This lesson combines two difficult classes into one when time is shortened. The point is to talk about the good within the bad, and to get the teens to see that, as is always true, even amid troubles and evil times, great things are accomplished by God using the sinners that He has called to himself. In a sense we will be exploring the ‘Marks’ of the Church: one, holy, catholic, apostolic.
CCC ¶811-870; 1206
The Middle Ages, often referred to in the post-Reformation/Age of Enlightenment language as “The Dark Ages”, is a time maligned or ignored, yet for the Western Church (and therefore Europe), it was a time of immense cultural development, especially the sense of ‘Catholic’. While most secular history usually focuses on this period as ‘the time before the Reformation’ highlighting bad popes, abuses, anti-spirituality, and political struggles, and the triumph of humanism, we need to let the teens know of the triumphs of Faith as well as tragedies of this time in Church History.
Ecumenical Councils show that our Church always survived problems, right? The Church’s darkest moment is not the Western schism of 500 years later, but the original split between the Church in Rome (the West) and Constantinople (the East). This split has seen much better days in the last 50 years or so, but after a 1000, there is still some time to go before we re-align ourselves back together. The point is that we have seen hard times but we always seek unity.
The schism between East and West is not just a blemish on the Church, but had a significant effect on Western History. It seems minor now, perhaps, and the Eastern Churches barely register on our radar, so what is the big fuss? Why worry about it 1000 years later? We seem to be doing well without each other. Confusion in the West (as highlighted by such works as The Divinci Code) as to the place and role of the Eastern Churches must be addressed if we are to become One Body (Ut Unum Sint). Hopefully one day soon, parts of this section will become obsolete, except as a passing footnote.
In the end, all we have are Faith, Hope, and Love. These, not the progression of history, are the guide and gauge of our lives as Christians. It must be stressed: the history of the Western Church is the history of Western civilization. While the decline of the Roman Empire in the West features heavily in the early to mid-Middle Ages, the eventual decline of the East and the rise of the West is the final nail in the coffin of understanding and fellowship we had with the East. The main point is that all of the processes which led to and away from the schism as well as the ascendency of the West were long, slow processes and were not overnight events (we’re talking 500 to 1000 years here).
This leads us to part of the purpose of this class. Reconciling the past with our separated brethren (East and West) is an understanding of the forces that developed and deteriorated the bonds between us. It is said that history is written by the victors and in America, bastion of Protestantism and individualism, many denominations base their understanding and the writing of history on a snap-shot of the Western Church, a time right before the Reformation which limits the their understanding of all of history. (As a relevant aside, we do the same thing with Judaism – working from a snap-shot produced by the Gospel writers; over the years it is often a hindrance to our relationship with the Jews!)
The schism was Great; the Middle Ages had a dark side. Decay of infrastructure and communication, war, servitude, injustice, cultural clashes, superstition, plague, ignorance, and poverty. Still there is great parallel between that time and all time; the poor will be with you always, Jesus tells us, and those things mentioned above are just as prevalent today as they were 1000 to 1500 years ago. Yet, as is always true, they were also a time of deep faith, theological and sacramental development, soaring architecture and the creation of a truly ‘catholic’ Church. The darkness of the Dark Ages has been dispelled even though the name is persisted. The scandal of separated brethren still remains with us.
The following sections are a personal reflection upon the vastness of the schism and should be viewed in that manner.
The Not-So-Great “Great Schism”
One of the things we pray during the liturgy is that “from East to West a perfect offering may be made”. The sense of the Church as universal (catholic), as encompassing all Christians is bound up in this idea of “from East to West”. From east to west is the direction and track of the sun through the sky and is representative of ‘everywhere’, as Christ is the sun and he is everywhere and at all time. It is ironic that the split of East and West creates a situation where the Son cannot move from East to West.
The terms Orthodox and Catholic can really help to make the differences clear. Orthodox implies static, once-and-for-all understandings of things. It seeks stability over change, meaning that once a matter is settled it is not open for more discussion. This means that the Truth is the Truth is the Truth and it presents itself as a solid foundation upon which to build. Catholic implies a dynamic, updatable understanding of things. It seeks outreach and adaptability over static understanding, meaning not that the Truth is open to constant interpretation but that it presents itself as a living dynamic Truth to each generation and situation.
At the risk of great harm and trivialization we can reduce all of the reasons for the schism down to two main factors: Jurisdiction and Theology. The two examples of them are Papal authority and the filioque clause added to the Creed. Initially there were only a few ‘patriarchies’ Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria which had jurisdiction over the ‘metropolitans’ or the churches in all of the other cities. Eventually Jerusalem (the sentimental favorite) and Constantinople (the capital of the Eastern Empire or Byzantium) were added to the list. Each of the original three had some ‘claim’ to jurisdiction in that they were (Rome and Alexandria at least) major centers of learning and population. Rome had the additional claims of the death place for both Peter and Paul as well as being the jurisdictional capital of the whole Empire, until it was split by Constantine.
