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Religious Thought throughout the Middle Ages

Throughout the Middle Ages until the Reformation Period, Western Christian civilization underwent a series of fundamental changes. For instance, the church and political institutions had to continuously adapt to the changing environment around them. Yet throughout this time, religion was probably the strongest determinant of social and political reforms. More specifically, religious thought was affected and caused social and political changes throughout almost every aspect of Medieval society.

During the early Middle Ages and after the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, Charlemagne successfully created a centralized empire. For this new society, Charlemagne initiated several policies to improve culture and religion through the use of education (Sherman 141). Because Charlemagne "encourage[d] literacy," individuals not from the state nor church now had the ability to read, comprehend, and interpret "Holy Scriptures". Inevitably, this new class of literate common people interpreted the Bible differently from the church. Thus, the growth of monasteries, known as monasticism, where only the clergy and monks had an education declined significantly, because religion became directly accessible to the public. Therefore, the church started to slowly lose its monopoly over religious rites; even though during this time, the church and state were the closest allies ever in the history of the Middle Ages. However because Charlemagne won several wars against the Saxons and Germanic pagan tribes, Charlemagne and the church gained significant power by forcefully spreading Christianity across most of Western and Central Europe (Sherman 142). As a result, the church gained much more power over a larger region of Europe than before, even though the church lost some direct power through literacy.

After Charlemagne died, his empire quickly started to fall apart despite the governmental reforms such as the missi dominici (centralization through the use of officials) and capitularies (written laws) that his son, Louis the Pious, tried to maintain (Perry 151). This Carolingian empire collapsed mainly because of political “disintegration, internal violence, and raids from outside forces” such as attacks from Vikings and Moors (Sherman 144). However, Charlemagne's policies of law and order remained established, sometimes even for centuries after. Yet, the church still maintained significant control and power long after the political collapse in some regions.

After the fragmentation of the Carolingian Empire, feudalism became even more prominent. Feudalism allowed the nobility to practice lay investiture with secular lords, thus replacing one the most direct powers that the church had over the people. Consequently during the High Middle Ages, Pope Gregory VII outlawed the lay investiture (Perry 165). As a result, Emperor Henry IV, who gained significant wealth and power from the lay investiture, denounced the Pope's decree of outlawing the lay investiture. Hence, the Investiture Controversy (1075-1077) arose as the church demanded materialistic desires in defiance from the state. As a result, Pope Gregory VII excommunicated Emperor Henry IV, who eventually yielded and compromised that the Pope could now appoint high church officials, such as bishops, instead of the Emperor himself (Perry 166). Consequently, the Papacy gained significant power from the Investiture Controversy, yet the church was not successful in ending lay investitures all together.

Another example of the church power could be represented by the four crusades that were instigated by the Christian church for the purpose of defending the “Holy Land” from the “threat” of Muslim “invasion.” Even though these crusades were initially successful, each of them eventually failed from sustaining Christian occupation (Sherman 202). However, these crusades did signify the strength of the Papacy, especially since the Pope was able to award special “privileges” to the crusaders that could not have existed without a strong papal support. These privileges allowed crusaders to have free reign to pillage and plunder foreign (non-Christian) lands and still go to Heaven, because they died in a holy war (Sherman 206). As a result of the crusades, the church revealed its materialistic desires and the strong papal power. And, religious thought derived from these exercises of church power enhanced the church's will more effectively. However, the political impact of these religious crusades forced the Christian civilization to realize the strength of its Byzantine and Islamic neighbors (Sherman 204).

The Papacy continued to force its “supremacy” even among its own people (Sherman 220). For instance, Pope Innocent III (1198-1215) collected vast amounts of wealth by charging service fees, Peter's Pence, annates, and income taxes. Consequently, the church developed a type of bureaucracy to manage this new found wealth; however, the nobility and kings obviously did not approve of losing their wealth to the church. Hence a strong friction between the church and state arose, unlike when Charlemagne ruled when there was a very strong unification between the church and state. To make matters worse, the growth of population and towns, created from the increase of trading, established a potentially strong middle class (typically traders and merchants) who also accumulated significant wealth in direct opposition to the church and the nobility (Sherman 226). Therefore, the reshuffling of wealth instigated an increase in materialistic friction between the nobility, the new middle class, and the church unlike the once unified political, economic, and religious institutions prior to this period.

During the High Middle Ages, the invention of universities created several new religious ideas. The most prominent of these beliefs was based on upholding the church doctrines through the use of logic and reasoning. This innovative thought, called scholasticism, united the faith of theology with the philosophy of logic. As a result, this belief caused a “cultural revival” that was desperately needed for the Christian people who began to lose faith in the church because of the church's ongoing secular and materialistic tendencies (Perry 181).

During the Late Middle Ages, the Christian Civilization experienced a tragic decline in all aspects of society. This devastation was caused by a series of famines from 1315 to 1317, the Hundred Year's War from 1337 to 1453, and the Bubonic Plague (Black Death) starting from 1347; and it had a profound and widespread effect to almost the entire European population, economy, society, and even the church (Perry 189-190). Yet, the church managed to make profits by charging for funeral services during this sad time of death and economic upheaval. Thus once again magnifying the church's materialistic corruption and non-spiritual enlightenment. Furthermore, a series of rebellions from the peasants arose against the economic suppression from the nobility (Perry 189-190). In addition, because of the tremendous psychological shock that the European society was inflicted from a result of over a century of devastation, some people blamed the church to have become too secular and too much involved in politics. Thus, people reasoned that God sent the plague as punishment for the sins of the church (Sherman 249). And in some cases, some people even “marched from region to region, beating each other with sticks and whips… to appease God” (Perry 189). As a result of years of devastation and of threatening heresy, the psychological instability of the European people caused almost all institutions, even the church, to lose significant support and power (Sherman 266).

