What You Learned About the Middle Ages Was Wrong

Medieval Christianity is in the news. That’s exciting for me as I have a PhD in medieval theology and I teach Ancient and Medieval Church History at Covenant Seminary. Thus I have a little “skin in the game,” as the saying goes.

Earlier this week our President made some comments at the national prayer breakfast. In the spirit of hospitality and inclusion he wished to address the recent horrifically evil actions by ISIS by saying that we Christians also have also perpetrated evil in the name of our religion. He gave three examples, two of which I want to make comments on here.

I want to first give this caveat that the purpose of this little essay is not to pick on the President. He simply presents a convenient opportunity for me to address many of our misconceptions about medieval Christian Civilization. I really don’t blame the President for thinking what he does more than I do anyone else. These misconceptions have been commonplace in our national educational system for quite some time.

Back to the point, the three examples President Obama gave do certainly point out that Christians are capable of evil. The evils of American slavery and reconstruction Jim Crow were, as President Obama said, “often justified in the name of Christ.” I want to acknowledge that fact, though that particular evil is not the focus of this essay.

As for the Inquisition, I’m not sure which Inquisition the President was referring to, but it is presumably the caricature we have received of people being tortured for their faith. That caricature reads more like a Jack Chick tract than historical reality. The old legends about the horrors of the Inquisition were largely exaggerated political propaganda. Twentieth century scholars have pushed back against that narrative arguing that the Spanish Inquisition (the particular Inquisition in question, presumably) was more humane than other contemporary trials and prisons. Yes, people did commit evil, but these events were isolated. The Inquisition (in general) was more a method of trying people for heresy than it was an excuse for torture, and the result of a guilty verdict in the vast majority of cases was excommunication not death. What you learned in school was wrong.

And as for the Crusades, yes atrocities were committed, but were they done in the name of Christ? We must acknowledge that evils were committed during the Crusades by evil, unscrupulous people. But we must also acknowledge that those acts were widely repented of and condemned, and that they were never the purpose of the Crusades. The purpose of the Crusades was to defend Christians who were being attacked by ever-encroaching Islamic armies. The Crusades were defensive wars in their conception. Yet, pick a war, any war, and you will find evil, unscrupulous people who get involved for their own wicked reasons and for their own greedy ends. Such is the nature of war, it attracts wicked people bent on destruction. Yet we do have a place in Christian theology for a just war, and at least on paper, the Crusades were just wars.

The president’s statement has also lead to a series of comments and references to the Middle Ages all over the internet and in various news sources. So I want to take the opportunity to dispel a few myths about the medieval period.

1. Medieval Christian civilization was not monolithic – We have this picture of the Middle Ages as a singular culture presided over by the pope and various kings and emperors. This simply was not the case. Europe in the medieval period was made up of a group of diverse cultures, and they didn’t always agree or get along. In the church there were also diverse practices and theologies during the medieval period. So we can’t just lump them all in together.

2. Medieval Christian civilization was not barbaric – Many of us have been to the medieval torture museums. We have this idea that Europe during the medieval period was filled with rustic, barbarous peoples for whom torture was their preferred form of entertainment. We have a picture of disease, famine, wars, tortures, and ignorant people who shunned science and technology in favor of rituals, mysticisms, and literal interpretations of the Bible. Well, again, what you learned in school and in other venues was wrong. The medieval torture museums are modern fabrications. These images we have of the middle ages are inventions of the modern world set to disparage a Christian civilization. As I mentioned above, our notions of the Inquisition and the Crusades are caricatures and fabrications. Yes there were evils, yes there was ignorance, but not any more than any other period of time or any other culture. In fact they were much less. The medieval Europeans did quite a good job with the resources and knowledge they had.

3. Medieval Christian civilization was a work in progress – We tend to judge medieval Europe based on modern standards. But this is not fair. In the early to mid-Middle Ages, the cultures represented were only a short time removed from uncultured and unlettered paganism. We in the modern West have had the benefit of 2,000 years of Christian culture to help us to grow and mature. Yes atrocities were committed. Yes, greedy and unscrupulous people did bad things. But we shouldn’t judge early medieval Europe on our modern standards any more than we should try a child as an adult in a court of law.

4. Medieval Christian civilization was not “Dark” – We’ve all heard of the “Dark Ages.” In my Ancient and Medieval Church History class at Covenant Seminary I tell my students that any of them who refers to the medieval period as the “Dark Ages” will receive an automatic F. I’ve yet to have anyone do that. You see, this myth of the Dark Ages was perpetrated by an anti-Christian Enlightenment culture that wanted to disparage the Christian Civilization that was formed during the medieval period. It is in no way true that people in medieval Europe were uneducated, ignorant, or backward. The medievals created the educational systems and the methods that we still use today. They took the treasure of ancient Greek and Roman education and culture and Christianized it for use in the Christian academies of Europe. Charlemagne (yes him) in his General Admonition of 789 mandated that schools (yes schools) be created in every parish and monastery for the education (yes education) of children in reading, writing, and math. He also mandated that parish pastors work to educate (there’s that word again) all the people (yes all, men, women, and children of all classes) in the Christian liturgy and in the content of their faith so that they could be fruitful citizens. The medieval period was all about education, learning, and discovery. What you learned in school was wrong.

Medieval Christian civilization was a mixed bag, as is any society and culture. But my contention is that medieval Christianity was more good than bad, more light than dark, and when judged in light of the tools they had and the progress they made, there is much to give thanks for the foundation they laid for us.

Rev. Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy is Pastor of Christ our King Presbyterian Church, Columbia, Missouri. If you would like a bibliography on the Middle Ages, contact Dr. LeCroy at pastor.tim.lecroy@christourkingcolumbia.org.