When you stop and think of it, the Middle Ages covers about 50% of what we call today the era of Christianity. It is that great expanse between the decline of the Roman Empire in Western Europe or the Age of St. Augustine (take your pick) and the Reformation of the sixteenth century when the identity of Christianity and Catholicism and the Church and the State crumbled spectacularly’ if erratically. I have just completed Kevin Madigan’s 2014 one-volume Medieval Christianity: A New History, and have come to discover that the last forty years have given us considerably new understandings trends and events of that time that not only explain Catholicism’s present day self-understanding but gives us an indication of how to approach the millennial challenges of the present day.
The computer age has been a boon to historians in general, providing access to scholars around the world and access to texts that previously would have required considerable travel to international libraries. Unlike the era of the early Church, much of the documentation of the Middle Ages has survived and is waiting for discovery in obscure collections or translation from Latin, Arabic, early French and English. In 1970 I minored in medieval history until a young medieval professor named Guy Lytle sat me down. What he told me, essentially, was that I didn’t have the aptitude (read: discipline) for the field. “I went to England, bought a bike, and peddled to every small town surviving English parish,” he explained. He was checking the credentials of parish pastors or curates in the 1200’s and determined that at least half were university educated, which scuttled the long standing belief that medieval clergy in England were dim witted and poor educators of their own flocks. (It makes you wonder why we don’t send our present day clergy to Harvard and Yale instead of small parochial regional seminaries.)
With his breadth of reading and research Madigan had access to sources that the Guy Lytles of the 1970’s did not, and his narrative is the richer for that. Of the many factors he discusses, I highlight a few that might entice you toward a second look.
The map of Europe throughout the Middle Ages looks nothing like it does today and it was in constant flux. The Medieval era was a time of incredible demographic shift. Nations for the most part were collections of tribes, duchies, and geographic centering. While I found this particularly frustrating in following the narrative, it is extremely helpful in understanding why a centralized Church might be an advantage to the various parties of the time.
The Middle Ages was a true roller-coaster era for the office of the papacy. Despite the early promise of Gregory I or St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s, the papacy began the era in low estate, rose to its greatest pinnacle of worldly power under Innocent III (d. 1216) and declined to a precarious moral and pastoral period during the time of Martin Luther.
A constant concern of Christians of the time was the need to reform the Church. As early as the 300’s St. Jerome and St. Augustine would support the move of devout souls from the corruption of the big cities to small collection of hermitages (Augustine would even write the first primitive rule.) Benedict in the 500’s, the monk Hildebrand or Pope Gregory VII (d. 1085), Francis of Assisi, Dominic, and Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) are just some of better known reformers of the era.
What is less appreciated is that for every religious movement of reform to appear in standard textbooks, there were countless anonymous fraternities, apparently of both sexes, some domestic and some wandering, generally bound by the compelling ideal of doing penance for sins. The key to their success was dependence upon action, such as common prayer, poverty, and caring for lepers, and less upon decrying corruption within the Church. Their influence and predominance is only gradually becoming known today. In addition, more attention has been paid to anchorites and anchoresses, literally walled into tomb-like structures within medieval cities, who devoted their lives to prayer and spiritual direction.
The medieval universities shaped Catholic thought through the twentieth century. Particularly after 1000 medieval cities established what we would recognize as the university structure. This was the age of Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, and Bologna--four of what would eventually be seventy medieval universities. The universities obtained copies of books from multiple sources, notably the Islamic world, which had preserved the writings of the ancient Greek world during periods of European chaos. St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest saint of the university era, would use the pagan Aristotle’s rational ordering of the world as the structure for his famous Summa Theologica, the outline of Catholic philosophy and theology we still employ today in many respects.
The later Middle Ages saw the development of a new “democratized” mysticism. In 2012 Pope Benedict XVI named the German mystic Hildegard of Bingen a doctor of the Catholic Church. Little known today at the pastoral level of catechetics, Hildegard was one of the “Rhineland Mystics,” men and women of intense mystical passion, who include in their numbers Julian of Norwich, Meister Eckhart, Mechtild, Elizabeth of Schonau, Beatrice, Hadewijch, and Marguerite of Porete (who, alas, was burned at the stake.) Although all were loyal to the Church (even Marguerite was reinstated), their visionary piety represented a significant break from the structured, clerical bent of everyday Church prayer life.
The power of Purgatory would dominate late Medieval pastoral practice. Unlike Eastern Christendom, the Western Roman Church would focus more and more upon the crucified Christ and the need of each individual to do excessive penance to make reparation and, perhaps more pointedly, to avoid the pains of purgatory, preached at the time as a “hell with a future.” This led to the exponential interest in and devotion to indulgences, whereby time in Purgatory would be reduced or remitted altogether. This trend would lead to the crashing end of the Medieval era: a Church divided between those cultivating traffic in forgiveness (such as the sale of indulgences) and those who despaired of the whole enterprise, such as Martin Luther. And so another era, the Reformation, would begin.