Christendom in the 14th Century
“It is better to obey God than man.” This passage from Acts 5:29 was the lifelong motto of a merchant from Lyon, France, turned evangelist named Peter Waldo (1140-1218). He founded a group of Christians who are the forerunners of today’s Protestants. They are known as the Waldenses.
The Waldenses were men who believed that Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and that the Bible is the only authority over life. There is evidence that they held to the Biblical Sabbath.
To question the authority of the papacy was deemed an offense worthy of death by the Roman Church. The Waldenses were called heretics, their motives and character were denigrated, and their writings destroyed by the Church in Rome.
The Waldenses lived a primitive Christian life as simple, humble people who fashioned their doctrines and behavior on Scripture. They considered the Roman Church to be infested with superstition, arrogance, and vanity. They were among the first people in Europe to possess the Bible translated into their vernacular.
Also known as the Vaudois Christians, many of them became missionaries. Since they faced death if discovered, they would go out as merchants with silks, jewelry, or other wares in order to be perceived as nothing more than peddlers. They secretly carried copies of the Bible, and when they could, they would offer these to their customers.
The Waldenses objected to the common practices of people at that time who believed that salvation could be obtained by means of self-flagellation, becoming monks and nuns, going on pilgrimages, and doing penance. They did not believe that good works atoned for sin. They did not agree that the Roman Church, holy shrines, relics, or the intercession of saints availed forgiveness.
Despite being known as sincere, quiet, peaceful, moral people with earnest fervor for the Lord, the Waldenses repeatedly had their homes and crops destroyed. Their punishment for refusing to bow to the will of the pope was to have every kind of humiliation and torture that men could invent heaped upon them. They were persecuted without mercy.
The Catholic Church was determined to preserve the unity of what it called the one true and catholic (universal) faith, which it understood to mean the unity of doctrine. To the Catholic Church, this meant that all people living in Christendom must have faith in its authority. Therefore, no deviation from the official doctrines was permissible.
The official doctrines (articles of faith) included those truths expressly taught in Scripture. On these, everyone agreed. The questions of dissenters were not about articles of faith contained in Scripture, but rather those that had been transmitted through the traditions of the Catholic Church.
The Queen of the World
One area of growing dissension in the Fourteenth Century concerned the expanding role of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Church doctrine (what the Church believes, confesses, and teaches).
An examination of these doctrines reveals that Mary is touted as being totally filled with the Holy Spirit, and the comforter and teacher of the disciples, and the entire Church, after the Ascension of Christ. She is said to have had more knowledge than the prophets and the apostles. Christ had put all things into the hands of his mother, and she in fact had maternal authority over God—making God subject to her, as any son should be to his mother.
As the “most blessed of all creatures”, and the “goddess of divine love”, Mary was to be adored as the “Queen of the world” and the “Queen of heaven.” She was enthroned in heaven far above all the other saints; exalted higher than the heavens; clothed with all honor and reverence; and the whole world was under her feet.
The difference between Mary and all other human beings was that there was never any sin in her. She was the only human ever born who was free from the taint of sin. In fact, it was asserted that Mary was incapable of sinning.
These teachings were perplexing to many who had read the Bible because very few details about Mary or her life can be found in the Scriptures.
John Duns Scotus
John Duns Scotus (1265-1308) was one of the most important and influential theologians of the High Middle Ages. He was nicknamed the “subtle doctor.”
John hailed from Duns, Scotland—hence the name. He graduated from Oxford in 1301, and the following year moved to Paris.
John Duns Scotus said, “Predestination properly understood refers to an act of the divine will, namely, to the ordering of the election of some intellectual or rational creature to grace and glory through the divine will.”
He thus shifted the emphasis of predestination from divine intellect (foreknowledge) to divine will. He also wrote, “Predestination does not happen on account on human works, but on account of the gracious will of God.”
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) was the greatest poet of Christendom. He lived in Florence during the great times of the Medici, at what was the birth of the Renaissance. His most famous work was titled The Comedy, but his admirers renamed it The Divine Comedy. It describes a journey through three realms of the afterlife—the Pit of Hell in the Inferno, the Mount of Expiation in the Purgatorio, and the Circles of Heaven in the Paradiso.
It is a voyage of fictional adventure; an allegory of the spiritual journey of a Christian from sin to salvation, to the reward of a blinding vision of God; and an elaborate exercise in moral architecture, whose inhabitants are located according to their vices or virtues among the Damned, the Hopeful, or the Blessed. The lowest place is where all Love is lost, the highest in the heart of the Rose of Light, in ineffable ecstasy.
William of Ockham
William of Ockham (1287-1347) is one of the most prominent figures in the history of philosophy during the High Middle Ages. When he was about ten years old, he was given to the Greyfriars (Dominicans) in London, who provided him with a fantastic education.
