Irene Carstairs is a historian based in Tirana, Albania. She runs “That History Nerd,” a history blog dedicated to dusting off the ephemera of history and bringing it to life. She is particularly interested in women, the middle ages, and women in the middle ages. You can find her work at www.thathistorynerd, and find her on twitter at @CarstairsIrene
Of all the political superpowers of the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church reigned supreme. Despite having no standing army of its own, and occupying only a small portion of the Italian peninsula, the Church had immense control over Western Europe. People of the Middle Ages had a great concern for the fate of the soul after death, and as the gatekeepers to a non-hellfire and brimstone filled afterlife, the Catholic Church held more power than any individual king.
However, getting and keeping power was difficult. In an era where military might was everything, a small country reliant on mercenaries and foreign friends wouldn’t stand for very long against any invading force. So, lacking swords, the Church turned to sin and penance to keep Europe in line.
In the early centuries of Christianity what was and what wasn’t a sin was a bit unclear, and while there were definitely behaviours defined as sins in biblical teachings, more activities came to be sinful through later Church teachings. Most sexual behaviours became mortal sins that would damn the soul to an eternity of suffering if not repented of. The only way to repentance was through confession and doing penance, something that was only possible with a church official.
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