Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Religion in the Middle Ages

When examining the past it's very easy to put a modern bias on events and cultural norms. As Carl Pyrdum shows at his blog Got Medieval (a GREAT site!), there's an awful lot we don't understand very well - especially some of the marginalia that's present on manuscripts. Maybe it's just juvenile humor at it's best (worst?). Monkeys and animals and grylli. It's surprising to think that Monty Python and the Holy Grail got an awful lot of things "correct" - trumpets being blown by posteriors, etc. (with the caveat that Arthur was supposed to be around in the 5th century, not the 14th). Still, we are apt to bring our societal and intellectual baggage and bias to our analysis.
A great example of this was when I  was studying the English Civil War (17th century). In brief, the Jacobite kings (James, Charles I, and Charles II of England - who were Scottish) were very unpopular with the English. They even accused them of being closet Catholics (this was after the creation of the Anglican church by Henry VIII). A civil war erupted between those who believed in Parliament's absolute authority and those who believed in the monarchy. Unfortunately for Charles II, the Parliamentarians won and he was tried and executed. Remember - this was before the French Revolution were such things became commonplace. One thing that struck me while I was reading the documents from the era (via the Thomason Tracts, an AMAZING collection of pretty much everything printed during this turbulent period) was that God was an ever-present force in these peoples' lives. When Oliver Cromwell would write to the Parliamentarians of his advances into Scotland or Ireland, he saw the hand of God actively helping their cause everywhere. God made it rain very little so the stream would be fordable and his army could advance. God provided a fog that allowed his troops to establish a stronger encampment that enabled them to repel the enemy. Bringing my 21st century biases, though, it was easy to be cynical about the omnipresence of God, but I found it easier to believe that there was sincerity in that due to the history of religion in Europe. And that reason was the start of the Crusades.
Why the crusades? The one thing that had really outlived the western Roman Empire (the eastern still existed as the Byzantine Empire) was the Church. Not the Catholic church, because that didn't exist - this was the precursor to that and the Church was pretty much THE religious institution for Christianity in western Europe (small, outlier groups existed, but the Church was the Microsoft of its day). In 1095, when the Byzantine emperor (Alexis I Komnenos - and yes, I had to look that up) asked Pope Urban II for help in quelling the uprising happening in modern-day Turkey and the Levant, the Pope saw it as an opportunity to expand the influence of the Church and, in his wildest dreams, to even recapture the holiest of cities, Jerusalem (pretty much the only city in the world that is important to 3 major religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The Pope communicated out through the Church's hierarchy to the parish priests to tell the people of the horrible atrocities being committed by the heathen Muslims in the Holy Land. That these atrocities weren't being committed didn't really matter - the Muslims controlling Jerusalem were actually quite accommodating - it was all just medieval propaganda.
The Peasants' Crusade meeting
the Seljuk Turks - and not doing well
The reason this figures prominently in understanding the early modern mindset about God is that in 1096 entire villages picked up and went on Crusade. This so-called Peasants' Crusade (the outcome shown right) was actually the first march to the Holy Land - the major army that Urban II wanted was still in the early planning stages. But the people, with their fervent belief that this Crusade was truly God's work, left their fields, their homes, their lives, to protect Christians in Jerusalem. To say the Church was surprised would be a bit of an understatement. Unfortunately, the peasants (about 40,000 of them) weren't well led and, at one point, even decided to follow a divinely-inspired duck. Needless to say, when they finally did meet the actual enemy, they were pretty much slaughtered.
To the medieval/middle ages mind, God was omnipresent. Not only was he everywhere, but he took direct action in the world. He wasn't passive, setting up the rules and then letting things happen - if something bad happened to you, it was God letting the Devil do it; good, it was God. God made it rain, made the sun burn your crops, created the insects that plagued your food. In hindsight, it's hard to think that the peasants wouldn't march to war to do God's work - especially when extolled to do so by their priests (who were still their sole conduit to their deity).
Richard I of England
The Lionheart
The regular Crusades kicked off later that year and did finally result in the capture of the Holy Land by Christians for the first time in history. The Christian kingdoms would only last about a century before finally being driven off by the forces of Saladin. There would be many more Crusades to follow (including the Third which made a household name of the Fighting Fairy, King Richard the Lionheart (and that guy Robin of the Hood) and the Fourth that just decided to sack Constantinople instead of going all the way to Jerusalem - they were sort of convinced to do it by the Doge of Venice).
So where does this lead us? In the centuries between the Peasants' Crusade and the English Civil War, the belief that God took an active role in daily life was relatively unchanged. And while we may look at events and writings of the middle ages and early modern periods with a skeptical eye, we must always temper that with the understanding of God's role in these peoples' lives. Maybe that's a good attitude to have even when not looking just at the middle ages.

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