8th Grade: The Parthenon


Recently we spent time looking at the Parthenon in Athens, in my opinion one of the greatest buildings ever constructed.  I think that looking at architecture is one of the best ways to gain insight into the past.  I didn’t come up with this idea, but borrowed it from the man to whom this site pays homage.  As I have said before, a civilization might throw a banking system together haphazardly, but would not do so with a sculpture.  And buildings, more so than individual works of genius, reveal more because they involve the mind and skills of whole civilizations.

Here is what the building probably looked like ca. 435 B.C.

Parthenon Original

They built it atop of their Acropolis, the highest point in the city which served as Athens’ religious epicenter.

Acropolis Recreation

The building as it looks today. . .

Of course most people when first gazing upon the Parthenon usually think, “Yes it’s good, but what’s the big deal?”  We understand instinctively perhaps the influence this style has had on western culture.  Banks, the Supreme Court, and almost any other building that wants to convey wisdom and trust copy this style.  That in itself should clue us in that the Athenians had something special in their design, but we have to look closely to see the real genius of the Athenians.

When we look at tall buildings like skyscrapers on the Washington Monument, at least from certain angles, the buildings do not appear straight.  Built with 90 degree right angles, our eyes fail to perceive the perfectly straight.  I don’t understand the science of why this happens, but we have all experienced it.  Part of it has to do with how our converging line of sight deceives us.  For example. . .

the top line appears longer, but is in fact the same size as the bottom line.  In this second image the middle lines appear bowed, but are perfectly straight.

The Athenians understood this and built the Parthenon to compensate for the tricks our eyes play.  Each column has extremely slight variations throughout its many cylinders, sometimes with fractions of a millimeter the only thing distinguishing one block from another.  But the cumulative effect compensates for our vision and always makes the columns appear perfectly straight.  The following images exaggerate the effect, but give us the basic idea of what the Greeks accomplished:

Parthenon Columns

In fact a close look at the Parthenon reveals few right angles.  Each of the thousands of column drums remains an unique construction to that particular column.  This is not a lego set of interchangeable parts, but each part of the building stands as work of art unto itself.  If you have the time and interest, this video, and especially the last 30 minutes, give a good overview of their techniques in creating this building.

We can and should marvel at its construction, but we should go one step further and ask what the Parthenon means, and whey the Athenians built it as they did.  In class we focused on a few key areas:

  • The Greek Ideal of Perfection

In much of their philosophy and politics, the Greeks searched for the abstract ideal beyond the visible, a trend that would not really shift until Aristotle.  The Romans, for example, or at least the early Republican Romans, rarely idealized people when depicting them,

Cato the Elder

but we can say with only slight exaggeration that the Greeks did nothing but idealize people in their sculpture.

The Athenians went to tremendous lengths to bring make this ideal of perfection at least  seem  real among them in stone.

  • A Theological Statement

In theory, the Athenians built the Parthenon as a temple to Athena.  Originally a huge 35 foot statue of Athena overlaid in gold stood right at the center inside the building.  But architecture rarely lies.  The figures on the outside of the Parthenon tell a different story.  Here the Athenians put sculptures of Athenian heroes, with the clear intent of showing that the gods and men can intermingle, that Athens itself can achieve the perfection the gods embody.

That, at least, is one interpretation.

But another interpretation argues that this “temple” to Athena merely served as a cover for their true (even if subconscious) intent to glorify themselves.  It would be as if we built a church and called it “Trinity Church,” but put images of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc. throughout (this actually begs the question of whether or not American flags should reside in churches, or perhaps whether or not the Capitol building is a church of sorts).

  • Mankind as the Measure

The Greek philosopher Protagoras has received a lot of bad press over the years for his comment that, “Man is the measure of all things,” and deservedly so.  But before we critique him we should understand the context of what he said and ask ourselves if the Greek gods were good “measures” of things.  Clearly, Protagoras and other philosophers had a measure of genuine spiritual insight in rejecting standard Greek religion as a guide for their lives.  The gods lived lives free of consequence, free of any restraint other than the power of other gods.

In the Parthenon the Greeks did not use the “eternal” or “mystical” dimensions as in the pyramids.  Some suggest that the proportions of the building in fact reflect the proportions found in the human body, as represented in Da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” (named after a famous Roman architect).

Vitruvian Man

What exactly the Greeks meant by this phrase, “man is the measure of all things” is not clear to me, at least. It may have been a statement of moral relativism, or it may have been a theological/cosmological assertion that mankind functioned as a “microcosm” of the cosmos itself.  After all, we have physical elements to our being and spiritual elements.   Our higher, “heavenly” aspect (the intellect) guides our “lower,” more earthly parts, and so on.  Again, I’m not sure how to unwrap this phrase, and I’m happy to add it to the list of mysteries surrounding the Parthenon.




