The Medieval World and Faith

The Cross of Mathilde, a crux gemmata made for Mathilde, Abbess of Essen (973–1011), who is shown kneeling before the Virgin and Child in the enamel plaque. The figure of Christ is slightly later. Probably made in Cologne or Essen, the cross demonstrates several medieval techniques: cast figurative sculpture, filigree, enamelling, gem polishing and setting, and the reuse of Classical cameos and engraved gems.

The Middle Ages lasted for approximately one thousand years from the end of the Ancient World in the fourth and fifth centuries AD to the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Eventually the Western Church stretched all the way from the Atlantic to the borders of Greece. The Western part of the Church was not similar to the Byzantine Church following the Schism of 1054. The Western Church spoke mainly Latin and services were spoken in Latin. Most of the population were illiterate anyway but they did take part in the rituals of the church like going to Church every Sunday, christening every child in infancy and being buried within Church ground.

The Beginnings of Christianity

Christianity only became an official religion following the announcement by Constantine that he had been converted to Christianity. Other popular religious figures had gone through this ‘metanoia’ change of mind such as Paul on the road to Damascus being blinded and then converting after this mystical experience. St Augustine had a similar experience after hearing a small child singing ‘pick up and read’ referring to the bible and as he did he was converted. He then went on to be the Bishop of Hippo for 40 years in North Africa, writing books and sermons, coming up with the idea of original sin.

Other areas of the world were converted in a less ‘official’ way. In 563 St Columba landed on the Island of Iona in the North Hebrides which became a centre of Christian power. Although this Christianity and the steady conversion of land made the Middle Ages more stable the faith did tend to cause a negligence in inproving society since the heavenly reward of an afterlife was considered more important than improving current life conditions. It was standard practice to put a young child into a monastery but by the time of Guibert in the eleventh century adults were beginning to want to devote themselves to an impassioned idea of what Christianity meant to them and go themselves into monasteries at a later age.

Christian Controversies

Anselm of Canterbury who wrote Proslogion in the eleventh century described heaven as being fun; St Augustine thought it would mainly contain intellectual pursuits. Nevertheless there were constant debates about Christian theology as well as councils held to decide what was orthodox or not. Some of this was borrowed from Judaism and philosophy of the time. Christians believed that the souls and bodies would be united in heaven leading to the resurrection of the ‘whole body.’ However Christianity was notoriously poor at integrating former beliefs into its fold. The Greek Stoics for example were ignored as was the Roman high view of Public Service and there were problems other ideas like Plato’s.


  1. Faith in the Medieval World, G.R.Evans, Lion Histories, 2002, Oxford