Throughout the medieval era only one institution came close to uniting all of Europe, though it was not so much a political empire as a spiritual one. That union was attempted by the Catholic Church, and the geopolitical entity it influenced was known as "Christendom."
While the exact extent of the Church's political power and influence on the material culture of medieval Europe has been and continues to be debated, there is no denying that it had a significant impact on international events and personal lifestyles throughout the era. It is for this reason that the Catholic Church has validity as a defining factor of the Middle Ages.
The rise, establishment, and ultimate fracturing of Catholicism as the single most influential religion in western Europe offers several significant dates to use as start- and end-points for the era.
In 306 C.E., Constantine was proclaimed Caesar and became co-ruler of the Roman Empire. In 312 he converted to Christianity, the once-illegal religion now became favored over all others. (After his death, it would become the official religion of the empire.) Virtually overnight, an underground cult became the religion of the "Establishment," forcing the once-radical Christian philosophers to rethink their attitudes toward the Empire.
In 325, Constantine called the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. This convocation of bishops from all over the known world was an important step in building the organized institution that would have so much influence over the next 1,200 years.
These events make the year 325, or at the very least the early fourth century, a viable starting point for the Christian Middle Ages. However, another event holds equal or greater weight in the minds of some scholars: the accession to the papal throne of Gregory the Great in 590. Gregory was instrumental in establishing the medieval papacy as a strong socio-political force, and many believe that without his efforts the Catholic Church would never have achieved the power and influence it wielded throughout medieval times.
In 1517 C.E. Martin Luther posted 95 theses criticizing the Catholic Church. In 1521 he was excommunicated, and he appeared before the Diet of Worms to defend his actions. The attempts to reform ecclesiastical practices from within the institution were futile; ultimately, the Protestant Reformation split the Western Church irrevocably. The Reformation was not a peaceful one, and religious wars ensued throughout much of Europe. These culminated in the Thirty Years War that ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.
When equating "medieval" with the rise and fall of Christendom, the latter date is sometimes viewed as the end of the Middle Ages by those who prefer an all-inclusive view of the era. However, the sixteenth-century events that heralded the beginning of the end of Catholicism's pervasive presence in Europe are more frequenly regarded as the era's terminus.
Next page: Part 5: Europe
Defining the Middle AgesPart 1: Introduction
Part 2: Stuck in the Middle
Part 3: Empires
Part 4: Christendom
Part 5: Europe
Part 6: An Age of Ages
Part 7: Make Your Choice