Chapter 30


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

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

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

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.