[1.8] Influence of the Roman Catholic Church on Medieval Europe

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Hook Video

This video is about the “Spanish Inquisition”, which began around 1480 CE. Many other “inquisitions” occurred in Europe beginning in the early 12th century.

See if you can figure out how to define “inquisition” based on the video. (We will use and define this term later in the reading and images below.)

Yesterday we learned about the basics of life in medieval towns, focusing on health and legal systems. Today, we are going to investigate the great influence of the Roman Catholic Church on medieval Europe. The great western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 CE, yet the seat of the empire continued as a center of power through the continuance of the church.

The man wearing white with a gold cape is a Roman Catholic pope (the head of the worldwide church). What is being depicted in the scene? What does this painting say about the pope?

The church’s  influence extended to all areas of our “GPIES” categories. The church controlled a great amount of territory- they were the largest landholder in Europe by 1050 CE. The church expanded its landholdings by outlawing the selling of church property and barring priests from marriage (thus, priests wouldn’t have families to pass their property or wealth on to). The church was incredibly powerful as a political entity, governing their own church membership as well as influencing kings, emperors, and other political leaders. They maintained their political power through alliances with powerful rulers, and with the threat of excommunication from the church. Excommunication was a terrifying concept, because people believed they would be excluded from salvation and subject to the torments of hell in the afterlife. Anyone whose beliefs differed from the teachings the Roman church were called heretics, and a heresy is a what they called those different beliefs. The church oppressed heretics with inquisitions, which were investigations by church officials into the heresies. Heretics were often excommunicated, imprisoned, or tortured to death.

Medieval churches and clergy (the class of priests working for the church) had a profound impact on the economy of Europe in the middle ages. People of all social classes had to pay money to the church in various forms. Most people paid a “tithe”, which was a 10% tax on their total wealth. They also paid for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Church members readily coughed up these payments in order to avoid hell in the afterlife! With all its members and their payments to the church, funds were available to build incredible churches and cathedrals. Medieval cathedrals dominated the landscape of Europe, as they were exquisitely beautiful and gigantic structures.

Chartres Cathedral (Built between 1193 and 1250 in Chartres, France)

How would this structure affect the life of people who lived near it?

Imagine you are a French peasant from 1200 ce. You live in a cramped apartment. How would the interior of this cathedral make you feel about the Roman Catholic Church?

The Roman Catholic Church had incredible intellectual influence on medieval Europeans, as it was the center of daily life and thought. Church officials were highly educated, and the first universities were founded to educate and train the clergy. Few people outside of the church were literate or formally educated. Religious beliefs were used to explain everything in the natural world and outcomes of events. If it rained, God made it happen. If you won a battle, God was on your side. If you got sick and died, he wasn’t! Reason and science (as we know it) were at odds with the church’s teachings, until Thomas Aquinas (13th century CE) and other religious scholars began to think, write, and teach that theology and natural law can coexist in agreement with each other. Theology is the study of God and religious truth, and natural law is the idea that there is a universal order built into nature that guides moral thinking. Human rights, such as the right to live, travel freely, and defend yourself are all examples of “natural rights.” They weren’t given to you by anyone, you just have them because you’re alive!

St. Thomas Aquinas depicted (at center) in a 15th century painting

Analyze the painting. Who are the gentlemen around Aquinas? Why do you think their books are closed, while Aquinas’ is wide open? What does the glowing light on Aquinas’ book represent?

Click here to learn about Medieval Inquisitions

Identify the main idea of each paragraph, and write a main idea sentence for P1, P2, P3, P4, and P5


Click here to take a virtual tour of medieval cathedrals and architecture

From the linked website above, choose 3 different 3D panorama views to examine in 30 seconds or less. Then choose ONE of those three to analyze in detail.

For the one you choose, carefully study the structure and a write a perfect paragraph (minimum 5 sentences) to describe its appearance and visual impact on you as a visitor.

  • Describe the general appearance, and how it affects your thoughts and emotions when you view it.
  • Be sure to begin your paragraph with a topic sentence that encompasses your main idea!


*Extension Challenge*

Click here to read part 1 of St. Thomas Aquinas’ greatest work, Summa Theologica

SOAPSTone page 1-2,  up to “Article 2″. Take your time and think about what he is talking about as you read. Keep in mind the ideas of “theology” and “natural law”.




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