Middle Ages

The Writings of the Angelic Doctor

On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. James Dolezal joins Dr. Stephen Nichols in the studio to discuss the breadth and depth of Thomas Aquinas’ writings.

The Venerable Bede

On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols introduces us to one of the first church historians: the Venerable Bede.

Peter Lombard

Last week on Five Minutes in Church History we looked at the Abbey at St. Victor and I mentioned one of the famous Medieval figures who studied there, Peter Lombard. Well, on this week we’ll just focus on Peter Lombard. He’s not to be confused with the Italian sculptor Pietro Lombardo. Pietro, he designed, among many other things, the tomb of Dante. This Peter Lombard was Italian just like Pietro, but he was not a sculptor. Instead, he was a Theologian. And when he started his life out in Italy he ended up in Paris. After his early studies, Peter Lombard taught at the Cathedral School at Notre Dame and also, as we learned, he spent some time at the Abbey at the School at St. Victor. He was born in 1095 and he died in 1160. From 1155 to 1158, just shortly before his death, he wrote his magnum opus, the Four Books of Sentences. These are indeed four books. The first one he entitled The Trinity, the second he titled The Creation in Sin, the third is The Incarnation and the Virtues, and the fourth is The Sacraments and the Four Last Things.

These were instantly well received and throughout the Medieval Ages there were many commentaries written on them by leading lights including the leading light, Thomas Aquinas. By 1222, the fourth Lateran Council declared them mandatory for the curriculum. And it was just a few years after that that one of the professors at the University of Paris, Alexander of Hales used Lombard instead of the Bible. He replaced the Bible with Lombard as the textbook and many followed suit. That was true right on down to Luther’s day. When Luther was working through his doctorate in Theology, and this was actually his second doctorate, he had his first doctorate in Jurisprudence and then worked his way through a Bachelors, and Masters, and a Doctorate in Biblical Studies and Theology. One of his qualifying exams concerned Peter Lombard’s The Sentences. Luther had to master it and be able to recite it in order to qualify for his doctorate. And after he received that in the Fall of 1509, he was at Erfurt and tasked with his first assignment to lecture through Theology. And this was his textbook. And Luther’s personal volume of Lombard’s Sentences survives down to this day. The volume is full of lengthy marginal notes and we assume these notes were the basis of his lectures. Well, while Luther had to study it, and while he lectured from it, very quickly Luther is going to come to disagree with it.

In one of the books – book four on the Sacraments – Peter Lombard lays out for us, the church at that time, the Roman Catholic Church’s view on the Sacraments. And in chapter one he tells us, first of all, the number of the Sacraments. And so, as I read them, keep track. He says, “Now let us approach the sacraments of the new law which are Baptism, Confirmation, the Bread of Blessing (that is, the Eucharist), Penance, Extreme Unction, Orders, and Marriage.” Now, that’s seven. In the Protestant world we’re used to two. They are, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Here’s seven. What’s also telling is not just the number, but the understanding of the Sacraments. And a little bit later in the book, what Peter Lombard tells us is that the Sacraments are a second plank after the shipwreck of Adam’s Fall. The first plank is Baptism. And this is what Lombard said, “the first plank is Baptism whereby the old man is put off and the new man put on. And the second plank is Penance by which we raise ourselves again after a fall.” His view is that at Baptism we are made new creatures through the Sacrament of Baptism. And then, as we live our lives and we sin, those are like spots on our new garments, as it were. So, along comes the Sacrament of Penance to remove those spots form our garments.

Well, as Luther was looking at Peter Lombard, then he started looking at Augustine, and then he started looking at Scripture and he began to see some discontinuity between what he had learned from Peter Lombard and what he had learned in the Scriptures. And one of the first books Luther writes is the Babylonian Captivity of the Church and he challenges head-on Lombard’s view of the Sacraments.

