Note: This series is intended to be a pocket commentary on How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer. If you’ve worked through the book or video sessions on your own or in a Classical Conversations Challenge II class, I welcome your comments and ideas below! This post covers the second part of Chapter 2, The Medieval World.
When government was good during the Middle Ages, it was very, very good. But when it was bad it was horrid. Why? Because the church had all the power and few checks and balances. Places like monasteries, which began serving with the best of intentions to serve God and take care of the needy, saw the opportunity to make money and instead became wealthy off the backs of those they should have helped. The pope—who carried the highly ironic title Servant of Servants—essentially “served” as the emperor of all Europe between 1100 and 1300.
Not everyone thought this was a good idea or willingly went along. Fights took place along with attempts to bring about some sort of restraint, but lasting change didn’t happen.
Not surprisingly, by getting involved in affairs of state across Europe, the church’s core values shifted and its devotion to biblical Christianity grew more diluted by the year. Remember all the classics the monks salvaged from the wreckage of Rome? The church used these to create a wonder curriculum which lasted for centuries. When taught and studied by strong believers, these ideas nourished and enriched education, just as they had during the time of the Apostle Paul. For others, they became a distraction from biblical truth. The great church scholar Thomas Aquinas put some of Aristotle’s ideas at the same level as the Bible, and they gradually filtered into church doctrine.
The church interacted with the arts in more positive ways. It subsidized art and learning on a grander and grander scale. Charlemagne set the pattern for this during the 800’s, funneling lavish amounts of money to the church for educational and artistic purposes, enabling monks to learn and teach singing, music, handwriting, and reading. Ordinary people still didn’t study these things; they were kept within the church. The art created during this time—jewelry, statues, and embellished books—was almost all religious. Learning belonged to God; art belonged to God. Music, however, belonged to God and man. Inside the church, musicians standardized music and invented Gregorian chant. Outside the church troubadours sang stories to entertain lords, ladies, and common people. By the 1400’s, individual composers became famous and their work remembered.
It makes sense that of all the arts, the church would scrimp at nothing to create…churches. They hired architects and builders who designed and constructed larger than life works of art which defined towns all over Europe. At first these church buildings looked back to Rome for their inspiration (which is why they’re called Romanesque), with magnificent but tidy columns, arches, and triangles. But as the Middle Ages wore on, architects became bolder and more imaginative, and they began to do something absolutely new. Gothic architecture, with its many distinctive windows and flying buttresses, began in France and spread across the continent and to England.
Changes in theology were built into churches for all to see as Romanesque turned into Gothic . Romanesque churches weren’t dedicated to Mary, but French Gothic churches were. As doctrine separated from its biblical foundation, it created the fault lines which would later doom these beautiful buildings and the people who worshipped in them to centuries of strife. During the medieval period, the church sorted itself into the two major categories we still see today: those who look to man for answers to life’s questions and those who believe the Bible has already answered them. The first line of thinking led to the Renaissance. The second way led to the Reformation.
Humanity didn’t suddenly burst into full intellectual flower during the Renaissance. The Middle Ages laid the groundwork for it. Towns grew up and developed. Universities began. For the first time, people used languages they actually spoke in written form, where before writing had been done in Greek and Latin. Merchants created products like textiles on a large scale, preparing the way for industries. All these things put people into larger groups and made them dependent on each other in a way that would lead to the Renaissance.
Francis Schaeffer stresses that the Renaissance wasn’t the rebirth of man; it was the rebirth of a way of thinking about man. This change put man in the center of things—but in some cases, it produced results that didn’t benefit mankind.
For the previous post in this series, click here: