The antipathy toward religion, and especially medieval Catholicism, which has become the established position of schools on all levels, and indeed of scholars, artists and society in general since the time of the Renaissance, is largely due to or perhaps even directly caused the greatest differences between the medieval and modern worlds and is often taken for granted today by Catholics who tend to be embarrassed or dismissive of the Middle Ages. Even those who admire St. Thomas Aquinas or Gothic cathedrals still seem to view the medieval mind as essentially primitive, superstitious and old-fashioned, with the blending of religion into all other pursuits supposedly leading to unnecessary complication, seriousness and prejudice in music, art, politics, scholarship and even religion itself.
For many, St. Hildegard of Bingen is a kind of reverse anachronism, more suited to Romantic or modern times as a woman expressing a specifically feminine worldview in a society which universally despised women and excluded them from society and religion, who sought to be expressive and erudite against the hindrances of the chauvinist men of her time. Only through the separation of religion from science and the arts (so we are told), the overthrow of traditional secular and religious authorities and the erasure of the distinctions between the genders could these limitations finally be overcome, allowing for unrestricted expression in art, morality and all other ventures as well as equality between genders and social classes. Since the Enlightenment, this has been the standard interpretation of history inculcated in the minds of the young.
While some of this may be true, since saints such as St. Thomas Aquinas and St. John Paul II have emphasized the importance of distinguishing between human learning and revelation and the necessity of reason in each, and many critics of the Middle Ages in the Renaissance were ecclesiastics and highly devout men who helped promote the new trend of humanism, and indeed the Church is ever in renewal of itself and society, correcting errors and leading to higher aspiration and sanctification, something has also been lost along the way. St. Hildegard is a fitting example of this. Unlike later feminist scholars and artists, who tend to see the only way to be a true woman as to be a man and to do away with what men have accomplished, especially in religious authority and cultural tradition, St. Hildegard was distinctly medieval and Catholic. For example, her concept of cosmic music was quite close to the music of the spheres proposed by medieval scholars throughout the period in line with ancient Platonic thought; likewise, she held herself in obedience to the approval of the Church for her visions and preaching, and never violated Catholic doctrine in her works, even while expressing herself in original ways.
Truly, if the Middle Ages had been so opposed to women, why would the cult of the Blessed Virgin have been so prominent, and why would saints, popes and emperors have corresponded with and celebrated St. Hildegard, just as they would St. Catherine of Siena and other women of the time? In fact, abbesses had practically equal authority with abbots, holding sovereignty above ordinary clerics within their convents, and ran many schools, libraries and hospitals of the time; further, with kings and nobles often away from home fighting in wars, women were frequently the rulers of their realms, and women also participated in servile and mercantile labor to a greater degree than they would in Protestant and secular times for centuries after.
Based on these observations, it seems to me that the difference in worldview between the Middle Ages and today is twofold: on the one hand, there were some holdovers from Antiquity and pagan times, such as tribalism, the Platonic and Aristotelian emphasis on aesthetic order in Creation and on the inferiority of women, superstitious legal systems and the conflation of worldly power with spiritual license requiring clarification and purgation, which the Church would accomplish over time; on the other hand, however, the Middle Ages were authentically Catholic, striving to see the world as it is and as God has created it, rather than shaping it in our own image with a sense of morally-neutral mechanical power over all things, lacking the prevalent concept derived from Rousseau that to be true to oneself is to succumb to the passions without regard for social or religious norms or even one’s own ultimate happiness, and living with purpose and moral standards based in objective truth – unlike the modern world, which vehemently rails against perceived injustices and struggles to achieve and accomplish great things while offering no reason or purpose for doing so.
Truly, the concept of gender is one of the clearest examples of this dissonance, with the modern world holding gender, like sexuality, as entirely subject to individual preference, with no definitive differences in themselves and thus no possibility of matrimonial complementarity, only the mutual satisfaction of urges. St. Hildegard stands as a mirror against this, being an authentically feminine woman, a devout Catholic, a medieval scholar and mystic and a critic of schism which she understood as a source not of “diversity in free expression,” contrary to the secular liberalism of the Enlightenment, but of social chaos and spiritual corruption. For this reason, her works remain as vital today as when they were originally published, and we can continue to request her intercessional help to understand and appreciate Creation, the human person and God with the wisdom she possessed.
