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Religion in a Medieval Fantasy world

A quick OT, we'll have to go to PM if we wish to continue this I would suppose, but I'm happy I am now the only one to think that political ideology and religion fullfill the same basic function.
They don't in a secular society, but during the Age of Faith they were inseparable.
 

Devor

Fiery Keeper of the Hat
Moderator
I'm a little amazed by some of the answers here. 90% of medieval life was rural, farming, lonely. Church was, at its bare, unreplaceable minimum, the main outlet for meeting with your community.

Imagine a world in which every person got together at gaming lodges once a week to play D&D, whether they liked the game or not, because they had very little chance to spend time with people outside their local family. What would that world look like?

Now tell me, when is the last time you read a book that came close to capturing this sense of religion?
 

Yora

Maester
The huge selling points of Christianity and Islam were the promise of breaking up the old tribal allegiances and the perpetual conflicts that come with them, and replacing them with a unified society an a universal obligation for charity. The community of the faith basically unifies all the people into a single huge tribe of millions.
This did not actually lead to equality between all the people or to permanent peace among the faithful, but it still offered a huge improvement for large parts of the population.
 

Ž.J.

Dreamer
But I wonder how much effect the Roman Empire precursor had on the organization of Christianity during the European medieval period—and whether, without that precursor, Christianity would have had the same sort of role.

Well in my opinion the Roman Empire helped christianity to form a more unitarian structure and not strictly to spread it beyond/within its borders. Before the edict of Mediolanum(Milan) christianity was already spread way beyond the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in regions like Cilicia, Macedon, Hispania, Graecia etc. Yes probably christianity wouldn't have spread at such a fast rate, but without the Roman Empire christianity probably wouldn't have had a centralized canonical body to govern over it.
 

Ž.J.

Dreamer
I'm a little amazed by some of the answers here. 90% of medieval life was rural, farming, lonely. Church was, at its bare, unreplaceable minimum, the main outlet for meeting with your community.

Imagine a world in which every person got together at gaming lodges once a week to play D&D, whether they liked the game or not, because they had very little chance to spend time with people outside their local family. What would that world look like?

Now tell me, when is the last time you read a book that came close to capturing this sense of religion?

Well that's my problem. I haven't seen a fantasy book with a medieval setting that really shows this. For people in those days their religion was everything, since this was the only way they can relate to each other. That's why I asked you guys for help and ideas. To show me a way to really implement this in a story.
 

Yora

Maester
For my world I put together several different kinds of religions that serve different purposes.

The most common one is a wild collection of local folk shamanism that exists to ask the spirits for good harvest and protection against calamity. That's a very practical religion with littlw dogma or teachings, but it does provide social cohesion by involving everyone in the rituals that will bring collective benefits to all of them.

Then there are also a number of Immortal God King cults that are really authoritarian propaganda to keep the people in line. They don't really offer the worshippers anything but rely on the fear that everyone would be doomed if the dear leader were gone.

I have another religion that is all about religious communes. They don't even really worship but are a very philosophical movement about serving the community, charity, and self improvement for the shared benefit of everyone.

And there's also a smaller mystic faith that is exploring the mysteries of the cosmos to find enlightenment and and transcend their physical existence.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>My original question concerned the role Christianity would have played in medieval Europe

It's almost impossible to talk about Christianity's role--and here I think is assumed the Roman Catholic Church rather than Syrian or Copts or even Greek Orthodox--without the context of Rome. To take a best guess, I'd look at Christianity in its first two centuries. The first thing that jumps out is the lack of any central organization. Differences in language and culture would be enough to account for that, so there would be every expectation that there would be no RCC, no pope, no centralized hierarchy, however tentative.

A second place to look would be at monasteries. Being founded by lay people for lay people, they were not following the Roman organizational model. There again, we see no centralization (well, not until Cluny in the 10thc).

Instead, we would have something like national churches, except that for several centuries there were no nation-states either but rather a shifting patchwork of kingdoms and duchies. So there would be a tendency toward localization, but with the locales shifting about as various invaders elbowed their way into western Europe. Evangelization is one of the hallmarks of Christianity, so I would still imagine missionaries and the eventual conversion of the invaders, though perhaps there would be more room for non-Christians. The progress of that might very well depend on the preferences of local kings.

