The influence of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages was far-reaching and profound. Catholic teachings and Vatican politics touched every aspect of life, from the architecture of monasteries to the wars waged by monarchs. Monks helped to preserve the great literature of the classical world, even as missionaries replaced pagan practices with Catholic beliefs and celebrations of christian saints. The medieval church itself was an increasingly wealthy patron of the arts.
Relics, Indulgences and Excommunications
In the early days of the Middle Ages, from about the fifth century on, the power of the Catholic Church was nearly absolute. Several notable church practices had lasting effects on European life. Saints’ relics -- their bones, teeth, and hair – as well as splinters of the crucifix and other items believed to be authentic and sacred, attracted pilgrimages to churches and abbeys. The pilgrimages were profitable, as was the sale of indulgences -- blessings to absolve sins -- and church wealth grew. A papal threat of excommunication, which denied a person eternal salvation, helped to control kings, who willingly declared wars and signed treaties favorable to church interests.
Crusades and Inquisitions
The crusades were holy wars declared to retake the sacred shrines and vast resources of the holy land for the church and sympathetic Catholic monarchs. Young nobles proved their bravery on crusades; trained knights and mercenary fighters saw the wars as a way to gain wealth and royal favor. The unintended consequence of the travel and increased exposure to other cultures changed ordinary European life. Spices, carpets, lemons, rice, algebra, chess, medicine and great art treasures of the east were introduced to Europe by returning crusaders. In Europe, the Inquisitions, begun by the church to eliminate those who denied or challenged church teachings, would eventually have a chilling effect on scientific discovery. Persecution by Inquisitorial courts targeted non-Catholic ethnic and religious populations, wiping out many cultural enclaves and involuntarily converting those who held other religious beliefs.
Literature and Learning
When the Roman Empire fell, books and libraries containing the literature and knowledge of thousands of years were burned or otherwise lost. Those who could read and write were among the first to be killed or exiled. The philosophies, languages and scientific discoveries of ages began to disappear. During the Middle Ages, monks in remote Catholic monasteries dedicated their lives to the laborious business of transcribing, translating, copying and illustrating parchments, papyri and manuscripts. Continuing well into medieval times, monks produced exquisitely illustrated masterpieces filled with the knowledge of classical civilization.
Music, Art and Architecture
The medieval church developed music consisting of unaccompanied singing of the verses of the Divine Office and the set parts of the mass, performed by monks in their chapels. Plainchant, also known as Gregorian chant, is still sung daily in monasteries, and led to the development of polyphonic, or harmonic, music. Composers dedicated their efforts to writing music to be sung and played in church, an early example of the patronage that would characterize the arts in Europe into the Renaissance and beyond. Likewise, artists painted, sculpted and designed for churches. This resulted in sacred statues, canvases depicting moments in the life of Christ or the saints, and soaring examples of architecture in shrines, cathedrals and monasteries. The imposing stone monasteries and churches were the centers of local life.
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