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Religious Change

Religious Change
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Changes in religion shaped the social, cultural, and political landscape of the Middle Ages. Religion was at the center of medieval society. Therefore internal reform and conflict between religions impacted daily life in profound ways. What did religious change look like in the Middle Ages, and what was its impact?

Religious Change Definition

Religious change is reform within a single religion that changes the practice of faith from within the Church's administration. It can also mean converting to another religion, abandoning the beliefs of one faith in favor of another.

 Religious Change, Painting of the conversion of Mary Magdalene, StudySmarterThe Conversion of Mary Magdalene by Paolo Veronese, c. 1548. Source: National Gallery, UK, CC-PD-Mark, Wikimedia Commons

Causes of Religious Change

Religious change can occur as the result of social and political change. In the medieval world, religion was at the center of everything. The Catholic Church was a major political player with vast landholdings and influence within every European realm until the Protestant Reformation. As a result, daily life revolved around religion after the papacy implemented Gregorian reforms in the eleventh century.

To showcase their importance and centrality in the medieval social landscape, the Church built massive cathedrals in cities across Europe.

Religious Change as a Result of Social Change and Vice Versa

Religious and social change go hand in hand. This was especially the case in the Middle Ages because of religion's centrality in the medieval world. But how did the Church become the center of medieval society? A series of reforms known as the Gregorian Reform was implemented to consolidate a fractured Church in the face of social changes resulting from population growth, economic expansion, and the rise of urban centers.

Gregorian Reform

In the year 1000, the Church was fragmented. Secular rulers controlled Church appointments, and there was little administrative cohesion. This situation changed as a result of socio-religious change known as Gregorian Reform. Aristocrats, Church leaders, and zealous reformers envisioned the Church as a structure free from the influence of secular authorities and sought to consolidate it under one leader: the Pope. They believed that the Church should dominate society.

One crucial social change the Gregorian reform movement brought was the abolishment of married clergy. Before the reforms, priests often had wives, a position of respect in the parish community.

After priests were ordered to live celibate lives, some women remained with their priest-husbands but were now considered lowly concubines and social pariahs.

The visual landscape of medieval Europe also changed due to Gregorian Reform. Massive cathedrals replaced earlier Romanesque architecture in significant towns and cities as symbols of Church importance and power. Cathedrals were the seats of Bishops, who were now completely under Papal authority. Significant cathedrals from this period include Canterbury Cathedral in England (1174), Léon Cathedral in modern-day Spain (1205), and Santa Maria del Spina Cathedral in Pisa, Italy (1230).

 Religious Change, Photo of Canterbury Cathedral, StudySmarterCanterbury Cathedral. Source: WyrdLight.com, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

One of the most influential thinkers from this period was Thomas Aquinas. Because of the Crusades and a commercial revolution, the works of classical philosophers such as Aristotle returned to Europe. Aquinas utilized Aristotle to examine questions about the relationship between faith and reason, which combined subjects we know today as philosophy and theology.

His masterwork Summa Theologiae defined the difference between mortal and venial, or lesser sins, and how the Church should punish them. While mortal sins were unforgivable, venial sins could be removed "when the debt of punishment is taken away." The Church determined that this debt could be removed through indulgences, or certificates of a sin's removal, granted to the sinner by a priest. Indulgences would have a crucial role in the events of the Protestant Reformation.

Religious Change, Painting of Thomas Aquinas, StudySmarterThomas Aquinas, by Francisco Herrera the Younger, c.1656. Source: Musea des Bellas Artes de Sevilla, CE0506P, PD-Art, Wikimedia Commons

Formation of a Persecuting Society

Jews often lived and worked alongside their Christian counterparts in the early Middle Ages. However, this began to change by the eleventh century. Historian R.I. Moore argues that as the Church gained power, it focused on rooting out those who did not conform, namely Jews and those they considered heretics. This religious change caused dramatic social change because it was now legally and ecclesiastically favorable to persecute others who were not part of the dominant religion. In addition, it set a precedent for a society based on identifying the other as a threat and extricating nonconformists using every means necessary.

The Crusades are a notable example of this new focus on violent persecution. The Crusades were Holy Wars against the Infidel, or non-Christian. The primary target was Muslims who lived in the Holy Land of Jerusalem, but they were not the only ones to fall victim to the violence of holy zeal. On the way to Jerusalem, Crusaders often performed pogroms against European Jewish communities, killing hundreds using the same justification they used to kill Muslims. Jews were non-Christians and therefore evil and should be eradicated.

Pogrom:

A pogrom is a targeted massacre of a particular ethnic group or religion. The word is most commonly associated with massacres of the Jewish people throughout history.

