This week we spent time with two maps, each respective of their time, each revealing much about the societies that created it.
First, the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Map of the World), from the late 13th century :
We noted that, among other things
The map has very little water
The map is filled with animals, real or fanciful
Jerusalem is at the map’s center
The map has no actual geographical accuracy to speak of, almost on purpose
Basically the Hereford Mappa Mundi does not attempt to a map in any modern sense of the world. It tells you nothing about physical geography. But it does mean to orient one spiritually. Christ sits enthroned above, the word “MORS” (Latin for death) forms a ring around the sphere, reminding us that death encompasses the globe. Jerusalem stands at the center to remind us of the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Did they know nothing of physical geography. Well, they may not have known much, but they knew more than this map indicates. I think they just did not particularly care about it, it had no real importance in their society, and other Mappa Mundi’s of the era reflect the same values.
About 150 years later, we see this map:
Obviously many differences exist between the two.
The geography approaches reasonably accuracy
If you look closely you might see that upon the water there are many ships, obviously reflecting the explosion of exploration.
The spiritual symbolism is nowhere to be seen
The map is intended to represent physical reality, to perhaps guide one (at least marginally) while physically traveling.
Of course the map could have had spiritual symbolism if it wanted to. But it had other purposes and goals in mind, and reflected the different values of the period, and this brings us to one of the crucial differences between the feudal period and the Renaissance.
For the Medievals, what counted most was not the actual, physical person/place/thing as it existed in reality, but the meaning behind the physical, or the symbolism inherent in the object. So when they want to make a map of the world they did not really make a map of the world, but a spiritual map, a gospel tract. When Dante uses Beatrice in his Divine Comedy Beatrice as an actual woman has no real importance. But for Dante she serves as a powerful symbol of how the feminine can help lead him to salvation.
During the Renaissance we begin to see a shift in the other direction. The physical world in itself has value, and is worth investigating and depicting. I think both perspectives have value, and neither one has much value apart from the other. Neither a peanut-butter sandwich, or a jelly sandwich, satisfies, but combined it works beautifully. The Renaissance began by offering a helpful balance or corrective to some weak spots of the medieval order. Whether it finishes there or not, we shall see.
If you have interest, last week we watched a brief portion of a video on the development of perspective in art which I include below. Medieval art did not use perspective, partly because they did not know of the technique. But I think that part of the reason why they did not discover perspective is that they never looked to develop an artistic technique that would allow them to represent the physical world accurately. It had no real importance for them.
There exists an “old saw” approach to Christianity that runs something like this: A long time ago Christians devoted themselves to practical matters of personal morality. The early Church lived as a community of love devoted to good works. Then, along comes ________ (this “blank” takes many forms — St. Paul, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, etc.) and Christianity forever tainted itself with “theology” and a philosophical turn of mind completely at odds with the spirit of Christ and his early followers.”
I believe firmly in the idea that every organization gets the culture they deserve. Perhaps the Church over time has contributed to the great error described above by focusing too much on morality as such and not on transformation. Perhaps Christian education has concerned itself too much at various times with mere outward good results and good looks rather than giving a firm foundation in eternal principles.
But I also think that those that attack the “philosophical” elements of Christianity have a conscious or unconscious agenda to keep religion tucked away in its own small corner. “You Christians please continue to be nice to each other and try and help others. We’ll handle the big stuff.”
In his The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy Etienne Gilson sets out to refute those who wish to keep Christian belief in a small corner. Gilson was a pre-eminent scholar and philosopher in his day, and alas for me, some of his philosophical vocabulary went over my head. But one of the great strengths of his work is its simplicity. He asks the critic to please, just actually read the Bible and Christian theologians honestly, and the idea that Christian belief was never “philosophical” melts away.
For starters we have the book of Job as a deep philosophical statement on the nature of suffering. Many Old Testament history books like the book of Judges show artful arrangement to make pointed statements about the nature of man. We have Ecclesiastes and many Psalms. Some would say Jesus said nothing “philosophical” but this can only possibly hold water if one discounts the Gospel of John entirely. Then of course we have the “dreaded” St. Paul who “intruded” with his theological cast of mind, and so on, and so on.
Gilson’s main point, however, deals with the Middle Ages. Here most critics (at least in his day) stated that whatever philosophy the medievals attempted strictly copied from the Greeks. They had no originality. Gilson’s quick retort to this deals with the nature of originality itself. In one sense, “all philosophy is a footnote to Plato,” as Alfred North Whitehead stated. Of course the medievals took some ideas from the Greeks. What philosopher would not?
Others (like Edward Gibbon) charge the medievals with dimming the light of reason with the obscurantism of faith and revelation. Gilson shows with many examples that the bulk of medieval thinkers saw reason enhanced, not diminished, by faith. He writes,
By revealing to man what he could not actually know, revelation opens up the way for the work of reason.
God’s gift of rationality now has more to chew on, and thus gets more of a workout. For the medievals revelation makes mankind more rational, not less.*
But the bulk of the book forms Gilson’s main point that the medievals creatively used and transmuted Greek philosophy rather than copied them rote. They had a strong desire to save everything they could and use it for Christian purposes. My favorite example of this comes from Boethius. Gilson writes,
Fate had weighed too heavily on men’s mind’s to be too summarily dismissed. Boethius took the trouble to put up some rather complicated architecture in order to ensure it a niche in the Christian temple. Providence is then the divine intelligence comprehending all things in the world; that is to say their natures and the laws of their development. As reunited therefore in the divine ideas the universal order is one with Providence; as particularized, broken up, and so to speak, incorporated with the the things it rules, the providential order may be called Fate. All that is subject to Fate is thus subject to Providence, since Fate depends on Providence as a consequence on its principle.
