9th/10th Grade: Maps as Worldview


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, his treatment of her is not as a particular historical person, but as a type of how the feminine can lead one 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.  The reasons why for this are complicated.  If you want an atypical medieval ‘apologetic’ for their style contra the ‘modern’ ideas of the Renaissance, you can check out this article.

Have a great weekend!



Prester John, Particularly

For a long time I had no understanding of memes. I still don’t, really, but possibly a bit more than I used to. Whereas before I had a grumpy old man reaction (“Kids these days and their crazy pictures), now I see them as highly condensed, symbolic, quasi-mythic kinds of communication. They contain multiple layers. Archaeologists of the future would almost certainly make many mistakes regarding memes. They would likely begin too literally, but even if they did not, they would lack the immediate cultural context necessary for interpretation.

I have always had great students and occasionally they invite me into their world. One such time, I played Apples to Apples with 5-6 other students. It was both bizarre and enlightening all at once. If the card was “Joyful” and you had an “Ice Cream Sundae” card yourself to put in the pile, one might think that would have a shot at getting picked. Wrong. Something so “straight,” so obviously 1-1 in connection, had no chance.

But neither did pure irony or sarcasm work either. Rather, the answer might be something that had an angular or parallel relationship to the subject. Something like “Ham Sandwich” might work, but not because it was joyful or its opposite, but because it had a very particular association for that particular group. “Ham Sandwich” got chosen because

  • One day Bill took a final exam, in which he thought he did ok/meh.
  • For lunch after the exam he had a ham sandwich with no mayo or mustard or anything. It was not terrible, but a bit blah, like the exam.
  • Linking the exam, which was not joyful, and the sandwich together, well–two negatives make a positive, and people during lunch laughed at the connection.
  • Now, 5 months later, “Ham Sandwich” became a phrase, or even a meme, associated with a double-whammy kind of blah, but that makes everyone laugh when said in the right way at the right time.

In other words, their associations were entirely their own, entirely understandable to them all, even with the layers of compressed meaning. When “Ham Sandwich” came up, everyone agreed that card would win. Again, a literal minded future archaeologist might see this and assume we thought ham sandwiches the greatest things around.

My students’ thinking no doubt appears to many of us old folk as odd or newfangled. Actually, their method resembles a lot of traditional thinking, with its layers of meaning not exactly verifiable for the modern mind. Future historians, take note.

Many historians today should take similar note with the past.

One of the more intriguing side cars of medieval history is the legend of Prester John. Otto of Friesing included a letter in his history supposedly from fabulously wealthy Christian king in in India, or perhaps Africa. It begins

  1. Prester John, by the power and virtue of God and our lord Jesus Christ, lord of lords, to Emmanuel, governor of the Romans, wishing him health and the extended enjoyment of divine favour.
  2. It has been reported to our majesty that you esteem our excellency and that mention [knowledge] of our High One has reached you. And we have learned through our delegate that you should wish to send us some entertainments and trifles [ludicra et iocunda], which would satisfy our righteousness.
  3. Of course we are only human, and take it in good faith, and through our delegate we transmit to you some things, for we wish and long to know if, as with us, you hold the true faith and if you, through all things, believe our lord Jesus Christ.
  4. While we know ourselves to be mortal, the little Greeks regard you as a god, while we know that you are mortal and subject to human infirmities.
  5. Because of the usual munificence of our liberality, if there is anything you should desire for your pleasure, make it known to us through our delegate through a small note of your esteem, and you shall have it for the asking.
  6. Receive the hawkweed in our own name and use it for your own sake, because we gladly use your jar of unguent in order that we mutually strengthen and corroborate our bodily strength. And, on account of (our) art, respect and consider our gift.
  7. If you should desire to come to our kingdom, we will place you in the greatest and most dignified place in our house, and you will be able to enjoy our abundance, from that which overflows with us, and you should wish to return, you will return possessing riches.
  8. Remember your end and you will not sin forever.
  9. If you truly wish to know the magnitude and excellence of our Highness and over what lands our power dominates, then know and believe without hesitation that I, Prester John, am lord of lords and surpass, in all riches which are under the heaven, in virtue and in power, all the kings of the wide world. Seventy-two kings are tributaries to us.
  10. I am a devout Christian, and everywhere do we defend poor Christians, whom the empire of our clemency rules, and we sustain them with alms.
  11. We have vowed to visit the Sepulchre of the Lord with the greatest army, just as it is befitting the glory of our majesty, in order to humble and defeat the enemies of the cross of Christ and to exalt his blessed name.
  12. Our magnificence dominates the three Indians, and our land extends from farthest India, where the body of St. Thomas the Apostle rests, to the place where the sun rises, and returns by the slopes of the Babylonian desert near the tower of Babel.
  13. Seventy-two provinces serve us, of which a few are Christian, and each one of them has its own king, who all are our tributaries.
  14. In our country are born and raised elephants, dromedaries, camels, hippopotami, crocodiles, methagallianarii, cametheternis, thinsieretae, panthers, aurochs, white and red lions, white bears, white merlins, silent cicadas, griffins, tigers, lamas, hyenas, wild oxen, archers, wild men, horned men, fauns satyrs and women of the same kind, pigmies, dog-headed men, giants whose height is forty cubits, one-eyed men, cyclopes, and a bird, which is called the phoenix, and almost all kinds of animals that are under heaven.

It continues past this, including a variety of specific details. Prester John’s pledge to help the west win back Jerusalem from the Turks interests historians particularly. In the early-mid 20th century historians reacted in a silly and superficial way, i.e., look at those dumb, credulous medieval people. Recently some have attempted more understanding, with one such effort surmising that “Prester John” was a well crafted (for medieval times at least) hoax of sorts perpetrated by Nestorian Christian heretics upon the orthodox west in an attempt to weaken them. In an era of fake news, this should make sense to us.

But it seems obvious that more exists to the story. Sir John Mandeville writes of Prester John in his famous travelogue, declaring,

This emperor, Prester John, holds full great land, and hath many full noble cities and good towns in his realm and many great diverse isles and large. For all the country of Ind is devised in isles for the great floods that come from Paradise, that depart all the land in many parts. And also in the sea he hath full many isles. And the best city in the Isle of Pentexoire is Nyse, that is a full royal city and a noble, and full rich.

This Prester John hath under him many kings and many isles and many diverse folk of diverse conditions. And this land is full good and rich, but not so rich as is the land of the great Chan. For the merchants come not thither so commonly for to buy merchandises, as they do in the land of the great Chan, for it is too far to travel to. And on that other part, in the Isle of Cathay, men find all manner thing that is need to man–cloths of gold, of silk, of spicery and all manner avoirdupois. And therefore, albeit that men have greater cheap in the Isle of Prester John, natheles, men dread the long way and the great perils m the sea in those parts.

Mandeville’s account mashes up a variety of details and motifs, and one can’t easily tell always what he seeks to communicate. But surely Mandeville had enough smarts to know that the Prester John of Friesing could not still live, and surely he knew that his readers would know this as well. Maybe he simply tells the story for fun, or we can assume that his Prester John is the heir of the original. More likely, the name “Prester John” served consciously as a stand-in for something, a meme of sorts.

But if one reads a bit more about medieval references to Prester John, we see that they at times referenced him in very specific and concrete ways. Suddenly, for example, “Prester John” nearly morphs into Ghengis Khan:

“…from ancient times, Tartaria was subject to the King of India, and up till that time calmly and peacefully paid him the tribute that was due. When the aforesaid king asked for the customary tribute from them, he also ordered that some of them submit themselves to compulsory service, either in the armies or in work; they began complaining at this offence from the hand of their lord, and [took] counsel whether to simply obey him or to withstand him as much as possible.”

That was when Genghis Khan entered the story, and he, “who seemed [most] sagacious and venerable, gave counsel that they oppose their king’s order.” Then, quote:

“…they conspired against their lord King David, namely the son of once lord and emperor of India, Prester John, and, cunningly plot….”

“…roused by the possibility of shaking off their servitude and obtaining triumph, with a huge number of them departing their own land with bows and arrows and clubs or staffs, strengthened by their more powerful weapons, … they invaded the land of their lord simultaneously from two directions and completely saturated it with an effusion of blood. But King David, hearing of their unexpected coming, and being in no way strong enough to resist them, when he tried to flee from one section of the army, he was prevented and besieged by the other, and at length he was cut to pieces limb by limb, along with his whole family except for one daughter, namely the surviving daughter which Genghis Khan took to wife, and from whom, so it is said, he produced sons.”

We have here a mixing of the precise and contemporary, and perhaps Biblical history, though I make no claim to know whom he meant by King David. But everyone knew Ghengis Khan, who suddenly has become “Prester John.”

I am not sure why they made such associations. But I venture that

  • Some may have believed Prester John (PJ) to be an actual, particular person, but many probably did not
  • In the various references PJ occupied a place on the fringe geographically, and the fringe is always a slippery place. Hence, sometimes PJ gets described as a Christian, and other times he seems something less than a Christian (and here the interesting link to PJ as an invention of Nestorian heretics takes on an intriguing hue).
  • We can speculate, therefore, that PJ served as something of a stand-in for a “Garment of Skin” (Gen. 3:24). Originally God granted these “garments” to Adam and Eve, but they come as a result of sin. A garment of skin functions as something one could use to make one’s way in the world, something powerful, but one must show caution. Such things easily get out of hand.

The concept of “Garments of Skin” has a more theological complexity than I could discuss on this post, or any other post, for that matter. I lack the dexterity and the depth of knowledge. As a start, we can consider these garments buffers between us and the world, as well as a tool to help us deal with the world. It amounts mostly to the same thing. For example, we can consider the internet as one form of such garment. It connects to the world in a way, and.shields from the world in another. Many have noted that conservatives have seemingly made better use of YouTube and other mediums to advance their worldviews than liberals. I would agree, and to the extent that I care about such things, am glad of the fact. But I would urge caution–any medium that subverts so many barriers is inherently not an ally of tradition. One day, the internet will likely turn against conservatives, though for now (Twitter aside), conservatives have their moment.

It seems that medievals thought of Prester John just in this way. The Mongols had tremendous power, and this power, properly directed, might help Christians. But one must ask oneself with a garment of skin . . . “Do you feel in charge?”

I have digressed from my main point, that of how the medievals wrote their histories. To me, Prester John seems something akin to a Ham Sandwich meme, sometimes as a stand-in for something specific, other times as a larger intertextual construct for a particular hope of an outside buffer against the encroaching Moslem world.* Whether I am right or not, I remain convinced that we have to adopt an approach like this if wish to understand medieval histories and texts.

To me we find the key in the idea of elasticity of specificity. Even when talking about Prester John as someone on the fringe of observable reality, the anchor is not a concept but a particular person. “Ham sandwich” can mean many things, but first, it was a ham sandwich.

