the order but who live individually in the world as they strive to live the Dominican way of life. Since the twentieth century, there has been a preference in the Dominican family to use the terms “lay fraternities” and “lay Dominicans” instead of calling them “secular third order” or “secular tertiaries.” The terms "first," "second," and "third" orders have now been abandoned in favor of simply referring to these communities as "branches" of the big Dominican family. Lay Dominicans pray the Rosary daily and at least the morning and evening prayers from the Divine Office. They usually wear a discrete identifying pin or a small scapular concealed in their clothing, but not a formal religious habit.


As in the Franciscan Order, many saints and theologians have come from the Dominican family. Among them was Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Doctor of the Church, who contributed greatly to theology. Among the lay Dominicans was St. Catherine of Siena, another Doctor of the Church, who influenced the pope to return to Rome after the papacy had been in exile at Avignon, France, for 27 years. Unlike Saint Martin de Porres, who was a cooperator brother in the First Order, Saint Catherine was truly a lay Dominican. She worked and lived in her own home, not in a convent. 

3. The Carmelites. There is an old tradition that traces the history of the Carmelites to a group of Crusaders who lived as hermits on a mountain ridge in Palestine, known as Mount Carmel. However, the whereabouts of the Carmelites began to appear in historical records, particularly in papal bulls, only in the thirteenth century, when many of them had already left the Holy Land and migrated to Europe and England. St. Simon Stock, although not the founder of the Carmelite group, was its first Master General in Europe. It was under his leadership that the Church began to regard the Carmelites as a mendicant religious order rather than simply an order of hermits.


The Giving of the Scapular to St. Simon Stock

A painting by Jacob van Oost the Younger (1639 – 1713)

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In 1274, the Second Council of Lyons recognized the order already as one of the great mendicant orders, but earlier, it was St. Simon Stock who obtained from Pope Innocent IV interim permission for the members to live as a community of friars living in towns and cities rather than as solitary hermits living in the desert. As such, the order became similar to that of the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The order grew rapidly in Europe. By the end of the thirteenth century, it already had 150 religious houses in 12 provinces. Like the Franciscans and the Dominicans, a Second and Third Order also arose in the Carmelite family—the First Order (being the friars), the Second Order (cloistered nuns), and the Third Order (lay men and women). However, the Second and Third Orders were not established until 1452. Late in the sixteenth century, largely through the work of St. Teresa of Avila, an important reform happened in the Carmelite family that led to the establishment of a branch of Carmelites known as the Discalced Carmelites, which followed a more rigorous rule. Although showing the charism of the Church in a somewhat different way from the Franciscans and the Dominicans, the Carmelites today are known to many Catholics as the order that promoted the devotion to the Scapular of Mount Carmel. It is also the order that has given us such champions of mysticism as St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, as well as the leader in the “little way of sanctity”—St. Therese of the Child Jesus—all of whom have been proclaimed by the popes as Doctors of the Church.

4. The Augustinians. This order was also established in the thirteenth century in Italy. Seeking to serve the Church in an urban setting, several hermits from Tuscany together petitioned Pope Innocent IV for permission to unite and live in towns and cities as a mendicant religious order. In 1256, the pope gave his approval, with an injunction to use the Rule of Saint Augustine for their rule. The order grew quickly as a hermitage throughout Italy. Over time, a Second and Third Order of Augustinians were also formed, which had a similar type of membership as the Second and Third Orders of other mendicant religious orders. The Augustinians engaged in a variety of activities not only as priests, teachers, and missionaries but also as carpenters, farmers, and bakers, as they sought to meet the various needs of the People of God. In this, they differed from the Franciscans, who devoted their time exclusively to doing and preaching penance, or from the Dominicans, who devoted their energies exclusively to explaining and defending the faith. The Augustinian vocation was more varied in its scope and function, which gave it the advantage of flexibility. During periods of great missionary effort, for example, Augustinians were able to supply the manpower needed to proclaim the message of the gospel in foreign lands at the same time that they tried to improve people’s lives. As missionaries, they traveled throughout Europe, as well as to North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, China, and Southeast Asia, including the Philippines. The Augustinians were the first apostles of the Catholic Faith in the Philippines. They came in 1565 with the Spanish fleet sent by King Philip II of Spain. They became, and still are, the custodians of the miraculous image of the Child Jesus, known as the Santo Niño de Cebu.

Medieval Heresies


The primary reason why the Franciscan and Dominican Orders were organized in the thirteenth century was to protect the faith of the people against heretics and to prevent the spread of heresy in the Church. There were two kinds of heretics who were active during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries: the Waldenses and the Albigenses.


