Compare and contrast the impact of religion



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Compare and contrast the impact of religion on the evolving social structures in Western Europe and Africa in the period from 500 to 1300.
Several possible theses (there are, of course, more):


  • The family, as the basic unit of society, functioned in Western European and African cultures differently between 500 and 1300, due to the differing impact of religion within and among these cultures.

  • Gender roles in the era between 500 and 1300 evolved in different ways in Western Europe and the different regions of Africa.

  • Social classes, gender roles, and family structure in Western Europe and Africa between 500 and 1300 were defined by the religious institutions that controlled people’s lives.

  • The growth of power and influence of religions institutions in Western Europe and North, West, and Eastern African countries changed the social dynamics and relationships of families, genders, and classes.

Points to use as evidence (depending on your thesis). There are more – these are the most prominent):

  • Fall of the recently Christianized Roman Empire in the 4th century left Western Europe in chaos, with invading Germanic tribes destroying the sophisticated Roman urbanized culture. The political unity broke down, resulting in the Feudal System, the abandonment of cities for rural areas, and the increased power of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. Clovis, a Frank King, converted to Christianity in the 6th century, and encouraged Germanic conversion. Charlemagne unified most of Western Europe in the 8th century under a “Holy” Roman Empire, sanctioned by the Pope – the head of the Roman Catholic Church. After Charlemagne’s death, the only unified “power” in Western Europe was the Pope. Life for most people was in constant chaos and change. The social structures that had sustained cultures under its influence prior to the fall of Rome were dysfunctional.

  • Under the Feudal System, social classes had a distinct and rigidly enforced relationship to each other that was sanctioned and empowered by the religious doctrine of the now powerful Roman Catholic Church. Kings had less power than nobles, who were Lords of the Manor and protectors of peasants and serfs, who served them by farming their land and paid taxes in exchange for the protection. Kings were also responsible to pay taxes to the Church of Rome and ask permission to wage war. Bishops, clerics, priests and friars were ordained and ruled by Rome and organized in a strict hierarchy that often ruled the lives of people more directly than the political powers. The Church had more wealth than any other political entity in Western Europe, and used it to build extraordinary cathedrals demonstrating its power, awing the illiterate peasants, and promoting faith – and obedience to authority.

  • The Pope had great political power, but also dictated the social relationship of kings to nobles to peasants to serfs, and men to women. Towards the end of this period, a rising merchant class developed, but until the 11th century, most families “belonged” to a Manor Lord, who could approve marriages, and even claim the “first night” privileges with the bride. Few peasants ever left their Lord’s lands, and kinship bonds in this social class were all connected to the Manor. Serfs were slaves, but this condition of servitude was not necessarily inherited.

  • Families, as a result, were constantly in a survival mode. Large families ensured many workers, and women were valued based on their child-bearing abilities. Gender roles mirrored society and the teachings of the church: children were the property of their father, as were wives, who could not own property no matter what social class they were in – and all of this was ordained by religious doctrine as interpreted by the Church. The nobles behaved in specifically social patterns, such as in arranged marriages and the importance of a male heir. The eldest male inherited the lands; other male children could seek power in a powerful Clerical or Church career; females were married in ways that provided financial and social advantage to the father, or, if they were unable to be married, placed in a convent at the family’s expense. “Choice” was rarely considered, as the entire social order was supported by the religious Christian doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, where women were held in low status. The concept of “childhood” and “adolescence” as we know it today did not exist.

  • The Church influenced social mobility, knowledge and communication. Education existed for the Clerics – the social class related to and ruled by the Pope under Canon Law. A very few male nobles were educated, but even Charlemagne, although he promoted learning, was illiterate. Women were rarely educated. Monasteries in Ireland, less affected by the Roman Empire due to geography, maintained the learning from earlier times, and Irish Clerics were in demand in courts of Europe. Church services were in Latin, which, by 800, was no longer the local language, due to the fall of the Roman Empire. Only clerics understood it. No one in the peasant classes was literate, and so people relied on their local priests, the “story-telling” in stained glass Cathedral windows, and other oral traditions for information and their understanding of religion or theology.

  • The Crusades, religious wars encouraged by the Pope to increase his power and supported by Kings to get the powerful nobles out of their kingdoms, waged war on Muslims inhabiting the Holy Land (present-day Israel) and impacted social structure. People of all classes went “on Crusade” due to the promise of rewards in heaven and plunder. On their travels they encountered other lands, and especially Muslim learning, which far outstripped Western Europe at this time. One eventual result of this interaction was the Renaissance – a “rebirth” of learning. (Another was continual conflict between Muslims and Christians in the Middle East). The Renaissance would weaken the power of the church in Western Europe, promote diverse thinking on religious interpretation of Christianity, increase the power of states and kings, and change the social structures. It also resulted in remarkable Church sponsored art, which had a much more humanistic, natural and sensual quality than the earlier ethereal, austere, and symbolic religious art that encouraged the faithful to dwell on heaven, rather than their present struggles for survival. Between 500 and 1300, the power of the Roman Church in defining Christianity, social behavior, and power relationships was nearly absolute. It was the institution that defined every aspect of people’s lives.

