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Medieval Europe: Church history

The Church dominated the culture and society of Medieval Europe so powerfully that its people thought of themselves as living in “Christendom” – the realm of the Christians.


Medieval Christendom was divided into two parts. The Christians of eastern Europe were under the leadership of the patriarch of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, in Turkey). Those in western Europe (which this article mainly deals with) were under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, commonly called the pope (papa, or “father”). These two branches gradually adopted different practices – for example the Western church came to ban clerical marriage, while the Eastern church did not – and there was growing friction between the two. Eventually, with the pope claiming seniority over the patriarch, and vice versa, both sides excommunicated each other in 1054. This began a schism which would last throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

The Catholic Church of Western Europe

In western Christendom, the Catholic Church remained a central institution throughout the Middle Ages. It controlled vast amounts of wealth – it was the largest landowner in Europe, and the people paid a tenth of their income – the “tithe”  – to the Church each year. Churchmen virtually monopolized education and learning. Bishops and abbots acted as advisors to kings and emperors. The pope claimed (and used) the power to ex-communicate secular rulers, and free their subjects from their oaths of obedience to him – powerful weapons in a deeply religious age. Through its network of parishes reaching into every town and village in western Europe, the Church constituted an extraordinarily powerful propaganda machine. Medieval kings ignored the Church’s agenda at their peril.

Furthermore, the Church exercised exclusive jurisdiction over a wide range of matters: incest, adultery, bigamy, usury and failure to perform oaths and vows, matrimonial cases, legitimacy of children. All these were dealt with according to Church law (or Canon law, as it is called), in Church, not secular, courts.

As an all embracing multinational institution, the Church in fact formed an alternative focus of loyalty within western Christendom. All churchmen, however humble, enjoyed immunity from secular courts. Members of the clergy, who formed a small but significant minority within the population (between 1 and 2 per cent), looked to their bishops and archbishops, and above them to the pope, for leadership as much as to their kings.

Early history

Under the Romans

To understand the centrality of the role of the Church in western Christendom we have to go back to Roman times. The Christian Church had its origins dating back to the beginnings of the Roman empire, in the ministry, death and (Christians believe) resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Until the 4th century it was virtually an underground organization. It was often persecuted at a local level, and sometimes it was the target of state-sponsored, empire-wide attempts to destroy it altogether.

Under such circumstances, there could be no overall, tightly-knit organization. Each congregation formed its own cell, meeting in the house of one of its members and electing its own elders and pastors. The different congregations of each town or city elected an overall leader, or bishop. Some bishops became more prominent than others, mostly depending on the size and importance of the cities in which they were based. The bishops of Antioch, Alexandria, Rome and Carthage came to be seen as having special prestige, with special authority in the debates of the Church. They became known as the “patriarchs” (from the Greek word for “fathers”) of the Church.

Debates there were many, as, over the centuries, Church leaders hammered out what exactly it was that they believed, what was permissible but not necessary to believe, and what was not to be believed. These debates took place in councils of bishops which occurred from time to time. Also, the bishops frequently corresponded with one another, and out of all this discussion came a clear idea of what the “orthodox” beliefs of the Church were.

With the conversion of the emperor Constantine to Christianity, the Church no longer feared persecution; quite the reverse, it enjoyed imperial favor. Emperors and empresses, landowners and high officials showered the Church with treasure and land, and it became hugely wealthy. In 380 the Church received a further boost when it was made the official religion of the Roman empire.

Marble Head of Constantine the Great
Marble Head of Constantine the Great

After the fall of the Roman empire

The Church’s prestige and authority survived the fall of the Roman empire in the West intact. Indeed, with barbarian armies roaming the empire, people looked to bishops for protection. Bishops (by now often drawn from the local aristocracies) had the moral authority to negotiate with barbarian leaders, and to mitigate the worst effects of the anarchy of the times. The churches were major landowners, and were able to use their wealth to help sustain populations in difficulty. In the absence of imperial officials, bishops emerged as the leading figures in the towns and cities of the old Roman western provinces.

