The term “Middle Ages” refers to the long period of world history (1,000 years) which intervened between antiquity and modernity. Just as the middle life of a man is the period of life between youth and old age, and bridges the gap between the two, so also the Middle Ages of the world bridges the great chasm which separates the ancient world from the modern world. In middle life some things are lost, but others are gained, and there is an overall process of maturation; and so it was in the Middle Ages of the world. Studying the Middle Ages makes the connection between antiquity and modernity seem less remote. The Middle Ages are sometimes called the “Medieval Period,” since “Medieval” means “Middle Ages” in Latin (medius + aevum).
The Middle Ages was created by the fall of classical civilization to the barbarians. While the decline of the Roman Empire was slow and gradual, a specific date and event has recently been put forth as the dividing point between Antiquity and the Middle Ages: a massive eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in AD 535. This eruption created a worldwide ash cloud that obscured sunlight for nearly a decade, causing famines and enormous social and political upheaval. David Keys, the archaeology correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent, argues in his book Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of the Modern World that the 535 eruption of Krakatoa caused the collapse of ancient cultures and empires and led to the emergence of a new world order. PBS also ran a two-part television special which summarized his research (part 1; part 2). I find Keys’ theory convincing, and I recommend his work.
The terminal point of the Middle Ages was the Protestant Reformation, which began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. The Protestant Reformation broke the control which the Roman Catholic Church held over the peoples and governments of Europe, and in doing so it shattered the order of the medieval world. While the Reformation seems in some ways like a recent event, next year marks its 500th anniversary.
The church was the dominant feature of life in medieval Europe. Our reference to “the church” must be tempered by two observations in order to clear away common misconceptions. First, religion in medieval Europe, while dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, was far from monolithic. At the beginning of the Middle Ages much of Europe was still pagan, and the last pagan holdouts in the north were not finally converted until a century or two before the Protestant Reformation. There were also Muslims in Europe for most of the Middle Ages—first in the Iberian Peninsula, then in the Balkans after the fall of Constantinople (1453). There were, as well, sects of Christianity which were independent of the Roman See. These included the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Lollards, the semi-autonomus Waldensians, and the heretical Albigensians. There were also independent Christian individuals and churches whose names we do not know. Throughout the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church suppressed information on anti-papal groups. It is only in recent times that we have begun to study them, using the available sources. These studies have lifted a corner on our ignorance concerning the Middle Ages, and have revealed that the church of the Middle Ages was not a monolithic entity. We have also discovered some interesting theology of these anti-papal groups; for example, it seems that some held to a pretribulational rapture which they distinguished from the second coming. An archaeology professor I had in college claimed there is evidence that there were hundreds of house churches in Italy during the height of papal power, around AD 1000. Yet we know nothing about the doctrine of these small churches, and none of their leaders’ writings have been preserved. Virtually all that has been preserved from the Middle Ages are the writings of philosophical, mystical monks.
Second, the defining aspects of the Romanism of the Council of Trent developed by a very gradual, step-by-step process over the course of the Middle Ages. The Roman form of Christianity at the start of the Middle Ages, though it had many problems which gradually metastasized, was far different than the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the Middle Ages. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Roman church recognized the legitimacy of churches that were not under its direct authority, such as Celtic Christianity and the Eastern Orthodox churches. It was not until 1054 that the Roman See finally split with the Eastern church, leading to the claim that there is no salvation apart from membership in the Roman church. Celibacy was not a requirement for clergy until well into the Middle Ages. Worship of Mary developed gradually during the Middle Ages, as did the veneration of saints, the practice of penance, the issuing of indulgences, and the concepts of a priesthood and the pope as vicar of Christ. Incidentally, the Great Schism between Western and Eastern Christianity in 1054 caused the Eastern and Western churches to develop along quite separate spiritual and intellectual paths, with the eventual result being a great Reformation in the West and total deadness in the East.
That the Roman form of Christianity had deep problems throughout the Middle Ages, there is no doubt. These problems were always present, though they grew progressively worse and eventually forced the Protestant Reformation. These problems kept most men from being saved while fooling them into thinking that they were in fact saved. The medieval church is represented in Revelation 2–3 by the church of Sardis, which was the second-worst church of the seven. It was a cold church. The very worst church, however, is the lukewarm Laodicean church, which represents the church of the present age. In fact, because the church is composed of men and governed by men (who should be governed by Christ), it is almost always far from ideal, and it almost always has much corruption and many problems. One ought not to dismiss the Middle Ages completely because of the corruption in the church. The church, in spite of its problems, was the single most positive force in society and the world throughout the Middle Ages, and it included many good things as well as bad things—though, on the whole, it well merits the sharp condemnation issued by Jesus in Revelation 3:1-6.
In some ways the Medieval Period was the polar opposite of the postmodern age. It was an age of authority, of structure and order. The Medieval Period was also an age of faith. Unlike the picture that is sometimes presented of ignoramuses who never heard anything contrary to the doctrine of the church, medieval man did in fact have many challenges to his faith—from pagan barbarians, from Muslims, from heterodox sects, and from calamities of all sorts which produced great physical suffering in the lives of faithful Christians. Medieval man persisted in faith, and, with rare exceptions, did not doubt. When his faith was assaulted, he pushed back strongly, and usually converted many of the doubters.
