No image is more representative of the mood of the Middle Ages than that of the Madonna and Child. You see it everywhere in medieval artwork, in stained glass, sculpture, and illuminated manuscripts. This image of a woman and her child looms larger even than that of Christ on the cross in medieval art. Kind of interesting when you stop and think about it. But there is a definite reason why.
I talked a few weeks ago about the theories Charles Van Doren has about the Dark Ages not looking so dark to the people who lived in them. Van Doren suggested that the values held by your average citizen of the 6th through the 10th centuries were far less material and far more spiritual than the values of our modern world. We can’t, therefore, assume that people were as miserable back then as we would be if we were suddenly transported to that era. The reason he gives for this difference in attitude? Early Christianity.
Yep, Christianity was, without a doubt, the defining factor of the Middle Ages. And from the time that Charlemagne used the Church as a single uniting factor to shift the common man’s focus away from local worlds to grasp the higher concept of a kingdom, it was the primary stabilizing factor in Europe. The Medieval Church was much more organized and effective in its leadership and methods than most regional kings well into the Late Middle Ages.
But, as Joseph R. Strayer so eloquently states, “If human life was becoming more Christian, Christianity in the west was becoming more human.”*
Strayer has a good point. We think we have a pretty good idea of what the Church of the Middle Ages was all about, right? It was about piety and superstition. It was about absolute obedience to the authority of the Church. It was about the fear of going to hell and a life spent trying to earn the favor of an angry god in order to spend eternity with Him. It was about foregoing the pleasures of this world for the promise of greater rewards after death. Not to mention relics, flagellates, and ascetics. Right?
Well, a little bit yes and a whole lot of no. True, the ideals set forth by St. Augustine in his City of God that saw the people of the Dark Ages through their rough patch were on the stark side. Life was hard, but it wasn’t this material life that we should be concerned about. Success was not measured by material things, but by a perfection of a life of Christ.
Ah, but things began to change as the Dark Ages squeaked into the High Middle Ages. The centuries before the eleventh century were times of political upheaval and uncertainty with just about every major European kingdom involved in a civil war of some sort. But by the time the twelfth century rolled along those conflicts were played out, strong rulers, like Henry II of England and Frederick Barbarossa in the Holy Roman Empire, ushered in a new era of stability.
Attitudes changed. Humanity was ascendant. Life was good, and Christianity began to reflect that.
On the one hand, the focus of devotion within the Church took on a very human form. The virgin Mary and her infant son, Jesus are just about the most human, personable, and personal images that you could come up with as a way to worship the divine. I mean, what could be more approachable? Furthermore, who is going to be more compassionate and forgiving than a woman renowned for her maternal devotion and an innocent child? The idea that these two blessed, compassionate forces were the way to reach an untouchable God is more than just a fluke. The Madonna and Child are about as close to human as the divine could get.
This was also a time of immense personality within the Church. In the twelfth century we suddenly see larger than life figures, men and women, who were not only profoundly influential over the moral and spiritual lives of the monasteries they lived in, they were the advisors of kings! Men like St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who’s own writings were so filled with personal passion and emotion that a modern reader might raise their eyebrows, drew people to join their religious orders in droves. Women like Hildegard of Bingen carried on correspondence with rulers and advised them on all sorts of topics.
It’s no coincidence that St. Bernard and Hildegard of Bingen, and many more like them, were mystics as well as clerics. This was an age of mystical faith. Yes, the Church was to be obeyed, but a good part of that obedience was through personal visions and revelations that came through mystical experience. Sure, everyone was required to attend mass on Sundays, but it was the intensity of the personal relationship that everyone, from king to beggar, had with the divine that defined their character.
So yes, the Church was the all-important force in the life of your average medieval person. But by the eleventh century it was the personal that held power within the Church. It was the relationship that each man and woman had with the ultimate mother and her son that determined their place in the world. And this was a world where a man of incredibly humble origins could become Pope if he was seen to have favor with that personal divine (as is the case with both Honorius II in 1124 and Adrian IV in 1154). Not only that, the shift to focusing on the personal and the human contribution to the Church was what paved the way for the great religious and scientific advances of the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance.
Which I will most certainly talk about in coming weeks….
*Info on Joseph R. Strayer’s book Western Europe in the Middle Ages is included in my Medieval Monday Bibliography (points to tabs at the top of the page)