Links: The Medieval Period

General Information on Icons — Icons are crucial for an understanding of Eastern Christianity, which really began to have a separate identity in what we call the “medieval period.”  This is a helpful site on the topic, formatted as questions with answers.

Icon Blog — You may also find helpful this “Reader’s Guide” to understanding icons.  When iconographers create an icon, Eastern Christians say that they “write” the icon; as a result, one must learn how to “read” them, and this blog can help!

Description of Hagia Sophia — Here you’ll find a description of Hagia Sophia (the great church of Constantinople/Istanbul) from Procopius, a sixth-century figure who was alive when Hagia Sophia was built.  At the bottom of the page, there is a link to learn more about the destruction of the city in 1204 — that is interesting.  But the other link (“Hagia Sophia”) is dead, so don’t bother with it.  Also interesting is this link, which provides the history of the church up to the present, as well as a contemporary description.

A Full List of Popes — It’s impossible to think of medieval Christianity without thinking of the popes of Rome.  You’ll find many names in our textbook; however, if you’d like a full list of the popes — from Peter to Francis — check out this link to the Catholic Encyclopedia.  Each pope’s name also links to his biography  You’ll occasionally see the word “antipope” — that’s the word used when there was more than one pope claiming the office at one time.

Boniface and the Oak Tree — Early medieval Christianity also saw the development of Christian traditions among the Germanic/Teutonic peoples and the Celts.  The Germanic tradition included the work of several missionary monks, including the famous Boniface.  This link tells of his life — scroll down to chapter 6 for the famous story of the oak tree he cut down in the name of God.

The Life of St. Patrick — Similarly, the Celtic tradition of Ireland and Scotland had its famous characters, chief among them the man known as St. Patrick.  This link gives you his biography, written by a 7th-century monk.

Pope Gregory I on Mission Work in England — One of the important influences on British Christianity was the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons.This is a rather famous section from the Ecclesiastical History written by Bede, the seventh-century English monk, regarding Gregory’s sending missionaries to the Angles and Saxons.  Note the pope’s instructions regarding native worship: don’t destroy everything, but see how it can be converted to the worship of the True God.  For more on Bede’s text, see this link.

Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne — One of the towering figures of early medieval Christianity is the Frankish king Charlemagne.  Happily, we have a biography of him from his contemporary Einhard.  Here’s a link to Einhard’s work, with a handy, click-able table of contents at the top, so you can scan for something that you’d like to read about.

Vikings in England — Not long before the turn of the second millennium CE, folks we call “Vikings” appeared on the shores of Western European lands, including Great Britain.  Here’s a link (including a nice map) that describes the Vikings’ raids into England, and the effects of those raids.

Gothic Architecture — An important development in medieval art was Gothic architecture, but you may not remember as much about it as you’d like.  Here’s a little more information, with images, about this style of architecture that became so influential and widespread in the High Middle Ages.  The language is somewhat technical, but I think it gets its information across.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris — One of the most famous examples of Gothic architecture is the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  This link is the official website of the Cathedral — in the English version.  You might find especially interesting the tab called “Cathedral for Art and History” — lots and lots of images there, including panoramic views of the structure.

More on the Crusades — One of the darkest episodes in all of church history is the Crusades.  Here’s more information on that movement.  The site is nicely organized, but it can be a little challenging to tell what is a link and what is just a heading, but it’s still useful.

Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae — This is a free online version of the great Dominican’s Summa Theologiae, perhaps the most famous single work of theology in all of Christian history.  It has a table of contents and links to each section, so that you can get an idea for how big this work is, and you can also peruse different articles within it.

Quodlibet Disputations — One of the great contributions of the medieval period to the modern world is the university.  However, medieval universities weren’t always peaceful places, as regular “disputations” were held — something like academic debates

.  These disputations can be revealed in written form in a variety of texts, but one that is interesting is what is called the “quodlibets” of medieval writers.  “Quodlibet” literally means “whatever,” and it refers to a semi-annual tradition in some universities where students could come and ask “whatever” question they wanted — essentially a “stump the professor” session.  Some of these sessions were recorded.  This link has translations of some of the quodlibets of Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval teacher.  Peruse the table of contents for something interesting to you.

More on the Waldensians — Here you can find more information on the Waldenses, or Waldensians, that group that was accused of heresy and also provided an important forerunner to Luther’s Reformation.  This site is run by Anabaptists, who are not historically related to the Waldensians.  But they do have some affinities with them, and so they have an investment in understanding this group more fully.

Two Perspectives on the Inquisition — This link is to the old version of the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on the Inquisition.  For material connected the Inquisition’s work against heresy (its original function), scroll or click down to the section called “The suppression of heresy by the institution known as the inquisition.”  For an interesting Jewish perspective on the Inquisition, see this link.

More on Indulgences — This site is an interesting one, as it considers famous historical trials.  One of those trials is that of Martin Luther, and one of the resources it includes is a page called “Questions & Answers Concerning Indulgences.”  For a modern Catholic perspective sympathetic to the use of indulgences, see this link.

The Borgia Family — You may have heard of the Borgia family, who were involved with “political corruption and immorality” to “unbelievable heights,” as one church history textbook has it.  If you’d like to know more about them, including Roderigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), see this link.

