The Infallible Medieval belief system


Here we will explore how the mind of the medieval people was shaped by:

  • the history of their pagan forebears, in particular Aristotle
  • Cultural and religeoud influences from Judaism and belifs form Persia and Persia.
  • the arrival of the Christian faith
  • the political developments during the Late Roman Period; and
  • the emerging doctrines of the Catholic Church.

Over time – from around the 11th century onward – this developed into what became known as the infallible medieval belief.

Faith in the Middle Ages was a sacred mode  that included rites, formulas and obligations that had to be followed; religious as well as certain secular thoughts (knowledge) were all part of this ‘contract’ between individual people and the Church who acted in this instance as the intermediary with God. To a certain extend it reflects the feudal system the existed between peasants (serfs) and their Lords. Belief is the confidence that people expressed in the Church and its teachings. Piety is the ‘tender’ devotion of a person towards the divinity.

Ancient philosophies and religions already talk about  the soul and its superiority to the body. God  was the creator of all things including men and the people owed everything to him in particular love and obedience. The added element of Christianity is the God for a very short period made himself man on earth in order to redeem a sinful humanity.  These were key dogmas that the believers had to accept, otherwise the would fall outside the Church and as such in medieval Europe outside society.

Key rites followed the passage of Jesus life on earth and were linked to agriculture cycles and secular events such as payments of dues, fines and taxes, meetings of the magistrates, court days, etc.

The medieval view towards faith created the phenomenon of the ‘infallible medieval belief system’, whereby faith was equal to truth. This is very difficult for  modern men  to understand, but was was adopted by peasants, city folk, the clergy and the nobility alike.

We trace this back to the early success of Christianity and the frantic missionary work of Paul of Tarsus. Later on supported by its status of state religion during the Late Roman Period. From here we follow the developments and activities of the Church Fathers, the monks and missionaries, the  supremacy of the Church in the Late Middle Ages and we will also have a look at the role and the nature of knowledge during that period and we end with the slow move towards a more enlightened society.

 Ignorance creates powerful religions

Belief in a non-material realm, as we saw in Early beliefs, paganism and religion has always been an integral part of human society and its culture and, in its very basic form, shows remarkable uniformity across the world. Lack of scientific explanations of natural phenomena, natural disasters, human suffering and spiritual experiences, made this a logical development in human societies.

Even today, there where scientific or natural understanding stops, religion still often steps into that void. Metaphysics, the oldest form of philosophy – what equaled science in those days – has been trying for over 2,500 years to explain phenomena that are beyond the material.

Obvious the less that can be explained, the more powerful are those who claim to have special powers to communicate with the non-material world. They included the people that in the earliest city states in Mesopotamia formalised those early beliefs into religion. They claimed that they were able to explain the unexplained from a spiritual perspective and that the believers had to follow their rules and regulation in order to reap the benefits of this. For religion to maintain its power, it is therefore advantageous for its rulers to keep strong control over knowledge. This already was the case with the earliest organised religions and this was also the case once the Catholic Church started to become more powerful.

Because religion involves the spiritual side of humans it creates very strong emotional feelings, which are often exploited by religious (and secular) leaders and as a result religion counts for one of the major reasons of why there have been – and still are – so many wars. All claiming that ‘their God’ is on their side.

 The success of Christianity

Christianity started as a social and religious modernisation process within the Jewish community, the latter was very exclusive and conservative, not open to new ideas. Paul of Tarsus (in the Roman province of Cilicia – modern day south Turkey) became the main driver behind this process.

He became a passionate Christian convert and the reason why he was so successful was because of his gift for story telling; he was able to mythologise Jesus – as the son of God – and build a very strong and convincing message around Jesus using his life, his crucifixion and the salvation by following Jesus in his footsteps as his key missionary points. Christianity is the only religion where God has become human; this was enormously appealing to many people at that time as is still the case. On the other side Paul also didn’t shy away from also using the stick when he spoke about damnation and the hell.

The Christian religion adopted many religious concepts which had been floating around the Middle East for many centuries. As the religion’s first missionary Paul was a master in creating religious inspiration and was able, during his many travels around the Mediterranean, to establish the first groups of Christian people. He was able to create communities of faith and his legacy would last for over 1500 years and the faith that he inspired in people became the foundation for the infallible medieval belief system.

Salvation was no longer limited to those who would adhere to the strict Jewish law, Gentiles were welcomed as new members as were women and slaves.  Its more human approach towards religion (Jesus’ love for humanity) was seen as a breath of fresh air by his rapidly growing number of followers.

Equality – another key element of his modern approach to religion – was also a strong attraction to those, both within, and soon also outside the Roman Empire. This more open character was also very different from most of the rather ‘closed’ religious sects. His success was seen as a threat to the Roman Empire and for that reason Paul was executed and the religion that he was spreading was forbidden.

Especially in the first two centuries – when Christians were persecuted – a flexible and tolerant approach was taken to cultural and traditional differences within the various Christian communities all within the broad context of Jesus, the crucifixion and salvation. During this period of persecution it was faith that held the Christian communities together and which created a very strong sense of identity and purpose. However, many of those cultural differences would later on by their own fellow Christians be forbidden and those who didn’t adhere to that were branded heretics and were persecuted by what would become known as the one and only true orthodox Catholic Church.