 Religious Change, Fourteenth century mansucript illustration depicting a pogrom, StudySmarterManuscript illustration by Pierart dou Tielt showing Jews being burned at the stake, fourteenth century. Source: PD-Art, Wikimedia Commons

To add further insult to injury, Jews were expelled from lands they had been called home for centuries by the monarchs of the Holy Roman Empire, England, Spain, and France, and forced to relocate to regions that would take them. Many wound up in Poland and the Netherlands, known for religious toleration at the time. Some converted to Christianity to remain in their homeland, but these individuals were often never entirely accepted by Christians. For example, the Spanish Inquisition of the fifteenth century specifically targeted recent converts to uncover how sincere they were about their new faith.

The Inquisition

The Inquisition began in the thirteenth century under Pope Innocent III (r. 1198-1216). To root out heresy, this organization utilized the judicial practice of inquiring, hence its name, Inquisition. Church-appointed inquisitors, many friars from the Dominican or Franciscan orders, wielded considerable power in their investigations. They employed torture to extract confessions from the accused because they did not believe a confession made under torture could be untrue. Inquisitors thought they were doing God's work in protecting Christians from the dangerous threat of heretics.

Examples and Importance of Religious Change

Religious change can profoundly affect society and is crucial to understanding historical and social movements. Questions of a religious or theological nature have inspired deep societal divides. The Protestant Reformation is one event where religious change permanently altered the European social, cultural, and political landscape.

The Protestant Reformation

Religious Change, Painting of Martin Luther, StudySmarterMartin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1529. Source: St. Anne's Church, Augsburg, Germany, CC-PD-Mark, Wikimedia Commons

While religious differences were nothing new before the Reformation, deviations from the established Church had never before gained such widespread support. Religious nonconformity was quickly declared heresy and rooted out by zealous Inquisitors. But something different happened when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses criticizing the Catholic Church to the door of a Wittenberg church. Why was this the catalyst of one of the most extensive religious fractures in history?

  • As shown above, the Catholic Church held considerable religious and political power. Unfortunately, such power often leads to abuse and corruption. One such example was the practice of selling indulgences to parishioners to absolve venial sin, as defined by Thomas Aquinas. Martin Luther directly criticized this practice and offered a theological alternative to a life dominated by a corrupt Catholic Church.

Luther emphasized a personal relationship between a person and God and the importance of reading the Bible for oneself. These two revolutionary ideas weakened the central place of Catholic clergy in the practice of faith and, by extension, daily life. As a result, the Church denounced Luther and named him a heretic, but his ideas had given him powerful friends. Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, protected Luther and sheltered him not only because he agreed with him theologically but also because helping him was a way to protest against the political regime of the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Protestantism referred to political protest before it became associated with religious reformers!

Religious Change Effects

As stated above, religious change in the Middle Ages had widespread and often devastating effects on the social landscape. For example, the Protestant Reformation affected Europe in both politics and culture. Let's take a closer look at how.One example of how religious change affected society is during the English Reformation. In 1534, King Henry VIII passed an Act of Supremacy formally breaking away from the Catholic Church and declaring himself head of a new Church of England. This act created a new religion in England and required all English people to convert. In addition, Henry dissolved monasteries, seized their assets, and then sold the lands to noblemen for more money. This act changed the social and physical landscape of England forever.Another example is the French Wars of Religion, which lasted from 1562 to 1598. Religious differences led to political fracturing throughout France. The kings of France had always been Catholic, but King Henri III died in 1589 without children, and his successor was Protestant. This last phase of the war saw a Catholic league of world powers set up to block the accession of Henry, King of Navarre, the Protestant heir to the French throne. France was torn apart by war in the name of religion. Hostilities only ceased when Henry converted to Catholicism, stating, "Paris is worth a mass." He issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting religious tolerance to Protestants.

Religious Change - Key takeaways

  • Religious change is reform within a single religion or the act of converting to another faith.
  • Religious change can be either an effect or a cause of social or political change.
  • Religious change has altered the social landscape in many instances, particularly those surrounding the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Frequently Asked Questions about Religious Change

Religious change is reform within a single religion or the act of converting to another religion. Each can be either an effect or a cause of social or political changes.

Social and political factors influence religious change. For example, the Catholic Church was central to medieval daily life. Criticism about corrupt clergy who sold prayers for money and exhibited greedy, gluttonous behavior caused a faith crisis leading to the Protestant Reformation. At its core was whether one needed a priest to interpret religion for them or whether the faithful could practice faith by reading scripture. This new idea challenged both Church doctrine and its social and political strength in the European world.

Religious change can alter the social landscape entirely. The Protestant Reformation turned neighbors against each other because they no longer shared the same theological ideas. The expulsion of Jews in the Middle Ages from European realms caused religious conversion and persecution.

