The medieval world conjures up all sorts of images, but it’s the unusual ones that often stick in our minds: a woman kneeling at a saint’s shrine, groups whipping themselves, monks wearing hair shirts—and on it goes.

Yet in spite of what seems eccentric to us, medieval Europe was a thoroughly Christian culture, and as such, it’s a culture we should be able to understand, and one whose legacies we should be able to appreciate.

To talk about the “age of faith,” Christian History spoke with John Van Engen, professor of history and head of the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

Christian History: What are some of the greatest misunderstandings modern Christians have about medieval religion?

John Van Engen: First, they assume that Catholicism was a monolithic system, from pope down to individuals, and that it was this way for a thousand years. But from a.d. 500 to 1517, European Catholicism underwent enormous changes; there were periods of centralization and of decentralization.

Furthermore, in a world that had poor transportation, no televisions, and no telephones, the idea of a pope handing out orders that would be obeyed at the local level everywhere—well, that’s something of a dream. When you think about medieval religion, you have to think in regional terms: Catholicism in southern France, in England, in northern Italy, and so on. Though the vast majority of Christians shared the same beliefs and some common forms of worship, there was great diversity in the Middle Ages.

Second, a great many moderns think medieval religion is mostly about “superstition,” e.g., the cult of the saints, and people crossing themselves repeatedly.

Why are such misunderstandings so common?

Our image of the Middle Ages has been colored in two ways. First by Reformation preaching and teaching. Protestants tended to paint the Catholic Middle Ages in very black terms in order to justify the kind of radical changes they sought.

In addition, we are heirs of the Enlightenment much more than we realize. The Enlightenment exalted reason, and thus repudiated revelation, faith, religious ritual, and rote learning as ignorant superstitions. That has colored our ability to appreciate the medieval religious culture, which tried to base itself on revelation as much as reason.

Rigorous fasting and self-flagellation seem eccentric. Were they?

People in the Middle Ages had a strong sense they were to love God not just with their minds but also with their bodies. By disciplining the body and its passions, they believed they disciplined their souls, pleased God, and prepared themselves to receive grace.

That’s why we see so much abstaining from sex, praying all night, walking barefooted several miles to a shrine.

They believed the truly Christian life involves a certain measure of self-denial, which includes the mortification of the flesh. Our sinfulness lies not only in wills but also in passions gone astray. So you have to bring your whole bodily regimen in line with Christ.

It isn’t enough to avoid punching your neighbor in the nose, you also have to rid yourself of anger. How do you discipline that? They had this idea (not so modern it turns out) that you get at the inner part of you through (a) prayer and confession and (b) disciplining the body—fasting, going on a pilgrimage, even torturing the body. In this way, they would repress or drive out things like lust, gluttony, and greed.

For many people, these activities became self-punishments or satisfaction for sin. To Protestants this is a misunderstanding of Christ’s atonement. But there was also that other dimension of discipline that makes sense to most of us.

So if we just tried to understand medieval religion, we would identify with it more?

Yes and no. Yes because whenever we try to understand another age, we come to appreciate some of its strengths. But no because there are many features Protestants will still find disturbing.

for example, take the cult of the saints. In addition to prayers to the Trinity and to Jesus, medieval people prayed to the saints, and in some instances this moved into worship of the saints. Or they would spend more time at a shrine of Mary than at their parish church.

What were the greatest challenges medieval priests faced in teaching people the Christian faith?

Teaching an illiterate culture was one; helping people, most of whom did not understand Latin, appreciate the Latin Mass, was another. A third was eradicating superstition.

Before Christianity came to Europe, various forms of superstition and paganism were all that people knew. By 1100 much of Western Europe was formally converted, but pagan superstition had a way of hanging on. If you put yourself in the shoes of a medieval person, you can see why.

Let’s say your wife is with child, and the pregnancy is going poorly. You’re worried both mother and child could die during birth. You pray to Jesus, and more likely, you pray earnestly to Mary, who was thought to look out for women in difficult childbirth.

But also in your village, there’s a woman who says, “Whenever we’ve had this problem, we boil certain herbs, lay them on the mother-to-be’s tummy, and say a certain charm—and that really helps.”

People didn’t see this as contrary to their faith. It was like going to the drug store and getting a little extra help. But the priest had to try to convince people this was unhealthy spiritually.

What would have been some of the great successes of the medieval church in this regard?

By the sixteenth century, all of Europe (apart from the Jews) was in principle Christian, and many people were devout believers—and all this in an extended area that a thousand years earlier had only a handful of Christians.

This produced a widespread ethical outlook. In spite of rampant illiteracy, the absence of radio and television, a poor system of transportation, and stubborn regionalism, there was a commonly shared understanding of how people should live and act. This is particularly amazing because today we assume that to teach moral standards to an entire culture requires strongly centralized government, mass communication, and literacy.

What are some of the legacies the medieval church has left us?

There are a number of cultural legacies, like the modern university. The University of Paris, of Oxford, of Cambridge, and others were all founded in the Middle Ages. The medieval church was anxious to have an educated clergy who would in turn educate the laity. But there was also a drive to organize knowledge and understand the created universe, and this drive arises directly out of medieval theology.

There are also modern religious assumptions that arise out of the Middle Ages. For instance, we Christians assume that the culture around us ought to be Christian. This was not an expectation of the early church, which assumed the world around it would remain mostly hostile to the faith. But today many Christians are angry and frustrated when our culture is not Christian. That’s a medieval world view.

Another modern assumption begun in the Middle Ages: the death of Christ should be at the center of Christian faith. We forget there are systems of Christianity with other emphases, like the Orthodox with their concern about the Trinity. The notion that the Christian faith hinges on the suffering and death of Christ, and the forgiveness of sin, is a special contribution of the western medieval church.

When the Reformers came along, they changed this theology in certain crucial ways, but they still assumed the central theme was the passion of Christ—not the Trinity or even the Resurrection.

You allude to justification by faith. Was this doctrine forgotten in the Middle Ages?

Medieval theologians taught that faith was an essential step in being made right with God. But at the popular level, people tended to take faith for granted. They grew up with it. Everybody they knew was a Christian. So they concentrated on good works.

In addition, they listened to the apostle Paul. He talks a great deal not only about faith but also about love, and the end of each of his letters is full of specific admonitions to do good works. So, for the medieval person, the central concern was on making faith manifest in love.

Once you begin worrying about whether your good works are good enough, you can soon drive yourself spiritually crazy. There’s a lot of evidence of this kind of unhealthy intensity in the late Middle Ages.

You’ve studied the Middle Ages for decades as a member of the Christian Reformed Church. How has it impacted your faith?

I have a more balanced notion about the relationship of the mind and body, between the cognitive side of faith and the part that expresses itself in worship and ethics. I’ve been able to blend many medieval insights into a belief system that is still in essence Calvinist.