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[Chapter 2 9]
At the middle of the fifteenth century the civilized world and with it Christianity were being ushered into a new age. The Mongol Empire, which for nearly a century had been ruling the heart-land of Eurasia, was breaking up. With its disappearance the caravan routes across Asia became more insecure and China all but closed her doors to the outside world. Near the end of the century a Mongol, Timur (Tamerlane), was laying waste much of Central and Western Asia. The Ottoman Turks were building a huge realm, in 1453 overwhelmed the Byzantine Empire and established their capital at Constantinople, and threatened to engulf part or all of Western Europe. In Western Europe, where Christianity now had its main stronghold, the medieval structure of society and its associated culture were beginning to pass.
These changes brought heavy geographical losses to Christianity and confronted it with grave challenges. The Christian minorities which on the eve of 1350 had been found across Asia either shrank or disappeared. By 1500 Christianity was scarcely even a memory in China and Central Asia; in India it survived, but only in small, encysted minorities; and in Western Asia, including what had been an early major centre of the faith, Asia Minor, the Christian communities declined. The headquarters of Greek Orthodox Christianity, Constantinople, was in the hands of Moslem rulers and Saint Sophia, the main cathedral of that wing of the faith, had been converted into a mosque. The eastern shores of the Mediterranean, where once had been the chief scenes of Christian thought and activity, were ruled by Moslems. Ofthe five historic patriarchal sees of the Catholic Church, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome, all but the last were now under the Crescent.
Even in Western Europe, where those who professed the Christian faith remained politically in the ascendant, the threat was sobering. The institutions which had been erected as bulwarks of the faith--monasteries, the clergy, and especially the Papacy--were honeycombed with corruption. The populations remained nominally Christian, but in Italy, where was the administrative centre of the Western wing of the Catholic Church, Christian morality was widely flaunted and the intellectual currents, associated as they were with a revived admiration of pre-Christian art and literature, appeared to be setting in against the faith. The emerging nation-states were threatening even the imperfect unity in the Christian community which had been attained under the Holy Roman Empire and the Church of Rome. The Church had been associated with feudalism and a predominantly rural culture. Feudalism was passing and cities were growing. It was not at all clear that the Church could adjust itself to the new order and win it. It might slowly fade with the disappearance of the kind of society which it had earlier penetrated and with which it had become identified. Moreover, the tenuous bonds which held together the Western and Eastern branches of the Catholic Church had at last been severed. Christian unity, never all-inclusive, suffered further disruption.
Yet the losses were not as great nor was the prospect as grim as they had been during the great recession between the end of the fifth and the middle of the tenth century. Although over most of Asia the Christian communities died out, east of Mesopotamia they had never been more than small minorities. In contrast with that earlier period when about half of what might be called Christendom became subject to Moslems and the churches in it slowly withered, after 1350 the main body of Christendom remained. While the territorial gains were not as extensive nor ultimately as significant as had been those between 500 and 950, some advances were registered, notably in Russia, Lithuania, and against the Moslems in Spain.
Even more important was the vitality displayed within the churches. The vigorous monastic movements in Russia were evidence that in that land the Greek Orthodox form of the faith was not only firmly rooted but was sending out fresh shoots. Although in Western Europe no theological activity appeared which for depth and originality could compare with that of the Middle Ages and no new monastic orders came into being which for numbers and the impression made on the region equalled such earlier movements as the Benedictines, Cluniacs, Cistercians, Franciscans, and Dominicans, the period was by no means sterile. Christian mysticism was widespread and was probably more varied and perhaps richer than at any previous time. There were numerous attempts, some of them successful, at monastic reform. New communities, notably the Brethren of the Common Life and the Hieronymites, came into being. In Spain a wave of reform spread to much of the Church and Vincent Ferrer brought his fervour to thousands in that land, France, and Italy. In several countries preaching seems to have increased and to have reached more people than before. Humanism was being captured by the Christian faith. Wyclif and the Lollards, Hus and the Hussites were evidence that the faith was becoming the conscious property of thousands in England and Bohemia and was not being passively received from the South as had previously been the case. Catherine of Siena, Catherine of Genoa, and Savonarola were the most prominent among many who were proof that even in Italy, where Christian morality was widely flouted, the Christian faith was very much alive. In many places the Gospel was stirring the masses. A ground swell was appearing which in the sixteenth century was to become a flood tide. Under the impulse of that tide in the next two and a half centuries Christianity was to create new as well as to utilize old expressions and was to have a greater geographic expansion than it or any other religion had thus far displayed. History of Christianity: Volume II. Copyright � by Kenneth S. Latourette. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.