Sherlock Holmes and the Solar System

I knew I would like E.M.W. Tillyard’s book The Elizabethan World Picture early on when Tillyard references Shakespeare’s famous, “What a piece of work is a man,” speech from Hamlet.  He writes,

This has been taken as one of the great English versions of Renaissance humanism, an assertion of human dignity over medieval asceticism.  Actually, it is within the purest medieval tradition.

Hah!  Take that those who exalt the Renaissance over all else!  Tillyard goes on to add how Shakespeare writes within the medieval “chain of being” tradition, which they derived from the Church fathers.  He could have added something about Psalm 8, but we’ll let it slide.

Tillyard talks about how he began the book trying to get at the context of Shakespeare, but found that his subject grew on him until he found he had to continually peel back layers of the onion.  It’s hard not to gain a kind of fascination and admiration for the medieval view of reality, and this is the book’s real subject.

C.S. Lewis tackled the exact same thing in his excellent The Discarded Image.  Tillyard’s book lacks the depth and insight of Lewis, but his writing is also much more accessible.  I wish I had started with him first.  The fact that so much of the book deals with the medieval view of the world rather than strictly the Elizabethan stands as one of Tillyard’s main arguments.  Yes, the Reformation broke with certain things from the past, but in the main they kept much of the medieval synthesis intact.  The Scientific Revolution, not the Reformation, ended that view of the world.

The medievals borrowed from the classical tradition, Scripture, and the Church fathers to give themselves a very distinct world filled to the brim with sharp corners.  Their universe had

Order and Unity: Everything had its place, everything played a part.  In that sense it was crowded, with nothing out of place.  But it was purposeful.

  • Sin and Progress: Medieval people believed in the reality of the first, but the possibility of the latter. A healthy tension resulted from a clear view of human folly on one hand, and the love of God on the other.  Tillyard writes,

This is one of things that most separates the Elizabethan from the Victorian world.  In the latter there was a general pressure of opinion in favour of the doctrine of progress: the pessimists were in opposition.  In the Elizabethan world equal pressure existed on both sides, and the same person could be simultaneously aware of each.

In our day, we seem to believe in nothing in particular, though a belief in progress and progress alone would I’m sure be more insufferable.

  • Hierarchy: The “Chain of Being” meant that an infinitely long descending ladder from God down to the creatures far beneath the sea.  Earth itself had a rather humble spot on this ladder.  But the main feature here were the connections.  Air had superiority to earth, and earth to water.  Air is linked to water through earth, and so on.

The system had many advantages.  Tillyard includes many quotes from the period and one immediately realizes how much authors had to work with and build upon.  They could know that their audience would understand a multitude of sacred and secular references, and have a shared view of the world.  Modern authors have to do so much more work for much less assumed reward.  Tolkien had to create an entirely new world to write an epic.

But we should be careful not to romanticize such a world.  Their cosmology did not directly conflict with Christian teaching, but neither was it inherently Christian, and as such left much to be desired.  It was so crowded one did not have much space to maneuver.  The only ones who seemed to have that freedom were fairies, and their role in redemptive history remained undefined — not a good place to be.  Such a cosmology might easily arise in a time that begged for stability in the aftermath of the Dark Ages, and just as easily would wear out its welcome in due course, and even Shakespeare had his fun with it just as he depended upon it.  Tillyard quotes from Twelfth Night in a revealing passage that links parts of the body with constellations:

Sir Toby Belch: I did think by the excellent constitution of thy leg it was formed under the star of a galliard.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek: Ay, tis’ strong, and it does indifferently well in a flame-coloured stock.  Shall we set about some revels?

Sir T: What shall we do else?  Were we not born under Taurus

Sir A: Taurus: that’s sides and heart.

Sir T: No, sir, it is legs and thighs.

