A Reassessment of the Medieval Times
The Medieval era is perhaps one, if not the most misunderstood times in history. Ask people what they know of the medieval times, and most will tell you that they were a time of mere superstition, rampant barbarism and wars, oppression of women and minorities, scientific ignorance, totalitarianism, and a host of many other things.
Nothing could be further from the truth, not in an era were reasonable thinking with scholasticism and Thomism were present, or the development of education, including that of the university system. An era were scientific development was starting out, and were women were treated almost as equal as men. The problem is that many of these things go unnoticed. The Medieval times I tell people half-jokingly are not the so called “dark” ages. No the dark ages are the times we live in now. Times were people cannot even think logically anymore. They are times were modernism has both distorted art and culture. Instead of the beautiful arts of Michelangelo, you get the so called “masterpieces” like that of the infamous Piss Christ. Now it is not uncommon for unwanted children to be simply aborted; a thing almost unheard of in the medieval times. Rather those times held heavy prices for such a crime.
Where better to start than by describing medieval society, and the lives of the common medieval man.The Catholic “Age of faith” when monks, priests, farmers, merchants, kings, bishops, and knights created the dynamic civilization- the admixture of Classical, Catholic, and Germanic culture- that is the West. Even in his humblest estate, as a peasant, medieval man was not Taliban man. His assumptions were wildly different. He believed in a suffering Christ who came into the world as a helpless babe and died on the cross, rather than in a conquering prophet who thought it blasphemous to believe God would lower Himself to such indignities”.1
Another scholar Morris Bishop states that medieval society was one where people knew the value of work, and at the same time knew how to retire from the day and periodically enjoy life “ While medieval man loved feasts, celebrations, gay colors, and merrymaking, he also believed that service, labor, and commerce were honorable; that self-improvement and progress were possible; and that God had created a world that every man could understand through reason”2. This type of medieval living and mindset is similar in a way to that of the early pilgrims, which lived more medieval than modern.“ An American pioneer of the last century, setting out with oxcart, axe, plow, and spade to clear a forest farm, was closer to the Middle Ages than to modern times. He was self-sufficient, doctoring himself and his family with herbs, raising his own food, pounding his own grain, bartering with rare peddlers, rejoicing in occasional barn dances for all the world like medieval “karoles”3 This type of pilgrim living once again was not too different from the medieval lifestyle. That lifestyle of agrarianism which was predominant in the first half of the United States.
Women in medieval society.
In today’s feminism there is the idea that the Catholic Middle Ages were an era of oppression against women.“That’s rather hard to square, on the face of it, with medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary; the medieval invention of courtly, romantic love, the practice of chivalry; and the existence of queens and princesses. In every case, we have men making pledges of loyalty, fidelity, honor, and protection to women- women, it might be noted with power and favor, whether it be royal, romantic, or divine”.4
People in the United States, specifically in the feminist movement have been trying throughout the last years to get a women elected president, as to show the power and equality of women. For that reason what better place can you go than to the medieval ages, a time were you did not have women presidents, but better yet, queens and princesses.
H.W. Crocker in his article monasteries and madrassas gives a small description of the role of women is medieval society. “Women could govern from thrones or pontificate from the libraries, and they could rule the roost of a middle-class home just as any other Western hausfrau has done over the last 2000 years. They held jobs and learned crafts. If peasants, they worked the land with their husbands. They could become saints and lead men into battle (like Joan of Arc). Especially if they were in religious orders, they were well-represented in elementary education, nursing, and the other “caring professions”5 (as we would call them today).
Science and education in the Medieval times
This is probably one of the most misunderstood topics about the Medieval ages. All we think about when we discuss science in the medieval times is the oppression of science and reasonable thinking by the Church. We remember about the Church condemning and imprisoning Galileo. We also think about the massive ignorance of education during that time. Nothing is further from the truth. Rather contrary to popular opinion, this was a time were science and education were pretty high.