Finally, for a model or inspiration for such local, quasi-national churches you need look no further than the Celtic churches of the early Middle Ages. The Irish rite was virtually independent of Rome for several generations.

Not that anyone asked, but my own Altearth considers this, but from a different angle. It asks what would happen if Rome never fell and Christianity never rose. So, instead of asking how Christianity would have fared without Rome, I ask how Rome would have fared without Christianity. I haven't used that directly in any of my stories so far, but it's there in the background.
 

Ž.J.

Dreamer
>My original question concerned the role Christianity would have played in medieval Europe

It's almost impossible to talk about Christianity's role--and here I think is assumed the Roman Catholic Church rather than Syrian or Copts or even Greek Orthodox--without the context of Rome. To take a best guess, I'd look at Christianity in its first two centuries. The first thing that jumps out is the lack of any central organization. Differences in language and culture would be enough to account for that, so there would be every expectation that there would be no RCC, no pope, no centralized hierarchy, however tentative.

A second place to look would be at monasteries. Being founded by lay people for lay people, they were not following the Roman organizational model. There again, we see no centralization (well, not until Cluny in the 10thc).

Instead, we would have something like national churches, except that for several centuries there were no nation-states either but rather a shifting patchwork of kingdoms and duchies. So there would be a tendency toward localization, but with the locales shifting about as various invaders elbowed their way into western Europe. Evangelization is one of the hallmarks of Christianity, so I would still imagine missionaries and the eventual conversion of the invaders, though perhaps there would be more room for non-Christians. The progress of that might very well depend on the preferences of local kings.

Finally, for a model or inspiration for such local, quasi-national churches you need look no further than the Celtic churches of the early Middle Ages. The Irish rite was virtually independent of Rome for several generations.

Not that anyone asked, but my own Altearth considers this, but from a different angle. It asks what would happen if Rome never fell and Christianity never rose. So, instead of asking how Christianity would have fared without Rome, I ask how Rome would have fared without Christianity. I haven't used that directly in any of my stories so far, but it's there in the background.

Well your, in my humble opinion, excellent presentation of an alternative christian world ,easily sums up what I plan to do in my own Fantasy World. A quasi-centralised state church that values the idea of "The Eternal Flame". A "renaissance" based religion, focused over different ways of self-betterment. Of course in time the ideology of the fate changes and it becomes more of tool for control of the masses, then a real movement. Stronger centralization and hierarchy replace the fluidity of the old canons.
 
This did not actually lead to equality between all the people or to permanent peace among the faithful, but it still offered a huge improvement for large parts of the population.
Sorry, just choked on my vino...

A huge improvement for large parts of the population? You're going to have to qualify that.

This is where the secular C21 mind finds it very difficult to comprehend the politico-legal function of religion during the Age of Faith. Some might see it as a communal comforting blanket...others would see it as means of controlling the masses. A rationale for the divinely appointed system which required the vast majority to accept inequity and hard labour on the off-chance they'd get a much better deal in heaven after they were dead! A very nice arrangement for the 1st and 2nd estate if only they could get the rubes to buy it.

I've always seen the conversion of Constantine as the reification of the conspiracy between church and state. The difference between Rome's pagan pantheon and Christianity was the authority of god/the gods over the spirit of the law. The Christian was required to believe in the spirit of the law via the 2nd Covenant, meaning the authority of the pope and his church was far stronger than the authority of any Roman god. As Christianity increased momentum it was Constantine who saw the writing on the wall, wanting that same civil obedience as the pope had through the spiritual subservience of his flock.

When Christianity became the state religion of Rome, just a little while later, it effectively blended the spiritual power with the civil power. The rubes believed in god so they also had to believe in the system put together by god's representatives.

Improvement?

Definitely an improvement for the nobles and priests who no longer had to fear the mob.
 

Ban

Troglodytic Trouvère
Article Team
A rationale for the divinely appointed system which required the vast majority to accept inequity and hard labour on the off-chance they'd get a much better deal in heaven after they were dead!

