The Roman Catholic Church Was the Most Powerful Institution in Western Europe
The Catholic Church was powerful across large portions of northern and western Europe and held influence over the lives of ordinary people and elites. Christian monasteries functioned as centers of religion but were also important places of learning and the arts.
In the year 1000 CE, there was little that unified Western Europe. The politically fragmented continent had many large and small kingdoms with independent rulers. Warfare between kingdoms was common, and borders shifted often. Different European people also spoke many languages and had varying cultural practices.
Christianity provided a common link: Christianity was one commonality that provided a unifying force across Europe. In Western Europe, until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Christianity was the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic Church was the center of social, political, and religious life, from kings and nobles to peasants and serfs.
- Until the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church was Western Europe’s most powerful political institution.
- Most in Europe accepted the Pope as God’s representative on earth.
- When the Pope crowned a king, it symbolized God crowning and supporting a king’s rule.
- For most people, daily existence was challenging and full of suffering. The Church offered a path to salvation and the promise of eternal bliss beyond earthly pain.
Rulers across history have claimed authority to rule from God. Catholic Popes claimed that God chose them to lead the Church. Monarchs in Europe also claimed authority to rule from God. In Europe, they called it the divine right of kings. In China, it was called the Mandate of Heaven.
The decline of Church power: While the Catholic Church and Pope remain influential in the modern world, their power began steadily declining in the 15th century. By the 19th century, the Pope had gone from an influential political and religious figure to a purely spiritual leader.
Canon law was the law of the Church. It dictated many areas of life, including marriages and religious practices.
- For people who strayed from the Church’s teachings, the Church held the power of ex-communication (removal from the Catholic Church), which Catholics believed led to the soul’s eternal damnation into hell.
- The Church’s excommunicating power covered everyone, from agricultural workers to kings.
Christianity is a monastic belief system. Christian monks and nuns lived away from society in monasteries and devoted their lives to prayer, meditation, and reflection.
- Monasteries also served as centers of European learning.
- Christian leaders also supported the creation of art in monasteries.
- Monks and nuns could often read and write and produced the written documents and books used by churches.
- Monasteries had extensive libraries that stored intellectual knowledge and religious texts.
Monasteries were centers of European culture: Christian monasteries were also centers of creative and artistic production. As monastic scribes produced books and manuscripts, artists would decorate pages with elaborate artistic drawings and detail. Musical arrangements were also composed in monasteries to aid Christian worshipers in prayer and scripture reading. Because European artists were associated with the Church, most European art in the middle ages focused on religious themes.
The Catholic Church Splits: The Rise of Eastern Orthodox Christianity
Differences between Christian leadership in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire led to a split in the Catholic Church and the creation of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
From the time of the Roman Empire, European Christianity had developed two competing power centers: the Catholic Pope in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Pope in the Byzantine Empire (old Easter Roman Empire).
The Great Schism: Disagreements between the Pope in Rome and Byzantine Christian leaders were common. Eventually, the differences led to the official separation of the Catholic and Byzantine churches in 1054. The Catholic Pope was in Rome, and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch (the leader of the Orthodox Church) was in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
Portions of Eastern Europe slowly converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity: Eastern Europe was one of the last European regions to convert widely to Christianity. Because the Eastern Orthodox Church was closer to the kingdoms of Eastern Europe, its influence spread into the region.
- Kievan Rus (modern Kyiv, Ukraine) was a 10th-century power in Eastern Europe. In 989, their leader Prince Vladimir I, legally abolished the old pagan religions of the area when he converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Eastern Orthodox Christianity became the official state religion of Kyiv Rus.
- Russia later became a significant Eastern European power and adopted Orthodox Christianity.
All religions and belief systems change over time and as they diffuse into new places. Just like Christianity developed various versions, so did Buddhism as it moved across trade routes from South Asia to East and Southeast Asia. Original Theravada Buddhism adopted new practices and beliefs, which resulted in the Mahayana and Tibetan forms of Buddhism.
The Crusades: The Christian, Jewish, and Islamic Communities Collide
The Crusades were a series of conflicts between the 11th and 13th centuries that sought to spread Christinaity into new areas of Europe and reconquer territory from Muslims that had previously been Christian.
By the 11th century, Muslim armies had conquered and converted portions of Europe and the Mediterranean region that had formerly been Christian. The Christian holy lands in modern Palestine and Israel had also fallen to Muslim armies.
What were the Crusades?
The Crusades were a series of conflicts to spread Christianity and the power of Christian states. The Crusades were not one event but several events with various goals that took place between the 11th and 13th centuries.
The goals of the Crusades
The Crusades had several goals.
The effects of the Crusades
The Crusades left a legacy in Europe that reshaped European life.