How Medieval Society Created Religious Sects Sean Hill
2 When one thinks of medieval religion, ideas of an indelible entity that shaped society, kingdoms and trade throughout the world come to mind. Many of these mental links are true, but we do not often consider how religion was changed by the society in which it existed. Society caused religion to break away from the ideals in which it was rooted. It is for this reason that we read about rulers killing people even when it goes against the teachings of their religion and Monks secluding themselves from society when their religious books exhort them to be in the world. Religion was not an unwavering constant with alwaysdependable rules. Religion changed with its society, sometimes for the worse. For the purposes of this paper, religion will be defined as the rules and doctrines associated with a certain religion and the practices of its leadership. Specifically, I am proposing that sects within medieval religions were caused by the society in which they existed. Thus, this paper will look at how religion was transmitted in the middle ages and how societies changed religion through these transmissions.
I. METHODS FOR THE SPREAD OF RELIGION In the study of how medieval society changed religion, an appropriate place to start is with an overview of how religion was transmitted to different societies. In almost every situation, the three main conduits for this transmission were military expansion, missionary work, and trade. Many Christian kings, Moslem rulers and Buddhist Khans used military conquest as a way to expand their religion. For example, in the Koran, Islam condemns
3 friendship with people of other religions. We can see this in the section on Jews and Christians in the Koran: Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. They are friends with one another. Whoever of you seeks their friendship shall become one of their number. God does not guide the wrongdoers. (The Western World p. 60) Because of this ban on relations with nonMoslems, the number of Moslems converted through missionary efforts was comparatively small. The Islamic state expanded very rapidly after the death of Muhammad through remarkable successes in the form of military conquest and conversion…Muslims were obliged to extend the faith to unbelievers and to defend Islam from attack. (Brummett 84) Another example of military expansion of religion was the Emperor Clovis, who ruled around the turn of the 5th century A.D. Clovis is perhaps the epitome of evangelization through military expansion and I will discuss him further in the next section of this paper. Not only were Christian ideas spread through conquest, but Nestorian Christians also evangelized into China and India. We have records of a Christian presence in this area from as early as 638 A.D. Because of the wide range of people who ascribed to the Christian faith, there were many instances of evangelization occurring in all three ways of dissemination. Being rich in natural resources as well as having one of the most influential trade routes in history, Asia is a prime example of religious thoughts being transmitted both from east to west and from west to east through trade. Silk was the currency of the East and the crosscultural medium provided by the silk route was a means for the spread of religion. Just as was the case with all trade routes, the silk route spread all sorts of
4 religious ideas, from ancient beliefs such as Confucianism to contemporary ones such as Islam.
II. RELIGION CHANGED BY SOCIETY Having studied how religion was transmitted from place to place, we can study the main argument of this paper, which is that the society caused the beliefs of medieval religion to stray from their holy books or original teachings. As mentioned above, the Emperor Clovis, who ruled around the turn of the 5th century A.D., is perhaps the epitome of evangelization through military expansion. Clovis, being convinced that he was a soldier for God on earth, campaigned throughout mainland Europe, defeating peoples whom he thought to be the enemies of God. This notion was completely against the teaching of the Bible and the early Christian apostles. The early Christian apostles spread their religion by visiting other towns, reasoning, praying for and doing charitable acts to other people. We can see Clovis’ mindset through a prayer asking for direction in conquering his enemies: Lord God, if You are on my side and if You have decreed that this people of unbelievers, who have always been hostile to You, are to be delivered into my hands, deign to show me a propitious sign. (The Western World p. 11) The society in which Clovis lived was one of war and one that was ruled by the ultimate goal of acquiring power through taking land. We can see this in the way Europe was filled with powerhungry leaders and this mindset obviously carried over to the Roman Church. This excerpt is from the Dictatus Papae written under the rulership of Gregory VII.
