The Noisy Water Review

A Necessary Medieval

Elliott Cribbs

The final decades of the Roman Empire proved fertile ground for the humble (and humbled) beginnings of the Catholic Church and Christian belief but it didn't get any easier from there. Despite fervence and devotion, the Church of its own strength required ever greater support structures to win adherents as it spread the teachings of Christ across Europe. Any system of belief will encounter enemies from without and within as it grows, and even more in a chaotic era like the Medieval Period. Christ's teachings are a beautiful set of tenets professing the importance of loving each and every other, with a strong emphasis on forgiveness. Morality as He presents it is as steadfast in the rules seen in other belief systems, admonishment against murder, theft, and adultery, and stressing virtues such as patience and charity. The ideas hold true after two thousand years, a testament to the universality for people of any age, but how did the foundling religion assure its perpetuation amid such a dark age?

Learning about Christianity's complex ideas in a largely illiterate age requires not only teachers but physical manifestations of the Church's glory as reminders to the laity. For those whose hearts are set upon being near to these manifestations, journeys of pilgrimage must be made to reach them. The act of physically traveling to far-flung cathedrals has the dual benefits of bringing the devout Christian into close contact with fragments of their faith's foundations and providing a quest for absolution. These teachings, manifestations, and journeys are all equally important to this day, though now we have the benefit of the interceding reflections upon history to elaborate the meanings, the value of what Christianity's beginnings meant to those alive at the time and to the wider Western world. In retrospect we can see the interconnectedness that a shared religious tradition has provided for a vast portion of Europe. Moving past lives of tremendous difficulty, it could be said because of those difficulties, people of the Medieval Era crafted a framework for the varied nations as they exist today. The solidity of Christian traditions left a skeleton upon which the proceeding centuries' societal structures would be built, an amazing cohesiveness that aligned identity and purpose.

An intrinsic aspect of devotion to Christian teachings is found in the orderliness of monastic traditions. In perfect quietude and walled off from the disorder of the early Medieval Period were the foundations of Europe's cloistered lifestyle. Saint Benedict is the eponymous founder of the Benedictine Order and literally wrote the Rule Book on monastic existence. His ideas took hold in the century after his death in the 6th century C.E. And gained a permanent foothold in the 9th. Of his brethren he frequently advises spareness of words, an all but total silence in which one may speak when spoken to or by virtue of one's station, as a reader in the oratory for example. Repeated entreaties to forgive others and to exercise humility and obedience run throughout his Rules, which apply to each brethren and also to –especially to– priests, priors, and Abbots. A rise into one of these stations requires even greater attention to the precepts to guard against prideful behavior as well as closer watch from peers as insurance against this.

Monastic living is characterized above all by service to the Lord of course, but on a daily basis by toil and study of His Word. Of manual labor, Saint Benedict says that monks need “. . .not be discontented; for then they are truly monks when they live by the labour of their hands. . .” (Chapter 48). Psalms are read either aloud or silently to oneself several times a day and into the night, and Benedict is precise in which Psalm should be read when. Sundays and specific holy-days are marked by prayers and liturgy, fasting or special observance. In fact, 11 of the 73 chapters of the Rules pertain to these schedules so that not an 'alleluia' is uttered out of time or place. Where the initial portion of The Rules advises an Abbot specifically, these earlier chapters also contain terse commandment-like phrases such as “Not to bear false witness” and “not to return evil for evil” and stresses obedience unto death (Chapter 4). It is interesting to note that in counsel, the Abbot is advised to listen to the juniors among them for “. . . the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best,” a curious contrast to the deference to seniority otherwise professed throughout (Chapter 3). Many of the chapters following the prayer rules deal with managing the community within the cloister; what kind of punishment to dispense when a monk fails at his work, what he is to wear, and situational guidance for many occasions including the election of Abbots. Benedict brings his Rules to an appropriate close, reminding adherents that all shall “. . .tender the charity of brotherhood chastely; love their Abbot with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing to Christ. . .” (Chapter 72). One final chapter below the last reinforces the divine inspiration of the holy books as tools of virtue, but pure as his intentions were, of course not everyone in the Medieval Period was in agreement. Within the confines of the monastery's walls peace is all but assured but outside those walls, especially in a time when villains and thieves abound.

