Why was the Catholic Church so powerful after the fall of the Roman Empire?

What happened to Rome during the Middle Ages? 

You can’t understand medieval Rome or Europe without a grasp of the importance of Christianity. 

Europe was often called “Christendom.” But during the medieval period the, Christian Church split into two, east and west.  

The Franks set up an empire under Charlemagne to counter-balance the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople.

Why is it called the Middle Ages?

No one at the time talked of living in the Middle Ages! 

This term only came into use much later, during the Renaissance. 

Renaissance scholars were great admirers of the writers and artists of the ancient world. They used to refer rather rudely to the time in-between as “medieval.”

The Middle Ages meant the boring time in-between the times that mattered.

Christianization of Europe

During Rome’s last years, Christianity had become the most popular religion. 

But after Rome fell, Europe returned to its pagan ideas. It took centuries for the monks and missionaries to reconvert the locals.

Christianity began to spread throughout Europe, uniting believers but failing to destroy folk religion entirely. 

Many pagan rituals also made the conversion to Christianity. The good spirits of traditions became the saints of the Church. 

Pagan feast days were renamed to become Christian holy days. 

The Church soon dominated every aspect of medieval life. Sin was a crime, and vice versa. 

Religious authorities were civil authorities. 

Bishops were often princes. 

The Bible was the final word on all matters: scientific, economic, social, and political.

Thoughts of an afterlife concerned people more than their life on earth.

The Influence of Christianity upon the Roman Empire

The Church accepted much of Rome’s legacy.

Roman senators became Christian bishops.

Scholars became monks.

Philosophers became theologians.

Latin became the language of the Church.

The Pope adopted the title initially held by the emperor: Pontifex Maximus (high priest).

Christianity bridged the ancient and modern worlds by carrying Rome’s classical knowledge, learning, and administration through the Middle Ages.

How did Charlemagne spread Christianity? 

Charles the Great, 742-814, was king of the Franks. 

On Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne knelt before the Pope and was crowned with the title Holy Roman Emperor, briefly uniting Western Europe’s essence and reviving ancient Rome’s faded glory. 

Throughout the Middle Ages, popes and kings struggled to establish their power. The Popes were undisputed spiritual leaders, but they needed the military support of a king. 

When the Pope crowned Charlemagne, he created the ultimate alliance of spiritual and human authority. 

From Germany to Sicily, he established what is now called the Carolingian Empire, the largest since Rome. When 20th-century Nazis referred to their Third Reich, it was in relation to this First Reich.

Charlemagne’s rule produced a mini-Renaissance. A weak Europe vibrated with excitement at this “Roman revival.”

Trade and communication increased, and the court became a cultural center where artists and scholars worked to revive Roman ideals. Academia flourished, and classical works were studied and copied. 

Charlemagne could read a little (a rarity at the time) and went to bed each night with a slate to practice his writing. He spoke Latin and was learning Greek, though as his biographer tactfully put it, “he had started rather late.”

Charlemagne personally set about to improve a lot of his people. He replaced the barbaric trial-by-ordeal with trial-by-judge, revised the monetary system, and built schools and churches. According to legend, his foot even became the foot, the standard form of measurement still in use today.

The main work of all these scholars was to improve standards in the Frankish Church. The court scholars even produced a clear, uniform style of handwriting called Carolingian minuscule. 

So good were the results that years later, in the Renaissance, scholars thought it was the ancients’ original handwriting.

The Franks king was a ruthless leader, determined to convert the pagan German tribes to Christianity. He invaded Germany and conquered it, tribe by tribe, giving the leaders a choice: convert or die. Most chose the former.

Charlemagne believed in the idea of a Christian king. He wanted to fight God’s enemies by himself. His duty was to lead and protect his people and to see them safely into heaven. He felt inspired by St Augustine’s City of God. 

The secret weapons of the Franks

The Franks had a very successful secret weapon: they were Europe’s first fully-fledged knights in armor, with chain mail and shields and lances and all the rest of it. 

Each knight had a small army of armed maintenance people who owed loyalty to their knight in return for his protection. The Frankish knights thus ended up in charge of their private troops, which the king could call when he needed help. 

This system was moderately like the tribal armies that the Romans had allowed to live within the Empire in the old days. The Romans had called these armies foederati, which is why these knights and private armies system was known as the feudal system.

How did the Pope reward Charlemagne?

The defining moment in Charlemagne’s reign happened on Christmas Day 800 when Pope Leo III instead unexpectedly crowned him Roman emperor. 

