International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 11 March 2018  
Unit 1 - Lesson 6 - The Power and Importance of the Medieval Church
In 313 AD Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which accepted Christianity in the Roman Empire. Eventually it became the official religion. With the breakup of the Roman Empire, Christianity survived and through the work of missionaries and monks it began to spread north.

With the collapse of Roman cultural institutions,  monasteries became the most important centres of learning. The most important contribution by monks to medieval society, was as librarians and scribes. The whole of western learning was contained in the precious books (manuscripts) chained to libraries of European monasteries and meticulously copied by hand by monks in the scriptorium. Knowledge is power. Control over what can be known and control over what is worth knowing and what should be known, gave the church - via- the monks - enormous influence over the medieval world.

Miniature of Vincent of Beauvais writing in a manuscript of the 
Speculum Historiale
 in French, Bruges, c. 1478–1480, British Library (Enlarge)

Image result for Romainmôtier
Romainmôtier Priory in Vaud, is the oldest Christian site
in Switzerland. It was established by monks in the 5th century.

The idea of monasticism within Christianity had come from the Roman period when individual men went to desert areas in Egypt to lead a solitary life of meditation and fasting.  The word 'mon' from monk and monasticism, comes from the ancient Greek and means This idea gradually spread to Western Europe and monks there followed the rules established by St Benedict of Nursia who lived from 480 to 547.

Some monasteries were established next to cathedrals in large towns, others were built in wild, remote areas where the harsh landscape would mean that the monks had to work hard to become self-sufficient. These monks believed in isolation from the corrupt world, and total poverty, humility and obedience became central beliefs. Monks would leave society for work and study; there would be no time for entertainment or selfish actions. A peaceful, almost silent life would enable them to focus on serving God.


In the early Middle Ages, boys were sometimes given to monasteries at a young age, as a gesture of a family's faith. By the twelfth century joining a monastery was voluntary and, although boys as young as ten years old sometimes joined a monastery, they could leave before they took their holy vows if they did not want to stay. Boys aged 15 years or older, with a religious calling, would become trainee monks, called novices. They would help the other monks, sing in choir and study, being taught to read and write by older monks. They would be supervised by the Master of the Novices for at least a year. The master had to check that the novices were suitable for monastic life.

Taking their vows would mean that they pledged themselves to a life of poverty, obedience and humility, including chastity and a commitment to monastic life. They could not leave the monastery without the permission of the Abbott. When they took their vows, monks would be given a tonsure - their hair would be cut and shaved leaving only a circle, to represent the crown of thorns of Jesus. Young monks would then train to become fully-fledged 'choir monks' and would follow the rules of the monastery closely.

Related image

St Benedict's Rule

St Benedict's Rule gave all medieval monasteries their basic code of behaviour.

• clothing
• giving up personal possessions
• sleeping arrangements in dormitories
• vegetarian diet with descriptions of portions and types of food allowed
• the treatment of guests in guest houses
• the importance of caring for the sick in specially built infirmaries and silence in the monastery.

'Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, at given times the brethren ought to be occupied in manual labour, and again at other times in prayerful reading... A mattress, woollen blanket and pillow is enough for bedding. All monks should take it in turns to wait on each other so that no one is excused kitchen work.'

Extract from St Benedict's Rule.
St Benedict also wrote down the suggested structure of each day.

• Prime: service at dawn, or 6 am in summer.
• Wash in the cloister wash basins, then breakfast unless fasting.
• Terce: 9 am service including mass.
• Meeting in the chapter house or meeting room, to give out daily tasks, hear confession, issue punishments.
• Work (copying, in the kitchen, gardening, teaching, caring for the ill, in the guesthouse or on the farm).
• Sext: midday service including mass.
• Dinner then private reading, then work.
• None: 3 pm service followed by a short rest.
• Vespers: 4.30 pm service.
• Wash for supper.
• Compline: dusk/6 pm service.Bed until midnight.
• Matins/Lauds: midnight service.
• Sleep again until Prime.


