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Myths Surrounding the Middle Ages

Considering the brisk business enjoyed these days by psychics, tarot card readers, and faith healers of all stripes (if you want proof, just open up the first newspaper at hand or take a look at the programs shown on cable TV), our era’s indictment of the Middle Ages as a time of superstition and ignorance is an instance of sheer hypocrisy.

The Middle Ages has not enjoyed a good press. For five centuries, starting with the period of Renaissance Humanism, through the periods of the Enlightenment, Positivism, and other so-called “scientific world-views” (chief among them, Marxism), a “dark legend” has relentlessly grown up around the Middle Ages. All too often the medieval era is characterized as a period of cultural decline, ignorance, superstition, brutality, and religious intolerance. The fact that it represents an epoch in European history that comes closest to the idea of a “Christian era” goes a long way toward explaining this uniformly negative view. The Middle Ages was the age of christianitas — a community of Christian peoples (nations), in which the spirit of Christianity informed both the private and public domains of European life. As we know, in its overview of Europe’s cultural roots, the preamble to the recently rejected European Constitution mentions only classical antiquity and the Enlightenment. Not a word about Christianity — Europe’s most obvious civilizing factor.

To so characterize and dismiss the Middle Ages betrays a duplicitous ignorance. Indeed, considering the brisk business enjoyed these days by psychics, tarot card readers, and faith healers of all stripes (if you want proof, just open up the first newspaper at hand or take a look at the programs shown on cable TV), our era’s indictment of the Middle Ages as a time of superstition and ignorance is an instance of sheer hypocrisy. Equally disingenuous is the accusation of extreme brutality leveled at the people of the Middle Ages. Seen against the background of the twentieth century — the age of genocides — the charge is ludicrous. Compared with the era of totalitarian dictatorships of recent memory, the Middle Ages seems like an oasis of peace.

The growth of science in the Middle Ages

Nothing could be farther off the mark than to refer to the Middle Ages as a “Dark Age.” The fact is that the Middle Ages was a time of systematic progress in the area of knowledge and science (including the natural sciences). To this day the intellectual life of western civilization rests on an institution that sprang out of the Middle Ages, namely, the university — and this primarily under the patronage of the Church. The first university (Bologna) was founded in the early twelfth century. All our most prestigious universities — Oxford and Cambridge, Salamanca and Coimbra, Sorbonne and Montpellier, Prague and Cracow — date back to the Middle Ages.

The rise of sciences during the Middle Ages was the result of the latter’s openness to the intellectual contributions of classical antiquity. The Renaissance of the sixteenth century was not the first renaissance in the history of European civilization. In the eighth and ninth centuries we had the Carolingian renaissance. The so-called twelfth-century renaissance was a time of intense intellectual inquiry made possible by the rediscovery of the ancient philosophers, chiefly Aristotle.

The rise of an international scientific community was another enduring legacy of the Middle Ages. It was then that the custom of scholars traveling from one academic center to another arose — thanks to Latin, the lingua franca of Europe’s scholarly community. Poland’s great twelfth-century historian, Wincenty KadЕ‚ubek, studied at the Sorbonne and produced his works at the University of Cracow. Saint Thomas Aquinas, an Italian, studied with Saint Albert the Great in Cologne and went on to become a professor of the Sorbonne in Paris. One could cite many other examples. One thing is certain: the Middle Ages was not an age of walls and barriers, but rather one that fostered a spirit of organic community among the peoples of Europe. Walls — need we recall? — are rather a specialty of the twentieth century and our own times (e.g. the Warsaw Ghetto, the Berlin Wall, and the wall dividing the state of Israel from the Palestinian Autonomy).

The intellectual curiosity and spirit of inquiry informing the Middle Ages are best gauged by the growth of the natural sciences. This was predicated above all on the rise of universities, which was in turn the result of the Church’s receptiveness to science. The era’s eager acceptance of the classical philosophical (especially Aristotelian) tradition through the medium of Arabic translations was another factor of supreme importance. The religious and political struggle with Islam did not close European christianitas from intellectual contacts with the Arabic world, especially when it came to rediscovering its Greco-Roman heritage.

Many scholars of the history of science stress today that it was precisely the Middle Ages that gave modern science its foundations. They highlight the rise of that extraordinary phenomenon of the medieval universities of the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, namely the natural philosopher-theologians. These were chiefly representatives of scholasticism, a philosophical system that subsequent ages would bring into such disrepute. Scholasticism was a Catholic theological system based on Aristotle’s conceptual apparatus. Its practitioners studied not only creation’s ontology but also its physical characteristics. Although later ages would deride the scholastics for their proverbial counting of angels dancing on a pinhead, yet their writings adumbrate the foundations of modern kinematics and dynamics as well as the first tentative inquiries into the Earth’s rotation around its axis (thus anticipating the Copernican revolution). Their inquiries into infinitely empty space contributed in no small way to shaping the image of the cosmos, which has come to dominate modern science.

