The Church in the Middle Ages

Marius Ostrowski explains why the Church was so dominant in the Middle ages, but also sees traces of a growing secularism.

The thousand-year span of the medieval era, which coincided in essence with the period of the church’s greatest power and status, was framed by the collapse of two once-mighty civilisations. At its start in AD 476, the Western Roman Empire, the superpower of the ancient world, cracked under the multiple strains of military, social and economic turmoil, and at its end the shrinking Byzantine Empire was finally obliterated by the Ottomans in 1453. 

Sources of Survival

The church’s compact organisation and resilience, shaped by strict doctrine and severe persecution, enabled it to survive even the momentous collapse of the civilisation which had raised it to prominence. Its versatile structure allowed it to run Western Europe in the absence of a successor to the outgoing Roman administration and to negotiate a mutually profitable alliance with the replacement Frankish administration when it finally emerged. Moreover, the church’s close political involvement under the Franks brought it to such a height of power and influence that it survived the grand decline of the Carolingian empire to remain one of the most potent players of the European scene. 

To read this article in full you need to be either a print + archive subscriber, or else have purchased access to the online archive.

If you are already a subscriber, please ensure you are logged in. 

Buy Subscription | Buy Online Access | Log In

If you are logged in and still cannot read the article, please email

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week