|The Catholic Church
In most medieval towns, the tallest, most beautiful building was the cathedral – a visible sign of the power of the Church. The people of the Middle Ages perfected building techniques that allowed them to construct churches marked by a skyward thrust and extraordinary use of light in the form of stained glass. These ornate churches were known as cathedrals. Most Gothic cathedrals were built in Western Europe between 100 and 1400. Gothic refers to the style of architecture. Cathedrals were the churches of bishops, an important leader of the Roman Catholic Church. During the Middle Ages, nearly all people in Western Europe were Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholic Church was the most powerful influence on society in the Middle Ages. It had so much influence that it was simply known as “the Church”.
During the Middle Ages, life was short and hard for most people. They were comforted by the Christian belief that they would enjoy the rewards of heaven after death if they lived according to Church teachings. The Church also held that if people didn’t obey these rules, they would be punished after death. The promise of reward combined with the threat of punishment made most people follow the teachings of the Church.
The Church also gained economic power. It gained great wealth by collecting taxes. It also took fiefs from lords in exchange for services performed by members of the clergy. In fact, the church was the single largest owner of land in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The combination of religious and economic power enabled the church to take on many of the roles that government performs today. It even made laws and set up courts to enforce them. People who did not obey the Church were threatened with being excommunicated. Excommunication means being expelled from membership in the Church and participation in Church life. This was a serious threat. Few people would associate with someone who had been excommunicated.
High church officials were advisors to the kings and lords. The evr-present threat of excommunication gave Church officials great influence in political matters. The Church used its authority to limit feudal warfare. It declared periods of truce, or temporary peace. That was one reason warfare began to decline during the 1100s.
The Church, itself, was highly organized. Almost every village had a priest. A bishop supervised several priests and an archbishop supervised several bishops. Finally, the archbishops were under the authority of the pope. The papacy, or government of the Church, was based in Rome. These areas of Church authority overlapped and crossed boundaries of kingdoms. Thus, the Church had power in every kingdom, every fief and every village.
Because of this, the medieval Church touched nearly all aspects of life. Think of any event – the birth of a child, a serious illness, a marriage or a death. During the Middle Ages, the clergy were almost always in attendance to offer a blessing or to perform a service. They helped people follow Church rules about how to live. They also listened when people came to church to confess their sins. In the name of God, the clergy then forgave them for the wrongs to which they confessed.
Some religious men felt they should dedicate their lives to God by living together in religious communities called monasteries. Religious women, called nuns, lived in similar communities called convents. This form of religious life is called monasticism. The members of these orders often followed the lifestyle organized by Benedict in his Benedictine Rule. These religious communities developed better ways of growing crops and tending livestock. In this way, the Church helped improve the economy of the middle Ages, which was based mostly on farming. Monks and nuns also looked after the sick and set up schools. Monks were more educated than most people. Because they copied books from ancient times, they preserved knowledge that otherwise would have been lost.
Some Christian scholars studies ancient Greek texts that said people should use reason to discover truth. However, the church taught that many ideas must be accepted on faith. Theses medieval scholars worked out a system that tried to resolve the two philosophies. Called scholasticism, it used reason to support Christian beliefs.
Religion in Medieval Europe