The spread of monasticism

As monastic life became more popular in the religious age of the Middle Ages, the size, wealth and power of monasteries also grew. The original type of monastery was the Benedictine order, which included several independent abbeys. Some monasteries differed in their interpretation of St Benedict's Rule and new orders (types) of monastery were established. Many of these new orders wanted to reform monasticism because they felt that it had relaxed and moved away from its original austerity (strictness). For example, many monasteries included monks that were called 'lay brothers'; distinguished from 'choir monks', lay brothers did most of the manual chores around the monastery.

The first new order to challenge the Benedictine order was that of the Cluniacs, from Cluny in Burgundy, France. The Cluniacs were particularly important in Vaud with a series of monastic houses established around Lakes Neuchâtel and Geneva. The local village of Bursins had a Cluniac order from 1011 until the Reformation. Several other orders had developed by the thirteenth century, including the Cistercians, Carthusians, Franciscans and Dominicans (see table above). So many different orders existed that by 1215 the Pope resorted to banning any new orders; new monasteries had to adopt one of the existing orders.

Order Foundation    Aims 


Cluniac Cluny, France To lead a strict life and be more centralised in their organisation Became large and wealthy; criticised by the Cistercians for their elaborate buildings and rituals.
Cistercian Citeaux, France To lead a more holy life Included choir monks and lay brothers who were not educated but took vows and worked as labourers; undyed woollen habits gave them name of 'White Monks'.
Franciscan St Francis of Assisi To live in poverty Became the 'Friars'; they travelled the world preaching and begging for their food, totally rejecting any worldly possessions and wealth

Spanish priest Dominic de Guzman

To live in total poverty but as educated men Called 'Blackfriars'  because of their black woollen habits (robes)
Carthusian St Bruno of Grenoble To live a solitary life keeping strictly to vows Lived in individual cells and spent most time there praying and studying; most strict of all the orders
Activity 1

Read the text above and watch the film by Terry Jones, 'The paradox of monasticism' and then answer the following questions:

1. Monasteries contained libraries and scriptoria. Why was this important?
2. What were the basic principles of St Benedict's rule and why would men become monks?
3. In what ways did monastic orders become corrupted and why did new monastic orders appear?
4. What does Terry Jones mean by the 'paradox of monasticism'?


Power, authority and influence - How the medieval church controlled the people

The church and politics

As we have seen, in the middle ages, belief, religion, power and politics were closely interlinked. Rulers ruled and people obeyed, because that is what God wanted. Kings were appointed by God; they were kings by 'God's grace', who had a 'divine right' to rule. In return for this spiritual support, the kings protected the church. The most important direct power the church exercised over people came through the church (ecclesiastical) courts. Unlike the manorial and royal courts which dealt with more traditional crimes and punishments, ecclesiastical courts dealt with moral matters and what was socially unacceptable to the church. Ecclesiastical courts were also known as 'bawdy courts' because of the licentious nature of the content. Watch the following video to get an idea of the sort of cases ecclesiastical courts would hear.

The content of the court records can be very revealing about everyday life in medieval Europe. They might deal with any range of issues, ranging from marriage disputes and sexual misbehaviour, to land disputes and non-payment of tithes (see below). Although church courts could not sentence anyone to death, they could sentence someone to make penance - e.g. to go on a pilgrimage, to fast etc.  - or in most extreme cases, the court sentence someone to excommunication. Excommunication meant you would not be allowed to take communion anymore (see below).  If you were excommunicated  you would not go to Heaven after the Last Judgment and in addition you would be an outcast in society.  Even your parents and your children were not supposed to talk to you or let you in their house.

For more about the church courts see this BBC article.

The church and the economy

There were also strong economic ties between the church and the people. All land that did not already belong to the church was taxed for the benefit of the church. One tenth (a tithe) of everything produced on this land was given to the church. In addition, the church itself did not pay taxes on anything donated to it. People, who wanted a saint to produce a miracle, were expected to make an offering to the saint's church. As a consequence, the church became very rich. By the end of the middle ages, the church owned approximately one third of all the farmed land in Catholic Europe! 