From the start Christianity had a clear missionary character with Paul and the other apostles spreading the Gospels throughout the region.

Paul can be seen as the father of the Christian faith and it was faith that became the key element of the ‘the infallible medieval belief’ system which is quite different from ‘the Church’ which, as a religious institution, followed much later.


Transition from Pagan to Christian beliefs

As discussed separately, during the Late Roman Period, Christianity was able to attract large number of followers and at a certain stage the movement had become politically interesting enough for the Emperors first to join them and later even to turn it into the official State religion. This of course gave the new religion an enormous boost. Until this period it had been a grassroots movement, built around the local communities and local leadership that it had been able to attract.

As the State religion it suddenly became a well funded organisation. The senatorial establishment started to deliver the bishops; who soon started to spread out throughout the cities of the Roman Empire, they had full access to all of the excellent communication and other facilities of the State. This created highways for the Christian faith to spread to even the most remote parts of the Empire.

By building on the traditional pagan believes and by Christianising pagan events and traditions the early Christian leaders cleverly saw this as a rather smooth way of transition from paganism to Christianity. The persecution period had created many martyrs who as saints were ideally positioned to take over the functions of the pagan Gods. Because of this soft approach, pagan believes – especially in the rural areas – continued for many centuries, next to the compelling above mentioned new elements of Christianity.  In all reality many pagan elements still survive in modern times.


Augustine puts an intellectual foundation under Christianity

Greek philosophy – which had developed separately from mythology and religion and which was based on observations of the natural environment – became a key driver behind the formalisation of the early Christian movement. Greek knowledge was the intellectual foundation of the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church, the Caliphate and later on the various medieval secular European institutions.

For the Catholic Church it was the works of Aristotle and in particular his Nicomachean Ethics – with his overview of Virtues and Vices’ – that were critical for its intellectual foundation.

While being a pagan, Aristotle was seen as ‘one of us’ especially among the early church fathers. The Greek legacy only endured because the early medieval intellect was still – as were the Romans – involved in a permanent dialogue with the knowledge of the great Greek philosophers. This dialogue however, started to disappear over the following two centuries.

Within that dialogue it was the mind of Church Father Augustine who developed the intellectual basis for the Church doctrine which was further developed over following centuries. Augustine used many aspects of Aristotle’s works for this and he interpreted his works in such a way that it fitted the Christian intellectual concept. His works became the foundation of the canon of the Church. Aristotle’s ‘vices’ (behaviours) became – thanks to St Augustine – the sins that became such a prominent element of the Catholic doctrine. He also formalised ‘original sin’ which doctrine became a significant burden to the peoples of the Middle Ages. Such doctrines were seen as absolute truth in the Middle Ages.

Augustine clearly forms the break between the Greek intellectual system and that of the Church.

In the 7th century it was Pope Gregory the Great that produced a formal list of the Seven Deadly Sins, again a very hot topic, high on the minds of medieval people. Thomas Aquinas topped this of in 1260 with the introduction of the ‘capital sins’.

These doctrines were used to stamp out heresy and to create a uniform Church with a strict regulation of the religion. Increasingly these doctrines were also used to establish the Church authority on the spiritual life of the people in the Middle Ages. Similar to the Mesopotamian Magi, also the Church hierarchy saw themselves as the one who had the power to be in contact with God on behalf of the people. The people themselves were unable to do that and needed the hierarchy to stay on the right path and by submitting themselves to the Church they were guided to salvation. Those who strayed of the path were sinners on their way to eternal damnation, those who questioned this were heretics and persecuted.

Only through the Church could people learn who to live a good life, however, whatever they did they would remain within a vicious circle that condemned them to remain  sinners while on earth , salvation would only be received in heaven. The tricky path on earth had to be followed correctly and  the regulations for this were carefully laid out in canons which were supervised and controlled by the Church.The sacrament of baptism could get a person get rid of the ‘original’ sin, the sacrament of confession was introduced in 1215  made it possible to eliminate the sins the people encounter during the life on earth, but only after serious contrition did the sinner obtain absolution after penitence was done. Indulgences could assist them in this process they could be obtained through good works, going on pilgrimages, fighting in crusades, having holy masses dedicated to them after their death, donate money for cathedral building, altars in churches and towards the end of the Middle Ages one could actually buy indulgences.

Many of the medieval concepts are hard for us to understand, they were seen as absolute reality by all, poor and rich, kings and priest. Here are just a few as illustration. It also shows the ‘knowledge’ as it was made by the intellectuals in the Church as questioning was out of the order this knowledge became the truth. As mentioned it was in their interest to own and control knowledge.

Six Ages of the World, the Four Monarchies and Fortune’s Wheel

Augustine divided world history in 6 stages. Starting with stage one, from Adam to Noah the next stage to Abraham from him to David on to the Babylonian Captivity and to St John the Baptist and finally to the Second coming of Christ, after which the transition to eternity would occur. But unlike chiliasm this was based on a spiritual concept. But the two concepts were far too easy to confuse, especially by the totally illiterate masses.

