The growing power of the Church in an age of disorder

As the structure of the Roman Empire disintegrated, invasions multiplied, wars and disorder increased, and life and property became progressively unsafe, the Church stepped into the breach and took over some of the functions for which society had been accustomed to look to the state. It emerged as the protector of the weak, the poor, the widows, and the orphans. That was notably the case in Gaul. Here in the fifth and sixth centuries the bishops were largely recruited from the Gallo-Roman aristocracy. Drawn as they were from the wealthy, educated, Latinized provincials, they stood for the old order, but it was an order of comparative justice and stability in a day of an approach towards anarchy.

As time passed, in Western Europe, especially north of the Alps, bishops tended to become magnates not differing greatly from secular lords except in their titles and some of their functions. As the power of the central government declined and much of it passed into the hands of feudal lords, the Church, caught in the trends of the day, also in part conformed and its chief officials, notably its bishops, had their armies and bore arms. There were splendid exceptions, but we hear of bishops who were unchaste, gluttonous, and bibulous. Power of the secular kind entailed perils to true Christian living, and many there were who succumbed.

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