Steubenville Prof Sets the Record Straight on the Middle Ages

“The view of the Middle Ages as a dark time comes from a very anti-Catholic modern skepticism”

(photo: Register Files)

“Going medieval” is a term synonymous with ignorance, barbarism and being uncouth. The Middle Ages are often portrayed as a bleak time, living in the shadows of Roman civilization. The Middle Ages also tend to be caricatured, from the gory violence of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” to the goofy exoticism of Renaissance Fairs. But the Middle Ages lasted about a millennium from the Dark Ages after the Roman Empire’s collapse through the early, mid and high Medieval periods. A civilization that has such longevity is remarkable, considering the upheavals of modernity. Can we get beyond the stereotypes and learn something from the Middle Ages? 

Prof. Andrew Willard Jones, who teaches Church history, theology, and social doctrine at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, is a Renaissance man. In addition to teaching, he is the executive director and publisher for Emmaus Road, which mainly does Scripture studies, and leads the St. Paul Center, which mainly does academic work. Recently, he published Before Church and State: A Study of the Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, which began as a dissertation at St. Louis University.

In a recent phone interview, Prof. Jones said, “I was studying the papacy of the 13th century. I was inspired by what I was reading. It was a whole world that had not been investigated… We’re blessed in medieval history. They had advanced letter-writing operations. There were papal letters and manuscripts… It’s a treasure trove of court records, monarchial registries and chronicles.” He continued, “The Middle Ages serves a role in the story the modern world tells itself. We tend to see the Middle Ages as a dark world of dogma and oppression, and that we now understand what freedom means. The view of the Middle Ages as a dark time comes from a very anti-Catholic modern skepticism.” Jones spoke passionately about enlightening people, especially Catholics, on the medieval era.

He said, “I don’t over-romanticize the Middle Ages as a utopia.” But Jones sees the medieval era as a Christianized, sacramental civilization. He added, “We tend to imagine Catholicism as private life. Catholicism calls for a civilization of charity. The Middle Ages can help us see again.”

Jones’ book composes many mindsets, ideas and values to paint a picture — like Notre Dame’s Rose Window — of a complex, dynamic culture.

One of the ideas highlighted is that of “difference.” It is an important theme that Jones explained: “Modernity has a certain notion of equality. Modernity sees difference as inherent conflict and competition. In Christianity, differences lead to peace. We see differences in the family; it’s about pursuit of the common good.” He used the example of a father and a son, saying they achieve the common good through different roles. Jones said, “In the modern world, peace is about making deals, while in the Middle Ages it was about handling differences in proper, charitable ways. While moderns see a violation of rights, in the Middle Ages it was about re-establishing peaceful difference. The modern world is skeptical. Medievals didn’t have cynicism about mutual giving. For example, there is conflict between father and son because they’re not properly different. Sameness is a source of conflict.” This idea alone would be fruitful for our society to meditate upon, when we consider how popular culture has become infantilized.

“Before Church and State” also tackles the controversy of the lesser-known French Inquisition of the 13th century. Jones said, “There is a polemical, anti-Catholic view of the Inquisition. There was very little interest in what people held in their own minds. The problem was whether there was rejection of the social order and if the heresy became public. An investigation might begin — there was no interest in catching or tricking people. Most of the time, the penalty was correction. We have our own version of Inquisition and heresy with Twitter mobs.” He continued, “Concern with right belief is universal. People don’t separate the Inquisition of the High Middle Ages from those of the 15thand 16th centuries, and that it was problematic with modern states like Spain.” Jones clarified, “There were problems with the Inquisitions as modern nations emerge, and the Church becomes a department of the State. The State appropriates the Church… we see the case of the clerical hierarchy working in the service of the monarchy in the case of St. Joan of Arc.” In contrast to St. Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake as a heretic, the 13th-century French Inquisition had jury trials, accused heretics could defend themselves, and punishments were akin to paying a traffic ticket. Jones is an enthusiastic, engaged spokesman, clarifying the actual issues involved.

 A common misconception is that in the Middle Ages, clergy were a favored class and were seen as morally superior to married laity, only to be set aright by Martin Luther’s “priesthood of all believers.” Jones said, “People tend to see clergy and laity as separate powers in conflict, with a corrupt clergy asserting their power over the laity. Clergy and laity are the same society, with same objectives. To see them inherently in conflict is absurd. Civilization lasted for centuries. Clergy are essential to the social order for preaching and sacraments. Clergy and laity require each other.” Gui Foucois, whom Jones profiles, lived both sides. He was a married man with two daughters; after he became a widower, he would eventually be raised to the papacy as Clement IV.

“Before Church and State,” shows how both worked as an organic whole. Jones also discussed the factors that contributed to the Reformation, beginning with the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. He said that clergy were marginalized as a rival for power with the State. He explained, “There was a fracturing of Church into national churches. For most of the 15thcentury, the monarch of England appointed bishops… Henry VIII acted independently of the Pope.” In the Western Schism and Avignon Captivity, popes were battling each other. Jones said, “In Germany, there was not a unified monarchy, but a patchwork of principalities. The princes of Germany saw an opportunity with Martin Luther.” Jones concluded that a movement away from realist to nominalist metaphysics, as well as an arbitrary notion of order, paved the way for the fracturing of the harmony between Church and State, as well as within the Church.

Jones, who is a lively and accessible teacher, is considering a popular edition of “Before Church and State,” which is oriented to an academic audience. A wider, non-specialized readership would be welcome. Jones is persuasive in arguing that we can learn from St. Louis IX and the way he governed that would benefit our civilization greatly. Possibly, we must learn these lessons.

Jones sees history not only as going in-depth about the past, but providing vision for the future. He said, “We need to broaden our imagination. The modern attempt at a world without God is going to fail. There will be a Christian conception of social order, but not the same as the Middle Ages… My book is about distancing readers from the world around them, and see the world around them from a higher vantage point. It saves us from despair. Things change. Hope is a virtue. The good and the true will win.”