How Did the Church Gain Secular Power

How Did the Church Gain Secular Power.

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



Early history

The Church in the High Middle Ages

Farther report


Medieval Christendom was divided into two parts. The Christians of eastern Europe were under the leadership of the patriarch of Constantinople (modern solar day Istanbul, in Turkey). Those in western Europe (which this article mainly deals with) were under the leadership of the bishop of Rome, commonly chosen the pope (papa, or “male parent”). These two branches gradually adopted dissimilar practices – for example the Western church came to ban clerical marriage, while the Eastern church did non – and there was growing friction between the 2. Eventually, with the pope challenge seniority over the patriarch, and vice versa, both sides excommunicated each other in 1054. This began a schism which would concluding throughout the Eye Ages and beyond.

The Catholic Church of Western Europe

In western Christendom, the Catholic Church remained a central institution throughout the Centre Ages. It controlled vast amounts of wealth – it was the largest landowner in Europe, and the people paid a 10th of their income – the “tithe”  – to the Church each year. Churchmen virtually monopolized education and learning. Bishops and abbots acted every bit advisors to kings and emperors. The pope claimed (and used) the ability to ex-communicate secular rulers, and free their subjects from their oaths of obedience to him – powerful weapons in a securely religious age. Through its network of parishes reaching into every town and village in western Europe, the Church constituted an extraordinarily powerful propaganda auto. Medieval kings ignored the Church’southward 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, betrothed cases, legitimacy of children. All these were dealt with co-ordinate to Church law (or Catechism police force, equally it is chosen), in Church, non secular, courts.

As an all embracing multinational establishment, the Church building 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 ane and ii per cent), looked to their bishops and archbishops, and above them to the pope, for leadership as much every bit to their kings.

Early on history

Under the Romans

To understand the centrality of the part 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 frequently persecuted at a local level, and sometimes information technology was the target of state-sponsored, empire-wide attempts to destroy it birthday.

Nether such circumstances, at that place could be no overall, tightly-knit organization. Each congregation formed its ain cell, meeting in the house of i 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 than prominent than others, generally 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 at that place were many, equally, over the centuries, Church leaders hammered out what exactly it was that they believed, what was permissible but non necessary to believe, and what was not to be believed. These debates took place in councils of bishops which occurred from time to time. Besides, the bishops oft corresponded with one another, and out of all this word 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 majestic favor. Emperors and empresses, landowners and loftier officials showered the Church with treasure and land, and it became hugely wealthy. In 380 the Church received a further boost when information technology 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 say-so 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 at present 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 utilise their wealth to assist sustain populations in difficulty. In the absence of imperial officials, bishops emerged as the leading figures in the towns and cities of the former Roman western provinces.

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

The kings of the Franks were the notable exception to this. When they migrated into the former Roman lands of northern French republic, the Franks were still pagans. At the first 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 building’s support was a major gene in the ascension of the kingdom of the Franks to exist the most powerful realm in western Europe; and this evolution in turn reinforced the authority of the Cosmic 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 Eastward and North Africa by Islamic armies in the seventh century, had profound consequences for the Christian Church. Of the iv ancient patriarchies of the Church, three, Antioch, Alexandra and Carthage were at present under Muslim occupation. Since Constantine’s time another patriarchy had emerged, based in his new upper-case letter in the eastern half of the Roman empire, Constantinople. Then, by the beginning of the seventh century, the patriarchs of Roman and Constantinople were the leading bishops of the Christian Church.

By this time, withal, 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 subsequently Roman times both bishoprics had been bilingual in Latin and Greek, they were at present monolingual: Rome spoke only Latin, Constantinople spoke but Greek. Besides, the patriarchs of Constantinople were very much under the thumb of the Byzantine emperors, whereas the patriarchs (or, in Latinized course, “popes”) of Rome, in the power vacuum left by the autumn of the western Roman emperors, was resistant to attempts by the Byzantine emperors to bringing them more nether their control.

