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7th Grade Social Studies /  Lesson 4 - The Medieval Church

What will we be learning in this unit?
  • How did the church and its monks and nuns shape medieval life?
  • How did the power of the Church grow?
  • How did reformers work for change in the Church?


The Church and Medieval Life
  • During the early Middle Ages, the Church's most important achievement was to Christianize the diverse peoples of Western Europe. In 597, Pope Gregory I sent Augustine to convert the Anglo-Saxons in England. From Britain, later missionaries went back to the continent to spread their faith among Germanic tribes.
  • Women also spread the faith even at the risk of their own lives. Some women married pagan kings and brought their husbands into the Church. Clothilde, for example, persuaded her husband Clovis, who was king of the Franks, to accept Christianity.


 The Church and Medieval Life
  • In manor villages, the priest of the parish, or local region, was usually the only contact people had with the Church. The priest cared for the souls of his parishioners by celebrating the mass and by administering the sacraments, the sacred rites of the Church. Christians believed that faith in Christ and participation in the sacraments would lead them to salvation, or everlasting life with God. 
  • In addition to administering the sacraments, priests preached the Gospels and the teachings of the Church. They guided people on issues regarding values and morality. They offered assistance to the sick and needy. 
  • Christian rituals and faith were part of the fabric of everyday life. Priests married peasants and nobles, baptized their children, and buried the dead in sacred ground.


  The Church and Medieval Life
  • The church was a social center as well as a place of worship. After services, peasants gossiped or danced, although the priest might condemn their rowdy songs or behavior. In the later Middle Ages, some parish priests ran schools. 
  • Villages took pride in their church buildings and decorated them with care. In later medieval times, prosperous communities built stone churches rather than wooden ones. Some churches housed relics, or remains of martyrs or other holy figures. Local people, as well as visitors, might make pilgrimages, or journeys, to pray before the relics.


The Church and Medieval Life
  • To support itself and its parishes, the Church required Christians to pay a tithe, or tax equal to a tenth of their income. The tithe had its origins in the Bible. Tithing is still common in many Christian churches today. 
  • Daily life revolved around the Christian calendar, which marked "holy days" such as Easter in addition to changes in the seasons. In medieval times, many holidays were added to the calendar to honor saints.


 The Church and Medieval Life
  • The Church taught that men and women were equal before God. But on Earth, women were viewed as "daughters of Eve," weak and easily led into sin. Thus, they needed the guidance of men. At the same time, the Church offered a view of the ideal woman, as modest and pure as Mary, the mother of Jesus. Many churches were dedicated to the "mother of God" and "queen of heaven." Men and women asked Mary to pray to God on their behalf. 
  • The Church tried to protect women. It set a minimum age for marriage. Church courts could fine men who seriously injured their wives. Yet they often punished women more harshly than men for the same offense.


Monks and Nuns
  • During the early Middle Ages, both women and men withdrew from worldly life to become nuns and monks. Behind the walls of monasteries and convents, they devoted their lives to spiritual goals. 
  • About 530, a monk named Benedict organized the monastery of Monte Cassino in southern Italy. He drew up a set of rules to regulate monastic life. In time, the Benedictine Rule was used by monasteries and convents across Europe.


Monks and Nuns
  • Under the Benedictine Rule, monks and nuns took three vows. The first was obedience to the abbot or abbess, who headed the monastery or convent. The second was poverty, and the third was chastity, or purity. Each day was divided into periods for worship, work, and study. Benedict believed in the spiritual value of manual labor, so he required monks to work in the fields or at other physical tasks. As part of their labor, monks and nuns cleared and drained land and experimented with crops.


 Monks and Nuns
  • In a world without hospitals or schools, monasteries and convents often provided basic services. Monks and nuns looked after the poor and sick and sometimes set up schools for children. They gave food and lodging to travelers, especially to Christian pilgrims traveling to holy shrines. Some monks and nuns became missionaries. St. Patrick, for example, was a monk who set up the Irish Church. Later, the Church honored many missionaries by declaring them saints.


Monks and Nuns
  • Monasteries and convents also performed a vital role in preserving the writings of the ancient world. Often, monks and nuns copied ancient works as a form of labor. Once copied, the work might remain unread for centuries. Still, it would be there when later scholars took an interest in ancient learning.
  • Educated monks and nuns kept learning alive. In Italy, Abbot Cassiodorus wrote useful summaries of Greek and Latin works and taught the classics to other monks. In Britain, the Venerable Bede wrote the earliest known history of England. Bede introduced the use of b.c. and a.d. to date historical events.