In 1324, William of Ockham was called to the papal court at Avignon to answer charges of heresy. During his four years there, he studied and wrote, eventually charging the pope with being a heretic himself. He then had to flee, finding refuge in Munich, where he lived out his days. The pope excommunicated him.
He is best known for Ockham’s Razor, which is a complicated formula that essentially means: do not over complicate your ideas. He also disagreed with the idea that God predestined human beings’ lives outside of their own free wills.
Petrarch (1304-1374) was an Italian scholar and poet known as the “Father of Humanism.” He is believed to have coined the phrase “The Dark Ages.”
Petrarch revitalized the teachings of St. Augustine, in particular the teachings from his awesome book Confessions. Petrarch focused on Augustine’s teachings that people have a tendency to love the creature more than the Creator. We yearn for the glory of men, but self-gratification is inimical to the true knowledge of God.
Plato’s influence on Augustine’s beliefs was criticized in Petrarch’s time leading him to assert that Plato would have become a Christian if he’d had the opportunity. Aristotle, of whom Augustine was not a fan, was now fashionable in Christendom.
Because of Petrarch, Augustine once again became the focus of theology because of his acute discernment of the inner life of human beings, especially the hidden but profound motivations of sin. Petrarch called Augustine “the most penetrating investigator of human thought processes.”
Life in 14th Century Europe
Everyday life in 14th Century Europe exuded an emotional climate far different from our own. People were prone to weep openly. Most of them were not driven by any developed work ethic. People had large numbers of children to compensate for the high mortality rates. Death was a common visitor.
The landscape was filled with alchemists, astrologers, diviners, conjurers, healers, and witches. Ghosts, fairies, hobgoblins, and elves populated the countryside. People lived in a world of Catholicism; but a world mixed with paganism, folklore, and magic.
In fact, in 1395, the Lollards of England accused the Roman Catholic Church of being involved with magic. In their “Twelve Confessions” they claimed that the vestments, mitre, altar, incense, wine, bread, wax, oil, water, salt, cross, and staves were the very practice of necromancy—the devil’s craft.
The Lollards abhorred the Catholic Mass as a form of devil worship, and they believed the pope to be guilty of black magic. They railed against the consecrations, symbols, images, holy water, saints, pilgrimages, and processions of the Roman Catholic Church.
More and more, Christians retreated into mysticism, with its emphasis on religious ecstasy and direct communion with God.
But all was not lost. Christian civilization also had a wealth of artistic achievement to its name that could be found from the icons of Constantinople to the cathedrals of France. We can also see the beginnings of serious music, literature, and science.
The Black Plague
The Black Death (1347-1349) changed Europe forever. In 1346, Mongols besieging a Genoan trading colony (Caffa) in Crimea on the Black Sea, catapulted diseased bodies over the wall—an early example of biological warfare. The survivors of the siege came home, and within forty years, at least a third of all Europeans were dead, most of them dying within the first few years. There were so few people left to work the land that the feudal system collapsed, and serfs (peasants) could now charge wages for their services.
The Black Plague decimated Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, enabling the Turks to easily conquer them for Islam. The Byzantine emperor became a vassal of the Turkish sultan. Tamerlane conquered Christian (and Islamic) western Asia for the Mongols.
The “Great Mortality” as it was called in England, first reached Europe in Sicily, Genoa, Valencia, Marseilles, and Venice—the port cities into which the retreating warriors sailed. Soon the inland cities of Italy, France, England, and Germany were all infected.
We now know that the Black Death was not one disease but at least two. Pneumonic Plague was spread on the breath from contaminated lungs, and resulted in a ghastly choking death, with blood bubbling from the mouth. Fleas and black rats were responsible for the spread of Bubonic Plague.
One symptom of this disease was a ravenous hunger that would make both critters much more likely to bite humans. Infected people would develop huge boils under their armpits that hurt like the dickens, and develop death breath—a loathsome, cadaverous stink from within. “The sick are served by their kinfolk as dogs would be. Food is put near their bed, after which all fly. Fathers and mothers refused to tend to their children, as if they were not theirs.”
Popular reactions to the Black Death ranged from panic, to the debauchery of drunken orgies, to intense religious piety based on the conviction that God was punishing Europe for its sins. Parades of peasants whipped themselves and each other to appease God. Charity foundations proliferated.
The Jews in Europe
In Germany, the Jews were blamed for the plague. Some said they had poisoned the water supply. Tens of thousands were rounded up and murdered. The remnants of German Jewry fled to Poland—henceforth the principle Jewish sanctuary in Europe.
Usury—the taking of interest, or of excessive interest, on money lent—was regarded in Christian Europe as both a sin and a crime. Repeated attempts were made to ban interest, or later, to limit it to ten percent per annum. Jews were not restricted by their religious beliefs, which only banned usury between Jews. This distinction gave Jews an edge in the medieval money markets, and loan business. The prominent role of Jews in European credit and banking is a fact of history.
