9th Grade: 1066 And all That

Greetings,

I wish you all a great break and a Merry Christmans

This past week we wrapped up the Norman Conquest of 1066.  I wanted us to see the conflict between Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy not just as battle for the throne between two rivals, but as a window into the society at large.  Toward that end we focused a lot of our discussion on oaths in early Medieval Europe.

We looked at oaths because the central controversy involving the Norman Conquest involved a dispute over an oath taken by Harold.  Harold apparently got blown off course one day and landed in Normandy in France.  Instead of holding him for ransom, William, Duke of Normandy protected and befriended him.  At the end of his visit, William asked Harold to pledge that he would not seek the throne of England after Edward the Confessor’s death.

Harold's Oath

In that oath, several questions arise:

  • Did Harold promise to let William have the throne?
  • If so, was that promise binding, i.e. was the oath a valid oath?
  • Did Harold really break his oath in the first place?

Oaths had crucial important for this period I think, for the following reasons:

1. Today we have extensive written contracts, police, and law courts to enforce social order and provide a platform for trust in social interaction.  The world of 1066 had none of these things.  So we see instead an ironclad priority placed on “keeping one’s word,” which stood in place of the modern written contract.  Breaking one’s word, then, did not just damage your personal reputation, it threatened the fabric of civilization itself.

2. This can help us understand why the Church felt the need to involve itself in the oaths of great noblemen.  By 1066 Europe had only recently emerged from a chaotic “dark age,” of barbarian invasions.  The Church wanted peace, and so often strengthened them by adding spiritual overtones on the oaths to make them even more binding.  One could argue that this would make the Church a meddler in personal affairs.  I think they would respond that peace is everyone’s business.

Of course oaths could only bind under certain circumstances:

  • Oaths were freely taken — that is, no compulsion came with the oath.
  • The terms of the oath could be performed by those making the oath (one could not vow for another’s actions)
  • One could not vow to sin, and then sin because, “I promised I would.”

As an example, there is this text from the life of King Louis IX of France in 1248, from The Chronicle of Matthew Paris.  Note how all urge him to “unbind” himself from his first oath, but then once he vows again, the matter is settled.

. . .the lord king of the French who, as was well known, had taken the cross [vowed to go on a Crusade] was severely criticized, and almost circumvented by his magnates and courtiers, because he was unwilling to redeem or commute his oath in any way, in spite of the [fact that he taken the vow when very ill].  His mother Blanche, aware of the king’s imbecility at the time [of the oath] insisted and earnestly argued with him, and the bishop addressed him as follows.

“My lord king, remember that when you took the cross, making a vow so hurriedly and without advice, you were ill and your mind wandered.  The words you then uttered lacked truth and authority.  The good pope will willingly grant a dispensation from the oath, knowing the critical state of your kingdom and your past infirmity.”

Then the king’s mother added her own suggestions, spoke to him with some effect. “Dearest son!  Instead of resisting your own prudence, pay attention to the advice of friends.  Bear in mind how pleasing it is to God to give heed to the voice of one’s mother.  Stay here and the Holy Land will suffer no detriment.  . . .  God neither plays tricks nor does he quibble.  You are sufficiently excused by your illness and the deprivation of your reason. . .”

To this the king, no little moved, replied, “. . . Lord bishop, here is the cross which I assumed; moreover, I resign it to you.” Raising his hand to his shoulder, he ripped off the cross.  At this all those sitting around him expressed their intense joy, but the lord king, altering his tone, said: “My friends, certainly I am not now deprived of my reason or my senses, nor am I powerless or infirm.  Now I demand back my cross.  He who ignores nothing knows that nothing edible shall enter my mouth until I have signed myself with it.”

When those present saw this they recognized the hand of God here (Ex. 8:19), and that these things had been effected by a divine force from Heaven.  Nor did anyone dare raise any further questions about the affair.  We have recorded this business fully and exactly so that everyone appreciates the constancy of the most Christian king of the French in the service of Christ.

Harold IOne of the controversies of 1066 revolved around Harold’s oath.  Some argued that it was not taken freely, as Harold at the time was under William’s custody and protection.  Some also argued that the oath was not Harold’s to make, as the English Witan chose kings, and Harold might feel bound by their choice.  When Harold broke his vow (from William’s perspective, it set about a clash that could be solved only through battle.  Harold might argue that. . .

  • The oath I took does not bind, for I took it under indirect compulsion, a stranger in William’s land.  Besides this, I do not fight for my own personal gain, but for England.
  • I fight for England’s right to choose an English king.  Edward the Confessor (God rest his soul) always had half of himself in Normandy.  I say that England has a right to choose an English king that will look after English interests.

William might have countered with. . .William I

  • I do not fight for petty slights, nor revenge.  I fight for uphold civilization itself, and the sanctity of oaths taken upon holy relics.  If oaths have nothing sacred to them, we have nothing to keep us together but naked force and barbarism.
  • If kings do not keep their i, neither can we expect the common man to do so.
  • The pope has given me his banner, for he too recognizes the greater good at stake in this.  Harold’s refusal to back down show him as an enemy of the Church and civilization.

In the famous Battle of Hastings that ensued, both armies fought well but Harold was killed in the fighting, which left the throne open for William of Normandy, from then on known as William the Conqueror.

