Powerful as was the Church in these ages, it was not able to protect women outside the shad of the cloister. And it will be readily understood how great was the influence of the priest in an age when the mass of the people were so little able to think and judge for themselves, in an age when the supernatural encompassed daily life with terrors, when the common laws of nature were dim mysteries, when disease and misfortune were ascribed to the malevolence of witches and evil spirits. The Church was the supreme arbiter, and to question her decrees was to incur the risk of eternal misery.
The powers of evil could only be exorcised by holy water and priestly aid, and lapses into sin were atoned for by substantial offerings. It was easy to persuade women, always more susceptible than men to the emotional and imaginative side of religion, that their dreams and fancies were divine warnings. And hence they fell easy prey to the ecclesiastical tyranny.
But if the Church tyrannized over the people and took advantage of their ignorance, it was a great uplifting and civilizing power in their lives.
But for the Church the middle ages would have been one dark night of unillumined [sic] barbarism. The Church summed up in herself all that existed of knowledge and culture. It was the symbol of order, progress, and learning. In time of war it was a haven of peace. It was the Church that enabled women to live secure, sheltered lives in the midst of turmoils and danger. It was the guardian of the people’s consciences, and possessed over them a power of life and death.
Church and Everyday Life
Looked at from a lighter side, the Church was a potent factor in everyday life. Its festivals were one of the chief recreations of the people. To women especially, whose diversions were fewer than those of men, the feast days, with their processions and ceremonials, were welcome excitements. In the services of the Church, woman found an outlet for the gratification of her aesthetic sense, which nothing else afforded. If the main features of social live in this period be remembered, the sordidness of the dwellings, the absence of everything beyond the barest necessities in the majority of homes, the lack of indoor recreations, and of all the resources of modern times afforded by the means of locomotion, it will not appear strange that the Church as a social force should have wielded such power.
After the founding of the Benedictine order, in 530, regular nunneries were also founded, and the conventional system spread rapidly in every part of Europe. This created a new interest for women of all ranks and conditions. It is related in the annals of the English Heptarchy that no fewer than thirty kings and queens resigned their crowns and rank to live and die in religious houses. The veneration in which they were held, however, soon by its excess engendered abuses. As numbers of the feudalry, when past the age of enterprise, or in ill health, or disgusted with the world, took refuge in convents, and there ended their days, it was usual for them to leave large bequests, and even give their whole property, for the maintenance of these institutions, and, when nunneries were established, numbers of noble women chose a cloistered life. From these and other causes, a tide of wealth poured in, which caused a total alteration in the proper character of a system commenced with the most self-satisfying asceticism.
Reference: Woman: Her Position, Influence and Achievement Throughout the Civilized World. Designed and Arranged by William C. King. Published in 1900 by The King-Richardson Co. Copyright 1903 The King-Richardson Co.