Augustine’s theological teachings greatly influenced the intellectual life of the church of the early and high Middle Ages. Whether the topic was the Trinity, the sacraments, the interpretation of Scripture, or the doctrine of the church, theologians and commentators referenced the fifth-century overseer of Hippo first and most often. The question often became not whether Augustine was correct on a subject, but whether or not the current generation was interpreting Augustine correctly (1).
Medieval writings on the institution of marriage certainly reflected Augustine’s influence. Unfortunately, Augustine’s emphasis upon the value of discipling one’s children was not often a focus of attention. No major medieval theologians seem to have produced any works exclusively devoted to the subject of spiritual training in the context of a family.The subject of the family was most often broached within the context of the sacrament of marriage, and even within those discussions, many theologians failed to replicate Augustine’s concern for discipleship within the context of the Christian household.
Gregory the Great and Hugh of St. Victor
Gregory the Great was one such church leader. As overseer of the Roman church in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, he played an important role in establishing the papacy as an influential office in the medieval church.Like Augustine, he argued that intercourse was appropriate only for that purpose. Unlike Augustine, he did not include the discipleship of one’s children among the virtues or values of marriage. The work of Hugh of St. Victor is in the same vein. His work, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith, describes marriage as a sacrament that is integrally related to the union of Christ and the church. Even before the Fall, God prescribed the duty of sexual intercourse for the purpose of procreation. Humanity’s fall into sin left this marital privilege tainted by sinful passions and desires (2). Hugh-like Gregory and unlike Augustine-bypassed the positive role that parents play in providing Christian formation for their children.
The thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas echoed Augustine more accurately, at least with respect to the place of family discipleship. Consistent with what had been written before him, Thomas described the purpose of marriage before the first sin to have been the procreation of children. After the first sin, he asserted, the purpose became twofold: the procreation of children and the safeguarding of Christians against sexual sin.
Unlike Gregory and Hugh, Thomas articulated an important place for the education of children. The duty of marriage, he explained, was to produce offspring, but by the term “offspring,” he intended not only “the begetting of children, but also their education, to which as its end is directed the entire communion of works that exists between man and wife as united in marriage.” For Thomas, producing offspring was the principal goal of marriage, and educating them was the secondary goal (3).
Thomas produced a manual of instruction, The Catechetical Instructions of St. Thomas Aquinas. Scholars describing family life in the Middle Ages have commented that the church during this period produced no catechisms (4). If by the term “catechism” one means a document in question-and-answer format designed for the direct instruction of children, no such documents were produced during the Middle Ages. Augustine, however, had produced a work entitled Catechizing of the Uninstructed, which offered a framework for pastors and teachers to provide basic doctrinal teaching. Faithful to that tradition, Thomas published an instruction manual for pastors that offered simple explanations of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Ten Commandments, and the seven sacraments. While the document was not intended to be used in the household, it at least provided a much-needed resource for church leaders that would encourage attention to the young. The only other major church leader to produce such a work during the Middle Ages was Jean Gerson in the fifteenth century (5).
Gerson made a concerted effort to improve discipleship in the family during an age in which many were crying out for a reform of the church at all levels. Gerson became chancellor of the University of Paris in 1395 and quickly concerned himself with bringing much needed reform to the church. He saw that the church needed more than a reform at the top. The faith and morals of the people needed reform as well, and this had to start with the education of children. In a number of sermons preached before crowds at the university he called upon parents to disciple their progeny.
Like Augustine and Aquinas before him, Gerson stated that marriage was ordained not only for the procreation of children but also for their education. Parents who neglected to disciple their children “will be held more accountable than if they let their offspring die of hunger” (6). This process, he argued, involved both moral and spiritual formation. Parents must ensure that children are reared in an environment that is morally pure and should inculcate virtuous speech and work habits.
To address the spiritual needs of families, Gerson published a manual for priests, much like those of Augustine and Aquinas before him, which explained what he perceived to be the basic components of Christian training: the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary, the Apostles’ Creed, the seven sacraments, the seven grades of holy orders, and the six branches of penance. His manual is more extensive than those of his predecessors, including comments on ethics and spirituality.Gerson clearly saw that the proper discipleship of children was important-not only for the welfare of families, but for the welfare of the entire church. And so, he created a resource to forge a partnership between training at church and training in the context of Christian households.
In the Middle Ages, interest in the institution of marriage often centered on the function and negative impact of sexuality within the institution. The discipleship of children was overlooked entirely by some of the most influential writers of the period. Thomas Aquinas and Jean Gerson were clearly exceptions.
Simply because many of the major thinkers of the church were not writing on the topic of family discipleship does not, however, mean that nothing was being done to train children in the fear of God. Outside the halls of the medieval universities and monastic cloisters, some pastors and preachers in direct contact with laypeople were making an effort to bring Christian discipleship into the household.
(1) For a discussion on Augustine’s influence on medieval theology, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 3, The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), especially pp. 1-49.
(2) Hugh of St. Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith, in A Scholastic Miscellany, 318.
(3) Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, vol. 5, translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Allen, TX: Thomas More Publishers), 2702, 2726.
(4) See for instance, Bernard Hamilton, Religion in the Medieval West (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 79; also André Vauchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices, trans. Margery J. Schneider, ed. Daniel E. Bornsten (South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), 90.
(5) See Thomas Aquinas, The Catechetical Instruction of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Joseph B. Collins (Catholic Primer, 2004), http://www.scribd.com/doc/3243405/Catechism-of-St-Thomas-Aquinas (accessed 8 February 2010). Collins comments that Thomas deserves a place in the history of Catholic catechetical instruction among Augustine, Gerson, Charles Borromeo, Peter Canisius, and others. Interestingly, the only medieval figure on the list is Gerson. See idem, 10.
(6) D. Catharine Brown, Pastor and Laity in the Theology of Jean Gerson (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 238-242.