The Late Middle Ages

Efforts to distinguish the High Middle Ages of Europe, the Late Middle Ages, and the Renaissance are as arbitrary and capricious as are efforts to distinguish the several generations of recent American history. A steady process of development and growth marks European culture throughout this time span. Historians traditionally try to place any good developments of medieval times into the High Middle Ages, treating the Late Middle Ages as an era of trouble and collapse, thus introducing a splendid and sparkling Renaissance or rebirth in Europe. But the good and the bad are intertwined, as they always are in human history, and the Renaissance is more a continuation of medieval progress than it is any rediscovery or rebirth of ancient culture and virtue.

One key development in world history overlaps the High Middle Ages of Europe: the sudden appearance of the Mongol Empire in Asia. Genghis Khan (born Temujin) assembled in his lifetime the largest landmass under one government in all human history. (Wikipedia quibbles regarding this achievement, suggesting that some World War II developments achieved greater control over the Earth, but the Mongol Empire remains the largest by any reasonable definition of “empire.”) The land ruled by the Khan included China (formerly under the Chinese Song Empire), other central Asian states, Persia, western Asia almost to Egypt, and northeastern Europe covering most of modern Russia as well as parts of Poland and other east European lands. Under his successors, the Mongol Empire would divide into four cooperating governments; Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis, would attempt to add Japan to his Japanese holdings; his failure, largely due to adverse weather, is as important to Japanese history as the Persian invasion is to Greek history and the Spanish Armada to British history. The greatest impact upon medieval Europe from the Mongols was indirect; controlling much of the Silk Roads network, they facilitated the import of Asian products into Europe, enriching the economy and creating a greater demand for Asian products in Europe.

Commodities traveled along the Silk Roads. So did ideas. So did disease. Bubonic plague had been known in the Mediterranean world long before the time of the Mongol Empire, but a new virulent strain of the disease traveled along the Silk Roads west into Europe and east into coastal China, leading to outbreaks of sickness and death commonly called the Black Death. This plague killed at least a quarter and perhaps more than a third of the population of Europe in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries. Periodic outbreaks of the plague continued in later centuries. No one was immune—rich or poor, noble class or peasant, church worker or casual worshiper or secret unbeliever. Some members of the European communities turned to the Christian faith hoping for supernatural protection from the disease; others rejected religion and followed the motto, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die.” The population decline across Europe added value to the remaining lives, especially in the working class. Peasants demanded more from the noble and the wealthy in exchange for their work; when the noble and wealthy refused, wars of rebellion broke out on occasion. This class warfare set the stage for greater change in Europe during the coming centuries.

Another important event of the Late Middle Ages was the death of Charles IV of France, last of the Capetian line of kings. He had no sons or brothers to inherit the throne; his nearest male relative was Edward, the nephew of Charles, who was King of England. French officials refused to acknowledge Edward as King of France; instead they crowned a cousin of King Charles, beginning the line of France’s Valois kings. Edward did not take this insult sitting down. He brought the English army into France, seeking to claim the throne that he considered his. Instead, he began the Hundred Years War between England and France.

The Hundred Years War actually lasted 116 years, but those years included two lengthy peace treaties between the French and English governments. English fighters had superior training and weaponry with their longbows, but they were unable to defeat the French in any conclusive manner. Instead, in the last years of the war, the French forces were rallied by a teenage girl named Jeanne Darc (Joan of Ark in English), who heard voices that told her what the English were planning and how they could be defeated. Eventually Jeanne was captured in battle, tried for witchcraft, condemned, and executed. But the Hundred Years War ended with the French government taking control even of lands that had belonged to the English crown, while the English government disintegrated into a civil war known as the War of the Roses.

Other unpleasantness at the same time as all these events was the highly unexpected Spanish Inquisition. Several governments in Europe had inquisitions—judicial tribunals of the Church that identified heretics, traitors, and other undesirable members of the citizenry and handed them over to the civil government for punishment. The atrocities of the Inquisition have been exaggerated by many writers, but the work of the Inquisition was far from modern judicial systems that respect the rights of the accused and grant them a hearing before a jury of their peers.

In spite of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the Inquisition, European culture continued its progress during these years. Philosophers such as Roger Bacon, Nicholas of Cusa, and William of Ockham (famous for his principle of Ockham’s Razor) helped to invent the scientific method of observation, prediction, and experimentation. Great literature was being written by Dante and Petrarch, by Chaucer, and by numerous poets who built the romantic legends of King Arthur and his knights. Meanwhile, a mystic tradition of Christian devotion was growing, a tradition that helped to prepare the Church for its Reformation and for its existence and growth in the Early Modern world. J.

Speaking of violence and Christianity

Yesterday I gave a forty-five minute presentation to a few dozen people about violence and Christianity. My talk was part three of a four-part series, held on Thursday mornings, which the organizer called “Strange Bedfellows: Religion and Violence.” The first speaker was a retired rabbi, representing Judaism, and the second speaker was a Muslim. The organizer plans to speak at the fourth session next week, wrapping up the series.

It only struck me after the presentation what an honor it was to be the sole voice speaking for Christianity to this particular group. I would have been a lot more nervous if I had thought about that before I spoke. Many people in the audience had heard me speak before, but more as a teacher about history or about religion, not as an apologist for Christianity. I attended the two previous sessions so I would know what had been said about violence and Judaism and about violence and Islam.