The new barbarian rulers of the western provinces were mostly Arians – that is, Christians who held slightly different beliefs to those of the Roman Christians (or Catholics, as we will now call them). Apart from some local tensions, the German rulers allowed their Roman subjects to keep practicing their Catholic faith, and they respected the status of bishops as leaders of the Catholic communities.

The kings of the Franks were the notable exception to this. When they migrated into the old Roman lands of northern France, the Franks were still pagans. At the beginning of the 6th century, their king, Clovis, was baptized into the Catholic Church. He and his successors then forged a close link with the Church, which powerful aided them in conquering the lands of all the other barbarian kingdoms in Gaul. The Church’s support was a major factor in the rise of the kingdom of the Franks to be the most powerful realm in western Europe; and this development in turn reinforced the authority of the Catholic Church over the people of western Europe.

The Papacy

The fall of the western Roman provinces to German tribal rulers in the 5th century, and the subsequent takeover of the Middle East and North Africa by Islamic armies in the 7th century, had profound consequences for the Christian Church. Of the four ancient patriarchies of the Church, three, Antioch, Alexandra and Carthage were now under Muslim occupation. Since Constantine’s time another patriarchy had emerged, based in his new capital in the eastern half of the Roman empire, Constantinople. So, by the beginning of the 7th century, the patriarchs of Roman and Constantinople were the leading bishops of the Christian Church.

By this time, however, Rome and Constantinople were drifting apart, as the western Roman empire gave way to barbarian kingdoms and the eastern Roman empire evolved into the Byzantine empire. Whereas in later Roman times both bishoprics had been bilingual in Latin and Greek, they were now monolingual: Rome spoke only Latin, Constantinople spoke only Greek. Also, the patriarchs of Constantinople were very much under the thumb of the Byzantine emperors, whereas the patriarchs (or, in Latinized form, “popes”) of Rome, in the power vacuum left by the fall of the western Roman emperors, was resistant to attempts by the Byzantine emperors to bringing them more under their control.

Under these circumstances, the bishops of Rome, the popes, had become the outstanding figures in the Latin-speaking Church in the West. However, at this stage their position was essentially just one amongst all the other bishops. Popes were by no means the rulers of the Church. Nevertheless their prestige gave them a certain authority which ran throughout the Latin-speaking Church. For example, it was a pope who dispatched a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons in 597, and it was popes who sanctioned the establishment of new bishoprics in England, the Low Countries and Germany. The kings of the Franks forged a special relationship with the popes, in order to bolster their own authority over the bishops within their realms. It was to Rome that Charlemagne went to have a pope crown him emperor in 800; and later, emperors of the Holy Roman Empire also travelled to Rome to be crowned.

An independent prince

Meanwhile the popes had become secular rulers in their own right. In the period after the fall of the Roman empire, the bishops of Rome, the popes, had become the dominant figures in that city. The people of Rome had looked to them to negotiate with barbarian kings, and not in vain.

When the Byzantine empire had reconquered Italy in the 6th century, they had recognized the pope’s authority over Rome; and when Byzantine power had swiftly evaporated throughout much of Italy with the coming of further barbarian invaders – the Lombards – in the 7th century power had devolved to local rulers, which in Rome and its environs meant the popes. As the threat to Rome from the Lombards increased, it was not to the distant Byzantine emperor that a pope turned for military protection, but to the king of the Franks. He defeated the Lombards and confirmed the pope in possession of Rome and parts of central Italy.

The popes continued to rule this principality as a part of the Frankish empire under Charlemagne, and with the decline of that empire emerged as rulers of their own right. The lands in central Italy that they ruled came to be called the Papal States, and were to play a major role in Italian and European history right up to the 19th century.

The Church in the High Middle Ages

Moral decline

The rise of the popes as secular princes was matched by the moral decline of the Church in western Europe.

Bishops had, in ancient times, been elected by the congregations of the cities over which they were to minister. Over time, bishops came to be elected by the clergy only. The appointment of priests to local parishes had long since come into the hands of bishops, and even of local lay rulers. It was by no means uncommon for parishes to pass from father to son. Such developments made it easy for secular rulers to manipulate the elections of bishops, and by the 10th century kings controlled the appointment of bishops within their own realms.

