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Religion in

Medieval Europe

The Power of the Church

The Christian Church-- known in Western Europe as the Roman Catholic Church-- went from an outlaw within the Roman Empire to the official religion and the most powerful institution of the Middle Ages. By the year 1000, all of Europe's pagans-- from Italy to Ireland-- had converted to Christianity. Even the Vikings had given up their deities like Thor and Odin and began worshiping the Christian God. Sometimes this conversion was peaceful, other times it was not so peaceful. In fact, the battle for religion could get downright ugly.

The Catholic Church, based in the city of Rome, had grown into a complex hierarchy of Cardinals, Bishops, and priests who oversaw Church business and carried out the teachings of the Christianity.  At its head was the representative of God on earth, the Pope. The Church interpreted the Bible and told the people what God wanted.  Religious services were filled with rituals as a way for the illiterate masses to be able to follow along. Church services were always conducted in Latin, which only a very lucky few could understand.

The community center of the Middle Ages was your local church. The local parish priest, a commoner just like the rest of you, tended to important milestones in people's lives such as baptisms, births, weddings, and funerals. He also led church services, which took place several times every day.


The Church cared for the sick and gave charity to the poor. In the towns, plays, meetings, and entertainment were often held in the church. On market days, vendors would try to set up their booths closest to the church, as that was where most people started or ended up.

Important towns were given their own cathedrals-- huge stone buildings that showed off the wealth and power of the town (and of course, God). The cathedral was a powerful symbol and so it was a Bishop or Cardinal, not a simple parish priest, who led the services here. In fact, the word Cathedral comes from the Latin 'Cathedra' or seat of the Bishop.

During the Middle Ages (500-1200) the church held enormous power, wealth, and land. Often the church owned more land than kings. The church was like a lord with their own peasants and towns who paid taxes directly to the church.


However, the church did not maintain armies and was generally free from being attacked. An attack on the church (it did happen) meant certain excommunication where you would be declared an outlaw of the church and therefore your soul was beyond being saved.


In an age where was education was only for the wealthy or the monks, the Church's power came from its ability to interpret the Bible. The Church often was not tolerant of contradictory beliefs and dealt harshly with other Christian sects it viewed as heretics (A heretic is someone who maintains wrong religious beliefs). Heretics could face punishments such as being run out of town, excommunicated, imprisoned, or killed. During the medieval era many people looked to the church for explanations for natural disasters and diseases. The common explanation was that disease and calamity were caused by sin and God's displeasure. People often were required to perform penance, prayer, or give donations to the church to rid themselves and their community of sin.

Take a 360 tour of Chartres Cathedral in France.
Even though Chartres, near Paris, France, was only a small town, it had an important treasure: the tunic that Mary was wearing when she gave birth to the baby Jesus (or maybe when she found out she was pregnant). Thousands of people came on pilgrimage every year to Chartres to see the tunic.

Gargoyles were nothing more than really fancy drain spouts. The name in French means 'to gargle' and refers to the water that poured out of the mouth of the gargoyle during a rainstorm. 

Coventry Cathedral was built in the 1300s and completely obliterated by the German Luftwaffe on 
November, 14 1940 in an air raid. 
That goofy haircut you ask? 
That's called a tonsure and was worn by monks as a sign of their rejection of vanity. 
(It must have worked because its hard to find something less goofy looking)
Holy Sacrements


Even though most people could not understand what was being said they were very much aware that failure to be saved meant an eternity in hell- a very real and terrifying place filled with fire and demons that tore at your flesh. The Church taught people that the way to escape such torment was to do good works, follow the teachings of the Church, and participate in the holy sacraments.  Here are the most important of the holy sacraments that Christians were expected to follow:


1. Baptism- at birth, a Christian was brought into the faith through a ceremony that involved being dunked or sprinkled with water blessed by the Church. This ceremony symbolized the washing away of sins and of purity.
2. Confirmation- as a teenager, a person would take vows to the Church that would formally declare your belief in God.
3. Eucharist- The symbolic act of taking the Eucharist (blessed wine and bread) served as a reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus.
4. Marriage- All medieval people were expected to get married as a way of joining themselves before God.
5. Penance- asking for forgiveness of sins from a priest
6. Pilgrimage- going onreligious journey to visitscared sites or relics. (This was optional but often done to remove sins or cure an illness).

A Monk's Tale


Many medieval peasants or lesser nobility often joined isolated religious communities of monks and nuns who had decided to give up the material world to focus on the spiritual. Sometimes this was a choice, sometimes rebellious sons and daughters of wealthy nobles would be sent to a monastery to teach them a lesson. The life of a monk and nun was spent in quiet contemplation of God and salvation.


The monastery worked like a mini-manor producing its own food, clothing, and even wine. The life of a Medieval monk was rough but rewarding. Monks and nuns had to do labor in the fields. Those with special skills might become weavers, wine makers, cooks, doctors or scribes. Monks worked from sun up to sun down and when they weren't working they were meditating in silent contemplation.

The call to prayer was held several times a day throughout the day. The first call was Vigil which started at 4 a.m. (and you thought your school schedule was bad) The last call to prayer, Compline, ended the day.


Monasteries were places where sacred relics such as John the Baptist's tooth, or a piece of the True Cross were kept. Pilgrims would flock from all over for chance to pray over their relics (for a donation). Depending on the importance of the relic, it was said that they could remove sins or cure the sick. Because monks were one of the few literate people in Medieval society, they often had knowledge of Greek and Roman medical texts as well as herbal remedies that they used to cure the sick. Not all monks and nuns lived inside a monastery, some chose to become friars who would wander from village to village to help the poor. The friars themselves lived a life of poverty, often begging for their food.



In a time when soldiers were burning books, Monks were busy preserving them. Monasteries often were the only libraries in Medieval Europe. Most libraries of the Roman Empire had long ago been looted or burned by Barbarians. One of the tasks of monks was to work in the Scriptorium copying by hand important Biblical and religious accounts. Writing Manuscript (from the Latin for hand written) was a very tedious and painstaking process. Paper was unknown in Europe, as it had not yet made its way from China by way of the Silk Road. Manuscripts were written on vellum which was cured and dried animal skins. Over candle light or near an open window a scribe would spend hours painstakingly copying texts by hand. Many monks complained of the cold and frequent hand cramps from writing for hours on end. Manuscripts were more than just text, they were works of art. They were often drawn with fancy script and illustrations, the most important books were done in gold and silver leaf...A prime target for thieves and raiders.

Monasteries and Churches were places where priceless gold and silver icons were kept. Making them prime targets for thieves and Vikings if you had no qualms with damning your soul to Hell that is.  
Book making was a complicated process that could take a year or more to produce a single volume. 

Crazy About Chanting

Think medieval monks and an image of a bunch of men in robes chanting in monotone latin probably comes to mind. Gregorian chanting developed in the 8th and 9th centuries in the western Roman church. Monks would often recite Biblical verses through song. This made it easier (and possibly more fun) to commit to memory all of those Biblical passages.



Llibre Vermell de Montserrat

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