Understanding the Middle Ages

Understanding the Middle Ages

Lasting from about the fifth century AD into the fifteenth, the Middle Ages, sometimes called the age of the church, may be one of the most interesting periods of history and, at the same time, one of the most mysterious. It also faces much prejudice—people may not know a lot about the Middle Ages, but they tend to have negative opinions about it, especially as regards the Christian church’s role.

I came away from a public school education thinking that the Middle Ages were a dark time, brought on by religion, with not much going in terms of science and technology. However, the more I investigated medieval history, the more I came to a very different point of view.

Antiquity is an exciting period to study, as are the Renaissance and Enlightenment. But in between rested the mysterious Dark Ages, called so because of an initial lack of knowledge about this era. The moniker later took on a derisive meaning and there grew the idea that nothing much can happen when the church is in control of things. But more recent study and research has shown that the opposite is the case.

Historians have found that, not only were the Middle Ages not a bleak period, but they were a time of deep insight in science, technology, philosophy, theology, art, and literature. Some of my own favorite Christian thinkers came out of the Middle Ages. There were St. Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, and William of Occam. In literature there was Dante’s Inferno. And it wasn’t just a rich time for Christians. There were also important Jewish thinkers, such as Moses Maimonides.

For education and science, the Middle Ages were a pivotal time. Alister McGrath, James Hannam, and a number of other authors have noted that Catholics founded the university system of Europe (some of them, like Cambridge and Oxford, were not Catholic). This laid the foundation educationally for the birth of science in the 1600s. And in terms of philosophy, Etienne Gilson documents in History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages the remarkable contributions made by medieval Christian philosophers.

This is not to say that the Middle Ages didn’t experience a fair share of difficulties. For example, the bubonic plague wiped out a third of the population in Europe, leading to major economic and social upheaval. In the High Middle Ages, there were the Crusades, famously upheld as a prime example of the black marks in Christianity’s history. However, when people are motivated to be unfair to Christianity they can end up painting such events, even if indeed wrong, in the worse light possible. Some historians now regard the Crusades as a defensive war, largely against Islamic invasion. Moreover, the death tolls attributed to the Crusades and other negative events involving the church don’t even come close to the numbers of people killed by Communism, a secular system of government. (See my article “More Deaths in the Name of God or in the Name of No Gods?”)

When examining the past, we must avoid the assumption that prior worldviews, customs, systems, etc. are inherently inferior to ours. C. S. Lewis, himself a professor of medieval and Renaissance literature, called this “chronological snobbery.” Like any time period (including our own), the Middle Ages were a mixed bag of good and bad things. We need to understand both before labeling this fascinating time period as “dark.”

To break away from the popular misconceptions about the Middle Ages, medieval Christians in particular, find an author without a heavy bias. Don’t look for a Christian to paint the period as perfection and certainly don’t swallow the idea of the Middle Ages as just this absence, with nothing happening but bad things. Does the author or historian have philosophical or worldview acuity to recognize the difference between facts and interpretation? What knowledge do they have of medieval people? Are they aware of Christianity’s role and do they approach it with fairness?

History is one of the most fascinating fields of study; and the Middle Ages is a crucial period to understand in order to appreciate the modern world that we live in. As one scholar put it, “We don’t live in the past but the past lives in us.” Christians are deeply indebted to historical events that took place in the real world of time and space.

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