Sunday, May 5, 2013

Getting Medieval

Almost everything you've been taught about the Middle Ages is wrong.  I know this, you know this, and yet somehow the myths persist.  And I don't mean the usual stuff that everyone knows is wrong but insists on reiterating because it makes us feel good--stuff like people believing the earth was flat or that knights' armor was so heavy they couldn't get on their horses without a winch.  No, I mean the stuff that even professors think we know, but, again, not just the stuff that we argue over professionally, like whether there was such a thing as "feudalism" or why people went on crusade.

Simply having a period that we study called "the Middle Ages" is wrong, for reasons that many of us appreciate but can't quite allow ourselves to acknowledge.  Sure, we say things about how modernity depends upon its medieval Other in order to conceptualize itself (I'm not kidding, we do), and we wring our hands over whether we have confessed medieval studies' debt to the great -isms of the nineteenth century (nationalism, confessionalism, Westernism--okay, I made that last one up, but if it isn't a word, it should be) with sufficient abjection.  But in the end we always come back to the label because it makes us feel safe.  We may know that there was no such thing as "the Middle Ages," but we need them to be there, safely Other, safely romanticized and grotesque, even as we try to stifle the sneaking suspicion that perhaps it is we who are the ones fooling ourselves about how enlightened and pragmatic we are.

But much more is at stake here than whether we think the Church militant (as it called itself in those days) was wrong to insist that its clergy be celibate (and male) or that Christians be properly educated in the elements of their faith and, if they weren't, that something should be done about it (like sending out inquisitors to make sure they didn't believe ridiculous things like that the earth was flat or that God was a malevolent creator), even if sex and diversity are all we care about today.  Medieval Christians knew things that we don't anymore, things about God and Scripture and creation and history, things that we in our enlightened, critical scholarship simply can't see and, therefore, insist could never have been there and that we were right to forget.

No, I am not about to go all Weberian and start talking about the disenchantment of the world.  This isn't about rationalism vs. mysticism or science vs. belief.  This is about the very roots of reality as we experience it, where such dichotomies don't so much break down as fuse, mysticism becoming rational and science revealing itself as dependent upon belief.  Medieval Christians knew that contemplation (by which they meant seeing God, whether affectively or intellectively) began with study and understanding, that is, reason; likewise, they knew that science (by which they meant what we would call studying the natural world) began with the belief that the natural world was a creature of God and therefore made in such a way that it could be understood, as the Scriptures put it, "in measure and number and weight" (Wisdom 11:21).  It is not that modernity is more secular and bureaucratic than the Middle Ages (the Middle Ages, more specifically, the Church invented bureaucracy in the sense of clerks and institutional record-keeping, and "secular" simply means "of this age," the saeculum of time as opposed to eternity).  Rather, it is that modernity believes only in itself and its righteousness without questioning why it should have such beliefs.

Perhaps that's a bit strong, but let's play with it a bit.  Once upon a time (or just yesterday, as G.K. Chesterton tells it*), there was an estate in England known as Prior's Park, which (as a certain historical enthusiast discovered in his researches) used to be called Prior's Farm, named, not as the romantic might want to believe, after an actual prior, but rather after some local Mr. Prior, much as one might call a place Podger's after Mr. Podger.  As the researcher Mr. Haddow explained to the artistic Mr. Crane as they wandered about the estate,
"The very name of this place, Prior's Park, makes everybody think of it as a moonlit medieval abbey; I dare say the spiritualists by this time have discovered the ghost of a monk there.  But, according to the only authoritative study of the matter I can find, the place was simply called Prior's as any rural place is called Podger's.  It was the house of a Mr. Prior, a farmhouse, probably, that stood here at some time or other and was a local landmark.  Oh, there are a great many examples of the same thing, here and everywhere else.  This suburb of our used to be a village, and because some of the people slurred the name and pronounced it Holliwell, many a minor poet indulged in fancies about a Holy Well, with spells and fairies and all the rest of it, filling the suburban drawing-rooms with the Celtic twilight.  Whereas anyone acquainted with the facts knows that 'Hollinwall' simply means 'the hole in the wall,' and probably referred to some quite trivial accident."
But as Mr. Haddow himself knew perfectly well (and used to murderous effect), there had been a priory on the land and there was a holy well, which the last prior of the community guarded with his life against the Tudor usurpers of the estate, only to be flung into it and buried, along with the memories of the well.  The well was covered over with an artificial lake, much "as the Roman Emperor built a temple to Venus on the Holy Sepulchre" (the comparison is Horne Fisher's, the protagonist in the story) so as "to desecrate it with a heathen goddess."  Why, then, had the well been forgotten, even though the name was still there?

Fisher explains to Mr. Crane:
"Look here; I'll tell you if you like, but I'm afraid it involves an introduction.  You've got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency that most people obey without noticing it.  In the village or suburb outside there's an inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon.  Now suppose I went about telling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and the Dragoon.  Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vague feeling that it's probable because it's prosaic.  It turns something romantic and legendary into something recent and ordinary.  And that somehow makes it sound rational, though it is unsupported by reason.  Of course some people would have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italian pictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn't think about it at all.  They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism.  Modern intelligence won't accept anything on authority.  But it will accept anything without authority.  That's exactly what happened here.  When some critic or other chose to say that Prior's Park was not a priory, but was named after some quite modern man named Prior, nobody really tested the theory at all."
The same thing (which is ultimately Chesterton's point throughout all his works) has happened with Christianity and therefore with everything that we think we know about the Christian past, particularly its medieval past.  We believe all sorts of prosaic things about what people believed--and project onto them our own obsessions (e.g. about diversity and sex)--never once pausing to question our skepticism, so convinced are we that our view of the world and of its history is the more probable one.  And, no, I don't mean whether we have the chronology of creation right, only whether we have been as right as we vaguely feel we are to read the human past in the way that we do.  And so we dismiss out of hand the possibility that perhaps medieval Christians knew what they were talking about when, for example, they claimed that their traditions were older than Plato and Aristotle or that Mary, as Wisdom, had been created at the beginning of the world (cf. Proverbs 8:22-31).**  We want things to be more recent and ordinary, not romantic and legendary, and so we ignore what our sources tell us their authors thought was true and overlay them with legends of our own making, grounded not (as we tell ourselves) in reason or (as is more often the case) in authority, but in skepticism for the sake of skepticism.

This is why almost everything that you have been taught about the Middle Ages is wrong: it is a story of holy wells and priors that has been told as a story of Mr. Prior and the hole in the wall.  But the hole in the wall was never there--while the holy well was.

*"The Hole in the Wall," in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1922).
**Now, there, aren't you curious?


  1. Wonderful intro, and I especially appreciate the reference to Chesterton! Really always enjoy reading your thoughts and I recall quite fondly your challenges to your class in medieval monasticism. Cheers, and I'll look forward to popping in every once in a while.

  2. Also, what is the image you have as your header? It looks familiar.

  3. Thanks, Jordan! The banner image was taken in the cathedral at Antwerp in summer 2008. I thought it captured well the movement from medieval to modern that I am hoping to explore in the blog. Plus, it includes both Mary and Christ, which is another of my main themes.

  4. Wow, I love this post! Exactly what I have been thinking about the "Middle Ages" and our modern take (or easy dismissal) of that period. I find that even Medieval scholars cannot shed their Modern sensibility of superiority whereby they mock what they should be taking seriously.