I have written before surrounding the confusion in medieval studies. Some Christians see too much tolerance of Roman or other cultural practices. Other historians, often heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, see narrowness and bigotry. We think in binaries, and want one side or the other to be the truth. But in another way of thinking, both or neither could be correct. And finally, maybe one side is right or wrong, and both and neither sides are correct . . . all at once?
I thought of these questions reading excerpts from The Heliand, which means “Savior” in the old Saxon tongue. The book paraphrases the four gospels, or perhaps reformulates Tatian’s existing paraphrase of the four gospels. Much debate exists as to the author’s identity and background, but it seems obvious that he wrote this work as an aspect of missionary efforts to the Saxon people. The work likely predates Beowulf, or perhaps existed contemporaneously with it.
Anglo-Saxon society at that time highly valued
- Heroic deeds and striving, action over contemplation
- Rank and the proper posture towards rank
In his retelling the author makes some interesting changes of emphasis and detail, both in what he adds and detracts. A few examples readily show this.
There were many whose hearts told them that they should begin to tell the secret runes, the word of God, the famous feats that the powerful Christ accomplished in words and in deeds among men. There were many of the wise who wanted to praise the teaching of Christ, the Holy Word of God, and wanted to write a bright-shining book with their own hands. . . . Among all these, however, there were only four who had the power of God and help from heaven, the Holy Spirit, the strength from Christ to do it. No one else among the heroic sons of men was to attempt it, since these four had been picked by the power of God. They lifted up their voices to chant God’s spell. Nothing can ever glorify our ruler, our dear Chieftain, so well!
In this prologue excerpt, the author recasts the gospel in epic language and themes. Some specifics stand out here. The “secret runes” catches our eye–the Saxons loved puzzles, riddles, and the mysteries of runes. The author uses this motif to position the gospel as a kind of mystery unraveled, in language that would make a lot of sense to them.
The Saxons also oved gold, shiny things, etc.–gold made up much of their conception of the good life. Calling the gospel book “bright-shining” calls this to mind.
At that time the Christian God granted to the Roman people the greatest kingdom. He strengthened the heart of their army so that they conquered every nation. Those helmet lovers from hill-fort Rome had won an empire. In Jerusalem, Herod was chosen king over the Jewish people. Caesar placed him there–it was only thanks to Caesar, that the descendants of Israel, those fighting men renowned for their toughness, had to obey him.
. . . There came a decree from Fort Rome, from the great Octavian who had power over the world, governing the people and commanders from every land. It said that anyone living outside their territory must return–all warrior heroes should go back to their assemblies, to the clan of which he was a member, to the hill-fort that was his home.
The good Joseph went also with his household, just as God, ruling rightly, willed it. Bethlehem was the assembly-place for both of them, for Joseph the hero and for Mary the good, the holy girl. This was the place where in olden days that great and noble King David stood for as long as he reigned, enthroned on High, the Earl of the Hebrews. Joseph and Mary both belonged to this lineage. They were of good family line, of David’s own clan.
The text takes pains to emphasize that the Jews were “renowned for their toughness”–the Saxons admired fighting men. Joseph also gets portrayed as a hero–though he has no military accomplishments we know of. The author does not invent any, of course, and one certainly could call Joseph a hero of the faith. Finally, the humility of Joseph, Mary, and their situation do not get the same treatment as the nobility of their lineage, the connections to David, again of importance to the Saxon audience.
I have heard it told that the shining workings of fate and the power of God told Mary that on this journey a son would be born to her, the strongest child, the most powerful of kings, the Great One came to mankind–just as foretold by many visions in days before.
Wise men had said that the Protector would come in a humble way, by His own power, to visit this kingdom of earth. His mother, that most beautiful woman, wrapped Him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands that child, in a fodder-crib, even though he was the Chieftain of men and had the power of God. There His mother sat watching over him. And there was no doubt in the mind of that holy maid.
The text adds the element of “jewels” in Christ’s birth, knowing of the love the Saxons had for such things and their cultural associations with royalty. The text also omits the “no room at the inn,” part of the story. The translator of the text, Father G. Ronald Murphy, speculated in a footnote that the lack of hospitality for anyone, let alone royalty, would have dumbfounded the Anglo-Saxons. With this detail included, Murphy speculated, the Saxons might think the story a fable and doubt its authenticity.
. . . What had happened became known to many over this wide world. The guards heard it. As horse-servants, they were outside, they were men on sentry duty, watching the horses and the beasts of the field. They saw the darkness split in two in the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds. Those men felt fear in their hearts.
Here those that see the star in the sky are not shepherds, but stable hands, groomers of horses. Murphy notes that the Saxons would have known about sheep and shepherds, so the alteration needs another explanation besides cultural ignorance. He surmises that Saxon nobility had no interaction with shepherds, and so would not have trusted them. But stable hands took care of valuable horses, and were trusted members of households. Thus, the witness of such men would have credibility in their eyes.
