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Medieval World: Religion

Resources to support the Year 8 Humanities Unit: Medieval world - The Middle Ages

Christianity In The Middle Ages

The church became dominant in Europe following the fall of the Roman Empire. The only religion recognized in Middle Ages Europe was Christianity and specifically Catholicism. Christianity in the middle ages dominated the lives of both peasants and the nobility. Religious institutors including the Church and the monasteries became wealthy and influential given the fact that the state allocated a significant budget for religious activities.


Gregory I the Great played a significant role in establishing a strong and influential papacy and church machinery. His first step in asserting the control of the papacy is elaborated by the fact that he sent monks to convert the Anglo-Saxons whom he considered pagan. Gregory established an early system in which the Church yielded as much power as the State and sometimes more. Archbishops would supervise the bishops and the pope would supervise the archbishops.

Those who succeeded Gregory continued to expand the church’s influence in both the social and political aspects of the medieval society. English missionaries in the 8th century influenced the French to adopt a system of papal governance. However, the rise of feudalism threatened and curbed the influence that the Christian church had amassed. This saw the Church fall under the influence of secular local rulers and kings, toward the end of the ninth century.

Christianity as a religion emerged from Judaism. The Christianity that was spread across Europe during the middle ages was based on the scriptures that recounted the life of the Christ and his disciples. The rise of Christianity during the Roman Empire was seen as a threat against the Empire. This led to the persecution of Christians but this harassment ended when Emperor Constantine of the Roman Empire took the throne. Most of Constantine’s successors were Christians and gradually Christianity replaced the Roman religion, as the authorized religion.

When the Roman Empire began to fall in the 5th century, Germanic barbarian tribes took over Rome. This triggered what is known in history as the Dark Ages, which saw the establishment of the Christian Catholic Church as the sole source of moral authority. The term Catholic comes from the English term catholik, the old French term catholique and the Latin term catholicus, all of which mean universal. Throughout most of the medieval era, any religion outside of Christianity was as considered heretical.

The Christian Church had its own lands, laws and taxes. The Church was so influential that it too collected taxes from its followers. The Church also accepted different types of gifts from nobility and anyone who was looking for divine favor. As the role of the Church grew, bishops archbishops, and the pope bore great influence on the reigning kings in Europe. Those who spoke negatively of the church or opposed it were excommunicated so that they were not eligible for communion or to attend services in the church.


The Great Schism and the Great Western Schism

Christianity in the middle ages saw a great divide also known as the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church. This great split resulted from divided opinion about the crusades in which Christians fought against Muslims over the Holy Land. Pope Urban I of Italy played a critical role in prompting the crusades. Following aggression from Seljuk Turks, the pope asked Christians across Europe to wage a war against the aggressive Turks. In his speech at the Council of Clermont in November 27 1095, he encouraged Christians to conduct a holy war against their foes.

The Church was thus divided into Western Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxy. Then within the Western Catholicism branch there occurred another division between 1378 and 1417. This was triggered when Pope Urban IV of Italy was elected and then established the papal Rome court. France was opposed to this move and in turn elected and appointed their own pope in Avignon. The Council of Constance mended the divide within the Western branch, following mediation. This resulted to the Christian Catholicism adopting a new name, Roman Catholic religion.  The division between the East and West are still largely present today but with a different set of doctrinal differences.

Pilgrimage, Missionary and Education

Christianity in the middle ages honored the concept of pilgrimage. The most popular destination for pilgrimage was the Holy Land but the dangers of travelling during the Middle Ages confined people to local pilgrimage sites.

Missionary activity was rife in the early days of Christianity in the medieval era. Many who sought to dedicate their lives to the Church went to study, live and work in the monasteries. The monks were zealous about their faith and spread it with equal enthusiasm. Ulfilas was one of the earliest missionaries to spread the Christian Gospel. He spent more than 30 years ministering to the Visigoths tribes of the Middle Ages and helped to translate the Bible into Gothic.

Ulfilas and the early Christian missionaries were disciples of Arius, thus most of the Germanic society except the Anglo- Saxon and the Franks adopted the Arian version of Christianity. This prompted the Franks to adopt Roman Catholicism, leading to the strong relationship between the papacy and Frankish rulers.

In the Middle Ages the Church was not only influential in political matters but was also a source of knowledge. In England, Irish monasteries served as a reliable place for seeking education. The peasants often sent their children to the schools established by the Church. Even though the education was meager, it allowed the selected students to purse studies in religion, philosophy and Latin at the monasteries or in universities.

The modern universities of the West originated from the middle ages Christian church. Universities first started as cathedral schools where attending students were categorized as clerics. This was beneficial to the students as it offered them immunity and protection as they were under the Church’s jurisdiction. The cathedral learning centers gradually transformed into independent schools administered separately from the cathedral. The earliest universities to emerge from the medieval church were the University of Paris, the Oxford University and the University of Bologna. The concept of issuing degrees in universities was derived from the Muslim madrasahs established in 9th century.


Information Source:

Life in Religious Communities