John Wycliffe’s English Translation of the Bible — Another important forerunner to the Protestant Reformation was the work of John Wycliffe, who among other things advocated the use of the Bible in the vernacular to aid in people’s understanding.  If you would like to read some of Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English, see this link.  Granted, it is written in a form of middle English, so it might be challenging.  You might start with a book with which you’re familiar — like maybe “Romaynes” or “1 Corinthis,” or perhaps one of the Gospels.

Image credit (Girolamo Savonarola; edited by the blogger):

Suggested next click: the next set of links (the Reformation period)

In the News: Medieval Church Buildings

Today I watched a brief video on the BBC’s website, accessible at this link (requires Flash).  The video was about the apparently popular phenomenon of camping overnight in medieval church buildings!  The Churches Conservation Trust (see this link) works to protect churches “at risk,” and they do so in a variety of ways, from sponsoring preservation efforts to hosting events at various places.  And perhaps the most unexpected part of their work: helping people camp out in churches! 

Of course, you might be wondering a couple of things: how long have these churches been around, and why are they so empty?  Well, the first question can be answered with this good (but a bit lengthy) summary of English church history, and the second may be understood better through this discussion of and this warning about the decline of Christianity in modern England.  It is a sad story, from the perspective of church history, but there is also hope, as this columnist suggests — not just in people preserving churches, but also in the continued work of new evangelists in the UK.  (Side note: if you want a nice gallery of English church buildings, this site should satiate your desire.)

Image credit:

Suggested next click: Back to the In the News home page

In the News: Warrior Monks

Earlier this week, a story about “warrior monks” appeared at this link from the BBC News service.  The story is part of a series about things in history that have helped shape the modern economic system that we are a part of (and, incidentally, that helps keep this site up!).  Specifically, it’s about the Knights Templar, an organization that began as a group to support and defend Crusaders and other Christians in the Holy Land, but that ended up also serving as a de facto banking system.  You might have heard about them through their role in the film National Treasure and the novel The DaVinci Code.  You can read more about the Knights Templar here and here.

Interestingly enough, just a couple of weeks ago I came across another item about “warrior monks,” this time the impressively-named “Livonian Brothers of the Sword.”  Livonia is an area that no longer exists politically but was formerly in the area now occupied by the Baltic states.  However, through much of the last 1,000 years, German-heritage folks have lived there, and this group was comprised of ethnically German warrior monks.  They flourished in the 13th century (again, the time of the Crusades), but their work was evangelistic rather than primarily protective, and it was focused at home rather than in the Holy Land.  They eventually became a part of the German Teutonic Knights, and you can read more about them at their Wikipedia page or at that of the present-day Teutonic Knights.

These days, we tend not to think of “warriors” and “monks” as concepts that go together, but had we lived in the Middle Ages, that would not have seemed odd at all.

UPDATE: Just one month after the original version of this post went out, the Knights Templar showed up in the news AGAIN!  This time, the story in question seems not to actually involve the Knights, but who knows? we might learn more in the coming days.

Image credit: from Walter Thornbury’s 1887 book Old and New London, Illustrated, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Suggested next click: Back to the In the News home page

The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 3)

As we get to the middle of the (college) summer, it’s time for our last post on the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, before we move on in July to two important works from Martin Luther — The Freedom of a Christian and The Bondage of the Will.  So far I have made some introductory comments and discussed Book I, and then I’ve dedicated a second post to Books II and III.  The focus for this post will be Bede’s Books IV and V, with some comments related to the work as a whole.  You’ll hopefully learn more about how and why Bede has been such an important figure in English church history!

