I have never understood why Catholic catechetics—both for young people and adults—does not devote time to the Middle Ages. Perhaps part of the problem is our present-day fixation with a handful of sins and preoccupations of the moment such as politicians and communion. Another factor is the general disinterest with history that seems to pervade our culture. The philosopher George Santayana’s [1863-1952] phrase, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” reminds us of the cost of failing to look backward.
Christianity itself is history. Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are history. By the doctrine of the Incarnation, the timeless Second Person of the Trinity entered human history, born during the heyday of the Roman Empire. St. Luke begins his Gospel by establishing his bona fides as a historian: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us…I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received. [Luke 1: 1-4]” To follow Jesus without a heart open to history will result in recreating Him into our own convenient image and likeness, a dangerous form of idolatry.
The gift of the Holy Spirit, whose coming is described so dramatically in St. Luke’s Acts 2 makes the history of the Church—in its glory and its sinfulness—a teaching commentary for the ages to come. We learn from the study of Church History what analogies and commentaries on the Scriptures have consistently enriched the faithful and which have confused them. We learn what kinds of missionary outreach has captivated searching souls and which has repulsed them. We learn how certain styles of living induce holiness and communion with God, and which destroy the fiber of human dignity.
For a brief period of my life, I was carrying an undergraduate double major of philosophy and medieval studies at Catholic University. Truth be told, I was not prepared to do both. I needed the philosophy to be ordained, so I dropped the Middle Ages. But several years later, in graduate theology studies, I stumbled into a history project involving the end times [the theological term being eschatology, “the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind.”] I became acquainted with an early medieval mystic named Joachim of Fiore [1130-1201] whose mystical experiences led him to believe that a new age of the Holy Spirit had dawned upon the Church. Joachim was hardly the only religious eccentric in his day, but his concept of a new age of the Holy Spirit was adopted in the later 1200’s by the extreme wing of the Franciscan Order. This wing, the “Spiritual Franciscans,” held that Francis of Assisi’s teaching on poverty was absolute and could not be softened or reinterpreted by anyone, not even by a pope. [See my review, The Spiritual Franciscans, 2001.]
The Spiritual Franciscan crisis, which concluded in a sad ending for all involved, is symbolic of several major tectonic shifts in the Medieval Church. Religious experience was traditionally a matter of structured Catholic living. Mass, Confession, the Angelus, the Rosary, feast days, the chanting of the Divine Office, pilgrimages, etc. were all matters of the official Church who approved the style and content of individual religious observance. Throughout the Medieval era, however, grassroots movements of faith and devotion spread throughout the West, beyond the reach and supervision of Church officials. The Franciscan Order began as a ragamuffin band of brothers doing penance for sins, working as day laborers, and celebrating a brotherly piety. Such groups were common enough; Francis had the wisdom to seek the approval of Pope Innocent III and welcomed a cardinal protector. Other such bands went about with little or no supervision; the earliest Inquisition was established in part to address freelance spirituality.
Recent research and new translations of Medieval texts give us a better idea of how widespread the religious imagination was expanding during this era. This is not surprising; the first classic poetry and story telling in the Romance languages was developing. This is the age of Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, and Inferno; the time of Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch. Medieval life for peasants was drab and hard. In his Medieval Christianity [2015; see my review] Kevin Madigan describes the faith life of typical peasants as drab, limited, and one-dimensional. Parish priests of the time were trained, like all laborers, as apprentices who learned just enough Latin and rubrics to conduct a brief Mass. Preaching was virtually nonexistent in the countryside. The typical tourist in Europe today probably lays eyes on more cathedrals than a peasant of the thirteenth century who rarely traveled.
It is not hard to imagine that “the simple faithful” would be stirred by the unusual and the psychological. Wandering self-proclaimed charismatics with bands of followers would have provided a welcomed opportunity for a visceral religious experience. The Franciscans, one of the few groups bearing ecclesiastical approval, were immensely popular with the faithful and were granted pastoral privileges by popes. The preaching of St. Francis gives us a window into medieval piety: his veneration of the crucified Christ, his devotion to the Eucharist, his respect for priests, his sense of wonder at God’s creation. Francis was a revolutionary in another sense: he did not try to abolish poverty as much as he elevated the life of poverty to a dignity before God and man. Francis’ theology was biblically sound: he worshipped the Christ “who had nowhere to lay his head.” Recall that the Medieval era marked the beginning of a capitalist economy; Francis was the son of an entrepreneur cloth merchant marketing cloth from new exports from the East.