8th Grade: All Good Things Must Come to an End


This week we saw the great golden age of Periclean Athens collapse into the abyss of the Peloponnesian War.  We began the week by asking why “Golden Ages” tend to last not much longer than a generation.

  • Some suggest that the success and power a golden age brings would bring about the envy of others, and this envy could turn into a threat.
  • Another might suggest that the generation that grew up with the ‘golden age’ in place would likely have a much different experience than their parents.  I found this comment especially perceptive.  As we saw last week, golden ages usually arise from a creative response to a particular challenge.  Those that grow up without the challenge won’t have the experience or ‘training’ to continue what their parents started.
  • Last week we also noted how golden ages require a variety of factors coming together at once, some physical and others psychological.  No one can reasonably keep all the plates spinning for long.  Eventually nature dictates that something will begin to spin off the axis sooner or later, and this will drag other things down with it.

Some of their comments did in fact apply directly to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, especially#1.  Athens went from plucky underdog in 490 B.C. to the then equivalent of the New York Yankees or New England Patriots by 431 B.C.  Many city-states lined up against them with Sparta. We did not spend a great deal of time on the war itself, as during their senior year we devote a few weeks entirely to this conflict and the issues it raises, but we did touch on a few key points

1. How in war the unexpected and unforeseen can occur

Of course the unforeseen can always occur, in war or at any other point.  But since war requires a great deal of planning, many assume that the conflict will go as we wish.  The making of the plans itself creates that expectation.  Yet, in war as in life, things rarely go according to our preconceived version of events.

2. Peace treaties may not be what they seem

After 10 years of intermittent conflict, both Athens and Sparta signed a treaty called the Peace of Nicias.  But treaties in name may not be in fact.  Some treaties bring real peace, some only reflect a desire to call a ‘time out’ in the fighting.  Unfortunately for Athens, this treaty turned out to be one of the latter.

3. War Stresses Democracy

War will put stress on any form of government and any society.  Some wars brought down monarchies — like W.W. I.  We assume that democracies are more stable, but the Peloponnesian War brought out many weaknesses within Athenian democracy and for a time ended it within Athens.  We looked at how desperation and panic act on a democratic people in the battle of Arginusae.  The Athenians won this battle, but the generals failed to pick up the dead and give them proper burial, something that could be considered sacrilege, and sacrilege could be punished by death.  Grief stricken, the city put the generals on trial, found them guilty, and executed them.  A few days later they regretted their actions. They put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals on trial for murder, found him guilty, and executed him also.

Ostensibly, Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.  But in truth the war had no real winners in Southern Greece.  All exhausted themselves in the conflict.  Thebes, involved in the conflict but slightly to the north, emerged as the strongest party in the more immediate aftermath of the war.  But it would be Macedon, further still to the north, and never involved in the fighting at all, that would eventually assert absolute supremacy over Greece in the person of Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander.  We’ll look at them next week.

You can see the geography of it below here, with everything pink or yellow caught up in the fighting (with even blue areas involved sporadically), and Macedon waiting patiently above in brown.

Peloponnesian War

For those of you who have seen From Russia with Love, the scene where “Number 1” talks about the Siamese Fighting Fish is a good parallel, if we think of Macedon as the fish who stays out of the fight.

9th Grade: Planetary Influences


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

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

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

Barbarian Invasions

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


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

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

Spheres of Influence

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


11th Grade: War Narratives and the Failure of Peace


We all know that peace treaties have a shaky track record.  When wars end we hope that the suffering might mean something, that it might translate into a political order that helps ensure that history does not repeat itself.  And yet, often these treaties fail.  We might think of the numerous wars between France and England, for example.  Various forms of “Punic Peaces” work, whether they take the form of utter destruction or sending Napoleon to St. Helena.  Most agree, however, that when we think of “peace” we often have something loftier in mind.

Some treaties do work.  The Civil War will not restart anytime soon.  Japan and the U.S. have been friends since 1945, and the same is true of our relationship to West Germany/Germany.  But many don’t work, and fewer treaties failed more spectacularly than the Treaty of Versailles after World War I.

Historians offer many theories to explain why treaties fail in general.  The typical mistakes usually fall into a few categories or patterns:

1. Failure to View the War as an Organic Whole

Though it may seem artificial, I think that major events should be viewed through a narrative lens.  World War I had its own prologue, beginning, middle, and end.  Wars tend to take on a life of their own once they get started.  As the “story” changes shape one can easily forget how it all started.  But this is a mistake.  A peace treaty should serve as the end of a story that had a certain beginning and middle.  If the end has nothing to do with the beginning, people will hate the ending and demand a rewrite, or at least a sequel.

