Beowulf and the Trinitarian nature of man

Just as so much of the literature of the ancient world stands out as an example of the ethos heavy, or, in Sayers’ terminology, “Son-ridden,” story, Beowulf is a notable example of the pathos heavy, or “Spirit-ridden,” story. On the surface of this medieval northern European epic is the story is a Danish hero defeating a series of monsters in succession. In this onslaught of conflicts, there are few pauses for contemplation or explanation such as might be found in the great epics of other civilizations, such as Greece, Rome, or India. When such do occur, they are generally terse and quickly forgotten. Below the surface and buried in the action, in fact conveyed almost solely through the action, is an attempt to Christianize the story of the pagan Danish warrior whose story is being recorded.

The author of Beowulf, undoubtedly a Christian and almost certainly a member of the clergy, is, through rather clever anachronisms retroactively baptizing his heathen ancestors. In so doing, he attempts to redeem his non-Christian ancestors through demonstrating at various points that in spite of their heathenism God was indeed present in their history. In one of the relatively few digressions from the action of the story, the narrator condemns the paganism of his ancestors as he explains that, in reaction to the attacks of Grendel, the Danes

prayed aloud, promising sometimes

on the altars of their idols unholy sacrifices

if the Slayer of souls would send relief

to the suffering people

Such was their practice,

a heathen hope; Hell possessed

their hearts and minds: the Maker was unknown to them,

the Judge of all actions, the Almighty was unheard of,

they knew not how to praise the Prince of Heaven,

the Wielder of Glory.

Ironically, however, the heroes of the story exhibit quite a different set of beliefs in their own words as the narrator frequently assigns to them anachronistic exclamations at the glory of a monotheistic and decidedly non-pagan deity. Beowulf’s companion Wiglaf, for example, exclaims, that Beowulf had been granted victory over his enemy by “God … the Master of Victories.” Similarly noteworthy is the genealogical link between Beowulf’s original enemy, Grendel, and the biblical story of Cain, a link that fits only with great difficulty into the overall narrative, as Grendel’s mother is presented as a demon, an evil and non-human entity, while any descendent of Cain must, of course, be at least partially human. Grendel’s father, notably, is unknown.

The author also calls special attention to the circumstances which incited Grendel’s murderous anger, apparently a musical rendition of the creation story of Genesis:

It was with pain that the powerful spirit

dwelling in darkness endured that time,

hearing daily the hall filled

with loud amusement; there was the music of the harp,

the clear song of the poet, perfect in his telling

of the remote first making of man’s race.

He told how, long ago, the Lord formed earth

a plain bright to look on, locked in ocean,

exulting established the sun and the moon

as lights to illumine the land-dwellers

and furnished forth the face of Earth

with limbs and leaves. Life He then granted

to each kind of creature that creeps and moves.

While the anachronism of this aspect of the story is obvious and the link between Grendel and Cain is tenuous, the narrator uses both to demonstrate to his audience that the heroes of their past were not bereft of virtue but were in some sense aligned with the God of their newfound Christian faith. If Grendel is a descendent of the biblical proto-homicide and in league with the devil of the Christian faith, he is an enemy of God, and Beowulf, by contrast, being an enemy of Grendel, is an ally of the Christian God.

The narrator presents Beowulf as a bridge figure who embodies the best of both the pagan and Christian worlds of northern Europe. At points throughout the work, he hints at an eventual Christian ethic replacing the brutal old northern European warrior code, and at Beowulf standing at the threshold between the two. In the final lines of the epic, for example, he describes Beowulf as “the gentlest of men, and the most gracious, / the kindest to his people, the keenest for fame.” He is, in other words, a complex amalgam of Christian (“gentlest”, “most gracious”, “kindest”) and pagan (“keenest for fame”) virtues.

