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Christianity and the Medieval Mind

Updated on November 10, 2012
Medieval Art
Medieval Art | Source

by Amber Maccione

Christianity During Medieval Times

If you took a look at Christianity during the Dark Age (Medieval Age) through the eyes of Christianity today, you would laugh and maybe even see the people during this time as crazy lunatics. One must begin their journey of study of Christianity during this time with an open mind and realize that the people of this time, just like the people of our time, were only trying to understand their world with the tools that were available during the Dark Ages.

The use of Dark Ages instead of Medieval Age is used a lot in making reference to this time period because that was what this period was – dark. People based their belief system on two things: mysticism and whatever the Church deemed to be true. This was the time before the Reformation and Renaissance, therefore, knowledge was very limited to whatever the Church said.

Dr. Wheeler introduces us to what we call belief based on mysticism. Mysticism is a belief that the more prayer or time spent in spirituality, the closer one would be to God and the better your spiritual experiences would be. During this age, people accepted the beliefs of the times because people didn’t question what was deemed true. Medieval Christianity walked blindly into whatever was said to be true by the church. Their faith had an emotional fervor to it and they were unswerving in their beliefs. Some of these mysticism beliefs were: puss drinking and scab eating, flagellation, and solitary life.

One way for a woman to be seen as a saint was to drink the puss of lepers and eat their scabs away. Lepers were scene as untouchables. They were unclean because their disease ate away their humanity – their flesh – until they died. They were the outcasts of society and were left to rot all alone. These women that went to them to drink the puss out of their wounds and eat their scabs were seen as saints because they were doing something to relieve the pain of people that no one else cared about (Wheeler).

Self-affliction was a way people denied themselves and tried to be closer to God. They were called Flagellants. These people would walk around the streets whipping themselves. Some would go around by themselves, but others would form a parade of themselves whipping their backs and calling out to other sinners to join them. This sense of pain was for the punishment of the sins they had committed and as a reminder to not become to comfortable with the flesh. Another way they reminded themselves not to become too comfortable with the flesh was to wear rough scratchy hair cloths to rub against their skin until their skin became raw (Wheeler).

Others tried to be closer to God by being a type of monk. One type of monk was the Stylite Monk, which was a hermit that climbed to the top of ruined Roman columns. They would take a ladder, climb the ladder to the top of the column, then kick the ladder down making themselves stranded at the top. With no way down, they vowed to remain there until they died while they contemplated the things of God (Wheeler).

Then there were the Irish Sailing Monks who had similar thinking as the Stylite Monk; but instead of climbing a ladder, they would sail out to sea by themselves with no provisions saying that if it be God’s will, He would direct their boat to an isolated island where they’d live out their days contemplating the things of God alone (Wheeler).

Monks also took vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience to the teachings of the church. They lived solitary lives in order to focus everything on Christ and hopefully reach the point where the flesh was no longer and the spirit was as close to God as humanly possible (Wheeler).

The entity that created this sense of mysticism was the Church. The Church was not like the church we know today. The Church was that of Catholicism and anything that went against it was considered heresy. The official belief of the Church was orthodoxy. Anything else fell into the category of heterodoxy, which we know better as heresy. Heresy is defined as a crime under Theodosian Code (civil law since the time of the Roman Empire). Hence, you can see how the Church even controlled the State (Harrigan). Unlike today’s world, Church and State were not separate. The Church even had power when it came to sentencing someone. If you went against the Church, you went against the State and were therefore considered a criminal or heretic. And to be a heretic, well, that was the worst crime during this time. It meant damnation to medieval thinkers (Wheeler).

So what did the Church believe during this time? The main belief was that Scripture was the Truth. Scripture was what guided an individual through his life and death. Scripture revealed how you should live your life and what would happen after you died (Riley). Unfortunately, Scripture was in Latin and most people didn’t know that language. So it was up to the Church to interpret the Scriptures and tell the people what the Scriptures said. Because of this, things such as Purgatory and indulgences (papers bought to get the dead out of Purgatory) came to be. Salvation from one’s sin was what controlled the Church (Christianity & the Medieval Mind).

Other things that stemmed from the people not understanding Latin and therefore not being able to understand Scripture were morality plays. This was Christian education for the illiterate. Through the plays, people would learn what acceptable Christian behavior was and what was not. They learned what they had to do if they broke church law (Christianity & the Medieval Mind).

Remember that this period was called the Dark Ages because it was a time of darkness. People were poor and there was sickness everywhere. The only hope people had was that of the afterlife. So again, salvation was the main goal of the Church and the people longed to know how they could achieve it. Therefore, the belief of mysticism came to be. The people wanted to be close to God. Even if they couldn’t understand the sermons of the Church, they went to church anyway to try to feel close to God. People also punished themselves harshly for sins committed. It was not foreign to them that if the hand was causing them to sin, to go ahead and cut it off. People sought to deny their flesh so that their life in eternity would be better than their life here on earth (Harrigan).

