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What was the Church's role in the Middle Ages?

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During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church played a great role in many aspects of life. It was believed that the Pope could determine a person's eternal destiny through excommunication, which gave him great power over the actions of the people, including monarchs. Church doctrine and practices shaped many aspects of culture, such as holidays. The Church held great economic power through its possession of land, and it was largely the center of education.

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The role of the Church during the Middle Ages, also known as the Medieval Period, cannot be overstated.  The period of history that spanned from the end of the Roman Empire in the 5th century to the early years of the Renaissance in the 15th century was characterized as much by the rise of religion as a factor in politics as by the scourge of the Black Death, which called into question the Church’s actual influence over human destiny. This, after all, was the period of history during which the Catholic Church witnessed its greatest expansion in influence and power. Although, in Arabia, the birth and spread of Islam would pose an increasing challenge to Catholicism across the Asian subcontinent. It was the period of history that witnessed a crusade to rescue the holy city of Jerusalem from Islam, following Pope Urban II’s orders in 1095 to reclaim that tiny parcel of land in the name of the Church. The ability of the pope to set into motion one of the most momentous events in human history—events the consequences of which continue to affect international relations—is testament to the power wielded by the Church during the Middle Ages.

While the power of the pope was substantial, his authority across the expanse of Europe was limited to a degree by the natural restraints of the time, especially in communications and in the dependence of the church on the aristocracy to support its edicts. It was difficult for the pontiffs to extend their control across Europe, so local clergy often exercised more power within their defined fiefdoms than their positions warranted. Additionally, as noted, the spread of the bubonic plague across Europe during the middle of the 14th century and the consequent deaths of tens of millions of people caused many Europeans to question their fealty to an institution that had failed to protect humanity from such a horrific development. That, however, came late in the Middle Ages. For most of that period, the Church played a major role in many fields, including science and the arts. Unfortunately, a major schism in the Church between Roman Catholicism and the Constantinople-centered Eastern Orthodox Church during the 11th century represented the beginning of a major setback for the unity of Christianity.

The role of the Church in the Middle Ages is a seriously broad topic precisely because that period in history spanned so many years and included so many developments. It is suffice to say that the Church wielded a great deal of authority across Europe. Simultaneously, however, it witnessed major challenges to its authority including the rise of Islam and the divisions within Catholicism that resulted in the aforementioned “Great Schism.” Throughout much of this period, human spirituality across Europe was heavily influenced by the Church, and it could be (and was) suggested that its enormous power bred the equally enormous spiritual corruption that rotted the Church from within and led to the Reformation.

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During the Middle Ages, the church's main responsibility was the spiritual well-being of Christians and ensuring that people can reach heaven. This responsibility allowed them to acquire a great amount of power and wealth. All Christians at this time believed in heaven and hell, so the church would direct them as to how to get to heaven. Having this authority allowed the church to charge fees to peasants and kings alike that would guarantee safe passage to heaven. The church charged the believers to perform sacraments. Every Christian was required to pay a tithe, or ten percent of their salary, to the church. Because of the wealth generated by their operations, the church became the largest landowner in Europe and was not required to pay taxes.

The church used their wealth and power to become a dominant political force in Western Europe as well. Kings were expected to follow the pope's lead. If they failed to listen to the pope, they could be kicked out of the church. This meant that the king could not get to heaven. The church, through its monasteries, also provided housing, schooling, and medical care to the growing peasant population.

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What did the Roman Catholic Church provide during the Middle Ages?

The Roman Catholic Church provided a sense of relative stability for a chaotic Europe during the Middle Ages.  After the end of the Roman Empire, there was little to unify Europeans except for the fact that they were Christians.  Europeans were less likely to identify with a nationality as they were with Christendom.  The Papacy was quite a strong government, and the Pope could issue edicts banning kingdoms from fighting with one another; because of these bans, knights developed jousting in order to satisfy their honor and avoid papal disapproval.  The Church also organized Crusades in the Middle East as a way for kingdoms to gain more wealth and for participants to fulfill the spiritual need to fight for the Holy Land.  

Religiously, the Church provided guidance for all souls.  Almost no one outside of monasteries and royalty could read during the Middle Ages, so commoners had to rely on the Church to provide religious teaching.  This provided comfort to people who had very short lives packed with uncertainty.  The local church also kept records of marriages and births, making them a keeper of history in their localities.  

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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. 

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What was the role of the Roman Catholic Church during 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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What role did the Roman Catholic Church play in European politics during the Middle Ages?

The Roman Catholic Church was very important during the Middle Ages. Kings and nobles had to listen to the Vatican and risked excommunication if they did not. This upset some princes especially in Germany, which is why the Protestant Reformation began in the German states. Kings had to give their armies and money to fight in various crusades. The pope was the only person in Europe who could make the decision to invade the Holy Land, though many kings enjoyed the fruits of their labors in attacking kingdoms in the Middle East.

The pope would issue edicts that Christians were not to kill one another so this led to jousting among knights instead of periods of constant warfare. This was important since in the early Middle Ages, the pope was the most powerful leader in Europe. While the Vatican sometimes found itself in conflict with various medieval leaders, the Roman Catholic Church was the most powerful European entity in the Middle Ages. 

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