Malleus Maleficarum

Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (translation–possibly, “The Hammer for Devils/Witches/, i.e., “Malefactors”) ranks way up there among the more strange historical documents I have read. Published in 1484, this tome tells one all about witches and other sundry works of the devil. It deals with the reality of the supernatural quite openly and frankly, and in this way strikes us as “pre-modern.” And yet, the “hammer” the title alludes to appears to strike hardest through the use of the farthest reaches of the logic parsing of the scholastic method. Those familiar with the Summa Theologica (dating more than two centuries prior to the Malleus) can testify to Thomas Aquinas’ clarity and brevity, even if he relies possibly too much on Aristotelian logic. Aquinas leaves a certain amount of space and room to breathe in his work. It is that mystical fringe that exists in Aquinas’ best writing that gives it its staying power.

Not so Kramer and Sprenger. Though grudgingly–I have to admire their ability to go on for pages on end, giving all counterarguments incredible deference and losing the reader in a labyrinth, before finally turning the battleship slowly round towards their correct conclusion. I firmly believe that Christians should take the supernatural seriously–much more so than many do today. However, one must wonder of the efficacy of extended discussion on “Whether Witches may work some Prestidigitatory Illusion so that the Male Organ appears to be Entirely Removed from the Body”–which is only Question IX of Part One, of the First Part, or what final precautions should be observed in the trial of a witch in the eleventh action of the second examination (3rd Part, 2nd Head, q. 16).

At least one does get the sense that Kramer and Sprenger enjoy their work. Here is a very mild excerpt . . .

If it be accordance with the Catholic faith to maintain that in order to bring about some effect of magic, the devil must intimately cooperate with some witch, or whether, one without the other, that is to say, the devil without the witch, or conversely, could produce the same effect.

And the first argument is this, that the Devil can bring about an effect of magic without the help of any witch.  So St. Augustine holds . . . and we learn from Holy Scripture of the disasters which fell upon Job, . . . which the Devil himself was able to bring about, with God’s permission.  What a superior power has within itself to do, it may do without reference to a lesser power.

So too, an inferior power may work within its “sphere” to produce effects without reference to a power greater than itself.  For Blessed Albertus Magnus says in his treatise De Pasionibus Aeris that rotten sage, if used according to certain specifications and thrown into running water, will arouse fearful tempests and storms.  

Moreover it may be said that the devil makes use of the witch not because he has any need of her agency, but because he seeks the damnation of the witch.  We may refer to what Aristotle says in the 3rd book of his Ethics, where Evil is a voluntary act . . . 

But an opposite opinion holds, that the Devil, being unlike man, cannot readily do harm to man without the effect of material agency, such as the instrumentality of witches. For every act, some kind of contact must be established.  And many hold this to be proven by the text of St. Paul to the Galatians, where the gloss on the text who have singular, and fiery eyes, who by a mere look can harm others.  And Avicenna [Abn Ibn Sina] also bears this out, in Naturalism book 3, “Very often the soul may have an impact on the body of another, for such is the influence of the eyes.”  And the same opinion by Ali Ghaza in the fifth book of his Physics  . . .   St. Thomas too speaks of this in the Summa, part I, q. 117, whereupon he states that the influence of the soul may be concentrated in the eyes. 

Without any mental powers insensible bodies may produce effects, and so a living man, if he pass near the corpse of a murdered man, is often seized with fear though unaware of the dead body.  Moreover, it would seem that most extraordinary and miraculous events come to passby thte workings of the power of nature, and St. Gregory points out in his Second Dialogue. The saints perform miracles, sometimes by prayer, sometimes by their power alone.  St. Peter prayed and Tabitha was restored to life.  By rebuking Ananias and Saphira who told a lie, he slew them without any prayer.  Therefore a man by his mental influence can change the condition of another material body.*  

Can any doubt that a man with courage will warm his body, and a man with fear will cool and enfeeble his body?

St. Isidore in Etymologies calls witches guilty of greater sin, for they stir up and confound the elements with the aid of the Devil, and bring about terrible storms and tempests.  And Vincent of Beauvais, quoting many learned authorities in his Speculum Historiale, says that he who first practiced magical arts was Zoroaster, in the line of Ham, son of Noah, and according to St. Augustine in the City of God, Ham laughed aloud when he was born, showing that he would give service to the Devil.

When comparing Aquinas and these authors, I reminded of analogy used I believe by both Toynbee and C.S. Lewis–that bacon and eggs smells so much better when hungry at 9 am, as opposed to when satiated later in the day. Even in the text above, though I largely agree with the conclusion, the method conjures up the smell of bacon and eggs after one has eaten. The scholastic method has run its course.

That late-medievals thought seriously about witches should surprise no one. But to many moderns, the breadth of discussion, the familiarity with many texts both within and without the Christian tradition, will surprise many. When we disagree fundamentally with others, we assume that they do not have actual reasons for their belief. We assume their ignorance, selfishness, or some other such flaw. About 150 years later, an Ambrosian monk named Francesco Guazzo published a companion volume, the Compendium Maleficarum. In Book I, Chapter III he writes,

Any man who maintained that all effects of magic were true, or who believed that they were all illusions, would be a radish rather than a man.

This spirit of balance characterizes the work, which a modern must acknowledge even if one believed that witches and demons did not exist.

Of course the Devil works in various ways, both through physical and spiritual/mental means. I have no thoughts on the exact nature of the Devil’s work regarding COVID-19. What we can say in general is that the Devil always seeks to sow confusion, doubt, and fear. He is the accuser, the divider of the brethren. Just as he seeks to divide us from God, so too he brings death–a literal decomposition of soul from body, and of the various connections in our physical form. He seeks to “decompose” meaning as well, and we have certainly seen this in our society the last few months.

The uncertain nature of the disease relates strongly to this decomposition of meaning. But I feel sure that others factors must be at play, and I wonder at the manifestation of this confusion as it relates to masks. Some people, given their circumstances, probably should wear masks, but I am curious about the vast majority of us who have options and feel the tension between wearing/not wearing them. What motivates our choices, and why do those choices often divide along political lines? Liberals want more mask wearing, conservatives seem to wear them less–although the terms “liberal” and “conservative” lack a defined meeting. We should approach the subject with the method of the Malleus in mind, aware that not everyone who believes in wearing masks is a coward or out to control everyone, and those who eschew masks may not always be selfish jerks, or ignorant of “Science.”

I am sure that something else is going on, but not sure exactly what. Consider what follows speculative, and certainly incomplete . . .

Perhaps the most obvious connection might relate to debates over the last few years around free speech. Progressives want to limit certain kinds of speech in certain places to protect the “vulnerable” minority. Conservatives push against this. So progressives stress protection from the disease, even if this protection should extend far beyond those directly at risk. Conservatives who favor a more rough and tumble approach to speech might then favor the same approach to the disease. We should be tough, have thick skins, and so on.

Perhaps this might go some way to explaining the difference with mask attitudes now. But just 50 years ago, liberals championed free speech, not conservatives. And–liberals tend to prefer longer shut-downs of the economy, even though the shut-down obviously hurts the poor far more than the rich. Restrictions on the economy–favored more by progressives–also will hurt illegal immigrants–another progressive issue.** It makes sense that conservatives want order, sanctity, protection, and liberals would want freedom, and the knocking down of boundaries. But part of the confusion the world experiences lies in the lack of coherent meaning in our political designations.

With rates of abuse, depression, suicide, time on screens, opioid and alcohol use, etc. all going way up during the quarantine, we must realize that the temptation to go a bit nuts will significantly increase. And when our visible structures of decision-making and common institutions fail us–as they largely have during our various recent crises, we will revert to archetypal symbolic modes of being. When the visible symbols of unity fails us, we will retreat inward even subconsciously to find meaning and direction.

These subconscious symbolic actions make themselves perhaps most evident with masks. I have no solid thoughts here as to why they have caused such disagreement among good people. I think we have to go beyond politics (i.e., does the government have the right to order this or not?). And–let us borrow from the Malleus and assume that the Devil would like nothing better than to tear us apart. And to borrow again from Sprenger and Kraemer–no doubt both sides have good arguments that could fill many pages. I shudder to think how many the two of them could find to apply to the mask argument.^

When we think of masks, we should think of the use of veils, for masks function much like a veil. Veils have very little role in our society today. Even in weddings, very few brides today would consider wearing a veil. But most ancient societies used veils (or something like them) in many religious settings, and certainly for weddings. In the ancient world veils would be used to cordon off portions of a temple, for example. You would use veils as means of

  • Protecting the people from the power/holiness of what lay behind the veil, or
  • Protecting what was special/holy from intrusion by the people.

We live in a society that builds on a foundation of “openness”–trade with others, traveling from place to place with few barriers, free speech, etc. and so the notion of veils initially strikes us as odd. This “open” view of life is certainly part of existence. We cannot sustain our own lives. Whenever we eat anything, we take the life of something else into our bodies and incorporate into our own lives–this holds true for plants just as it does for pigs and cows. We do not generate life for ourselves. We must be filled from outside ourselves and ultimately, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

But . . . we must be “closed” to some things in order to survive. We cannot play in traffic, swim with sharks, or take candy from strangers. And other things are so powerful that we can only have a little bit of at a time lest it destroy us, like whiskey, for example. In ancient Israel the high priest went into the Holy of Holies only once a year, alone, with a rope tied around his leg to remove him in case he died from the experience.

