If I were to choose a leitmotif for the early Middle Ages in England, it would most certainly be unity. The quest for unity is perhaps what most characterized its endeavors in the realms of ethics, aesthetics, religion, and academics. They approached all of these with the assumption that Christianity is the great reconciler of God and man, Christ being ‘the image of the invisible God” through whom and for whom “all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.” These Christians believed that through “the blood of his cross,” Christ brings peace, reconciling all things on heaven and earth. In many ways, peace was scarce for them amidst the political and social upheavals after the fall of Rome. Disorder and fragmentation met them everywhere. It is remarkable (and heartening) that despite this, they persevered and eventually prevailed in bringing about stability and progress.
As in their moral lives, medieval scholars operated under the assumption that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it (2 Cor. 3). Anglo-Saxons Christians loved unity and order. Perhaps the upheaval of the times, the rapidly rising, falling, and fragmenting of kingdoms and countries, stimulated a passion for order that might have otherwise been absent. Perhaps it was the presence of “huge masses of heterogeneous material,” fragments of a more civilized and advanced time that they inherited after the fall of Rome. Regardless, they operated upon these principles of finding unity and order and this led them to become extraordinary synthesizers. In his book The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis writes that “At his most characteristic, medieval man was … an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems.” He wanted “place for everything and everything in the right place.” From the “chance collection” of translations that had reached down through the centuries from Athens, they had “a corpus that frequently contradicted itself.” Yet instead of taking the modern route of accepting one authority at the expense of another, the medieval mind delighted in harmonizing the apparent contradictions – even between Christians and pagans. All truth was God’s truth to them, even that which came from pagan cultures. Though the forces of fragmentation may be different in modern times, we can still learn from their ability to create harmony across disciplines. Indeed, the fragmentation of our moral lives extends into all areas of culture, including our academics, arts, and sciences. We set reason high “on the soul’s acropolis,” as C.S. Lewis writes in his poem “Reason,” consigning the imagination with her “dim exploring touch” to seemingly impassable depths. As we enter a post-Christian era, we can learn from the medieval church’s ability to bring together all of the disciplines into “a complex unity that encompassed all of time and space,” leaving out nothing, thus revealing the grandeur of God.
Canterbury Cathedral in Canterbury, Kent, is one of the oldest and most famous Christian structures in England.
Founded in 597, completely rebuilt from 1070 to 1077.
England of the fifth century A.D. was a society in flux, in which stability was a scarce resource amidst upheaval and unrest. Centuries of conflict had fallen upon the small island as the final cadences of Pax Romana expired, giving way to barbarian invasions from the North. It was a time in which many cultures were colliding, consorting, and clashing. Chaos was the order of the day, and England was decidedly post-Christian. The few Christians that remained struggled to protect the moral life of their dwindling community whilst carrying out the task of evangelizing an often hostile pagan culture. Modern western Christians might resonate with these realities, for they are not far from what we experience today. In his recent book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, Rod Dreher writes that though we are not threatened physically from barbarians taking advantage of the loss of Roman protection, we are threatened nonetheless with the moral chaos left over in a society in which Christianity is no longer an effective stabilizing force. He proposes that modern Christians should look back to our medieval brothers and sisters to learn how they were able to protect and pass on Christian culture despite the turbulent times in which they lived. He contends that “we need to embed ourselves in stable communities of faith” modeled after the medieval monasteries, in particular. The potential to learn from the Benedictines is great indeed, for many of their organizing principles, with emphases on order, prayer, and community, in addition to the practical balance struck between inward and outward focus, provide important (and convicting ) correctives for modern Christians who have lost their way in the darkness. The effectiveness of the Benedict Option will depend upon the willingness of Christians to resist the fragmenting forces of modernity, taking stock where we have uncritically absorbed its ethos of individualism, and, like the communities of our medieval counterparts, the communities we form must be willing to submit to oversight and wise counsel if these are to be protected from the numerous ways in which they can succumb to the dark.
“We are delighted to know about the ignorance of medievalism,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in The Illustrated London News in 1906, but “we are contented to be ignorant about its knowledge.” Our ignorance is perhaps best betrayed by the continuance of the term “the dark ages” in our imaginations when we consider the time period spanning from the fall of the Rome (about 410 A.D.) to the start of the Renaissance (1485 A.D.). The image of darkness persists despite the fact that “this derogatory opinion … has now been almost totally abandoned by professional historians in favor of the neutral view that takes ‘Middle Ages’ simply as the name of a period in Western history, during which distinctive and important contributions to Western culture were made,” writes historian David C. Lindberg in his book The Beginnings of Western Science. Every age has its myths, even our modern one, and none is more entrenched than the belief that this period, which saw a flourishing of Christianity in the West, was one of oppression and ignorance, in which blind faith supplanted reason in all areas of life. It is as if the Renaissance arose out of the medieval vacuum, creating itself from nothing, a cosmic singularity, unleashing Reason from the vise-grip of autocratic bishops and malicious monks. A more accurate picture is what is sought here. Who were these medieval believers and what lessons might modern Christians living in a post-Christian culture learn from them with regards to preserving and perpetuating the faith in a rapidly changing society? Looking specifically at England, I contend that we have much to learn, from the stabilizing force of the monastery, with its community structured around the Divine commission to love God and neighbor, to the ways in which medieval Christians respected, protected, and preserved the past. In the end, a more accurate picture should emerge out of the darkness that shrouds the time. Perhaps then we will be recalled to the reality that we are indebted to the medievals for many of our modern institutions: “that Parliaments are medieval, that all our Universities are medieval, that city corporations are medieval, that gunpowder and printing are medieval, that half the things by which we now live, and to which we look for progress, are medieval.”
Wisdom from the early Medieval Christians of England:
Ethics: The Rule of St Benedict and Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option for Modern Christians in a Post-Christian Culture
Scholarship: Medieval Synthesis and Modern Fragmentation
Conclusion: Unity and Humility
Why must we strive to enact spiritual discipline in our personal lives as Christians? Because at the present time, whether we realize it or not, we are in a battle. When we became Christians, we entered into an ancient war, waged from before we can remember. Add to this the reality that we don’t get to fight the way our opponent fights. Ours is not the easier task to destroy. The marching orders are to build up and pass on, not by force, but through loving God and neighbor.
And, if we are not advancing, we are in retreat, for our enemy never rests.
C.S. Lewis said it best in his book, Mere Christianity:
One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.
Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening–in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going. He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery. I know someone will ask me, ‘Do you really mean, at this time of day, to re-introduce our old friend the devil-—hoofs and horns and all?’ Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is ‘Yes, I do. I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance. If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person. ‘Don’t worry. If you really want to, you will. Whether you’ll like it when you do is another question.’