In his Reflections on the Psalms C.S. Lewis writes,

If Man is finally to know the bodiless, timeless, transcendent Ground of the whole universe not as a mere philosophical abstraction but as the Lord who, despite his transcendence, “is not far from any one of us,” as a an utterly concrete Being (far more concrete than you and I) whom Man can fear, love, address, and “taste,” he must begin far more humbly, far more near to home.  Begin with the local altar, the traditional feast . . . . It is possible that a certain kind of enlightenment can come too soon and too easily.  At that early stage it may not be fruitful to talk of God as a featureless being, a disc like the sun.   

 Since in the end we must come to baptism, the Eucharist, the stable at Bethlehem, the hill at Calvary, and the empty rock tomb, perhaps it is better to begin with circumcision, the Ark, and the Temple.  For “the highest does not exist without the lowest.”   It will not stand, it will not stay.  It will rise, and expand, and finally we lose it in an endless space.  God turns into a remote abstraction.  Rather, the entrance is low, and we must stoop to enter. 

Some look at traditional religion in general, or perhaps Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the Christian world in particular, and see a confusing multiplicity. The Church calendar gets overlaid with the civic calendar, various different feasts, saints, and so on. At one glance it seems unnecessarily complicated, and a threat to true worship. Of course practitioners then and now would not see it that way. For them, as Lewis indicates, without these particular roots, and perhaps even (to the outsider at least) idiosyncrasies, one cannot scale up to the Highest Good, and the Highest Good cannot scale down. Absent all of the particulars, we get left with abstractions, and ultimately, the end of belief. Surely the west gives ample evidence of this over the last few centuries.**

One can start with the mythic Prester John of Friesing and work your way back down to Ghenis Khan, or start with a ham sandwich and work up to something grand about the flip that happens at the end of the world–i.e., two negatives becoming a positive. Either up or down works as a starting point, provided that you can complete the scale.


*The history of the Mongols bears out the unpredictable, powerful nature of Garments of Skin. Yes, on the one hand they did break Moslem power, in part through a horrifying massacre at Baghdad in 1258. Yet, many Mongols in fact became Moslems and not Christians, and this Mongol “Golden Horde” wrecked havoc on Christian Russia in the 15th century. Handle such garments with extreme care.

**The way I saw the students play Apples to Apples makes me wonder if the west is becoming more medieval, more symbolic or traditional in how it views the world. Of course this alone would say nothing, but other factors seem at work, such as a trend away from liberal transnationalism, the importance of images over text, and so on.

Just like the double-negative flipping things the other way, so too the quick advancement of technology might bring back certain aspects of traditional cultures. Back in ye olden days, a written document had no authority in itself. Its contents needed incarnated, spoken, proclaimed, to be made “real.” Hence, the job of town crier. With AI video deep fakes getting more and more sophisticated, we may stop trusting anything except the actual person physically present.

The Royal Touch

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

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

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

But then . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloch comments, that

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

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

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

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

The fever immediately abated, and the disease was cured.  

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

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

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

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

Bloch also wonders why such miracles seem mostly confined the French and English monarchies.  Perhaps it happened elsewhere, but we have little textual evidence to support it.  We might also plausibly wonder why it reports of such miracles slowed considerably during the 17th century and cease practically altogether in the 18th.

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

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


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

9th/10th Grade: The Social Revolution of the Longbow


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,


Carnival Time

One of my favorite of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries is “The Guru of Go,” about Loyola Marymount University’s run-and-gun style of basketball.  Those who follow college basketball today know that scores routinely end up in the 60’s, but LMU routinely scored in the 90’s and had many games of over 100 points or more.  Their command over their own style of play “forced” other teams to try and keep up.  But . . . even when teams could stick with Loyola Marymount  in the short-term, the fact that they got caught up in the fast pace meant that they played on enemy territory.  Inevitably, the pace would wear down opponents and Loyola would shoot ahead, leaving the other guys wheezing on the bench.

Most every Christian in the west of an orthodox (small “o”) bent acknowledges that the so-called culture war is over and has been for some time.  We lost.  This might surprise someone transported from, say, the 1980’s when it appeared that “victory” was at hand, with the ascendancy of the moral majority and political conservatism firmly entrenched.  Now looking back we see that marshaling coalitions and votes for laws and Supreme Court justices only meant playing on enemy territory.  Rather, the “City of God” cannot arise using the tools of the “City of Man.”  Like Loyola’s opponents, we got enticed into playing a game ill suited to us–a secular game on secular turf.

Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age will likely prove too deep and dense for me to glean much from.  He writes in a conversational style but with deep concepts and many variations of thought.  One needs a great deal of focus to follow him.  But I felt, perhaps rashly, that the whole of his thesis made sense when he discussed . . .

medieval carnivals.

Medieval carnivals took some different forms in different times and places.  Some days merely involved eating and drinking too much, such as “Fat Tuesday.”  Some had more complexity/absurdity, such as the “Lord of Misrule,” which happened around Christmastide.  In this space of time a sub-deacon or even a peasant might get appointed as chief of festivities, which obviously involved eating and drinking, among other things.   Other such similar days had dukes serve as peasants and peasants occupy manorial houses, and so on.  So in the carnival emblem to the side, all of creation seems reversed, as the hare triumphantly rides the hunting hound.

Most commentators point out that such festivals allowed people to let off steam, especially necessary in a structured and hierarchical society such as medieval Europe.  Even some contemporary clerics acknowledge this role for the carnival.  But this forms only the baseline for understanding the role of the carnival.  The emblem of the hare and hounds attest to something grander at work.

Those committed to Christianity know that it provides a means to understand all of experience, not just life after death.  Much of our Christian life involves holding things in tension.  So we believe that God is one God in three persons, neither favoring the unity or the plurality, but going “straight ahead.”  Jesus is fully God and fully man, “without confusion,” as stated by the Council of Chalcedon.  The Church hymns the Virgin Mary as the “unwedded bride.”  For the Mother of God both terms truly apply, without confusion.  Scripture is the Word of God, written by particular men at particular times, and so on it goes.  Christians rightly recognized the Incarnation as the focal point of human experience, for in the coming of Christ creation gets remade and reborn, as John attests in his Gospel by obviously referencing Genesis 1.  After the Incarnation we live in a new world, but in many ways outwardly it exactly resembles the old world.

In the world B.C.*, people saw childlessness as a curse.  Of course children are a blessing in a physical, natural sense, but at a deeper level we were meant to perpetuate the continuing natural order as a means of bringing about the coming of Messiah.  No children meant no participation in redemption.

In the kingdom to come, however, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage.  Thus, we honor monastics.  At the baseline, we honor them for their sacrifice.  But their vows of poverty and chastity mean that they do not live in ordinary time. Their lives transcend the ordinary needs of the world with its buying, selling, and saving, and also reflects the reality of the new creation wrought by Christ. They live partially in eternal time, which contains all time.  They “neither marry, or are given in marriage,” and of course in the heavenly kingdom no one needs money.**  Monastics may or may not live exemplary lives, but the fact of their “station in life” puts them closer to eternal time than laity and even priests, who must concern themselves with affairs in the world.

In his essay Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper makes that case that the only way to escape the cycle of work is to receive breaks in time from without.  Even vacations, he points out, cannot be “leisure” if we view them strictly as breaks from work.  Modern views of labor probably originated with Marx and his followers, and certainly we should sympathize with the “proletariat,” if we wish to use the term.  But as Pieper wryly remarks, “Proletarianism cannot obviously be overcome by making everyone proletarian.”

Ordinary time may be strictly linear, but not “eternal time.”  Eternal time contains all moments.  We the laity, despite our ordinary and natural station, can still at times participate in eternal time.  Taking the crucifixion as an example, Taylor writes,

Meanwhile the Church, in its liturgical year, remembers and re-enacts what happened . . . [at Christ’s crucifixion].  Which is why this year’s Good Friday can be closer to the Crucifixion than last year’s mid-summer’s day.  And the Crucifixion itself, since Christ’s passion here participates in God’s eternity, is closer to all times than they in secular terms are to each other.

Put in other terms, on this view tracts of secular time were not homogenous and interchangeable.  They were [differentiated] by their placing in relation to higher time.

Medieval carnivals did not participate in sacred time, but they did recognize the duality.  By breaking down the natural order of ordinary time, they testified to the reality of sacred eternity, where a completely new order will forever take hold of the cosmos.  Thus, the breaking down of the order gives it new life, the secular/ordinary order gets reborn freshly after each carnival.  It makes perfect sense that the “Lord of Misrule” would “reign” during Christmastide, for this time on calendar celebrated the breaking in of the eternal into temporal via the Incarnation.  “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while He is with them (Mk. 2:19)?”

Carnivals did not protest against the prevailing order so much as re-affirm it.  Recognizing its temporary and inferior status was the only way it could be reaffirmed, the only way order could perpetuate.

We remember Henry VIII for his many marriages, but it makes perfect sense that an absolutist like Henry would also abolish the days of misrule at Christmastide.  This too accompanies his seizure of monastic lands.  The monastic vocation and the carnival testify to this tension in time, and to the transitory nature of the state.  No statist like Henry likes such things.  Worlds other than those they made frighten and confuse them.

We see too that whatever its intentions, by abolishing liturgies and the church calendar, the Reformation paved the way for secularization.  Bit by bit Protestant denominations moved away from the “sacred time” of the church calendar year. Taylor cites Walter Benjamin’s description of “homogenous and empty time” as the mark of modern consciousness.  “On this view,” Taylor writes, “time [has no meaning in itself] but is like a container, indifferent to what fills it.  Without “eternal liturgics,” and without a sense of time as a gift to mold and shape us, all that is left is for us to fill time with meaning.  And so we have, and created the secular state thereby.

This secular victory is quite empty, however. The homogenization of time makes everything sterile.  Nothing can have real meaning.  Without fasting, our materialistic civilization cannot even feast.  With the homogenization of time comes the homogenization of space–including space for worship.  With no delineation of either time and space, it’s no wonder that, to riff on Milton Friedman, “we’re all secular now.”

We see this view of the homogeneity and plasticity of time permeate our society. Take Fridays for example.  Back in ye olden days Fridays for everyone involved fasting of some kind, for each Friday participated in some way in the Crucifixion–not just in memory, but in reality.  After abandoning the dual sense of time described above we instead oriented time around our work/school week.  Now Friday has taken on the opposite role in our secular liturgy as a day of release, fun, and celebration.  Imagine a family trying to establish something of the older sense of Fridays, and the enormous accompanying societal/liturgical pressure to go out and have fun with friends from work or school facing them square in the face.

“Resistance is futile.”