Important Elements in Books IV and V

  1. Caedmon and Cuthbert.  These last two books contain virtually all the information we have on two important British figures: the English poet Caedmon (whose “call” gave the famous Christian music group their name) and the monk and bishop St. Cuthbert.  Caedmon’s story is told in IV.24, and it includes the only extant poem that we have from Caedmon — a song in praise of God the Creator.  Interestingly, Bede notes that Caedmon’s singular gift seems to have been his ability to “translate” passages of Scripture into English verse, once they were explained to him; note that he did not sing in Latin, and that he did not have his own education.  But he seems to have written LOTS of songs, even if only our one survives.  Cuthbert’s story is related in IV.27-29, with stories of miracles occurring via his relics in IV.30-32.  He is another of Bede’s model bishops, as Wright notes, joining the ranks of Augustine of Canterbury, Aidan, and Chad.  Like these others, Cuthbert leads not only by word but also by deed, and he is deeply humble.  Toward the end of his life, Cuthbert foresees his own death and tells others of its imminent occurrence; this gift of foresight recurs in Bede’s narrative, typically as an indication of the holiness or innocence of its recipient.  All in all, Cuthbert is a model of Christian virtue, as Bede also makes clear in a separate text — his poetic Life of Cuthbert (which you can read at this link).
  2. lindisfarne gospelsThe Importance of Scripture.  Something that has been true of Books I-III, but that I’ve mostly saved until now, is the immense importance of Scripture to Bede.  Something that modern readers are sometimes surprised by in reading ancient authors is their intense interest in and command of Scripture.  That’s true of Bede as well.  In some places, it’s quite simple, in that his characters quote Scripture (e.g., Bishop Chad’s quoting of Psalm 18 in IV.3).  Then, there are places where Bede uses Scripture to help his readers understand what is happening in the narrative, like Ecclesiastes 3 to explain Chad’s impending death in IV.3, or 2 Corinthians 12 to explain Ethelburga’s sickness in IV.9.  There are places in his text where he sees what’s happening in England as a continuation of biblical history (for example, IV.25, where the sinful members of a monastery do not follow the contrite example of the Ninevites in Jonah 3, and thus are destroyed by fire, or the very end of the text in V.23, where Britain is one of the islands that give thanks at the remembrance of God’s holiness, from Psalm 97).  At other times, he places words of Scripture into the mouths of his characters, as in his narrative of Cuthbert in IV.28, where Cuthbert remembers the commands of Jesus.  At still other places, he compares his subjects to biblical characters, as in his comparison at V.8 of Archbishop Theodore to the godly men of the past, following Sirach 44.  The big point is this: when one steps back and looks at the work as a whole, one sees that it is suffused with Scripture.
  3. Bede the Historian.  We have seen throughout the text that Bede is a careful historian, and that care manifests itself in a variety of ways.  That feature continues in this last part of the text, with Bede’s general intention to tell the story of the English church in chronological order, while also illuminating some important personalities.  He shares first-hand (e.g., IV.32) and second-hand accounts (e.g., IV.3) of various events, almost always naming his sources (like Abbot Berthun, who is the source of miracles described in V.2-4).  He also notes written records that he has consulted, as in IV.7 about various miracles.  In IV.5, he preserves the decisions of the Council of Hertford (AD/CE 673), and he preserves a conciliar letter from the Synod of Hatfield (AD/CE 680) in IV.17.  While Bede often focuses on “great men,” he also reveals a certain sense of obligation regarding other good stories, as in the case of of IV.16, where he tells of two young princes who convert to Christianity just before being executed.  Finally, he doesn’t hesitate to reprint material from still other sources, like gravestone epitaphs in V.8 and V.19, or books about the Holy Land in V.16-17.  Finally, he ends his text with a “how are things with Christianity in England now?” in V.23 and a chronological summary of the whole book in V.24.  He’s careful and helpful!
  4. Christian Controversies.  As we saw in the second post on Bede, he is very interested in the conflict between Celtic and Roman traditions, especially on the date of Easter and the proper monastic haircut.  And there continue to be places where Bede shows interest in various differences between Christian groups.  For example, when Theodore (of Greek heritage) comes to England to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope sends along an abbot to support him, but also to make sure that “he did not introduce into the Church which he was to rule any Greek customs which conflicted with the teachings of the true Faith” (IV.1).  Then, toward the end of the text, in V.19, Bede tells the story of bishop Wilfrid, who apparently represented the English churches at a synod in Rome that was part of the Monothelite controversy.  Finally, in V.21, Bede reproduces a letter from Abbot Ceolfrid to the king of the Picts in what is now Scotland; that letter contains lengthy reflections on the Celtic-Roman questions about Easter and the tonsure — a nice recap of Bede’s own position on those matters!  As we see throughout the text, Bede is a historian, but he is a historian with commitments about how things should be done, and he is not afraid to make those clear.
  5. Platonic View of Death.  A feature of the text that caught me off-guard — in that I had noticed it in the first three books — was Bede’s repeated descriptions of death as a type of liberation from the body.  In IV.3, a plague means that “death freed many members of the reverend bishop’s church from the burden of the flesh.”  Later in that section, the bishop himself dies, which Bede describes as that “his holy soul was released from the prison-house of the body.”  In IV.9, we hear of one nun who is “set free from the body” and of another named Tortgyth who is “delivered from the burden of the body.”  Then, in IV.14, an epidemic strikes the island of Britain, and while many people are saved from it, one young boy is “set free by death.”  By the time of Bede, traditional Christian teaching had connected Neoplatonic ideas about the body and soul (let me know if you have a better link) with some of the things that Paul says in his letters, such that the body was viewed as a hindrance to the proper spiritual activity of the soul; this view is perhaps most famously expressed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act III), where the lead character speaks of death as shuffling off “this mortal coil.”  Certainly, Bede’s views are also influenced by his monastic background, since we know that medieval monks often saw the body as the soul’s opponent, one which must be purified (or even punished) by penance.

Well, it’s time to wrap up Bede.  We’ve seen a lot of interesting things, and hopefully you’ve come to understand him and his text more fully.  The shame of it all is that we haven’t even been able to touch of everything of interest: we’ve totally left aside the story of Willibrord (the great missionary to the Frisians, described in V.10-11) and Bede’s comments here and there about church music in England.  I haven’t said much about Bede’s many comments (some subtle, some overt) about monastic life at the time, or the many miracle stories he includes throughout the text.  Further, I haven’t even discussed how Bede TOTALLY OMITS ST. PATRICK!  (You can read more about that at this link.)  For these and other omissions, I can only apologize for the brevity of this format, point you to Wright’s book, and encourage you to keep researching on your own!  In the meantime, a set of questions to conclude:

If you were to tell the story of Christianity in your denomination and part of the world, how would you do so?  What would you emphasize?  What would you leave out?  What parts of Scripture would you connect with?

