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What You Never Knew About the Middle Ages

By Rob and Cyndy Shearer
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #8, 1995.

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Rob and Cyndy Shearer

Nothing important happened
before 1492, did it?

♦ ♦ ♦

There weren’t really any
Christians before Martin Luther,
were there?

♦ ♦ ♦

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 1400.

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 & Kings

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 his wife.

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 years!

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 experiencing.

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 France.

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 in advance.

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.

Medieval Fun

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.

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