General and Introductory Materials
Part 2 History of the Liturgy

Chapter d24 Medieval Period [1200-1299 CE]

Historical Context


Thomas Aquinas

To Think About

Historical Context

Educational and Scientific History: 1200 - 1300 The growth of lay education. Students start entering schools with no intention of becoming priests, and education is offered in European languages other than Latin. The rise in lay education causes a loss in Church control over education, the growth of literacy in the West and the transformation of cathedral schools into advanced liberal arts universities. Bologna and Paris are the distinguishing schools of the High Middle Ages. 1214: Roger Bacon advocates concrete sensory observation for the advancement of scientific thought, rather than abstract reasoning. 1260 Muslim scholars translate many texts from their original languages (Greek / Arabic) into Latin, including the texts of Aristotle. 1265: Dante Alighieri is born. (Divine Comedy) 1267: Florentine Giotto, the most important painter of the later Middle Ages, begins the modern tradition in painting. 1300: The beginning of the Late Middle Ages witnesses the invention of the magnetic compass, greatly aiding overseas expansion and enhancing trade between places such as Italy and the North.

Social and Civil History:  Europe's population doubled between 1000 and 1300. Life expectancies were probably not much higher than age 25 around 1000, but closer to 35 by 1300. 1202 Pope Innocent III calls for a crusade against the Albigensians (a heretical sect in the south of France).1204 The crusaders of the Fourth Crusade capture Constantinople. The sack of Constantinople causes a firm Byzantine hatred of the West. 1204 King John of England loses Normandy and the surrounding area to the French king, Philip Augustus. 1212 Spain reconquers the Iberian peninsula from the Muslims. 1244 Jerusalem is lost by the West and is not recaptured again until 1917. 1252: The papacy approves the use of torture for religious disobedience, following Innocent III's brutal "inquisitions" against heresy. 1261: The Byzantine Empire returns to Constantinople.

Popes and Religious History: 1189 Innocent III becomes Pope.  1206: St. Francis of Assisi, at the age of twenty-five begins "conversion" -- the founder of the Franciscan order which seeks to imitate the life of Jesus by embracing poverty. St. Francis wins the support of Pope Innocent III.   1208: Innocent III calls for the Albigensian Crusade in order to destroy the heretical threat of the Albigensians. 1215: Innocent III organizes the Fourth Lateran Council. 1216: The Dominican order is founded by St. Dominic.  The Dominicans eventually become the main administrators of inquisitorial trials. 1216 Honorius III becomes Pope. 1225: Thomas Aquinas, the most influential Scholastic theologian, is teaching at the University of Paris. 1227 Gregory IX becomes Pope. 1241 Celestine IV becomes Pope (he lived for 16 days and died before his coronation!)  1242: St. Bonaventure enters the Franciscan order. He becomes the seventh general of that order within fifteen years. He is a professor of theology at the University of Paris, Bishop of Albano, made cardinal by Gregory X and is canonized by Sixtus IV. 1243 Innocent IV becomes Pope.

1254 Alexander IV becomes Pope. 1261 Urban IV becomes Pope. 1265 Clement IV becomes Pope. 1268 - 1971 no Pope because the voting cardinals are deadlocked. 1271 Gregory X becomes pope at the conclusion of a papal election that ran from 1268 to 1271, the longest papal election in the history of the Roman Catholic Church. 1276 Innocent V (Dominican) becomes Pope (lives for another 153 days). 1276 Adrian V becomes Pope (lives for only 38 days). 1276 John XXI becomes Pope (there was no John XX). 1277 Nicolas III becomes Pope. 1281 Martin IV becomes Pope. 1285 Honorius IV becomes Pope. 1288 Nicholas IV (Franciscan) becomes Pope. 1292-1294 Cardinals deadlocked; no Pope. 1294 Celestine V (Benedictine) becomes Pope.  Quit after 161 days. 1294 Boniface VIII (1235-1303) becomes the 17th Pope of the century. [Dante placed Boniface in the Eighth Circle of Hell in his Divine Comedy among the simonists.] 1300 Boniface VIII calls the first papal "jubilee," thereby recognizing pilgrimages to Rome instead of Jerusalem, which is no longer accessible to the West. 1302: In his Bull Unam Sanctam, Boniface VIII proclaimed that it "is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff".  

The above material is adapted from the historical time line published by the University of Evansville and from

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The above material is adapted from the historical time line published by the University of Evansville and from

 Return to:   Top of This Page  --- Documents Index --- Fr. Tom's Home Page

Thomas Aquinas

A person studying sacraments today, in the twenty-first century, might wonder:  "What would Thomas Aquinas have known about the sacraments in relation to what we know about the sacraments today?"

Sacraments in General

The Shoe Box Metaphor prevails.  The 7 are distinct acts with little to do with each other.  They do have some things in common:  They are things.  Each of these holy things has (as Aristotle explained) "matter" and "form" -- except Confession which has no "matter".   They were each instituted by Christ during his lifetime and each sacrament gives grace (also a "thing').

