By the end of the first millennium the Christian Church was firmly established as the dominant religious institution in the West. No longer vying with paganism for the affections of the majority, the Roman Church, until the Reformation, provided the framework in which European peoples understood their place in the cosmos, their relationship to God, their chances for salvation, and the modes of conduct for a Christian life. The Church was not only a vehicle for the elaboration and propagation of Christian theology; it was also a powerful and extensive network of institutions that was a central force in European society and politics. Although an essentially hierarchical institutional system, with the Pope at its apex, the Roman Church through its monasteries, bishops, local churches, nuns and priests worked its way into the fabric of everyday life. The Council of Trent (1545-63) gave an even stronger hand to the Church to more closely regulate marriage and the family. The Church may have had unrivalled religious authority but it was anxious to maintain its supremacy by suppressing heresy and witchcraft, even to the point of burning the eccentric sixteenth-century Italian miller Menocchio, whose radical cosmology involved a metaphor of cheese and worms to explain the chaos of existence.
Although in many areas pre-Christian ideas, customs and rituals survived, through its teachings, canon law, confession and penitentials, the Church exerted enormous influence over marriage, the body and sexual practices.