Monks and Nuns
  • Although women could not become priests, many did enter convents. There, capable, strong-minded women could escape the limits of society. In the 1100s, Abbess Hildegard of Bingen composed religious music and wrote books on many subjects. Because of her mystical visions, popes and rulers sought her advice. She spoke her mind freely. "Take care that the Highest King does not strike you down because of the blindness that prevents you from governing justly," she warned one ruler.   
  • In the later Middle Ages, the Church put more restrictions on nuns. It withdrew rights that nuns had once enjoyed, such as preaching the Gospel, and placed most independent convents under the control of Church officials. It frowned on too much learning for women, preferring them to accept Church authority. Although women's role within the Church was limited, they made valuable contributions to their faith. 


 The Power of the Church Grows
  • In the centuries after the fall of Rome, the Church carved out a unique position in Western Europe. It not only controlled the spiritual life of Christians but gradually became the most powerful secular, or worldly, force in medieval Europe. 
  • During the Middle Ages, the pope was the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church. As representatives of Christ on Earth, medieval popes eventually claimed papal supremacy, or authority over all secular rulers.


The Power of the Church Grows
  • The pope headed an army of churchmen who supervised Church activities. High clergy, such as bishops and archbishops, were usually nobles. Like other feudal lords, some had their own territories. The pope himself held vast lands in central Italy, later called the Papal States. 
  • Church officials were closely linked to secular rulers. Because churchmen were often the only educated people, feudal rulers appointed them to high government positions.


The Power of the Church Grows
  • The medieval Christian Church was dedicated to the worship of God. At the same time, Christians believed that all people were sinners and that many were doomed to eternal suffering. The only way to avoid the tortures of hell was to believe in Christ and participate in the sacraments. Because the medieval Church administered the sacraments, it had absolute power in religious matters. 
  • The medieval Church developed its own body of laws, known as canon law, as well as its own courts. Canon law applied to religious teachings, the clergy, marriages, and morals. Anyone who disobeyed Church law faced a range of penalties. The most severe and terrifying was excommunication. If excommunicated, people could not receive the sacraments or a Christian burial. A powerful noble who opposed the Church could face the interdict, an order excluding an entire town, region, or kingdom from receiving most sacraments and Christian burial. Even the strongest ruler gave in rather than face the interdict.
  • The Church tried to use its great authority to end feudal warfare. It declared periods of truce, or temporary peace, known as the Peace of God. It demanded that fighting stop between Friday and Sunday each week and on religious holidays. Such efforts may have contributed to the decline of feudal warfare in the 1100s.


  Reform Movements
  • The very success of the medieval Church brought problems. As its wealth and power grew, discipline weakened. Pious Christians left their wealth and lands to monasteries and convents, leading some monks and nuns to ignore their vows of poverty. Some clergy lived in luxury. Priests could marry, but some spent more time on family matters than on Church duties, and some even treated the priesthood as a family inheritance. Throughout the Middle Ages, voices called for reform in the Church.


Reform Movements
  • One reform movement swept across Western Europe in the early 900s. Abbot Berno of Cluny, a monastery in eastern France, set out to end abuses. First, he revived the Benedictine Rule, which had been allowed to lapse. Then, he declared that he would no longer allow nobles to interfere in monastery affairs. Finally, he filled the monastery at Cluny with men devoted to religious pursuits. In time, many monasteries and convents copied the Cluniac reforms.
  • In 1073, Pope Gregory VII, a former monk, extended the Cluniac reforms to the entire Church. He outlawed marriage for priests and prohibited simony, the selling of Church offices. He then called on Christians to renew their faith. To end secular influence, Gregory insisted that the Church, not kings or nobles, choose Church officials. That policy, as you will read, would spark a bitter battle of wills with the German emperor.


  Reform Movements
  • Over the centuries, other reform movements battled corruption and worldliness. In the early 1200s, Francis of Assisi and Dominic took a new approach. They set up orders of friars, monks who did not live in isolated monasteries but traveled around Europe's growing towns preaching to the poor.
  • Francis left a comfortable home in the Italian town of Assisi to preach the Gospel and teach by example. The Franciscan order he set up preached poverty, humility, and love of God. Soon after, Dominic, a Spanish priest, set up the Dominican order. Its chief goal was to combat heresy by teaching official Roman Catholic beliefs.


 Reform Movements
  • Women joined this reform movement by creating new religious groups. One such group was the Beguines. Most convents accepted only well-born women whose families gave a dowry, or gift, to the Church. The Beguines welcomed women without the wealth to enter a regular convent. Using funds from selling their weavings and embroidery, they helped the poor and set up hospitals and shelters.