The Role of the Catholic Church in Medieval Europe

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  • 0:08 The Church during the…
  • 0:49 Intellctual Pursuits
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

More than any other force, the medieval Church held Europe together. This lesson details some of the ways that the Church was able to not only maintain control but also to expand its finances and its artistic endeavors.

The Church during the Middle Ages

After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476, the Church was the only institution left that held Europe together. However, the Church was still relatively weak. It had no army with which to enforce its rulings, and had a population that believed in old superstitions as much as the teachings of the Church. As such, it had to rely on other means to unify the continent, both in belief and in politics. To this end, the Church used a top-down approach of focusing on nobles and rich people to largely create much of what would later be considered medieval European culture for the next thousand years.

Intellectual Pursuits

For hundreds of years following the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the Church was the only intellectual power in Europe. This is noteworthy, considering that the largest library in Western Europe, other than Islamic Spain, had 600 books during this time, whereas the largest library in the Islamic world held over 100,000 books.

Yet, however sparse its resources, the Church was able to expand its intellectual footprint through the use of monasteries, or communities of individuals who had devoted their lives to God. Monasteries created relatively safe places for knowledge to be not only transmitted but also furthered. One of the daily tasks assigned to many monks, the people who had dedicated their lives to prayer and service to God, was to copy books by hand.

These monks, by doing so, helped to preserve the Latin language, as people on the streets began speaking more common forms of the language that would evolve into French, Spanish, and Italian. In addition to the language of the classical world, many of the ideas of that period also were saved from obscurity. Among the most notable of these is Saint Thomas Aquinas's writings on the nature of God and the idea of natural law, or that there is inherent good and evil in the universe, and humanity knows the difference naturally.

The need for knowledge soon outgrew the monasteries, as society grew more and more complex. To meet these new needs for intellectuals, the Church sponsored some of the first universities in Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, such as Oxford and Cambridge, both of which are prestigious universities today. Of course, the universities taught only those subjects that the Church thought were worth teaching, and only used methods approved by the Church. However, considering that more than 90% of Europe's population could barely write their names, this was substantial progress.

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