Image credits: (the illumination of Bede), (the detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels), and (for the image from Vesalius of death contemplating death)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 2)

bede windowWelcome back to the CHEF and to Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People!  In the first post I talked about some background info and about Book I of the work, which gets us up to ca. 600 AD/CE.  In this post I’ll have some things to say about Books II and III, and then in the last one I’ll discuss books IV and V.

First, though, the big picture.

  • Chronology: while Book I consists of several centuries of history, Books II and III are focused on only about 60 years — from ca. 605 to about 665.
  • Geography: Books II and III discuss events that happened all over what we now think of as England, but it also includes stories and personalities connected with places like Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, and even Rome!  In other words, medieval England included a lot more “coming and going” than we might think of for the early Middle Ages.
  • The big points: 1) slowly, and in fits and starts, the various tribes that make up the “English people” are becoming Christian; and 2) the Christianity in England is becoming more and more influenced by “Roman Catholicism” as the native Celtic traditions are replaced by Continental ones.

Major Elements in Books II and III

  1. As noted above, a primary part of this middle part of Bede’s History is the slow move of the various Anglo-Saxon tribes toward Christianity.  The Danes and the Normans are not yet in view; rather, one reads a great deal about the West Saxons, the East Saxons, the Mercians, the Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira, etc.  These are all Germanic groups and are Bede’s primary focus; the Britons and Irish are mentioned but are the groups he finds to be imperfect in their Christian beliefs (see below).  In fact, if you’re like me, you find it hard to keep straight the different kingdoms and kings — names like Oswin and Oswald, Ethelwald and Ethelbert, and Edwin and Egbert are WAY too similar to make it easy for casual readers.  Happily, the Internet can help us here.  You can find lists of the kings of the various kingdoms at this link (although a comparative chart would be very helpful, and I haven’t found one yet).  Also this link gives you more information about the different kingdoms at this time, and the decent-enough map to the left can hopefully help you visually.
  2. But it’s not just about the places; for Bede, it’s about their conversion.  At the beginning of the 600s, Britain was a largely “pagan” place, but by the end of Book III, most of the English kingdoms have become Christian.  In one sense, this development occurs rather quickly, in that someone born around 600 (and living to 665) would have seen his surroundings change drastically.  On the other hand, it is important to note that Bede doesn’t present a smooth transition.  Sometimes one king converts, only for his son(s) to revert to paganism (see, e.g., King Ethelbert of Kent in II.5); at other times, a preacher comes to convert the king, but it takes him a long time to decide what to do (as with Edwin of Northumbria in II.13).  This picture helps nuance one of the aspects of early medieval Christianity that is sometimes troubling: the conversion of whole people groups upon the conversion of a king.  While these are not forced conversions (as discussed in this link), as modern people, we worry about the thoughts and actions of the individuals involved — whether they REALLY knew what they were doing.  But as we see here, it was an unsurprisingly complex phenomenon.
  3. Speaking of early medieval Christianity, there are a number of aspects of this portion of the text that are very “medieval,” that is, that fit our stereotypes of “the Middle Ages.”  We see things like daily Mass becoming normal (as in II.9), the “sign of the cross” becoming a cipher for Christianity and Christ (as in II.10 and III.2), “the Pope” becoming the standard name of the bishop of Rome (II.11), the use of saints’ relics or their derivatives for the purposes of healing or protection (III.2, 9-13, etc.), and a picture of continually developing church hierarchy (II. 17, where we see archbishops having some amount of authority over “just regular” bishops).  Personally, it had never really occurred to me to question our traditional delineation of the “Middle Ages” as a discrete thing, but Bede’s history shows me that there really is value in our thinking this way — that there were aspects of medieval Christianity that are just plain different from what came before and what would come after.
  4. A central event in Books II and III is the so-called “Synod of Whitby,” of which Bede is a major source (III.25).  MUCH more has been written elsewhere (for example, here and here), and so I’ll just offer a few comments.  First, this conflict gets set up from the very beginning of Book II, with Bede’s panegyric on Gregory I.  The fact that he praises a Roman bishop so highly shows us where his sympathies lie (notwithstanding Gregory’s role in evangelizing the English people).  Second, Bede makes it very clear (in several places, like II.4 and III.4) that the Britons, while they have admirable spiritual leaders, are not “doing Easter” right, specifically in the timing of their observance.  This may seem like a trivial problem, but for Bede, it represents their being out-of-step with the rest of the Christian world, especially with its center in Rome.  Third, we get a sense that there is a top-down urgency to this situation (much like Constantine’s motivations in calling the first Council of Nicaea in 325): King Oswiu of Northumbria followed the Celtic traditions, while his wife Eanfled (from Kent) followed the Roman ones.  As a result, as Bede says, there could be a time when the king was feasting and the queen was fasting!  Fourth, Bede does acknowledge that other issues were a part of the synod, like the so-called “tonsure” — the image below shows a drawing of the Roman practice on the left, with what might have been the Celtic practice on the right (we’re not exactly sure — but he doesn’t make a big deal about these “other matters.”  Finally, it’s interesting to me how the conversation ends.  Both sides have “tradition” on their side, and both claim apostolic origins for their practices.  However, when it becomes clear that the Celtic argument is largely based on the holiness of their saints, but that the Roman one is based on the authority of Peter, the king chooses Peter.  I might disagree with him historically, preferring the preservation of cultural diversity, but it’s hard for me to disagree with him personally.  Notice, by the way, that this is another chapter in the long and convoluted history of Britain and the continent of Europe (see the Anglican Reformation in the 1500s, the “Brexit” referendum of 2016, etc.).

