Consider some of what follows a thought experiment rather than a settled conclusion . . .
For some time now I have contemplated Charles Taylor’s idea that a significant impetus in creating the modern world is that we homogenize space and time. This belief/practice has shaped us for at least 350 years, and it has led us to try and combine many different elements of nature and the subsequent explosion of technological invention. Many of these creations have greatly improved human life, at least in the physical sense. But of course, it has also brought about the destruction of any corporate sense of meaning, and an immense decline in the idea of sanctity.
To homogenize something makes it ubiquitous. Recently Marginal Revolution linked to an article about how technology has made music unimportant in our culture, largely through its constant availability. The author’s conclusion in the linked article is not original, as many have declared something similar, but it serves as another reminder of the cost of the homogenization of space and time.
By contrast, the medieval world presents itself as one of the careful delineation of all things. We need not say here whether their world or ours is better or worse to appreciate the difference. Reading primary sources from a particular era gives one such an appreciation, and Abbot Suger’s crackling style makes The Deeds of Louis the Fat an enjoyable read.* He centers his writing on how Louis enhanced the power of the monarchy by bringing several dastardly nobles back in line. His people loved him, if for no other reason that he kept the peace and stood up for those oppressed. Suger clearly admires his subject, though he recognizes that the good king had his moniker for a reason, writing that,
By now his body was quite heavy, weighed down as it was by burdensome flesh; no one else, not even a beggar, would have wanted to–or even been able–to ride a horse when hampered by such a dangerously large body.
And later . . .
Thus [Louis] spoke, and–despite his corpulence– he set off with astonishing enthusiasm.
I confess to reading the text with an eye to what would most engage the boys in my 9th/10th grade Medieval History class, and that meant primarily looking for stories of gruesome deaths.** Suger delivers the goods! For example:
There can be no doubt that the hand of God exacted this swift vengeance upon William of Laroche Guyon [who had murdered a husband and wife in cold blood to gain possession of their castle]. His accomplices were thrown out of the windows dead or alive, bristling with innumerable arrows like hedgehogs. They waved about in the air on the points of the lances, as if the very earth had rejected them. For the unparalleled deed of William they discovered a rare vengeance; for he who in life had been heartless had his heart cut out of his dead body. When they had taken it from his entrails, all swollen with fraud and iniquity, they put it on a stake and set it up for many days in a fixed place to demonstrate the punishment for crime.
His body and those of some of his companions, were placed on hurdles tied with cords and ropes, and sent sailing down the Seine so that, if nothing stopped them floating down to Rouen, the Normans should see the punishment incurred by his crime, and also so that those who had briefly fouled France with their stink should in death continue to foul Normandy, their native soil.
Suger later discusses the murder of Charles the Good, killed while praying prostrate in church along with his cohorts. He spares no details and seems to relish them. First, the execution of the plotters:
Now [the criminals] despaired of life, and their lyre was turned to mourning and their organ into the voice of them that weep (Job XXX, 31); the most wicked Bourchard left with the agreement of his companions, hoping to flee the land but found himself unable to do so, though only his own iniquity prevented him. On his return to the castle of one of his intimate friends he was seized by the king’s command and suffered exquisite torture in death. Tied to the upper part of a high wheel, exposed naked to the rapacity of crows and other birds of prey, his eyes torn out and his whole face lacerated, pierced by a thousand blows from arrows, lances and spears, he perished miserably and his body was thrown into a sewer.
Bertold, the brains behind the plot, also decided to flee; but when he found he was able to wander around without restriction, he returned through sheer pride; for he asked himself, ‘Who am I and what have I done?’ So he was captured by his own men, handed over to the king’s judgement and condemned to a well-merited and wretched death. They hanged him from a gibbet with a dog and as the dog was struck it took its anger out on Bertold, chewed his whole face and, horrible to relate, covered him with excrement; so, more miserable than the most miserable of men, he ended his wretched life in perpetual death.
The men the king had besieged in the tower were forced by many hardships to surrender. In front of their relations Louis had them thrown our one by one from the top of the tower to crush their skulls. One of them called Isaac had been tonsured in a monastery to avoid death; Louis ordered him to be defrocked and hanged on a gibbet. Thus victorious at Bruges, the king rapidly led his army to Ypres, an excellent castle, to take vengeance on William the Bastard, who had fomented the treason. He sent messengers to the people of Bruges and brought them around to his side by threats and flattery. Then as William barred his way with three hundred knights, half the royal army rushed against him and the other half went off at an angle and boldly occupied the castle by way of its other gate. The king kept it, William lost all claim to Flanders, and was banished. Because he had aspired to gain Flanders through treachery, it was right that he should gain nothing whatever in Flanders.
Suger closes this narrative commenting that,
Flanders was washed clean and almost re-baptized by these various forms of revenge and the great outpouring of blood. So having installed William the Norman as count, the king returned to France, victorious by God’s help.