As to veils for brides, both of the above purposes could fit. On the one hand, the bride is the most precious “item” of the day, and she is meant for her husband only. Thus she should not be “revealed” until the ceremony is completed. So too, to veil the bride is to honor her beauty and to protect us from it. This may not make sense historically or scientifically, but certainly it does mythologically–recall “the face that launched 1000 ships,” or Lucy’s desire in The Dawn Treader to say a spell that would make her “beautiful beyond the lot of mortals,” and have men and nations fight over her. In the medieval Marian office of “None” (the ninth hour) the antiphon before the psalms hearkens to the power of the beauty of the feminine:

Thou art fair and comely, O daughter of Jerusalem, terrible as an army set in array.

Song of Solomon 6:4

To wear masks in public places may be entirely appropriate and necessary, but we should understand what it means. It means, in certain respects, that we cannot act as a community of trust that mutually shares life together. And this is not necessarily our fault, as the insidious nature of the virus means that one can have it and spread it without any knowledge. But neither is it a trifling thing. To “veil” ourselves means that we set ourselves apart from society. One cannot have a conversation with a mask on–one cannot really share life with another with a mask on. It is terribly ironic that we have to “come together” in such polarized times to essentially isolate ourselves socially from each other. As Jean-Claude Larchet writes,

Through our body we reach out and communicate with others–by exchanging glances, smiles, handshakes, and so on.  It is through our body that others gain their first impressions of us–our character, or our mood at the time.  Our body both reveals and hides us from others . . . 

I believe this accounts for much of the confusion about masks. Larchet rightly suggests that even small physical gestures of communication that we normally make at the grocery store become impossible with masks. Circumstances ask us to hold an impossible tension in our minds and we can’t quite do it. Telling the difference won’t always be easy.

In such times we may want to reach out and look for solutions and healing in what is distant from us–in our political leadership. These days we will not find it there, and likely were never meant to. We should return to our immediate center–our churches, families, and friends–a Malleus Malleficarum for our times

Dave

*I think Jonathan Pageau makes some good points here about the validity of the so-called “Evil Eye,” tradition, derided by some materialists.

**I have heard some suggest that those out of work should get checks from the rich/the government, and so what’s the problem? This strikes me as not ‘progressive’ in any sense. What about the ‘dignity of labor’ so hallowed by the Marxist tradition? I find the ‘just give them a check and they should be happy’ mentality degrading and paternalistic. Perhaps it is necessary–but don’t dismiss the cost to the soul.

^A brief parody of Kraemer and Sprenger (with all references entirely made up)

There are many who say that we should not wear masks in public. For has not Aristotle said in his Physic that, “to one is one thing, and another, like unto it, has the same properties” (B.V-8.12). So we see that all things “come unto all other things” (Averroes, De Civitate, Q. 12, p.4, S.4), so then it follows naturally that we follow The Almagest and declare that we maintain the motion of the “heavenly spheres,” which in this case means, our bodies. For Ptolemy has said much that many of the wise would hardly dare to gainsay.

And should not our bodies be compared to the heavenly spheres? For Plotinus has called us all a microcosm of the worthy cosmos, as have many holy men, though others have not agreed (Quintus, et al, Deus Mirabilius, Book II, p. 8). And is not the face the “bearer of all things” (Isocrates, Etymologies Part II, 6.7.8)? We bear with one another, then, for how else shall we live if we bear not with another, as Ulfin stated in Amor Arondus Ibid (Bk. II, p. 5)?

But others deny it, stating along with Avicenna that, “As things move, so they are distinct, for not all motion is equal (Figures, Book V.3-1).” Now if motion is not equal, than it means that motion must be set in a hierarchy, and to appear contrarian is not in the habit of the scholar, who seeks to have “all put in its proper place (Fabius, Magnus Opus, Bk. 1.3).” . . .

Time in Joint

Historians tend towards the romantic, which means they can develop an undue fascination with decay. The best historians add to this a grand sweeping view of all things and thus see (with good reason) the vicissitudes of time and the sin to which all men are drawn. Historians hopefully are not cranks or kill-joys–rather they at least believe themselves saying, “I’ve seen this movie before . . . . ”

Exceptions exist of course, but Polybius, while writing of the glorious successes of the Republic saw the wheel of time moving that same Republic inexorably towards decline. Oswald Spengler also shared the basic assumption that civilizations, like every living thing, had its inevitable death built into their DNA. Plato too saw forms of government moving in a definite cycle, and Machiavelli–though departing from Plato as much as he could philosophically–shared this basic assumption. He hoped that practical wisdom could elongate the good parts of the cycle and shorten the bad ones, but sought nothing beyond that. Toynbee, being more influenced by Christianity than any of the aforementioned greats, saw more hope but still admitted that every civilization he studied had declined and disappeared.

All of these historians (others could be mentioned, such as Thucydides, and though Herodotus may have been the most hopeful, he did not write about the Peloponnesian War) dealt with civilizational decline but not with the concept of time itself. Some might say that historians should not bother about “Time” and let it stand as the purview of either science or theology. Well, history involves a degree of science, and no one can write about mankind without at least subconsciously thinking about God.

Enter Olivier Clement, and his dense, difficult, but still fascinating Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in Light of the Orthodox Tradition. I cannot claim to have understood him thoroughly, but I hope to have gleaned the most important aspects of his work.

History shows us that civilizations had two main ways of conceiving of time, either as cyclical or linear. The cyclical view dominated most pre-Christian civilizations. Clement writes that

For primitive society, authentic time is the dawning moment of creation. At that moment . . . heaven was still very close to earth. . . . This first blessedness disappeared as a result of a fall, a cataclysm that separated heaven and earth . . . Thereafter he was isolated from the divine and from the cosmos.

The whole effort of fallen man was therefore to seek an end of this fallen state in order once again to be in paradise.

One sees this in the mythologies of most civilizations I am aware of. For the Greeks, Egyptians, Meso-Americans, etc. history begins with the gods ruling on earth in some capacity, a golden age of harmony and justice.

As the gods fled, all people had left to them was mimicry. By participating in the “cycles” initiated by the gods they could perhaps glean something. So we marry because heaven and earth were once married. We farm because of the motif of life from death, death from life we see played out in agriculture. Night becomes day, and day becomes night. Clement writes,

One important symbol (and ritual), the dance, sums up this conception of time. According to a very ancient tantric expression, the cosmos is the “game of god,” the divine dance. Primitive cyclical time is nothing less than the rhythm of this dance, ever tighter cycle in which the dancer is drawn in and assimilated.

Clement acknowledges that much truth exists in this conception of time, but emphasizes that it is fruitless in the end and thus, hopeless, a “hellish” repetition.* “Time is always experienced as degradation” as we move further out from the original marriage of heaven and earth. As we move further out, our connection lessens, hence the origin of ecstatic religious manifestations as an attempt to escape the cycle of reality and return to innocence. The Dionysian cult, for example, was universally acknowledged as “new” by the Greeks in the 5th century. Toynbee mentions that in the aftermath of Hannibal’s invasion, the more disciplined Romans found themselves “plagued” with an onslaught of much more emotional religious expressions. The old gods could no longer meet the new needs

This severing of man from meaning makes time itself meaningless. Eventually not even the regularity of the cycles can entice. One sees this clearly in the Viking epic Egil’s Saga. The prose sparkles, and the poetry is even better. But in the end we have feast, feud, violence, victory–rinse and repeat. So too in other cultures. Clement cites the famous story of Narada from the Sayings of Sri Ramikrishna which illustrate this well:

Narada, the model of piety, gained the favor of Vishnu by his fervent devotion and asceticism.  Narada demanded of Vishnu that he reveal to him the secret of his “maya.” Vishnu replied with an ambiguous smile, “Will you go over yonder to fetch me a little water?”  “Certainly, master,” he replied, and began to walk to a distant village. Vishnu waited in the cool shade of a rock for him to return.

Narada knocked at the first door he came to, eager to complete the errand.  A very beautiful young woman opened the door and the saintly man experienced something entirely new in his life.  He was spellbound by her eyes, which resembled those of Vishnu. He stood transfixed, forgetting why he had come. The young woman welcomed him in a friendly and straightforward way.  Her voice was like that of a gold cord passed around the neck of a stranger. 

He entered the house as if in a dream.  The occupants of the house greeted him respectfully.  He was greeted with honor, treated as a long lost friend.  After some time he asked the father of the house for permission to marry his daughter who greeted him at the door.  This is what everyone had been waiting for. He became a member of the household, sharing its burdens and joys.  

Twelve years passed.  He had three children and when his father-in-law died he became head of the family.  In the 12th year the rainy season was especially violent. The rivers swelled and floods came down from the mountains and the village was swamped with water.  During the night the waters swept away houses and cattle. Everyone fled.  

Holding his wife with one hand and two of his children with the other, with the third perched on his shoulders, Narada left with great haste.  He staggered along, battered by torrents of water. Suddenly he stumbled, and the child on his shoulders fell and plunged into the flood. With a cry of despair Narada let go of his two other children and flailed away to try and reach the littlest one, but he was too late.  At this moment, the raging water swept away his wife and two other children.  

He lost his own footing, and the flood took him away, dashing his head against a rock.  He lost consciousness. We he awoke he could see only a vast plain of muddy water, and he wept for his loss.  He heard a familiar voice, “My child, where is the water you said you would fetch me. I have been waiting for almost ½ an hour.”  