The church and society

The church also strictly controlled people's everyday life.  Everyone belonged to their local parish. From managing the important civic ceremonies of birth, marriage and death, to organizing the festivals associated with Holy days, the church was responsible for all aspects of village social life.

Most importantly, the parishioner attended a weekly Sunday communion (Mass or Eucharist) and regularly told the priest all their most personal secrets (Confession). 

In 1215, Pope Innocent III, had decreed that all Christians must confess their sins at least once a year. Mass and Confession were part of the Seven Sacraments, seven ceremonies that the church controlled and which controlled in turn the lives of all Christians.


The Church and culture: the influence of the Church

Politically, economically and socially, the church exercised an all-embracing, 'Catholic' influence, but it was the cultural influence that was most important of all. Power was important, but the church's influence went beyond the physical control of people's lives. By controlling the minds of medieval men and women, by influencing how people explained what happened to them, the Church had no need to physically force people to do anything. 

Medieval people were fatalists. They believed that everything happened because God wanted it to happen. Nothing happened naturally, everything happened because of 'divine intervention' (God's actions). When good things happened, people were being rewarded by God and they thanked him. When bad things happened, they were being punished for doing something sinful. Medieval people were constantly on the lookout for signs or omens of God's moods. For the people of Paris, a red sky at night three times in a row was a sign of war; the appearance of Halley's Comet in 1066 was shown on the Bayeux Tapestry (right), as an omen or portent of great upheavals to come.
Image result for bayeux tapestry comet
Medieval Art

In a largely illiterate society, the most effective means of communication was necessarily visual. In addition, the church services were conducted in Latin, which whilst contributing to the awe inspiring, mysticism of the ritual, also meant that the church could not convey a message through the spoken word. Instead, to get its message across to the masses, the church relied on the visual arts.

The artistic canvas of the church was the physical space of the church itself. Through the sculptures on the building itself, walls covered with brightly coloured paintings and the magnificent stained-glass windows, the church told the stories it wanted the people to hear. The Bible was the source for many of the stories; the life of Jesus and the saints, the Fall (Adam and Eve) and Second coming of Jesus and final judgement of the apocalypse (see below).

The last judgement - The chapel at château de Chillon
The tympanum.

As you enter a church, above your head, is often a tympanum, a semi-circular or triangular surface covered with sculpture and images, between an arch above and lintel below.

The Tympanum - Lausanne Cathedral
Related image
The Tympanum - Moissac, France.
Stained glass windows

As a material stained glass is glass that has been coloured by adding metallic salts during its manufacture. The coloured glass is crafted into stained glass windows in which small pieces of glass are arranged to form patterns or pictures, held together (traditionally) by strips of lead and supported by a rigid frame.



Dooms paintings were used to remind medieval Christians of the afterlife and Judgment Day, and to help keep them aware of sin, by showing in graphic detail the dramatic difference between Heaven and Hell.

A Doom painting was usually sited at the front (Chancel end) of a church, often on the Chancel arch itself, so that it would be constantly in view of worshippers as they looked towards the priest during services. This was a very effective method of control of the illiterate mass who could not read the Latin Bible or understand the Latin the priest was preaching. An alternative way of conveying the message would be through a painted altarpiece that would be placed on or behind the altar.

Hans Memling's Last Judgement, c. late 1460s, National Museum, Gdańsk (Enlarge)


Image result for interpreting doom paintings
Chaldon doom painting in England. An interpretation
Paintings of the seven deadly sins were another common medieval art form. The seven deadly sins, also known as the capital vices or cardinal sins, is a grouping and classification of vices. According to the standard list, they are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Each of these vices had dedicated punishment awaiting the sinner in hell. Below is my favourite example from Albi, in the south of France. It is probably the biggest doom painting in the world. For help with the interpretation, have a look at this worksheet.

And one final artistic image of the Seven Deadly Sins, from the late Middle Ages attributed to Hieronymus Bosch

Activity 2

The medieval church controlled people politically, economically, socially and culturally. Using this template as a basis, complete an essay plan that provides a PEE structure to four paragraphs about the control of the medieval church.




About I Contact Richard Jones-Nerzic