All through the times of which I had been speaking, missions to the heathen were actively carried on. Much of this kind was done in Asia, and, indeed, the heart of Asia seems to have been more open and better known to Europeans during some part of the middle ages than it has ever been since. But as those parts were so far off, and so hard to get at, it often happened that dishonest people, for their own purposes, brought to Europe wonderful tales of the conversion of Eastern nations, or of their readiness to be converted, which had no real ground. And sometimes the crafty Asiatic princes themselves made a pretence of willingness to receive the Gospel, when all that they really wanted was to get some advantages of other kinds from the pope and the Christians of the West.
A great deal was heard in Europe of a person who was called Prester (that is to say, "presbyter" or "priest") John. He was believed to live in the far East, and to be both a king and a Christian priest. And there really was at one time a line of Christian princes in Asia, between Lake Baikal and the northern border of China, whose capital was Karakorum; but in 1202 their kingdom was overthrown by the Tartar conqueror, Genghis-Khan; although the belief in Prester John, which had always been mixed with a good deal of fable, continued long after to float in the minds of the Western Christians.
The mendicant orders, which (as we have seen) were founded in the time of Innocent III (pp 225-7), took up the work of missions with great zeal; and some of the Franciscan missionaries especially, by undergoing martyrdom, gained great credit for their order in its early days. There were also travellers who made their way into the East from curiosity or some other such reason, and brought home accounts of what they had seen. The most famous of these travellers was Marco Polo, a Venetian of a trading family, who lived many years in China, and found his way back to Europe by India and Ceylon. Some of these travellers report that they found the Nestorian (p 146) clergy enjoying great influence at the courts of Asiatic sovereigns; for the Nestorians had been very active in missions at an earlier time, and had made many converts in Asia; but the travellers, who saw them only after they had been long settled there, describe them very unfavourably in all ways. John of Monte Corvino, an Italian, was established by Pope Clement V as Archbishop of Cambalu (or Peking) with seven bishops under him; and Christianity seemed thus far to be flourishing in that region (AD 1307).
In the meantime the people of countries bordering on the Baltic Sea were converted, although not without much trouble. Sometimes they would profess to welcome the Gospel; but as soon as the preachers had left them they disowned it, and washed themselves, as if by doing so they might get rid of their Christian baptism. And the missionaries often found themselves at a loss how to deal with the ignorant superstition of these people. Thus a missionary in Livonia, named Dietrich, was threatened with death because an eclipse had taken place during his visit to their country, and they fancied that he had swallowed the sun! At another time his life was in danger because the natives saw that his fields were in better condition than theirs, and, instead of understanding that this was the effect of his greater skill and care, they charged him with having brought it about by magical arts. They therefore resolved to settle his fate by bringing forward a horse who was regarded as sacred to their gods, and observing how the beast behaved. At first the horse put forward his right foot, which should have saved the missionary's life; but the heathen diviners said that the God of Christians was sitting on the horse's back, and directing him; and they insisted that the back should be rubbed, in order to get rid of such influence. But after this had been done, the horse again put forward the same foot, and, much against the will of the Livonians, Dietrich was allowed to go free.
Sometimes the missionaries tried other things to help the effect of their preaching. Thus, a later missionary in Livonia, Albert of Apeldern, in order to give the people some knowledge of Scripture history, got up what was called a prophetical play, in which Gideon, David, and Herod were to appear. But when Gideon and his men began to fight the Midianites on the stage, the heathens took alarm lest some treacherous trick should be practised on them, and they all ran away in affright.
Albert of Apeldern founded a military order, somewhat on the plan of the Templars, for the conversion of the heathen on the Baltic; and it was afterwards joined with another order. The Teutonic (or German) order, which was thus formed, became very famous. By subduing the nations of the Baltic coasts, it forced them to receive Christianity, got possession of their lands, and laid the foundation of a power which has grown by degrees into the great Prussian (or German) empire.
The work of missions was carried on also in Russia, Lithuania, and other northern countries, so that by the time which we have now reached it might be said that all Europe was in some way or other converted to profess the Gospel.
About the end of the fifteenth century the discoveries of the Portuguese in Africa and the East, and those of the Spaniards in the great Western continent, opened new fields for missionary labour, but of this we need not now speak more particularly.
Unhappily the Church was not content with trying to convince people of the truth of its doctrine by gentle means, but disgraced itself by persecution. We have already noticed the horrible wars against the Albigenses in the south of France (p 223); and cruel persecutions were carried on in Spain against Jews, Mahometans, and persons suspected of heresy, or such like offences. The conduct of these persecutions was in the hands of the Inquisition, which did its work without any regard to the rules of justice, and was made more terrible by the darkness and mystery of its proceedings. It kept spies to pry into all men's concerns and to give secret information against them; even the nearest relatives were not safe from each other under this dreadful system. Multitudes were put to death, and others were glad to escape with such punishments as entire loss of their property, or imprisonment, which was in many cases for life.
In the course of all these hundreds of years, Christian religion had been much corrupted from its first purity. The power of the clergy over the ignorant people had become far greater than it ought to have been; and too commonly it was kept up by the encouragement of superstitions and abuses. The popes claimed supreme power on earth. They claimed the right of setting up and plucking down emperors and kings. They meddled with appointments to sees, parishes, and all manner of offices in the Church, throughout all Western Europe. They wished to make it appear as if bishops had no authority except what they held through the grant of the pope. There were general complaints against the faults of the clergy, and among the mass of men religion had become in great part little better than an affair of forms. From all quarters cries for reform were raised, and a reform was speedily to come, by which, among other things, our own country was set free from the power of the popes, and the doctrine of our Church was brought back to an agreement with Holy Scripture and with the Christianity of early times.