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Middle Ages Main Page 


page 2

Political Organization In The Early Middle Ages


page 3

The Church In The Early Middle Ages


page 4

Conclusion to Pages 1, 2 & 3


page 5

The Making Of Modern Britain

page 6

Beginnings of the French Nation

page 7

Re-conquest of Spain

page 8

Government in Germany & Italy

page 9

The Crusades

page 10

The Rise of Trade and Towns

page 11

The Church in the Middle Ages I

page 12

The Church in the Middle Ages II

page 13

The Intellectual Synthesis Of The High Middle Ages

page 14



Additional Topics

Dancing In The Middle Ages

Castle Life

Cultural Expression

Dynamics of the Middle Ages

Influences of Christianity

Monks and Monasticism

Monetary System

Peasant's Life

The Rise of Towns


The Middle Ages

Date:      1992

The Church In The Early Middle Ages


The Church In The Early Middle Ages


     As Europe gradually emerged from the destruction of the Roman Empire, the

church became one of the mainstays of civilization. During the pontificate of

Gregory I the Great (590-604), the medieval papacy began to assert its

authority. Gregory's achievement was to go beyond the claim of papal primacy

in the church by beginning to establish the temporal power of the papacy.


Gregory the Great and the Early Medieval Papacy, 600-1000


     A Roman aristocrat by birth, Gregory witnessed and commented on the

devastation of Rome as the city changed hands three times during Justinian's

long struggle to retake Italy from the Ostrogoths:


          Ruins on ruins .... Where is the senate? Where the people?

          All the pomp of secular dignities has been destroyed ....

          And we, the few that we are who remain, every day we are

          menaced by scourges and innumerable trials. ^5


[Footnote 5: Quoted in R. H. C. Davis, A History of Medieval Europe: From

Constantine to Saint Louis (London: Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd., 1957), p.



Concluding that the world was coming to an end, Gregory withdrew from it to

become a Benedictine monk. In 579 the pope convinced him to undertake a

fruitless mission seeking Byzantine aid against the Lombards, who had invaded

Italy a few years before. After Gregory was elected pope in 590, he assumed

the task of protecting Rome and its surrounding territory from the Lombard

threat. Thus Gregory was the first pope to act as temporal ruler of a part of

what later became the Papal States.


     Gregory the Great also laid the foundation for the elaborate papal

machinery of church government. He took the first step toward papal control of

the church outside of Italy by sending a mission of Benedictine monks to

convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. The pattern of church government Gregory

established in England - bishops supervised by archbishops, and archbishops by

the pope - became standard in the church.


     The task of establishing papal control of the church and extending the

pope's temporal authority was continued by Gregory's successors. In the eighth

century, English missionaries transferred to Germany and France the pattern of

papal government they had known in England; and the Donation of Pepin, by

creating the Papal States, greatly increased the pope's temporal power. The

papacy's spiritual and temporal power was restrained, however, with the onset

of feudalism. Beginning in the late ninth century, the church, including the

papacy, fell more and more under the control of secular lords and kings.


Missionary Activities of the Church


     The early Middle Ages was a period of widespread missionary activity. By

spreading Christianity, missionaries aided in the fusion of Germanic and

classical cultures. Monasteries served as havens for those seeking a

contemplative life, as repositories of learning for scholars, and often as

progressive farming centers. The zeal with which the monks approached their

faith often extended beyond the monastic walls.


     One of the earliest Christian missionaries to the Germans was Ulfilas (c.

311-383), who spent forty years among the Visigoths and translated most of the

Bible into Gothic. Ulfilas and other early missionaries were followers of

Arius, and so the Arian form of Christianity was adopted by all the Germanic

tribes in the empire except the Franks and Anglo-Saxons. As we saw earlier,

the Franks' adoption of Roman Catholicism produced an important alliance

between Frankish rulers and the papacy.


     Another great missionary, Patrick, was born in England about 389 and

later fled to Ireland to escape the Anglo-Saxon invaders. As a result of his

missionary activities in Ireland, monasteries were founded and Christianity

became the dominant religion. In the late sixth and seventh centuries a large

number of monks from the Irish monasteries went to Scotland, northern England,

the kingdom of the Franks, and even to Italy. The Irish monks eagerly pursued

scholarship, and their monasteries became storehouses for priceless



     When Gregory the Great became pope, the papacy joined forces with

monasticism to take an active role in the missionary movement. Gregory sent a

Benedictine mission to England in 596. Starting in Kent, where an

archbishopric was founded at Canterbury ("Kent town"), Roman Christianity

spread through England, and finally even the Irish church founded by St.

Patrick acknowledged the primacy of Rome.