As bishops carried such weight with the people, rulers made sure that bishoprics went to loyal supporters. Some of these made good bishops; most did not. They were usually members of the local nobility and often better politicians than they were churchmen. As a result, the spiritual standards in the Church began to slip badly.

This process was made worse by the rise of feudalism in western Europe. With Church property being so extensive, it could not escape becoming feudalized. Church estates began to be treated like other fiefs, being held on condition of service to a secular lord. A central part of this service was military service, so that each Church estate had to provide knights to serve with a king or a magnate.

Lay rulers began to carry out ceremonies of investiture on the bishops and abbots within their realms, just as if they were vassals; and indeed they were vassals, expected to pay homage to their lord and render the same kinds of service that other vassals had to. Bishops and abbots served as senior officials in secular rulers’ entourages, and even as military commanders, seen in the thick of fighting laying around them with their swords and battle axes.

This moral decline affected the monasteries as much as it did the bishoprics and parishes. Indeed, life in monasteries – the very places were the most dedicated Christians were supposed to olive out their vocations – was widely regarded as having become particularly lax.

Such was the low state into which the Church had fallen that ecclesiastical offices were openly bought and sold. In all this, the papacy was no help; indeed it was a major part of the problem. The election of popes had come under the control of a small, violent, faction-ridden group of Roman nobles, and the men whom they elected to the office were woefully inadequate: immoral, brutal and ignorant. They had neither the power nor the motivation to use their office to help lead the Church out of its miserable state.


In reaction to this state of affairs, a new order of monks, the Cluniac order, was founded in northern France in the early 10th century. Its members committed to taking their vows seriously and practiced an austere form of Christianity. They became widely respected for their way of life, and their influence grew as calls for the cleansing and reform of the Church began to reverberate around Europe.

Finally, in 1049 the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire imposed a new pope on the electors in Rome, Leo IX (reigned 1049-54). Leo began the effort of reform by denouncing the sale of church offices and calling on all priests to be celibate. In 1073 pope Gregory VII, a man linked to the Cluniac order, was elected, and began building on Leo’s reforms.

11th Century Manusscript depicting Pope Gregory VII
11th Century Manuscript depicting Pope Gregory VII

Gregory re-affirmed Leo’s denunciation of the sale of church offices, and also prohibited the investiture of bishops by laymen. He insisted that he, as pope, was the universal head of the Catholic Church, and that laymen should have no part in the appointment of bishops – these should be elected, as was the age-old practice in the Church. Furthermore, only popes could confirm or depose bishops in their posts. He also reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to cleric celibacy. As well as being a mark of dedication to the clerical life, priestly celibacy would forestall the possibility of ecclesiastical offices being inherited, and reduce clerics’ temptations to put the interests of their own families before that of the Church.

By these measures Gregory sought to separate the Church from the secular power structures by bringing it under much tighter control from the Papacy. The basis for these policies was that the Church could not adequately care for the souls of the people of Christendom while it had little control over its own personnel and organization.

Church against state

Gregory also made very clear his view that the pope, as God’s vice-regent on Earth, had authority over that of all secular rulers. Notably, he claimed the right to depose emperors and kings, to release subjects from their oaths of obedience to a ruler who disobeyed him, and the right to try all serious disputes between secular rulers.

Naturally, the rulers of western Europe viewed Gregory’s claims with alarm: if implemented in full, kings and emperors would be left with only a remnant of their royal power. The issue which caused them the most immediate anxiety, however, was regarding the investiture of bishops, as these were such important figures at the national and local levels. To lose control over them would have meant a serious diminution of power. The clash between papacy and secular rulers in Medieval Europe is therefore known as the “Investiture Controversy”.

The Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV (reigned 1056-1106) defied pope Gregory on this issue. The pope then ex-communicated him, which effectively released all Henry’s vassals from their oaths of obedience  and posed a grave threat to his position as emperor – indeed a major rebellion broke out against him. Henry travelled to Italy and, at the monastery of Canossa, begged Gregory for forgiveness (1077). The pope forgave Henry and the immediate crisis passed.