Nether these circumstances, the bishops of Rome, the popes, had go the outstanding figures in the Latin-speaking Church in the West. However, at this phase their position was essentially just 1 amongst all the other bishops. Popes were by no ways the rulers of the Church. Nevertheless their prestige gave them a certain dominance which ran throughout the Latin-speaking Church. For example, it was a pope who dispatched a mission to catechumen the Anglo-Saxons in 597, and it was popes who sanctioned the establishment of new bishoprics in England, the Depression Countries and Frg. The kings of the Franks forged a special human relationship with the popes, in society to eternalize their own authorisation over the bishops inside their realms. It was to Rome that Charlemagne went to have a pope crown him emperor in 800; and subsequently, emperors of the Holy Roman Empire also travelled to Rome to be crowned.

An contained prince

Meanwhile the popes had get secular rulers in their own correct. 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 non in vain.

When the Byzantine empire had reconquered Italia in the sixth 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 seventh century power had devolved to local rulers, which in Rome and its surroundings meant the popes. As the threat to Rome from the Lombards increased, it was not to the afar 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 nether Charlemagne, and with the turn down 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 upwardly to the 19th century.

The Church in the High Middle Ages

Moral decline

The ascension 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 past the congregations of the cities over which they were to minister. Over time, bishops came to exist elected past the clergy only. The appointment of priests to local parishes had long since come up into the hands of bishops, and even of local lay rulers. It was past no means uncommon for parishes to pass from father to son. Such developments made it like shooting fish in a barrel for secular rulers to manipulate the elections of bishops, and by the 10th century kings controlled the appointment of bishops within their ain realms.

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

This process was fabricated worse past the rise of feudalism in western Europe. With Church building belongings existence so extensive, it could non escape becoming feudalized. Church building 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, then that each Church building estate had to provide knights to serve with a rex or a magnate.

Lay rulers began to conduct out ceremonies of investiture on the bishops and abbots inside their realms, just every bit if they were vassals; and indeed they
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 boxing axes.

This moral decline affected the monasteries every bit much every bit 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 go 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 aid; indeed it was a major part of the problem. The election of popes had come under the control of a pocket-size, fierce, faction-ridden group of Roman nobles, and the men whom they elected to the role were woefully inadequate: immoral, roughshod and ignorant. They had neither the power nor the motivation to apply their office to aid atomic number 82 the Church out of its miserable state.


In reaction to this situation, a new lodge of monks, the Cluniac club, was founded in northern France in the early 10th century. Its members committed to taking their vows seriously and skillful an austere form of Christianity. They became widely respected for their way of life, and their influence grew every bit calls for the cleansing and reform of the Church began to reflect effectually Europe.

Finally, in 1049 the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire imposed a new pope on the electors in Rome, Leo Nine (reigned 1049-54). Leo began the effort of reform by denouncing the sale of church building offices and calling on all priests to be chaste. 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’south 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 Cosmic Church, and that laymen should have no part in the date of bishops – these should exist elected, every bit was the age-old practice in the Church. Furthermore, merely popes could confirm or depose bishops in their posts. He also reaffirmed the Church’south commitment to cleric celibacy. As well every bit beingness a mark of dedication to the clerical life, priestly celibacy would forbid 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 building from the secular power structures by bringing information technology under much tighter control from the Papacy. The basis for these policies was that the Church building could not adequately intendance for the souls of the people of Christendom while it had picayune control over its own personnel and organization.

Church against state

Gregory besides made very clear his view that the pope, as God’s vice-regent on World, had potency 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 correct to endeavour all serious disputes between secular rulers.

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

The Holy Roman Emperor, Henry 4 (reigned 1056-1106) defied pope Gregory on this issue. The pope and 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 Italia and, at the monastery of Canossa, begged Gregory for forgiveness (1077). The pope forgave Henry and the immediate crisis passed.

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

The Holy Roman emperors were the concluding to reach such an agreement (at the Concordat of Worms, 1122). By this time a long catamenia of civil state of war had gravely damaged their potency throughout their large realm, tilting the Holy Roman Empire along the road to existence a drove 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 notwithstanding often appointed by lay lords, and even in the case of bishops, the rules of election were and then ambiguous that kings were able to dispense them with ease. In any instance information technology suited the popes to take bishops who had the ear of the kings. This put them in a proficient position to influence secular rulers to the Church’s advantage.

