Although religion during the Middle Ages was dominated by the Catholic Church, the Church faced many challenges from a variety of sources. “Christianity” evolved to include beliefs and practices frowned upon by the traditional Church leaders. It became infiltrated by pagan beliefs, practices of heretical Christian sects, and influences from other non-Christian religions. Some of these challenges existed because non-traditional Catholicism was often favored by citizens who desired to hold onto their community folk beliefs as well as their basic Christian principles.
By the fifth century CE, Christianity in its broadest sense became the official religion of the Roman Empire as many changes took place following the religious and political reformations by Emperor Constantine around 324 CE. The relationship between Christianity and Roman society changed drastically. Christian leaders faced the dilemma of finding the pathway to peaceful integration of their traditional religious beliefs and Roman law.
Between 500 CE and 1000 CE, the relationship among Christians and Jews was quite amicable. Likewise, during this timeframe, Christians and Muslims maintained a mutually beneficial existence. As the Middle Ages progressed, Christians began to exert more control over the non-universal practices and beliefs adhered to by their religious and political leaders. Christianity faced the Great Schism when the Catholic Church in the West and the Eastern Orthodox Church separated.
By the time of the First Crusade around 1096 CE, the Church faced still another dilemma. The Church had become more militaristic and challenged the Muslim World. The Jews were barred from participating in the Crusades since their religion forbade them to bear arms. This strained the Christian-Jewish relationship.
The Christian response to these challenges that arose after the fall of Rome was to embrace universal religious beliefs while forming a new way of life for the remaining Empire. Under the old Roman rule, the citizenry focused on health, exercise, baths, extravaganzas, wealth, and material things. Romans were obsessed with laws more than worship. They loved to travel, and their culture was steeped in entertainment. The new Christians cared little about many of the old Roman obsessions. They were more interested in their souls than their bodies. They embraced poverty where it existed and believed it was akin to godliness. Thus, in the early days of the Middle Ages, the Church remained poor, although this would change drastically centuries later.
Christians between 500 CE and 1000 CE adopted the belief that the greatest human pleasure was to praise God and the simple life of worship was the means to peace and happiness. This, however, rapidly changed. The new Christianity faced some major difficulties. First, the Christian economy deteriorated into communities of near abject poverty. Second, the people required protection from the growing number of enemies threatening their survival. Third, Christian religious beliefs began to conflict with science.
The Christian response was the greater centralization of power in the Pope to the extent that governments in Western Europe were ruled by the will of the Pope with the blessing of their political leaders. Additionally, the rise of monasticism helped to organize and unify Christian doctrine throughout Europe through the spread of monasteries. It was not long before the papacy and the monasteries themselves grew very wealthy through the widespread support of their followers. Additionally, religious zeal enabled Christian leaders to amass armies to ensure profitable trade and other commerce. Ultimately, the Crusades accomplished very little except to cement the idea of theocratic governance into Western Europe. The conflict with the scientific world continued long thereafter.