Nothing important happened
before 1492, did it?
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There weren’t really any
Christians before Martin Luther,
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They’re called the Dark Ages
because the Church deliberately
kept everybody illiterate and
enslaved, didn’t they?
Actually, during the Middle Ages, the Church underwent one of the
largest missionary expansions of its history. Christianity spread north
from the Mediterranean world of the Roman Empire, thanks to the medieval
church. The Bible and theological writings, as well as all we have of
the writings of the ancient world (Plato, Aristotle, Homer, the Greek
plays of Euripides and Sophocles) were preserved thanks to the medieval
church. Universities were invented in the Middle Ages as a result of
collaboration between the church and secular governments. And the
architectural accomplishments of the middle ages, castles and above all,
cathedrals, are perhaps the most beautiful buildings built by men in all
of recorded history.
So, I write to defend the study of history prior to 1492: specifically
in that large expanse of time between the end of the ancient world (the
Fall of Rome in 410) and the beginning of the “modern” world, about
First, please note that this is a L-O-N-G time span. You really can’t
come up with a short description that will accurately apply to the
western world over a thousand years! And it’s equally hard to do it
justice as a couple-of-weeks component in a year-long survey of world
history. A whole year spent studying this fascinating period would be an
excellent investment of your student’s time—and may well give your whole
family a different perspective on the world we now live in.
Understanding the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages may be conveniently divided into three separate eras:
- 400–900 A.D. Germanic Tribes and Viking Raiders
- 900–1200 A.D. The Medieval Renaissance (at the end of which comes
what has been called the 12th century “renaissance”)
- 1200–1400 A.D. The High Middle Ages: Plagues, Wars, Crusades &
The best way to introduce the Middle Ages to students is with
biographies. (Why are those of you who have read our other columns not
surprised?) To really understand all of the strands that go into this
long and significant period of western history, parents ought to select
some representative figures from each time period to focus on.
You also need to understand the three major sources of medieval culture:
- the Roman Empire
- the Germanic Tribes
- and Christianity.
Nobody Expects the . . . Roman Empire?
You need at least a cursory knowledge of the history and significance of
the Roman Empire in order to understand how important a concept it was
for medieval rulers and statesmen throughout the next 1,000 years. In
many ways, much of the politics and wars of the middle ages are an
oft-repeated quest to re-create the Roman empire. Parents and teachers
should also make sure their students know something of the background of
the Germanic tribes whose persistent attempts to emigrate into the Roman
Empire were the proximate cause of its collapse. The struggle of the
Germanic chieftains and church leaders to create some kind of order, and
on the part of the church to preserve literature and learning, is
largely the story of the Middle Ages. And finally, we who are
Protestants need to overcome our biases and attempt to acknowledge and
appreciate the many positive accomplishments of the medieval church. (I
write as one firmly committed to Reformed theology and Anabaptist
polity!) One does not have to ignore the failures and excesses of the
medieval church, but the good and faithful should be recognized—there
really were Christians before Martin Luther!
Greats of the Middle Ages
Back to our three divisions. For the Dark Ages, take a look at Alaric,
the chieftain of the Visigoths who led them from the steppes of Russia,
into safety (so he thought) inside the boundary of the Roman Empire, and
then on a long migration through Greece, the Balkans, down the Italian
peninsula itself, with a brief stay in Rome. The Visigoths eventually
settled on the Iberian peninsula. For 300 years they ruled the Kingdom
of the Visigoths in Spain.
Another fascinating figure from the early Middle Ages is Clovis, the
king of the Franks who was converted to Christianity by the witness of
After talking about the Germanic tribes who overran Rome, spend some
time studying Charlemagne, the King of the Franks who united all of
Europe under his own personal rule and eventually was crowned Emperor by
the Pope in Rome—the first use of the title of Emperor in over 300
When you have a picture of the turmoil and collapse of Roman government
you will have a better understanding of developments in church history.