The Abbey of St. Victor, Paris

The Abbey of St. Victor in Paris was founded around 1108. It began as an Augustinian community, and a number of very famous medieval people made their way through the abbey. Thomas Becket studied there. He was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, so that’s a fascinating story. Peter Lombard spent some time there. He would come to be the author of the Four Books of Sentences, a standard medieval textbook on theology. It was the book that Martin Luther had to study and master. We’re going to look at three key figures who had a long association with the abbey. They’re all from the 1100s, and they are Hugh of St. Victor, Richard of St. Victor, and Adam of St. Victor.

Hugh was born around 1096 in Saxony. He made his way to Paris and died there in 1141. From 1120 through 1140, he was master of the school at St. Victor. He gets credit for books he likely didn’t write; they were probably written anonymously by others in the abbey and were later attributed to him. But one book that we know he did write was his book on the sacraments. In this book, he starts by talking about why we need the sacraments. The first line says, “Man’s first sin was pride.” From that first sin came three consequences—death, depravity of the flesh, and depravity of the mind. So far, Hugh of St. Victor is rather Augustinian in his outlook, and when he turns to Christ, he remains Augustinian. This is what he says:

From our nature he took a victim for our nature that the whole burnt offering to be offered up for us might come from that which is ours. In other words, this Redeemer, Christ, had to be us; had to be flesh; had to be truly human. This he did in order that the redemption might have to do with us by this very fact that the offering had to be taken from that which is ours. We are truly made partakers of this redemption if we, through faith, are united to the Redeemer Himself who, through the flesh, entered into fellowship with us.

We also have Richard of St. Victor. Richard was born in Scotland and also made his way to Paris. From 1162 until 1173, he was head of the abbey at St. Victor. He died there in 1173. He is classified as a mystic, but he also wanted to systematize and bring a structure to mysticism. Among his many books was a book on the Trinity. He opens that book by talking about the three ways we have of knowing: by experience, by reason, and by believing. He continues, “The main things we know, or the main reason we can know, is by faith, by believing. That is first.”

Finally, there is Adam of St. Victor. He was a theologian too, but he was also a poet. Let’s just end with a stanza from one of his poems. “Here the world’s perpetual warfare holds from heaven the soul apart; Legioned foes in shadowy terror vex the Sabbath of the heart. O how happy that estate where delight doth not abate! For that home the spirit yearneth where none languisheth nor mourneth.”

Trending in the 14th Century

In the past, we have looked at what would be the big events of a century, the events that, if there had been a social media buzz, would have been “trending” in that century. So, in the fourteenth century, what would the buzz be about?

Let’s begin with three honorable mentions. The first—and I’m just throwing this in because I think it’s fascinating—is Władysław I, who was the ruler in Poland for thirteen years. What’s fascinating about Władysław I is what he was called more popularly, which was “Elbow-high.” I’m not sure what that is all about; it might have had to do with his shortness of stature. The second honorable mention is the Hundred Years’ War. This war was actually more than a hundred years long; it spanned 116 years, from 1337 to 1453. It involved England and France, and I guess if you had to pick a winner, it would be France. One of the results of the Hundred Years’ War was more wars, as it led to the War of the Roses in England. This involved the House of Lancaster, symbolized by the red rose, and the House of York, symbolized by the white rose. And the third honorable mention is the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which we call the Black Plague. One-third of all people in Europe were taken by the Black Plague between 1347 and 1351.

Well, those are the honorable mentions. We have three other events that were the true trending events. The first was the Avignon Papacy; it stretched from 1309 all the way to 1377. There was a dispute at one of the conclaves—the gathering of the cardinals to choose the next pope—and out of that dispute, Clement V was elected pope, but he did not want to move to Rome. So, he simply set up the papal palace in Avignon. In total, seven popes, all French, reigned from Avignon and not from Rome.

A second thing that was trending in the fourteenth century is some good literature. We have Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales and Dante and his Divine Comedy of Purgatorio, Inferno, and Paradiso. What’s interesting about these authors is that they wrote in their native language—Chaucer in English and Dante in Italian. Most of the writing up to this time was in Latin, so this is the beginning of literature in these languages and in one sense the beginning of the cultures of these places.

