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19 Aug 2015

Medieval Christianity: Stepping into Luther’s world

by John Van Engen | Issue 115

The medieval world conjures up all sorts of images, but it’s the unusual ones that stick in our minds: relics in jeweled boxes, religious groups whipping themselves in penance, monks wearing shirts made of hair. Yet we may not recognize how much medieval Europe was a thoroughly Christian culture. To understand Luther, we looked back at this interview from issue 49 about the context in which he arose.

CH : What are some of the greatest misunderstandings modern Christians have about medieval religion?

John Van Engen : First, they assume that...

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15 May 2014

The Middle Ages

by Chris Armstrong | Resource Guide

THE MEDIEVAL PERIOD saw a shift in emphasis from the early church’s focus on the biblical “Last Things”—the Second Coming of Christ, general resurrection, and final judgment—to a new concentration on the afterlives of individuals. Until the 400s and even beyond, Jesus’ return was still expected imminently; thus those who died in the intervening generations could be thought of as simply sleeping or awaiting the resurrection. There was not much written during this early period about the immediate fate of those who died before Jesus returned.

...

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28 Feb 1996

Everyday Faith in the Middle Ages: Recommended Resources

by the Editors | Issue 49

BOOKS ON THE MIDDLE AGES are legion, and even narrowing the field to books on everyday faith doesn’t help much. The following represents a sampling of what’s available—mostly books the editors found helpful while putting this issue together.

Getting Oriented

Five hundred years of history covering an entire continent is no small chunk to bite off. To get your bearings, start with Joseph Lynch’s The Medieval Church: A Brief History  (Longman, 1992) and Adriaan Bredero’s Christendom and Christianity in the Middle Ages  (Eerdmans, 1994).

A...

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28 Feb 1996

Interview — Stepping Into a Christian Culture

by John Van Engen | Issue 49

The medieval world conjures up all sorts of images, but it’s the unusual ones that often stick in our minds: a woman kneeling at a saint’s shrine, groups whipping themselves, monks wearing hair shirts—and on it goes.

Yet in spite of what seems eccentric to us, medieval Europe was a thoroughly Christian culture, and as such, it’s a culture we should be able to understand, and one whose legacies we should be able to appreciate.

To talk about the “age of faith,”  Christian History spoke with John Van Engen, professor of history and head of the...

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28 Feb 1996

God’s Glory in Wood and Stone

by Kevin A. Miller | Issue 49

CATHEDRALS REQUIRED massive amounts of building materials. To build just one tower of Ely Cathedral in England took more than 800,000 pounds of wood and lead. Every cathedral required thousands of trees, and in France, people complained about the great oak forests being leveled to supply lumber.

Building materials were often brought in from far away. Lumber, sometimes in pieces 60 feet long, might come from Scandinavia. The best limestone came from France. When Norwich Cathedral was built in England, the cost of shipping the stone from 300...

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28 Feb 1996

Carrots and Sticks

by Bernard Hamilton | Issue 49

THE MEDIEVAL CATHOLIC CHURCH did not think toleration of doctrinal error a virtue, and it took decisive steps to correct heresy when it appeared.

Persuade Them to Remain

First, the church supported Christian groups that remained loyal to Rome while living out some radical practices of heretics, practices that were both biblical and effective at reforming the church (which was one concern of many dissenters).

Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), for example, shared many of Valdes’s ideals; Francis encouraged people to lead lives of Christian...

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28 Feb 1996

Orthodoxy Wasn’t Always Good Enough

by Bernard Hamilton | Issue 49

“TAKE US THE FOXES, the little foxes, that spoil the vines; for our vines have tender grapes” (Song of Sol. 2:15, KJV). Bernard of Clairvaux, perhaps the greatest preacher of his age, chose this as his text for a sermon series he gave against heresy in 1143. The vine was Christ’s church, and the little foxes were the heretics who threatened the salvation of its members.

In Bernard’s day, groups dissenting from Roman Catholicism began to appear, partly because they weren’t happy with the type of Christianity taught by the church, and partly...

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28 Feb 1996

Warrior Spirituality

by John Sommerfeldt | Issue 49

TOWARD THE END of the tenth century, Adalberon, bishop of Laon, wrote, “There is a noble class which comprises the warriors and protectors of the churches. They defend all the people, great and small, and, incidentally, protect themselves.”

This class was no group of ruffians looking for a fight, at least not after the dynamic reformation that swept through Europe from roughly 1000 to 1300. Like the sixteenth-century Reformation, this movement sought to restore the values of the early church. In regard to the warrior class, it encouraged...

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28 Feb 1996

When a Third of the World Died

by Mark Galli | Issue 49

IN OCTOBER 1347, when a Genoese trading ship fresh from the Crimea docked at a harbor in Sicily, dead and dying men lay at the oars. The sailors had black swellings the size of eggs in their armpits and groins, swellings that oozed blood and pus, and spreading boils and black blotches on the skin. The sick endured severe pain and died within five days of the first symptoms.

