9th Grade: Planetary Influences


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.

Barbarian Invasions

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,



Sherlock Holmes and the Solar System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tillyard comments,

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

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

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

Maybe We Don’t Stink at Parenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9th Grade: Societies Give, Societies Take Away


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

Imagine you had the following choices at age 16:

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

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

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

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

The Modern West

  • Opportunity
  • Individuality
  • Mobility

Feudal Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dave Mathwin

The Royal Touch

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

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

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

But then . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloch comments, that

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

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

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

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

The fever immediately abated, and the disease was cured.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



Gods of the Sideways World

Many across the political spectrum seem to feel that things in the U.S. have gone crazy, or upside-down.  Those on the left marshall Triump’s presidency, Charlottesville, and the Kavannaugh hearings, to prove their point, while those on the right do so with transgenderism, campus snowflakes, and . . . their own perspective on the Kavanaugh hearings.*

It appears that we can look at the same thing and not see the same thing.

Different theories exist to explain our predicament.  Some trace the beginnings of it all to Bush’s controversial foreign wars, others to the rise of the internet, or the Clinton presidency, or to the end of the Cold War.  Peter Thiel postulated that our cycles of cultural leaders skipped Generation X and went from the boomers–who artifically held on too long to power–straight to the millennials.**  Thus, lacking “Generation X” to mediate the generation gap, we jerk awkwardly to and fro like a record skipping across a turntable.

We can give all these theories their due.  But I wonder if we may be witnessing something more fundamental.  Without knowing it, akin to frogs in the pot, we are experiencing the final stages of the life in a vertical world, which existed in every ancient civilization up until the 17th century, and seem ready to fully embrace the victory of the sideways world, which has been gaining ground steadily since that time.

One can say anything in blogs . . . but, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

Mattheiu Pageau’s (brother of the more famous Jonathan PageauThe Language of Creation has all the appearance of quackery.  The book has no reviews or endorsements on the back cover.  The book has no footnotes, or even a bibliography, despite the obvious fact that he draws heavily on early Christian and Jewish sources.  This sends shivers down my spine and I can think of no defense for it.  While some parts of the book desperately needed footnotes to have a shot at convincing me, the opening several chapters made complete sense, and the book in a general way hits its target by helping one to reimagine the world.  Once embarked with The Language of Creation, it is probably best to turn to St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Maximos the Confessor for surer guides.

The key to Pageau’s thoughts, and indeed to much of the ancient and medieval world, lies in how we conceive of our experience of space.

Everyone who has read Ender’s Game realizes that space has no up or down, at least in a scientific or absolute sense.  But we must order our sense of space to exist in it, and that involves choices on our part, choices that upon closer examination are not arbitrary.  And since we must choose, we should be struck by the fact that everyone (in the west at least) up until the present day concieved of the cosmos as heirarchical, as up and down.^

And it may be no coincidence that our current depiction of the solar system conceives it as existing horizontally, and not heirarchically.

This choice of how we depict the cosmos was certainly intentional in older civilizations, and we can fairly assume that it remains intentional today.

There is a difference.  The order and shape we give to the space around creates a framework for meaning.

The up/down nature of reality helps us understand creation and our experience of the world in many different ways:


  • We first note in Genesis 1 that God resides “above the waters,” above that is, undifferentiated, unformed chaos.  The immensity of God cannot be contained, thus He must mediate our experience of Himself for us to know Him at all.
  • Creation happens through speech, and not coincidentally.  Speech gives form to thoughts and ideas, it gives them a public reality.
  • Creation happens via continual separation and differentiation.  God ‘draws out’ reality from above.
  • The purpose of creation is for God to unite Heaven and Earth.

Plant Life

  • Plants grow from seeds.  The seed falls from above, containing the “idea” of the plant, the entirety of the plant’s particulars.
  • Seeds bury themselves in the earth, which produces the manifestation, the “incarnation” of the idea in more variety.


