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how has our Christian society changed in the last millenium?

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some Lollards hanging about

some Lollards hanging about

I happen to be reading an enjoyable little book in the ‘brief history’ series, A brief history of life in the middle ages by Martyn Whittock. His focus is England, and he covers a period from around the ninth century through to the fifteenth, but he provides enough interesting data from approximately a millennium ago and onwards to make the above question worth pursuing – with a bit more research too of course.

Australia is generally regarded as a Christian country, but Christianity sure ain’t what it used to be. Generally when talking about the decline of Christianity, pundits refer to the past few decades, but it’s worth taking a much longer view to see just how Christianity is faring compared to what it once was. It’s also convenient that Christianity is around 2000 years old – so going back a thousand years takes us to half its life-span up to now. We don’t know how much longer it will live, but I’m more interested in its ‘quality of life’ compared to what it once was. Is it in a near-vegetative state, or is it still thriving?

Obviously we can’t look at Christianity in Australia 1000 years ago, so England seems the obvious choice as the nation that brought Christianity to this country, so very recently.

Eleventh century England was thoroughly Christian, chockful of powerful bishops and clerics. The Norman conquest had little effect on Christianity generally except that the sees of bishops tended to be relocated to the commercial centres along continental lines, and the continental style of church architecture replaced the Anglo-Saxon, resulting in the loss of virtually all the great Anglo-Saxon churches. Edward the Confessor had already signalled this change before the Norman invasion with his reconstruction of Westminster, but of course after William I’s accession this rebuilding process was a deliberate sign of the new order – an erasing of Anglo-Saxon taste, style, and political influence rather than its version of Christianity.

The Church, undivided as it was then, played a vastly greater role in eleventh century society than it does today. The Church hierarchy, with its higher levels of literacy, played a significant, indeed dominant, role in civil administration, and of course the Church was a major landowner, charged with all the minutiae of running large estates, so that you could be a senior Church official without being in any way engaged in what we see as the domain of Christian workers today – sermons, spirituality and charitable works. The Church was in fact an international administrative network dominated by Rome, and administering estates for two masters in a sense – the ‘local’ royalty or nobility, and the pope. Chancery was run more or less entirely by Church officials until major changes occurred in the early fifteenth century.

It’s probably fair to say that atheism wasn’t even a concept in eleventh century England or Europe. Godlessness might’ve been a term of abuse for those who weren’t sufficiently orthodox, but essentially everyone was Christian, to a degree unthinkable today. One quite small but economically successful religious minority existed, namely the Jews, expelled from England in 1290, and increasingly harassed and oppressed from the mid-twelfth century onwards. The whole nation was divided into parishes, each overseen by a diocesan bishop, over-ruled by two archdioceses, Canterbury, which had seniority, and York. It was expected that everyone in the parish attend mass on Sundays, and on various festival days. A yearly procession called Rogationtide served to remind everyone of the boundaries of their particular parish.

All parishioners paid a tithe of their income to the church. A tithe is literally a tenth, though the amount no doubt varied. The practice originated with Judaism, and has been followed in a variety of ways by Christianity and Islam, as well as in secular terms, though this was caught up in the confusion of medieval views of Church and State, with the monarchy being seen as a quasi-religious inheritance.

In the wealthiest parishes tithes were held in tithe barns, for all to see, but of course there was always tension about this form of taxation, especially if the churches or monasteries and their abbots were displaying conspicuous wealth, as a good part of the tithes were expected to support the needy of the parish.

Of course, as among the religious today, the Church presided over all the Main Events – baptism (for babies), confirmation (for toddlers) and penance (for all the rest), as well as the Eucharist (regularly), marriage, ordination (for many, but only performed by bishops) and extreme unction (for everyone in the end). However it would be wrong to assume that religious belief was uniform, either in thought or practice. It was always changing, over time, and according to many and varied regional influences. Early medieval Christianity interacted with local folk practices, and various trends and fashions had a general impact, such as the rise of the mendicant friar movement, as a response to the perceived or actual corruption of the fixed monastic orders. This movement, largely intended as a return to the simple peripatetic teachings of Jesus, in turn suffered from its own popularity, and eventually became associated with a new form of parasitism. Another major impact on religious thinking in the later medieval period was plague, and the devastation it brought, which led to a darker and more personal relation to the deity among many. Chantry chapels for the burial of the dead were built, with special clergy to deal with the overload, since priests were only allowed by law to say one mass a day.

The concept of the ‘clergy’ in medieval Britain was necessarily vague – to the advantage of offenders against the law. In the 13th and 14th centuries any schoolboy (only boys of course) who achieved some literacy could be given the tonsure, the clerical cut, and wrong-doers could claim ‘benefit of clergy’ if they were literate, the test for which was to recite psalm 51:1 in Latin – ‘ Have mercy on me, Oh God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.’  The verse became known as ‘the neck verse’ presumably because it saved your neck, canon law penalties being much lighter than secular ones. A reaction against this avoidance of proper justice led to the benefit of clergy provision being restricted to minor crimes by the end of the 16th century (when England had broken with Rome). Of course, this controversial relationship between canon and secular law is still a problem today, with the Catholic Church still unable to accept the paramountcy of secular law.

Orthodoxy and its maintenance was a problem, as ever, what with Dominicans (blackfriars), Franciscans (friars minor, or greyfriars), Cistercians, Carmelites (whitefriars), and other assorted monks, nuns, canons, priors, churchwardens etc roaming the land or administering estates and distributing finances (at least 20% of all land was owned by the Church in the late middle ages), not to mention anchorites and mystical eccentrics such as Margery Kempe keeping the pot stirred. The Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Lollard movement, both led by religious figures and both savagely repressed, gave an indication of the tenuous hold of religious authority in times of stress, but again these movements never threatened Christianity and were aimed at reinforcing it through renovation.

And then came the great church schism that fueled the genocidal treatment of the Catholic Irish, not to mention the Thirty Years War in middle-Europe and the English civil war…

As a lover of history I could go on and on, but the essential point is clear. We’ve never lived in a more secular age, nowhere near it. We can easily live our lives without interference from Christianity, to a degree that was impossible even 200 years ago let alone 1000. A situation which certainly gives added perspective to such recent apologist texts as The Twilight of Atheism.

Here in Australia, voted the happiest country in the world for the 3rd year in a row by the Paris-based OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the rise of the nones is as spectacularly speedy as it is anywhere else. And it seems to me there are great historical reasons for embracing secularism. The current approach of the Catholic Church with respect to canon law and the behaviour of its clergy is an example, but one just has to look at those states where the churches, mosques, synagogues etc have political power, and compare them to those where religion plays little or no political role. Compare also the Europe and England of today with the pre-Enlightenment versions, when the official language was God-saturated but when the kind of justice we now take for granted was in very short supply. It’s taken a long time, and the situation continues patchy, but Aristotelian empiricism, so far as ethics is concerned, is winning out.

There’s no turning back. It seems to me that, as far as Christianity is concerned, it’s the long, long fade-out.

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Written by stewart henderson

December 2, 2013 at 5:02 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] decades, but you get an even better perspective if you look back over centuries, as I roughly did here. And it would be hard to deny that, as religion has loosened its grip, both politically and […]

  2. […] written before about taking the long view. We tend to be impatient, understandably, for our lives are short, and we’re keen to see […]


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