Narada turned and saw only desert scorched by the mid-day sun.  Vishnu sat beside him and smiled with cruel tenderness, “Do you now understand the secret of my maya?”

Commenting on this story, Clement cites two Hindu scholars, who write that,

The nature of each existing thing is its own instantaneity, created from an incalculable number of destructions of stasis.

and

Because the transformation from existence non-existence is instantaneous, there is no movement.

Thus, for Hindus as well as Greeks, eternity is seen in opposition to time, with immobility being the means of entering into eternity, which is again, in opposition to all that is transitory on earth.**

Viewed against other pre-Christian societies, Israel of the Old Testament looks quite different in their view of time and space. Some comment on the “crudeness” of the anthropomorphic language in the Old Testament about God, but this language, “demonstrates that eternity is oriented towards time, and that eternity marches with time towards encounter and fulfillment.” Clement uses the word “courtship” to describe this relationship, which I find most apt. One might then say that the Old Testament culminates in the fiat of the Virgin Mary to bear the union of Heaven and Earth. Time takes on a linear dimension and events take on definite meaning. True–time is part of creation and thus partakes of the curse of the fall–it marches us towards death and non-being. Existence gets mechanized. But this also means time will be redeemed, and this process of redemption begins not at the future “Day of the Lord,” but in the Incarnation itself, and in the everyday “now.”

The Christian worldview has elements of the cyclical time of many pre-Christian civilizations. Many medieval calendars, for example were often expressed in a circular, not linear, manner.

The Church is both eschatological and paradisal–a paradise regained–though importantly, a paradise regained that will be greater than that which was lost. Levitical liturgical life prescribed yearly festivals that mirrored the seasons of the year. In some ways, the world is a “game of God,” as St. Maximos the Confessor states.^ The liturgy recapitulates not our vain longings for a return, but the real interaction of time and eternity at the heart of existence.

In the Old Testament, time had meaning in part because it moved to a definite fulfillment with the coming of the Messiah. With the Messiah rejected, the Jewish people lost their connection with the eternal purpose of time. Now time as a straight line simply ends in death, and proclaims the reign of death just as strongly as the vain repetitive cycles of the most ancient cultures.

If I understood Clement rightly, he argues that the Christian sense of time preserves the best of both Jewish and pagan time, while introducing an entirely new element. The liturgical cycles give us continual entrance into a defined pattern life as we move in a distinctly forward direction towards the Day of the Lord. But these cycles don’t just recall the past or proclaim the future, but bring about an intersection of eternal and temporal. Liturgical prayers often speak of the “today” of the historical event celebrated. And if time is part of creation, then the “line” of history too will be redeemed and circumscribed by eternity.

As to the implications on blog about history and culture, well, here I have less confidence than in my attempts to understand Clement. But if I may venture forth . . . it does seem that an undue amount of political commentators have fallen prey to the romantic idea of cyclical and irretrievable decay. Right after Trump was elected, for example, a new edition of Plutarch’s lives detailing the end of the Roman Republic got published. A Sanders/Trump showdown, I admit, hardly has me bubbling over with hope for the Republic. But Clement would tell us that is at precisely these times that we must remember: time no longer bears us unceasingly towards decay. If we so choose, we can live in a world infused with the paradise of eternity.

Dave

*Clement mentions that many ancient societies buried their dead in the fetal position as an indication that the cycle of life/death was to repeat ad infinitum. Many Native American tribes did this, as did the Egyptians, apparently. As far as I know, Christians have never buried their dead in a like position, testifying to a different theology of time and redemption.

Egyptian Mummy

Cremation practiced at times by the Greeks and others also testifies in some ways to the futility of the cycle–we began as nothing and return to nothing.

**Clement notes some similarity between this concept of “immobility” and Orthodox ascesis. Many monastic fathers speak of “stillness of heart” and “remaining in your cell.” Again, Clement acknowledges the complexity of the topic and the need to emphasize that sometimes the differences are not of “kind” but of degree & orientation.

^The idea being not something arbitrary but something playful and in flux, compared to the stability of the heavenly realms.

If you like it, why don’t you marry it?

Many of us I’m sure remember this elementary school taunt. Often you would be unknowingly baited in some way, i.e., “What do you think of Cheetos?” and then declare that you thoughts Cheetos were pretty great. The “Then why don’t you marry it?!” response is of course colossally dumb, but I admit that it often had its intended unsettling effect on me. Be careful of declaring that you liked something! I believe C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Four Loves that loving anything at all, even a plant or a sunset, opens oneself up to pain and loss.

Historians of a traditional mindset such as myself often express admiration for the past. We may even pine for a return of the past in some way, and this naturally opens us up to the old school taunt: if you like knights and cathedrals and gilds so much, why don’t you marry medieval society? It is easy to “date” any civilization and pick out just the things you like. But all of what you like, about medieval civilization, for example, also came with a near total lack of indoor plumbing, and no mouth wash either. You have to accept everything, and if you are not willing to do so, one’s admiration is stupid fancy at best, dangerous idealism at worst.

This charge has some of the same flaws as the old schoolyard taunt. The past surely can offer some salutary guidance even if reliving it remains obviously impossible. Aren’t we allowed to like things? But I acknowledge that one must not selectively pick, choose, and romanticize. One must “marry” the civilizations we study.

Books on the Middle Ages almost always fall into one of three camps:

  • Look at how dumb, superstitious, and oppressive they were. Aren’t you glad you didn’t live then?*
  • Look at how smart, chivalrous, beautiful they were. Don’t you wish you lived then?
  • Look at this culture. I examine it thoroughly, and discover that they did things, upon which I pronounce no judgments whatsoever.

Of the three, most fall into the first two, but I like the last the least. The first two types of authors at least strike me as human beings with something to say. The temptation to try and avoid is that of swinging entirely into the other camp. Henry Charles Lea’s The Ordeal, written in an era when the progressive ascent of democratic modernism seemed the only future, falls into the first camp. He examines the medieval practice of trial by various ordeals to illuminate the progress we have made since then. He comes not to praise, but bury.

We can admire much about this book. It is not an uninformed screed, nor is it a hit-piece on the Middle Ages itself, for he mentions that trial by ordeal happened in many other ancient cultures. He has a lot of primary source texts and reports things with some air of detachment. If his overall point is clear, as I said earlier, at least he has a point. Like Chesterton, Lewis, and other of my literary heroes, I like the Middle Ages but need to contend with the fact that they did have trials by ordeal, and do I really want to substitute a jury for a hot piece of iron?

In what follows, then, I hope to fall into neither of the three aforementioned camps.

I appreciated that Lea took time to show that other cultures also used trial by ordeal, such as Hindu and Islamic civilizations, as well as many ancient cultures. Lea also used a lot of primary sources–indeed most of his book involves simply recounting the sources and commenting on them briefly. I also admired the fact that he included a section on the eucharist as an ordeal, for every other treatment I have seen ignores this aspect of medieval life, focusing on the more sensational ordeals by fire, water, and so on. Lea buries his treatment of this towards the back, but I feel this is where one should start if we want to have some understanding of the practices of ordeal in general.

If the central aspect of medieval life was the church, then the pearl within the oyster was the eucharist, where the faithful feed upon God Himself. Certainly I make no attempt here to develop any theology of the eucharist. But we may gain more insight if we pan out further to the last judgment. Many today have the idea that God’s final judgment involves Him declaring some fit and others unfit, and then banishing the unfit. Rather, the picture the early church gives us is that God’s love (and the presence of God is the love of God) both saves and condemns. God’s showers His love upon all, but His love is so strong that it resembles a refining fire. For some made strong, made holy, the love of God warms and comforts. For others who reject the love of God, God’s love leads to their further destruction, for the hate the love of God, and it burns them. As St. Isaac the Syrian stated,

. . .those who find themselves in Gehenna will be chastised with the scourge of love. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God . . . But love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed.

An icon of the Last Judgment shows forth this same idea:

Salvation in a Christian context means that one is not so much declared righteous but made righteous through the grace of God–made able to receive the love of God as blessing and not as curse (I acknowledge that both terms have their place, however, in discussing the meaning of salvation).

So too communion, when even thought about for a moment, takes on monumental proportions. As Fr. Schmemman stated in his classic For the Life of the World, Fuerbach’s “you are what you eat,” quip, meant as a materialistic taunt, actually expresses a profound religious truth. To eat anything means to take the life of the fruit, meat, etc. into oneself. So too, in the eucharist God offers us the chance to take His life into our own. But this free gift does not come cheap. Scripture warns us about taking communion unworthily. We must realize that the presence of God can heal and transform or destroy us. As one prayer from perhaps the 8th century states,

Though I am hindered by so many and such great evils, I now add to them by approaching holy mysteries so heavenly and divine that even the angels desire to understand them. . . . Because of my unworthiness, I fear that, rather than receive divine enlightenment and a share of grace, I will be condemned . . . What am I to do? By partaking of the awesome mysteries, I subject myself to these and greater punishments. By abstaining from them, I shall fall into greater evils . . .