We need to realize that the university system was developed during the medieval ages. That is not to say that prior to that, there weren’t any schools, nor school systems. If you study the times of ancient Greece for example, you will realize that there were in fact schools. Plato and Aristotle themselves started their own “academies” for example. Academies were places for studying and developing philosophical thought. But nothing could compare to the university system itself. The medieval university system was not that different from today’s system. Tom Woods in his book How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization writes some of the similarities between the Medieval university and a modern one “A medieval university possessed a core of required texts, on which professors would lecture while adding their own insights. A university was also characterized by well-defined programs lasting a more or less fixed number of years, as well as by the granting of degrees.”6
It should also be noted that one of the main contributors to the development of both the university in Medieval times and education in general was the Pope himself. “Aside from the Church’s intellectual role in fostering the universities, the papacy played a central role in establishing and encouraging them. Naturally, the granting of a charter to a university was one indication of this papal role. Eighty one universities had been established by the time of the Reformation”7. “The popes intervened on the university’s behalf on numerous occasions, as when Pope Honorius III (1198-1216) issued the bull Parens Scientiarum on behalf of the masters of Paris. In this document, he effectively granted the University of Paris the right to self-government, whereby it could make its own rules pertaining to courses and studies. The pope also granted the university a separate papal jurisdiction, emancipating it from diocesan interference.”8
A scholar Lorie J Daly, states that “With this document the university comes of age and appears in legal history as a fully formed intellectual corporation for the advancement and training of scholars.”9
There is just too much to write about the medieval university system, and the role that the Church and the nobility played in developing the University system to write down, doing so would take pages, if not volumes.
This is true when it comes to medieval science, science in the middle ages was far from chaotic and unreasonable. Rather some of the most compelling arguments came from the medieval times. For example prior to the start of Christianity, and definitely from the time of the Middle Ages, there was a popular scientific consensus that the universe was “eternal”. That was the belief that the universe had no beginning and no end. This belief was common throughout most if not all the pagan civilizations. This is true of the Babylonians, Aztecs, and even Romans and Greeks. If you keep up with modern science you will realize that this belief is completely wrong. Even atheists denounce this claim, stating that the universe is not eternal, but rather created to what is referred to as the Big Bang. This belief in a created universe however roots itself in Christianity’s belief in a created universe by God, which was predominant belief in medieval Europe; a predominant Catholic place.
Tom Woods states that “Such stillbirths can be accounted for by each of these cultures’ conceptions of the universe and their lack of belief in a transcendent Creator who endowed His creation with consistent physical laws. To the contrary, they conceived of the universe as a huge organism dominated by a pantheon of deities and destined to go through endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth. This made the development of science impossible.”10 The animism that characterized ancient cultures, which conceived of the divine as immanent in created things, hindered the growth of science.
Fr. Stanley Jaki further explains that it was the Christian belief in the Incarnation, which helped disproved an “eternal” and animist universe. “The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation militates strongly against such thinking. Christ is the monogenes, or “only begotten,” Son of God. Within the Greco-Roman worldview, on the other hand, “the universe was the ‘monogenes’ or ‘only begotten’ emanation from a divine principle not really different from the universe itself.”11
On another level it was the monasteries of the medieval world that provided scientists to develop their astronomical understandings and knowledge. Most monasteries during that time served not only as a sacred place of worship, but also as solar observatories.
“In its scientific zeal, the Church adapted cathedrals across Europe, and a tower at the Vatican itself, so their darkened vaults could serve as solar observatories. Beams of sunlight that fell past religious art and marble columns not only inspired the faithful but provided astronomers with information about the sun, the earth and their celestial relationship.”12
Dr. Heilbron states that “The Church gave more financial and social support to the study of astronomy for over six centuries”. Even technological and agricultural advancements were made during this time period. Monasteries had to be self-sufficient, as monks had given up all worldly goods, and even some necessities in order to better serve God and not be attached to any particular thing. In order for this to happen, monks had to plan ahead and practicality was a must. Because of this we find out that most monasteries other than being sacred places of worship, and even solar observatories, were also grounds for technological and agricultural improvements.
Jim Gimpel states in Medieval Machine that “The Cistercian monastic community generally ran its own factory. The monks used waterpower for crushing wheat, sieving flour, filling cloth, and tanning.”13 It is also very fascinating when describing the self-sufficiency of the monasteries to acknowledge their high industrial strength, as well as their use of water power. Jean Gimpel further states that Cistercian monasteries “played a role in the diffusion of new techniques, for the high level of their agricultural technology was matched by their industrial technology. Every monastery had a model factory, often as large as the church and only several feel away, and waterpower drove the machinery of the various industries located on its foot”.14
Finally there was even a lot of agricultural improvement which could only be fully credited to the Catholic monks. Hard manual labor was a chief quality and charisms of the Benedictines. They had three in general, work, prayer, and study. One of their main manual labor consisted of agricultural and agrarian tasks. Because of this, it is that the Benedictine monks excelled and grew in agricultural experience. “Before long, they managed to dike and drain the swamps and turn what had once been a source o disease and filth into fertile agricultural land.”15 “Wherever they went, the monks introduced crops, industries, or production methods with which the people had not been previously familiar.”16
Art and Culture
To dismiss the medieval era as one of cultural ignorance, including a dislike for creativity in art and culture can only be dismissed as a straight out lie. Rather the medieval times were probably the times that experienced the most creative artists and preservation of classical culture, which would not have been done if it wasn’t for the society and atmosphere of medievalism.