  • The upright nature of man is also no coincidence.  It separates us from other creatures (while at the same time, giving us no evolutionary advantage per se.  Many robotics designers have pointed out how inefficient the design of the human body is).  But it also corresponds to heirarchy–the intellect is above and governs the body below. Our thoughts move as the thoughts of angels, thus the “heavenly” nature of our intellect. Our “earthy” parts are lower and more chaotic.  Our appetites need structure.  Our “heart,” which lies between our heads and our bellies, serves as the mediator and point of unity between the two, between “heaven” and “earth.”  The structure of our bodies, then, gives us a clue as to the meaning of space.
  • Man himself serves as the mediator of creation, a priesthood meant to image God to all of creation.  As a hybrid creature of Earth and Heaven, we stand between both worlds.


  • Language itself serves as a kind of union of heaven and earth.  We have “”heavenly” thoughts in our intellect.  We take bits of “earth” in the form of random marks, and arrange them into a pattern to make letters.  We then further organize them into words, and so on.
  • Language, then, takes earthly random particulars and gives them structure and distinction from above–according to ideas, principles, etc.  We make ideas manifest through language.

Christ Himself

One could go on and on seeing the extent of this pattern, but all of these patterns cohere most fully in Christ Himself.  He “came down from Heaven,” (John 6:38, the Nicene Creed) as the Word of God, but then took on human nature through the Virgin Mary.  After His death He went even “lower” down and, “descended into hell” (as in the Apostles Creed).  His ressurection and ascencion^^ complete the redemptive process of descending and ascending, a link back to Jacob’s ladder.

Such was the view of the world, more or less, from at least the time of Nero down to the 16th century.

The Copernican Revolution certainly transformed how we view the cosmos, but the hierarchical nature of reality could have been maintained.  I cannot trace the exact time we started to depict the solar system horizontally, but perhaps we have an inkling now that this change involved more than mere astronomy.  Perhaps a trend towards this leveling can be seen, starting from this depiction in the 18th century

which still seems to preserve a sense of heirarchy, and then 100 years later we see

which seems to advance the leveling process a bit further.  Of course the present day, (as seen above) completes the progression towards a flat world.

The leveling of the cosmos presaged a levelling of society, and the ushering in of chaos and confusion.  Geographically speaking, both oceans and deserts represented chaos for the ancient and medieval world–i.e., both areas have no visibile differentiation in their form, and we cannot live there.  With chaos comes death.  For to understand anything and understand its meaning, we need differentiation and distinction.  Again, this is one of the main teachings of Genesis 1. The same holds true of society in general.  The early phases of dismantling existing heirarchies and norms come with great excitement.  Maybe the old forms had run their course, maybe change was overdue.  But the dismantling of all distinctions between up and down, creation and creature, men and women, etc. will usher in a blindness that will hinder our ability to understand the world God made and to understand God Himself.  Without this foundation, we will hardly be able to understand each other.

Since we cannot live in chaos, we will soon find that heirarchy will have to return.  Given our seeming embrace chaos (i.e. a world with no heirarchy and no distinctions), it may end up returning with a vengeance.  We already can see what distorted forms it might take. Those on the far left would make the most marginalized “victim” king^^^, and those on the far right would repeat Charlottesville en masse.  New gods would rule over us.

I believe most people want to avoid both of these extremes, but have no idea what to do about it.  Perhaps we can start with the very simple move of thinking about the world as up and down instead of side-to-side.


*I continue to hope that the world of twitter and political commentating is merely a distorted reflection of the real world we all inhabit.  Indeed, I have come across very few in my neighborhood or at church who got terribly bent out of shape one way or the other about Kavannaugh’s nomination.

**Peter Thiel believes that the dearth of viable presidential candidates in their 40’s-50’s in the last election proves this point.

^Like most medieval maps, this does not represent an accurate spatial depiction of the cosmos, but the cosmos as it appears “spiritually” to them in their hearts and minds.  Ptolemy’s Almagest was the standard work of astronomy of the Middle Ages and speaks of the Earth as a mathematical point in the universe.  But, they represented the Earth as larger than other planets because this is where the drama of the redemption of the cosmos plays itself out.

