Henry of Huntingdon and the Nature of Reality

Henry of Huntingdon’s History of the English People:1000-1154 is one of the more entertaining medieval primary sources.  He drops in the occasional good anecdote, casts his narrative in a theological arc, and displays familiarity with Scripture and the Latin classics.

What fascinates me about him, however, are two passages that cannot help but shock the modern reader.

First, his description of the death of King William:

In the year 1100 King William ended his cruel life in a wretched death.  . . .  [while hunting] there Walter Tirel, aiming at a stag, accidentally hit the king with an arrow.  The king was struck in the heart, and fell without uttering a word.  A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up from the ground in Berkshire. . .  (p. 48, Oxford Classics Edition)

And a little later he writes,

In the same way Earl Geoffrey, among the ranks of his own . . . was struck by an arrow from a foot-soldier.  He scoffed at the wound, but after a few days died of this injury, excommunicate.  See how the vengeance of God . . . is made know throughout the ages, and is executed in the same way for the same crime!  While the church of Ramsey was being held as a castle [by the Earl] blood bubbled out of the walls of the church and the adjoining cloister, clearly demonstrating the divine wrath and prophesying the destruction of the wrong-doers.  Many witnessed this, and I myself saw it with my own eyes’ (p. 83, Oxford Classics Edition).

What are we to make of these appearances of blood?

Like Lewis’s famous “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” argument with Christ, we do not have many options open to us.

We cannot say that Henry is a mere gullible simpleton.  As we have already noted, he was a well educated man.

We might say that he simply wrong about the first instance.  He does not claim to have seen it himself, and one could argue that he merely reports the prejudices of local simpletons.  But we would still have the second example to deal with.

We can argue that he was lying in the second example.  But this event occurred within his lifetime and many would have witnessed it.  If he was lying he opened himself up to be contradicted quite easily.  Of course, he could still have lied.

Maybe he didn’t see blood at the church, but something that looked like it.  But everyone knows what blood looks like, especially soldiers.

So what would it mean if he accurately reported the truth?

1. It might have been a direct miracle from God.  This could be a valid interpretation of the second incident.  But the casual, offhand mention of blood in the first example make me doubt this.

2. It could have been the ‘expected’ way God works to reveal Himself in creation.  Perhaps this would put what happened at something slightly less than ‘miracle’ level intervention, but above ‘every day providence.’  This could be an interpretation of Henry’s words in the second instance, and explain the seeming nonchalance of the first.

The problem with this is that most of us would not expect this today.  Has anyone witnessed such a thing?  I’m guessing that if we saw it we would be more likely to call it a ‘miracle’ if we saw it today.  If we accept option #2 does it imply that God changes the way He reveals Himself over time?

3. Or, might it be that creation was built in some way to respond to sin in this way?  In other words, in different periods of time or different places is the human connection to creation closer, more ‘symbiotic?’  Has the West’s self-imposed distance from creation over the last few centuries meant that this would/could not happen anymore, at least in the developed world?

4. Owen Barfield seemed to suggest in Saving the Appearances that reality can be shaped in part by our perception of it.  Unfortunately, I could understand very little of his argument in that book.

Has anyone else read it?

While this sounds strange, C.S. Lewis hints at this view (Barfield was a good friend) in Ransom’s talk with Merlin in That Hideous Strength, where Merlin harkens back to a time when Nature could respond against evil, or perhaps even be manipulated by those with a special relationship to it.

This, in turn, might shed light on the heretofore puzzling comment in Mark’s gospel (6:5) that Jesus could  do no miracles because of their lack of faith.  Maybe our relationship to reality is one that flows in many directions.  Since we no longer believe such things to be possible, they no longer happen.  But if we did believe. . . ?

This last view might change our view of the past in a variety of ways.  Egyptian folklore, for example, is riddled with tales of magic and magicians with unusual powers.  Should we see more historical truth in them then we have so far?

As you can probably tell, I tend to prefer one of the last two options, but I have no real strong feelings.  I would love to hear other possibilities or insights.

Advertisements