HIST 3006A – Medieval Religious Life
Fall 2022

Instructor: Professor Marc Saurette

This course incorporates game-based learning activities.

Popular representations of the Middle Ages tend to depict medieval people as dogmatic fundamentalist Christians with a propensity to burn witches and heretics. Churchmen tend to be presented even worse – as sadistic/ masochistic Inquisitors who delight in lording their religious authority over anyone who loves freedom. The reality was, well, somewhat different. This course will both examine why we tend to (ironically) demonize the medieval Church (and its members) and explore the lives of some medieval “religious” (the name we give to certain members of the Church).

For the first part of the term, students will experience religious history through a pedagogical Role-Playing-Game in the Reacting to the Past model. The game aims to explore the issues underlying the Investiture Controversy by putting the students in the roles of medieval bishops and secular political figures, as well as having them debate and vote on the major issues in a series of Church Councils. Each student will be assigned the role of a real historical figure or (in a few cases) a fictional character who could have been present at these debates. Some characters will be Reformers, others will be Traditionalists, and some will be in the middle with their own concerns they wish to advance. Players win the game by achieving some or all their goals. Some characters have hidden agendas or other secrets that make you an enemy within your faction. But in general, players win by persuading other players to adopt their position on key issues and voting with them during debates. The game endeavors to get students to understand the issues involved by asking them to debate the various topics from the standpoint of their historical characters. It also attempts to explode myths about the Middle Ages as “an age of faith” in which people simply obeyed the clergy and myths about the Middle Ages as a time when kings, emperors, and popes were all-powerful and could not be resisted. Instead, it offers a model of a society in which secular and religious authorities competed for power.

To cement student’s understanding of the variety of medieval religious experiences, we will devote the second half of the course to researching some elite members of medieval religious institutions and turning this research into a playable game. Among the people we will be learning about are:

  1. Peter Abelard: a charismatic schoolmaster and self-proclaimed bad boy of theology. He spent his life trying to overturn the “old school” and argue that his way of thinking and teaching was the future (spoiler: he was right). He ruffled a lot of feathers and made some poor life choices. He writes about these poor decisions in his quasi-autobiography, A History of My Calamities. He retired to the monastery of Cluny at the end of his life.
  2. Heloise: a gifted thinker, an abbess of the Paraclete (a convent she largely founded). She was “tutored” by Abelard, bore his child (whom they named Astrolabe [1]) before entering the religious life as a nun. She left behind a correspondence with Peter Abelard and Peter the Venerable, wrote a rule for her monastery and generally did some really cool stuff.
  3. Peter the Venerable: the abbot of Cluny and head of (at the time) the largest network of monks/nuns in the Church. He was friend to Peter Abelard, enemy to Bernard of Clairvaux, and hater of anybody who wasn’t his kind of Christian (not the nicest guy, I admit, and not atypical of his generation). He was beloved in his lifetime and venerated for centuries afterwards. Apparently, he liked to eat eggs of every kind and variety. He is one of a million monks named Peter. He wrote a ton.
  4. Bernard of Clairvaux: an abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Clairvaux and chief spokesman for Cistercian monks. He sought to expand Cistercian power by attacking Cluniac power and privileges and installed his disciples into positions of power within the Church (as bishops and even popes!). He did not like it that Cluniacs ate fancy eggs. He hated Peter Abelard … and loads of others. He wrote about Cluniac eggs and other things at great length. He’s a saint (not the one the dog is named after!), but certainly was more feared than loved by his contemporaries.

‌[1] Just in case you thought weird naming practices was a new thing – we have exhibit A to the contrary.


By the end of this semester, our class will create a draft of a historically-informed role-playing game – along the lines of the Reacting to the Past for those who may have played them in other classes. The focus of the game will be the Council of Sens (1141 CE) where Bernard of Clairvaux sought to declare the writings of Peter Abelard heretical. This Council represents the meeting and conflict of several different currents/ factions within the medieval Church and thus offers a way to understand the transformation of the Church in the twelfth century.

Our goal will be to convert our research and hypotheses about medieval religious life into a playable pedagogical-style game. We will work together to brainstorm ideas, research history, plan out scenarios, and write up a rulebook. Students will write short biographies of key persons, identify and introduce (translated) primary and secondary sources which will be key to tell the story, figure out how one “wins” and the such. Students will thus work independently on different aspects of a class project that will build one big thing at the end.