We will start first with jurisdiction. With the rise of Constantinople in opposition to Rome, squabbles naturally developed over the control of the Catholic Orthodox churches. Temporal jurisdictions did not mix well with spiritual ones. As Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria fell to the Muslims these contentions became more prevalent. Which patriarch had authority? There had been precedent for Rome, where over the years at times all had turned to her for settling matters. This precedent was called into question when Constantinople began to rise in offset to Rome’s decline in power. An example was the unopposed establishment of courts which gave Constantinople a broad legal jurisdiction. The mixing of lines and power, especially with the growing external pressures being exerted on the West, led to a decline in Roman influence outside (and to a degree inside) of the West. Eventually claims of Ecumenical Patriarch were made by both parties which sat well with neither; Rome in decline was seen as grasping at a last bid and Constantinople in ascendency was seen as a young upstart.
Next theology. The aforementioned jurisdictional structure meant that a certain amount of diversity existed in and was tolerated by the magisterial leaders. Heresy was fought and suppressed, but practices and some teachings which were not universally held were ‘tolerated’ at some level. One such was the filioque (and the son) clause added to the Nicene Creed during the Council of Toledo in the 6th century. Several passages in the Gospel of John lead to some ‘confusion’ or if you prefer ‘disagreement’ about the ‘procession’ of the Spirit. Chapter 14 has Jesus seeming to ask the Father for the Spirit (14:16) and Chapter 15 has Jesus sending the Spirit from the Father (15:26) whereas Chapter 20 has Jesus breathing the Spirit out (20:22). The West decided to settle the issue by adding filioque to the Latin translation of the Nicene Creed (not to the original Greek).
Eventually when all of the factors began coming to a head, demands for final answers on such things as jurisdiction and theological differences were made, and were pressed until satisfaction was rendered. Eventually, in 1054, excommunications were issued and normal communication ceased. While cooperation continued on both sides before and after the schism, isolation drove a wedge between all of the parties. Eventually the Byzantine Empire became surrounded by Muslims and began to decline in power as control of trade routes shifted and Christians in the area became outnumbered by Muslims. The West, finally out of the throes of invasion and plague began to regain its intellectual legacy as well as some juicy trade routes and trade agreements with the Muslims (another slap at Constantinople). Feeling a sense of power again the West began asserting its jurisdictional rights again, and began to feel empowered to save the world once again. These Crusades were of mixed results, except for the Fourth one which had the effect of sacking Constantinople in 1204. This had the effect of opening up Constantinople for the Muslims to be able to rename it Istanbul, which as you might imagine has left a bad taste in the mouth of the Orthodox for the last 800 years or so.
Left to their own devices for so many years, East and West developed many separate traditions and practices.
Aside from the Eastern Catholic churches which have united over time, several events have taken place since the 1960’s through Paul VI and Vatican II that have reduced tensions and brought East and West steps closer together. The common excommunication has been lifted, which means, without going into depth, depending upon the policies of the metropolitan and allowances under our new code of Canon Law, we may receive communion in each other’s churches. Many joint statements have been issued by us and several of the other orthodox churches as well as a formal apology for the sacking of Constantinople by John Paul II in 2001. In 2010 a joint working paper was issued which hopefully sets the stage for greater unification, and the obsolesce of this section.
The West, with its emphasis on developing ‘intellectual’ and theological concepts (over what we would consider now as ‘scientific’), adaptability, and missionary zeal succeeded in spreading into areas all around the known world whereas the East had to hunker down and protect itself from what it perceived as a threat from a growing Muslim (and others) population, the same sort of things the West had contended with for centuries. The West focused on dynamic spreading of the Gospel, often ‘adapting’ local customs and beliefs, broadening the understanding of ‘catholic’. The East focused on preserving the ‘orthodoxy’ of Christianity from all threats. The evangelical spread of the Catholic Church into the traditional Orthodox areas was seen as proselytizing and an invasion of the sovereignty of the Orthodox churches.
We can see the effects of these policies in the churches that exist today. Orthodoxy (like Greek and Russian) has shrunk down to small populations whereas Roman Catholicism has spread around the world. Still that spread has a dark side, with many heresies and controversies rising out of such a dynamic, non-orthodox theological approach.
Coupled with the intermixing of the spiritual and temporal power which both East and West practiced, power conflicts arose that continued on in the West long after the fall of the East. Kings making bishops and Popes making kings. Monasteries, havens for those wishing to step back from the world became cities for wealthy children, with abbots wielding great temporal, economic, and spiritual power.
