The Western Church in the Middle Ages

The early medieval church became a source of religious and political power. In 1000-1215 A.D. the economy of western Europe was expanding rapidly and the church took advantage of this opportunity to gain authority. The church was able to expand upon this growing economic power with great reformed minded popes who wanted to restore the papacy to the grandeur they believed it held in an ancient past and be a definite force in European Politics. They did this by means of coercion among the laity, by creating loyalty within the ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and by establishing a moral superiority over European kings. As they accomplished this the Popes were able to create a religious and political system that ruled over a large portion of the known world.

The expansion of western society meant the expansion of the western church. During the early medieval period the church and society were one. Neither could be changed without the other undergoing a similar transformation. The identification of the church with the whole of organized society is a fundamental feature which distinguishes the middle ages from earlier and future periods of history. At this time the western church had firmly established itself as separate from the Christian church in the east after the East-West Schism of 1054. So the church in western Europe was able to hone in on the changes that were happening within its own society, see the opportunity for growth, and establish authority.

In the beginning of the 11th century western Europe was undergoing a period of self-generated expansion. Road, rivers, and canals were improved. New farming methods were introduced. Markets and systems of credit became organized. These new improvements not only helped the economy, but the church. Since transportation improved the Pope was now able to have his messages transported and obeyed in a timely manner. This new ease of transportation allowed for the church to rule over a vaster empire. Western Europe was internally expanding in organization and population while externally expanding in territorial aggression and commercial enterprise. For the first time in history western Europe became an area of surplus, and in this surplus an active and bloodthirsty sense of superiority took the place of the fear and resentment towards the outside world which had characterized the earlier pre-medieval period. The church took hold of this mentality and the Popes used this urge for power and mastery of the world to their own gain.

Pope Leo IX was a great reformer in the Church and laid the ground work for future Popes to succeed. He created political alliances with many kingdoms in western Europe most notably the Normans. Because of his alliance with the Normans in the late 11th century, the duchy of Benevento was acquired in 1077 into the Papal states. He also reformed the papal administrative machinery and began a consistent plan of government through legates’ councils. This official setting provided legates with more than just a venue in which to operate, but a playing field over which they could exercise varying forces and degrees of papal authority. The creation of the legates’ councils firmly established the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and gave them power to act as the Popes representatives. In the middle of the 12th century the popes became increasingly aware of their own self-importance. The as the Popes official title, “Vicar of St. Peter,” was officially replaced with “Vicar of Christ.” It was a bold move for this new title demanded universal authority as it forever linked the Pope directly and, in some minds, equivalently with Christ. Because of this link, the pope, and he alone, would always remain a true Christian, never deviating from the faith and always cognizant of the will of God. Therefore, all Christians owed the Pope absolute and unquestioned obedience. Disobedience was regarded as heresy, as obedience to God became obedience to the papacy.

The papacy’s authority continued to grow until it reached its peak under Pope Innocent III. He was considered to be the most powerful man in Europe and had influence in the politics of Norway, France, Sweden, Bulgaria, Spain, and England. Innocent’s view of government was traditional and monarchic. He had a strong idea of what he thought the past signified and he believed governing meant the implementation of the aims of his predecessors as he understood them. He wanted to restore the papacy to the grandeur he and his forerunners believed it held in an ancient past, to do that he would continue their work and raise another crusade.

Innocent III was another of the reform minded popes which expanded the churches authority. He worked to reform the Roman Curia, a group of various Vatican bureaus that assist the pope in the day-to-day exercise of his primatial jurisdiction over the Roman Catholic church. Through these bureaus the papacy was able to expand its authority even further around the globe. Innocent III also reestablished and expanded the pope’s authority over the Papal States. He took advantage of the dispute between the Hohenstaufen and their rival Otto IV for the imperial crown to promote his own claims, and in 1201 Otto acknowledged the church’s right to the duchy of Spoleto.