Harold's Death

Many in England get tired of hearing about 1066 in much the same way that we may tire of hearing of 1492.  But the Norman Conquest did change the social fabric of England, and more importantly, brought England into the fold of the European continent.

Some years after the Normans displaced the Saxons, a handful of monks wrote the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” detailing life before and after William.  The conclusion below, though short, provides an interesting opportunity for textual analysis.  Did the Anglo-Saxon writer like William or not?  Did he have to praise him because he was a Saxon and had lost, or is the praise surprising for the very same reason?  Was William a good king?  It depends on what you think most important about political leadership. . .

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Assessment of William I

If anyone would know what manner of man King William was, the glory that he obtained, and of how many lands he as lord, then will we describe him as we have known him, we who had looked upon him and who once lived at his court. This King William…was a very wise and great man, and more honored and more powerful than any of his predecessors. He was mild to those good men who loved God, but severe beyond measure to those who withstood his will. He founded a noble monastery [Battle Abbey] on the spot where God permitted him to conquer England., and he established monks in it, and he made it very rich. In his days the great monastery at Canterbury was built, and many others also throughout England; moreover, this land was filled with monks who lived after the ule of St. Benedict; and such was the state of religion in his days that all who would, might observe that which was prescribed by their respective orders.

King William was also held in much reverence. He wore his crown three times every year when he was in England: at Easter he wore it at Winchester, at Pentecost at Westminster, and at Christmas at Gloucester. And at these times all the men of England were with him, archbishops, bishops, abbots and earls, thanes and knights. So also was he a very stern and wrathful man, so that none durst do anything against his will, and he kept in prison those earls who acted against his pleasure. He removed bishops from their sees and abbots from their offices, and he imprisoned thanes, and at length he spared not his own [half-]brother Odo. This Odo was a very powerful bishop in Normandy. His see was that of Bayeux, and he was foremost to serve the king. He had an earldom in England, and when William was in Normandy he [Odo] was the first man in this country, and him did William cast into prison.

Amongst other things, the good order that William established is not to be forgotten. It was such that any man…might travel over the kingdom with a bosom full of gold unmolested; and no man durst kill another, however great the injury he might have received from him. He reigned over England, and being sharp-sighted to his own interest, he surveyed the kingdom so thoroughly that there was not a single hide of land throughtout the whole of which he knew not the possessor, and how much it was worth, and this he afterward entered in his register. The land of the Britons [Wales] was under his sway, and he built castles therein; moreover he had full dominion over the Isle of Man; Scotland was also subject to him…; the land of Normandy was his by inheritance, and he possessed the earldom of Maine, and had he lived two years longer, he would have subdued Ireland by his prowess, and that without a battle.

Truely there was much trouble in these times, and very great distress. He caused castles to be built and oppressed the poor. The king was also of great sterness, and he took from his subjects many marks of gold, and many hundred pounds of silver, and this, either with or without right, and with little need. He was given to avarice and greedily loved gain. He made large forests for the deer, and enacted laws therewith, so that whoever killed a hart or a hind should be blinded. As he forbade killing the deer, so also the boars; and he loved the tall stags as if he were their father. He also commanded concerning the hares, that they should go free. The rich complained and the poor murmured, but he was so sturdy that he took no notice of them; they must will all that the king willed, if they would live, or keep their lands,…or be maintained in their rights. Alas that any man should so exalt himself…. We have written concerning him these things, both good and bad, that virtuous men may follow after the good, and wholly avoid the evil, and may go in the way that leadeth to the kingdom of heaven.

The “Rite of Spring” as Praeparatio Evangelica

When I first heard Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring I failed to be impressed.  I knew something of what I thought Stravinsky tried to accomplish, to make something “primal,” but felt that the orchestra may not have been the best tool for that purpose. Besides, I tended to hear jumbled nonsense.  Years later I thought again about the piece and admired it a bit more (but not that much more) when I perhaps gained greater understanding of what Stravinsky might have intended in relation to the end of the Victorian era (something I speculate on in this post).

When The Bad Plus, a jazz-rock piano trio and probably my favorite musical group, decided to play the piece I raised an eyebrow.  True, they had covered other 20th century classical pieces to great effect, but I didn’t really like the “Rite of Spring” all that much.  It didn’t seem like a piece open to reinterpretation or rearranging, and if they did not do this I feared that they would simply play the score rote with a drum beat over top.  Add to that, what ultimate spiritual significance could the piece have?  If Stravinsky hearkens back to a pagan past, could it be considered a historical reflection?  Or if he meant to contemporize the concept, to what extent could I “buy in” with a pagan message?

Thinking about this I recalled a story of G.K. Chesterton in his “Father Brown” stories (I cannot remember which one) where one of the characters has a spiritual transformation by witnessing a person devote themselves to an umbrella (I think) on a ship lost at sea.  He realized that such a person, though crazy, had more spiritual insight about God than his own vague vanilla theism, for the crazy man at least understood the nature of devotion and sacrifice.

The law clearly serves as a preparation for the gospel (Gal. 3:24), but we can wonder to what extent certain elements of pagan religion had their roots in anything beyond the revelation of creation (Rom 1:21).  The Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Norse all have myths about a dying and rising god.  Nearly all pagan religions involved notions of propitiation.  Perhaps this is one reason why Gentiles can directly bypass Judaism and go straight to Christ.  They too had a tutor.  Some early church fathers, notably, Eusebius, wrote about how paganism could be a praeparatio evangelica — a fancy word for “preparation for the gospel.”

Stravinsky’s own walk of faith had its ups and downs.  Raised in the church, he walked away from the faith in his later teens, returning to Christianity for good only in his early 40’s.  He wrote the “Rite” during his sojourning period.  But during this period he apparently did not slip into vaguely religious cant.  With the “Rite” he stayed connected to the crucial truths about death and life. Perhaps the “Rite” served as his own praeparatio evangelica

On Paul’s missionary journeys we generally see three classes of people: 1) “Ensconced” Jews, 2) “God-fearers,” or Gentiles who had converted to some kind of Judaism, and 3) Standard pagans. The “God-fearers” responded the best of these three, but the pagans responded better than the lifelong Jews.  No doubt many reasons exist for this, but one simply might have been complacency.  Perhaps living far away from the temple might have distanced them from the notion of sacrifice, of the need for life to come from death.  For all its faults the pagans still believed enough to offer sacrifices, and perhaps this opened them up to the truth of the gospel.*

So, back to the Bad Plus.

This is a great recording.  The fact that we have just two instrumentalists, and one of them a bassist, gives the music a more spare and earthy feel.  Dave King’s drumming roots the music far more to the ground than and orchestra could.  For me, this is a recording of the “Rite” that makes the music make sense and gives it the power Stravinsky no doubt intended, and for me at least, never achieved.  Here below is an excerpt of the last movement (Bad Plus fans will note their own personal exclamation point in the form of the end of their own song “Physical Cities”).  Normally I hate it when people say, “You have to listen to the whole album to get the full effect.”  In this case I think it true, but this gives one a good entry point.

Having experienced the prelude, we can now experience an “A.D.” reality, with a conductor who marvelously looks like he might have just arrived from a sacrificial dance (try pausing it right at .06 to see some wild hair).  A Merry Christmas to all . . .

*In his essay, “Christianity and Civilization,” historian Arnold Toynbee makes this very point.  I include a portion of it here . . .

. . . In this Catholic form of the Church, I see two fundamental institutions, the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Hierarchy, which are indissolubly welded together by the fact that the priest, by definition, is the person with the power to perform the rite. If, in speaking of the Mass, one may speak, without offence, with the tongues of the historian and the anthropologist, then, using this language, one may describe the Sacrifice of the Mass as the mature form of a most ancient religious rite of which the rudiments can be traced back to the worship of the fertility of the Earth and her fruits by the earliest tillers of the soil. (I am speaking here merely of the mundane origin of the rite.) as for the hierarchy of the Church in its traditional form, this, as one knows, is modelled on a more recent and less awe-inspiring yet nevertheless most potent institution, the imperial civil service of the Roman Empire. The Church in its traditional form thus stands forth armed with the spear of the Mass, the shield of the Hierarchy, and the helmet of the Papacy; and perhaps the subconscious purpose –or the divine intention, if you prefer that language– of this heavy panoply of institutions in which the Church has clad herself is the very practical one of outlasting the toughest of the secular institutions of this world, including all the civilizations. If we survey all the institutions of which we have knowledge in the present and in the past, I think that the institutions created, or adopted and adapted, by Christianity are the toughest and the most enduring of any that we know and are therefore the most likely to last –and outlast all the rest. The history of Protestantism would seem to indicate that the Protestant act of casting off this armour four hundred years ago was premature; but that would not necessarily mean that this step would always be a mistake; and , however that may be, the institutional element in the traditional Catholic form of the Church Militant on Earth, even if it proves to be an invaluable and indispensable means of survival, is all the same a mundane feature which makes the Church Militant’s life different from that of the Kingdom of Heaven, in which they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are as the angels of God, and in which each individual soul catches the spirit of God from direct communion with Him –‘like light caught from a leaping flame,’ as Plato puts it in his Seventh Letter. Thus, even if the Church had won a fully world-wide allegiance and had entered into the inheritance of the last of the civilizations and of all the other higher religions, the Church on Earth would not be a perfect embodiment here on Earth of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Church on Earth would still have sin and sorrow to contend with as well as to profit by as a means of grace on the principle of ?Ueae iUeio, and she would still have to wear for a long time to come a panoply of institutions to give her the massive social solidity that she needs in the mundane struggle for survival, but this at the inevitable price of spirituality weighing her down, On this showing, the victorious Church Militant on Earth will be a province of the Kingdom of God, but a province in which the citizens of the heavenly commonwealth have to live and breathe and labour in an atmosphere that is not their native element.

The position in which the Church would then find herself is well conveyed in Plato’s conceit, in the Phaedo, of the true surface of the Earth. We live, Plato suggests, in a large but local hollow, and what we take to be the air is really a sediment of fog. If one day we could make our way to the upper levels of the surface of the Earth, we should there breathe the pure ether and should see the light of the Sun and stars direct; and then we should realize how dim and blurred had been our vision down in the hollow, where we see the heavenly bodies, through the murky atmosphere in which we breathe, as imperfectly as the fishes see them through the water in which they swim. This Platonic conceit is a good simile for the life of the Church Militant on Earth; but the truth cannot be put better than it has been by Saint Augustine.

“It is written of Cain that he founded a commonwealth; but Abel –true to the type of the pilgrim and sojourner that he was– did not do the like. For the Commonwealth of the Saints is not of this world, though it does give birth to citizens here in whose persons it performs its pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom shall come–the time when it will gather them all together.”

