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Roman Catholic Church during the High Middle Ages, from about 1000 to 1300 C.E.

The church was the center of medieval life in western Europe. Almost every village and town had a church building. Larger towns and cities had a cathedral. Church bells rang out the hours, called people to worship, and warned of danger.

The church building was the center of community activity. Religious services were held several times a day. Town meetings, plays, and concerts were also held in churches. Merchants had shops around the square in front of the church. Farmers sold their produce in the square. Markets, festivals, and fairs were all held in the shadow of the church’s spires (towers).

During the Middle Ages, the church provided education for some, and it helped the poor and sick. The church was a daily presence throughout a person’s life, from birth to death. In fact, religion was so much a part of daily life that people determined the proper time to cook eggs by saying a certain number of prayers!

People also looked to the church to explain world events. Storms, disease, and famine were thought to be punishments sent by God. People hoped prayer and religious devotion would keep away such disasters. They were even more concerned about the fate of their souls after death. The church taught that salvation, or the saving of a person’s soul, would come to those who followed the church’s teachings.

Christian belief was so widespread during this time that historians sometimes call the Middle Ages the “Age of Faith.” It’s no wonder that the church’s power rivaled that of kings and queens.

In this chapter, you’ll learn how the church began and how it grew. Then you’ll discover how the church affected people’s daily lives during the High Middle Ages.

Use this drawing of an illuminated manuscript as a graphic organizer to help you learn more about the role of the Roman Catholic Church in medieval Europe.
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3.2 The Christian Church Takes Shape

The Christian religion is one of the most important legacies of ancient Rome. Christians are followers of Jesus, who, according to Christian Scripture, was put to death on a Roman cross in the first century C.E. Christians believe that Jesus was the son of God, that God sent him to Earth to save people from their sins, and that he rose from the dead after his crucifixion.

Initially, the Romans persecuted Christians for their beliefs. Yet the new religion continued to spread. In 313 C.E., the emperor Constantine issued a decree that allowed Christians to practice their religion freely. In 395 C.E., Christianity became the recognized religion of the Roman Empire.

At the start of the Middle Ages, all Christians in western Europe belonged to a single church, which became known as the Roman Catholic Church. After the collapse of Rome, the church played a vital role in society. In part, it was one of the few ties that people had to a more stable time. The church provided leadership and at times even organized the distribution of food. Monasteries, or communities of monks, provided hospitality to refugees and travelers. Monks also copied and preserved old texts, and in this way helped keep learning alive. The spread of monasteries, and the preaching of missionaries, helped bring new converts to the Christian faith.

The Organization of the Roman Catholic Church Over time, church leaders in western Europe developed an organization that was modeled on the structure of the old Roman government. By the High Middle Ages, they had created a system in which all members of the clergy had a rank. The pope, who was the bishop of Rome, was the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church. He was assisted and

The pope was the most powerful official of the Roman Catholic Church. This painting of the procession of Pope Lucius III was created in the year 1183 and shows the pope, cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests in their various garments and levels of finery.

persecute to cause a person to suffer because of his or her beliefs

monastery a community of monks

monk a man who has taken a solemn vow to devote his life to prayer and service in a monastery

clergy the body of people, such as priests, who perform the sacred functions of a church
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counseled by high-ranking clergymen called cardinals. Cardinals were appointed by the pope and ranked just below him in the church hierarchy.

Archbishops came next. They oversaw large or important areas called archdioceses. Below them were bishops, who governed areas called dioceses from great cathedrals. Within each diocese, local communities called parishes were served by priests. Each parish had its own church building.

The Increasing Power of the Church During the Middle Ages, the church acquired great economic power. By the year 1050, it was the largest landholder in Europe. Some land came in the form of gifts from monarchs and wealthy lords. Some land was taken by force. The medieval church added to its wealth by collecting a tithe, or tax. Each person was expected to give one tenth of his money, produce, or labor to help support the church.

The church also came to wield great political power. Latin, the language of the church, was the only common language in Europe. Church officials were often the only people who could read. As a result, they kept records for monarchs and became trusted advisors.

At times, the church’s power brought it into conflict with European monarchs. One key struggle involved Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV, the Holy Roman emperor.

Gregory was elected pope in 1073. An ambitious leader, he undertook several reforms, such as forbidding priests to marry and outlawing the selling of church offices (official positions). He also banned the practice whereby kings could appoint priests, bishops, and the heads of monasteries. Only the pope, said Gregory, had this right.

Gregory’s ruling angered Henry IV. Like rulers before him, Henry considered it his duty (and privilege) to appoint church officials. He called a council of bishops and declared that Gregory was no longer pope. Gregory responded by excommunicating Henry. This meant Henry was thrown out of the church and, therefore, could not gain salvation. Gregory also said that Henry’s subjects were no longer obliged to obey him.

The pope’s influence was so great that Henry begged forgiveness and was readmitted to the church. For the moment, his action amounted to recognizing the pope’s authority, even over an emperor. But future rulers and popes would resume the fight over the rights of the church versus those of the state.