Mother of the Light, pp. 27-28

Lea’s work has many merits, but his leaving this background out of the discussion can lead one to a more superstitious understanding of the practice then is warranted. As an example we can take the ordeal of boiling water. Before the ordeal the water would be prayed over by a priest:

O creature of water, I adjure thee by the living God, by the holy God, who in the beginning separated thee from the dry land; I adjure thee by the living God who led thee from the fountain of Paradise, and in four rivers commanded thee to encompass the world; I adjure thee by Him who in Cana of Galilee by His will changed thee to wine, who trod on thee with His holy feet . . . water which washes away the dust and sins of the world, I adjure thee . . . to make manifest and bring to light all truth . . .

This prayer, quite similar to the prayers said for baptism, ask that God make the water a revealer of truth in the same way that water is used to fashion the world. That is–water must serve truth, which is a manifestation of God Himself, who is Truth.** The 3rd century bishop St. Gregory the Wonderworker stated, “The Lord, Who has come upon the Jordan River, through its streams transmitted sanctification to all streams (of water),” with Christ imparting to all water, “a sign of heavenly streams” of grace.”

For the early medievals, the same held true for the ordeal of fire/the hot iron. Prayers recalled how fire revealed much in Scripture–Fire found Sodom guilty but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego innocent, and the burning bush of Horeb reveals God Himself. Again, I don’t think we should see the verdict’s rendered by the fire ordeal as merely forensic. The fire, the water (and other types of ordeals) manifest God to men. Some by their holiness and innocence are able to stand, some by their sin cannot. Lea writes with a seemingly exclusive legal bent, and so misses the theological import.

Lea stated that, “The History of Jurisprudence is the History of Civilization.” The sentiment has nobility but is misplaced. One must go deeper at least to culture, and preferably to religion, to see its influence on jurisprudence. This too means that he overemphasizes looking at the technical matters of the law and misses some important caveats to the use of ordeals, two of which are worth noting.

First–Lea gives the impression that the medievals used ordeals willy-nilly at the drop of a hat. Rather, I believe they used ordeals usually as a last resort when they exhausted other means of determining the truth of the matter. Perhaps it is easier for modern, depersonalized society to let matters such as hung-juries or mistrials stand. For those in a pre-modern, more personal and local context, having a unresolved verdict on a matter of great importance might put an unbearable strain on the community.

Second–Lea misses something of the “objectivity” of the ordeal. With no such measure justice might tend toward the “justice” of the strong and powerful. It was not always the case that ordeals vindicated the weak against the strong, but it seems to me that it happened much more often than Lea cared to admit or notice.^

Lea’s anti-religious cards come into full display with certain choice vocabulary words like “superstition,” and “fetish.” Indeed, when the Catholic church issued a general condemnation of ordeals in 1215, Lea does not see the triumph of a more reasonable religion, but a political power play. So Lea blames the church for fostering and encouraging ordeals (including a quip about how they preferred the ordeal of fire, no doubt for its impressive aesthetic qualities), then fails to credit them for dramatically curtailing the practice.

By now the reader may assume that in seeking to explain ordeals more fully and expressing guarded appreciation, I now should “marry” them. I object to such a burden placed on the historian. A practice may have been less onerous than some suppose, but that wouldn’t mean that the practice has no issues. No Church today (with the exception of the snake-handler cult), indeed no churchman I am aware of for basically the last 500 years has recommended the practice. I don’t feel the need to do so either.

Historians usually come in absolutist or relativist garb. The absolutist would say that, “If ordeals are wrong now, it was wrong then. The stories of people emerging unscathed from ordeals are either lies, exaggerations, or works of the devil, for no good can come from such an unjust practice.” A relativist might tell us that we should not judge the past–and indeed cannot judge anyone ever for anything. The historian should work for “understanding” and should avoid “judgment.”

One should use from both perspectives to a degree, but embracing either one in its totality leads to incoherence. Will Durant posed a generous means of interpreting people and cultures from the past. If a man shares the vices of the past, that was unfortunate, but does he have virtues that cut against the grain of his society? How does a culture compare relatively to other cultures of its time? I find the medievals did not so badly on the relative scale, but on the absolute scale, I would not want to bring them back.

I have the feeling that Lea would dismiss all of the accounts of God working through the ordeals as fabrications and propaganda. I will not so glibly dismiss numerous testimonies, and so that leaves me the position of believing that God used an imperfect and “arbitrary” means to achieve His ends. But this is hardly a problem–He has done this since the beginning of time.

The Catholic Church’s Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, which attempted to ban trial by ordeal, gave as one reason the fact that ordeals “tested God.” That is, God pledges Himself to act in certain ways in the sacraments of the Church, but we cannot take this pledge and extrapolate it to any sticky situation we face. We have not the power to call God down and demand He reveal Himself when we are stuck. As C.S. Lewis famously noted regarding Aslan–“He is not a tame Lion.” It may be, then, that the story of trial by ordeal involves not so much the folly of men, but the humility of God, who accommodated Himself to our weakness patiently for a time.

Dave

*It is interesting that no one really writes about the ancient Babylonians, Chinese, Mayans, etc. in the way that we write about the Middle Ages.

**To his credit Lea cites several instances from saints lives of people putting their arms in boiling cauldrons, either to test obedience or another point of dispute, and emerging unscathed.

^As an example, see Eric Jager’s book The Last Duel, which chronicled the plight of a woman who accused another prominent nobleman of raping her. The issue could not be definitively resolved at trial, and her husband agreed to fight the accused to the death to determine the verdict. He won, and the accused was pronounced guilty.

We should pause for a moment and flip the script, putting jury trials under a touch of scrutiny. One can read online a plethora of articles about the fairness of juries, the random nature of verdicts, and so forth. Again, I would not suggest replacing jury trials with medieval ordeals, but for someone like Lea, who believed that ordeals were entirely arbitrary, modern evidence about juries does not give us as much separation from the past as we might wish. And yet, we too have to invest the jury trial with a kind of sacredness if we are to have any kind of society at all.

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.

Dave

*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.

If Civilization is Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Badly

Historian Arnold Toynbee takes the long view–the very long view, on the fall of Rome.  We think of Rome as a grand empire, but Toynbee reminds us both in his book Hellenism, and in Hannibal’s Legacy, that Rome originally organized itself very much like other Greek city-states.  The early Roman Republic was essentially a polis.  As they grew in size, the political dynamics changed until little to nothing remained of its more democratic past.  But if we think of Rome as a “Republic” first and foremost, we should place the decline of Rome somewhere in the transition between the 3rd-2nd cenutry B.C. at the absolute latest.*

Toynbee takes this approach because he sees civilizations operating in a spiritual sense.  He focuses on the beliefs, the internal coherence, the relationships between different groups in society, and so on.  He has long sections in volumes five and six of his multi-volume A Study of History on the “schism in the soul” present in declining civilizations, which might strike one with a more materialist bent as rather absurd.

Niall Ferguson takes a different approach, and I believe that I see common themes in his books, Civilization, Colossus, and Empire.  Ferguson sees civilization running on various physical platforms, such as the quality of roads, a good sewer system, and a good way of gathering and using tax revenue.**  He eschewed the idea of slow, steady decline–or at least one that we could observe in any meaningful way.  For him, the system works until suddenly it doesn’t, and no one can really predict when it will stop working. This explains why no one saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming, or various stock-market crashes.  The collapses, when they come, will therefore come out of the blue suddenly.

Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Socieities is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject. Tainter does a good job with his argument, which I admit even I though I disagree with some of his basic premises.

His argument boils down to a few key points:

  • Major civilizations tend to experience an early period of rapid growth through the ‘low hanging fruit’ of available territory, resources, etc.
  • This growth inevitably leads to specialization, stratification, and complexity which initially serves growth–though this “low-hanging fruit” won’t last forever.
  • The civilization plateau’s and the structure established to help it grow becomes an inextricable  part of society just at the moment that it is no longer really needed.
  • When the ‘low hanging fruit’ disappears, further expansion (be it territorial, trade-oriented) becomes less and less profitable, and eventually starts to work against the civilization.
  • Finally, the complex structure gets too unwieldy, a ball and chain, as the state has to spend more and more to get less and less. But now we depend on the structure.   It has become too big to fail, but like a house of cards, easy to knock over.

Tainter supports his theory well from civilizations across time, and uses very obvious info, like territory, and some other more unusual information, like crop yields, colonial administrations, and so on. No doubt there are many lessons for economists here.

But, while his book is valuable, it has big holes.

In his quest for absolute objectivity, he rejects all value-judgment theories of collapse. If you can’t measure it, it’s not useful. We can never be sure exactly a civilization really believes, and even if we could, it is not an objective field of study, so has nothing to contribute to the study of collapse. After a brief summary of  the work of people like Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, and others he dismisses them with a wave of his hand. But as C.S. Lewis once pointed out, very few people are actually German economists. Any study of history must involve people, which will involve more than graphs on paper.

This over-emphasizing of economics shows up in what is actually a thought-provoking idea. What happens after collapse, he argues, may actually be beneficial to society, because it removes a great deal of inefficiency that the old system labored under. Collapse, might be the cleansing forest fires of history, events to almost welcome.

This sounds good on paper, but no actual human being who lived through collapses would have agreed with him. Imagine living in Western Europe ca. 550 AD and thinking, “Boy, I sure am glad for the fall of Rome. Of course, our ramshackle village could be overrun, destroyed, and our people pillaged who knows when by some Goth, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Vandal, Hun, or some other kind of Goth I have forgotten about. But I’ll take that any day over the economic inefficiency of the late Roman Empire.”