And we’ve saved our best for last: our friend John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was also interested in getting literature into the English language and he was interested in getting the finest of all literature into the English language, and that, of course, is the Bible. He worked not from the original Greek and Hebrew but from the Latin, but he labored to turn that Latin text into a text that could be understood by the masses. So, he produced an early translation of the Bible into English. He died of natural causes, but that didn’t stop the church from later condemning him as a heretic, digging up his body, and burning his bones.

The $14 Million Book

A $14 million book sounds expensive, right? Believe it or not, that’s not the most expensive book of all time. That honor goes to Leonardo Da Vinci’s codex, a seventy-two-page notebook that sold for $30.8 million at auction; it was purchased by Bill Gates. There are other books that are pretty expensive too. In 1987, a Gutenberg Bible went up for auction at $5 million, and if you have $6 million just lying around and you don’t know what to do with it, you could purchase a first folio of Shakespeare. There have been some other medieval manuscripts that have gone for significant money. There was a text called The Gospels of Henry the Lion. Henry the Lion was the Duke of Saxony. He commissioned this particular edition of the Gospels; it was a very elaborate book with a very elaborate cover. He commissioned it for the altar at the Brunswick Cathedral in Germany. It’s a twelfth-century manuscript of the four Gospels and it sold for $11 million.

But the book we’re talking about is known as the St. Cuthbert Gospel. This is a book from the late seventh or early eighth century. It’s a rather simple book. It’s only five and a half inches by three and a half inches, and it has a stamped leather cover over a wooden board binding. Its pages are cord bound and its pages are vellum. Vellum was a bit of a technological advance over papyrus; it is the skin of animals, in this case calfskin. Vellum is very durable and very smooth and it provides a great surface for writing. This particular text is a gospel of John. It was found in 1104 inside the coffin of Cuthbert.

Now, who was Cuthbert and why were they looking in his coffin? Cuthbert was a monk and also bishop in the Lindisfarne area of England and he died in 687. He was buried at the monastery at Lindisfarne. When the Vikings came along, they took all sorts of things from Lindisfarne, including Cuthbert’s coffin. It was finally returned and ended up being installed at the Durham Cathedral in 1104. When his coffin was opened, tucked away inside there was this little, leather gospel of John—the St. Cuthbert Gospel.

The book sort of disappeared from that point. It was in personal hands until the 1700s, when it ended up in a Jesuit monastery in Belgium. In 2012, the British Library purchased it for £9 million, or $14 million. You can see the book at the British Library site. There is actually a CT scan of it on the site and every single page is digitized.

The text is laid out in a single column, and it is very simple. The scribe was very careful. Occasionally, there is an adorned capital letter, and sometimes you will find a letter painted in red. It begins simply, “In principio erat Verbum”—“In the beginning was the Word.” There are no chapters, there are no verse numbers, there is no table of contents; it just starts right in and goes right through the gospel of John. There are nice margins, and there is a clean crisp text.

This text is Europe’s oldest intact book, and so it reminds us of the beginning of book publishing, which of course at that time was done carefully by hand. But it also reminds us of the role that the Gospels have played and it reminds us of the role that the gospel of John has played in the history of the church.

So, there we have it—a $14 million book. And what’s fascinating about that book, of course, is the content, because in there are not just simply words of value; there are words of eternal value.

Dear Khan,

In the 1230s and 1240s, the Mongol armies were raiding Russian towns and cities. These armies even made their way into modern-day Poland and Hungary. They did more raiding than occupying territory—they would come and take what they could and leave a lot of death and carnage in their wake, and then they’d move on. It left Eastern Europe and Russia unsettled and it started a panic through the rest of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. And that is when the pope got involved.

Innocent IV was pope from 1243 to 1254. Right after he became pope, he called a church council. The council was held at the town of Lyon, France, in 1244. The main issue of the council was reining in the Holy Roman Emperor. At the time, it was Frederick II, and he had overstepped his bounds as far as the church was concerned. So, the pope and all the bishops and the cardinals gathered in Lyon to move against Frederick, and ended up ordering him deposed and excommunicated.