These great and powerful highlights of history belie the everyday faith which blossomed amid such high stakes affairs. Our concern today is with the pilgrim in the street, so to speak. What about the everyday faithful? Many continued to live the life of Christ without care for the society at large. In the midst of war, saints gave comfort to all the displaced and wounded no matter the side (we can think of Francis crossing the enemy lines to speak with the Sultan during the Fifth Crusade). In the midst of poverty and starvation, saints created homes and societies for distribution to the poor. In the midst of spiritual conflict, saints preached with calm and compassion, quelling many a heart. In the midst of life, saints canonized or not, lived the call to love God with their whole heart, their whole mind and their neighbor as themselves.
The sense of this time as one of ignorance and a backward cave-man like existence contradicts the mountain of intellectual and rational thought which it produced. Great learning did not die, though it was sectioned off sometimes. For this portion of our program I turn to the monasteries and their great contribution to Western development.
Where would the West be without the Benedictine Order? Monasticism as we understand it in the West, was born with Benedict and his rule. Benedictine monasteries offered stability and places of learning as the cities declined and were replaced by monasteries in rural areas. Many of the modern cities we know today sprung up around Benedictine monasteries.
The missionary efforts of the Benedictines brought Christianity from one end of the old empire to the other, especially in England, Germany, and France. While constantly attacked and pillaged, it is a testament to the courage and determination of the monks who returned again and again to rebuild and keep Christianity established and thriving.
There is a downside as well. With the abbey as the center of commerce and learning as well as being the largest land owner, there was bound to be chafing with the secular leaders as well as abuses of the largess. In fact the Benedictine order almost completely disappeared to history, and would have if not for some serious reforms, from the likes of Bernard and Cluny community.
The benefit we reap from the communities of monastics in efforts of education, aid to the poor, missions, etc. we owe to the Benedictines.
We do not often associate Augustine with the middle ages but he is perhaps the last Roman. It is his death in 430, within months of the fall North Africa to the Vandals, which some use to mark the beginning of the Middle Ages. It is Augustine who gives such a great intellectual foundation to theology for the next 1000 years. A Platonist by philosophical bent, he defined the idea echoed by Anselm of ‘faith seeking understanding’. His definition of the doctrine of Original Sin, his role in the definition of the canon of Scripture, among other accomplishments places him in the pivotal role of the threshold between early Church and Medieval Church.
In Anselm we have the first accepted Western attempt to meld both the Platonic elements within Augustine and the Aristotelian elements we shall see in Thomas Aquinas. As Augustine straddles the fall of the Roman Empire (from stability to chaos), Anselm straddles the millennia of the chaos to stability of the Scholastic world of Aquinas. Anselm is probably best known for the results of a challenge put to him to ‘prove’ doctrines without resorting to Scripture, i.e. completely by reason. His ontological proof, that ‘God is the concept of which no greater can be thought up’ has inspired debate for centuries. For Anselm it was all about Faith, and a Faith which walked hand in hand with reason. His statement that theology was ‘Faith seeking understanding’ is often misinterpreted to mean trying to create reasonable answers to fit superstition or improvable metaphysical things, but that is wrong. Anselm believed the Faith first, that it was all Truth and what he sought was understanding to comprehend that marvelous Truth.
Alright, I know (I being Steve…surely you know Jeff didn’t write this), I am spouting some stuff that does not seem to be part of what we are talking about. This small insight into the philosophers of the time is not meant to overwhelm but help you gain insight into the secular pressures being exhibited against Medieval theology. From the second century on, debate raged on the merits of philosophical elements within theology. Positive arguments fall to both sides. Those who were for it paved the way for such great theologians as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. Those who opposed it were vindicated by the likes of Arius and John Calvin.
With Aquinas in the 13th century, Catholic theology finally moves from a purely Platonic form to an Aristotelian one. By the 16th century there is a back-lash against the Thomist-Aristotelian world, with some return to the more Augustinian-Platonic world view, but aligned with Medieval skepticism an humanism. It is the reliance on Thomas Hobbes by John Calvin which produces an understanding of human nature as evil and sparks a splintering in the West over the nature of sin, salvation and authority.
What all that means is that the increasing focus on humanism and the advancements of science and math created an intellectual environment which saw Medieval theology as flawed and in the way of true intellectual freedom. The movement from Faith centered to Human centered conscience and the reliance on sola scriptura meant that people questioned the established wisdom in order to re-establish, re-learn, re-capture, whatever you want to call it, and then began to rely upon themselves as the only legitimate authority. Scripture was the only authority, but without Tradition to guide in its interpretation, and the immediate assumption that any interpretation which arose from Tradition was suspect (for both legitimate and irrational reasons), one was left only with the ‘Spirit’ inspired interpretation (as Tyndall would describe it, he ‘felt’ that a word should mean this or that, regardless of what the original Greek was or Latin translation of it).