I think this is one key reason why many treaties end up being no more than pauses in the action.  Combatants want an intermission, but don’t want the end to come just yet.  For them, there remains more to the story.

I think the victors in W.W. I would be strongly tempted to forget this principle.  Any analysis of the causes  of the war would have to blame a variety of factors and nations.  Certainly one could blame Germany mainly for the causes of the war, but other nations had their part to play as well.  Yet the combatants fought the war so grimly, and the death toll rose so unimaginably, that the victors would almost certainly think only of the fighting (the middle) and forget the beginning of the story.  The ending, then, would not fit within the story as a whole.

2. Failure to Look Ahead

Perhaps one can take my “story” analogy too far, because if we try and keep a war purely contained as its own entity, we miss the inevitable ripple effects that have spilled out into society because of the conflict.  Thus, a peace treaty has to deal with the war behind and look ahead to the world it made.  This need to “look ahead,” however, does not come easily.  We rarely see the nose on our own face, and lacking omnipotence, are left somewhat in the dark.

Treaties usually handle the “physical” aspects of ending wars such as reassigning territory, reparations, etc. but rarely consider the psychological aspects.  The horrors of the conflict imprint themselves on our minds, and the victors often want to “close the book” on that period as soon as possible.  We want to move on, relax, be happy.  The victors feel this way, at least.  But often the losers don’t want to move on.  They often want to dwell on the pain and humiliation they feel.  They want to be heard, and will not want to “move on.” Exhaustion on the side of the victors, more than apathy or ignorance, can be society’s greatest foe at this stage.

I think a good example of this is The Congress of Vienna, which decided that shape of Europe after the Napoleonic Wars of 1797-1815.  Millions died as the French Revolution convulsed the world and every monarch knew their days might be numbered.  My interpretation is that the assembled powers, smarting under years of war, tried to put Pandora, i.e. the French Revolution,  back in the box.  They suppressed popular movements, conceptions of “rights” — anything that smacked of the Revolution, and threw the baby out with the bath water.  Some might argue that the Congress of Vienna worked to keep the peace throughout the 19th century, but to my mind the Revolutions of 1848, The Crimean War, the wars of Italian and German Unification, the conflict between Turkey and Russia, and the eventual explosion that was World War I say otherwise.  Pressure cookers explode sooner or later.

3. Avoid Too Many Mixed Messages

Try as we might, mixed messages can’t be avoided.  As parents we give lip service to the ideal that we treat our children equally, but then reality sets in.  The age, gender, and personality of our children all play a role in how we parent.  We modify our expectations and begin to tailor certain things to certain children.  Children pounce on these discrepancies immediately and bemoan their fate, but if parents keep their different expectations reasonable  and at least mostly clear, we can keep the ship afloat.

Every peace treaty should have justice in view, but practical reality will always intervene.  Even the justly victorious must account for the fallenness of the world and the messiness of reality.  The vanquished will seize upon these crossed signals of justice and cry foul, but if the signal mixing is not too serious, they deal with it.

Problems come when the victors take a sanctimonious stance.  The infamous “War Guilt” clauses of the Versailles Treaty did just this.  Germany had to assume full blame for everything, despite the fact that no country had their hands clean during the conflict.  The infamous Article 231 reads,

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

Versailles also tried to reorder Europe along the idea of “national self determination,” and the elimination of empires.  Such was President Wilson’s grand vision for peace.  So, the war’s aftermath saw the creation of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc.  Except for Germany — Germans don’t get to be “self-determined.”   Some Germans went to Czechoslovakia, others to Poland, others faced occupation by the French.  We can compare the following two maps, the first showing the political divisions, the next, the ethno-linguistic ones, and the differences reveal themselves.

Europe, 1919

Overseas England and France kept their empires, however, but not Germany.  Neither did the U.S. give up its interests in the Philippines.  The gaps between “What we say,” and “What we do” grew very large at Versailles for the allies, and Germany noticed.

4. Don’t Kick them when They’re Down

This applies to Germany, but also Russia.  The Communist Revolution threw Russia into a tumult and made them persona non grata at Versailles.  They too lost big chunks of territory to Poland.  Both Germany and the Soviets had little to no choice on accepting the terms given their immediate internal domestic realities .   But both would seek to, in their mind, “set things to rights” as soon as they had a chance.  In Europe’s case, it took about 20 years for this to happen.

