Medieval Religious Laws

by Lauren DeVoe

In medieval Europe, Christianity, and specifically Roman Catholicism, dominated all aspects of life in Europe, influencing everyone from kings to beggars. All aspects of medieval life had church doctrine at their root, and the church's influence was felt from the religious courts to the secular courts and politics. While the church concerned itself with overseeing ecclesiastical regulations, such as heresy and witchcraft, it also looked at secular issues. In short, church law defined life in the Middle Ages.

Canon Law

When Christianity became the state religion of Rome, church canonical law began to develop along with Roman legislative law, and became the main legal system of the medieval world. Canons were laws based on the original teachings of Christ's apostles that governed both the hierarchy of the church and the lives of Christians. Through Canon Law, the church was able to claim authority over secular rulers, often causing a great deal of conflict between the church and various states. Canon law became the foundation of both civil and common law, using Roman Justinian legislative law as a basis for the overview of its structure. This legal system used an inquisitorial style of legal proceedings, where panels of judges investigated claims and superseded those involved. The pope, as the head of the church, was the final authority on Christian law.

Heresy and the Crusades

Heresy was expressly forbidden. If someone denied church doctrine, but declared himself Christian, he was guilty of dissent against the church and therefore all of society. The church judged all cases of heresy and had several different responses, which included excommunication and hanging. A heretic also had the chance to revoke his views and reclaim those of the church. Jews and Muslims populated medieval Europe alongside Christians, although they were the minority and their religions were outlawed. In time, the church moved its focus to eliminating these religious beliefs, most notably in a series of Crusades. Pope Claremont declared the first Crusade against the Saracens in 1095: Its stated goals were to rescue the holy places of Christianity and to remove Muslim influence from the West. During these bloody wars that lasted over the period of several centuries, attitudes allowed Jews to be massacred within Christian Europe, or forcibly converted. In a series of inquisitions, any lingering traces of Europe's original Pagan religions were stamped out by the church wherever they were found.

Usury

Usury, or money-lending, was expressly forbidden by the Catholic Church. Jews already held low standing in the medieval Christian world, and often found a niche in such roles such as tax collectors and money-lenders because they were not forbidden to handle money the way that Christians were, and the church's policies against money-lending evolved over periods of time to make it impossible for Jews to hold these types of positions. But this had the negative effect of making Jews more hated and feared by the Christian populace. Many banking failures occurred when monarchs took out loans for religious wars, which they simply did not pay back, leading to economic collapse and widespread poverty in various areas at various times.

Sumptuary Laws

The church used sumptuary laws, laws governing dress and the consumption of various luxuries. These laws were a way to control hierarchy and moral codes. Sumptuary laws had a vast purview: They enforced the types of robes that various clergy members could wear and also helped to distinguish criminals by their dress. These laws later expanded into the secular arena as well. After the plague swept through Europe and evened out the economic disparities between classes to some extent, it became more common for the lower classes to have clothing and other finery that previously only the upper classes could afford. Many religious leaders and secular leaders worried about how this would affect people in their piety to God. As a result, certain garments, fabrics and colors were forbidden to specific classes.

About the Author

Lauren DeVoe is working on a Master's Degree in English and writes regularly for "Witches and Pagans Magazine" and "The Pagan Household." She is also an initiated Priestess in the Blue Star tradition of Wicca.

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