Why Study the Medieval Period?

In chaotic times, we search for direction. What do you do in the middle of a pandemic? Riots? Racial strife and wars? A collapsing economy? 

Christians have been through all of this before. This is one of the main reasons we should study history. We realize that, though our times are full of trials and tribulations, the Church has weathered cultural storms and upheaval before. We can learn from the past, in order to live wisely in the present. One of the most important times to learn about is the so-called “Dark Ages”.

Why should we study the medieval period? Wasn’t it full of wars, fighting, death, and disease? Wasn’t it a period when the Catholic church kept people from being able to read the Bible in their own language? And what about the Crusades? Why did people fight about religion anyway? 

One of the main reasons to study the Medieval period is to learn how one-sided these questions are. Far from being a period of “darkness,” the Medieval era was filled with many bright points of light. 

We need to remember that the name “Dark Ages” was given to this period by later writers who had a huge bias. They were really opposed to the Christian Church, and they assumed that any time where the Church had so much influence just had to be a dark time.

Since then, many historians have pointed out how many remarkable things happened in this supposedly “dark” time.

Technology in the Middle Ages

Far from being a time of darkness and ignorance, the medieval era witnessed the emergence of several new technologies.[1] Medieval people harnessed the forces of nature through wind and water mills. They also invented better saddles and stirrups, which enabled medieval knights to engage in legendary battles and the iconic jousting matches. Other medieval inventions included chimneys, eyeglasses, and better tools and techniques for agriculture. 

The Arts

In the arts, medieval times were anything but dark. Medieval artists and architects were in love with light. This was one of the prime reasons that architects invented what we now call “Gothic” architecture–although that term is yet another example of later historians who were trying to give a nasty label to medieval achievements. The “Goths” were a Germanic tribe that had nothing to do with Gothic architecture. But, learning to sort through misleading labels and historical reality is one valuable by-product of studying medieval history.

Medieval artists also made great progress in music through the invention of polyphony–singing with more than one voice, or more than one part. Medieval artists in Northern Europe were also the first to use oil paint and the first to use stretched canvases, instead of the more usual wood and plaster. This enabled them to take more time in their paintings, which produced spectacular effects. 

Morality – Slavery

Medieval Christians also championed social reforms. Even though classical societies like ancient Greece and Roman depended on slavery to keep their economy going, prominent Christians in medieval times opposed slavery and took steps to make it inconvenient, and eventually it faded out of European culture.

One medieval king, Clovis II, married his British slave, a woman named Bathilda. According to historian Rodney Stark, Bathilda used her influence to opposed the slave trade, and redeem those in slavery.[2] Other medieval leaders like Charlemagne, Bishop Agobard of Lyons, Saint Wulfstan and Saint Anselm all raised their voices and helped to abolish slavery.[3] And all this happened in “Dark Ages” …

Medieval Influence on Lewis & Tolkien 

Another reason to study the Medieval period is because it had such a profound influence on great Christian writers like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. 

Many people look up to and admire these amazing writers, but they forget that Lewis and Tolkien were formed and shaped by other writers. These writers of great books, and thinkers of great thoughts, were shaped by the great books, and great thinkers, that they read. We wouldn’t have Narnia or Middle Earth if C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien had not been deeply influenced by medieval literature, history, theology, and culture.

C.S. Lewis was a English teacher (first at Oxford University and then at Cambridge). His scholarly work specialized in Medieval and Renaissance literature. Lewis was a huge fan of the medieval period, and it influenced his entire outlook on life.[4] 

His last published book, The Discarded Image, was all about the Medieval world view. Lewis loved the Medieval world because it was a world grounded in the belief in the Triune God of the Bible. It was a world of order. Medieval thinkers and writers loved to try and analyze everything, and put things in the correct order. 

This world of order stands in stark contrast to our post-Christian world of disorder and rebellion against God. One healthy by-product of studying the Medieval world is that we can see what it might look like for a culture to try and live according to Christian ideals. Of course, the Medievals were not perfect Christians! There were huge problems of sin and inconsistency then, as there are now. The difference is in the values and beliefs that the Medieval culture was built upon. Their vision of the world was deeply influenced by Christianity–in ways that our culture has forgotten.

The Value of Reading Old Books

Another reason to read old Medieval books is because it helps us to not be blinded by the errors of our own time. We are all the products of our culture and our historical moment. 

As C.S. Lewis said: “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and especially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”[5]

By reading old books, and the best of the old books, we can break out of the prison of our own time, and catch a vision of a larger, grander, world. 

These are some of the many themes that students learn in my Christendom: Old Western Culture class at Kepler Education. Inspired by the faithfulness of our brothers and sisters in the past, despite their flaws and mistakes, our children can be inspired to live boldly by faith in our present chaotic world.


Gregory Soderberg teaches online classes for 7th-12th graders at Kepler Education and is a Proctor for the Bible Mesh Institute. He has written for Intellectual Takeout and blogs regularly at The SoderBlog. He is completing a Ph.D. in historical theology at the Free University of Amsterdam.

[1] Details about all these medieval contributions can be found in Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History (West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2016), ch. 4.

[2] Stark, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, 82.

[3] Stark, Bearing False Witness: Debunking Centuries of Anti-Catholic History, 82. Stark draws from Pierre Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 54 and Marc Bloch, Slavery and Serfdom in the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 11; Ibid., 30.

[4] According to Stephen Yarnell, “no role of C.S. Lewis has been more overlooked by the general public than that of a medievalist,” in “The Allegory of Love and the Discarded Image: C.S. Lewis as Medievalist,” in Bruce Edwards, ed., C.S. Lewis: Life, Works, and Legacy, vol. 4, Scholar, Teacher, and Public Intellectual (Westport, CT: Praeger Publications, 2007), p. 117.

[5] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1985), pp. 201-202.

I love investing in students and leaders of all ages through teaching, writing, and speaking. I aim to help people learn lessons from the past, to inspire them to live wisely in the present. At Kepler Education, I teach classes in the Humanities, Classical Rhetoric, Introductory Logic, Leadership & Economics, and Biblical Greek 1.

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