It would not be until the classicism of the Enlightenment and the subsequent Romantic rejection of all things classical that the medieval mind would be forgotten (despite its affection and imitation by many Romantics, who usually failed to identify the Catholic source of their admiration); sadly, today it is even ignored by many in the Church, treated with shame as unscientific, superstitious and extremist. In truth, medieval Christendom, while far from perfect, was the flower of Catholicism, when the Faith and culture were intimately wed, and it is wonderful to imagine a world where great cathedrals and monasteries, whose beauty and splendor were pursued without care for time or expense, were springing up all over Europe, and where so many people came to Mass, went on pilgrimages and venerated relics that churches had to expand, adopting ambulatories, radiating chapels, etc. within a prevailing culture of piety.
Even the Crusades, viewed with such embarrassment by Catholics today and certainly involving some tragedies from both sides, were essentially outpourings of faith, with Catholics being driven by the desire to do penance and perform works of self-sacrificial charity in reverence for the Holy Land and to defend their persecuted Eastern brethren against Islamic conquest and desecration. If this same faith existed today, the Middle East would look quite different and churches in the West would not be closing, with even the glorious churches of nations like Belgium and France being sold and turned into markets or even demolished. Studying medieval thought and contemplating or even visiting the remains of their great artistic accomplishments can serve as a reminder that Catholics should not be ashamed of medieval Christendom but rather should view it as a model of the harmonious fusion of faith and culture as preached by the Second Vatican Council.
While scholars have come in recent times to a deeper appreciation of the cultural and intellectual achievements of the medieval West, there is still a prevailing tendency, among academics and laymen alike, to attribute the relics of Christendom which are most profound and memorable, such as Gothic art, the development of universities and hospitals, and the insights of Scholastic philosophy more to Antiquity, Islamic and Oriental cultures, or to “brave” proto-modern scientists rather than to Christendom itself. Whenever ancient Babylon, or Greece, or Rome, or China, or even Islamic peoples made great projects, works of art or scientific advancements, they are heralded as evidence of a highly sophisticated and civilized nation, “ahead of their time,” while medieval Christendom, even as it established human rights, the natural law, the scientific method, mechanical engineering, the liberation of religion from the state and the elucidation of a philosophical system providing a harmonious and universal metaphysical explanation of reality, is treated as purely derivative and imitative but in itself still primitive and barbaric. Only with the “freeing” of Europe from the Church during the Renaissance and later centuries were the treasures “stolen” by Christendom from Antiquity and Islam regained and situated in their properly secular setting.
If this perspective was limited only to universities or those hostile to Catholicism today, it would be more excusable, but since the Second Vatican Council which, perhaps with the best intentions among some participants, sought to dialogue more openly with modernity, to sanctify in it what is acceptable to the Faith, it seems that a majority of Catholics now view the Age of Faith with shame – not Catholic history in general, since the trend of primitivism during the 19th and early 20th centuries has led many to love the biblical and patristic ages more deeply, and saints of later ages such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux and St. John Henry Newman remain greatly respected and beloved. No, only the Middle Ages are mocked, denied and rejected by Catholics today, even by many who claim to be traditionalists, and in so doing the very Catholicism which the Middle Ages most championed is also, even if unknowingly or implicitly, cast aside. Keeping its human limitations in mind, medieval Christendom should instead provide an image for Catholics today of an integral Catholic civilization in which the Faith and culture are wed.
 See Régine Pernoud, Those Terrible Middle Ages! (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2000).
Thank you for this interesting and important article. What you said is so true! I learned so much about the medieval world through my theology studies, and was amazed at how awry the modern mindset is about those times. In fact, the Middle Ages and the people who thrived and lived back then should serve as our inspiration.