At first glance the means of their death, and Suger’s possible delight in such details, surely strikes us as barbaric and unChristian. We tell ourselves that we have come much farther since those “dark days.” But I want to suggest–or at least explore–the possibility, that Suger and the medievals may have been on to something.
I tread lightly, for I am aware that this may be one of the craziest of my crazy ideas.
To begin, we can reflect on John Wilkes Booth. He killed Lincoln, and no one denied that he should face the death penalty. Everyone wanted him captured alive . . . so that he could be tried and then executed. He died while pursued by troops either by his own hand or that of a trigger-happy soldier, and people were upset. But why bother? Dead is dead, right? He saved us the expense of a trial. Why all the fuss? But, everyone recognized at the time that while his death was important, the manner of his death was also important. To be tried and publicly executed would have a different meaning than if he took his own life, a collective, and cathartic, justice, vs. the “triumphant” and defiant individual.
If we accept this reasoning we begin to see that not every death is alike. Different kinds of death carry with them different meanings.
If different kinds of death carry with them different meanings, then we may feel inclined to accept that our bodies have meaning, and bodily actions have certain meanings. Some of this is obvious–certain facial expressions and gestures have a universal meaning across cultures, time, and space. Other implications follow. If the body has meaning then gender has an inherent meaning, and so on. We simply cannot invent ourselves from thin air.
So far, so good, but from here it gets trickier. Before considering the manner of their deaths we should consider the crimes committed.
- The crimes were done in cold blood, against defenseless victims. One of the victims was killed in church alone while praying. The other was ambushed in his castle after he welcomed them inside, and then his wife was also brutally stabbed to death as threw herself on the body of her dying husband.
- The crimes had many witnesses to them and no doubt existed as to their guilt.
- Those that murdered the lord in his castle did so with the express purpose of rebelling against the king. Those that murdered Charles the Good seemed intent on seizing his land and title.
- Aside from the cold-blooded nature of the murders, the crimes violated a) the sacrosanct nature of the Church as a safe place of devotion to God, and b) the direct violation of hospitality.
Would an ordinary punishment suffice, that is, an ordinary death sentence, a simple, dignified, beheading?
I have not seen the movie Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won a Best Actor Oscar. I did hear an interview with Washington, however, in which he discussed how he agreed to the movie only if they changed the script. He felt that the original ending left the possibility that his character survived, which meant the possibility of a sequel. Instead, he said that, (my memory is close but not exact) “My character lived like a dog, so he should die like a dog. Anything else would not be right, or fair to the story.”
Again, we see the manner of death as having significance to the story. Perhaps the same could be true of the events Suger relates. We cannot see the meaning of their actions without seeing the consequences those actions have. The public nature of the punishments inflicted rub us wrongly as well. But we must also wonder whether or not we have swung too far in the direction of privacy in last century or so. We no longer vote in public, we no longer need to speak in public (we can comment anonymously on line). Perhaps this has contributed to the cultural divide and polarization we now face.
Our modern homogenization of life and death has not made unjust deaths any less frequent. If anything, one might suggest that, at certain times at least, it has positively increased it. The beginning of this phenomena may have been the French Revolution, where the guillotine treated all alike. But this industrialization of death led to its mass production, and numbed much of France for years. The class and racial identity politics of Hitler and Lenin led to further industrialized butchery. Equality in death led to piles of statistics, an undecipherable mass. The vast majority of these deaths were hidden far from the people at large.
I truncated the above accounts from Suger, but even still, it seems that the deaths inflicted give the stories a “satisfying” ending (the effect increases by reading the whole story). We can call this a latent string of barbarism in our psyche or . . . it may be that the medievals acted rightly, provided of course that such punishments truly fit the crimes and that no one could dispute their guilt. Suger, an Abbott and scholar, has no doubt of this, for he mentions specifically that the violent end of the malefactors “washed clean” Flanders, for example.
Perhaps our executions should be more public. Perhaps this could be a means for us to process important truths of life and death. I hesitate to say that the method of execution should vary depending on the crime, for in the accounts above things seemed to happen at least in part “in the heat of the moment.” To inflict such punishments in cold blood presents a host of problems. But I feel a certain amount of tension. If we treat every death alike, the body may lose its inherent meaning, and then death will lose its meaning. If death loses its meaning, so too will life. All we will have left, then, will be a monotonous march to oblivion.
*The Carolingians win for having the best names for their kings, i.e., Pepin the Short, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple (i.e, Charles the Stupid), and of course, Louis the Fat.
**I know of no better way to get 15 year old boys interested in learning about feudal hierarchy and symbolism, a classic bait and switch. The girls, who are usually far more agreeable but often far less interested in the gory details, “must endure their going hence.”