Fun with Lists

A colleague of mine who also teaches history recently asked me to play an enjoyable game of “Name your Top Five Historical Events between the Roman Empire and the Reformation in western Europe.”

With some brief banter back and forth we came to an agreement fairly quickly on four and I inserted a fifth.  They are, in order of when they occurred,

  1. The conversion of Constantine, ca. 313 A.D.
  2. Charlemagne named Holy Roman Emperor, 800 A.D.
  3. The first Crusade, 1097 A.D.^
  4. The Black Plague ca. 1348 A.D.
  5. Columbus, 1492

As we considered these five, I rejoiced at our selections.  For, while the list is quite prosaic and hardly original, it reflects a shared worldview between us, and a shared philosophy of history.

For you see, the list has no technological innovations.  Not even the printing press!  I had to pat ourselves in the back in a moment of self-satisfaction.

Some context . . .

I like James Burke’s old show from the 1970’s Connections.  In a typical episode Burke will start with some everyday modern phenomena and then ask, “How did this come to be?”  He will then, by a serious of ingenious jumps and skips back in time, declare that, “If it were not for the discovery of the wood grouse in 1756 B.C., the modern computer would never have come to be.”

Or something like that.

I exaggerate, but sometimes Burke gets carried away.

In the first episode, Burke travels from a power outage in NYC to the invention of the plow in ancient Egypt (it actually makes some sense).  But implicit in Burke’s theme lies the idea that technology creates and then drives civilization.  I don’t buy it.  Yes, the plow probably helped ancient people produce more crops, but what brought people together in the first place?  Ok, people would gather by rivers for sure, but what would make them organize themselves into communities?

It would not be the plow.  Before the plow, some kind of common bond must have drawn people together — almost certainly a religious bond.*  Of course, it is this shared belief that still holds civilizations together today, not technology.

Admittedly not everything on that list involves a directly spiritual concern, so a brief defense of the selections seems in order:

Neither one of us thought Charlemagne’s title purely political.  It represented a hope of reorganizing society spiritually and culturally (yes, political as well) along more unified lines.  Some argue that the Holy Roman Empire never amounted to much, but it had a long run as a political and organizing force in Europe.

Whether or not the Crusades had justification in 1097, the conduct of the Crusaders and the ultimate failure of the enterprise seriously weakened the Church as an organizing force in European society.  From around 1200 A.D. on, the state had much more say than previously vis a vis the Church. Whether an improvement or not, certainly this represented a new means of how people interacted with one another.

The Black Plague killed millions, and in the process effectively ended the feudal system, which had governed Europe arguably since the time of Charlemagne.  In time a new middle class would arise with a new way of relating to one another

Columbus is in some ways a stand-in for Renaissance-era exploration as a whole.  As Felipe Fernandez-Armesto argues in his excellent book Pathfinders, exploration did not start based on new technological discoveries.  Exploration began because the way people viewed their place in the world had changed.  In that sense, Columbus is a stand-in for an entirely new way of thinking.

The printing press certainly had significance.  Probably it makes our top 10?  But the printing press has little effect without there first existing a desire to read, a desire to interact with the world in a different way through the printed page.  We should not imagine a world always hungry for books, just begging someone to invent a machine that could make them more accessible.

I am reminded, for example, of a story about Elizabeth I and toilets.  Apparently indoor plumbing was created in her day, and some enterprising inventors offered her the chance to use it. Who among us would refuse indoor plumbing?

She refused.  Having to go to the bathroom offended her sense of royal dignity.  The bathroom, in the form of the chamber pot, would come to her.  What good is being Queen if you can’t order the bathroom around anyway?

The story illustrates the point about the printing press.  It’s not about the invention, but the culture surrounding the invention that matters.  Culture and belief drive technology, and not vice-versa.


^In the interest of fairness, this represents my choice more so than an absolute unified agreement between the two of us.  As I mentioned, we were lock-step on the other four.

*Not surprisingly, armed with his materialistic view of history, Burke essentially reduces all of the religion and mysticism of Egypt down to applied science.

A Proud Death

Exposing oneself to older ideas has many benefits.  Such a statement is almost a cliche for someone in my line of work, but then every so often the reality of this truth hits one afresh.  The old world had much wisdom that we have lost.

One idea that struck me with particular force recently has to do with the early Church’s link between the reality of sin as it relates to fact of death.  For Adam and Eve, sin brought death, and their progeny inherit bodies of death.  After the Fall, sin now results from death.  That is, we sin because we know we will die.  Sin often originates in our rebellion against death.

We do this unfortunately, in a variety of ways.  We distract ourselves endlessly with extended consumption.*  When men reach my age they buy sports cars and get trophy wives in an attempt to feel young and powerful again.  All of us feel the need for self-preservation, so when we see a chance to “extend ourselves” and grow our kingdom we seize it, whether that means invading another country or cutting someone off in traffic.

The futility of such actions is obvious on a biological level — we will die.  But such actions do more than merely delay the inevitable.  By making death more distant, we lose our dominion over it and thereby give it more power over our lives.