Other symptoms appeared in some of the next victims: continuous fever and spitting of blood. These victims coughed, sweated heavily, and died within three days or...

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28 Feb 1996

The Word Made Visible

by Richard C. Leonard | Issue 49

MANY CHRISTIANS think of the Middle Ages as the “dark ages,” when learning came to a halt and the truths of Scripture were largely lost to the common man and woman. This picture, however, doesn’t take in the medieval church’s great intellectual activity and artistic creativity.

And despite widespread illiteracy, the Bible played an important role in the faith of the ordinary believer. It wasn’t the printed word that imparted the key events and teachings of Scripture, but the visual word: mosaics, paintings, book illuminations, dramas,...

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28 Feb 1996

Scripture-Drenched Life

by Dennis Martin | Issue 49

MEDIEVAL SOCIETY so valued constant prayer that many people made substantial donations to monasteries so that monks and nuns, largely freed from manual labor, could become “professional” pray-ers on behalf of the rest of society. In fact, many monks and nuns, in obedience to Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing,” lived an institutional life of prayer, praying day and night.

If the chief monastic activity was prayer, what would be better suited than the Jewish-Christian prayer book, the Psalms? Most Benedictine monks and nuns chanted all...

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28 Feb 1996

Everyday Faith in the Middle Ages: Christian History Timeline

by Daniel Bornstein | Issue 49

CHURCH & STATE

1000

1000 Society composed of three orders: those who pray, those who fight, those who work

1073–1085 Pope Gregory VII presses to end simony (sale of church offices), enforce clerical celibacy, and establish papal supremacy

1095 Pope Urban II calls for a crusade to aid Eastern Christians threatened by Muslims

1100

c. 1150 Universities of Paris and Bologna founded; they take the lead in scholastic theology and canon law

1198–1216 Innocent III, greatest lawyer pope, raises papacy’s power to its height

1200

1215 Fourth Lateran...

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28 Feb 1996

Everyday Faith in the Middle Ages: A Gallery of Unexpected Companions

by Lance Wilcox | Issue 49

It’s easy to revile or romanticize the medieval church as a monolith of religious attitudes. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales , however, opens a view to the 1300s of extraordinary richness and color.

The son of a wealthy vintner, Chaucer (1343–1400) lived most of his life at court, serving as a soldier, judge, member of parliament, and ambassador. Chaucer also composed poems and courtly romances, and in later years, his earthy, realistic Canterbury Tales .

The Tales introduce us to roughly two dozen pilgrims making their way to the shrine...

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28 Feb 1996

From the Editor — Faith that Filled the Nooks and Crannies

by Mark Galli | Issue 49

WE CHRISTIANS of the closing years of the twentieth century have a lot to complain about.

We complain that modern Christianity is so fractured that we’ve made a scandal of Jesus’ prayer that all his followers be one. Yet there was a time in history when Christianity was one.

We long for political leaders who identify themselves as Christians and try to live by their convictions. Yet there was a time when this was so.

We complain that our society has gone secular, and we yearn and pray that Christian values (rather than hedonism, lust, and...

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28 Feb 1996

Everyday Faith in the Middle Ages: Did You Know?

by the Editors | Issue 49

Medieval society was seen as composed of three complementary classes. Wrote one, “Some pray, others fight, and still others work”—referring respectively to clergy, knights, and lay people. “These three groups live together and could not survive apart.”

The medieval Catholic church accepted a wide range of religious tastes and expressions, which in the modern world might find places in different denominations.

Many medieval churches were owned privately by wealthy laymen, monasteries, or bishops. The owner sold or passed on the property as...

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31 May 1991

Women in the Medieval Church: Recommended Resources

by the Editors | Issue 30

General Studies

In the past twenty years, especially, many books have been written on women in the Middle Ages. The editors have selected ten of these volumes that provide a helpful introduction or general study:

Susan G. Bell, ed., Women: From the Greeks to the French Revolution  (Stanford, 1973).

Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages  (Cambridge, 1984).

Margaret Wade Labarge, A Small Sound of the Trumpet: Women in Medieval Life  (Beacon Press, 1986).

Frances and Joseph Gies, Women in the Middle Ages  (Harper & Row, 1980).

Julius...

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31 May 1991

Writings from Women in the Medieval Church

by the Editors | Issue 30

Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue  with God

“Catherine of Siena moved in remarkably wide circles for a woman of fourteenth century Italy, ” writes Dr. Suzanne Noffke (see  Catherine of Sienna ). “She was a mystic whose plunge into God plunged her deep into the affairs of society, Church, and the souls of all who came under her influence. ” Catherine wrote her most important work,  The Dialogue, from 1377 to 1378, about two years before her death at age 33. In it, Catherine directs questions and prayers to God, and then reflects on God’s response....