Boethius himself wrote,
For as the innermost of several circles revolving around the same center approaches the simplicity of the mid-most point . . . while the outermost, whirled in an ampler orbit takes in a wider sweep of space–even so whatever departs from the Primal mind is involved more deeply in the meshes of fate, and things are free from fate in proportion as they seek to approach the center; while if aught cleaves close to the supreme mind in absolute fixity, this too, being free from movement, rises above Necessity. Therefore as is reasoning to pure intelligence, as that which is generated to that which is, time to eternity, a circle to its center, so is the shifting series of fate to the steadfastness and simplicity of providence.
I admit I don’t fully understand it, nor might I buy what he sells. Whatever the explanation, I think it best to avoid the word “Fate” altogether. But who wouldn’t smile at Boethius’ boyish enthusiasm and deft mental gymnastics? Aquinas, to my mind a more mature and clearer thinker than Boethius, rejects this concept of Fate as well. I’m sure that Aquinas understood him, and I’ll stick with his analysis.
Of particular interest to me was Gilson’s explanation of the medieval view of history. Previous historians in the Greek and Roman tradition did brilliant work. But even the best of the ancients, i.e. Herodotus, Thucydides, and Polybius, all show the tendency toward Fate and Inevitability. For Herodotus, everyone eventually crosses the boundaries of natural law — even Cyrus — and gets crushed for it. Thucydides sees civilization doomed by the passions and fears of man that lie just below the surface. Even the more spiritually minded Polybius sees mighty Rome caught up in the grand cycle of growth, peak, and decay from which they cannot escape.
Medievals demonstrated originality in their historical vision. They saw linear progression where others saw only vicious cycle. With revelation illumining reason we can build on the past, move forward, and advance. The medievals had humility in relation to the past. They knew the Romans and Greeks had done better than they in most ways. But they never felt imprisoned by that presumption. Rather, they sought to press on and hopefully help carry mankind to a better place. In comparison to what came before, Gilson rightly claims this as an original philosophical development.
This view of history has its roots of course in theology. History is a poem, which makes sense only when we know the beginning and the end. Thanks to revelation, we know both, and can now see Christ building His kingdom on Earth, one that grows as a mustard seed. If God be true, we have the opportunity to progress in relation to the past, though of course we may reject that chance. This explains Boethius’ desire to save Fate from the chopping block — we must save everything so we can build on everything — but it also explains Aquinas refusal to yield. God binds no one by Fate. Otherwise, how can God’s kingdom advance?
The medievals, often portrayed as dour and gloomy, strike me as a hopeful people.
*Perhaps one example of this is the doctrine of the Trinity, a reality beyond the realm of reason. But after revelation announces the doctrine, reason and experience can then deepen our understanding, which seems to be the experience of the early Church.
This week we brought an end to the Medieval world by seeing its erosion in the 14th century, mostly through the decimation of the Black Plague, as well as the early hints of nationalism.
The disaster wrought by the Plague went beyond the deaths of millions of people. It also did away with an entire social and moral fabric upon which the medieval world rested.
The virulent and contagious nature of the disease created acute moral dilemmas wherever it struck. Should diseased people be quarantined? Should apparently well people be allowed to flee to other towns? They might have the disease but not yet show the symptoms. The communal spirit that medievals needed to make their society work broke down. Fear and uncertainty meant that no one could trust one another.
Imagine that you know that a couple people in a certain household have the plague. Probably their other family members have it too, but of course you can’t be sure. Should you let the apparently well people out of the house? Some towns took the step of immediately boarding up houses where even one person had the plague, which would condemn all those in the house to death. But towns that took these harsh measures had far fewer deaths overall than those who didn’t. Is this moral? It condemns a few to certain death, but it might save a number of other lives. The plague caused a great deal of tension between those who thought the greatest good lay in the safety of the community, and those who thought the priority should be treatment of the individual.
A number of contemporary chroniclers tell of the debilitating social impact of the disease. Families abandoned even the bodies of their dead for fear of catching the disease, and so many went unburied. Healthy (and usually wealthier) people abandoned towns if they could, and the mutual relationships between nobility and the “commons” eroded. The plague may have had an indirect role in the peasant uprisings, first in France in 1358, and later in England in 1381. Froissart records events in France this way. . .
Thus [the peasants] gathered together without any other counsel, and without any armour saving with staves and knives, and so went to the house of a knight dwelling thereby, and brake up his house and slew the knight and the lady and all his children great and small and brent his house. And they then went to another castle, and took the knight thereof and bound him fast to a stake, and then violated his wife and his daughter before his face and then slew the lady and his daughter and all his other children, and then slew the knight by great torment and burnt and beat down the castle. And so they did to divers other castles and good houses; and they multiplied so that they were a six thousand, and ever as they went forward they increased, for such like as they were fell ever to them, so that every gentleman fled from them and took their wives and children with them, and fled ten or twenty leagues off to be in surety, and left their house void and their goods therein. These mischievous people thus assembled without captain or armour robbed, brent and slew all gentlemen that they could lay hands on, and forced and ravished ladies and damosels, and did such shameful deeds that no human creature ought to think on any such, and he that did most mischief was most praised with them and greatest master. I dare not write the horrible deeds that they did to ladies and damosels; among other they slew a knight and after did put him on a broach and roasted him at the fire in the sight of the lady his wife and his children; and after the lady had been enforced and ravished with a ten or twelve, they made her perforce to eat of her husband and after made her to die an evil death and all her children. They made among them a king, one of Clermont in Beauvoisin: they chose him that was the most ungraciousest of all other and they called him king Jaques Goodman, and so thereby they were called companions of the jaquery. They destroyed and brent in the country of Beauvoisin about Corbie, and Amiens and Montdidier more than threescore good houses and strong castles. In like manner these unhappy people were in Brie and Artois, so that all the ladies, knights and squires of that country were fain to fly away to Meaux in Brie, as well the duchess of Normandy and the duchess of Orleans as divers other ladies and damosels, or else they had been violated and after murdered. Also there were a certain of the same ungracious people between Paris and Noyon and between Paris and Soissons, and all about in the land of Coucy, in the country of Valois, in the bishopric of Laon, Nyon and Soissons. There were brent and destroyed more than a hundred castles and good houses of knights and squires in that country.
The plague also had a catastrophic impact on the Church and its witness. Many priests demonstrated great courage in tending to the sick, and in consequence died in much higher numbers than the average population (I came across one figure that estimates that the plague may have killed 80% of the priests in Europe). This left many towns with no priest at all, while other had priests rushed into office with little to no training. This led to a poorly trained, uneducated clergy and many layman with no religious guidance at all. The Reformation 150 years later had many causes, but surely the gutting of Church leadership from 1350-1450 is one of them.
Desperate people usually seek scapegoats, and the medievals did the same. Many blamed Jews for the plague, and although the Pope declared that anyone “who believed Jews responsible for the disease is deluded by Satan,” people did not listen and Jews were unjustly attacked. A sect called The Flagellants arose, and they claimed to avert the disease through their own personal penance. Their argument seemed to go something like:
The Plague is God’s judgment upon humanity
Once the allotment of God’s wrath is poured out, the Plague will stop
If we ‘absorb’ some of God’s wrath, other people will suffer less
Therefore, we inflict punishment on ourselves to atone for the sins of others.
The Church rightly declared such people heretics. They had a faulty view of God, suffering, humanity, and the disease itself. Froissart comments again,
In the Year of Grace 1349, the penitents went about, coming first out of Germany. They were men who did public penance and scourged themselves with whips of hard knotted leather with little iron spikes. Some made themselves bleed very badly between the shoulders and some foolish women had cloths ready to catch the blood and smear it on their eyes, saying that it was miraculous blood. While they were doing penance, they sang very mournful songs about the nativity and passion of Our Lord.
The object of this penance was to entreat God to put a stop to the mortality, for in that time of death there was an epidemic of plague. People died suddenly and at least a third of all the people in the world died then. The penitents of whom I am speaking went in companies from town to town and from city to city and wore long felt hoods on their heads, each company with its own color. Their rules forbade them to sleep more than one night in each town and the length of their goings-out was fixed by the thirty-three and a half years which Jesus Christ spent on earth, as the Holy Scriptures tell us; each of their companies went about for thirty-three and a half days, and then they returned to the towns or castles from which they had come. They spent very little money on their journeys, because the good people of the towns which they visited asked them to dinner and supper. They slept only on straw, unless illness forced them to do otherwise. When they entered a house in which they were to dine or sup, they kneeled down humbly on the threshold and said three paternosters and three Ave Marias, and did the same when they left. Many reconciliations were achieved through the penitents as they went about, for instance, over killings which had taken place and about which it had so far been impossible to reach an accord; but by means of the penitents peace was made.
Their rules contained some quite reasonable and acceptable things which agreed with such natural human inclinations as to journey about and do penance, but they did not enter the Kingdom of France because Pope Innocent, who was at Avignon at that time with his cardinals, considered the practice and opposed it very strongly, declaring in condemnation of the penitents that public penance inflicted by oneself was neither right nor lawful. They were excommunicated for doing it, and especially those clergy who went with them.
But again, most did not listen, so strongly did fear grip them.
As the Church declined in prestige, the first inklings of nationalism arose. The Church opposed nationalism in the past because they did not want people to think of themselves as primarily English or French, but Christians. One goal of the medieval church was to create a unified Christendom in Europe, a Christendom that if necessary could serve as a “power” bloc to the Moslem world. To achieve this, however, the church had to minimize the role of national hero-kings. But as the war progressed both sides had their national heroes, like Henry V and Joan of Arc, and this led to the rise of an “English” and “French” spirit that helped end to the medieval dream of a unified Christendom.
I think we can point to a few possible reasons for this rise of nationalism, and while we should not confuse it with modern day nationalism, it had some similarities.
As the length of the war increased, the ‘bet’ each side made increased as well. With so much invested, no one wanted to fold. War has a logic of its own, and finds new ways to justify itself, so. . .
Nationalism would be an easy target for the war to find. The kings that began the war died. Neither side could claim the conflict as a holy crusade. If you can’t fight for Edward III, or for the Church, perhaps you could fight “for England.”
Henry V clearly capitalized on this, but so too did the more distinctly Christian Joan of Arc.
By the end of the 100 Years War in 1453 the medieval world had disappeared. Those that survived the plague found their labor in much more demand, forever altering the relationship between peasant and noble. What the Battle of Crecy began the plague finished. Western Europe would seek a new way of understanding themselves and humanity’s place in the world, which we know as the Renaissance. We turn our attention to this period at the end of next week.