This is the main theme of Philippe Aries’ book The Hour of our Death, which stands as a greatly expanded version of his Western Attitudes toward Death.  In that book he talks about the idea of a “tame” death in a more thematic manner. In this work, in minute and at times fascinating detail Aries gives the reader a multi-faceted look at how western man has died since the early Middle Ages.

I will try not to repeat myself too much from the review linked above.  He begins his study under the heading “The Tame Death.”   Essentially from the early Middle Ages, our approach to death consisted of . . .

  • A belief that death “politely” let one know of its imminent arrival.  This blessed those about to die, for it gave them a chance to say goodbye and reconcile with friends and family.
  • Rituals that governed the process of death for the dying, which included last rites
  • The rituals having the effect of “taming” death*

Aries concludes his first chapter by writing,

The fact that we keep meeting instances of the same general attitude toward death from Homer to Tolstoy does not mean we should assign a historical permanence exempt from variation.  .  . . But for 2000 years it resisted pressures in a world subject to change . . . this attitude toward death is like a bulwark of inertia and continuity.

It has by now been so obliterated from our culture that it is hard for us to imagine or understand it.

Thus, when we call this “familiar” death the tame death, we do not mean to say that it was once wild and is now domesticated.  On the contrary, we mean that it has become wild today when it used to be tame.

This “wild” state of death came about in distinct stages.

  1. Perhaps because of the plague, the later Middle Ages depicted the gruesomeness of death and the reality of death much more frequently in their artwork.  Death was far from “put aside,” but assumed a more terrible aspect.
  2. The late Renaissance made death more about the Last Judgment than redemption in their art.  Perhaps this happened as Renaissance culture knew that it had drifted from its medieval roots and sought through a kind of force — like shaking a patient — to regain some ground.
  3. Many Protestants abandoned this Catholic practice, but as is typical in such cases, swung the other way entirely.  Death no longer brought terror, but neither could it allow for mourning.  Some Puritans, for example, had encouragement to remarry within a month or two of the decease of their spouse.  Rather than fix the “problem” of death, this approach attempts to give death an unreality, which makes it ultimately abstract and impossible to tame.
  4. The scientific age believed that cemeteries were unhealthy places.  Burials stopped happening in or beside churches (located within the town) and got moved outside town limits.  Now, too, rituals involving the dying were in jeopardy, because of the risk of disease, infection, etc.  In suffering “medicalization,” death left the field of the Church and entered the field of science.
  5. The Romantic era of the “beautiful death” attempted to correct the Enlightenment approach.  But like the Puritans before them, they unintentionally swung unhelpfully in the other direction in two main ways: 1) The “beautiful death” imposed a burden on the dying to “get it right” — be tranquil, be composed, be “natural,” etc., and 2) In returning death to the provence of nature they believed they entered a beneficent realm.  But nature in truth (at least according to Aries) is arbitrary, and cannot be “tamed” on its own terms.  Thus, the impossibility of taming death in nature.
  6. The modern era has abandoned rituals of almost every kind that guide cultural practice.  Our societies do not pause in any way for death, unless it is perhaps the death of a statesmen or our military.  Other deaths in society do not register.  As the “ends” of our communal life have secularized, so too has death been secularized.  The whole notion of a “communion of saints,” or a “cloud of witnesses” has disappeared utterly from nearly all Protestant churches.  Without this sense of continuity or ritual, death has free reign, no controls, and again, becomes more terrible in aspect.

Aries published his book in 1981, perhaps the height of the modern medicalization of death.  With the advent of hospice care and other less invasive end of life medical practices we begin to move back in a more positive direction.  But we have a long way to go.

One key way back to a more proper understanding of death will involve a theological shift, as I hinted above.  If we persist in the idea that God resides “up there” while we remain “down here,” we will never understand death.  The same holds true for the departed.  Without the communion of saints, death will continue its lordship.  I quote extensively from Stephen Freeman’s Everywhere Present below to illustrate the point and show us the way forward.

At the time of my visit [to the St. Saba monastery] one of the brotherhood had “fallen asleep” two weeks earlier.  “We never say that a monk has died, ” our guide told us, and I suddenly imagined the unspokenness of death I knew so well [from living in America].  He continued, “We always say, in the words of Scripture, that they have “fallen asleep.”  But most we say this because we see them so often.

Now I knew I was in a different place.

“You see them?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.  “They appear to monks all the time.  It’s nothing to see St. Saba on the stairs or elsewhere.”  The witness of the monk (who happened to be from San Francisco) was not a tale of the unexpected.  These were not ghostly visits he described, but the living presence of the saints who inhabit the same space as ourselves.  It is a one-storey universe.  Such stories . . . can be duplicated all over the monastic world.

The doctrine of the ancient Church is quite clear in this matter.  Those who have died are separated from us in the body, but the Church remains One.  There is not one church in heaven and another on Earth.




*Who doesn’t love Amazon Prime?  But my countenance fell upon reading a recent ad of theirs for same day shipping — “Patience no longer required.”