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31 May 1991

The Mystics

by Elizabeth Alvilda Petroff | Issue 30

All this blessed teaching of our Lord was shown to me in three parts, that is, by bodily vision and by words formed in my understanding and by spiritual vision. But 1 may not and cannot show the spiritual visions to you as plainly and fully as I should wish; but I trust in our Lord God Almighty that he will, out of his goodness and for love of you, make you accept it more spiritually and more sweetly than I can or may tell it to you.  Julian of Norwich

Mysticism has been called “the science of the love of God,” and “the life which aims at...

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31 May 1991

Voices of the Mystics

by the Editors | Issue 30

God, of your goodness, give me yourself; for you are sufficient for me. I cannot properly ask anything less, to be worthy of you. If I were to ask less, I should always be in want. In you alone do I have all.
. . . I saw that he [our Lord] is everything that we know to be good and helpful. In his love he clothes us, enfolds and embraces us; that tender love completely surrounds us, never to leave us . . .

Julian of Norwich  
(c. 1342–after 1413)


Love penetrates the senses and storms the soul with all its power. When love grows in the soul,...

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31 May 1991

Women in the Medieval Church: The Christian History Timeline

by Thomas O. Kay | Issue 30

Women in the Medieval Church

450–523:  Brigid of Ireland  founds Ireland’s first nunnery and spreads Christianity there

475—545:  Clotilde , Queen of the Franks, converts her husband, King Clovis, who lays the foundation of the French nation

500–547:  Theodora I , co-empress of Byzantine Empire, helps bring moral reform

518–587:  Radegunde , Queen of the Franks, maintains her faith despite King Clothaire’s adulteries and his murder of her brother; later she founds a key monastery

614–680:  Hilda of Whitby  founds an English monastery that trains five...

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31 May 1991

Women in the Medieval Church: A Gallery of Christian Women Writers of the Medieval World

by Katharina M. Wilson | Issue 30

Hrotsvit von Gandersheim

Christianity’s first known playwright

Hrotsvit lived in the tenth century (932–1002) as a canoness of the Imperial Saxon Abbey of Gandersheim (Germany). She can best be described by a catalogue of pioneering achievements: she is the first known dramatist of Christianity; the first Saxon poet; the first female Transalpine [north of the Alps] historian; and the author of the only extant Latin epics written by a woman.

According to her own testimony she objected to the great popularity of [Roman author] Terence’s...

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31 May 1991

A Skeptic Inside the Nunnery

by Aelred of Rievaulx | Issue 30

Aelred wrote that God was performing miracles daily at the Gilbertine Priory of Watton: “In the midst of daily manual labor and the customary psalmody,” the handmaids of Christ were devoted to “spiritual offices and heavenly theories. Many, as if saying farewell to the world and all things which are of the world, are often rapt in certain undescribable departures and seem to be among the choir of angels.” . . .

In a sermon, Aelred used as an illustration a story about another Gilbertine nun. Able to exclude from her heart all love of the...

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31 May 1991

Inside the Convent

by Jo Ann McNamara | Issue 30

IN THE LETTERS OF PAUL, we find that some women among the first generations of Christians renounced sexuality, marriage, and motherhood to consecrate themselves to the service of God and the Christian community.

Their commitment represented a social revolution.

In the ancient world, women were not recognized as having any identity outside the family context. Even the handful of virgins who served the goddess Vesta at Rome were entered by their fathers and generally married when they retired from service. Yet the Christian virgin (or widow,...

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31 May 1991

Life in a Medieval Village

by Frances and Joseph Gies | Issue 30

A MIDDLE-LEVEL PEASANT probably lived in a three-bay house, the commonest type, [with three areas separate but open to each other]. . . . Dwellings commonly still lodged animals as well as human beings, but the [barn] was more often partitioned off and sometimes positioned at right angles to the living quarters. . . .

Interiors were lighted by a few windows, shuttered but unglazed, and by doors, often open during the daytime, through which children and animals wandered freely. Floors were of beaten earth covered with straw or rushes. In the...

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31 May 1991

Terms of the Religious Life

by the Editors | Issue 30

abbess:  the female head, or superior , of an abbey. An abbey may be either a convent or monastery, though more often the word designates a convent. (An abbess’s male counterpart is called an abbot .)

anchoress:  a woman who lives a solitary life of silence and prayer, especially one who remains in confined quarters, usually a single small room (or cell ). In the later Middle Ages, an anchoress’s quarters (the anchorhold ) were often attached to the wall of a church. (This life was also pursued by men, who were called anchorites .)

beguine:  a...

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