^^Most churches hardly focus on Christ’s Ascencion and stop at Easter.  But the structure and scope of redemption shows us how crucial the Ascencion is, for Heaven and Earth cannot be fully reconciled until Christ presents Himself spotless before the Father.  Only after this does the Spirit of God descend that God may dwell within us.

^^^I have no settled thoughts on the trigger warning and micro-aggression phenomena, aside from an obvious distaste for it.  But I do wonder at its logic.  If victimhood gives one power and the right to speak, would it not serve their interests to increase their victim status by having themselves “assaulted?”  Perhaps then, the enthroned victims wish to keep their power by preventing anyone else from gaining status?  That would make them like everyone else.  Those in power tend to guard it jealously.

Most of the Time, the World is Flat

Our struggle with economic equality has many roots.  For starters, we have the dual affirmation of the values of liberty and equality, something Tocqueville noted as perhaps the key tension in modern democracies.  Modern democracies also elevate the status of the individual choice much more highly than traditional societies.   This honoring of the individual adds fuel to the free market, which ultimately seeks to commodify our choices.  We will likely see laws supporting “traditional” morality, such as those against gambling and certain kinds of drug use, get removed from the books.   I read with dismay this article, which indicates that Washington state now allows one to commodify the womb.

The multiplication of choices in the market dovetails with additional freedoms for the individual, and of course we generally want and desire such freedoms.  But we cannot have such freedoms and have economic equality at the same time.

The roots of this trend towards an absolute market of things, and even using oneself as an economic object, has origins that predate modern democracies.  To have an unending market of things we need to first have control over things, and to establish control the thing must be emptied of its own significance that we might fill it.  In his A Secular Age, Charles Taylor observes that it is the homogenization of time and space that makes the modern era (ca. 18th century-today) possible, for it allows us to give our own meanings to our experiences.  We can add that our perception of things as mere objects contributes to this trend.

Marcel Mauss’ book The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies poses many questions, such as, “Do books with absurdly boring titles, written by French sociologists, have an inverse or complimentary relationship with the inevitable nerdiness and pomposity of those that read such books?”  Sure, having this book in front of you at your local Starbucks will likely make you look like a prig, but for those willing to assume the risk, Mauss has some interesting nuggets to reveal about the economies of the ancient world.

The societies Mauss surveys have an economy, but not ones we might expect.  Some minor differences exist between the societies he examines across time and space, but in the main we can say that:

  • One can never truly own a thing, because the thing (be it a gold coin, a chair, a paddle) has an identity all its own.  It is its “own” (ha!) thing before it ever was “your” thing.
  • One should not keep anything for too long.  To do so would risk courting vengeance of a sort from thing itself (some societies had a more magical view of this, some abstracted it a bit more), which “longs” to go to someone else.  Our stuff wants to roam wild and free.
  • One could potentially amass even a great surplus of things, but in end, everyone needed to give things to others and keep the cycle of exchange moving.* This was not mere self-emptying or even generosity per se, because all acknowledged that receiving a gift came with reciprocal responsibilities and burdens.**  Failure to reciprocate courted disaster.

Of course these societies had a hierarchy, determined by birth or honorific achievements, or something else, but material wealth got passed around with much more fluidity in the ancient world than today.  We may admire this, but quite frankly, we could never replicate it.  For starters, we no longer see the world of things as full of meaning.  As Taylor observed, in a world of homogeneity only we ourselves can transmit this meaning to things.  Again, the concept of magic enters in with some of the early societies, but Mauss delineates between magic and some form of “embodied meaning.”  I did not find him terribly clear on this point, but it is a hard concept to describe (and for me to understand).  Something has to do with the idea that in the societies Mauss describes one more directly experiences the world.  This too is hard to describe, but I would venture that

  • Today we assume that a thing has no meaning in itself.  So its meaning must be mediated or transmitted by layers of society and the self.
  • Whereas “back then,” our experience of the world and the meaning of the world were one and the same.

We might catch a glimpse of this difference by looking a a different issue.

