Religion was far more important in almost every area of medieval life than it is in most modern societies. The vast majority of people in Europe followed the Christian religion under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. The church in that era had great wealth, political power and influence over community life, art, architecture and education.
The Age of Faith
The Middle Ages are sometimes referred to as the Age of Faith because religion was so pervasive in European society. Medieval villages were organized around local churches, and larger towns would devote generations of labor and resources to build large cathedrals. Medieval people counted on the church to provide social services, spiritual guidance and protection from hardships such as famines or plagues. Most people were fully convinced of the validity of the church's teachings and believed that only the faithful would avoid hell and gain eternal salvation in heaven.
Sacred and Secular
With such influence over the beliefs of the people, the church also wielded tremendous political power. The papacy was so powerful during the Middle Ages that when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV angered Pope Gregory VII, Gregory forced the emperor to kneel in the snow for three days to beg forgiveness. When popes called for crusades to drive the Muslims out of Jerusalem, huge armies went to war at their command. The church's influence was so extensive that people from all walks of life would go on long and sometimes dangerous pilgrimages to holy places to atone for behavior the church considered sinful.
Art and Religion
Secular art of any kind was much less common in the Middle Ages than religious art. Art was often used as a teaching tool rather than for its own sake. Because so few people could read, paintings and carvings were an easy way to present religious stories and symbolism. Community life was structured around a calendar of saint's days and other religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter. Entertainments such as music, drama and dancing usually took place during religious festivals. A typical medieval festival included bonfires, musicians, displays of juggling and other feats, trained animals, special food and plays with actors wearing fantastic masks and costumes. Even though a lot of these activities were not directly related to religion, they were still scheduled on holy days and often held in front of a church, the center of the community.
Education and Opportunity
The medieval university system was created and controlled by the church, so most European intellectuals during the Middle Ages were monks or other ecclesiastical figures. Monks could not only read but often spent much of their time copying ancient manuscripts and religious texts by hand. For a person from a peasant background, entering the church as a monk or priest was an opportunity to learn, study and move up through the hierarchy that would not otherwise have been available.
- Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images