celtic vs roman tonsure

Other Elements of Note in Books II and III

  1. I have read that Bede is the author that really popularized the “AD” dating system (anno Domini = “in the year of the Lord”).  I don’t have independent attestation of that fact, but I’m content to accept it.  We certainly see him using it all over the place, e.g., in II.1 about Pope Gregory.
  2. In his description of Gregory’s life (II.1), we see Bede (a monk) clearly contrast his ideal of monasticism as a pure, unsullied way of existing that seems to be clearly better than a life in the dirty, secular world.  This view makes sense, but it’s also problematic (as later thinkers would help us understand), chiefly in light of Jesus’ incarnation.  Our Lord came into a dirty world — and he took it on himself in the form of a breakable human body!
  3. Bede occasionally uses the word “catholic” in ways that mean “universal.”  He usually does this when talking about heretics or misguided Christians (here, in II.2, regarding the Britons).  However, the translation I’m using usually prints the word as capitalized “Catholic,” which has the presumably unintended connotation of “Roman Catholic,” which is not what Bede means.  He means something like, “Why do you think you’re so special?  EVERYBODY ELSE does it this other way!”
  4. Bede includes interesting and thought-provoking remarks about being a historian.  In III.2 he talks about how all the chroniclers basically decided to wipe a really terrible year (one marauding, invading king, and other apostate ones) off the record, by assigning it to the reign of “their successor King Oswald,” a good and pious ruler!  Then, in III.17, in discussing the death of the great and pious Saint Aidan, Bede says that he can’t “commend or approve his inadequate knowledge of the proper observance of Easter.”  However, he says that “as a truthful historian” he’s told the truth about Aidan’s life, and that he must commend all the virtues of the great saint’s life and actions, concluding by saying, “I greatly admire and love all these things about Aidan.”  A good model for us of how to deal with those with whom we disagree!

That’s it for Books II and III of Bede.  Next time we’ll finish up with Books IV and V.  See you there!  In the meantime, be thinking: What is an issue in Christianity on which you disagree with someone who is a really good follower of Jesus?  How might you focus more on your unity with that person than on your disagreements?

Image credits: (the Bede stained-glass window), (the map of Anglo-Saxon Britain), and a student’s account at (the image of monastic tonsures, apparently captured from a book that I can’t find; if you know what the original source is, please let me know!)

Suggested next click: Ecclesiastical History, Part 3

Noll, Ch. 6: The Great Schism (1054 CE)

Chapter 6 may have come as a bit of a surprise to you, in that this event is not one that most of us “feel” every day – or every Sunday. The eastern and western churches have been divided for so long – nearly 1,000 years! – that we hardly notice the breach. It’s like when there was a family fight a couple of generations in the past; we know that there are long-lost cousins out there somewhere, and we hope that things are well with them, but we don’t miss them.

However, this chapter is an important part of the book, and an important part of our learning about church history, because this is where Noll teaches us about what we often call “Eastern Orthodox Christianity.” (Side note: “Eastern” is relative. If you were in Japan, they would properly be the “Western Orthodox.” Let’s just call them the “Orthodox,” since that’s what they call themselves.) As Noll says, the breach between East and West traces back quite early in church history, not least in matters of language, and then later in matters of culture, church organization, and worship. We tend to talk about the sad events of 1054 as a turning point merely because it made things official; it’s sort of like when a married couple has been estranged for a long time, but it’s only when the divorce decree is signed that it’s really final.

You may have been glad to know that there have been efforts at reconciliation, most recently in the last 50 years, especially with the pontificate of John Paul II. You may also have been excited to learn more about Christianity in Russia; many contemporary individuals still think of Russia as communist and godless, but this has actually been only a recent development. And then, you may have been dismayed to learn about some of the sad chapters of this part of our history, like the sack and occupation of Constantinople starting in 1204. (By the way, that episode really is one of the darkest ones in all of Christian history. It’s repugnant enough when we have done things like that to people of other faiths. But when we’ve done it to people of our own faith – to members of our own family? There are few words to describe the emotions that arise.)

