A Religious Perspective of the Medieval Period: an Odyssey
The medieval period, also known as middle ages, covered the era between the 5th and 15th centuries. Christianity was the state religion during the Roman Empire. However, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and some other reformers questioned Catholicism and established Protestantism, which derived norms from teachings in the Bible. Islam was the other significant religion of the medieval period, but it existed mainly in the Middle East before spreading to Spain and some other European territories. Paganism and Judaism were also religious beliefs of the time. However, the majority of religions capitalized on their political advantage to restrict minority beliefs. In Europe, Christians established several laws to prohibit Judaism. In the Muslim world, minority religions could not worship freely and had to pay a special tax to enjoy some civil rights. As per background, this researcher paper describes some unique issues of the medieval period religion in light of several conflicts that different groups exhibited.
Religion and Philosophy
In the medieval period, religion dominated every sphere of human endeavor since people linked misfortunes to sin. Due to this, they believed in going to church and praying daily as the only ways of avoiding unpleasant events. During the time, the church was the sole governing institution since the Roman Empire had fallen. Catholicism became the main religion and established headquarters in Rome. Notably, the medieval religion attracted different social classes. Nobles, kings, peasants, physicians, and doctors and serfs practiced religion from birth to death. Apart from fellowship, people also devoted substantial resources to church developments; in some cases, as payments for salvation. Peasants dedicated time to work on church land and paid 10% of their earnings to the church (Flick 164). Since peasants did not have enough cash, they mostly paid tithe using grains. However, even with the option of paying grains, peasants struggled to raise the amount. Christians, however, held the church as the gateway to heaven, implying that failure to meet requirements would automatically exclude the believers from entering the kingdom of heaven. Thus, farmers devoted every resource to pay the levy. In addition to the tax, medieval church leaders capitalized on the spiritual requirements to charge believers for several other aspects of faith. For instance, believers had to pay some amount to undergo baptism. Failure to pay baptism charges excluded an individual from getting buried on church land, which made him/her miss to eternal life.
Christianity as the Main Religion during the Middle Ages
The early middle age began with Christians taking unique roles. In the eastern part of the Roman Empire, the church remained stable, while in the west, the Pope became more flexible to accommodate drastic political changes. The invasion of the Italian Peninsula by barbarian tribes left Rome with the only option of sustaining itself. As a result, Pope fed the territory, negotiated treaties, paid protection charges to warlords, and hired soldiers for defense. When the Roman Empire completely fell, Christianity spread to other lands that had never been under the empire (Behtash, Toroujeni & Samani 146). In the fifth century, the church operated in many areas around the Irish Sea, including Roman Britain and Ireland. By ordaining some Britons, St. Patrick and other missionaries spread the gospel across Europe. In the Irish region, bishops developed different practices to guide the missionary work. For instance, they established a system of private penitence, which replaced the public practice of penance. In the 7th century, Pope Sergius I commissioned Willibrord as the bishop of Frisians, the modern day the Netherlands. From 716 to 719, Willibrord encountered severe challenges as the Frisian pagan king destroyed Christian centers across the region. In the early 8th century, the church sent missionary Boniface to assist Willibrord.
When the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in c. 312 AD, many pagans converted and incorporated new beliefs in their norms. As the Christian population expanded, the use of images for religious beliefs also increased. The Byzantine era saw an increase in the use of images in both quantity and volume. However, not every ruler embraced that new culture and, in most cases, images attracted some criticisms (Noble 2). Consequently, Byzantine Emperor Leo III organized government-led iconoclasm and influenced divisions in Byzantine society. At one end, the poor, who endured constant Muslim raids, supported the destruction of images, but the affluent mentioned those actions as immoral and non religious.
The Reformation was a movement in the medieval period that intended to reform the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church (Iordache 60). Reform movements commenced in the 15th century with the establishment of Moravian Church. Jan Hus led these early reform efforts with some support from magistrates. Early reformers became dissatisfied following rampant corruption of the Catholic Church. Also, the need for humanism and nationalism informed the early reformation. In particular, Hus criticized the practice of indulgences and sought to establish a doctrine justifiable by faith alone. In the Council of Constance of 1415, Catholic leaders condemned and burned Hus. Therefore, these leaders gained the opportunity to reestablish church traditions as they had prevailed in the medieval period. However, they continued charging for indulgences and other matters of salvation. Pope Sixtus VI extended the selling of indulgences to cover the dead and established agents for collecting revenue across Europe.
