God’s Legs

Translation will always be a tricky business, but two rules of thumb remain: 1) Make it readable for modern audiences, without 2) Losing the flavor of the original. Nigel Bryant’s The History of William Marshal hits this mark admirably. He translates the original poem into prose, but preserves the period’s idiomatic way of speaking. I confess a great fondness for medieval diction which perhaps runs in literature from Beowulf through Shakespeare. Part of this comes simply from seeing new phrases that inject life into staid platitudes. So, one can smile at the fact that they use the word “nanny-goat” in place of “chicken” for a coward. But more to the point–the medievals combined high-flown sentiment with an earthy directness that we lack today.

A few examples . . .

  • “Sir Thomas Coulances added his two ounces of salt. Making sauces was all he was good for. In sum, five got involved in this mustard” [i.e., they ‘stirred up trouble’].
  • “The Marshall grabbed a stick and gave him such a whack across the brow that the rogue had made his last blink with that eye–it went flying from his head. Well, they do say, ‘an appropriate feast day for such a saint'” [said ironically–the ‘rogue’ in question had stolen a horse. Normally the feast day of a saint would occur on the day of his martyrdom/death, though in this case the Marshall actually prevented the thief’s death by hanging and let him go–missing an eye].

And my favorite:

  • Sir Richard foolishly inserted himself–he should never have goaded the ass [i.e., he should have “let sleeping dogs lie”–“ass” here refers to a donkey and not the grumpy personage].

My admiration for Bryant increased as I read the introduction. The History of William Marshall author remains unknown but may have been his son. Some treat the book as pure literature and leave aside any historical value, thinking it an “obvious panegyric” to Marshall and not to be trusted. Bryant affirms the historical value of the work, pointing out that most of the books’s audience knew the famous man in England and France. Perhaps it contains exaggerations in places but its basic foundation remains, like stories you might tell about a relative at Thanksgiving dinner. Change the tale too much and you get called out.

Primary sources, if one willingly dives in, can give great insight into how those at the time viewed the world. In other medieval or Elizabethan texts one readily comes across such phrases as “God’s eyes!” or “God’s blood!” as vows or mark’s of irritation and (righteous?) anger, i.e., “By God’s blood I’ll do no such thing,” or, “God’s eyes, I’ll have him out!” upon hearing that some dastardly earl has seized a castle of the king. Never before have I seen the phrase “God’s legs!” as it used in The History of William Marshall, though the author uses it in a similar manner as the above phrases. Seeing this new idiom helped me think about this whole phenomena anew. What could they have meant by such expressions? We do have phrases for “stirring up trouble,” for example, but not anything like “God’s teeth!”

An easy explanation might sound like

  • This shows the “top-heavy” nature of medieval society. Sure, you have some brilliant theologians and marvelous architecture, but the bulk of the masses were ignorant of such things and descended into blasphemous superstition at the drop of a hat.

This view, however, violates one of my cardinal rules: we should never assume the ignorance of others in the past. People might be wrong about things, but that doesn’t mean they lack good reasons for being wrong. A better explanation might sound like,

  • These phrases show the “low” of the “high” and “low” dichotomy in the medieval period, ably expounded by brilliant commentators such as the author of the blog “astickinthemud.com.” Phrases such as “God’s legs!” simply give evidence that this tension could not always be maintained coherently–i.e., sometimes the “low” went a bit too low.

Still, I don’t buy it. Numerous examples exist of the “high” and “low” existing in the same person throughout the medieval period, such as Boccaccio, Chaucer, Dante, Marguerite of Navarre, etc. So, we should entertain the idea that such phrases do not betray the medieval synthesis but rather give witness to it.*

Does God have a body?

In one very important sense obviously of course He does. In the incarnation Christ assumed the fullness of human nature. He did not simply “appear” as a man, He was a fully human man with a real human body. Christ remains both God and glorified Man. And being Man, this means that He has arms, legs, etc. just as we do, or if you prefer–just as we will in the resurrection.

