In the 1100s, Hildegard of Bingen served as abbess, heading her own convent. She composed religious music, wrote scholarly books, and had visions of the future. As reports of her prophecies spread, popes and rulers sought her advice.

By the late Middle Ages, the Church had begun to restrict the activities of nuns. The Church withdrew rights nuns had once had, such as to hear confessions. It frowned on too much learning for women, preferring them to accept Church authority.

The Growth of Church Power

During the Middle Ages, the Church became the most powerful institution in Western Europe. The Church not only controlled the spiritual life of Christians but also exercised enormous influence over secular, or nonreligious, affairs.

Man in papal robes and accessories seated on a throne with his foot resting on a pillow and two fingers of his right hand raised.

This illustration of Pope Sylvester II, who reigned from 999 to 1003, shows the power and pomp of medieval European popes.

A Spiritual and Worldly Empire

During the Middle Ages, the Christian Church split into eastern and western churches. The western church, headed by the pope in Rome, became known as the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church grew stronger and wealthier during the Middle Ages.

The pope was the spiritual leader of Roman Catholic Christians but also ruled vast lands in central Italy, later called the Papal States. As the spiritual heir and representative of Christ on Earth, according to Church teachings, the medieval pope eventually claimed papal supremacy, or authority over all secular rulers.

The pope headed an army of clergy who not only supervised church activities but also influenced political affairs. The high clergy, such as bishops and archbishops, were usually nobles. Like other feudal lords, they had their own territories and armies. Since they were often well educated, feudal rulers appointed them to administer their own governments.

Church officials were closely linked to secular rulers. Churchmen were often highly educated, so feudal rulers appointed them to government positions. In addition, Church officials were often relatives of secular rulers.

Church Law and Authority

The Church had complete power over spiritual matters and determined who could receive the sacraments. Without the sacraments, Christians believed that they faced everlasting suffering after death. The Church also developed its own body of laws, known as canon law, and had its own courts. Canon law was based on religious teachings and governed many aspects of life, from the behavior of the clergy to morals, marriages, and wills.

Anyone who disobeyed Church law faced a range of penalties. The most severe and terrifying penalty was excommunication. People who were excommunicated were cut off from the Church and its sacraments.

A powerful noble who opposed the Church could face the interdict, an order excluding an entire town, region, or kingdom from receiving most sacraments and Christian burial. Even the strongest ruler was likely to give in rather than face the interdict, which might cause revolts by the people under his rule.

Working for Peace

By about 1000, the Church had begun to use its authority to limit feudal warfare. It tried to enforce periods of peace known as the Truce of God. It demanded that fighting stop between Fridays and Sundays and on religious holidays. Such efforts may have contributed to the gradual decline in private feudal wars that had raged in Europe for centuries.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments