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9-08-2015, 14:49

Religious institutions, ideas, and practices

Just as political structures ranged from supra-regional to local, so too did religious institutions. The Christian church in central and western Europe in 1450 was a hierarchy headed by the pope, who claimed spiritual authority over all Christians, as well as political authority over the inhabitants of the Papal States. Papal authority rested in theory on statements in the New Testament that were understood to give special powers to the apostle Peter, who was regarded as the fi rst pope, along with decisions of church councils since biblical times which enhanced that power. In practice papal authority also rested on a strong centralized bureaucracy that had developed particularly after the end of the Roman Empire in the west in the fi fth century. Key to this bureaucracy was a system of uniform church (or canon) law and church courts, which by the fi fteenth century had jurisdiction over many aspects of life, including marriage and morality. Papal authority came into confl ict with the power of secular rulers at various points in the Middle Ages, and problems in the church – including a schism from 1378 to 1415 in which there were two and later three popes – led some thinkers in the late Middle Ages to favor a form of governance in which the pope shared his power with a general council. This conciliar movement was supported by some rulers such as the kings of France, but was largely defeated after the schism when the popes tempered their more dramatic statements about universal power and concentrated on Italian issues. The Byzantine Empire continued for a thousand years after the Roman Empire ended in the west, and the emperor often presided over church councils and had the fi nal say in who became the head, or patriarch, of the eastern Christian church. The Christian churches in western and eastern Europe moved slowly apart in terms of structure, practices, and certain points of doctrine in the early Middle Ages. In 1054, the patriarch and the pope each excommunicated the other, and the schism was fi nal, though there were occasional later attempts at reconciliation. The eastern church gradually became known as the Orthodox Church, the Greek word for following the correct and established faith. Church councils, composed of all Orthodox bishops who were willing and able to attend, set dogma and general policy, and the heads of the Orthodox churches in Bulgaria, Serbia, and later Russia operated quite independently of the patriarch in Constantinople in their decision-making. The lack of a unifi ed code of canon law, a single administrative structure, and even a single language of operation (Greek, Syriac, Slavonic, and Russian were all in use) allowed for considerable local autonomy and diversity in Orthodox practices. In both western and eastern Europe, signifi cant power was held by bishops, whose territories – known as sees or dioceses with cathedrals as their headquarters – varied greatly in size. In the Holy Roman Empire, some bishops were secular political authorities as well as religious leaders, and in most parts of Europe bishops came from wealthy families and lived well. They were chosen in various ways, and were assisted in their administrative and spiritual duties by staffs of lawyers, priests, and offi cials. Each diocese was divided into parishes, which were staffed by parish priests who were supposed to have received enough education to say mass in Latin and carry out religious services such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. By the fi fteenth century, however, the offi ces (and income) of both bishop and priest were sometimes held by individuals who actually lived far away. Offi cials at the papal court frequently held several dioceses simultaneously, leaving the duties of the bishop to an assistant, while students at universities were supported with the income from a parish, with priestly functions left to a vicar, a lesser offi cial who was paid a salary for his work. In the western church, councils held in the twelfth century had forbidden priests to marry, while in the eastern church married men could become priests, though not bishops. Priests and bishops were termed secular (from saeculum , meaning worldly in medieval Latin) clergy, as they lived and worked in the world. Along with being a bishop or priest, there were other religious positions and affi liations open to men. They could join a monastery as a monk, living relatively cut off from the world under the leadership of an abbot. They could become Dominican, Franciscan, or Augustinian friars, traveling from town to town preaching, ministering to the poor, or teaching at a university. Both monks and friars were termed regular clergy because they lived according to one of the monastic rules ( regulus in Latin) established throughout the Middle Ages. Women were never offi cially considered members of the clergy, but there were religious orders open to them. They could become nuns at a convent under the leadership of an abbess, technically cloistered, or cut off from the world, but in reality varying in the strictness of their enclosure. Convents generally required a dowry that could be used to support the nun during her lifetime, but poorer women could often join them as lay sisters, responsible for the physical needs of the residents while the nuns concentrated on spiritual matters. In some parts of Europe, women who wanted to emulate the friars’ vows of poverty and obedience and work among the poor could become what were termed “third-order Franciscans,” and in other areas similar groups attached to other religious orders developed. Most of these women wore distinctive dress and took some sort of vows, but only those who took fi nal vows and lived in a convent are properly called “nuns”; “women religious” is the somewhat awkward, but correct, term for all of them. Across Europe, individuals judged to be holy were of widely differing types. In addition to the various approved groups, there were also individual men and women who designed their own plans for a more intensive spiritual life; such persons were open to charges of heresy, or false belief, by the institutional church, but they often gained a reputation for holiness