This brings me in conclusion to the last of the topics on which I am going to touch, that of the relation between Christianity and progress.

If it is true, as I think it is, that the Church on Earth will never be a perfect embodiment of the Kingdom of Heaven, in what sense can we say the words of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven’? Have we been right, after all, in coming to the conclusion that –in contrast to the cyclic movement of the rises and falls of civilizations– the history of religion on Earth is a movement in a single continuous upward line? What are the matters in which there has been, in historical times, a continuous religious advance? And have we any reason to think that this advance will continue without end? Even if the species of societies called civilizations does give way to a historically younger and perhaps spiritually higher species embodied in a single world-wide and enduring representative in the shape of the Christian Church, may there not come a time when the tug of war between Christianity and original sin will settle down to a static balance of spiritual forces?

Let me put forward one or two considerations in reply to these questions.

In the first place, religious progress means spiritual progress, and spirit means personality. Therefore religious progress must take place in the spiritual lives of personalities –it must show itself in their rising to a spiritually higher state and achieving a spiritually finer activity.

Now, in assuming that this individual progress is what spiritual progress means, are we after all admitting Frazer’s thesis that the higher religions are essentially and incurably anti-social? Does a shift of human interests and energy from trying to create the values aimed at in the civilizations to trying to create the values aimed at in the higher religions mean that the values for which the civilizations stand are bound to suffer? Are spiritual and social values antithetical and inimical to each other? Is it true that the fabric of civilization is undermined if the salvation of the individual soul is taken as being the supreme aim of life?

Frazer answers these questions in the affirmative. If his answer were right it would mean that human life was a tragedy without a catharsis. But I personally believe that Frazer’s answer is not right, because I think it is based on a fundamental misconception of what the nature of souls or personalities is. Personalities are inconceivable except as agents of spiritual activity; and the only conceivable scope for spiritual activity lies in relations between spirit and spirit. It is because spirit implies spiritual relations that Christian theology has completed the Jewish doctrine of the Unity of God with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity is the theological way of expressing the revelation that God is a spirit; the doctrine of the Redemption is the theological way of expressing the revelation that God is Love. If man has been created in the likeness of God, and if the tue end of man is to make this likeness ever more and more like, then Aristotle’s saying that ‘man is social animal’ applies to man’s highest potentiality and aim –that of trying to get into ever closer communion with God. Seeking God is itself a social act. And if God’s love has gone into action in this world in the Redemption of mankind by Christ, then man’s efforts to make itself liker to God must include efforts to follow Christ’s example in sacrificing himself for the redemption of his fellow men. Seeking and following God in this way, that is God’s way, is the only true way for a human soul on Earth to seek salvation. The antithesis between trying to save one’s own soul by seeking and following God and trying to do one’s duty to one’s neighbour is therefore wholly false. The two activities are indissoluble. The human soul that is truly seeking to save itself is as fully social a being as the ant-like Spartan or the bee-like Communist. Only, the Christian soul on Earth is a member of a very different society from Sparta or Leviathan. He is a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and therefore his paramount and all-embracing aim is to attain the highest degree of communion with, and likeness to, God Himself; his relations with his fellow men are consequences of, and corollaries to, his relations with God; and his way of loving his neighbour as himself will be to try to help his neighbour to win what he is seeking for himself –that is, to come into closer communion with God and to become more godlike.

If this is a soul’s recognized aim for itself and for its fellow souls in the Christian Church Militant on Earth, then it is obvious that under a Christian dispensation God’s will will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven to an immeasurably greater degree than in a secular mundane society. It is also evident that, in the Church Militant on Earth, the good social aims of the mundane societies will incidentally be achieved very much more successfully than they ever have been or can be achieved in a mundane society which aims at these objects direct, and at nothing higher. In other words, the spiritual progress of individual souls in this life will in fact bring with it much more social progress than could be attained in any other way. It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at that goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it. This is the meaning of the fable in the Old Testament of Solomon’s Choice and of the saying in the New Testament about losing one’s life and saving it.

Therefore, while the replacement of the mundane civilizations by the world-wide and enduring reign of the Church Militant on Earth would certainly produce what to-day would seem a miraculous improvement in those mundane social conditions which the civilizations have been seeking to improve during the last six thousand years, the aim, and test, of progress under a truly Christian dispensation on Earth would not lie in the field of mundane social life; the field would be the spiritual life of individual souls in their passages through this earthly life from birth into this world to death out of it.

But if spiritual progress in time in this world means progress achieved by individual human souls during their passages through this world to the other world, in what sense can there be any spiritual progress over a time-span far longer than that of individual lives on Earth, and running into thousands of years, such as that of the historical development of the higher religions from the rise of Tammuz-worship and the generation of Abraham to the Christian era?

I have already confessed my own adherence to the traditional Christian view that there is no reason to expect any change in unredeemed human nature while human life on Earth goes on. Till this Earth ceases to be physically habitable by man, we may expect that the endowments of individual human beings with original sin and with natural goodness will be about the same, on the average, as they always have been as far as our knowledge goes. the most primitive societies known to us in the life or by report provide examples of as great natural goodness as, and no lesser wickedness than, the highest civilizations or religious societies that have yet come into existence. There has been no perceptible variation in the average sample of human nature in the past; there is no ground, in the evidence afforded by History, to expect any great variation in the future either for better or for worse.