The Reformation gained momentum in the early 16th century. Martin Luther, Henry VIII, and other reformers questioned the papal authority and the ability of the Catholic Church to lead Christianity (Iordache 65). They mainly viewed the right church as the one that distributed power to readers of the Bible such as pastors and princes. At the same time, reformers like Martin Luther believed that the scripture needed to be the only primary source of power and not traditions. They conducted the campaign by disseminating ideas through pamphlets. For instance, Martin Luther who was an Augustinian Monk and a lecturer composed 95 theses to protest against some actions of the pope like the sale of penance charges (Iordache 65). The Catholic Church summoned and excommunicated Luther in 1521. The excommunication prompted Luther to intensify his reformation campaigns. At some point, he translated the Bible into vernacular languages, including German, to enable people to gain a deeper understanding of how the church needed to operate. Luther’s teachings inspired many peasants in Germany who organized a revolt in 1524.
In Switzerland, the Reformation started in 1519 under the stewardship of Ulrich Zwingli whose sermons paralleled those of Luther (Iordache 77). John Calvin, a French reformer, also contributed significantly to the rise of Protestantism in Switzerland (Iordache 72). In 1541, reformers in Switzerland allowed Calvin to settle and establish the reformed doctrine in Geneva. Calvin’s doctrine attracted several Protestants who had escaped the Roman Catholic. Also, the belief spread in other European territories, including France and Scotland.
In England, reformation began with Henry III’s power struggle against Pope Clement VII. In the 1530s, the pope refused to authorize Henry III’s request to remarry, and as a result, Henry declared himself as the final authority of matters of the church. He also dissolved monasteries, confiscated their wealth and established several mechanisms to place the Bible under people. From 1536, Henry required every parish to own a Bible. After the death of Henry, English Christians adopted Calvinist-induced Protestantism during the reign of Edward VI. Reactionary Catholicism dominated religious matters in the era of Mary I. However, when Elizabeth I took the throne in 1559; she recognized the Church of England as the median of Catholicism and Calvinism.
Initially, the Catholic Church did not respond immediately to the negative publicity. The Council of Trent that began meetings in 1545 organized how the church would address the root causes of the Reformation (Lundskow 196). In the era, Catholics became more spiritual. In Spain and Rome, Catholic leaders reorganized inquisitions to counter the protestant threat. In spite of the counter-reformation, the radical reformation emerged in Germany and Switzerland and led to the establishment of Protestant churches across Europe. In General, progressive reformers emphasized the teachings of the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, economic sharing, and communalism amongst other aspects.
The Great Schism
The great schism also involved religious differences that led to the break of communion between western and eastern Mediterranean Christians. Historians are yet to agree on the exact date of the schism, but many believe it occurred in 1054 after intense theological, cultural and political pressures (Streeter 162). Since the turn of the 700s, western and eastern Roman empires exhibited significant religious differences. Byzantine iconoclasm was one source of that disagreement. Emperor Leo III who had established the use of images in representing Christ and other Christianity symbols attempted unsuccessfully to force Pope Gregory III to embrace iconoclasm. Leo confiscated affiliated estates and kept them under Constantinople. Although the church unity remained, tensions between the east and the west rose sharply. In 1053, rulers forced Greek churches in some Italian regions to close or comply with Latin practices. In response, Michael I Cerularious of Constantinople closed all Latin churches, which operated in the regime. Relations between churches in Rome and Constantinople reached the terminal crisis in 1054 CE. Sometime in the year, Leo IX sent a papal legate to make Constantinople acknowledge the pope as the head of all churches and strengthen the use of unleavened bread. However, Cerularious refused the demands and, thus, prompted papal delegates to excommunicate him. Cerularious also excommunicated some legates resulting in the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.
Popes of the Medieval Period
Medieval popes ruled the Catholic Church by establishing mechanisms to prevent chaotic situations. In retrospect, some popes did not lead a holy life and were often causes of church conflicts. For example, Pope Alexander VI had sired several children and participated in corruption scandals (O’Reilly 289). Besides, popes of middle ages conflicted occasionally with rulers over the ruling of early societies. For instance, Pope Gregory VII battled Emperor Henry IV over the consecration of bishops. Despite being the source of chaos, popes were a balance of power as they helped societies to keep kings in check.
