Chapters in Western Civilization - Vol. 1

By Columbia College | Go to book overview

II
MEDIEVAL THOUGHT: CHRISTIAN CONCEPTIONS OF LIFE

Kenneth Scott Latourette

The thought of Europe in the Middle Ages and indeed every phase of the life of medieval Europe bore the impress of Christianity. Because the kind of Christianity which contributed to the forming of medieval Europe was already several centuries old when what we call the Middle Ages began, to appreciate its role we must briefly review its background.


I

At the outset Christianity was an obscure sect of Judaism. It faced the competition of scores of other religions that were seeking the allegiance of the peoples of the Roman Empire. As its name indicates, it owed its beginning to Christ, whom his adherents called the Anointed One and proclaimed as the Son of God, one in whom God had made Himself known as He had never been previously known and through whom God had acted for the eternal salvation of men.

The claim seemed preposterous at first, and Christianity appeared to have little prospect of winning against its rivals. In less than a hundred years after the crucifixion of Jesus, little groups of Christians were to be found in many of the cities of the Roman Empire, including Rome itself. Yet the emperors forbade any to become Christians and ordered their officials to exterminate what they branded as a disloyal and subversive movement. As the Christians multiplied, emperors undertook systematic measures to extirpate the Christians. The last of the general persecutions was by Diocletian, beginning in A.D. 303. In a striking reversal of fortunes it was followed in 312 by the conversion of Constantine, who had fought his way to the mastery of the Empire. At first he tolerated both Christianity and paganism, but his im-

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