What did the clergy do in the Middle Ages, and why were they so important? You cannot study the Middle Ages without studying the importance of the clergy and the church at this time. But why were they so central to the time, and what made the clergy so important in the Middle Ages?
The clergy, consisting of the pope, bishops, priests, monks, and nuns, played an integral part in the society of the Middle Ages. The pope had equal power to if not more power than, the royal family. The Catholic church was likely the wealthiest establishment of the time and held the most power.
I’ve studied the Roman Catholic church’s importance and functions in the Middle Ages and will share the most important facts about it. If you have any questions about the clergy in the Middle Ages, you’ll find the answers below.
Table of Contents
What Was The Role Of The Clergy In The Middle Ages?
The clergy played an undeniable role in the Middle Ages. The pope, who was the appointed head of the Catholic church, was said to be God‘s appointed servant on earth. All decisions about the people, country, and politics had to be approved by the clergy at the time.
The clergy had equal power to the royal family and often regarded themselves as more important than them. They also saw themselves as above the law, which caused problems toward the end of the Middle Ages.
But what was the role of the clergy exactly? The role of the clergy was to oversee the religious piety of the people and to maintain the Christian faith. The clergy was one of the three “houses” of the Middle Ages. The other houses were the ones who fought (knights and nobles) and the ones who labored (workers and farmers) .
Members of the clergy had various daily tasks and were an integral part of society and local communities. The clergy members were often the only literate people in a community, which left them in charge of manuscripts, communication, and record-keeping .
Members of the clergy were responsible for advising the monarchs, caring for the poor, old, and orphaned, copying the Bible, and caring for the church and all its followers. There were different clergy members in the Middle Ages, and each faction had its own roles. The clergy consisted of five factions – the pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and monastic orders .
1. The Pope
The pope was the head of the Roman Catholic church and was said to be the God-appointed leader of the church. There was only one appointed pope at a time. The pope mainly resided in Rome, but some popes lived in France too. The pope was the ultimate decision-maker of the church, and all other clergy members were subject to him.
After the pope came the cardinals. They were the pope’s administrators and often communicated with bishops about local affairs. Cardinals saw to it that the will of the pope, and by extension, the will of God, was done in every church.
The bishops were appointed as regional leaders of the Catholic church and oversaw the greater area. Bishops were often as wealthy as nobles and lived a luxurious life. They also acquired land from the church, which further enriched them. In addition, bishops ensured that the will of the pope was executed in their region and that the community remained faithful to the will of God.
Priests served under bishops. They lived a much simpler life and often resided next to the church. The priest held mass and church services for the people, listened to their confessions, and oversaw the caretaking of church grounds. Priests were very involved in the lives of the people in their communities, as they led weddings, funerals, and baptisms.
They also visited sick people and listened to their last confessions before death. Finally, priests could help people be absolved of their sins by giving them orders for repentance and contrition .
5. The Monastic Orders
The final faction of the clergy was the monastic order. This faction can be divided into two factions – the monks and the nuns. The head of the monks was an abbot, and the head of the nuns was the abbess.
Monks lived together in monasteries, where they were responsible for copying the Bible and other manuscripts. Monks painted and made Christian relics for churches. They also visited the poor and handed out food and clothing. Monks performed hard labor and often cultivated land to sustain themselves.
Monks were often appointed as tutors to noble sons. Some noble sons joined the monastery for a period to learn from the monks and were sent there to honor their families and win the grace of God . Monks lived a much simpler life than priests and rarely ate meat or fine cuisine.
Nuns lived in convents, focused on praying and caring for the weak. Nuns often served as sisters in hospitals, caring for the ill. They were also in charge of orphanages and took food to the poor and hungry. Nuns lived a simple life, much like monks.
Some nuns were literate and performed transcription duties. However, the primary purpose of the nuns was to pray and care for the weak. Girls often joined the convents to serve in the church. It was more common for peasant girls to join the monastic order than noble ones.
Monks and nuns typically weren’t considered as a part of the clergy itself but rather as an extension thereof. However, the abbots or abbesses from the monasteries or convents were seen as a part of the clergy. They mainly conversed with the priest and bishops from whom they got their assignments.
What Was The Rank Of The Clergy In The Middle Ages?
The clergy had a high position in the Middle Ages, as you can guess from the previous section. The clergy was involved in some way or another in every social class. The pope often had a lot of influence over the monarchy and was involved with all their decision-making .
Bishops had the same influence over noble and high-ranking officials. They often socialized with these groups to raise funds for the church or their own pockets. Some bishops would threaten wealthy nobles with purgatory to convince them to make hefty donations to the church .
Priests, as mentioned before, were heavily involved in the lives of the poor and rich alike, as they ensured the souls of their communities were safe. Some priests would also occasionally use the idea of purgatory or excommunication to further their cause and advance themselves.
Monks lived mostly separated from society but were the only source of literacy in many communities, making them an essential part of the community. Nuns played an equally important role since they cared for the sick, orphaned, and poor. Nuns were much more involved in the daily lives of the community than monks, and many shared a close relationship with the people.
Overall, the clergy held equal importance to the monarchs. While the royal family considered themselves above the church, the clergy considered themselves above all else as they were directly appointed by God to do his work.
The general population also accepted the importance of the clergy. In the Middle Ages, the only accepted religion was Christianity, which was upheld by the Roman Catholic church. The church was not to be questioned or challenged and doing so could lead to being excommunicated and rejected .
Society accepted the role of the clergy among them and did what the church demanded without question. This meant that the church claimed its fees in tithes, which the people willingly gave as a part of their salvation.
During the Middle Ages, some people challenged the church for being corrupt and self-serving. But these people were excommunicated and banished before they could affect the greater population. The clergy remained in power by excommunicating those who questioned the church’s customs. In addition, they sent a warning to those who dared differ from them.
Since the start of the Middle Ages, the clergy held an undeniably important place in society which would not easily be replaced for several centuries. But what caused the clergy’s decline in power during the Middle Ages?
What Caused The Clergy’s Power Decline In The Middle Ages?
At the onset of the Middle Ages, the clergy held one of the most essential roles in society. But the role of the clergy looked much different by the end of the Middle Ages.
Many factors contributed to the clergy’s decline in power. But no factor did as much damage to the clergy’s position as the Bubonic Plague of 1347 to 1352 . Many people felt the church failed to protect and cure them during the Black Death pandemic.
Priests and nuns knew nothing of this virus and could offer little ease to the suffering. As a result, the population began questioning the clergy’s effectiveness in saving them, and the clergy lost a lot of the blind faith people had before.
Other factors that caused a decline in the people’s belief in the clergy’s power included the Crusades, wars, and droughts throughout Europe that caused suffering and loss. The final blow that robbed the clergy of its position in society was the Protestant Reformation, which occurred between 1517 and 1648 .
The protestant reformation brought about a new way of thinking, which led to the clergy losing its total power in society. To this day, the Roman Catholic church has not reclaimed the power it had at the start of the Middle Ages. During that time, the clergy was the strongest and will likely ever be.
The clergy held an undeniably powerful position in the Middle Ages. Members of the clergy were involved in practically all sections of society. Five factions within the clergy strengthened the church and served the people.
The decline of the clergy’s power came when they couldn’t save the people from the black death, and the final blow to their power came with the Protestant Reformation towards the later Middle Ages.
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Thursday 18th of May 2023
I would like to know in as much detail as possible what the inside of a clergy house in Spain, circa 1550, looked like. Did the priests have separate quarters or was it more a dormitory situation? Were there doors separating the rooms? Was a chapel part of the layout?