1. The Waldensians.  The Waldensians were a group of heretics who followed the radical ideas of Peter Waldo of Lyons (1140–1205). They condemned the sinful and luxurious lifestyle of the clergy, who had become wealthy on account of the feudal system, and wanted to see a return to the simple and austere life practiced by the Apostles. In 1176, Peter Waldo gave away his wealth and lived a life of poverty that impressed and attracted the poorer and uneducated classes in France. Waldo’s heresy was a moral protest against corruption among the Catholic clergy. It was a valid reaction, but the heresy was based on the error that a corrupt and sinful priest was not a priest at all and that the sacraments administered by a sinful priest had no validity. Waldo and his followers rejected the divine institution of the priesthood and began practicing an independent sort of lay ministry, similar to what Protestants do today. Their revolt against the priesthood included rejecting the idea of confessing one’s sins to a priest and the priest’s power to perform the Sacrifice of the Mass. This also led them to attack the Church’s doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage, the doctrine of indulgences, the existence of purgatory, the efficacy of prayers for the dead, and the practice of venerating saints and their relics. The Waldensianss eventually spread into Italy and Spain. At first, the Church merely punished them with excommunication (1184), but the secular authorities later arrested and imprisoned them. In 1194, King Alfonso II banished them from Spain. In 1197, the punishment included the burning of heretics at the stake. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX initiated the Papal Inquisition to persuade heretics to abandon their ideas and avoid the death penalty. The word “inquisition” comes from the Latin inquisitio, which means an inquiry. The so-called “Papal Inquisition” was an ecclesiastical tribunal for the discovery and trial of heretics. The Inquisition begun by Pope Gregory IX did not include torture as a tool of inquiry or as a form of penance.


Despite the efforts of the Papal Inquisition, the Waldensians were never completely extirpated. They survived as a heretical group through the centuries. Today the Waldensians still exist as a Protestant group in Italy, the United States, and South America.


2. The Albigensians. The Albigensians, whose name derives from the town of Albi in France, were similar to the Waldensians in that they also opposed the corruption of the clergy. However, the heresy of the Albigensians was more of an intellectual than a moral protest. It espoused doctrines reminiscent of fourth-century Manichean theology. Thus, the Albigensians were sometimes called the “new Manicheans,” for they believed, as the Manicheans did, in the dualist idea that there were two basic principles or gods in reality—one good and the other evil. The Albigensian heresy postulates that the spirit is naturally good and has its source in a good god, while matter is naturally evil and owes its existence to an evil god. Since the Albigensians believed that the evil god created the world and the flesh, they denied the reality of the Incarnation; they denied that Christ had a body (because the body is evil). They thought that Christ was not a man but an angel in human form. They claimed that Christ was only a creature, not divine. Likewise, they believed that the Holy Spirit was merely the chief of the angels—a creature and not divine. Of course, these beliefs led them to reject the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity or the existence of three Divine Persons in one God. The Albigensian heresy had other doctrines that were contrary to the Catholic Faith. For example, it rejected the Old Testament since it depicted God as the creator of the world, which was regarded as evil. The belief that anything material is evil and must be avoided also has practical consequences. For example, the Albigensians abstained from meat in their diet and rejected marriage, family, and other material pleasures as sinful. The more experienced members called themselves the Cathars (the pure or the perfect) because they claimed to have attained the purity of soul that comes from dissociating themselves completely from anything material. They welcomed death as good in itself because it frees the soul from the body. They believed that the good god created the human soul, but the evil god imprisoned it in a body. Man liberates his soul from the body by dissociating himself from all material attachments. If this process of purgation is not accomplished in one’s lifetime, it will be continued in the next life when the soul reincarnates in another body (which could be an animal body). Since the Albigensian heresy believed in reincarnation, it denied the need for the Sacrament of Penance, prayers for the dead, and the resurrection of the body.


The Albigensians repudiated material riches and private property and hated the wealthy. They protested against the luxurious life of the clergy and called the church the “synagogue of Satan.” Unlike the Waldensians, however, the Albigensians were not mere intellectual dissenters. They were a violent and fanatic sect—terrorists—who did not merely oppose ecclesiastical authority but also harmed the clergy and pillaged churches and monasteries. Their teachings became a menace not only to the Church but to human society and the State. For this reason, the Second Council of Lateran condemned it in 1139. But the condemnation of heresy was not enough. To stop the heresy effectively, it was also necessary to convert the heretics and win them back to the faith. At first, it was only the Cistercian monks who, acting as papal delegates, opposed the Albigensians, but later, Saint Dominic and his bishop, Diego Acebo, joined them.


