>Medieval "Catholics" part 2

>Thanks for the comments on the last post. After seeing references to medieval “Catholics” in *two* scholarly books, I thought maybe I was the only one who thought this was wrong. But now I see that it’s not just me. And Janice’s comment summed up nicely why it’s problematic.

Richard Scott Nokes linked to the post and mentioned that it’s one of his pet peeves, as well as something his students commonly do. My students do it, too, but usually it’s only one or two per class. This may have something to do with the large Catholic population of Rust Belt; if the students went to Catholic school, they probably got some church history (well, I did in Catholic school). But at any rate, one or two students per term is enough to notice. Usually it’s in papers and I write in the margins that the term is anachronistic for the period, that it’s not used until much later, that “Christian” is the appropriate term.

But maybe I should bring this up earlier? I spend all semester referring to “medieval Christianity” or “medieval Christians,” and yet “Catholic” still pops up every now and then. Meanwhile, once in a while (although not often) an evangelical Protestant student assumes that medieval people were also evangelicals since for some people “Christian” has a narrower meaning (one not operative in the Middle Ages). Or they get confused in some other way because I keep talking about “medieval Christians.”

So…I’m wondering if there’s some way I can head this off at the pass. Every now and then I point out that medieval Christianity was different in many ways from modern Christianity in any form, so no one should feel at either a disadvantage or advantage if they come from a Christian background or not. So I tell them to think of it the way they would ancient Greek or Roman religion — as narrative. I do this mostly for the non-religious students and for the students who’ve been anesthetized by too much religious school (as I was), to free them from their discomfort or knee-jerk aversion. Too often the non-religious students either don’t think they have standing to talk, or else are too automatically dismissive. But also, I want the Christian students, whatever their denomination, to know that they may have some useful knowledge, but their beliefs and practices are not exactly the same as medieval ones. I want them all to see things fresh.

But anyway, now I’m wondering if I need to make that talk a regular feature and elaborate in some ways about the continuities and discontinuities between medieval Christianity and later forms, including why we don’t talk about medieval “Catholics.” Or should I just deal with it when it comes up? What do you all think?

In the meantime, I’m reviewing one of the books I mentioned, so now I feel more empowered to bring the issue up in the review if there’s space.


10 thoughts on “>Medieval "Catholics" part 2

  1. >I do spend some time establishing the background of medieval Christianity in my history classroom (usually in the medieval, Reformation and British surveys). Surprisingly few know anything about the beliefs and customs of medieval Christianity, even those who see themselves as direct inheritors through the Catholic church. A vocabulary list is also good and then encouraging students to define what’s meant by catechism, doctrine, priest, monk, mass, eucharist, confession, etc. A number of students continue to bring their prejudices to the table, writing hectoring essays about this or that obvious abuse by the “evil Catholics” or the “evil Protestants”, say.What helps, I find, is to use the language of construction and community practice. Most of my students are somewhat familiar with the idea that there’s a social construction of gender or race, say, so it can work for some thoughtful individuals. The greatest difficulty is taking the student whose religious identification is so strong that they can’t step back and look at the historical practice of Christianity dispassionately. To these students, there are historical good guys (people who practice belief they way the student does today) and bad guys (people who deviate from what student has learned as right) and that’s that.

  2. >1st day of my intro medieval course is all about destroying preconceptions. No “Catholic,” no “Church,” imp. of Bible in writings (I teach the survey with primary sources), collective rather than individualistic society, etc. We even talk about fantasy and how they weren’t all dirty…I’ve found that being that explicit, right at the beginning, heads off a bunch of potential problems.

  3. >Like Janice and Matt, I have a “medieval church” spiel I give usually the first or second day of class, in which I explicitly explain that there was only one church in the Middle Ages and while that religion was what we now tend to call Roman Catholic, there was no other alternative then, so it wasn’t Catholicism then, it was just Christianity – the only way to be. (Then someone brings up eastern Christianity and confuses things – but whatever differences between east and west, they were still all Christian.)As Janice points out, this never convinces the students who believe that deviation from their form of Christianity (almost invariably Protestant) is “wrong” and therefore not actually Christian, but it seems to get the idea across to most of them. I do often find myself having to remind them at some point in the quarter that Protestantism didn’t exist, but I rarely get students calling medieval people Catholics. (I suppose one of the few advantages of teaching the Middle Ages overwhelmingly to Protestant students is that since those medieval people were “Catholics” – which I think they know even though they don’t call them such – the students don’t tend to think of their own brand of Christianity as giving them much insight into medieval beliefs. Except, of course, that when they deviate from the present they’re “wrong.” :-P)

  4. >I use Church and Christendom, but also use Nicene Christians … the word Catholic doesn’t really appear till the Reformation in my classes. I’m teaching Central and High MA in the fall, and I think that I will probably be using Christian and Church, except when I have to differentiate between Roman and Eastern (where I may use Orthodox — what do you think?)

  5. >… I write in the margins that the term is anachronistic for the period, that it’s not used until much later …But isn’t this equally true of the term “medieval”? I mean, academic discourse doesn’t normally mandate that when we talk about past societies, we’re only allowed to use terms that members of those societies would have used; such an expectation would be absurd. I’d say that people really only worry about this issue when a select few terms are involved. (I’m perfectly willing to grant that this particular term is problematic, but it seems to be problematic mainly because it invites students to draw a false analogy between medieval and contemporary religious practices, rather than because it’s an anachronism per se.)

  6. >i obviously don’t have anything to add regarding teaching and presenting the material, but i just want to say that after reading your post, dammit, i wish i’d had you as a professor or teacher or TA somewhere along the way. the degree of considersation and care you put into your work is inspiring. your students are lucky to have you, and i say that not as a friend but as someone who could have used more teachers like you. maybe i would have actually read the books ;-P

  7. >Thanks to all the historians who chimed in. I wonder, though, how many lit profs do the same myth-debunking on the first day. I used to. Or rather, I’d start with the question, “What does the word ‘medieval’ mean to you” and go from there. But now I start with a poem usually one that unsettles at least some expectations (something bawdy, for example). But maybe I should work in time for the myth-busting, too.Fretful P – OK, point taken. But those margins are very small, you know! 🙂 But maybe the comment should be “The preferred term is ‘Christian,’ since modern Catholicism has a number of significant difference from medieval Christianity.” better?

  8. >I haven’t checked in here for a while and now I think I’m about to scatter-gun it with comments, but… starting with this one, just an anecdote. A while ago I met a US prof. (in your sense not the UK one) at a conference, who as the sole medievalist at a large university I shan’t name, got landed with the medieval survey lectures even though the person in question is an art historian. They told me that at the end of the course, they would inevitably get a few students complaining to (and one or two congratulating) them for “championing Catholicism”. Because to mention something is to endorse it, obviously. Said prof. was very frustrated in their report of this. “I’m an atheist! But people in the Middle Ages weren’t. I can’t get them to separate their religion from the subject!” and so on. But of course the Church, any Church, preaches continuity…

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