9th Grade: A Medieval Cold War turns Hot


Henry IIThis week we wrapped up the 12th century by looking at Henry II, king of England from 1154-1179.

Henry had many great leadership qualities, as even his enemies attested to.  Tall, handsome, bold, decisive, charismatic — the list could go on.  Feudal society, however, seemed arranged specifically to prevent strong ‘type A’ personalities like Henry’s from exercising their full potential.  Past updates discussed the various ‘spheres’ of influence, local distinctions, and tangled allegiances that prevented any centralization of power in the medieval world.

All of this sort of thing no doubt maddened Henry, just as it would frustrate anyone who liked efficiency, action, and “getting things done,” not to mention power.  Henry did his best, however, and had a great deal of success.  One of his final frontiers remained the creation of universal law throughout England, and here he met the staunch opposition of the Church, in the person of his one time friend Thomas Becket, a man to whom he had personally shown enormous favor, raising him from his “common” birth to the heights of power.  Henry also wanted the power to appoint bishops to vacant sees, and to try monks and clergy who had committed crimes.  Becket didn’t mind the first so much, acquiesced on the last, and ended up dying for his opposition to Henry’s claim to control the clergy.

The medievals inherited one of their dominant theological motifs from St. Augustine’s “City of God.”  In his treatise Augustine outlined the existence of two cities on Earth, the “City of Man,” and the “City of God.”  The City of Man has its manifestation in the use of power to maintain order — the State.  The state has legitimacy in the eyes of God. It performs crucial functions for our well being.  But don’t kid yourself into thinking that the City of Man has any redemptive qualities or possibilities.  It performs purely ‘negative’ functions.  It restrains evil but cannot serve as a conduit for redemption.

The City of God, on the other hand, looks beyond the maintaining of power to redemption.  It focuses on love, forgiveness, and grace.  The City of God, therefore, must not be ‘infected’ by the City of Man.  The two are ultimately incompatible not because the City of Man is inherently bad but because they have different goals.  For many medievals, the political and legal independence of the Church helped maintain the Kingdom of God on Earth.

The feud between Henry and Beckett likely had its personal undertones, but at its heart, Beckett believed he stood for the independence of the Church.  Henry’s claim to appoint bishops and discipline clergy to Beckett looked like the City of Man trying to control the City of God.  If the City of Man got its clutches on the Church, the Kingdom of God would suffer, the light of Christ would dim.

Becket and Henry

Becket’s opposition to Henry seems arcane to us.  But to keep its independence, the Church believed that it needed to maintain both its territorial and legal separation from the state.  For his part, Henry felt that he could not tolerate a de facto “state within a state” while he reigned.  In the end, four of Henry’s knights killed Becket, though perhaps not on Henry’s direct order.  Nevertheless, Henry ‘lost,’ for the people blamed him for Becket’s death, and he had to publicly do penance.  At the end of the post I include one medieval contemporary’s admiring evaluation of Henry II.  He had many strengths, but some of these strengths could turn to weaknesses in the wrong context.

Previously we examined aspects of the medieval “guild” system.  Guilds had three basic functions:

  • To provide a means to train new workers
  • To enforce a uniform standard of quality
  • To protect its members

But beyond these basic functions, guilds, whether consciously or not, reinforced basic values of medieval society, which valued community and stability over competition and change.  I assume they would look at modern day America and shake their heads.  So much turmoil, so much of the “rat-race” mentality, so much cut-throat competition.  Why not all agree to scale back and relax a little?  Why make the middle-class dad have to stay open later to stay ahead of the competition just to keep up with competitors and miss his son’s soccer game?  In the end, it’s not worth it.

Guilds also provided another check and balance, or block of power and influence in the medieval stew.  They further prevented any kind of concentration of power.  Understanding the guild system can help us understand why Henry II actions brought so much controversy.