Tillyard comments,

Characteristically both speakers are made to get the association wrong; and Shakespeare probably knew that to Taurus were assigned neck and throat.  There is irony in Sir Toby being right in a way he did not mean.  He meant to refer to dancing — legs and thighs — but the drinking implied by neck and throat is just as apt to the proposed revels.  The present point is that the serious and ceremonious game of the Middle Ages has degenerated into farce.

This clip from the excellent Sherlock series from BBC recalls Holmes’ famous quote on his knowledge of the solar system:

Who wants to disagree with Sherlock Holmes?  But he is wrong — one’s view of the solar system does matter.  We have yet to find a workable replacement for Ptolemy and the medievals, and this surely has impacted our cultural life as a whole, and our individual sense of our place in the world.  Like Major Tom, we float aimlessly and need to find a place to stand.

Maybe We Don’t Stink at Parenting

A mantra thrown around the column circuit from time to time is the idea that, back in the good old days, parents were parents and children were taught responsibility, duty, and thrift.  Scenes like this no doubt abounded. . .

Embedded in this picture is the idea that adolescence as a distinct stage of life was an invention of the Victorians in the mid-19th century.  This essentially artificial creation of a previously non-existent stage  then created all sorts of problems that we deal with in the modern world, as our youth postpone “growing up” well beyond what is “normal,” or at least what existed before the Victorians ruined everything.  Many commentators point to the laws against child-labor, and the increase of wealth during the late 19th century that allowed for children to have more leisure, and so on.  The argument makes sense logically.

In her book The Life Cycle of Western Europe, ca. 1300-1500 (“Take courage,” I thought to myself as I picked it up, “The book can’t possibly be as boring as the title.”), Deborah Youngs sets out, at least in part, to debunk this modern notion.  The medievals viewed life as happening in 4-5 distinct stages, with different expectations for each stage.  Childhood, and yes, adolescence, has its roots far beyond the Victorians.  Logical, common sense must give way to the historical record.

Youngs crafts no narrative but her book managed to hold my interest due to the surprising amount of information she gives you in a short book.  Thus, while her work contains no lofty insights, it gives the reader plenty to chew on.  Among some of the highlights:

  • The medievals in general were much less concerned with one’s actual age, however much they fixated on “stage of life.”  When Henry IV of France sought an annulment of his marriage based on the fact that he was too young to give legal consent, no one could remember exactly when he was born.  Opinion varied — some said he was 12 at the time of the betrothal (which would have allowed an annulment) and some said he was 15 (he would have to stay married).  
  • Adolescents (12-18) were universally acknowledged to be in an irresponsible stage.  Medieval literature expected erratic behavior from them.  They simply had too much “heat” in their bodies and too little reason to control it.  Many of us might have an image of an authoritarian and rigid medieval culture, but to my mind they were surprisingly tolerant.  For example, boys who engaged in homosexual activity under 18 were given a “free pass” of sorts.  After 18, not so much.  Some might not find this “tolerant” at all. But if you account for the fact that they believed homosexual behavior to be a great sin, then by their standards they were tolerant, at least in this respect.
  • Some might guess that medieval culture expected all to be “saints” from the toddler years on, but again, the data confounds our expectations.  The key for them was “acting your age.”  Each stage came with certain expected behaviors.  True, acting outside these expectations brought censure, but this held true even with “good” behavior. For example, regarding piety, they had a saying: “Young saints make old devils.”  Those who have read Belloc’s The Path to Rome might recall him saying that he always felt much more comfortable when altar boys made faces at each other rather than standing with scrupulous and solemn attention to duty.  If boys were boys, he took it as a sign that all was right with the world.

In this way, some medievals had more of a sense of “stages of life” than most moderns, who see human nature as more fungible than those in the past.

Youngs argues for no main thesis, but underneath her writing runs the current of the universality of human nature.  We lack a sense of the past, and this opens us up to think unrealistically about the present.  We exaggerate our virtues, vices, problems, and successes.  Youngs reminds us that six year olds have always been noisy, and that twelve year olds have never been responsible.  Parents, take heart, we are not alone.

