• Nov 20, 2019

The Modern ‘Age of Religion’

by Trevor Scott Floyd

In the newly published text The Hundred Years War Revisited: Problems in Focus, edited by Anne Curry, one chapter is devoted to the role of religion in English and French societies during this time. The abstract of the chapter states:

Rather than an ‘age of faith’, it would perhaps be better to think of the late middle ages as an ‘age of religion’. The church was inextricably involved in all areas of English and French society: governmental, financial, intellectual, and spiritual.

The time period of Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid is often viewed as one of religious antiquity - before the Protestant Revolution or the forming of the Anglican Church, when the Catholic Church held vast amounts of power in Europe, and even Kings and Queens answered to the authority of the Pope. In the play we see the reverence given to the word of the clergy and the adherence to spiritual authority that dictates much of the action - pay close attention to the way Father Gilbert implies Jacques Arc’s questioning of him is akin to questioning God, and who has all the gold according to Pierre.

The machinations of the Church - capital “C” - in the lives of the peasant class of Europe were intentional. The Church existed at the top of a power structure which relied on religion scaring the peasant class into obedience. The fear of Hell and the promise of a better life after death kept this structure in place for hundreds of years, no matter how miserable peasant life got. 

Indeed, much has changed in the six hundred years since Joan of Arc walked the Earth. In most of the Western world, separation of Church and State is now seen as a fundamental aspect of democracy. It should not be mistaken, however, that this means religion can no longer be used to command power over the everyday lives of Western citizens the way it did then. 

It would be wrong, of course, to assume universal intent of any religious person, group, or affiliation, nor can it be said that any religion is bad or inherently problematic. Religious people, on acts of faith and goodwill, are the source of massive amounts of charity and humanitarian work across the globe. The same was also true centuries ago. It is also true that the methods by which certain powerful rulers use religion to keep their people in line have not changed all that much in the time between Joan of Arc’s life and now.

One example played out recently here in the United States. Joan was famously tried by the Catholic Church for heresy, but the charge she was actually convicted of which led to her burning was violating the Biblical command of Deuteronomy 22:5, which says “the woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man.” In other words, she was executed for dressing like a man, which was something she did primarily to protect herself from assault. Nearly six hundred years later, the state of North Carolina overturned one of their own city’s anti-discrimination bills to make it illegal for a transgender person to use the restroom which aligns with their gender expression - a bill intended to help transgender people protect themselves from potential assault. Similar bills became popular in many other state legislatures. Though some claimed this bill was passed for security, there is no evidence of transgender people committing crimes in bathrooms - but there are several studies indicating high risks of assault and attempted suicide among transgender people related to being denied bathroom access or being forced to use a restroom that does not align with their identity. The only justification left is the impulse to suppress people who act out of order. The author of the bill once sneered that bathroom access was a “cross-dresser’s liberty,” a comment which sounds much like something that might have been said about Joan. The representatives responsible for passing the bill are supported largely by religious groups whose opposition to transgender rights is based on personal beliefs about the way society should be ordered rather than a sound legal justification. The human impact of the bill in North Carolina was swift and clear - phone calls to the transgender suicide prevention hotline doubled in the wake of it’s passage. You can see how the structure of this is similar to the middle ages - our rulers are democratically elected representatives, but often they are continuing to answer to the authority of religion.

There are countless other examples, both in the United States and abroad, of how this power structure works. There are, of course, several nations with even more direct theocratic control over government. Like the church of the middle ages, the religious authority of today is still “inextricably involved in all areas of society.” This pattern has played out continuously throughout history up to today. Joan of Arc was, after death, acquitted of her crimes and eventually canonized as a saint. Many other people since Joan - from abolitionists to labor leaders to civil rights leaders - have had their lives ruined or cut short due to accusations of heresy only for history to later revise their stories and recognizes them as saints. It is one of the longest traditions of human history, and it is showing no signs of slowing down.