Early reform efforts by Bishops

Here is not the place even to name all the bishops who were active in trying to lift the level of Christian living in their dioceses. To enumerate them would extend these pages far beyond any reasonable length. As fairly typical of many we must pause to speak briefly of a few who were active early in this period. We must especially name two who, although in different countries, were contemporaries.

In England in the tenth century that recovery continued from the destruction from the Viking invasions which had been begun under Alfred the Great. To be sure, the land was later to be ruled from Denmark and in 1066 it was conquered by descendants of the Vikings, the Normans, but these alien monarchs did not deal the severe blows to orderly life and to the Church that had been given by their pagan predecessors. Part of the recovery was seen in the improvement of the religious life of the realm. This was through the reinvigoration of old monastic houses, the founding of new ones, and efforts to purify the life of the entire nation. Of the many who were both the children of the revival and aided it, Dunstan was outstanding. We have already met him as a leader in monastic reform.

Dunstan was born about 909 in the south of England. He was related to the royal house and members of his family had occupied important episcopal sees. He is a controversial figure, but from his youth until extreme old age, for he died in 988, when he was nearly eighty, he was influential in the Church, and in his maturity he was also outstanding in affairs of state. He was one of the most learned men in the realm. Indeed, as was so often the case in Western Europe in that age, the repute of his scholarship and mechanical skill led to a popular report that he was an adept in the black arts. He had force of character and initiative which aroused opposition but which also had the capacity to inspire others and to win their veneration and love. There was about him, too, an aura of authentic sanctity which made a profound impression on many.

In his youth, as a result of a severe illness, Dunstan became a monk. In his mid-thirties he was made Abbot of Glastonbury and the monastery which he built there became the centre of a religious awakening. He attracted able followers, some of whom in time became leaders in the Church. An unfriendly king exiled him to the Continent and there he came in touch with some of the new tides of life. Brought back to England in 957 by a new and devout young monarch, Dunstan became a leader in a widespread monastic revival which seems to have been modelled in part upon what he had seen on the Continent but which was also distinctively English. Appointed to the see of Worcester, he was soon transferred, or, to use a later technical term, "translated," to the see of London and then, as Archbishop of Canterbury, to the primacy of the entire Church in England. He did much for the political unification of England, strove to improve the administration of justice, and sought to win the Scandinavian elements. In the more strictly religious aspects of life he endeavoured to eradicate what was left of paganism, to improve the quality of the secular clergy, and to bring the entire body of laity to a higher moral and spiritual level. He was supported and supplemented by two other extraordinarily able and devoted monks who were made bishops. One of them, Oswald, of Danish ancestry, who lived on until 992, as Bishop of Worcester and then as Archbishop of York strove not only to further the monastic movement but also to be a father of all in his dioceses.

While the awakening in England was taking place, a somewhat similar advance was being registered in Germany. As we have seen, in 911, when the Carolingian line died out in that land, Conrad of Franconia was elected king, and was followed in 919 by Henry the Fowler, Duke of Saxony. Conrad was in close alliance with the Church, for an archbishop had been chiefly responsible for putting him on the throne and a bishop was his chief adviser. Henry the Fowler had little use for the Church. Henry the Fowler in turn was succeeded by his son, Otto I, "the Great," who was descended from Charlemagne in the female line and who, as we have recorded, reigned from 936 to 973 and in 962 was crowned Roman Emperor. Otto made extensive use of the Church. He strengthened the great bishoprics. Since they were non-hereditary, he could control the elections to them and make their incumbents his allies to offset the power of the hereditary lay nobility. He also used frontier dioceses to push forward German rule over the Slavs east of the Elbe. Under him there was a literary revival which centred at his court and which was led by Irish and English monks and by Greek and Italian scholars. Next came Otto II, son of Otto I. He reigned from 973 to 983 and died before he was thirty. Otto III, son of Otto II and a Byzantine princess, was brought to the throne at the age of three by his father's death and died in 1002 in his early twenties. Reared by his mother and under ecclesiastical influence, he purposed restoring the glory of the Roman Empire and was also very devout and deeply concerned for the welfare and purity of the Church. Henry II, who reigned from 1002 to 1024, was also genuinely religious. He was eventually canonized, along with his queen. While firm with the clergy he was generous with them and was an ardent furtherer of reform. Conrad II (reigned 1024-1039), a strong ruler, was politically rather than religiously minded. He was followed by Henry III (reigned 1039-1056), an extremely able monarch. Earnestly Christian, he was reinforced by a queen of similar convictions. Thoroughly committed to the Cluniac reforms, he fought simony, went on pilgrimages, and in 1043 proclaimed the Day of Indulgence, using it to announce forgiveness to his foes and to urge that his subjects follow his example. With such a succession of monarchs, several of them vigorous and seeking to strengthen the Church, and a few of them ardent reformers, it is not surprising that movements for improving the quality of Christian living should be making headway. To this also contributed the cessation of the destructive incursions of barbarians.

Revival in the Church did not come entirely or even primarily by the initiative of the monarchs. Nor, at the outset, was it from the movement which was associated with Cluny. In the first half of the tenth century, as we have seen, Gerhard as founder and abbot of a monastery at Brogne, south of Namur, in what is now Belgium, was the outstanding pioneer of an awakening which spread through much of Lotharingta, a territory which was roughly the region of the Rhine Valley. Reinforcement came, as we have also noted, especially from the monastery of Gorze, in the diocese of Metz, a centre in which the new life sprang up quite independently of both Brogne and Cluny. But it was not long before Cluny was also making its influence felt.

In the second half of the tenth century and the first half of the eleventh century this German reform movement was augmented by the enhanced position given the bishops by Otto I and by the zeal of Henry II and Henry III. Great prelates cleansed monaster ies, built churches, promoted education, fostered art, and in other ways strove to improve the spiritual and moral life in their dioceses.

Among the best of these bishops was Bernward of Hildesheim, who, born about the year 960 and dying in 1022, was a contemporary of Dunstan, He was of noble Saxon stock, from a family which had provided several prominent Church officials. As a younger son he was reared for a high post in the Church and seems from the beginning to have had a genuine religious interest. Educated in the cathedral school at Hildesheim, the seat of a bishopric which had been planned by Charlemagne nearly two centuries earlier as part of his programme for pacifying and giving religious training to the Saxons, Bernward became a tutor of Otto III and was later a trusted friend of the zealous Henry II. He was made Bishop of Hildesheim and in that post built churches, fought nicolaitanism among his clergy, gathered relics, and promoted art and education. He was canonized in the century after his death.

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