Post-classical history


The idea of mission was foreign to the original conception of the crusade. Neither the conversion of pagans nor the return of heretics and schismatics to the bosom of the church figured in the plan of Pope Urban II for the restoration of the “kingdom of Christ” that he set out when proclaiming the First Crusade (1096-1099) at the Council of Clermont in November 1095. In Iberia, the Reconquista (the Christian reconquest) involved the recovery of the peninsula from the Muslims, but not their conversion.

The spread of Christianity among the peoples on the northern and western fringes of Christendom had been accomplished before the inception of the crusade movement, thanks to the advance of the Carolingian Empire, by the intervention of monks from Ireland and England, and through other forms of contacts established in particular by the Holy Roman Emperors and their clergy, often by means of marriage alliances and without any general preconceived plans. In 1147 St. Bernard of Clairvaux envisaged the conversion of the pagan Slavs (known to the Germans as Wends) living beyond the River Elbe, in conjunction with a military campaign that was primarily intended to secure the frontiers of the kingdom of Germany during the absence of King Conrad III in the Second Crusade (1147-1149). Although such a campaign did take place, it failed in the aim of Christianization.

The conversion of these Slavic peoples beyond the Elbe was undertaken in the second half of the twelfth century by the Cistercians. They carried out their mission to the pagan princes, whose conversion, with its attendant destruction of idols, also brought about that of their subjects, and completed their task with the foundation of monasteries to enable Christianity to take root among the Slavic population. The Cistercian Berno proceeded in this manner among the Abodrites, and in the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Cistercian mission, promoted by the archbishops of Riga, spread through Brandenburg, Pomerania, Livonia, and Prussia. However, the aggressive reactions of the pagans compelled the bishops in these regions to appeal to military orders: the Order of Dobrin, the Sword Brethren, and above all the Teutonic Knights, who proved to be less attentive to the evangelization of the pagans than to their submission, and pursued a frontier war against their Lithuanian neighbors well into the fifteenth century, long after the latter had accepted Christianity.

From 1211 onward the Cistercian Order began to resist papal demands for brethren for the mission to Livonia or to the Cathar heretics (Albigensians) of southern France, on the grounds that such activity would disrupt conventual life. It was the new order of the Dominicans who took over the task: its founder, St. Dominic Guzman, had been trained at the Cistercian monastery of Fontfroide, which was then a missionary center in contact with the Albigensian country. The Dominicans missionized the Turkic Cumans, who had come under the protection of the kingdom of Hungary in 1223, meeting with sufficient success for Pope Honorius III to set up a Cuman diocese and appoint as bishop a Dominican prior, Thierry. One Dominican, Julian of Hungary, travelled through the lands north of the Caucasus, trying to reach the country known as “Greater Hungary” (Lat. Magna Hun- garia), the mythical homeland of the Magyar people; it was Julian who brought back to the Hungarians the first news about the great Mongol invasion that was to descend upon them in 1240. In 1229, following the cession of the city of Jerusalem to Emperor Frederick II by the Ayyûbids, some Dominicans founded a convent in the Holy City. They made contact with the heads of the Eastern Christian churches, reaching Baghdad in 1237 and founding a convent in Tbilisi in Georgia in 1240. Meanwhile the Franciscans, who had initially been devoted to the reform of Western Christian society, also took an interest in the infidels: during the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), their founder, St. Francis of Assisi, personally addressed the sultan of Egypt. Franciscan friars went to preach in Morocco, where they were soon entrusted with a bishopric, although their flock essentially consisted of the Spanish mercenaries of the sultan; they did, however, endeavor to give spiritual assistance to Christian prisoners in this Muslim country.

Pope Gregory IX recognized the specific character of the missionary task by granting the friars sent “among the nations” (the list of which constantly grew longer as the missionaries reached new countries) bulls whose preamble started with the words Cum hora undecima, conferring the rights to baptize, to reconcile excommunicates with the church, and to pass judgment on matrimonial matters. The rights granted in such bulls were at times of the same order as the powers conferred on papal legates.