The papal monarchy was a big monster, but it only had one tooth, the threat of excommunication in which lied eternal damnation. But for the average lay-people this was enough to inspire obedience. The church had woven itself so tightly into the fabric of society that the social pressure to adhere to church doctrine was important not only to your immortal soul but also for your position within society.  The church created rules and conditions for all of the main occasions of Christian life including baptism, conformation, confession, communion, penance, marriage, alms, the last rites, burials, and prayers for the dead. These occasions marked every major milestone in a person’s life, and were vital to the saving of their soul form eternal damnation. The church was not just a political and religious organization, but a social one as well. It was membership to the church that gave men a thoroughly intelligible purpose and place in Gods universe. Therefore, religious coercion was ultimately not within its control, it was the force of public opinion and wide spread dislocation of life which followed excommunication that inspired obedience, and the church used this to their advantage.

            Another factor that contributed to the Papacy’s ever-growing authority was the loyalty within the lower ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. The church banded together to protect their own priests, property, and interests. The Pope was their leader who oversaw their protection. In 1000-1215 A.D., the ecclesiastical hierarchy was by far the greatest gild or trade union of them all. The pope was outside of any government’s justice, and therefore, all of the clergy was as well. The Pope only answered to God. He did not bow to a king. The church was able to protect clerical goods from taxations and their priests from the court systems. The Pope was even noted to have used his influence to stop bishops form getting transferred to a city they disliked by the king. There was no check in power to the Popes influence. It was first to monasteries and then later to other religious orders that the Pope could grant the most extensive privileges, which kings could not interfere with under threat of excommunication. The papacy created massive systems of their own courts and penalties to enforce these rules and privileges upon foreign governments. It was this system of clerical protection that made even those at the bottom of ecclesiastical hierarchy loyal to the pope and not to a king and increased the churches authority over the secular world.

            As the western church gained authority the king was demoted from his position of quasi-sacerdotal splendor. Secular rulers lost their supernatural attributes awarded to them as Gods’ anointed as the clerical hierarchy asserted its claim to be the sole channel of supernatural authority. Pope Gregory VII was the first to test the power of his position and deposed a crowned ruler. Gregory VII and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Henry IV had a long disagreement about lay investiture with ultimately ended in Henry’s excommunication in 1077. He then had to do penance at Canossa to be reinstated into the church. This was a revolutionary act; Gregory IV translated his personal religious and mystical convictions regarding the role of the papacy into direct action in the world.

The Pope had assumed a new power of intervention and direction in both spiritual and secular affairs. The King still only bowed to God, but the Pope was God’s voice on earth. Therefore, the Pope had the last word on religious and secular political affairs. The church believed that the purpose of human government was to direct men into a single Christian path, with the end goal being that of peace and salvation. Now Kings had religious pressure from above and below. The Pope could excommunicate rulers who refused to obey their orders, and that not only put the king’s eternal soul in jeopardy, but the soul of their nation. In the early medieval age, there was nothing Kings could do but bend to the churches wishes. This gave the clergy a monopoly of all those disciplines which not only determined the theoretical structure of society but provided the instruments of government.

            At the beginning of the economic expansion the church ingrained itself among the peasants of western Europe so well that as the economy grew the church also grew. With reform minded Popes at the head, the church was able grow, increasing in authority until Kings required their blessing for activities in their religious, political, and personal lives. The growth of the papal monarchy, the creation of the religious orders, the systematic expansion of the range of understanding around them, all bore the imprint of a society which was expanding without yet being torn by great social upheaval and this allowed the church to flourish in authority without any checks on their power. Originally Pope Leo IX had wanted to restore the papacy to the grandeur he believed it held in an ancient past, but the papacy that he laid the groundwork for far exceeded the power of any imagined past. The popes gained authority religiously as people were pressured to convert, politically as they established dominance over kings, and physically as they expanded the papal states. The Pope was now the definite force in European Politics.


Robinson, I. S. The Papacy, 1073-1198: Continuity and Innovation. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Sayers, Jane Eleanor. Innocent III Leader of Europe 1198-1216. Longman, 1997.

Southern, R. W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Penguin Books, 1990.

Thomson, John A. F. The Western Church in the Middle Ages. Arnold, 1998.

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