The medieval world conjures up all sorts of images, but it’s the unusual ones that often stick in our minds: a woman kneeling at a saint’s shrine, groups whipping themselves, monks wearing hair shirts—and on it goes.

Yet in spite of what seems eccentric to us, medieval Europe was a thoroughly Christian culture, and as such, it’s a culture we should be able to understand, and one whose legacies we should be able to appreciate.

To talk about the “age of faith,” Christian History spoke with John Van Engen, professor of history and head of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

Christian History: What are some of the greatest misunderstandings modern Christians have about medieval religion?

John Van Engen: First, they assume that Catholicism was a monolithic system, from pope down to individuals, and that it was this way for a thousand years. But from a.d. 500 to 1517, European Catholicism underwent enormous changes; there were periods of centralization and of decentralization.

Furthermore, in a world that had poor transportation, no televisions, and no telephones, the idea of a pope handing out orders that would be obeyed at the local level everywhere—well, that’s something of a dream. When you think about medieval religion, you have to think in regional terms: Catholicism in southern France, in England, in northern Italy, and so on. Though the vast majority of Christians shared the same beliefs and some common forms of worship, there was great diversity in the Middle Ages.

Second, a great many moderns think medieval religion is mostly about “superstition,” e.g., the cult of the saints, and people crossing themselves repeatedly.

Why are such misunderstandings so common?

Our image of the Middle ...

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