Ultimately, however, in spite of his efforts, the narrator fails in his goal because the task is too great and his attempts are insufficient. In one scene near the end of the story, the narrator relates Wiglaf’s failed attempt to revive the dying Beowful by splashing him with water:

Wearily he sat,

a foot-soldier, at the shoulder of his lord,

trying to wake him with water; but without success.

For all his desiring it, he was unable to hold

his battle-leader’s life in this world

or affect anything of the All-Weilder’s;

for every man’s action was under the sway

of God’s judgement, just as it is now.

The symbolism here of Wiglaf’s desperate and defeated effort to “save” Beowulf and bring him “life” by baptism is an apt symbol for the epic of Beowulf as a whole. The author has attempted to retroactively save his ancestors from their heathenism by baptizing them in Christianizing anachronisms. The effort, however, is “without success.” Rather than a redeemed heathen hero, what emerges from the character of Beowulf is a confused conglomeration which is not quite pagan enough to be believable and not quite Christian enough to be palatable.

The ultimate failure of Beowulf is in its pathos-driven narrative. The framework of the story is itself a pagan framework, which prevents the death of Beowulf from being redemptive. The Christian tradition has, nearly from its inception, held that the contemplative life is superior to the life of activity. Beowulf’s life of action and adventure, and the action-driven narrative of the epic which bears his name, are a decisive step outside of this Christian intellectual milieu. Just as Wiglaf’s splashes of water onto the dying Beowulf in the dragon’s lair prove ineffective for reviving him, the author’s baptism of his pagan ancestors within the literary framework of a heathen epic is ineffective for redeeming them.

Freedom of the will

For the Christian, the issue of the freedom of the human will presents a dilemma. If free will is affirmed, the risk is run of denying the sovereignty of God. There is some justice in the assertion of John Calvin, a theologian for whom the sovereignty of God was a central concern, that those who believe in the freedom and effectiveness of the human will can affirm not a true omnipotence for God but rather a “vain, indolent, slumbering omnipotence.” On the other hand, however, an assertion of the absolute sovereignty of God to the exclusion of free will, such as the assertion Calvin himself made, plunges the Christian into the world of fatalism, whose guiding credo Machiavelli accurately described as the belief “that it is not necessary to labor much in affairs, but to let chance govern them.” This fatalistic perspectives also casts doubt upon the justice of God’s judgments; if, as, for example, Augustine avers, there is no activity in the world no matter how seemingly insignificant “outside of the laws of His providence,” that is, whose ultimate source of volition is the will of God, eternal rewards for virtue and punishments for vice are of questionable purpose and dubious equity. In Canto XVI of the Purgatorio, however, Dante offers a solution to the dilemma through the words of Marco, one of the penitent souls in Purgatory.

There, Dante inquires of Marco concerning the source of the evils in the world, “so that I may see it and show it to men, for one places it in the heavens and another here below.” Marcos begins his response to Dante with “a deep sigh” at the question, exclaiming “brother, the world is blind, and truly you come from it!” He explains his annoyance, saying, “You who are living refer every cause upwards to the heavens alone, as if they of necessity moved all things with them.” For Marco, the question itself is demonstrative of a desire to renounce responsibility by positing inevitability.

Marco then goes on to describe the problem with this belief. If “free will” were “destroyed in you,” he says, “there would be no justice in happiness for good or grief for evil.” Without human free will, the entire moral structure of the universe and the cosmic system of reward, punishment, and repentance through which Dante was making his way and in which Marco was currently suffering for the sake of future reward would disintegrate. If the structure of the cosmos is to be sensible and just, human beings must be free moral agents. It must be, then, says Marco, that “if the present world goes astray, in you is the cause.”

Marco’s emphatic declarations concerning human free will, however, do not, for him, undermine the sovereignty of God. On the contrary, human freedom is a credit to the sovereignty of God rather than a debit from it. “You lie subject, in your freedom,” Marco says, “to a greater power and to a better nature, and that creates the mind in you which the heavens have not in their charge.” It is, then, a testimony to the power of God that he created man in a manner that allows him to surpass the dictates of fate derived from the stars.