This painting depicts the ordeal by fire between Saint Dominic and the Cathars. According to the story, St. Dominic and the Cathars threw their books on a fire. St. Dominic's books miraculously survived the flames while the Cathars' books burned, indicating the soundness of St. Dominic's teachings.

St. Dominic and the Albigensians

A painting by Pedro Berruguete (c. 1450 – 1504)

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In 1209, Pope Honorius III asked the Cistercians to preach a crusade against the heretics. An Albigensian Crusade was organized under the leadership of a French nobleman, Simon de Montfort, which resulted in a bloody war that lasted 20 years. But the heresy persisted, indicating that heresy could not be extirpated by force alone. In 1216, Pope Honorius III confirmed Saint Dominic’s new order, the Order of Preachers. Thereafter, the Dominicans carried on the fight against heresy. In 1233, Pope Gregory IX started the Papal Inquisition, in which several Dominicans and Franciscans were assigned as inquisitors who would work to try and convert the heretics. The heresy was not extirpated until the end of the fourteenth century.



The Papal Inquisition


The punishment of heretics was not new in the Church. During the first three centuries of the Christian era, the Church excommunicated those who taught doctrines different from the faith. Civil authorities, however, were more severe in their punishments. In the fourth century, when some Roman emperors converted to the Faith, they also imposed civil punishments on heretics. These punishments included the confiscation of properties or banishment from their territories. When the heresy was deemed harmful to the State, the death penalty was also used against the heretics. However, the Church and most of the Fathers did not approve of it. For example, St. Augustine would admit scourging, fines, or exile, but would not admit killing as punishment for heresy.


While some of the Fathers did not favor the death penalty, Saint Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century found justification for the execution of heretics by the State:


“For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death. On the part of the Church, however, there is mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but "after the first and second admonition," as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death.”  See Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 11, art.3.


St. Thomas’ thought reflected the position of the Church at the time. In agreement with St. Thomas, the Church insisted that heretics were not to be killed immediately but needed to be vetted first. If they persisted in their heresy, then they were to be delivered into the hands of the State, which then determined the form of punishment. The punishment could be exile, imprisonment, scourging, obligatory pilgrimages, fines, the confiscation of property, or death.


Many emperors and civil societies accepted capital punishment, or the killing of wrongdoers who were deemed harmful to society, long before the thirteenth century. Thus, the pagan Germans delivered those found guilty of sorcery or witchcraft to the flames. In the eleventh century, the Cathars (or Albigensian heretics) were also regarded as a menace to society because of their violent behavior, their refusal to take the oaths of fealty required by their feudal lords, their anti-social stance against wealth, marriage, and the family, their hostility to the clergy, etc. The common people regarded them as worse than sorcerers and insisted that they, too, be executed and burned at the stake. The secular authorities in France, England, Germany, and Italy executed the heretics (either by hanging or by burning) to satisfy the demands of the people.


At the Synod of Verona in 1184, Pope Lucius III, with the concurrence of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (or Frederick Barbarossa), issued the papal bull Ad abolendam, which excommunicated the Cathars, the Peterines, the Arnoldists, and various other heretics but left the punishment of heretics into the hands of secular authorities. This might be regarded as the forerunner of the Papal Inquisition, which, however, was not formally created until 1233 by Pope Gregory IX.


Pope Gregory IX established the ecclesiastical tribunal, known as the Papal Inquisition, as a means of combating heresy. Although called “Papal,” the Inquisition was not a pontifical court, because it was not exactly run by the pope but by pope-appointed Dominican and Franciscan theologians who acted as inquisitors. These theologians investigated and tried the heretics, persuading them, if possible, to abandon their heresy and thus avoid punishment. However, the punishment and execution of stubborn heretics were left in the hands of secular authorities, following the earlier decree by Pope Lucius III. At this time, Pope Gregory IX did not object to the State’s use of the death penalty as a form of punishment, but he did not approve the use of torture as a tool of inquiry or as a form of punishment.


