Lessons learned from Christianity's medieval past

By  Marc B. Cels, Catholic Register Special
  • December 4, 2009
{mosimage}Medieval Christianity in Practice , edited by Miri Rubin (Princeton University Press, 360 pages, $85).

In this new book, old voices offer lessons to modern Christians about the diversity and flexibility of their faith. Medieval Christianity in Practice gives short excerpts from medieval writings describing how medieval Christians lived their religion and provides commentary by leading scholars. The Middle Ages ended 500 years ago, but the period still inspires — and haunts — the 21st-century church. So it’s worth a visit.

The title evokes one of two opposite responses. For some, medieval Christianity represents the “good old days” when the Catholic Church presided over an undivided Christendom that seamlessly fused secular and religious spheres of life. Medieval conjures up soaring cathedrals, Latin chant, studious monks and nuns, wonder-working saints, heroic crusaders and a pious laity. Self-styled Catholic traditionalists see themselves as the preservers of an authentic and timeless faith passed down from the Middle Ages.

For others, however, medieval Christianity represents the “bad old days,” a dark age when corrupt clergy exploited a credulous and ignorant laity. It conjures up morbid art, incomprehensible rituals, violent repression, ugly fanaticism and superstition. Generations of reformers have sought to uproot the medieval from Christianity, like a weed choking the Gospel seed. They have usually seen themselves either as restoring an older, purer form of Christianity or as establishing an enlightened Christianity that is more relevant to present-day needs.

{sa 0691090599}Medieval Christianity in Practice challenges both assumptions by taking readers back in time to encounter medieval Christians through their own words. Like a visit to a foreign church, there is much that is familiar, much that is strange. 

One is struck by the sheer creativity of medieval Christianity. The excerpts from medieval writing describe ordinary, even mundane, practices, as well as the more unusual examples of extreme piety of monks, nuns and doomsday prophets — even of heretics. The book is not a history of medieval Christianity. Rather, excerpts are arranged topically according to the life-cycle of medieval Christians, from royal courts and cloistered convents to rural parishes and bustling towns. 

Not all the beliefs and practices were dictated from on high by church leaders — many, indeed, were never officially approved, let alone promoted. Although, by the late Middle Ages, the medieval church had the means of disciplining the faithful and persecuting out-right dissenters, the church’s methods of educating and persuading its members were very rudimentary. There wasn’t even a seminary system to train parish priests.

One excerpt is a contract between a priest and his apprentice, whom he promises to train for the priesthood — like a tradesman. A sample sermon gives a taste of the exhortation that might have been given from a medieval pulpit, but preaching only became common in the 1200s. For the most part, men and women learned how to be Christian from their families and fellow parishioners.

The most poignant example of this customary Christianity is the story of a deaf-mute man who claimed to have been miraculously cured. The man had been taken in as a boy by a kind craftsman and given work by a charitable noblewoman. The man had learned what to do in church but didn’t understand the rituals. During a chance visit to the church housing the body of the saintly King Louis of France, the disabled man imitated the gestures of pilgrims and found himself cured.

The story illustrates the importance of outward observance to medieval religion — it was not knowledge or faith that cured the deaf-mute, but his pious practices.

Not only were medieval religious practices diverse — often sprung from the grass-roots level — but they were flexible and adaptable, not fixed or timeless. Confirmation, for example, includes a ritual slap to the face that likely hearkens back to the ancient barbatoria, a ceremonial first shave that was a popular rite of passage for Roman and barbarian boys. The medieval church incorporated and converted such pre-Christian customs for its own liturgy.

What about the nastier side of medieval Christianity, which often attracts the prurient interest of modern people — the mean anti-Semitism, the ugly misogyny and the violent holy wars and inquisitions?

These features appear in these readings, but lie discreetly in the background. They show that, even at the time, there were critics of and dissenters from the medieval church.

Reflecting on the legacy of medieval Christianity, a reader may find both those elements that are out of date and those elements which are enduring heirlooms. Most important is the lesson that a living religion is not a fossil, but the use and adaptation of traditions to changing circumstances.

(Cels is a professor of  History at the Centre for Global and Social Analysis of Athabasca University in Athabasca, Alta.)

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