This is the fifth part of a 13-part German documentary mini-series covering the history of Christianity from its beginnings to the modern-day. Although it’s a German production, the narration is in English. It was filmed at many different holy and historic sites. In this episode, the locations used are mostly throughout Europe, which gives a good frame of reference for those of us who haven’t been able to visit this part of the world.
Saints and Demons begins in the late middle ages – mid 14th century. The Bubonic Plague – or “Black Death” – strikes Europe and becomes responsible for changing the beliefs of the survivors. The video sets the stage for what was to happen by talking about the impact of the Plague on Europe. For four years the Black Death afflicted Europe, and about one-third of the population perished.
After Emperor Charles I of Germany took shelter from the plague, he was spared and believed it was due to his piousness and daily devotion he made in his private chapel. Other customs such as the petitionary procession, which continues to this day, arose from this time. Others attempted to punish themselves for their sins by the March of Flagellants in the hopes that they would escape God’s punishment. Mysticism and the worshipping of relics and the saints also arose during this time period.
There was also persecution of the Jews as they were blamed for the Plague. In addition, throughout Europe, the French and English were battling each other in the Hundred Years War. The German Emperor was fending off an insurrection within his own empire, Italy was dealing with famine and a Civil War, and Turkish troops were overrunning the Near East. The rise of a belief in “dark powers” and the devil made it seem as if the Earth were a great playing field for the battle between good and evil. Out of this was borne the Witch Hunts which lasted well into the 18th century.
It also provided the catalyst for the changing how Christians believed in God. Whereas before they could see God as a part of the natural order, now God seemed to be more unpredictable. The Church found itself in crisis. The Pope was residing in Avignon, France instead of Rome as the French King ruled over the Pope. This enabled the Popes to become richer and richer, further creating conflict between the Church and some of its believers.
Into this time came St. Francis of Assisi. He had differing beliefs in modeling a life built on the concept of poverty and humility in the imitation of Christ. This became known as “The Franciscan Movement”.
However, more and more divisions arose in the church as some questioned the building of huger, ornate, and very expensive churches. Various claims at the right to be called “Pope” also eroded the power of the Church.
Saints and Demons covers a lot of history in a short time. It does so fairly well, giving a general overview of the history of Christianity and not addressing the faith itself. It doesn’t debate the philosophical questions which were arising among believers during this time, but merely brings up the facts which were beginning to divide them.
History is depicted in various ways, the most common being re-enactments by actors while the setting is narrated. The re-enactments are done very well, particularly some of the dramatizations of what the time of the Plague was like. Seeing how people of the time used the flagellants gave me a bit of a perspective of just how desperate they were. Saints and Demons also uses a good selection of paintings and statues either created during this time period or depicting it.
One cut to the modern era came when it spoke of St. Francis of Assisi and the Basilica that was constructed in his honor. To show the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, beautiful stock shots are used, as well as showing the earthquake in 1997 that almost destroyed it. This part shows people in current times attempting to restore the damage to the Basilica, including the Frescos which show the story of St. Francis of Assisi. Many other spectacular churches built during this time are also shown in their present state.
Any one of these subjects could be the subject of a much longer documentary. The fact that all of this is only briefly touched on during Saints and Demons. It becomes apparent that the series is just touching on the place Christianity has had in the history of the world, hopefully encouraging the viewer to delve into points that interest them more on their own. There’s a Book List included on the DVD to help with that. The length of the DVD – just about 40 minutes – would make it good for Bible Classes, allowing for discussion afterward.
I highly recommend this series to get an overview of the place of Christianity in history. It’s by no means comprehensive, but it’s something people should know about and possibly learn from.
Previous episode of the series (link): 2000 Years of Christianity Episode IV: The Cross and the Sword
Next episode of the series (link): 2000 Years of Christianity Episode VI: This Side of Heaven