During the medieval period, the institution of the Church became so strong that it dominated the political, social and economic aspects of society. For example, it completely changed the structure of cities. During the Roman period, the centre of the city was marked by fountains, porticos and forums. Forums provided open space to the inhabitants to gather and watch cultural shows, listen to the speeches of politicians and generals, and participate in public discussions.

In the new religious set up the whole structure of the city changed. Now, the centre of the city was dominated by an imposing cathedral which displayed the power of the church. Around it were monasteries where monks chanted night and day. The entire atmosphere created fear among the citizens who were constantly reminded of their mortality and warned to take care about the next world.

The Church controlled the daily routine of the people. They divided their day and night by the ringing of church bells. The Church performed all rituals from birth to death. All believers were expected to attend church services; any absence gave rise to suspicion regarding a person’s religious beliefs. Such was the religious structure that nobody could contradict the teachings of the Church. Le Fabvre, the French historian who specialised in 16th century Europe, concluded that in this period there was no space for anyone to become an atheist.

To capture the imagination of the people, the Church adopted a number of symbols such as memorials of martyrs who sacrificed their life for religion. These memorials were built at different places to create a spirit of devotion among the believers. Miracles of saints were propagated in order to create respect for them. Holy relics were displayed in every church which attracted people to come and pay homage to them. The Church also introduced its own calendar which regulated the date for religious festivals and rituals; it was also used for administrative purposes.

When the ritual of confession was introduced and it became incumbent on every Christian to confess his sins once a year, it allowed the Church to interfere in the private life of people. It became customary for priests to deliver sermons in which they condemned the rich and criticised women for displaying fashion. These sermons were passionate and fiery and aimed at working on the emotions and conscience of the congregation which brought them in further awe of the Church and they looked to it to save them from natural disasters like illness, famines, drought and pestilence.

To increase its control on society, church authorities had the right to excommunicate those who defied the order of the Church. It was a formidable tool because a person who was excommunicated found no place in society. He had no alternative but to apologise and accept punishment to come back into the fold of Christianity.

Another effective tool in the hands of the Church was the institution of inquisition. It was organised in the 11th century to prevent any deviation from the teachings of the Church. Priests toured villages and towns and traced suspects who had any doubts in religious beliefs. If such a person was found, he appeared before the officers of inquisition who thoroughly investigated the case. If necessary, torture was applied to get a confession; if found guilty, he was handed over to secular authorities to be burnt at the stake. In Spain, the inquisition was used against the Jews and the Muslims after the conquest of the last Arab kingdom of Granada in 1492.

The Church also launched crusades against the heretics and different religious sects. Any break from mainstream Christianity was regarded as treason.

When the printing press came into being and started to print books, Church authorities were in a quandary regarding how to control literature which was against the teachings of religion. In 1515 CE, the Pope issued an order that the authorities of the Church should check the material of every book before publication. Nobody was allowed to publish any book without the permission of the Church.

The Church used to publish an index of books printed in other countries and prohibited its followers from reading them. Some of these books were completely banned and some of them partly censored. The officials of the Church searched the arriving ships to make sure that they were not carrying any banned literature. It was customary to raid bookshops and libraries to see if there were any uncensored books.

The result of this hold of religion was that the medieval period remained intellectually bankrupt and hollow. It prevented the birth of liberal and secular ideas and thoughts. However, the corruption and degradation of the church institutions allowed thinkers and intellectuals to challenge it and liberate the society from this rigidity and extremism. The end of the Church’s power was the beginning of a new era in the history of Europe.

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