This has been one of the most influential doctrines that lasted throughout the Middle Ages and even in some cases beyond. Theologians  had calculated that the 6th stage was reached during the Middle Aged (they called this the End Time).  People were in a permanent stage of waiting for the end, with lots of doom and gloom (the Apocalypse) to expect and a grim warning to follow the instructions of the Church if people wanted salvation. This dogma persisted unchallenged throughout the Middle Ages.

In parallel the world history was seen in four monarchies. These would follow each other and after the last monarchy the Antichrist would come who would herald the end time. The Bible list them as: Media, Persia and Macedonia. However, when nothing happened Media was dropped and the Roman Empire was added and for hundreds of years scholars endlessly discussed and interpreted the various theories. Charlemagne’s Empire was seen as a continuation of the Roman Empire and so was the Holy Roman Empire. All aimed at making the theory stick. There was enormous trepidation at the end of the first millennium as that was forecasted as the coming of the Antichrist. As it became too difficult to defend this dogma is was more than often simply ignored.

A third concept – Fortune’s Wheel – came from Roman times (Cicero) but ended up as a religious concept in the Middle Ages, with a strong focus on tragic and misery. It evolved around ‘fate’ and was used to remind people of the temporarily of earthy things. It was often priests, bishops, princes and kings that were used in many of its allegories. It fitted nicely in the doctrine of sin, which was the overwhelming message that was send from the church to the people; to kings and paupers alike.

While the medieval historians were able to distinguish stages in the history of salvation, they didn’t concern themselves with the developments of temporary history. Historic persons were portrayed in a medieval context. Past and present interlocked.

These themes were also repeated in the local parish churches where on many walls the Last Judgment featured prominently. When William of Normandy launched its famous tax survey in 1085, the people rapidly named the survey ‘Domesday (doomsday) Book, referring to the details recorded that only God should know.


The fight against heresy

In the eastern part of the Empire – with the pope in far away Rome – the emperors basically took control of the religious affairs. The Bishop in Constantinople became the most important leader for religious affairs – he had his palace next to that of the emperor – however, most of the implementation was in the hands of the Emperor, he was also the mediator in many heresy cases – where needed with military force – and the leader of several Church Councils.

The Eastern Empire was under continuous attack from both the north (Bulgars) and the east (Persians), their other problem were the heretics – along the lines as mentioned above. With the formalisation of the new religion by the Church Fathers and the Councils, policies were developed to address this problem. However, the emperors were very unsuccessful in convincing these heretics to follow the doctrines of the ‘orthodox’ Catholic Church. As is still the case with religious zealots they rather die than convert.  All of the early Church Councils took place in the east and were therefore heavily influenced by the affairs in east; consequently their outcomes often focussed the heretics. These outcomes equally applied to the western part of the old Roman Empire, Church doctrine didn’t have borders.

With the Arab conquest many of the areas in the Eastern Empire, where the various heresies existed, were no longer under the influence of the Church and for that reason many of them survived however, – within a less tolerant modern Islamic society –  many are now at the brink of extinction

During the 6th and 7th century key features of the early Christians – such as dialogue, tolerance and reason – where among the first virtues that went out of the window once the Church took control of knowledge. The Greek and Roman intellectual tradition of reasoning was replaced by a new order with the precondition that any form of intellectual pursuit had to be based on grace and faith; on the authority of the Bible; and the dogmas of the Church – this became what would become known as the start of the dead-hand of religion.


Christianity takes over western Roman secular power

In the meantime in the west – after the collapse of the western part of the Roman Empire – we saw that many of the structures and infrastructures here were taken over by the bishops. As mentioned above, already before the collapse, when the Empire became weaker and weaker, they had in all reality become responsible for many of the administrative, economic and sometimes even military functions (it was Pope Leo I and not the Emperor who in 452, negotiated with Attila the Hun), until that time these function had been taken care of by the secular institutions.

For a long time the situation in Western Europe remained chaotic. Already before its final fall, Rome, had been largely depopulated. However, after the Fall in 476  the new ‘Barbarian’ rulers left the senatorial class more or less in charge. These ruling families appointed the popes from among themselves, but with a few exceptions the power of the pope was extremely limited during this period, he became isolated and there was very little communication between him and his bishops. Also the bishops were left alone by the invaders. Most of these invaders had lived under Roman rule for several centuries, they didn’t want to destroy it but wanted to be an equal part of it.

The influence of the Pope in the outer laying provinces was non existent. The Church in Gaul was largely run by the Merovingians and their bishops and the Irish Catholic church which evolved more along monks and monasteries was the predominant form of Christianity in all of north western Europe outside the original Roman Empire.

Monasteries in Italy, outside Rome, also dominated the religious landscape here.

Arianism dominated Spain (Visigoth) and large parts of Italy (Lombards) and the Balkans.

Especially under Charlemagne, the State started to use religion in a more systematic way to control the population and used war (so called just wars) to convert other believers (their enemies) to Christianity. Consequently it than used its secular powers to enforce religious dogmas and prosecute internal opponents (heresy).

