The pretensions and intellectual ascendancy of the Catholic Church are not surprising when we consider the influence
it exercised over the imaginations and ideals of men, and particularly over those of the best of them. Asceticism, as encouraged by the Church, was one of the most influential ideals of medievalman. Christian monasticism, originating in the Egyptian deserts in the third and fourth centuries, was thought to have been brought to Western Europe by St. Athanasius in 340. In the sixth century St. Benedict established the monastic rule which came to bear his name, and to spread far and wide.
In the tenth century began what is known as the " Cluniac reformation," originating at the monastery of Cluny, which became the chief centre of European religious life in the tenth and eleventh centuries; there grew up here not only a stricter conception of the monastic life, but also a more exalted view of the dignity and authority of the Papacy and the Church. In 1098 the Cistercian order was established, its ardent originators again demanding a return to primitive simplicity, founding monasteries in sequestered localities, to which their enthusiasm for agricultural labour often brought prosperity.
The last of the great ascetic movements of the Middle Ages was the coming of the Mendicant Orders of Friars in the thirteenth centurythe Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Austin Friars. St. Francis (1182-1226), " the little poor man of Assisi," who regarded all created things as his brethren, and who preached to the birds, is a figure of the greatest spiritual beauty, and probably the most exquisite individual product of the religious idealism of his age. It is to be noted that each successive monastic movement found its justification in the alleged backslidings of the earlier ones, and the Friars, who constituted the last reform, did not themselves permanently adhere to the precepts of simplicity and poverty laid down by their founders who had sought by instituting a mendicant order to reform the indulgence that was invading some of the monasteries.
Monasticism produced many saints and heroes differing widely in character. Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII., 1073-85), who brought the Emperor Henry IV. to his knees at Canossa, was a Cluniac; and St. Bernard, that champion of orthodoxy against rationalism and innovation, the inspirer of the Second Crusade, was Cistercian Abbot of Clairvaux from 1115 to 1173. Such men made the medievalChurch what it was in the days of Innocent III. (1198-1216), or when its great Councils, such as the Lateran Council of 1216 and the Council of Constance in 1414, were synods of the whole of Western Christendom. Its might in moving men to action as well as to the devotional life is seen in the Crusades, which, although we think of them as being chiefly directed towards the recapture of the Holy Land, were also carried on against heretics such as the Albigenses and their leader, Raymond of Toulouse, at whose rich court the troubadours and Courts of Love flourished. Religion could sometimes keep men at peace as well as inspire them to fight for their faith, as we may see in that curious phenomenon, the Truce of God (Treuga Dei), appearing in Guienne in the eleventh century and spreading through France to other parts of Europe; there was to be a truce to all feuds during Christian festivals and from Wednesday evening to Monday morning every week!