I have a love-hate relationship with the Middle Ages (fifth century fall of Rome to the 1517 Reformation). I love the monastic life, cathedral architecture, and chivalry. I abhor the brutality, disease, and loss of classical knowledge. After the Vandals sacked Rome in 455 CE and then the last Roman Emperor was deposed in 476 CE, Western Europe was plunged into a dark period. Learning centers resided only in the monasteries. The church and state were one, but the clergy set up dividing lines between the spiritual (contemplative) and secular (active) life. It was a divisive period after Rome fell.
Dr. William C. Placher, previously the Charles D. and Elizabeth S. LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities at Wabash College, author of Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005), believes that Augustine’s book, The City of God, helped influence the rise of the spiritual and secular division:
“Augustin remained carefully ambiguous about just who belonged to which city, but in the early Middle Ages most people would have agreed that it was generally those who lived in monasteries and convents who were citizens of the City of God. They were “religious”; they had “vocations.” One image for the heavenly realm was the city of God, but perhaps an even more popular one was the garden of paradise, and the monastery or convent, with its fields and walls and peaceful cycle of daily prayer, was the earthly manifestation of the heavenly garden. In their daily round of chanted psalms and prayers, the nuns and monks approximated the heavenly court where God’s praises are sung eternally, and thus they were already halfway to that other world.” (page 108)
In our modern commercial world, it is interesting to note that the medieval church frowned on trade and certain business transactions:
“Trade and commerce ranked even lower than fighting on the medieval scale. The medieval church consistently condemned usury (loaning money at interest) as a sin, and Aquinas worried at length over whether it is intrinsically dishonest to sell something for more than the price for which you bought it. In such cases one was somehow making money without producing any product, and that looked fishy.” (page 112)
The notion of medieval calling was more linked to the clergy than the masses who labored in secular professions:
“If medieval laypeople thought of themselves as having a calling at all, that calling probably had to do with family rather than job. In our age of worries about overpopulation, we can forget that for most pre-modern societies the challenge was to produce enough children to keep the population from declining. Given the high rate of infant mortality, a typical medieval woman needed to have nine children in order to keep the adult population at stable levels. Work was not about finding fulfillment or even directly contributing to the glory of God; it was mostly about supporting one’s family.” (page 113)
St. Francis (1181/1182 – 1226) and Christine de Pisan (1364 – about 1430) both struggled with their respective callings. They each decided on different ways to serve God. This will be continued in Part II.