This is a very overdue post; quite some time ago I made a brief comment about dealing with hostility to the church when teaching medieval history, and Dr. Virago requested more details. She also posted very thoughtful comments of her own on the subject, and I'm finally now getting around to responding (or more accurately, springboarding, because I'm not sure I'm going to actually answer anything she said directly...). Non-medievalists - well, you may not find this the most fascinating post!
So, how does one teach the medieval church to modern students?
I generally find, when we start discussing the medieval church, that a number of assumptions come into play.
- There was "a" medieval church. Students assume that the medieval church was a unified, monolithic institution, in which all its members thought alike and promoted a single agenda.
- Everyone in the Middle Ages thought the way the church wanted them to. It's kind of like the medieval church had some kind of magical thought-control machine, the technology of which has been mysteriously lost over the course of time.
- If they didn't think the way the church wanted, the church would punish them. Yes, I do realize this contradicts #2.
- Since progress is clearly linear and things get better over time, the fact that Protestantism comes after Catholicism means that the latter must be an improvement over the former. To be fair, this is an entirely inarticulate assumption, and if I pointed it out to students in quite this way I think they'd mostly be able to see the problems with it. But it's nonetheless the case that undergraduates tend to see history as progress and people as getting "smarter" or "more enlightened" over time. (I've described this student view of history, slightly snarkily, in this way: "First there was the Middle Ages. Then there was the Renaissance, when people learned to think for themselves. Then there was the Scientific Revolution, when people learned to think for themselves. Then there was the Enlightenment, when people learned to think for themselves.") Therefore, I think on some level many of them really do believe that the Protestant Reformation occurs because people finally figured out that there were problems with the Catholic church - and, obviously, rectified things. (I should add that #4 is pretty much peculiar to Protestant students, but the first three show up in students of pretty much any religious persuasion.)
These kinds of assumptions especially show up in force when I teach the Crusades, based in an inherent anti-Catholicism. It's funny, because when I started teaching the Crusades I thought I might have to counter the idea that crusading was a noble, admirable enterprise (in the sense that a crusade against poverty is a good thing). I've never run into students who held this opinion, however, but it's not because their actual opinions were necessarily informed or nuanced; rather, in the heavily-Protestant regions where I've taught, students are quite ready to believe that anything organized by the pope was bad. (I once asked a class to talk about some of the differences between medieval religion, as described in an assigned reading, and modern religion - what seemed unusual, or strange, or uncommon today? One student blithely answered, "Well, the idea that they really were eating the body and blood of Christ - that's a strange idea today." Um, well, no, not to all the millions of Catholics around the world....)
Students exhibit a touching faith in the power of education throughout all this: if asked to explain how the church maintained such iron control over the minds and thoughts of medieval people, they would probably say, "Because they [medieval people] were uneducated." Now, while I'm (obviously) a big advocate for education, and believe it can be transformative, there are two problems with this explanation: first, given the structure of education in the Middle Ages, the more educated you were, the more likely you were to be part of the church, and the less (formally) educated you were, the less likely you were to follow orthodox beliefs (here I'm thinking primarily of the kinds of remnants of pagan practices that survive in peasant society, or some of the behaviors found among the peasants of Montaillou, in the Pyrenees). Pierre Bourdieu has done famous work on the role that higher education in France plays/has played in replicating the power structures of the status quo, and that certainly held good in the Middle Ages (to the extent that we can talk about "higher ed" in that period). Second, I would imagine we all know people who are highly educated who continue to follow the religion in which they were raised, and who have no problem reconciling formal education with all sorts of assumptions. (For instance, a story circulated my undergrad college about one of the biology professors, who was said to have decided, in graduate school, that milk was the perfect food - all one needed for survival - and who had developed scurvy as a result. Yeah, that's probably apocryphal, but it's still a good story.)
The question, then, remains: how to cope with these assumptions?
Sometimes it's just head-on - especially dealing with nos. 1 & 2. Whenever I can, I point out the diversity of the medieval church to students; I have a stock "structure of the medieval church" lecture that gets trotted out in basically all my classes, and then as we talk throughout the semester, I try to keep reminding them of the different branches of the church, and asking them to specify which branch they mean, so that they can use the terms with some precision. If they start talking about "the papacy" or "the Benedictines" or "parish priests" rather than just "the Church," then they're already getting somewhere. We talk about the variety of reform movements and who was on what side (for instance, why are so many German bishops on the side of the Holy Roman Emperor, not the pope, in the Investiture Controversy?). Similarly, we always spend quite a bit of time on heresy, so that they can realize that no, not everyone thought alike about religion in the Middle Ages.