One of the most notable contenders to Christianity's prevalence by sheer numbers and organization was Islam. Despite similar origins to Christianity, both emanating from Semitic peoples of the near East, these two historically have not blended well. Initial observation of their shared ties to Abraham as an integral ancestor might infer some cooperative element but neither wishes to submit to the other, nor agree to disagree. Both are monotheistic powerhouses, their differences in beliefs, lifestyles, and goals have been distinct enough to invite endless animosity from the Medieval period into present day politics. Islam spread comparatively very quickly, reaching further than Christianity had in 1/4th the time. Ideas from the Muslim world did cross-pollinate, and theirs were quite advanced next to what Christianity had thus far uncovered. Islam brought to the West reintroduction of Greek language which had been lost in previous centuries, allowing access to vast stores of ideas that had become inaccessible for that time. They brought algebra, new ideas in biology, astronomy, and philosophy and an improved awareness of medicine, though still based on the four humors. From the 8th to the 11th century C.E. Muslims occupied the Iberian peninsula in Spain, far from their place of origin in the East. This foreign influence brought wealth and sophistication to the region and that country still clearly bears the mark of 3 centuries of Muslim occupation in some of its architecture and this impact can be seen in France, Italy, and Sicily as well (Bartlett 238). The Christian world benefited greatly from association with the Islamic people but this relationship was marvelously infuriating for both sides. Each having their own agenda empowered by zealous believers in the one true God did not equalize the balance of exchange.

Other equally important, less impactful factions and religious influences dotted the Medieval European landscape, and for a Christian of the time, it might suffice to capture most of these under the indiscriminate –yet discriminatory– title, “Pagans.” This is a gross simplification of whole cultures with rich ancestral heritage and belief systems but as Christianity was developing, it absorbed what it could of these older beliefs, making a transition easier for those cultures. Saint Jerome (d.420) was accredited with the following: "If it is called the day of the sun by the pagans, we willingly accept this name, for on this day the Light of the world arose, on this day the Sun of Justice shone forth." Acculturation took place no doubt, but the exactness of who took what is difficult to discern. Some say that the Celtic end-of-harvest holiday Samhain was transformed into Hallowe'en but then, just as many think this is untrue and the Christian tradition of All Saint's Day had its own origins for that time of year. In any case, those outside of the Church's jurisdiction were often branded as heretics or at least contradictions to Church doctrine, but telltale signs of these absorbed cultures remain. A truthful account is not likely to be made which credits each “pagan” culture their due respect. Still, the hybridization of cultural traditions has its own uniqueness, unattainable without each incorporated element.

A perhaps unavoidable result of the growth of large organizations is conflict arising from differing opinions within its widely spread peoples. What began as a simple structuring of essential truths evidently spawned a massive hierarchical system which has affected the lives of people across Europe since the early Medieval Period and today has a reach extending around the globe. At the top is the Pope, a powerful figure with the power to excommunicate kings and peasants alike, a serious threat to the devotee who hopes to achieve their heavenly reward. Bishops and priests to a lesser extent wielded power over the people and were as human as everyone else and prone to failures of morality. Saint Benedict warns his Abbots to tend to newly elected priests lest the sin of pride rule them and they become corrupted by their new-found power. It is one thing to expect monks within a cloister to regulate each others' actions but who can tell the Pope what to do? Who can argue with a provincial priest who decides to excommunicate a local craftsperson who accidentally slights him? Against a man of God in otherwise cutthroat lands, there is little chance of rebuking such aspersions and emerging dignified.

A personal agenda can certainly cast the Church's reputation in a poor light, and this may have been hard to contest one thousand years ago, but where one person my have a dangerous idea of how matters should be handled, sometimes others will agree and gradually a movement is born. This has historically taken place within larger groups where dissidents may begin to find strength in numbers and find a voice for their grievances, enthusiasm for their cause. Whenever a splinter cell developed within the Church, it was stomped out fiercely. Such sacrilege is exemplified in the Waldensians who tried to put more official power in the hands of laypeople, allowing even women to preach. The powers that preach didn't like the sound of this so they put a stop to it. The Albigensians sprung up in the 13th century with the idea that our physical plane was “. . .a battleground between God and the Devil, and that all things material belonged to the Devil, and was therefore inherently evil” (Bartlett 91). The Albigensians' ideas were in stark contrast to Church ideas, as this would mean Christ in any manifestation was evil. This was likewise destroyed. One final example of heretical movements, the Hussites, left a lasting impact on the Medieval mind when they denied Papal and priestly authority over all aspects of their lives. Again, their heresy was exterminated but they, and to a lesser extent, the Albigensians, provided the foundations that Martin Luther would build upon to initiate the Reformation of the Church in the 16th century, shortly after the Medieval period.

Corruption was and is a part of human struggles for power far beyond any association with the Church, and as the Church happens to be run by human beings so there were inevitably some whose moral fiber was more elastic than others. Ideally, the founding ideas initially preached by Christ himself plead for an altogether different focus in life than personal gain. Recognition of the divine on Earth is rather closer to the goal than a complete religious/political unity and there are fantastic examples of this in the Medieval Period as well. Absolving one's personal distance from the divine requires atonement for transgressions, seeking penance for sinful behavior; one may confess their sins in church, but another way to seek relief is through pilgrimage. A tradition persisting over so many centuries inevitably produces champions to their cause and some of them will be martyred for their beliefs.