It is equally true, though, that the psychosocial world of Francis’ time could be equally fearful, violent, and susceptible to grassroots pathology. What little religious education percolated at the time tended to highlight the last things, with notable emphasis on Purgatory and Hell. Toward the end of the Medieval Era the fear of hell fire reached a point to which the sale of indulgences [remission of the afterlife punishments of sin] would actually seem like a good idea, a practice which touched off the Protestant Reformation in 1517. But long before that, a bishop could strike terror into a king by just threatening to place his region under interdict, i.e., forbidding the celebration of all sacraments, including those for the dying. The belief in the personification of evil was very common. Joan of Arc, you might recall, was prosecuted as a witch [though in actuality her prosecution was a political tactic of the Hundred Years’ War.]
Modern day students of the Middle Ages now appreciate another fear factor of the time: climate change. In this case, a significant cooling beginning around 1300, traced to Atlantic conditions, led to diminishing harvests which weakened immunity and led many farmers to move to crowded cities. Western Europe was thus highly vulnerable to disease, which was introduced dramatically in the form of the Black Plague, which killed at least one-third of the population of Europe in five surges between 1348 and 1353, and in future smaller outbreaks for many years thereafter. How bad was the Plague? In the atomic war planning of the United States military, the devastation of the Plague is used as one computer model to project scope of loss and impact of an atomic war.
Chroniclers of the age describe the frightful experience of this catastrophe in graphic and reliable accounts. [See my review of The Great Mortality, 2005] While the Covid-19 outbreak of 2020 and beyond does not come close to the measure of destruction of this fourteenth century outbreak, we can already appreciate the crippling of many aspects of society, from education to economy to politics to religion. For Medieval Europe, the Black Plague was an experience that essentially changed the culture of Medieval life. Primary among its impact was depopulation, if contemporary estimates of up to 50% fatalities are anywhere near correct. [Only Ireland escaped the brunt of the disease.] Among other factors, the best priests and religious stayed at their posts at the plague’s height to meet the spiritual and material needs of their people. This generation of servants died at their posts while the less inspired clergy fled to the mountains.
Those who survived the plague needed a rationale for its scourge, and as happened time and time again in Christian history, the scapegoats for this physical horror became the Jews. The Medieval world tended toward literal interpretation of the Bible. Consequently, Matthew’s account of the Good Friday condemnation of Jesus at the hands of a Jerusalem mob which cried “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children” [Matthew 27: 25] was embraced throughout history—and even, regrettably, in our own time—as justification by the Church for institutional persecution. The City of Venice had already restricted Jews to a walled ghetto in 1140. The Plague amplified a tradition of Christian hate narratives about Jews, tales which included desecration of communion hosts, poisoning of wells, and the abuse, torture, and crucifixion of young boys by Jewish enemies of Christianity. [It is troubling to see hints of overlap of Medieval antisemitism to current Q-Anon conspiracy tales.] Persecution of Jews was a staple of Medieval life; Ferdinand and Isabella unleashed the Inquisition upon Spanish Jews even as Columbus was preparing for his famous journey in the late 1400’s.
It is fair to ask what kind of leadership proceeded from the Church in the Middle Ages. The natural question turns to the office of the papacy, and the range of men who held the office of Bishop of Rome varied considerably. [St.] Gregory VII [r. 1073-1085] was the age’s first great reformer who brought the ideals of monastic life—including priestly celibacy—into his efforts to discipline and sanctify the Church. The most powerful medieval pope was undoubtedly Innocent III [r. 1198-1216]. Innocent died prematurely at the age of 52; it is worth reflecting on how his early death impacted the Medieval Church. Innocent convoked the Council Lateran IV , one of the best planned and prepared Councils in history. He strengthened Church discipline in many pastoral areas and was probably the strongest figure in Western Europe at the time. At the same time, he understood the need for reform, and gave Francis of Assisi his first permission to gather members to his movement, at a time when new orders were frowned upon as unnecessary and possibly dangerous.
