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The Medieval Effect on the Foundations of Psychology

Updated on August 19, 2008

The Medieval Effect on the Foundations of Psychology

Modern Psychology has its beginnings in the early teachings of ancient Greek and Roman Philosophers. When the world fell into the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire, much learning came to a halt for centuries.

Historians mark the beginning of the Middle Ages as 476 AD, (the Fall of the Roman Empire in Western Europe.) The period of history commonly referred to as the Dark Ages is roughly the first half of the Medieval Period.

The transition from the Barbaric Dark Ages to the Feudal Middle Ages was a process spanning three centuries, in which State Level Religion (ie: the Vatican) was introduced, and in many cases, forced upon pagan populations as a way to control the masses in an out-of-control world of Barbaric Tribes.. This period in History was from the rise of Charlemaigne (800 AD) through William the Conquorer (1066 AD). These and other great world leaders begin to reintroduce philosophy and culture to it's aristocratic societies, while subjugating and exploiting the commoners.

The end of the Middle Ages is not as clearly defined, but two events are the primary factors: the invention of the printing press in 1440 AD, and the fall of the Roman Empire in the East in 1477 AD.

Western Civilization, as we know it today, is the descendant of the medieval culture and philosophies. Once Europe climbed out of the Dark Ages, there was a three-way conflict in the fields of philosophy, medicine, and human rights that persisted for hundreds of years. This conflict arose between the Church, the ancient classical knowledge that was being reintroduced to the Aristocracy, and the traditional Pagan beliefs and healing practices of the majority of the population.

Unfortunately, the Pope and the Vatican held all of the power and, as a result, spent ten centuries doing everything in it's power to subdue or destroy all other schools of thought except their own. Individuals who put forth their differing opinions or philosophies were tried as heretics, and more often than not, executed. Any opposition to the Church's practices or beliefs was considered a danger to the Church, and therefore, it was God's will that it be destroyed.

In around the year 1000, the Vatican stepped up its never-ending battle for control of the population's thoughts and beliefs. It put forth an edict that focused on three behaviors that it considered particularly dangerous to the Church:

Behavior that appeared to deny the one true God.This included the translation or reintroduction of Classical learning, as it was in conflict with the Church's opinion. The Greek and the Romans were after all, Pagan, polytheistic societies that denied the existence of one true God. It also made the practice of all non-Christian religious rites and ceremonies a crime.

Behavior that subverted God's ownership of time. The Church controlled the calendar. It would not tolerate the observance of anything not on the Christian calendar. Secondly, only God could know the future. This made the casting of Runes, or any other kind of divination an act of Heresy. The practices of Astronomy and Astrology were forbidden.

Behavior that conflicted with Christian practices of healing. This banned the use of all Classical knowledge in the fields of medicine, behavior, and the human mind. It also banned use of herbs, incantations, the traditional holistic approach to mind and body health, and all other Pagan healing practices.

It's hard to imagine that those societies not only had their populations living in virtual bondage, but it was sanctioned by the church and brainwashed into the population that this was how God intended it to be. It is difficult to fathom a society where individuals do not believe that they have free will.

With the invention of the printing press (1440), came the ability to distribute information to large numbers of people. Books and manuscripts were finally able to be mass-produced and shared across all of Europe, and later, throughout the world. The Church could no longer control the flow of knowledge. It was this newfound ability to share ideas, medical knowledge, political and religious rhetoric, and cultural information that fueled the Reformation and ushered in the Renaissance.

The Renaissance, (loosely translated means - Rebirth of Learning) ushered in many new philosophers with new perspectives to expand on the classical knowledge base as the knowledge of ancient philosophies flourished. With the Renaissance came the reintroduction and global distribution of the classical knowledge and wisdom of the Greek, Egyptian, and Roman cultures, which were all much more humanistic than the Medieval period.

Despite 1000 years of insurmountable odds, the quest for understanding of the human mind, and the battle for human rights endured, and three major philosophies or schools of thought regarding psychology, behavior, and human nature came out of medieval period.

The Behaviorist Perspective believes that events or people in our environment control our behavior through learning. One of the most well known philosophers and humanists of the medieval period was John of Salisbury (1115-1180). He studied in Paris with Peter Abelard and many of the greatest minds of the 12th century, and was secretary to Theobald, the Archbishop of Canterbury. One of his greatest works, The Metalogican, (1159) It is considered to be one of the first Western commentaries on Aristotle's Organon. In this work, John attacks those who deny the value of studying the trivium, especially logic. (Liebeschutz, 1950) Much of this was contradictory to the teachings of the Church. John of Salisbury made the argument that, "The law of God has made faith the primary and fundamental prerequisite for understanding of the truth." (1159)

The Cognitive Perspective focuses on the way that people perceive, process, and retrieve information, and how people solve problems. Many of the questions raised by psychologists working in this field, like René Descartes (1596-1650) were first raised by ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

Respected theologian and scholastic philosopher at the University of Paris, Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was an unrelenting logician and insisted that logical matters be solved by reason. His first important work, Introduction to Theology (1120) he shifts the theological argument from reliance on authority to analysis by logic and reason. He died while being tried as a heretic. (Lascomb, 1971)

The Evolutionary Perspective argues that many of our behaviors stem from the need to survive and produce offspring. During the Middle Ages, the Church discouraged most studies of human physiology. In 1163, the Church puts forth an edict banning the dissection of human beings. On of the great pioneers of the time, Spanish physician Maimonides, was excommunicated and sent into exile for his research in this area. He later became the personal physician to Saladin, Sultan of Egypt. (Not all cultures on the planet were opposed to scientific learning.) Much of the medical knowledge to reach Europe during the Middle Ages came out of the Holy Lands, Persia, and all of the Middle East. Crusaders witnessed a civilization far advanced in the fields of medicine and human biology. Moslem philosophies questioned the human condition and challenged the integrity of Christian beliefs.

Charles Darwin (1872) was a pioneer in the field of evolution, and the first to label this human need to adapt as natural selection. This brings up the classic nature vs. nurture debate in psychology, and begins to lay the biological foundations of psychology.

It has taken literally thousands of years of baby steps in the humanism movement, and hundreds of civil uprisings to get where we are as a society today. Numerous noble warriors in the middle ages died fighting for the basic human rights of the common people. With the Renaissance came the reintroduction and global distribution of the classical knowledge and wisdom of the Greek, Egyptian, and Roman cultures, which were all much more humanistic than the Medieval period.

When examining the effect that the Middle Ages had on the foundations of Psychology, it is important to remember that the philosophers, humanists, and theorists that contributed so much to that period in our evolution as a society were more than just that. They were true heroes that fought subversion, worked in secrecy, and often lost their lives because of those contributions. Rather than just focusing on the human condition that existed in that time, we must examine the human spirit that has overcome a thousand years of hardships against all odds to better the human condition, one baby step at a time.


John of Salisbury, (1159) The Metalogican

Liebeschutz, Hans, (1950) Medieval Humanism in the Life and Writings of John of Salisbury

Lascomb, David E. (1971) Peter Abelard's Ethics



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