The actions of Pope Gregory I to make the papacy stronger and of
Benedict to establish rules for monastic life come against the backdrop
of collapse in nearly every other sphere of life. What they did might
not meet with our complete approval, but it is important to understand
why they took the steps they took—and to appreciate that they were
honestly seeking solutions to the cultural collapse they were
For the period of the medieval renaissance, some important figures are
William the Conqueror, Frederick Barbarossa, Henry II of England, and
Louis the Ninth of France. Churchman of this period are of course St.
Francis and St. Dominic, but also worth looking at is an earlier
monastic reformer named Hildebrandt who quarreled with Emperor Henry IV
over whether the secular state should have authority over the church.
This is the period of the building of the great cathedrals, stone
castles, and the founding of universities.
Finally, for the late Middle Ages, study Henry V, King of England and
France who almost won the Hundred Years War, Joan of Arc, John Wycliffe,
and Jan Hus. Hus and Wycliffe are shining examples in an age in which
the organized church sank to new lows—both in the monasteries and in the
courts of the Popes at Rome and for 100 years at Avignon in Southern
Good & Bad Resources
Sources are not always easy to find. Prowl libraries and used book
stores. For some you may have only an article in an encyclopedia to draw
on. There is also a wealth of historical fiction, set in the Middle
Ages, which accurately conveys what the times were like. Though the
historical King Arthur is supposed to have lived during the early middle
ages, the details we have now were written down during the age of
Knights and Castles. about 1200 a.d.. The tale of Robin Hood (retold in
a number of different styles and versions) is also set during the reign
of Richard the Lion-Hearted. The fact that Robin is a Saxon and Prince
John and the Sheriff are Normans often gets overlooked, but if you’ve
done some background work, it makes the story much more understandable.
The Newbery award-winning books, Adam of the Road and The Door in the
Wall, are also engaging stories about youthful protagonists set in the
Middle Ages. Older students can be introduced directly to some works of
medieval literature, such as St. Augustine’s Confessions, Beowulf, and
Chaucer. (Exercise a bit of caution with Chaucer; some of his stories
tend to emphasize the lewd and crude.)
A final note of caution: Most of the recent films set in the Middle Ages
have unacceptable scenes or themes. (Costner’s Robin Hood has both!)
Older movies may sometimes help, but parents should always screen them
Dungeons, Yes; Dragons, No
Medieval history also forms the backdrop for a whole genre of fantasy
literature and role-playing games. Treat these with extreme caution. An
unhealthy fascination with magic and the occult is all too often a
central part of these games, and can be very dangerous. Games which
require you to role-play sorcery by casting spells are Scripturally on
the same level as games that require you to role-play rape, theft, or
murder—plus they may well invite unwanted demonic attention.
By the way, sorcery was not condoned in the Middle Ages, so don’t shun
medieval studies just because game producers like to use medieval armor
and feudal customs in their games! The real Middle Ages were the age of
Christendom—the Kingdom of Christ in all realms, however imperfectly
established—not the age of dungeons and dragons! Knights of the Middle
Ages swore to uphold the cause of Christ. Similarly, medieval priests
were not spell-casting “clerics”; knights would not travel in the
company of thieves; and sword-wielding bimbos were unknown. The
“medieval” background of these games has nothing more to do with the
Middle Ages than a Walt Disney “Goofy” cartoon is a realistic
representation of modern times. The best defense against the misuse of
medieval symbols is to truly understand them.
Finally, don’t overlook the possibilities for innovative activities.
Lots of groups have had great fun preparing for and holding their own
medieval feast. Kids love the fact that you are encouraged to eat with
your hands! One group we know of arranged an overnight event in which
the children kept the monastic hours and offices throughout the night,
arising at 1:00 a.m. for hymns and prayers. There are other imaginative
possibilities as well.
Above all, keep in mind the lessons that God may have to teach you and
your children by reflecting on the lives of the men and women of the
Middle Ages. There will be both examples to emulate and examples to
avoid. There will be flaws in the admirable which we must recognize and
occasional glimpses of virtue even in those whose lives we might find
otherwise reprehensible. All of it can be used as we seek to fulfill our
responsibilities to help our children acquire wisdom and to grow up to
be godly men and women.