To augment Chesterton’s oft-quoted phrase (If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” “If civilization is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

Dave

 

*I love and admire Toynbee for many reasons.  But in some places he puts the decline of Rome at 431 B.C. (!), the same year as the outbreak of the Pelopponesian War in Greece.  He does this mostly because he sees much more similarity than difference between Greece and Rome.  One can make that argument, and he does so decently in his Recollections, but to carry it so far as to say that Rome began declining when Athens hit the wall goes way too far.

**In some ways the difference between Toynbee and Ferguson boils down, as (almost) always, to the differences between Plato and Aristotle.  Both are great–I prefer Toynbee and Plato.

Epilogue

I almost always find Toynbee stimulating, and I include some of his collected thoughts on the fall of Rome . . .

It is indeed, one of the tragic ironies that the idealists that arise within the ruling class should tread the same path of social migration as the wastrels.  The Graachi worked far greater havoc through a nobility [in the late Republic] to which someone like Commodus could never aspire. Commodus did far less damage by his own social truancy [i.e., pretending to be Hercules, fighting in the arena, etc.], by engaging in a vulgarity that represents a spiritual malaise, to which the Graachi would never fall.  

By their ‘downward migration’ towards the plebs, the Graachi incurred the wrath of their fellows, who punished them severely for abandoning their class privilege.  Commodus is uneventfully swallowed by the slough in which he delighted to wallow, whereas the Graachi released a kind of demonic energy into the masses of Rome.

*********

Seneca writes ca. A.D. 60 concerning the social function of the Emperor in one of his treatises. . .

 

“He is the bond that holds the Commonwealth together, he is the breath of life is breathed by his subjects, who in themselves would be nothing but a burden and a prey if they were left to their own devices through the removal of a presence which is the soul of the Empire.

 

Their king is safe?  One mind informs them all;

Lost?  They break faith straightway.

*********

If this calamity, written about by Vergil in his Georgics (IV, 212-13), which he imagines overtaking the bees, would overtake us, the people would be safe so long as it does not snap the reins, or–if they refuse to be bridled again.  Should this happen–then the texture of this mighty empire would be rent and its present tidiness would fly apart into a hundred shreds. Rome will cease to rule the moment they cease to render obedience.”

A foretaste of the fulfillment of the prophecy that Seneca made to the Emperor Nero was inflicted on the Roman world in A.D. 68-69 as an immediate result of Nero’s tyranny; but the first time round this calamity acted as a stimulus, for after the chaos Rome got Vespasian as emperor and relative calm.  Though Domitian (d. A.D. 96) tried his utmost to revive the chaos by claiming deity for himself, the tide was turned by a series of beneficial philosopher emperors who succeeded one another from Nerva (A.D. 96) through Marcus Aurelius (d. A.D. 180).

It was only after Marcus that the new “time of troubles” set in, and even then foolishness of Commodus managed to right itself after the civil wars of Severus, who repeated Vespasian’s work, though with a rougher and less skilled hand.  It was only after the death of Alexander Severus (A.D. 235) that the storm broke with shattering and uncontrollable violence.

*********

And finally, some of his thoughts on the drawn out length of Roman decline:

In the downward course of a civilization there is truth in the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things.”  The sinister concentration of the resources of a civilization upon the business of fratricidal warfare may generate a military prowess that will place their neighbors at their mercy, may create a military technique that may grant them a far reaching technical mastery over the merely “Material World.”   

Since it is common to reckon success primarily by power and wealth, the opening chapters in the decline of a civilization will be hailed as times of blessing and growth, and this misconception can persist even for centuries.  Sooner or later, however, disillusionment is bound to follow, for a society that is hopelessly divided against itself is almost certain to try and double down on military might, for that is what seemed to work initially.

For example, we see the money-power and man-power won for Greek society by Alexander the Great, and these same vast resources used to intensify the civil wars between Alexander’s successors.  This same power swept into Roman hands through the meteoric rise in Rome’s land and wealth ca. 241-146 B.C. was just as quickly spent in the various civil wars that wracked Rome before the rise of Augustus and the Pax Romana.  For Spain, the treasure gained in the new world and the free labor of the essentially enslaved native populations was the food for their wars in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries–the same wars that brought them into second-rate power status in Europe.

Thus the increasing command over the environment gained is apt to bestow upon a society a disintegration that puts a greater driving power into the suicidally demented society’s chosen work of self-destruction; and that story turns out to be a simple illustration of the theme that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  And again, the empires of industrialized Europe in the late 19th century gained the material resources to nearly destroy European civilization in our great Western civil war of 1914-18.

[Toynbee goes on to argue at length that Augustan synthesis bought Rome time, and brought Rome increased prosperity, nevertheless, it was an “Indian Summer” that lasted about 175 years that did nothing to fix Rome’s basic issues or  prevent the coming winter.]

 

 

 

Symbolic Matters

I am republishing this fairly recent post in the dog-days of summer based on a few observations . . .

First . . .

In Ezra Klein’s recent podcast with Rod Dreher, the subject of media and culture was front and center. They conversed at length with each person making important points, and I commend them both. Klein brought up what is a fairly standard critique of conservative Christians, that is (in sum), “Why so much focus on gay and transgender issues when there are many poor and suffering people in the world? Surely the Bible says at least as much about the poor as it does about sexuality?”

Dreher had a fine response, and no doubt the format might have limited his remarks. But I think Klein, and possibly Dreher to a lesser extent, fail to take into account the strong symbolic role sexuality has played in most every culture, and the role of the body as one of the primary means of communication.

Secondly . . .

Dreher linked to a post of Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex who speculates that the Pride/LGBT etc. movement may become the new civil religion in America. Alexander–who I believe writes as a supporter of his proposed theory, comments,

Am I saying that gay pride has replaced the American civil religion?

Maybe not just because it had a cool parade. But put it in the context of everything else going on, and it seems plausible. “Social justice is a religion” is hardly a novel take. A thousand tradcon articles make the same case. But a lot of them use an impoverished definition of religion, something like “false belief that stupid people hold on faith, turning them into hateful fanatics” – which is a weird mistake for tradcons to make.

There’s another aspect of religion. The one that inspired the Guatemala Easter parade. The group-building aspect. The one that answers the questions inherent in any group more tightly bound than atomic individuals acting in their self-interest:

What is our group? We’re the people who believe in pride and equality and diversity and love always winning.

Why is our group better than other groups? Because those other groups are bigots who are motivated by hate.

What gives our social system legitimacy? Because all those beautiful people in fancy cars, Governor Gavin Newsom and Mayor London Breed and all the rest, are fighting for equality and trying to dismantle racism.

Again, based on Smith’s book discussed below, if it happens it should not surprise us, given the strong symbolic role that body has in our existence.

And now, the original post . . . .

In the letters of the Roman magistrate Pliny to the emperor Trajan, Pliny asks him about the official policy towards Christians. Christians have been brought before him, and he has condemned them to execution, but such matters are not trivial, and he wanted to make sure he followed the letter and spirit of the law.

Trajan wrote back and declared that, yes, if Christians appear before him, who will not recant, then such people should be executed. Trajan agreed with Pliny that Christians generally had nothing else against them other than that they professed the Christian faith, so, no need to seek them out. But Pliny should continue to follow the law. Christians continued to face death for being Christians.

But Trajan never addressed Pliny’s second question, which was (in sum), “Why, if Christians are generally good citizens who do not disturb the peace, do we need to punish them in the first place?” Many rank Trajan as one of Rome’s best emperors, but Rome loved practicality and viewed the Greeks as sissified for all of their reflective philosophizing. My guess–Trajan probably regarded the question with slight derision and, being a nice guy, politely ignored it. The law is law, end of story.

Steven D. Smith begins his insightful work Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac with this historical nugget, for he wants to attempt to answer Pliny’s unanswered question of “why?” Christian luminaries such as Tertullian, Athenagoras, and St. Augustine all pointed out the utter folly and injustice of Rome’s actions. In persecuting Christians, they argued, Rome removed its best citizens. Without discounting the truth of Rome’s cruelty, Smith considers if the Romans may actually been right in their instinct (without articulating it coherently) that Christianity truly posed a threat to their way of life. Gibbon, Pelikan, and many others point out that the Church did triumph over Rome, and that the Church, while able to reside peacefully within Rome, truly meant to end Rome’s way of life.

Recently we have witnessed a variety of almost entirely symbolic prosecutions and attacks of bakers, florists, and pizza joints who do not join in with the prevailing sexual orthodoxy. In a series of articles, Libertarian UVA Law professor Douglas Laycock bemoans the attitudes of those on the left. Plenty of options exist for gay couples for all marriage-related services. Why ferret out those who do nothing to stop you but simply disagree with your choices? Such people do nothing to impinge the freedom of homosexuals. In the same vein, why do conservatives attempt to stop people from engaging in sexual practices they object to, but have no impact on the lives of those who object? Both sides strive for the same symbolic but essentially “meaningless” victory, and it ruins our political discourse.

Laycock sounds quite reasonable, but Smith points out that these “victories” for which different sides strive have a great deal of symbolic value attached to them. Though symbols may not fit into a strictly rational worldview, Smith concludes that, “we live by symbols” and can derive meaning only from symbols.* Furthermore, religious belief always demands communal expression, and symbols shape and embody that expression. From this point, Smith’s book explores what the modern culture wars are all about through the lens of Christianity’s first conflict with imperial Rome.

