Chapter 1 - Section 11

Medieval Connections: The Middle Ages and Feudal Europe

Christianity and the Role of the Catholic Church

     Christianity, based upon the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles as written in the New Testament, took on a powerful influence under the organization of the Roman Catholic Church. The Church was led by the Pope. He was assisted by a widespread hierarchy that directed and enforced Church doctrines and teachings throughout European society down to the level of the smallest villages. As a result, in fulfilling its mission to enforce Christian principles as expressed in Church dogma and law, the Roman Catholic Church in Europe was involved in the lives of the people in several major ways.

     Religious Activities: The Church’s responsibilities for the souls of the faithful were the first priority. The Church implemented practices to provide for the spiritual needs of the people as expressed through the sacraments, Biblical and Canon Law teachings, religious holidays, matters of faith and in doing good works. The focus was upon saving one’s soul and receiving eternal salvation in heaven, the next world, the afterlife. This emphasis on salvation was egalitarian in nature because the teachings of Jesus and God’s laws, as taught by the Church applied to all humankind regardless of class, wealth or position in society. The Church used its dominant influence to maintain and enforce religious uniformity. Weapons such as excommunication, the Holy Inquisition (after the 13th century) and the Papal crusades were used to stamp out heresy and any other teachings considered a threat to the faith. Heretics were usually tortured and put to death for defiance of Church doctrine. The secular authorities were obliged to carry out the sentences for the Church. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church provided the important element of unity and identity for Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

     Economics in the Church: The Church was extremely wealthy. It owned vast lands, business enterprises and other forms of wealth. Bishops and Cardinals most often ruled in many cities and towns. Church officials collected taxes, tithes, duties and fees in kind. Serfs and craftsmen worked for the Church. The Church ran schools, orphanages and hospitals. The charitable centers were often associated with monasteries, convents, parishes and cathedrals. The needy flocked to these places for assistance both spiritually and materially. The Church received a steady flow of wealth in the form of gifts, donations and land called fiefs, from feudal lords and kings. The secular rulers wished to win the Church’s blessings in this world and the support of its power, and perhaps, salvation for their souls in the next world.

     Political Power and Courts: The Church also possessed considerable political power. Although often challenged by powerful nobles and rulers, the Church governed its huge collection of lands through its own officials who owed their allegiance solely to the Pope. For example, it ruled a large area of territory in central Italy called the Papal States until the late 19th century. The Church ran its own judicial and court system locating the courts throughout Europe. Church leaders commanded armies, hired mercenaries and fought alongside kings and nobles just as often as against them. Church leaders were much a part of the feudal structure whose families were often powerful feudal lords and princes. The Church sponsored a number of Crusades against heretics in Europe as well as against the Moslems of Spain and the Middle East. The Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was indeed a world power.

     Influence on Learning: The Medieval Church handed down as an important element of its legacy, its patronage of learning, education, art and literature. Monks copied and preserved the learning of ancient Greece and Rome. Church schools educated men and women to serve the Church and for the greater good of Christian society. Often it was only churchmen who could read and write. Therefore, Church officials became important advisors and ministers to powerful Medieval lords and kings.

    Church doctrine and religious themes were the main topics of writers, painters, musicians, architects, and philosophers who were themselves often members of the clergy. As a result, the Roman Catholic Church of the Middle Ages provided the social cohesion badly needed for the times. It provided continuity with ancient Rome and the traditions of Jesus and the Apostles. Religious unity was the basis for Medieval Civilization. The Church preserved the ideals, ethics, and values taught by Jesus and the Disciples for later generations since it was founded largely upon the New Testament.

The Heritage of Western Civilization from the Middle Ages

     Art and Architecture: In addition to the continuity of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the religious faith of the era inspired art, architecture and music. Art and music had decidedly religious themes. A popular theme was the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. Other themes included Old and New Testament stories and the Passion of Christ. For a largely uneducated public, these visual representations of the faith were also valuable teaching tools for the education and religious understanding of the faithful. Church music had the same inspirational purpose for the believers.

     In architecture, the people of the Middle Ages expressed their religious devotion by creating spectacular structures. The Romanesque style was used before the 12th century and the Gothic style after that period witnessed the construction of fabulous churches, cathedrals, bell towers and baptisteries symbolizing and expressing the deep religious faith of the Roman Catholic world of Western Europe. For example, the cathedral and its famous “leaning tower” of Pisa are examples of the Romanesque style while the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris remains the most famous example of the Gothic style architecture of the late Medieval period.

Catalan Countries

     College and University Education: Higher education is truly one of the most significant elements of our cultural legacy from Medieval times. Starting in Bologna and Salerno in Italy, the concept of university level education spread rapidly from the 11th century on. Soon scholars in all major cities founded universities. Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, for example, were established in this era. Medieval universities taught many subjects which became the basic core curriculum of a modern liberal arts education.

     Science: Science in the modern sense needed the coming of the Renaissance to get it going. Medieval science was carefully scrutinized by the Church for any signs of heresy. This meant a stifling, limiting hand was placed upon experimentation, writing and questioning of established dogma. Scientific experiments were rare while the accepted teachings of Aristotle, superstition and religious explanations offered by the Catholic Church took the place of actual scientific investigation. Nevertheless, courageous individuals such as Roger Bacon, St. Thomas Aquinas and others wrote works of importance, often in defiance of Church teachings and at considerable risk to themselves.

     Written Expression and Literature: Although illiteracy remained a problem, literature did exist. Popular poems, epics, romances and inspiring adventure tales of brave and chivalrous knights entertained the people. The “Song of Roland”, “Beowulf”, and the “Song of El Cid” are some outstanding examples of these works. All in all, the Medieval period witnessed the transition of European Civilization from the ancient world of Greece and Rome to the modern world beginning with the time of the Renaissance in the 14th century.

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