Hard labour and inequality was the norm long before christianity or islam came around, whether you lived in Rome, the Arabian peninsula or a Germanic tribe. The only thing that changed in this regard was that there was now a religious system to vindicate such a life, as well as the promise of a reward for the struggle. Those ideas would be a huge weight off a "rube's" shoulders, so yes their lives did indeed improve.

Besides this, the medieval world was littered with holidays and life expectancy when counted above infancy was not nearly as bad as we assume. Life was hard in those days, but when we characterize all medieval peasant life as lives filled to the brim with hardship as if they were living in the 40k universe, we're buying into enlightenment propaganda, who had a vested interest in portraying the medieval period as the worst time to ever befall man.
 

Aldarion

Inkling
Sorry, just choked on my vino...

A huge improvement for large parts of the population? You're going to have to qualify that.

This is where the secular C21 mind finds it very difficult to comprehend the politico-legal function of religion during the Age of Faith. Some might see it as a communal comforting blanket...others would see it as means of controlling the masses. A rationale for the divinely appointed system which required the vast majority to accept inequity and hard labour on the off-chance they'd get a much better deal in heaven after they were dead! A very nice arrangement for the 1st and 2nd estate if only they could get the rubes to buy it.

I've always seen the conversion of Constantine as the reification of the conspiracy between church and state. The difference between Rome's pagan pantheon and Christianity was the authority of god/the gods over the spirit of the law. The Christian was required to believe in the spirit of the law via the 2nd Covenant, meaning the authority of the pope and his church was far stronger than the authority of any Roman god. As Christianity increased momentum it was Constantine who saw the writing on the wall, wanting that same civil obedience as the pope had through the spiritual subservience of his flock.

When Christianity became the state religion of Rome, just a little while later, it effectively blended the spiritual power with the civil power. The rubes believed in god so they also had to believe in the system put together by god's representatives.

Improvement?

Definitely an improvement for the nobles and priests who no longer had to fear the mob.

Yes and no. You will have to diversify that a bit.

Socio-political function of religion in Middle Ages and Antiquity was no different than that of modern-day political ideologies (liberalism, progressivism, ideas of human rights)... it provided a common ground for functioning of society (and was in fact much better at it than modern ideologies which replaced it). You can say that it was a way of controlling the masses, but frankly, any kind of political ideology is a way of controlling the masses - and without that, you get chaos.

However, it was not necessarily a rationale for divinely-justified exploitation. Greed is just a normal condition of human nature, but Christianity at least tempered it somewhat. So-called "divine right of kings" also included "divine obligations of kings"... did all kings fulfill these obligations? No, not even close. But they still did no worse than today's elected politicians.

In ancient and medieval societies, law was always based in religion. That was no different between pagan and monotheistic societies. But in Christian Byzantine Empire, law also had strong civil influence, and people in fact had massive impact on imperial politics, to the point that Byzantine Empire can be unironically called a republic, if not necessarily a democracy. Saying that "God's authority" enabled rulers to ignore the will of the people is a) oversimplifying the issue and b) nothing more than modern Western "we are so much better than our ancestors" arrogance. Emperors had divinely-mandated duties towards their people; failure to carry out those duties was grounds for removal from office by an angry mob (it is no accident that imperial palace in Constantinople was heavily fortified).
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>show me a way to really implement this in a story.
I gave some historical suggestions earlier in the thread, but that doesn't really speak to how to implement. I'll not bother you with "just write it" because it sounds like you're already working on that.

Ideally, you would be so immersed in your invented world that you would quite naturally incorporate religious elements in ordinary as well as extraordinary events in the narrative. Your religion(s) would permeate the text. IMO that's incredibly difficult to do, but it's possible. For models, take a look at G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, or C.S. Lewis' Perelandra series. That is, look at how other writers have used religion as warp and weft for their tales. What I see there is direct discussion not merely of religion but of morality and philosophy--how religion has shaped the characters themselves.

