JFC, calm down about the medieval Church

My lovelies, ya girl as per usual, was just trying to have a normal conversation about No Nut November in a nice way on twitter this week when I was presented with a view so wrong, so wild, and yet so unsurprising that I have been compelled to write a whole ass blog about it. To whit:

So, whew, this is a lot to unpack, but to sum up: my man here thinks that the medieval Church a) understood the intricate biological ways the body worked, and more specifically in terms of reproduction and b) intentionally suppressed that knowledge in order to own the pagans (?) who were apparently very sex positive. (Spoiler: they were not. I am looking at you, Romans.) He also feels that he should communicate these thoughts both in public and to a medieval historian.

Deep breaths everyone. Deep breaths.

While the specifics of this particular basic relate to him, he is tapping into a not so uncommon trope. There is a real belief on behalf of a not insignificant subset of society that the medieval Church was a shadowy organisation dedicated solely to suppressing knowledge and scientific advancement. This is not true.

The Church was in all actuality the medieval period’s largest benefactor of scholars of all stripes. Initially, in the early medieval period much learning was focused in monastaries in particular. Because monks took a vow to eschew idleness, they were always looking for new ways to work for the greater glory of God, or whatever. Sometimes this took the form of doing manual labour to feed themselves, but as monasteries such as Cluny rose to prominence they did more and more work in libraries as well.

A late medieval Scriptoria, Biblioteca de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, c. 14th Century

Monks copied and embellished manuscripts and kept impressive libraries. Sometimes this work took place inside what we call “scriptoria” where more than one scribe is working at a time. They saw themselves as charged with transmitting knowledge. A lot of that knowledge was, of course, pagan, because they were extremely into classical thinkers. They were also reading this work of course, and writing their own commentaries on it. Many of them took the medical texts and used them to set up hospitals within their monasteries, as we have talked about before. [1]

Lest you think this is all one big sausage fest, women were also very much about that book life within nunneries.[2] They also had their own scriptoria and were busy scribbling away, reading, writing, and thinking. If you wanted a life where you strove for new scholarly heights, odds were that in the early medieval period you did that inside a monastery on nunnery.

As the medieval period moved on, scholarship eventually moved out of the cloister and into cities when the medieval university was established. The first degree awarding institution to call itself a university was the University of Bologna established around 1088, though teaching had been going on there previously and students had been going to Bologna from at least the late tenth century. Second was the University of Paris, which was established in 1150. Again teaching had been happening there from much earlier, and at least 1045.

Medieval universities weren’t like universities now, in that they didn’t have established campuses or anything like that. They were, more or less, a loose affiliation of scholars who would provide lessons to interested students. The University of Paris, for example, described itself as “a guild of teachers and scholars” (universitas magistrorum et scholarium).[3]

In Paris there were four faculties: Arts, Medicine, Law, and Theology. Everyone had to attend the Arts school first where they would be asked to learn the trivium, which was comprised of rhetoric, logic, and grammar. Basically that meant all undergrads spent their time learning to argue, which is how the whole Abelard thing comes about. Then if they wanted more they could go do medicine, law, or theology. Theology was considered the really crazy good stuff, as medieval theologians were sorta held up in the way we worship astrophysicists like Neil de Grasse Tyson (ugh) or Stephen Hawking now. But if you wanna be a dick and super modern about it and think that nothing is more important than science, you will note that medicine is there and actively pursued.

So what, what does all of this have to do with the Church not being suppressive? Well literally everyone, both scholars and students in a medieval university was a member of the clergy.

Students in a medieval university from the Codex Manasse. Note the tonsure on the scribe (the little shaved bald patch) that indicates he’s a clergy member.

That’s right. Are you a Christian and you wanna learn about medicine? Well you need to take holy orders first. So every single scientific advancement that came out of a medieval university (and there were plenty) was made by a man of the cloth.

The quick among you might have spotted that the thing about unis is that they were just for dudes though, and that is lamentably true. Women weren’t able to take the same orders as men, which means they were excluded from university training. Plenty of them got tutored if they were rich. (See poor Heloise who just had Abelard, like, do himself at her.) Otherwise there was plenty of sweet stuff going on in nunneries still and always, as the visionary natural biologist Hildegard of Bingen can attest. Monasteries were also still producing good stuff as Thomas Aquinas would be happy to let you know from the comfort of his Dominican order.

