What does it mean to study medieval history? The word itself has an ugly ring; to a child’s ears, it seems to say that we are amid “evil”. And yet it actually means the middle age or period. But that itself begs the question: the middle age between what? Modern historians conjure up images of a bleak and backward world in which filthy serfs are beaten and starved into submission by evil overlords, usually bearing as many Catholic symbols (miters, croziers, and crusader crosses) as possible. Looking only at secular history, one is led to believe that, thanks to the rise of an oppressive Catholic patriarchy, the once erudite Greco-Roman world was plunged into barbaric backwater. This world is painted as emerging nearly a thousand years later in the glittering brilliance of a conveniently melded Renaissance/Reformation, inspired by rediscovering the ancient wonders and gratefully freed from Catholic shackles either by brave Protestant resistance, or by the harbingers of an enlightenment that would one day bring a postmodernity that could reject anything that came out of western civilization.
Can this be true? And if so, why even bother to study the medieval time; why not draw the veil over stagnant tragedy and move on to better and brighter times? We, rightly, shy away from sharing too much of the dark and ugly with young children. We want to form them in what is good and noble and beautiful. Young children should have a firm grasp of what is good, before they are presented with what is evil. And even if one rejects the bleakest view of the medieval world, as presented by modern secular historians, and can, thanks to better historians, see the undeniable bright glimmers of truth and greatness within this medieval world, wouldn’t it be easier—better even—to save the study of such a dark time for an age that is capable of a more nuanced study, an age that can separate the light of Catholic truth from the darkness of this bleak period?
But one cannot. Medieval history is fundamentally important to the modern—in the broadest sense of the word—understanding, because the medieval world saw the development of western civilization within the Christian framework, and this is valuable for two reasons. First, the greatness of the medieval world was built upon what was truly good and noble in the ancient world. Second, the ancient, pre-Christian world had failed and the medieval Christian world was here to provide a better and clearer path to the truth. One cannot properly appreciate the medieval history without some understanding of the ancient world. Nor can one transition from the glories of the ancient world to the modern, without passing through the clarifying lens of Christian medieval Europe!
Without such a context, and in reaction to the modern take, one could plunge directly into the ugly underbelly of history and consider how moral decay had permeated the once glorious ancient world before Christ was even born. One could study how, by the time the early Church was rising in Rome, Rome herself was sinking under the weight of her own vices. One could stress that Christ’s own handpicked apostles were martyred by the fifth emperor of Rome—her carefully balanced republic long since dismantled. And that when Rome finally fell, it was to wave upon wave of barbarian attacks that relegated once cultivated, albeit corrupted, cities to ransacked morgues. But this is truly the stuff of nightmares and these are stories that would rob even jaded adults of sleep. Should young children have to endure this ugliness in order to reach the truth? There is a time and a place for more graphic details, but twelve and thirteen-year-olds do not need such horrific imagery.
There is a better path for transitioning from the ancient into the medieval world and beyond and this is a path which Laura Berquist’s history syllabi have clearly laid out. When one begins with what is beautiful in the ancient civilizations, a path for appreciation is laid. One can glory in the remarkable technological achievements of the ancient Egyptians. Their pyramids and mummies point to scientific secrets that modern man still struggles to replicate, architectural masterpieces that boggle the mind, and a profound belief in the afterlife that consumed a whole nation, generation after generation, for a millennium. Their careful charting of the stars—another thing they did for thousands of years—connected to the precisely timed flooding of the Nile, expanded by their irrigation systems enriching their once arid farmland. And it was only two hundred years ago that “modern man” finally cracked the code to better understand this profoundly developed culture. These are cultural moments worth relishing. The entire world was enriched in so many ways by this ancient pagan culture, one which our students know crossed paths with the Chosen people on more than one occasion.
As one moves from Egypt to Greece, glimmers of tragedy appear in Draco’s harsh, though valuable, written laws. But then one can celebrate the glories of Greek government, philosophy, literature, art, and architecture and then watch these marvels adopted by Rome. Rome’s humility is evident in that she could rightly appreciate what was good and noble in others and adopt it, embracing and absorbing Greek philosophy, theology, art, and literature, Carthaginian ship-building, and Egyptian astronomy and music. But then, in her greatness, Rome added to these either by promotion or perfection, such as converting the Greek phalanx into the impenetrable Roman tortoise, or adding the corvus to ships allowing Rome to bring her superior infantry to bear upon naval warfare, or reforming the calendar under Julius Caesar. Even today, one can see the still functional Roman aqueducts that brought clean water, or Roman roads that allowed men to traverse ancient Europe in a matter of days. It is right and good to celebrate such truth, beauty, and goodness in the ancient world!
For it is on the shoulders of these giants that the Middle Ages, the medieval period, truly shines, but one must understand, as so few modern historians are willing to admit, she did not receive them as giants. Rather, she rebuilt them from shattered ruins, restoring them to their former glory and then illuminating them with her own light. The greatness of Egypt, Greece, and Rome had been destroyed in equal parts by their own corruption and by wave upon wave of incoming barbarian hordes. There was a dark period, a dark age, if you will, between the ancient and the medieval world. But Christianity was not the cause of this fall! That Christians (or in many cases Arian heretics) were at the helm of the western Roman empire when it was dissolved in the face of overwhelming barbarian assaults speaks not to the failure of Christianity as a moral code or governing principle, but rather to the heel of Roman hedonism that had plagued the empire long before Christians rose to guide and govern. That Christians could have risen to such peaks, in such a dark time, speaks to the remarkable rise of a tiny Jewish sect that preached compelling truth to every element of Roman society.
That Rome fell is sufficient for this age group; one can and should return to the nuances of this topic in high school and then again in college and beyond. But for twelve and thirteen-year-olds, what matters—as it does in their daily lives—is what, when confronted with tragedy, one does next. And a good medieval history program should begin with saints like Patrick, Benedict, and Boniface. Why? Because these are men who spanned the end of the tumultuous Roman era and in the face of great sacrifice and persecution chose to bring the shattered bits of Christian Roman culture to their barbarian attackers, offering them not just forgiveness but the glorious truth. When confronted with wave upon wave of barbarian hordes, one could build walls to keep out the enemy, but how much greater to go out into the enemy’s territory and offer him the greatest thing one possesses, God’s grace and truth, and make him a friend. This is in many ways the heart of the Middle Ages. In the very darkest moments of the dark ages, one after another, men of disparate languages, cultures, customs, and places, with no human knowledge of each other but united in the body of Christ, reached out heroically to their worst enemies and brought the truth. Patrick, raised in Christian Romanized England, brought the faith to Ireland in the fifth century. In the following sixth century, Augustine brought the faith back to an England that had been overwhelmed by new barbarian hordes. Boniface brought the faith to Germany in the eighth century, and Cyril and Methodius in the following ninth century brought the faith to the Slavic peoples. So many of these men were martyred, but in such suffering watered the faith in these lands with their blood mingled with the blood of Christ and brought about a rich harvest. These words are not lightly said, for each one of these men had to fight down personal demons before going out on such missions, and in doing so won a world for Christ. They were truly a light in the darkness properly illuminating this age.
Out of their heroism, often unsung but also frequently inspiring many followers, came the monasteries, another often maligned and badly misunderstood element, but one that was fundamental to the revival of western civilization in Europe. Rather than dwell on the darkness, children at this age need to see what is good, and the monasteries were, by and large, truly good. Benedict of Ursa was raised in Roman culture and grew up in the midst of a Rome that would suffer repeated brutal sacks. His response was to create a place where the light of truth would be sheltered and protected so that it could shine out as a light to the world. And these were lights that lived on long after the founders had died, lights that spread their light not just to other monasteries, but also to the burgeoning medieval communities. They were not only places of worship, but centers of learning. These monasteries were schools, farms, hospitals, and hostels for poor travelers. The monasteries ministered to body and soul. They brought grace through sacraments, they brought the scripture in illuminated manuscripts, they brought farming techniques that revolutionized agriculture across Europe. Monasteries like Monte Cassino, Clanmacnoise, Glendaloch, and Bangor revived life, both naturally and supernaturally.
We jokingly celebrate the invention of the wheel and what a difference that must have made to early man. But we often quickly skip over the intervening inventions until the industrial era and the far more exciting modern inventions. And yet the invention, development, and distribution of medieval technology like plows revolutionized farming in Europe, producing greater agriculture yields and in turn greater health, population, and wealth, and the attendant improvements. Think back to those barbarian hordes who destroyed the Roman Empire. Within a few hundred years those same “barbaric” people were living a different life. Under the influence of Christian monks and Catholic social teaching, they built castles to protect themselves and their vassals, they cultivated fields and flocks for food and clothing, they developed literature and art which was spread throughout Europe by traveling minstrels. They built massive majestic Romanesque churches in which to worship God and monasteries with vast libraries, storehouses of knowledge. In another few hundred years they built dizzyingly high Gothic cathedrals, architectural marvels that still boggle modern minds, replete with fantastic stained glass windows and beautiful works of art on canvas and plaster, wood and stone. They founded schools, colleges, and universities that were—long before the Renaissance—studying Greek and Roman philosophy and literature and then expanding upon those to develop Christian doctrine. Pre-eminent amongst these medieval scholars is Thomas Aquinas, who would synthesize all of Catholic theological teaching in the light of Aristotelian philosophy recently brought back to Europe through Arabic Muslim philosophers.
The modern historian conjures up images of a medieval world governed by evil kings or tyrannical nobles brutally enforcing their will. But when one actually delves into the medieval world, one finds it well-informed by the principles of Greece and Rome and enlightened by Christian social teaching. Kings and feudal systems had arisen of necessity—in response to brutal barbarian invasions—but as things stabilized within these societies, the principles of good government emerged. Representative bodies, such as parliament or the Cortez, were set up alongside charters like the Magna Carta, outlining the rights of the Church and the people alongside the authority of the ruler. These were not simple monarchies, but ones which acknowledged the dignity of each man, and the importance of the many various classes of society. Under this broader framework, these men set up centers of commerce, established towns outside the feudal system, complete with charters and self-government. They developed trade routes across Europe and off into the Middle East and Asia. They charted maps and sailed off around Africa and to Iceland.
This is not a dark world! Were there periods of darkness, gloom, and misery within this world? Yes, as one would expect in any time. Certainly one can look at plagues or heresies sweeping through the countryside, and one can find particular cruel kings overstepping their authority, and even demons within the Church. But in every case—more so than perhaps in any other era—this darkness was always met with light. Saints—average men and women who answered the call of God—went out and cared for the victims of plagues, preached against heresy, and led lives of heroic virtue. They stood up to kings and even popes and preached the truth. This is history at its finest. A great world had been broken into pieces. But, by the grace of God, it was broken in the lap of a young and vibrant Christian community who rose to the challenge. They were ordinary men and women who were not immune from ordinary mistakes, but they rebuilt that world into something far greater.