Often these conversions were a token – if the leader was forced to convert this was seen as the conversion of the total population; in all reality pagan beliefs remained well entrenched.

It was not until the 12th century – with the arrival of the cities – before the Church as an institution was able to start taking full control over their flock.

The growth of the Church in those rapidly expanding cities, fuelled by the economic boom during the favourable conditions of the Medieval Warmth   provided surplus resources, labour and wealth, which was used to build the cathedrals; a commanding expression of the power of the Church,  this was the House of the Lord within these communities and they were the gateways to heaven.


The end of reason

The emerging Greek democracy that started to develop in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, created an environment that was very conducive to learning. In the Mesopotamian oral traditions, poets held a special place as they held the collective memory of the tribe and they played key roles in disputes and legal advice to the rulers. Before the Bible was written down it also here were the poets that were the guardians of the oral traditions.

However, it was only in democratic Greece that from this more open and flexible culture the first philosophers were born; thinkers who had the freedom and the time (thanks to the prosperity of Greece) to build up a body of knowledge, mainly based on natural observations. Plato and Aristotle as well as many other Greek philosophers stood at the cradle of European and Middle East knowledge.

The Romans built on this rich intellectual Greek tradition and throughout this period Greek knowledge and Greek learning kept its status of excellence throughout the Empire. This continued during the period of the Late Roman Empire, when Christianity started to emerge and interact with the Greek philosophy.

However, starting with St Augustine, the old tradition of liberal philosophy was gradually smothered or merged into theology. All knowledge was used for that one purpose and could only be used for that one purpose. The state church took full control over all elements of knowledge.  From the 6th century onwards knowledge was no longer disseminated beyond the clergy. Latin took over from Greek and it was not until the period of the Enlightenment before the Greek language came back in fashion under the intellectuals of that time.

Nearly 1,000 years after it was founded, Emperor Justinian closed the famous Academy of Athens – established by Plato – as part of his imperial ban against pagan education. This clearly indicated that secular knowledge was no longer seen as a useful element for humans. Knowledge became dangerous as it could breed heresy.

The most illustrious teachers of the Academy of Athens where recruited by the Persian Emperor Khusro and recreated the academy at the Sassanid Capital of Ctesiphon, where the works of Plato and his successors translated into Arabic and as such they were kept for humanity.

Sport had already been another earlier victim of the change.  There is no consensus on when the Ancient Olympic Games officially ended, the most common-held date is 393 AD, when the emperor Theodosius I declared that all pagan cults and practices be eliminated. Another date cited is 426 AD, when his successor Theodosius II ordered the destruction of all Greek temples. This ended another tradition that had lasted for over a thousand years (since approx. 776BC). Organised sport didn’t return until the 19th century.

By 750 the tolerance from the previous centuries had been replaced by doctrine and the philosophy of reason was replaced by the doctrine of faith. Nothing could be challenged anymore and science came more or less to a total standstill. All cultural, art and scientific developments for the next four centuries were limited to what fitted within the doctrine of the Church and only took place in institutions controlled by them  (monasteries, churches, cathedrals and cathedral schools). Anything that happened outside that structure was classified as heresy and was prosecuted as such.

As we also see in modern-day theocracies, such structures have a tendency to limit the free flow of thoughts and new ideas and they suppress innovation and human development. Also the individual had to be suppressed as the ‘self ‘could only be as part of the one thing the Church stood for. Individuality expressed outside the dogma of Church  disappeared. Ignorance became the norm, blind following of faith replaced the pursuit of reason. Once this had set proper roots, nobody was able to think outside this rigid and limited scope, even not the most intellectual people of the time.

This strong emphasis on the group , created a positive attitude towards everybody inside it, at the same time this led to  an indifferent and  hostile attitude towards those outside that group.  There were many groups peasants and city folk, able and disable people, men and women, Catholic and non Catholic, white and none whites, but also between cities (campanilismo – bell-towerism or parochialism), guilds and other city groups eg the White and the Black Guelphs.

In the 11th century  a new religious movement emerges whereby the ‘self’ could establish a personal relationship with God – as outside the mediation of the Church. This was counter attacked by the Church through the establishment of the individual confession, further extended Church control over people personal life and personal thoughts (a thought could also be sinful).


Knowledge reintroduced as theology

As we saw above, separate from the development in what became known as the Eastern Roman Empire and without any control or leadership from Rome, pockets of Christianity that were able to maintain some form of structure in Italy, Ireland and Gaul took developments into their own hands, some simply as hermits, others formed small monastic communities.

It was among these communities that some of works of the Classics were preserved, but many only just. Some of these works ended up in the monasteries of Ireland, partly because after the collapse of the Roman Empire in Britain and following the invasions of the Angles and Saxons, the Catholic clergy here, escaped to Ireland. Other works arrived here via monasteries in Italy who also had been able to rescue some of the ‘knowledge’ that survived the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Also in the East (Constantinople) classical knowledge survived, where from the 6th century onwards it was no longer seen as relevant and from here these works moved to Persia where it was later preserved and further developed by the Arabs.