Many today will likely admire the Romans for their tolerance, and wonder why Christians could not accommodate themselves to Rome. Rome, after all, found a way to accommodate a great many different religions into their empire. But no society can tolerate everything. And we, too, have “zero-tolerance” policies for what we truly deem important, such as drugs or sexual harassment, and so on. With the example of offering incense to the emperor, which many Christians refused to do, we can invent the following conversation:

Roman: You Christians are impossible. We let you hold your bizarre religious gatherings–albeit outside the city–but we let you hold them. We let you believe whatever you want to believe. We give you the benefits of the greatest empire the world has ever known, and you enjoy those benefits. We do so much for you, and we ask but very little, that you acknowledge the blessings of the authority under which you live. If you live among us we must know that you will follow our laws, and this is how you pledge yourself to that. You are disobedient. You are uncharitable–you take from us and give nothing back. And so . . . we cannot trust you, and how could we do so, after giving so much and receiving back so little?

Christian: We should be grateful for all that Rome does for us, and indeed, we pray for those in authority during every liturgy. In our sojourn here on Earth we can partake of much the world has to offer, and justice demands that we give honor where it is rightly due. But your policy asks us to accommodate our monotheism to your polytheism. You suppose that sacrifices to the emperor are a small accommodation, but you ask us to abandon monotheism and accept polytheism. You ask us to change our religious beliefs, which is surely the most significant accommodation you could possibly ask.

Striking parallels exist between imperial Rome and our own day, and the conflicts engendered between Christians and pagans. One such area involved creation and the natural world. For the Romans, the gods infused the world around them with their presence, and every city had its sacred sites. Christians rejected this direct immanence by emphasizing the transcendent nature of God that had little to no overlap with pagan belief.

But the complexity of Christianity greatly mitigated these differences regarding creation. While God is transcendent, He is also imminent. Many scriptural passages talk of creation praising God, and God calls humanity to steward creation. Christians too had/have their sacred sites involving saints, relics, pilgrimages, and the like. So too today, while many viewed as “anti-science” come from certain segments of the evangelical community, Christians and “pagans” find much common ground with moderate environmentalists, though will eventually part ways over certain particulars.

A much more significant divide came with sexuality, where the Roman approach to sexual ethics looks strikingly modern (what follows applied almost entirely to men in the ancient world, not women):

  • Sexual behavior was entirely natural, and few restrictions should be placed upon it.
  • Sex was “healthy,” and self-denial in regard to sex was considered mildly dangerous and “anti-human.”
  • Sex brings us closer to the divine, for all the stories of the gods (goddesses, not as much) have them cavorting with various women.
  • Use of the male sexual organ had a halo of sacredness surrounding it, but how one used it had very few restrictions. One could “sleep with” slaves, prostitutes, or even other men or boys, provided that one was never the “female” in such a relationship.

I am not the person and this is not the format to give a full treatment of the traditional Christian view of sexuality. But in brief:

  • The Fathers of the church quickly realized the Scriptural hints about the sacred nature of sexual behavior, and its connections to our life in God. But . . . sex serves at most as a pointer to a more fuller, transcendent reality that will be present only when the Kingdom of God is fully present. It is not an end in itself.
  • Many Christians believed in the sanctity of sexuality in some way, but the sanctity of sex is the reason for the various restrictions Christians placed on sexual behavior. To protect its meaning and purpose, sex needs strong fences, such as limiting it within marriage between a man and woman
  • Living fully as human beings meant taming and restricting our “appetites,” for the ability to do separates us from the beasts. So, while the Romans thought that the more or less indiscriminate indulgence in sex made us more human, Christians believed it made us sub-human–just as over indulgence in eating would do the same, i.e., a dogs will eat anything put before them, as much as they are given.

How deep these differences really go, Smith asserts, comes down not to logic and private self-interest, but the more nebulous (but simultaneously more real) world of symbol. Symbols cannot be fully explained, but have to be experienced–one knows it when we live it. I lament the effect the culture wars have had on eroding our social fabric and institutions. But though Smith never quite explicitly states it (that I found), he strongly hints that such wars will inevitably be fought. For our culture to have cohesion it must have meaning, and this meaning can only come from a common communal understanding. Symbols work only in this way.

Clearly, for us today as the Romans then, sexual behavior occupies a crucial space within our culture. We may not believe sex to have the sacredness that it did for the Romans, at least in an overtly conscious sense. We likely relate sex in America to our deep beliefs about personal expression and the self. What unifies modern and ancients on both sides, Smith suggests, is the divide between the transcendent and the imminent.

For example, Smith states, no one really questions the motto, “In God we Trust” on our money, but “one nation, under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance has received significant constitutional scrutiny. Smith finds the difference in the word “under,” which assumes a transcendent deity in ways that “In God we Trust” does not (this “God” need not be above us but exclusively “among us” for us to define and control).

If Smith is right about this in particular, so much the better, for it gives us clarity in a confusing debate. But his other assertion holds more weight. Our disagreements about sex** may very well be an unconscious proxy for our ideas about meaning and community. Perhaps Smith doesn’t excuse the culture wars, but suggests they will continue. It also suggests that our diseased political culture has not caused this divide. Rather, we might flip our normal way of discussing the culture wars on its head. Perhaps our divergent ideas about sexuality (dating back at least to Roe v. Wade and the Sexual Revolution) have fractured our idea of meaning and community, and this fracture manifests itself in various ways.^

Our founders put priority on minimizing centralized power. They knew that humans can get contentious, but sought to make lemonade out of lemons. Our propensity to conflict would create different interest groups, but in the end they would all cancel each other out, preserving liberty. Thus, the Constitution was not meant to create a tight-knit political community, but essentially sought to prevent its formation.Obviously, this experiment has worked on a number of levels. But now that most churches and other community defining organizations have declined in numbers and importance, we have lost our ability to determine meaning in any kind of public sphere. Tocqueville warned us that this might happen if our more private and local communal connections eroded. And so, here we are, seeking meaning from the only viable institutions most of us have any familiarity with–the federal government. This may be what distinguishes our current cultural problems from those we previously experienced, and why we invest so much emotional and moral weight into our politics.^^

Following Smith’s largely unspoken line of thought brings us to a sober realization. Our seemingly silly fights might actually have great importance. If we can focus on the real issue at hand, perhaps we could make progress in solving them.

Dave

*This comment may seem confusing or silly if you think of symbols as images only. If we take the older meaning of symbol and apply the term to ways of understanding beyond the literal and physical, it makes more sense. Parents of teens will surely have encountered this before. Your child asks for “reasons” and “explanations” for your various edicts, but you can’t always provide to the degree they wish. No amount of explanation suffices, for you want them how to live “into” a world, one that can’t be entirely shown them from the outside.

**This includes abortion as well. Some hard cases exist on the fringe of the issue, but at its root is the issue of human autonomy and sexual freedom. I believe it likely that most of the debate about “when life begins” for the pro-choice side is a smokescreen for the right to create a “safe space” for us to adopt a more pagan attitude towards sexual behavior.

^The rapid changes in accepted sexual morality recently may be extra evidence for Smith’s claim. He points out that Seinfeld may have been a turning point. Most every character led sexual lives that would not have fit into any previous sitcom. But to balance this, the show did not promote the main characters as morally serious in any way. From there, we had Friends, and then The Office which were still comedies but the moral seriousness of the characters increased as their sexual ethics remained much the same as in Seinfeld.

^^Perhaps the one place where people can find some semblance of community and belonging is college campuses, and perhaps this is why many students and professors have sought to make their campus into a kind of temple and dramatically infuse it with doctrinaire ideologies, sacred spaces, and taboo speech. Like Ross Douthat, I deplore a great deal about the campus protests, but I understand the impulse. While I admire efforts from a quite ideologically diverse group of people like Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Camille Paglia, and Candace Owens to further free-speech and open debate, we need to realize that such things in themselves will not save us.


The Marriage of Handwriting and Architecture

It did not take me long to get miffed by Steven Greenblatt’s The Swerve.  Almost right away  he commits two cardinal sins in my book when discussing the Medieval period.
  • He brings up all the worst aspects of the Medieval period without any of its virtues, and
  • He asserts that the discovery of Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things is one of the main causes for the “swerve” from the Medieval to the Modern world.  He does not assert this absolutely, but hedging all on one manuscript still seemed too reductionistic to me.

But Greenblat’s charm and narrative style kept me going.  In the end, I didn’t read the whole thing and skimmed some sections, but one thing in particular struck me forcefully — how handwriting can be a reflection of the personality of a society.

‘Gothic’ script dominated the ‘Gothic’ era, and it can be contrasted with the Carolingian script revived by many Renaissance scribes:

Petrarch complained that Gothic script, “had been designed for something other than reading,” and he was not whining, but speaking the truth.

Gothic Script

The height and cramped fashion of letters makes it difficult to read, and may subconsciously have been designed to be “seen and not heard.”  When we remember that very few could read, and that books were meant to educate visually just as much as textually, the Gothic “font” makes more sense.

Gothic Manuscript

Here are examples of the Carolingian script fashionable during the Renaissance:

Perhaps pro-Renaissance scholars do not exaggerate the real shift that took place as far as education is concerned.  Perhaps this shift in handwriting style helped pave the way for the printing press itself.

If the “font’s” a society uses reflect something of its larger worldview, we would expect to see this expressed in other aspects of their culture.  Gothic architecture mirrors gothic script in uncanny script in uncanny ways, with the “bunched up” nature of its space.

