Christianity and the Catholic Church played a major role in Europe during the Middle Ages. The local church was the center of town life. People attended weekly ceremonies. They were married, confirmed, and buried at the church. The church even confirmed kings on their throne giving them the divine right to rule.
Wells Cathedral by Adrian Pingstone
Rich and Powerful
The Catholic Church became very rich and powerful during the Middle Ages. People gave the church 1/10th of their earnings in tithes. They also paid the church for various sacraments such as baptism, marriage, and communion. People also paid penances to the church. The wealthy often gave the church land.
Eventually, the church owned about one third of the land in Western Europe. Because the church was considered independent, they did not have to pay the king any tax for their land. Leaders of the church became rich and powerful. Many nobles became leaders such as abbots or bishops in the church.
Structure of the Church
The leader of the Catholic Church was the pope. Right below the pope were powerful men called cardinals. Next were bishops and abbots. Even bishops held a lot of power on the local level and often served on the council of the king.
Many churches were built during the Middle Ages. The biggest of these churches were called cathedrals. Cathedrals were where bishops had their headquarters.
Cathedrals were built to inspire awe. They were the most expensive and beautiful buildings built. Sometimes construction on a cathedral could take two hundred years to finish.
Most cathedrals were built in a similar fashion. They generally were laid out in the shape of a cross. They had very tall walls and high ceilings.
Layout of a cathedral in the shape of a cross by Unknown
Around the 12th century, cathedrals began to be built with a new style of architecture called Gothic architecture. With this style, the weight of the vaulted ceilings rested on buttresses rather than on the walls. This way the walls could be thinner and taller. It also allowed for tall windows on the walls.
Some of the great art of the Middle Ages was produced in cathedrals. This included stained glass windows, sculpture, architecture, and painted murals.
Although Christianity dominated Europe during the Middle Ages, there were other religions. These included pagan religions such as the Viking worship of the god Thor. Other religious groups included the Muslims, which ruled much of Spain for many years, and the Jews, which lived throughout many cities in Europe. The Jews played a significant role in the economy because they were allowed to loan money and charge interest.
Interesting Facts about the Catholic Church and Cathedrals
Conversion of a country generally took place from the king down. Once the king was converted to Christianity, his nobles and people followed suit.
Some master masons were able to work on a single cathedral for their entire life.
Cathedrals and churches were often used for meeting places when a large location was needed.
Catholic Bishops often sat on the king's council.
Churches provided education and looked after the poor and the sick.
The main body of a cathedral is called the "nave", the ends of the cross section are called the "transepts", and the entrance is called the "narthex".