It were the missionaries who brought bits and pieces of this ‘knowledge’ into north-western Europe. While some other knowledge also survived this often was either forgotten of packed away because of its heretic nature.  It was the women at the Merovingian Courts who became the first, outside the monasteries, who were brought in contact with this religious knowledge.

The missionaries spend significant time at the court while travelling through north-western Europe and spend time with these women when the husbands and brothers went out on war, they were allowed to do so as they were not seen as a (sexual) threat to these women. These women showed great interests in the learnings that these missionaries brought with them.  In turn, they introduced their male family members to the new religion, the men saw the political advantages to align themselves with the new religion as that gave them the legitimacy to plunder neighbouring lands under the banner of conversion. The most successful of these rulers to use this tactic was Charlemagne. In this way knowledge –  in this limited format – became a permanent element of the Merovingian and Carolingian Court system; it became the start of the knowledge-based structure for Europe.

The Merovingians and Carolingians founded over 1000 monasteries in Europe and these monasteries became the key infrastructure of Europe for economic, cultural and religious developments. Books were copied and found their way in the libraries of all of these monasteries and as such the monasteries were also the intellectual centres of this period (approx. 600-1100),

Charlemagne became instrumental in rediscovering and preserving some of the great classical works  from Virgil, Horace, Pliny, Livy and Seneca for prosperity by, for the first time again, employing intellectuals at his court as well as by deploying hundreds of monks to copy these works in the various monasteries that he and his family had established. To show the impact; there are some 1,800 surviving manuscripts from between the years 0 to 800. From the following 100 years, 7,000 manuscripts survived.

It is also important to mention here – in the context of reason – that most of the men who copied these works, were simple copiers, few actually did understand these works. This is totally different from the original writers and their students they very actively discussed and debated the issues written down in these works. The Christian scholars simply wanted to use these works to support their own view on life.


Cummulating in the Infallible Medieval belief

The Infallible Medieval belief system reached its zenith in the Late Middle Ages. The following elements created the basis of what made it to become known as the infallible Medieval belief system:

  • The natural pagan belief systems that enabled people to make sense of their environment;
  • The more social and human elements added to (Roman and Pagan) religions by the original Christian religion (love thy neighbour);
  • The secular functions taken over by the Church; and
  • The military opportunities that this brought with it to enforce dogmatic believes.
  • The growth if the cities that allowed the Church to much better enforce its hierarchy.

Both the secular and the religious powers very rapidly understood the value of combining the above mentioned activities. The powerful state/religion alliance started to mould the new West-European society.

The perfect storm that allowed Christianity to dominate the Middle Ages arrived around the 11th and 12th century. At that time:

  • The church became more organised; and
  • There is a power shift from the rural based monasteries to the bishops and the ecclesiastical systems which they were able to built around them in the emerging cities.

With a better grip on society the church was able to much better manage their flock; the fact that more and more people started to live in cities also made their work easier. This of course was all greatly assisted by the integrated nature of State and Church, eventually this system applied to all of Europe.

Those who challenged the new society rapidly were expelled as heretics and not following the faith meant ostracism. Over the next millennium millions of people around the globe were killed under this regime.

In order to not be accused of not obeying its own Commandments, it outsourced penalties such torture and burning at the stake to the secular powers.

In the absence of the Greek and Roman tradition of natural observation, people assumed that there was direct divine intervention in all aspects of their life. This also led to a situation that allowed for a blurring between reality and fantasy, between the life of the living and the life of the death – they intertwined and the death visited the living and the other way. There was also no border between reason and spirituality. In this way every event, every surprise, every occurrence was interpreted in either an act of Satan or of God. Whole stories and scenarios were built around this all based on theological ‘science’. There were armies of angels in constant battle with demons. All of these angles and demons were described in great theological ‘scientific’ ways. All of this very, very real. Real life for the people in the Middle Ages was not what the experienced in live but was the afterlife with hell, heaven and later (from around 1150, as an invention within the system of penitence)  also  on the purgatory. Nothing was questioned or investigated this was all totally real.

Hell received far more attention than heaven in the many paintings and stories  of the’ Last Judgement’, heaven is depicted rather dull and serene; in contrast to the hell that has elaborated scenes of burning ovens, boiling pots all with people in it pitchfork armed devils , man eating monsters and so on. It is clear that,  as throughout the ages,  fear uncertainty and doubt – the so called FUD strategy  – also worked best for the Church.

The monasteries were seen as a first line of defense, bulwarks of piety with God’s  armies of spiritual combatants, the monks and nuns,  who were continuously praying for the salvation of mankind.  The were the castles that would protect against Satan. The parish churches were the local garrisons. The Church had positioned itself in between all of that and they were the mediators between God and his people, there could be no salvation without the Church and any deviation to its rules could lead to damnation.

Those who died needed to be buried in sacred grounds if you were poor or in beautiful tombs under elaborate monuments or in special chapels secured by masses where they would be prayed for in order to be ready for the Last Judgement and their resurrection. No other religion has such a rich burial cult as the Roman Catholics. Some of the wealthy people paid for thousands of masses in order  to secure that they would be prayed for by the living, just to make sure that whatever sins they had done would be purged.