While Marco admits “the heavens initiate your movements,” that is, that there are impulses which arise in man naturally and over whose arising man does not possess control, he says that “a light is given you to know good and evil,” meaning that man has the ability to choose to follow these impulses or, instead, to resist them. Man, then, is uniquely endowed with the ability to choose between good and evil, a freedom which, far from denying the sovereignty of God, rather derives from and testifies to it. Indeed, the power of freedom with which man is endowed is so great that if “free will … endure fatigue in its first battles with the heavens, afterwards, if it is well nurtured, it conquers completely.”

In this short explanation of man’s freedom in the face of fate, Dante, through Marco, has adequately reconciled fate and free will while avoiding the respective pitfalls opened up by too great an emphasis on either. He has, on the one hand, affirmed the freedom of the human will, a necessary component of any worldview with a sense of cosmic justice, of which Christianity is undoubtedly the preeminent example. Simultaneously, he has also affirmed the existence of powerful forces external to man which draw him toward a foreordained destiny, while not allowing that these forces cancel out the free choices of persons. Perhaps most importantly, Dante has reconciled human freedom to the sovereignty of God in describing free will as an essential component of the will and activity of God rather than an external component somehow foreign to or incompatible with God’s omnipotence.

The Great Schism (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.9)

Ever since the division of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western halves, Christians in the East and the West had grown apart. In the West, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Christians looked to the bishop of Rome, called the Pope, as their leader. The Pope had power even over kings and emperors in Europe. Christians in Europe also used Latin as the language for their worship, whereas Christians in the East used the Greek language. In the East, the Roman Empire continued and became known as the Byzantine Empire. There, emperor was the highest authority, not a bishop. The disputes over language and who was in charge eventually caused Christendom, the lands of Christianity, to split into two churches.

In the West, the Pope had decided to add another word to the Nicene Creed, the statement of the beliefs of all Christians. That word was a Latin word, filioque, which means “and the Son.” Whereas the original Nicene Creed had said that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father,” the Pope changed the Creed to say that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The Christians in the Byzantine Empire, however, did not like this change and a fight erupted over it.

In 1054, the Pope sent messengers to Constantinople to discuss the issue with the Byzantine emperor and the bishop of Constantinople, called the Patriarch. Only a few minutes into the meeting, the discussion turned into an argument and the Pope’s messengers stormed out. The next day, a Sunday morning, the messengers of the Pope walked into the Hagia Sophia, a large cathedral in Constantinople, while the oatriarch, the emperor, and others were in the middle of their worship service. The leader of the messengers marched up to the altar of the church and slammed a piece of paper down on the altar. On the paper was an official decree excommunicating the emperor and the patriarch. The Pope had kicked the Byzantines out of the Christian Church!

Of course, the Byzantines insisted that the Pope did not have the authority to do something like this. While the Pope had grown powerful in Europe, they said that he did not have the power to make decisions like this in the Byzantine Empire. So they decided to excommunicate the Pope!

The result was that Christianity split into two churches. In the Western part of Europe was the Catholic Church, with the Pope as its head. In the Eastern part of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East was the Orthodox Church, with the Patriarch of Constantinople as its leader. The split between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, called the Great Schism, continues even today, almost 1000 years later.

 

 Review Questions

 1. What was the cause of the split between Christians in 1054?

2. What two churches did Christians divide into?

3. What is the name of the split between these two churches?

Primary Source: The Rule of St. Benedict (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.6)

When St. Benedict founded his monastery, he wrote a book, called The Rule, which he expected all of the monks in his monastery to read. In The Rule, St. Benedict laid out the lifestyle that the monks in his monastery would live. In the selection below, Benedict lists the rules his monks must follow:

1. In the first place, to love the Lord God with the whole heart, the whole soul, the whole strength.

2. Then, one’s neighbor as oneself.

3. Then not to murder.

4. Not to commit adultery.

5. Not to steal.

6. Not to covet.

7. Not to bear false witness.

8. To honor all.

9. And not to do to another what one would not have done to oneself.

10. To deny oneself in order to follow Christ.

11. To chastise the body.

12. Not to become attached to pleasures.

13. To love fasting.

14. To relieve the poor.

15. To clothe the naked.

16. To visit the sick.

17. To bury the dead.

18. To help in trouble.

19. To console the sorrowing.

20. To become a stranger to the world’s ways.

21. To prefer nothing to the love of Christ.

22. Not to give way to anger.

23. Not to nurse a grudge.

24. Not to entertain deceit in one’s heart.

25. Not to give a false peace.

26. Not to forsake charity.

27. Not to swear, for fear of perjuring oneself.

28. To utter truth from heart and mouth.

29. Not to return evil for evil.

30. To do no wrong to anyone, and to bear patiently wrongs done to oneself.

31. To love one’s enemies.

32. Not to curse those who curse us, but rather to bless them.

33. To bear persecution for justice’s sake.

34. Not to be proud.

35. Not addicted to wine.

36. Not a great eater.

37. Not drowsy.

38. Not lazy.

39. Not a grumbler.

40. Not a detractor.

41. To put one’s hope in God.

42. To attribute to God, and not to self, whatever good one sees in oneself.

43. But to recognize always that the evil is one’s own doing, and to impute it to oneself.

44. To fear the Day of Judgment.

45. To be in dread of hell.

46. To desire eternal life with all the passion of the spirit.

47. To keep death daily before one’s eyes.

48. To keep constant guard over the actions of one’s life.

49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.

50. When evil thoughts come into one’s heart, to dash them against Christ immediately.

51. And to manifest them to one’s spiritual guardian.

52. To guard one’s tongue against evil and depraved speech.

53. Not to love much talking.

54. Not to speak useless words or words that move to laughter.

55. Not to love much or boisterous laughter.

56. To listen willingly to holy reading.

57. To devote oneself frequently to prayer.

58. Daily in one’s prayers, with tears and sighs, to confess one’s past sins to God, and to amend them for the future.

59. Not to fulfill the desires of the flesh; to hate one’s own will.

60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot or Abbess even though they (which God forbid) should act otherwise, mindful of the Lord’s precept, “Do what they say, but not what they do.”

61. Not to wish to be called holy before one is holy; but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called.

Primary Source: From The Confessions of St. Augustine (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.4)

One of the first books Augustine wrote after becoming a Christian was his Confessions, the world’s first autobiography. In the Confessions, Augustine tells the story of his life all the way from his infancy to the time he became a Christian. In the selection below, Augustine discusses the education he received as a child.

 

But what was the cause of my dislike of Greek literature, which I studied from my boyhood, I cannot even now understand. For the Latin I loved exceedingly— not what our first masters, but what the grammarians teach; for those primary lessons of reading, writing, and ciphering, I considered no less of a burden and a punishment than Greek. Yet whence was this unless from the sin and vanity of this life? For I was but flesh, a wind that passes away and comes not again. For those primary lessons were better, assuredly, because more certain; seeing that by their agency I acquired, and still retain, the power of reading what I find written, and writing myself what I will; while in the others I was compelled to learn about the wanderings of a certain Æneas, oblivious of my own, and to weep for Biab dead, because she slew herself for love; while at the same time Ibrooked with dry eyes my wretched self dying far from You, in the midst of those things, O God, my life.

For what can be more wretched than the wretch who pities not himself shedding tears over the death of Dido for love of Æneas, but shedding no tears over his own death in not loving You, O God, light of my heart, and bread of the inner mouth of my soul, and the power that weddest my mind with my innermost thoughts? I did not love You, and committed fornication against You; and those around me thus sinning cried, Well done! Well done! For the friendship of this world is fornication against You; and Well done! Well done! is cried until one feels ashamed not to be such a man. And for this I shed no tears, though I wept for Dido, who sought death at the sword’s point, myself the while seeking the lowest of Your creatures— having forsaken You— earth tending to the earth; and if forbidden to read these things, how grieved would I feel that I was not permitted to read what grieved me. This sort of madness is considered a more honourable and more fruitful learning than that by which I learned to read and write.