Given that all of this is the case, it’s hard to square that circle of “the Church is intentionally suppressing knowledge!” with the fact that everyone actively working on acquiring and furthering knowledge was a member of it and all. The Church was a welcoming home to scholars because it was a place where you got the time needed to contemplate subjects for a long time. If you have your corporeal needs taken care of, then you can go on to think about stuff. The Church offered that.

Having said all of this, there were, of course, plenty of Jewish and Muslim scholars at work in medieval Europe as well. The thriving Jewish communities of the medieval period had their own complex theological discussions about the Talmud, and produced their own truly delightful sexual and scientific theory that I will never tire of reading.[5] I’ve also talked at length about how Islamic medical advances were very much taken on board by medieval Christians in Europe. The fact that the Christians in holy orders beavering away at the medical faculties of universities across Europe were very much looking to a Muslim guy called Ibn Sinna for medical knowledge makes it hard to see the Church as an oppressive hater of all things non-Catholic. I’m just saying.

So, if all of this is the case, where does the idea of the Church as some sort of boogeyman, hunting down and intimidating medieval scholars into lying to everyone about human reproductive systems (???? Look, I’m not over it, ok?) come from?

Well to be fair, the modern Church hasn’t been super friendly to scholars at times. The whole Galileo affair really got into a lot of people’s heads.[4]
And yeah, my man didn’t get pardoned until the later twentieth century, which is super wild. Thing is, the Church wasn’t saying you couldn’t talk about a heliocentric universe, it just didn’t want you saying it was definitively correct. It was a sort of procedural issue surrounding Galileo’s work, which was all just a Copernicus rip off with a better telescope anyway so I ain’t even care that much. Also famously – and one more time – that shit is modern, not medieval. Galileo was working in the seventeenth century which can’t be called medieval at all whatsoever. Y’all are just so basic that you think if something bad happened that means it’s medieval. No. Please. I beg you to stop.

What else is at play here? Meh, society writ large. A lot of us in the English as a first language speaking world, and in northern Europe more generally have been raised in a Protestant context even if we ourselves are not Protestant. The thing about that is Protestants, famously, is that they are not huge fans of the Church. Big news, I know. In the Early Modern period this could get kinda wild, with things like the Great Fire of London being blamed on a nefarious “Papish plot”, for example, becoming a nice early example of a conspiracy theory. (That conspiracy theory was still written in Latin at the based of The Monument built to commemorate the fire until 1830 when the Catholics were officially emancipated in Britain. LOL.)

“Ohhhhhh I’m Voltaire. I’m a big smug prick and I think I am smarter than anyone who lived in the medieval period because I just said so, just now. Look at my stupid ass wig.” – Voltaire, probably

When the whole Enlightenment thing went down, generalised distrust of Catholics was then later compounded by the fact that “serious” thinkers aka Voltaire’s ridiculously basic self began to categorise the accumulation of knowledge specifically in opposition to religious thought. This is the old “Age of Reason” which we currently allegedly reside in, versus the “Age of Faith” idea. The Church as an overarching institution from the age of faith was therefore thought of as necessarily regressive, and it became assumed that it has always been actively attempting to thwart advantage for vaguely sinister reasons that are never fully articulated.

Much like Voltaire, we have internalised this pretty hard to flex on the past and convince ourselves that we are super smart. We are also a product of a society that has developed literally to tell us that you shouldn’t ever trust Catholics. You know what happens then? A lot of bad art that reflects our own modern prejudices about the medieval past and hasn’t done their reading.

There are tonnes of modern movies, books and TV shows nominally set in the medieval period, or in a “medieval” fantasy world that 100% use the modern, totally unsupportable by history view of the Church as a major plot point. Just off the top of my head right now, I can name you the terrible movie The Physician, the anime Castlevania series, and the His Dark Materials trilogy. These all feature a Catholic Church that is actively thwarting knowledge, and in the case of the first two medical knowledge very specifically usually calling it witchcraft.

