I have been watching a Netflix series, and another video – both are set in the early middle ages. Both have monks, churches, and Christians central to the plot.
Both portray religious people as highly superstitious. Radical decisions are made because someone had a vision, or a dream. Signs overshadow logic and common sense.
Both also portray Christianity as a passive dependent faith. In a time of crisis, Christians and clergy will pray and trust God to intervene. It is the pagans and less religious who are the activists – they roll up their sleeves and make things happen.
This might make for good television, but is it good history?
In simple terms, in the early middle ages, imagining things happen because of superstitions, or the whims of the gods was common place everywhere. Was it more common inside the church? I suggest no, quite the opposite. Monasteries were not just places of prayer, contemplations, and a docile trusting in an interventionist God.
Monasteries were in fact centers for farming innovation, with the aim of increasing production. Capitalism and the banking system were pioneered by monasteries. They also became the first centers for learning, education, libraries, art, and music.
They were also often hospices where the sick were cared for, and perhaps even treated. Already in the New Testament, Paul writes that a little wine is good for upset stomachs.
The Greek, Roman, and pagan gods behave erratically, and need to be appeased with sacrifices. Under such gods, life is random and whimsical. This is a breeding ground for superstitions.
But the Christian God is a God of order, who install reason in his creatures, and invites us to bring order and dominion to creation. This is a breeding ground for science.
History is a valuable tool, but might not be best learned from period dramas produced by streaming services.
Rev David Rietveld