Medieval Religious Festivals
Changes in seasons had a significant influence in the lives of people of the medieval period. Almost every month, people of the middle ages had religious ceremonies to commemorate essential events of faith. In January, people enjoyed the 12th night festival; in which case, they remembered the wise men during the birth of Jesus. In February, the medieval people celebrated love through pairing games, singing, and dancing. In March, they celebrated the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. There was also a fool’s day in April characterized by jokes and jests. In May, people had the May Day on which villagers chose a queen. June festivals included Midsummer Eve and the Summer Solstice. In July, medieval people celebrated St. Swithin’s Day on 15th (Diehl & Donnelly 15). August had a Lammas Day in which people celebrated the wheat harvest. Every other month had a festival. In December, people had the Christmas day.
Medieval monks followed the Benedictine rule that appeared in 529 AD. Their categories included the Benedictine, Cistercian, and Carthusian amongst others. Medieval monks shaped their hair, but left a narrow strip to indicate a clerical status. Notably, any individual could become a monk during the middle ages. Before becoming a monk, a candidate vowed to remain obedient. The individual also underwent two-year training and remained a monk for the entire life. These monks depicted strict discipline, including adhering to laws for not owning property or receiving letters from relatives, consulting issues with abbots, and sleeping early. Failure to conform to the rules, monks risked being excluded from common prayers, admonitions, and expulsion in the worst cases. In the medieval period, people became monks for different reasons, including devoting their lives to God, securing retreat, escaping violence in the world, and leading a peaceful life. However, medieval monks were not obedient always. Rules for sexual abstinence resulted in some immoral behaviors. In many instances, monks used their power of the absolution of sins to gain sexual satisfaction from women. Nuns operated under similar conditions.
In many parts of Europe, Christianity was a minority religion before it spread to higher middle ages. In contrast, many people of the early middle ages believed in polytheism. Polytheists believed in more than one god. For instance, they could have faith in both their ancestors and natural features. Some of the medieval period believers worshipped on high grounds as they believed doing so connected societies with gods. Anglo-Saxons are typical examples of pagans who existed in the medieval period. Therefore, different tribes of the middle ages had sacred places in which members worshipped their gods. Ancient people also believed that gods resided in trees, wells, grooves, and some stones and, thus, they established worshipping sites around those features. In medieval England, Anglo-Saxon pagans practiced animal sacrifice.
Pagans of the time could eat the sacrificed animals or buried their carcasses as part of the ritual. Where pagans chose to bury animal bodies, they included flat stones and placed Roman-era tiles on top. There is also some possibility that Anglo-Saxon pagans used slaves, criminals, and prisoners of war for human sacrifice, especially during crises such as epidemics, famine or attacks. Notably, human sacrifice encompassed the burying or hanging of designated individuals. Archaeologists found the corpse of a woman at Sewerby, indicating she had been buried alive. Priests in the pre-Christianity period operated at higher ranks as they oversaw the imposition of physical punishment and the resolution of conflicts within and outside tribes.
Additionally, Anglo-Saxon pagans either cremated or buried their dead people. In burials, they placed the body of the deceased with the head facing west. Also, pagans buried their men with seax, spear or sword. In cases where these ancient people used a shared cemetery, they placed female bodies on top of those of males. Perhaps, they attached some religious significance to those traditions. Pagans also had festivals such as Mother’s Night and a typical celebration for love in February. More importantly, the belief in witchcraft and magic was a common characteristic of paganism. Societies of the time believed that the gods had endowed some people with the power of causing spell or eliminating harm.
Although Islam was mainly dominant in the Middle East, it had some presence in Europe. Muslims of the middle ages believed the Quran was the only guiding framework for defining faith. Like is the case of Christianity, Islam formed a significant aspect of life in the Muslim world. Both Muslims and non-Muslims exhibited different traditions and experiences. Non-Muslims could only enjoy freedom after paying a special tax and conforming to the rules of Islam. However, even after the payment of the fee, non-Muslims did not enjoy social and legal privileges as Muslims did. Specifically, they faced restrictions in professions, the establishment of worship places, the manifestation of religious symbols in public and dressing. In addition to those restrictions, non-Muslims paid higher taxes compared to Muslims. Also, Muslim societies barred men from marrying non-Muslim women. However, the enforcement of the mentioned restrictions was inconsistent as it mostly prevailed if political or economic crises occurred.