Most of their ideas regarding “stages of life” bear a general similarity to ours, with one exception: the final stage.  I think if you asked most people what kind of death they preferred they would answer, “Quick and painless.”  Medievals had a different perspective.  A quick death robbed one of the chance to prepare, to “pack” for the final journey.  Medievals wanted the chance to reconcile with God and man, and provide a firm legal pathway for their relatives.  Here I think they had an advantage over us.  In general they did not ignore or flee from death, but called a spade a spade.  Again we are faced with the possibility that medievals did a better job facing reality than we do currently.

9th Grade: Societies Give, Societies Take Away


We did not cover a lot of new ground this week, but did manage to introduce the basic premise of feudal society.

Imagine you had the following choices at age 16:

Option 1: You have the maximum possibility of social and professional  mobility.  A variety of opportunities will be open to you.  Therefore, there is the possibility of great success and the “life of your dreams.”  However, there are no guarantees, and no safety net.  What you achieve will be up to you and up to circumstances.  Perhaps you fail, and be left destitute with nothing.

Option 2: You will be guaranteed a basic middle class life that  conforms to our image of the 1950’s.  You will have a house, 2 cars, and 2.5 children.  You will  live in a community where people know you and will look out for you, but your ability to move jobs and locations is significantly restricted.  You may not love your job, but it will not be horrible.   You will be able to work at your job for many years and retire modestly.

What would you choose?   Most students chose door #1, but some definitely preferred the security of #2.

Neither option is right or wrong per se, but each  option does reflect different values.  We distribute the benefits of each this way:

The Modern West

  • Opportunity
  • Individuality
  • Mobility

Feudal Europe

  • Stability and Security
  • Community
  • A sense of “place,” a “rhythm of life”

When I surveyed the students about the jobs of their parents, many of them had held at least 2-3 different ones over their lives already, and this represents a slight difference, I think, from my parents generation.  Many of my friends that are my age have already held 2-3 different jobs.  It seems that are moving more and more in the direction of increased social mobility, which may translate into a lesser degree of social stability.  If I’m right we will have to wait and see what this will mean for us in the future.

Whatever we choose, we must realize that to some extent these choice are mutually exclusive.  We cannot have unlimited opportunity and a maximum amount of security.  We cannot have strong communities and great mobility.  We must choose, and whatever our choice, we need to own the consequences of those choices.

For example, there is much that we find distasteful about the feudal idea of birth and class.  It runs directly counter to many ideas we hold dear.  But to be born into nobility was to be born into responsibility.  You would have many tenants on the land, but their condition reflected on you.  At least in theory, a sense of mutual obligation existed between noble and peasant.

Today we have (in theory) no difference in class, but also no sense of obligation to others, and our physical mobility makes it hard for many of us to connect in our neighborhoods.  This leads us to rely a great deal on money as a means of security, as we have no “social network” to fall back upon.  Our societies do have places and programs for the poor, but as they are often run by the state, they can have a distinctly impersonal feel to them.  Plus, most of us do not interact with the poor on any regular basis, whereas in medieval times, the poor had a much greater chance to be part of a community.

A key to understanding medieval society is the idea of “knowing one’s place.”  We can imagine the evil person in every Disney movie telling some plucky young child to “know your place,” but it had a different connotation in the medieval period.  The medieval view of society resembled something of a jig-saw puzzle.  No matter how unique each piece might be, it has a specific role within the whole.  When Jesus says, “the poor you will always have with you,”

  • We would say that the poor will always be with you because of social injustice, economic injustice, or the presence of sin in general, while
  • Medievals probably would argue that we will always have the poor because we will always need opportunities to exercise charity (the poor demonstrate the virtue of humility in receiving charity), just as some have money in order to exercise liberality.  Both are necessary because both are meant to image/reflect different aspects of the Christian life to us.