Of course, this same story has been played out in so many other areas. Without Advent we get Black Friday.  Without Paschaltide we get “Spring Breakers.”

In a recent conversation with Hank Hannegraaf Rod Drehrer recounted his meeting with a group of evangelical pastors near the election.  While Drehrer understood why one might vote for Trump “in sorrow,” as an alternative to Clinton, he admitted an utter incredulity in seeing some pastors positively enthused about Trump.  The response from another evangelical who shared his lament was, “You have to understand, they have no Plan B.  Politics is the only way they can conceive of changing the world.”^

The statism of Henry VIII–and others– has born disastrous fruit.

Many on the more secular left might lament Trump’s election and see it as proof that the “war has yet to be won,” or something like that.  They can relax and break out the cigars.  The war was won long ago, the rest has been mopping-up operations here and there.

I find it hard to tell if Taylor laments or merely describes the shift towards secularism.  He does state that at most all those who hope for a return can do is indulge in nostalgia.  I agree that the tide ran out long ago, but I have more hope.  A proper and effective response will first recognize that turning the battleship will take generations of small faithfulness in our lives and homes.  We should begin with a developing a new sense of time.


Written (originally in 2018) on the Feast of the Chains of St. Peter, and the Commemoration of St. Paul the Apostle

*The attempt to replace B.C./A.D. with BCE/CE may only be meant as a sop to political correctness or inclusivity.  No doubt people mean well.  But still, the switch is at root an attempt to remake our understanding of time.  Though I lament this shift, it is in many ways long overdue, as we no longer order our lives around the impact of the Incarnation.  It took the French just four years of Revolution to switch their calendar.  It will take us much longer, because we have nothing to replace it with.  We lack the bold audacity of the French, which is a good thing, considering that tens of thousands died in the French Revolution and millions died in the Napoleonic wars.

**Visitors to the monasteries on Mount Athos notice that two different clocks are used in many of the monasteries.  One, the familiar ordinary/secular time, the other clocks measure the now nearly extinct “Byzantine” time (Byzantine clock seen bel0w) to reflect this dual reality.

^So too the French Revolutionaries, which explains the failure of their festivals.  They sought to ape medieval carnivals, but key differences persisted:

  • They were attempting to construct a new order, not deconstruct an existing order.
  • Thus, their festivals had a much more didactic emphasis than medieval carnivals, which
  • Made them much more boring.

Death in the Days of Louis the Fat

Consider some of what follows a thought experiment rather than a settled conclusion . . .

For some time now I have contemplated Charles Taylor’s idea that a significant impetus in creating the modern world is that we homogenize space and time.  This belief/practice has shaped us for at least 350 years, and it has led us to try and combine many different elements of nature and the subsequent explosion of technological invention.  Many of these creations have greatly improved human life, at least in the physical sense.  But of course, it has also brought about the destruction of any corporate sense of meaning, and an immense decline in the idea of sanctity.

To homogenize something makes it ubiquitous.  Recently Marginal Revolution linked to an article about how technology has made music unimportant in our culture, largely through its constant availability.  The author’s conclusion in the linked article is not original, as many have declared something similar, but it serves as another reminder of the cost of the homogenization of space and time.

By contrast, the medieval world presents itself as one of the careful delineation of all things.  We need not say here whether their world or ours is better or worse to appreciate the difference.  Reading primary sources from a particular era gives one such an appreciation, and Abbot Suger’s crackling style makes The Deeds of Louis the Fat an enjoyable read.*  He centers his writing on how Louis enhanced the power of the monarchy by bringing several dastardly nobles back in line.  His people loved him, if for no other reason that he kept the peace and stood up for those oppressed.  Suger clearly admires his subject, though he recognizes that the good king had his moniker for a reason, writing that,

By now his body was quite heavy, weighed down as it was by burdensome flesh; no one else, not even a beggar, would have wanted to–or even been able–to ride a horse when hampered by such a dangerously large body.

And later . . .

Thus [Louis] spoke, and–despite his corpulence– he set off with astonishing enthusiasm.

I confess to reading the text with an eye to what would most engage the boys in my 9th/10th grade Medieval History class, and that meant primarily looking for stories of gruesome deaths.**  Suger delivers the goods!  For example:

There can be no doubt that the hand of God exacted this swift vengeance upon William of Laroche Guyon [who had murdered a husband and wife in cold blood to gain possession of their castle].  His accomplices were thrown out of the windows dead or alive, bristling with innumerable arrows like hedgehogs. They waved about in the air on the points of the lances, as if the very earth had rejected them. For the unparalleled deed of William they discovered a rare vengeance; for he who in life had been heartless had his heart cut out of his dead body. When they had taken it from his entrails, all swollen with fraud and iniquity, they put it on a stake and set it up for many days in a fixed place to demonstrate the punishment for crime.  

His body and those of some of his companions, were placed on hurdles tied with cords and ropes, and sent sailing down the Seine so that, if nothing stopped them floating down to Rouen, the Normans should see the punishment incurred by his crime, and also so that those who had briefly fouled France with their stink should in death continue to foul Normandy, their native soil.

Suger later discusses the murder of  Charles the Good, killed while praying prostrate in church along with his cohorts.  He spares no details and seems to relish them. First, the execution of the plotters:

Now [the criminals] despaired of life, and their lyre was turned to mourning and their organ into the voice of them that weep (Job XXX, 31); the most wicked Bourchard left with the agreement of his companions, hoping to flee the land but found himself unable to do so, though only his own iniquity prevented him. On his return to the castle of one of his intimate friends he was seized by the king’s command and suffered exquisite torture in death. Tied to the upper part of a high wheel, exposed naked to the rapacity of crows and other birds of prey, his eyes torn out and his whole face lacerated, pierced by a thousand blows from arrows, lances and spears, he perished miserably and his body was thrown into a sewer.  

Bertold, the brains behind the plot, also decided to flee; but when he found he was able to wander around without restriction, he returned through sheer pride; for he asked himself, ‘Who am I and what have I done?’ So he was captured by his own men, handed over to the king’s judgement and condemned to a well-merited and wretched death. They hanged him from a gibbet with a dog and as the dog was struck it took its anger out on Bertold, chewed his whole face and, horrible to relate, covered him with excrement; so, more miserable than the most miserable of men, he ended his wretched life in perpetual death.  

The men the king had besieged in the tower were forced by many hardships to surrender. In front of their relations Louis had them thrown our one by one from the top of the tower to crush their skulls. One of them called Isaac had been tonsured in a monastery to avoid death; Louis ordered him to be defrocked and hanged on a gibbet. Thus victorious at Bruges, the king rapidly led his army to Ypres, an excellent castle, to take vengeance on William the Bastard, who had fomented the treason. He sent messengers to the people of Bruges and brought them around to his side by threats and flattery. Then as William barred his way with three hundred knights, half the royal army rushed against him and the other half went off at an angle and boldly occupied the castle by way of its other gate. The king kept it, William lost all claim to Flanders, and was banished. Because he had aspired to gain Flanders through treachery, it was right that he should gain nothing whatever in Flanders.  

Suger closes this narrative commenting that,

Flanders was washed clean and almost re-baptized by these various forms of revenge and the great outpouring of blood. So having installed William the Norman as count, the king returned to France, victorious by God’s help.  

At first glance the means of their death, and Suger’s possible delight in such details, surely strikes us as barbaric and unChristian.  We tell ourselves that we have come much farther since those “dark days.”  But I want to suggest–or at least explore–the possibility, that Suger and the medievals may have been on to something.

I tread lightly, for I am aware that this may be one of the craziest of my crazy ideas.

To begin, we can reflect on John Wilkes Booth.  He killed Lincoln, and no one denied that he should face the death penalty.  Everyone wanted him captured alive . . . so that he could be tried and then executed.  He died while pursued by troops either by his own hand or that of a trigger-happy soldier, and people were upset.  But why bother?  Dead is dead, right?  He saved us the expense of a trial. Why all the fuss?  But, everyone recognized at the time that while his death was important, the manner of his death was also important.  To be tried and publicly executed would have a different meaning than if he took his own life, a collective, and cathartic, justice, vs. the “triumphant” and defiant individual.

If we accept this reasoning we begin to see that not every death is alike.  Different kinds of death carry with them different meanings.

If different kinds of death carry with them different meanings, then we may feel inclined to accept that our bodies have meaning, and bodily actions have certain meanings.  Some of this is obvious–certain facial expressions and gestures have a universal meaning across cultures, time, and space.  Other implications follow.  If the body has meaning then gender has an inherent meaning, and so on.  We simply cannot invent ourselves from thin air.

So far, so good, but from here it gets trickier.  Before considering the manner of their deaths we should consider the crimes committed.

  • The crimes were done in cold blood, against defenseless victims.  One of the victims was killed in church alone while praying.  The other was ambushed in his castle after he welcomed them inside, and then his wife was also brutally stabbed to death as threw herself on the body of her dying husband.
  • The crimes had many witnesses to them and no doubt existed as to their guilt.
  • Those that murdered the lord in his castle did so with the express purpose of rebelling against the king.  Those that murdered Charles the Good seemed intent on seizing his land and title.
  • Aside from the cold-blooded nature of the murders, the crimes violated a) the sacrosanct nature of the Church as a safe place of devotion to God, and b) the direct violation of hospitality.

Would an ordinary punishment suffice, that is, an ordinary death sentence, a simple, dignified, beheading?

I have not seen the movie Training Day, for which Denzel Washington won a Best Actor Oscar.  I did hear an interview with Washington, however, in which he discussed how he agreed to the movie only if they changed the script.  He felt that the original ending left the possibility that his character survived, which meant the possibility of a sequel.  Instead, he said that, (my memory is close but not exact) “My character lived like a dog, so he should die like a dog.  Anything else would not be right, or fair to the story.”

Again, we see the manner of death as having significance to the story.  Perhaps the same could be true of the events Suger relates.  We cannot see the meaning of their actions without seeing the consequences those actions have.  The public nature of the punishments inflicted rub us wrongly as well.  But we must also wonder whether or not we have swung too far in the direction of privacy in last century or so.  We no longer vote in public, we no longer need to speak in public (we can comment anonymously on line).  Perhaps this has contributed to the cultural divide and polarization we now face.

Our modern homogenization of life and death has not made unjust deaths any less frequent.  If anything, one might suggest that, at certain times at least, it has positively increased it.  The beginning of this phenomena may have been the French Revolution, where the guillotine treated all alike.  But this industrialization of death led to its mass production, and numbed much of France for years.  The class and racial identity politics of Hitler and Lenin led to further industrialized butchery.  Equality in death led to piles of statistics, an undecipherable mass.  The vast majority of these deaths were hidden far from the people at large.

