By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had become supreme and as the Roman empire fell apart, the Church would play an increasing roll in the new emerging European civilization. Local Christian communities were called parishes. Each parish was led by priests and a group of parishes was headed by a bishop.
In many towns, faith was shown in another way, as people built magnificent cathedrals, monuments to glorify God. In the early 1100s, these huge churches used a new style of architecture called Gothic. This style of architecture is perhaps one of the greatest achievements during the Middle Ages. These buildings were tall, reaching toward heaven. They had walls covered with large windows of colorful stained glass, which let in beautiful light. They featured pointed archways and many sculptures.
Gargoyles were usually carved sculptures on a Gothic cathedral. Some had the specific function to direct rainwater off the building while others were grotesque creatures with the purpose of warding off evil spirits.
Eventually, the bishop of Rome began to proclaim he was the leader of all the parishes and the Roman Catholic Church. According to Catholics, Jesus gave the keys to the kingdom of Heaven over to Peter, the first apostle and also considered the first bishop of Rome. Later, the bishops were seen as Peter’s successor. They came to be known as Popes. (from the Latin word Papa or “father”.)
Pope Gregory I strengthened the papacy in and the Roman Catholic Church around the beginning of the 5th century. Under Pope Gregory, the Church becomes a secular (holds political power and influence) Popes organize the Christian faith much like a kingdom - Christendom The Church even starts to collect taxes (tithes) from all believers. Thesetaxes went to care for the sick and help the poor but also was used to raise armies.
During this time, the church also made it’s own body of laws known as canon law – or church law. Canon law oversaw many aspects of life including wills, marriage and morals. If you disobeyed canon law, you would face a wide range of penalties or punishments, the worst and most terrifying being excommunication. Church officials had the power to excommunicate which meant you were condemned to hell for eternity.
The Church and the Pope became so powerful during this time, it was said that he was the utmost authority in Europe, stronger than the most powerful kings. Why do you think the pope held such great power over kings?
Also under Pope Gregory I, the church is able to convert many non-Christians through the monastic movement. Monks are men who separate themselves from ordinary human society to pursue a life of total dedication to God. The practice of living as a monk is known as monasticism. St. Benedict founded a community and wrote a set of rules. These rules are the basis for monasticism in the Roman Catholic Church.
Monks would become the new heroes of Christianity and important force in European civilization. Monasteries were seen as ideal Christian societies. They would provide a moral example to live by for which society could model themselves after.
Monks are famously known for being brewers of beer. While beer was invented long before the monks, they were the first to truly brew it in mass and commercialize it. The Benedictine monastery of Weihenstephan Abbey in Germany is the oldest brewery in the world, founded in 1040 AD and still brewing today!
Monks were the social workers of their communities, provided schools for the young, hospitality for travelers and hospitals for the sick. They also taught carpentry and weaving to peasants and also made improvements in agriculture that would be passed on. Monasteries became centers of learning wherever they were located.
English and Irish monks were especially enthusiastic missionaries - people sent to carry out a religious message – who undertook the conversion of non-Christians. By 1050, most of Europe was Catholic.
The knot shaped pretzels that we enjoy today were actually creations of Medieval Monks. The monks would give them as a reward to children for remembering their prayers. (the word pretiola in Latin means “small reward”.) The shape represents the folded arms of the children during prayer.
Also during this time, new church groups arose such as the Franciscan and Dominican orders. Much like monks, men known as Friars vowed poverty and devoted their lives to travel and spreading the message of God. Many were very well educated and became scholars. Women also joined the spiritual revival by joining convents and becoming nuns.