As the British historian, Edward Grant, observes: “Many of the important questions which engaged the scientists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and often found their solution, were the spiritual legacy of the Middle Ages. If not for this and for the long tradition of natural philosophy in the medieval universities, the eighteenth century would have had nothing to discuss. Without the support of theologians and the Church, the medieval universities would never have been able to introduce into their programs the study of natural sciences, logic, and natural philosophy, which inaugurated Western Europe’s enduring and uninterrupted engagement in scientific thought and problems.”

What about this inquisition?

One of the stock charges leveled against the Middle Ages is its “profound intolerance,” as exemplified by the institution of the Inquisition. According to the critics, the “Inquisition” — this word-symbol signifying repression and persecution because of one’s views — bears all the earmarks of a pre-totalitarian concept of state and society.

To begin with, we need to distinguish between the so-called Roman Inquisition, which arose at the end of the twelfth century and was subject to the authority of the Roman Pontiff and other bishops, and the Spanish Inquisition, which was instituted in the fifteenth century. Even more importantly, we need to distinguish it from the Spanish   Inquisition subject to the secular authorities. This fact was the subject of frequent papal reminders directed to the Spanish Church in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The “dark legend” of the Inquisition is above all the “dark legend” of the Spanish Inquisition (The grim prototype of Grand Inquisitor Torquemada springs to mind.)

The Inquisition (understood as an ecclesiastical inquiry into matters of doctrine and heresy) arose in Europe in a specific historical context: namely, in response to the spread in southern France, Provence, and Languedoc of the heresy of the Cathars (Albigensians). Catharism was a pernicious heresy from both a religious and social perspective. Today we would call it a dangerous cult that brought to bear on its members the full range of cultic “methods,” including brainwashing and the appropriation of property. The Albigensians harked back to the old heresy of Manichaeism, which held that creation was inherently evil — the work of an “evil God.” Consequently, both the human body and society were evil. (The human body was not the “temple of the Holy Spirit,” as the Church taught; hence it had even to be abused through debauchery, etc.) How many parents today whose children have become involved in a sect would not wish the authorities to take stern measures against dangerous cults? The Inquisition was a response to such a demand. According to Régine Pernoud, the modern French medievalist: “The institution of the Inquisition also had a positive, practical aspect. A procedure of indictment was introduced in place of the investigative one. And when the people had no desire to tolerate heretics, it introduced regular judiciaries as well.” The procedure of indictment (in the Roman Inquisition) recognized the right of the accused to provide the tribunal with names of persons who might be hostile to them (e.g. for financial reasons). The testimony of such persons was generally discounted in the inquisition’s proceedings.

Then there is the matter of the penalties exacted by the Inquisition on the adjudged. Most of the penalties meted out by both Roman and Spanish Inquisitions were of a penitential nature (e.g. the adjudged was ordered to make a pilgrimage to a religious shrine or wear a special penitential garment known in Spain as sambenito.

The next most frequent form of punishment was imprisonment. A prison sentence did not necessarily mean putting the adjudged behind bars. It was the normal practice of the Spanish Inquisition to place convicted heretics under house arrest. The grim “Inquisition casemates” are also part of the dark legend. In fact, these were no more severe than the prisons run by the secular authorities. According to Henry Kamen, a contemporary the scholar of the Spanish Inquisition, there were numerous cases throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of people pretending to be heretics only so as to be transferred to a prison of the Inquisition.

The death penalty was a comparative rarity, especially when compared with the ease with which capital punishment was meted out by the secular authorities. According to historian Edward Grant, “[t]he relatively small number of executions contradicts the legend of the bloodthirsty tribunal [of the Spanish Inquisition].” He goes on to observe that between 1540 and 1700 the death penalty was carried out on less than two percent of those brought to trial. This would mean that throughout all of Spain including the overseas colonies the Inquisition condemned to death less than three people a year.

Despite the assertions of the dark legend’s authors, the inquisitors were not bloodthirsty halfwits. For one thing, several inquisitors went on to become saints of the Church (e.g. the sixteenth-century Pope, St. Pius V). For another, they were highly skeptical of any accusation that had even a hint of slander or malicious gossip about it. We have only to consider the issue of the witch trials, which intensified in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (i.e. after the supposedly superstitious Middle Ages had receded into the past).

It is a matter of historical record that throughout the entire sixteenth century the Spanish Inquisition handled accusations of witchcraft with a great deal of restraint. In 1614, the highest authorities of the Inquisition (the so-called suprema) accepted an official instruction in the matter of witch trials. Calling for extreme caution on the part of the authorities, the document stipulated: “The accused must first undergo an examination to determine her soundness of mind, to ascertain whether she is self-composed or of a melancholic frame of mind.” One might say that the inquisitors’ attitude mirrored that of the seventeenth-century Bishop of Chartres, John of Salsbury, who referring to the “witch trials stated: “The best remedy for this disease is to hold fast to the faith, to turn a deaf ear to lies, and to pay no attention to such pitiable foolishness.”

Grzegorz Kucharczyk

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The article was published with the permission from "Love One Another!" in August 2016.

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