The Sacraments are administered in Latin -- which until the 16th century was the official language of law, government, business and education in Western Europe.  Thomas spoke, wrote, prayed, and taught in Latin -- as did all educated Europeans at the time. 


Baptism is for infants; and is to be administered as soon a possible after birth because original sin is a "mortal sin" and parents would sin gravely to so endanger their infant.  The mother is not present; the infant is held by a "godmother".   There is a ritual for adult converts but it is never used as it takes too long;  in the back of the ritual book (in the appendix) is a "Rite for Baptism in Danger of Death" -- this is the Rite that is used for both Adult and Infant baptisms.  [The Roman Rite does not develop a "Rite for the Baptism of Infants" until 1969.]


As Baptism is a sacrament of "birth" into the faith, Confirmation is the sacrament of "adulthood" in the Faith. [adulthood  = age 12 or 14]   The bishop is the only minister of Confirmation.  It is received before First Eucharist [as an adult].  Many Catholics probably never receive this sacrament (as it is not required by Scripture as are Baptism and Eucharist). 

Thomas would not have been aware of the original unity of the sacraments of initiation or that the Eastern Church preserved this unity and did not have "Confirmation" as a unique event. 

[Note that it is only in 1909 when the Pope lowers the age for First Eucharist [from adulthood to childhood] that the order of the initiation sacraments is altered.  


Every Catholic is obliged to attend Sunday Mass.  People come; visit, (and in a Cathedral, look at the statues and pictures and windows), perhaps say some prayers.  When the bell rings they stop what they are doing and attend to Mass. Mass is the moment of consecration; when the bread becomes the Body of Christ and the priest lifts it up for adoration and Ocular Communion.  (Often the big church bell is rung to summon the men to come inside because Mass is about to happen.)  Some "fence" this obligation and say you must be present for at least the Offertory, Consecration, and [priest's] Communion.   Most people never receive Communion even though they are obliged under pain of mortal sin to do so around Easter [exact dates vary].  Saints and holy people might receive as often as 4 times a year.  

For a description of Sunday and Eucharist click   THIRTEENTH CENTURY: A VILLAGE IN ENGLAND

At the Universities, the text for sacraments was "The Sentences" by Peter Lombard.  While there had never been any doubt about the "real presence" of Christ at the Eucharist, the theologians now began to discuss how this could be.  They began to use the newly discovered works of the Greeks, especially Aristotle, to find a vocabulary (e.g. substance and accidents) to explain the "how" of Christ's presence.  The theory of transubstantiation gains prominence in the universities.

Thomas would have presumed that the Roman Canon was used universally in the Church and that it came from the Apostles.  He would have been aware of the development of this prayer or that the Eastern Churches had many other prayers, prayers which included an epiclesis for the Holy Spirit to change the gifts. 


The telling of mortal sins to one's pastor and receiving absolution from them.  One must confess at least once a year  (presumably during the "Easter time" because of the requirement for making one's Easter Duty.  The confessor must be a priest with the power of jurisdiction.

Thomas would not have been aware that "Canonical Penance" or "Celtic Penance" had ever existed in the Church; nor would he have been aware that the Eastern Church had different rituals for penance. 

Extreme Unction

The final anointing (of the 5 senses) which prepares one for immanent death and which takes away venial sins (Franciscan School) or which takes away the temporal punishment due to sin (Dominican school.)  Because Extreme Unction forgives sins, only a priest [with jurisdiction] can administer the sacrament.  Extreme Unction is something like going to the doctor, which you would only do when all else had failed.  Extreme Unction removed the pains of purgatory.  (1254 Pope Innocent IV officially formulated the doctrine of purgatory  ).

For Thomas, the Last Rites (rites in the plural) were Confession, Viaticum, Extreme Unction, and the Apostolic Blessing (in that order).  After 1970 the Last Rites are:  Reconciliation [if requested],  Anointing of the Sick, Holy Communion, (Viaticum, if the person is dying), and the Apostolic Blessing. Note that the order has changed.  This is not without theological significance.

Holy Orders

A priest is a man set apart and ontologically changed into Christ which enables him to say:  "This is my body" and "I absolve you." (in the name and person of Christ).  A bishop is a priest with special jurisdiction powers.  A deacon is one studying for the priesthood.  [The Pope is a distant figure, more of a civil ruler, who is in office for 4 or 5 years and then dies.] 


A contract between a man and a woman giving the other the exclusive right to their body's sexual activity for the purpose of procreation. 

[The elaborate moral and canonical regulation of marriage and sexuality, of course, comes later.  The requirement that Roman Catholics are to be married before a priest and two witnesses comes with the decrees of Trent.  And the morality was based on the physiological understandings of the time; e.g. the ovum was not discovered until 1828.]

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To Think About

How would ordinary Christians of the time understand the sacraments? 

How would the experience of St. Thomas compare with a Roman Catholic in 1960?

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