Furthermore there was the cult of the Saints, they were special people and could also mediate between people and God, the Virgin Mary had a very special place among them she had the closet relation with Christ. As they had been living people there was a very close relationship with them and in this cult the relics played a key role. Having seen or touched them or simply by just being at their places provided a greater change to salvation. These relics and these places had supernatural powers that people could tap into.  Saints could also intervene in the daily life of the people – many had their own specialties for certain illnesses, occasions and so on.  They understood human suffering , because they had often gone through similar struggles. This cult is in its origin very pagan and many pagan functions/celebrations/gods and goddesses  were taken over by Saints. This cult also created one of the largest businesses of the Middle Ages, pilgrimages. The more relics a place or cathedral had the more powerful the place was and the more pilgrims it would attract  This created a lucrative trade in relics and this in turn attracted corruption and fraud. Of the amount of splinters there of the Holy Cross many of such crosses could be constructed. However, none of the misuse and misbehavior undermined the infallible belief system of the people. People were aware of that and complaint about this and ridiculed the clergy, but this was different from their faith in God and in the Church. Whatever the Church proclaimed was unequivocally accepted as the truth.

These views were held not just by peasants but also by the nobility and the intelligentsia of the time. Because of the lack of reason every single aspect of life was seen as an Act of God, very rarely were causes and effects questioned let alone researched. Bad weather, natural and other disasters, illness, disability, racial and cultural differences were all seen as punishment of God. This was not limited to people, the wrath of God also affected animals.

The level of indifference  – as a result of this fatalistic belief – is sometimes hard to understand. Survival was what pushed people forwards, following a more or less ‘animal-like’ instinct; a very biological rather than an intellectual response. There was little pity for the unlucky ones or those who were ‘different’ and therefore sinners, they were often subject to cruelty, bullying and ostracism.

Apart from survival, faith ruled the life of the people of the Middle Ages, that’s what kept them going during famine, epidemics, natural disasters, war and basically in all aspects of life. Yes they could die any time, but there was the unquestioned belief in the afterlife and the real fear of hell.  This overarching set of beliefs became the self perpetuated prophecy of the Middle Ages.

While this is outside the scope of this discussion, there was of course progress, innovations did take place based on the struggle for survival. Secular powers were needed to run cities, economic growth drove other innovations forward, more than often against the will of the Church.

While the power of the Church was at it zenith this was also was the period where the seeds of changes started to become visible. It would however, still take a few centuries before these developments became strong enough to create change.


Revival of knowledge but still steeped in theology

While to a certain extend the Greek and Roman knowledge did survive in Europe it stayed more or lass as it was and many works remained hidden because of the ‘heretic’ nature. However the classical knowledge that was kept alive in the Arab was used and greatly expanded by the Arabs, who also combined it with knowledge from India and Persia. This enhanced knowledge started to make its comeback in Europe, via Toledo.

Very slowly,  from around 1200 onwards, more liberal views started to creep into the system. People such as Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) tried to reinstate logic, he separated philosophy from theology again, and also mysticism from reason, clearly identifying the border between Revelation and Reason, Super-natural and Natural. However for the next three centuries theology firmly remained the foundation of science and philosophy. Progress was still measured in a better and deeper  understanding of theology.

The pursuit of logic and knowledge was aimed to find the truth, but that didn’t always suit the rulers. In order to counteract these new developments they proclaimed more religious dogmas and increased their persecution of ‘heretics’.

This in turn led to an increase of the pressure, between those relying on faith and piety to maintain the order and those pursuing knowledge in order to test the order and find the truth.

However, slowly beliefs were accepted as being within the realm of the individual who was able to follow them within their own personal freedom. Humanists such as Francesco Petrarca  (Petrarch) and Giovanni Boccaccio (both around 1350) were among the first to write about reason, ethics, and justice, outside the realm of religion or the supernatural.

The difference between medieval intellectual writing and humanistic writings is that the first group would write about history, personal life and other daily affairs along the lines ‘what do I do in my life’, humanists would write along the lines of ‘why am I doing this in life‘.

This also led to religious humanism which developed as more liberal religious movement. This integration humanist ethical philosophy with the rituals and beliefs of  religion, but centering on human needs, interests, and abilities.

The Church however, tried to hang on to the autocratic attitude supported by the power of the rulers but this became a slow moving train wreck. Power corrupts and both in the Church and in the secular world this led to gross misbehaviour by those who had the monopoly on power, the so called Renaissance popes were a disgrace, with strong reminders of the papal pornacracy. Also the nobility tried to hang on to the three estate system, however the workers and the city people demanded more equality.  These clashes resulted in ongoing popular revolts and protests but it wasn’t until the Reformation – despite the fact that these uprisings were not the reason for this  – before the axis between knowledge and religion could be broken.

Interestingly while the Reformation broke the link between the Church and personal faith, it didn’t lead to the Enlightenment. The persecution of heretics by Protestants even surpassed the vengeance of the Church. Faith still held the infallible medieval belief system in place.

Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot 1727-1781

Amazingly it took still a very long time before  the first complete statement of progress was made by the than 23 year old Turgot, in his “A Philosophical Review of the Successive Advances of the Human Mind” (1750). For Turgot progress covers not simply the arts and sciences but, on their base, the whole of culture—manner, mores, institutions, legal codes, economy, and society.

Nevertheless cracks had well and truly started to occur long before Turgot; secular innovations such as the printing press further undermined the iron grip of the Church on knowledge.

Corrupted religion had separated itself from the human moral belief system and for a large proportion of the European people this was no longer acceptable. The Protestants pursued a more independent way of a religious experience for individual people, without the mediation of the Church.

Despite all the misuses of the religious powers which often is expressed in a total disrespect for the church as an institution people’s believe in God, the saints (Catholics only), heaven, hell and salvation  remained very strong.

However it is not until the Enlightenment that we increasingly start to see a separation between secular and ecclesiastic powers and that led to a more balanced level of governance.

Philosophers of the Enlightenment period were greatly influenced by Chinese philosophers, especially by some of the Song Dynasty (around 1000), this shows how advanced this culture was, unfortunately China entered its own Dark Ages and lost its intellectual and scientific leadership to the West. Who knows what will happen next?


While this Dutch philosopher (1632- 1677) falls outside the period covered in the publication it is important to mention him here. He was the first one to publicly challenge the way God is depicted by the Church. He separates religion from nature/science. He sees God as the infinite force of nature and not as the God portrayed in theism. Religion and nature are two separate issues. Religion tries to interpret nature but can only do this in a limited way and with the availability of more knowledge, elements of religion in relation to the nature God need to change.

The reason for religion is to create obedience in order to achieve peace. This started in the monotheistic religions with the Law that Moses received. This Law was necessary and specific for those people in their circumstances in that part of the world. That Law doesn’t make sense in different times, under different circumstances and in different parts of the world. In order to make this work, dogmas were needed to obtain the obedience.

The actual content of the Law is less important that the fact that there is law. Laws can be put aside if the sovereign wants to do so, as for example in situations of (perceived) threats and wars. As such the Law is empty, a dead letter. The Law in the hands of good rulers (secular and ecclesiastic) provide freedom in the hands of dictators or zealots it suppresses freedom.

This is separate from human morals and the independent way that individual people will have to make decisions for humanity within or outside the Law.

Religion requires piety and faith for it to work while the pursuit of knowledge requires truth. Reason will challenge political and religious power in order to find the truth, which leads to freedom from authority.

While Spinoza can be called the first proclaimed atheist he doesn’t position himself against religion. He agrees that religion has a role to play as many people will need guidance. Everybody can obey, few can think freely think  for themselves. However, he argues that religion is a confused way of interpreting nature, as it has put God within the context of theism and not in the context of an infinite being. By making him a law maker, a ruler and a judge they have separated ‘him’ from nature, us and  the universe.  He argued that if religious people would go back to the origin of the infinite being also religion will see the real truth of knowledge.



Expressions of the Medieval belief system

The many form of art that developed during the Middle Ages is a perfect example of the deep emotional aspects of Medieval belief, the Gregorian and Byzantine church music, the beautiful works of art and the amazing literature works from the intellectuals such as Thomas Aquinas.

An interesting example of this infallible believe can be found in the famous masterpiece of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome, painted by Michelangelo. There is evidence that he was not just an artist but also a learned person who came in contact with many different people – a man of the world. It is also known from letters that he had his own doubts about his own life and saw himself as a sinner. In the painting we also see St Bartholomew – this saint was flayed for his belief. In the Last Judgement Michelangelo paints him in the elect section. He hold a flayed skin in his hand and this skin shows not the face of the saint – what would have been usual – but that of Michelangelo. At the same time St Bartholomew looks with a question mark on his face towards Christ (the Redeemer). It looks like that Michelangelo here wants to say: I am a sinner on the brink of going to be dropped into hell, however there is hope for me as St Bartholomew (the power of the Church) is trying to get Christ to save me.

Salvations goes to the core of medieval Christian believe. People would do basically everything for that, cathedral building in 13 century Europe has been described by William Rosen as an economic enterprise where the nation’s wealth was invested in assets to be redeemed in the afterlife 1.

Jheronimus Bosch

My most favourite artist of the Middle Ages is Jheronimus Bosch (approx 1450- 1516). While he is perhaps the best known artist from the key region on which we project this history of the Middle Ages and as such also creates a sentimental link to this publication, my fascination with him goes much deeper and as far as I can think back he has always been my most favourite artist. In my eyes he is the only painter that uniquely gives us a visual insight into the minds of the people of the Middle Ages.

In his only self portrait at the end of his life he shows himself as a confident and intelligent man with eyes that are able to penetrate and unravel the complex thought processes of the Middle Ages and than visually interpret and express that in his fabulous paintings.

His visual interpretation matches those we know off from written sources from that period. However, he interprets these medieval thoughts in a visualisation of how these people saw that reality. When reading Medieval literature we inevitable paint our own interpretations of the thoughts of these people, which of course are different from the interpretation of these topics by medieval people.