The matter in which there might be spiritual progress in time on a time-span extending over many successive generations of life on Earth is not the unregenerate nature of man, but the opportunity open to souls, by way of the learning that comes through suffering, for getting into closer communion with God, and becoming less unlike Him, during their passage through this world.

What Christ, with the Prophets before Him and the Saints after Him, has bequeathed to the Church, and what the Church, by virtue of having been fashioned into an incomparably effective institution, succeeds in accumulating, preserving, and communicating to successive generations of Christians, is a growing fund of illumination and of grace-meaning by ‘illumination’ the discovery of revelation or revealed discovery of the true nature of God and the true end of man here and hereafter, and by ‘grace,’ the will or inspiration or inspired will to aim at getting into Him. In this matter of increasing spiritual opportunity for souls in their passages through life on Earth, there is assuredly an inexhaustible possibility of progress in this world.

Is the spiritual opportunity given by Christianity, or by one or other of the higher religions that have been forerunners of Christianity and have partially anticipated Christianity’s gifts of illumination and grace to men on Earth, an indispensable condition for salvation –meaning by ‘salvation’ the spiritual effect on a soul of feeling after God and finding Him in its passage through life on Earth?

If this were so, then the innumerable generations of men who never had the chance of receiving the illumination and grace conveyed by Christianity and the other higher religions would have been born and have died without a chance of the salvation which is the true end of man and the true purpose of life on Earth. This might be conceivable, though still repugnant, if we believed that the true purpose of life on Earth was not the preparation of souls for another life, but the establishment of the best possible human society in this world, which in the Christian belief is not the true purpose, though it is an almost certain by-product of a pursuit of the true purpose. If progress is taken as being the social of Leviathan and not the spiritual progress of individual souls, then it would perhaps be conceivable that, for the gain and glory of the body social, innumerable earlier generations should have been doomed to live a lower social life in order that a higher social life might eventually be lived by successors who had entered into their labours. This would be conceivable on the hypothesis that individual human souls existed for the sake of society, and not for their own sakes or for God’s.But this belief is not only repugnant but is also inconceivable when we are dealing with the history of religion, where the progress of individual souls through this world towards God, and not the progress of society in this world, is the end on which the supreme value is set. We cannot believe that the historically incontestable fact that illumination and grace have been imparted to men on Earth in successive installments, beginning quite recently in the history of the human race on Earth, and even then coming gradually in the course of generations, can have entailed the consequence that the vast majority of souls born into the world up to date, who have had no share in this spiritual opportunity, have, as a result, been spiritually lost. We must believe that the possibilities, provided by God, of learning through suffering in this world have always afforded a sufficient means of salvation to every soul that has made the best of the spiritual opportunity offered to it here, however small that opportunity may have been.

But, if men on Earth have not had to wait for the advent of the higher religions, culminating in Christianity, in order to qualify, in their life on Earth, for eventually attaining, after death, the state of eternal felicity in the other world, then what difference has the advent on Earth of the higher religions, and of Christianity itself, really made? The difference, I should say, is this, that, under the Christian dispensation, a soul which does make the best of its spiritual opportunities will, in qualifying for salvation, be advancing farther towards communion with God and towards likeness to God under the conditions of life on Earth, before death, than has been possible for souls that have not been illuminated, during their pilgrimage on Earth, by the light of the higher religions. A pagan soul, no less than a Christian soul, has ultimate salvation with its reach; but a soul which has been offered, and has opened itself to, the illumination and the grace that Christianity conveys, will, while still in this world, of the narrower opportunity here open to it. The Christian soul can attain, while still on Earth, a greater measure of man’s greatest good than can be attained by any pagan soul in this earthly stage of its existence.

Thus the historical progress of religion in this world, as represented by the rise of the higher religions and by their culmination in Christianity, may, and almost certainly will, bring with it, incidentally, an immeasurable improvement in the conditions of human social life on Earth; but its direct effect and its deliberate aim and its true test is the opportunity which it brings to individual souls for spiritual progress in this world during the passage from birth to death. It is this individual spiritual progress in this world for which we pray when we say ‘Thy will be done in Earth as it is in Heaven.’ It is for the salvation that is open to all men of good will –pagan as well as Christian, primitive as well as civilized– who make the most of their spiritual opportunities on Earth, however narrow these opportunities may be, that we pray when we say ‘Thy Kingdom come.’

Valleys of Neptune

A few weeks ago I attended a conference in which Dr. Peter Kreeft was one of the featured speakers.  I have read a few of Dr. Kreeft’s works and liked them all, and especially enjoyed his essay on surfing, one of his great loves.

During one of the lunch breaks I had the immense good fortune to find myself sitting next to Dr. Kreeft at one the random round tables in the dining area.  I asked him for some surfing tips and he proved gracious and helpful.  Based on his love for the sea I also wanted to run a pet theory of mine by him.

The theory runs something like this. . .

Mankind’s greatest feats of creativity have always come near water.

  • Egypt had the Nile and the Mediterranean
  • Babylon had the Tigris and Euphrates
  • Greece had the Mediterranean
  • Northern Europe gave birth to the Gothic Age, by the English Channel and the North Sea
  • London then led the way with the Channel, North Sea, etc.
  • The Dutch had a brief but brilliant golden age, again right on the water
  • In America the great cultural centers have always been Boston, New York, L.A., etc.