Innocent stands as a mountain in a rather bleak field. By 1300 the sitting pontiff, Boniface VIII, made the strongest claim yet for universal supreme authority in his 1302 encyclical Unam Sanctam: “It is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff.” Unlike Innocent, Boniface had no military or popular support for such a claim. He was hounded out of office by King Philip IV of France, who transferred the seat of the papacy from Rome to Avignon, France, the “Avignon Papacy” [1309-1376]. When the papacy was returned to Rome, several men claimed the position, a major disruption of governance known as “The Great Western Schism.” [1378-1417] This scandal was ultimately settled at the Council of Constance [1414-1418] when the bishops used collective authority to declare an official pope and depose the impostors. Fearful that bishops could collectively override a future pope [a process called conciliarism] the remaining popes of the Medieval Era were loathe to summon desperately needed reform councils as the 1500’s saw Martin Luther and others take reform into their own hands.
For all this controversy and scandal at the top, the Church continued to function. Probably the most respected authoritative body within the Church was its network of universities. Close to 200 were established in Western Europe during the Middle Ages, including Oxford , Cambridge , and the University of Paris . Professors were generally clerics and later members of religious orders. The most famous is the Dominican St. Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274]. Aquinas is famous for his summas or compendiums of theological and philosophical thought which have been incorporated into the standard definitions of Catholic theological terms. He wrote and taught in propositional form, which historians refer to as scholasticism or method of the schools. Aquinas was the happy recipient of new translations of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, which arrived via Islamic copyists and translators. Aristotle’s realism played a significant role in Aquinas’s intellectual outlook.
Aquinas has enormous impact upon the Church today, and it is interesting to see today’s theologians revisiting “the Angelic Doctor” in many areas of theological research. The Church embraced his work over the past eight centuries because of his realism, which gives backbone to Church teachings, particularly in such matters as sacraments and morality.
There is an old saying that some of Aquinas’s worst enemies were his friendly commentators, and by the late Medieval Era the scholastic method was showing its age. An anti-Thomas philosophy/theology emerged, spearheaded by the Franciscan William of Ockham. Ockham held that God is not bound to any system of reason. “The ways of God are not open to reason, for God has freely chosen to create a world and establish a way of salvation within it apart from any necessary laws that human logic or rationality can uncover." Goodbye, theology. Ockham’s school became known as Nominalism, [from nomen, “name”] which holds that only particular things are real, i.e., there is no such thing as “general reality.” Ockham would influence Martin Luther two centuries later, and then the French philosopher Rene Descartes [1596-1650] in the modern era who declared “I think, therefore I am,” which opened the door to our modern emphasis, for better and worse, on personal experience to determine what is “real.”
For everything discussed thus far, it need be emphasized that the entire Medieval Era was profoundly affected by Islam. In 1000 A.D. Islam occupied the Iberian Peninsula to the West, threatened incursions from North Africa, and occupied the Middle East including Jerusalem and the region of the Holy Lands. In 1095 the Church made its first foray toward recovering the Holy Land in a military endeavor of unprecedented size, a force known today as the First Crusade [1096-1099]. Various estimates place the size of this army as high as 125,000, so large that it was necessary to travel in three separate vanguards. It was a harsh and cruel campaign; barely 1000 hardened warriors survived to take Jerusalem and massacred many of its occupants indiscriminately.
Unable to hold Jerusalem, Christian leaders attempted two more campaigns with modest success. Finally Innocent III called a Fourth Crusade [1202-1204] which adopted a new overall battle plan, choosing to sail to Jerusalem in partnership with the naval power Venice. In a bizarre series of mishaps, the Crusade proceeded not south but north, seizing the city of Constantinople [Istanbul], the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and conducting a pillage of massive proportions. Any hope of reunion of Eastern and Western Christianity was dashed. Two centuries later, on May 29, 1453, Constantinople was seized by the Islamic Ottoman Empire; its fall was received with shock and fear when word reached Western Europe.
The Middle Age of Christianity stands as a bridge between the ancient post-Apostolic Church and the post-Reformation Catholic Church of our experience. It is possible to draw from this era significant insights into issues we think of as totally modern religious issues. Teaching or reading from this era is intriguing and the resources are quite good. And what a refreshing change of focus.