This week we looked at the beginning of the 100 Years War (1337-1453), and especially the Battle of Crecy in 1346. The battle, though a major victory for England, did not prove decisive in the long run. However, it is perhaps the most famous battle of the war because it foreshadowed the beginning of the end of chivalry, and with it, the feudal system as a whole.
As we noted a few weeks ago, the Church in particular, and the feudal system in general, tried to limit the possibility of conflict. So, only a certain group of people should fight, and then, fight in a certain way with certain weapons. Riding on horseback with lance and sword required a great deal of training, which in itself restricted who could possibly fight.
This is part of the reason why the Church tried to prevent the widespread use of the crossbow. The simplicity of the design meant that anyone could use this weapon, a kind of medieval version of point and click. And, at close enough range, a powerful crossbow could pierce a knight’s armor. Some suggest that the Church sought only to protect the privileges of the nobility in their attempt to ban the crossbow, but I believe it’s more than that. The crossbow posed a threat to limited warfare, restricted to a narrow class. With a crossbow almost anyone could join the fight.
The English had a tradition of using the longbow. Though simpler in design, longbows had much more power than crossbows, and could be fired more quickly.
Another difference between them, however, is that longbows require much more developed skill than a crossbow. Like riding and swordsmanship, it required time and practice to attain proficiency. Hence, longbowmen, though peasants, became a kind of privileged nobility.
At Crecy the English had longbows, but the French did not, and this proved decisive in the battle. Muddy ground, combined with French disorganization gave the English bowmen plenty of shots at the French forces. The French suffered untold thousands of casualties and had to flee the field. We might be tempted to chalk this up to the ‘fortunes of war, but if we peel back layers, we see that it was no coincidence that the English had longbows and the French did not. Armies that take the field are a byproduct of specific political cultures, and the battle at Crecy was no exception to this.
Longbows posed an even greater threat to the knightly nobility than crossbows, and the longbow could be expected to meet with the resistance of the nobility. It would take a strong central government to allow for the longbows development. The king would need a great deal of authority over local nobility to make this happen.
Since the Norman conquest, England had in fact this tradition of strong kingship, starting with William the Conqueror himself, but also Henry II, Edward I, and Edward III, who many believe started the 100 Years War. These kings created special laws to further ensure the longbow’s use, including
Protecting forests with yew trees
Giving peasants with longbows time off from certain feudal duties to practice their skill
Giving longbow hunters the right to hunt in some normally protected forests
Finally, those who accidentally killed or injured others with the longbow were exempt from legal punishments.
Clearly, the longbow was not just a technological innovation, it was an innovation of a particular political environment. To raise the longbow to the status of the sword meant elevating the status of peasants, or at least some peasants. The longbow was not just a weapon, it foreshadowed a social revolution.
The Church found out that stemming innovation is a fruitless endeavor, but they correctly judged the consequences of the introduction of these weapons. The feudal system could approach fairness if each group in society served legitimate needs of other groups. The nobility had certain privileges, but also difficult military duties that endangered their lives, took them away from home frequently, and so on. But if the peasants did not really need them for protection anymore, what was the reason for the existence of the nobility and their privileges?
Next week we will look at how Crecy may have spurred on peasant revolts in France, and the devastation of the Black Plague.
One of my favorite of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries is “The Guru of Go,” about Loyola Marymount University’s run-and-gun style of basketball. Those who follow college basketball today know that scores routinely end up in the 60’s, but LMU routinely scored in the 90’s and had many games of over 100 points or more. Their command over their own style of play “forced” other teams to try and keep up. But . . . even when teams could stick with Loyola Marymount in the short-term, the fact that they got caught up in the fast pace meant that they played on enemy territory. Inevitably, the pace would wear down opponents and Loyola would shoot ahead, leaving their opponents wheezing on the bench.
Most every Christian in the west of an orthodox (small “o”) bent acknowledges that the so-called culture war is over and has been for some time. We lost. This might surprise someone transported from, say, the 1980’s when it appeared that “victory” was at hand, with the ascendancy of the moral majority and political conservatism firmly entrenched. Now looking back we see that marshaling coalitions and votes for laws and Supreme Court justices only meant playing on enemy territory. Rather, the “City of God” cannot arise using the tools of the “City of Man.” Like Loyola’s opponents, we got enticed into playing a game ill suited to us–a secular game on secular turf.
Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age will likely prove too deep and dense for me to glean much from. He writes in a conversational style but with deep concepts and many variations of thought. One needs a great deal of focus to follow him. But I felt, perhaps rashly, that the whole of his thesis made sense when he discussed . . .
Medieval carnivals took some different forms in different times and places. Some days merely involved eating and drinking too much, such as “Fat Tuesday.” Some had more complexity/absurdity, such as the “Lord of Misrule,” which happened around Christmastide. In this space of time a sub-deacon or even a peasant might get appointed as chief of festivities, which obviously involved eating and drinking, among other things. Other such similar days had dukes serve as peasants and peasants occupy manorial houses, and so on. So in the carnival emblem to the side, all of creation seems reversed, as the hare triumphantly rides the hunting hound.
Most commentators point out that such festivals allowed people to let off steam, especially necessary in a structured and hierarchical society such as medieval Europe. Even some contemporary clerics acknowledge this role for the carnival. But this forms only the baseline for understanding the role of the carnival. The emblem of the hare and hounds attest to something grander at work.