Even when sometimes you think of an exception, the theory still holds.  Chicago is in the middle of the U.S., but has the Great Lakes.  Twain invented American Literature in the Mid-West. . . but his formative years were spent on the Mississippi.

And so on, and so on.

Assyria was in the Ancient Near East, but not creative in any way that contributed to humanity. They did not live near any great body of water.  The Greek city-state of Sparta was one of the few far away from the Mediterranean, and their culture stagnated.  Rome obviously had lots of power, but came to the Mediterranean late in their game and thus borrowed a great deal from everyone. Their creative cultural contributions pale in comparison to Greece, but also Egypt and probably Babylon as well.

Some might suggest that the key is majestic expanse, not just water.  But I disagree.  The Great Plains have majestic expanse in spades and have not led the way in creative impulse.  The Himalayas have the tallest mountains on Earth but have not produced great thinkers, architects, etc.  Sparta was surrounded by mountains on all sides and may have been one of the more culturally stagnant of all civilizations.  Of course mountains and plains have a beauty all their own and can inspire, but they do not appear to have the universal impact of water.  I still think there must be something to water itself.

A purely rational or mechanical view of this would probably put the emphasis on the fact that living near water would inevitably result in overseas trade, which would blend cultures and ideas to a degree that would naturally lead to creativity.

But I think that this puts the cart before the horse.  For a civilization to think of something beyond survival and necessity, it has to think outside of itself, and for that it needs inspired.  It is this sense of inspiration that opens them up to travel, other cultures, and other things.  In other words, substantial bodies of water subconsciously unlocks our creativity and then civilizations take advantage of the opportunities before them.

“What do you think?” I asked Dr. Kreeft (no doubt I put my theory to him much more eloquently than I have here).

“I agree.”

There followed a pregnant pause but all I could think was, “He agreed!  Yee-ha!”

He continued (I paraphrase his words), “There is something about water that ties us to creation itself.  It is where we came from.”  And with that, he politely excused himself.

Part of me wanted him to say more, but upon reflection he had in fact said it all.  I doubt very much that by the “where we came from” comment he meant anything in a purely Darwinian sense.  Genesis 1 talks of creation being drawn up through water.  Our new creation involves the waters of baptism.  1 John 5 talks mysteriously of the three-fold agreement of the Spirit, water and blood.  I know of a physics teacher who begins the year by looking at ancient views of creation and the cosmos, and mentions Thales’ idea that all matter comes from water.  The students tend to scoff until they re-read Genesis 1.

To this day Jimi Hendrix stands firmly entrenched as the greatest electric guitarist of all time.  He did things with the guitar that still no one else can equal.  I don’t think it coincidental that some of his most intriguing songs (“Rainy Day, Dream Away,” “Castles Made of Sand,” “May This be Love,” “1983 . . .A Merman I Should Be”) involve water.  Perhaps in some way he understood the power and meaning of water as Peter Kreeft did that day at lunch, a serendipitous moment for me if there ever was one.

“Social Theories of the Middle Ages”

There is the idea touted by some that “a thing can be known only by its opposite.” Perhaps this idea has more cache in today’s parlance due to the rise of eastern philosophies in the west. However attractive the idea sounds on the most important questions it doesn’t hold up.  The Devil does indeed need God, but God has no need of the Devil.  Adam and Eve had every chance of knowing God perfectly before the presence of sin — of course sin prevents us from knowing God as we ought.

Still, on lesser questions the aphorism has its usefulness, including in History.  We rarely can see the nose on our face, and so it’s hard to understand one’s own society just by looking at one’s own society.  Instead we need perspective, and history can provide this.  Of course we should not look at history merely as a vehicle for understanding our own time.  Rather we can say that good history both opens up new worlds to us and sheds light on our own.  Such is the accomplishment of Bede Jarrett’s Social Theories of the Middle Ages.  His chosen title fails to inspire, and at times his writing follows his title and gets bogged down and technical.  But all in all Jarrett succeeds in his stated aim of fairly portraying a world strangely familiar to us and yet not so familiar.

Jarrett divides his examination by category, and so we have chapters on Law, Education, Women, and son on.  Right away in his first chapter on “Law” we see differences between us and them. Before thinking about particular laws the medievals thought in terms of their proper “ends” or to use the Greek term, the “telos” of a particular law.  No law made sense unless put in a larger theological context.  In order to know this context we need to know not just our ends as human beings in general, but also our origins.  So any medieval theory of law must first start by talking about creation, natural law, sin, and so on.  Then they move on to questions about salvation, and the role of law as an aid to that process.  Having done this, now we can move on to actual laws.  So while the medievals often focused on the big picture, they had a rigid categorical exactness about their thinking.

This had two seemingly different kinds of consequences.  One is that specific laws might matter much less than the theory behind the laws, and so law itself disappears in the shuffle.  We see this in one medieval Welsh code of “law” where a woman could be remitted for a particular offense if she paid a fine of “a penny as wide as her behind.”  In other words, we need not worry about law at all.  On the other hand, medieval thinkers consistently mentioned that law “must adhere to the bones of the people” — it had to fit a time and context (again we see the medieval exactitude at work) to have real validity.