But, as students noted, the guild system geared itself towards stability and community, not innovation.  In America, for example, we do not shed a tear if Hechingers Hardware loses to Home Depot, so long as we get a better deal (does anyone else remember Hechingers?).  We understand that competition benefits consumers, and we accept the occasional disruption and instability that brings to the economy.  The medievals, on the other hand, made a different choice, thinking more of the immediate local community and less of the amorphous general public.

Many thanks,


Here is the “friendly” source on Henry II

To Walter, by the grace of God archbishop of Palermo, once associate, now lord and dearest friend in Christ, Peter of Blois sends greeting and wished continual success of your desires.

The blessed Lord God of Israel, who visited and made his mercy upon you, raised you up in need from the dust, so that you may sit with kings and princes and may hold the throne of glory. Terrible is the Lord in his judgments, and great in his compassion, very worthy of praise, for “His compassion is over all that he made.” [Psalm 145:9] Therefore of his compassion, which he has magnified in you, you have continual and steadfast memory, nor is that Judaic reproach seen in you: “They are not mindful of His benefits and of his wonders which he has shown to them.” [Psalm 77:11] There is nothing like ingratitude to provoke the indignation of the Most High: the very provocation of evils, deprivation of benefits, extermination of merits. On account of reverence for that one, who delivered you from contemptible poverty, may you exhibit most fully the office of humanity to the Cisalpine poor; truly those who go to, or return from the land in which walked the feet of our Lord, you could strike down in many ways, but you must fulfill their needs with the solace of more humane grace, just as your predecessors in office. You will recognize that the Father is himself Father of orphans and paupers, who exalts the humble, and humiliates the proud: for which on behalf of his poor pilgrims he will uncover you, so that they may find among you aid of customary goodness. And therefore let it frighten you, lest their clamor and complaint ascend to the ears of that one, who is terrible among the kings of the earth, who judges the case of the poor, and accuses on behalf of the meek of the earth.

For the golden sash and silken girdle, and samite, and other exotic goods, which through the bearer of gifts from your largess I receive not as much as I wish, but as much as I deserve, I give back thanks. Truly from this the ancient integrity of your liberality is clear, which neither intervening time nor distance of places, nor assumption of honor, nor other things destructive to friendship were able to undo.

