Does the general picture of medieval Europe support the belief that religion makes for morality?

Our general impression suggests a wider gap between moral theory and practice in the Middle Ages than in other epochs of civilization. Medieval Christendom was apparently as rich as our own irreligious age in sensuality, violence, drunkenness, cruelty, coarseness, profanity, greed, robbery, dishonesty, and fraud. It seems to have outdone our time in the enslavement of individuals, but not to have rivaled it in the economic enslavement of colonial areas or defeated states. It surpassed us in the subjection of women; it hardly equaled us in immodesty, fornication, and adultery, or in the immensity and murderousness of war. Compared with the Roman Empire from Nerva to Aurelius, medieval Christendom was a moral setback; but much of the Empire had in Nerva’s day enjoyed many centuries of civilization, while the Middle Ages, through most of their duration, represented a struggle between Christian morality and a virile barbarism that largely ignored the ethics of the religion whose theology it indifferently received. The barbarians would have called some of their vices virtues, as necessary to their time: their violence as the other side of courage, their sensuality as animal health, their coarse and direct speech, and their shameless talk about natural things, as no worse than the introverted prudery of our youth.

It would be an easy matter to condemn medieval Christendom from the mouths of its own moralists. St. Francis bemoaned the thirteenth century as “these times of superabundant malice and iniquity”;146 Innocent III, St. Bonaventura, Vincent of Beauvais, Dante considered the morals of that “wonderful century” to be dishearteningly gross; and Bishop Grosseteste, one of the most judicious prelates of the age, told the pope that “the Catholic population, as a body, was incorporate with the Devil.”147 Roger Bacon (1214?-94) judged his time with characteristic hyperbole:

Never was so much ignorance…. Far more sins reign in these days than in any past age… boundless corruption… lechery… gluttony…. Yet we have baptism and the revelation of Christ… which men cannot really believe in or revere, or they would not allow themselves to be so corrupted…. Therefore many wise men believe that Antichrist is at hand, and the end of the world.148

Such passages, of course, are the exaggerations necessary to reformers, and could be matched in any age.

Apparently the fear of hell had less effect in raising the moral level than the fear of public opinion or the law has now—or had then; but the public opinion, and in a measure the law, had been formed by Christianity. Probably the moral chaos, born of half a millennium of invasion, war, and devastation, would have been far worse without the moderating effect of the Christian ethic. Our selection of instances in this chapter may have been unwittingly biased; at best they are fragmentary; statistics are lacking or unreliable; and history always leaves out the average man. There must have been, in medieval Christendom, thousands of good and simple people like Fra Salimbene’s mother, whom he describes as “a humble lady and devout, fasting much, and gladly dispensing alms to the poor”;149 but how often do such women make the pages of history?

Christianity brought some moral retrogressions and some moral advances. The intellectual virtues naturally declined in the Age of Faith; intellectual conscience (fairness with the facts) and the search for truth were replaced by zeal and admiration for sanctity, and a sometimes unscrupulous piety; “pious frauds” of textual doctoring and documentary forgery seemed negligible venial sins. The civic virtues suffered from concentration on the afterlife, but more from the disintegration of the state; nevertheless there must have been some patriotism, however local, in the men and women who built so many cathedrals and some lordly town halls. Perhaps hypocrisy, so indispensable to civilization, increased in the Middle Ages as compared with the frank secularism of antiquity, or the unabashed corporate brutality of our time.

Against these and other debits many credits stand. Christianity struggled with heroic tenacity against an inundation of barbarism. It labored to diminish war and feud, trial by combat or ordeal; it extended the intervals of truce and peace, and sublimated something of feudal violence and pugnacity into devotion and chivalry. It suppressed the gladiatorial shows, denounced the enslavement of prisoners, forbade the enslavement of Christians, ransomed numberless captives, and encouraged—more than it practiced—the emancipation of serfs. It taught men a new respect for human life and work. It stopped infanticide, lessened abortion, and softened the penalties exacted by Roman and barbarian law. It steadfastly rejected the double standard in sexual morality. It immensely expanded the scope and operations of charity. It gave men peace of mind against the baffling riddles of the universe, though at the cost of discouraging science and philosophy. Finally, it taught men that patriotism unchecked by a higher loyalty is a tool of mass greed and crime. Over all the competing cities and petty states of Europe it established and maintained one moral law. Under its guidance, and at some necessary sacrifice of liberty, Europe achieved for a century that international morality for which it prays and struggles today—a law that shall raise states out of their jungle code, and free the energies of men for the battles and victories of peace.

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