Was there a sense of social progress in the Middle Ages? Social justice? Social change? Ideas changed, shifted, were created, but, as I think about it, within a very different meta-narrative structure. Social change here and now generally (hopefully) entails more rights for more people - that's the big narrative push. There's no such over-arching narrative to medieval shifts of ideas. The discourse on race, for instance, creates and denies difference pragmatically. But Augustine does argue against the idea that anyone would be abandoned by God (this in the defense of the potential salvation of monsters); and Chrétien de Troyes does state that Marie de Champagne gave him the "matter and the meaning" of the Lancelot tale he wrote (this in troubling the smooth waters of authorship and originality). I could come up with more ideas that signaled some resistance to power structures that alienated or oppressed others. But they would be isolated moments (which have survived because one can vividly teach them/learn from them), wouldn't they? Perhaps the difference can be understood in terms of rights (the narrative and moral drive of modern social progress) vs. articulation (or expression, of ideas that resonate with social progress today). Take the examples that John Boswell gathers in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (especially the Aelred of Rivaulx passage which has now been read in several weddings of former students and that of my brother), and which always make students marvel in their rich and textured articulations and expressions of gay desire. Of course Boswell's interpretive methods have been critiqued (it assumes an essential and transhistorical gay identity (not very Foucauldian, which argues that all sexualities are constructed within historically specific time periods - but honestly some days, it's ok to put Foucault aside) he took the texts too literally, it's all metaphor, etc.) - but it still resonates with students when Aelred compares his love for a novice with the marriage of John and Christ. You can't teach gay rights in the Middle Ages, but you can explore the articulation of gay desire, gay experience. After watching the movie tonight, I keep wondering if articulation/expression isn't the first part of social change. See?
Maybe looking at art is the ultimate transcendental medication.