The Economic Role of The Roman Catholic Church in European Reconstruction


The Catholic Church provided the needed stability during a time of disorder and tragedy. At the time, the Church owned lots of land throughout Europe and was in a suitable position to aid in the recovery after the Dark Ages. This was done through the cultivation and development of land under the Church’s control. Moreover, this report will describe the economic role the Roman Catholic Church had in the reconstruction of Europe during the Middle Ages. Additionally, both economic and spiritual aspects relating to the church’s economic influence will be outlined to conclude.

Economic Role

The Church was very wealthy in the Middle Ages. At one point, the Roman Catholic Church had owned between one-third and one-half of the land available in Europe (Bannerman, 2021). This section will look at feudalism and commerce regarding the Church’s effect on the economics in Europe

The Church and Feudalism

The use of feudalism created division amongst the people of Western Europe. The Catholic Church was responsible for creating the manorial system, essentially small villages.  

“The typical western European manor in the 13th century consisted partly of the cottages, huts, and barns and gardens of its peasants, which were usually clustered together to form a small village. There might also be a church, a mill, and a wine or oil press in the village.” (Britanitica, 2019)

This feudal system created social stability rather than promote economic growth. As noted by many historians and from literature, the feudal system was not effective in promoting economic growth. The people of Europe were restricted with what they could do. Such as being able to be an independent merchant as a means of gaining wealth, this act was not allowed by the Catholic Church. Land and labour were considered the only means of wealth as the Church insisted. With vast amounts of peasants, and limited amounts of land, peasants were essentially bound to the land they settled in.

There was also a lack of an authoritative figure after the Dark Ages, and the use of the Church's feudal system helped establish their role in medieval society. If we look at today’s time, there are still remnants from what existed during the medieval times in Europe. Such as the amount of churches that still exist today. Given the Catholic Church’s land power and wealth, they were able to establish this system, but the system was limited when it came to economic growth.

The Church and Commerce

Continuing from the previous section, the manorial system initiated the idea of commerce and trade locally. “The exchanges that did take place were in the nature of individual face-to-face bargains.” (North, 1971, p. 787). 

About commerce, the church had a hostile view regarding the topic. The Catholic Church opposed the idea of commerce and trading of money. As was mentioned previously, the Church believed that land and labour was the only source of wealth, not money. Aristotle had opposed the idea of usury, the lending of money at high interest rates to make money. The Church adopted Aristotle’s view regarding the act of usury. and instilled it across Europe. This view was an obstacle to the development of business and banking. That, being said, the Catholic church established reserves of capital to create a system of deposits, credit and banking, and to advance the idea of stable coinage (Bannerman 2021). The accumulation of such resources in turn helped establish a foundation for the money economy that was prevalent after the Middle Ages. How was this done? The Church accumulated resources from both peasants and higher classes. The Church had imposed a tax called tithes (Trueman, 2015). This tax would require a peasant to give one-tenth of what they earned in a year to the Church. Furthermore, due to the wide acceptance of Christianity, the Church received contributions from benefactors and from monarchs.

“The church has not only possessed political power in the past, but it has had economic resources of tremendous proportions. With few exceptions the church obtained its property in its early history and down through the Middle Ages by gifts. Counts, dukes, kings, and emperors made donations of land and improvements and serfs to monasteries.” (White, 1925, p. 267-268)

With the help of the feudal system, the Church was able to build a continuous amount of wealth while continuing to spread Christianity across Europe over the course of the Middle Ages. Additionally, the Catholic Church was able to establish a basic foundation

Spiritual Role

It is evident to note that most of Europe was not Christian. Christianity eventually played a big part of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church took the time to go throughout Europe to spread the religion. Doing so, Christianity and the Catholic Church became quintessential to the lives of Europe during the medieval period.

The Spread of Christianity

Seeing the disorder from the Dark Ages, the Roman Catholic Church took charge in spreading Christianity. Missionaries were sent throughout Europe to convert the various tribes, and over the course of 400 years, Europe became primarily Christian (Bannerman, 2021). Though it took much effort, this is how the Roman Catholic Church began gaining their power and authority across Europe, through religion.

The Church proclaimed the obligation to work as a diving law, further emphasizing a social society. Additionally, with Christianity being practiced by many individuals, people wanted and wished to end up in heaven alongside God. 

“An excommunicated person could not receive any of the sacraments of the church,

 which in the Middle Ages were believed to be essential to salvation; and he could not be buried, in case of death, in consecrated ground. The fear of hell and the belief that the church controlled the means of escape from it provided all the authority that was needed to bring the recalcitrant layman back into the path of rectitude and to induce him to submit to whatever penance was assessed.” (White, 1925, p. 265)

Using bible theology, the Church used this to their advantage to instill the importance of being good by inducing fear of going to hell, a devilish place full of misery. The Church also had a huge reach when it came to information. They were the only source of information people had. In all, the church played an important role in everyone’s daily life, by preaching the goodness of God and the dignity of labour. 

The Church and Politics

With Christianity spread throughout Europe, the Catholic Church began to develop a strong level of power in politics. Demonstration of such power occurred in 1076, where Gregory VII was the Pope at the time. 

“In 1076 Gregory VII demonstrated the power of the papacy in a forceful way: he excommunicated the Emperor, Henry IV, and released all his subjects from obedience. An uprising of his subjects led by the nobles demanded that Henry satisfy the demands of the Pope or be deposed by force within a year. Henry's dramatic pilgrimage to Canossa proclaimed his surrender to the head of the church, and it was concrete evidence of the power of the Pope as head of an international organization more powerful than any government.” (White, 1925, p. 266)

 

The Church was at the top of everything during the Middle Ages and “[with] these threats, the rule of the Catholic Church was far stronger and further-reaching than the rule of many Kings” (Minton, 2014).

Conclusion

Based on the information discussed in this report, the Catholic Church played an important role regarding the redevelopment of Europe during the Middle Ages. However, the role of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the economy was more for establishing a foundation rather than creating growth.

The Church was strict when it came to commerce and trading. The individuality of doing something on your own was not what the Church intended or wanted people to pursue. Additionally, the Feudal system that the Catholic Church established did not aid in economic growth, it was rather a hindrance because of the restrictions in place and the lack of ability to grow as an individual in society. However, there is an argument that feudalism was well needed, especially considering the effects from the Dark Ages. The system created order and organization 

The Church had an important role regarding the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. They effectively used the lack of authority in Europe to become the figure that relied on. As a result, The Church became an integral part of everyone's life during the Middle Ages. The trust that the Catholic Church established allowed them to accumulate wealth to build more churches and further expand their reach across Europe. 

In a way, the combination of effects the Roman Catholic Church had spiritual and economics complimented each other. More specifically, if the Church had not been successful in spreading Chritisinaity throughout Europe they may not have received donations from monarchs or benefactors, contributing to their wealth. Also, while people were decentralized under the feudal system, they were still connected through religion and the church. The Catholic Church had established a foundation for the economy by accumulating wealth through peasants and higher classes.

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