Continuities from the early Middle Ages

The Protestant Reformation is the natural place at which to end the history of medieval Christendom. In suggesting that its real beginning is most usefully dated only a few centuries earlier, there is a risk of underestimating the importance of the early medieval period in the history of Christianity. It should therefore be stressed that the origins of 'Christendom' as understood here can be traced far back into the early medieval past, so that there is something to be said for a sort of 'Whig interpretation' of Christendom's history as a progress (in terms of the system's own rationality, which the historian does not have to like personally) from adumbrations and anticipations to institutional and ideological realization. Four such long-term developing continuities may be singled out from the complexities in the body of the article. One, obviously, was papal authority. The papacy's high profile in the last four or five medieval centuries is foreshadowed by its role in the theological disputes of the Greek East in the early Middle Ages, and in the organization of missions to England and Germany. In the early Middle Ages the papacy was imperceptible as a factor in everyday religious life, but periodic episodes anticipate what would later become the routine exercise of religious sovereignty. Second, there was the effort to Christianize the mass of the population; for although it is possible that the majority of people had only the haziest grasp of their religion before the later thirteenth century, the programme of instruction which we find in Charlemagne's 'General Admonition' of 789 makes the same clear, simple, articulate statement of fundamental beliefs which we meet much later in thirteenth-century synodal legislation and priests' manuals. It is even possible that baptism ritual and the instruction of godparents kept some understanding of the creed and Lord's Prayer alive between the Carolingian reforms and the central Middle Ages. Third, early medieval society was a 'society orientated towards death', to borrow a phrase associated with the waning of the Middle Ages. One may trace a line from massive commemorations of the dead in the eighth century and after to the chantries and multiplication of masses for the dead in the later Middle Ages. Finally, the apostolic ideal which informed the spirituality of both dissident and orthodox religious movements in the central and later Middle Ages may well have grown out of the quite special prominence given to feasts of the apostles in the early medieval liturgy, from the tenth century if not before. Even supposing that most lay people never heard an extended verbal explanation of Christian beliefs in the early Middle Ages, they would have known that apostles were something special, if their feasts were celebrated by holidays from work.

This last suggestion may be broadened out into a more general consideration. The structure of the liturgical year, with its imprecise but powerful messages about Christianity, was a common factor linking the different periods of medieval religion, but it was not exclusive to the medieval period. In its main lines it goes back to the Roman period, and much of it survived in Protestantism (in the Lutheran Church and the Church of England at any rate). Deep currents of liturgical practice and sentiment flow beneath the tides and waves of religious history.

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