Power,corruption and salvation in early modern europe
Power, Corruption and Salvation in Early Modern EuropeThe role of the Church in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was paramount to societallife. Religion was included in every aspect of everyday living and the power executed bythe Church over the people extended to almost every aspect of daily life. The ideologiesof the Catholic doctrine were not only imposed on the people by the political leaders, butalso by the inability for the people to challenge those in power, due to educational andeconomic disadvantages. The Church controlled much of the wealth during this earlyperiod exercised that control through taxes, land leasing and business developments. Itwas the relative power that was related to the Church and associated belief in God thatcreated a society hinged on religious beliefs. This essay will outline the power of theChurch in early modern Europe, and the way religious practices and beliefs weresignificant to the members of society at that time. It will also highlight the role of thesacraments in ordering life and the importance of ‘pilgrimage’ as a method for obtainingfavour with both the Church and society.The rituals of religion gave the people a direction. In a society that was so segregated ona class level, religion gave the masses a hope for a better eternity than what they wereexperiencing on earth or more importantly, a way to stay out of Hell 1. The socialsignificance of Christian beliefs also gave those in power a way to control the people, andbrought the community together at a layman’s level. The religious nature of societydictated the participation in a series of rites and rituals to ensure the attainment of one’splace in heaven and one’s acceptance in the community. These rituals, sacraments, were1 Norman Habel, Michael O’Donoghue and Marion Maddox. Myth, Ritual and the Sacred. (Adelaide: Textsin Humanities, 1993) p. 55-70.
essential markers of one’s devotion to their faith, their country and their allegiance toGod, they structured the everyday life of the people, not only on a daily level, but alsoacross their lifespan2.Life in early modern Europe was completely intertwined with religion 3. The power heldby the Catholic Church had the effect of a monopoly on how people lived their dailylives4. The desire for redemption was pressing and the obtainment of eternal life was adeep focus for early citizens. This desire for connection to God was enhanced by thewealth of the church and the ability for those in the Church to exercise control over land,money, taxes and the law. The influence of the church extended not only to the realm ofthe spirit but also to the reality of life which included the daily economic functioning ofcommunities5. The culture of early modern Europe deemed it socially desired to have abelief in God and a relationship with the Church. Those who were seen as devout werepraised as upstanding members of the community, while those who expressed less thanavid interest were socially ostracized, an event which in a community so dependent onthe exchange of goods and services, was devastating.All aspects of religious faith, beliefs and behaviour were totally controlled and dictatedby the Church. Those in power determined that people must have a relationship with Godto be socially acceptable. To this end, all people had no choice but to enter into a2 Ibid…p71-80.3 Nicholas, Baker, Lecture 5: Sanctifying the World, Lecture accessed from Macquarie University, HST150– Study materials: Resource MP3, 2010.4 John Merriman. A History of Modern Europe: From Renaissance to the Present,2 nd Ed., (New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 2004), p.6.5 Ibid.., p.6-7.
