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Life in Germany During the Middle Ages, Religion and the Church

Wodin, Ulfilas, John Huss, Benedictine rule, Johannes Tauler

Ancient Germanic peoples worshiped many gods, usually distinguishing between the greater sky gods, such as Wodin and Thor, and the lesser divinities who dwelled in fields, trees, and streams. The first recorded Christian missionary to the Goths was Ulfilas in the 4th century, who preached the Arian version of Christianity. This version was considered heretical because it denied the full divinity of Jesus Christ. Ulfilas and his successors converted almost all of the German peoples within the empire. Clovis and the Franks reconverted them to orthodox (Catholic) Christianity beginning in the 6th century.

The Frankish kingdom established a special relationship with the Roman church that continued under the Carolingians. Charlemagne enthusiastically encouraged missionary work among the Germans, which was largely completed by the end of his reign in 814. The pagan Slavs of eastern Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states were also eventually converted.

By the 10th century, numerous German monasteries and convents were operating under the Benedictine rule. This rule of daily life for monasteries was established by Saint Benedict of Nursia and stressed communal living, physical labor, prayer, and study. However, not all the monasteries adhered strictly to the rule. This prompted a monastery in Cluny, in central France, to lead a reform movement to restore strict adherence to the Benedictine rule. The Cluniac movement was well organized because all the monasteries were responsible to the central abbey in Cluny. The movement attracted support from many kings and bishops who supported monastic reform. The widespread following and strict rule of the Cluniacs made the movement a powerful force for stability in the Catholic Church.

Although this movement had little impact in German lands until the late 11th century, from that time on aristocratic and imperial families established numerous monasteries and convents. Parish churches and grandiose cathedrals also multiplied during this period and with them the number of clerics. The social background and duties of the clergy mirrored the hierarchical nature of the larger society. Positions of power, such as bishop (head of a diocese) and abbot (head of a monastery) tended to be held by members of aristocratic families, while parish priest and other lower positions went to individuals of peasant or worker status.

Converts often blended secular and even pagan ideas and practices with those of Christianity. This intermingling eventually resulted in a great diversity of local religious traditions in medieval Germany. Religious practices were woven into civic and village processions, festivals, and other communal gatherings.

There was no standardized training for parish priests, so sometimes they taught beliefs considered heretical by Rome. In southern Germany, followers of Peter Waldo, who were known as Waldenses, were especially critical of wealthy and powerful clerics during the 12th and 13th centuries. Another major challenge to the church came from Jan Hus (John Huss), who in the early 15th century advocated reducing the clergy’s authority, both in secular and ecclesiastical matters.

Perhaps the most distinctive German contribution to medieval Christianity was in the area of mysticism, the idea that an individual could achieve personal union with the divine. The Benedictine nun Hildegard of Bingen was the most famous mystic of the High Middle Ages and inspired a cult of followers long after her death in 1179. One of the most influential mystics of the later Middle Ages was Meister Eckhart, a Dominican theologian who became a popular preacher in the Rhineland. Eckhart taught that union with God could be achieved through emptying the self and allowing the divine spark to enter. Some of his ideas were declared heretical after his death, but his influence on German spirituality as well as literature was profound. The works of his disciples Heinrich Suso and Johannes Tauler represent some of the greatest German literary achievements of the later Middle Ages.

Beginning in the late 14th century, many of the teachings of the Rhineland mystics were incorporated in a movement called Modern Devotion. Also known as the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, this group established several houses in northern Germany and The Netherlands where lay people and clerics could meditate. Most of these houses also maintained small grammar schools where children—most notably Erasmus and Martin Luther—were taught to read and write.

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