Next week we look at the Communist Revolution in Russia, and touch on the ‘Roaring 20’s back in America.


Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: Finding the Persian Center of Gravity


This week we focused on The Persian Wars, a conflict that historians claim marks a transition point between Eastern and Western dominance.  Persia staked a lot of their invasion, and their failure would lead to the rise of Greece in general, and Athens in particular.  Our main focus Thursday and Friday lay with  the Battle of Salamis, one of the more crucial naval engagements of the ancient world.  As I mentioned back in September, one of the things we focus on this year and throughout the history curriculum is how to make choices.  This can be applied in a  variety of different settings, and this week I wanted the students to consider that on the level of strategy and tactics.
  • The Fleets

The Persian fleet was bigger, with a variety of incorporated Greek city-states that had surrendered to Persia.  Ionians, Phonecians, Egyptians and more went into the mixture.  In general, their ships were lighter and faster.  Athens controlled the Greek fleet, and in general they had heavier, bulkier ships.  But the weight of the ships did perhaps produce an innovation, that of a ramming prow.  This in turn, led to a change in how the Athenians fought.  Whereas most ancient navies wanted to get close and board other ships, the Athenians wanted to use their prow to ram other ships and sink them with a broadside charge.The Persians had sacked Athens, and the Athenians in desperation abandoned their city, got in their boats, and headed for the island of Salamis.

  • The Questions:
  1. Would an immediate battle be more to the Persians advantage, or the Greeks?
  2. If a battle were to be fought, what side would have the advantage in wide open water?  What about in more narrow confines?

I enjoyed the student responses to this question, and most of them did get around to seeing that

  • Battle now definitely favored the Greeks, and
  • The geography of the Bay of Salamis definitely favored the Greeks.
 Bay of Salamis
  • Why?
The Athenians needed a battle.  The Persians did not.  With Athens abandoned they could have simply occupied the city, and hemmed in the fleet at Salamis.  If they wait eventually a tired and bedraggled fleet would have to come out of hiding and face the Persians on their terms.  Fighting in the bay itself would mean narrower corridors where the Persians could not use their numbers and speed to their full effect.  Think of a heavier boxer vs. a lighter, quicker opponent.  The heavier one (Athens) seeks to trap or corner the other to take away his advantage.  By fighting in the bay, the Persian fleet gave up much of its advantage.
  • The Result
Again, with so many of our choices there are no guarantees.  We must weigh the options and make our best guess. But it is important not to choose blindly.  So why then, did the Persians attack the Greeks?Here we are back, at least possibly, to the personality of Xerxes.   We saw that both Herodotus and the Book of Esther show us a king who was not wicked, but perhaps indolent, and someone who tended to flit from one thing to another.  Note that Esther 1 begins by describing lavish parties amidst opulent splendor. Herodotus mentions that Xerxes wanted the invasion over as soon as possible.  Ideally, of course, the Persians should have bottled up the fleet, entrenched themselves in the city, and watch Athens suffocate to death.  When Themistocles sent a messenger to lie to the Persians about the disorder in the Greek ranks, the Persians jumped at the chance and moved into the bay to attack.  Xerxes seems a suggestible, impatient type.  “Let’s get this over with. . .”  The result was a complete victory for the Greeks.  It turned the tide of the whole Persian invasion.  Having been smacked on the nose, Xerxes decided enough was enough.  He withdrew most of his navy from the region.  His infantry at current levels could not live off the land in Greece, and besides, winter approached.  Without the navy to supply them, Xerxes withdrew a good portion of his troops back to Persia.  The Battle of Platea in 479 BC would, for all intents and purposes, finish them off.
  • The “Center of Gravity”
Clausewitz used the term “center of gravity” to describe what one colonel described as a “factor of balance” in a campaign.  This does not have to be something purely physical, but in this case, the “factor of balance” in the Persian Wars would surely include control of the sea.  In invading Greece en masse as they did, Persia made naval superiority a key to the campaign.  But for about 75 years prior to this they concentrated their strength on their infantry.  They did not play to their strength. But we might also conclude that the whims of Xerxes would constitute part of the “center of gravity.”  The Book of Esther gives us clues.  Note how casually he decides on the Jews destruction, and how quickly he reverses course.  Of course, it’s good that he changed his mind!  My point, however, is that Xerxes never seemed fitted for the role of a noble kingly persona.  He would much rather not be bothered.  In every conflict, the hidden factor can often be each combatant’s internal political system.  In this case, the nascent democracy of Athens had an advantage over the indolent monarchy of Persia.

Sherlock Holmes and the Solar System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tillyard comments,

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

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

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

Maybe We Don’t Stink at Parenting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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