This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “The Church in Medieval England: 597-1485”, running in the Spring Term 2022 (April to June), and convened by Dr. Matthew Hoskin.
If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.
I was once at an interdepartmental event at a university. After I had explained about my research into some rather important medieval canon law manuscripts housed in the local cathedral, a primatologist (i.e. someone studying primates) declared that she did not want anything medieval associated with her. Her rudeness may be quite uncommon, but the sentiment certainly isn’t. Why study medieval Christianity?
Unsurprisingly, I think there are good answers to this question, and this Spring in the Trinity term at Davenant Hall, I will be teaching “The Church in Medieval England (597-1485)”. This course will gallop through the journey taken by Christianity in England from the arrival in Kent of the Italian missionaries led by St Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury in 597, to the accession of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII in 1485 (incidentally, the same year Malory’s Le Morte Darthur was printed by Caxton). We will encounter most of the major figures, both secular and ecclesiastical, going deep in the primary sources for certain figures such as the Venerable Bede and certain texts such as Aelred of Rievaulx’s Spiritual Friendship.
But again: why study medieval Christianity? And, in this instance, why Christianity in England?
Why get medieval?
One strategy that is used to encourage people to look more favourably upon the Middle Ages is to point out how important they are for all the things we like. Or how “modern” they really were. To become capitalists, we need fourteenth-century merchants like Francesco di Marco Datini of Prato. To get to modern science, we need the empiricism of Roger Bacon, or the optics theories of Robert Grosseteste. To do modern politics, we need Dante’s De Monarchia. If we like novels, we need Boccaccio and Chaucer. If we wish to get at the roots of modern romance, we need Chrétien de Troyes. To become Protestant, we need John Wycliffe and Jan Hus.
In this view, the Middle Ages are only interesting insofar as they are modern, or are part of the path from the collapse of Roman rule in western Europe to the modern era. These statements are not untrue—getting medieval can help us be “better” moderns. But the Middle Ages themselves offer us timeless goods that are worth grasping and understanding in any era, especially for Christians. Allow me to offer one example.
For me, one of these timeless goods is Gothic architecture, born in France at St-Denis and reaching a French pinnacle in the rayonnant Sainte-Chappelle. In England it also took on some magnificent forms, such as the Perpendicular Gothic nave of Winchester Cathedral (the longest nave in Europe). Gothic architecture, as explained by Abbot Suger of St-Denis, is designed with the express purpose of allowing for gigantic windows to let more light into the ecclesial space, for light is one of the chief analogies for God in the corpus of Pseudo-Dionysius. Furthermore, although Suger does not say this, the pointed arches and ribbed vaults characteristic of Gothic architecture inevitably draw the eye upwards, another symbol of drawing our souls Godward. In Yorkminster Cathedral, as your eye follows the points and ribs past some of England’s oldest stained glass, up and above the marble Plantagenets arrayed in the rood screen, you find yourself looking at the roof bosses, among which we find Our Lord and His mother. You are drawn physically and spiritually upward by Gothic architecture, bathed in the light of Christ.
Moreover, many Christians have found that simply grappling with the ideas and structure of medieval scholastics has made them much better at thinking theologically. Indeed, even post-Catholic unbeliever Camille Paglia recommends the scholastics: “Medieval theology is far more complex and challenging than anything offered by the pretentious post-structuralist hucksters.” In my course, we will spend some time with St Anselm, Alexander de Hales, Robert Grosseteste, and John Wycliffe.
There is much good in the medieval church that can help us in our pursuit of God today, whether we are considering theology, liturgy, art, poetry, devotional literature, or devotional practices. Of course, as Protestants, we will reject things like the birth of Purgatory and the doctrine of transubstantiation, but there is a lot in the medieval world that is very good and well worth considering.
Of course, if the rich embroidery of western European spirituality has so much to offer, why England in particular? Why not the continent? France alone has the Sainte-Chapelle, Hugh and Richard of St Victor, the University of Paris, the Avignon popes, Chartres Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris, Abbot Suger, the early works of Anselm and Lanfranc of Bec/Canterbury, Mont St-Michel, St Bernard of Clairvaux, the motherhouses of the Cistercians, Carthusians, and Tironensians, and much more. Besides, this wider, Catholic, continental world is a continual force in the life of English Christianity—the first Archbishops of Canterbury were from there. Her bright minds studied and taught in her universities. The English would go on pilgrimage to Rome and leave books behind, like the Vercelli Book (one of the four oldest Old English codices and sole manuscript of The Dream of the Rood) and Codex Amiatinus, a one-volume Latin Bible.
There is no denying that catholic Europe was a cultural unity throughout the Middle Ages, and England was part of that. But there is also no denying that specific places have their own history and give rise to their own poets, thinkers, saints, and artists. Just as Italy gave us Dante and St Francis, and Germany St Hildegard and the Nibelungenlied, so England gave us Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as an amazing flowering of vernacular mystical literature in the fourteenth century—Julian of Norwich, Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing, Margery Kempe, Walter Hilton, and The Abbey of the Holy Ghost all come from this century. Medieval England, then, is intrinsically worth knowing for those particular people and works that come from her.
That said, a final reason to study the church in medieval England is because the church in the modern Anglophone world is descended from her. We are her heirs, and not just Anglicans like me. Although I love medieval things in and of themselves and need no further reason to study them, it is the case that we inherit much from medieval England, and if we are to understand our own English Christian heritage, we need a vision that begins long before 1534 or 1662. For example, the Act of Supremacy was not a bolt out of the blue in 1534 but the final act in royal ecclesiastical policy stretching back to Edward III (r. 1327-1377), the roots of which are found in the Investiture Controversy of the era of the Norman Conquest. And if we are to understand the royal dimension to the Investiture Controversy, the relationship between English kings and bishops in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms rises as well. This is just one example of how medieval England impinges upon the English Reformation. Mysticism, devotional poetry, architecture and art, theological method, liturgy, the English Bible, political theology, and much more—the Anglophone world has a rich inheritance from the years 597-1485 in these areas.
Come study this inheritance with me next term at Davenant Hall!
Dr. Matthew Hoskin is a Visiting Fellow at both Davenant Hall where he teaches ancient and medieval Christianity, and the Ancient Language Institute where he teaches Ancient Greek and Latin. He has a PhD in the history of Christianity from the University of Edinburgh with expertise in ancient Christianity, and he will be teaching “The Church in Medieval England” for Davenant Hall in the Trinity Term of Spring 2022.