I began by displaying the words, “NO JESUS = NO PEACE; KNOW JESUS = KNOW PEACE.” I said that Christianity presents itself to the world as a religion of peace, from the benediction of Numbers 6 (“The Lord bless you and keep you… and give you peace.”) to the messianic title “Prince of Peace,” to the song sung by angels when Jesus was born (“Glory be to God on high, and on earth, peace…”) and Paul’s favorite greeting in his epistles (“Grace and peace to you…”). My next slide showed the words of Matthew 10:34: Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” From there I went on to talk about the Christian life as living on a battlefield—not a Manichaean battlefield in which God rules heaven, Satan rules hell, and they fight as equals on earth, but a war of rebellion in which Satan and his allies resist God even though they are doomed to lose. I spoke of the three enemies—not flesh and blood, but spiritual forces—faced by Christians; namely, the devil, the world, and our flesh. I included death as a fourth enemy, and I explained the Christian belief that Jesus came into the world to fight and defeat these enemies.

Next, I quoted Jesus’ parable of the strong man (Matthew 12:29). Satan is strong, but Jesus is stronger: he breaks into Satan’s house, binds Satan, and robs Satan of his possessions; namely, sinners. I pointed out that we are all sinners; I gave the example of shouting an insult at another driver on the highway, which Jesus considers equal to murder. Having shouted such an insult, I made myself property of the devil rather than a child of God. But Jesus came, not to destroy me but to rescue me. He came, not to destroy the sin-polluted world, but to rescue and remake the world.

My next point was that forgiven sinners become saints. They are called to imitate Jesus, helping those who need help and forgiving those who sin against them. But, being like Jesus, saints will be persecuted like Jesus. I cited several examples, from Roman persecution of the Church to recent events in Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Christians are victims of violence and will be until the Last Day. The devil and the world target Christians for persecution.

But the big question that I was expected to answer was this: what happens when Christians are violent towards others? I approached that question with this saying: “CHRISTIANS AREN’T PERFECT; JUST FORGIVEN.” I acknowledged that Christians can be guilty of violence. I described Luther’s vitriolic words about Jews, saying that Luther was wrong to write such things, that he had fallen victim to the flesh (as all Christians do), and that the good things he wrote should not be discounted because of the bad things he wrote.

From there I went on to talk about witchhunts, the Crusades, pogroms, and forced conversions. Each of them, I insisted, was sinful behavior by Christians for which they needed Christ’s forgiveness. I followed that with a more detailed description of the Spanish Inquisition, which was the effort of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to ensure that every citizen of the nation they ruled was a genuine Christian. Jews and Muslims were given a choice: convert to Christianity or leave Spain. The Inquisition attempted to ensure that those who did not leave had sincerely converted. Of course the Inquisition hunted down other groups of people, including Protestants, sexual deviants, and even common criminals. But it was a branch of the government that dealt with crime and that treated certain religious groups as criminal.

This introduced the idea that every Christian has a dual citizenship: loyalty to the kingdom of God and also loyalty to a nation on earth. I am a citizen of the United States and also a citizen of God’s kingdom. Quoting Jesus’ words, “Render unto Caesar… and render unto God…” I also mentioned Augustine’s two cities, Luther’s two swords, and the American concept of “separation of church and state.” In each case, a dual loyalty is seen. But both are loyalty to God. The state enforces the law, protecting citizens and punishing criminals. The church shares the gospel, offering forgiveness to sinners. The church does not punish sinners; the state does not forgive criminals.

The Crusades are an example of the Church trying to do the job of the state; the Spanish Inquisition is an example of the state trying to do the job of the Church. Much of the violence for which Christians are blamed (and of which some Christians were guilty) results from crossing the line between Church and state. I reminded the group that the Muslim speaker had said that violence is a political problem, not a religious problem (even when committed in the name of religion) and I said that I agree. I indicated that Christians need to honor, respect, and obey their leaders, whoever those leaders are. I named President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama, and President Donald Trump as men who represent God’s authority by their office and deserve the respect of all American Christians.

I then spoke briefly about the Theory of Just War, one of the special interests of the series’ organizer. A government has an obligation to protect its citizens from attacks coming from other nations or groups of people. But some reasons for starting a war are just and others are unjust; some methods of waging war are just and others are unjust.

My final topic was Christian apocalyptic hope. I mentioned Armageddon, which the book of Revelation describes as the devil gathering all the sinners of the world to oppose Jesus Christ. When Christ appears, though, there is no violence. No bombs are dropped. No guns are fired. Jesus simply wins. In fact, he has already won, suffering violence on the cross and reversing death Easter morning. His picture of the new creation is not a military picture: it is the picture of a wedding reception. This new creation, I said, is marked by peace: peace with God, peace with one another, and peace with all creation.

The audience was very quiet during my presentation. I wasn’t sure whether the silence was rapt attention or smoldering hostility. But their questions were friendly, their applause was warm, and those who spoke with me afterward said I had done a good job. I cannot say that my words converted anyone to Christianity or even whether they enriched anyone’s faith. But, for forty-five minutes, I represented Christ and his Church in an official setting. I am grateful to have had that opportunity. J.