The Middle Ages (400-1400) - The Critical Thinking Community

The Middle Ages (400-1400)
The Dominance of Theology
Social Conditions in the Middle
The World –
Map of Mediterranean – 9th Century
The World – 12th Century
Medieval Hierarchy
Medieval Castles
Medieval Manor
Inside a Peasant Hut
The Logic of Medieval Life
The basic logic of life in the middle ages is
relatively simple. It was a time in which
life was short, even for those who died of
“natural” causes. The physical world was
dominated by powerful men who used
strength of arms to rape, pillage, and
conquer their way to higher status. The
spirit world, as conceptualized, was filled
with demons, monsters, and corrupting
spirits whose goal it was to seduce and
infect the souls of mortals.
Security of Body and Soul
The medieval person, then, desired two securities:
of the body and of the soul. In order to obtain
these it was necessary to give up either bodily
or mental freedoms.
 In the secular and physical world, the freedom
of movement, of property ownership, and the
freedom to better one’s life was submitted to a
lord in exchange for protection from other lords
and invaders.
 In the religious and spiritual world, the freedom
to question, to form one’s own beliefs, and to
practice religion freely was surrendered to the
church in exchange for protection of the soul
against the devil, and to guarantee a place in
heaven and escape from hell.
Each of these systems, secular and
religious, contained their own distinct
hierarchies in which more and more
freedoms were lost in each successive
step down the ladder. Peasants and serfs,
who made up the vast majority of
humanity, lived at the bottom level. They
lost virtually all of their freedoms, both
physical and mental, in order to simply
Heresy During the Middle Ages
“In fact the zealot, however loving and charitable he might
otherwise be, was taught and believed that compassion for
the sufferings of the heretic was not only a weakness but a
sin. As well might he sympathize with Satan and his demons
writhing in the endless torment of hell. If a just and
omnipotent God wreaked divine vengeance on those of his
creatures who offended him, it was not for man to question
the righteousness of his ways, but humbly to imitate his
example and rejoice when the opportunity to do so was
vouchsafed to him. The stern moralists of the age held it to
be a Christian duty to find pleasure in contemplating the
anguish of the sinner. Gregory the Great, five centuries
before, had argued that the bliss of the elect in heaven would
not be perfect unless they were able to look across the abyss
and enjoy the agonies of their brethren in eternal fire. This
idea was a popular one and was not allowed to grow
obsolete.” – Henry Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of
the Middle Ages, pp 240-241
“The Church thus undertook to coerce the sovereign to
persecution. It would not listen to mercy, it would not hear
of expediency. The monarch held his crown by the tenure
of extirpating heresy, of seeing that the laws were sharp
and were pitilessly enforced. Any hesitation was visited
with excommunication, and if this proved inefficacious, his
dominions were thrown open to the first hardy adventurer
whom the Church would supply with an army for his
overthrow…It was applied from the highest to the lowest,
and the Church made every dignitary feel that his station
was an office in a universal theocracy wherein all interests
were subordinate to the great duty of maintaining the
purity of the faith. The hegemony of Europe was vested in
the Holy Roman Empire, and its coronation was a strangely
solemn religious ceremony in which the emperor was
admitted to the lower orders of the priesthood, and was
made to anathematize all heresy raising itself against the
holy Catholic Church. In handing him the ring, the pope
told him that it was a symbol that he was to destroy
heresy ; and in girding him with the sword, that with it he
was to strike down the enemies of the Church.” - Henry
Charles Lea, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle
“One of the most efficacious means for hunting down
heresy was the “Edict of Faith,” which enlisted the
people in the service of the Inquisition and required
every man to be an informer. From time to time a certain
district was visited and an edict issued commanding
those who knew anything of any heresy to come forward
and reveal it, under fearful penalties temporal and
spiritual. In consequence, no one was free from the
suspicion of his neighbours or even of his own family.
“No more ingenious device has been invented to
subjugate a whole population, to paralyze its intellect,
and to reduce it to blind obedience. It elevated delation
to the rank of high religious duty.”
