Friday, March 8, 2013


Centurion's Daughter marks the very beginnings of western Christendom, a civilisation that would reach fruition in the Middle Ages before changing into modern European culture that eventually became the world culture.

But what exactly is meant by 'Christendom'? It's a question worth answering since our conception of Christendom and Mediaeval civilisation is almost inevitably a caricature. The world we live in now is so fundamentally different from the world as it was then that it is very, very difficult to grasp the thinking of people of that time. One automatically conjures up a picture of religious intolerance, bigoted narrow-mindedness and backwardness, all mixed with a propensity for violence and a low respect for life. It's the backdrop of nearly all the big Mediaeval movies (oh, yes, and they hadn't discovered soap either).

The truth is different. I can pick out a few things from the society of Christendom that set it apart from the world we live in now, but which do not add up to a straw man.

1. Social institutions respected and actively upheld the people's deepest convictions.

The secular state did not exist. It was inconceivable that the government and legal system should not support the beliefs and moral values of the majority of the population. This applied everywhere, not just in Christian Europe. Contrary to popular conception, religious minorities were rarely persecuted for their religion. They were left with their own beliefs provided they did nothing to disturb the social order built on the religion of the majority. That included proselytising, which inevitably led to religious civil war. The Inquisition was actually set up not to torture Protestants or Jews, but to prevent the social fabric from being ripped apart, something which happened when a heterodox movement took root in a region. Once it had gained converts it inevitably raised an army. The idea of accepting a government that did not actively endorse the beliefs and moral values of its citizens was simply unthinkable. That came later.

2. There was no such thing as social climbing.

One of the lynchpins of modern society is the belief in material success. The idea that with hard work, positive thinking and the right skills one can rise up the ladder of a society in which social prestige is built exclusively on wealth. That didn't exist then. True, social prestige did to a large extent depend on wealth, but wealth could only be born into; it could not be made by fair means or foul. Which meant that the acquisition of money was not a primary objective of life. Other things had more importance. Looking after one's family or fulfilling ordinary obligations were honourable in themselves. For the wealthy class the notion of chivalry took hold, using one's wealth and power to protect the less fortunate, not prey on them. In a word, there was a sense of place, staying where one belonged and doing one's job in one's slot in the world. Sure, there was always room for greed and ambition since mediaeval society, like modern society, was composed of humans, but the fundamental outlook was different.

3. Material improvement was not a priority

Christendom was a highly conservative society, which meant that technologically very little changed for centuries after the fall of Rome. The Mediaevals did things the way their fathers had done them and did not try to find ingenious ways of doing them better. I put it down largely to something which the Mediaevals understood and we have somehow forgotten - the fact that there is no cure for death. We live, if we are lucky, seventy or eighty years, then we die. Everything we have built up in this life we will lose at death. We will be torn away from our possessions, occupations, social prestige, projects, friends, family, everything. All these things in themselves do not matter. They only matter inasmuch as they have a bearing on a future existence that will not end. It is only when the idea arose that this life is all we have and we must make the best of it, that the impetus was given to material improvement. Today the drive for material improvement is all-encompassing and it is killing us. The Mediaevals had no notion of it.

Was Christendom a better system than the one we have now? One thing it did do at least was to prevent the nightmarish excesses of a secular system in which power is ultimately under no moral constraint.  The Holocaust, the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, the World War are children of the secular world, not of the Mediaeval. Compare about 4,000 executions by the Spanish Inquisition in its 350 years existence with 6,000,000 Jews over four years and 10,000,000 Kulaks over two. These horrors could not have arisen in the Middle Ages.

The question ultimately is a moot one. The ideas of religion as having a public as well as a private aspect, life as a sense of place, and contentment with a modest material lifestyle, are long gone. We are seculars to a greater or lesser degree and have no choice but to make the best we can of a secular world.


  1. I disagree with the sentiment that social climbing was not possible in the Middle Ages, as there are examples of people who did rise through the ranks. One notable example was the Pastons, who originally started off as peasants in the fourteenth century, but one Clement Paston made money by buying land, and was able afford to give his son a decent and a higher education.
    This son became a prominent lawyer, and within two or three generations his descendants had risen to the rank of the landed gentry, and even retainers of the King and of the nobility.

    Another example was Geoffrey Chaucer- the son of a wine merchant, his great-great grandson was the heir of Richard III. Another Merchant's son who rose through the ranks was Thomas Becket and I believe the only known English Pope was of humble origins.