I do not mean here to romanticize feudal society, but only to point out that their structure gave them a good chance of doing some things better than the modern west does currently.


Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: Solon and the Occupy Movement


This week we looked at the esteemed Athenian statesman Solon.
Solon of AthensThe ancient world regarded Solon as a great sage, but as we saw, his head was not in the clouds.  He took a society ready to fly apart at the seams and left it with an established social context in which democracy could take root.  I wanted to highlight a few key lessons.

First, the background:

Before Solon there was Draco, a member of the Athenian aristocracy.  His name itself came to symbolize harsh governmental policy, i.e. a ‘Draconian’ law.  His policies helped cement the divide between rich and poor and threatened to make it wider. This dynamic is not unusual.  When one group in society separates itself from others because of wealth or status, they tend to fear the rest of society, and thus, isolate themselves all the more.  This increased distance only requires more force to ensure the divide.  One can think of the ante-bellum South, for example, and various laws enacted that made it a crime to educate slaves.  Society built like this can’t last for long.

Enter Solon.

He recognized a few key things:

  • Society needs the rich.  One can argue that the rich abused their power but they are still Athenian. Secondly, their resources can benefit Athens.  If we heal the fear between the two groups we can create opportunity for the wealthy to feel a bit more free with their resources.
  • The divide between rich and poor must be healed if we are to survive.  This will require sacrifice from the rich
  • This led to what may have been Solon’s invention, and may not have been — an early version of a graduated income tax.

No one likes to pay taxes.  One of the reasons for this is that no one really knows where their money goes.  It gets dropped into a vast ocean, never to be heard from again.  Solon did things differently.  He did not ask for a direct sum from the wealthy, but offered them an opportunity.  The wealthy could fund specific projects.  They could just pay directly for a religious festival, a bridge, or a naval warship.  Of course, they could also get full credit for their funding, i.e., ‘This festival to Athena sponsored by Diodotus.’  So, paying taxes became a way to earn ‘kleos.’  The wealthy could contribute in how much they gave.  Enhancing the well being of Athens was directly connected with enhancing their own status in the community.  Solon therefore made paying ones taxes a way for the wealthy to maintain and even enhance their “kleos.”

We should not view this as “taxes,” in any sense of the modern world.  First of all, they were not precisely calculated to income, only loosely.  Secondly, they came with no direct legal obligation.  Solon erected a social framework where aristocratic status came with a kind of obligation, perhaps an early form of noblesse oblige.  We see this idea reflected in various ways up until quite recently in the western world, the idea that you demonstrated your status by public service.

Problem solved.

Could this apply today?  We are much too big to do what Solon did on any appreciable scale.  Yet I wonder, with the ‘Occupy’ movement and other kinds of resentment against the wealthy building, if we couldn’t borrow his ideas. What if we did this for the very rich, and put their faces on front pages with captions like, “Warren Buffet posing with fighter jet paid for with his taxes,” or something like this.  Would this help?

But, we should note that if we had a competition of fame/honor in paying taxes to the government, that would imply a certain relationship and attitude towards our government.  As we discussed, what we think of Solon in parts depends on what one thinks about the purpose of law and government.  Many of us think from a Roman context where law has an essentially “negative” character; i.e., the law tells you what not to do.  Greek concepts of law had different goals in mind.  The Greeks saw law as a tool to help shape the souls of individuals and communities.  Greek law did not alwys say, “You must do this,” (with Sparta as an exception), but it did seek to produce certain definite outcomes.

Solon did not create democracy in Athens, but he established a context for it to exist. Democracy cannot exist everywhere.  If the majority have an “us v. them” attitude then they will use their power to get revenge or exploit the “them,” whether they be rich or poor, black or white, etc.  In this environment, society will become cancerous and destroy itself.  Democracy can only really work when the power of the majority does not just represent merely the majority, but in some sense all the people.  In our own age of bitter partisanship and resistance to compromise, we would do well to take Solon’s wisdom to heart.