An honest-to-god still from Netflix’s Castlevania where the protagonist Lisa is burnt as a witch for doing “science” in the late medieval period. Half the buildings in this damn show are baroque too for some reason and I … just, you know what? Never mind.

Now, plenty of people were killed for witchcraft because they were doing medicine. The witch trials were a very real thing, and you know when and where they happened? In the modern period, and usually with a greater regularity in Protestant places. Witchcraft trials peak in general from about 1560-1630 which is the modern period. The most famous trials with the biggest kill count took place in Trier, Fulda, Basque, Wurtzburg, Bamberg, North Berwick, Torsåker and Salem. You know what was going on in most of the places? The Reformation. Witch trials sort of reflected various confessions of Christianity’s ability to effectively protect their flocks from evil. Did Catholics kill “witches” oh you bet your sweet ass they did. So did Protestants, and it was all fucking ugly.[6]

What is important to note is that in countries where Catholicism was static witch trials were largely unheard of. Ireland, the Iberian Peninsula, and Italy, for example, just didn’t go in for them even though they were theoretically in the clutches of a nefarious Church bent on destroying all medical knowledge or something.

Now, none of this is to excuse the multifarious sins of the institutional Church over the years. In many ways my entire career as a medieval historian is a product of the fact that I was frustrated with the Church after 16 years of Catholic school. If you had to go to a High School named after the prosecutor in the Galileo trial, you might also end up devoting yourself to picking intricate theological fights with the Church, OK? (Yes, this is my origin story.)

And that brings us to the crux of the matter: if you make up a bunch of stuff that the Church did not do it makes it harder to critique them of the manifold things they actually did do and are doing right fucking now. We need to be critiquing the Magdalene Laundries; the international cover up of pedophile priests; signing an actual concordant with Nazi Germany; the regressive attitudes towards abortion and contraception that happen still, now, and endanger the lives of countless women. All of this is real, and calls for the strongest possible condemnation.

There is no need to go walk around announcing that the medieval Catholic Church was lying and actually knew everything about how bodies work but lied so you wouldn’t fuck like pagans. (This is not getting easier to get my head around.)

A lot of us have specifically grown up in a context where anti-Catholic sentiment is absolutely encouraged. However, this doesn’t come from free-thinking radical proponents of restorative justice who would like to see the Church called to account for its issues, but from a bunch of equally regressive Protestant types who also hate women’s bodily autonomy, unmarried pregnant women, sex workers, and, well, all the same damn stuff as hard-core Catholics. It’s hard for us to think our way out of the society that we live in, and easy to buy into it when it is repeated in art and culture ad nauseum. That doesn’t make it OK and endangers real critiques of the modern Church.

Anyway, TL/DR, Castlevania is not a documentary. Sorry ‘bout it.


[1] There is so much written on medieval monasteries that it is hard to know where to start, but a good introduction for a lay audience is Roger Rosewell, The Medieval Monastery, Oxford: Shire Publications, 2012).
[2] A great resource for this is Penelope D. Johnson, Equal in Monastic Profession: Religious Women in Medieval France, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
[3] An absolutely key text is Ian P. Wei, Intellectual Culture in Medieval Paris: Theologians and the University, c. 1100-1300 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
[4] Maurice A Finocchario (ed.), The Galileo Affair: A Documentary History (Oakland CA: University of California Press, 1989).
[5] See in particular Ruth Mazo Karras, Sexuality In Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, 3rd Edition (London and New York, Routledge, 2017), pp. 104-108.
[6] Check out Thomas Robisheaux, ‘”The Queen of Evidence”: The Witchcraft Confession in the Age of Confessionalism’, in, John M Headley, Hans J, Hillerbrand, Confessionalization in Europe, 1555-1700: Essays in Memory of Bodo Nishan, (Abington and New York: Routledge, 2016).


For more on myths about the medieval period and ignorance, see:

On Medical Milestones, Being Racist, and Textbooks, Part I
On Medical Milestones, The Myth of Progress and Being Racist, Part II
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
I assure you, medieval people bathed.
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok
There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK
On the Concept of the Renaissance and Outkast’s Hey Ya

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kendrick Lamar enthusiast.

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