     The English church, in turn, played an important part in the expansion of

Roman-controlled Christianity on the Continent. Boniface, the greatest

missionary from England in the eighth century, spent thirty-five years among

the Germanic tribes. Known as "the Apostle to the Germans," he established

several important monasteries, bishoprics, and an archbishopric at Mainz

before he turned to the task of reforming the church in France. There he

revitalized the monasteries, organized a system of local parishes to bring

Christianity to the countryside, and probably was instrumental in forming the

alliance beween the papacy and the Carolingian house. Roman Catholic

missionaries also worked among the Scandinavians and the western Slavs.


The Preservation of Knowledge


     One of the great contributions of the monasteries was the preservation of

the learning of the classical world and that of the church. Learning did not

entirely die out in western Europe, of course. Seeing that the ability to read

Greek was quickly disappearing, the sixth-century Roman scholar Boethius, an

administrator under the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, determined to preserve

Greek learning by translating all of Plato and Aristotle into Latin. Only

Aristotle's treatises on logic were translated, and these remained the sole

works of that philosopher available in the West until the twelfth century.

Unjustly accused of treachery by Theodoric, Boethius was thrown into prison,

where he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting execution. This

little work later became a medieval textbook on philosophy.


     Cassiodorus, a contemporary of Boethius who had also served Theodoric,

devoted most of his life to the collection and preservation of classical

knowledge. By encouraging the monks to copy valuable manuscripts, he was

instrumental in making the monasteries centers of learning. Following his

example, many monasteries established scriptoria, departments concerned

exclusively with copying manuscripts.


     During the early Middle Ages most education took place in the

monasteries. In the late sixth and seventh centuries, when the effects of the

barbarian invasions were still being felt on the Continent, Irish monasteries

provided a safe haven for learning. There men studied Greek and Latin, copied

and preserved manuscripts, and in illuminating them produced masterpieces of

art. The Book of Kells is a surviving example of their skill.


     An outstanding scholar of the early Middle Ages, the Venerable Bede (d.

735), followed the Irish tradition of learning in a northern English

monastery. Bede described himself as "ever taking delight in learning,

teaching, and writing." His many writings, which included textbooks and

commentaries on the Scriptures, summed up most knowledge available in his age.

Through Alcuin later in the century, Bede's learning influenced the

Carolingian Renaissance. Bede's best work, the Ecclesiastical History of the

English People, with its many original documents and vivid character sketches,

is our chief source for early British history.


d profited from certain

monopolies. He operated the only grain mill, oven for baking bread, and wine

and cider press on the manor, and he collected a toll each time these services

were needed.


The Life of the Peasants


     On the manors of the Middle Ages the margin between starvation and

survival was narrow, and the life of the peasant was not easy. Famines were

common; warfare was a consant threat; grasshoppers, locusts, caterpillars, and

rats repeatedly destroyed the crops. Men and women alike had to toil long

hours in the fields. A medieval poem vividly describes the life of a peasant



     I saw a poor man o'er the plough bending ...

     All befouled with mud, as he the plough

          followed ....

     His wife walked by him with a long goad, ...

     Barefoot on the bare ice, so that the blood


     And at the field's end lay a little bowl,

     And therein lay a little child wrapped in rags,

     And twain of two years old upon another side;

     And all of them sang a song that sorrow was

          to hear,

     They cried all a cry, a sorrowful note,

     And the poor man sighed sore, and said

     "Children, be still." ^4


[Footnote 4: Quoted in E. M. Hulme, History of the British People (New York:

Century Co., 1929), pp. 121-122.]


     The difficulties of peasant life were reflected in the home, a cottage

with mud walls, clay floor, and thatched roof. The fire burned on a flat

heartstone in the middle of the floor; and unless the peasant was rich enough

to afford a chimney, the smoke escaped through a hole in the roof. The windows

had no glass and were stuffed with straw in the winter. Furnishings were

meager, consisting usually of a table, a kneading trough for dough, a

cupboard, and a bed, often either a heap of straw or a box filled with straw,

which served the entire family. Pigs and chickens wandered about the cottage

continually, while the stable was frequently under the same roof, next to the

family quarters.


     The peasants, despite their hard, monotonous life, enjoyed a few

pleasures. Wrestling was exceedingly popular, as were cockfighting, a crude

type of football, and fighting with quarter-staves, in which the contestants

stood an excellent chance of getting their heads bashed in. Around the porch

of the parish church the peasants often congregated to dance and sing on the

numerous holy days. The church preached in vain against "ballads and dancings

and evil and wanton songs and such-like lures of the Devil." The peasants

refused to give up these amusements, a small enough compensation for the

constant exploitation they suffered.




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