Of course, talking about heretics doesn't help much with assumption #3... The only way that I can think of to counter #3 is to point out the diversity of religious debates and that just because, say, Bernard of Clairvaux hated Abelard and thought he was a dangerous influence, doesn't mean that Abelard was somehow persecuted by "the church" (Abelard was persecuted by Eloise's uncle, but that's a whole DIFFERENT issue!). Now, it's true that the medieval church did persecute many who thought differently, but that doesn't mean that everyone who thought differently was punished, nor does it mean that everyone wrote (or thought) in cowering fear of the mighty hand of the church, only writing things that seemed likely to please them, either.
My other approach is to talk a great deal about why "the" church actually cared about what people thought. Rather than simply try to convince my students by telling them facts about the church, I try to make sure they understand the role that the church played in structuring people's lives in a world without welfare or the kind of social infrastructure we take for granted today. And the unavoidable fact is that if you honestly believe that certain behaviors mean that the behave-er will go to hell - as medieval Christians did - AND you possess a view of community in which people's behaviors have a significant effect on their neighbors - as medieval Christians did - without any mitigating modern belief in privacy and individual autonomy, you seek to eradicate those behaviors, in the same way that today we try to eradicate polio and smallpox. In short, I ask them to think about what cultural differences explain the importance of religious belief in the Middle Ages, rather than to chalk those differences up to a desire to oppress.
In essence, what I ask students to do is think about their assumptions - I challenge them to produce evidence, and to think about the logical consequences of what they say. I have to be prepared to do this, however, by understanding that these assumptions exist and being on the alert for them. For instance, when the student mentioned above said that really believing that the bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Christ was weird today, I was taken aback and didn't actually know what to say. I knew that the only thing that was going to come out of my mouth at that point (something roughly equivalent to WTF???) was not going to be very productive, pedagogically speaking, and so that moment passed me by. Now, I think I'd throw such a statement back to the rest of the class, ask if they agreed (hoping that there was a Catholic in the room who was comfortable responding), and if that garnered nothing, I'd just ask the student, "What about modern Catholics?" I'm not sure what she would have said, but it would have started a conversation.
So, really, the way I teach the medieval church is no different from the way I teach anything else - there's an awful lot of asking "Why?" or "What evidence do you have for that?"
What is strange about teaching the medieval church is that it makes me feel a little bit like an apologist for the Catholicism/religion in general, which has nothing to do with my personal beliefs. I grew up - well, I was going to say agnostic, but I suppose ignorant is really a better term. I only went to church a few times, when I was very small, and I never got a very good idea of what it was all about. In high school and college, in fact, I would have said that I was actively hostile to organized religion (in any form, but especially Christianity, and especially Catholicism, what with all the refusing-to-ordain-women, anti-birth-control, anti-abortion stuff). Since then, I've moved to being indifferent to religion for myself but trying to respect others' beliefs. There are many, many, MANY espousals of religious faith today that I don't agree with, and dislike intensely, but I try to respect the honest faith of the believer. In the same way that I believe, and try to teach my students, that medieval people honestly believed in their varieties of Christianity because of their cultural, social, and material circumstances, and weren't simply just stupid or less educated, I also try to believe that modern people similarly honestly believe in their varieties of Christianity (or any other religion), and aren't just simply stupid or uneducated.
Now, this does NOT mean that there aren't invididual believers who are full of s***. But then, that was true for the Middle Ages as well. The trick is to evaluate the individual case, rather than making assumptions about the group as a whole.
But nonetheless, I often feel like I'm defending the church to my students, even though I know that I'm no apologist. I'm in no way telling my students what to believe or what to think of the medieval church. They're welcome to revile the church with the most vitriolic of hatreds. I'm just here to make sure that they can offer an informed, historically accurate critique, if that's what they're inclined to do.
Okay, that's what I've got. I should add the final disclaimer that I'm not claiming any kind of magical success - these are just some more-or-less random thoughts that I've tried to pull together. All comments welcome!