About four years ago Jonathan Pageau wrote a series of articles about ancient cosmology, and gave his first post the intriguing title, “Most of the Time the World is Flat.”  Pageau obviously does not mean to imply that the Earth is not really round, and of course the earth does not change its shape.  Rather, he postulates a significant disconnect between what we believe the world/cosmos to actually be like and our everyday experience of it.  Science has not given us, and perhaps cannot give us, a workable, experiential model of the world.  So we live divided, having to import a meaning to our experience that has no solid reality behind it.  He writes,

I would like to propose something that might seem provocative at first, but will hopefully help people see the world with different eyes. There is a growing image on the recent horizon of human experience, it is an image of a family or a group of friends all next to each other at a table or in some other intimate setting, yet all interacting with tablets, ipods and smartphones as if the people around them didn’t exist. I would like to propose that this image, this reality is the final result of Galileo’s cosmological model. Some of you might think I am exaggerating, so I will need to explain.

The Copernican/Galilean worldview, that is the heliocentric worldview and its further development into our modern cosmology of galaxies and nebulas and black holes has two important aspects. It is an artificial vision and it is an alienating vision. It is artificial in the strictest sense of “art” or “techne”. It is a technical vision because we cannot experience this vision without technology, without telescopes and other apparatuses. Because technology is a supplementary thing, a garment of skin, something which we add to our natures in order to physically bolster them toward the material world, it therefore also leads further into the material world itself. (emphasis mine).

. . . modern cosmology is not only artificial, but it is alienating, it moves Man away from himself. Once Man accepted that what he saw through his telescopes and microscopes is more real than his natural experience, he made inevitable the artificial world, he made inevitable as its end the plastic, synthetic, genetically modified, photoshopped, pornographic, social-networked reality we live in. When at the very core of vision, the shape of your cosmos leads you to believe that technology provides a perception which is more true, more real than your experience, more real than walking out of your house and looking at the sky, then the telescope and the microscope will soon be side by side with the camera, the screen and the accelerated time and space of the car window. The metal and glass frame will swallow us and human beings will lose themselves for their incapacity to fully inhabit the world.

Pageau knows that his desired task of reorienting our perspective will likely fail, with a gulf too broad for us to comprehend.  Still, I encourage you to read the whole article here and try for yourself.^

It is the strict materialization of our things that creates the gulf between us and our things, which then means we cannot access the economies of the past.

If we wish to regain access to this world, we need a different conception of reality itself.  We should take care and not romanticize this version of society.  Mauss points out that violence existed in these societies–though probably not because of stark material inequality.  The societies he describes sometimes had huge surpluses, which they then sometimes consumed in spectacular fashion.  On the other hand, rarely did these societies have much of the technological innovation that we would appreciate.  But, if we wish to access this way of life, we need to stop treating the inanimate things we create and consume as mere means to an end.  Indeed, we often treat others as a means to an end as part of our contribution to a fallen world.  Unfortunately, as the new surrogacy law in Washington state reveals, we are now so completely alienated even from our selves that we will cannibalize our own bodies as a means to an end for ourselves–a bifurcation that puts us far from the world Mauss describes.

“Man is what he eats.”  Alexander Schemmann began his classic For the Life of the World quoting this epigram of Fuerbach.  One might assume that an Orthodox priest would disagree with this radically materialist statement, but Schemmann turns the quote on its head and argues that with this quote Fuerbach, “expressed the most religious idea of man.”  Mere matter does not exist, at least in the way we usually think.  Perhaps the place to begin is with the eucharist, for it is here that symbol and reality fuse together most profoundly, and it is here that the world’s transformation begins anew.


*This reminds a bit of the modern economic idea that money must circulate through society like blood must circulate through the body.  Was this Ricardo’s idea originally?

**Norbert Elias talks about aristocrats even as late as the 17th century in Spain who were expected to beggar themselves once every 10-15 years or so by hosting grand feasts for entire villages.  After which, the cycle would begin again.  This hosting/feasting was a crucial basis of their authority.

^Pageau has since walked back partially some of the “anti-science” approach he takes in this article.  He has credited Jordan Peterson with helping him see some possible connections between science and the symbolic worldview.