The Making of the Middle Ages by R.W. Southern

I have been doing some reading in preparation for the class I’ll be taking later this month at Yale.  I made it into their summer program for teachers about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  One of the suggested readings is R.W. Southern’s The Making of the Middle Ages which describes how various aspects of what we consider Medieval European culture came to be. Mr. Southern’s book, though it’s really  meant for undergraduate history students, is highly readable.  Reading it, I can’t help but compare it with how Medieval Europe is presented in the text book I use with my 7th grade students.  Here is one example.

The textbook I use does not mention the  Council at Rheims summoned by Pope Leo IX in 1049.  The one chapter on the Medieval church states that it was the largest landholder in Europe by 1050 but does not explain that the church in 1050 was largely controlled by the nobility who purchased bishoprics, a practice known as the sin of simony.  Simony itself is not discussed until the chapter on the Reformation.  The textbook implies that the church was an independent institution from it’s beginnings, but it struggled with a rising nobility which wanted to take power away from the church.

This is what I learned about the same subject from reading R.W. Southern’s book The Making of the Middle Ages:

By the eleventh century A.D. church offices were commonly purchased by wealthy nobles as a means of extending their power.  (The papacy itself had likely been purchased by Pope Benedict IX.)  A typical nobleman would ensure that his sons held as many church offices as he could buy them in order to control the land each office held.  The church existed to serve the needs and desires of the nobility who controlled it.  It was the largest landowner in Europe, but it was basically controlled by the nobility.

However, in 1049 Pope Leo IX dealt a severe blow to the practice of simony when he held a council at Rheims, France.  Rheims was to be the last stop on a tour Leo IX was taking of his homeland and was meant to end with the removal of the remains of St. Regimus and their reinternment at the high alter of a newly constructed monastery dedicated to him.

Pope Leo had other plans.  He summoned a large council of Bishops for October 1, St. Regimus feast day.  When the day arrived, the body of St. Regimus was paraded through the town before an enthusiastic crowd, but instead of taking the body into the monastery Leo had it placed above the alter in the church where the council of Bishops was to take place.  The following day he insisted that all of the bishops and abbots present declare whether or not they had paid any money for their office.

A quarter of those in attendance had done just that.  Imagine being forced to admit you had committed the sin of simony to the Pope who stands before the body of an actual saint.  One of the bishops fled during the night and was excommunicated the next day.  One admitted his family had paid for his position without telling him.  He surrendered his staff of office to Pope Leo who then gave him a new staff and reinstated him.  Another admitted his brother had bought his office and forced him to accept it; he was declared innocent and later became a significant church leader.  Yet another admitted he himself had paid a large portion of his own inheritance in order to become Bishop of Nantes; he was demoted to the rank of a common priest which he remained throughout his life.  The bishops who failed to attend the council were dealt disciplinary sentences that included excommunication.

At the end of the council Pope Leo IX himself carried the body of St. Regimus on his own shoulders out of the church to its  resting place in the new monastery.

Prior to the Council at Rhiems, the church was seen as an extension of secular life, something the nobles held in their near complete control.  Afterwards, it grew to become an institution with power to rival that of kings. As far as church history goes, the Middle Ages were a period of great struggle and significant change.  The church was far from the powerful institution it became.

It a shame that the 7th grade history book has to leave so much of this story out.  History textbooks for children are expected to cover far too much in the course of a year to go into this level of detail, but the consequences are that what makes history memorable is ignored.  Pope Leo IX held his council before the body of a dead saint.  I think that detail would capture the attention of most students, and it’s likely something they would remember.  But if it’s not in their history book, then they’re not likely to hear it.  If their teacher knows about it, there’s a chance he will find enough time to tell his students a fuller story.

That’s one reason why I’ll be spending part of my summer vacation in class.


I first ran this post on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., just before the summer of 2010.  I’ve been to one NEH program since–the history of mining in Montana which was much more interesting than it sounds.  Since, Montana I’ve taken something of a break from serious summer school, but I’m applying again this year to multiple programs.  Wish me luck….


2 thoughts on “The Making of the Middle Ages by R.W. Southern

  1. It is EXACTLY that kind of story that got me interested in history after years of lists of names/dates/and those disconnected details that fail to provide anything interesting to think about. Great post, as usual.

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