The Cabala, which means “the tradition”, circulated among Jews in Europe during the 14th Century. It was purportedly based on religious writings from the 2nd Century but was in fact founded upon a book written in 1277 by Moses of Leon The Book of Splendour on the Law.
The Cabala is a set of mystical doctrines and techniques used to find hidden meanings beneath the text of the Scriptures. Cabalists believe that God created this world after several abortive attempts; and that souls migrate from body to body. The Cabala profoundly influenced Judaic thought, strengthening their mystical aspects while undermining rational study of the Torah.
Many Christian scholars were also fascinated by the Cabala. Cabalists enjoyed the oracular riddles and prophecies of their zaddiks (righteous ones), and they sang and danced to cabbalistic incantations. The images, ideas, and vocabulary of the Cabala permeated European language and literature, often unannounced and unattributed.
The Bishop of Rome was seated in France for seventy years, during which time all seven popes were Frenchmen. In 1377, the papacy finally returned to Rome. But that city was in ruins, and the institutional church was held in a dim view by a growing number of Europeans who saw it as worldly, corrupt, luxurious, cynical, and immoral.
In 1378, things got worse as Europe was treated to the spectacle of two popes, both elected by the same College of Cardinals and each preaching war and anathema against his rival. This proved to be a grave scandal. Latin Christendom was divided against itself.
The two popes could hardly be described as holy men. One was a deranged sadist who supervised the torture of his own cardinals, and the other was a mass murderer.
Sir John Arderne (1307-1392) became famous after he created a surgical treatment for a problem that afflicted most knights at the time—painful cysts on their rumpuses from riding horses for days on end. He wrote about his methods in one of the earliest medical articles of history, and his treatment is remarkably still used to this day.
Arderne fought in the first battles where gunpowder was used in Europe, and tended to the wounds of the English soldiers.
People were well aware in those days that any medical problem or solution could result in death. They hadn’t yet thought of suing doctors for being wrong about treatments—they were simply grateful for any help they could get.
Arderne came to specialize in herbal remedies, as well as surgery; he also formulated remedies for gout, kidney stones, epileptic seizures, and even hangovers. It was he who recommended opium as an anesthetic before surgery, and as a soporific.
He wrote that the rich should be charged as much as possible by doctors, while the poor should be treated for free. He also lay down the first standards for bedside manner, which he said should include a bit of flattery, some good stories to tell, and a few jokes to make the patient laugh.
John Arderne is known as the first surgeon in England, and one of the fathers of surgery.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) is the father of English literature, and the author of The Canterbury Tales. His story is about a group of travelers gathered near London Bridge, to journey on a pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Among the pilgrims are a brawny miller with bagpipes; a mother superior with a lapdog; and a poor knight. They stay the night at hostelry called the Tabard Inn, where their host, Harry Bailey, suggests a storytelling competition with free supper to the winner. At the Tabard we meet many other characters, including a sea captain, a merchant and a cook.
The Canterbury Tales transports us in time to vicariously experience daily life in the Middle Ages. Chaucer uses one of my favorite, underrated words (turd) and writes of mooning, “Please sir, what is this something that is rough and hairy?”
The message of Geoffrey Chaucer is that the Church—a massive institution in charge of worship, hospitals, and schools back in the day—was in trouble.
His characters include a fine Oxford cleric, and a kind, loving priest. But also on board are a pimple-faced “Summoner” who took bribes not to summon people to church court; and a “Pardoner” who dealt in bogus relics such as the veil of the Virgin Mary (a pillowcase) and a collection of pig bones he claimed belonged to various saints. Buy one of these and you go straight to heaven.
Thomas a Kempis
The later ideas of John Wycliffe were fleshed out in one of the most widely read books of all time, Imitation of Christ, which was written by Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471) early in the 15th Century. The contemplation of Christ and of his suffering here stood in opposition to speculation about predestination, about why one person should be saved and another not.
Thomas was a Catholic monk from Germany. About himself he said, "In all things I sought quiet and found it not save in retirement and in books."
Here are some words from Thomas a Kempis:
"Without the Way,
there is no going,
Without the Truth,
there is no knowing,
Without the Life,
there is no living."
"If thou wilt receive profit, read with humility, simplicity and faith, and seek not at any time the fame of being learned."
"At the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read but what we have done."
"For man proposeth, but God disposeth"
"If, however, you seek Jesus in all things, you will surely find Him.”
I would like to acknowledge my source materials: Europe by Norman Davies; Reformation of Church and Dogma by Jaroslav Pelikan; The Great Controversy by Ellen G. White; Great Tales from English History by Robert Lacey; and A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins.