As we have seen, medieval Christianity is emerging as no longer a special path of a persecuted mostly Jewish sect, but as a predominant faith that has “baptized” entire social cultures.
We know that the clergy, as the literate remnant from imperial times in the West and the intelligentsia of the East, preserved what little knowledge could be saved. But how did its members deal with the vast mass of new European Christians, who had nothing in common with the Judaic Jesus, nor even the Greek philosopher-theologians of the Patristic era?
Let’s look at the clergy and then at the people.
Whereas the apostles were fishermen and traders—only Paul had anything approaching what we would call a theological education—the clergy of the early Middle Ages, between about the years 450 and 1000 of our era, were increasingly from the propertied and moneyed classes. We have just seen that Sts. Benedict and Gregory were both born into privilege.
The clergy slowly evolved toward a life of sexual abstinence, as both Benedict and Gregory exemplified, even before the universal church law obligation in the West, which did not fully emerge until the turn of the first millennium—both as an ascetic demand and as a response to nepotism.
Christian asceticism, including a sex-negative view unknown to Judaism, had evolved from the ascendancy of Gentile Christianity led by members of a classically educated urban Christian elite influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly Platonism. Notably, this included a matter-spirit dualism absent in the original gospels, which were imbued with Hebrew thought, which regarded the body and spirit as one and the same.
The bishops and popes were charged with teaching the faith, but in many regions they also had to take the reins of society as a whole. Out of these responsibilities emerged many institutions that no longer have an ecclesiastical connection, but started in the Church. For example, the oldest birth and death records in Europe are church documents.
Of course, the followers of the apostles were notably different from the Christian medieval laity. While the Nazarenes were a Jewish sect for only the brief time during which Judaism accepted them, the medieval Christians were not only accepted in society, they were becoming the predominant believers—at least nominally. Thus, what clerics said and taught became increasingly normative for society as a whole, which led to a mix of faith and custom.
Christian teachers of the faith were not merely dealing with paganism of various cultural stripes, but with a growing coarsening of the standard of living and the breakup of an overarching unified imperial society into local and regional fiefdoms that eventually would become nation-states.
For example, in the West beyond central Italy, priests celebrated the Mass in what later came to be called ecclesiastical Latin, which was not quite Cicero’s tongue. However, Latin ceased to be the language spoken by the Christian people, who were Lombards or Goths or Franks or Visigoths or what have you.
The breakdown of daily life, the constant warfare and the utterly uncivilized behavior of the newcomers to European West, forced the clergy to concentrate on matters of moral behavior and piety designed to nudge people toward ascetic ideals that were far from common.
The laity was, by and large, an illiterate, non-Latin-speaking mass to whom the fine points of Jewish law debated by Jesus were completely alien. Their lives were slowly directed by Christianized social customs, such as churchgoing and observance of feasts on the church calendar. Roadside shrines to various pagan gods were replaced by Christian shrines seeking the help of saints in gaining God’s favor, and bells called many in the field to prayer.
Popular piety emerged. It was a mixture of folk superstition and very elementary Christian teachings. In remote villages of Spain and Italy at the end of the 20th century it was still possible to come across the occasional older woman in black shuffling on her knees to the altar to fulfill some promise made to God in exchange for divine favor. Such piety may have been simple, but it was genuine and covered all aspects of life.
Later, when the great cathedrals were being built, at the start of every workday all workers were shriven and received the Eucharist: it was thought that only those in God’s grace should build such places of worship. These customs speak of a Christianity that was all pervasive, even though it was in a much coarser era, and that no longer exists.
Almost all of the great controversies and political conflicts of this era were, for this reason, tinged with some aspect of faith, sometimes very poorly understood or misused. An example is the emergence, in the early 8th century, of iconoclasm, a movement whose followers smashed religious art known as icons, which they regarded as a form of idolatry, an idea borrowed from the newly emerging religion of Islam.
In the 720s Byzantine Emperor Leo III banned images of Christ, saints and biblical scenes, a move that was condemned by Pope Gregory III and two Roman synods. Iconoclasm was ultimately declared heretical by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.
The movement nonetheless destroyed much of the early Christian artistic history. Chalk it up to the folly of that age, with more to come, thanks to humanity’s propensities.