The Middle Ages were ten centuries of change and development in Europe. It can be divided into three eras – the early Middle Ages from 476 to 800CE, also known as the Dark Ages; the High Middle Ages from 800 to 1300CE; and the Late Middle Ages from 1300 to 1500CE, leading to the Renaissance. Christianity evolved and grew throughout this period, making for a fascinating study.
In medieval Europe, Christianity, specifically Catholicism, was the only recognized religion. The Church dominated the lives of all levels of society, from nobility to the peasant class. This power and influence were not always exercised to the benefit of all, as we will learn.
A thousand years, which is how long the Middle Ages lasted, is as long a period in history as the post-medieval age that we live in, so one can understand that Christianity evolved through many stages.
We’ll study the various eras, the power of the Church, and how religion and the Church shaped the history of Europe and its people during that time.
Table of Contents
- Christianity In The Early Middle Ages
- Christianity In The High Middle Ages
- Christianity In The Late Middle Ages
- Corruption And Its Impact On The Church
- In Closing
Christianity In The Early Middle Ages
History has taught us that in the ancient Rome of Emperor Nero, Christians were persecuted, crucified, and burnt to death for their beliefs.
However, in 313CE, Emperor Constantine made Christianity legal, and by the start of the Middle Ages, churches existed throughout Europe. By 400CE, it was illegal to worship other gods, and the Church became society’s sole authority.
Although the term “Dark Ages” is not favored by modern historians, the Early Middle Ages witnessed the repression by the Church of all teachings and opinions which differed from Christian biblical laws and moral principles. Church dogma and doctrines were often violently enforced.
Education was restricted to the clergy, and the ability to read and write was limited to those who served the Church.
However, Christianity also played a positive role. After the Roman Empire, there was political turmoil with ongoing battles between Vikings, barbarians, Germanic forces, and the kings and nobility of the various regions. Christianity, as a strong religion, was a unifying force in Europe.
St Patrick had fostered the growth of Christianity in Ireland in the early 5th century, and Irish monks and other missionaries traveled throughout Europe spreading the Gospel. They also encouraged learning and brought with them knowledge on many subjects, forming church schools to share the knowledge and educate the people.
Nevertheless, the feudal system remained the only social structure, with the Church playing a leading role in the politics of the day. It demanded obedience from the rulers and nobility in exchange for its support, and amassed land and wealth with leading clergy living and behaving like royalty.
The masses, prevented from owning land, remained uneducated and subservient to the Church and the country’s ruling classes.
Christianity In The High Middle Ages
Charlemagne was crowned king of the Franks in 768 and king of the Lombards in 774. In 800, he was pronounced Emperor, by Pope Leo III, of what was later called the Holy Roman Empire. During his rule, he succeeded in uniting the many individual kingdoms of Western Europe.
He did this by military means as well as by peaceful negotiation with local rulers. At the same time, he consolidated the leadership role of the Church at a time when religious renewal was occurring throughout the region.
The Role Of The Church In Society
Clerics were given positions of influence in government and the privileges of nobility – land ownership, exemption from taxes, and the right to govern and tax those living on their land. The feudal system was well entrenched at this time, with land ownership limited to grants given by the king to nobility and the Church, with serfs and peasants exchanging labor for a plot to live on.
Being the accepted authority meant that the Church was the most important part of people’s lives, and this is reflected in the layout of most towns where the Church was the highest and most dominant building.
For most folk, the Church and their local priest formed their source of spiritual guidance, their education, their physical well-being, and even their community entertainment. From birth to christening, marriage, childbirth, and death, Christian followers relied heavily upon and trusted their Church and its officials.
Everyone, rich and poor, paid a tithe or tax to the Church, and the wealth accumulated by the Church was used to influence the monarchs and nobles who governed the country. In this way, the Church influenced every aspect of the lives of all, not only in their day-to-day lives but in a global way.
