History of the Medieval Church

Rachel Tyson, Nate Sullivan
  • Author
    Rachel Tyson

    Rachel Tyson has taught homeschool grades 1-5 humanities for over 3 years. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Anthropology from Eastern Washington University. She is a member of the Phi Alpha Theta Honor Society.

  • 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.

Discover how the Middle Ages Church affected religion in Medieval Europe. Explore the power of the church in the Middle Ages and the history of the Medieval Church. Updated: 12/06/2021

Table of Contents


Religion in Middle Ages Church

Religion has been one of the few constants in human history and one that has never ceased being a hotly debated topic. Many wars have been waged in the name of religion, including the Crusades from 1096-1291 C.E., where Christians fought against Islamic followers for control of Jerusalem, a place considered holy to several religious groups. Simultaneously, religion has been a haven for many as a source of spiritual comfort and security and a place to seek food and shelter.

Today, we can take or leave religion as we see fit. However, historically, religion was not debatable; instead, it was the explanation of life because there was no other way to explain things or why they happened. Every aspect of life was based on religion. The middle ages church, or Catholicism, was no exception to the rule. Indeed, religion in medieval Europe was becoming more organized than ever before.

During the Middle Ages, roughly 500-1500 C.E., the Catholic Church dominated Europe, and the spread of the religion was reaching kingdoms far and wide. At first, this spread was slow because it was not easy to change the minds of millions of people who had practiced everyday folk magic or polytheism for thousands of years. These practices are now considered pagan traditions. Some pagan rituals were so deeply rooted that they were assimilated into Christian rites and rituals.

A drawing of what a typical church would look like in a town in Medieval Europe.

Medieval Church

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The History of the Medieval Church

The medieval church had no issue exercising limitless power over people. It regulated and defined every individual's life. From birth until death, and even in the thought of the afterlife, it had full grip. Up until the mid-4th-century C.E., Rome ruled over what is now France, Switzerland, and Belgium. In 455 C.E., Rome was sacked by the Vandals and was finally conquered in 476 C.E. Tribes, including the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, and the Franks, divided the land. In 481 C.E., Clovis I became King of the Franks, unifying the different tribes under one leader. After an unexpected victory in battle, the king converted to Christianity. He converted in 496 and was known as the "new Constantine," the emperor who Christianized the Roman Empire. Clovis's conversion was essential to people at this time because he characterized his battles as Christian victories. He fought in the name of Jesus and for the church. He gave gifts to the church. In return, he became victorious in battle, was blessed with miracles, and honored with imperial consulship. He trusted the church's clergy, gave them money, and heeded their advice. It gave him the power of the Roman Catholic Church, which at this time, was significant.

The spark of the medieval church allowed for Monasticism. Monasticism is an institutionalized religious practice that requires a life of service under specific laws and regulations. It played a crucial part in the founding values and laws of the Catholic church. The two leading practices of Monasticism in the medieval church were celibacy and prayer life. The role of the clergy, including priests, monks, and bishops, were recruited or filled voluntarily by those wanting to dedicate their lives to God. Many families, particularly wealthy families, often groomed one of their children, usually a son, to join the church. Those who lacked a trade or other skillset or ran away from past quarrels also joined the church. It was an honor to have a family member become a servant of God, especially if they were well-educated and climbed the church hierarchy. The higher they climbed, the more powerful they and their families became.

In the late Roman and early medieval periods, professional scribes, who were in charge of documenting culture and history, transitioned from secular to monastic. Scribes continued with their work, but they could not take pride in their expertise as they were now under monastic rules. Many ancient texts, including the Book of Kells, exist today because of scribes and their duty to the church.

Depiction of a medieval scribe.

Medieval scribe

The Great Schism

The Great Schism was an event that separated the Catholic Church into two individually operated organizations: the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Eastern Orthodox Church in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). This split was due to a complex mixture of disagreements between the two branches. Conflicts included accepting unleavened bread for the sacrament of communion and if clergy should remain celibate. Political conflicts progressed when Rome attempted religious preeminence over Constantinople. The Roman Churches tampered with a holy Christian doctrine, the Nicene Creed, which was not discussed or accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church.

After years of quarreling with each other with no sight of unionizing, the two churches would only recognize their own leaders as the head of the Catholic Church. On July 16, 1054, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, was excommunicated from the church in Rome. In retaliation, Constantinople excommunicated Pope Leo IX in Rome from the Patriarch in Constantinople. The separation has never healed. However, in 1965 the Roman Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I lifted the excommunications given nearly a thousand years ago.

This map shows the eastern and western allegiances after the Great Schism in 1054, including former borders and countries.

The Great Schism, 1054

The Protestant Reformation

In the 1500s, the church's power was overwhelming. It dictated political power more than ever before. It commanded armies, made political alliances and enemies, and induced war. The church made its money by taxing the people and selling indulgences, from noble to peasant. It was the center of everyone's lives. The growing power of the church, induced by selling fear of damnation, was becoming more dominant in many aspects of people's lives. It was no secret that people believed there was corruption in the church. Instead, it was a matter of who would stand up to it.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was an educated German priest and monk who was outraged by the abuses of the church. He emphasized that the Bible was the ultimate religious authority, not the clergy, and selling indulgences to the church to receive absolution was particularly criticized. Luther believed a person received salvation through the grace of God alone, among many other values the church failed to follow. Tired of seeing the thriving church grow in wealth and corruption while the people of God suffered from poverty and spiritual affliction, Martin Luther wrote the 95 Theses. This proclamation included deeply controversial questions and propositions that he demanded to be addressed.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was the Church like in the Middle Ages?

There were two parts to the church in the Middle Ages: one was a powerhouse. The Pope and the higher clergymen held all the power religiously and politically by providing absolution to followers by requiring gifts, taxes, and acts of righteousness instead of by faith alone. However, the second part of the church was many churches were run by humble priests, monks, and nuns. They were there for anyone who needed assistance with fundamental human rights, such as food, water, shelter, and counseling. They were also responsible for preserving ancient texts, art, and valuables, such as holy relics and gold.

What did the church do in the Middle Ages?

The Church was a place of spiritual guidance and operated as their government for Christians in the Middle Ages. A Priest ran a church, and below him were monks and nuns who looked after the church's well-being and the people who needed its services. The higher clergy consists of the Pope, who is head of the church, and below him are Cardinals, Archbishops, and Bishops. The Pope and his Bishops were significant political figures, influencing the decisions of Kings, Queens, and noblemen in charge of their provinces. Churches provided food, shelter, and spiritual counseling to people in need.

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