Notably, the medieval period saw inter-religious conversion. Ideally, Muslims transferred Islam to Europe through trade, conquering new regions and arts. In particular, Seljuq rulers who reigned between 1040 and 1307 spread Islam to areas it had never existed. Seljuqs introduced Islam to modern-day Turkey and established madrasas in Iran. The fall of the Roman Empire created the opportunity for Islam to flourish in some parts of Europe. Ideally, the Roman Empire had covered the whole of Peninsula implying that its fall left some regions vulnerable to foreign encroachment. In 700s, Muslim rulers conquered much of what is now Spain and Portugal introducing Islam in those regions (Connah 94). At the same time, the interaction of traders and artists from the Muslim world and Europe led to some Christians converting to Islam. These Christians converted to avoid high taxation, for sincere faith and to gain political recognition and status. Also, Christianity spread to some Muslim regions like Central Asia. Within Islam, there were also some religious differences. In the Fatimid Dynasty, Shia was the favorable doctrine, but the Sunni Abbasids persecuted its proponents. Within Sunni, believers preferred specific spiritual approaches depending on the preferences of rulers. In the reign of the seventh caliphate, scholars received punishment if they failed religious tests.
Crusades were religious wars between Christians and Muslims in which believers of the two religions intended to recover sites considered sacred (Riley-Smith 1). In the 11th century, Western Europe had prospered significantly, but it trailed Byzantine and Islamic empires. However, Byzantine lost a part of its territory to Seljuk Turks. In the century, Christians from the West and East joined efforts to recover the holy land from the Muslim control. Both military elite and ordinary citizens endorsed the call and formed pilgrimage groups that wore crosses to symbolize the church. Led by Saint-Gilles’ Raymond, the first crusade occurred between 1096 and 1102 (Riley-Smith 1). In June 1997, crusaders captured the Seljuk capital of Anatolia. By the end of the first crusade, crusaders had captured Jerusalem.
The second crusade occurred from 1147 to 1149, and involved crusaders who established settlements in conquered cities like Jerusalem, Edessa, and Antioch. The Crusaders controlled these cities until the rise of jihadism or the holy war in 1130. Jihadists succeeded in recapturing Edessa and prompted Christians in Europe to organize another crusade. In 1192, a treaty that established the kingdom of Jerusalem ended the campaign. Disagreements within the Christianity fraternity forced crusaders to topple Constantinople through bloody conquest, near-destruction of Byzantine capital and looting. In crusades that took place between 1208 and 1271, crusaders did not focus on Muslim forces exclusively, but they also attacked all those perceived as enemies of Christianity. However, the movement never attained its goal of securing the holy land. In the fifth crusade, Christians who had attacked Egypt from both sea and land surrendered to Muslim defenders.
After the barbaric attacks, the Eastern Roman Empire passed legislation to restrict unbelievers and make their existence a difficult one. As a consequence, Jews lost both personal and religious freedom (Kaplan 78). Several conflicts that Christianity faced also had devastating effects on Jews. In iconoclasm, particularly Jews faced persecution that forced them to flee to neighboring territories. However, the Western Roman Empire did not restrict Judaism until the 9th century when Christian rulers established laws to unite humanity. They mainly adopted every mechanism that could separate Jews from Christians, including forbidding inter tribal marriages. Following those troubles, the conversion of Jews to Christianity was a common practice in the medieval period.
Notably, Jews converted after being forced due to religious, intellectual and economic reasons. The voluntary conversion also happened due to the desire for intertribal marriage, to escape restrictions or a real change of belief. By the 10th century, Christian rulers had established laws to shield Christians from paying interests. Therefore, the only option that societies could accumulate revenue was by charging Jews and other non-Christians. In the 1100s, however, states developed the constitution for Jews, which would alter issues of Judaism in middle ages and beyond. The law forbade Christians from converting or harming Jews, taking their property, cemeteries or right to organize celebrations. In spite of new hope, Christians continued persecuting Jews. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 required Jews to comply with some dressing codes and avoid marrying Christians. In the 13th century, King Henry III ordered Jews in Synagogues to achieve some level of silence to prevent manipulating Christians. Also, the king ordered the Jews to avoid employing Christians. As a result, most Jews sought refuge in Germany.
The primary characteristic of the medieval period religion was the struggle for the survival of religious sects. Christianity was the official state religion for a better part of the middle ages. For Christianity, differences in norms that the church adopted resulted in the splitting of the church into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic. Christianity was also at a perpetual conflict with paganism, Islam, and Judaism. Anglo-Saxon pagans particularly persecuted Christians before many of them converted. Besides, Christians engaged in a series of wars against Muslims deemed to recover the holy land. At the same time, Christians persecuted Jews and forced some of them to escape to Germany.