“Moreover, carefully distinguishing reason from Faith, as is right, and yet joining them together in a harmony of friendship, so he guarded the rights of each, and so watched over the dignity of each, that, as far as humans are concerned, reason can now hardly rise higher than she rose, borne up in the flight of St. Thomas; and Faith can hardly gain more helps and greater helps from reason than those which St. Thomas gave her.” (Leo XIII 1879) With statements like that you can see why Thomas Aquinas is thought of as the definitive Catholic theologian. Aristotle over Plato. Substance and Accidents. Transubstantiation. At the end of his life, he wrote a friend “The end of all my labors has come. All that I have written appears to me as much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.”
What Was That Middle Thing?
Okay, the Middle Ages are a long time to take on in such a short format, but for the most part we know the story. Constantine makes Christianity okay...good. Constantine meddling in Christianity...bad. Church Fathers defining doctrine and setting the canon of Scripture...good. Magisterium having control over individual conscience...bad. Unfortunately you have to take the good with the bad, and in those cases, you cannot call it good one moment and bad the next because that particular aspect does not please you or fit in with your concept of Christianity.
That is not to say that the whole period was not fraught with theological danger. There were many instances of division and heretical teaching. There were censured theologians, questionable practices, and too much meddling in the secular world. Anselm’s brilliance as a thinker is perhaps somewhat overshadowed by his concession to allow the English king to appoint the Archbishop of Canterbury.
So What’s Your Problem?
Philosophy and temporal power struggles become the coup de jour. While helping keep up the intellectual development in the West they also began to increasingly establish the idea of humanism, that is, the study of human things, which further developed into a glorification of all things human, including the human intellect. Along with that was a form of skepticism which began with the idea of N and ended with the idea that everything must be questioned, including God.
The struggle of Church and State for power and jurisdiction owed its origin to the very nature of the Church. Similar to that with knowledge: if we own the Truth then we know everything, we must also rule over all things to keep then in line with the moral law that springs from the Truth. We can see a similar struggle today with Islamic Sharia law.
When we think of reform in the Church we think of names like Thomas More, Erasmus, and Ignatius Loyola. But all throughout this time there were many saints who worked tirelessly to promote and share God’s love. They came from all walks of life, politics, law, wealth, power, but in the end they dedicated themselves to God, not for some long term historical benefit but for the benefit of those around them, for the Church and for the broken world.
Names like Thomas Beckett, Peter Damian, Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi and Anthony of Padua, Elizabeth of Hungary, and Margret of Scotland. Constantly, throughout the time we are looking at, people have stepped forward to mend fences, help the poor, right governments and try to live Christ’s message and call. Time did not stop and change and reform did not cease until some moment in the 1500’s when suddenly Jesus returned to earth. The sheer number and types of saints during that period bespeaks the power of the Spirit to continue the creation, and that, as Jesus said, we would not be orphans; he is with us until the end of time. The number and variety of reform movements even in the face of stiff opposition, and I mean stiff, recalls to us that we are one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, if not also human. They recall to us the sense of God’ time, of the nature of the Church and of our role within it.
We share a rich theological tradition with the East, from the Early Fathers to Augustine and the like. There are ultimately few theological points which separate us. Practice and attitude (catholic versus orthodox) probably play a larger role. We have so much to learn from one another. We get back in touch with our more orthodox understanding of Faith, and they reap the benefits of our learning to evangelize in a changing world. The question for us today is do we see the Church as able to be a peace-maker? The grass-roots level of distrust is not an easy thing to overcome. The higher-level theological disagreement is painstaking to work through. The history of mutual ills and the perceived hubris, greed, power-seeking, and arrogance of Rome and the Papacy do create cause for difficult dialogue. It is perhaps matched by a similar hubris and long memory of wrongs long past on the Orthodox side. But what we both know is the power of forgiveness and humility that are the gifts of Christ, whom we all serve, and which we both bring to this discussion.
Our separateness is a stain on all of Christianity. The echoes of ‘they know we are Christians by our love’ remain hollow as long as we struggle with issues of power, self-identity, and anger which are the product of this schism. We are called to unity and to practice tolerance and forgiveness. The Great Schism is a vivid reminder of what happens in the world when we refuse to practice our Faith.
Saint handouts from Faith Works pp. 98-102
Video – Mel Brooks Spanish Inquisition (10 min)
From History of the World Part I. (First 2 minutes)
Brief discussion of misconceptions, distortions, and errors in true Church history
What do you know about this period of the Church?
Where did you learn it?
How does this portray the Church?
