After the fall of the Roman empire in the fifth century, the Church appeared as the new dominant power of Europe. Like the Romans they had their capital in Rome and they had their own emperor – the Pope.
The power of the Church lay in their perceived status as the gatekeepers to heaven. Cross them in any way, shape or form and you could find yourself barred from the gates of paradise. This could apply to anyone from the poorest peasant to the most powerful King.
Power to the People
For the average person the Church was an all-consuming presence. For starters every peasant had to give up a portion of their weekly work to labour on church land for free. As if this wasn’t enough they had to pay 10% of their earnings to the Church through a tax known as the tithe. Since many peasants couldn’t lay their hands on much cash, this tithe was more often than no paid in grain which was stored in vast barns known as tithe barns. Considering the subsistence level at which most peasants operated, coming up with this tithe was a constant struggle.
Even so, they laboured to produce the good for the very simple reason that if you didn’t, you’d be cut off from heaven.
Stairway to Heaven
In the middle ages almost everyone believed strictly in the doctrine of the church, which meant they believed they were either going to heaven or hell when they died. The church turned this to their advantage, finding ways to charge people at every turn.
As well as the tithes you would have to pay to be baptised – if you weren’t baptised you couldn’t be buried on Church land which in turn meant you’d be unable to pass through the gates of heaven. Perhaps the most famous instance of medieval church profiteering was the sale of indulgences, papers which declared absolution from sins even those not yet committed.
Power Over the Rich
For all the wealth they accumulated, the church paid no taxes, which gave them economic power surpassing even the wealth of some monarchs. Bishops and Clergy owed their allegiance not to their King but to the Pope in Rome which led to more than a few conflicts over the years.
Even Kings and Queens were meant to subject themselves to papal authority and those who did not risked attracting the wrath of the Church. For instance, the Pope took sides in the Norman invasion, excommunicating English King Harold for supposedly going back on a holy pledge to support William of Normandy’s claim to the throne. The Pope blessed the Norman invasion as a holy crusade.
The Church could even mobilise Europe’s most wealthy people to fight on their behalf. During the crusades Popes promised eternal salvation to those who fought in their name in the Holy Land. Noblemen, princes and Kings fell over themselves to take up the Catholic standard in the quest to reclaim Jerusalem.
Challenges to the Roman Church
The size, wealth and power of the church led to increasingly great corruption in the course of the middle ages. In response to this dissent arose eventually formed around a 16th century German priest Martin Luther. Luther’s prominence brought together disparate groups opposed to the Church and led to the Reformation which saw a number of European states, particularly in the north, finally break away from the central authority of the Roman Church.
Although the reformation’s adherents sought to break free of Papal authority over their lives they were no less zealously christian than before and religion would be a major influence in peoples lives long after the middle ages.