Written by : Victor Counted Tuesday, August 28, 2012

One of the very remarkable features of this time was that it was a period marked by an intense revival in learning. Mental exercise was considered work unlike the preceding era. This perception of work years after its dominance ushered in the Renaissance.
The fall of the Roman Empire marked the beginning of a period generally known as the Middle Ages. During this time, from 400 AD until 1400 AD, Christian thought dominated the culture of Europe (Braude 1975, ¶4). Woven into the Christian conceptions about work were Hebrew, Greek, and Roman themes (Hill 1996, ¶14). From this standpoint, work was still perceived as a punishment by God for man's original sin, but to this purely negative view was added the positive aspect of earnings which prevented one from being reliant on the charity of others for the physical needs of life (Tilgher 1930, 87). Thus, wealth was recognized as an opportunity to share with those who might be less fortunate, and work which produced wealth therefore became acceptable (Hill 1996, ¶14). This was the reigning Christian theological rhythm at this particular time.

Following, was the Reformers continuous repetition of the doctrine of original sin, and work was taught to be one way man could give himself a sense of purpose and belonging in a world that has been cursed. But this relinquishing of hope was made bright through the Christian teachings on charity. The opportunity to share with others our proceeds from working with the less-privileged gave a sense of purpose and responsibility to man. And therefrom, work was conventionally done by everyone for altruistic reasons so as to give them peace with God.

Equally, “early Christian thought placed emphasis on the shortness of time until the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. Any attachment to physical things of the world or striving to accumulate excessive wealth was frowned upon” (Ibid. ¶14), since the end was near. This was a good reason for one not to amass wealth for him/herself. Meanwhile, as time passed and the world did not end, the Christian Church began to turn its attention to social structure and the organization of the believers on earth as a new move for the Catholic Church. This savvy move was successful. But in order to make this possible, the Church suddenly began to organize her structure, and from this twist,
Monasteries were formed where monks performed the religious and intellectual work of the Church (reading, copying manuscripts, etc.), but lay people tended to the manual labor needed to supply the needs of the community. People who were wealthy were expected to meet their own needs, but to give the excess of their riches to charity. Handicraft, farming, and small scale commerce were acceptable for people of moderate means, but receiving interest for money loaned, charging more than a just price, and big business were not acceptable, (Tilgher 1930, 134). 
Work still was done for humane reasons. It gave people a reason to care and thus became “…the voice of the world”. And then came, the Book of Common Prayer which reads, “All our doings without charity are nothing worth”. Contemporary writers at this time concentrated their penning heralding the imperative of almsgiving. For these writers, “he who bears the interests of humanity in his breast, that man is blessed” (Pestalozzi 2007, ¶1).

As was the case for the Greeks and the Romans, social status within the medieval culture was related to the work a person did. Aristotelianism[1] was also evident in the system of divine law taught by the Catholic Church during this time (Anthony 1977, 81). Then came the hierarchy of professions and trades developed by St. Thomas Aquinas himself as part of his encyclopedic consideration of all things human and divine (Tilgher 1930, 171). Agriculture was ranked first, followed by the handicrafts and then commerce. However, the work of the church was in a higher category (Rose 1985, ¶18), it took precedence. The ideal occupation was the monastic life of prayer and contemplation of God. (Braude 1975, 121). Little wonder why there were countless vows for monastic life during this time. This shows that humans choose their choice of work out of pride and egotism. This, inevitably, still happens in today’s world. People want to do the most esteemed of work so as to be placed superior to others.

Whether as a cleric or in some secular field, each person embarked on a particular work path as a result of the calling of God, and it was the duty of a worker to remain in his class, passing on his family work from father to son (Hill 1966, ¶13). No wonder the next generation of workers (in the Church) sparked reformation and spiritual awakening at the prime of the medieval due to their earnest and right attitude to work. Their drive was not to be better or superior than others like their fathers struggled to, but just to work and represent their field of endeavor significantly.   

In the culture of the medieval period, Hill argues that work still held no personal value. The function of work was ultimately “to meet the physical needs of one's family and community, and to avoid idleness which would lead to sin”, says Tilgher. Does today’s work objective really have a different function from that of the medieval or is it aimed at amassing personal worth? Work, in the medieval times, was part of the economic structure of the society which, like all other things, was ordered by God through the caveats of the Church but people later turned this opportunity for selfish purposes.

[1] Aristotelianism is the philosophy of Aristotle that deals with logic and metaphysics and ethics and poetics and politics and natural science. It is also known as peripateticism.

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