In the winter of 1077, Henry IV traveled to northern Italy to beg forgiveness from Pope Gregory. Legend has it that the pope let Henry stand barefoot in the snow for three days before he forgave him.

excommunicate to formally deprive a person of membership in a church
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3.3 Sacraments and Salvation in the Middle Ages

Most people in medieval Europe believed in God and an afterlife, in which the soul lives on after the body’s death. The church taught that people gained salvation, or entry into heaven and eternal life, by following the church’s teachings and living a moral life. Failing to do so condemned the soul to eternal suffering in hell.

To believers, hell was a real and terrifying place. Its torments, such as fire and demons, were pictured in vivid detail in many paintings.

The church taught its members that receiving the seven sacraments was an essential part of gaining salvation. Sacraments were sacred rites that Christians believed brought them grace, or a special blessing from God. The sacraments marked the most important occasions in a person’s life.

The sacrament of baptism welcomes a child into the church. Baptism is the first important sacrament of a Christian’s life. It is required in order to receive the other sacraments.

sacrament a solemn rite of Christian churches

The Seven Sacraments

Entry into the church. To cleanse a person of sin, a priest pours water gently over his or her head at the baptismal font, the basin that holds the baptismal water.

Formal declaration of belief in God and the Church

A central part of the mass, the church service in which the priest consecrates (blesses) bread and wine. In Catholic belief, the consecrated bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.

A formal union blessed by the church. After being married by a priest, a couple signs their names in a registry, or book of records.
Holy Orders

The sacrament in which a man becomes a priest.

Confession of sins to a priest in order to receive God’s forgiveness. Today Catholics call this sacrament reconciliation.
Extreme Unction

A blessing in which a person in danger of death is anointed (blessed with holy oil) by a priest. Today this rite is known as the sacrament (or anointing) of the sick.
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3.4 Pilgrimages and Crusades

During the Middle Ages, religious faith led many people to perform extraordinary acts of devotion. For example, most Christians hoped to go on a pilgrimage at some point in their lives. Pilgrims traveled long distances to visit holy sites such as Jerusalem (where Jesus Christ was killed) and Rome. They also visited churches that housed relics, such as the cathedral at Canterbury, England.

Pilgrims went on these journeys to show their devotion to God, as an act of penance for their sins, or in hopes of being cured of an illness. A pilgrimage required true dedication, because travel was difficult and often dangerous. Most pilgrims traveled on foot. Because robbers were a constant threat, pilgrims often banded together for safety. Sometimes they even hired an armed escort. On popular pilgrimage routes, local rulers built special roads and bridges. Monks set up hostels (guest houses) spaced a day’s journey apart.

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote a popular book of verse about pilgrims called the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer lived in England from about 1342 to 1400. His amusing “tales” are stories that a group of pilgrims tell to entertain each other as they travel to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Among Chaucer’s pilgrims are a knight, a miller, a cook, and a prioress (the head of a convent, or community of nuns).

A second type of extraordinary service involved fighting in the crusades. The crusades were military expeditions to the land where Jesus had lived, which Christians called the Holy Land. During the seventh century, this part of the Near East had come under the control of Muslims. Jerusalem, which was a holy city to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, became a Muslim city. Between 1095 and 1270, Christians in western Europe organized several crusades to recover Jerusalem and other sites of pilgrimage.

Some people went on crusades to seek wealth, and some to seek adventure. Some went in the belief that doing so would guarantee their salvation. But many crusaders also acted from deep religious feeling. You will learn more about the crusades in Unit 2.

Pilgrims believed their journeys of devotion earned good graces in the eyes of God. These beliefs served to strengthen the power of the church.

pilgrimage a journey to a holy site

relic an object considered holy because it belonged to, or was touched by, a saint or other holy person

convent a community of nuns; also called a nunnery

nun a woman who has taken a sacred vow to devote her life to prayer and service to the church
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3.5 Art and Architecture

During the Middle Ages, most art was made for a religious purpose. Paintings and sculptures of Christ and Christian saints were placed in churches to help people worship. Since most people did not know how to read, art helped tell the story of Christ’s life in a way everyone could understand.

Medieval art and architecture found their most glorious expression in cathedrals, the large churches headed by bishops. (The word cathedral comes from the Latin word cathedra, meaning the throne upon which the bishop sat.) Cathedrals were built to inspire awe. For centuries, they were the tallest buildings in towns. Often they were taller than a 30-story building today. Most were built in the shape of a cross, with a long central section called the nave and shorter arms called transepts.

The cathedrals built between 1150 and 1400 were designed in the Gothic style. Gothic cathedrals looked like they were rising to heaven. On the outside were stone arches called flying buttresses. The arches spread the massive weight of the roof and walls more evenly. This building technique allowed for taller, thinner walls and more windows.

Gargoyles are a unique feature of Gothic cathedrals. Gargoyles are stone spouts projecting from the rain gutters of the roof. They were

The construction of Chartres Cathedral in France began in 1194 and took 66 years to complete. Further additions span 300 years.