that far outweighed that of priests, monks, or nuns. There were also groups that hovered between acceptance and denunciation. The Beguines, for example, were women who lived communally in many cities in the Netherlands and Germany, devoting themselves to prayer and service to the poor; members took no vows, and supported themselves by manual labor and teaching children. They were alternately blisteringly condemned and tepidly permitted by the papacy, but ultimately survived; several thousand Beguines live in Belgium and a few other countries today. Religion is not simply a matter of institutions, however, but also of beliefs, rituals, and practices. It is very diffi cult to gain direct access to the beliefs of ordinary Christians, for their religious ideas made it into the historical record only when they came into confl ict with those of the institutional church, such as during trials for heresy. Beliefs were expressed through rituals and actions, however, and there is much historical evidence regarding these. People participated in processions dedicated to the Virgin Mary or a specifi c saint to ask for a good harvest or prosperity in their city. They asked for the assistance of saints to get through childbirth (St. Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, was a favorite for this), heal disease, or protect them while traveling. They paid church taxes or made donations for the building and maintenance of churches and cathedrals, where they viewed religious relics regarded as holy; if they were wealthy, they bought relics to have in their own homes or private collections. Parents attempted to protect their children from the dangers of childhood with prayers to the saints, religious images or objects, or pilgrimages to holy places. At least once a year, and sometimes much more regularly, people confessed their sins to the village priest, who then set certain actions, such as praying or fasting, as penance for those sins. They bequeathed money for religious purposes in their wills, including repairing church buildings and paying priests to say memorial masses. By the fi fteenth century, every major life transition was marked by religious rituals for Christians. Very shortly after birth, children were baptized, preferably by a priest but in emergency situations perhaps by a midwife; unbaptized babies could not enter heaven, so baptism was sometimes carried out on dead children, even though this was theologically unacceptable. Though a church wedding was not required, most weddings in Europe were conducted by a priest, who often blessed the marital bed (sometimes with the couple in it) later that day. Women who had given birth went through the ritual of churching sixty days after the childbirth, in which they thanked God for their safe delivery, and were welcomed back into the congregation. There were rituals for the dying, in which the dying individual, family and friends, and religious personnel could participate; after death there were funerary rituals, and memorial prayers and masses designed to speed the soul to paradise. Not only were individual life events marked by religious ceremonies, but the calendar was also set according to religious periods and days. The life of Christ was reenacted in an annual cycle of special holy days (or holidays), with days also dedicated to the Virgin Mary and various saints – Advent, Christmas, Pentecost, Lent, St. John’s Day, St. Michael’s Day, the birth of Mary, All Saints’ Day, and so on. This intersected with the agricultural cycle of planting and harvest. By 1450, as many as fi fty days were marked off as special holidays in addition to Sundays, with restrictions on work, sex, and other activities. How seriously people took restrictions on work or sex during these days and seasons varied, as did their attendance at regular services. Weekly attendance at services was not always the norm, and though the church enjoined people to confess their sins to a priest at least once a year, many did not. There is debate among historians as to the depth of people’s understanding of Christianity, with some arguing that Christian beliefs were a thin veneer over long-standing traditional practices; ceremonies in which village priests and all the villagers walked around the boundaries of village land sprinkling holy water, or priests baptized magnets so that they could be used to fi nd lost objects, are cited as examples of this. These very same rituals are used by other historians, however, to argue that Christianity deeply permeated people’s daily existence. Despite these varying opinions, it is clear from such rituals that there was, for most people, little separation between aspects of life regarded as sacred and those viewed as secular. Jews and Muslims in Europe also celebrated a regular round of religious rituals. Both Jewish and Muslim boys were circumcised shortly after birth, and weddings and funerals for both groups involved the presence of a religious leader along with family members and friends. Religious life for Jewish men centered on schools where they learned Hebrew and studied religious literature, rabbinical courts where they studied and practiced Jewish law, and temples where they worshipped. Women did not learn Hebrew or study law (though they were not excluded from the temple) so their religious life centered on the home, where they cooked food, lit candles, and abstained from sexual relations in ways that followed religious prescriptions. For Muslim men, religious observances were also marked publicly, with prayer at a mosque or study at a Qur’anic school ( madrasa ). For Muslim women, religious observance was more domestic: observing the fast of Ramadan, saying prayers at home, wearing amulets with verses from the Qur’an. Neither Judaism nor Islam was hierarchical in the way that Christianity was, so there was no one individual with the authority of the pope, or even the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople. Both religions had developed codes of law that offered guidance on many issues ( halakhah in Judaism, the sharia in Islam), but these were often interpreted and applied slightly differently by legal scholars and judges (called kadi in the Ottoman Empire) depending on the local situation.

 

 

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