Since however you have demanded from me with all insistence that I should send to you the shape and habits of the lord king of England in an accurate description – which exceeds my faculties, and for which indeed the vein of Mantuan genius would seem insufficient enough – I nevertheless will communicate to you what I know without envy and detraction. About David it was said [I Kings 16] to the commendation of his beauty, that he was red-haired; however you will know that the lord king has been red-haired so far, except that the coming of old age and gray hair has altered that color somewhat. His height is medium, so that neither does he appear great among the small, nor yet does he seem small among the great. His head is round, just as if the seat of great wisdom, and specially a shrine of lofty counsel. Such is the size of his head, that so it matches with his neck and with the whole body in proportionate moderation. His eyes are round, and white and plain, while he is of calm spirit; but in anger and disorder of heart they shine like fire and flash in fury. His hair is not in fear of the losses of baldness, nevertheless on top there is a tonsure of hairs; his leonine face is rather square. The eminence of his nose is weighed to the beauty of the whole body with natural moderation; curved legs, a horseman’s shins, broad chest, and a boxer’s arms all announce him as a man strong, agile and bold; nevertheless, in a certain joint of his foot the part of the toenail is grown into the flesh of his foot, to the vehement outrage of the whole foot. His hands testify grossly to the same neglect of his men; truly he neglects their care all the time; nor at any time, unless carrying birds, does he use gloves. Daily in mass, in counsels and in other public doings of the realm always from morning until vespers he stands on his feet. And, he never sits, unless riding a horse or eating, although he has shins greatly wounded and bruised with frequent blows of horses’ hooves. In a single day, if necessary, he can run through four or five day-marches and, thus foiling the plots of his enemies, frequently mocks their plots with surprise sudden arrivals; he wears boots without a fold, caps without decoration, light apparel. He is a passionate lover of woods; while not engaged in battles, he occupies himself with birds and dogs. For in fact his flesh would weigh him down enormously with a great burden of fat, if he did not subdue the insolence of his belly with fasts and exercise; and also in getting onto a horse, preserving the lightness of youth, he fatigues almost every day the most powerful for the labor. Truly he does not, like other kings, linger in his palace, but traveling through the provinces he investigates the doings of all, judging powerfully those whom he has made judges of others. No one is more cunning in counsel, more fiery in speech, more secure in the midst of dangers, more cautious in fortune, more constant in adversity. Whom once he has esteemed, with difficulty he unloves them; whom once he has hated, with difficulty he receives into the grace of his familiarity. Always are in his hands bow, sword, spear and arrow, unless he be in council or in books. As often as he is able to rest from cares and anxieties, he occupies himself by reading alone, or in a crowd of clerics he labors to untangle some knot of inquiry. For while your king knows his letters well, our king is more literate by far. Truly I have judged the abilities of both in learned matters. You know that the king of Sicily was my student for a year, and had had from you the basic arts of versification and literature; he obtained more benefit of knowledge through my industry and solicitude. However as soon as I had departed the kingdom, that one turned himself over to abject books in imperial leisure. But yet in the household of the lord king of the English every day is school, in the constant conversation of the most literate and discussion of questions. No one is more honest in speech than our king, more polite in eating, more moderate in drinking; no one is more magnificent in gift-giving, no one more munificent in alms-giving: and therefore his name is like poured oil, and the entire church of saints describes the alms of such a one. Our king is peaceable, victorious in war, glorious in peace: he is zealous for the things to be desired in this world and he procures peace for his people. He considers whatever pertains to the peace of the people, in whatever he speaks, in whatever he does; so that his people may rest, he incessantly takes on troubled and enormous labors. It aims to the peace of his people that he calls councils, that he makes laws, that he makes friendships, that he brings low the proud, that he threatens battles, that he launches terror to the princes. Also that immensity of money aims at the peace of his people, which he gives out, which he receives, which he gathers, which he disperses. In walls, in ramparts, in fortifications, in ditches, in enclosures of wild beasts and fish, and in palaces there is no one more subtle, and no one more magnificent to be found.

His most powerful and most noble father the count [of Anjou] extended his borders greatly; but the king added to his paternal lands with abundance in his strong hands the duchy of Normandy, the duchy of Brittany, the kingdom of England, the kingdom of Scotland, the kingdom of Ireland, the kingdom of Wales; he increased inestimably the titles of his magnificent inheritance. No one is more mild to the afflicted, no one more friendly to the poor, no one more unbearable to the proud; he always strives to oppress the proud with the semblance of divinity, to raise up the oppressed, and to stir up against swelling of pride continual persecutions and deadly troubles. When however he may according to the custom of the kingdom have had roles in making elections of most important and most powerful, he nevertheless always had his hands pure and free from all venality. I merely touch upon, I will not describe these and other endowments of soul as much as body, with which nature has marked him out before others; truly I confess my insufficiency and would believe that Cicero and Virgil themselves would sweat under such a labor. I have briefly tasted this little morsel of his appearance and habits at your request; truly I shall seem either to have undertaken an unbearable work, or to have cut back much about the magnificence of so great a man through jealousy. Nevertheless I, serving your charity, do what I can do, and what I know without envy and without detraction, I communicate with most prompt good will, and also among other great men, who write in praise of my lord, I put my might of devotion in a treasure chest along with the poor widow.

We Still Consult our Oracles

This post has had a few different lives.  It was one of the first posts on the blog years ago, but occasionally I come across a bit of information that might confirm what is a favorite and wild theory of mine.  I cannot prove the assertions I make, but I “feel” it to be true.  Below is the original post. . .


For some time I have had a pet theory that I am far too proud of.

When we look at the ancient past we sometimes see law in the hands of the priesthood, or at least understanding of the law in their hands.  When civilizations are at this stage it is not uncommon to see people spend a lot of time going to oracles to help interpret law, make sense of their surroundings, and so on.