Pope Gregory’s successors maintained his stance, and in the early 12th century the secular rulers of western Europe one by one came to terms. A compromise was reached which varied from place to place but which broadly gave both popes and rulers an involvement in a bishop’s appointment, with the king confirming him in his secular possessions and the pope confirming him in his spiritual role.

The Holy Roman emperors were the last to reach such an agreement (at the Concordat of Worms, 1122). By this time a long period of civil war had gravely damaged their authority throughout their large realm, tilting the Holy Roman Empire along the road to being a collection of virtually independent states rather than a single cohesive realm.

Church and state in harmony

The “Gregorian Reforms” of the Church brought about a marked improvement in the moral tone of the Church. The crudest forms of lay interference in the appointment of bishops disappeared, the sale of church offices more or less ceased for the time being, and the priesthood adopted celibacy as a universal practice. However, at the local level, parish priests were still often appointed by lay lords, and even in the case of bishops, the rules of election were so ambiguous that kings were able to manipulate them with ease. In any case it suited the popes to have bishops who had the ear of the kings. This put them in a good position to influence secular rulers to the Church’s advantage.

The ending of the Investiture Controversy (as this struggle over the investiture of bishops was called), certainly did not mean the withdrawal of papal claims to limit secular rulers’ powers over the Church. The Church insisted on its right to try clergy in its own courts, and this led to a violent clash in England between the king, Henry II, (reigned 1158-1189) and the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas a Becket. This ended with the murder of the archbishop in 1170. The scandal that this caused meant that Henry had to drop all  attempts to bring the clergy under the control of royal courts.

The kings of France, meanwhile, had adroitly allied themselves with the popes, claiming that the Church’s interests lay in supporting royal power against the power of the (obviously less devout!) local magnates. The French kings emerged from this period with their royal authority strengthened. When a pope eventually insisted on the Church’s right to not pay tax to a secular ruler, it was too late: the French king, Philip the Fair (reigned 1285-1314) had the pope roughed up (1296) – an experience from which that pope never recovered.

This episode marked the end of active attempts by popes to assert superiority over secular rulers. The various privileges the Church had obtained were a source of irritation to secular rulers and their officials, but they had learnt by and large to live with them. Monarchs still had much influence on the Church within the borders of their realms – we have seen that they could manipulate bishops’ elections to their advantage, and bishops and abbots still possessed vast estates which had feudal obligations attached to them. Although they mostly no longer had to pay homage to kings for these lands, bishops and abbots still had to fulfil the duties of a vassal to a lord in respect of them. Churchmen made up the brightest and best of the royal advisors and officials; and an additional benefit to secular rulers was that they could be paid out of revenues from church offices they held, and not from the royal purse.

Decline of the Papacy

In the early 14th century, the papacy was about to enter a long period of decline. Since the mid-13th century violent instability within the city of Rome had forced popes to base themselves elsewhere, and in 1309 a pope established himself and his court in Avignon, France. Here, he and his successors resided until 1378, under the thumb of the French king. This brought the papacy into disrepute. Worse was to follow. Between 1378 and 1418 there were two, then three, rival popes, each supported by different countries. These shenanigans could only undermine the prestige of the papacy, and of the Church as an institution.

For the Church, despite the fact that the original reform movement in the 11th century had been motivated by a desire to free the Church from secular entanglements, the effect of the Investiture Controversy, and subsequent attempts to impose its will on emperors and kings, was to make it more, not less, entangled with secular politics. As the leaders of the church became more political, so their spiritual authority declined. Even when the schisms were healed and a single pope was reigned from Rome, he and his successors did little to restore the moral integrity and spiritual force of the papacy.

The Orders

Increasingly, the respect people felt for the Church was directed, not towards the leadership of the Church as a whole, but towards members of the orders of monks and nuns.

The earlier monks of western Christendom mostly followed the Benedictine rules for monastic life, but they formed independent communities, each under its own elected abbot. What distinguished the later orders was that their monasteries came under the authority of a central headquarters, which was responsible directly to the pope.

