Church and state were closely entwined in Medieval Europe. The Roman Catholic Church dominated politics, medicine and faith during the Middle Ages, when Catholicism was the official religion of most European nations. The general populace, particularly peasants, tended to be extremely superstitious during the Middle Ages, believing the church was the only route to reach heaven and eternal salvation. The Middle Ages placed a strong emphasis on authority, leading people to often believe what they were told, without question. Questioning the authority of the Catholic Church during this time could also lead to the death penalty.
Church and Monarchy
Church leaders, such as bishops and archbishops, had influential roles in medieval European monarchies and often served as advisers to a country’s king. The church also acted as a counter against monarchs who wanted absolute power, since there was one power the church had over them -- excommunication. An excommunicated king could face leadership challenges from both inside and outside his kingdom, without the condemnation of church leaders. A clear example of this is King John of England, who was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in the 13th century after a dispute with Pope Innocent III. After encountering numerous difficulties, including the threat of a papal-backed French invasion, John agreed to once again swear fealty to the pope.
During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church made huge sums of money off the general populace’s desire to attain eternal salvation. According to the Vatican, an indulgence is a remission of temporal punishment due to sin, originally granted in exchange for good works and prayer. However, during the Middle Ages, granting indulgences became a business; professional “pardoners” offered the unrestricted sale of indulgences, promising exaggerated rewards, such as salvation from eternal damnation, in exchange for a sum of money. The Catholic Church used some of the earnings from the sale of indulgences to fund the Crusades.
The Catholic Church was the main sponsor of charitable institutions, such as hospitals and orphanages, during the Middle Ages. Catholic monasteries were the leading provider of hospital work and education. The Knights Hospitaller, the most famous of the Western Christian military orders during the Middle Ages, were sponsored by the church. The knights were famous from their early monastic origins in Jerusalem, where they provided medical care to poor, sick or injured pilgrims venturing to the Holy Land.
Authority on Family Life
The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages taught that the female sex was physically, intellectually and spiritually inferior to the male sex, and that women’s role in society should be primarily relegated to the home, says the Catholic Education Resource Center. Regarding the role of women, in the 13th century Pope Innocent wrote that while the Virgin Mary may be more illustrious than the apostles, “it was still not to her, but to them, that the Lord entrusted the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” To this day the Roman Catholic Church does not admit women to the priesthood or any significant leadership positions.
- BBC: King John and the Magna Carta
- BBC: Medieval Civilization
- PBS - The Roman Catholic Church in Medieval Europe
- Encyclopaedia Brittanica: Indulgence
- Catholic Education Resource Center: The Authority of Women
- Time: The Knights Hospitaller
- Catholic News Center: Pope John Paul II looked closely at role of women in church
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