You’ve got to love it when Moslem protesters in Egypt mouth the same cant about our history that the average Catholic or university student does. From this morning’s Wall Street Journal:
“People have lost faith in him. Anyone who takes such immature decisions can do anything to us, like establish a religious state similar to the dark ages in Europe,” said one protester in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
A half-dozen years ago, Harry Crocker stood this sort of thinking on its head in an aptly named essay “Monasteries and Madrassas: Five Myths About Christianity, Islam, and the Middle Ages”:
Myth Four: Medieval politics were despotic.
Similarly, medieval politics were neither crude and ignorant, nor totalitarian and despotic. Far from it; the Middle Ages — from the start — practiced separation (and conflict) between church and state. It was the Reformation, the desire of the state to absorb the Church, that combined church and state with the creation of state churches. Medieval politics supported a wide dispersion of power, which is what feudalism was, and why England’s nobles — led by the Catholic archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton — were able to hold King John accountable with the Magna Carta. Medieval man believed in the great hierarchy of society, where every man and woman had rights and responsibilities and was individually responsible before God.
Medieval man was never threatened by totalitarianism. A totalitarian state was not even possible until the Reformation abolished the Church as a check on state power. Before that, feudalism preserved an extreme form of federalism, where even city-states (like Italy’s merchant republics) flourished. In the Middle Ages, not only could a merchant launch his own business, but twelve-year-old enthusiasts could launch their own Crusade (the Children’s Crusade), and a failed crusader like St. Francis could launch his own religious movement. The Middle Ages might be torn by war, conquests, political rivalries, knightly jostlings, and wars against the Albigensian heretics or the Muslim infidels. But politically, the Middle Ages were, if anything, a time when the dispersal of secular power was closer to anarchy than despotism, and the Church was generally on the side of political — if not religious — libertarianism in order to protect itself from ambitious monarchs and princes.