Dave Mathwin

The Royal Touch

As often as we may try and manage and control our experience of the world around us, we cannot avoid reality breaking into our lives from time to time.  Our secular age orients itself almost entirely around making our day to day lives workable and enjoyable on a strictly horizontal level.  We have long since abandoned ultimate “vertical” questions as unwieldy and unhelpful towards this end.  But then, the fact of death itself strikes us occasionally with great force.  As we have no common liturgies surrounding death, and no common way to experience loss, death lingers among us like a fog.  So too, the 2016 election in some ways exposed the thin veneer of our “horizontal” happiness, and ever since we have had to try and deal with the unconscious, sometimes darker Jungian aspects of our selves and our body politic.

Like life, history sometimes breaks in on us with sudden and unusual force.

One begins Henry of Huntingdon’s History of the English People:1000-1154 like any other medieval history book, and it reads similarly to other works in this genre.  Henry was nobleman with a good education in the Latin classics and knew Scripture well, and it shows.  He describes the political scene of his time with care and skill, and dances around enough hot-button issues of the day to make scholars wonder about his motives from time to time.  All of this falls well within the range of “normal” history.

But then . . .

On page 48 (Oxford Classics Edition) he drops in this comment when discussing the abrupt death of the rogue King William:

In the year 1100 King William ended his cruel life in a wretched death.  For when he had gloriously, and with historic pomp, held his court at Gloucester at Christmas, at Winchester at Easter [April 1], and in London on Whitsun [Pentecost], he went to hunt in the New Forest on 2 August. There Walter Tirel, aiming at a stag, accidentally hit the king with an arrow.  The king was struck in the heart, and fell without uttering a word.  A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up from the ground in Berkshire.

William was rightly cut off in the midst of his injustice.  For in himself, and because of the counsels of wicked men, whom he invariably chose, he was more evil to his people than any man, and most evil to himself . . .

“A little earlier blood was seen to bubble up . . . ”  What are we to make of this?  Yes, Henry wants to make a theological point, and some may feel the temptation to explain it away as allegorizing.  But he also carefully mentions specific dates and specific places, and he does not write in a “Once upon a time,” fashion. Well, perhaps we could sweep this oddity under the rug as scribal error or flight of fancy.  The casual, offhand nature of his remark, however, makes this an unlikely choice.

And then, a bit later in the book (p. 83):

In this year [1144], Earl Geoffrey de Mandeville harassed the king exceedingly, and in everything he did basked in vainglory.  But in the month of August the splendor of God showed forth a miracle worthy of His justice.  For He inflicted similar punishments on men who forcibly removed two monks and turned God’s churches into castles.  Robert Marmion–a warlike and evil man–had carried this out in the church of Coventry, and Geoffrey, as I have already said, perpetrated the same crime in Ramsey.  Robert Marmion, attacking his enemies in front of the monastery itself, was the only man killed, although he stood in the midst of a huge squadron.  As an excommunicate, he is being devoured by eternal death.

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

Though Henry has theological points to make, this in no way should blunt the force of his report.  He mentions himself along with others as eyewitnesses to this additional sighting of blood.  Unless we wish to say he lied outright twice, we must consider whether our conception of how God, man, and nature interact needs abruptly altered.

Marc Bloch rightly deserves his reputation as one of the great scholars of the feudal era.  He has a rare knack for simply dealing with the texts before him without much evident preconception.   His book, The Royal Touch offers just such another slap of cold water, as he reminds us of the copious textual evidence for the power medieval kings possessed, at least at certain times, to heal their subjects.  Bloch’s Wikipedia page describes him as a “thoroughly modern” historian in outlook, and as he was Jewish, we would assume he has no particular theological axe to grind.  This makes his presentation all the more striking.

