Religion in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Religion in the Middle Ages was dominated by Christianity. It is the era in which the great cathedrals of Europe were built and the Catholic Church started its universities in Paris, Tubingen, Cambridge and Oxford. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was the only church in Europe. The laws of the land and leading roles in the government were all in the hands of the leading church leaders like bishops and archbishops.
It was an era when the vested powers in the hands of the Pope were so great that he could even excommunicate a king for a misdeed. From birth to death, the life of the medieval people was dominated entirely by the church and many religious institutions gained power and wealth. Large Cathedrals were built when the traditional Roman style churches became insufficient for accommodating the increased population by the twelfth Century. Lausanne Cathedral and Regensburg Cathedral are among the most famous one built during this age, they are known for their architecture.
The monks and nuns in the Christian monasteries had to live by the rules set by St Benedict and were known as Benedictines. They were forbidden the right to their own property, to leave the monastery or get involved in worldly concerns and desires. They had to perform manual labour and follow the stringent regulations of the Church. Monks and nuns of this era were generally well educated; they devoted their entire lives to learning and writing. Various scriptures on history and science in the era were written by monks.
The monasteries also served as a place for the preservation of the knowledge and learning of classical world. Monks were encouraged to copy valuable manuscripts in various languages making monasteries a haven for learning. Pilgrimages were also an important religious activity of the medieval people.
Visit to holy shrines such as the Church of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the Canterbury cathedral in England, and sites in Jerusalem and Rome was considered to redeem people from their sins and open the gates of heaven. The Early Middle Ages also saw an extensive increase in missionary activities. The missionaries spread Christianity to various parts of the world and helped in the fusion of various cultures along with it.
Christian Campaigns against other Religions
Since Christianity was the dominant religion during the Middle Ages, attempts to purify the church and society led to many Christian campaigns against other religions. These campaigns were led by bishops, scholars and warriors who made efforts to make the Christian world free of all the non-Christians. This included Jews, Muslims and Pagans and Gypsies. Jews in fact suffered the most as they were considered to be the greatest threat to Christianity.
Anti-Semitic hatred was increased among the common masses by quoting biblical texts which put the blame of the crucifixion of Christ on the Jews. They were banished from various European countries. They were in fact skilful tradesmen and goldsmiths in the whole of Europe, because all those works that were dealing with money were considered not pure by the Catholics. Judaism in the Middle Ages was thus practiced in private to avoid persecution.
Islam was in its golden period during the Middle Ages. The philosophers, scientists and engineers of the Islamic World contributed greatly to knowledge, arts, civilization and architecture. The spread of this religion was perceived as a threat to Christianity. The Muslims were increasing their territory in fighting wars with Christian and Hindu rulers. The Pope Urban II in 1095 proclaimed a “holy war” against Islam with the conquest of Jerusalem by Islamic Turks.
The Church very subtly played on the psychology of the common people by giving them assurance that their sins would be forgiven if they would fight for this “holy war” too. Thousands of innocent lives were taken in the name of religion. Disagreements within Christianity itself were reason enough. The Church would call a bad Christian a heretic and his belief as heresy. A heretic would generally be burnt at the stake.
Law and Religion
During the later Middle Ages, the law of Europe was governed by the Church. An entire jurisdiction was exercised by the church which protected the widows, orphans and helpless and also dealt with offenses. The church could exercise its jurisdiction in collaboration with the secular courts. The church also penalized a number of religious offenses like heresy, sorcery, apostasy and sexual sins. Matrimonial cases too were considered like matters relating to the legitimacy of children, recording of marriages, wills and personal property.
Various religious orders were followed by the Catholic Church of which the Benedictines and Cistercians were most popular. The Benedictines or followers of St. Benedict wore black robes and lived in monasteries built in towns or in the countryside. On the other hand, the Cistercians wore white robes and remained in remote areas to avoid distraction in their prayers. A new order was found towards the later Middle Ages by the name of Friars for spreading Christianity. The friars also took religious vows and lived in religious communities. But unlike monks, they could leave their priories every day for spreading their religion to the masses.
The Roman Catholic Church was the supreme power during the Middle Ages. It was the stabilizing force in everyday life which kept the community framework together. The laws and rules of the land, public policies and governance of the people were all affected by religion during the Middle Ages. Any attempt at threatening Christianity by other religions was met with force and all measures were taken to spread the religion in other parts of the world. The society was superstitious and ignorant and believed in what the religious institutions taught them.
Islam was also shaping up in this era with a wide spread in the religion during this period. Many territories were fought and won in the name of religion. Judaism, which had many setbacks towards the end of the middle ages, also survived the ordeal. Many other small religions also came up in various parts of the world shaping societies. The arts, architecture and teachings of this era bear testimony to this fact.