During this time, Dante’s Inferno was born. His book was about the levels of hell. It reflected on the medieval time period. For each sin, there was a different level of hell one would be sentenced to. Since everyone was so concerned about sin and self inflicted punishment of their transgressions, this book depicted what everyone was afraid of – an afterlife of pain and suffering. If one chastised themselves here on earth, then maybe they would be rewarded in the afterlife rather than punished (Christianity & the Medieval Mind).

Christianity was the number one religion during the medieval time period. What the Church taught was the dogma of the time. There were no other truths. If someone claimed another truth, they were labeled a heretic. Most heretics were sentenced to death. A period known as the Inquisition came to be and heretics were tried and then burned at the stake (Mannion).

Most people accepted the Church as the entity that knew the Truth. With the fear of God in their hearts, they realized their sin was of their own doing and sought to rectify themselves through self-inflicted pain. Their faith came first. And through their faith, they sought to understand their world (Mannion). Everything the Church did and everything individual people did was to make themselves pure, to cleanse themselves of sin, and to help themselves get closer to God.

As stated before, in order to understand this time period’s belief system, one must take off his understanding of modern Christianity and look at the medieval Christianity with an open mind. This time period wasn’t evil or misguided. They had a heart that wanted to be close to God. They realized their depraved state of being and hated it. They wanted more than anything to be back in the Garden of Eden where mankind was one with God, where they could commune with Him and there was no sin that separated them from the goodness of God. Yes, because of lack of modern knowledge and scientific discovery, they were off; but when one looks at the heart of this time period’s people, one begins to see that people’s faith was built upon their sadness of their sinful state and their longing to be pure. They feared eternal damnation. They wanted to be in eternity with God and their family. If the church said there was a way to save those already dead, people went for it because of their love for God and their fear of damnation. Whether you were the Church, a monk, or a regular joe of the medieval period, Christianity engulfed you and you did what you had to to be saved from an eternity of punishment.

Works Cited

"Christianity and the Medieval Mind." Lecture. PowerShow.com. CrystalGraphics, Inc., 2011. Web. 5 Nov. 2011. <http://linux01.crystalgraphics.com/view/1209ff-Y2VmZ/Christianity_and_the_Medieval_Mind_flash_ppt_presentation>.

Harrigan, Anthony. "The Medieval Mind: A Meditation." Rpt. in Humanitas. 2nd ed. Vol. XV. National Humanities Institute, 2005. 113-19. Web. 5 Nov. 2011. <http://www.nhinet.org/harrigan15-2.pdf>.

Mannion, James. "The Christian Church and Philosophy - Philosophy." Netplaces. The New York Times Company. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. <http://www.netplaces.com/philosophy-book/the-medieval-mind/the-christian-church-and-philosophy.htm>.

Riley, Cam. "Medieval Mind." Web log post. Camriley. Web. 5 Nov. 2011. <http://www.southsearepublic.org/article/1378/read/medieval_mind>.

Wheeler, Dr. L. Kip. "Heresy Handout: A Convenient Guide to Eternal Damnation." Welcome to Dr. Wheeler's Website. Dr. L. Kip Wheeler, 26 Sept. 2011. Web. 05 Nov. 2011. <http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/heresy_list.html>.

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    • ambercita04 profile image
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      Amber 4 years ago from Winter Park

      I like that you mentioned Martin Lurther King. I just found a photo of a quote by him that I will be using to write an article... so stay tuned!

    • Kenja profile image

      Ken Taub 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Remember "I have a dream? the speech by Reverend Martin Luther King? I have one too... That younger American Christians will focus more on social justice, poverty and the poor, peace, and healing rifts between different groups who are now alienated from each other.

      The other half of my dream for the near future is that secular and non-churchgoing people find more respect for the Mystery, and all the unknowns in life, respect people of faith who are kind and inclusive, and work with faith-based groups to aid the poor and support a country that promotes peace over violence.

      That's the hope I have for my son's, and all our children's, future.

    • ambercita04 profile image
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      Amber 4 years ago from Winter Park

      I got on here mostly to put together a portfolio of writing. I have always wanted to write for two reasons: to make a difference and to make others think about how they view the world. I hope to one day land a job as a journalist or columnist.

    • Kenja profile image

      Ken Taub 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      Nice piece. Not only because it has scholastic heft, but because it might open our eyes... Each age, including our own, is blind to its blindness.

      We more educated, "more enlightened" Jews, Hindus, Christians and secularists might look at medieval people and indeed at many Muslims of today and whisper to one another these three words, "How sadly ignorant." And ignorant in select matters of science, human sexuality, modern governance and jurisprudence they might be. But what we fail to see, of course, is our own blindness and our own ignorance.

      We know a great deal more about science, medicine and technology than people who lived 600 years ago, as well as poorer, more isolated peoples alive today. But what we can't know is... what we don't know. Which is a lot.

      It may take the rare genius, or our great, great, great, etc. grand-children 300 or 500 years hence to let us know just how ignorant we were, and now, today, are. (glad you're following me, Amber. your comments I seriously look forward to, and why some of us post here -- looking for intelligent feedback on the ideas presented and the writing itself). cheers & best wishes, Ken