Pope Leo had lots of enemies, especially among the previous pope family. In 799, they ambushed him during a papal procession. Pope Leo’s enemies declared him overthrown, but he ran to Charlemagne for help. 

Charlemagne came to Rome and put Leo very firmly back on his throne. So Leo may have crowned Charlemagne emperor as a way to making sure of his continued support.

Why did Charlemagne’s empire fall apart?

Charlemagne was an excellent ruler, but the Franks who succeeded him were not. 

The Treaty of Verdun (843) divided his Empire among his three heirs into realms that became Germany, France, and the smaller countries in between. 

This treaty, written in French and German rather than traditional Latin, has led some historians to call 843 the year of Europe’s birth.

A long time passed before Europe enjoyed being ruled by another leader of Charlemagne’s stature. 

His reign was a turning point. Before his time, it seemed that darkness might control Europe forever. Afterward, Europe rekindled hope for the restoration of learning and civilization.

4 Differences Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church

While Charlemagne was building an empire, a very unholy dispute was developing between the eastern and western members of the Church. 

These members were meant to be parts of the same Church. But you would never have known it, from how they behaved.

Some of the differences between the eastern and western churches may seem minor now. Still, they mattered a lot at the time:

  • Their priests dressed differently
  • The Eastern Church didn’t like the way that the western Church used unleavened bread at Mass.
  • The western Church didn’t like the eastern Church’s icon cult  
  • Above all, the eastern Church resented how the Pope presented himself as a sort of universal ruler. They thought that if anyone was in charge of the Church, it should be the Patriarch of Constantinople. Because Constantinople was where real Roman emperors lived, not Frankish imitation emperors.

What were the main causes of the Great Schism?

The final split came in 1054, over a bit of highly technical religious doctrine. 

The western Church added a single Latin word, filioque, to the creed, which is the bit in the Mass when exactly everyone says what they believe.

Filioque means “and from the Son”; the western Church said that the Holy Spirit came from God the Father and the Son.

The Eastern Church said that the western Church was changing the whole basis of Christianity. The Pope excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Patriarch excommunicated him back. 

They cut each other out of the list of people they prayed for, and each Church said that the other had started it. 

They still haven’t made up the quarrel to this day.

Why Are There So Many Churches?

Christians took tithing seriously, routinely willing their property to the Church, and expecting in return, years of prayer for their souls. 

The Church’s great wealth was invested in huge church buildings.

The beauty of ancient Rome was preserved in the size and luxury of Christian churches. 

Churches stood like mighty fortresses. Typically it was the only stone structure in a town and landmark for miles around.

It was the political, religious, and even recreational center of the town.

There is a significant difference between the function of the Pagan temple and a Christian church. 

In Pagan customs, the sacrifices and celebrations generally occurred on the exterior. The temple served as the house of the cult. Indeed the cult statue and treasury could be housed there. The temple was a backdrop for the sacrifices. This exterior orientation of the Pagan temple reflects the openness and inclusive nature of Pagan religious practices. 

But Christianity was a mystery religion by definition and thus needed to have a clear separation between the faithful and the nonfaithful. This lead to a significant reorientation of religious architecture from the exterior architecture to interior architecture.

What direction do churches face?

Medieval churches are like a compass. Indeed since the 8th century, churches have tended to be built facing towards the east. 

The congregation enters from the west and faces the altar, east, toward Jerusalem.

The word ‘orientation’ actually originally came from the practice of constructing buildings to face the east. Building a church with the east entrance and the apse at the western end is called ‘occidentation.’ 

When early Christians prayed, they would face towards the east. Hence the tradition of building churches with the altar towards the east. 

One theory for why Christians pray towards the east is that the beginnings of the organized Church were in Europe, and worshipers were praying towards Jerusalem’s direction. 

Building the Great Cathedrals

The most impressive buildings the Middle Ages produced are those great cathedrals with their towering spires.

The layout was perfect for accomodating large groups of pilgrims who came to worship Christian relics. I’m talking about the bones and possessions of saints that inspired the faithful and even produced miracles.

Cathedrals took hundreds of years to build. They reflected the infinite nature of God. You couldn’t convey all that in a building that would be up and ready in a matter of months. 

The money for these Cathedrals came from wealthy patrons, who gave generously, hoping that it would count in their favor on the Day of Judgment. 

Patrons often insisted on having their emblems or coat of arms into the decoration of these buildings. Sometimes they were painted into pictures of biblical scenes, showing the patrons present at the Nativity or the Sermon on the Mount. 

Accuracy wasn’t necessary, as all that mattered was that everyone should know who had put up the money.

(inserisci foto cappella privata palazzo medici, cappella magi)

Bible stories were carved onto the doors or painted in glass in the windows. 

Don’t forget that glass was costly. Even quite rich people couldn’t afford it. 

Seeing a beautiful rose window high in a cathedral gave people a sense that they looked into heaven itself. 

The medieval Church and the patronage of Art

The Church founded the most influential artists of the early Middle Ages.

Artists painted and sculptured God, Jesus, Mary, angels, saints, and Bible scenes.

This art educated and excited the masses of illiterate Christians who couldn’t even understand the Latin language used to conduct church services. 

The church building itself became, through religious art, a kind of “book” on which the illiterate could “read” the stories of Christianity, as told in sculpture, stained glass, fabrics, and paintings.

Devoted peasants could contemplate scenes of lost souls, naked and chained, being dragged off to hell. They were strongly proving the point of the priests’ sermon. On Jesus’ right would be the blessed faces of the obedient people looking to heaven. Content with the promise of a happy afterlife.

Why were medieval people so bad at drawing?

Medieval art is crude, two-dimensional, and unrealistic. 

Paintings were not intended to be realistic. 

The artist was presenting the essence of the story. Pictures became symbols. 

A lion was a reminder of the Resurrection, not a lesson in zoology. Relieved from realism pressures, the medieval artist could explore the color schemes, compositions, and proportions, exaggerating the spiritual reality.

Church architecture was the most respected medieval art form. Arts such as sculpture and stained glass were considered moral and genuine because they embellished God’s house. 

Most medieval arts were religious, but plenty of secular art decorated castles. Unfortunately, little survives. While in medieval times, churches and church art were generally respected, secular work was neglected, abandoned, or built over. 

A Quick Guide to Medieval Monastic Orders

European society of the 12th century was devoted to the Christian faith.

It inspired knights to undertake challenging Crusades. Artists to re-create heaven in paintings and stained glass. Architects to build sky-scraping cathedrals filled with the mystic light of heaven. They aimed for a golden age, mixing faith and reason.

A series of energetic popes reformed the Catholic Church, establishing the papacy as a political power to rival the kings. 

In many ways, the medieval Church operated as a nation without borders. Europe’s most significant landowner was taxing through tithes, influencing political decisions on all levels, and attracting talented men to work on its service. 

The Church became too rich and corrupt. There was a time of reform in the 13th century. Devout Christians flocked to monasteries in the countryside to focus on simplicity and poverty. New orders rose in this time.

Dominican Order

The Dominican order, founded by St Dominic in 1215, was a mobile army of monks whose mission was to preach Church doctrine wherever the Pope felt believers needed them. 

St Dominic and his troops tried to convert heretical groups such as the Cathars in southern France and managed the Inquisition. 

Today Dominicans focus on contemplation, study, and preaching.

Augustinian Order

These monks lived according to a rule derived from the writings of St Augustine of Hippo. 

The Augustinians ran schools and hospitals and made significant advances in learning. Augustinians tended to be more open to debate new ideas than some of the other orders. Martin Luther, the monk who set the Reformation going, was an Augustinian.

Franciscan Order

In about the year 1200, a visionary and charismatic monk, St Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), caused a tumult by challenging the Church government’s decay. 

In 1206, a vision changed young Francis’ life, culminating in a dramatic confrontation. 

He tripped naked before the town leaders and threw his clothes at his father, a wealthy merchant. He was turning his back on the comfortable material life. Francis donned a simple brown robe and declared his loyalty to God alone.

Adopting the poor, wandering lifestyle of Jesus Christ, he preached a message of non-materialism and love lifestyle. 

Francis promoted peace and restored order in an Italy torn by Crusades and feuding between towns and families. 

Francis became a cult figure, attracting huge crowds. People had never seen anything like him. He preached sermons outdoors and in the local language. 

Not Latin! 

Francis made God accessible to all.

The Franciscans grew into a vast monastic order. Known as the Jugglers of God, they became a joyful part of the community and re-energized the Church. 

Francis was buried in Assisi, leaving a legacy of equality and love of nature that helped fertilize the cultural soil in which the Renaissance would take root.

In 1939, Italy proclaimed Saint Francis Patron Saint of Italy along with Catherine of Siena.

The Epic Battle: Pope Vs. King

Throughout the Middle Ages, kings and princes competed with popes and bishops for land, tax money, and power. 

Local kings and princes saw the rich and powerful Catholic Church as a meddler in their earthly kingdom. 

The struggle between Pope and nobility came to a head in a battle of wills over who had the right to appoint bishops. 

A position of great power.

King Henry IV of Germany miscalculated his power. 

Against Pope Gregory VII’s wishes, he appointed a bishop in his domain. For this, it was excommunicated. 

Despite his military might, Henry learned the hard lesson that his people only supported him so long as he was in good with the Pope. 

Fighting for his political life, in 1077, he went to Canossa (in the Italian Alps) to implore forgiveness of the Pope. 

The Pope agreed to validate Henry’s Empire if Henry would use his armies to protect papal interests around Europe. 

The famous image of the otherwise mighty Holy Roman Emperor kneeling for hours in the snow outside Gregory’s window reminded later leaders that the Pope was supreme. At least for a while.

Ever since Europeans say that an influential person who finds himself humbled “went to Canossa.”

In the 14th century, the balance of power tipped the other way. 

The French King Philip IV, unhappy that the Pope had threatened to excommunicate him, engineered a Frenchman’s election as Pope. 

In 1309, Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon, turning the city into a great, fortified base for his power by building a mighty wall, mansions for cardinals, and residences for Vatican bureaucracy, vast public squares, and the towering Palace of the Popes. 

For the next seven decades, the popes ruled from Avignon instead of Rome, as virtual puppets of the powerful French king. 

This period is known as The Babylonian Captivity.

In 1376, Catherine of Siena convinced Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome.

Still, the French Connection was far from over. 

Gregory died, and an Italian was elected to replace him. French cardinals met at Avignon and declared the election invalid, promptly electing a new pope who was, of course, a Frenchman.

What is the difference between Pope and Antipope?

For 30 years, two rival popes ruled: one in Rome and one in Avignon. Each was periodically excommunicating the other.  

No one knew whose ring to kiss. 

In 1409, an ecumenical council elected a third pope, creating an unwanted Holy Trinity. 

Finally, one Pope was deposed, another resigned, and the third was dismissed, clearing the way for a single pope in 1417. 

The Great Western Schism (1378-1417) was finally healed. 

The papacy finally returned to Rome, but the Schism damaged the authority and reputation of the Church. 

Increasingly, popes stuck to theological rather than temporal matters.

The Turning Point and End of the Middle Ages

The Black Death was a plague pandemic that devastated Europe from 1347 to 1352 CE, killing an estimated 25-30 million people. 1/3 of Europe’s population. 

No wonder 14th-century art is so full of images of death and the grim reaper.

The plague probably started in China and came to Europe thanks to some Italian merchants who got caught up in a city in the Crimea besieged by the Mongols. 

Medieval Europe couldn’t understand what had hit it, mainly because they had already had disastrous food shortages thanks to some of the millennium’s hottest summers and coldest winters. 

As you can imagine, Medieval people assumed that God must be punishing them for something, though they weren’t sure what. 

How did the Middle Ages influence the Renaissance?

For more than 500 years, the Christian Church was the only wealthy, transnational organization in Europe. It dominated every aspect of European life—art, science, government, economy, and jurisprudence. But Europe would soon head down a more secular path. 

Peasants were leaving their farms – and feudal ties – and settling in self-governing, independent cities. This trend started in Italy, where sea-trading towns such as Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Naples, and Amalfi grew wealthy as middlemen between Europe and the East. 

In the north, Bruges (in modern Belgium) served as the middleman in the sea trade between northern and Southern Europe and became an economic powerhouse.

A new class merged: middle-class businessmen, who manufactured goods and traded them. Trade spawned banking, and Europeans became capitalists, loaning money at interest to Europe’s royalty.

In Italian cities, main squares began to feature not towering church spires but the proud bell towers of city halls. They stood like exclamation points proclaiming the new humanist values sweeping through Europe. Like the notion that people could work together in communities to deal effectively with challenges. 

Slowly, secular community organizations began to take on duties that, until then, the churches had assumed, such as caring for the sick and feeding the poor. 

In the 1200s, a new phenomenon appeared in European cities: universities. Originally intended to teach theology, these centers of learning began embracing secular education. In these universities, scholars from across Europe were able to come tighter and pool their knowledge, using Latin as a common language. They rediscovered the writings of classical non-Christian philosophers. They began to study nature empirically, opening the door for scientific concepts that had once been considered heretical.

Medieval theology had been founded on Augustine’s notion of the “City of God,” that there is one Truth for Both heaven and earth. 

After 700 years, scholars turned their attention to the natural world. The “City of Man” became as worthy of study as the “City of God.”

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