In Rome, the days are marked by reference to month and the anchor dates of nones, ides, and kalends. In the Middle Ages, it was feast days (saints days). I would love to learn how dates were marked in pre-modern India or China. The hours of the day, too, were marked by religion--the ringing of church bells. No farmer would dream of planting unless the priest had first blessed the fields. Any venturer venturing would seek out a blessing prior to departure. IOW, ordinary acts on ordinary days, but how those are marked are done in the vocabulary of the religion.

At a more significant level, you could, like the characters in Chesterton's stories, have your characters struggle with moral choices, or observe and judge the actions of others. You would have the discussion use a religious vocabulary or even make explicit reference to their religious values. That gives you room to have characters come at the moment from different perspectives, different values.

At the top level, of course, you might have religion be a theme in the book. Faithfulness, martyrdom, heresy, miracles, all that sort of thing. I'd love to see a book that considered the question of what in a world of magic might be considered miraculous.

Anyway, there are some ideas for you to chew on.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
Given that one of my professors literally wrote the book on Constantine, I reckon I need to speak up on this. Before launching, though, I recall first the advice of another of my professors, who told me that he always believed what the sources told him until he had a solid reason to disbelieve them. I have found that advice to be invaluable in reading primary sources.

In the present context, that means I take Constantine's conversion at the Milvian Bridge in 312 as being genuine. We moderns tend to view everything through a cynical lens of self-interest and power politics. If someone talks about higher principles, we presume they're lying or they are fools. That leads to a serious mis-reading of the past.

Constantine gained little practical benefit by his conversion. There were no popes at the time, there was only the bishop of Rome, a city that was less important with each passing decade. The bishop himself had little authority beyond his see, though he did have a certain prestige. Christianity itself was not at all on the rise; it was, in fact, set far back on its heels by the persecutions of Diocletian and Galerius, and would soon be deeply split by Donatism.

I agree that it's hard to see the adoption of Christianity as much of an improvement. I wrote my MA on the conversion of the pagan Wends in the 12thc. Conversion meant a radical change in their social structure, for they had to put aside raiding, which played an important role in their social relations, their shamans were supplanted by priests, which was also disruptive, and their traditional laws were replaced by Germanic law. There's every reason to think the same violent displacement happened centuries before with the Saxons under Charlemagne.

At the same time, it's utterly wrong to imagine Christianity as a means of controlling the peasantry. Or even controlling their own priesthood. But that's a whole topic in itself.
 
OK, I'm at lunch at work so I can't spend too much time on this, but there are some comments above with which I passionately disagree so I'll try to be brief...

"You can say that it was a way of controlling the masses, but frankly, any kind of political ideology is a way of controlling the masses - and without that, you get chaos.

However, it was not necessarily a rationale for divinely-justified exploitation. Greed is just a normal condition of human nature, but Christianity at least tempered it somewhat. So-called "divine right of kings" also included "divine obligations of kings"... did all kings fulfill these obligations? No, not even close. But they still did no worse than today's elected politicians.

In ancient and medieval societies, law was always based in religion. That was no different between pagan and monotheistic societies."

So much wrong here. Without political ideology you get chaos? I refer you to CB McPherson's very famous essay On Scarcity.

Christianity tempered greed? Are you kidding? Christianity institutionalized greed and exploitation (I could go into so much detail here), and is still trying to do that today. The inquisition destroyed all opposition until the enlightenment came along and required them to respect the civil law. Only this week the pope conceded that the confessional could no longer protect clerical sex crimes.

No difference (in law) between pagan and monotheistic societies? There is profound difference because the individual's relationship with god/the gods is profoundly different. Pagan gods have little or no call on the way an individual behaves. As long as the individual respects the gods and makes appropriate sacrifice when asking for favours, the gods couldn't give a rat's. A mono god however, requires total sublimation to the divinely appointed order, whether that be the church or the caliphate.

All this is just an appalling oversimplification but I can't let those above words go unchallenged.

"Before launching, though, I recall first the advice of another of my professors, who told me that he always believed what the sources told him until he had a solid reason to disbelieve them. I have found that advice to be invaluable in reading primary sources."

