The Middle Ages: Age of Faith or Age of Meh?

Traditionalists and secular humanists may not see eye-to-eye on much, but both groups tend to agree that the era of Latin Christendom (also known as the Middle Ages or the medieval period) was an “Age of Faith,” when Western European politics and culture revolved around the Catholic Church. For traditionalists, Christendom was the high point of Western civilization, and we’ve being going downhill ever since, while secular humanists would see that same period as a time of stagnation, or “one thousand years without a bath,” as one wag put it. Both views are wrong for reasons that I’ve already articulated on this blog, but the widely held belief that the Middle Ages was an “Age of Faith” is also incorrect.

As with most historical epochs, historians and the public at large tend to get their ideas about what life was like in the Middle Ages from the writings that were left behind. The obvious problem is that the vast majority of people living in the medieval period were illiterate, and among those could read, many couldn’t write, because writing was considered “work” and vulgar if you were in the bellatores and oratores classes. Therefore, when you read the writings of Thomas Aquinas or Peter Lombard, you’re only learning what Aquinas or Lombard thought about a particular subject, not what the average Jehan or Jeanne was thinking. In fact, it does not seem like the average Christian living during the so-called “Age of Faith” was expected to have anything more than a cursory knowledge of his or her religion.

While the Christianity of the Roman Empire was a mass movement operating in a vibrant religious marketplace not unlike the contemporary United States, the Christianity of medieval Christendom was largely a nominal affair for the average European. Missionaries to the Germanic barbarian tribes took great pains to convert and baptize chieftains and kings, but neglected to impart Christianity or a distinct Christian vision in any meaningful way to the peasant and serf majority. During the early Middle Ages, bishops were content to eliminate (or alternately, transform into Christian devotions) the most obvious forms of lingering pagan practice, and steer the laity towards “public welfare” activities, such as caring for the sick, burying the dead, collecting alms for the poor, and avoiding manual labor on Sundays. However, there were no serious attempts to impart the specifics of Christian doctrine to the unlettered lay masses, because it was believed that they would be saved through their membership in the institutional Church and the prayers of monks and nuns. To the extent that the Catholic hierarchy thought about the beliefs of the laity, it was in the context of getting the bellatores to provide the Church with material support, protect ecclesiastical property, and not usurp the power of bishops and other high-ranking clerics; ruminations on the quality of the interior lives of craftsmen were practically nonexistent. For example, Pope Innocent IV said that all lay people needed to explicitly believe was that God existed and rewarded good people. Bonaventure said that expecting lay Christians to have full knowledge of Christianity would be “cruel,” since that would mean that only the clerical elite could ever hope to be saved. Thomas Aquinas believed that the laity could be saved by putting their faith in their learned “betters” and “the church” itself, which counted as implicit faith in the tenets of Christianity.

The Fourth Lateran Council (1213-1215) tried to established some basic standards for lay Christians, such as demanding that all adults confess their sins at least once a year to a priest and stating that parish priests should provide basic instruction to their flocks. It is difficult to say how well or to what extent bishops were able to implement these ideas but John Arnold, author of Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe, relates that the most common method of instruction during this period was to teach the laity the Ave Maria, the Apostles’ Creed and the Sign of the Cross, which were believed the contain the basics of Christian faith. In some dioceses, these prayer were taught in Latin, while others used the vernacular language to ensure greater comprehension. Yet, there are frequent mentions in documents of the later Middle Ages indicating that it was quite common to find individuals who did not know these prayers in any language; records from the medieval-era Heytesbury Hospital related that if an indigent patient was ignorant of the Ave Maria and the Pater Noster, and Apostles’ Creed, he should be encouraged, “to do his besy labour to cunne say hit perfitely.” If the ordinary Christians of “actually existing Christendom” found learning the Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary too onerous to learn, it’s hard to believe that they self-aware enough to be the zealous members of the Church Militant that traditionalists seem to think they were.

Rather than see Europe’s lack of interest in religious matters as a new and totally unprecedented phenomenon, it would be better to regard it as the logical end of a Christianity that only superficially penetrated the culture of the masses. The areas of Western Europe where Christianity has a somewhat stronger foothold — Italy — coincide with places where Christianity became more of a mass movement. Part of the problem stems from the fact that Christianity, whether in its Protestant or Catholic forms, is a textually based religion that doesn’t really translate well to an agrarian, non-literate culture. In the Roman Empire, Christianity was essentially an urban, literate, phenomenon, and the effort to transpose it to the tribal-based Germanic societies that would eventually become the feudal kingdoms of Christendom fundamentally changed its character (by way of comparison, the Bible itself often became a magical object in pre-literate Protestant societies, including the Old South and the Jim Crow South). There’s nothing wrong with that, but any attempt to claim that Christianity is the same in every time and every cultural context is just plain wrong. Inculturating any particular society into a new belief system, whether religious or secular, takes time and effort. If the medieval Church couldn’t be bothered to teach “ordinary Christians” the most rudimentary prayers when it had a near monopoly on political and cultural discourse, then they only have themselves to blame for the religious disinterest of the present.