During the Middle Ages, a long period lasting from the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century until the Renaissance in the 15th century, the Catholic Church was not only the predominant spiritual power across Western Europe, but also dominated European intellectual and cultural life, as seen in the scholars and art that the Middle Ages produced. Of course, as with most historical claims, exceptions are found in some medieval literature.
Monasteries were places for monks to live separately from the world and devote themselves to God. Despite this isolation, many monasteries during the Middle Ages became great centers of learning, as monks were highly educated and focused time on reading and thinking. Such monks became great writers, such as Bede of Northumbria, who in 731 completed a history of England, or Thomas Aquinas, who is today regarded as a great philosopher.
In the later Middle Ages, universities, or guilds of students devoted to learning, began to be established. The oldest such universities were the University of Bologna in Italy, founded in 1088; the University of Paris, 1150; and the University of Oxford, 1167. Though supposedly autonomous organizations, these universities were inseparable from the Catholic Church, since many teachers were monks and the students focused on theological questions and pursuits, not practical ones.
As with intellectual life, the Catholic Church also dominated the cultural life of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Art at this time was centered around the church. The famous paintings of this time were usually commissioned by churches and cathedrals, and were usually of subjects such as the Virgin Mary and Jesus, or of the many saints of the Catholic Church. Not until after the Renaissance did artists begin to depict non-religious subjects.
Nevertheless, despite the church's dominance over European intellectual and cultural life, exceptions can be found in the literature of the time, which often ridiculed the church. "The Fabliaux," a set of lewd tales composed in France between the 12th and 14th centuries, challenged the moral authority of the church and often depicted priests in scandalous situations. Similarly, the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer often satirized the church in his 14th century work "The Canterbury Tales."
Aatif Rashid writes on international politics and culture. His articles have appeared in magazines such as "The Oxonian Globalist" and online at Future Foreign Policy and ThinkPolitic. He holds Bachelor's degrees in English and history from U.C. Berkeley and a Masters degree from the University of Oxford.