The relationship between Gothic architecture and spirituality is quite interesting. Gothic architecture influences from other styles of architecture are added to the bold touch of the Middle Ages, which some consider strangely. Spirituality had much to do with the style that became known as Gothic architecture. Creative tensions in medieval society and politics led to new ideas, such as those exchanged in the debates over faith and reason in the new universities. They also led to the rise of new religious orders and forms of spirituality.

New ideas emerged in popular religion during the struggle between orthodox Christianity and numerous heresies. The influence of Jewish and Muslim scholarship, the rise of an educated class of career scholars, and the growth of an urban reading public also contributed to this cultural and intellectual ferment in Europe. During the 12th and 13th centuries, universities arose in the major European cities. These universities met the demand for education in the seven liberal arts—grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and music—education that became a significant path to career advancement.

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Universities specializing in the higher disciplines—law at Bologna, medicine at Salerno, and theology and philosophy at Paris—became centers for intellectual debate. The 12th-century philosophical school known as Scholasticism developed new systems of logic based on Europeans’ rediscovery of Aristotle from Islamic and Jewish sources. Scholars debated how humans can know truth—whether knowledge of truth occurs through faith, through human reason and investigation, or through some combination of both means.

Although none of these scholars denied Christian truth as it was revealed in the Bible, some, such as Anselm of Canterbury, placed faith before reason. Others, such as Peter Abelard, put reason first. The great 13th-century Dominican philosopher Thomas Aquinas produced a brilliant synthesis of faith and reason, while a group of philosophers called nominalists questioned whether human language could accurately describe reality. These inquiries into the nature of knowledge contributed to scientific inquiry, evident in the experimental theories of English scientist and philosopher Roger Bacon (1214? 1294).

Meanwhile, many people sought a more spiritual, holistic experience of the world than what was offered through the intellect or through ordinary church rituals. Visionaries and reformers created new orders such as the Cistercians, Franciscans, and Dominicans. Saint Francis of Assisi rejected the urban materialism of his parents and local church. He established a mendicant, or beggar, lifestyle for the followers of his church-approved order—Franciscan friars for men and the Poor Clares for women.

Many religious thinkers in the 1200s were influenced by the earlier philosophy of Christian Neoplatonism, a synthesis of Plato’s ideals and Christian mysticism. Under that influence, they rejected the Aristotelian focus on rationalizing religion and believed God's divine revelation could best be understood through experience. The Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux, who died in 1153, feared that Abelard's scholastic logic would deaden true spiritual understanding.

Later, Bonaventure, a Franciscan who lived from 1221 to 1274, developed a mystical philosophy guiding Christians toward contemplation of the ideal realm of God. Popular religion also reflected this social and religious ferment. Most people in medieval Europe were Christian by baptism at birth and participated in church rituals throughout their lives. They did penance for sins, attended Mass, and went on pilgrimages to holy sites containing relics of saints. In the cities, lay people began seeking a more intense religious experience to counterbalance the materialism of their urban lives.

Many were drawn into new religious movements, not all of which were approved by the church. This led to conflict between church-taught orthodox teachings and practices and heresy, beliefs and practices that were condemned as false by the church and considered a danger to Christendom. Like the religious orders, heresies such as the Cathars (also known as the Albigensians), the Waldensians, and the Spiritual Franciscans emphasized spiritual life; however, they also criticized the church's materialism and challenged its authority.

For instance, the Cathars rejected the body as evil and saw no need for priests. Church leaders condemned them as heretics, while secular rulers, bent on suppressing local rebellions against their authority, carried out a military crusade to destroy their strongholds in southern France. The church, whose doctrine and order were threatened by these groups, appointed preachers such as the Dominicans to teach correct doctrine and also commissioned inquisitors to detect heretics and recommend them for punishment.