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Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Desire for God, Power, and Learning

This is the fifth of a six-part series about the Middle Ages with the goal of giving casual readers of medieval romances a better understanding of the time period. This brief blog doesn’t even begin to cover it the complexity of the Middle Ages or why Friar Tuck and Jorge de Burgos are both equally representative of medieval Men of God.
In First the Fall, Then the Babarians, we discussed the macro trends of the early medieval period and how they set the foundation for the Early Middle Ages. We painted kings and knights with a broad brush and learned the benefits of political stability in Huzzah! Knights, Kings and Living the High Life. We looked at war and social change in Ideals of Chivalry and Realities of War and discussed the lives of medieval women in Wives, Mothers, and Nuns. Today, we’re focusing on The Desire for God, Power, and Learning.

The Church (in the Middle Ages there was only one) is a rich, complex subject, which is why thousands of books have been written on it. The desire for God, for learning, for power, for refuge, for utopia can be found in the men and women (but mostly men) who served as friars, monks, priests, bishops, abbots and popes.

The idea of the separation of Church and State would be heretical to the medieval mind. We have a hard time understanding how intertwined life and faith were in medieval Europe. The cycle of prayers, holy days, and sacraments marked the hours, days and stages of a person’s life. Sin was a state of being; evil, an active presence, and purgatory’s cleansing tortures a real and terrifying thought. This is medieval Europe.

On the surface, it appears the Christianization of the Saxons, the Franks and other tribes took place in a relatively short period of time. But beliefs and thoughts change slowly. Evidence suggests that many people in the early Middle Ages hedged their bets by practicing both Christian and Pagan rites. Hence, pagan beliefs mingled with Christian traditions and persisted throughout the Middle Ages.

Herb lore, sympathetic magic, and the supernatural all fell under the umbrella of Christianity. Angels and saints interceded; demons interfered. A drop of the Virgin Mary's milk would help with conception and childbirth. A neighbor's curse would cause your cow to founder and die. 

If you scratch the surface, you’ll find two churches in the Middle Ages: the local church and the Church.

A tale of two churches

Stone musicians from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
The local Church was the center of the medieval community. Important events took place within the confines of the Church or churchyard. Baptism took place within a few hours of birth. Marriages were celebrated in the churchyard. Masses were in Latin, but sermons would be in the vernacular, and holy days determined what you ate that day.

At this level, the church was the priests and local monastics. It was human, it was involved, and it was concerned with individuals. This was where pagan traditions became mixed with Christian custom, where herb lore and sympathetic magic were part of daily life, and where people prayed to saints that were former pagan gods and made pilgrimages to shrines that had been sacred for thousands of years without ever questioning their Christian faith.

The Church, on the other hand, was an organized, bureaucratic entity most interested in strengthening its position and growing its power. By the 13th century, the pope oversaw a transnational “monarchy” that was larger and wealthier than any other kingdom at the time. Popes asserted their claims to rule by divine authority and argued the spiritual kingdom was higher than temporal kingdoms. The rulers of these earthly kingdoms disagreed. The struggle between miter and crown lasted centuries but rarely touched the common people unless the kingdom was under interdict, which meant local priests were forbidden to administer sacraments).

The wealth, political influence and sheer size of the church are hard to exaggerate. It directed movements like the Crusades, kept learning alive long enough for literacy to become a necessity again, and moderated society through the promotion of ethical warfare, a system of courts, expanding education to the laity and sponsoring the military orders that provided safe transportation along the pilgrim routes.

The power of The Church is also often over-emphasized. Its teachings were as much a reflection of society, as society was a reflection of it. For instance, the Church didn’t direct society’s view of women, but reinforced society’s view and restated it in extreme rhetoric. The same was true for non-believers, homosexuals, heretics or anyone who didn’t confirm to the social standards of the day. However, people didn’t always align with institutional dogma. Templar knights in Jerusalem were friends with Muslims, merchants and bankers had business relationships with Jews, and women ran businesses and fiefdoms in their husband’s absence or in widowhood.

Many monks worked in the scriptorium, copying ancient texts and illuminating prayer books like the one above. 

Poverty, obedience andsay what?

For some, the word “monasticism” calls to mind the soft whoosh of rough robes on stone, of sleepy monks shuffling from the dormitory through a narrow slype to the church choir. Voices rise and fall in chanted worship in the dark night. Others only think about what the monks supposedly renounced: personal wealth and comfort, free will, and physical pleasure.

