Medieval Christianity: The State of the Field


By Katherine J. Gill

Religion Compass, Vol.1 (2004)

Abstract: As in other academic disciplines, historical Christianity in recent years has been energetically navigating the “cultural turn.” Just before the onset of the new millennium, Church History , the publication of the American Society of Church History, added the subtitle: Studies in Christianity and Culture. The subtitle signaled a recognition that Church History as a discipline had come to embrace a greater breadth than the connotations conveyed by the traditional term “Church History.” More specifically, its frameworks of inquiry had come to reflect a greater appreciation of the many facets of lived religion, a greater engagement with questions of how differently situated Christians interacted either among themselves or with others, and a greater openness to methodological innovation.

Click here to read this article from Blackwell Publishing

Short book review: The Medieval Worldview: An Introduction by William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman

This book is by far the best introduction to the “Medieval worldview” that I have yet read. It is not a chronological history and, for the most part, does not seek to tell the history of the period in a chronological way; this is the book you should read before getting yourself into reading a chronological history. The authors draw up a sympathetic account that really allows the reader to get inside the minds and, more importantly, the hearts of people from the Middle Ages, who can often seem like distant and bizarre figures. For a little while, while you read this book, you live in the Middle Ages, you feel a real companionship with those who lived over a thousand years ago and in a culture very different from ours today; this is a reflection of the great skill and care that the authors have put into this book. In addition, this book is filled from start to finish with citations, often rather lengthy but always on point, from the primary sources. I highly recommend reading this book.

Praying hands and feudalism

The ideas of lordship and vassalage came to be applied far beyond their original context, especially from the twelfth century on. For example … early Christians prayed with their arms extended to to either side. The position that we associate with prayer, closed hands held together, is in fact the position of a vassal in the act of doing fealty … People expressed their relationship with God the way they expressed the relationship of vassal to lord. Furthermore, hymns written to God began to use this same language, as did the hymns written to the Virgin Mary. The concept of dependent relationships that we often label “feudal” was of great importance long after the lord-vassal relationship changed radically from the time of its origins.

William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman, The Medieval World View: An Introduction, pg. 216

Purification, Illumination, Glorification — no other way

From Kevin P. Edgecomb at Biblicalia:

Pursue the small consolation that is acquired in time from toil, that you may be accounted worthy of that great consolation which dispels the troubles of this life of sorrows for those who find it. Do not despise small things, lest you be deprived of great ones. Has no one ever seen an infant who, when he puts flesh in his mouth, sucks milk? By means of small things the door is opened to great ones. You dishonour God, O my brother, in that you desire Him to govern you without a definite order. For no man has been entrusted with great things without first having been tried in small ones.

From The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, Homily 25.

In context, Saint Isaac is discussing noetic prayer amongst monastics. There were those (like the heretical Messalians) who claimed to be able to enter a state of theoria at will, and that their prayer became such regularly, with no effort. Over the course of this and the previous two homilies, however, Saint Isaac destroys the foundations of such a supposition. Theoria is not something that is generated at will, a kind of “altered state of consciousness”, but is an uncreated grace of God, something on His terms, not ours.

But this brought to my mind how often people these days deceive themselves and one another that a life of prayer is an extremeley easy thing. How easy it is to read a few chapters of the Philokalia, do a couple laps around the prayer rope, and then be impatiently waiting for theoria! What is even worse are those who are completely outside the tradition, smorgasbording their way through ancient Christian texts and practices (Eastern ones in particular are now so en mode!) and who think that this or that ancient text or practice, ripped out of its context, is justificatioin for a personally concocted supremely smug “spirituality” that is so terrifically annoying, yet so abundantly common these days.

The Christian way is threefold: purification, illumination, and glorification. One leads to the other. Without purification, without turning one’s body and mind away from those things which separate us from God, one will not experience the illumination of the soul that comes from the Holy Spirit. And without illumination of the soul, one is not experiencing theosis, the eternal approach toward the perfection of God, which is our transformation and glorification. Purification > Illumination > Glorification. We cannot skip a step. Nor may we adjust any of these steps for a perceived need to appease the world’s perceptions and expectations. The truly Christian life is something that is anti-world. And without that first step, to resolutely turn our minds away from an earthly goal and toward a heavenly one, we are not on that path at all.

Saint Isaac is quite thought-provoking!

And so is Kevin P. Edgecomb!

An important note from Origen on Scripture

The main aim of scripture is to reveal the coherent structure that exists at the spiritual level in terms both of events and injunctions. Wherever the Word [Christ] found that events on the historical plane corresponded with these mystical truths, he used them, concealing the deeper meaning from the multitude. But at those places in the account where the performance of particular actions as already recorded did not correspond with the patterns of things at the intellectual level, Scripture wove into the narrative, for the sake of the more mystical truths, things that never occurred — sometimes things which never could have occurred, sometimes things that could have but did not…

It was not only in the relation of events before the coming of Christ that the Spirit arranged things in this way. Because he is the same Spirit and comes from the one God, he has acted in the same way with the gospels and the writings of the apostles. Even they contain a narrative that is not at all points straightforward; for woven into it are events which in the literal sense did not occur. Nor is the content of the law and commandments to be found in them entirely reasonable.