Those committed to Christianity know that it provides a means to understand all of experience, not just life after death. Much of our Christian life involves holding things in tension. So we believe that God is one God in three persons, neither favoring the unity or the plurality, but going “straight ahead.” Jesus is fully God and fully man, “without confusion,” as stated by the Council of Chalcedon. The Church hymns the Virgin Mary as the “unwedded bride.” For the Mother of God both terms truly apply, without confusion. Scripture is the Word of God, written by particular men at particular times, and so on it goes. Christians rightly recognized the Incarnation as the focal point of human experience, for in the coming of Christ creation gets remade and reborn, as John attests in his Gospel by obviously referencing Genesis 1. After the Incarnation we live in a new world, but in many ways outwardly it exactly resembles the old world.
In the world B.C.*, people saw childlessness as a curse. Of course children are a blessing in a physical, natural sense, but at a deeper level we were meant to perpetuate the continuing natural order as a means of bringing about the coming of Messiah. No children meant no participation in redemption.
In the kingdom to come, however, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. Thus, we honor monastics. At the baseline, we honor them for their sacrifice. But their vows of poverty and chastity mean that they do not live in ordinary time. Their lives transcend the ordinary needs of the world with its buying, selling, and saving, and also reflects the reality of the new creation wrought by Christ. They live partially in eternal time, which contains all time. They “neither marry, or are given in marriage,” and of course in the heavenly kingdom no one needs money.** Monastics may or may not live exemplary lives, but the fact of their “station in life” puts them closer to eternal time than laity and even priests, who must concern themselves with affairs in the world.
In his essay Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper makes that case that the only way to escape the cycle of work is to receive breaks in time from without. Even vacations, he points out, cannot be “leisure” if we view them strictly as breaks from work. Modern views of labor probably originated with Marx and his followers, and certainly we should sympathize with the “proletariat,” if we wish to use the term. But as Pieper wryly remarks, “Proletarianism cannot obviously be overcome by making everyone proletarian.”
Ordinary time may be strictly linear, but not “eternal time.” Eternal time contains all moments. We the laity, despite our ordinary and natural station, can still at times participate in eternal time. Taking the crucifixion as an example, Taylor writes,
Meanwhile the Church, in its liturgical year, remembers and re-enacts what happened . . . [at Christ’s crucifixion]. Which is why this year’s Good Friday can be closer to the Crucifixion than last year’s mid-summer’s day. And the Crucifixion itself, since Christ’s passion here participates in God’s eternity, is closer to all times than they in secular terms are to each other.
Put in other terms, on this view tracts of secular time were not homogenous and interchangeable. They were [differentiated] by their placing in relation to higher time.
Medieval carnivals did not participate in sacred time, but they did recognize the duality. By breaking down the natural order of ordinary time, they testified to the reality of sacred eternity, where a completely new order will forever take hold of the cosmos. Thus, the breaking down of the order gives it new life, the secular/ordinary order gets reborn freshly after each carnival. It makes perfect sense that the “Lord of Misrule” would “reign” during Christmastide, for this time on calendar celebrated the breaking in of the eternal into temporal via the Incarnation. “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while He is with them (Mk. 2:19)?”
Carnivals did not protest against the prevailing order so much as re-affirm it. Recognizing its temporary and inferior status was the only way it could be reaffirmed, the only way order could perpetuate.
We remember Henry VIII for his many marriages, but it makes perfect sense that an absolutist like Henry would also abolish the days of misrule at Christmastide. This too accompanies his seizure of monastic lands. The monastic vocation and the carnival testify to this tension in time, and to the transitory nature of the state. No statist like Henry likes such things. Other worlds other than the ones they have made frighten and confuse them.
We see too that whatever its intentions, by abolishing liturgies and the church calendar, the Reformation paved the way for secularization. Bit by bit Protestant denominations moved away from the “sacred time” of the church calendar year. Taylor cites Walter Benjamin’s description of “homogenous and empty time” as the mark of modern consciousness. “On this view,” Taylor writes, “time [has no meaning in itself] but is like a container, indifferent to what fills it. Without “eternal liturgics,” and without a sense of time as a gift to mold and shape us, all that is left is for us to fill time with meaning. And so we have, and created the secular state thereby.
This secular victory is quite empty, however. The homogenization of time makes everything sterile. Nothing can have real meaning. Without fasting, our materialistic civilization cannot even feast. With the homogenization of time comes the homogenization of space–including space for worship. With no delineation of either time and space, it’s no wonder that, “we’re all secular now.”
We see this view of the homogeneity and plasticity of time permeate our society. Take Fridays for example. Back in ye olden days Fridays for everyone involved fasting of some kind, for each Friday participated in some way in the Crucifixion–not just in memory, but in reality. After abandoning the dual sense of time described above we instead oriented time around our work/school week. Now Friday has taken on the opposite role in our secular liturgy as a day of release, fun, and celebration. Imagine a family trying to establish something of the older sense of Fridays, and the enormous accompanying societal/liturgical pressure to go out and have fun with friends from work or school facing them square in the face.
“Resistance is futile.”
Of course, this same story has been played out in so many other areas. Without Advent we get Black Friday. Without Paschaltide we get “Spring Breakers.”