I would mostly agree with this with the caveat of context. In any potentially contentious situation it is important to remember that history is written by the victors who are very likely to be self-serving. For myself, the study of history has mainly gone to show that people haven't really changed all that much. The leaders of the past are just as motivated by the same base instincts as our own pathetic leaders and I reckon you can safely judge them accordingly...with very few exceptions.

Plenty of ideas for the religious/socio-political underpinnings of world building in this conversation.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
>Plenty of ideas for the religious/socio-political underpinnings of world building in this conversation.
The discussion of the merits and faults of specifics religions, however, is getting pretty far from the OP. Maybe turn our attention more toward replying to what was originally asked?
 

Gurkhal

Auror
So much wrong here. Without political ideology you get chaos? I refer you to CB McPherson's very famous essay On Scarcity.

I haven't read that essay but regardless of self-perception and delusion there hasn't been any kind of society without an ideology anywhere I've looked. That ideology need not be articulated very well to exist. So a tribal grouping without outside contact will still have an ideology about how to organize society and that means controlling the actions of the people in that community.


Christianity tempered greed? Are you kidding? Christianity institutionalized greed and exploitation (I could go into so much detail here), and is still trying to do that today. The inquisition destroyed all opposition until the enlightenment came along and required them to respect the civil law. Only this week the pope conceded that the confessional could no longer protect clerical sex crimes.

To what degree Christianity tempered greed or not can be argued. I would argue that the early church tried somewhat but failed spectacurarly in that regard. However the idea that Christianity, or any of the Abrahametic religions, institutionalized greed is naturally absurd. Both greed and exploitation were well already institutionalized before the Christians even came along. Have you ever read about ancient polytheistic socities like Athens, Sparta and Late Roman Republic? All pretty good at greed, exploitation and all were pagan. And since Christianity did not, to my knowledge and against many fans of paganism, conduct a cultural revolution, the pre-Christian greed and exploitation simply continued under a new faith as the Roman great estate system was already in place when Christianity came along and the old elites remained.

That the formal hierarchy of the Catholic church has problems is of course not news. But this is where you might run into some problems. Because Christians are humans with human flaws and they are also found outside of the Catholic clergy, like Nestorians, Copts and so on. But I agree that the sex crimes are horrible and terrible things which I hope the guilty are punished for according to the law and the Catholic church takes step to stop.

No difference (in law) between pagan and monotheistic societies? There is profound difference because the individual's relationship with god/the gods is profoundly different. Pagan gods have little or no call on the way an individual behaves. As long as the individual respects the gods and makes appropriate sacrifice when asking for favours, the gods couldn't give a rat's. A mono god however, requires total sublimation to the divinely appointed order, whether that be the church or the caliphate.

To start with polytheistic gods have a very good grip on what people should do and not. Hence all the terrible things that for example befalls ancient Greek heroes that falls to hybris or insults a god or goddess in one way or another. And hence why people who challenge the divine order tend to meet with, how do you say, unfortunate fate. Just because its not outright made a point about does not mean that Zeus and Athena, for example, do not protect the social order.

I won't go into the relation between early Christianity and philosophy but regardless, this "freedom" that you seems to hold very high does not seem to have been loved by close to everyone who actually lived under the circumstances. Hence the great challenge by mystery cults and why Roman emperors were already experimenting with monotheism and monolatry before Constantine.

All this is just an appalling oversimplification but I can't let those above words go unchallenged.

I feel just the same.
 
I take the point on greed, I overstated that in my incandescent zeal.

But there was never such an organised/institutionalised exploitation of the devout masses - believing in a divinely appointed system which oppressed them to the benefit of church and state - until Christianity became the state religion of Rome. They were all amateurs until then and then the power of the church got stronger and stronger until the schismatic, mercantilist and scientific cracks began to appear in their non-plastic dogma.

Again, a massive oversimplification, and I suspect it's pointless to argue further.

For those who haven't read it, I highly recommend CB McPherson's essay On Scarcity - I read it in third year at law school and it blew my mind. No-one had ever explained the fundamentals of politico-economics so clearly. I'd call it a text book for World Building 101.
 