    Its even speculated that the Godwin family (of whom King Harold II hailed) might have been of rather lowly stock originally. So it was possible for people to rise through the ranks of Medieval society through service to or the favour of a great lord, through their own talents and efforts, or through the acquisition of land and money.

  2. Nice to get a comment, even if it's to disagree!

    My post had in mind the earlier Middle Ages, post Roman Empire to about the twelfth century or so, when towns were relatively small and virtually everyone lived on the land. Even then, granted, a certain amount of vertical movement was possible. Churchill's comment "All generalisations are false, including my last statement" applies here. The point is that there was relatively little vertical movement in Mediaeval society (or at least in earlier Mediaeval society) compared to today.

    Feel free to comment again.Disagreements welcome :-)

    1. Good to see someone who doesn't shy away from healthy argument, and is not afraid of people disagreeing. I tend to say that people are welcome to disagree with my reviews and posts- provided they are non insulting or abusive- which is not to say things can't get heated. I'm a history gradate- we thrive on argument!

      I agree with the sentiment that different ways of doing things in the past, their different ways of understanding the abstract and elementary aspects of life and human society were not necessarily bad.
      For instance, many people seem to think that Reason was not something that Medieval people embraced, preferring blind faith and superstition.
      Yet my own research demonstrates that Medieval thinkers and academics did believe in and embrace reason- but had a different understanding of it. As I understand it, in the Medieval perspective, reason was not the antithesis of faith (as per the post-enlightenment interpretation) but a gift from God that men could use to understand and interpret the world around them and the wider universe.

    2. 'Yet my own research demonstrates that Medieval thinkers and academics did believe in and embrace reason- but had a different understanding of it. As I understand it, in the Medieval perspective, reason was not the antithesis of faith (as per the post-enlightenment interpretation) but a gift from God that men could use to understand and interpret the world around them and the wider universe.'

      Exactly. The mediaeval intellectuals respected everything we understand by the term 'clear thinking'. They could tell when something was proven or not proven. We can criticise them on two counts only: a) they respected the conclusions of earlier authorities without necessarily proving these authorities were right, and b) in the realm of physics and biology they did not have the scientific method and so got a lot of things wrong.

      What is interesting is that we commit exactly the same faults today. As a wargamer, I have an interest in certain aspects of history, and have come to realise that many academically established opinions are built on fresh air. ALL primary sources, for example, affirm that the Achaemenid Persian Empire fielded huge armies, in the order of hundreds of thousands or even millions. This is rejected today, not because it is disproven, but simply because Academia has decided not to accept it. Yet we believe the rejection for the same reason the Mediaevals believed the biology of Aristotle - because it is an argument of authority. What applies to Achaemenid Persia applies to an awful lot of other subjects, not necessarily confined to history either.

    3. I think this a somewhat difficult position for me, as I know or am acquainted with personally a number of academic historians. They can be wrong, and sometimes academic orthodoxy is not necessarily correct- I admit that I personally have harbored doubts about the tendency to reject historical reports of the large size of armies.
      That said, there may be some basis for the lower estimates given by academics. In the Anglo-Saxon age for instance a group of 20 or more men could be counted as an 'army', so a battle could consist of fewer than 100 participants. Also, a good historian ought to take account of such things as logistics and population demographics, and I do I think academics get something of a bad rap.

      Most are academically honest and try to do their best with the resources they have available, and follow the evidence as far as they can. If they accept something which is dubious, there's usually a reason for it, because it seems the most plausible explanation- or perhaps because the archeology does not support the opposite position.

      Time and new discoveries may overturn what is known now, but academics are still intelligent people who do vital work- and most I think are open-minded.

      I agree in part with your points about Medieval Aristotelian-ism, however. Many do not seem to realize that heliocentrism was the academic Orthodoxy of its day, and that this notion actually originated from ancient Greek cosmology, which was the basis of Medieval Cosmology. Rather, many seem to wrongfully think this notion comes from the Bible. and do not realize how slavishly Medieval thinkers followed Aristotle- a practice which may have held back scientific progress.

      One book I would recommend on this subject is 'God's Philosopher's' by James Hannam. The only serious diagreement I had was his view of Medicine in the Middle Ages- as according to a medical historian I've learned under its absurd to think that physicians were just allowed to freely go about poisoning people or bleeding them to death. Nor were Medieval surgeons as useless as is widely thought- Henry V's surgeon Thomas Bradmore was an example of medical competence who saved Henry's life when he was Prince of Wales .

      As to your comment on my blog (if you don't receive notification), I would be happy to review your book. I have been sorely disappointed that I did not get the Kindle edition when it was going free last week.