In another sense God has no body. All orthodox theologians tell us that He is “simple” and not composed of parts. Having arms, legs, etc. seems to imply parts to God. But we must be careful with the meaning of “parts.” Divine simplicity at its root might mean something along the lines of, “God is not divided from Himself,” or perhaps that no separation exists between God and His attributes. The “justice” or “mercy” of God is simply God Himself. But I am no theologian and will leave off the exact meaning of “divine simplicity.”

Even before the Incarnation it seems that God has a “body.” He walks in the Garden, He has “eyes” (Ps. 119:18, etc.), and a “right hand” (Is. 41:10, etc.). “Ahh,” we say, “but that is anthropomorphic language.” Well, maybe not.**

We assume that the Bible speaks of God as having arms, eyes, etc. as a concession to our understanding and language. God obviously has no physical body of flesh and bone. In this sense certainly God is bodiless as are the angels. Orthodox testimony unanimously speaks to the immaterial nature of God, and the “simplicity” of God. God has no parts:

Far removed is the Father of all from those things which operate among men, the affections and passions. He is simple, not composed of parts, without structure, altogether like and equal to himself alone. He is all mind, all spirit, all thought, all intelligence, all reason.

St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.13.3

God, however, being without parts, is Father of the Son without division and without being acted upon. For neither is there an effluence from that which is incorporeal, nor is there anything flowering into him from without, as in the case of men. Being simple in nature, he is the Father of one only Son.

St. Athanasius, Letter on the Council of Nicea, 11

These are just two examples. Nothing in what follows is meant to contradict this in any way. But we should understand that God the Father begets a Son (eternally), and that our begetting is a shadow of His begetting, and not vice-versa. We are made in His image, not vice-versa. God’s eyes do not see like our eyes, our eyes see, however dimly, like His. But of course, God does not have squishy white things just below His forehead, rods, cones, and so on.

Perhaps, then, we can understand that the concept of “body” should not be understood in an anthropocentric way. We have, unfortunately, significantly bought into anthropocentric thought when it comes to the ancient and medieval world. The Greeks thought Zeus threw thunderbolts because they did not know about electricity, or Poseidon caused earthquakes because they had no knowledge of tectonic plates. We really should give the Greeks–and others in the past–more credit than that. So with bodies–maybe we should not think of bodies as an assemblage of physically moving parts, but as a “nexus of potentiality,” to quote Father Stephen de Young. God’s being contains all true potential. He sees but needs no organ called “eyes” to do so. He moves but has no need of physical legs to make that happen. We lack the “simplicity” of God and so we need bones, tissue, etc. to enact such impulses as the desire to move or perceive.

It seems to me that the medievals nearly always tended to think in a top-down manner. One sees this in their bestiary’s, where it is not so much the physical lion that is seen, but a kingly symbol. Their desire to know particulars of the lion were not as strong as their desire to “scale up” the lion and integrate with God’s existence. Perhaps they thought similarly about the body itself. In the 3rd century AD Origen wrote,

The apostle Paul teaches us that the invisible things of God may be known through the visible, and that which is not seen may be known by what is seen. The Earth contains patterns of the heavenly, so that we may rise from lower to higher things.

As a certain likeness of these, the Creator has given us a likeness of creatures on earth, by which the differences might be gathered and perceived. And perhaps just as God made man in His own image and likeness, so also did He make remaining creatures after certain other heavenly images as a likeness. And perhaps every single thing on earth has something of an image or likeness to heavenly things, to such a degree that even the grain of mustard, which is the smallest of seeds, may have something of an image and likeness in heaven.

Perhaps this can explain medieval explications such as “God’s legs!” I say perhaps–it may be that I read too much into this and have strayed too near the wind. But I will stretch things a bit and declare that rather than see such statements as departures from the piety of the age, we should see them as part of their intertwined view of the world that saw all categories of being flowing down from Heaven to Earth.


*I leave off the question of whether or not acclamations of this sort violate Christ’s words in Matthew 5 about oaths, etc. My answer is “no” or at least “not necessarily” but I give no defense for that here.

**In what follows I am enormously indebted to the 1/15/21 episode of the “Lord of Spirits” podcast from Ancient Faith Radio.

One comment on “God’s Legs

  1. […] so that we may live. So eating mirrors Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I talked in a recent post about adopting a theopomorphic view of our experience with the concept of bodies, and we should […]

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