Close up of marginalia from an illuminated manuscript. 
Monasticism, like Feudalism, matured over time. The key to understanding it is to view it as a verb. It’s not an ideal, like chivalry, but a discipline, like kung fu. It’s a way of living where everything extraneous to worship is purged.

We’ve discussed the myths of knighthood. Similarly, the myths of monasticism are just as uninteresting when compared to the reality. The stereotype seems to ping between the ale-loving, goodhearted Friar Tuck to the judgmental, murderous monk Jorge de Burgos from the The Name of the Rose

In the beginning, monks were men and women who wanted to live a life of worship and prayer, separating themselves from the world to avoid distractions. By the high Middle Ages, not all monks were there to live a life of prayer. They were drawn to an order by a love of learning, a desire to serve their communities, or because their parents gave them to the order as boys.

Women, as usual, had fewer options. Although many of us shudder at the thought of being cloistered and celibate, these women had access to learning, the opportunity to govern the order, and a place of respect in society. They tended outlived their married sisters, and somewhere back in graduate school, I remember reading that nuns enjoyed fewer wrinkles and more robust health as they aged than other women.

Most importantly, rather than being viewed as cowards for withdrawing from the world, monks were generally viewed as spiritual knights, tirelessly working to protect people from the ravages of sin.

News eyes, old data

Much of how we currently interpret history comes out of the social history movement of the 20th century. After World War I, when much of the western world lost faith in its political, religious, and social institutions, people began to look at the "every day life of every day people." Medievalists began to scour the records for facts on the social life of the times and began re-interpreting those facts according to the fashion of the day. The feminist movement, the ecumenical movement, and the P.C. movement have been absolute boons in giving us new ways of interpreting medieval society and unearthing small details that went unnoticed when historical research and teaching focused on kings and wars.

As writers, all this academic gold mining gives us a great deal of room to maneuver. Our local priests can be greedy or saintly or barely literate. Monks succor the poor, reform the church, or retire from crusades to solve crimes. Bishops can be sincere and pious or money-grubbing social climbers. Our hero can be as involved or uninvolved in the struggle between church and crown as we need him to be. Our heroes and heroines can interact with individuals in ways that might defy the “official” position. Just keep in mind, our hero or heroine isn’t going to be a pantheist or an atheist. Those words would mean nothing to them, and egalitarianism is inconceivable because of the Great Chain of Being.

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Keena Kincaid writes historical romances in which passion, magic and treachery collide to create unforgettable stories. Her books are available from Prairie Rose Publications and Amazon. For more information on her stories, visit her Amazon page, her website, or Facebook.


  1. Seems the more you read, the more you learn. And re-reading adds even more depth. I have been enjoying this series and appreciate you taking the time to share the broad concepts and interpretations you've found. Doris

  2. My earlier reply disappeared. I'm glad you're enjoying the series. Next month, the final blog will be on the Black Death and the end of the Middle Ages.

  3. Thanks again for a wonderful post! I've loved this series and look forward to the Black Death. As I've said before I appreciate the work you've put into these posts which are entertaining and informative about a complex period of history.

    1. I'm glad you're enjoying the series, Patti. It's been fun to write even though it's forced me to dig through my old reference books and grad school notes. I am fascinated by this time period, although I doubt if I would even vacation there (if offered).

  4. I can see very clearly why Americans wanted religious freedom and separation of church and state. The Middle Ages is rather scary in the way the church hierarchy greedily grasped chances for power. As interesting as it is to read about how people were ruled back then, I know it must have been hell to live as common folk in that era.
    Excellent article, Keena.

    1. The slow movement toward separation of Church and State could fill several dozen tomes (and I'm sure many someones know much more than I do). When my nephew was in a Christian school, his history teacher taught that among all of Elizabeth I's failings, her greatest was that she started the process of separation of church and state. I walked him through Henry 8, Bloody Mary, et al. She was still queen when the first colonies were attempted. So by the time we get to the Constitution, the idea was still fairly new and radical, but the memories of religious persecution was still strong, if not within living memory. Random note: we are the second oldest government on the planet (after England).

    2. Elizabeth I was still Queen. My "she" refers to the wrong woman. :-)

  5. Keena,

    I'm fascinated by this period in history, too, but like you, I wouldn't want to visit in a time travel scenario. I'd be too afraid I'd get stuck back then. ;-)