I truncated the above accounts from Suger, but even still, it seems that the deaths inflicted give the stories a “satisfying” ending (the effect increases by reading the whole story). We can call this a latent string of barbarism in our psyche or . . . it may be that the medievals acted rightly, provided of course that such punishments truly fit the crimes and that no one could dispute their guilt.  Suger, an Abbott and scholar,  has no doubt of this, for he mentions specifically that the violent end of the malefactors “washed clean” Flanders, for example.

Perhaps our executions should be more public. Perhaps this could be a means for us to process important truths of life and death. I hesitate to say that the method of execution should vary depending on the crime, for in the accounts above things seemed to happen at least in part “in the heat of the moment.”  To inflict such punishments in cold blood presents a host of problems.  But I feel a certain amount of tension.  If we treat every death alike, the body may lose its inherent meaning, and then death will lose its meaning. If death loses its meaning, so too will life.  All we will have left, then, will be a monotonous march to oblivion.

*The Carolingians win for having the best names for their kings, i.e., Pepin the Short, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Louis the Pious, Charles the Bald, Charles the Simple (i.e, Charles the Stupid), and of course, Louis the Fat.

**I know of no better way to get 15 year old boys interested in learning about feudal hierarchy and symbolism, a classic bait and switch. The girls, who are usually far more agreeable but often far less interested in the gory details, “must endure their going hence.”

9th/10th Grade: Planetary Influences


Last week when we looked at medieval society we saw that the basic “flow” of their civilization ran towards security and stability over opportunity and change.  This week we looked at the historical context of this choice, and what other areas of belief may have influenced those choices.

Many of us may believe that we have freedom to make of our lives what we will, that we paint upon a blank canvas.  In reality, where we live, when we live, and what happens around us influence us a great deal, sometimes subconsciously.  So too, we must evaluate the choices made by the medievals in light of the context from which they emerged.

In the centuries after the fall of Rome, change and uncertainty formed the dominant theme, as the map below indicates.

Barbarian Invasions

No one can live like this for long.  Wen respite came after the conversion of many of these tribes, it made sense that one would want to create a society where one knew their place for themselves and their children.  We see this love of “knowing one’s place” in their cosmology.  A few different ideas dominated their view of the cosmos.


In space up and and down is all relative, but we need to find an orientation to make sense of our surroundings.  When we look at the sky moderns today would say we look “across” the universe (like the famous Beatles song) at other stars, planets, etc.  All of the pictures I remember of the Solar System had the planets in a horizontal line, like this one:

For the medievals one looked “up” at the stars from a fixed position on Earth.  Everything you saw stood higher than you, and naturally height conveyed superiority.  The Earth occupied a pride of place, in the sense that other planets revolved around it, but what many overlook is that it also occupied the bottom rung of the ladder, a combination of dignity and humility.

Spheres of Influence

Each planet, or section of the universe, had its own sphere of influence, it’s own “part to play.”  If you play second chair oboe, you keep your eyes off the music of first chair trumpet.  Here is a rough outline of how they saw things:

This concept of “spheres of influence” may have seeped into medieval feudalism, where each noble had their own territory, or “sphere” where they had a large amount of power and discretion.  Thus feudal Europe knew little of the problem of political centralization (though they had other problems).  I should note that the above picture shows Earth much larger than they believed it to be in reality.  Everyone followed Ptolemy’s Almagest which stated that,

The Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point.

As my colleague Mr. Rogers pointed out, they represented the Earth thematically in relation to the rest of the cosmos, for here is where the drama of salvation takes place.


It is precisely this division and separation that created the overall harmony.  Space for medievals brimmed with energy and life, in contrast to the modern view of a great cold void.  Sound comes from motion, and it seems that they literally believed in the “music of the spheres,” a grand cosmic symphony created by planetary motion.

Everyone knew their place in the cosmos, and knew that place to have significance.

One can exaggerate the importance of these ideas on everyday life.  The path of Saturn would not change the fact that you have pick up your kids at soccer practice.  But deep down, surely our view of a vast, linear, and empty universe impacts us.  Some of us might echo the French philosopher/mathematician Pascal, who wrote that, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread.”

As a brief aside, we note that for the medievals, education involved not just the “trivium” — the grammar, logic, and rhetoric of a subject — but also the “quadrivium,” consisting of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.  To see music grouped with these three will strike us as odd.  But for the medievals the only way to understand math was to understand music, and so too, astronomy could not be properly understood without knowing music.  Music then, served not just to entertain but to teach us about the reality of the universe itself.

Whether they consciously linked their cosmology and their daily life or not, we can see a direct connection between their view of society, though can’t tell if the chicken preceded the egg.  Like all societies they had their own system, their own strengths and weaknesses.  Whatever its faults, in feudal Europe you knew your duties and what was expected of you, as this text from ca. AD 1200 shows. . .

I, Thiebault, count palatine of Troyes, make known to those present and to come that I have given in fee to Jocelyn of Avalon and his heirs the manor Gillencourt, which is of the castle La Ferte sur Aube; and whatever this same Jocelyn shall be able to acquire in the same manor I have granted to him and his heirs in augmentation of that fief I have granted, moreover, to him that no free manor of mine will I retain men who are of this gift.  The same Jocelyn, moreover, on account of this, has become my liege man, saving however, his allegiance to Gerard d’ Arcy, and to the lord duke of Burgundy, and to Peterm count of Auxerre.  Done at Chouadude, by my own witness, in the year of the Incarnation of our Lord 1200 in the month of January.

Yes, it could be complicated (but less so that the software contracts we “agree” to).  Basically the king ruled at the behest of the nobility, but the nobles owed the king military service.  Peasants farmed the land of the lord, but the lord owed them protection and patronage, and so on.  The whole of society was a dance of mutual obligation.  But just as the Earth could not switch places with Jupiter, so too your station is your station, whatever betide (for the most part).

Next week we will look at those outside the basic feudal structure, the craftsmen and merchants.  Until then,


Gods of the Sideways World

This post was originally published some years ago.  You will note the dated references . . .


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Plant Life

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


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


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

Christ Himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

9th/10th Grade: Societies Give, Societies Take Away


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

Imagine you had the following choices at age 16:

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

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

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

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

The Modern West

  • Opportunity
  • Individuality
  • Mobility

Feudal Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Dave Mathwin

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.


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 Virgin Mary bearing the union of Heaven and Earth in the person of Christ. 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 as in pagan cultures, 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–the cyclical and the linear–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. Some now on the right feel a leftist totalitarianism on the rise. 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.


*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.

Room 237

In western Canadian native culture, they tell a story about the South Wind and a skate. The South Wind’s volatility caused many problems for the people, making it impossible for them to fish and gather shellfish on the shore. They decide to fight the winds to make them behave. Some people and fish embark on an expedition to tame the wind, and have success. The South Wind agrees only to blow from time to time at certain periods, so that people can get on with their lives.

In his Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture Claude Levi-Strauss sees more here than a nice story. He focused on the presence of the skate, which like a flounder, presents itself as a “normal” fish but is actually quite thin. When lying on the bottom, the skate presents an easy target, but a simple twist of its body will suddenly make it a much more difficult target. The skate, then, presents a kind of binary, a yes/no option to the world. He writes,

If the South Wind blows every day of the year, then life is impossible for mankind. But if it blows only one day out of two–‘yes’ one day and ‘no’ the other–then a compromise becomes possible between the needs of mankind and the conditions of the natural world. Levi-Strauss comments,

Thus, from a logical point of view, there is an affinity between an animal like the skate and the kind of problem the myth is trying to solve. The story is not true from a strictly scientific point of view be we can only understand this property of the myth at a time when computers have come to exist and provided us with an understanding of binary operations which had already been put to use in a very different way with concrete objects or beings by mythical thought. So there is no divorce between mythology and science.

As moderns we love to parse and divide, and so many theories exist about the functions of myths (I am guessing that ancient/traditional society have no such theories). Bronislaw Malinowski championed the “Functionalist” school–myths describe how we make life work regarding our basic human needs and drives. Claude Levy-Bruhl took an entirely different approach, arguing that the key difference between “primitive” and modern people came down to “emotional” and “mystic” representations from the former vs. scientific for the latter.

Strauss had a different approach, one I think closer to the truth. Traditional or “primitive” man had the ability to think in a disinterested, scientific way, but went about it differently than moderns. Strauss argued that we need to see more science in the past, and more myth in the present. True, the “scientific mind,” as described by Descartes, seeks “to divide the difficulty into as many parts as necessary in order to solve it.” But in the end, we must find coherence in order to manifest the order of the cosmos. As Strauss argued, if humanity the world over seeks order and meaning, it must be because order and meaning exist in the world.

The link between scientific and mythological thinking shows up sometimes in suprising places.

In his The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance Wayne Shumaker gives an interesting perspective on the Renaissance–one not in keeping with our natural expectations. He agrees with historian Paul Kocher–both note that the best attacks on Astrology during the Renaissance–Elizabethan era came almost entirely from ecclesiastics, including Pope Sixtus V, Pope Urban VIII, William Fulke, John Calvin, William Perkins, John Chamber, and George Carleton. Kocher continues,

And who, on the other side, spoke up for astrology? To the bewilderment of the modern analyst, chiefly the foremost scientific men of the age . . . an almost solid front of physicians, astronomers, and other natural philosophers, renowned for their achievements.

Kocher, Science and Religion in the Elizabethan Era, p. 267

Our typical assumptions about the Renaissance need reviewed, and Shumaker writes with great clarity and precision to facilitate this.

The argument for astrology in the Renaissance came from medieval roots, to be sure. To understand the medieval approach we have to reorient our assumptions about the nature of space, the relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and the concept of identity.


  • Moderns see emptiness, a void, with objects moving that only occasionally and remotely have an interactive relationship based on mass.
  • Ancient and medieval people saw a universe crammed with life, be it the gods, angels, intelligences, etc. All these beings have a continuous relationship with one another.

Physical and the Spiritual

  • Moderns tend to separate the two. We have symbols, but what is really real is matter, what we see, observe, measure, etc. Spiritual realities exist, perhaps, but the two worlds do not mix
  • Ancients and medievals saw the two as constantly intermingling and influencing one another. This has ultimate expression in the mass, where heaven and earth meet in the transformation of the eucharistic elements into the Body and Blood of Christ, and the ripple effects flow from that.

Moderns acknowledge that physical things like weather impact our moods and can alter events. Ancients and medievals extended that sphere of influence into the heavens. Many in the Renaissance took in one step further. Shumaker writes that,

the Renaissance defense of astrology rested very heavily on the alleged power of “rays” to exert influence by means of light and heat. The rays of the sun operate upon us sensibly, and those of the moon, which was known to influence the tides, could be concentrated sufficiently by a concave mirror to produce warmth. Is it credible that rays from other cosmic bodies can affect us?