Do bad things happen in the name of the Church?
Do good things happen at the same time as bad things?
1 Corinthians 1
The Inquisition Song from History of the World
Questions; group review of selected saints of the Dark Ages.
A Prayer of St. Dominic.
Introductory Prayer: (5 min, after candle is lit…)
1 Cor 1:8-13,17-21
I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, that in him you were enriched in every way, with all discourse and all knowledge, as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you, so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus (Christ). God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe's people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with the wisdom of human eloquence, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its meaning. The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the learning of the learned I will set aside." Where is the wise one? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made the wisdom of the world foolish? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith.
Presentation (15 min)
Darkness And Light
Many things happen, even today, which can leave a negative feeling or perception about the Church. Money, sex, power…all of these things are reality in our world. Even Pope Francis has something to say about the ills which exist within the confines of the hierarchy:
The disease of thinking we are “immortal”.
The disease is the “Martha complex”, excessive busy-ness.
The disease of mental and spiritual “petrification”.
The disease of excessive planning and of functionalism.
The disease of poor coordination.
A “spiritual Alzheimer’s disease”.
The disease of rivalry and vainglory.
The disease of existential schizophrenia.
The disease of gossiping, grumbling and back-biting.
The disease of idolizing superiors.
The disease of indifference to others.
The disease of a lugubrious face.
The disease of hoarding.
The disease of closed circles.
The disease of worldly profit, of forms of self-exhibition.
These are not just problems within the hierarchy but within each sinner who is part of the Church. But we also know that many sinners overcome these “diseases” and help cure the World.
Activity / Table Talk
Table Discussion (30 min)
Briefly review the handouts on the saints provided to each table.
(Faith Works for Senior High pg. 98-102)
St. Francis of Assisi (Freshmen)
St. Bernard of Clairvaux (Sophomores)
St. Thomas Aquinas (Seniors)
St. Catherine of Siena (Seniors)
St. Julian of Norwich (Juniors)
Why can’t each church just do its own thing?
Do we need a central authority and single leader like a pope? Why?
Is it important that the churches reunite? If so, Why?
On a daily basis, does it impact us that the churches are not unified? If so, how?
How does the Magisterium, or the teaching authority of the Church work into this discussion? (Our faith is based upon Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium)
When JPII visited Athens in 1996 his motorcade passed groups of Orthodox monks holding signs saying “1204” on them, a reference to the year that Constantinople was sacked during the 4th Crusade. Comments?
How would Jesus handle this issue of division and why?
Who was the most travelled pope in history? Why should the pope travel besides frequent flyer bonus points? Wouldn’t the money be better spent feeding the poor?
What good does monastic life do for anybody? Is a monk or a cloistered nun just a selfish escapist? Why or why not?
Why is it important to know and understand saints in the history of the church? Who cares about dead people from a thousand years ago? Are they relevant to us today?
What does it mean that we are a Catholic church?
None (0 min).
Prayer (5 min).
A Prayer of St. Dominic May God the Father who made us bless us
As a rule, no period is as good as “the good ol’ days”. The past can always seem better through the eyes of nostalgia, or a desire to make them seem better than they were. The alternative can also be true. We can overburden the past with negative images and paint the future as much rosier.
The following looks at the Middle Ages are an attempt to smooth out some of the wrinkles about that time. The early parts of the Early Middle Ages were still times of transition, of marauders and crumbling infrastructure. The struggle for power is nothing new and it devastates everything in its path. Look at Europe after WWII. It takes a strong, almost dictatorial system to restore order and stability. The Church, operating more from Faith than ignorance
Top 10 Reasons the “Dark Ages” Were Not Dark
[The original author writes] I believe that we can safely say that the period of man’s history from 476 AD to 1000 AD is the most maligned of all. This period, known to historians as the Early Middle Ages, is still inaccurately referred to by most laymen as the Dark Ages. In fact the term “dark ages” is almost as ancient as the period itself – it was coined in the 1330s by Petrarch, the Italian scholar, to refer to the decline of Latin literature. It was later taken by the protestant reformers (16th century) and then the members of the Enlightenment (18th century) as a derogatory term with much broader implications, because they saw their own
Humanism based empirical “enlightenment” as absent from the earlier period; a tactic sometimes used in the discussion of history. Fortunately for modern students of history, the term is now officially known as the Early Middle Ages – a name which has no connotations at all and makes a distinction to the High Middle Ages, the period up to the 1600’s. So, with that background on the terms, here are ten reasons that the dark ages were, in fact, a period of great progress and light.