relationship with the Church.6 As the majority of citizens in the early modern period wereilliterate the only method of learning about God and His rules and expectations for lifewas to attend Church.7 The irony of this was that even though in attendance, the peoplestill could not understand the teachings as the sermons were conducted in Latin, as wasall other religious texts.8 This fact empowered the Church by allowing them to controlthe access and dispersion religious information to whoever was deemed worthy of it andwithhold information from those considered unworthy. 9 It also allowed the Church todeliver messages in whichever context they wished, mostly in ways which benefited theinstitution. Part of these benefits was in terms of real estate. Churches generally ownedlarge estates, considerable tracts of land and assets and were entitled to payment oftaxation from citizens because of the important position they held within society 10.Individuals did not have access to spiritual information without the church acting as aninterpreter and questioning the motives and functions of the Church was expressivelyforbidden.11In order to maintain their position of power the Church institution established establisheda set of standardized rituals that all Christians were expected to participate in if they wereto please God, and achieve eternal life. 12 Perhaps the most common ritual was the Mass,a weekly joining of the members of the community presided over by a priest or other6 Ibid., p.77 Phyllis Mack & Margaret Jacob, Politics and Culture in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 1987) , p.232, 253.8 Baker, Lecture 5: Sanctifying the World, Lecture accessed from Macquarie University, HST150 – Studymaterials: Resource MP3, 2010.9 Mary, Mitchell & Frances, Young. The Cambridge History of Christianity. (Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press, 2006), p.50.10 Mack & Jacob, Politics and Culture in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 1987), p.158-160.11 Peter Rietbergen,. Europe: A Cultural History, 2nd Ed., (London: Routledge, 2006). p.172-175.12 Ibid., p.172
member of the clergy. 13 The clergy conducted the ceremonies speaking only in Latinwith the parishioners responding with well-established and memorised responses. 14 Therole of the mass can be viewed as not just spiritual but also serving to bring people withina community closer together under the benevolent guidance of the hierarchy of theChurch. Those who did not attend services or did not agree with the Church’s beliefs ranthe risk of being excommunicated. Being excommunicated had the effect of sociallyisolating a person from their community and fellow citizens. 15 To be disconnected orshunned by other members in the community was devastating for those in the fourteenthand fifteenth centuries as a strong community standing was essential to obtaining aprosperous existence. Excommunication could bring poverty, isolation or even death.In addition to weekly attendance at Mass, the Church mandated that all people mustparticipate in the life rituals known as the seven sacraments. 16 The seven sacraments arebaptism, confirmation, marriage and extreme unction. These four sacraments are onlyoffered once in a lifetime.17 Penance and/or confession and communion were to be takenonce per year. For those who chose the path of priesthood was the last sacrament,ordination.18 These sacraments provided social cohesion in the life of people withincommunities.13 John Bossy. “The Mass as a Social Institution 1200-1700”, Past and Present, no. 100, (1983), pp. 30.14 Ibid., p.32.15 Mitchell & Young. The Cambridge History of Christianity. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2006) , p.70.16 R. Scribner. “Ritual and Reformation’, Popular Culture and Popular Movements in ReformationGermany, (London & Ronceverte, WV, 1987), pp. 106.17 Mitchell & Young. The Cambridge History of Christianity. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2006) p.25.18 Ibid. 26.
Almost from birth people were introduced to religious rituals. Not long after birthChristian babies are claimed by the church in the ritual of baptism. The ritual of baptismalso provided a social cohesive role19. The parents of the child to be baptized wouldchoose a god parent or parents for the child; when making a chose it was common tochoose someone that conducted business with or wished to form a business relationship.To be given the role of god-parent was a position of honour and trust within earlyEuropean families. Religious ritual was often used as a tool to enhance business andpolitical advantage and choosing god-parents on this association was a commonpractice.20The second sacrament is Confirmation and is the second in the rituals of Christianinitiation. In this ceremony one confirms their baptismal grace and must be completedbefore one participates in the sacrament of Eucharist, or the accepting of communion.These three initiation rites are essential to the foundations of Catholic life, as withoutthese initiations, one cannot receive penance, and so risks eternal damnation. 21The sacrament of Matrimony that today is seen as two people uniting in a common bondof love was not viewed in the same way in medieval times 22. During the 14th and 15th19 Mitchel & Young. The Cambridge History of Christianity. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2006), pp.160–161.20 Trexler, Richard. “The Florentine Religious Experience: The Sacred Image”. Studies in theRenaissance no. 19, (1972) p.9.21 Habel, 0’Donoghue and Maddox. Myth, Ritual and the Sacred.(Texts in Humanities, 1993). Pp. 71-80.22 Rietbergen,. Europe: A Cultural History, 2nd Ed., (London: Routledge, 2006). p.178-79.