  • Moderns focus a great deal on the idea of the “true self,”* which must be liberated from the constraints of every influence to act freely and shine brightly. We eschew accepting that outside entities or forces should have any role in forming our concept of the self.
  • Ancient-medieval people readily understood that family, place, the gods/God all formed core aspects of our identity that no one really questioned or fought back against.

Astrology (as distinct from astronomy) must at first glance seem very distant from the modern mindset. And yet, modern science and astrology had a partnership for a time. They went their separate ways as a couple might divorce, not because they had a natural enmity. We can begin to understand this connection if we look at one of the horoscopes prepared for King Henry VIII of England, which relied on very precise observations. Its original rendering looked like this:

Which in modern observational terms would translate to something like this:

One translation of the horoscope reads,

This horoscope, in which there could be no greater good or any greater evil–because Venus is in the 9th house with Aldebaran and the Tail an in sextile with Mercury–shows a change in the laws which will not be revoked but will remain settled. Also the moon, in the 7th house and in quartile with the sun, while Saturn is in trine aspect with Venus, places as has been described, and Mars is in trine with the lord of the 7th house, Jupiter, announces divorce and much trouble with wives, to the point that one will be capitally punished. Saturn is in opposition with Mercury, since Mercury . . .

Some excerpts from the horoscope of Cicero, the famous Roman, composed in 1547:

The ornament of eloquence and mouth of the Romans has in his horoscope (i.e., the first house) the heart of a Lion, and with it, the sun, the Tail (the descending node of the moon), Mercury, Venus, and Mars: by these his fluency and high authority were determined. Almost the same things are reported of Petrarch . . .

And again, a horoscope of Emperor Charles V:

Charles V, born February 25, at 4:34 am . . . A peculiarity is the noting of stellar magnitudes within named constellations. In Book I of the Supplementum Almanach, Cardan discussed the names and powers of some 46 stars. Here he finds significance in their magnitudes . . . . Jupiter is with the third star in the water of Aquarius, a star of the fourth magnitude, and the nature of Saturn, with very little of that of Jupiter. . . . The sun is with a star in the back of Perseus, of the 2nd magnitude, and of the nature of Mars and Mercury . . .

We see in these examples language of precise measurements of time and space, with very little overt religious language or mysticism. The key to proper astrology involved knowing the precise date and time of birth, and coordinating that with known star charts and planetary movements. Observation, notation, comparison to other known data–all of this fits snugly within a scientific frame. As Shumaker notes, “We can set aside our doubts and accept [Renaissance] astrology as meeting all the requirements of a true science.”

Renaissance astrologists shared certain characteristics with their medieval forebears. Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia ingeniously attempts to demonstrate that each of the Narnia books has as its subtext the influence of a particular planet in the medieval cosmos. Lewis, as a Medieval-Renaissance scholar, certainly knew much about how medievals thought, thought part of Ward’s argument involves accepting that Lewis employed a certain strategy.

But whether Lewis attempted this with full intentionality or not I think beside the point. The Narnian stories show forth the medieval attitude to the cosmos, and the contrast shows how Renaissance astrology represented a decisive shift. Ward’s insights show us the Moon’s presence in The Silver Chair, or Saturn’s presence in The Last Battle, but one can read the story, understand and enjoy it without awareness of this fact. For the medievals, the planets had a role to play in events, based on some of the principles explained above, but the influence was subtle, “atmospheric,” with human agency, choice, and responsibility holding center stage.

Astrology met the characteristics of a “true science,” but that adds nothing to the truth claims of astrology. In fact, we can say that such claims are false not only because of the various attacks against it rooted in proper theological thinking, but because astrology as a science involves the same kind of precision completely removed from human experience that we see in conspiracy theories. In the documentary Room 237, director Rodney Ascher explores the variety of conspiracy theories associated with Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining, a horror movie based on a book by Stephen King. The movie seems like a departure from the grand projects Kubrick usually attempted (such as 2001, and Barry Lyndon made before, and Full Metal Jacket made after), that a variety of people assume that Kubrick must have put a deeper, more mysterious meaning into The Shining.

A variety of people come forward in the film to propose that The Shining is actually about

  • American imperialism, especially related to the subjugation of Native Americans
  • How Kubrick helped NASA fake the moon landings
  • The Nazi Holocaust and the need to let go of grief

As Chuck Klosterman pointed out in a review, the movie exercises a spell of sorts–one can get drawn into the world of the various theorists interviewed. The main problem with all of these theories, however, is that they rely on a method of watching the movie completely inaccessible to anyone when the film was released, including Kubrick himself. The “proof” offered by the various theorists relies on stopping and enlarging certain precise frames of the movie, or running the film backwards and forwards simultaneously, or digital reproductions. Indeed, such theories likely never would have materialized had DVD’s never been invented. Sure, we can analyze movies and look for subtexts, but we will not find their meaning by breaking it down into its smallest component parts.

The scientific Renaissance astrologists relied on the same technique as the conspiracy theorists. If one looks very precisely at a few certain facts, i.e., the fact that ‘X’ was “born at 4:34 AM and not 5:12 AM, then we note that the position of ‘Y’ and ‘Z’ star had a position relative to ‘A’ planet” and so on, and. so on. They forget that none of these methods of measurement or observation were accessible for the vast majority of human history, or relevant to anyone who gives birth to and raises a child.

Science relies on deconstruction, certainly a useful and important skill. I am no more “anti-science” than any of the ancient critics of astrology. But we come to Meaning through Love, which involves “symboling” things together. Myth can nest Science within it, in the best sense of the meaning of “myth.” When science goes too far it resembles “myth” in the worst sense of the meaning of the word. Descartes had it wrong–dividing the difficulty into many parts will often pull us farther away from the solutions we seek.


*Note the theologically liberal search for the “historical” Jesus that can somehow be sifted from the gospel texts.

9th/10th Grade: ‘Faith,’ Reason, and The Crusades


This difficult era of the crusades raises many questions for us:

1. Did the Crusades attempt to stem the tide of Moslem aggression, or did they in fact cause more Moslem unity and a resurgence of Moslem power?

Some see the Crusades as a legitimate attempt to strike against Moslem expansionism.  Others argue that the Crusades forced the Moslems to unite once again. Having been invaded by the West, they determined to renew their attacks against them.  Do the Crusades bear any blame for the eventual collapse of Constantinople in 1453?

2. What role should faith and reason play in everyday affairs?

The Third Crusade is a good example of this problem.  Richard I fought his way to Jerusalem, but went home in part because he believed he could not hold the city even if he took it.  Therefore, it was pointless to risk his live and the lives of his men for nothing.  Some criticized his actions, saying something to the effect of, “You must step forward in faith, and watch God bless you.  This is what faith is all about!   You cannot think of this in practical terms. That is not thinking with faith.  Put  a foot into the Jordan, and then watch it part.”

We see this same question also running through the idea of the tragic Children’s Crusades, though here the Church strongly opposed Europe’s youth to no avail.* How should the balance between ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ guide our daily lives?  How should we answer the argument of many young people who participated in the ‘Children’s Crusades,’ which ran something like this:

  • God has called his people to crusade for Jerusalem.  We believed so in 1097.  Has God changed?  He is the same, yesterday, today, forever.  Therefore, His call is the same.  We must still vie for the Holy Land.
  • But how shall we go?  Let us not trust in princes, horses, or chariots (i.e. Ps. 20), let us know that our trust is in God, by marching out in true faith.  We see in Scripture that Moses led the Israelites to the Red Sea and it parted. Joshua marched around the city, and it fell.  Guided by God’s word, we shall emulate their example.  God shall make a way for us to take Jerusalem, and do so in a way so that all glory goes to him.
  • Many argue that the problem with the Crusades was a lack of organization, supplies, or reinforcements.  This only betrays worldly thinking.  Would more supplies have made the Crusaders less greedy in 1204?  Would it have made them less violent inside Jerusalem’s walls in 1099?  No, the problem has been our lack of faith and obedience.
  • Jesus pointed out the strength and purity of the faith of children.  Therefore, who better than the Church’s youth to undertake this venture?

We know that the Children’s Crusades ended in utter disaster.*  But what would you say in response to their argument?  How can you disprove them? What is faith’s relationship to reason?

3. The west attempted at least seven times at retaking Jerusalem.  What should this tell us about them?

  • That they were foolishly stubborn?
  • That they were intensely dedicated and willing to make great sacrifices for achieving their goal?
  • That they were a people of faith willing to trust in spite of adversity?
  • That they were foolish, naive, and used ‘faith’ as a cover for their prejudice and desire for gain?

In the end, the Crusades would have many unintended consequences.  The West was exposed to Greek literature and philosophy for the first time.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance, and Exploration may all have been by-products of this, among other things.  The Crusades also raise many questions about using violence as means to bring about the Kingdom of God that are still with us.  If we agree with the Crusades, should we also agree with the bombing of abortion clinics?

Next week we will return to our look at Medieval Feudal society, and I hope that the students will be confronted with good questions.

Dave Mathwin

*I should note that scholars debate when these crusades took place, and whether or not there was one crusade or two.  A few even doubt whether or not they were children at all, as some believe they may have been a mass of landless unemployed.  My rendering in class will be the traditional story.

Guenon and the Monsters

A recent local article mentioned that one Fairfax County School (Herndon HS) will cease allowing students to use their phones in class. Anyone familiar with reality knows that listening to one’s phone in class, or texting, or scrolling through Instagram, will hinder the learning process. Of course, the rule has loopholes that some will exploit. Perhaps more embarrassing for our civilization than the actual presence of phones in class–teachers may give students a 5 minute “phone break” during instruction if necessary. Most interesting to me from a cultural perspective, however, was the stated rationale for the policy: the phones need removed, for they may distract from other students learning. I applaud the school’s principal move to ban phones. The rationale for the decision, however, will not allow any real progress in education.

When we cannot state the obvious–i.e., students with phones out distract themselves far more than others–we have discovered a sacred cow of our times. But this fits in with other aspects of our culture. So strong runs our belief even in the power of a 15 year-old to define their lives ad nauseam, that parents, teachers, our society, will not attempt to define reality for them. We will not tell them that phones hurt themselves, for we likely would have response for, “It might hurt others, but not me,” and no idea what kind of general embodiment we would ask from our children.

If this reads so far like a cranky reactionary, well, that can be me at times. But I have far to go to reach the crankiness of Rene Guenon. He appreciated essentially nothing of modern life. But we should not dismiss him. The Crisis of the Modern World shows real prescience (he wrote this in 1927). His symbolic framing of the topics he examines make his work intuitive to understand and important for our times.

