The church in the middle ages played a central role in people’s lives as well as the state. The middle ages were a turbulent time marked by wars in which millions of lives were lost. The church played a strong and controversial role during these tumultuous times.
The church was a universal, all encompassing institution, with the Roman Catholic Church permeating every aspect of societal life. The Bible was the main source of educational activity and most people sought to devote their life to serving the church. Some of the most common terms that were used and propagated by the church were mass, sacraments and Holy Communion, terms that the modern day church still relates with.
The church in the middle ages was so powerful that it had its own set of rules and a large budget too. The leaders of the church came from privileged, wealthy families of the nobility. The bishops and archbishops reigned over diocese, which were clusters of parishes spread out over a geographical location. While the bishops and archbishops hailed from richer families, the priests who oversaw the parishes had very little education and had humble origins. At the bottom of the hierarchy was the village priest who was responsible for caring and ministering to the sick and old, and taught the youth how to read the Bible and how to speak in Latin.
The church building itself was exceptional in that so much detail and money was put in developing it, especially the larger cathedrals. This was in large contrast to the poor shacks that surrounded the church in which poor villagers dwelt. The stone used to build the church was sourced from nearby quarries and the peasants were responsible for putting up the structure. In the middle ages, the church building served as a civic monument that peasants looked at as a symbol of self-reliance and community.
Features of the building such as the windows were used to demonstrate Bible stories because the attendants could not read the Bible neither in English nor in Latin. However, the bishops said the Mass proceedings in Latin even though the villagers could not comprehend the language. The Bible began being translated in English at the start of the fourteenth century to enable the common person to understand the text. An important feature of the Church was the crucifix, which symbolized affiliation to Christianity.
The Church and The State
The church in the middle ages ruled in tandem with the prevailing government. The bishops were close enough to the kings that they would compose letters, declaration and rules on behalf of the king. Additionally, the local governors and lords appointed the village and the church priests who were then required to adhere to the wishes of the lords.
Kings in the Middle Ages ruled based on divine right. This implied that the king was ordained by God to rule over his people. The monarch was in charge of both the Church and the Crown. The Catholic Church reinforced this system by declaring that the Pope is an earthly representative of the Christ and as such has authority over the monarchy in addition to the church.
The collapse of the Roman Empire in the 5th century saw the predominance of the Church so much so that there was no clear line as to the separation of church and state. There was also a lack of strong secular governance and the Church came in to assume the role of government. However, starting in the 10th century, the Church and state began to engage in a struggle for dominance. During this time, states such as the modern day Vatican were completely ruled by the Pope. The Pope also claimed the authority to replace and choose the Kings of Western Europe. In eastern the Roman Empire the church was distinctively separate from the state, while in the Islamic societies, the state and religion were inseparable.
A significant example of the powers that the Pope claimed to yield is of Gregory VII who was one of the strongest Popes of the middle ages. He sought to rule over the kings and the local lords but faced resistance from kings such as King Henry IV of Germany. The conflict that ensued was later settled through the The Concordat of Worms treaty that enabled the king and the pope to appoint bishops.
The Crusades were series of wars fought in Palestine between Christians and Muslims. The church played a great role in urging the church and Christians to seize back the Holy city of Jerusalem from the Turkish Muslims. Both the kings and church leaders in Europe were ready retaliate when the Muslims prevented the Christians from undertaking pilgrimages to Palestine.
The emperor of the Byzantine Empire requested that the Pope assist in capturing back the Holy Land from the Muslim Turks. The Pope declared that he would forgive the sins of those who went to fight in the siege of Jerusalem. This marked the first of the seven subsequent crusades that saw thousands of people die in battle.
Monasteries and Pilgrimages
Many people aspired to serve in the monasteries as monks and nuns. Serving in the monasteries was a sign of dedication to God and the church. St. Benedict, a 6th century pope created the monastery rules; the monasteries acquired the name Benedictines from the influence of this Pope. The church required that monks and nuns take vows of chastity, obedience and poverty. They were also restricted from owning or acquiring property or leaving the monastery. They engaged in manual labor and cared for the sick, old and poor in society.
In the church of the middle ages, pilgrimages played a vital role in the lives of Christians and the society. Some of the most popular pilgrims were those to the Holy Land of Jerusalem and Rome. The England Canterbury cathedral and the Church of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain were equally important shrines.