The Medieval Period was a spiritual age. Yes, the theology of the church had deep problems, and the majority of professing Christians, from popes to peasants, were not genuinely born again. But in an age when life was exceedingly crude, brutish, short, and meager, it was spiritual riches and spiritual health that were coveted, not material riches or material health. Kings bestowed lavish gifts on the church, and nobles threw their gold rings and precious jewels into the foundation mortar of new cathedrals. There were thousands of monasteries in which huge numbers of young men and young women renounced the things of this world and committed their lives to the full-time service of God, taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Others joined mendicant (beggar) orders, living without home, possessions, or wife in order to be completely free to serve God within the world (rather than withdrawing from the world to serve God, as the monks). Pious men from all classes of society undertook arduous pilgrimages throughout the European continent to seek some spiritual benefit. Missionaries fearlessly brought the message of the Christian gospel to barbarian tribes on the fringes of civilization, while zealous kings launched invasions of pagan areas to force their conversion. Others, stirred by the church’s call to arms, led armies to faraway Palestine in order to free the Holy Land from the rule of the infidels. When most of the Crusaders returned home, gallant orders of knights stayed behind in the stifling Mideastern heat, and built castles to protect the Holy Land from reoccupation. The church was the most prominent and most noble building in any medieval town, and it was the center of village life. No expense was spared on the construction of churches, and some took well over a hundred years of faithful labor to complete. Many people attended church services every day of the year, and monks attended nine services within each twenty-four hour period. The calendar revolved around the festivals and seasons of the church year. Before the humanism of the Renaissance turned man’s focus back to himself and his world, God was the focus of all education, and most learned men spent their academic lives studying, writing, and hand-copying Christian texts. Indeed, education was almost exclusively the domain of churchmen; neither peasants nor nobles saw the need to become literate. Manuscripts of the Bible, lectionaries, the Book of Hours, and other liturgical texts were painstakingly and beautifully illuminated by hand. Artisans and stonemasons spent untold hours producing intricate works of art to beautify churches. Unlike today’s monumental constructions, none of the great churches of the Middle Ages, nor any part of any church, bore the names of the kings and nobles who contributed the funds to build them. Their reward was in heaven; the church was to bring glory to God. There was no concept of separation between church and state, nor of toleration of heresy or of paganism. In short, most people in the Middle Ages sincerely loved the church, loved religion, and loved God, though all too often it was a zeal without knowledge (cf. Rom 10:2).
The application of the term “Dark Ages” to the Middle Ages is only partly correct, and mainly only for the early Middle Ages after the crumbling of classical civilization and the decentralization of political power. Some (post)modern historical writings misconstrue the term “Dark Ages” to mean that the church made all of Europe backward and ignorant because of its Christian beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. There were, indeed, periods of intellectual and cultural decline during the Middle Ages, but these were due to the collapse of governments and empires, resulting in a feudal society with a large class of poor and ignorant peasants. Invasions by barbarian pagans and Muslims also diluted Europe’s culture and learning, and forced masses of people into a hand-to-mouth existence. During these periods of darkness it was the church, particularly monks, which preserved culture and learning, and which kept European society from collapsing. Modern man owes a great deal to medieval monks, who worked diligently and faithfully to serve God and the world in the midst of troubled and uncertain times. Monks not only preserved and attempted to disseminate learning, they also continually reformed themselves and the church, they taught good agricultural practices to the peasants, and they helped to convert and civilize the barbarians. Far from propagating ignorance, the biblical teachings of Christianity actually gave the people of the Middle Ages a far more penetrating view of reality than their Muslim and pagan contemporaries—or than the confused and shifting understanding of the world put forth by modern secular scholarship. The decline of Greco-Roman culture was in many ways no loss at all, since Greco-Roman philosophy and religion was unbiblical and largely untrue. The real decline of Western culture came through the revival of Greek philosophy and art which began in earnest during the Renaissance and continued through the Enlightenment, finally coming to full fruition in theological liberalism and atheistic naturalism. As for scientific knowledge, the state of scientific knowledge fluctuated with rise and decline of nations and empires, since there was often no means to save the knowledge of the previous generation if it was not passed down directly. Scientific knowledge contracted in some areas while greatly expanding in others during the Middle Ages (especially construction techniques), being once again preserved and advanced mainly by monks—but in the end this was of little consequence to people who viewed life’s basic needs as spiritual. One could live with just as much fulfillment and spiritual depth in primitive conditions as in a scientifically advanced society.
Justo Gonzalez makes the following observation:
It will be clear that any evaluation of the Middle Ages, even at their highest point, will reflect the theological presuppositions on which such an evaluation is made. If one believes that the purpose of history is to evolve to the point where humanity comes of age and is emancipated from all that has traditionally bound it, one will value the Renaissance and the subsequent centuries as the time of emancipation from the religious and political authorities of the Middle Ages. If, on the other hand, one sees the human purpose as basically spiritual and believes that such purpose can only be accomplished within the structure and under the authority of a Christian order, one will value the Middle Ages as the time when religious authority was accepted most widely, when people were most concerned for their eternal destinations, and when doubts regarding crucial religious questions were less prevalent.
(Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, rev. ed., vol. 2, pp. 336-37)
Gonzalez’s observation must be tempered by the reminder that the sort of spirituality that was prominent in the Middle Ages resulted in most professing Christians going to hell. Nevertheless, Jesus and the apostles made no attempt to improve society, or to invent labor-saving devices or items of comfort. There are, of course, some such items whose proper use would result in the advancement of Christianity, such as the printing press, but these can also be turned to evil ends. For the man who values the things of Christ above the things of this life, he is able to feel fulfilled without inventions, the accumulation of wealth, or the creation of great human works. He is content to study, meditate, pray, suffer, witness, and die—all in the hope of a better resurrection. The Middle Ages, for all its problems and contradictions, ought to motivate us today to a life which values the spiritual and aims to serve God above all else.