We may surmise that the medievals lived in an “age of faith” which made them credulous.*  Bloch will not allow this.  Medieval people may have had different standards of what constituted proof, but they argued over the evidence.  He cites William of Malmsbury’s (a respected historian in his own right) account of the miracles of St. Edward the Confessor:

But now to speak of the miracles of St. Edward.  A young woman had married a man but had no children, and the humors gathered about her neck, she contracted a sore disorder.  Admonished in a dream to the have the affected parts washed by King Edward himself, she entered the palace and the king did as she wished.  Joyous health followed his healing hand–the lurid skin opened so that worms flowed out with the putrid matter, so that the tumor subsided.  Nothing of the original wound could be found after many weeks, and she soon gave birth to twins. She increased the admiration of Edward’s holiness.

A certain man, blind, persisted in walking around the palace, certain that he should be cured if he could touch his eyes with water in which Edward had washed.  This was related to Edward, who looked angrily upon the man, confessing himself sinner, and that the works of holy men did not belong to him.

But his servants tried the experiment when he was ignorant of it, praying in church.  They gave some water to the blind man, upon which the darkness fled from him and his eyes filled with light.  

That you may know the perfect virtue of this prince, I will excite your wonder still more.  Wulwin, surnamed Spillecorn, one day cut wood and fell blind as a result, perhaps because of his excessive sleep after his labors.  He was admonished in a dream to go round to 87 churches, and earnestly entreat relief from his blindness from the saints.

At last he came to the king’s court, where he remained for a long time, being held back by the king’s men.  Finally he received admittance, whom after he had heard the dream, answered mildly, “By my lady St. Mary, I shall be truly grateful, if God, through my means, shall choose to take pity upon you.”  Though with no confidence in himself with respect to miracles, yet he placed his hand, dipped in water, on the blind man.

In a moment blood flowed from his eyes and the man restored to sight, cried, “I see you O king, I see you!”  In this recovered state he was given charge of the royal castle at Windsor, for that is where his cure was effected.  He held this job many years, having outlived his restorer.

In our day, some have used the miracles of King Edward to support a false idea.  They have claimed that the king possessed this power to heal illness, not by virtue of his holiness, but by hereditary title, as a privilege of the royal line.

Bloch comments, that

This is a doubly valuable observation, because it informs us of both William’s ideas and of the very different ones held by his contemporaries.  They disagreed about why he had power to heal, but not about the fact that he did heal.

So this text (and there are others like it) will not leave us the “out” they lacked critical thought.

Eyewitness accounts to miracles like this date back many centuries, with Gregory of Tours (another respected historian) perhaps with the first written account of this phenomena in ca. A.D. 540:

It was commonly related among the faithful that a certain woman whose son lay stretched out upon a bed of pain, suffering from fever, made her way through the crowd from behind the king, and without his noticing it, managed to pull off part of the fringe of the royal cloak.  She soaked it in water, and then gave this water to her son to drink.

The fever immediately abated, and the disease was cured.  

For my part, I do not doubt this matter.  For indeed I have often seen demons who inhabit the bodies of those possessed cry out in the name of the king, and being unmasked by the virtue proceeding from him, confess their crimes.

Bloch considers many important questions in the book.  One major topic of discussion and disagreement among medieval chroniclers had to do with whether or not

  • The power to heal came exclusively from the dignity and chrism of the office itself, or
  • If such grace to heal required personal sanctity in addition to the chrism of kingship.

But again, no debate existed as to whether or not such healings in fact took place.

Bloch also wonders why such miracles seem confined the French and English monarchies.  Perhaps it happened elsewhere, but we have little to no textual evidence to support it.  We might also plausibly wonder why it reports of such miracles slowed considerably during the 17th century and cease practically altogether in the 18th.

For that matter, we not see blood bubble up from the ground anymore either.

Such questions are certainly uncomfortable, but we should not ignore them.  Amidst its sometime “one thing after another” tedium, History can occasionally wake us up and show us a different world.



*”Stupid” is a less polite, but more accurate description of what those that use this word really mean in such contexts.