Universities Are Born
Regardless of how you want to think about it, Classical Education (still used today in some schools), like the Bible, did not just drop from the sky but was the system used by the Universities which were created in the Early Middle Ages (the first in history). The humanities, those subjects which were not theology, were introduced. The universities taught the arts, law, medicine, as well as theology. The University of Bologna (founded in 1088) was the first ever to grant degrees. These structures owe much to the development of monasteries, which both preserved and taught. The use of the classical structure (based on Ancient Greek education) was also supplemented in these medieval universities by the integration of Islamic education which was thriving at the time.
During this time Bede wrote his history of England (600’s). Cyril and Methodius introduced the Cyrillic alphabet (800’s) used by Slavic nations, including Russia.
While women were not admitted to Universities in the early days, the education of women did exist. The convents and monasteries of the day educated the young women who would often enter at a very young age. One such women (Hildegard Von Bingen) is one of the most celebrated women of the Medieval era who had great influence over the men in power at the time.
Scientific Foundations Laid
While progress in the empirical sciences, or what we think of as ‘Science’ today, was slow during this period in the West, it was steady and of a very high quality. The foundation was laid here for the blossoming of science that was to occur in the High Middle Ages to come. It can be safely said, that without the study in the Early Middle Ages, we would be considerably behind in the explosion of our scientific knowledge which came afterwards. As Ronald Numbers (professor at Cambridge University) said: “Notions such as: ‘the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science’, ‘the medieval Christian Church suppressed the growth of the natural sciences’, ‘the medieval Christians thought that the world was flat’, and ‘the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages’ [are] examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, even though they are not supported by historical research.” [Source: Video or audio Lecture]
The Carolingian Renaissance was a period of advancements in literature, writing, the arts, architecture, jurisprudence, liturgical, and scriptural studies which occurred in the late eighth and ninth centuries. The Carolingians were Franks and the most well known is Charlemagne. The Carolingian empire was considered a rebirth of the culture of the Roman Empire (meaning at worst, the first revival of Rome was about 2 centuries after it fell). At the time, Vulgar Latin was beginning to be replaced by various dialects as the main spoken languages in Europe, so the creation of schools was vital to spread knowledge further amongst the common people. It was also this period which gave us the foundation of Western Classical Music.
Byzantine Golden Age
Under Justinian (500’s) this period gave us the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil law) – an enormous compendium of Roman Law. Literacy was high, elementary education was widespread (even in the countryside), middle education was available to many people, and higher education (as discussed above) was also widely accessible. In the Byzantine Empire during this period we saw a massive outpouring of books – encyclopedias, lexicons, and anthologies. While they did not create a lot of new thinking, they solidified and protected for the future much of what was already known.
There is much evidence of the free flow of ideas between the East, the West, and Islam. For example, John Damascene worked for the Muslim Caliph, defended sacred art and wrote extensively on many subjects (600’s).
This is a sticky topic, but the fact is, during the Early Middle Ages, Europe had a united Church, an agreed upon Creed (oral Tradition), canon of Scripture (the Bible), and a well developed theological/philosophical tradition which boasted many of the intellectual innovations which led to later systems. All of this contributed (as one would expect) to a great period of peace within the Byzantine and Western nations. While Islam was not in agreement with the doctrines of the West, much mutual sharing of information happened, especially by the likes of Avicenna and his theological development using Aristotelian philosophy, producing an Islamic contribution to the West is still felt today (he and others are quoted by Western theologians like the Scholastics). This union of beliefs allowed for intellectual progress unseen since the Roman Empire at its heyday. In a sense you might consider this period as the calm before the storm, as it was merely a hundred years later (1096) that the first Crusade would be called to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims – an event which ended the flow of knowledge between groups.
Thanks to the free exchange of ideas and learning with the Islamic people in the East, the world received the concept of zero and its first book on algebra. The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing was written by Al-Khwārizmī (800’s) with the Arabic title of the book gaving us the word “algebra”. The word algorithm comes from al-Khwārizmī’s name. This book gave us the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations. Later translations of his books also gave us the decimal positional number system we use today.
Art and Architecture
During the Early Middle Ages, architecture was diverse and innovative. Even without the benefit of complex geometry, adaptation of basic designs led to later innovations. The period included the introduction and absorption of classical forms and concepts in art and architecture. It introduced the idea of realistic images in art and it laid the groundwork for the Romanesque period and the Gothic period of the High Middle Ages. It can safely be said that this period was the first period of high art – with previous styles (Migration period) being much more functional and less “artistic”. In the Early Middle Ages we witness the birth of an astonishing and beautiful history of art and building culminating with the likes of Giotto and the chapel at Aachen.