The process employed in the trials of those accused of
heresy in Spain rejected every reasonable means for the
ascertainment of truth. The prisoner was assumed to be
guilty, the burden of proving his innocence rested on
him; his judge was virtually his prosecutor. – John
Bagnell Bury, A History of Freedom of Thought pp 60-61
Methods of Torture
The only restriction on inquisitors was that they could not break the skin.
Here are some ways in which they worked around this:
 The Judas Chair: This was a large pyramid-shaped "seat." Accused
heretics were placed on top of it, with the point inserted into their
anuses or genitalia, then very, very slowly lowered onto the point with
ropes. The effect was to gradually stretch out the opening of choice in an
extremely painful manner.
 Waterboarding consists of immobilizing a person on their back with the
head inclined downward and pouring water over the face and into the
breathing passages. Through forced suffocation and inhalation of water,
the subject experiences the process of drowning and is made to believe
that death is imminent. Waterboarding carries the risks of extreme pain,
damage to the lungs, brain damage caused by oxygen deprivation,
injuries (including broken bones) due to struggling against restraints, and
even death.
 The Head Vice: The head was put into a specially fitted vice, and
tightened until teeth were crushed, bones cracked and eventually the
eyes popped out of their sockets.
 The Pear: A large bulbous gadget is inserted in either the mouth, anus
or vagina. A lever on the device then causes it to slowly expand whilst
inserted. Eventually points emerge from the tips. (Apparently, internal
bleeding doesn't count as "breaking the skin.")
 The Wheel: Heretics were strapped to a wheel, and their bones were
clubbed into shards.
Methods of Execution
Sawing: Heretics were hung upside-down and sawed
apart down the middle, starting at the crotch.
Disembowelment: A small hole is cut in the gut, then
the intestines are drawn out slowly and carefully,
keeping the victim alive for as much of the process as
The Stake: Depending on how unrepentant a heretic
might be, the process of burning at the stake could vary
wildly. For instance, a fairly repentant heretic might be
strangled, then burned. An entirely unrepentant heretic
could be burned over the course of hours, using green
wood or simply by placing them on top of hot coals and
leaving them there until well done.
Medieval Education
Scholasticism: From 1050 C.E. to 1450
Sought to rediscover the “natural light of
Attempted to distinguish between secular
and religious knowledge
Believed that insights based on reason
would not conflict with scripture
If there was a contradiction, revelation
overruled reason
Was based on Aristotle’s metaphysics
Did not seek to gain new knowledge but
to integrate old knowledge
Influential Thinkers in the Middle
Thomas Aquinas
Key idea: Aquinas was concerned with
defending the truth of Christianity. He
based his thinking on a set of
unquestioned, and unquestionable,
assumptions. He then used reason and
logic in order to “prove” the absolute truth
of those assumptions. If his assumptions
are granted, his reasoning is powerful and
moving. If those assumptions are
questioned, however, much of his
argumentation falls apart.
Thomas Aquinas
Objection 1. It would seem that the definition of
person given by Boethius (De Duab. Nat.) is
insufficient--that is, "a person is an individual
substance of a rational nature." For nothing
singular can be subject to definition. But “person"
signifies something singular. Therefore person is
improperly defined.
Reply to Objection 1. Although this or that
singular may not be definable, yet what belongs to
the general idea of singularity can be defined; and
so the philosopher (De Praedic., cap. De
substantia) gives a definition of first substance;
and in this way Boethius defines person.
Significance of Thomas Aquinas to
Critical Thinking
As the one of the best minds of the Middle
Ages, Aquinas is remarkable if only for his
sharp mind and ability to reason through
He was committed to disciplined,
systematic thinking, as well as lifelong
What can we learn from the Middle
That it is possible to reverse and become less
critical, less open-minded, less scientific, etc.
That a society which does not allow for freedom
of thought, is strictly hierarchical, and extremely
insulated and isolated, is not likely to produce
much critical thought.
That belief has incredible power to control the
mind and to limit its potential.
That critical thought cannot thrive when
anything is held “sacred” and unquestionable.

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