In case you’d like to read the actual “bull of excommunication,” you can find it here:

Here are a few issues/questions to discuss on the chapter:

  1. The Great Schism, unhealed for over a millennium, had as much (or even more) to do with the personalities of leaders as matters of doctrine. Is it inevitable that strong personalities will divide churches? What value, if any, is there in preserving these divisions persisting after the deaths of those influential leaders?
  2. In the late Middle Ages, there were strong attempts on the part of the church hierarchy to reunite the Eastern and Western churches, but these efforts were ultimately rejected by the Eastern lay-people. Do you think today that the views of “ordinary pew-sitters” can mitigate the effectiveness of progressive efforts by leaders? Is there an appropriate role for church leadership to override the opinion of the laity for a greater good? Should, alternatively, a democratic principle reign in the church?
  3. Eastern Orthodoxy for much of its history as a distinct church has been “mostly separated from current affecting other Christians” (p. 125). Other Christian traditions have developed largely, if not exclusively, in isolation from the broader body of the church (i.e., Churches of Christ, Anabaptist churches). What are the benefits and detriments of this kind of isolation?
  4. In the 1200’s, Western Crusaders did great evil against Eastern Christians. The Crusades have made dialogue difficult, at times impossible, between East and West ever since. Is there a “statute of limitations” on fallout between descendants of old crimes? In America, racial relations are affected by the history of slavery. Is a few hundred years enough to heal the breach by these crimes against humanity? Is over a thousand years enough to forgive the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders? Are some crimes (i.e., the Holocaust) so great that reconciliation is not a realistic option?
  5. A major theological dividing point between the East and the West was the “filioque” clause. How do you respond to this theological debate? Is it a pressing issue or a “disputable matter?” How might your reaction be shaped by your own religious background, particularly if it was a non-creedal tradition?
  6. The acceptance of Orthodoxy in Russia changed the history of this ecclesiastical tradition. How might the demographic shifts in modern Christianity (to Africa, Asia and Latin America, away from Europe and European-descendants) shape the future of global Christianity? How is it already doing so, to your knowledge?

Credit for image of Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew:

Suggested next click: Chapter 7

Noll, Ch. 5: The Coronation of Charlemagne (800 CE)

One of the signal events of the early Middle Ages is the subject of Noll’s chapter 5: Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.  As Noll says at the beginning of the chapter, this event was important for a variety of reasons: it says something about the growing power and influence of the popes by this time; it says something about the changing face of Western Europe, as a Germanic tribe (Franks) had surpassed the Romans as the dominant political force on the continent’s mainland; and it speaks about the growing web of links between the secular powers and the spiritual powers (the church) of the day.

coronation of charlemagne

For many American Christians, that last item is most important. Charlemagne’s rule was significant because it was during this period that a political philosophy was built that still holds sway in many places and hearts. That philosophy essentially says this: that there are secular powers in the world (mayors, governors, presidents), and they have rules, enforce laws, and are installed by certain ceremonies. Their job is to take care of the people in the realm that God has given them: secular matters, like protecting the borders, maintaining peace, and levying taxes. There are also spiritual powers in the world (churches, priests, bishops, etc.), and they also have rules, enforce laws, and are installed by certain ceremonies. Their job is to take care of the people in the realm that God has given them: spiritual matters, like forgiving sins, conducting worship, and maintaining Christian morals.

Ideally, those two powers work together for the sake of the people and the kingdom – in a parallel sort of way – but most of the time, there is tension between them. For example, what is the best way to maintain good morals in a country? Is it effective preaching or laws that have teeth? Or who gets to appoint the leaders in the church? Is it the church itself and its people, or the secular leaders who keep everyone safe so that they can actually have church services? As you can see, this philosophy has challenges, but it shaped church-state relations until the Reformation in most of Europe, and even to the present day in the United States.

You may find helpful this link to Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, mentioned in the chapter:

Here are a few issues/questions to discuss on the chapter:

  1. The first long section of the chapter is devoted to the papacy. At this time, secular power had begun to accrue to the papacy, and with that power came the possibilities of influence and also various temptations.  Given the challenges that spiritual leaders (like bishops and ministers) face, what is the best balance between spiritual piety and worldly influence in a church’s leaders?  How do we negotiate that tension?
  2. Follow-up: you have probably heard the classic quote that goes like this: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Based on what you have read and what you know from other sources, do you think the papacy affirms this idea, contradicts it, or nuances? Why do you think this is the case?
  3. Gregory the Great is one of the popes who has been highly admired by non-Catholics, including in the present day, just as many Protestants and even non-Christians admire the current Pope Francis. Is it consistent to reject the Catholic view of papal authority, and yet to still admire specific popes? Why or why not?
  4. One of the weaknesses of many church history books is the relative short shrift they give to the importance of Islam in the history of Christianity.  How did you respond to Noll’s presentation of Islam in the section “The Rise of Northern Europe?  Was this new information?  Was it surprising? What does it make you think about, in light of the current uneasiness regarding the place of Islam in American life?
  5. “Christendom” is the word we use to describe the established position that Christianity enjoyed within western culture.  Google a bit on manifestations of Christendom, and then answer these questions: How does Christendom still manifest itself in the circles you inhabit in America?  How do you see it passing away?
  6. In modern America, many Christians of Western- and Northern-European descent follow religious practices sharply differing from those of their ancestors. If you are from this background, how does it feel to think that you would most likely not have the faith that you have today, if it were not for the rise of “Christendom”? That your faith depends on your ancestors to some degree, even if your practice of Christianity sharply differs from theirs?