centuries in Europe wealthy nobles would marry for a variety of reasons 23. Some of thesereasons were to create and maintain a peace after a war with an enemy, for financial gainby the gift of a large dowry or for social advancement. In regards to the lower classes,marriage often provided a sense of social stability or even advancement24.Even when someone was unable to attend church there were circumstances that thesacrament would be conferred upon them. One such circumstance is when a member ofthe Christian faith is in danger of dying25. This sacrament is referred to as extremeunction. This sacrament can only be administered by a priest or bishop as it involves thefinal chance for a person to be forgiven of all earthly sins. This sacrament also provideda Christian with the necessary social preparation near the end of their life and was a verypublic event with family members, friends and neighbours often in attendance to attest toits deliverance26. Death was not supposed to be a solitary event but instead was a treatedas public spectacle that involved the whole town 27. The correct administering of thesacraments was not only spiritual of significance but also social importance.One sacrament that was delivered more that once in a person life was Penance orreconciliation. This involves reconciliation with God after sin has been committed 28.23 Wrigley, E.A. & Schofield, R.S. “The population history of England 1541-1871: A review symposium”Social History, no. 8:2, (1983), p.144.24 Ibid., p177-8.25 Mitchel & Young. The Cambridge History of Christianity. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2006) pp. 195.26 Nicholas Baker. “Lecture 6: Death, Sin, and Salvation”, Lecture accessed from Macquarie University,HST150 – Study materials: Resource MP3, 2010.27 Ibid.28 Merry Wiesner-Hanks. Cambridge History of Europe: Early Modern Europe 1450-1789,
This reconciliation has four states. The first stage is contrition in which the penitentexpresses their sin and repentance for it. Secondly, the penitent must have confession toa priest as only a priest has the necessary power to conduct the sacrament and provideabsolution as the instrument of God in the earthly realm. Thirdly, the sinner wouldreceive absolution from the Priest which would then carry to the final stage of Penance 29.The Penance could take the effect of prayers, necessary actions to be carried out or insome circumstance a pilgrimage to fully absolve the sin. Through having the power toabsolve sin the Church dominated the lives of the people, and no-one challenged those inChurch power as they were seen as the executors of God’s will. This in itself causedmany problems with abuse of Church power.The importance of a pilgrimage for early Christians in terms of connecting with thesacred was not only a religious exclamation of faith but also a declaration of wealth,social standing or acceptance. Those in positions of wealth used pilgrimage as a way toincrease their standing in society and on the far end of this, those who were living inpoverty would use pilgrimage as a way to show their absolute dedication to God in thehope of winning His favour in life and in death30.A pilgrimage generally involves a lengthy journey to a shrine or place of great religioussignificance31. In the Christian faith, important destinations for pilgrimages were tolocation associated with the birth and death of Jesus Christ. The Holy Land provided(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). p.38029 Ibid. p.16.30 Habel, 0’Donoghue and Maddox. Myth, Ritual and the Sacred.(Texts in Humanities, 1993). Pp. 9131 Merry Wiesner-Hanks. Cambridge History of Europe: Early Modern Europe 1450-1789,(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). p.380.
many suitable locations for pilgrims to journey to such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem andNazareth and the Sea of Galilee 32. Also throughout Europe were many sites that wereassociated with saints and contained relics that would be suitable for a pilgrimage 33. Thecompletion of the long, arduous and often dangerous journey provided the pilgrim withthe necessary process of achieving penance34. Pilgrimage also held the important positionof connecting the community. Those on a pilgrimage together often formed close bondsthat remained in place even once they had returned to daily life. These strengthenedconnections served not only to solidify the bonds of community members, but also theirplace within the Church35.In conclusion, this essay has outlined the various religious beliefs and practice that wereimportant aspects of daily life in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Europe. In orderto solidify their power over the people, the economy and the law the Church formulated astandardized religious practice in which all good Christians were expected to participatein in order to remain in good favour with the community. These practices guided lifefrom birth to death by way of sacraments and were non-negotiable if one wanted toachieve a good standing. They empowered the Church as the sole deliverer of religiousguidance as well as served to form strong social bonds within the community, an32 Simon Coleman & John Elsner. Pilgrimage: Past and Present in the World Religions. (Cambridge: HarvardUniversity Press, 1995). p.20.33 Charles Zika. “Hosts, processions, pilgrimages: Controlling the sacred in fifteenth-century Germany”,Past and Present, no 118: February, (1988), p.49.34 Ibid., p.62-64.35 Habel, 0’Donoghue and Maddox. Myth, Ritual and the Sacred.(Texts in Humanities, 1993). Pp. 91
essential factor in the determination of worth and the acquisition of wealth on which dailyliving depended.
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