The foundations of a strong and wealthy society in Normandy were in place, though it’s doubtful the average Christian peasant would have seen it. It wasn’t dubbed the Dark Ages for no reason. The Dark ages, early middle ages or early medieval times, they’re all the same, would last for 500 years until 1000AD.
The persecution of Christians finally ended in 496 when King Clovis’s Christian wife convinced him to convert. From then on the Catholic Christian community began to thrive.
Being a Catholic Christian in Early Medieval Europe however, meant something different than it does today. Early Christians didn’t immediately forget their pagan heritage, instead they wound the belief in demons and evil spirts around Christian teachings, often continuing old practices hand in hand with Christian sacrament. Medieval depictions of Hell and eternal damnation were meant to terrify and doom paintings featured in the early churches. Life was brutal and short, the average life expectancy of a man was 31 (the same as during the Industrial Revolution). Every bad thing that happened; plague, pestilence, war, famine, drought etc. was believed to be down to the sins of the individual, which was a state they were born into. Life on Earth was a penance, a stepping stone to Heaven and salvation.
In the period before the millennium, Christian outposts in Europe were struggling against wave after wave of invaders,
among them Muslim Saracens and pagan Vikings and Magyars. In addition, there was the usual run of famines and epidemics.
”Medieval folk lived in a more or less constant state of apocalyptic expectation,” said Bernard McGinn, a leading scholar of medieval religion at the University of Chicago.
A good Christian spent his life in a state of repentance, obeying the sacraments and doing everything possible to be closer to God and assured a place in Heaven. In an age with no trains, planes or automobiles that meant travelling on foot on pilgrimage to worship at religious shrines to show your piety and close the gap between earth and heaven. To stand on the threshold of Heaven, pilgrims travelled to the Holy Land to the site of Jesus Christs tomb at Church of the Holy Sepulchre. For those who couldn’t travel so far, heaven was brought closer to the Abbeys and Monasteries in the form holy relics (bits of saints and anything that might have come from Jerusalem around the time of Jesus). In Medieval Normandy the main pilgrimage destination was the tidal Island of Mont St Michel.
The Catholic Church itself strongly identified with res publica, as a community based establishment acting for the good of the people. With a population for whom Christianity was fundamental aspect of life, the monasteries, abbeys and churches were perfectly placed to fill a void in society and take full advantage of the power and wealth of the landowners.
In 530 St Benedictine wrote a practical guide for monastic life and Benedictine monasteries complete with black monks began to spring up all across Europe. Existing communities often donated land, or monasteries were built on unoccupied land to attract communities to them. Communities then paid a tenth of their income (a tithe) in return for religious services and to maintain the building, support the monks, priests and abbots.
The common notion of a monk is a of man in a habit bent over a desk copying a manuscript, in prayer, in meditation or busy chronicling notable events, but these were only a fraction of what they were about.
The monks and abbots were shrewd businessmen. As self-sufficient landowners they built farms, breweries and mills forbidding any other mills within the community and charging multure for their use. They collected rents for land and tolls for markets, encouraging the community to provide free labour to work the land as part of their penance. In return the monks passed on their craft skills to the community, provided food for needy, laundry’s, homes for orphans, refuges for the old, sanctuary for the accused, treatment for the sick, hospitals, libraries, accommodation for weary travellers and interest free credit for the local economy (interest on loans was strictly against church law). For any boy who wanted to join the order the monks provided education, training them to become doctors, archivists and tutors.
The monasteries, abbeys and churches created a thriving economy and as local populations and numbers of visiting Pilgrims increased (the population of France jumped from 3 million in 650AD to 19 million in 1340AD), they became money making machines. Financial affiliation with the church was not just an expectation of being a good Christian, but also a means to claim status and increase power in the community. They attracted the patronage of a growing number of nobles, who could claim nobility simply due to accumulated wealth and followers. Noble families often nominated ‘spare’ offspring to take holy order to keep it in the family. Patronage in the form of funding the creation of a monastery or Abbey tied the power of the Church to the power of the local ruling noble. Under the Merogivinians, if the noble could prove a link to the ruling elite this could mean an automatic sainthood as could becoming an abbot.