When we see this historians and archaeologists immediately think, “This civilization is in its early, pre-sophisticated stage.”  We assume that the obfuscation of law and the concentration of those who interpret in the hands of a select few must mean that their society has yet to come to intellectual maturity.

But then, look at us today.  What layman can understand our laws?  Who can fathom the depths of the health-care bill?  Who can actually read it, let alone make sense of it?

Only a special class of people, our priests, whom we call “lawyers.”

Not having understanding, the layman seek out their oracles to bring clarity to the foggy mysteries of law.  Some go to FOX, CNN, Stephen Colbert, Rush Limbaugh, or NPR.  They interpret for us. They become our ‘mediums’ to give us access to the secret knowledge.  But notice, we never interact with the law itself.  Nor do we interact with the ‘holy’ priesthood of lawyers.

And yet no one would say we are an unsophisticated civilization in its “early stages.”  If anything we are far too sophisticated.  But this sophistication may really be a form of regression, albeit a regression that cleverly hides behind advancing technology.

So, when we look at the past and see priests and oracles playing a large role maybe we should not think, “New, unsophisticated civilization,” but ponder the possibility that instead we see, “Old, over-complicated, tired civilization,” one with possibly a more vibrant and clearer past.


That was the original post of a couple years ago, but recently I came across somethings else that made me think of the topic again.

UnknownIn Toynbee’s Cities on the Move he makes a fascinating observation to begin his examination of the city throughout history.  He begins by looking at the nomadic character of early civilizations, where those who kept flocks had to keep their livestock moving to find land to graze.  He also cites the “slash & burn” agricultural practices of the earliest civilizations.  He then writes,

Our pre-nineteenth-century ancestors would have been surprised but perturbed if they could have seen present-day descendants of theirs who had seceded from the sedentary way of life as the pastoral nomads had seceded from it three or four thousand years earlier.  They would have hardly believed that any human being who once lived in a fixed house would prefer life in a traveling car.  The trailer towns in present-day Florida would have reminded our forefathers of the pastoral nomads of huts or tents.  The daily orbit of the present day commuter would have recalled the annual orbit of the nomad or shepherd; and it would have seemed appalling that ‘civilized’ sedentary populations should have been driven by economic necessity once again to become peripatetic.   . . . It is a spiritual misfortune for a worker to be alienated emotionally from the place where he has done his work and earned his living. . .

This modern sense of rootlessness manifests itself in our lack of connection with where we work and where we live.  So many notables of past eras, be they Thucydides, Socrates, Cicero, Dante, Machiavelli, or Browning all professed a great love for their respective cities.  We may pine for our homes, but I doubt that anyone pines for Centreville or any of the other random suburbs throughout America, which exist mostly as the equivalent of bus stations to take people somewhere else.

The most recent update to this post comes in the form of . . .

UPS drivers now use a system called “Orion” to guide their routes, and nearly all do not like it.  The formula they use makes no sense to the drivers, leading to what Alex Tabborok called “Opaque Intelligence.”  He writes,

I put this slightly differently, the problem isn’t artificial intelligence but opaque intelligence. Algorithms have now become so sophisticated that we human’s can’t really understand why they are telling us what they are telling us. The WSJ writes about driver’s using UPS’s super algorithm, Orion, to plan their delivery route:

Driver reaction to Orion is mixed. The experience can be frustrating for some who might not want to give up a degree of autonomy, or who might not follow Orion’s logic. For example, some drivers don’t understand why it makes sense to deliver a package in one neighborhood in the morning, and come back to the same area later in the day for another delivery. But Orion often can see a payoff, measured in small amounts of time and money that the average person might not see.

One driver, who declined to speak for attribution, said he has been on Orion since mid-2014 and dislikes it, because it strikes him as illogical.

He continues with what I think is the key point, “Human drivers think Orion is illogical because they can’t grok Orion’s super-logic. Perhaps any sufficiently advanced logic is indistinguishable from stupidity.”