The Protestant Reformation splintered European religion and society due to new ideas about Church doctrine and criticisms of corrupt practices within the established Church.

Religious change had a profound impact on medieval society, as religion was at the center of daily life. Church reforms and persecution against those not part of the established Church (Jews and Muslims, for example) changed the social and cultural landscape of Europe irrevocably.

Final Religious Change Quiz

Religious Change Quiz - Teste dein Wissen

Question

When was the Romanesque style popular in Europe?

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Answer

1000-1150

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Which styles does the Palatine Chapel in Aachen combine?

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Answer

Carolingian, Ottonian, and Romanesque

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What is the shape of a typical Romanesque cathedral?

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Cross-shaped basilica

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What was the name of the regional Romanesque style in England?

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Norman

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Which way do Romanesque churches usually face?

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East

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What type of arches does Romanesque feature?

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Semicircular

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Where did Romanesque originate?

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Lombardy

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What international style gradually replaced Romanesque in Europe?

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Gothic

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What is the central aisle in a Romanesque church called?

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Nave

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What part of Europe displayed the most diverse fusion of Romanesque?

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Sicily

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When did the Gothic style of architecture dominate Europe?

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1150-16th century

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What is considered to be the first Gothic building?

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Saint-Denis, Paris

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Which cleric is considered to be one of the founders of the Gothic style?

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Abbot Suger

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What is the name of the regional Gothic style in England?

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Perpendicular style

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What are some of the key features of the Gothic style?

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Ribbed vaults, pointed arches

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What country was late in adopting the Gothic style?

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Italy

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What Gothic style was from France?

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Flamboyant style

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What is Gothic tracery?

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Window decoration

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What building combines the Carolingian and Romanesque styles?

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Palatine Chapel in Aachen, Germany

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How did Gothic buildings achieve their weightless appearance?

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By using external flying buttresses

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When did the Fourth Crusade take place?

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1202-1204

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Who announced the Fourth Crusade?

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Pope Innocent III

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Which three countries were most involved in the Fourth Crusade?

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Netherlands, France, and Italy

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Why did Pope Innocent III excommunicate the crusaders?

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For conquering the city of Zara

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How long was the Latin captivity of Byzantium?


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1204-1261

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What Italian city-state actively participated in the Fourth Crusade?

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Venice

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What did the crusaders do in Constantinople?

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The crusaders plundered and burnt the city, assaulted and murdered Orthodox clerics, and desecrated the holy sites.

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When did the schism between the Western and Eastern Churches take place?

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1054

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When did the last crusader stronghold, Acre, fall?

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1291

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Which Byzantine dynasty reclaimed Constantinople in 1261?

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Palaiologan dynasty 

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To which school of thought did Thomas Aquinas belong?

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Scholasticism

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Which ancient Greek philosopher influenced Thomas Aquinas the most?

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Aristotle

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Which key theological question did Thomas Aquinas analyze?

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The relationship between faith and reason

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To which religious order did Thomas Aquinas belong as an adult?

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Dominican Order

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Who was an important teacher of Thomas Aquinas in Paris?

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Albert the Great

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Which is one of the most important texts by Thomas Aquinas?

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Summa Theologica

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What country is Thomas Aquinas from?

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Italy

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Who was one of the most important early Christian thinkers?

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Augustine of Hippo

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How did Thomas Aquinas analyze the existence of God?

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Through the cosmological argument

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What is a mendicant order?

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A mendicant order is a Medieval Christian order that subscribes to the vow of poverty and relies on alms.

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What is religious change?

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Reform within a single religion or the act of converting to another faith. 

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What is NOT an example of religious change?

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World War I

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What is NOT an example of how religious change caused political and social change?

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Edward III of England's claim that he was the rightful ruler of France through his mother's line

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What is an example of how political and social change affected religious change?

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Henry VIII's wish for a divorce prompted England's break with the Catholic Church and declaration of himself as head of the Church of England

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What type of building gained popularity as a result of Gregorian reform?

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Cathedrals

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Why did Martin Luther's criticisms of the Catholic Church turn into the Protestant Reformation?

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Growing dissatisfaction with the hold the Catholic Church had on European political and social life because of abuses, corruption, and political power.

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Who is one of the most influential theologians from the High Middle Ages (1000-1300)?

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Thomas Aquinas

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Who is typically credited with beginning the Protestant Reformation in 1517?

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Martin Luther

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What is a pogrom?

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A targeted massacre of a particular ethnic group or religion. The word is most commonly associated with massacres of the Jewish people throughout history.

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What is one method the Church did NOT use to deal with those who would not conform to their religion?

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Toleration

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