Medieval Religion

As religion fades more and more into a thing some people do on Sundays, the medieval perspective on religion becomes more and more distant. Before early modernism – that is, before the 17th century or so – religion held a much different place in the human mind than it did (and still does) after. This forgotten perspective is evidenced in the literature of the Middle Ages, and its rediscovery is part of the mission of this site.

The importance and all-encompassing nature of religion in the medieval world cannot be overstated. Religion was a powerful force indeed, as Classen writes:

throughout history virtually all societies have achieved most of their goals or accomplished enormous tasks because of the collective power which faith, in one or the other manifestation, had provided.

Mental Health, Spirituality, and Religion in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age

These “enormous tasks” include the dedication to preserving, translating, and transcribing religious manuscripts (such as sections of the Bible), authoring elaborate poetry, and performing and spreading religious public ritual.

Additionally, with the looming threat of death surrounding them, people in Medieval Europe spent much time and energy preparing themselves for a pleasant afterlife. In addition, much of their imaginative lives were consumed with images and ideas of death and the afterlife. “What are heaven and hell like, and what will life be like after I am dead?”

Matfre Ermengaud, Breviari d’Amor, Royal MS, 19 CI, 14th century

This concern is reflected in religious poetry like Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, which takes its readers through Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, conceived as a hierarchy from the lowest level of hell to the order of angels in heaven, taken directly from the Christian theology of his time. The theological hierarchy, partly influenced by the Neoplatonism of Plotinus and others, sometimes called the Great Chain of Being, orders all life and matter into one giant hierarchy, with God at the top and elements, metals, and minerals at the bottom.

Fludd’s Great Chain of Being, 1617. The hand of God at the top, the unmoved mover, moves the right hand of a woman, whose left hand in turn controls the monkey sitting on the globe.

This was a worldview influenced by the philosophy of Aristotle, and it was inherited by early modern thinkers like the physician and occultist Robert Fludd.

The medieval mind operated in and perceived the world differently than we perceive it today in other ways, too: this was a time before the Copernican revolution, before Newton’s conception of a mechanistic universe, and before science – verifiable fact – became a common foundation for truth.

Humans and their Earth sat at the center of the universe, and objects provided opportunities to project and encounter human qualities. Events that occurred by what we would call an accident were perceived far differently than today. Everything in nature had an arrangement, or ordo, so every object was answerable for its own actions. Therefore, if a sword fell off of a wall and caused damage or bodily harm, that sword would have to stand trial. There were many trials like this across the period: among other seemingly wild perpetrators to stand trial in Medieval Europe are toads, rats, chafer grubs, and witches. The medieval mind was full of imaginal and superstitious beliefs, and, to a medieval mind, the best counter to superstitious threats was a blessing from a bishop or other clergyman, who had divine authority and power to heal.

Egyptian God Thoth

Memory was different too. Socrates, in Plato’s Phaedrus, recounts the Egyptian myth of the creation of writing. In the tale, the Egyptian god of writing, measuring, and calculating Thoth comes to his king, Thamus, to describe his various inventions. When he describes writing, Thoth claims that it will improve Egyptians’ memories. However, Thamus replies that writing will introduce forgetfulness into the souls of those who learn it, for they will no longer use their inner memories but rather will receive information from writing. If people store information in writing, the argument goes, they won’t have to use their minds as much to remember. Instead, for their knowledge, the people will turn to signs that belong to others, signs that “signify the very same thing forever” (275e). Though it may not be literally true, this myth describes the way the mind operated prior to our hyper-literate era: when people read or heard a story, the images and ideas in the story mixed with images and ideas from other stories, especially religious ones, creating a web of symbolism that helps inform the meaning of a text, almost like implicit allusions. As information came to be stored more and more in texts and symbols, the information became necessarily fragmented.

In the medieval period, as in other periods, people exhibited degrees of literacy; literacy was not a simple dichotomy between the literate and the illiterate (as is still the case today). However, the language of the most literate classes throughout Medieval Europe was Latin. Generally, the clergy and the upper class could read and write in Latin, and it was the instrument for thought and the creative imagination for most of the age. When reading a text, the reader would have a host of symbolic associations, images, and ideas that inform the reading of that text – hence the religious imagery and decorations we can find in various manuscripts. For analyses of this imagery and decoration, check out the sections on Bestiaries and Psalters.

Do you have a hankering for more bestiaries or other manuscripts and want them in your daily life? Try following the British Library’s or Walters Manuscripts’ Twitter pages.