Christianity in the 13th century comprised an essential point of reference for the experiences which took place in all levels of society. It represented life and hope (cf. II.2), stimulated radical and absolute choices, new conglomerations, new social relationships, new conflicts; it generated new forms of imagery, new philosophical and doctrinal works, new legends, new writings, new institutions and organizations. In this century, perhaps as never before or afterward, European Medieval society (and that of Italy in particular) yearned to extract from the message of Christ (cf. III.1) something which would hasten a spiritual and ethical regeneration. Never before had the people so eagerly forged a union between their faith and the mortal world around them in order to seek a stable and enduring bond between Scripture and daily life.
The rapid expansion of Western Civilization which had taken place in the 12th century significantly improved the material conditions of the average man. As a consequence, great numbers of people found short though highly significant moments of liberation from the struggle for survival which had come to dominate life in the previous century. This newfound sense of security permitted a greater sense of personal dedication to the precepts of Christianity outside the confines of monastic institutions and within the various strata of urban society. Therefore, between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th, there arose the widely held conviction that the world, dominated by power struggles and corruption, could transform itself into a truly Christian community. This belief, however, was in conflict with the prevalent values of many who held political and church offices and tended to be interpreted by some as heresy or treason.
The backlash reactions to perceptions of heretical behavior induced the Church to clamp down upon those thought to be agitators. By the 14th century, this move further contributed to fuel the uneasy relations between the Church and several lay institutions and gave rise, during a time of economic recession, to a new sort of religious cynicism which lent greater importance among the middle classes to the tangible and utilitarian aspects of life. And yet, this was an outcome of the pitiless war waged against perceived heresy and of the burdens caused by socio-political conflicts and the economic hardships of the times.
In Italy, more than elsewhere, the crisis on the one hand reinforced the ruling classes' desire for domination and, on the other, encouraged among the lowest layers of the population irrational impulses which could be easily controlled by ecclesiastical institutions. In regard to the substantial extermination of the radical movements so resilient in the 13th century, the hopes for a renovatio, for the regeneration of humanity, moved from the religious and the eschatological level to one rather more intellectual and political in nature. The myth of a radical renewal was transformed into the myth of the ancient world and of its superior dignity.
Whereas the Church imposed its control on the religious life of Italy, it suffered serious threats from within: the Holy See was kept for an extended period in Avignon (from 1309-1377) and during his descent into Italy Louis of Bavaria (1327-1330) voiced strong criticism against the temporal powers of the Church. These sentiments were reflected as well by the Franciscans, many of whom were involved in "heretical" behavior. The return of the Papal See to Rome dramatically created a new institutional rift in the Church after the French refused to accept the election in 1378 of the new Roman pope, Urban VI, and instead nominated an anti-pope.
(G.M. & M.P.) Ferroni, Giulio. Storia della letteratura italiana vol. I "Dalle origini al Quattrocento" Turin: Einaudi, 1991.