That was the domestic issue at the time, and Innocent, perhaps emboldened by his success there, thought he could then engage in foreign affairs. So, he sent off a letter with some emissaries to the Great Khan, leader of the Mongols. The Khan at the time was Güyük Khan. He was the grandson of Genghis Khan and he was the one responsible for the raids into Poland and Hungary. The pope wanted to put an end to this. He sent some Benedictine monks with the letter. They traveled more than three thousand miles, and it took them more than eighteen months to get to the Mongol camp. And when they finally did get there, they were kept waiting for another few months before they finally had their audience with the Great Khan.

In his letter, Innocent said, “It is not without cause that we are driven to express in strong terms our amazement that you, as we have heard, have invaded many countries belonging both to Christians and others and are laying them waste in a horrible desolation.” He went on to say, “We, therefore, following the example of the King of Peace and desiring that all men should live united in concord in the fear of God, do admonish, beg, and earnestly beseech all of you that for the future you desist entirely from assaults of this kind and especially from the persecution of Christians and that after so many and such grievous offenses you conciliate by a fitting penance the wrath of divine majesty.” Innocent continued by saying that God is a just God, that God is an avenging God, and that the Great Khan should be careful because he is putting himself at the risk of the judgment of God.

The Great Khan sent a letter back to the pope, wherein he said, “If you should act up to your word then you, the great pope, should come with the monarchs to pay us homage and we should thereupon instruct you.” He went on to inform the pope that he was not subject to the pope, but rather it was the other way around. I guess we could file that under “agreeing to disagree.” So, the success that Pope Innocent saw in domestic affairs didn’t quite translate to foreign affairs. This set off a few more decades of hostility between the Mongol raiders and the people on the Eastern European borders.

Joan of Arc

With some figures in church history, you know exactly where they stand. You could put a white hat on them—they’re the good guys. With other figures in church history, you again know exactly where they stand: on the other side. You could put a black hat on them—they’re the bad guys. And then there are those figures in church history that we are not quite sure what to do with.

Joan of Arc fits into the third category. Joan was a very colorful person, not only in church history but in history in general. She was a farmer, born in a small town in France in 1412, 105 years before Martin Luther posed his Ninety-Five Theses. This was at the height of the latter Middle Ages, and Joan was every bit a woman of her times. She was illiterate, like most people at the time, but she was raised in a very pious home and she was a very pious individual.

Now, we need to back up and take a look at the bigger picture. The Hundred Years’ War was going on between England and France; it concerned the succession of the throne of France. Henry V of England was victorious and was recognized as heir apparent to the French throne. However, he soon died and was succeeded by his infant son Henry VI. The English began to take territory in northern France and to move into the villages there. Many of the residents of Joan’s village fled.

In 1425, when she was 13, Joan started having visions. She claimed that she was told to save France from the oppressive English king and to restore the throne to a Frenchman. Three years later, at the age of 16, she started gathering supporters, and she even got the attention of the prince of France, the future Charles VII. Charles met with her and agreed to equip her with an army. Joan set off into battle, and she was successful. She drove the English forces from Orléans, and as a result, Charles was able to be secure the throne of France.

But that wasn’t good enough for Joan. She wanted to rid all of France of the English, and at this point she lost Charles’ support. The tables turned, and her forces were defeated in 1430. She was taken captive and held prisoner for a year. In 1431, she initially recanted of her assertions against England and of the heresy of which she was accused. But then she received a vision saying that her recantation was wrong, and she once again reaffirmed her assertions and her calling before God. Well, this was enough for her to be taken and burned at the stake. And May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc’s young life came to an end.

Cruce, Libro, et Atro

If there were bumper stickers in the Middle Ages, the phrase Cruce, libro, et atro may well have been a popular one. In many ways, it was the motto of monasticism.

Monasticism is an institution with a long history in the church. There were early monks in the 200s known as the Egyptian fathers or the desert fathers. In these early years of church history, monastic communities began to pop up. By the time of the sixth century, these communities needed a bit of a structure. To that end, Benedict came along provided some direction through his Rule, which became the organizational basis of the Benedictine order.