First, what failed to impress me about the book:

  • Guenon has some brilliant insights in his critique of the modern west, but he ascribes nothing good at all to the West and finds salvation only in the East. I understand taking a big swing for effect, but in this case, the book made me want to think of ways to defend the west. His overreach has the opposite effect on me.
  • I cannot tell quite where Guenon stands religiously, which I think important in a work like this. On the one hand, he has much to praise about Hinduism. On the other, we know he converted to Islam a bit after writing this work. He also argued that the West’s only hope lay in the faint possibility of revival of true Catholicism. Perhaps he dabbled in the idea of Perennialism, which seems to run counter to his main point of commitment to a tradition. Or–perhaps Guenon at the time of this writing lacked internal clarity himself, and if so it shows a bit in this book.

Now, on to the good stuff. . .

Guenon begins by critiquing the modern west’s view of linear progress. We see time functioning as a line, and our technological and political progress demonstrating that this line moves upwards. We no longer have the same attachment to the idea of inevitable progress as 100 years ago, but we still measure progress in material terms, i.e., how the economy functions, what new technology we invent, etc. But the core of our problem lies here. How we measure time and progress put us in continuously impossible situations that we cannot comprehend, due to the angle of our vision, akin to someone who scratches their irritation and wonders why it still itches.

Ancient and traditional societies put their focus on retaining meaning within their culture, not in increasing power or wealth. Our focus on power over our environment has led us “down the mountain” towards disunity of mind and society in general. The ancient world also tended to see time as cyclical, which Guenon thinks key to his thesis about time. I disagree, but it influences his view of how our culture has moved from “higher” to “lower” things. He writes,

It will doubtless be asked why cyclic development must proceed in this manner, in a downward direction, from higher to lower, a course that will at once be perceived as a complete antithesis to progress as the moderns understand it. The reason is . . . it implies a gradual increasing of distance fro the principle from which it proceeds; starting from the highest point, it tends downward, and as with heavy bodies, the speed of its motion increases continuously until finally it reaches a point at which it is stopped. This fall could be described as “progressive materialization.”

The project of the western world for the last 500 years or so has generally involved deconstruction of the world through a focus on gaining power over our environment. Rather than a circle, I prefer the image of a mountain to explain this process, something that I will not rehash in full here (I have written about this in other posts linked above). Of course mountains have a prominent role in almost every traditional culture, including ancient Israel (Mt. Sinai, Mt. Zion, etc.). The top of the mountain allows one a unity of vision, though it entails a necessary blending of various particularities. Descending down the mountain comes naturally. It’s easier than going up. This downward movement also gives you increased ability to see particular things with greater distinction and contrast to other things around it. But to accomplish this, one must sacrifice a unity of perspective. The methods western society employs lead us to chaos and disunity, which will manifest itself in our souls and our societies.

For example, we can take the idea prevalent in modern parlance that trade will unify countries and draw them together. The more trade, the more unity. Guenon argues that, in fact, increased trade between peoples will likely lead to more conflict, not less. Perhaps we see the pattern. Trade in goods means focusing on materiality, and focusing on matter means dividing reality–and we divide to conquer. Guenon wrote just shortly after the horror of W.W. I. But in the years leading up to that conflict, Germany and England were primary trading partners.

Thirty years ago many argued that the U.S. should increase trade with China to cement good relations between us, which would help China improve its record on human rights. In fact, what has happened is just as Guenon would predict–China and the U.S. like each other less, and trade in material goods has only served to increase China’s power. A more immediate example–Europe’s use of Russian oil and gas has done nothing to make them like each other more. If we look back a century we see that England and Germany were prime trading partners just before World War I. Perhaps trade may make disparate cultures a bit more alike, but history shows that we tend to fight more with those who look a bit skewed to us, rather than those who are completely different. For example, lots of historians pour vitriol on the Middle Ages, which has similarities and differences to the modern world, but no one “hates” ancient Egypt, which maintains a proper, non-threatening distance from us. In any case, when we act against the pattern of reality, we suffer for it.

The political schisms the western world experiences now have their origin in our souls. Many marvel at why, despite unprecedented material opportunities and prosperity, we see such a spike in suicide, escapist drugs, depression, and other mental illnesses. Guenon sees an obvious connection. A focus on “materiality” inevitably means a focus on particularity, which means division. Two years ago many believed that the presence of COVID might at least have the silver lining effect of bringing us together and helping heal our political divisions. Of course, nearly two years of focus on the particularity of tiny molecules and the various means of treating said molecules have driven us even farther apart, which again Guenon could have predicted.*

But because Guenon has a primarily cyclical view of reality, a degree of hope exists, for this is not the first time civilization has experienced this descent into “progressive materialization.” In the history of the world, he sees in the 6th century B.C. a period when unity descended into division. He writes,

In the sixth century [B.C.] changes took place for one reason or another amongst almost all peoples . . . for example, in China, where doctrine previously established as a unified whole divided clearly into two distinct parts: Taoism, reserved for the elite and comprising pure metaphysics . . ., and Confuscianism, . . . whose domain was that of practical and social applications. In India . . . this period saw the rise of Buddhism, that is to say, a revolt against the traditional spirit . . . Moving westward we see that for the Jews this was the time of the Babylonian captivity and perhaps one of the most astonishing of all these happenings is that a short period of 70 years should have sufficed for the Jews to forget even their alphabet . . .

. . . for Rome it was the beginning of the ‘historical’ period, which followed on the ‘legendary’ period of the kings. [In Greece also], the 6th century was the start of so-called ‘classical’ civilization, which alone is entitled–according to the moderns–to be considered ‘historical.’**

This moment in Greece inaugurated the discipline of philosophy, so dear to the western intellectual tradition. What began more or less in innocence devolved into an exaltation of the rational, and hence, the analytical side of man over and above all things.

The tendencies that found expression among the Greeks had to be pushed to the extreme . . . before we could arrive at “rationalism,” a specifically modern attitude that consists in not merely ignoring, but expressly denying, everything of a supra-rational order.

Christianity arose via the collapse of western civilization in the 5th century A.D., and reasserted more traditional ways of knowing. We can see this in how history got written, with the examples of Ammianus Marcellinus, writing at the time of Rome’s decline. His precise factual accuracy has high value in today’s world. But even Gibbon found him unreadably dull and shortsighted, commenting that, “The coarse and undistinguishing pencil of Ammianus has delineated his bloody figures with tedious and disgusting accuracy.” We can compare him with the author/s? of the roughly contemporaneous Alexander Romance, which had universal appeal, with eventual versions written in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, and Ethiopian, to name a few. Many dismiss the work as “fantastical” (it has Alexander encountering mythical beasts such centaurs) but it had broad appeal for a reason. The work seeks to interpret the life of Alexander, and thus communicate meaning, not facts. Traditional cultures understand this difference in ways that elude us, making much of the “legendary” histories written in the past unintelligible to us.

With medieval culture Guenon believes that we see the turn of history’s wheel back towards the apex of the cycle. They focused on wisdom through inhabiting meaning over analysis. But the wheel keeps turning, which brings us to the Renaissance. For Guenon, moderns get it backwards. The “Middle Ages” was not merely a bridge between “civilization” (which the term “Middle Ages” implies), but a time of actual civilization in between decayed epochs. As for the Renaissance,

As we have said . . . . the Renaissance was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things; on the pretext of being a return to Greco-Latin civilization, it merely took over the outward part of it, since this was the only part that could be expressed clearly in written texts; and in any case, this incomplete restoration was bound to have very artificial character, as it meant a re-establishment of forms whose real life had gone out of them centuries before. . . . Henceforth there was only ‘profane’ philosophy and ‘profane’ science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely the empirical and analytical study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion of an indefinite multitude of insignificant details . . .^

All of this ends with the ‘Individual’ as the only form of reality left that we recognize, hence the problem one encounters in a public school when you want to ban cellphones. Our individuality has generated the chaos of defining one’s own reality through social media, or through simple assertions of will, as Neo lamely articulated in the third Matrix installment. Some try and plug the holes in the ship by earnestly urging us to focus on the “facts.” Alas, like those that focus on trade, or “the science,” to bring us together fail to see that the “facts” can never accomplish that task. Focusing on meaning by examining things outside of their context separates things from other things, and so it will divide selves from other selves.^^.

The distortions of the modern have created a reality that Guenon calls “monstrous.” A “monster,” by definition, is something that exists internally and externally out of proper proportion. We may think that we have traded unity for diversity, and since both have their place, we will at least have one even if we lack the other. Guenon disagrees, “since unity is the principle out of which all multiplicity arises.” So–we will be left only with a naked assertion of will whereby we seek to subsume all things into ourselves. This brings the flood, and a restarting of the cycle.

As powerfully as Guenon writes, I push back in one particular. Guenon, influenced by his possible Perennialism, hovers perhaps a bit too far above the mountaintop. He seemingly fails to see that the reality he wants to inhabit has irregularities. The orbiting of the planets, like our own bodies, lack perfect symmetry. Parts of reality are “weird,” and we occasionally see creatures and situations that defy categories. Exceptions to rules exist. Where Guenon is right, however, is that those exceptions don’t destroy the form, but merely give it room to breathe.


*Many social conservatives like myself who want to rein in society’s affirmation of school-children wanting gender reassignment surgery put the focus on biology–“there are only two genders,” and so on. I have seen Ben Shapiro, for example, consistently go to this well. But focusing on “the science” perpetuates confusion, for the same reasons discussed above. A focus on deconstructing physical matter will never answer this question, because one can always find exceptions when looking to deconstruct. Those that push back against him are wrong in their conclusion but at least partially right in their method. “Why should I submit to matter?” they seem to be saying. “Shouldn’t the lower serve the higher?”

**Curiously, Guenon fails to note that at around exactly the same time in Greece and in Rome, we see a movement towards more democracy. I would not call the Roman Republic ‘democratic,’ but certainly it was more democratic than their previous era. I find it curious that he passes on a chance to point out another move away from unity towards diversity/particularity.

^Guenon later writes that philosophy, following this form, has grown obsessed with abstractions and “problems,” and multiplying difficulties rather than expounding “wisdom.”

^^COVID did indeed present us with an opportunity, but one that we missed. Rather than exclusively focusing on how to combat the disease, and whether or not this or that measure helped prevent it and by how much, we should have focused on how to preserve meaning and coherence amidst the disease. Instead, we were basically told to stay at home and watch Netflix.

9th/10th Grade: The Crusades and “The Fog of War”


In his famous work, On War, the Prussian Carl von Clausewitz commented,

War is an area of uncertainty; three quarters of the things on which all action in War is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty to a greater or lesser extent. The first thing (needed) here is a fine, piercing mind, to feel out the truth with the measure of its judgment.

This truth makes itself felt in many areas, with the Crusades certainly among them.

