Middle Ages

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This is not one era, but several grouped together. The term was originally used in a pejorative fashion in the 15th-16th Century Renaissance to describe the dark period between Classical Antiquity (from the Athenian Golden Age to the fall of the Western Roman Empire) to its rediscovery in the Renaissance. Gradually, the Middle Ages became a positive term as its reliance on classical antiquity in its latter half became better appreciated. In consequence, a new disparaging term was created for the first half of the period, the Dark Ages. This term is largely now avoided as it ignores the intellectual endeavour of this First Millennium period, especially in Celtic monasteries and under Holy Roman Emperors such as Charlemagne and Charles the Bald. The term is also a thoroughly Western one and ignores the achievements of the Byzantine East.

In theological terms the Central Middle Ages (from 11th Century) are the most interesting, as earlier periods placed greater emphasis on spreading the Christian message throughout Europe. Nonetheless, Europe was not fully Christian until the 15th Century (Lithuania being the last to convert) and by then Turkish rulers were inspiring many South Europeans (especially in Bosnia) to convert from Orthodox Christianity to Islam.

The political background to this period is one of reasonable homogeneity. Europe was seen as one large country with numerous local rulers. Travelling to a foreign land was a dangerous business, but so was travelling ten miles to the next village. This encouraged freedom of movement, first among the Celtic monastic orders (mostly First Millennium) and later the Friars (Second Millennium). This was a period when Christian political rulers expected to be able to determine the direction of the church in their lands. It was a period when the pope held a great deal of authority over political rulers, but the extent of that authority can be greatly exaggerated, as the pope was often the puppet of the dominant political force in Europe at that time. So rather than the pope ruling Europe, the pope was used by a dominant ruler to other rulers in place.

Socially, this is a period of poverty, famine and disease. This was a harsh world to live in, similar to the conditions in Africa that nowadays lead to charity appeals. Social structures varied across Europe, but in general this was not a democratic era, and the divide between the wealthy few and the poor majority was immense. There were numerous peasant revolts, but in general the wealthy stayed in power because they were the militarised elite. Under the Roman Empire, Western Europe had been dominated by cities, but they fell into ruin after 475. Urbanisation does not really restart until the beginning of the Second Millennium. It is during this period that the friars ("monks" who lived in the secular world) began their ministry to the new urban poor. This is of course a minimal urbanisation compared to that which starts in eighteen century England and inspires the Evangelical Revival.

The church during this period is dominated by bishops, abbots and other senior clergy who are closely connected to the wealthy elite into which they were born. The majority of priests and religious, however, were desperately poor. Rome was the centre of everything, even for the Celts (despite the claims of some recent Celtic Church enthusiasts). A huge bureaucracy built up around Rome, which had to be funded either by taxing other parts of the church, which led to resentment, or asking the wealthy to pay for the privileges brought by high ecclesiastical office, which led to corruption (but not as much as many Protestant historians would have you believe).

The dominant spiritual influence throughout this period is the religious orders. For the early period this is a combination of the Benedictines (as in Brother Cadfael, although he is Second Millennium) and Celtic orders (to whom Cadfael would probably have belonged in an earlier era). They provided much of the scholarship of the era as well as providing valuable social services, through the monasteries. Over time they also built up massive wealth, which lead over time to a distancing from much of the general populace. The coming of the friars (Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Carmelites) brought the monastic orders to the people, but they too developed great wealth and scholarship and also drifted away from the poorest in society. This constant drift away from the poor in a poverty stricken age meant that Western Europe was fertile ground for heretical movements.

Theologically the dominant influence in the First Millennium was Augustine and the Platonic theology which he inspired. This changed in the Second Millennium under Islamic influence, as people such as Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas inspired a turn to Aristotle. Theology, as with everything else, was determined by political, papal, and monastic patronage. So for example, one of England's greatest theologians, William of Ockham, was revered within his Franciscan order, imprisoned by the Pope John and after his escape from prison protected by Emperor Lewis of Bavaria. Theological debates were often staged affairs between religious orders with Dominicans favouring Aquinas, Franciscans Bonaventure (a scholarly successor to Francis), and Augustinians Augustine. Indeed, the German Reformation began as a debate between Thomist Dominicans (e.g., Cajetan) and Augustinian Augustinians (e.g., Luther).
 

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