When Constantine legalised Christianity, beliefs pretty much became Romanised. Women were no longer permitted to have leadership roles (like evidence suggests they did in Christianity’s beginnings) and a hierarchical structure like the Roman military emerged., e.g., allegiance to a Pope, Archbishops, Bishops, Deacons, and priests being consolidated; all of these titles were “Father” positions. Amongst the changes, Constantine outlawed male castration, which some priests were doing to help them refrain from sexually immorality (this practice can also be found in other ancients cults that mandated priests had to be eunuchs, such as the Cybele cult).
Other reforms to Christianity brought about by Constantine included the definitive stance on Mary being a Virgin, and discouraging men from marrying (but this was not enforced; that came much later). There was also a lot of debate about the doctrine of the trinity, i.e., whether or not God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were One or if they were three entities. After several decades/centuries of arguing, council meetings organised by Constantine (the Nicaea council) to put an end to the debate. Consequently, it became canonised law that the Trinity as One was the only acceptable Christian belief. From then on, anyone who disagreed was an outcast, moreover, a heretics who would burn in hell (less dramatically, these people were also called Arians). The “us” and “them” mentality of Romanised Christianity was strong.
Outside of the rigid formal Christian structure were monks, friars, brothers, nuns, and mothers. Unlike men, nuns were not permitted to pledge a lifelong commitment to Christ and become “Mothers” until they were over forty. In other words, when they were beyond child rearing age; it was presumed that if a woman was still unmarried at that age then no man wanted her, therefore, they could be Christ’s brides. (Loose connections between Christian covenants and the Roman cult of Vestal Virgins can be made, e.g., higher social status compared to other women.)
Coinciding with the fall of Rome, was the destruction of Alexandria’s library, several pandemics, and other factors. Formal education across Europe dwindled. Throughout the period, often referred to as the Dark Ages (c.476 – 1000CE), education took a back seat. The emergence of the feudal system created a clear divide between the minority who were of noble status, who ruled over the majority, the peasants. Nobility were viewed as having superior status in an almost God-like fashion that is comparable to the Ancient Greek beliefs that people with education deserved to have control over others (as described by Aristotle). The prospect that if everyone was educated, then everyone would be God-like doesn’t appear to have registered being as a possible reality.
In my imagination, a peasant’s life was one of hard labour, every day. Both men and women had to toil the land and work hard just to ensure food supplies were sufficient to stay alive. Education, for both males and females was done at home and/or community setting. Aside from learning a livelihood, learning consisted of things like songs recitals, dancing, herbal remedies, and hearing Bible stories at Sunday church services, albeit the latter were told in Latin and the congregation may have no idea what was being said, but if they were in a Cathedral or their humble village church had pictures on the wall, then their minds could absorb religious iconography like impressions of heaven and hell. Failure to attend Sunday services could result in being imprisoned. There was zero tolerance on missing Church. Even if an emergency arose like cattle giving birth needing assistance, attendance at Church was mandatory; if the cattle and/or foul died then it was considered God’s will.
It is during this period that images of Jesus as a youthful healer waving a wand disappeared. Instead, we start to see a middle aged man with a beard. As shown below, the Byzantine depiction of Jesus was grand and domineering, more like Zeus (or Jupiter) than Apollo.
Byzantine depiction of Jesus, created with mosaics
Formal education, that was required to become a doctor, statesman, or clergyman was only within the reach of 5% of the population (in regions like modern day Italy it was closer to 10%). From the 5-10% of the population who were educated, most were male. And like in antiquity, education was intertwined with religion.
For most of human history, formal education means to be initiated into some form of theology. It is only in very recent times that attempts have been made to make education non-secular.
Boys who were judged to be too weak, vague, indifferent, or other to be of use in the fields or military, may have been sent to monasteries. Beginning as an altar boy, a priest’s assistant, young males could rise through the ranks of Church-based education/indoctrination. It is also from monasteries that the cliched image of monks meticulously and painstakingly created copies of the Bible with illuminated letters emerges. This practice of being in a semi-meditative state while contemplating the “Word of God” through artistry was a form of education. In some cases, women also copied the bible in covenants. (Stay tuned for a blog dedicated to the history of Bible reproductions.)
Example of handwritten Bible, c.1410
Some people who entered Christian orders did so of their own free will, while others had other pressures that forced them. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is amongst the category who entered of his own accord. In fact Aquinas’ family were highly alarmed about him joining what they considered to be a cult. They tried, but failed, to convince him to live a “normal life”. (More about Aquinas soon).
From about the Middle Ages onwards, Church education became more formalised through a system called scholasticism (from the Latin schola which means school). It was a dogmatic, rote-based approach in which students were educated under the guidance of their teacher who was presumed to be authority on all matters. In contrast, ancient Greek schools, like Plato’s Academy, included lively debates about topics and learning was published in dialogues to demonstrate various points of view had been explored. It is almost as though a belief had been formed that there was no longer a need to debate issues because the so-called truth of all matters had been settled, primarily by Aristotle. That is to say, almost all teachings were based upon Aristotle’s lecture notes. (See Is Aristotle Overrated? for more details.) Scholastic education dominated from the Middle Ages through to the scientific revolution of the late Renaissance.
Exactly what peasants and people without a formal education believed is difficult to form conjecture about. It could be speculated that much wisdom about nature, the rhythm of the seasons, and pagan superstitions continued. If so, then this knowledge could be viewed as being hidden from official historical records and accounts for yet another aspect of occultism.
PART SEVEN: Dominican Monks & Thomas Aquinas