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Monday, December 13, 2021

Myths of the Middle Ages IV: Clerical Ignorance

 I continue with my series debunking common misconceptions about the Middle Ages with a look at the notion that the medieval Church was bigoted and hostile to inquiry, study and scholarship.

Clerical ignorance and bigotry is another popular theme in films and novels set in the Middle Ages. The Kingdom of Heaven comes readily to mind, from the evil priest in the opening scenes denying a woman burial to the Knights Templar transformed into mindless brutes, but it is by no means the exception. I could site at least a dozen modern novels in which clerics play the role of mindless fanatics, usually opposed to tolerance, compromise, and pure common sense -- but I don't want to be accused of simply bad-mouthing the competition so I won't list the titles here.

Of course, it is impossible to deny that the Inquisition was an institution established in the 13th century or that individual priests, monks and friars may indeed have been uneducated and fanatical. Certainly the ignorance of many parish priests was a scandal that fueled Luther's anger and led to the Reformation.  But Luther was not the first monk to bemoan the ignorance of his fellows and there had been many previous attempts to increase the standards of education for the parish priest. 

Yet, despite the above, it is nevertheless historically inaccurate to suggest that the Catholic Church as an institution was governed by bigotry and superstition or that it was inherently opposed to study, scholarship, and scientific inquiry.

Let's start with the simple fact that the Church, notably monasteries and nunneries, were the most effective centers for the preservation of classical literature and thought in the period immediately following the "fall" of the Roman Empire. This was especially so in the Eastern Roman Empire where monasteries were not immediately threatened, but more important in the West where they were. It is important to understand that it was in these religious institutions that the teachings not only of Christ but of Aristotle and Plato were preserved, copied, read, studied and analyzed.

Monasteries continued to be centers of learning -- not rote learning as in the Koran schools familiar across the world today -- but as centers of inquiry and study, even after the political situation had stabilized. By the 11th century they were very much centers of intellectual inquiry and debate. Peter Abelard (unfortunately more famous for his affair with Heloise than for his philosophy) is just one example of a critical thinker as a theologian, philosopher and logician. Hildegard von Bingen is, of course, another example from the same century. She wrote treatises on medicine and natural history characterized by a high quality of scientific observation. Later scholars of note included Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas. 

Indeed, the very concept of universities - places dedicated to learning and debate protected by the notion of academic freedom -- evolved out of the Cathedral schools of the Middle Ages. Pope Gregory VII in a papal decree from 1079 regulated Cathedral schools and is credited with thereby providing the framework for independent universities. The first such university was established just nine years later in 1088 at Bologna, Italy. It was followed by the University of Paris in 1150 and the University of Oxford in 1167.
The learning taught in these universities was not confined to scripture.  On the contrary, study of ancient Greek and Roman texts was an essential component of medieval higher education. It is a fallacy -- but a frequently repeated and propagated one -- that knowledge of classical texts  were "re-discovered" in the Renaissance after such knowledge was "preserved" by the Muslims. This is nonsense. The University of Bologna at its inception was focused on teaching Roman law -- that is ancient Roman not canon law! The principal sources used for teaching medicine in medieval universities were Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna. Aristotle and Plato were hotly debated in studies of law, politics, logic, and philosophy. Universities also provided study of mathematics and the natural sciences, based largely on classical but also Byzantine and even Muslim scholars. The university culture at this time, furthermore, was based on debates, disputations, and the requirement to read extensively in order to pass examinations, which entailed defending ones ideas before a panel of established scholars. The concept of "peer review" and defense of a doctrinal dissertation today is based on this medieval tradition.

Just one small example, the knowledge that the earth was a sphere was widespread in intellectual circles in the Middle Ages.  In the 6th century, for example, Bishop Isidore of Seville included the fact that the earth was round in his encyclopedia. The Venerable Bede writing roughly a century later described the earth as an "orb" at the center of the universe. Hildegard von Bingen writing the 11th century described the earth as a sphere, no less than did Dante's Divine Comedy written in the 14th century. Galileo was condemned NOT in the Middle Ages, but in the so-called Renaissance; furthermore, he was condemned not for saying the earth was round, but rather that the earth revolved around the sun rather than the reverse. 

This brings us to the fact that fundamentalism, the belief that all knowledge is contained in scripture, is inherently more bigoted and anti-science than was the medieval church. It was the Reformation, with its emphasis on the Bible -- and the Bible alone -- that bred religious bigotry in the West. Likewise it is Islamic fundamentalism, not enlightened Islam, that poses a threat to peaceful co-existence between peoples holding different religious beliefs to this day.


For readers tired of clichés and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.





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