Thus I have heard it told that John praised his Lord Christ’s teaching to every good man of the people, telling them that they could win the greatest of good things, blessed eternal life, the kingdom of heaven. The Good Chieftain Himself went out into the wild country. The Chieftain of earls was there a long time. He had no companions, and this was as He chose it to be.
He wanted to let powerful creatures test Him, even Satan, who is always doing evil. He understood Satan’s feelings and angry ill-will, and how he misled the couple, Adam and Eve, with lies into disloyalty, so that the souls of men should go to Hel after their departure.
. . . The Guardian of the Land, the Chieftain, fasted for forty days, eating no meat. For that entire time, the evil creatures did not approach Him, the evil-minded nidhudig, nor speak to Him face to face.
Again the author makes some interesting choices. We note that the author has to explain why Christ went out by himself–a king without companions for an Anglo-Saxon makes no sense–unless it involves some heroic striving. Here the text indicates that Christ chose this for Himself lest there be no confusion. The “nidhudig” in Saxon mythology was a demonic snake that fed on the souls of the unrighteous, always doing battle with the eagle that perched upon the tree of life. Here the author makes a connection–the enemy of Christ is the same enemy you have always known. Of course the story continues, and the author continued to make adjustments in content and tone throughout.*
As Charles Taylor noted in his A Secular Age, a distinctive feature of the modern world involves the homogenization of space and time. Most see all time as the same, all space as the same. Thus, we impose meaning on time and place, and not vice-versa. But for pre-moderns and traditional thinkers, certain spaces and times had special qualities because of what happened there, or an act of God, the gods, and so forth. They also saw the world laid out in a structured, hierarchical way, with each part of the world having a different meaning inherent in it. I have called this structure (borrowing directly from Jonathan Pageau–and his insights about church design are also reflected below) the Core, the Fringe, and Chaos, and discussed this in a different post. Here I hope to elaborate on this structure and connect it to St. Maximus the Confessor’s thoughts on the connections between God, the Church, and the World.
In his Ecclesiastical Mystagogy. St. Maximos writes,
It is in this way that the holy Church of God will be shown to be working for us the same effects as God, in the same way as the image reflects its archetype. For numerous and of almost infinite number are the men, women, and children who are distinct from one another and vastly different by birth and appearance, by nationality and language, by customs and age, by opinions and skills, by manners and habits, by pursuits and studies, and still again by reputation, fortune, characteristics, and connections: All are born into the Church and through it are reborn and recreated in the Spirit. To all in equal measure it gives and bestows one divine form and designation, to be Christ’s and to carry his name. In accordance with faith it gives to all a single, simple, whole, and indivisible condition which does not allow us to bring to mind the existence of the myriads of differences among them, even if they do exist, through the universal relationship and union of all things with it. It is through it that absolutely no one at all is in himself separated from the community since everyone converges with all the rest and joins together with them by the one, simple, and indivisible grace and power of faith. For all, it is said, had but one heart and one mind. Thus to be and to appear as one body formed of different members is really worthy of Christ himself, our true head, in whom says the divine Apostle, there is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither foreigner nor Scythian, neither slave nor freeman, but Christ is everything in all of you. It is he who encloses in himself all beings by the unique, simple, and infinitely wise power of his goodness. As the centre of straight lines that radiate from him he does not allow by his unique, simple, and single cause and power that the principles of beings become disjoined at the periphery but rather he circumscribes their extension in a circle and brings back to himself the distinctive elements of beings which he himself brought into existence. The purpose of this is so that the creations and products of the one God be in no way strangers and enemies to one another by having no reason or centre for which they might show each other any friendly or peaceful sentiment or identity, and not run the risk of having their being separated from God to dissolve into nonbeing.
On a second level of contemplation he used to speak of God’s holy Church as a figure and image of the entire world composed of visible and invisible essences because like it, it contains both unity and diversity.
For while it is one house in its construction it admits of a certain diversity in the disposition of its plan by being divided into an area exclusively assigned to priests and ministers, which we call a sanctuary, and one accessible to all the faithful, which we call a nave. Still, it is one in its basic reality without being divided into its parts by reason of the differences between them, but rather by their relationship to the unity it frees these parts from the difference arising from their names. İt shows to each other that they are both the same thing, and reveals that one is to the other in turn what each one is for itself. Thus, the nave is the sanctuary in potency by being consecrated by the relationship of the sacrament toward its end, and in turn the sanctuary is the nave in act by possessing the principle of its own sacrament, which remains one and the same in its two parts. In this way the entire world of beings produced by God in creation is divided into a spiritual world filled with intelligible and incorporeal essences and into this sensible and bodily world which is ingeniously woven together of many forms and natures. This is like another sort of Church not of human construction which is wisely revealed in this church which is humanly made, and it has for its sanctuary the higher world assigned to the powers above, and for its nave the lower world which is reserved to those who share the life of sense.
Moreover, he used to say that God’s holy church in itself is a symbol of the sensible world as such, since it possesses the divine sanctuary as heaven and the beauty of the nave as earth. Likewise the world is a church since it possesses heaven corresponding to a sanctuary, and for a nave it has the adornment of the earth.
