Before we begin looking at the growth and expansion of Western culture from the time of Christ forward, I want to run us through a short exercise. Imagine that the year is 1223, and you are living in England. You are serving as chamberlain to a landed noble who happens to control the majority of the estates within your particular shire.
On your docket for the day is an extensive list of things to accomplish:
- Sell/trade wool from this year’s shearing in order to obtain promissory notes for enough grain to last through the winter.
- Consult with the local astronomer to verify how many days there are until the harvest moon
- Have a local mathematician review your bookkeeping ledgers for accuracy
- Retrieve a recent treatise on medicine that is supposed to have an excellent recipe for a healing poultice in it
- Arrange for entertainment at the upcoming harvest festival that is to occur after the reaping is finished.
How many stops do you have to make to finish your list?
Often times when I propose this problem to a group the consensus answer will float between 3 and 4. Most people recognize that there has to be some overlap in these different tasks. For instance, the astronomer and mathematician are more than likely the same person as both require a similar type of knowledge of numbers and arithmetic. However, our number is smaller than that because there is much more overlap than just one person.
So, how many stops do you make?
One stop. And it’s not to the place that most people assume when they hear that – the local (fledgling at this point) university.
No, it’s at the local church. Throughout much of the history of Western civilization, the church was the arbiter and creator of cultural goods. The monks and clergy would have been the trained mathematicians and healers. The courtyard of the church or monastery would have been the center of trade and business. And the monks or clergy would have been the closest things to trained musicians within almost any locale capable of putting on dramas and passion plays.
Why was this so? And why does it matter? How did Christianity rise to such a staggering position of cultural clout? And most importantly, how did it fall from such a height to the point where it now has a hard time making any broad cultural impact within modern Western civilization at all?