From 500 to 1000, the church experienced rapid growth and expansion, and here’s where our Latin phrase comes in. Cruce means “cross”; libro means “book”; and atro means “plow.” “Cross” has to do with the message of the gospel, though how closely the proclamation of the monks hewed to the true gospel certainly varied. And as the centuries rolled on and the church drifted from the teachings of Scripture, that divergence from the gospel grew even further, sadly. But their intention was to proclaim Christ.

Libro refers to a significant activity of these monks: their scribal duties. Interestingly, the room in monasteries that housed the books was called the vivarium in Latin, which translates to “living room” in English. The average American living room houses an easy chair and a big-screen TV, but the “living room” in a medieval monastery was the library. It was the nerve center of the monastery.

“Plow” is a reference to the monks’ farming activity. These medieval monks actually contributed significantly to the history of farming. They first developed the idea of terrace farming in Europe, developed significant irrigation techniques, and developed new ways to get water to places that needed it. They even developed the idea of crop rotation to replenish crucial nutrients in the soil. The monasteries often controlled great lands and vineyards, farms, and orchards. These farms were a lifeline for many people in the Middle Ages. If there was a famine in a particular town, the townspeople knew they could go to the monastery nearby and be fed, because the monastery often would have food.

Over the centuries, some of the monasteries were not true to their calling and drifted far afield from a biblical ethic or a biblical program for their existence. But we also have to recognize that, in many ways, these monastic institutions were a significant social institution in the Middle Ages. They were a center and a place of refuge for many through the centuries. And so, the bumper sticker motto of these monks—Cruce, libro, et atro—provides testimony to these medieval monks and their contributions to church history.

The Ghent Alterpiece

It was very common in medieval cathedrals to have what is called a triptych. A triptych is a trifold painting. It has three panels: a rather large panel in the center and two panels on the sides that fold in so that the triptych can be closed. And artists usually even painted the outside so that when it was folded in there would be a painting and then when it was opened up you would see the masterpiece.

In the cathedral at Ghent, Belgium, there is a polyptych called the Ghent Altarpiece. It is called a polyptych because it has far more than three panels. In has two levels to it, and in total it has twelve panels. It is an absolutely fascinating piece of art. It was begun by Hubert van Eyck and finished by his brother, Jan. So, we typically credit it to Jan van Eyck. It was installed in the cathedral on May 6, 1432.

This painting has a fascinating history. It was taken out of the Ghent Cathedral by none other than Napoleon, and then it was returned, only to be taken again during World War I by the Germans and again to be returned. And then it was taken in 1942 by the Nazis, and it spent three years buried in a salt mine. It actually made its way into the recent movie The Monuments Men, about the Allied soldiers tasked with finding art stolen by the Nazis, and it plays a significant role in that movie. The altarpiece suffered damage from its time in the salt mine because of the conditions there, and it was later restored. One of the panels was actually stolen in the 1930s, and when the painting was restored, the restorer, who was quite an artist himself, reproduced the missing panel.

At the very center of the top panel is a portrayal of God, and what’s fascinating about it is that to the left there is a pelican. The symbolism is important. The pelican was understood to eat its young on occasion, and so the idea is that God would sacrifice His very own Son. The panel beneath is the highlight of the piece; it is sometimes called The Adoration of the Lamb. It depicts Christ as a Lamb, lifted up above the altar and being sacrificed. The altar is surrounded by those who have gathered to worship and adore the Lamb. The upper panels on the far ends depict Adam and Eve, creation, and God at the center of creation, and then below, the panels illustrate redemption. So, we have the great work of God as Creator and the great work of God as our Redeemer in Jesus Christ.

This painting is one of the most famous paintings of Jan van Eyck. He is also known for other works of the pre-Renaissance period, but in the Ghent Altarpiece we see his finest work as he brings together these theological themes and presents for us a beautiful piece of art.