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The Middle Ages in European history was a time characterised by conformism. It was also a time of fear and superstition. People who displayed creativity or diverged from established methods of thinking and behaving were often punished. Until the Renaissance began to unfold during the 14th and 15th centuries, the Catholic Church held a great deal of power and influence over Western Europe.

In the early 16th century, however, this all began to change. During a period known as the European Reformation, the dominance of the Catholic Church experienced a sharp decline in many parts of Europe. It began in Germany in around 1520, when a monk named Martin Luther lead a religious movement known as the Protestant Reformation. This movement is sometimes referred to as the Protestant Revolt or the Protestant Revolution.

The founding of the Roman Catholic Church

From the death of Christ in 33 AD until the early 4th century, Christianity was a prohibited religion in Europe. This ban was lifted across the Roman Empire in 337 AD, when Emperor Constantine II and his two brothers came to power. By 394 AD it had became the official religion of Rome, however, one year later the Roman Empire became divided into two parts: Eastern Rome and Western Rome. Christianity only took hold in the West.

After the split of the Roman Empire, Christianity in the form of the Roman Catholic Church emerged quickly in the West. The head of the Catholic Church was the Pope and the language of the Church was Latin. The home of the Roman Catholic Church is now the Vatican City State, which is in Rome.

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In the eastern half of the Roman Empire (which is often referred to as the Byzantine Empire) Christianity also took hold, but in the form of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In Greek, the term orthodox means 'correct worship'. The Byzantines adopted what they believed to be the correct faith (Eastern Orthodox) and spoke Greek in order to distinguish themselves from the Latin-speaking Roman Catholics in the west.

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In 476 AD, about 100 years after the splitting of the Roman Empire, the political unity of western Rome collapsed. This was the pivotal moment in history that historians believe marked the end of the Classical Age and the beginning of the Middle Ages of European History.

Catholicism in the Middle Ages

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD, Rome's political stronghold across Western Europe gradually crumbled. Catholicism, however, continued to spread and increase its power. By the time the Renaissance began in the mid-14th century, it was the most dominant religion on the continent.

Until the Renaissance, most Europeans followed the teachings of Catholicism strictly. Many people had little exposure to any form of education beyond this and science was not a well-understood concept. Very little of what the Church taught people about life was challenged. Those who spoke out against the Church were accused of heresy and labelled a heretic (someone who holds unorthodox beliefs). Heretics were often subject to extreme forms of punishment, such as being burnt at the stake in front of the townspeople.

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Until the printing press was invented in the mid-15th century, the European population was not highly literate. People did not have much opportunity to seek information for themselves and were dependent upon the clergy (religious leaders) for educational and spiritual guidance. This added to the power of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church during the Renaissance

As discussed in earlier chapters, the years between the 14th and 16th centuries formed a period of Western European history referred to as the Renaissance. This was a time of great social and cultural change, characterised by creativity, innovation and new ways of thinking.

In contrast to medieval times, the Renaissance was a period of questioning and discovery. People started to think independently and experiment with new ideas and concepts. As more and more advancements were made in the arts and sciences, the Catholic Church began to lose the power and influence it had once held over people's beliefs about the world.

When looking at the causes for the declining power and influence of the Catholic Church in the 16th century, it is important to understand the role that the Renaissance played. Although it may have begun in northern Italy, the Renaissance gradually spread across Western Europe. Artists, writers, poets, scientists and philosophers in many different places were very much inspired by the exciting achievements occurring in Italy.

The rise in secularism in Europe

One way in which the Renaissance is thought to have led to the European Reformation, is that it fostered (or promoted) a rise in secularism across Europe. Secularism is the belief that religion should be kept separate from the public or political life of a society. It also encourages the belief that people should have the right to think and make decisions freely and not have their religion dominate their lives entirely.

The spread a philosophy known as humanism during the Renaissance was one factor which lead to a rise in secularism in Europe during the late Middle Ages. Humanism taught people to think as individuals and promoted the idea that humans, not supernatural forces, controlled history (refer Topic one, Chapter one).

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