But now, O my God, cry unto my soul; and let Your Truth say unto me, It is not so; it is not so; better much was that first teaching. For behold, I would rather forget the wanderings of Æneas, and all such things, than how to write and read. But it is true that over the entrance of the grammar school there hangs a veil; but this is not so much a sign of the majesty of the mystery, as of a covering for error. Let not them exclaim against me of whom I am no longer in fear, while I confess to You, my God, that which my soul desires, and acquiesce in reprehending my evil ways, that I may love Your good ways. Neither let those cry out against me who buy or sell grammar-learning. For if I ask them whether it be true, as the poet says, that Æneas once came to Carthage, the unlearned will reply that they do not know, the learned will deny it to be true. But if I ask with what letters the name Æneas is written, all who have learned this will answer truly, in accordance with the conventional understanding men have arrived at as to these signs. Again, if I should ask which, if forgotten, would cause the greatest inconvenience in our life, reading and writing, or these poetical fictions, who does not see what every one would answer who had not entirely forgotten himself? I erred, then, when as a boy I preferred those vain studies to those more profitable ones, or rather loved the one and hated the other. One and one are two, two and two are four, this was then in truth a hateful song to me; while the wooden horse full of armed men, and the burning of Troy, and the spectral image of Creusa were a most pleasant spectacle of vanity.

Church Fathers (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.3)

One of the biggest challenges that Christians faced early in the Middle Ages was the task of figuring out who Jesus was and what people should do about that. Even after Arius, there were differences in beliefs among Christians. Some, for example, believed that Jesus was only God and had not really become completely a human being. Others believed that he was two people, one human and one God. A group of leaders called the Church Fathers took up the challenge of answering questions about what Christians should believe and do.

Among the early Church Fathers, St. Augustine of Hippo is the most famous and one of the most important. Augustine was born in 354.  His mother, Monica, was a Christian, but because his father still worshipped the old Roman gods Augustine was not baptized as a baby nor raised as a Christian. Instead, he was able to choose what religion he wanted to be. As a result, he spent his early years moving between the various philosophies that were popular in his day, such as Neoplatonism, a religion built on Plato’s ideas, and Manicheism, a religion that believed there were two gods, one good and the other evil. Eventually, Augustine decided to become a Christian. After he was baptized, he moved back to his home in North Africa and became a bishop there. He spent the rest of his life writing important books about theology and defending orthodox Christian belief against the heretics, who believed different things from the official teachings of the Church.

Augustine was the first Christian to write in detail about beliefs that later became very popular among Christians. Augustine was among the first to write about Original Sin, for example. Original Sin is the belief that all human beings are guilty of the sin of Adam when he disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. Augustine died in 430.

The last of the major Christian heresies was iconoclasm, which means “image-smashing.” In the 8th century, there were Christians who began to believe that it was wrong to make paintings and statues of Jesus and other religious figures. They believed that because Jesus was God and God cannot be shown in a picture Jesus should not be shown in pictures. In response, another ecumenical council, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, was called by the Byzantine Empress Irene. Just as they had at the First Ecumenical Council under Constantine, the bishops of the Christian Church gathered together at Nicaea in 787. They decided that because Jesus had become a human being and pictures can be made of human beings Jesus too can be shown in pictures.

Later Christians looked to the Church Fathers as authorities on what Christians should believe. The religion the Church Fathers shaped became the religion of the Middle Ages. The beliefs and practices of most Christians today were formed by the Church Fathers.

 

Review Questions

 1. What is Original Sin?

2. What was the last major Christian heresy of the Middle Ages?

Introduction to the Middle Ages (Introduction to Western Civilization 6.2)

The Middle Ages is a 1000 year period during which Western Civilization took shape. During this time, Europe became a Christian continent. These Christians then began the long process of sorting out the great heritage they had received from those who came before them. The Christians of the Middle Ages wanted to figure out a way to bring together the ideas and traditions they had received from the Greeks, the Jews, and the Romans into one. Of course, they also had to make these Greek, Jewish, and Roman ideas fit with the ideas of their own Christian religion. The result was a thousand years of great achievements in art, architecture, music, philosophy, literature, and science.

Medieval art and architecture focused almost entirely on themes from Christianity. Nearly all of the paintings and sculptures of the Middle Ages are of Jesus, Mary, angels, and other people important to Christians. In almost every town of Europe, the largest and most beautiful building was the church. Often, these churches were not built by experts and construction workers but by the people of the town. The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France, for example, was built by the common people there. Medieval churches were usually built with very high ceilings and filled with art, including paintings, statues, and stained glass windows. They used the art and the high ceilings to emphasize the greatness of God and the beauty of heaven.

Medieval music also drew heavily on Christian themes. Musical instruments were not usually used in Christian worship services, so medieval musicians came up with a variety of ways to use the human voice to create beautiful music. Both Gregorian chant, in the Western part of Europe, and Byzantine chant, in the Eastern part, used all different types of voices singing together. Medieval musicians looked to the psalms in the Bible for inspiration for their own musical creations. Sometimes they would have singers with different kinds of voices take turns singing lines from the text of a psalm. Other musicians wrote their own songs which imitated the psalms in their content and style. It was also during the Middle Ages that the first musical notation was written. Now, it was possible for people in distant places to all sing the same song in the same way by following the notes that were written with it.

Early in the Middle Ages, most poetry and literature were written in Latin, the language of the Roman Empire. As time went on, however, people all over Europe began to appreciate the local languages of their own nations and to write in those languages. The poems and books that were produced are still regarded today as among the greatest literature of the world. In the 13th century, Dante Alighieri wrote an epic poem called The Divine Comedy which told the story of an imaginary journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. Geoffrey Chaucer became the first great poet of the English language when he wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories about a group of pilgrims heading to pray at Canterbury, an important Christian site in England. The most popular stories of the Middle Ages were tales of great heroes, warriors, and knights who battled against evil. Love songs about knights and the women they fought to defend were also very popular.

Philosophers of the Middle Ages continued to discuss subjects like God and the meaning of life in the same way philosophers before them had done. Most philosophers of the Middle Ages, however, were Christian. As a result, the answers they gave to the questions philosophers ask often were ones that came from the Bible and other Christian writings. Philosophers like Boethius and Thomas Aquinas tried to figure out if Christian beliefs could be proved by using reason instead of just the Bible.

There were also many important scientific discoveries and inventions during the Middle Ages. Many people became very interested in nature and in the world around them because of the Christian belief that God had created the world to be beautiful. They wanted to investigate the world and the place of humans in it. Astronomy was considered especially important because medieval Christians believed the movement of the stars and planets in the sky had a lot to teach people about God.

All students were required to study astronomy at schools throughout Europe. In addition to astronomy, students also studied music, arithmetic, geometry, rhetoric, logic, and grammar. These seven together were called the “liberal arts” because people believed that studying these subjects liberated a person, which means it made them free. Theology, the study of God, was considered the highest and most important science. A student could only study theology if they had first studied the seven liberal arts.

As the people of the Middle Ages sought to understand their Greek, Roman, and Jewish heritage, they created a great civilization of their own. It was this civilization which became our civilization.

 

Review Questions

 1. What themes are most medieval art, music, and literature about?

2. What are the seven liberal arts?

3. What subject was considered the highest and greatest science?

 

Vocabulary Words

 Liberate – to make someone free

Theology – the study of God and other religious subjects