Image credit for Jean Fouquet’s Crowning of Charlemagne (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 6

Noll, Ch. 4: Benedict’s Rule (530 CE)

Noll’s chapter 4 moves from theological questions to practical ones: what might a Christian do if he/she really wants to live in an intentional way in discipleship to Jesus? What might the options be? Well, as Noll says, one way that that happened is in the phenomenon called “monasticism,” in which a person chooses to withdraw from “society” or “the world,” in order to live alone or in community. Noll does a good job of describing some of the important historical names and movements (Antony in Egypt, John Cassian, Simeon Stylites, etc.), but the focus of the chapter is the Italian monk Benedict of Nursia.

As Noll says, Benedict is truly the father of monasticism in the “West” – that is, Western Europe and eventually North America. The reason we can rightly call him by this name is that the vast majority of monastic orders that have arisen since then have been part of the Benedictine “family tree.” The groups that Noll discusses in his “Brief Outline” (starting on p. 91) came from Benedict’s original movement, either in direct descent or in responding to the dominant Benedictine movement in Western Europe.

Noll’s description of Benedict’s rule (starting on p.86) is quite accurate. Many of the most important elements of the rule come from its focus on the practical realities of communal life, like how to help the members of the community encourage one another, how to respond to the local conditions where the monastery is located, and how to account for various weaknesses in the monks themselves. Also, Benedict’s rule is not one that encourages only “spiritual work,” like prayer and worship, or only manual labor, but rather both. The link I’ve provided will give you a good sense of some of the elements of the rule, since it is still in use today.

Side note: there are still Benedictine monasteries all over the world, and so you can find good resources at their websites, like this one. Feel free to look, explore, and discover how Benedictine monks and nuns are still living in community today.

Here’s a potentially helpful link to some excerpts from Benedict’s Rule:

Here are some questions to respond to:

  1. This chapter presents the rise of monasticism as largely beneficial to Christianity. Is that how you tended to view monasticism before reading this chapter? Have your views on monasticism changed after reading this chapter? To what extent was your evaluation of monasticism affected by the presence (or lack thereof) of monastic movements in your religious background?
  2. Noll notes that knowledge of Benedict’s life does not equal our knowledge of his historical importance (p. 81). Do you find it encouraging or disheartening that work done for Christ can leave an impact that outlasts the knowledge or memory of the individual’s personality?
  3. Noll presents monasticism as a means of preserving rigorous Christianity in the face of Christendom (p. 82). In contexts where Christianity is generally accepted or at least tolerated, in what ways can the church preserve its rigorous witness? Is monasticism a viable option in areas where the church is small or persecuted?
  4. Simeon Stylites’s story is one of the odder ones of church history.  How does his narrative strike you? Did his extreme self-denial help anybody? Did it help proclaim Christ?
  5. Noll praises Benedict’s Rule for combining zeal with stability (p. 87). In religious matters, can zeal and stability be reconciled? If there is a conflict between the two, which do you favor more?
  6. Noll notes that monasticism allowed women an opportunity to actively participate in the life of the church (p. 90). Is it surprising to think that monasticism helped elevate the role of women in Christianity? Could monasticism be helpfully reclaimed by feminists today?
  7. The last portion of the chapter is a partial evaluation of monasticism from a Protestant perspective. How did you respond to that evaluation? Based on what you have read, do you think monasticism promotes legalism? How might your religious background affect your answer?

Image credit for the detail of St. Benedict from a fresco of Fra Angelico:

Suggested next click: Chapter 5

Liturgy / Worship as a Unifying Force

CharlemagneMany of you will have heard of Charlemagne, the great Frankish (Germanic) ruler of the late seventh and early eighth centuries.  Charlemagne influenced Western Europe in many ways, both in the church and in the state, but I’m thinking today about a quest he made for unity in his empire.  As you may know, Charlemagne’s efforts included conquering lands, repelling invaders, securing his borders, reviving culture, etc.  But the unity that he achieved in a political way wasn’t totally secure, because people could always rebel.

However, there was also a spiritual question, in that there was a spiritual power down in Rome that people had begun to call the “pope” — the spiritual “father” of all Christians, in the eyes of some.  One big question for Charlemagne concerned how political and spiritual powers would co-exist: who is in charge?  Is it the pope or the emperor?  Or some combination of the two?  Could this question even lead to a breakdown in the unity of the empire?

One tactic that Charlemagne used to unify his empire was to unify the worship that existed throughout the empire.  In other words, he attempted to standardize the Christian worship of his “Carolingian” empire.  You might think that would be easy, but you’d be wrong.  Besides all the difficulties of communication across hundreds of miles in those days, there were some very specific, distinct, and already ancient worship traditions associated with lands in his empire: in Spain, in northern Italy (centered in Milan), and in Gaul (now France).

So what was Charlemagne to do?  Should he take one of these local traditions and make it “empire-wide”?  Actually, what he did was to send messengers to Rome to find out how they “did worship” there.  He knew that Rome was a very ancient Christian city, and he viewed Roman traditions as the most authoritative.  It’s not unlike the reasoning employed by King Oswy at the Synod of Whitby in the late 600s — but that’s a story for another day.  (Feel free to research it, if you like!)