In a recent conversation with Hank Hannegraaf Rod Drehrer recounted his meeting with a group of evangelical pastors near the election. While Drehrer understood why one might vote for Trump “in sorrow,” as an alternative to Clinton, he admitted an utter incredulity in seeing some pastors positively enthused about Trump. The response from another evangelical who shared his lament was, “You have to understand, they have no Plan B. Politics is the only way they can conceive of changing the world.”^
The statism of Henry VIII–and others– has born disastrous fruit.
Many on the more secular left might lament Trump’s election and see it as proof that the “war has yet to be won,” or something like that. They can relax and break out the cigars. The war was won long ago, the rest has been mopping-up operations here and there.
I find it hard to tell if Taylor laments or merely describes the shift towards secularism. He does state that at most all those who hope for a return can do is indulge in nostalgia. I agree that the tide ran out long ago, but I have more hope. A proper and effective response will first recognize that turning the battleship will take generations of small faithfulness in our lives and homes. We should begin with a developing a new sense of time.
Written on the Feast of the Chains of St. Peter, and the Commemoration of St. Paul the Apostle
*The attempt to replace B.C./A.D. with BCE/CE may only be meant as a sop to political correctness or inclusivity. No doubt people mean well. But still, the switch is at root an attempt to remake our understanding of time. Though I lament this shift, it is in many ways long overdue, as we no longer order our lives around the impact of the Incarnation. It took the French just four years of Revolution to switch their calendar. It will take us much longer, because we have nothing to replace it with. We lack the bold audacity of the French, which is a good thing, considering that tens of thousands died in the French Revolution and millions died in the Napoleonic wars.
**Visitors to the monasteries on Mount Athos notice that two different clocks are used in many of the monasteries. One, the familiar ordinary/secular time, the other clocks measure the now nearly extinct “Byzantine” time (Byzantine clock seen bel0w) to reflect this dual reality.
^So too the French Revolutionaries, which explains the failure of their festivals. They sought to ape medieval carnivals, but key differences persisted:
They were attempting to construct a new order, not deconstruct an existing order.
Thus, their festivals had a much more didactic emphasis than medieval carnivals, which
A good education should expose people to “otherness,” but our current discourse gives far too narrow a definition of “otherness.” We tend to focus on ethnicity or gender differences, and not necessarily other ways of perceiving the world. I believe the best form of “otherness” comes through exposure to other worldviews, other ways of thinking, and this can come in the most unlikely of places.
Many generally assume that we share much in common with medieval Europeans, and perhaps this accounts for our striking reaction to find profound differences, and we judge them quite harshly when they do not match our expectations. But if we started from a different mindset we would see them more clearly as fundamentally different from us, and this would help us actually learn more from them.
No scholarly consensus exists that I am aware of on the identity of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, except that he was not the Dionysius encountered by St. Paul in Athens. Perhaps “St. Dionysius” wrote in the tradition developed by this same Dionysius. Whoever he was, his writings had enormous influence over the medieval world, as C.S. Lewis points out in his great work The Discarded Image, and perhaps none had the influence of his On the Celestial Hierarchy. In one section he writes,
In my opinion a hierarchy is a sacred order, a state of understanding, and an activity approximating, as closely as possible to the divine . . . The goal of hierarchy, then, is to enable beings to be as like unto God as possible and to be at one with Him. Hierarchy causes its members to be images of God in all respects, to be clear and spotless mirrors of reflecting the glow of primordial light and indeed of God Himself. It ensures that when its members have received this full and divine splendor they can then pass on this light generously and in accordance with God’s will to those members further down the scale.
We might expect St. Dionysius to praise hierarchy as a form of divine order on earth, and indeed he does just this. What might surprise us, however, is how he uses the term “generous” in regards to hierarchy, and how communally oriented his hierarchical vision is.
Author Andrew Louth comments on this passage that,
What St. Denys means, is that hierarchy is a radiant display that reaches out from God throughout the whole created order and draws it back into union with Him. Whereas hierarchies to modern ears evoke separation, exclusion, [and perhaps exploitation], for St. Denys it connotes inclusion and union.
How far back in time should our concept of “western civilization” go? Lots of possible answers exist, but most would probably include the Middle Ages as part of western civilization. Yet, St. Dionysius had a significant impact on the life and culture of the medievals, and in this passage he entirely runs against the grain of one of major assumptions today regarding hierarchies. For St. Dionysius, it seems that hierarchies include rather than exclude because it ensures that everyone has a place, and that everyone has responsibility for someone else. The coherence of the world inhabited by St. Dionysius also allowed for everyone to know their place and, in theory, navigate it successfully.
St. Dionysius’ passage calls to mind an observation by Tocqueville, who warned at the potential downsides of democratic individualism. In a a guest post on the U.S. Intellectual History blog Jordan Heykoop commented that,
Americans are lonely. “Americanization”–understood by European intellectuals and political leaders in the twentieth century as an export of American products and values, an investment strategy to control the economies of other countries, an attempt to educate foreigners in the superiority of American institutions, or a process of modernization, all in the name of the free market–was in some sense an export of glorified loneliness.
A democratic and capitalist spirit cultivated this loneliness in America. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that aristocracy made “of all citizens a long chain that went up from the peasant to the king. Democracy, on the other hand, “breaks the chain and sets each link apart” as it constantly draws each individual “back towards himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly to the solitude of his own heart.” People in a democratic era are no longer bound through loyalty and obligation, values which are far-reaching and stable, but through common interest, which is malleable and subjective. Individuals gather to negotiate and calculate their interests, then disband. This sense of equality breaks social and communal links and leaves the individual looking inward for identity, place, and meaning.[
For Max Weber, a Protestant society, free from the structure and liturgy of the Catholic [or Orthodox] Church, cultivated a deep inner loneliness in which individuals worked desperately to discern signs of God’s favor. This discipline and sense of calling in a worldly vocation created the foundation for a capitalist spirit–the conditions under which a free market economy could thrive. America is the paragon of these processes. Late capitalism had become a “monstrous cosmos,” a world where the values of hard work and the sense of inner loneliness remained entrenched, but was completely unhinged from any religious foundation or teleological connection.[
Even supposing that you agree with Haykoop, we cannot snap our fingers, import the distant past, and make everyone feel comfortable again.* We are a democracy and cannot invent or import a hierarchy wholesale from nothing.
Perhaps the greatest expounder of St. Dionysius’ ideas was St. Maximus the Confessor. The back cover of Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus encourages us with the statement that St. Maximus is the theologian for a world in crisis. Indeed, St. Maximus shows us how practical theology can be.
Monistic religions leave no room to breathe, no room for distinctions, and thus create tyrannies. For example, though officially an atheistic state, the “party” represented a monistic tyranny in Soviet Russia. By definition, the “Party” was always correct, and all outside it cannot belong to the body politic. Such outsiders needed dealt with. Polytheistic religions might give more freedom in theory, but lack any point of unity. So these societies tend to succumb to (in Toynbee’s phrase) “the idolization of the parochial community.” Wars of all against all arise, like the Peloponnesian War in Greece at the end of the 5th century B.C.
By the 7th century A.D., the Church had worked out the doctrine of the Trinity (more or less), but had yet to fully develop the doctrine of Christ and the relationship between His deity and humanity. One key issue involved whether or not Christ had one divine will, or two wills in one person, a human and divine will. Maximus asserted that Christ had to have a human will to be fully human. In addition, it is the submission of Christ’s human will to His divine will that makes a pathway for us to become more like Christ and thereby “participate in the divine nature.”
Perhaps St. Maximus is best known for his development of the cosmic nature of redemption, and Christ’s fulfillment of various patterns within redemptive history.As one example of this, we can examine the Christ’s entering into the pattern of the right and left hand, and simultaneously affirming and transforming that pattern.
The idea of a “righteous” right hand and sinister “left-hand” go far back into history–at least the to Egyptians–but other ancient cultures used it as well. Even so-called “rational” cultures like the Greeks used such categories frequently. Indeed, while many today will mock such as ideas as superstitious, unless we want to fully embrace chronological snobbery, we must assume a universal truth to this pattern and category even if we fail to understand it.
Christ used such imagery when speaking of the last judgment in Matthew 25, and icons of this event depict this consistently.
Perhaps the most famous icon of Christ is the “Pantocrater” image, with Christ blessing all with his right hand, and holding the Scriptures (which also represents separation, categorization, and therefore some sense of judgment), with his left.
But we should hold back if we assume that Christ categorizes His creation merely terms of right and left imagery. Two of the greatest saints of the Church are of course Mary His Mother and St. John the Baptist. Mary bears God within her womb, and spent her formative years in the temple in Jersusalem–right at the very center of God’s presence. John the Baptist, on other hand (a phrase that indicates that we too still use something of the right/left imagery) wears odd clothing, eats odd food, and resides in the wilderness outside the city, in the realm of chaos. So, the Church depicts Mary on the right of Christ, and St. John on the left to indicate a hierarchical difference between them
Yet obviously the “left-handedness” of St. John does nothing to diminish his status per se in the kingdom. Christ calls him “the greatest among men.”
We see the same treatment of the two great apostles of the Church, Saints Peter and Paul. St. Paul comes later, he’s younger, and he actively persecuted the church. He comes as one “unnaturally born,” to use his own words. St. Peter was one of the original twelve, the “rock,” a witness to the resurrection, and the preacher at Pentecost. Peter will therefore be shown on the right of Christ, Paul on the left.
Yet we remember too Peter also denied Christ, and Paul rebuked him for embracing the teaching of the Judaizers in the book of Galatians. The right hand has its faults just as the left hand. The hierarchy can be both affirmed and transcended at the same time.
We need a St. Maximus’ today, or at least we need to heed his wisdom. On the right of the political spectrum we have those that affirm the values of order and unity at the “center.” They are wary of the fringe’s of society, and this can make for rigid authoritarianism. The far left exalts the fringe above the center, idealizing the exception rather than the rule.** But if the falcon’s widening gyre leaves no center at all, we will have chaos. Or rather, we will have a hierarchy, but one that will invert basic reality and create a purposeless and powerless structure, with the “oppression olympics” and the race not towards strength, purpose, and so on, but towards impotent victimhood as one example of this.
Christ shows us that submission of the human to the divine does not debase the human, but exalts it. Rather than set the right hand against the left He affirms both without denying the place of either. In fact, for the right and left to work properly, they need each other. His hierarchy includes rather than excludes. This, our only viable political path forward, gives witness to deep theological truths. Of course, St. Maximus suffered for these truths and for this way of life,^ and perhaps we may need to as well.
*The medieval period had its share of rebellions, violence, etc. I am not trying to glorify the past so much as point out the difference in how they saw their place in the world, and to attempt to put a finger on our current malaise.
