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Medieval History Questions to Consider When Reading the Sources

History 253 The Medieval Church

History 301 Martyrdom as Social Protest: Resistance Sumission and Honor

History 351Medieval Monasticism


History Department

Medieval Sourcebook

N.B.: Use these questions when preparing your weekly reading and writing the short exercise for the class. You may find yourself focusing on certain problem(s); this is good. Explore these questions consistently in your reading of the sources so that you may write up your analyses in your term paper and final.

What are the attractions of Christianity? What did “salvation” mean to the peoples of late antiquity and the early middle ages? If you were living Augustine’s time, what problems would you be facing that might make Christianity attractive or repugnant?

After the conversion of Constantine (and the legislation of Theodosius), Christianity becomes the religion of the eastern and western empires---pagan practices are outlawed, through they do indeed continue. The problem then becomes conversion. What does it mean to be an “authentic” Christian? Need one be a monk? Or to what extent can one make accommodations with the world?

In our sources, note how one finds regional variations in Christian practices. What of pre-existent pagan rituals and practices can be absorbed into Christianity? Christianity is not monolithic, but there are limits. What are they?

How does belief in immortality change one's behavior and attitude toward life in the world?

Watch the growth of guilt and conscience and the definition of sin. What forces determine moral standards? To what extent is conscience and guilt an issue in conversion and religious faith?

Pay close attention to issues of free will and the possibility of effective human action in the world. Use Augustine as a baseline. To what extent do you find medieval writers accepting or modifying his bleak prognostications about the human condition? What do you think accounts for the changes you see?

What purpose does a church serve? Do Christians need one? What are the advantages and disadvantages a church offers? What happens if people don't have a church?

What is the social purpose of hell? Note how hell becomes more elaborate as time goes on, as does purgatory and practices of penance. What’s going on?

How and why does the outlook on the world change on the part of writers? What social, political, and economic forces are at work? What other cultural or intellectual viewpoints must Christians come to terms with? What allows Christians either to accommodate or reject the world?

How can the church strengthen and shore up secular authority? How can it weaken it?

What is the holy? What can the holy man or woman accomplish? What are the signs of the holy?

How does the definition of the saint change or remain constant as we move through time? What factors are changing this definition?

What constitutes a sin? How and why do these definitions change? What does the evolution of the concept of sin tell you about the society?

What is a miracle? How does the definition of a miracle change through time? What do the changes suggest?

What is the purpose of sacrifice? Who or what is sacrificed What constitutes a victim? What is the relationship between the community and the victim? What place does sacrifice occupy in Christianity? Note how virtually all good Christians, in whatever walk of life they follow, can see themselves as sacrifices, whether married folk, who suffer daily trials like Job, to martyrs (who imitate Christ), to saints (who also imitate Christ), to soldiers on Crusade (who liken themselves to martyrs), to lovers (like Lancelot, who likens himself to a martyr!).

Is faith opposed to the rational? What is the significance of a yes or no answer?

What conditions in medieval Europe posed the greatest danger to the church? Why? What strategies seemed most productive or least productive for solving problems?

What justifies power in the church? Is it different from secular power? How and why?

How important is the individual versus the community in the medieval church? Why? What pressures push the church to develop in one way or another?

Have you heard of the expression, "The Medieval Vision"? If so, what do you think is meant by it?

Watch the conscious and unconscious connections writers reveal in their works. What do these associations reveal to you?

How does the church shape the political, economic, and social institutions of medieval Europe?

What is role does the church play with respect to families, marriage, kin and kingship, inheritance?

What patterns and problems of the medieval church do you see existing today?

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Copyright © 2002 Mount Holyoke College. This page created by Professor Carole Straw ( and maintained by Maria Carolina Camargo. Last modified on September 18, 2002.