Pope Gregory IX

An illustration from a medieval manuscript

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In 1252, Pope Innocent IV, in his papal bull Ad extirpanda, approved the use of torture for extracting truth from those suspected of heresy. He permitted it, but “without killing them or breaking their arms or legs” (Law #25). This limited use of torture by an ecclesiastical court might seem atrocious today, but it could have been necessary in those days. Anyway, limited torture as a tool of inquiry has been an accepted practice by many secular authorities in the past and even in some places today. But, contrary to the exaggerated claims made by the enemies of the Catholic Church, a recent study of extant Vatican archives shows that torture and the death penalty were not applied mercilessly to heretics by the Papal Inquisition, which instead preferred the use of threats and imprisonment. (See the New York Times report made by Alexandra Stanley in October 1998.)  It is also important to distinguish the Papal Inquisition from the cruel Spanish Inquisition that happened during the 15th century. The Spanish Inquisition was controlled by the State, and the inquisitors were appointed by the Spanish monarchs rather than by the pope.

The Rise of Medieval Universities


Because of the failed Crusades, the proliferation of heresies, and the consequent launching of the much-maligned Papal Inquisition, many people had mistakenly regarded the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as part of the so-called “dark ages” in the history of the world. The term also implied a period of stagnation in the intellectual life of the church and retardation in the progress of science and the arts. But nothing can be further from the truth. This period—especially the thirteenth century—witnessed a tremendous advance in knowledge and skills, due partly to the growth of medieval universities. Instead of calling this period the “Dark Ages,” it would be more accurate to refer to it as the Golden Age of Faith.


Some of the famous medieval universities include, but were not limited to, the following:

  1. The University of Bologna, Italy, 1088, is noted for its school of law.

  2. The University of Paris, France, 1150, is noted for philosophy and theology.

  3. The University of Oxford, England, 1167, became a center for training clerics.

  4. The University of Salamanca, Spain, 1218, is an institute of higher education.

  5. The University of Cambridge, 1231, is an important center of learning and research.

  6. The Medical School of Salerno, Italy, 1231, is noted for the study of medicine.

  7. The University of Montpellier, France, 1289, is noted for its college of medicine.

  8. The University of Coimbra, Portugal, 1290, is noted for research and higher learning.


Meeting of Doctors at the University of Paris

An illustration from a 16th century manuscript

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The medieval universities started simply as groups of students who gathered around a master (usually a scholarly monk) to learn the subjects of the liberal arts: the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy), as well as philosophy (which includes the natural sciences) and theology. In the beginning, they also had no school buildings or infrastructure, and the greatness of the “schools” was judged by the scholarship of the teachers. The students were mostly men, and Latin was the language of choice as a medium of instruction.


In time, the universities became more organized and acquired fixed quarters, usually in cities. They usually had a written endorsement, called a charter, by the pope or by the king of the place where the university was located. Graduates of a university with a papal charter would have the right to teach anywhere in the world; those of a university with a king’s charter would have the right to teach only within the king’s domain. The lowest degree granted to graduates was the Bachelor of Arts degree; the highest was the Doctor of Philosophy.


Enrollment in these early universities was in the tens of thousands, exceeding even some of today’s universities. Considering the smaller population of Europe at the time, one could see that the people of the Middle Ages were not as illiterate as many history textbooks had portrayed them to be. The Renaissance—or the explosion of knowledge and achievement in the sciences, the arts, literature, and the humanities that happened from the 14th to the 17th century—had its roots in the vigorous intellectual life of the thirteenth century.

Achievements of the Thirteenth Century


In addition to the rise of universities during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there have been some notable developments in the various areas of human endeavor.


1. Science and Technology.  Although the experimental method was used by the Egyptians and Babylonians in ancient times and was employed by Aristotle and by Arabian philosophers after him, the principles of the scientific method (with its repeated series of observation, hypothesis, and experimental verification) were explained and formulated in 1266 by the Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (1220–1292). See Roger Bacon. In this respect, he antedated Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who is often given credit for formalizing the concept of the scientific method. In addition to the elucidation of the scientific method, great strides in medicine were accomplished in the thirteenth century and beyond, especially at the Universities of Salerno, Padua, and Bologna, where the dissection of cadavers and the use of various anesthetics were explored to advance the medical arts. See Medieval Medicine.


2. Painting. Painting became more lifelike and expressive in the late thirteenth century. It was a big departure from the iconic  Romanesque art of the 11th century. One painter who brought about this change was the Italian painter Giotto di Bondone (1266–1337), or simply Giotto. It was he who began a tradition of realistic-looking, Christian-inspired paintings that were later to be followed by Renaissance masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo.


