maintained a strict organizational hierarchy. The pope in Rome, for example, oversaw a huge bureaucracyled by cardinals, known as “princes of the church,” who were followed by archbishops, bishops, and thenpriests. During this period, the Roman Church became the most powerful international organization inwestern Europe.Just as agrarian life depended on the seasons, village and family life revolved around the Church. Thesacraments, or special ceremonies of the Church, marked every stage of life, from birth to maturation,marriage, and burial, and brought people into the church on a regular basis. As Christianity spreadthroughout Europe, it replaced pagan and animistic views, explaining supernatural events and forces ofnature in its own terms. A benevolent God in heaven, creator of the universe and beyond the realm ofnature and the known, controlled all events, warring against the force of darkness, known as the Devil orSatan, here on earth. Although ultimately defeated, Satan still had the power to trick humans and causethem to commit evil or sin.All events had a spiritual connotation. Sickness, for example, might be a sign that a person had sinned,while crop failure could result from the villagers’ not saying their prayers. Penitents confessed their sinsChapter 1 | The Americas, Europe, and Africa before 149219
to the priest, who absolved them and assigned them penance to atone for their acts and save themselvesfrom eternal damnation. Thus the parish priest held enormous power over the lives of his parishioners.Ultimately, the pope decided all matters of theology, interpreting the will of God to the people, but he alsohad authority over temporal matters. Because the Church had the ability to excommunicate people, or senda soul to hell forever, even monarchs feared to challenge its power. It was also the seat of all knowledge.Latin, the language of the Church, served as a unifying factor for a continent of isolated regions, each withits own dialect; in the early Middle Ages, nations as we know them today did not yet exist. The mostlyilliterate serfs were thus dependent on those literate priests to read and interpret the Bible, the word ofGod, for them.CHRISTIANITY ENCOUNTERS ISLAMThe year 622 brought a new challenge to Christendom. Near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, a prophet namedMuhammad received a revelation that became a cornerstone of the Islamic faith. TheKorancontained hismessage, affirming monotheism but identifying Christ not as God but as a prophet like Moses, Abraham,David, and Muhammad. Following Muhammad’s death in 632, Islam spread by both conversion andmilitary conquest across the Middle East and Asia Minor to India and northern Africa, crossing the Straitsof Gibraltar into Spain in the year 711 (Figure).Figure 1.14In the seventh and eighth centuries, Islam spread quickly across North Africa and into the Middle East.
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