The Structure of Medieval Catholic Churches

The church provided some of the few opportunities for education of women in Medieval Europe.
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The Medieval Catholic Church was a wealthy and powerful institution with an extremely hierarchical structure. The internal structure of the church, as well as its wealth, helped it to provide and maintain services to the world that brought order, education and opportunities to the people and society of Medieval Europe.

1 Church Hierarchy

The Medieval Catholic Church was, and still is, organized according to a strict hierarchy. At the head of the church was the Pope, who was advised by the cardinals. The cardinals were in charge of the bishops, each of whom were assigned to a cathedral -- usually within a city -- and oversaw the religious activities in their area such as mass and sacraments, which were performed by priests. In more remote areas, abbeys were the center of religious life, which were overseen by an abbot and administered by monks.

2 Vestments and Trappings

Because the church was so hierarchical, vestments and liturgical objects were important to the structure of the Catholic Church. Like military uniforms, vestments identified the status of the wearer and followed the religious calendar. For example, priests wore loose robes called chasuble, the color of which was determined by religious observances -- purple for Lent and red for Pentecost, for example. Bishops' vestments were more elaborate, with a mitre hat and green stole. They were also in charge of liturgical objects, or objects used during religious ceremonies. Because liturgical objects were considered holy, they were finely wrought of precious materials such as gold and gems.

3 Role in Secular Medieval Life

The medieval church played a very important role in secular life, close to that of modern governments today. It acted as a major patron of public art and luxury crafts; provided education and social services, such as medicine; fed the hungry; and funded infrastructure. However, these services weren't free; people were expected to pay 10 percent of their income to the church, called a tithe, work for the church for free and pay for church services such as baptisms, weddings and burials. In addition, the church didn't pay tax in most medieval countries, allowing it to become hugely wealthy and powerful, influential on both national and local levels in the medieval world.

4 Role of Women

Although the medieval church was dominated by men, women also had an important role in the church. For women who wanted an education or didn't want to marry, becoming a nun was usually the only option available. A nun might rise to become an abbess in charge of both men and women in an abbey. Abbesses were politically powerful and generally well-educated, writing books and communicating with bishops and theologians, similar to abbots. Another option for women was to become a beguine, or "religious woman." Beguines were mostly found in cities and took vows dedicating themselves to good works. Unlike nuns, they were not attached to a particular order and could renounce their vows and marry at any time.

Natasha Brandstatter is an art historian and writer. She has a MA in art history and you can find her academic articles published in "Western Passages," "History Colorado" and "Dutch Utopia." She is also a contributor to Book Riot and Food Riot, a media critic with the Pueblo PULP and a regular contributor to Femnista.