Despite the Crusades and the Inquisition, the Christianity that flourished in western Europe in the high middle ages could best be compared to a beautiful Gothic cathedral and its memory still evokes a certain fondness in those who developed an appreciation of its achievements.
Let’s begin by focusing on the great medieval Gothic cathedral as symbol of the best of medieval European Christendom. To begin with, they were massive, awe-inspiring structures designed to point upward, to God, as was all of society. The very building of a cathedral, although it might involve behind the scenes wheeling and dealing, in its actual concreteness expressed a very deep sense of faith in the Christian good news.
Every morning, the workers lining up to build Notre Dame, Chartres, Westminster Abbey, Burgos began the day being shriven—confessing their sins and imperfections in order to be forgiven—and participating in the Eucharist service of the Mass, spiritually communing with God and one another. The medieval people of West Europe, from Italy and Spain to Germany and the British Isles, could not envision building a great cathedral unless everyone involved—from the architects and supervisors, to the craftsmen to the lowliest laborer merely hefting heavy materials—were in what theologians came to call “a state of grace,” working in the bare presence of God in their midst.
Cast your eye to the fields outside the cities, where the distant ringing of bells at noon would prompt farm hands and farmers to stop working to recite, together, the Angelus, the prayer that in Latin begins with the words Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae (“... the Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary ...”). The angel, of course, is Gabriel, a messenger of God who revealed to Mary that she would conceive a child to be born the Son of God (Luke 1:26–38).
Every day at six in the morning, noon and six in the evening bells would toll—and in churches, convents, monasteries, fields and homes, at court and in universities Christians would gather to pray. They recited, in versicle and response form, three biblical verses narrating story of the Annunciation to Mary. Interspersing between each recitation was the Hail Mary, the prayer derived from the words of the angel, reminding everyone, from fool to bishop to king, that God became one of us.
The universities, or universitas magistrorum et scholarium (the guild or community of teachers and scholars), were an invention of the Church, which had taken up the mission of saving and expanding all human knowledge in the darkest of ages. The Church christened such labor as a form of worshiping the unfathomable divine Being who had made all that there was to study. The first universities in Europe were founded by bishops, the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (1150) and the University of Oxford (1167).
Within their walls, scholars studied theology, philosophy as well as the arts and some of the sciences we know today. All in Latin, the language of learning, even though medievals lacked Ciceronian linguistic purity and ordinary people were speaking variants that mixed the tongue of ancient Rome with those of illiterate hordes.
Similarly, as western Europe’s fiefdoms and regions slowly evolved into empires and kingdoms, the norms that ultimately governed them all were those of the Church. Just as popes and bishops crowned emperors and kings, they often mediated when there were conflicts, and heaped praise on those who in some way practiced gospel values from the throne. King Louis IX of France was canonized in part for tempering the ordeals of medieval trials, settling disputes with the Albigensians and reputedly ceding territory rather than wage war.
Everything in that time and place was imbued with the stories, the artifacts, the teachings and the aura of the Christian faith.
The wars were all crusades, as the anonymous Cantar del Mío Cid (Song of My Cid) calls the strife of “Christian knights” against infidels in Spain. Society’s best customs and beliefs were policed by the Inquisition.
Tourism involved pilgrimages, “the hooly blisful martir for to seke,” as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales reminds us. The love story is that of Heloise and Abelard, a wealthy Paris pupil and tutor whose star-crossed romance ends with both taking up celibate lives, passing on to history as the nun and monk whose chaste yet passionate letters have come to us.
Churches were full, since they were the only reliable source of wonder, but clerics took care to come up with incense to conceal the aroma of the great unwashed. Monasteries reflected the communal spirit of Christianity. Convents became a refuge for intelligent women thanks to the uniquely proto-feminist character of Jesus, who broke ranks with the social customs of his time to treat women with dignity.
The best known music was choral and ecclesiastical. The highest knowledge was that of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, the great work in the field known as the “queen” of scientia (learning).
Of course, the people who lived between 476, the sack of Rome, and 1453, the capture of Constantinople by invading Ottomans, did not think of themselves as medieval. Indeed, the term was not used in writing until 1469, after the era’s millenium was over. (For a scholarly, but riotous romp in medievalism, see the blog Got Medieval.)
Twentieth-century historians and artists rushed to demythologize the notion of medieval Christian Europe after the guns of August 1914 killed what little remained of its spirit. Today, we all know Carl Orff’s bawdy choral work Carmina Burana, whose lyrics were drawn from the drunken revelry of medieval students. We laugh at the foibles in Giovanni Boccacio’s Decameron and the way it lays bare the hypocrisies of the age. Norman Cantor’s wonderful recounting of modern medievalist historiographers, Inventing the Middle Ages, takes us through the intellectual process involved in assessing the age.
Yet despite themselves, the western Christians of Europe attempted to live in a continental cathedral, one in which the highest and best aspirations were aimed at the heavens, and the worst and basest impulses and deeds were at a minimum disguised as pious. Their successes are reverently remembered by some, as their failures are bitterly decried by others, both with some measure of justice.