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Spread of Christianity in Medieval Europe

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  • 0:02 Spread of Christianity…
  • 0:21 Origins of Christianity
  • 0:57 In Secret
  • 2:09 Official Religion
  • 3:02 New Territory
  • 4:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Christianity may have began as a small religious tradition in the Middle East, but it soon spread throughout much of the known world. This lesson takes a look at how Christianity spread throughout Europe in the early Middle Ages.

Spread of Christianity in Europe

Despite all the differences between Europeans during the Middle Ages, their faith in Christianity, a religion based on the teachings and life of Jesus Christ, helped to unite them. However, Christianity did not just appear in Europe. It had a journey full of secrets, torture, public proclamations, and wars.

Origins of Christianity

Christianity began 2,000 years ago in the Middle East. During this time, many new religions had begun throughout the Roman Empire, the massive empire that ruled the Mediterranean, and the Roman government largely tolerated these new beliefs, as long as they did not interfere with official Roman business. However, Christianity would soon do just that.

In a time when most religions offered to protect only a select group of people, Jesus Christ taught about a faith that was for everyone. He also taught that the Roman Emperor was a human just the same as anyone else and not the god that the Romans suggested him to be.

In Secret

Obviously, this sort of talk did not sit well with the Romans. They enjoyed being the unifying force of the Empire and hated the idea that someone would suggest that anything other than the Roman religion, existing largely to support the emperor and his government, could be the truth. The Romans started to hunt down and punish the Christians.

The most famous emperor to hunt down the Christians was Nero, who blamed a great fire in Rome on the Christians and had many of them killed by beasts in the Colosseum for the amusement of the Roman people. However, for many people in the stands, the idea that someone would be brave enough to disagree with Nero and face such a terrifying death was enough to cause them to want to become Christians themselves.

Even as more people converted to Christianity, there were still issues of secrecy, as Christians would not want to meet together to worship for fear of being arrested. Also, the very practical issue of where to bury the dead was raised, as the Romans did not bury their dead but cremated them instead. A solution for both problems emerged with the catacombs, a system of underground man-made caves that allowed for not only the burial of the dead but also a safe meeting-place for Christians during times of persecution.

Official Religion

Despite the threats of the government, more and more people kept converting to Christianity, meaning that eventually the Romans couldn't send anyone to arrest suspected Christians because the soldiers and prefects, or police, were often Christians themselves! In 313 AD, the Romans issued the Edict of Milan, which guaranteed religious freedom throughout the empire. Later, in 391 AD, under Emperor Theodosius I, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire.

Of course, Christianity had been the religion of many people for years and had spread throughout the Roman Empire. In fact, by 300 AD, the boundaries of Christianity in Europe matched up almost perfectly with the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Using the same roads, postal systems, and trade routes as other goods and ideas, Christianity had spread throughout the Roman Empire.

New Territory

Yet the Roman Empire, in the West at least, would not last for long. By 476, it had been conquered by the Germanic tribes and had disintegrated into many smaller countries. However, Christianity still united all of these pieces, as the overwhelming majority still recognized the authority of the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, who is today the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

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