Not only did the church's jurisdiction continue to fall, but the Papacy also had several reasons for its deterioration. The initial decline in the Papacy was from the increase of secular concerns, such as politics, that the Pope maintained and less with spiritual matters (Perry 191). Also, the Great Schism humiliated the Papacy because it showed the controversy among the Papacy itself that resulted with three popes existing simultaneously (Perry 192-193). In retaliation, the Conciliar Movement was the attempt to control the “papal monarchy” by the means of a general council that could regulate the papal power. However, this movement did not last long, since the support of the council declined along with the strength of the Holy Roman Emperor and the French monarchy (Perry 193). As a result, the Papacy no longer was the secure foundation of the church, but rather another severe blemish to the church's already tarnished image.

During the Renaissance period, Europe experienced a “rebirth” of classical Greek and Roman ideas along with the growth in towns and commerce. As a result, a new type of thought, known as Christian Humanism, developed with the characteristics found both in the lack of Christian faith and the secular philosophy of the Greek and Romans. More specifically, humanism was the school of thought that ended scholasticism, whereby reason and logic outweighed even religion. This could be interpreted as the obvious repercussion caused by the devastation from the Late Middle Ages (Perry 208). However, humanism was not the end of Christianity; but rather, a secular belief concerned more with the physical world and the individual than the spiritual world. As a result of this philosophy, the church lost a tremendous amount of power with the move towards secular politics (Perry 209). On the other hand, the population during the Renaissance was relatively optimistic in contradiction to the previous devastation.

Another almost fatal blow to the church and Papacy was during the Reformation when the Catholic Church's stability was crumbling because of the threat of heresy and division. The initial reason for the church's instability, as stated before, was the people's loss of faith about the church's practices, such as: simony, pluralism, materialistic desires, and political intervention. Obviously, the corruption brought by simony (the buying and selling of church offices) and pluralism (the practice of clergy members attaining more than one office) lost the spiritual confidence the people had from the church (Perry 220). In addition, Martin Luther started to go against the practices of the church, such as indulgences, because the Bible did not mention purgatory nor lessening the time in purgatory (Perry 221).

On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses that openly attacked the church's inability to bring forth spiritual enlightenment to the people and the church's practices, such as attaining wealth from the indulgences and the Papacy's interpretations of the Bible. The posting of the 95 Theses initiated the beginning of the Reformation period and explained how "justification by faith alone" can bring salvation to souls without the help from the church. Obviously, the Catholic Papacy considered Luther's ideas detrimental and called Luther a heretic (Perry 222). Fortunately, Luther had several advantages that supported and spread his “Lutheran Reformation.” For instance, Luther had the support and protection (when he was hiding from the church) from some Germanic Princes, mainly because they were against the Papacy's taxation and the legal privileges of the clergy. Also, Luther was able to spread his beliefs more quickly with the invention of the printing press (Perry 223). And, Luther had the fortune of starting his reformation during a critical time when the Papacy was already weak and King Charles of Spain had other worries, such as the New World and Turks, so he was not be able to deal with Luther effectively (Perry 224). The only thing that the church was able to do was excommunicate Luther; however, Luther did not care and hid from the church in case of retaliation (Perry 224-225).

With the spread of Lutheranism, several interpretations arose, such as the peasants' belief that meant more freedom. As a result, the Reformers started to divide even among themselves. Eventually, the Peace of Augsburg determined that the faith of the ruler was now the faith of the people and created a lot of social friction between the once unified people. For instance, the Swiss Reformation was much more radical than its Lutheran counterpart, but not more radical than the Anabaptists (Perry 228). Therefore, Luther attempted to unite some of the Protestant groups with the Marburg Colloquy; unfortunately, it collapsed because of the symbolic disagreement of Jesus Christ. As a result of the Reformation, the Catholic Church was in severe trouble because of the sudden loss of faith by its followers and a significant drop in the number of its followers.

As a result, religious thought throughout the Middle Ages caused widespread changes in society and politics, and of course, vice versa. Initially during the Middle Ages, the Church was fused with almost all the aspects of politics and society. Thus, religious and philosophical thought was initially supportive for the church. However as the Middle Ages unfolded, friction between the state, the church, and the middle class arose because of materialistic greed and wealth. This decreased the church's popularity because of its lack of spiritual enlightenment and its secular and materialistic practices in the opinion of many of their followers. Yet, the Papacy remained quite strong until the time of the Late Middle Ages, when devastation took its toll on society and the church. In addition, humanism further continued the church's loss of power and support. And finally, the Reformation permanently ripped apart the struggling church. In conclusion, the Middle Ages were the time when the Christian Church went from a strong political and economic power to almost complete disunity. Thus, the religious thought concerning the Church and Papacy decreased throughout the Middle Ages.

by Phil for Humanity
on 10/05/2009


  1. Perry, Marvin. Western Civilization: A Brief Survey. Vol. I. 2nd edition. Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
  2. Sherman, Dennis, ed. Western Civilization: Images and Interpretations. Vol. I. 3rd edition. McGraw-Hill, 1991.

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