In medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church was the most powerful church, and its power was formidable and far-reaching. Church leaders controlled almost all aspects of medieval life, and the Church served many functions that in today's society we would consider to be governmental functions, such as law making/enforcement, military leadership, and granting ownership of land. The Church even controlled the ruling parties; for example, a King would need the Pope's permission to get a divorce.
Ultimately, the vast majority of people were concerned with getting into heaven, and so the Church's power was derived from their perceived ability to control whether or not a person made it there. People spent significant time and effort to avoid being punished for their sins in purgatory.The Church sold indulgences, which were papers that absolved you of punishment for certain sins. Many people signed up to fight in the Crusades or went on pilgrimages to earn forgiveness for their sins.
Serfs were expected to provide free labor for Church land, in addition to the 10% tithe. Because most serfs at the time lacked access to actual coinage, they paid their tithes in the form of grain or livestock.
The Church formed a vital part of most people's lives in medieval Europe. Just about everyone at that time was a Christian believer, and as the Church was the only one in Europe in the centuries leading up to the Reformation, it inevitably exercised considerable control, both spiritually and temporally. For the Church wasn't simply a spiritual body; it was a major temporal power in its own right with substantial wealth and property, mainly in the form of extensive landholding. This gave the Church considerable leverage over the crowned heads of Europe. If any of these rulers acted in ways contrary to the interests of the Church—as they frequently did—then the Pope, as head of the Church, could use a variety of means to keep them in line. As well as military force and punitive financial measures, the Pope had at his disposal the power of excommunication, which was widely used against unruly monarchs.
Lower down the social scale, millions of ordinary peasants worked on land owned by the Church. In addition, they were expected to pay tithes—a tenth of their income—to the Church. From the cradle to the grave, virtually every aspect of the life of the common people was in some way related to the Church. Births, marriages, deaths, religious feasts and festivals—all of the important stages of an average person's life in medieval Europe were shaped and controlled by the Church and its laws, doctrines, and customs.
The church was at the crux of people's lives in medieval Europe. People not only attended regular worship services at the church but also marked important events, such as baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals, at the church. Most holidays were saints' days and were also religious in nature, and people's beliefs about life, death, sin, and the afterlife were largely determined by the church.
The church played a major role in the economy of medieval Europe; the church was a major landowner, and many peasants worked land that belonged to the church. In addition, people were required to pay one-tenth of their income, called a tithe, to the church, and many of these payments were made in animals or grain, which were stored in tithe barns owned by the church.
Cathedrals, constructed in cities, were the sites of the first universities, and monasteries (referred to as part of the "regular church," as opposed to the "secular church" where people worshipped) were the site of schools. Many great universities in Europe, including the Sorbonne in France, originally developed as schools associated with cathedrals. In addition, the church held political power, and technically, the Pope could even excommunicate kings and queens if they went against his dictates. Therefore, the church had a major political, social, and economic role in people's lives during medieval times.