H.W. Crocker states further in his article that “If medieval castles and cathedrals, art, crafts, and music aren’t enough: if Beowulf, the Song of Roland, the Poem of the Cid, and the Morte D’ Arthur don’t speak to you. If Boethius, Boccaccio, Dante, Petrarch are nothing; if you have no respect for St. Anselm, St Francis, and St. Thomas Aquinas, to select a mere handful of the literary riches of the period, there’s really not much more to say.”17 These are aspects that make up the medieval times and to dismiss them would be to dismiss a big portion of Western art and culture.
The truth however is that “The monks appreciated the classical inheritance far more than modern students realize. Describing the holdings at his library at York, the great Alcuin ( 735-804)- the polyglot who worked closely with Charlemagne in restoring study and scholarship in west central Europe.”18 “It was the monastic library and the scriptorium, the room set aside for the copying of texts, to which much of ancient Latin literature owes its transmission to us today, thought at times the libraries and schools associated with the great cathedrals would play an important role as well.”19
Catholic Charity in the Medieval times
It is almost shocking how much charity occurred during the medieval times that it almost goes unnoticed. It only makes sense when one realizes that medieval Europe was predominantly Catholic. Jesus states in the Gospel of Mathew “Amen I say to you, as long as you did it to one of these my least brethren, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40), he also states further “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” ( John 13:34-35) It makes sense that charity would have been practiced, and so it truly was. “Here we may note simply that Benedict’s Rule called for the monastery to dispense alms and hospitality to the extent that its means permitted”20 “ All guests who come shall be received as though they were Christ.”
Many monasteries had developed as safety zones for wondering travelers. These monasteries had different unique safety zones, according to where they were built. “At Aubrac, for example, where in the sixteenth century a monastic hospital had been established amid the mountains of the Rouergue, there rang a special bell every night in order to call to any wandering traveler, or to anyone overtaken by the intimidating forest darkness.”21 “In a similar vein, it was not unusual for monks living near the sea to establish contrivances for warning sailors of perilous obstacles or for nearby monasteries to make provision for shipwrecked men in need of lodging.”22 It has been said that the city of Copenhagen owes its origin to a monastery established by its founder, Bishop Absalon, which catered to the needs of the shipwrecked.
This charity did not only include monastic hospitality or even safety for travelers. No rather it was much more which included hospitality for the poor and vulnerable, excessive alms, and much more. “The military orders, established during the Crusades, administered hospitals all over Europe. One such order, the Knights of Saint John (also known as the Hospitallers), an early instantiation of what later became the Knights of Malta, left an especially significant imprint on the history of European hospitals, most notably with their unusually extensive facility in Jerusalem”23
“alike on towering mountains and in lowly valley, arose monasteries which formed the centers of the organized religious life of the neighborhood, maintained schools, provided models for agriculture, industry, pisciculture, and forestry, sheltered the traveler, relived the poor, reared the orphans, cared for the sick, and were havens of refuge for all who were weighed down by spiritual or corporal misery.”24 For centuries they were the centers of all religious, charitable, and cultural activity.
A different view of the Middle Ages
I am hoping this article shows some light to the intellect, science, and culture that came from the Middle Ages. May people begin to see history for the way it is, rather than for how it has been presented throughout the ages. This distorted view of medieval history has harmed the Church’s reputation in a malign-able way, but also to any one who is a sincere searcher for truth. This is not to say that the Medieval Age was flawless and had no problems of their own, just as our age has its.
May people not forget the scholastic reasoning of Aquinas, the love of Saint Francis, the generosity and hard work of monastic monks who contributed a lot to the preservation of manuscripts, education, agriculture, and many other things that have gone unnoticed.
1:H.W. Crocker Monasteries and Madrassas: – Five myths about Christianity, Islam, and the Middle Ages
4:H.W. Crocker, Monasteries and Madrassas: Five myths about Christianity, Islam, and the Middle Ages
6:Tom Woods “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization”
9:Lowrie J. Daly “The Medieval University”
10:Tom Woods “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization”
11:Fr. Stanley Jaki “Medieval Creativity in Science and Technology”
12:William J Broad, How the Church Aided ‘Heretical’ Astronomy (New York Times 1999)
13:Jim Gimpell “The Medieval Machine”
15:Henry H. Goodell, “ The Influence of the Monks in Agriculture.”
16:Tom Woods “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization
17:H.W. CrockerIII, Monasteries and Madrassas- Five myths about Christianity, Islam, and the Middle Ages
18:Tom Woods-What we owe the monks (lewrockwell.com)
24:Father George Ratzinger