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The Shaping of Modern Europe Index
Introduction to the Reformation
17th Century Europe
THE SHAPING OF MODERN EUROPE
The Wealth and Political Power of the Church
There were in the Middle Ages, and there still are today, different types of church services. One of the most important was the mass (also called holy communion) practised in the Roman Catholic churches.
The mass was a re-enactment of the last supper, when Jesus ate bread and drank wine with His disciples before he was crucified. At this meal, Jesus told them that the bread was His body and the wine His blood.
The Church told the people that, when they ate the bread and drank the wine (the Eucharist) at mass, they were actually eating Jesus' body and drinking His blood. They called this transubstantiation.
Some heretics in the Church disagreed and claimed that it was just representative of His body and blood.
The wealth and power of the Church
At first glance, it would seem that the Catholic Church, and the Vatican in particular, was very rich. Thousands of people lived in monasteries or were employed by the Church as priests. Probably a third of the land in England, in the 15th century, belonged to the Church. The Church did have a variety of sources of income.
In spite of this, however, the pope was often short of money. He frequently had to borrow from the big banking families in Europe, such as the Fuggers of Augsburg.
The Political Power of the Church
The church also had a lot of political power. Bishops were appointed by the Pope to rule in all the countries of Europe. People often looked to their Bishop as their Lord and Master, and in each country the Bishop took orders from the Pope, not the king. Therefore the Pope appeared to be more important than kings. He wielded the power of excommunication. This meant that if people opposed him the Pope could cut them off from the Church. this would result in them going to Hell.
According to the Roman Catholic Church the Pope's power stemmed from God. He had been appointed by God to make sure that the Bible was followed. In reality the Pope's authority came from the fact that he gave jobs to people. People wanted to become Bishops because they could collect tithes and become rich. Therefore they would pay the Pope to be appointed a Bishop. During the 15th century wars were fought over this right. In England and in parts of Germany the king could appoint Bishops.
In theory the Pope was Europe's most powerful ruler but in practice this was not the case. The Holy Roman Emperor was one challenge to his supremacy. The other main problem was that the Pope was in Rome and Europe was a large area of land to control, with only the horse and boat as methods of communication.
Popes had also lost authority during the Renaissance through their actions. The Borgia Popes held orgies and Julius II led his army into battle in 1500. The Popes increasingly displayed their vast wealth when many people in Europe thought that poverty was the way to Heaven. In 1506 the building of St. Peter's Church in Rome was begun. This needed millions of ducats to finish.
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