This week we began to look at the Crusades.  The Crusades would be one of the defining events of medieval civilization and they raise many questions.

Why did they go on the Crusades?

We understand some of the parallels from the Crusades to today, with religiously motivated conflict once again making a return to history.  But every a cursory look at the Crusades repels most modern observers.  Their reasons and motivations seem entirely foreign to us.  When we examine Crusading literature, for example, we cannot help but be struck at the importance they placed not on “holy war” against Moslems, or “breaking Moslem power,” (very general, broad reasons), but  specifically the recovery of Jerusalem, and more specifically still, the recovery of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Christ may have been buried and raised from the dead.  Many miracles were recorded at the site in the Middle Ages, which we moderns may or may not believe.  But there can be little doubt that nearly all medievals believed God was present in a special way at this church.

Exterior, Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Interior

Many may have a hard time relating to this today.  We tend not to think of some places as more special than another.  For early medievals, however, Jerusalem was part of their spiritual inheritance.  Not having access to it might be the equivalent of not being able to have access to the Bible for some Protestants.

One need not read Scripture every day to be a Christian.  But if someone or some power decided that Christians could no longer have access to Scripture, that would be a problem.  If we see Scripture the way medieval Christians viewed Jerusalem, we would see that the Bible is part of God’s gift to the Church.  God need not ‘prove’ His love by giving us this, but He gave us His word as a gift, for our benefit.  It is part of His inheritance for us.  Should we seek to recover our inheritance?  Would we be justified in using violence to do so?

As for the medieval view of Jerusalem, I tried to explain it to student using the idea of experience and inheritance.  Suppose for a moment that there is a special place associated with your childhood and your family.  Take, for example, your grandfather’s house that had a place you enjoyed.  In my case it would be the stream in his backyard.  I had many great times there building forts, shooting bb guns, playing elaborate games of tag. Now suppose that upon his death he left the property to me in his will from now until doomsday. Let’s suppose that circumstances prevent me from staying on the property, and I get word that someone else occupies  the property and dumps toxic waste into the stream.  If I didn’t care, what it would say about how I view my grandfather, or my inheritance?

Of course, even if my analogy accurately describes the west’s view of Jerusalem, it still begs a variety of questions.  In what sense was Jerusalem the ‘inheritance’ of Christians?  Is it only history that makes it special, or are certain places (such as the Holy Sepulchre) really a literal “fount of blessing” for the Christian faithful?  If it were, what would be best way to regain it?  What methods would be justified?  Should they even attempt to do so, or ‘turn the other cheek?’

So why did people go?

  • Some went out of a general sense of holy duty.
  • Some, and perhaps many, went in a sense of a pilgrimage, in response to the call for soldiers to exercise penance (indeed, I think we have understand the idea of penance to understand the Crusades).
  • Some went out of a sense of adventure.
  • Some went out of response to the stories of Moslem persecution of Christians. Historians argue that the stories medieval Christians heard contain some exaggeration, and that may be true.  Exaggeration or not, the stories were believed, and we should keep in mind that some of the stories of Christian persecution were undoubtedly true.
  • Some argue that some went in the hopes of adding land to their existing estates.   I admit this possibility in isolated cases, but find it unlikely for the majority.  If their main concern was to add wealth, they would have stayed home and managed their estates.  The Church, for example, enacted several provisions against molesting the property of crusaders.  Their long absence surely would have opened their property up to danger in their absence.
  • Some may have seen it as a way to break the political and military power of the Moslem empire in half, and perhaps hasten its decline.

While the motives of the Crusaders may have varied, there are a few that I believe do not fit the period.  Some say that the Crusades were motivated by anti-Moslem bigotry.  This may have been true in isolated cases,  but the purpose of the Crusades cannot have been to ‘kill Moslems.’   Plenty of Moslems, for example, resided in Spain and were much closer than Jerusalem.  Also, the Crusaders occasionally made alliances with Moslems on their way to Jerusalem, which they would not have done if their avowed purpose was to kill as many as possible.  Also, while some may have wanted to add to their territory, the Crusade in itself was enormously expensive. Nobles who left paid their own way, as well as their attendants, along with being absent from their estate, which also would have reduced their income.

The Crusades had numerous causes, and sifting out the most important is very difficult.

One indirect cause surely was the rise of Moslem power from 630-750 A.D.  From modest beginnings in Arabia, they quickly grabbed the near entirety of the mid-east, along with North Africa and Spain.

But the Crusades do not begin until the late 11th century, so the growth of Islam cannot be the main proximate cause.  Some suggest that around 1050 AD a new breed of tough warrior Moslems called Seljuks caused great alarm in the west.

Moslems had also taken territory from the Byzantine empire, composed largely of Orthodox Christians.  Their appeal to the west for help opened the door not only to political reconciliation, but also reconciling of eastern and western churches, a tempting prospect.

The rise of the power of the state also contributed.  Before mid 11th century, the state generally was weak vis a vis the hold of Church on society.  With the overall stability of the civilization by 1050 came the rise of more powerful monarchs who could control more and more the lives of the warrior caste. Pope Gregory VII, for example, raised his own army of “holy warriors” to combat the rising power and threat of Henry IV.  Since fighting and violence is not in itself wrong, the Church sought to “Christianize” or refine it in the lives of Europe’s warrior caste.

All this of course, does not answer the question of whether or not the Crusades were a good idea, from either a purely military or Biblical perspective.  Even today the Crusades raise important questions:

  • Can violence be used in the name of Christ to achieve ‘holy’ ends?  If we think in Augustinian terms, can violence be part of the ‘City of God?’  Or, can the ‘City of God’ borrow from the ‘City of Man’ without being tarnished?   Can one kill others for God and His Church?  If so, how does this fit within the Christian ethic of loving our neighbors?  If not, is being a soldier wrong for a Christian?  Nearly the whole history of the Church would say ‘no’ to this question.  If a soldier cannot kill ‘for God,’ then for whom should he kill?  How can we know whether or not one truly fights for God?
  • In what sense should the Crusade be thought of in practical terms, and in what sense should the idea of a ‘leap of faith’ enter the picture?
  • Why did the Crusades not result in the reunion of East and West, as many hoped?  What impact did they have on the future of East/West relations?

All in all, the Crusades raise important and profound questions for us today.  At certain times the Crusades have been romanticized.  Today for some the Crusades are the ultimate example of religious bigotry.  Of course, the Mideast has its own remembrance of the Crusades which we do well to consider.

We will delve more into these questions next week.



The Fringe of Salvation

I have written before surrounding the confusion in medieval studies. Some Christians see too much tolerance of Roman or other cultural practices. Other historians, often heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, see narrowness and bigotry. We think in binaries, and want one side or the other to be the truth. But in another way of thinking, both or neither could be correct. And finally, maybe one side is right or wrong, and both and neither sides are correct . . . all at once?

I thought of these questions reading excerpts from The Heliand, which means “Savior” in the old Saxon tongue. The book paraphrases the four gospels, or perhaps reformulates Tatian’s existing paraphrase of the four gospels. Much debate exists as to the author’s identity and background, but it seems obvious that he wrote this work as an aspect of missionary efforts to the Saxon people. The work likely predates Beowulf, or perhaps existed contemporaneously with it.

Anglo-Saxon society at that time highly valued

  • Heroic deeds and striving, action over contemplation
  • Loyalty
  • Rank and the proper posture towards rank

In his retelling the author makes some interesting changes of emphasis and detail, both in what he adds and detracts. A few examples readily show this.

There were many whose hearts told them that they should begin to tell the secret runes, the word of God, the famous feats that the powerful Christ accomplished in words and in deeds among men.  There were many of the wise who wanted to praise the teaching of Christ, the Holy Word of God, and wanted to write a bright-shining book with their own hands.   . . . Among all these, however, there were only four who had the power of God and help from heaven, the Holy Spirit, the strength from Christ to do it.  No one else among the heroic sons of men was to attempt it, since these four had been picked by the power of God.  They lifted up their voices to chant God’s spell.  Nothing can ever glorify our ruler, our dear Chieftain, so well!

In this prologue excerpt, the author recasts the gospel in epic language and themes. Some specifics stand out here. The “secret runes” catches our eye–the Saxons loved puzzles, riddles, and the mysteries of runes. The author uses this motif to position the gospel as a kind of mystery unraveled, in language that would make a lot of sense to them.

The Saxons also oved gold, shiny things, etc.–gold made up much of their conception of the good life. Calling the gospel book “bright-shining” calls this to mind.

At that time the Christian God granted to the Roman people the greatest kingdom.  He strengthened the heart of their army so that they conquered every nation.  Those helmet lovers from hill-fort Rome had won an empire.  In Jerusalem, Herod was chosen king over the Jewish people.  Caesar placed him there–it was only thanks to Caesar, that the descendants of Israel, those fighting men renowned for their toughness, had to obey him.  

. . . There came a decree from Fort Rome, from the great Octavian who had power over the world, governing the people and commanders from every land.  It said that anyone living outside their territory must return–all warrior heroes should go back to their assemblies, to the clan of which he was a member, to the hill-fort that was his home.

The good Joseph went also with his household, just as God, ruling rightly, willed it.  Bethlehem was the assembly-place for both of them, for Joseph the hero and for Mary the good, the holy girl.  This was the place where in olden days that great and noble King David stood for as long as he reigned, enthroned on High, the Earl of the Hebrews.  Joseph and Mary both belonged to this lineage.  They were of good family line, of David’s own clan.

The text takes pains to emphasize that the Jews were “renowned for their toughness”–the Saxons admired fighting men. Joseph also gets portrayed as a hero–though he has no military accomplishments we know of. The author does not invent any, of course, and one certainly could call Joseph a hero of the faith. Finally, the humility of Joseph, Mary, and their situation do not get the same treatment as the nobility of their lineage, the connections to David, again of importance to the Saxon audience.

I have heard it told that the shining workings of fate and the power of God told Mary that on this journey a son would be born to her, the strongest child, the most powerful of kings, the Great One came to mankind–just as foretold by many visions in days before.

Wise men had said that the Protector would come in a humble way, by His own power, to visit this kingdom of earth.  His mother, that most beautiful woman, wrapped Him in clothes and precious jewels, and then with her two hands that child, in a fodder-crib, even though he was the Chieftain of men and had the power of God.  There His mother sat watching over him.  And there was no doubt in the mind of that holy maid.

The text adds the element of “jewels” in Christ’s birth, knowing of the love the Saxons had for such things and their cultural associations with royalty. The text also omits the “no room at the inn,” part of the story. The translator of the text, Father G. Ronald Murphy, speculated in a footnote that the lack of hospitality for anyone, let alone royalty, would have dumbfounded the Anglo-Saxons. With this detail included, Murphy speculated, the Saxons might think the story a fable and doubt its authenticity.