The ending of the Investiture Controversy (equally this struggle over the investiture of bishops was called), certainly did non 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 majestic courts.

The kings of France, meanwhile, had adroitly centrolineal 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 menstruation with their royal authority strengthened. When a pope eventually insisted on the Church’s right to non 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 feel from which that pope never recovered.

This episode marked the finish of agile attempts past popes to affirm 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 mostly to live with them. Monarchs still had much influence on the Church within the borders of their realms – nosotros have seen that they could manipulate bishops’ elections to their advantage, and bishops and abbots however possessed vast estates which had feudal obligations fastened to them. Although they by and large no longer had to pay homage to kings for these lands, bishops and abbots however 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 do good to secular rulers was that they could be paid out of revenues from church offices they held, and not from the imperial purse.

Decline of the Papacy

In the early 14th century, the papacy was nearly to enter a long flow of turn down. Since the mid-13th century violent instability within the urban center 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 at that place were 2, and so 3, rival popes, each supported past unlike countries. These shenanigans could just undermine the prestige of the papacy, and of the Church every bit an establishment.

For the Church, despite the fact that the original reform movement in the 11th century had been motivated by a desire to gratuitous the Church from secular entanglements, the result of the Investiture Controversy, and subsequent attempts to impose its will on emperors and kings, was to go far more, not less, entangled with secular politics. As the leaders of the church became more political, and 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 equally a whole, merely towards members of the orders of monks and nuns.

The before monks of western Christendom generally followed the Benedictine rules for monastic life, just they formed independent communities, each under its own elected abbot. What distinguished the later on 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 beyond. This dated from the 10th century, and was the driving strength 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 grade of Christian life.

2 “mendicant” orders (of wandering friars who lived by begging) were founded in the early 13th century. The Franciscans were founded past 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 endless faithful parish priests in the towns and villages of Europe, many of whom were barely more educated or improve-off than their flocks – Christianity as a faith retained its hold on people’due south lives. Despite the wealth, pomp and secularity of the Church bureaucracy, Europeans nonetheless very much regarded themselves as living in Christendom, and the expansion of Europe went hand in hand – was duplicate from – the expansion of the Christian church.

The expansion of Christendom

A series of Crusades – a mixture of religious pilgrimage and armed services expedition – pushed out Christendom’s borders. The most famous of these were to the Center E, against the Muslims. They lasted from 1095 to 1291, and were ultimately unsuccessful (one enduring consequence was that they turned Christianity from being the majority organized 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 and then territories of north-eastern Germany, northern Poland, and the Baltic states of Livonia and Republic of estonia permanently to Christian Europe (Republic of lithuania was not forcibly converted, just became Christian of her own accord in the mid-14th century).

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

One characteristic of the Crusading effort was the advent of orders of monastic knights who were defended to furthering Christendom through militant service. Such orders every bit 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. Ane of them, the Templars, became so feared, even within Christendom, that information technology 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 every bit they were also chosen.

The Occitan cross was a

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

These taught that there were two gods, non one: ane was practiced, and the other evil – ideas can be traced back to Zoroastrianism, an ancient Western farsi 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 twelfth and 13th centuries. This took a firm concur on the inhabitants of a large area of southern French republic. It took a series of major and frequently brutal campaigns, collectively known equally the Albigensian Cause (1209-29), to restored this area to Catholic Christianity.

Whereas the Cathars had rejected the teachings of Christianity, other movements, such every bit the Waldensians and Humiliati, had preached a simpler class of Christianity than that prevalent in the established Church. These had appeared in the early 12th century, but in the later Eye Ages other movements, such as Lollardism in England, the Brethren of the Mutual Life in the Low Countries, and the Hussites in Bohemia, gained a broad entreatment among all levels of society. All taught that Christians should live a simple, modest and moral lives. They all besides emphasised the use of the colloquial language in their educational activity and worship, rather than Latin, so that the unlearned could have equally much admission to the teachings of the Christian faith as the learned. And all were branded equally heresies by the Church building’s hierarchy, and ruthlessly persecuted as such.

They survived, sometimes past going hush-hush, to course the boulder from which the Reformation of the 16th century would jump.

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 starting time here

How Did the Church Gain Secular Power