I’ve always thought Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man an underrated work.  Here he attempted to reframe the typical evolutionary way of viewing history made popular especially by H.G. Wells’ Outline of History.  He may cinch the argument with his opening lines in the chapter “The Antiquity of Civilization:”

The modern man looking for ancient origins has been like a man watching for daybreak in a strange land and expecting to see that dawn breaking behind bare uplands or solitary peaks.  But the dawn is breaking behind the black bulk of great cities long built and lost to us in the original night; colossal cities like the houses of giants, in which even the carved ornamental animals stand taller than the palm trees. . .  The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized [i.e. see how quickly “civilization” develops in the early chapters of Genesis].  Perhaps it reveals a civilization already old.  And among other important things, it reveals the folly of most of the generalizations about the previous and unknown period when it was really young.

9th/10th Grade: High Society


Next week we will look at medieval cathedrals.

We discussed what architecture reveals about a civilization,  and how specific buildings and designs reflect certain ideas and theological leanings.  In discussing cathedrals, I first wanted the  students to discuss their own churches.  Some observations we made were:

  • One church had sanctuary that used folding chairs and doubled as a  multi-purpose room.  The church had an informal worship service, with  a pastor that was generally laid back and easy going.  At the center of the stage lies the pulpit, and as we might expect, the sermon occupies the central place in their worship service.
  • Another met in a room for worship with movie theater style seats, with screens occupying a prominent  place on the wall.  This church, we discovered, puts a premium on  cultural relevance and an interactive experience for the worshippers.
  • One church met in a building similar to an office building complex.  One key idea of the church seemed to be not to intimidate anyone with “church.”  The sanctuary design and flow of the service had what could be described as a “familiar” feel.
  • Another church was designed in the traditional way, but with a higher ceiling.  They had an altar rail in front, with a choir in robes, a processional with the cross, acolytes, etc.  The pulpit is placed off to the side, and true to form, the sermon is not the centerpiece of the service.  Instead, with the communion altar at the center, the celebration of the eucharist takes the bulk of the service time each week.
I shared my experience worshipping in an Eastern Orthodox Church some years ago.  When you enter, the church immediately had a “this is different” feel.  The colors, smells, and chanting all told the attendee, “You are in a different place, you have left “the world” and are now surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, somewhere between Heaven and Earth.  Instead of sitting, you spent most of the time standing or kneeling.  The point was not to make you comfortable, but to take you out of yourself and your daily surroundings.  They might also add that one should not sit in the presence of God.
Each of these designs reflect different philosophies on worship, and  their architecture reflects that.  While it was certainly not my purpose to  say that one is better than another, it is important that we  tried to understand that theology will be reflected in architectural style.
Willow Creek, Chicago
From a cosmological and societal perspective, height had great  importance to the medievals.  When I look at the intricate design and  strange creatures that adorn many cathedrals, I get the sense that  they were enjoying themselves.  Cathedrals took at least 30 years and often more than 50 to  build.  What does this say about them?  What church today could sell a  building program that would take at least 30 years to complete?   What does that say about us?  Were the medievals wasteful and foolish, or  is it us who have made worship a humdrum bare bones experience?  Do cathedrals, as Abbott Suger said, serve to ‘urge us onwards from the material to the immaterial?’
When we looked at images of a cathedral, their height immediately struck most of the students:
 Most likely, our involuntary reaction to these buildings would be to look up and feel small, and that indeed is part of the point.  They felt it important that you lose yourself in the face of immensity.  Clearly, this kind of architecture stressed the “otherness,” holiness, and transcendence of God.  Conversely, it does not emphasize the “nearness” of God.  But we must not have the idea that Gothic meant “dark, heavy, and foreboding.”  Rather, the medievals came up with their architectural advances specifically to let in more light.  They do not press us down to the ground (like pyramids, for example) but take us “upwards” to heaven.
Christ in Glory, Canterbury Cathedral
Their architecture takes us back to their cosmology, which also emphasized height, as we saw last week.
Finally, we noted how it reflects the Medieval linking of the physical and spiritual.  They did this even with the location of their buildings, most especially in the Mont St. Michael Cathedral in Normandy, France.
Mont. St. Michael
The cathedral is dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, who fights the Dragon in the book of Revelation.  They built it in the furthest point possible out into the sea, in itself a testimony and prayer that God and His angels are their first line of defense.  Mt. St. Michael perfectly illustrates what medievals believed not only about church, but about how physical things reflect spiritual reality.