He clearly sends his (medieval) viewers relentless messages about their lives and about the world around them, at first sight we could interpret that as criticism to the Church and to the existing world view, however, medieval people would most likely see that different. The reoccurrence of misbehaviour by the clergy in several of his pictures is also interesting as only a few years after his death Luther nailed his 95 thesis on the church doors of Wittenburg.

Bosch himself is steeped in the Christian tradition of his times, which reached its peak at his time and his piety and faith – so typical of this time and age – is clearly expressed in his paintings, he certainly is not a heretic. However, far more impressive in my opinion is that he expresses the deeper belief system behind this, which was an integral part of daily struggle for life of the people in those days; this was the case for ordinary people, the nobility as well as the clergy. There are typically several of layers of understanding in his works (as in many medieval works).

He shows us he complexity of the dualistic nature of body and mind as those people saw it and the way that people did cope (or not) with that. The reality of every day and at the same time the doom and gloom linked that these daily realities and the sheer unattainable ‘proper’ lifestyle needed that the Gods and the Saints want people to live, with the ultimate price salvation and entry into Heaven.

He is not shying away of depicting the ruling class and the clergy in negative ways and this in itself is interesting as most of his works were ordered by people representing these classes. In other words it was well accepted also by these people that also their lives were full of sin. One of the most zealous Catholic rulers of his time the Spanish Emperor was one of the people that commissioned work from him. He also bought his painting of the Tuin der Lusten (Garden of Earthly Delights). Looking at this from our times that might initially doesn’t make sense for a ruler to buy such a picture,  but if looked through the eyes of a medieval person – indoctrinated by the picture of the world as portrayed  by the Church and what was seen as the reality – this becomes understandable.

His visual interpretations of  what goes on in the minds of medieval people is what makes his work so very interesting; it is not just a range of pictures but it tells a story of what held the people of his time together. His paintings are choc- a – block full of details that shows not just how people lived but what their inner most thoughts were, what went on their minds, their fears and their fantasies. While all the details of his ‘picture book’ are still not fully understood the overall insights it contains are enough to provide us with that Middle Age picture. Each of the hundreds of details in his paintings tells us a story of its own, it reflect the knowledge that we have on the people that lived in the Middle Ages but uniquely this also provides a visual picture around these stories. This is not our interpretation of that story based on medieval texts that we can read but the interpretation of that medieval knowledge provided by Jheronimus as  he speaks to his viewers as one of the witnesses and believers in that knowledge and the fact that his work was commissioned by ruling people of his time also indicates that he reflected views that went well beyond his own ones.

Some other links between Jheronimus and people covered in this book.:

Pieter van Os, town clerk and patron of an ‘Ecce Homo’ triptych, an alterpiece in the style of Bosch that is kept in Boston.  Pieter is depicted with St Pieter, while his wife Hendrixke van Langhel and their deceased child are depicted on the other side with St Catherine. (She was the daughter of a bastard son of the Franco Langhel, priest of Neerlangel, near Ravenstein). Pieter and Franco where both members of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady (Swan Brothers).

On 30 July 1517, a traveller saw the triptych Garden of Earthly Delights in the palace of the Van Nassau family. Most likely a member of the Van Nassau family commissioned the work from Bosch. That might have been Engelbert II of Nassau, Lord of Breda, who died in 1504, or his successor Henry III of Nassau. Engelbert II was a confidant of Duke Philip the Handsome, a great admirer of Bosch. They were both present in 1481 at the 14th Chapter of the Order of the Golden Fleece, held at St John’s in ‘s‑Hertogenbosch. Duke Henry III was present in that city since 1513 as commander-in-chief in the battle against the Guelders.

It has also been suggested that the burning city  in the painting The Temptation of Antonius, is based on the devastation of the Gelre wars. During these wars Oss had been burned down 7 times.



Pilgrimages also were an important element of salvation. The practice dates back to pagan times and all subsequent religions do have pilgrimages as a part of their tradition. In Christianity, from the Middle Ages onwards, pilgrimages were ordered as a penitence for a breach of the Peace of God and for other breaches of church rules. They also entered civil law as they were an ideal alternative for banishment. Pilgrims wear badges (the most famous one the shell of St James) – the first forms of souvenirs.  Pilgrimages were administered in registers and notes were requested indicating that the pilgrimage had indeed been successfully undertaken to the place ordered in the penitence.

Pilgrimages as a form of punishment ended in those areas where the Reformation took hold. In the southern parts of the Low Countries it ended in 1618 by a decree from Archduke Albrecht and Archduchess Isabelle.

Pilgrimages were also undertaken to holy places – and this is more in line with pagan and other religions . It was an act of devotion and special healing powers were often associated with certain places. The greatest draw for the pilgrims were the relics that were on display.


While time wise we might no longer live in the Middle Ages it is frightening to see that still large groups of people are holding on to at least parts of this infallible belief system and are not prepared to accept reason. Ignorance in many instances still prevails over reason.

The History of Northwestern Europe (TOC)