The gargoyles on Gothic cathedrals were often carved in the shape of hideous beasts.
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usually carved in the form of beasts. In medieval times, some people thought gargoyles were there to warn them that devils and evil spirits would catch them if they did not obey the church.

The immense space inside a Gothic cathedral was lined with pillars and decorated with religious images. Beautiful stained glass windows let in colorful light. Stained glass windows are made from pieces of colored glass arranged in a design. The pictures on medieval stained glass windows often taught people stories from the Bible.

Cathedrals were visible expressions of Christian devotion. They were mostly constructed by hand. On average, it took from 50 to 100 years to complete a cathedral. In some cases, the work took more than 200 years.

The interiors of Gothic cathedrals have similar features. The nave and a transept passage, or aisle, form a cross shape. The nave leads to the altar area. Beautiful stained glass windows and ribbed vaults are overhead.
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3.6 Education

During the Middle Ages, most schooling took place in monasteries, convents, and cathedrals. This pattern was established under Charlemagne, who encouraged the church to teach people to read and write. During his reign, scholars developed a new form of writing that helped make reading easier. Instead of writing in all capital letters, as the Romans did, scholars began to use lowercase letters, too. We still use this system today.

In medieval times, the clergy were the people most likely to be educated. Most of the students in church schools were sons of nobles who were studying for careers in the clergy. They spent much of their time memorizing prayers and passages from the Bible in Latin.

Starting in the 1200s, cathedral schools gave rise to universities. Students in universities studied Latin grammar and rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. Books at that time were hand copied and rare, so teachers often read to students.

Ancient texts were greatly respected in the universities, but the church was sometimes uneasy about them. The church taught people to be guided by faith. Ancient writers like the Greek philosopher Aristotle taught that reason, or logical thinking, was the path to knowledge. Church leaders feared that studying such writers might lead people to question the church’s teachings.

Thomas Aquinas, an Italian scholar of philosophy and theology, tried to bridge the gap between reason and faith. Aquinas greatly admired Aristotle. He saw no conflict between faith and reason, because he believed that both were gifts of God. Reason, he believed, helped people discover important truths about God’s creation. Faith, meanwhile, revealed its own truths about God.

Aquinas wrote logical arguments in support of his faith to show how reason and religious belief worked together. For example, his concept of natural law stated that there was an order built into nature that could guide people’s thinking about right and wrong. Natural law, he said, could be discovered through reason alone. Since God had created nature, natural law agreed with the moral teaching of the Bible.

Aquinas’s teachings brought ancient philosophy and Christian theology together. His teachings were later accepted and promoted by the church.

Students at the University of Paris wore scholars’ caps and gowns. This illustration from 1400 shows some students carrying scepters of the church.

university a school of advanced learning

rhetoric the study of persuasive writing and speaking

theology the study of God and religious truth

natural law the concept that there is a universal order built into nature that can guide moral thinking
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3.7 Holidays

The people of medieval Europe looked forward to the many festivals and fairs that marked important days of the year. Most of these celebrations were connected in some way to the church. Almost every day of the year was dedicated to a Christian saint, an event in the life of Jesus, or an important religious concept. In fact, our word holiday comes from “holy day.”

Two of the greatest medieval holidays were Christmas and Easter. Christmas is the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. During the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations lasted for 12 days. There were no Christmas trees, but people of all social classes decorated their homes with evergreens, holly berries, and mistletoe. On Christmas day, they attended church. Then they enjoyed a great feast, which was often given by the lord of the manor for everyone.

Easter is the day when Christians celebrate the Resurrection. In Christian belief, the Resurrection is Christ’s rising from the dead. For medieval Christians, Easter was a day of church services, feasting, and games. Often the games involved eggs, a symbol of new life.

Music, dancing, and food were all part of medieval holidays and festivals. People sang folk songs and danced to the music of wooden pipes and drums. They drank wine and ale (a strong beer), and they ate baked and fried foods.

Other favorite holiday entertainments included bonfires, acrobats and jugglers, and dancing bears. Plays were also popular. During church services on special days, priests sometimes acted out Bible stories about the life of Jesus. By the 13th century, plays were often held outdoors in front of the church so more people could watch. In some English villages, mummers (traveling groups of actors) would give elaborate performances with masks, drums and bells, dances, and make-believe sword fights.

In the Middle Ages, Carnival and Lent were important holidays. Lent was a period of 40 days just before Easter when people were especially pious and gave up luxuries, like meat and some drinks. Before the start of Lent, Christians would celebrate with a three-day festival, as shown here in a painting by the artist Breughel.
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3.8 Monks, Nuns, and Mendicants

Religion was important to all Christians in the Middle Ages. Some men and women, however, solemnly promised to devote their lives to God and the church.

The Monastic Way of Life Monks were men who joined monasteries, communities devoted to prayer and service to fellow Christians. This way of life is called

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