What was the role of the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages?
During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was organized into a hierarchy with the Pope at the top. The Pope was theoretically superior to even monarchs, and kings and queens could be excommunicated if they contravened the wishes of the Pope. An excommunicated person could not receive the sacraments and was therefore thought to be damned to hell. Consequently, the church held some degree of power over monarchs in the Middle Ages. For example, in 1041, the Church passed the Truce of God, which stated that the days from Thursday to Sunday were holy days on which fighting was disallowed. This edict helped curb the endless bloodshed that had characterized relations between nobles and monarchs, as the cost of fielding an army to fight on only three days a week (Monday through Wednesday) seemed prohibitively high.
The church was also the center of the most medieval towns. People were expected to attend religious services on Sundays, and they also celebrated holidays and feasts according to the church schedule, as holidays were religious rather than secular in nature. Cathedrals were also the site of Europe's first universities, so the church was also a center of learning and scholarship. Monasteries and nunneries provided housing for monks and nuns, and many religious figures were involved in acts of charity. The church was also a major landowner in many parts of Europe. Therefore, the church was integral to the political, economic, and social life of the Middle Ages.
The Roman Catholic Church played an important role in practically every area of life during the Middle Ages. Let us examine three different ways in which it did so.
First, the Roman Catholic Church was the only church at this time. As such, it was felt to have a monopoly on religious knowledge and on the relationship between Europeans and God. In other words, the Church could control who went to Heaven and who went to Hell. This gave it tremendous power over people’s lives. The Church did much to determine how people would live since it said what was permissible and what was not.
Second, the Church was a major political force during this time. Kings and queens wanted and needed papal approval, particularly when they were somewhat weak (as in times of conflict over succession). This, among other things, allowed the Church to exercise political power as it could help to determine which claimants to a throne would be deemed acceptable. There was a long history of tension between the church and secular authority over this and other political issues.
Finally, the Church was deeply involved in economic life. The Church controlled a great deal of land (the main source of wealth at this time), largely because it owned monasteries. By owning all the land connected to the monasteries (often willed to it by people wanting to ensure their own salvation), the Church was a major economic power.
These are the major ways in which the Church played a role in medieval life.
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The church was a social place as well as a place of worship.
Christian rituals and faith were part of the fabric of everyday life.
Priests and clergy guided people on issues of values and morality. Also, people were required to receive the sacraments.
Monks and nuns cared for the poor and sick, set up schools for children, and gave food and lodging to travelers.
The Roman Catholic Church became increasingly involved in secular (nonreligious) society during the Middle Ages (A.D. c. 450–c. 1500). It played a significant role in medieval European life through the activities of the clergy (church officials). Missionaries converted many of the Germanic tribes, and the church was influential in civilizing the so-called barbarians (non-Christians). Churches throughout Europe housed travelers and served as hospitals for the sick, while monasteries and cathedrals became centers of learning.
Further Information: Frank, Isnard Wilhelm. A Concise History of the Medieval Church. New York: Continuum, 1995; "Religion." Annenberg/CPB Exhibits. [Online] Available http://www.learner.org/exhibits/middleages/religion.html, October 20, 2000.