The Medieval Church culturally unified Christendom through a common language, Latin, and a common liturgy, tying men together with other men of their own time, but also with the whole communion of saints.

Petrarch, ca. 1350, first employed the term “Medieval” to argue that his time (ca. 1350) had advanced beyond the so-called “dark ages.” No one living in the Middle Ages actually thought they were living in the Middles Ages, of course. Those who were somewhat educated tended to think of themselves as citizens of the Christiana Res Publica, or, as first coined by King Alfred the Great, “Christendom.” In most vernacular languages, peasants would refer to their world as something akin to “Middle-earth,” a land between heaven and hell. Usually, this would be some variation of the Germanic and Norse “Midgard” or “Middangeard.”

There was no real start date to the Middle Ages. One might fairly date the beginning of the western Middle Ages to the sack of Rome, August 24, 410; to the death of St. Augustine, 430; or to the resignation of the last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus, on September 4, 476. Generally, though, it is wise to think of St. Augustine of Hippo as the great nexus between the classical world and the medieval world.

There was no real end date to the Middle Ages, either. One might fairly end the Middle Ages with the death of Dante (1321), or with the end of the European black plague (ca. 1350) and with the rise of what would soon be called “nationalist” sentiment. As St. Augustine of Hippo can be seen as the nexus between the Medieval era and the previous world, one might rightly see Dante as occupying a similar position a millennium later: a nexus between the Medieval and the early modern worlds.

However we bookend the Medieval age, several things helped define the period.

First, unlike any period before or after in the West, polycentricism proved the norm, as localism meant everything to the peoples of that era. As the great historian Christopher Dawson put it:

There were a vast number of political and social units—feudal[1] fiefs, duchies, counties and baronies, loosely held together by their allegiance to king or Emperor. There were Free Cities and Leagues of Cities, like the Lombard Commune or the Hanseatic League. There were ecclesiastical principalities like the German prince-bishoprics, and the great independent abbeys. Finally there were the religious and military Orders—international organizations which lived their own lives and obeyed their own authorities in whatever country in Europe they might happen to be situated.

Second, the Church, however decentralized by the various orders[2] and diocesan structures, held primary sway over culture as well as social and political life. One need only look to the two greatest institutions of the period preserving culture—the monastery (at the beginning of the Medieval period) and the university (toward the end of the Medieval period)—to see the pervasive power of the Church.

Third, political boundaries during the period were many, varied, and generally small and short-lived. There existed, tellingly, no nation-states during the period. These—armed with permanent revenue-collecting bureaucracies, trained and permanent militaries, and educational institutions—could not exist until governments (of whatever type) established or discovered and exploited permanent and relatively stable tax bases. The process of “nation-state” building continues to this day, often encountering massive local resistance as well as vying with immense international structures and pressures.

As a corollary to point three, we should not be surprised that few great political thinkers arose during the Middle Ages. St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Policraticus were, for all intents and purposes, anti-political political theorists.

Fourth, four great divisions in law existed during the Medieval: Natural Law; Justinian/Roman Law; Canon Law; and Common Law. One might most easily think of these as, respectively, the laws of God and nature; the laws imposed from the top down; the laws of the Church (usually dealing with family and marriage); and the laws of the Germanic tribes.

For those of us in the Anglo-Saxon-American tradition, the common law is the most important, as it is based on fundamental liberties such as a right to a trial by jury, the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and the right to one’s body and property. The Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian Germanic tribes jealously and zealously guarded the common law (which is much older than Christianity) for centuries, resenting any intrusion into it and often defending it to the death. King Alfred the Great, the first king of modern England, was the first to codify it, but the Magna Carta (especially points 1, 13, 38-41, and 63) is generally regarded as its greatest Medieval expression of the common law. Later, it was the basis of America’s revolution against the United Kingdom, as well as of the Declaration of Independence, the Old Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and of the Bill of Rights of 1791.

In sum: Before the rise of the nation-state, the Middle Ages were sui generis for at least six centuries. The Medieval Church culturally unified Christendom through a common language, Latin, and a common liturgy, tying men together with other men of their own time, but also with the whole communion of saints. Politically, nearly every type of entity imaginable existed: free cities, abbeys, fiefs, bishoprics, counties, duchies, and those lands controlled by the various Orders, military or religious. In other words, Christendom embraced a cultural unity and beheld a polycentric political system. It was the Christiana Res Publica. “I saw monarchy without tyranny, aristocracy without factions, democracy without tumult, wealth without luxury,” Erasmus later wrote, idealizing the past. “Would that it had been your lot, divine Plato, to come upon such a republic.” Perhaps most important, medieval man believed that he knew his place in the Economy of Grace, in God’s universe.

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[1] “Feudal” is a term or convenience or inconvenience, depending on one’s point of view. Dawson, however, employs it anachronistically, as the word did not exist in the English language until coined in the eighteenth century. Rather than “feudal,” Dawson might better have used “relational,” meaning neither “bureaucratic” nor “mechanical.”

[2] Orders are, essentially, to the Latin church what denominations are to the Protestant church.

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