Trivial as it may seem, the weather played a much greater part in the lives of the average people during the Middle Ages and beyond. When we think of the “Dark Ages” we tend to see images of snow storms, rain, thunder, and darkness – such as we see in films like “The Name of the Rose”. The fact is, in the Early Middle Ages, the North Atlantic region was warming up – so much so that at the opening of the High Middle Ages (from about 1100), the region was 100 years into an event now known as the Medieval Warm Period. This warm period thawed much ice and enabled the Vikings to begin their colonization of Greenland and other northern nations. Ironically, Europe from the Protestant reformation (1500’s) up until the 19th century suffered the ‘Little Ice Age’ – meaning that the period of “enlightenment” was literally darker and colder than the “dark” ages. Often the past is understood in terms of the present, and the present is seen as ‘better’ such that it must have been ‘worse’ then. To the contrary, during this period the warmer climate, societal and political reforms, as well as improvements in agriculture provided a boost to food supplies, enhanced migration and population growth.
Per that, if you desired to die a martyr by starvation, the Early Middle Ages were not the time to do it! As a consequence of the excellent weather and greater agricultural knowledge, the West did extremely well. Iron tools were in wide use in the Byzantine empire, feudalism in other parts of the world introduced efficient management of land (allowing for fallow periods to rejuvenate the land), and massive surpluses were created so that animals were fed on grains and not grass. Public safety was also guaranteed under the feudal system and so peace and prosperity was the lot for most people.
Law Becomes Fair
The Early Middle Ages had a complex system of laws which were often not connected, but they were effective and fair for the most part. For merchants traveling around the world, there was the Lex Mercatoria (Merchant Law) which had evolved over time, rather than being created. This law included arbitration and promoted good practice amongst traders. At the same time, Anglo Saxon Law was formed with a focus on keeping peace in the land. While this eventually led to some very tough laws, living under the legal system in the Early Middle Ages was probably the best time to live – as it was still flexible and fair for the majority. The third important legal system was the Early Germanic Law which allowed each person to be tried by his own people (a jury of one’s peers) – so as to not be disadvantaged by ignorance or major cultural differences.
Top 10 Myths about the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages spanned roughly from the 5th century to the 16th century – a total of 1,100 years. During the time following the Middle Ages (which is often referred to as the ‘Enlightenment’), the previous millennium was criticized and condemned – just as we now condemn the actions of some during the Victorian Period (sexual prudishness for example). Many of the writers of the new Protestant movements harshly attacked the Middle Ages because of its Catholicity. Unfortunately many of the myths and misconceptions that sprung up at the time are still believed today.
Myth 10: Death Penalty
Despite what many people believe, the Middle Ages gave birth to the jury system and trials were in fact very fair. The death penalty was considered to be extremely severe and was used only in the worst cases of crimes like murder, treason, and arson. The Inquisitions are often pointed to as the perpetrator of such acts when in reality it was not so much the Church sponsored Inquisition as it was the State sponsored temporal authorities who sentenced people to death. Even as the Middle Ages began to draw to a close people like Henry VIII began to use the death penalty as a means to rid their nations of religious opponents who were seen as a ‘danger’ to the stability of the state (both before and after he broke with the Church). Public beheadings were not as we see in the movies – they were given only to the rich, and were usually not performed in public. The most common method of execution was hanging – and burning was extremely rare (and usually performed after the criminal had been hanged to death first – it had something to do with the understanding of the bodily resurrection).
Myth 9: Locked Bibles
During the Middle Ages (until Gutenberg came along) all books had to be written by hand. This was a painstaking task which took many months – particularly with a book as large as the Bible. The job of hand-printing books was left to monks tucked away in monasteries. These books were
incredibly valuable and they were needed in every Church as the Bible was read aloud at Mass every day. In order to protect these valuable books, they would be locked away.
There was no conspiracy to keep the Bible from the people – the locks meant that the Church could guarantee that the people could hear the Bible (many wouldn’t have been able to read) every day.
And just to show that it wasn’t just the Catholic Church that locked up the Bibles for safety, the most famous “chained bible” is the “Great Bible” which Henry VIII had created and ordered to be read in the protestant churches. You can read more about that here. The Catholic diocese of Lincoln makes a comment on the practice here.
Myth 8: Starving Poor
This is completely false. Peasants (those who worked in manual work) would have had fresh porridge and bread daily – with beer to drink. In addition, each day would have an assortment of dried or cured meats, cheeses, and fruits and vegetables from their area. Poultry, chicken, ducks, pigeons, and geese were not uncommon on the peasants dinner
table. Some peasants also liked to keep bees, to provide honey for their tables.
Given the choice between McDonalds and Medieval peasant food, I suspect the peasant food would be more nutritious and tasty. The rich of the time had a great choice of meats – such as cattle, and sheep. They would eat more courses for each meal than the poor, and would probably have had a number of spiced dishes – something the poor could not afford. Wikipedia has an interesting article here which describes the mostly vegetable and grain diet of the peasants in the early Middle Ages, leading to more meat in the later period.
