The Middle Ages, so called because of their position between the ancient and the modern eras, are often termed medieval or even dark. This period of time is marked by a dearth of non-church art, and by the domination of the Roman Catholic Church over all of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia. This was a far-reaching kingdom that was financed by the kings of subject countries, and was ruled by a variety of men. This was also a time when the people bowed under the weight of the growing Catholic oppression that regarded all religions but their own as sacrilegious and the Catholic Church as sacrosanct. This paper looks at the church's rise to power during and after the demise of the Roman Empire, how that rise affected the people of Europe, and what the apex of that power looked like..
Rise to Power
The Roman Empire was founded in the two centuries before the time of Christ. The small city states that made up the middle to lower half of the peninsula that was to become Italy, was cleared of all opposition to the new city on the seven hills, and then the Romans began to make conquests into other territories. By the time of Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire was spread west to east from the British isles to Palestine, and north to south from the northern Germanic countries to Northern Africa. It was a large and dominating empire that improved the lives of the people under their control, to some extent, and demanded tribute and enforced slavery if the conquered people did not bow to the superiority of Rome.
This continued for more than nine centuries, but during the Roman period a new religion sprang from a very ancient one and it began to dominate in the capital and throughout the empire. Christianity began rather surreptitiously in the catacombs of Rome, and it was stamped out, supposedly, many times by various Roman emperors. Not until Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century did Rome completely accept the new religion. After that time, the church set up offices in Rome, and they were eventually granted land that covered much of southern Italy.[footnoteRef:1] This was the beginning of the Roman Catholic church's reign of power that would extend into the eighteenth, and, in some areas, nineteenth, centuries. [1: Moorhead, John, "Bede on the Papacy," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 60.2 (2009), 218.]
It is interesting to note that the power of the papacy was not confined to Rome, but extended to all areas of the realm. The conflicting states that regarded Rome as the center of power for the church. In Gaul and England, many people believed that the Roman saints and the Roman method of conducting the church should be secondary to the traditions and realities of the church being formed in these lands.[footnoteRef:2] Thus, the powers that were in Rome had to find some method of securing the power that they craved and centralizing it to the city of Rome. They did this by issuing edicts from Rome that were to be followed by all the people under church dominion. Logan says that "The overarching jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome as pope was not consciously challenged by local bishops. Yet, in the environment that saw the weakening of the power of the kings, the stressing of local connections, and, indeed, the difficulties encountered in communications, the papacy, particularly after the death of Nicholas (d. 867), gained in prestige."[footnoteRef:3] This is an account of how the Catholic church was able to start expanding its influence due to the weakening of some of the monarchies under its purview. [2: Ibid, 220.] [3: Logan, F. Donald, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 2002), 90.]
Another, method that the Roman church used to secure it power during the fall of the Roman Empire was that they began acquiring land, and hiring armies to protect and grow their interests.[footnoteRef:4] The church would claim that the armies were not there's (they did not provision them or pay the soldiers), but in effect they were because the soldiers were loyal to the church in the wars that they fought. The church was also able to offer the soldiers absolution for any sins that they had committed during the battles they fought, so the soldiers fought on the side of the church for both temporal and celestial gain. [4: Ibid, 74.]
The power of the church was condensed in the form of a pope. "His powers were those which Christ had handed to St. Peter for the purposes of governing the Christian commonwealth. He was thus 'set above' the church."[footnoteRef:5] This means that the pope was thought of like many of the kings that ruled a small potentate. The pope was supposedly chosen, and sanctioned, by God. The people believed this, so they were willing to do what the pope said to stay on the correct path that God, through the pope, dictated. This gave increasing power to the pope in that he could; [5: Ullman, Walter, A Short History of the Papacy in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 2003), 211.]
"He could demand taxes, dissolve marriages, launch crusades, even release souls from purgatory or cast them into the outer darkness of purgatory and damnation. While the realities of politics and human nature inevitably hindered and curbed the exercise of these powers, no man or institution in Europe could rival the church in the breadth and penetration of its authority."[footnoteRef:6] [6: Power, Amanda, "Franciscan Advice to the Papacy in the Middle Ages," History Compass 5.5 (2007).]
This authority was given further credence by the kings who began to realize that if they did not bow to the temporal, as well as ecclesiastical, power of the Roman pope, they would be overthrown by either their own people or by some foreign power loyal to the pope.
There are many different stories of what happened to different people during this period for the church, but, in general, the people allowed the church to do whatever it wanted because they believed that their everlasting lives were in jeopardy if they, for some reason, disobeyed a papal edict. Logan says that "History records how an institution, which was believed to have ben divinely founded, was ruled by human beings, who were not divine, sometimes far from even being spiritual."[footnoteRef:7] It is necessary to understand that the church, the way it was founded by Christ, was the people, but the Roman popes made it about a person -- the pope. Because they wielded power over a great deal of people and lands, the popes often became very un-Christian in the way that they distributed the power that they had. Because of this, the church began to decline, slightly, in the thirteenth century. [7: Logan, F. Donald, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages (London: Routledge, 2002), 1.]
Thus, the pope at the time, Innocent the third, needed a person to help right the seemingly sinking papal ship. He was blessed to find that just such a person existed, in Francis of Assisi, and that he wanted to create a new order built on the premises of poverty and selflessness. The pope saw this as a way to gain further power over the people, and a way to gain wealth also. As patrons began to believe in the teachings of Assisi, especially rich patrons, they gave all of their wealth to the church and took vows in the new order.[footnoteRef:8] [8: Power, Amanda, "Franciscan Advice to the Papacy in the Middle Ages," History Compass 5.5 (2007)]
The church was also concerned that too many people were delving into other forms of worship which would make them less relevant. The inquisitions that began to pop up in different areas of the Roman Catholic realm were meant to remind the people of the power the church had over every action the committed and every thought they had.[footnoteRef:9] The inquisition was worse in some places, like Spain, than in others, such as England, but it was a powerful force that the church used to control the people who had thoughts about leaving the fold for some other form of belief. This also led to the decline of the Roman church as people began to see the futility of their lives under the rule of the pope. [9: Moorhead, John, "Bede on the Papacy," Journal of Ecclesiastical History 60.2 (2009), 222.]
Apex and Decline
The power of the church really began to decline with the bill that Luther nailed to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg,[footnoteRef:10] but it had already begun to be questioned by other prominent theologians and rulers. It was not a surprise that Luther was able to write and distribute his 95 theses because the atmosphere surrounding the church had already begun to decline. Of course there were areas where the…