5 …12. That he may depose Emperors. …19. That he himself may be judged by no one. …22. That the Roman Church has never erred, nor ever, by the witness of Scripture, shall err to all eternity. (Meridians p. 41) From these rules, a shift towards following the example of contemporary powerhungry political leaders is apparent. If it weren’t for this concept that was deeply engrained in Clovis’ mind, he would not have strayed from the teachings of his holy book. This was only the beginning of a powerhungry philosophy that carried on throughout the middle ages up until the time of the Reformation, which created an enormous rift in the Christian church. Thus, Clovis is a prime example of how society created sects within religion. A very obvious and intriguing instance of religion straying from its teaching because of its environment is found in The Jesus Sutra. The Emperor is who he is because of his previous lives which have led to his being placed in this fortunate position. 27He is chosen by God, so cannot call himself God, because he has been appointed by God to do what is expected. (Jesus Sutra 3) This quote clearly exhibits the author’s belief in reincarnation. Since Christianity does not advocate belief in reincarnation, it is clear that reincarnation was fused into Christian doctrine because it was such a big part of Oriental thought. What makes the Jesus Sutra so fascinating is the fact that throughout Europe, the story of the Christian gospel had remained virtually unaltered as it spread from region to region and even across tribal, lingual, ethnic, and cultural borders. With its appearance in Asia, the Christian message underwent changes to make it more understandable, and even Buddha’s name was in the new retelling:
6 The Messiah was orbited by the Buddhas and arhats [disciples of the Buddha who have attained semidivine status]. 4Looking down he saw the suffering of all that is born, and so he began to teach. (Jesus Sutra 2) 3
We can see how in an effort to reduce cultural estrangement, Nestorian Christians made a societal translation of the story of Jesus’ life. This translation included reincarnation, and the presence of Buddha (a previously pagan god to the Christians). The Asian society into which Christianity was transmitted caused the Christian message to deviate from its original message. Jews were often mistreated sometimes to the extent that they fought back against their oppressors. In On the Insolence of the Jews, Agobard of Lyon recounts alleged oppression of Christians on the part of Jews and those in support of Jews: [T]hey [the Jews] lie to simple Christians and boast that they are dear to you because of the patriarchs. (The Western World p. 100) Whether the Jews were actually lying is not known to be a fact, but the things that this document claims the Jewish leaders did, even if they are exaggerated, are against the teachings of Jewish scripture. Even in Islam, change was present. In Spain, Moslem society still had contacts with the religious body of Islam, so isolation was not the main proponent for the change that took place. Instead, the religion was changed by the Spanish culture in which it existed. As a result, some of the actions of Moslem leadership did not always reflect commandments of the Koran. For example, the Jewish leader Samuel haNagid Nagrela was utilized by the Spanish Caliphate and given a high position in its government. In the Koran, the attitude towards Jews and Christians is one of toleration, but not respect. The fact that the Spanish Caliphate thought highly enough of this Jewish leader to put him in
7 a very high position in the government shows somewhat of a disconnect with parts of the Koran Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. They are friends with one another. Whoever of you seeks their friendship shall become one of their number. God does not guide the wrongdoers. (Western World 60) Believing that God does not guide wrongdoers does not lead to putting them into a high position in government. This is an explicit example of society causing religion to stray from its original teaching.
III. CONCLUSION Whether they were spread through military expansion, mission work or trade, religious ideas existed in all different environments. Far from being institutions of steadfastness, religions changed with their environments. In all of the examples above, we can see how religions strayed from the teachings of their holy books to accommodate their surroundings, creating groups with differing beliefs within each religion. Thus, it is clear that medieval religion was defined by the context in which it subsisted.
8 Sources Used
Agobard of Lyon. On the Insolence of the Jews in The Western World. Pearson Custom Publishing, Boston. 2002. Brummett, Palmira. Civilization: Past & Present. Pearson Custom Publishing, New York. 2006 Gregory of Tours. The Life of Clovis in The Western World Pearson Custom Publishing, Boston. 2002. The Jesus Sutra. Accessed September 19, 2006. http://vista.courses.ufl.edu/webct /cobalt. The Koran in The Western World. Pearson Custom Publishing, Boston. 2002. Pope Gregory VII. Dictatus Papae in Meridians Sources in World History. Pearson Custom Publishing, Boston. 2006.