The first of these was the Cluniac order, which we have already come across. This dated from the 10th century, and was the driving force behind the great reform movement of the 11th century. The Carthusians and Cistercians arose in late 11th century, with the aim of returning to a simpler form of Christian life.

Two “mendicant” orders (of wandering friars who lived by begging) were founded in the early 13th century. The Franciscans were founded by St Francis of Assissi, with the specific aim of caring for the poor and outcasts. The Dominicans were founded to preach the Gospel. They came to specialise in education.

Francis of Assissi by Cimabue
Francis of Assissi by Cimabue

These orders spread throughout Europe, and thanks to their activities – and to the work of the countless faithful parish priests in the towns and villages of Europe, many of whom were barely more educated or better-off than their flocks – Christianity as a religion retained its hold on people’s lives. Despite the wealth, pomp and secularity of the Church hierarchy, Europeans still very much regarded themselves as living in Christendom, and the expansion of Europe went hand in hand – was indistinguishable from – the expansion of the Christian church.

The expansion of Christendom

A series of Crusades – a mixture of religious pilgrimage and military expedition – pushed out Christendom’s borders. The most famous of these were to the Middle East, against the Muslims. They lasted from 1095 to 1291, and were ultimately unsuccessful (one enduring result was that they turned Christianity from being the majority religion amongst the local people of Syria and the Levant to being a minority religion).

Other crusades were much more successful: the Northern Crusades (later 12th to early 15th centuries) against the pagan peoples of the Baltic region added then territories of north-eastern Germany, northern Poland, and the Baltic states of Livonia and Estonia permanently to Christian Europe (Lithuania was not forcibly converted, but became Christian of her own accord in the mid-14th century).

Meanwhile, the Reconquista – the centuries-long on-off campaign to reconquer central and southern Spain from the Muslims – was finally completed right at the end of the middle Ages, in 1492.

One feature of the Crusading effort was the appearance of orders of monastic knights who were dedicated to furthering Christendom through militant service. Such orders as the Knights Hospitaller (or Knights of St John), the Knights Templar, the Livonian Knights (Knights of the Sword) and the Teutonic Knights became powerful and wealthy organisations. One of them, the Templars, became so feared, even within Christendom, that it was brutally suppressed (1307/12).


Crusading was not limited to the frontiers of Europe and beyond, however. From time to time throughout the history of the Christian church heresies had arisen, whose followers held teachings slightly or radically different from those of the mainstream Church. The most famous of these in medieval Europe were the Albigensians, or Cathars as they were also called.

The Occitan cross was a
The Occitan cross was a Cathar rallying symbol.
Made by Huhsunqu, Reproduced under Creative Commons 2.5

These taught that there were two gods, not one: one was good, and the other evil – ideas can be traced back to Zoroastrianism, an ancient Persian religion, and which had come to Europe at the time of the Roman empire.

These ideas had lingered on in corners of medieval Christendom, to come out into the open in the Cathar movement of the 12th and 13th centuries. This took a firm hold on the inhabitants of a large area of southern France. It took a series of major and often brutal campaigns, collectively known as the Albigensian Crusade (1209-29), to restored this area to Catholic Christianity.

Whereas the Cathars had rejected the teachings of Christianity, other movements, such as the Waldensians and Humiliati, had preached a simpler form of Christianity than that prevalent in the established Church. These had appeared in the early 12th century, but in the later Middle Ages other movements, such as Lollardism in England, the Brethren of the Common Life in the Low Countries, and the Hussites in Bohemia, gained a wide appeal amongst all levels of society. All taught that Christians should live a simple, modest and moral lives. They all also emphasised the use of the vernacular language in their teaching and worship, rather than Latin, so that the unlearned could have as much access to the teachings of the Christian faith as the learned. And all were branded as heresies by the Church’s hierarchy, and ruthlessly persecuted as such.

They survived, sometimes by going underground, to form the bedrock from which the Reformation of the 16th century would spring.

Further study

An overview of Medieval European civilization

Feudalism in Medieval Europe

Medieval European government and warfare

The Medieval European economy


Maps showing an outline of medieval European history start here