Understanding the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages mirror the truth about humanity in the holiest of its heights and in the decadence of its depths

Medieval landscape scene with clerics studying astronomy and geometry, showing an armillary sphere, square and compasses
Medieval landscape scene with clerics studying astronomy and geometry, showing an armillary sphere, square and compasses (photo: Register Files)

As time goes on, the “Middle Ages” is exposed as an inadequate name for the period in history that it purports to describe. As with other labels, such as “the Enlightenment” and “the age of Reason,” the label says more about the men who did the labelling than about the thing being labelled. Thus, for example, “the Enlightenment” was the name that those who considered themselves “enlightened” gave to the eighteenth-century philosophers with whom they agreed in order to distinguish themselves from the ignorance of the “unenlightened” past. Similarly “the age of Reason” was a name that these same “enlightened” people gave to their own age to distinguish it from the unreasonable or “irrational” ages that preceded it. Implicit in such labelling is the priggish presumption that the whole of humanity lacked enlightenment and reason until these arrivistes arrived on the scene. Hence, by implication, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas are “unenlightened” and “irrational.”

Clearly these priggish arrivistes have tainted the very language that historians employ. It is, for instance, risibly ironic that the rationalist labelling of history as “ancient,” “mediaeval” and “modern” is as irrational as is rationalism itself. The term “modern” was invented to distinguish the present from the past without the apparent realization that the present instantly becomes the past. As the “modern,” which derives from the Latin for “just now” (modo), slips further into the past it becomes ipso facto far less “modern.” Thus, the “modern” now encompasses everything that has happened in the past five hundred years or more (and counting). Historians have sought to fix this absurdity by dividing the past half millennium into the “early modern” and “modern” periods. No doubt, eventually, they will have to invent the term “mid-modern” to distinguish the early-early-modern from the not-so-early modern, et cetera ad absurdum. 

The “Middle Ages,” as a label, is less absurd than the “modern” in the sense that it does at least define its place between two other ages. Yet to speak of the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the fall of Constantinople as the “Middle Ages” is to presume something definitive and delineating in both events. Although the fall of these great empires is of great importance and had cataclysmic consequences, Christendom existed prior to the first cataclysm and continues beyond the second. Similarly western civilization precedes the former and survives the latter. The Church straddles the abyss between the “ancient” and the “modern,” and the edifice of civilized art and philosophy has its foundations in the ancient Greeks and towers over the swamps of modernity like a colossus of common sense in an age of banal futility. This historical transcendence challenges the presumption that history is separated by seismic shifts that define one period from another.

In truth, the Church, and the civilization that she has nurtured and nourished, cannot be defined or confined by a specific historical label. She is not simply “mediaeval” or “middle-aged.” Although she was indubitably a palpable presence in the mediaeval period, as she had been in the period that preceded it, she was also palpably present in the so-called “early modern” period, her wisdom, virtue and beauty shining forth with spectacular splendour during the flowering of the Counter-Reformation. Nor has she been absent in more recent times. Indeed, it could be argued that “modernity” is best defined as the secular rebellion against the Church. From Henry VIII’s destruction of the monasteries and his formation of a state-church, to the anti-clerical violence of the French and Russian Revolutions, and the persecution of the Church by the German Nazis and Spanish Republicans, the world has waged a relentless war of attrition against the Mystical Body of Christ. 

And yet modernity is not much different from the Middle Ages in this respect. When Henry VIII had St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More put to death in 1535 (in the “early modern” period), it reminded many people of Henry II’s role in the murder of St. Thomas Becket in 1170 (at the height of the “Middle Ages”). And, of course, the martyrdom of the saints, whose blood has been spilled across every century in each of the “ages,” reminds us of the archetypal martyrdom of Christ Himself upon the Cross. The world has always hated Christ and His Church, as Christ Himself told us it would. As such, we should not be surprised to discover that each “age” of history seems remarkably similar to our own age.

In every age, the same war is waged between good and evil, which is to say that every age manifests its essentially unchanging humanity. Men are made in the image of God, which means that they value virtue as a good and view vice as an evil; but men are also Fallen, which means that they are prone to succumb to the vice that is their own worst enemy and the worst enemy of their neighbour. This striving for the good and temptation to evil runs through the heart of every man and is, in consequence, at the heart of every human society in every age. Failure to understand this unfailing truth has led to a comedy of errors, not least of which is the folly of the aforementioned “Enlightenment” with its slavish and credulous belief in the perfectibility of man through his own efforts and through the machinations of human society in the form of large and intrusive government. The result of such credulity has been the systematic extermination of millions of people on the altar of “enlightened” ideologies and the “progress” they preach. These millions of innocent victims have been sacrificed to the fantasy of a future “golden age” by “progressives” who pursue it as though it were the golden fleece and who idolise it as though it were the golden calf. Since these “progressives” are always looking forward to a mythical future, they do not heed the perennial lessons of the unchanging wisdom of the past. 

At this juncture we should add a cautionary word about those “regressives” who believe that there was a “golden age” in the past. Certain types of “neo-mediaevalist” fall into this category. For such “regressives” everything was wonderful in the Middle Ages. They point with due reverence to Chartres Cathedral and show due deference to the monastic and mendicant orders that proliferated in mediaeval times. This is all to the good. Only a philistine fails to appreciate the majesty of the Gothic, and only a scoundrel pours scorn upon the religious life. Yet one perusal of Dante’s divinely inspired Comedy or Chaucer’s perambulatory Taleswill dissuade anyone from seeing the Middle Ages as a “golden age.” For every mediaeval saint in Dante’s Paradise, there is a corresponding mediaeval sinner in his Hell. For every San Paolo and San Francesco there is a Paolo and Francesca. For every saintly mediaeval Parson on Chaucer’s Pilgrimage there is a dastardly Pardoner; for every honest Plowman there is a dishonest Miller. The litany of sin and scandal is as horrific in the “Middle Ages” as in any other age, though certainly no worse than in our own times. 

For this reason, the Middle Ages should not be studied as an outdated artefact, or as a mere curio. On the contrary, the Middle Ages are very much alive in the sense that they accurately reflect undying truths. Where the Middle Ages are right they are extremely right, as in the faith of St. Francis or the philosophy of Aquinas. This union of fides et ratio resonates through allages with the romance of realism. On the other hand, where the Middle Ages are wrong, they are extremely wrong, as in the corruption and tyranny of many of its rulers. Yet the errors of the Middle Ages teach us valuable lessons about the corruption and tyranny endemic to rulers in all ages. 

Ultimately the Middle Ages are important because they mirror the truth about humanity in the holiest of its heights and in the decadence of its depths. In reflecting the truth through its mirroring of humanity, it holds up the mirror to us also. It shows us ourselves. It speaks to us as an immortal neighbour whose deathless life beckons us from beyond the grave with the gravitas of undying truth.