Aldarion

Inkling
So much wrong here. Without political ideology you get chaos? I refer you to CB McPherson's very famous essay On Scarcity.

Christianity tempered greed? Are you kidding? Christianity institutionalized greed and exploitation (I could go into so much detail here), and is still trying to do that today. The inquisition destroyed all opposition until the enlightenment came along and required them to respect the civil law. Only this week the pope conceded that the confessional could no longer protect clerical sex crimes.

No difference (in law) between pagan and monotheistic societies? There is profound difference because the individual's relationship with god/the gods is profoundly different. Pagan gods have little or no call on the way an individual behaves. As long as the individual respects the gods and makes appropriate sacrifice when asking for favours, the gods couldn't give a rat's. A mono god however, requires total sublimation to the divinely appointed order, whether that be the church or the caliphate.

All this is just an appalling oversimplification but I can't let those above words go unchallenged.

1) You need to learn to quote. You are lucky I noticed your reply.

2) Not necessarily political ideology, but culture in general. But culture automatically means presence of political ideology, even if said ideology remains only implicit. For society to function at all, there has to be at least some - and preferably rather significant - common ground accepted by majority of people within said society.

3) Yes, Christianity did temper greed - at least compared to other ideologies such as Islam (although Islam itself has aspects which temper greed), pre-Christian religions, as well as later Christian denominations such as Protestantism. There was an explosion in charities, especially in 12th and 13th century, as well as appearance of religious orders such as Hospitallers which cared about the sick and the poor (even though Hospitallers themselves later evolved a military function, they were not the only ones to care about those less fortunate).

4) Inquisition was neither as omnipresent or as influential as you believe it was. It was most powerful in Spain, due to major presence of Muslims and other foreign elements following Reconquista which threatened social stability of a new state. But while Inquisition did have impact, most persecution was actually done by secular authorities. Middle Ages were also nowhere as un-enlightened as you believe them to have been (for example, witch hunts and burnings only really took off during Renaissance), but that would require a whole new essay.

5) Byzantine Empire continued Roman laws and was in some ways lot more enlightened than Renaissance and Enlightenment-era societies, despite being profoundly Christian at the same time.

>Plenty of ideas for the religious/socio-political underpinnings of world building in this conversation.
The discussion of the merits and faults of specifics religions, however, is getting pretty far from the OP. Maybe turn our attention more toward replying to what was originally asked?

Well, that is still something which has to be understood if one is building a religion. Beliefs have consequences, and these consequences are oftentimes not nice - even if beliefs themselves are (apparently) nice. So while it is getting far from OP, I would argue discussion is still relevant.

Hey guys!
In some time now I have been trying to think of a unique religion or belive system for my fantasy world. It's a medieval "soft" high fantasy" setting, where magic is almost non existant. I have a few ideas, though most of them are quite cliché. I wonder what interesting opinions you have in this matter. And the next question I have is: What do you think on religious fragmentation? Almost all of our global religions are fragmented. Would this too be a natural process in a fantasy world?

Some of my ideas include:
A faith based around an "eternal fire" similar in some aspects to zoroastrianism.
A faith based on a mythical tale of three brothers, who founded the given civilization.
A faith based on the cycle of the sun and the mood and how these two are polar opposites, but together they bring life.

Fragmentation is always a natural process for a belief system unless you have "thought police" (Inquisition, Gestapo, KGB, SJWs) which prevents it. Good way would be to study various denominations of Christianity (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Protestantism, Nestorianism, Bogumils, Cathars, Monophysites, Paulinians), the way they appeared, evolved and interacted.
 

skip.knox

toujours gai, archie
Moderator
The discussion is relevant, just not necessarily to this thread. I was hoping others my try to reply to the original request. As you just did.

I'm glad you made the point about the Inquisition. The bloodiest one was actually in the Netherlands, but of course no one expects the Dutch Inquisition. <typed with a straight face, honest> More generally, people tend to credit the RCC with far more practical power than it ever wielded; and, still more generally, they credit medieval rulers as a whole with being far more effective than they ever were.
 
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