The coming of the Mongols to Russia and Persia induced Pope Innocent IV to conduct negotiations with them in the hope of halting their invasions. The papal envoys John of Piano Carpini, Anselm of Cremona, and John of Longjumeau were also commissioned to invite the Mongols to receive baptism, but achieved little. Yet in 1253, upon hearing that Prince Sartaq had been baptized, William of Rubruck set out for the Mongols with the aim of preaching the gospel and giving spiritual assistance to Westerners who had been deported to Central Asia; he also made contact with Nestor- ian Christians, of whom there were many in the Mongol territories. Others followed in William’s footsteps.

Pope Innocent IV also sent envoys who were charged with meeting the prelates of the Eastern churches, but were also commissioned to bring the gospel to the Muslim princes of the East. The latter were willing to allow theological discussions among scholars, but were not themselves attracted to Christianity. Indeed, any preaching of the gospel to the Muslim peoples—considered blasphemous in their eyes— was impossible: many missionaries were martyred, for instance in Selmas (1284), Erzincan (1314), Thana in India (1321), and Almaligh in Turkestan (1339). The Catalan theologian and writer Ramon Llull, who had devoted his life to the task of mission, especially among the Muslims, and who planned the creation of language schools for missionaries, was imprisoned after preaching in North Africa in 1307, and though later released, was stoned to death there in 1315.

The Frankish states of Outremer were an exception to such trends, since there were many Muslim subjects and slaves there who could be evangelized without danger, even though their Christian masters were not enthusiastic about the prospect. The preaching in Outremer of William of Tripoli, a Dominican who in 1274 wrote a treatise showing a good knowledge of Islam, met with some success. Around 1290 a fellow Dominican, Ricoldo of Monte Croce, ventured as far as Baghdad, where he was able to frequent Muslim scholarly circles; he devised guidelines for the use of missionaries and wrote a refutation of the Qu’rân. Contacts with Eastern Christians intensified and eventually constituted an important part of the missionaries’ activity: after the Armenian and Maronite churches forged links with Rome at the end of the twelfth century, the Dominicans and Fran- sciscans strove to win the hierarchies of those churches to the positions of the Latin Church. In 1288 Yahballaha III, catholicos of the Nestorian Church of the East, pledged allegiance to the pope, and some Dominicans took up residence with him at Maragha.

In the Mongol Empire, in contrast to Muslim countries, the missionaries were free to preach, and found favor with some princes. These circumstances allowed a more organized mission. The Franciscan province of “Gazaria,” corresponding to the Mongol khanate of the Golden Horde, sent back an account of the successes achieved by its brethren there in 1287. The Mongols of Persia were eager to enter into a military alliance with the West against the Mamlûks of Egypt and Syria. The popes’ envoys to the Ilkhans pressed them to convert, and the future khan Oljeitu was even baptized. In 1295, however, the Ilkhan Ghazan converted to Islam, coercing his Mongol subjects into following his example: the hope of seeing the Mongols of Persia embrace Christianity thus had to be abandoned. In “Gazaria” it would seem that Toktai, khan of the Golden Horde, received baptism and was buried in the Franciscan church at Sarai; however, his successor, Ozbeg, became a Muslim.

The Franciscan John of Monte Corvino, entrusted in 1289 with messages from the pope to the sovereigns and church leaders of the East, traveled on as far as India, where he embarked for China. There his activities met with great success, at the court of the king of the Ongut Turks and among the Alans of the imperial guard, but also among the natives. This success induced Pope Clement V to raise Khanbaligh (near Beijing) to the rank of an archbishopric in 1307, with responsibility for the whole of the Mongol Empire. Other successes led Pope John XXII to establish another see inSultâniyya, capital of the Mongol khans of Persia, which was also responsible for India, where Jourdain Cathala de Sev- erac was preaching. It might be envisaged that once established, these ecclesiastical provinces could eventually function without the need for missionary staff; yet the vast extent of their territories made that hope illusory. Other archbishoprics were established in a more accessible region, at Matrega in Kuban and Sarai on the River Volga. They were committed to the care of prelates who came from the same region, John and Cosmas, who were of Cherkess origin. For a long time there was also a Christian community following the Roman rite in the “Caspian Mountains,” that is, Daghestan in the Caucasus.