I said these attitudes presented only a seeming difference.  What held them together, I think, is that for them laws had validity only because of our temporal earthly existence.  When “History” serves its purpose we shall have no need of law at all.  To understand the place of law one must first understand the temporary nature of the state itself.  One then, can play with law, either to fit a particular occasion, or in the case of the Welsh, for our particular amusement.  It is this sense of distance from law the medievals had that differentiates our society and theirs.  Anyone who has been ticketed in a “Mandatory Headlight Use Area” though the sun shines brightly, or been caught in a speed trap on a road with a speed limit well below the road’s design, has felt the absolute nature of law in the modern west.  We treat the law thusly because we do not do as the medievals did — we have no “higher end ” in view, only the power of the consent of governed at our disposal.

But I should not give the impression that Jarrett romanticizes the Middle Ages, though I think he certainly is fond of them.  He wades into the controversy surrounding how to translate the Latin word “servus,” and has no qualms about rendering it as a “slave.”  He denies that slavery disappeared during the middle ages (though it did decrease significantly from Roman times) because a certain class of people had no legal freedoms.  In this he departs from the fiery Regine Pernoud, who called it the height of ignominious irresponsibility to render “servus,” as “slave.”*  The strict categorical methodology they used spilled over into their society at large at times to an unhealthy degree.

The modern perspective on such a social arrangement might incline towards tolerance — some might excuse it as a necessary stage to better things down the road (much as some might excuse the condition of the urban lower-class at the beginning of the industrial era).  They might be less willing to excuse the medieval view of women, at least at first glance.  Here Jarrett urges caution, for most often those that wrote were monks, because they had the best educations.  And monastic writing about women would have its own particular concerns apart from the larger community.  One gets a more robust picture of medieval women in the Canterbury Tales, for example.  Jarrett points out that,

  • Women who entered convents could receive a very similar kind of education as men.  That the education of men and women would be equal in any sense might have been a historical first.
  • “Their intelligence is more keen and more quick than that of a man.”  So said Franco Sanchetti, with general agreement from others.
  • Women had some opportunity to make a vital contribution to Christian culture at large, witness Christiana de Pisan.
  • Women had an honored place as nuturers and civilizers of men.
  • No era that perhaps came close to idolizing the Blessed Virgin Mary could be said to truly denigrate women.

But Jarrett also points out that women often got blamed for the Fall of mankind in general.  And many saw women as quicker to do evil than men — Sanchetti, quoted above, admired feminine intelligence but thought they used this intelligence to work more evil than men.

As Jarrett often does, he turns to Aquinas to help provide balance between these two seeming poles.  “The image of God in man in its principal signification — namely, the intellectual nature — is found both in man and in woman . . . .  But in a secondary sense the image of God is found in man and not in woman: for man is the beginning and end of woman, as God is the beginning and end of all things.  So when the Apostle had said that man is the image and glory of God but woman is the glory of man (I Cor. 11:7), he adds this reason, ‘for man is not of woman, but woman of man; and man was not created for women, but women for men.'”  Again in Aquinas, as we see so often, the “telos” of things guided their thinking.

We moderns cringe at this, but the best medievals would not have seen secondary status (if we wish to call it that) as denigrating.  We tend to measure worth in accomplishments or opportunities to live as we wish.  The medievals found glory in living out one’s assigned role in the grand cosmic dance that led to salvation.  So St. Francis (a man who understood chivalry perfectly) in his glorious “Canticle of the Sun” (see below) exults in the feminine aspects of creation because the feminine exults in meekness, which leads to humility.  And without humility no one can receive salvation.  From the medieval perspective (here I speculate) Jesus does not say, “The poor will always be with you,” because of the inevitability of sin, or the intractable problems of just political and economic systems.  Rather, some must play the role of “poverty” so that others will have the chance of exercising charity, and thereby become more like God.

This leads to what might most interest our economically minded/obsessed age, the medieval attitude towards money and property (there is an extended chapter on the medieval attitude towards war as well, but that gets covered in large measure here for any who have interest).  We experience confusion in the modern world about such things because we have no proper sense of the “telos” of money.  Jesus gives us many warnings about money’s destructive power, and yet we need money to live.  Money therefore has a proper place in the scheme of things, but money must be subordinated to its proper “end.”  So we should have enough to provide for our family.  We should seek also to have enough to practice charity.  Such is the proper, though temporary “end” of money.  Some would probably argue that a few might have a lot more money than this, but why?  To better reflect the image of God to creation, in this case, that of munificence or “kingly joy.”  By custom, though not law, the wealthy were expected to royally “fete” the poor under their charge on the most prominent of feast days (indeed, the mingling of rich and poor would have been much more common then than now).^

Property ownership as well came with this same tension.  Since God truly owned all things, in what sense could we own anything?  Medieval concepts of ownership absented themselves from our modern absolute legal concepts.  Rather, medievals “had use” of certain things, and then only on a contingent basis.  So the king had power provided he upheld his oath.  Nobles could receive grants of land from the king provided they served him faithfully.  None owned anything absolutely. The right to use something depended on whether or not you used it faithfully, according to the telos of the thing used.  Jarrett points out that absolute concepts of ownership came to the modern west with a revival of classical ideas in the Renaissance.  For the Romans, Rome was the telos of all things, so Roman ownership of property or people could be absolute. They had nothing beyond themselves from which they could take their pulse.  Aesthetically too, the contingent complexities of the medievals created stained glass.  The clear simplicities of the Renaissance smashed many of these windows and replaced them with clear panes just as the clear, classical concepts of Roman law began to replace the complex labyrinth that was the medieval synthesis.