Myth 7: Thatched Roofs
First of all, the thatched roofs of Medieval dwellings were woven into a tight mat – they were not just bundles of straw and sticks thrown on top of the house. Animals would not easily have been able to get inside the roof – and considering how concerned the average Middle Ager was, if an animal did get inside, they would be promptly removed – just as we remove birds or other small creatures that enter our homes today. And for the record, thatched roofs were not just for the poor – many castles and grander homes had them as well – because they worked so well. There are many homes in English villages today that still have thatched roofs.
Myth 6: Smelly People
Not only is this a total myth, it is so widely believed that it has given rise to a whole other series of myths, such as the false belief that Church incense was designed to hide the stink of so many people in one place. In fact, the incense was part of the Church’s rituals due to its history coming from the Jewish religion which also used incense in its sacrifices. This myth has also lead to the strange idea that people usually married in May or June because they didn’t stink so badly – having had their yearly bath. It is, of course, utter rubbish. People married in those months because marriage was not allowed during Lent (the season of penance). So, back to smelly people. In the Middle Ages, most towns had bathhouses – in fact, cleanliness and hygiene was very highly regarded – so much so that bathing was incorporated into various ceremonies such as those surrounding knighthood.
Some people bathed daily, others less regularly – but most people bathed. Furthermore, they used hot water – they just had to heat it up themselves, unlike us with our modern plumbed hot water. The French put it best in the following Latin statement: Venari, ludere, lavari, bibere; Hoc est vivere! (To hunt, to play, to wash, to drink, – This is to live!)
Myth 5: Peasant Life
It is said that peasants lived a life of drudgery and back-breaking work. In fact, while peasants in the Middle Ages did work hard (tilling the fields was the only way to ensure you could eat), they had regular festivals (religious and secular) which involved dancing, drinking, games, and tournaments. Many of the games from the time are still played today: chess, checkers, dice, blind man’s bluff, and many more. It may not seem as fun as the latest game for the Wii, but it was a great opportunity to enjoy the especially warm weather that was caused by the Medieval Warming Period.
Myth 4: Violence Everywhere
While there was violence in the Middle Ages (just as there had always been), there were no equals to our modern Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Most people lived their lives without experiencing violence. The Inquisition was not the violent bloodlust that many movies and books have claimed it to be, and most modern historians now admit this readily. Modern times have seen genocide, mass murder, and serial killing – something virtually unheard of before the “enlightenment”. In fact, there are really only two serial killers of note from the Middle Ages: Elizabeth Bathory, and Gilles de Rais. For those who dispute the fact that the Inquisition resulted in very few deaths, Wikipedia has the statistics here showing that there were (at most) 826 recorded executions over a 160 year period – from 45,000 trials!
Myth 3: Oppressed Women
In the 1960s and 1970s, the idea that women were oppressed in the Middle Ages flourished. In fact, all we need to do is think of a few significant women from the period to see that that is not true at all: St Joan of Arc was a young woman who was given full control of the French army! Her downfall was political and would have occurred whether she were male or female. Hildegard von Bingen was a polymath in the Middle Ages who was held in such high esteem that Kings, Popes, and Lords all sought her advice. Her music and writing exists to this day. Powerful abbesses, Queens and other women pushed Christian charity and life throughout their influence. Elizabeth I ruled as a powerful queen in her own right, as had Mary before her. Granted women did not work on Cathedrals but they certainly pulled their weight in the fields and villages. Furthermore, the rules of chivalry meant that women had to be treated with the greatest of dignity. The biggest difference between the concept of feminism in the Middle Ages and now is that in the Middle Ages it was believed that women were “equal in dignity, different in function” – now the concept has been modified to “equal in dignity and function”.
Myth 2: Flat Earth
Two modern historians recently published a book in which they say: “there was scarcely a Christian scholar of the Middle Ages who did not acknowledge [Earth's] sphericity and even know its approximate circumference.”
Myth 1: Crude and Ignorant
Thanks largely to Hollywood movies, many people believe that the Middle Ages were full of religious superstition and ignorance. But in fact, leading historians deny that there is any evidence of this. Science and philosophy blossomed at the time – partly due to the introduction of Universities all over Europe. The Middle ages produced some of the
greatest art, music, and literature in all history. Boethius, Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch, and Machiavelli are still revered today for their brilliant minds. The cathedrals and castles of Europe are still standing and contain some of the most beautiful artwork and stonework man has been able to create with his bare hands. Medicine at the time was primitive, but it was structured and willing to embrace new ideas when they arose (which is how we have modern medicine).
Other similar sources: http://www.traditioninaction.org/History/A_005_Myths1500s.html