The Half-Hearted Return of Thor

I find the trend in modern history books to use BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) quite amusing.  Clearly as a culture we have a profound unease with the Christian roots of our civilization.  Naturally, then, many take issue with dividing time around the Incarnation.  Obviously I disagree with such a stance, but it makes sense that people would want to order their world around their beliefs.  And yet, using BCE/CE seems such a laughable attempt at “kicking against the goads.”  “When is the ‘Common Era?'” one might ask.  “After the coming of Jesus,” is the only response. “What makes that era ‘Common?'” as opposed to other eras?”  I can’t fathom anything other than a shrug at that point.  One archaeologist stated, “Before the Common Era (B.C.E.) and the Common Era (C.E.), are exactly the same as B.C. and A.D. but have nothing to do with Christianity.”

No . . . certainly not!

If you’re going to abandon a Christian understanding of time, abandon it already.  It will make things clearer in the culture and one’s own mind as well.

That’s why part of me applauded when I read this article  which tells us that devotees to 1000paganism in Iceland are building a temple to Thor.  For many decades now Christian understandings of nature, the human person, of sexuality, etc., etc. have steadily eroded, and been replaced in some ways by a neo-pagan revival.   If you actually build a temple, it communicates the reality that we are really worshipping something and calling a spade a spade.  Again, Jesus tells us that He prefers hot or cold people.  It’s all the lukewarm mush in our culture that makes things so difficult.

As I read a bit more, however, I discovered that they’re not going to sacrifice animals. Of course in many ways this is good news because, after all, no one wants to see animals sacrificed.  But in other ways . . .  the concept of sacrifice and propitiation, so crucial to Christianity, if taken seriously can lead one back to Christianity.  It is an example of the benefits of clarity.

And then Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson, high priest of Ásatrúarfélagiðadded, added, “I don’t believe anyone believes in a one-eyed man who is riding about on a horse with eight feet.  We see the stories as poetic metaphors and a manifestation of the forces of nature and human psychology.”

Ugh.  More mush, then.  Thor, I think, would not be pleased.

“Follow the money . . .”

It’s not easy to get students to see outside themselves and the culture they inhabit.  Our experience conditions us to love what who we are.  This is natural, and even Biblical to some extent.  But of course many other great cultures exist/ed and studying History can shake us up and force us to confront ourselves anew.

That’s why I treasured the comment of one student years ago when we looked at the work of the Renaissance genius Brunelleschi, who advanced the science of perspective,


built the first dome in the western world since the Pantheon . . .


and entered the sculpture/engraving contest for the doors of the Florence baptistry . ..


among other things.  After taking all this in, one student remarked, “Boy, we suck,” which delighted my ears to no end. He understood that in many ways, our civilization has a long way to go.  I don’t love Renaissance culture, but clearly they had enormous achievements in important areas, and we justly remember them for it.  They put their time and money into innovating things beautiful and useful, things that have blessed succeeding generations for more than half a millennium.

What about us today?

I came across this Marginal Revolution post from a few weeks ago, where Tyler Cowen makes the point that India’s latest Mars mission cost less than Gravity, Hollywood’s latest space movie.  At various points in the history of the west different inspirations have taken hold.  At one point we built cathedrals, at other times we sailed the seven seas, or all wanted to speak French.  We had inspiration and aspirations.  This is where we spent our time, energy, and money.

The world will little remember Transformers: Age of Extinction, or Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides despite the fact that they cost $325 and $378 million respectively.  On balance it appears we put our money, our dreams, into merely entertaining ourselves.  We’re not, praise God, quite at “bread and circuses” yet, but the trend should concern us.

And given what I witnessed Sunday, we can’t even make good Super Bowl commercials anymore.  I miss the good ol’ days (exhibit ‘A’ below).