Flying Buttresses

True, the high ceilings of these cathedrals did give a sense of space, but it was space that meant to overpower you, a weight and bulk of a different kind.  The stained glass windows again reveal the same thing as the buttresses — the “cramming” full of space with color.

In the Renaissance we see something else entirely, a more “human” scale in architecture, and a greater sense of space.

The Pazzi Chapel

Michelangelo, the Medici Chapel

So apparently, handwriting can be an expression of a culture’s personality just as architecture can, which should not have surprised me.

When I realized that the Renaissance basically just revived Carolingian script, this gave new significance to the Carolingian Renaissance itself under Charlemagne six centuries earlier.  Those that invented the style and not merely copied it should get greater credit.  Some scholars dismiss the “Carolingian Renaissance,” as small potatoes, but the script they used showed an interest in reading, which sheds new light on the work of Nottker and Einhard.  So, what about architecture under Charlemagne — will it show that same sense of space?  Naturally we must consider Aachen Cathedral, the central building of Charlemagne’s realm:

Aachen Cathedral, Exterior

Aachener_dom_oktagon

Well, it appears that we have a mixed verdict.  It is part Gothic, part Byzantine, and part something all its own.  Will I allow this to overthrow my theory of seeing links between handwriting and architecture? Perish the thought!  I can always say that Charlemagne’s time had so much going on that they had no time to be particularly self-aware of these choices, in contrast to both the Gothic and Renaissance periods.

Does America’s utter lack of defining architectural identity have anything to do with our confusion about teaching handwriting?

Blessings,

Dave

Renaissances and Ghosts: “Contacts Between Civilizations in Time”

This is not a book unto itself, but merely one-third of Volume 9 of his multi-volume A Study of History series, subtitled, “Contacts Between Civilizations in Time.” However, it can stand apart from the other sections, and it is so dense and at times so insightful it deserves its own treatment.

Naturally when one mentions “The Renaissance,” in the West, we think of the Italian Renaissance of the 15th century, but this, Toynbee states, serves us poorly for three main reasons:

1. There have been many “renaissances” throughout history and to call the one we know “The Renaissance” narrows our vision and prevents us from seeing patterns throughout time and place.

2. When we think of The Renaissance we think mostly about its art, but the classical style came from a broader classical culture.  One thing inevitably spills over into another.

3. Finally, what a “renaissance” really involves  is not so much a resurrection of an idea in the sense of new life, but an act of necromancy designed to bring back to life a dead past.  Think Frankenstein instead of a “new heavens and new earth.”  After all, we cannot bring back the dead, but we can contact a dead past’s “ghost.”  It is this concept of a Renaissance as an act of necromancy that gives this part of the book its unifying theme and key spiritual insight. With that in mind. . .

Toynbee begins with the Italian Renaissance, with which most of us are familiar.  Imagine yourself in Florence, ca. 1400 A.D.  Let’s suppose that you discover the artistic classical style and you begin to replace the prevailing gothic way of seeing the world.  Soon you find yourself, however, noticing the classical political ideology can lend credence to your fight for more independence for  parochial communities (i.e. Venice, Florence, etc.) in one fell swoop.  The city-state system experiences a revival in Italy, which leads to a different role for the Church.  In time, the nation-state is born.  So, “one thing leads to another.”  We cannot expect that we can revive just the artistic style without the accompanying framework.

But if you want the blessings, you get the curses.  The parochial nation-state idea nearly destroyed Europe from 1914-1945, just as it destroyed Greece from 431-338 B.C.  As Toynbee indicates, there is a reason for the death of a previous civilization, and “if you latch onto a decayed society’s social ethos, you will likely suffer their fate.”

This leads naturally into his “necromancy” template.  He makes a few points,

1. Necromancy is by definition an act of desperation (i.e., Saul and the witch at Endor, the rise of spiritualism and seances in England during World War I).  The desperate act may be warranted/worth the cost, or it may be a reaction in the wrong direction.

2. Necromancy reveals not only desperation but a lack of confidence.  Necromancy signals an abdication in our ability to create something new and the passive acceptance to what others already did for you.  Regine Pernoud made similar points in Those Terrible Middle Ages.  But there may be more to it; a renaissance may reflect something deeply lacking in the era in which it happens.

3. When civilizations connect with each other in living “space,” the interaction between the two has potential for equality and mutual exchange, but not with ghosts.  While in Hades, the ghost has no power.  You live; it does not.  But call up the ghost and you discover, like Hamlet, that the ghost has all the power.  You have no influence over the dead, who cannot hear you.  All you can do is listen to them.  Again — you have abdicated something of yourself by reviving the ghost.  “Renaissances are bound to be insulated experiences,” Toynbee commented.  You are now in his power.  The US helped support the revival of the ghost of 19th century Sudanese Wahabi’ism in Afghanistan in the 1980’s, and that did not work out so well for us.

But maybe drastic times call for drastic measures.  Take Charlemagne, for example, who along with Pope Leo III revived the ghost of the Roman Empire.   Was it worth it?  Many historians credit Charlemagne with reviving civilization itself in Europe for the first time in three centuries.  Perhaps inventing a new model would have been preferred, but how much do we blame them given the chaotic times?

Still, even if we agree with Pope Leo and Charlemagne, we must count the cost.  Empires mean conquest; conquest means death, centralization, and other attendant evils.  You can’t have Charlemagne be the “Holy Roman Emperor” without bringing back the filth attendant to the glory.

4. The effect of the ghostly presence will depend in part on geography.  Reviving a direct family member works differently than a distant cousin.  So in Italy the effect of the reviving the classical ghost would be like bringing back the stern father, while in the north the response would have more latitude, and probably, more creativity.

Of course the closer the relation, the greater power the ghost has.

We will also have a difficult time getting the ghost to leave.  In Europe the classical artistic style faded within a century, but in architecture it remained centuries longer, and politically longer still, into the 20th century.

However necessary they may be, renaissances remain unpredictable and dangerous.   Approach at your peril.

Just as renaissances are messy and unpredictable, so too evaluating them remains difficult.  Toynbee cuts through the grey in his typically incisive way, saying,

“Renaissances must be judged by their hindrance or help to the soul with the sin of idolatry.”

Here Toynbee shows his great insight that all human affairs have a theological dimension.  A renaissance may help pry us from a lifeless and destructive present, or it may make us greater slaves to an even more lifeless past and put us, “Out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

Dave

I enjoyed this analysis on the dangers of calling up ghosts in the music industry.

9th Grade: Bodies in Art

When discussing the Renaissance, one must discuss its art, and one cannot escape a key feature of Renaissance art: nudity.  Next week we will be looking at Renaissance art in more depth, and we (as individuals) have to answer this question before we can evaluate its relation to a Christian worldview.

We started by discussing the idea of the purpose of art.  How do we know when art is good, and when it is not?  I am no art critic, and am not the person to offer a complete answer to that question. But I suggested that good art, among other things, reveals truth to us, be it truth about God, mankind, ourselves, or the world He made.  We agreed also that there nothing is true for any reason other than that, ultimately, God exists.  This led to other questions.

  • If non-Christians can arrive at some truths because these truths reside in the world God made, (1+1=2, we should practice generosity, etc.) can non-Christians reveal truth in the art they create?
  • If they can reveal truth, can we say that non-Christians can paint “Christian” art?  Would this mean that any art that reveals truth can be considered Christian?

Most students reached no definite conclusions on these questions, but I hope they enjoyed considering them.

We understand that creation reveals something of the Creator, but we may not often consider that the body itself is also a form of revelation.  In fact, the body may reveal more about God than other aspects of creation because we are made in His image (though of course this should be taken in an exclusively, or even primarily physical sense).

We began the discussion with looking at the three things that make movies objectionable: violence, language, and sexuality.  Of these three, what bothers us most?  The students and I all agreed that sexuality was most problematic, but why?  Answers do not come easily to this question, we “feel” it more than we can explain it.  But we gave it shot and concluded that . . .

  • Violence bothers us less because we understand it is not real.  No one really gets shot, blown up, or what have you.  The unreality of at least much of movie violence creates a comfortable distance for the audience.
  • Language may be offensive, but we understand that some people do talk in those ways, and in some places anyway, that language has  a public context.  When see it the context of a movie (a public forum), we don’t notice a disconnect.
  • Sexuality/nudity often involves situations where it is inappropriate, but even when shown in a proper husband/wife context, we instinctively understand that the movie makes something public that should be private.  Movie violence “keeps its distance” but with sexuality the movie moves right in close — too close. We understand that movies are not real, but there remains an undeniable reality to the displays of nudity we see in movies.  Unlike violence, the people really are nude, or really are kissing, etc. someone.  Besides, even if within the movie the situation involves a husband/wife, they are not husband/wife in reality.  Even if they were–why should we see it?

Having said this, none of the students objected to the concept of nudity in art per se, and again we should ask why most object to it in movies but not in art.  What is the difference?

Students agreed that since God made the body and seeks to redeem and glorify the body, the physical world itself becomes worthy of awe and reverence.  The Incarnation testifies to the same truth.  But while they agreed that nudity per se could be appropriate, we would not want to see the painting of our next door neighbor in the nude.  With this observation, we came back to the idea of the need to have a separation from direct reality.  Nudity can allow us to contemplate the reality of the body in the abstract, but we do not want to contemplate the nudity of our neighbors.