Those who not only suffered this fate but were party to miraculous events could become saints, officially canonized by the Church. Remnants of these venerated individuals, fragments of their clothing or artifacts of their existence often became equally venerated by the faithful. These fragments are known as relics and were kept in ornate, jeweled containers called reliquaries. Relics became the embodiment of Earthbound divinity and the destination of pilgrimages, as a way to seek salvation or to ask for help from the saint in question. Aside from the Vatican and the holy city of Jerusalem, one of the most well known pilgrimage sites for Christian saints is Santiago de Compostela. It is said the bones of Saint James were discovered here in the 8th century C.E. and ever since then, people have walked immense distances to visit his bones. Sites such as these still garner attention and pilgrims still flock to tombs such as Santiago de Compostela. The journey itself, the pilgrimage, is an act of atonement itself, some prostrating themselves along the way or offering perpetual prayer along the route.

Aside from the spiritual reasons for such sites to exist, there are also some more mundane reasons, though in manifestation they are anything but mundane. Where these fragments of religious history lay, cathedrals would be constructed to entomb them. These Catholic shrines provoked their own veneration through superb architecture and elaborate ornamentation, which adds an impressive gravity to the pilgrim's experience. Framing the relics thusly accomplished three things. It protected them from harm, drew increased attention from the populace, and through this attention, guaranteed that area's financial solvency. Sometimes a relic would disappear or otherwise be disturbed from its resting place and where it resurfaced, another cathedral would arise, bringing the pilgrims, attention, and financing with it.

Cathedrals themselves served another purpose on top of this framing of relics; the illiterate pilgrims and churchgoers in the Medieval period could, through the pictures in stained glass windows, come to know the stories of the Bible in a new way. The pilgrim who sought the cathedral no doubt had some initiation into the stories and would know the sagas and characters depicted, and there they would be in living color, lit as if divinely so. All together, these storytelling windows, the cathedrals themselves, and the relics made for a religious experience worth seeking. Pilgrimage sites and cathedrals retain their impact into the present despite all the flashy technological marvels of modern living. The veneer of mysticism remains a testament to traditions and people nearly two thousand years past.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, Europe's Renaissance, it was considered a thousand-year wash of ignorance and distasteful behaviors, thus the moniker “The Dark Ages.” As humankind began to enter into the Industrial Age, a rediscovery and renewed interest in the Medieval Period gripped the western world's imagination. Each nation in its own way romanticized every aspect of the period that there was to learn. European countries began to find national identities in this history, and in ways chose to define themselves by it. Violent and dark though the Dark Ages may have been, it was in a way, an awkward adolescent period for Western Europe. Wrangling with inner turmoil and fraught with conflicting beliefs, there was no apparent end to the suffering for those trying to live through it. As Europe grew into itself and established firmer national and cultural boundaries, a degree of actualization took place which has since rendered it clearly. Perhaps looking back upon this period has allowed a positive reflection upon past trials and errors as though they were the 'glory days,' so far gone as to have softened the memory of necessary growing pains. Through reflection on history, a people and their traditions can see themselves in new ways which both empower and mollify actions in the present.

From the Edict of Toleration in 311 C.E. through Saint Benedict' defining of monasticism, already Christianity had earned a solid footing and only shined brighter as it came into contact with other religious powers. Islam was a triumphant force to reckon with in the Church's rise to power and heavily impacted Western civilization. The sheer wealth of information that was exchanged shows the value of the interaction between West and Middle East; contrarily, both sides pay consistent attention to the Holy Land, the literal 'common ground' of these faiths. It is proof of the vivifying power of devotion that conflict over this area is still a point of consternation, that adherents willfully sacrifice themselves for the tenets they have vowed to uphold. Power struggles and internal conflict are both inevitable with world religious powers operating across great geographical space and while those deemed most heretical were squelched, their contributions still provided important variety to the current branches of faith. A definition of the western world would be necessarily incomplete without inclusion of the Christian way of life and its peoples' struggle and success. The Church has undoubtedly achieved a degree of dominance among world faiths extant today, though as to how closely it follows the original teachings of Christ is uncertain. There is however a necessity of mystery that wraps a religious tradition which breeds fascination and allows the development of faith. In this it has succeeded admirably.

Works Cited

Bartlett, Robert. Medieval Panorama. Los Angeles, CA: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001. Print.

"BBC - Religions - All Hallow's Eve." BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2014. <>.

Benedict, and Leonard J. Doyle. St. Benedict's Rule for Monasteries. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1948. Print.

"Its Pagan Origins." The Pagan Origins of Easter. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Feb. 2014. <>.

Ludwig, Theodore M. "Some Dimensions of Religious Experience." The Sacred Paths of the East. New York: Macmillan Pub., 1993. 6-9. Print.

Petrisko, Thomas W. "50 - God, Father and Creator." The Fatima Prophecies: At the Doorstep of the World. McKees Rocks, PA: St. Andrew's Productions, 2002. 367-80. Print.

> Return to Top