**We should ask the question whether or not we have a genuine “right hand” in America. The left is socially liberal but wants more government control over the market. The right tends towards more social conservatism but wants the market to operate without restrictions to maximize efficiency, not seeing how the market easily disrupts traditional communities and economies (for example, when Wal-Mart comes to a small town, say goodbye to Main Street). In the end, libertarians embrace both “left-handed” sides of things.
As Patrick Deneen has commented, we have solid anti-authoritarian safeguards built into our national DNA, but it appears that we lack an antidote for excessive individualism. Of course, both sides have elements of the excessive fringe and the excessive center embedded within them. For the right, the excessive center manifests itself in dangerous forms of nationalism, but their fringe enters with its exaltation of individual rights. The left praises every form of fringe behavior as liberation from group consensus, but their “center” manifestation that all must adhere to proper speech guidelines, for example (note the various numbers of people banned from Twitter, for example, who do not conform to proper speech as defined by the socially powerful).
What we witness now, in fact, is what happens when we lose sight of Christ, the Son of Man, and the Son of God.
^As an old man the theological and political tide turned against St. Maximus, and he had his tongue and right hand cut off. He died without seeing any earthly vindication of his theological vision.
Last week when we looked at medieval society we saw that the basic “flow” of their civilization ran towards security and stability over opportunity and change. This week we looked at the historical context of this choice, and what other areas of belief may have influenced those choices.
Many of us may believe that we have freedom to make of our lives what we will, that we paint upon a blank canvas. In reality, where we live, when we live, and what happens around us influence us a great deal, sometimes subconsciously. So too, we must evaluate the choices made by the medievals in light of the context from which they emerged.
In the centuries after the fall of Rome, change and uncertainty formed the dominant theme, as the map below indicates.
No one can live like this for long. Wen respite came after the conversion of many of these tribes, it made sense that one would want to create a society where one knew their place for themselves and their children. We see this love of “knowing one’s place” in their cosmology. A few different ideas dominated their view of the cosmos.
In space up and and down is all relative, but we need to find an orientation to make sense of our surroundings. When we look at the sky moderns today would say we look “across” the universe (like the famous Beatles song) at other stars, planets, etc. All of the pictures I remember of the Solar System had the planets in a horizontal line, like this one:
For the medievals one looked “up” at the stars from a fixed position on Earth. Everything you saw stood higher than you, and naturally height conveyed superiority. The Earth occupied a pride of place, in the sense that other planets revolved around it, but what many overlook is that it also occupied the bottom rung of the ladder, a combination of dignity and humility.
Spheres of Influence
Each planet, or section of the universe, had its own sphere of influence, it’s own “part to play.” If you play second chair oboe, you keep your eyes off the music of first chair trumpet. Here is a rough outline of how they saw things:
This concept of “spheres of influence” may have seeped into medieval feudalism, where each noble had their own territory, or “sphere” where they had a large amount of power and discretion. Thus feudal Europe knew little of the problem of political centralization (though they had other problems). I should note that the above picture shows Earth much larger than they believed it to be in reality. Everyone followed Ptolemy’s Almagest which stated that,
The Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point.
As my colleague Mr. Rogers pointed out, they represented the Earth thematically in relation to the rest of the cosmos, for here is where the drama of salvation takes place.
It is precisely this division and separation that created the overall harmony. Space for medievals brimmed with energy and life, in contrast to the modern view of a great cold void. Sound comes from motion, and it seems that they literally believed in the “music of the spheres,” a grand cosmic symphony created by planetary motion.
Everyone knew their place in the cosmos, and knew that place to have significance.
One can exaggerate the importance of these ideas on everyday life. The path of Saturn would not change the fact that you have pick up your kids at soccer practice. But deep down, surely our view of a vast, linear, and empty universe impacts us. Some of us might echo the French philosopher/mathematician Pascal, who wrote that, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.”
As a brief aside, we note that for the medievals, education involved not just the “trivium” — the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of a subject — but also the “quadrivium,” consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. To see music grouped with these three will strike us as odd. But for the medievals the only way to understand math was to understand music, and so too, astronomy could not be properly understood without knowing music. Music then, served not just to entertain but to teach us about the reality of the universe itself.
Whether they consciously linked their cosmology and their daily life or not, we can see a direct connection between their view of society, though can’t tell if the chicken preceded the egg. Like all societies they had their own system, their own strengths and weaknesses. Whatever its faults, in feudal Europe you knew your duties and what was expected of you, as this text from ca. AD 1200 shows. . .
I, Thiebault, count palatine of Troyes, make known to those present and to come that I have given in fee to Jocelyn of Avalon and his heirs the manor Gillencourt, which is of the castle La Ferte sur Aube; and whatever this same Jocelyn shall be able to acquire in the same manor I have granted to him and his heirs in augmentation of that fief I have granted, moreover, to him that no free manor of mine will I retain men who are of this gift. The same Jocelyn, moreover, on account of this, has become my liege man, saving however, his allegiance to Gerard d’ Arcy, and to the lord duke of Burgundy, and to Peterm count of Auxerre. Done at Chouadude, by my own witness, in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1200 in the month of January.
Yes, it could be complicated (but less so that the software contracts we “agree” to). Basically the king ruled at the behest of the nobility, but the nobles owed the king military service. Peasants farmed the land of the lord, but the lord owed them protection and patronage, and so on. The whole of society was a dance of mutual obligation. But just as the Earth could not switch places with Jupiter, so too your station is your station, whatever betide (for the most part).
Next week we will look at those outside the basic feudal structure, the craftsmen and merchants. Until then,