The Dominicans created a specific missionary organization in the form of the Society of Brethren Peregrinating for Christ (Lat. Fratres Peregrinantes pro Christo) founded around 1312. The Franciscans established two vicariates for North Tartary and East Tartary; they also founded convents, and simple residences (Lat. loca) were put up. In Armenia, where Barthelomew of Poggio had initiated the Armenians into scholastic philosophy, an Armenian community of the Dominican obedience was created, the Unitary Brethren (Lat. Unitores), which managed to last despite a fierce nationalistic reaction, especially in Nakhichevan. Some original initiatives were taken: in order to follow nomadic tribes, the Franciscans created mobile mission posts mounted on wagons. The need to learn new languages produced the Codex Cumanicus, a dictionary of Turkish, Persian, and Latin compiled in the Black Sea region around 1330.

The papacy attempted to coordinate missionary efforts by dispatching legates to these regions, notably Odorico da Por- denone and John of Marignolla. It requested reports from the archbishops ofSultâniyya, such as John of Cori’s Livre de l’E-stat du grant Caan (Book of the Estate of the Great Khan), while in 1373 a committee of bishops was established in Avignon to deal with missionary issues.

Yet by this time political conditions had changed. Contacts with the Eastern churches of the former Mongol Empire in Persia declined as they increasingly turned in upon themselves. When Pope Eugenius IV tried to make them a party to the vast plan of church union conceived at the Council of Florence, it was only with some difficulty that his envoys reached the leaders of some of these churches, who at least permitted the promulgation of some of the decrees of union. In the case of the Nestorian Church, however, the Latins had to be content to negotiate with the archbishop of Tarsos, who was resident in Cyprus. The Mongol Empire of China had collapsed, and the “Christians of Cathay,” whom Westerners remembered, and for whom a search was made in the sixteenth century, led a shadowy existence in the steppe areas or in South China. Mongolia had embraced Tibetan Lamaism; the Golden Horde and Central Asia had passed into the hands of Muslim princes; and Christianity did not survive in these countries.

The campaigns of the Turkic conqueror Timur (Tamerlane) were a severe blow to the Christian communities of the Caucasus, and Pope Boniface IX considered a crusade to relieve them. They were also affected by the progress of the Ottoman Turks. Lodovico Severi of Bologna, a Franciscan who conveyed appeals from Eastern potentates to the rulers of the West, asked the pope to give him responsibility for the remnant of the converts to Catholicism in these countries, with the title of patriarch of Antioch. Though he was interested at first, Pope Pius II did not pursue the suggestion.

Nevertheless, new fields of activity continued to emerge. One was Ethiopia, which established relations with Rome, thanks largely to the Franciscans in the Holy Land. On the eastern frontiers of Europe, the Cumans of Hungary and the Finns, who both had been evangelized by the mendicant orders, finally converted, as did the Lithuanians. The conversion of the latter had begun in the thirteenth century and was resumed as a result of the Polish-Lithuanian political alliance. In the Atlantic, the discovery of the Canary Islands enabled the conversion of their native inhabitants.

It would have needed a much larger establishment than was now available to maintain the missionary enthusiasm of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Black Death alone did away with most of the missionaries in the Mongol Empire. Interest in missionary activity was essentially confined to the milieu of religious orders. The Western traders who had once supported the efforts of the friars, and who were still numerous in the fourteenth century, no longer frequented the routes of Asia. It was only in the Age of Discoveries that missionary work was again resumed on a similar scale.

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