In the early 20th century a group of thinkers led by men like G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc attempted to revive medieval economic concepts for the modern world.  They failed to make much headway, and most of their admirers attribute this failure to a lack of a defined system or program adapted for the modern world.  I have a different idea as to their lack of success.

Many might admire medieval views on property and wealth, but they arose within a defined context.  Specifically, the medieval focus on contextualizing everything in light of its place in the scheme of salvation gave them a framework in which to place wealth and property.  We have rejected the context of medieval views on things, and without that context, we have no agreed upon telos for money and property as the medievals had.  Our society values maximizing freedom and opportunity for the individual, and so the more wealth, the more opportunities to extend the self into places yet unknown.  Again, the medievals valued stability much more than change, innovation, and the need for “forward momentum.”  Without the medieval theological and psychological context, medieval ideas about economics would be dead on arrival.  We often wish to have our cake and eat it as well, but societies can not be put together in such a hodge-podge fashion.  We must choose the telos we pursue.

Dave

*Solving this riddle depends largely on how one defines slave.  Medieval peasants at the very bottom of the social ladder were slaves in the sense that they had very very few freedoms they could exercise on their own.  Unlike the slaves of most other cultures, however, even those at the very bottom had certain engrained legal protections in law and from the Church.  Also medieval “slaves” were almost entirely bound to the soil, which meant certain periods of long hours, and certain extended periods of relative inactivity.  And they also would have been exempt from work on numerous medieval feast and saint days in the Church calendar.

^In his The Court Society, Norbert Elias mentions a few aristocratic Spanish families who bankrupted themselves by projects, gifts, and feasts for those in their charge, and gained glory thereby.  Their family had in a sense, fulfilled its place in society by demonstrating such largesse.

— Regarding the “Canticle of the Sun” . . .

I agree with those that regard St. Thomas and St. Francis as the best fulfillment of medieval society.  St. Thomas’ massive Summa Theologica stands as perhaps the greatest extended theological treatise in the history of the Church.  But St. Francis probably had a greater degree of sanctity.  And in one fell swoop of poetic insight, St. Francis both perfectly expressed the medieval vision and revealed timeless truths.

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!
All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

 

 

9th Grade: Needful Things

This week we began looking at the aftermath of Charlemagne’s reign and his accomplishments.

Historians often focus on Charlemagne’s volatile character and his many wars, and these certainly have their place.  I wanted the students also to consider the broader context of how civilizations get created.

We often take civilization for granted, but we should ask ourselves why, and even if we need civilization in the first place. Inevitably civilization will detract from some personal freedom.  We will have to follow certain laws and maintain certain obligations to the larger population.  At times we will have to give allegiance in some form to leaders and laws we do not like.  But I believe that while civilization may not qualify as an absolute good, it remains a very strong relative good.  Without civilization life often gets reduced to who has the most force.  The weak would be at the mercy of the strong.  Also, without civilization culture on any appreciable scale will not exist.  So if nothing else, as Kenneth Clark stated, barbarism is boring.

But civilization will not build itself, nor does it arrive fully formed from the sky.  Humanity must create civilization themselves, and this requires much more than merely wanting to pass a few laws.  Who should make laws?  Who should enforce them?  Who will decide guilt or innocence when disputes arise?  These difficult questions can take generations to answer.

Often the answers a particular people arrive at do not come from abstract discussion, but “on the ground realities.”  Though it may sound harsh, the answers usually come from those who are most able to provide order, and this order comes from a monopoly on the use of force.

Many could argue that Charlemagne betrayed his Christian values with far too much reliance on war and unnecessary power grabs.  But Charlemagne did provide the necessary unity through his conquests to end disputes.  He did provide security and order, and this helped lead to what historians refer to as the “Carolingian Renaissance.”   While this period cannot hold a candle to other great historical renaissances in terms of what they produced, they also started from a much different place.  They developed a new style of writing, and a new architectural style.  We see books written once again (though of poor quality), and a general revival of the idea of scholarship.  Europe started to grow roots that would bear fruit in the centuries to comeCarolingian Script

Aachen Cathedral - Interior

What we often miss when examining the foundations of civilization, however, is the element of trust required.  More so than laws, the daily habits and patterns of our interactions with one another form the real core of civilization.  These habits have their roots in our conception of moral order, which comes directly from our religious beliefs.  Christianity thus played a huge indirect role in the formation of civilization after the fall of Rome.  It provided unity, yes, but it also provided a basis for common interaction.  No set of laws can cover every circumstance, and in the absence of law we fall back on the trust of our fellow man.   When this does not exist, when law and structure fail, civilization fails as well.  One need only think of the looting and destruction that might happen if power went out in a major city, or the chaos in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the rioting in the summer of 1968.  This may indicate that we rely perhaps a little too much on the force of law, and the trust and personal bonds that should unite us may not be all that strong.  Without a common moral foundation we have to rely on force to keep us together, and force will fail in the long run (if not the short run).

My hope for this unit with Charlemagne is that the students considered his achievement, and the cost of his achievement.  When we look at nascent civilizations we get a glimpse into nature of civilization itself, which we should then be able to apply to our own day.

Many thanks,

Dave