. . . What had happened became known to many over this wide world.  The guards heard it.  As horse-servants, they were outside, they were men on sentry duty, watching the horses and the beasts of the field. They saw the darkness split in two in the sky, and the light of God came shining through the clouds.  Those men felt fear in their hearts. 

Here those that see the star in the sky are not shepherds, but stable hands, groomers of horses. Murphy notes that the Saxons would have known about sheep and shepherds, so the alteration needs another explanation besides cultural ignorance. He surmises that Saxon nobility had no interaction with shepherds, and so would not have trusted them. But stable hands took care of valuable horses, and were trusted members of households. Thus, the witness of such men would have credibility in their eyes.

Thus I have heard it told that John praised his Lord Christ’s teaching to every good man of the people, telling them that they could win the greatest of good things, blessed eternal life, the kingdom of heaven.  The Good Chieftain Himself went out into the wild country.  The Chieftain of earls was there a long time.  He had no companions, and this was as He chose it to be.

He wanted to let powerful creatures test Him, even Satan, who is always doing evil.  He understood Satan’s feelings and angry ill-will, and how he misled the couple, Adam and Eve, with lies into disloyalty, so that the souls of men should go to Hel after their departure. 

. . . The Guardian of the Land, the Chieftain, fasted for forty days, eating no meat.  For that entire time, the evil creatures did not approach Him, the evil-minded nidhudig, nor speak to Him face to face.

Again the author makes some interesting choices. We note that the author has to explain why Christ went out by himself–a king without companions for an Anglo-Saxon makes no sense–unless it involves some heroic striving. Here the text indicates that Christ chose this for Himself lest there be no confusion. The “nidhudig” in Saxon mythology was a demonic snake that fed on the souls of the unrighteous, always doing battle with the eagle that perched upon the tree of life. Here the author makes a connection–the enemy of Christ is the same enemy you have always known. Of course the story continues, and the author continued to make adjustments in content and tone throughout.*

As Charles Taylor noted in his A Secular Age, a distinctive feature of the modern world involves the homogenization of space and time. Most see all time as the same, all space as the same. Thus, we impose meaning on time and place, and not vice-versa. But for pre-moderns and traditional thinkers, certain spaces and times had special qualities because of what happened there, or an act of God, the gods, and so forth. They also saw the world laid out in a structured, hierarchical way, with each part of the world having a different meaning inherent in it. I have called this structure (borrowing directly from Jonathan Pageau–and his insights about church design are also reflected below) the Core, the Fringe, and Chaos, and discussed this in a different post. Here I hope to elaborate on this structure and connect it to St. Maximus the Confessor’s thoughts on the connections between God, the Church, and the World.

In his Ecclesiastical Mystagogy. St. Maximos writes,

It is in this way that the holy Church of God will be shown to be working for us the same effects as God, in the same way as the image reflects its archetype. For numerous and of almost infinite number are the men, women, and children who are distinct from one another and vastly different by birth and appearance, by nationality and language, by customs and age, by opinions and skills, by manners and habits, by pursuits and studies, and still again by reputation, fortune, characteristics, and connections: All are born into the Church and through it are reborn and recreated in the Spirit. To all in equal measure it gives and bestows one divine form and designation, to be Christ’s and to carry his name. In accordance with faith it gives to all a single, simple, whole, and indivisible condition which does not allow us to bring to mind the existence of the myriads of differences among them, even if they do exist, through the universal relationship and union of all things with it. It is through it that absolutely no one at all is in himself separated from the community since everyone converges with all the rest and joins together with them by the one, simple, and indivisible grace and power of faith. For all, it is said, had but one heart and one mind. Thus to be and to appear as one body formed of different members is really worthy of Christ himself, our true head, in whom says the divine Apostle, there is neither male nor female, neither Jew nor Greek, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, neither foreigner nor Scythian, neither slave nor freeman, but Christ is everything in all of you. It is he who encloses in himself all beings by the unique, simple, and infinitely wise power of his goodness. As the centre of straight lines that radiate from him he does not allow by his unique, simple, and single cause and power that the principles of beings become disjoined at the periphery but rather he circumscribes their extension in a circle and brings back to himself the distinctive elements of beings which he himself brought into existence. The purpose of this is so that the creations and products of the one God be in no way strangers and enemies to one another by having no reason or centre for which they might show each other any friendly or peaceful sentiment or identity, and not run the risk of having their being separated from God to dissolve into nonbeing.

On a second level of contemplation he used to speak of God’s holy Church as a figure and image of the entire world composed of visible and invisible essences because like it, it contains both unity and diversity.

For while it is one house in its construction it admits of a certain diversity in the disposition of its plan by being divided into an area exclusively assigned to priests and ministers, which we call a sanctuary, and one accessible to all the faithful, which we call a nave. Still, it is one in its basic reality without being divided into its parts by reason of the differences between them, but rather by their relationship to the unity it frees these parts from the difference arising from their names. İt shows to each other that they are both the same thing, and reveals that one is to the other in turn what each one is for itself. Thus, the nave is the sanctuary in potency by being consecrated by the relationship of the sacrament toward its end, and in turn the sanctuary is the nave in act by possessing the principle of its own sacrament, which remains one and the same in its two parts. In this way the entire world of beings produced by God in creation is divided into a spiritual world filled with intelligible and incorporeal essences and into this sensible and bodily world which is ingeniously woven together of many forms and natures. This is like another sort of Church not of human construction which is wisely revealed in this church which is humanly made, and it has for its sanctuary the higher world assigned to the powers above, and for its nave the lower world which is reserved to those who share the life of sense.

Moreover, he used to say that God’s holy church in itself is a symbol of the sensible world as such, since it possesses the divine sanctuary as heaven and the beauty of the nave as earth. Likewise the world is a church since it possesses heaven corresponding to a sanctuary, and for a nave it has the adornment of the earth.

And again from another point of view he used to say that holy Church is like a man because for the soul it has the sanctuary, for mind it has the divine altar, and for body it has the nave. It is thus the image and likeness of man who is created in the image and likeness of God. By means of the nave, representing the body, it proposes moral wisdom, while by means of the sanctuary, representing the soul, it spiritually interprets natural contemplation, and by means of the mind of the divine altar it manifests mystical theology. Conversely, man is a mystical church, because through the nave which is his body he brightens by virtue the ascetic force of the soul by the observance of the commandments in moral wisdom. 

St. Maximos pulls this from the structure of creation revealed in the Scriptures. We can see the concept of the “fringe” in the seventh day of creation, and in leaving the fields with the edges unharvested. We can see the core & fringe motif in how the Israelites marched through the desert, with the tabernacle at the core/center with the priests, with Joseph’s tribe towards the center leading west, Judah close to the center facing east (from which direction the Savior comes), with Benjamin, the last born on the edge, but near his “brother” tribes, and so on.**

I tremble to interpret St. Maximos, but we can break down his thoughts in the following way:

  • God’s creation exhibits unity and distinction, just as God Himself, who is 1 God in 3 Persons
  • The distinctions in God have a reflection in the Church, which has its, Spirit, Soul, and Body.
  • The design of mankind also exhibits this three-fold distinction.

The Spirit, Soul, and Body have a unity, but are not strictly equal. And, they have different functions.

Medievals understood this and reflected it in the design of their churches. Winchester Cathedral has the tripartite structure with the altar/sanctuary as the innermost region of the heart, the choir as the soul, and the nave as the body. The “core,” that is, the altar, resides in the eastern wing of the cathedral, from whence Christ shall come again (Is. 41, Rev. 7, etc.).

I have heard different explanations for the exact meaning of gargoyles, but everyone agrees and everywhere attests that they belong on the outside of churches, the exterior, representing the dangerous fringe of the world, or possibly the demonic chaos that lies beyond the pale. Whichever interpretation we prefer, the church models the structure of our lives and creation itself.^

We can consider missionary work in the light of the structure Scripture, the Church, and St. Maximos has laid out for us.

The fringe, or edge of our beings, just as the edge of societies, involves transitions from one world to another. A fluidity exists here not present at the core of societies.^^ When we make these transitions, for example, to another culture, we usually ease into them. We buy a phrase book, we get maps, maybe a tour guide–we look for ways to make the entry as seamless as possible. When we experience wrenching or abrupt transitions, such as throwing off the covers on a cold winter morning, we usually react poorly.

Navigating religious change has many more pitfalls than getting out of bed in the morning (some might disagree), and traditionally missionaries look for whatever they see within the culture that they can use to grease the skids towards Christianity. But one cannot use anything and everything in a society–some things need left behind. Conversely, one need not start with the Core messages and doctrines of faith per se. One might want to arrive there by a circuitous route. The key in choosing what to omit or emphasize should have the goal of leading one from the Fringe to the Core. If the emphasis one gives obscures or changes the Core, you have likely put a stumbling block in their path, and will have problems later on. Navigating this requires a great deal of wisdom, something that my very few and brief forays into different cultural environments shows that I lack.

From this vantage point we can think about the omissions and emphases of the author. Regardless of where one stands with The Heliand, clearly the author understands Saxon culture and has an appreciation for it. We should not doubt his intentions, but the results . . . we can evaluate them based on how well these transitional spaces (of which The Heliand is a part) help prepare us for the “core.” When the Saxons heard the Gospel read and preached in Church, would they see it as a fulfillment of what they heard, or something alien, a bait and switch of sorts that might inspire confusion and even anger? We know that the Saxons converted to Christianity over a 50 year period, give or take, in the 6th and 7th centuries AD, though we cannot know the role this text played. Perhaps we can suggest, along with Thomas Aquinas that, “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.”



*Perhaps the most famous incident of re-packaging the message in the text is Peter’s cutting off the ear of Malchus when Christ is arrested. The Heliand includes this episode, but it plays up the valiant, courageous nature of Peter protecting his King, as any vassal should. The text has Christ heal Malchus’ ear, but Christ’s “put your sword away” line is not included.

**Placing Benjamin farthest to the west, traditionally viewed as a direction oriented towards death and chaos, may also have something to do with the Benjamites being left-handed–confronting the strange with the strange, perhaps. Joseph, as the “good” son who save Israel, gets a double blessing on his two sons. But Christ comes from Judah, so Judah takes the lead in the eastern wing of the cross.

^Pope Francis’ failed to understand this key difference at his Amazonian Synod in 2019. Is there a place for finding some common ground between the pagan world and Christianity? Apologists at least since Justin Martyr in the 2nd century AD have thought so. Paul quoted from pagan authors in his sermon in Athens. But . . . neither of them would ever have thought of placing something that resides on the transitional fringe right on the altar–at the core.

^^This is why rivers are often boundaries between one place and another, and why saints associated with rivers, such as St. Christopher, have a fluidity to them.