What can we learn from medieval history? As our students can probably tell you, this year we have studied so much more than knights, kings, and castles. Here are just a few lessons we’ve taken away from medieval historians, lessons which make learning medieval history so worth our while.
First, medieval Christians took God’s work in the world extremely seriously. They simply assumed that historical events were accomplished by His intervention. The historian Willibald, for example, remarks that those who murdered the missionary St. Boniface and his followers were killed because “it was the will of the omnipotent Creator and Savior of the world that He should be avenged of His enemies; and in His mercy and compassion He demanded a penalty for the sacred blood shed on His behalf.” Or in another case, St. Patrick writes of God’s acts of faithfulness throughout his own life, saying, “So I’ll never stop giving thanks to my God, who kept me faithful in the time of my temptation. He is the one who defended me in all my difficulties… Whatever comes about for me, good or bad, I ought to accept them equally and give thanks to God. He has shown me that I can put my faith in him without wavering and without end.”
Furthermore, medieval Christians did not separate their lives in the Church from their lives in the world. It’s true that this overlap was certainly sometimes abused—for instance, when the Church tried to seize authority from the government, and vice versa. But in a godly way, many medieval Christians’ faith and piety simply permeated their otherwise “secular” lives. Before the famous Battle of Hastings in Great Britain, we are told that William the Conqueror and his Norman soldiers “passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and received the communion of the Lord’s body in the morning” (William of Malmesbury, Chronicle of the Kings of England). We are told of Charlemagne that “The reason that he zealously strove to make friends with the kings beyond seas was that he might get help and relief to the Christians living under their rule” (Einhard, Life of Charlemagne). Historians across the board dated everything in relation to “the year of our Lord’s incarnation,” and they used feasts and season of the Church Year as time stamps to mark a given event.
Third, Christian medieval historians are wonderfully biased. They did not care about being fair to all religions or opinions. They simply stated their Christian convictions. A great example of such boldness appears in a chronicle of the Third Crusade, during a scene after Richard the Lionhearted took the city of Acre from the Muslims: “After agreeing on terms of surrender, the Turks [i.e. Muslims] left the city empty-handed. They seemed dignified and unconcerned even as walked away. Their lying, superstitious cult, however, had perverted their powers as men. Their miserable error was corrupted into idolatry.” On the one hand, the historian has no problem honestly describing the dignity and courage of the Muslim soldiers. However, he then immediately reminds his readers who these men really are—pagans and idolaters who flagrantly reject Christ.
Finally, medieval history offers abundant examples of great Christian men and women. Cleotild, the wife of pagan Frankish king Clovis, persistently sought her husband’s conversion (which did eventually happen), and she continued to confess her faith joyfully even when their infant son died. King Alfred the Great of Wessex attended church daily, hungered to learn as much as he could, committed many great passages to memory, and always kept with him a book of Scripture quotations. Courageous missionaries such as Columbanus, Boniface, and Patrick boldly preached the Gospel at the risk of their own lives.
Medieval history exhibits for us how godly Christians view and live in the world. And even better, it shows God’s constant provision for his Church: that He continually preserves His people, preaches His Word, and works in real time for our salvation.