And again from another point of view he used to say that holy Church is like a man because for the soul it has the sanctuary, for mind it has the divine altar, and for body it has the nave. It is thus the image and likeness of man who is created in the image and likeness of God. By means of the nave, representing the body, it proposes moral wisdom, while by means of the sanctuary, representing the soul, it spiritually interprets natural contemplation, and by means of the mind of the divine altar it manifests mystical theology. Conversely, man is a mystical church, because through the nave which is his body he brightens by virtue the ascetic force of the soul by the observance of the commandments in moral wisdom.
St. Maximos pulls this from the structure of creation revealed in the Scriptures. We can see the concept of the “fringe” in the seventh day of creation, and in leaving the fields with the edges unharvested. We can see the core & fringe motif in how the Israelites marched through the desert, with the tabernacle at the core/center with the priests, with Joseph’s tribe towards the center leading west, Judah close to the center facing east (from which direction the Savior comes), with Benjamin, the last born on the edge, but near his “brother” tribes, and so on.**
I tremble to interpret St. Maximos, but we can break down his thoughts in the following way:
- God’s creation exhibits unity and distinction, just as God Himself, who is 1 God in 3 Persons
- The distinctions in God have a reflection in the Church, which has its, Spirit, Soul, and Body.
- The design of mankind also exhibits this three-fold distinction.
The Spirit, Soul, and Body have a unity, but are not strictly equal. And, they have different functions.
Medievals understood this and reflected it in the design of their churches. Winchester Cathedral has the tripartite structure with the altar/sanctuary as the innermost region of the heart, the choir as the soul, and the nave as the body. The “core,” that is, the altar, resides in the eastern wing of the cathedral, from whence Christ shall come again (Is. 41, Rev. 7, etc.).
I have heard different explanations for the exact meaning of gargoyles, but everyone agrees and everywhere attests that they belong on the outside of churches, the exterior, representing the dangerous fringe of the world, or possibly the demonic chaos that lies beyond the pale. Whichever interpretation we prefer, the church models the structure of our lives and creation itself.^
We can consider missionary work in the light of the structure Scripture, the Church, and St. Maximos has laid out for us.
The fringe, or edge of our beings, just as the edge of societies, involves transitions from one world to another. A fluidity exists here not present at the core of societies.^^ When we make these transitions, for example, to another culture, we usually ease into them. We buy a phrase book, we get maps, maybe a tour guide–we look for ways to make the entry as seamless as possible. When we experience wrenching or abrupt transitions, such as throwing off the covers on a cold winter morning, we usually react poorly.
Navigating religious change has many more pitfalls than getting out of bed in the morning (some might disagree), and traditionally missionaries look for whatever they see within the culture that they can use to grease the skids towards Christianity. But one cannot use anything and everything in a society–some things need left behind. Conversely, one need not start with the Core messages and doctrines of faith per se. One might want to arrive there by a circuitous route. The key in choosing what to omit or emphasize should have the goal of leading one from the Fringe to the Core. If the emphasis one gives obscures or changes the Core, you have likely put a stumbling block in their path, and will have problems later on. Navigating this requires a great deal of wisdom, something that my very few and brief forays into different cultural environments shows that I lack.
From this vantage point we can think about the omissions and emphases of the author. Regardless of where one stands with The Heliand, clearly the author understands Saxon culture and has an appreciation for it. We should not doubt his intentions, but the results . . . we can evaluate them based on how well these transitional spaces (of which The Heliand is a part) help prepare us for the “core.” When the Saxons heard the Gospel read and preached in Church, would they see it as a fulfillment of what they heard, or something alien, a bait and switch of sorts that might inspire confusion and even anger? We know that the Saxons converted to Christianity over a 50 year period, give or take, in the 6th and 7th centuries AD, though we cannot know the role this text played. Perhaps we can suggest, along with Thomas Aquinas that, “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.”
*Perhaps the most famous incident of re-packaging the message in the text is Peter’s cutting off the ear of Malchus when Christ is arrested. The Heliand includes this episode, but it plays up the valiant, courageous nature of Peter protecting his King, as any vassal should. The text has Christ heal Malchus’ ear, but Christ’s “put your sword away” line is not included.
**Placing Benjamin farthest to the west, traditionally viewed as a direction oriented towards death and chaos, may also have something to do with the Benjamites being left-handed–confronting the strange with the strange, perhaps. Joseph, as the “good” son who save Israel, gets a double blessing on his two sons. But Christ comes from Judah, so Judah takes the lead in the eastern wing of the cross.
^Pope Francis’ failed to understand this key difference at his Amazonian Synod in 2019. Is there a place for finding some common ground between the pagan world and Christianity? Apologists at least since Justin Martyr in the 2nd century AD have thought so. Paul quoted from pagan authors in his sermon in Athens. But . . . neither of them would ever have thought of placing something that resides on the transitional fringe right on the altar–at the core.
^^This is why rivers are often boundaries between one place and another, and why saints associated with rivers, such as St. Christopher, have a fluidity to them.