Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Medieval Times: A different view

History is an interesting thing that is often flavored by our point of view. One of Tamela Hancock Murray’s clients, Deborah Kinnard, recently wrote about why she sets her stories in medieval times. One of the things she says is that “Medieval Europeans took for granted that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. These weren’t matters for discussion or question—they simply were. Faith informed people’s lives, and if they questioned, they did so privately.” No doubt, that may provide for an interesting framework for a story, but many would say that it is an unrealistic portrayal of the time period.

You will recall that the medieval period began a little more than a hundred years after Constantine unified many of the churches in to the Catholic Church. It began as the Roman Empire ended. In the vacuum left by the decline of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church was the strongest political and cultural influence of the time. The result is that much of what we know of the time was written by Catholic historians. But we shouldn’t assume that there weren’t less powerful groups during that time. The Jews, for example, were one of the groups that existed during medieval times. There a lot of pagans and superstitious people during the time. There were also non-Catholic Christian groups, all of which were branded heretics by the Catholics and who faced the sword and other forms of death for their heresy.

One of the non-Catholic Christian groups we find during the medieval period are the Waldenses. In 1254 Reinerius Saceho stated concerning this group:

Heretics are distinguished by their manners and their words, for they are sedate and modest in their manners. They have no pride in clothes, for they wear such as are neither costly nor mean. They do not carry on business in order to avoid falsehoods, oaths, and frauds, but only live by labor as workmen. Their teachers also are shoemakers and weavers. They do not multiply riches, but are content with what is necessary, and they are chaste, especially the Leonists. They are also temperate in meat and drink. They do not go to taverns, dances, or other vanities.

In other words, the “heretics” of that day were recognizable because they were good salt of the earth people, not given to sinful activities. Speaking of the Albigenses of Cologne in 1147, Evernius in a letter to Bernard says, “They do not believe infant baptism, alleging that place of the gospel, ‘Whosoever shall believe and be baptized shall be saved.’” But these people faced death for their doctrine. They certainly questioned the doctrine of the powerful Catholic Church, as is seen by the Catholic Church’s desire to eliminate them, but it should come as no surprise that they did so quietly, while working in the fields, rather than standing in the town center.

But as a novelist, I would argue that whether you agree with the doctrine of the “heretics” or not, they are far more interesting than characters who supported the Catholic doctrine. Can you imagine what it would be like to read the Bible to your family in fear that the Catholics would rush in and take it away from you, if not something worse? Can you imagine the fear that would motivate some of these “heretic” preachers to memorize the entire New Testament? Can you imagine women going from house to house selling bread so they could tell people of the good news of salvation because their husbands faced death if they were caught preaching the gospel?

We often look at the medieval age through rose colored glasses. We think of the chivalry of the knights. The common folk often because the extras and redshirts in our stories of the period, but let’s not forget that it was the common folk who were out preaching the gospel.


Deb said...

Since the medieval centuries in England are my prefered area of study, please allow me to comment.

The medieval era is a 'no-no' to many Christian publishers because the Christian charactes therein will of necessity be Catholic. We apparently want to think that true believers only arose after the Reformation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In England there was no Albigensian crusade. This was a local dust-up of heresy in France and did not touch England as such. Also, the Inquisition was not allowed on English soil, by royal command. Therefore, other than Jewish people, the great majority of folks in medieval England were at least nominally Christian. And the faith DID pervade their lives in a way we would find difficult to fathom, never having experienced such an environment.

I can recommend several valuable source books to help you understand the pre-Reformation Christian faith in England. It makes for fascinating reading.

Timothy Fish said...


I’ve studied the history of the Christians going through the medieval period. It has been something of a hobby of mine for the past 26 years and have a number of books on the subject in my personal library. Mind you, most provide second hand knowledge, aside from my 1898 edition of The Key of Truth, but what I have makes for fascinating reading.

You state that “We apparently want to think that true believers only arose after the Reformation. Nothing could be further from the truth.” I totally agree. In fact, if we are to believe that the Bible is the infallible, inspired word of God, we can’t say that there was ever a time when there weren’t true believers because Matthew 16:18 tells us that Jesus himself said, “upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” If the believers ever went out of existence, that sure sounds like the gates of hell prevailed to me. But I think you and I disagree on how God preserved the Christian churches.

Deb said...

That's fine. One reason I wrote the article for the Hartline blog was to stimulate discussion. For too long, the Christian fiction industry simply dismissed a thousand years of history as fiction fodder because the characters would be of the "wrong" denomination. I think this does us all a disservice, particuarly when it's never discussed or explored, but simply accepted as some sort of truth.