History of the Church in the Middle Ages

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  • 0:04 The Church in the Middle Ages
  • 1:29 The Church After the…
  • 2:31 The Great Schism
  • 3:09 Crusades, Corruption,…
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about the history of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. We will highlight key developments and themes related to the Church during this time and analyze their impact.

The Church in the Middle Ages

If you drive through just about any American city or town, you're likely to pass by a number of different types of churches. You know, First Baptist over there on the corner, One Community up on the hill, maybe a Methodist, Episcopal, or Presbyterian church over on 2nd Street. You get the idea. In our culture there are all kinds of religious denominations, and people are free to pick the type of church that suits them best.

But if we go back a thousand years ago to Medieval Europe, things looked very different. Throughout the Middle Ages, which happened from 500-1500 CE, denominations didn't really exist. There was really only one 'denomination' and that was the Roman Catholic Church. So when we talk about the 'Church' in reference to the Middle Ages, we're talking about the Catholic Church. We need to understand this before we can move on.

Whereas churches today are primarily religious institutions, the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages held tremendous political power. In some cases, Church authorities (notably the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church) held more power than kings or queens. The Church had the power to tax, and its laws had to be obeyed. Those who held contrary ideas were considered heretics and could be subject to various forms of punishment, including execution. The Church in the Middle Ages was to be feared and obeyed, and its influence spread into every area of society.

The Church After the Roman Empire

The early Christian Church thrived in the first few centuries after Christ, even under intense persecution from Imperial Rome. However, the Roman Empire was falling into decline by the 300s. This fall is considered to have taken place by 476 CE. In its place emerged various independent kingdoms. In 496, Clovis I, King of the Franks, converted to Catholicism. His conversion was important because it helped establish Catholic dominance in Western Europe. His wife was even venerated as a saint by the Church.

During the early Middle Ages, monasticism developed and thrived. Monasticism emphasized a denial of worldly pleasure and a commitment to devoting one's life to studying Scripture. The growth of monasticism led to the building of monasteries. One notable monastery is Monte Cassino in Italy, built in the early 500s. Monastic life was guided by the Rule of St. Benedict, a book written by St. Benedict (480-547) that outlined the way monks should conduct themselves.

The Great Schism

As the centuries progressed, tension arose between Christians in the East and the West. Eastern Christianity was based in Constantinople, while Western Christianity was based in Rome. Both centers of religious power competed for influence. The use of religious images, or icons, as well as other theological issues also fueled this East-West tension. Things came to a head in 1054 with what has become known as the Great Schism. A schism is a division, and in 1054 Eastern Christians broke away from the Catholic Church, resulting in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The Christian religion was now divided into two main sects.

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