The Kiss of Judas

A painting by Giotto di Bondone (1266-1337)

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3. Architecture and Sculpture. The thirteenth century saw the construction of magnificent Gothic cathedrals that even today serve as monuments to our Christian faith. These include the St. Denis and Notre Dame Cathedrals in Paris, the York Minster and Salisbury Cathedrals in England, the Burgos and Toledo Cathedrals in Spain, as well as the Cologne and Aachen Cathedrals in Germany. Although only two cathedrals are mentioned in each country, there were numerous cathedrals built in each of these countries. 80 cathedrals were built in France alone, 20 in England, and far more in Spain and Germany. It would be an eye-opening experience to just do a Google search and see the awe-inspiring cathedrals inherited from or inspired by medieval architecture. They replaced the sturdy and rugged Romanesque buildings that used to be the pride of earlier centuries. The Gothic cathedrals of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries boasted soaring spires and domed ceilings supported by beautiful flying buttresses. Masterpieces of art filled the domed ceilings, walls, and stained-glass windows of each cathedral. Innumerable statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the angels, the saints, kings, and other dignitaries, as well as Bible and historical scenes, surrounded the interior and exterior structures. Gothic architecture is truly Catholic architecture. The Gothic cathedrals were built not just by a few engineers or skilled craftsmen but by whole populations who were proud to build these structures as a living testament to their Catholic faith. The Scriptures and the Christian faith are so fully illustrated in the art and sculptures that ornamented the buildings that they were sometimes referred to as “books in stone.”


4. Philosophy and Theology. Before the thirteenth century, philosophers and theologians were mainly concerned with reading and publishing the writings of the Fathers but contributed little of their own. In the thirteenth century, however, a new system known as scholasticism flourished, which exploited the use of reason in explaining the faith. The scholastic theologians of the thirteenth century—particularly Saint Thomas Aquinas—showed that there was no conflict between reason and faith and that philosophy was, in fact, the “handmaid of theology.” The Scholastics, which included St. Anselm, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and others, had recourse to the writings of Aristotle (whom St. Thomas called “the philosopher par excellence”) to find the philosophical tools necessary for defending and explaining the faith. At the same time, they pointed to mysticism and intimate union with God as the better way of getting a better understanding of God.


The Virgin and Child with St. Dominic (left) and St. Thomas Aquinas (right)

A painting by Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

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5. Music. Before the thirteenth century, music was composed not just for entertainment but for worship. This tradition continued throughout the Middle Ages. But, although many religious hymns were written even during the Patristic era, some of the loftiest and most beautiful ones—still being used today! —were written by the Dominican and Franciscan friars of the thirteenth century. This includes the Eucharistic Hymns of St. Thomas Aquinas (Adoro te devote, Pange lingua, Sacris solemniis, Verbum supernum, and Lauda Sion), and the hymn dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows, the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, by the Franciscan, Fra. Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306).


6. Literature and Poetry. The growth and development of a particular literary type, known as drama, was introduced in the thirteenth century by the clergy to make the events of the gospel more meaningful to the people. This was initially used as part of the liturgy (the Mass), but it was removed when the vernacular supplanted Latin, and new characters and scenes were added to the plays. However, the famous Passion Plays that depicted the sufferings of our Lord, although enacted outside the liturgy, continue to be used to the present day during Holy Week. In addition to the development of religious drama, the late thirteenth century also opened new horizons in poetry as a medium for explaining the Faith. The Italian poet, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) wrote a long poem, called The Divine Comedy, which talked about a soul that made an imaginary journey through hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. In the course of its journey, the soul met many important and well-known personages from the beginning of human history to the thirteenth century. The purpose of the work was to illustrate the destiny of human souls and to help us, who are still living on earth, to move from a state of wretchedness to a state of blessedness.


This painting shows Dante standing next to the entrance to hell, the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory, and the city of Florence, with the heavenly spheres above.

Dante Holding his Divine Comedy

A painting by Domenico di Michelino (1417–1491)

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At the same time, Dante described in poetic language the Church’s theological understanding of hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. He described them so well that he has been aptly dubbed “Thomas Aquinas in verse.” Dante wrote his poem in Italian, but an American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), made an English translation that many people still regard as one of the best. For example, see the remarks made by Joseph Luzzi in How to Read Dante in the 21st Century.



The progress in the arts and sciences, philosophy and theology, literature, and the humanities was significant and may be attributed greatly to the influence of Christianity and the Catholic Church. Instead of identifying the entire Middle Ages with the Dark Ages, it would be more correct to speak of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as the Golden Age of Faith. On account of its achievements, some writers hail the thirteenth century, in particular, as the greatest of centuries.

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