The Church and Religion

Religion was much more a central part of everyone's lives in the 14th century than today, or even a century ago. Not everyone was a believer, but most people were and those who were not found it convenient to keep their thoughts on religion to themselves. For as much as it was the Age of Faith, the Medieval period was also the time in which everyone was subject to church law, as well as civil law. Disagreeing with the church, or its representatives, could get you hauled before a clerical court, condemned, and executed. If you were lucky, you would just be killed. But if you had really offended the clergy, you would be torturned before you were put out of your misery. Church power in this area was not unlimited, and required cooperation from the civil authorities. But as the church and local governments often found their interests best served by joint action , there were frequent instances of irreligious individuals being condemned by church courts and executed by the lay authorities.

"Faith and Fear" were used by the church to keep people in line. While many of the clergy were serving God and man, many more were taking care of themselves and the nobility, using religion as a conveniet cover. The feudal lords who ruled Europe were well aware of the power the clergy had over nobles and commoners alike. An astute aristocrat cooperated with the church and shared the power the nobles and clergy exercised.

Cooperation between nobility and clergy was actually quite easy because much of the senior clergy were the younger sons (who didn't inherit) of noble families. Taking Holy Orders was a viable option for younger sons, especially if the lads were bookish to begin with and not especially keen on being married or having children. Being religious-minded was not a neccessity, as these young nobles were expected to use their family influence to move up the church hierarchy as quickly as possible, and take care of their kinsmen. It was not unusual for a feudal magnate to have brothers and cousins serving as local bishops and abbots. He might even have a sister presiding as an abbess. These church officials controlled great wealth, for in this period over a quarter of Europe's land was controlled by church institutions. Abbeys and monasteries grew rich from the rents and fees they charged their tenent farmers. In most cases, the church-held lands paid no taxes to the feudal overlord who otherwise controlled the region. Taxes could be raised, on a case by case basis, with the cooperation of the church leaders. Thus it becomes obvious why feudal rulers wanted to have kinsmen controlling church properties in their districts.

Most of the clergy were not of noble families, as the nobility were only a few percent of the population. Most nobles were unwilling to even go through the motions of being a priest. given the number of social restrictions placed on those who took Holy Orders. In theory, a priest had to be celibate. A low key life style was preferred and leading troops into battle frowned upon. There were noble clergy who lived luxurious lives, kept close company with women, and led troops into combat, and got away with it. But to become a senior cleric, it was neccessary to get along with all those smarter and more talented commoner clergy.

The church was always open to a bright young commoner who wanted to take Holy Orders. The church could be selective about whom they allowed into the clergy. Being a priest, brother, or nun was a cozy arrangement considering the hazards of the 14th Century life. You were fed, protected, and respected once you took Holy Orders. Best of all, when you died you had an inside track to eternal salvation. The commoner clergy had the numbers and the oppose well connected nobles in their ranks. The commoner clergy tended to be more devout, while the nobles who had taken Holy Orders were more inclined to think they were still lay aristocrats. This conflict eventually led to the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s. Even in the 14th century, there were rumblings among the devout clergy about the irreligious behavior of noble born bishops and abbots. The popes were increasingly distracted by luxury and wealth, to the detriment of their stature among the faithful.

The Episcopate


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