HM - March 2019 - Yvonne Seale


“As It Was In the Beginning”: Teaching The History of Medieval Religion in a Time of Faith-Based Conflict

By Yvonne Seale
The State University of New York Geneseo

The European Middle Ages are often framed in contemporary popular culture as the uncomplicated precursors to modern Western societies: monolithically white and Christian, populated by stolid peasants and chivalrous knights whose religious views could be "simplistic" or "primitive," but which were nonetheless merely "traditional" forms of faiths recognizable to us today. This framing is wrong. Medieval Europe was home to sizeable populations of Muslims and Jews and, depending on the period, of practitioners of polytheistic religions. What it meant to be Christian varied from century to century, region to region, and even from person to person. Medieval people were no less complex in their beliefs than their modern counterparts: Some were relatively indifferent practitioners of the faith into which they were born; others developed subtle and intriguing theologies, converted to other religions, or entered into inter-faith relationships. 
Teaching as I do at a public liberal arts college where many history majors intend on a career teaching high school social studies, I believe that it is important to challenge traditional narratives for my students. Together, we focus on moments of uncertainty and complexity, dilemma and contradiction in the medieval religious experience. Exploring these realities and building their religious literacy gives students valuable tools with which to navigate their future careers as educators, where they will likely be surrounded both by people with strong pre-existing religious convictions and by headlines which regularly provide news of national and global religious disputes.2
When faced with the challenge of understanding the immediate causes of contemporary crises—such as the plight of the Muslim Rohingya people, or the recent resurgence in anti-Semitic political discourse—it can be tempting to dismiss the distant past as irrelevant.  What can the Middle Ages usefully provide us with in the twenty-first century, aside from an adjective (“medieval”) with which to describe some of humanity’s worst impulses?   Yet to focus exclusively on the “fierce urgency of now” is to miss an opportunity for students to reflect on the contingency of the present and how it is informed by the complexities of the past.  For history students to study medieval European religious practices, and the social history of religion, is to provide them with tools to better investigate unexamined convictions they hold about how our world works.

Students probably do not expect to encounter inter-faith marriages in medieval Europe, and yet they existed, often despite cultural taboos or legal prohibitions. For example, the princess Urraca Sanchez, daughter of the tenth-century Christian king Sancho II of Pamplona, married Almanzor, the Muslim ruler of al-Andalus, and converted to Islam, while a contemporary Muslim-born namesake, Urraca bint Qasi, married the Christian Fruela II of Asturias.3   Such intermarriages were far from rare among the elite in medieval Iberia; after all, political considerations have long resulted in unlikely bedfellows.  Yet there is also evidence of people further down the social ladder entering into inter-faith relationships, perhaps the result of genuine affection between prospective spouses. Court records from late medieval Poland, for instance, show that a Jewish woman, Jochna of Poznán, was married to a Christian court official, Master Nicholas Mlynek, while documents from medieval Iberia show that sexual, romantic, and marital relationships between Jews and Muslims were far from rare.4  Whether motivated by passion or pragmatism, medieval people were capable of forging longstanding relationships across religious boundaries.  Students often express surprise when they encounter medieval women occupying powerful and public religious roles.  It is true that misogyny restricted women’s agency and opportunities in the Middle Ages. Yet the Jewish women of medieval Ashkenaz counted among their number the cantors Urania bat Abraham and Richenza of Nuremberg, and others who wore talitot [prayer shawls] and tefilin [phylacteries].  Christian women could preside over great estates as the abbesses of wealthy convents, or influence theology and politics as did the twelfth-century saint Hildegard of Bingen.  Medieval women were not simply oppressed by religion, but were active participants in shaping their faith traditions.  

It is a true and depressing fact that the Middle Ages were marked by periods of great religious bigotry and bloodshed: the Inquisition, pogroms, the various Crusades.  Yet medieval people were also capable of recognizing the abilities of those of different faiths.  Discussing how and why people of different faiths could live and work together in relative harmony in the distant past can help students to arrive at new insights about the past.  The Muslim ruler of eleventh-century Grenada selected a Jew, Samuel ibn Naghrillah, to be his vizier or prime minister, and Samuel achieved great power and success in that role.  Medieval people could also recognize the humanity of others across religious and ethnic boundaries: Pope Clement VI himself intervened to try to stop Catholics from slaughtering Jews during the Black Death—only those who had been “seduced by that liar, the Devil,” the pope wrote, would claim that the Jewish people were responsible for the Plague.

Students do expect to encounter witchcraft trials and are frequently taken aback when I tell them that such events were less medieval phenomena than they were early modern ones.  In fact, before the fifteenth century, the Catholic Church demonstrated little interest at all in witches. More people died in just over a year during the seventeenth-century Salem Witch Trials than in all the heresy and witchcraft trials conducted in medieval Ireland combined.7    This contradicts the engrained cultural narrative that frames history as a steady march of progress, with the "barbaric" Middle Ages a blip on the path to modernity and enlightenment.  
The study of medieval religion also allows us to frame questions with and for our students which shake up their sense of other cultures and eras as static.  For instance, students frequently tell me that they want to study the life of Muhammad in order to better understand modern Islamist movements.  This is an understandable impulse—yet, I ask them, would they think that studying the development of the early Christian church is a useful way to better understand the contemporary Ku Klux Klan? Perhaps not.
No religious tradition is monolithic and unchanging. Each instead is as varied as the people, past and present, who practice it. Incorporating the study of medieval religious history into our classrooms in purposeful ways creates space for history students to engage in civic-minded dialogue about how it is not religion alone, but people and contexts, who drive conflict and create peace. 

Yvonne Seale is Assistant Professor of History at SUNY, Geneseo. You can follow Professor Seale on Twitter @yvonneseale or read about her latest research at her blog.

1. Marcus Bull, Thinking Medieval: An Introduction to the Study of the Middle Ages (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005) is an accessible exploration, and dismantling, of many modern stereotypes about the Middle Ages.
2. A Pew Research Center poll released in 2018 showed that most U.S. adults identify with a particular religious denomination or grouping, with 71% describing themselves as "highly" or "somewhat" religious. "The Religious Typology", Pew Research Center, accessed October 21, 2018,
3. Mohamad Ballan, “Intermarriage between Muslim and Christian Dynasties in Early Medieval Iberia (711-1100)”, Ballandalus, accessed October 21, 2018,
4. Tomasz Jurek, "Matrimonium sub fide Judaica contractum: Were mixed Christian-Jewish marriages possible in late medieval Poland?" in Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages: A Cultural History, ed. Piotr Goreck and Nancy W. Deusen (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), 82-93; David Nirenberg, “Love Between Muslim and Jew in Medieval Spain: A Triangular Affair,” in Jews, Muslims, and Christians in and around the Crown of Aragon : essays in honour of Professor Elena Lourie, ed. Harvey J. Hames (Leiden, 2004), 127-5. Avraham Grossman, Pious and Rebellious: Jewish Women in Medieval Europe, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Hanover, N.H.: Brandeis University Press, 2004).
6. For the text of one of Clement VI’s papal bulls on the matter, see Rosemary Horrox, The Black Death (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994), 221-22.
7. Maeve Callan, The Templars, the Witch, and the Wild Irish: Vengeance and Heresy in Medieval Ireland (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2014).
Illustration: A Christian man and a Muslim man play chess. From the 13th-century Libro de los juegos (“Book of Games”) of Alfonso X of Castile. Madrid, Escorial Museum, ms.T.l.6, fol. 64r.

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