I don’t think this move on Charlemagne’s part is just an interesting historical footnote.  I think that many of us have experienced the same kind of cultural cohesiveness that comes from a common worship tradition.  Those of us in the Churches of Christ may know what this is like.  Until recently, all over the Bible Belt, people in Churches of Christ sang many of the same hymns, heard much of the same prayer language, and experienced similar preaching.  This was comforting: if one was traveling, one could visit an unfamiliar Church of Christ and yet feel right at home.

More broadly, and more recently, the most common way this unity happens nowadays concerns modern worship music.  As you know, there’s been an explosion of modern worship music in the last 20 years, and whether you are in a Bible church, a community church, a Baptist church, etc., there’s a good chance that you’ll hear songs you know.  Does this create unity outside the church walls?  Maybe.  But it certainly creates unity as we share worship experiences together.

lifting hands

Closest to home, as members of the our university community, we all experience communal worship on campus (in our daily “Chapel” gatherings).  Some of us like the all-music “Praise Day,” some prefer the more contemplative “Come to the Quiet,” and still others like the aptly-named “Small Group” Chapels.  But we all know the experiences, and we all know the standard complaints that students levy against required worship.  Despite those complaints, though, one reason that the University administration preserves the Chapel requirement is that, while our students come from different worship backgrounds, worship as a bonding social experience is very powerful in community-building.  This bonding occurs on a sociological level – there are human-level phenomena working here – but we believe it also happens in a spiritual way.  We believe that the Holy Spirit binds us together as Christians, and one way the Spirit does this is through our worship.

So, the next time you’re bored in a worship service, I’d encourage you to think a bit about what’s actually happening during that service, and why lifelong Christians often find hymn-singing to be so powerful in their later years.  God is binding us together, as the old song goes, with cords that may not be able to be broken.

Image credits : and


medieval universityOne aspect of the so-called “High Middle Ages” that is a natural candidate for a “Why Church History is Relevant” post is the phenomenon of universities, both in the medieval period and in our world today.

You may not have ever thought about this much before, but if you did, you might have assumed that universities as we have known them have always existed in this form.  But in fact, modern universities derive from an educational development that took place in the High Middle Ages, and specifically a development in the church.  In fact, some scholars have said that universities and cathedrals are the two great legacies of the medieval period.

As you may know, there were universities in different places in Europe during this time (e.g., Oxford in England, Paris in France, Bologna in Italy, etc.), and the universities varied in their structure.  In some cases, the faculty were the power-brokers, dictating everything from the classes taught to the table manners of the students.  In other instances, the students had the real influence and could almost hold faculty hostage until they got what they wanted, whether concerning topics or hours.

In our world, the diversity comes mostly with attitude, rather than in structure.  On the surface, it would seem that faculty and administrators hold all the cards: we give lectures, we assign grades, administrators set prices, etc.  But increasingly, students have more and more power.  Just because we admit a prospective student at my university, that doesn’t mean that that student will come.  And if they decide not to come, we lose thousands in potential revenue.  So, we spend lots of resources on marketing and financial aid, partly to help students but also to convince them to come spend their own (or their financial aid donors’ ) dollars on tuition, room, board, etc.  This may sound very crass and market-driven, but it is the world in which we now live.

university of phoenix logoA second way that this conversation is relevant concerns the rise of so-called “for-profit” universities, like the University of Phoenix.  Traditional institutions are “non-profit” or “not-for-profit” – like other non-profits, the goal is not to make money, but rather (in our case) to provide higher education.  But some organizations, realizing the money that can be made in education, have established for-profit schools – some brick-and-mortar, some online.  These institutions have become controversial for a variety of reasons.  One reason is accountability – are they providing the same quality of education when there is a profit motive?  Another reason concerns student recruitment – some for-profit schools have been accused of targeting veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, usually young people who have access to government assistance funds for education but may not be able to make fully informed decisions.  The schools claim that they will “work with” the students, helping tailor their education to a very practical end; however, some folks have found those claims unfulfilled.

oleanna1Underlying all of this is the fact that, since the Middle Ages, there has been a power dynamic in play in higher education.  When we hear the word “university,” we may have idealized images in our minds – ivy-covered walls, grassy quadrangles, etc.  But these pictures are not realistic for either the medieval period or the modern world.  However, this is not the only way we can be unrealistic about college.  Faculty can think administrators should fully support them in their “noble pursuit” of knowledge, when they actually have other interests to serve.  Students can think faculty should largely exist to serve their own educational needs, when faculty actually have their own agendas and goals.  Unfortunately, administrators, faculty, and students can all abuse the power given to them.  If you want to see an artistic representation of this issue, check out the play Oleanna by David Mamet – it concerns the complicated relationship between a female student and a male professor.

So how do we respond as Christians, or as a Christian university?  First, I hope that we all are really looking to serve one another and not just fulfill our own desires.  Second, I am reminded of the power of hope, that great Christian virtue, as we face the challenges of money and power in higher education; we can always strive to make things better.  Third, we can cultivate gratitude in this area; we can be thankful, not just to God for giving us this opportunity, but also to those who have gone before us, opening up opportunities for us to better ourselves through education.

Image credits: , and