Divisions in Christianity In The High Middle Ages
In 1054, what was later termed the Great East-West Schism took place, with the Western (Latin) Catholic Church splitting from the Eastern (Greek) Church. The reasons for this dramatic split in the Christian movement revolved mainly around the authority of the pope as head of the entire Catholic Church and changes to the Nicene Creed to include “the son” as part of the Holy Spirit.
This split in the Church into Catholic and Eastern Orthodox elements weakened the power of the Christian Church and diminished the power of the papacy as an overriding authority. A further schism known as the Western Schism began in 1378 and involved two rival popes.
This further reduced the popes’ authority, as well as confidence in the Catholic Church and eventually led to the Reformation and the rise of several other churches in protest against the politics of the Catholic Church.
Christianity And The Crusades
During the period 1096 to 1291, a series of crusades were carried out by Christian forces against the Muslims in attempts to win back the Holy Land and Jerusalem, in particular, from Islamic rule. Supported and sometimes initiated by the Roman Catholic Church, there were also crusades in the Iberian peninsula aimed at driving out the Moors.
While these crusades were aimed at strengthening Christianity in the Western and Eastern areas, they were also utilized by military leaders for political and economic gain.
Christianity And The Medieval Inquisition
Another show of force by Christianity involved the authorization by Pope Innocent IV and later Pope Gregory IX of the use of torture and interrogation to obtain confessions from people and movements perceived to be heretics. The aim was to give these heretics a chance to return to the beliefs of the Church. For those who refused, there was punishment and the ultimate penalty of being burned at the stake.
These inquisitions took place in France and Italy from 1184 to the 1230s. The Spanish Inquisition, while ostensibly aimed at removing heretics (particularly Muslims and Jews), was more a drive to establish the monarchy in Spain, so it was not officially sanctioned by the Church.
Christianity In The Late Middle Ages
The Crusades did not succeed in reclaiming the Holy Land from the Muslim invaders, but they did result in greatly improved trade between Europe and the Middle East and increased prosperity in the West. This, in turn, created a wealthier middle class, an increase in the number and size of cities, and an increase in learning.
The renewed contact with Byzantine Christians and Muslim scholars, who had carefully preserved their historical writings, finally gave Western Christians insight into the philosophies of Aristotle and other learned men from a forbidden past. The beginning of the end of the Dark Ages had begun.
The Growth Of Monasteries In The Late Middle Ages
With the increased number of cities came increased wealth, more educated middle-class citizens, and a move away from unthinking subservience to Catholic dogma.
Almost as a counter to this more sophisticated approach to Christianity, the Late Middle Ages saw the birth of several new monastic orders, called mendicant orders, whose members took vows of poverty and obedience to the teachings of Christ and who supported themselves by begging.
The most famous of these orders were the Franciscans, created by Francis of Assisi, the son of a wealthy merchant who chose a life of poverty and devotion to the Gospels.
The Franciscan order was followed by the Dominican order, started by Dominic of Guzman, which differed from the Franciscans in focussing on learning and education of Christians in order to refute heresy.
Both these orders were utilized by the Church as inquisitors during the Medieval Inquisition to carry out the eradication of heretics, but they could also be viewed as a reaction to the corruption and heresy which had become a part of the clergy.
Corruption And Its Impact On The Church
The enormous wealth of the Church and its political influence at the highest level of state meant that religion and secular power were intermingled. The corruption of even the most senior clergy saw them leading extravagantly lavish lifestyles, using bribery and nepotism to place relatives (including illegitimate children) in high offices and ignoring many of the teachings of the Gospel.
Selling indulgences was another corrupt practice common in the Catholic Church at this time. In exchange for large amounts of money, all manner of sins committed by the wealthy were absolved by the Church, allowing the guilty to continue with their immoral behavior. As a result, confidence in the Church as the upholder of Christian principles was severely damaged.
Christianity in the Middle Ages played a vital role in the lives of rich and poor. This role evolved over the thousand years as the Catholic Church itself evolved from a unifying force to one which required reform and renewal to rid itself of corruption and misuse of power. The gradual loss of influence of the Church eventually led to the birth of the Renaissance in Europe in the 15th century.
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