We took the conversation to a different level when we asked, “Could Jesus be portrayed nude?”  After all, Jesus was and is fully Man as well as fully God.  Some portrayals of the crucifixion have him nearly nude.  Could one show Him nude in a more glorified context?  How do we react to this painting, called “The Resurrection,” done by Ed Knippers?

The Resurrection

His artist statement is here, for those interested.

The first time many see his art, they react uncomfortably.  Is this because we are uncomfortable with physicality, with bodies in general, our own humanity?  Or, does the art cross a line, for here we deal not with an abstract body, but a particular one?

I enjoyed hearing the students discuss these difficult, but important questions.

Many thanks,

Dave M

9th Grade: Machiavelli’s Bombshell

Greetings,

This we week we wrapped up some aspects of Renaissance exploration by thinking about why exactly Europe experienced such a huge burst of exploration activity in the mid-late 15th century.

Most of us might tend to think that the key to the increased activity was the advent of new technology.  That is, Europeans discovered new tools that would help them sail the seas, and so now they could make the attempts to find new lands that lack of technology made previously impossible.

In his book Pathfinders, historian Felipe-Fernandez Armesto discounts this notion.  Very few technological advances took place in the decades leading up to the great expansion of exploration.  One thing did change significantly, however, and that was their desire to explore.  Quite simply, they wanted to go, whereas before they did not. Exploration resulted from a belief that mankind should take great risks to find out more about the world.  While they made some technological advances as a result of their sailing, things continued more or less as they had been from 1450 until the discovery of how to measure longitude in late 18th century.  Belief, not technology, spurred on exploration.

What happened?  The Renaissance shifted the emphasis from orienting one’s life from “top to bottom,” as the Medievals viewed life and thought, to a more “side to side” perspective that focused on the knowable, observable, and measurable.  Whether this shift indicated that the Renaissance tried to “improve upon God’s handiwork of creation,” as the great Umberto Eco stated, or that, “the people of the Renaissance had a renewed sense of humanity’s responsibility and stewardship of creation,” as the great art appreciator Sister Wendy postulated, is a question I want the students to consider.

So, what building cathedrals was to medievals, exploration was to the Renaissance.  Both capture the spirit of the times, and show the values of each time and place.  A good question for us to consider is, “What values does our society pursue?”  Do cultures need to dream, to risk, to reach beyond themselves to function well?

We then went on to discuss the controversial political philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli.  To help set the groundwork for understanding him, I asked the students a few questions:

1. Martin Luther supposedly said, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian” (though many now believe that Luther never said this exactly, though he said other things like it).  If we agree with Luther, this assumes that what we want from political governance differs from what we want from our spiritual leaders.  If we followed Machiavelli, for example, we would not put moral character or spiritual guidance at the top of our list for qualities we look for in political leadership.  Consider these two alternatives for president

  • A solid Christian in belief and morals, but possessing little political experience, imagination, or intelligence,

or

  • A shrewd, intelligent, and experienced leader with respect from the international community, but who does not consider himself a Christian.

“See,” Machiavelli might argue, “Contrary to your instincts, religion is not most important in politics.”  Machiavelli encourages rulers not to be hostile to religion, but believes that politics operates independently from it.

2. Can politics have a redemptive effect on humanity?  St. Augustine argued that politics, as it dealt with the ordering of earthly relationships, could not by definition help lead one to God.  Other theologians disagree with Augustine, but if you agree with him, then one opens the door for politics to have different rules than “normal” life.  For example, we have no problem admitting that trying to bluff in poker is not a sin, however much one tries to deceive others in the game.  Poker is not “normal” life.  When we play poker, we enter into an agreed upon alternate reality.

Politics functioned in a similar kind of alternate reality, according to Machiavelli.  There are times when we expect our leaders to lie or disseminate false information, especially about military operations.  Most of us would not only expect it, we might even admire the tactic should it prove successful and give our country a greater measure of safety.  Whether we agree or not, if we understand these questions we can understand where Machiavelli came from with some of his ideas.

In a famous phrase intended as jibe against Plato, Machiavelli urges us not to seek out “imagined republics.”  Like the Renaissance in general he sought guidance from what he saw in front of him, a consummate political realist.  For example. . .

1. It would be best if you (the ruler) were perfect.  But you’re not, so you will have faults and vices.  First, seek to turn your faults to your advantage if you can.  If you lack consistency of character, perhaps this could mean that your enemies will fear your unpredictability. Failing that, make sure you avoid vices that will directly effect your ability to rule.  Much better for you to run around with women, for example, than to steal from the public till.  God can forgive all sin, people will probably forgive the former, but not the latter.  Above all, power is your guiding star.  Do what you needed to do to maintain and keep power, for without that, nothing else matters (from a political perspective).

2. Should a ruler prefer to be loved or feared?  Again, ideally the answer is, “both.”  But very few can achieve this.  Since nearly all of us must choose one or the other, Machiavelli writes,

Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Some of you may remember the controversy Surgeon General C. Everett Koop created when he allowed for contraceptive education in public schools.  He stood against abortion and as a Christian privately supported abstinence, but as a public servant he believed in that if teens did have sex, they should use contraceptives, as it would protect them from disease and reduce teen pregnancy and abortions.  Some Christians applauded this stance. Others believed that Koop did not just take sin into account with his policy, he gave it the victory.  One can level the same charge against Machiavelli.  Koop and Machiavelli both, though in different ways and to different degrees, touch on the dilemma between public service and personal belief and practice.

Few Christians would want to go as far as Machiavelli did, yet many would probably find themselves agreeing with some of his assumptions.  Drawing the line appropriately will require great wisdom, and the students did a great job discussing some of these tough questions this past week.

Many thanks,

Dave M

9th Grade: Mark Twain and Renaissance Florence

Greetings,

This week we began looking at the Renaissance in Europe.  The Renaissance can be viewed as a either a reaction to, or an extension of, the feudal period that preceded it.  Whatever position one takes on that issue, no one doubts that that the Renaissance represents a new way of thinking about the world and our relationship to it.

Historians debate exactly when the Renaissance began, but most agree that the ‘Spirit of the Renaissance’ had its origin in Florence, a city in northern Italy.  Why this city, previously of no real importance, should suddenly be the epicenter of a whole new way of thinking poses a question we needed to explore.

If we look at the conditions under which cultural revolutions take place throughout history, a few general trends emerge.  For one, it appears that they generally arise in geographical and social frontiers, and not as we might expect, in the centers of power and influence.  Thus, in the Middle Ages, we see the Gothic style originate in northern France, which saw so much conflict with England and the Vikings.  On top of that, northern France had relatively less Roman influence than southern France near the Mediterranean, making them less “civilized” in the eyes of many.  But the tension between “Gallic” and “Roman” may have given them the freedom to think of things in new ways.

UnknownIn our own history Mark Twain invents American literature on what was for the time, the geographic and social frontier of America.  Today, the mythology and folklore of the “frontier” still do much to shape the American psyche. If we think of Twain’s vocabulary and compare it to say, Hawthorne’s, we see that Twain occupied a social frontier as well as a geographic one.

Notice also, for example the incredibly dynamic & spiritual  response of African-Americans to persecution from say, 1880-1964 or thereabouts.  Swing, jazz, blues, motown, soul, rock and roll — all of them basically their creations, and that hardly encompasses a final account of their contributions to American life and culture.  Perhaps their disadvantaged social position led them to think of creative ways to deal with that challenge, which helped them create such vibrant music.

Florence found itself on the geographic frontier of two more established civilizations, that of France and southern Italy.  Divided politically (as the map below indicates) northern Italy never quite had the chance to develop its own social identity.  It appears that culture arises not from comfort, but from a challenge, be that challenge physical or social.

 

 

Another common thread in cultural innovation seems to be water.  The great cultural explosions, be it in Athens, Amsterdam, London, New York, or New Orleans, all have water in common.  I don’t think this is a coincidence, something I take up much more fully in this post, which we discussed in class.  Here is a link to a post that formed part of the basis of our discussion about water and creativity.

As we delve into the Renaissance, we face many questions:

1. Inherent in the names “Middle Ages,” and “Renaissance” (which means “rebirth”) are a lot of assumptions, namely, that the Renaissance took major leaps forward for humanity after we treaded water in the “Middle Ages” after the fall of Rome.  Some historians, however, like Regine Pernoud, see the Renaissance as a step backward from what came before.  Who is right?

2. Will the new view of mankind in the Renaissance be consistent with Christianity?  Will it correct what some perceive to be a medieval over-spiritualization, or will it give humanity too much pride of place?

3. How will this new view of mankind spill over into the rest of Renaissance society?

The Renaissance emerged from the wreckage of the feudal system in the 14th century.  The old social structure did not hold, the Church was busy shooting itself in the foot, and so on.  Different ways of thinking had opportunity to emerge, and we looked at the financial innovations of the Renaissance, particularly in banking.

Many thanks,

Dave

9th Grade: Maps as Worldview

Greetings,

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.

Blessings,

Dave

 

“The (Optimistic) Spirit of Medieval Philosophy”

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 1124081small 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.

Dave

*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.

9th Grade: The Black Death and the Death of Feudalism

Greetings to all,

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.

Dave M

9th Grade: The Social Revolution of the Longbow

Greetings,

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.

Thanks so much,

Dave