  • In Africa, different regions evolved differing social structures depending on their religious institutions – or lack of them. Each region was impacted differently, and the social structures reflected this diversity, compared to the uniformity of Western Europe. Central Africa remained largely in Hunter/Gatherer groups that followed traditional practices of animism, and had no central government. Lineage determined social kinship groups of usually no more than 100. Male elders “advised” but did not rule, and families were the center of all power. Many tribes were matrilineal – and women had significant status. These were known as “stateless” because the social organization did not include a hierarchical class structure or notions of national boundaries.

  • In regions where Africa had connected with (or been conquered by) Arabic Muslim cultures – especially on the East and Northern Mediterranean coasts – the interaction from conquest and intense trade between Asia and Europe, and across the Sahara in Africa, resulted in cultural blending (Swahili) and conversion. In the North, the Berbers discovered the value of Islam for nation and empire-building, as it was based on Islamic Law. In Islam, God’s law as expressed in the Qu’ran was the highest rule, and this notion of laws provided a basis for authoritarian rule, and this changed social class structure. The family became less powerful, less the center of social structure, as Islamic ruling classes evolved. Gender roles became very unequal, with strict interpretations of status, control of women’s lives, and increased valuing of sons. Yet social organization became more complex, with sophisticated legal, cultural, and worker specialization, allowing the development of new, wealthy empires.

  • Sub-Saharan Africa became influenced by Islam as the gold and salt trade increased. Western Africa developed several powerful Islamic Empires. With the development of these empires, the family, class, and gender roles became rigid, dictated by religious doctrine, and predetermined. Wealth impacted change of social class in these Islamic African cultures more than in Western Europe, as Islam did not include religious doctrine that discouraged change in social class and was less dependent on birth status. Upward mobility (for men) was possible through wealth and learning, as long as Islamic Law was followed. Many African Islamic cultures also tolerated other religious practices, and lower classes often retained or blended traditional beliefs with Islam, while other religions were taxed. Islam served the power-seeking classes, giving formerly “stateless” Africa societies a basis for authoritarian structure.

  • Although it began much earlier in Africa, and affected only specific kingdoms, BOTH Islamic Africa and Roman Catholic Christian Western Europe experienced religious “reformations” – challenges to the orthodoxy of the religious institutions that held power. (Almoravids and Almohads in 12th century Northern Africa; Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Henry VIII in Western Europe in the 15th century). Social structures changed with these reformations, including gender role expectations, family relationships, and social class. In Western Europe, the reformation would weaken the political and social power of the Roman Catholic Church, create religious and social conflict due to persecution and intolerance, and promote movement of people and ideas throughout Europe. In Islamic Africa, stricter enforcement of Islamic Law resulted in more restriction on women, less tolerance for other religions, and more power for religious leaders.

  • The interaction between Islam and the Christian Church of Western Europe was conflicted and competitive, both for land (Spain, Holy Land) and ideas. The Mongol Empire and later the Ottoman Empire far outstripped Western Europe in achievement, learning, military power, and expansion – including a much earlier presence in Africa. Islam promoted learning, with the highest form of art calligraphy. Islamic learning was directly responsible for the coming Western European Renaissance – a rediscovery of ideas and literature preserved by Islamic scholars – which began just at the end of the period under discussion (1300). Ideas about the way people lived, the meaning of life, and possibilities of the individual would undergo a drastic change in Western Europe. Previously, under the influence of the Church, these were fixed ideas, determined by Papal Infallibility. People were no individuals, but social creatures, with their value determined by their social standing. During the Renaissance, social conventions that had organized European society for hundreds of years would be questioned, providing the ground for rising nationalistic power, and later rebellion against that power. While the mercantile class was important and powerful in African Islamic societies, it was just beginning to evolve in Europe.

Conclusions will vary depending on your thesis:



  • The social structures of gender, class, and family were defined and changed by religious institutions (or lack of them) in both Western Europe and Africa during this time (500-1300). Soon after, the change in the power of these institutions would reorganize some aspects of the social structure. The impact of religion on society during this period – including clashes of power based on religion and interpretation of social roles – remains evident today.


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