Origen of Alexandria, “On First Principles,” as quoted in William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman, The Medieval World View: An Introduction, pp. 58-9

Plato and Aristotle against relativism

Plato (c.427-357 B.C.) and Aristotle (384-22 B.C.) lived in Athens within a generation of each other; Aristotle was Plato’s student, although he wrote more in reaction to his teacher than as a continuation of Plato’s thought. Much as he departed from the doctrine of his master, however, the two shared a number of important presuppositions about the nature of philosophical inquiry. Perhaps the most important of these is that both wrote in opposition to a prevalent philosophical skepticism, that is, to a mode of philosophical inquiry that held that truth was ultimately relative and that human reason was at best a faulty guide for answering questions about the nature of reality. For both Plato and Aristotle the doctrine that truth is relative was philosophically untenable, so much so that it is not inaccurate to view the thought of both men as an extended critique of philosophical relativism.

William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman, The Medieval World View: An Introduction, pg. 30

The history of the philosophy of history

As someone with an interest in both history and philosophy, and especially in the history of philosophy, a topic that I find very interesting is St. Augustine of Hippo’s philosophy of history in his work The City of God. Bertrand Russell, I think, succinctly summarized Augustine’s philosophy of history, and the philosophical milieu in which it falls, with his statement that “the Jewish pattern of history, past and future, is such as to make a powerful appeal to the oppressed and the unfortunate at all times. Saint Augustine adapted this pattern to Christianity.”1

Thomas Cahill’s book The Gifts of the Jews also sheds a great deal of light on this “Jewish pattern of history” and why it “is such as to make a powerful appeal to the oppressed and the unfortunate at all times” as well as why Augustine and many others, such as Karl Marx in the 19th century, have been able to adapt it to their own times. According to Cahill,

For the ancients, the future was always to be a replay of the past, as the past was simply an earthly replay of the drama of the heavens: “History repeats itself” – that is, false history, the history that is not history but myth. For the Jews, history will be no less replete with moral lessons. But the moral is not that history repeats itself but that it is always something new: a process unfolding through time, whose direction and end we cannot know, except insofar as God gives us some hint of what is to come. The future will not be what has happened before; indeed, the only reality that the future has is that it has not happened yet. It is unknowable; and what it will be cannot be discovered by auguries – by reading the stars or examining entrails. We do not control the future; in a profound sense, even God does not control the future because it is the collective responsibility of those who are bringing about the future by their actions in the present. For this reason, the concept of the future – for the first time – holds out promise, rather than just the same old thing. We are not doomed, not bound to some predetermined fate; we are free.2

If this paragraph from Cahill is put side by side by with Russell’s summary of Augustine’s City of God on pages 355-362 of his History of Western Philosophy, it looks as if Cahill too is offering a summary of Augustine’s work, or at least a summary of Russell’s summary. He is not doing that, of course, but the resemblance is remarkable and indicative of why the “Jewish pattern of history” is so important and so powerful. The two central and distinguishing features of this understanding of history, as Cahill and Russell explain it, are a hope of a better future as a result of one’s actions in the present and an acceptance of free will to the exclusion of any form of determinism including the possibility of divination. Augustine’s greatest accomplishment in his City of God was, I think, to apply these Jewish ideas about history to the context of Christianity at the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. According to Russell,

what Saint Augustine did was to bring these elements [Jewish eschatology, the predestination and election of Paul, and the Old Testament distinction between sacred and profane history] together, and to relate them to the history of his own time, in such a way that the fall of the Western Empire, and the subsequent period of confusion, could be assimilated by Christians without any unduly severe trial of their faith.3

In The City of God, Augustine described his vision of history as a gradual movement from the point of creation to the eventual resurrection of the dead after which “the bodies of the damned will burn eternally without being consumed” and the saints will experience “the eternal felicity of the City of God.”4 As Augustine saw it, it is in history, as Frederick Coplestone describes the “Christian standpoint,” “progressively, that the Body of Christ on earth grows and develops and that God’s plan is unfolded.”5 As Coplestone goes on to say, it is to be expected that when Augustine viewed history in this way, “his outlook was primarily spiritual and moral.”6 To view and use history in any other way would have been to step outside of the “Jewish pattern of history” which he had adopted.

Through his work, Augustine was able to successfully integrate the “Jewish pattern of history” into the philosophical framework of the West at the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. He was able to make a powerful case for the hope and endurance of Christians while simultaneously launching a major offensive against the pagan understanding of many of his contemporaries. In so doing, Augustine exerted a great deal of influence on subsequent generations and made the “Jewish pattern of history” the pattern of history which the West would adopt, and which it still follows to this day.

1 Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 363.

Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1998), 130-1.


ibid., 362.

Frederick Coplestone, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 2: Medieval Philosophy From Augustine to Duns Scotus (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 85.